Pastor Bill Roen presented the Christian Perspective at the Restoring Respect in Religion program, a part of the Restoring Respect series at The Cathedral of St. Peter, St. Petersburg FL on January 16, 2018. This essay was his opening statement. A video of the program will be available (along with the other programs in the series) on the Cathedral website http://www.spcathedral.com .
You have to live with the living–my mother used to say. But just how do you go about doing that?—that’s the question.
Well, there’s an old song that Bing Crosby sang. And it runs in part like this: “Would you like to swing on a star,/ Carry moonbeams home in a jar,/ And be better off than you are,/ or would you rather be a pig?”
Now I’d lay ready money that I could get y’all to sing that song with me.
“A pig is an animal with dirt on his face;/ His shoes are a terrible disgrace;/ He ain’t got no manners when he eats his food/ He’s fat and lazy—and extremely rude.”
When it comes to churches, you are what you sing, beloved. So it’s really too bad we don’t sing that song in church sometimes, because it speaks so directly to our topic for this evening—respect generally and in particular respect for our neighbors who belong to other religious traditions. And we live in a world where there are woeful examples of swinish behavior abounding everywhere—in government, on the street, in our libraries and schools, and most certainly in churches, where nastiness has made a nest in the hearts of some who most loudly want to be called Christians.
“If you don’t care a feather or a fig, / You may grow up to be a pig…..”
As the song suggests, beloved, respect for other people, is a decision taken of the basis in a certain kind of education—moral, spiritual and aesthetic. It a religious education, though not a specifically Christian. It should be taking place in churches and in Christian families–should be, but may not be. It is necessary because from the Christian point of view, respect for others is not something that comes naturally to us. It has to be modeled, learned, and internalized. And disrespect for other people is a result of ignorance, neglect, and surrender to our sinful, porcine selves.
Respect is a decision that has to be made over and over and over again, consciously, in order to lead a truly human life. And leading a truly human life is what all the great religious traditions are all about. Each in its own way seeks to answer the question—How do we live with the living?
To answer that question, Christians must always have recourse to the teachings of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke we are told that once he was invited out to dinner, and “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you will start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.’
The parable might be about common politeness and good sense, but the Gospel writer goes a step further and concludes with these words—“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’” Central to the Christian idea of respect, is the ideal of courtesy, intentionally putting yourself in the lowest place.
Now the word “courtesy” itself comes from a 12th century word “courteis,” which refers to gentle politeness and good manners. It was originally the behavior expected of the nobility at court, the code of conduct that separated civilized, courtly life from barbarism. Courtesy, sometimes called chivalry, as a way of life was extremely chic during the Middle Ages. Best-selling books were written about its practice. Art and music celebrated it. It reached its apex in the 13th century, when the ideal of courtesy influenced all of European culture, not the least St. Francis of Assisi and his brother monks, who gave it a specifically Christian interpretation. Courtesy was no longer just chivalry, the prerogative of knights and their ladies. It was an ideal that everyone might follow. In a charming book called the Little Flowers of St. Francis we find a saying that sums it up—“Let him who wants to have peace and quiet look upon every man as his superior.”
In answer to the question—How do we live with the living?—St. Francis and his followers would reply, The way to deal with others in your community and the world outside, the way to deal with your neighbor who belongs to another religion, whose claims to ultimate authority are different from yours, should always be polite deference.
This Christian courtesy involves a decision, not to be put last–that’s something else entirely–to be relegated to last place on the basis of race or religion is discrimination and prejudice. Courtesy means to put yourself last. It is not enough to look upon some people as your betters and other not—that is the basis of elitism, sexism, racism and a lot of other isms still more piggish. Courtesy is the decision to treat everyone with deference, without exception and without reference to rank, wealth, sexuality, religion, goodness or badness or anything else.
From the Christian point of view, courtesy is an ideal never fully realized except in Jesus. It is certainly not popular in some Christian quarters these days where Christianity has become another name for xenophobia and gun ownership. Nevertheless, you and I, who call ourselves by the Name, should still devoutly pursue courtesy as a discipline. Courtesy is liturgy as it is performed outside the church, beloved. It is the holy dialogue of everyday living. And Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another,” means simply–show courtesy to all our neighbors irrespective. (In answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.) Under the name of love, courtesy is a thing to be admired, to be taught, and to be emulated as both the root and fruit of Gospel morality, which, has its basis in a radical humility.
Unfortunately, the word “humility” has become identified with low self-esteem. But courtesy is not having a rotten self-image. It is instead recognizing the image of God in every other human being—yourself included. Not just those who have earned your respect, but everyone, as the natural result of her or his being created in the image of God. Courtesy is the honor due that image. It includes the non-human world as God’s handiwork. Thus courtesy is extended to the earth itself and all its creatures. It is an environmental value was well as a moral one.
Back home in North Dakota, my father saw in my brother and me an opportunity to educate two barbarians. And he went about the civilizing process seriously. So when we attended a covered-dish dinner at church it was of course the natural inclination of a fourteen-year-old boy to elbow up to the groaning board as fast as possible before all the fried chicken was all gone. But my father always put himself last. He regarded it as his rightful place, and he insisted that my brother and I be right in front of him in line.
Now this happened not once but every single time, and finally I worked up nerve enough to ask—Why do we always have to wait to the end of the line? And my father looked at me as if I had just hatched from an egg, and he replied–That’s what it means to be a gentleman.
Now you don’t have to be a Christian to be a gentleman, but if you want to be a Christian gentleman like my father you have to be prepared to put yourself last in line and not get any chicken.
As a fourteen year old boy I nearly starved to death, but somehow I survived to tell you that courtesy is the foundation of order and grace and everything good about our society, and discourtesy is tearing us to pieces literally, beloved, from the top down and from the bottom up.
So to address the incivility and vulgarity of our community and our nation each of us needs to renew his or her commitment to live the courteous life in whatever tradition we belong. Remember, beloved, the transformation of society begins with the regeneration of the individual. Every great change begins with the conversion of a few, indeed sometimes only one. And you, beloved, are the one. You are the one.
The radical humility of St. Francis and his followers changed society, becoming a powerful civilizing force in a barbarous world. It disarmed those who encountered it, and still charms us with its sweetness.
The nonviolent revolution of Martin Luther King Jr., whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, changed this country. And the principles of non-violent protest are simply another form of courtesy used as a weapon to confront an evil system.
And courtesy still has tremendous power to alter the world around us when we practice it intentionally. The question is not—Does it work? It works. The question is–How far do you dare to carry it? That’s what the Spirit is saying to us—How far can you dare to carry good manners and politeness, beloved? To their logical end?
The ideal of good manners is something Christians share with all the great religious traditions. Etiquette is the ritualized form of courtesy. The rituals are indeed good. They bind us together. You Episcopalians understand the importance of ritual words and actions. They are a signal to others of our good will and our intention not to offend, but manners can be artificial, an empty form without meaning.
True politeness is more than good manners. Pope Francis in this New Year’s Eve homily this year praised the politeness of ordinary people, whom he called “the artisans of the common good.” They are ones, people of good will, believers and unbelievers alike, who are kind in public places and attentive to the elderly. But those whom the Pope singled out for special praise were polite drivers, those “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.” People who are polite drivers make a thousand little decisions not to be a pig—decisions that go against their natural selfishness and help to create a culture of civility in the city, the nation, and the world.
But courtesy in itself is something more than either politeness or good manners. It is both a serious and a lightsome, both charming and barb-wire tough. It is almost sensual in its down-to-earth-ness. Courtesy is not a superficial niceness, but an esteem that arises from a deep admiration for the other. It arises from the kind of experience I had wandering through the through the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre. Surrounded by all those beautiful things–“the radiant face of a civilization that encompassed an infinitely varied wealth of humanity,” as the guidebook put it– I could not help but feel respect bordering on love for the faith that inspired such beauty and harmony. Courtesy implies that kind of deep respect for the civilizing influence of the other great religions, but without abandoning one’s own vision of the truth.
Finally, in treating another person as better than yourself, courtesy demands that the other person be, in fact, better than he or she is. All of us have met people who have made us be better than we were before we met them. That’s what courtesy does. It answers the question—How do we live with the living?–with those words of St. Paul writing to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).
The Spirit transforms that simple decision to put ourselves last into tremendous spiritual power, but it’s dangerous too, beloved, because at the same time the Spirit always asks—You did it, but how much farther can you carry courtesy? One step? Two?