Jesus Christ is calling a few of us disciples to serve him as prophetic witnesses. One way he is enabling us to do this is by freeing us, each day, to share his love for others by being courteous.
To help us understand more clearly how we might act courteously toward others, we will reflect on insights and advice shared by Judith Martin in her book, Miss Manners® Rescues Civilization (1996).
Miss Manners identifies three types of etiquette: “the regulative, the symbolic, and the ritual” (36).
Regulative etiquette guides the quality of our ordinary interactions with others. “This is the please-be-nice stuff that makes some sort of logical sense” (36). Being nice to others does not exhaust the meaning of prophetic witness. Being rude, however, generally contradicts it.
To avoid leaving us wandering in our post-modern ignorance, Miss Manners gives us some examples of regulative etiquette:
Symbolic etiquette guides our use of symbols to communicate meaningfully with others. “Forms of eating, dressing, restraining (or exaggerating) bodily functions can all be read as symbols of friendliness or hostility, respect or contempt, solidarity with the community or alienation from it” (44).
The meaning of symbols is established by custom rather than reason. That is why observing symbolic etiquette may seem random. We may feel tempted to ignore such customs because they are irrational. This would be a mistake. Arbitrarily challenging custom communicates indifference or hostility to persons or groups who continue to affirm it.
Our clothing is one symbolic way we communicate meaning to others. Ties lack the usefulness of belts or shoes. Wearing one, however, tells others of our respect and the seriousness with which we take them and our shared activities. Should we as Christians and churches return to expecting men to wear ties to Sunday worship? Baseball caps: is it right for men to wear these in church? In our thoroughly Olympian society, children no longer refer to adults as Mr. or Mrs. and students, as well, refer to teachers by their first name. Have we, as Christians, abandoned these forms of courtesy intentionally or have we mindlessly copied our Olympian neighbors?
Ritual etiquette guides our practice of minor daily rituals as well as major ones like funerals and weddings. Rituals established by long custom are “aesthetically pleasing and emotionally reassuring” (60) in ways that improvised rituals, or lack of any, aren’t.
Miss Manners criticizes our abandonment of the rituals formerly practiced at funerals. “[F]unerary ritual has been truncated at great emotional cost. We now have  celebrations…and then it’s back to the normal routine. Not only are the bereaved unprotected from social demands by customs of seclusion and symbols of vulnerability, but they are encouraged to act as if nothing had happened…” (60-61).
Formerly and rightly, we regarded funerals as our last best opportunity to publicly honor the dead. Currently and wrongly, we believe their purpose is to cheer up the living. Miss Manners rightly believes that such encouragement should come at other times and in other ways.
This loss of etiquette at funerals reflects a more general loss of solemnity—of formality, seriousness, and dignity. It forces Miss Manners to ask: “Is a religious service worth the trouble of changing out of the sweat clothes one plans to wear for the rest of the day’s activities?” (62).
We may apply these challenging words to Sunday worship as well. Because this growing loss of solemnity indicates an increasing lack of meaning, Miss Manners fears that “those responsible for the planning of such occasions often accept the idea that they must keep everything entertaining and undemanding to attract people at all” (62). Sadly, this is too true of our pastors and worship committees planning Sunday worship as well as funerals.
This demand for undemanding entertainment may indicate something embarrassing about us as attenders of formerly solemn events. “People attending may be dismissing these occasions as of little importance because they are not happening for their benefit…” (62). That would really indicate our devotion to the six conventional yet false and destructive gods of Olympianity since the essence of our Olympian personality is just this increasingly unmasked self-centeredness.
Self-centeredness always hides behind self-deception. When we do look at Sunday worship primarily in terms of undemanding entertainment, Miss Manners notices that we routinely justify ourselves on populist grounds. “‘[E]litist’ is a charge hurled at anyone who cares about maintaining the rituals of our own…society” or church (63). Wishing to cure us of our Olympian blindness, she gently points out, “People who defy dress standards…are always inordinately proud of themselves, precisely because they feel they assume greater dignity than conventionally dressed people…” (65).
As people seeking to live each day, and especially each Sunday, as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ, we might better honor our good lord and savior by reaffirming the lost solemnity of Sunday worship. As Miss Manners rightly insists, “‘Informal’ is not another word for ‘warm and caring’…(66), “work clothes and dress clothes should be worn according to the occasion, not the station [social class] of the individual” (68) and, finally, “abandoning standards is not a sign of character” (69).
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