A Much Deeper Approach to Civility

As many of my loyal readers know (okay, as all three of my loyal readers know) I find the approach to encouraging "civility" described in P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility" a bit simplistic, and yes, a bit irksome. But when I had the opportunity back in March to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Library about the much-touted "Choose Civility" campaign spearheaded by the library, she pointed out that the Forni's book isn't the only book highlighted by the campaign. There are lists of books on the library's website that engage in issues around civility, and the library would soon sponsor an event focused on another book, "Seasons of Life" by Jeffrey Marx which profiles the life and work of Joe Ehrman. Ehrman is a former defensive lineman for the Colts who now devotes his life to his organization "Building Men for Others".

That event took place this past Wednesday morning, and to my delight and surprise it took the whole conversation about civility way past manners, way past issues of personal space, way past rules and went right to the heart of the matter: if we want to improve civility, we need to develop a community that "affirms the value and worth of each human being".

Ehrman's talk was preceded by a seemingly endless series of introductions and speeches from all sorts of Howard County elected officials, all of whom affirmed that civility was already a big value for our county and one that they embraced and addressed in every aspect of their work. Once again I had this feeling of that the whole campaign was about everything and therefore not really about anything. But from the moment that Joe Ehrman stood up to speak, I knew he was going to cut the crap. His opening story--really a joke to remind people to turn off their cell phones--gave him the opportunity to say that racism is the "original sin" of the United States, and that our country was founded on the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. That got my attention--and made it clear that his talk was not going to have the self-congratulatory feel of all of the preceding speakers.

A few other things Ehrman did which I deeply appreciated:

1. He based civil behavior in self-reflection. Within the first five minutes of his talk, he said that civil behavior is based in empathy, and that empathy requires self-reflection. He called this "mindsight", the ability to take a look at what is going on inside your own mind, and recognizing that our experience of the world is highly conditioned by messages that we have received from our culture and our families of origin. Some of those messages serve us well, and some of them don't. By growing our understanding of the basis for our own behavior, we grow our capacity to understand other people's behavior. And we become more able to empathize with other people, which increases our ability to treat others with dignity and respect--the basis of a civil community. Ehrman's approach is the opposite of a rules-based approach (the one taken by Forni) and while he didn't dwell on this point, I could see it was the basis of everything else he said.

2. He constantly said what he meant by "civility". Every time he said the word, he followed it by the phrase "affirming the value and worth of each human being". Finally, the word actually means something! Finally, it doesn't imply something about cultural hegemony that I'm not sure I really want to affirm. Now all we need to do is issue the next set of bumper magnets, formatted exactly like the ones that say, "Choose Civility in Howard County". The next set should say, "Affirm the Value of Each Human Being in Howard County." Now that's something I'd put on my car. Heck, I'd even contribute to the cost of generating magnets like that. Anyone want to join me?

3. He took responsibility for the ways in which he has been part of the problem. The focus of Joe's speech, and of his message, was that at the root of the most serious social problems that confront our country today is deep confusion about what it means to be a man. Masculinity has become a matter of "athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success" which explains why professional athletes are the most important role models and heros to boys in our country today. Ehrman didn't just describe himself as an innocent victim of this misconception. He was clear that while he didn't create these false ideas, he has been driven by them as a young man and had perpetrated them, even in his semi-parental relationship with his younger brother. When that brother became sick with incurable cancer at 18, Joe realized that everything he taught his brother was useless in the face of the challenges he now confronted. Admitting that required a level of humility and grace that took my breath away. What if every other speaker had done the same thing--reflected honestly on how they were part of a system that supports false values, that degrades the value of other human beings?

After hearing Ehrman speak for almost an hour, I was ready to have a real "cut the crap" conversation with some of the other people there about our county. If I had been running the event, I would have cancelled the break-out sessions about "civility in the workplace" and so on and asked everybody to form a group of three to talk together about the ways in which we each are part of the problem. I may not be encouraging a false understanding of what it means to be a man, but am I supporting a misconception of what it means to be a woman? To be a Christian? To be an American? (Possible topics for future blog posts!) Then, I'd invite the groups to brainstorm together about what we each might do to build a community which "affirms the value and worth of each human being." Then I would have invite anyone who felt so moved to come to the microphone up front and to make a public commitment to some change in their lives that will help them to live with more empathy and responsibility.

But that's a lot more dangerous than putting a magnet on your car. That might actually change the world.

Here's Something That Really Might Build Civility

KC Member Ada Iris Jaime sent me this to post for her:

Since attending K.C. I have asked myself, “What can I bring to the table and offer those who are giving me such nurturing bread?” One day I heard my heart voice the desire to talk to Heather about the ideas that tossed around in my head. She gave me a great smile and suggested I call a "FOCUS group" to help put the ideas to action.

I am putting together a group that would work together to co-create a cross-cultural outreach program based at K.C., reaching out to Spanish-speaking people in Howard County who are hungry not just to improve their English, but to connect to share their culture and connect to the culture in which they live. I am hungry to work and live in a community that cares for each other, as I know so many others are too.

A word about my own background will help to explain my approach:

In my 20's I lived a most exciting life in Seville, Spain where I accidentally on purpose became the spearhead of change in the way the Language Institute where I taught English and Spanish approached their curriculum for college exchange students. Students from all over the world came together in Sevilla to learn Spanish, and local university students attended the institute to learn English, not to mention all the other languages that were offered at the institute. It was so invigorating to walk the hallways and hear conversations in all different languages from people of all different colors, shapes and sizes. I noticed most of the students limited their interactions with classmates and rarely ventured out on their own into the community. Everyone stayed in a group and clustered around those similar to them. Something about this didn’t seem right to me. I knew there was an opportunity waiting for something else.

As a young foreigner myself, I also initially had difficulty integrating in the society I planted myself in and I knew the language. So, it wasn’t a language barrier that kept me apart, something else was preventing me from reaching into the community and this something else, I feel is experienced by all foreigners at one time. I lived trying to co-exist as a foreigner (keeping true to my way of doing things at home) and was tormented by the thoughts of isolation because I saw everything as their way. I wanted that feeling to go away but it was constant and I didn’t know how to initiate social discovery. I knew I had to reach out but didn’t know how. My father's only consistent advice to me when I whined of homesickness was, "When in Rome do like the Romans". And I consistently responded, "I'm in Spain, Dad, not Italy.”

It took me awhile to get what my dad meant, but finally I got it. I had to become one with them to be present with them and therefore no longer will I be alone. I made it my intention to seek to understand and discover what was going on before me and not judge or compare things the way I was accustom to do things (this took effort but became easier as I practiced). Finally I was really awaken to how things are there and experienced it, and had no need to go in my mind anywhere else.

I began to view the world at the people level, with an open-mind and explore with them, meaning just to smile and look people in the eye inviting myself into their lives and allowing them to show me what surrounded us. I began to talk to strangers, waiters, cab drivers, students, clergy, talk politics with Pepe and Manolo who sat at a park bench cursing at a daily news line (I learned many new expressions I could never repeat), play with Pedrito soccer, at the market ask Maria how do you prepare this or that dish, dance with flamenco dancers, and write poetry under the scent of jasmine and azhar.

I found I had to only approach them once, and then they called me over as I passed, “Hola Morena, venid”. The tables turned quickly and they began to ask me the who, what and whys of my country and the people of America and those Yankees. It was awesome to be a spokesperson. I got to know myself at a deeper level and laugh at myself and cherish what I was receiving and what I left behind.

My life in Sevilla changed me right before my eyes and this lesson had to be shared with those who I saw before me doing as I did, living as a tourist and not experiencing the world around them. I knew I had to teach them more than what they could read and write on a postcard. I would tell students my story,

“It wasn't until I sat with anyone and everyone that Seville opened up to me. I realized I lived in Seville. Wow, I no longer considered myself a foreigner, I lived there, I was a part of all that surrounded me. Anyone can take ownership of where they are at if only they follow the way of entering community and limit self to the invitation of show me, tell me, explore with me how is it that... smile and receive.”

I took my students into the community, I organized soccer and basketball games mixing local kids and the exchange students, chess games at the park with the older generation. I brought Maria into my house to teach us how to cook. Later Maria wouldn’t have it with my cooking-challenged kitchen and obligated me to take them to her house. After awhile it was my students inviting me to activities they had conjured with their friends in the community. My students left family when the got on a plane home. Months later they were back on holiday with their parents sharing community in the bars, parks, historic sites, the Plaza Mercado (market place). The feedback was amazing. What was more amazing was hearing Manolo at age 82 try to speak English for the first time.

Other classes wanted to do what we where doing, so, I began coordinating activities for all the language arts teachers. Students regardless of the language had to go out into the community and give of themselves and invite others to share in the experience. Everyone benefited from the dialogues, no one left without experiencing Sevilla. And as they say, “Si no has visto Sevilla, no has visto maravilla” –“If you haven’t seen Sevilla you haven’t seen wonder.” Those years remain in my heart as the greatest wonder.

This experience is the seed to my cross-cultural concept for exploration with the members at K.C. and the community.

I want us to unite with an open and compassionate heart and brainstorm ways to explore how we can be a vehicle of inclusion for those who have planted themselves and their families amongst us and feel they are alone or limit their exploration of our world to that which is familiar to them. I want our lives to be shared with all who live in our community from within our church stretching out as far as God allows us to take it.

My first burning desire is to explore ways we can "Seek to understand to then be understood." Walk as Jesus did, side by side with anyone and everyone with a need or listening heart and offer of ourselves so they can open their spirit of union and co-create community. “Voila”--we find ourselves enriched and at home anywhere we go. We get to know each other. Love our neighbor. It was that simple to undertake when I lived in Sevilla; why not try it over here?

I feel richness invade me as I look across the room and receive a smile from a shining face at K.C., that’s all I need to continue on my journey. I am comforted by resting. I’m home. I want wholeheartedly to offer this smile to those who do not know what is out their beyond the safety and isolation of their walls. So much to share and the only barrier I have found is not to seek the opportunity for something else to happen. Walk with thy neighbor and be blessed along the journey where the spirit will lead us.

Get Curious and Make Room

After worship on Sunday, Nan pulled me aside and said with a look of concern on her face, "Heather, something very painful must have happened to you as a result of the Choose Civility campaign to make you so passionate in your opposition of it." Her comment really took me aback because (a) I haven't had a painful experience of the sort that she imagained and (b) I'm not "against" the Choose Civility campaign. Rather, I think the book that the campaign was inspired takes a misguided approach to HOW we increase public civility.

Despite my "oppositional personality", my passion on this topic isn't about opposing anything. I'm passionate about building community, building relationships. Because of this passion, and because of my ministry at the Kittamaqundi Community is so centrally focused on building community in the midst of transition, I'm interested in pushing the conversation about civility in the county to a deeper level than simply listing rules that people should follow--an approach that I think is not only ineffective, but actual undermines our ability to treat each other with compassion and respect.

So, it might be helpful at this point to stop talking about the problems with Dr. Forni's approach and start talking about real examples of what actually does improve the quality of our public lives. I wrote in a previous post that my experience has led me to value two principles in this work: get curious and make room. Let me give an example of what these things look like in practice.

When Barry Newman from the Wall Street Journal was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go with him to talk with Valerie Gross, the Executive Director of the Howard County Public Library, the initiators of the Choose Civility campaign. Ms. Gross explained the origin of the campaign--P. M. Forni's book had been the focus of a staff training day. The conversation has gone so well that they decided to bring the book into their partnership with the public schools, and from their into a wider partnership in the community. It's not that Howard County is a particularly uncivil place, Ms. Gross was quick to point out to the WSJ reporter. The book was more a reminder and a refresher than a remedy to any particular problem.

This caught the reporter's interest. Surely, he prodded, there must be some concern about civility for this campaign to have caught hold as it has. Well, Ms. Gross conceded, there has been a change over the years in the ways in which some teenagers behave in the library. Some kids are unruly, and some have even sworn as the librarians.

"So what do you do when that happens?" I asked. "Do you hand them a copy of P. M. Forni's book and ask them to read up on the rules of civility? Do you remind them of the 25 rules?"

"Of course not," Ms. Gross replied. She went on to describe the approach that they have had the most success with. Each library has a "Teen Advisory Board" that meets with library staff and makes recommendations on programming for teens and discusses issues relating to teens and the library. The staff keeps an eye out for teens who frequent the library, especially those who seem to be leaders, either in a negative or positive sense. They are quick to ask those teens to join the advisory board. "We tell them that we recognize them as leaders, and we express interest in hearing their views about how we can all work together." "Does it work?" I asked. "Absolutely," Ms. Gross responded.

I was really struck by this conversation, and talked at length about it with the reporter afterwards. I wish, in fact, that it could have been the focus of his article. While the book, "Choosing Civility", may express the desire for civility in our public life, when it comes to getting to work with actually improving our local community, even the library disregards the book and its emphasis on teaching 25 basic rules.

These people are no dummies--they know that in order to get people to want to behave in a civil way, they have to feel like they are a part of a community. They have to buy into the idea that we are all creating a world together where there is room for each of us. Tell them they are rule violators, and you are telling them what they already know. They don't fit. There isn't room for them here. But get curious about what they want, what they need, what they think, who they are, and make room for them to participate in setting the agenda, making the program, and all of a sudden things shift. There isn't an US and a THEM, there is just an US.

That's not the final word on building community, but I'm convinced that it is where we start.

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

"Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

What Exactly Is My Problem With Civility?

On the front page of this morning's Wall Street Journal there is an article by Barry Newman entitled "Be Nice, Or What? Fan of Dr. Forni Spread Civility". The subtitle reads, "25 Rules Don't Go Over Well With Everybody; Naysayer in Maryland". The "naysayer" happens to be me.

If you're a part of the Kittamaqundi Community and/or a regular reader of this blog, you won't be surprised to read that I am irked by Howard County's "Choose Civility" campaign which is based on a book that lists 25 rules to guide our public behavior. But I was surprised when a Wall Street Journal reporter called me about a month ago to talk about civility. Turns out he had found me while doing web searches with phrases like "P M Forni stupid" and "P M Forni crazy". He found lots of material, he told me, but almost all of it was anonymous. Except for my blog.

The reporter, Barry Newman, and I had several very long phone calls followed by a day and a half of in person conversation. By the time Barry left, he had enough material for a book, but he warned me that he was only going to be able to write a short article. I think that what he ended up writing is a very good "teaser" into a fairly complex argument, and I hope that Dr. Forni and I will have more opportunities to talk about his approach to improving the quality of our public life. In the meantime, I thought I'd make a few things a bit more clear than they are in the WSJ article:

I am not against civility. As Dr. Forni put it in our conversation, being against civility is like being against "mother's milk". My "oppositional personality" makes me wonder what the other side of an argument might be, especially arguments that everyone seems to agree with at first blush. But the argument I have with Dr. Forni is not over whether it's okay to be a jerk or not. It's about HOW we can best improve and support civility in our public life, not whether we should be civil with each other.

I think that's a fair argument to have, and if there's any merit to the "Choose Civility" campaign, it is that it might provoke conversation about what factors shape our public life. According to P.M. Forni, our public life is shaped by rules. There was a day when those rules were implicit to our public lives--everyone knew them in part because everyone knew each other. We lived among our extended families, among people who were a lot like us and who shared an understanding of how to act. In communities like that (like Goshen, Indiana, perhaps when Valerie Gross was growing up there at the end of the baby boom) no one needs to write the rules down because everyone knows them.

These days, many of us don't live in communities like that. We move around a lot more, and we live in communities composed of people from a lot of different cultures, countries, backgrounds and viewpoints. We don't necessarily have a shared sense of how to behave in our public lives. Some people are louder than other people think is necessary. Some people let their kids do things in public that other people find objectionable. Some people use public spaces in ways that other people would never do. This can make living together tough at times.

So what to do? One approach would be for those of us who "know" how to act to write down all the rules explicitly and try to teach other people to follow those rules. To P. M. Forni's great credit, he is in favor of persuading people to follow the rules of civility by appealing to their self-interest, and he is firmly opposed to enforcing these rules through codes of conduct, etc.

But to my mind, there is a huge hazard to this response. When we make all those rules explicit, write them down on bookmarks that are handed out to everyone in the library and in the high school, then we encourage everyone to notice whether or not someone is following the rules in public. We become--without even wanting to do so--regulators and enforcers of the rules. Reinforcing explicit rules moves us away from welcoming each other and moves us towards tisk-tisking every time we see someone doing something they're "not supposed to do".

Incidentally, this is what Jesus ran into all the time. He was in constant argument with people who valued adherence to the rules over all else, and was always subverting rules in order to respond with compassion. Think, for example, of his fights over healing people on the sabbath. His argument was not against the sabbath--he clearly supported the value of rest and renewal. But he was convinced that the demands of compassion trumped the demands of the rules that governed the sabbath. So to with the story of the Good Samaritan. The people who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road do so because of the social rules that governed their behavior at the time. But the Samaritan violates the rules quite blatantly and responds with compassion, and its his behavior that Jesus holds up as a model to his disciples.

I think there are better ways to support civility in our public life than rules. I think the basis of right behavior--in public and in private--is compassion. So then, the question becomes, how to we encourage compassion? How do we grow compassion in our community?

As the Wall Street Journal article mentioned, I think there are specific things you can do. I summarized two of these things as "Get curious" and "Make room", and I will write a bit more about these two principles in the coming days.

But there is another thing that helps compassion, one that Barry Newman alludes to in the article but which deserves much fuller examination. The city that I live in was created by a visionary developer named Jim Rouse who believed that the WAY we live with each other can actually shape the way we behave towards each other. In other words, the values that guide our common life can actually be communicated by how our streets and houses and town centers are arranged.

Jim Rouse didn't make things easy for himself here. He built a suburban town which included affordable, mid-range and expensive housing, all mixed in with each other. He did some very explicit social engineering to make sure that black folks and white folks would live right next to each other. So from the start, he knew that the people who lived in Columbia wouldn't necessarily share the same implicit rules governing their common life.

So he built into the community lots of things that cause you to "accidentally" run into your neighbors all the time--at the mailbox, on the bike path, at your town center, at the gym, at the playground. He believed that you could make a successful community where people DON'T have the same social background by making sure that we recognize each other as neighbors. The basis of civility, he believed, was neighborliness.

Dr. Forni believes this too. In every interview I've read with him, he underscores that anonymity greatly increases the tendency towards incivility. That's why we curse people from our cars who we'd never curse face to face. But he doesn't seem to be interested in addressing the cause of incivility--as Barry Newman quotes him saying, he thinks communities like Columbia were "utopian" but not actually effective. He only recommends remedies for the symptoms of our loss of relationship with our neighbors. This is the heart of my argument with him.

Like Jim Rouse did 40 years ago, and like Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago, I'd rather cure the disease and not just treat the symptom.

Horton Doesn't Choose Civility

Holy Week and Easter just about did me in this year. I'm glad I went to New Orleans for four days of the KC group, but I'm not going to do a work camp during Holy Week again. I tend to forget resolutions like this within a year of making them, so please help me remember.

On Monday, my most brain-dead post-holiday day, I took Paul and Rosa to see the new movie version of Dr. Suess' "Horton Hears a Who". It was perfect for the state I was in, and all three of us had some laugh-till-we-cry moments. I particularly liked the ending which featured a group-sing of REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight the Feeling Anymore". The song subverted all of our Disney-trained expectations for a closing musical number that drives home the moral of the story and instead offered kareoke.

There is a moral to the story, and it's not the anti-abortion message that some people apparently find in Horton's statement that "a person's a person no matter how small". Rather, the moral is quite simply that compassion trumps morality--a message that Jesus liked to drive home as well when he did stuff like heal people on the Sabbath, etc. Horton's compassionate acts are opposed by a kangaroo who "pouch schools" her child so that he isn't influenced by Horton and others who encourage imagination and exploration.

I know Howard County's "Choose Civility" campaign isn't intended to squelch creativity, but I couldn't help but notice the similarity between some of the kangaroo's comments and the tone of P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility" on which the county's campaign is based. The kangaroo makes it quite clear that the reason why people's behavior needs to follow certain predictable rules is because it makes our world feel safer and more hospitable for children. Put that way, it almost makes sense.

Unless you're the type of person who listens so carefully that you actually start caring about things that other people don't even notice. I'm going to get a "Choose the Whos" bumper sticker.

Whose Civility?

Last week's weekly email newsletter from the Oakland Mills Village Center included a comment that caught my attention, and provided some new fodder for my on-going conversation (with myself and anyone who will listen) about the possibilities and limits of Howard County's Choose Civility Campaign.

The goals of this campaign are "to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance in Howard County." No argument there. But it seeks to do this by teaching and reinforcing 25 "rules" for conduct. Is that what we really need? Or do lists of rules end up undermining the very things that would lead us to act "civilly" to each other?

Case in point:

We are facing challenges with the housing market and as a result several homes in Oakland Mills remain unsold and vacant. We have neighbors who are struggling to keep their homes or face foreclosure. The Oakland Mills staff receives calls daily about newspapers accumulating on driveways, leaves not raked etc. Our Covenant Advisor Debbie Bach makes every attempt to contact homeowners and realtors to request that properties are maintained. We are here to help the residents, and spend a lot of time listening to residents and do what we can to help them get through their challenging situations.

There are many neighborly acts of kindness that everyone can do to help one another. If you see that papers are accumulating and you know that the home is vacant, please take a minute to pick up the papers and put it out with your weekly recycling. If you know a neighbor may be facing some tough times stop by, give a call, see if there is something you can do to help them out. Often people who are facing life’s challenges feel like they are all alone and simple acts of kindness can go a long, long way.

To me, this note suggests the limits of rule-based community relationships. If I am walking through my neighborhood and see a house with unraked leaves I can think, "Here's someone in violation of the community covenant! I should report them!" Or, I can think, "I wonder if I my neighbor needs help?"

The later response is, in the end, the response that builds community. It's the response which on which creates the kind of neighborhood where people want to live. And that, in the end, is how best to get people to rake their leaves, pick up their papers and bring in their trash cans. I do those things NOT because there are rules telling me what to do. I do them because I know my neighbors and I want to honor them and the world we are building together.

Problems With Choosing Civility, Part 2

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).

Choosing Civility (Or Not) in Oakland Mills

For the past several months, our local libraries have been handing out free magnetic bumper stickers that say "Choose Civility in Howard County". Apparently this isn't just an attempt to distinguish our county as more civilized than barbaric Montgomery County or seedy Anne Arundel County (I keep imagining signs at the county line saying "You are now leaving Howard County--please feel free to act like a jerk.") but rather an attempt to bring back a code of conduct in public spaces that seems (to some people at least) to have eroded over the past several decades.

The "Choose Civility" campaign got its inspiration from a book by P. M. Forni, founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. As part of the initiative, there have been a number of discussions of Forni's book, including one tomorrow in my neighborhood, Oakland Mills. On Wednesday, November 28th, our church will also host a discussion of the book as one of the options for our Spiritual Education Evening. So, to get the conversation rolling a bit, I thought I'd post of a few of my thoughts about civility here over the next several weeks. It also occurred to me that blogging about the topic in advance might help me be...more civil during the book discussions. There are a few things I need to get off my chest.

The fact of the matter is, this campaign drives me crazy. The main reason for this is the subtitle of Forni's book: "Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct". I (#1) don't really think "rules" are the best basis for moral conduct and (#2) twenty-five is just way too many.

Before I get to my more serious point #1, I can't help but linger for a moment on #2. Twenty-five rules?? Have you seen how small the print is on the bookmark the library is handing out with all 25 listed? I bet most people don't read past #4. This might not be such a bad thing, since I personally think the most important rule is #1 ("Pay Attention"), but I wish Forni had stopped there. I wonder if he could site them all with his eyes closed? And once you read the book, you realize there are actually way more than 25 rules. Most rules have sub-rules--just look at #11, "Mind Your Body". I was trying to count the rules in that chapter, but lost track because by the time I got past 20 (no sniffling??) I had to throw the book across the room.

If Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, sponsor of a bill to post the Ten Commandments in both houses of congress, couldn't list more than three of the ten, what's the hope for us?

More thoughtful critique to come....