The Choosing Civility campaign arises from an observation that the unpleasant encounters we have in public spaces--people cutting us off in traffic and flipping the bird to other drivers, people cutting in line or acting snotty in the food store, people letting their dogs poop on the sidewalk--have a big impact on our happiness. P. M. Forni, the author of "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct", is undeniably onto something important when he writes in the last chapter of his book, "Just about the most important thing we do in life is interacting with other human beings.... A better quality of human interaction makes for a better life--a saner, more meaningful, healthier, and happier life." Who could disagree? I certainly don't.
But how do we achieve a "better quality of human interaction"? Dr. Forni suggests we do so by emphasizing 25 (or more!) rules for behavior. This is where he and I part company. While I know that rules can force us to act "civily" towards each other, I think they can actually undermine the quality of our interactions. To really improve our behavior we need something much deeper, something that observing rules can actually impede.
This may seem like a strange point of view for a Christian pastor. I mean, what's the point of religion if it's not for imposing rules? Well, that turns out to be a point that Jesus has a lot to say about. Although you wouldn't know if from a lot of the Christian rhetoric that gets spouted today, the main thing that ticked Jesus off was the hypocritical behavior of religious rule-followers.
Take, for example, the story of the Good Samaritan, one of Jesus' best known parables. Jesus tells that story in order to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?", so the parable is really a commentary about choosing civility. He describes a scene where a man has been attacked by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walk past without helping him, but a Samaritan, a social pariah, goes out of his way to help the hurt man.
This story is not really about how the Samaritan understands the rules of civility and the priest and Levite don't. The whole reason why the priest and the Levite don't stop is because they are following rules, religious rules that specify that touching a bleeding person will make them ritually unclean. The people who are following the rules stay separate from their neighbor in distress, and the person who doesn't give a rip for the rules is the one who is able to respond with spontaneous compassion.
That parable has had a very strong affect on how I understand what motivates moral behavior towards others. If I go out into the world with rules on my mind, the first thing that I will notice about someone is whether or not they are following the rules. If they aren't, I will, without thinking about it, judge that person as part of the problem. I'll distance myself from them, emotionally and almost inevitably physically. Like the priest or the Levite, I'll cross to the other side.
But what if I go into the world like that good Samaritan? Which is to say, what if I go into the world with a sense of myself as someone who's entitled to nothing, someone who's entire life depends on grace? Then I discover that there is grace in my heart for other people, and room in my world for them too. Then I find my life expresses Forni's most important rules: I pay attention to the world around me (#1), I acknowledge others (#2), and make room in my life and world for them (#3, #4, #5).