Jesus Was Civil, Not Polite

Christ was an exemplar of civility in an age of sociopolitical and religious hypocrisy.

Our world today is defined by two extremes: intense hostility on one hand and suffocating politeness on the other.

A few years ago, I worked in federal government in Washington, DC, during a very divided season—not unlike the election year we are about to enter. It was then that I learned there’s a difference between civility and politeness and why it’s more important than ever to recognize the distinction.

Politeness is a technique: It reflects decorum, mores, manners, and etiquette. It is neither good nor bad itself, but it can be used for good or for ill depending on a person’s motivation.

At its best, politeness can help mitigate the awkwardness, discomfort, and annoyance inherent in our social lives—but it will only ever apply surface-level fixes and will never be enough to help us navigate or resolve our most profound and important disagreements.

At its worst, politeness can make our disparities worse by fostering feelings of selfishness, pride, and superiority over others. Politeness can be and has been weaponized to penalize difference, silence dissent, and oppress vulnerable voices and populations.

By contrast, civility is a holistic disposition—one that our society desperately needs today.

Civility is based on the fundamental truth that all human beings are created in God’s image and are therefore worthy of basic respect. It sees everyone as inherently valuable and endowed with essential dignity, invoking a general regard for our neighbors and citizens. Civility is rooted in the mutual deference we owe one another as fellow humans and allows us to consider even our enemies as moral equals.

Yet civility can be at odds with politeness, as it sometimes requires …

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