Christian Civility Is Applied Christian Ethics

Guest Post by Rev. John Romig Johnson. Episcopal priest, Jungian analyst and former seminary professor.

Recently I said to a fellow Jungian analyst, “Bless your heart.” My colleague took exception.  She is a Southern lady who had become sophisticated in civility and felt “Bless your heart” was patronizing and even a bit of a put down. For me “Bless your heart” was a feelingful phrase equivalent to giving someone a big hug. Saying “Bless your heart” means I know how you feel and I’m with you.

It was my mother’s favorite expression.  For my mother Christian civility was a kind of polite way of being respectful and well-mannered.  She and I grew up in the deep south where saying “mean” things was clearly uncivil. I also noticed that when my mother criticized anyone, she added the sweet phrase “bless your heart” to make it civil, polite. Looking at someone’s badly drawn art, she could say, that’s the worst drawing I ever saw, bless your heart.  So bless your heart isn’t always empathetic.  Hence surface politeness is not Christian civility.  Civility is much more than politeness. It is the act of showing active regard for others—it is applied Christian ethics.

One only needs to listen one day to talk radio or watch TV talk shows, or listen to campaign speeches to come to appreciate that civility is a de mode idea. The debates we have just witnessed in Congress seemed to epitomize incivility with political posturing and narrow self-interest winning over the concern for effective leadership of our country’s economy and future.  In addition, the wide scale fear of cultural, religious and sexual diversity seems to underlie much of the incivility which is present in our country today.

Today’s incivility seems to be a product of the increased Narcissism in today’s world.  All over, on a daily basis we see the horrible results of Narcissistic behavior. Individuals and groups; religions and nations act out their Narcissistic rage at various insults–real and imagined– and people suffer and die for the purpose of the grandiosity of the tyrant, or the glory of the religion. It was said that the 20th century was the “century of the Narcissist”, but the 21st is well on its way to outdoing the horrors of the past as a seeming epidemic of Narcissism .

Christian civility certainly is not just going along with whatever we’re told, that’s stupid not civil. Civility is also not conformity. We need balance, proportion and perspective.  But an important part of Christian civility is withdrawing projections and unconscious responses. Thus self awareness, self knowledge, self understanding are a big part of Christian civility. That is to say knowing ourselves helps us relate to God. 

I think the center of Christian civility comes not only from self knowledge but from an attitude of humility.  Humility is not some shame-based thinking of yourself as unworthy, inferior or flawed.  Humility calls us to have an accurate view of ourselves, seeing ourselves the way God sees us and recognizing we have gifts given by God’s grace to practice and develop.  Christian civility is about seeing you are not the center of the universe and that others matter too.  It means living as a Christian, yet thinking critically, and letting our faith tradition shape who we are and how we see life and its meaning.

I would submit that the most important law for Christian civility is the Golden Rule which states, “So in everything, do to others that you would have them do to you, for this.  sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  Clearly loving your neighbor as yourself means considering other persons point of view and not thinking of yourself as better as or worse than anyone else.

For me, Christian civility is applied Christian ethics both individually and as a community.

Rev. John Romig Johnson, M.Div., Ph.D., N.C.PsyA., is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Charleston , South Carolina , and a member of the New York Association for Analytical Psychology. He has lectured widely on Jungian subjects: particularly marriage and sexuality and issues raised by modern Fundamentalists. For many years he was Professor of Pastoral Theology at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City .  He is  Senior Priest Associate at St. Stephen’s Church in Charleston, he currently serves on the Professional Development Board for Clinical Pastoral Education for Charleston area hospitals.

Mitch

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