Following this advice of the apostle Paul, we will reflect today on the meaning and importance of manners and etiquette as understood by author Judith Martin and shared by her through her book, Miss Manners® Rescues Civilization (New York: Crown Publishers, 1996). By doing so, may we increase the clarity of our witness to the freedom and love of Jesus Christ by practicing the courtesy befitting Christians.
As Christians, we may think of ourselves as ladies and gentlemen. Miss Manners defines ladies and gentlemen as people who behave in a gentle manner.
We may rightly regard gentleness as one important way of witnessing to Jesus. Jesus understood himself to be gentle:
Jesus calls us to be gentle:
Not surprisingly, Paul assures us that gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit:
Yes, having crucified the flesh—having set our raging Olympian personality behind us—our Christian personality now seeks to share the fruits of the Spirit with others as generously as possible.
In addition to gentleness, Miss Manners associates other words with courtesy: “civility, decency, consideration for others, common sense, making others feel comfortable, good sportsmanship, tact, collegiality, respect, fairness” (1). These too are honorable, right, and excellent as Paul would want.
Every human has two personalities: one, Olympian; the other, Christian. Our Olympian personality is structured in terms of the six conventional yet false and destructive gods of Olympianity. Like the gods it adores, its goal is power. Our Christian personality is structured in terms of Jesus. It seeks always to share the freedom for truth, love, and vitality that are ours solely in communion with him.
Because of the opposing gods they are based upon, our Olympian and Christian personalities contain contradictory sets of beliefs, values, and norms. Our Olympian beliefs, values, and norms are rooted in the quest for power. Our Christian personality seeks always to witness to freedom for itself and others.
The belief Miss Manners has of etiquette may strengthen the witness of our Christian personality to freedom. Miss Manners believes etiquette is the great equalizer: it applies to everyone, is available free to everyone, and it protects the powerless from the powerful (6). Especially because of this last characteristic, we may also think of courtesy as a great emancipator; or, more accurately, as one helpful witness to Jesus the Ultimate Emancipator. By freely practicing courtesy, we affirm our own freedom and that of others. [Nota bene: we can increase our own power only by decreasing the power of others, yet we can only increase our own freedom by increasing the freedom of others as well.]
Miss Manners also believes that etiquette alone allows civilization to function as smoothly as possible (11) by helping all of us avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and needlessly upsetting others (36).
All beliefs, including our own about Jesus, love, and freedom, lead to an affirmation of values consistent with them. Miss Manners encourages us to value many principles including the following:
Miss Manners refers to these principles as manners (29). She rightly affirms that manners must, in turn, find expression through etiquette. She defines etiquette as those norms—rules of behavior—consistent with manners (30). If we believe in freedom from our own self-centeredness and for others, for example, we will value respect for others when we join them in Sunday worship of Jesus. One important way of expressing such respect, one rule of behavior consistent with it, is by dressing appropriately. “Sunday best” is the expression that grew out of this once common practice.
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