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What has happened to civility?

East Bernard Express of East Bernard, Texas

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Many years ago, when I was still courting my wife, and she was living in New York City, we took a city bus to go from one busy section of the city to another.

A woman about my age then, struggling with two large suitcases, got on the bus. The bus was crowded, and no one helped her or offered her a seat. Since we were already standing, I couldn't offer her my seat.

She stood in front of two seated men who ignored her. She looked at the men who ignored her and said aloud, "In New York, nobody gives a damn about anybody else!" In my heart, I was thinking the same thing, though we both knew many kind and caring New Yorkers.

Four or five years later, after my wife and I were married and traveling in the Yucatan of Mexico, through a number of primitive villages in the jungle, I thought to myself, "I like this 'primitive' jungle better than the urban 'jungle' of New York."

Riding in a third class bus, with Mayan peasants carrying their chickens in crates and trying to keep their kids in tow, we observed how they showed kindness toward one another.

Although they seemed a bit scared of us, with our stylish sunglasses and fancy luggage, they were kind and helpful — though they spoke only Mayan — didn't even speak Spanish.

Now, as I recall those earlier years, and as I struggle with the way things have changed since then, I grapple with the question, 'What does it mean to be civilized?' Did those New Yorkers lack "civility" some 40 years ago (well, at least the ones on that bus)?

If so, then things have gotten even worse today, when civility is often interpreted as weakness and exploited.

"Civility" is defined as the art of showing regard for others by being polite, such as the civility you show in speaking kindly to someone who has hurt your feelings. It is civilized conduct, especially courtesy and politeness.

"Civility" is derived from the Latin word, civilis, meaning "relating to public life, befitting a citizen." Thus "civility" is something a "civilized" person has or shows. In other words, a person with civility comes from a civilized country.

So, what makes a country civilized? Sara Ipatenco came up with seven characteristics of a "civilized society," characteristics similar to what other sociologists have listed.

They are as follows: one, authority; two, food, water, and agriculture; three, safety and protection; four, education; five, trade and availability of goods; six, defined societal roles; and seven, basic freedoms.

It seems to me that in order to have "civility," you especially need "authority" and "education." When I began teaching school in the late 1950s, students would hold the door open for teachers, and they would let you go ahead of them.

If you chastised and punished kids at school, the parents would support your disciplinary actions. In many schools today, students are likely to push in front of you and let the door slam in your face, and when you attempt to discipline students, the parents are likely to ream you out for being "unfair" to their offspring.

Of course, this isn't true in all schools today, but I never saw it in the 1950s.

If civility has declined over the years, and I believe it has, what has caused the decline? "Authority" is one thing. True authority comes from God — especially we see this in God's gift of the Ten Commandments. So what has happened in recent years?

The Ten Commandments are no longer allowed on the walls of public buildings. Courthouses have had to remove the Ten Commandments, even if they were chiseled into marble monuments. Modern movies and television shows seem to say, "If it feels good, do it!"

"Education" is another thing. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was a Deist, believed that the Bible should be taught in the schools, that it offered the principles of right and wrong.

Today, we have examples of students not being allowed to bring the Bible to school. In the early days, Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were taught in the schools; in today's watered down curricula, modern attitudes about the total subjectivity of truth are being taught.

Although Aristotle and Plato were pagans, their teachings on morality and ethics gave the student a strong leg of "civility" to stand on.

If there is no moral authority to give the child, if he has never heard of the Ten Commandments, how on earth could he possibly ever develop civility? How could he ever move beyond his own mammoth ego?

Again, not all schools are like this today, but more and more seem to be moving in this direction. But, just think, if you added the loving kindness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Aristotle and Plato's moral teachings and to the Ten Commandments, what paragons of civility we Americans would become!

Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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Original Publication Date: July 9, 2016

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