Random acts of civility: More than just polite talk

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Chuck Colson knew how to throw sharp elbows at his opponents back when he worked for the Nixon White House. But after his conversion to Christ, he quickly grasped the imperative to reach across the aisle to people of good will in order to get things done for the kingdom.

That’s how Nixon’s one-time “hatchet man” became known as a champion of civility, of speaking gently and leaving the big stick at home. As he said, “One condition necessary for living together as a people is to treat one another with a certain level of respect . . . To attack people verbally or to threaten them with violence for their reasoned opinions runs counter to maintaining a healthy society. It makes rational discourse impossible. It’s knocking at the door of barbarism.”

But Chuck also knew that barbarism overtakes a society not just because of the bad things that are done, but because of good things left undone. Civility means the building up of a civil culture, and it can’t become a reality without intentionally doing the many small, positive acts too. Edmund Burke famously said “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle … of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.”

Unfortunately, that sense of attachment is withering among many young people today, who are largely connected to rectangles instead, or more specifically, the small virtual communities of friends and family members. As a result, more than eight in ten don’t trust other people or social institutions.

Andrew Reiner, who teaches at Towson University, wants to help his students break out of these “hyperconnected cocoons.” So he gave them two unusual class assignments: (1) Consciously commit civil acts over five days. (2) Have dinner with a stranger. Reiner said that these requirements downright scared and offended some of his young scholars.

As he wrote in the Washington Post, “This is a generation terrified of looking up from the cellphone for fear of appearing out of the loop or having a real conversation where the muck of real emotions can’t be sterilized. If they continue to hide in fiber-optic fortresses, how will they ever build real community with strangers?”

How high are the walls of these fiber-optic fortresses? Reiner notes that 30 percent of millennials are on the Web up to 18 hours a day. And he quotes a 2009 Pew study which reports that “users of social networking services are 30 percent less likely to know at least some of their neighbors.”

So how did Reiner’s students do? Well, it’s complicated! One encouraged a complete stranger who was having a roommate problem. Another gave out “free hugs” but was surprised at how few people actually wanted them. Many students just simply resented the assignments. Some even said Reiner was crazy. One verbalized what so many were unwilling to say about why they were holding back: “Honestly? We’re just terrified of being rejected and looking uncool,” he said.

Reiner offers an example of what building community and civility should look like: the late Fred Rogers, of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Rogers said that a commitment to building community is an act of heroism. “We live in a world in which it’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem’ ” he said. But “then there are those who see the need and respond. Those people are my heroes.”

What would you do if you were sitting in Professor Reiner’s class? What “random acts of civility” would you commit? Are we stuck in our own fiber-optic fortresses?

We know now, thanks to research from Byron Johnson and others, that prison inmates who are engaged in Bible studies and religious services are less likely to get in trouble when they get out. These activities take volunteers—like you and me.

Or how about looking after the elderly neighbor across the street? Maybe the stay-at-home mom next door could use a babysitter every now and again. The possibilities to practice well-rounded civility are nearly endless.

John Stonestreet


— by John Stonestreet

Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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