As we sit on the eve of the presidential primary for our state, I'm thinking of an old mason jar that sits near our family dining table. I'm thinking as well of a conversation I heard last night featuring former senator Dick Lugar and former congressman Lee Hamilton. And the lesson I've drawn from both the mason jar in our home and the radio interview I heard last night is this: we're at a crucial time when we need more focus on the "c" words and less focus on the "s" words. Let me explain.
That mason jar in our home is what we affectionately refer to as the "Stop-it jar." About two years ago, our two children began an escalation of (verbal) arms. Most of the time, they were great around each other, but given insufficient amounts of food or sleep or toys to share, vitriolic words were soon being lobbed between them. Their favorite weapon of choice soon became, "stop it!" - a harsh decree meant to both belittle one another while also - of course - drawing the attention of Mom and Dad, serving the role of UN peacekeeper.
"Stop it," unfortunately, wasn't the only "s" word thrown around by our children, as they quickly obtained other instruments of verbal war, including that blunt instrument of condemnation that we can too quickly lob in the direction of the person who infuriates us. Yes, that word: "stupid."
It wasn't long before my wife pulled down the old mason jar and attached the "Stop-it jar" label to the outside. It wasn't long after that my children were handing over quarters, and the jar began to fill up with each transgression. Then, since children don't merely come to these habits by divine fiat, something else began to occur. Soon, Anna and I found ourselves making contributions to the jar. During dinner, my son would catch me letting loose with a "stupid" as I recalled some event of my day. And we quickly learned how prevalent another "s" word had become in our family lexicon. No, not that the really bad one. Just the somewhat more socially appropriate one. Hint: the one that correlates with vacuum cleaners. All in all, a pernicious development of "s" words was beginning to overtake the dialogue in our home.
Of course, a pernicious development of "s" words has overtaken much of the dialogue occurring in our country these days, a fact that almost everyone now knows and laments, yet finds it hard to interrupt. There doesn't seem to be a mason jar big enough for all the diatribe and invective.
Perhaps, though, what is needed is another mason jar, one for the "c" words.
Civility is of one of those "c" words, and perhaps the most important one. It was civility that former congressman Lee Hamilton and former senator Dick Lugar were discussing together, and it was Lee Hamilton's opening remarks that struck me the most:
"When George Washington was 16 years of age, he said that we must treat everyone with respect. And, I've often found myself thinking that the politicians today could learn an lot from 16-year old George Washington. Civility is absolutely essential to both the quantity and the quality of work that you're able to do. If you have an environment of distrust, of mean-spiritedness, of anger, you're not going to get much done. Civility is a lubricant. It is a lubricant of all human transactions, not just political. With your friends, with your organizations that you belong to, you know how important civility is."
The two men embodied this type of civility towards one another. Standing in opposing political parties, they began not with an "s-word" mindset, but with a commitment to civility. That civility, as Lee Hamilton says so correctly, lubricated their ability to work together and led to the opportunity to discuss the other important "c" words, namely the common good and community.
We could all benefit a lot from a commitment to being civil-minded. In fact, I would say that civility is absolutely essential. Sure, we can all continue to throw around the "s" words. We can even use them to "win," but there is a significant and important difference between winning a battle of words and moving forward together as a community.
This need for civility is especially important for our church and all churches these days. The issues that can divide us are significant and real. They are theological, but they are also economical. More and more, we are often coming together from completely different places. In our little congregation alone, we have a vast and wide variety of political and theological differences, and the temptation when we encounter something in our brother or sister that challenges us or upsets us is to reach - at least mentally - for the "s" words. That person is "stupid." They should "stop."
We know why this temptation is there. It is something we learn at a very early age. It happens when someone encroaches upon our space, whether it is my son stepping into my daughter's room when he is not invited or when someone with a different view of human sexuality begins to express herself. This is why true civility is a discipline. It is something we must learn to practice as a commitment, especially when it is difficult, especially when we feel strongest the desire to reach for one of those "s" words. In fact, that's the work we call maturing. Children, mine included, must learn to grow up in a way where they can at least practice civility towards one another. That's the only way to maintain the unity of the family.
Not surprisingly Paul talks about all of this in his letter to the Ephesians, and that makes perfect sense. He's their spiritual parent, and he sees their family warring with one another. He is trying to bring unity to the two children in the early church that didn't often get along. You know, the ones named "Jew" and "Gentile." Sitting in chains, he is down to what is most important, and what he begs for is unity as found through humility and gentleness. He adds two other expressions, "bearing with one another in love" and "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:2 & 15). In other words, he is preaching his sermon on civility.
Yes, we know there are some things that will never change, whether we are talking about domestic differences or national elections. We will not always get along. We will - in fact - be tempted to lash out in anger or mean-spirittedness, but the way of Christ calls us to grow up in love, to mature, to be civil. Let's hope we can start filling up that other mason jar, the one with those "c" words.