A Clarion Call to Spiritual Etiquette: Addressing the Culture of Hate

There are certain age-old values which will always withstand the test of time. How we treat one another is a far greater indicator of whether our society is civilised than the accessibility of modern technology and amenities such as social security, running water and public sanitation. Without social etiquette the boundaries of appropriate human behaviour will be pushed to breaking point or disregarded altogether leading to a breakdown in decent behaviour and eventually social anarchy.

Social etiquette has generally not fared well in modern civil society. Yet, we are still drawn to the rules of etiquette embraced by those in the upper classes of privilege such as royalty. Royal weddings and state occasions are usually followed with fascination as we marvel at the decorum and magnificence of such occasions – only made possible by adhering to age-old protocols and codes of conduct. The limitation of social etiquette is that it not only evolves over time, but varies depending on country, social context and historical eras. For example, there are definite rules on how to behave when meeting and conversing with  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, many of which have been breached by Heads of State and other government officials [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40668579]. As a paragon of discretion, and to her credit, the Queen has never brought attention to such faux pas, although the press is quick to highlight them.

In the marketplace of ideas where one person’s perception of  what is deemed acceptable behaviour is considered as good as another’s, and where moral relativity is posited as superior to any one religious system, how do we foster positive social regard and interaction? The golden rule has been generally accepted across nations and religions as being above reproach. It enjoins you to “treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”[Luke 6:31, AMP] At a gut level we know that this is the right way to treat others and to expect to be treated. This rule of thumb forms the essence of the fruit of the spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control…”; and indeed as Apostle Paul concluded “… against such things there is no law.” [Galatians 5:22-23, ESV]

Whereas the primary purpose of social etiquette is to avoid causing offence, the purpose of spiritual etiquette is to promote unity and to eliminate erroneous distinctions such as class, status, race, nationality and gender. In God’s economy these factors don’t matter as much as the attitudes we hold towards one another resulting in our actions towards one another. God sets the best standard of all – “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”[1 Samuel 16:7, ESV]

Whilst recognising the right to freedom of thought, religion and conscience – the hallmark of western democracy,  many western societies have become riddled with divisiveness based largely on politics, race, gender and religion. In the marketplace of ideas where all have an equal right to their own opinions, they all have  a right to be heard as long as, in so doing, they do not infringe the rights of others or the laws of the land. Although all ideas do not have equal merit, through their free expression, it is more likely that the good ideas will eventually hold sway whilst the bad ones will dissipate. This can only happen through public debate and discourse – not recourse to threats and shouting matches to silence opposing ideas. Apostle James describes the tongue in this way – “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. … these things ought not to be so.” [James 3: 8-10, ESV] 

We have all been guilty of settling for inaccurate stereotypes. Either we are too lazy to invest time and effort in getting to know others for who they are and not what they seem , or we are too stubborn to admit to ourselves that we might be wrong. Stereotyping is the primary symptom of a closed mind and is inimical to social harmony. How can we presume to know others purely on the basis of their political views, skin colour, class or gender – all external factors that can never accurately reflect what someone is genuinely like? The truth is that how we perceive others says more about us than about them; and when we think others are judging us, we have judged them first.

 

The proverb, commonly attributed to the eighteenth century poet, Alexander Pope, that ‘to err is human; to forgive, divine’ appears to dispel the need for forgiveness amongst mere mortals. Yet when Jesus was asked how many times we ought to forgive our fellow human beings, the answer was “…not up to seven times, but seventy times seven. “[Matthew 18:21-22, AMP] . The need for forgiveness stems  not just from the awareness that we are all fallible and prone to error, but from the danger that if we do not forgive those who have offended and hurt us, we will become just like them – sucked into a cycle of hate and bitterness.

 

Ultimately, despite our external differences, we all bleed the same blood, cry the same tears and require the same grace and mercy from God and one another if we are to peacefully co-exist and progress as societies.  Ultimately, we as individuals  must make a choice for  ourselves and future generations  – whether to walk away from the name calling, meme proliferation, cyber-bullying, threats of violence and calls for civil uprising which have become so much a part of our toxic interactions both online and face to face. Most would concur that social etiquette has its place,  but what is less commonly recognised is that there is no place for a civilised society without spiritual etiquette. The time to make this destiny-fining decision has come!

Carla Cornelius

Dr Carla seeks to bring a fresh and thought-provoking perspective to today's popular culture. With her Ph.D. in Biblical Counselling, she invites readers to see the relevance of the Bible in addressing the difficult and disturbing issues of our times.
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