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Whatever happened to common civility? In far too many settings, it seems to have vanished or been trampled down by strident voices.
Within our nation, we have seen civility eroded in recent years. It is a sad commentary on our culture. And because we exist within the culture as individuals and as the Church, we are all in danger of being—or have already been—infected.
Are your words civil? What about your thoughts? What about your attitudes which fuel thoughts and words?
On Feb. 5, the fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (Is 58:9).
You may be asking: what does this have to do with ecumenical or interreligious relations? Everything!
For centuries, well-meaning folks—Christians—had few civil words for each other and the “other’s” beliefs or faith practices.
We hurled invectives at each other, uttering half-truths and prejudiced rumors. The “lie” became “truth” for many.
We wove against one another a tapestry of distrust, which funneled the “other” toward damnation.
We wrapped ourselves in this tapestry, warming ourselves with self-righteousness and the balm of retaliation for wrongs committed against our ancestors—or against our own person.
We all participated in this. Few were able to escape this “anti-Christian culture,” even though they were Christian. Sadly, some are yet imprisoned in this way.
But the culture has changed. And for the better, I would assert. The tapestries began to be rolled back in the early 20th century. The World Council of Churches emerged.
By the Second Vatican Council, our own Church expressed its self-understanding (“Lumen Gentium,” #14-16) in a more inclusive way.
Relationships began to flourish where before there were none. Dialogue commenced. And it has flourished ever since. It continues to grow as a force for the common good. There is hope for unity. The means to this are theological and personal civility.
Springing from this civility have been cooperative efforts of bringing the healing touch of the Gospel to the needy of our world. A common mission of feeding the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted has taken precedence over whatever doctrinal differences we may have.
And rather than hold rancor for such differences, Christian leaders of our world continue to promote and participate in exchanges of understanding.
There are as well changes in civility toward and among other religions. Though some distrust remains; though there are yet “lies” which seem to be “truth” (“All Muslims are suspect of harboring jihad”); though ignorance of the breadth of faith and goodness of human beings who embrace God in a way different than we Christians continues, there are now voices of civility to the contrary, and their volume is growing.
Would it not be amazing if the civility shared among people of varied Christian expressions and other faiths were to infect and transform the lack of common civility in this country? Fighting one infection with another is a tantalizing idea. Or is it just plain Gospel sense?