"Virtues for Vicissitudes: Politeness"

Genesis 1:24-31

I Corinthians 12:14-27

In December 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, sent a letter to the Japanese ambassador informing him that war had been declared. He famously concluded this announcement by writing: “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S. Churchill.”

Reflecting on this at a later date, Churchill said that “Some people did not like this ceremonial style, but after all,” he added, “when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

On these late summer, early fall Sundays we’re considering some virtues for vicissitudes—certain ways of acting amid all the changes and upheavals of our times. We’ve looked at resilience, empathy, patience, and sacrifice—complex topics, important characteristics, greatly needed in these days. We develop such virtues through great work and by the grace of God. And we exercise these virtues often at great cost and only by the grace of God.

Now, halfway through a list of ten virtues, we come to…politeness.


Is this a virtue at all—and if so, what kind of virtue?

Is politeness simply a way of hiding our bad intentions, of covering up our shadow side?

We know about “Iowa Nice.” The Rev. Mel Schlachter, the now-retired rector of Trinity Episcopal Church once argued that while “conflict avoidance can be a downside” of our state’s ethos and needed confrontations can get put aside, “Iowa Nice” still results in an atmosphere of “hospitality and cordiality all the way” through society that enhances our quality of life.

Our neighbors to the north speak of “Minnesota Nice”—a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation.

I’m kind of at a loss with all of this, however, as I grew up in Illinois and spent a lot of time in New England—and very few have ever talked about “Illinois Nice,” and what would “Massachusetts Nice” even mean?

There might be more to politeness than being nice, but in our common imagination politeness often seems to be just a matter of minding our manners, of speaking softly, of not ruffling feathers.

Politeness does not seem to be the way of the great thundering prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures who directly confronted the people and their religious and political leaders with their faults and failings, calling them to repentance and a new way of life.

Politeness does not seem to be the way of John the Baptist telling the curiosity seekers who came to get a look at him that they are a “brood of vipers.” It does not seem to be the way of Jesus overturning the tables and driving the money-changers from the Temple or berating the Pharisees as “whited sepulchers.”

We would not generally apply the term “polite” to the nineteenth century’s Congregational abolitionists, or to the twentieth century’s Martin Luther King, Jr., or even to those in our own day who recently joined our own Jen Sherer in chanting “Save our Labor Center” at the recent Board of Regents meeting.

Even Alain de Botton, the philosopher who suggested the ten virtues that we’re considering says, “Politeness has a bad name.” But that’s not his conclusion. It’s his starting point—and ours.

“We often assume that politeness is about being ‘fake’ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to being ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However,” he suggests, “given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our own deeper selves.”

De Botton is an atheist, but here he touches on a reality that we as people of faith affirm: we are created in the image of God—and we have blurred that image. In faith, we find the roots of the virtue of politeness in the ancient Jewish affirmation that God is the Creator and that we human beings are created in the image of God.

But what is that image?

People have puzzled over this for thousands of years.

I’ve reached no conclusion myself, but saying that we are created in the image of God suggests to me a capacity for creativity—as God is creative. It suggests a capacity for love—as God is love.

To say that we are created in the image of God also evokes in us a sense of awe and wonder about each and every human being. The Psalmist asks with amazement: “What are human beings, that you, O God, are mindful of them?” In the vastness of time and space, what indeed?

And yet, here we are—only a little less than angels, creatures who carry within ourselves something of the very nature of our Creator. That awareness alone should bring out some kind of politeness toward other women and men. It leads us to wonder not only about ourselves but about our neighbor. It helps us to see something—what?—divine, holy, sacred in another person as well as in other groups of people, nations, and all humankind. And as a result we might take the same approach toward one another as we do toward God—respecting the integrity of each other, being, well, being polite toward one another.

The problem is that while we are made in the image of God, we have blurred that image.

The religious way of talking about this is to say that we are “fallen”—that is, we find ourselves unable to do the good we want to do and doing those things that we’d rather not do. We are, in that wonderful word that preachers like me love to use, “sinners”—that is we are alienated from God, from one another, and from the best in ourselves. This is the state of our existence—some call it “original sin,” the only doctrine, as it has been said, for which there is empirical evidence.

We don’t dwell on this—we wouldn’t want to give people a bad self-image. But as I said, even an atheist philosopher is willing to acknowledge that we might want to spare others from too much contact with “what we’re really like deep down.” So when we speak of sin, we’re simply trying to get a better picture of the world in which we live and just who those of us who live in this world are.

The good news, of course, is that we’re just the kind of people that Jesus looked for when he came to seek the lost and, as he said, to call sinners, not the righteous. To people like you and me, Jesus says “Come, walk along with me, learn my way, try it yourself.” As we have seen, on this way we learn much about resilience and empathy and patience and sacrifice—how we might develop and use such virtues, their importance for ourselves and for our world.

And here’s the surprise—at least it was a surprise for me. Following in the way of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us, we also learn the virtue of politeness.

Virtue has been called a “settled disposition to view situations in a certain way and to choose and to act in ways appropriate to that view. We decide and commit ourselves to being polite so that our sin does not get in the way—or at least it gets in the way less that it would otherwise.

Call it what you will—politeness, manners, respect—we cast these aside to our own peril. And, as we are discovering, to the peril of our society, our nation, our world.

This virtue grows out of respect for the image of God in the other person—the one in the red MAGA cap, the one in the pink hat with cat ears. It recognizes that even the scoundrel, the liar, and the cheat bear that image, however blurred. It recognizes that we, too, each one of us sitting here—or standing here—have blurred that image as well.

Is it even too much to say that in the death and resurrection of Jesus we see “politeness” writ large as Jesus enters into and takes upon himself all of the brokenness of life, all of the blurring of the image of God so that we can participate in the wholeness that is the resurrection.

Politeness asks that we look with awe and wonder at the person before us—a blurred and broken image of God—and act accordingly.

When we put it this way we might see the hard difficultly—even the harsh impossibility—of politeness. Pushed to the limits there will always be those whom we cannot or will not respect or tolerate—the abuser, the racist, the Democrat, the Republican. Somewhere we will draw the line that God never draws.

And here and there, now and then, we are able to erase that line.

You might have heard the story of Daryl Davis, an African American blues musician, who, for the past 30 years, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan.

He tells the story of playing at a place called the Silver Dollar Lounge. A white man came up to him and said: “I really enjoy you all's music,” adding, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Davis was surprised that this guy didn’t know where that kind of music came from and responded: “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style? .., From Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.”

The white man said: “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that, leaving Davis to wonder if he’d ever heard, say, Fats Domino or Little Richard.

It turned out that this white man was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis says: “I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn't joking. And now I'm wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?

“But he was very friendly,” Davis continues. “It was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it. I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don't even know me?

This conversation began thirty years of talking with Klansmen that led to over 200 of them giving up their robes. When that happens, Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people.

Davis says: “When two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn't have to be about race, it could be about anything...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you're forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you're forming a friendship. That's what would happen. I didn't convert anybody,” he says. “They saw the light and converted themselves.”

A documentary about Daryl Davis is titled Accidental Courtesy.

Courtesy. Politeness.

Maybe Churchill had it backwards. Maybe there’s a reality that leads us to boldly affirm that when someone wants to kill you, it costs nothing to be polite.

Politeness—it takes courage to see the broken image of God in another person and to treat them accordingly.

May God grant us the grace to live from such a virtue.