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Wednesday Word: Civility

October 28, 2020 | Dr. Jay T. Smith


According to Merriam-Webster, “civility” is defined by courtesy, courteousness, politeness, good manners, graciousness, consideration, respect, gentility, urbanity, cordiality, geniality, etc. These defining hallmarks of civility have marked American governance for over 200 years. This does not mean that American public discourse has been without disagreement or even occasional rancor, but it does mean that Americans have willingly, consciously, and actively pursued civility throughout its existence.

Jesus’ Zeal Was Uncivil

In John 2:13-17, we see the only time in which it can be argued that Jesus was angered, or without civility:

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME.” (NASB)

This is the one instance where Jesus physically disrupts a place and makes a verbal accusation of wrongdoing, or inappropriateness. Yet, if that is all we take away from this passage – “justified violence” – then we miss the point: after the incident, His disciples recall that the Messiah will be consumed by “zeal” or enthusiasm for God’s house. Enthusiasm and “respect” for God is the point. The Sadducees and Levites had lost sight of the function and sacred nature of the temple and its sacrificial system.

Christians Manifest Faith Through Civility

In much the same fashion, Americans have lost sight of the propriety and sanctity of public discourse. I suggest that the most telling aspect of American democracy is how we treat each other in spite of our differences and, possibly, because of our differences. Indeed, this is the primary manner in which Christians can publicly manifest their faith. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, John 3:16, and John 13:34-35, tells us we are to love our enemies, our neighbors, and each other. The manifestation of this love is the very foundation of civility in our world. As Christians manifest the love of God in our world, civility—as the manner in which all members of our culture engage—becomes a flower in arid soil and a star in the darkness. If Christians will take a moment to recall God’s love and begin to live that love, civility will again be a hallmark of American society.

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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