The Rev. Peter Faass
There has been a lot of conversation about civility and uncivility. People taught to be civil in all circumstances feel threatened by what they see as an all-out assault on human and civil rights happening in our nation. Whether it’s the legitimizing of extreme rightwing, white supremacist, neo-Nazi ideology; ripping immigrant children away from their parents as they try to find refuge in our country; or banning Muslims from entering our nation, millions feel imperiled by the disregard not only of decent civil behavior, but by the threat against the very values upon which this nation – celebrating its 242 birthday this week– was founded.
Those who adhere to authentic traditional American and Gospel values struggle with what it means to remain civil in the face of this outright assault. Many feel that the assault is so great (even worse with the impending retirement of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy) that all restraints on civility are over. That it’s time to take off the proverbial gloves in a fight seen as an existential threat to the democratic values of justice and equality (and as a follower of Jesus) to the baptismal values that respect the dignity of every human being and seeking and serving Christ in all people. As a result, we have seen people taunt and heckle various political leaders and their employees in restaurants, movie theaters and at their homes.
Episcopalians especially find themselves in a conundrum. We are polite and non-confrontational to a fault. We get teased about our manners and our passions for polite societal behaviors like correct silverware. But how aghast are we when someone disregards or maligns the dignity of others?
Thomas J. Sugrue is an author and a professor of history and social and cultural analysis. He wrote an article in the June 29 New York Times opinion page, “White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession with Civility.” He writes that the current discomfort and opposition to disruptive and impolite behaviors sees people referring to the civil rights movement of the 60’s and yearning for a less confrontational opposition. “The theme: We need a little more love, a little more Martin Luther King, a dollop of Gandhi. Be polite, be civil, present arguments thoughtfully and reasonably. Appeal to people’s better angels. Take the moral high ground . . . Above all, don’t disrupt.”
Sugrue says that’s revisionist history and mythical thinking. “But, in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and coercion as much — sometimes more — than on dialogue and persuasion. They knew that the vast majority of whites who were indifferent or openly hostile to the demands of civil rights would not be moved by appeals to the American creed or to bromides about liberty and justice for all. Polite words would not change their behavior.”
“King aimed some of his harshest words toward advocates of civility, whose concerns aligned with the hand-wringing of many of today’s politicians and pundits. From his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote: ‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.’ King knew that whites’ insistence on civility usually stymied civil rights.” And King’s and other civil rights leaders’ nonviolent yet disruptive proactive behaviors caused President Kennedy to move on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Christians must always hold the plumb line of respecting the dignity of every human being in the center of our lives. As followers of Jesus, it also means entering the Temple and being disruptive, overturning the money lenders’ tables and confronting abusive systems. On this July 4th weekend, we cannot forget the colonial disrupters who tossed crates of tea into Boston Harbor when a system wantonly abused the people.
Today’s Gospel offers two powerful witnesses who respond to seemingly impossible and hostile situations.
“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”
Everything about this woman made her anathema to the society she was in: her condition rendered her permanently impure, an alien, a pariah who by her presence was believed to render others impure. She persisted to meet Jesus, believing in his justice and desire for dignity, health and wholeness for all.
Others see her as uncivil, because she disorders the accepted system. Yet her behavior is rooted in the desire of God’s justice for all people. I think of the parallels to parents who risk everything to bring their children out of violent, gang-ridden and impoverished Central American nations to our nation for a better and safer way of life. They come despite the hostile government beliefs that see them as “less than” and unclean. The migrants disrupt that evil system and push toward our nation’s beacon of peace, freedom and justice.
Jairus, the synagogue leader’s daughter is ill, “at the point of death.” He begs Jesus to come and heal her. So, he goes. “On the way messengers come to say the girl has died. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”
Jesus is mocked and derided for believing that good can come out of this seemingly hopeless situation. We can hear them saying, “Who is this snowflake?
Jesus disrupted the systems of death that diminish the dignity of people. His was uncivil behavior because it confronted the accepted norms. He told the people to believe in the face of hopelessness. Out of death and despair, he brought life, because life for all is justice for all.
Both the woman and Jesus engaged in what would have been considered uncivil behaviors. These behaviors denied the norms and beliefs of a culture that believed that not all are worthy, and that the ways of death trump life.
Their faith in justice and life propels them to act. Their actions in the face of seeming hopelessness tell us to be persistent, believe in your cause, and be proactive, even if it means being uncivil.
Sugrue continues: “History is a reminder that civility is in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholder wants to maintain an unequal status quo, it’s easy to accuse picketers, protesters and preachers alike of incivility, as much because of their message as their methods. For those upset by disruptive protests, the history of civil rights offers an unsettling reminder that the path to change is seldom polite.”
It’s not about manners; it’s about justice and righteousness. In the current climate, politeness is a privilege we cannot afford. As followers of Jesus, we must lift our voices and literally say no to the hate that has reared its ugly head in our nation. We must be disrupt, overturning the tables of those who would deny the dignity of every human being. Indeed, who would deny their very humanity? We are called to disrupt the powers that threaten the dignity of human life. We must do it nonviolently, but do it we must. For our fellow sisters and brothers, and for God’s reign.
It’s not about civility. It’s about justice.