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Civility Project: Philoxenia vs. Xenophobia

November 29, 2016

Each year, releases its word of the year. The choice comes from data collected based on the words people look up through the website. According to a report on Time Magazine’s website, “In 2016, one word that spiked time and again reflected a recurring theme in the year’s news, their editors say: ‘fear of the other.’ And that’s why the outlet’s word of the year is xenophobia.”

The two primary definitions of the word, according to are:

1. fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.

2. fear or dislike of the customs, dress, etc., of people who are culturally different from oneself.

There will be differences of opinion on the extent to which xenophobia has been directed by mainstream media and culture and the extent to which media and culture are reflections of xenophobia. Either way, the perception is that xenophobia is alive and well. Unfortunately, the Evangelical community is perceived to have passively, if not actively embraced xenophobia in its support for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election. Again, opinions will differ over the extent to which this perception is fair, yet it is indeed a very real perception.

Christianity simply does not allow for such thoughts, beliefs, or behavior to be part of its people’s faith and practice.

Whether it’s the perception of xenophobia or if it’s realized xenophobia, in light of the attention given to the term and its connection to Evangelicals, followers of Jesus have work to do. There is a word that captures what such work requires: Hospitality.

In a chapter that discusses love for each other, St. Paul reminds his audience of the necessity to be hospitable to outsiders.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:10-13

When teaching on this passage, the common response from folks is to quickly point out to me how friendly they are. Friendliness isn’t the point. Hospitality is. There is a big difference between being friendly, and being hospitable. Friendliness is easy … friendliness is even lazy. Why?

Because friendliness implies familiarity; we’re friendly with people we have decided are  already like us. They are predictable, so we are comfortable. Hospitality, however, is different. It’s unknown and unpredictable because it’s extended to strangers, to those on the periphery, to those who are new.

In the passage above, Paul is not calling for friendliness, but for something far more risky, difficult, and powerful; making family out of strangers. And it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command.

Christine D. Pohl expounds on this in her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition when she writes,

“Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are especially gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith. One of the key Greek words for hospitality, philoxenia, combines the general word for love or affection for people who are connected by kinship or faith (phileo), and the word for stranger (xenos). Thus, in the New Testament, hospitality is closely connected to love. Because philoxenia includes the word for strangers, hospitality’s orientation toward strangers is also more apparent in Greek than in English.”

Pohl’s book suggests that in order for healthy community to be created and sustained, we must re-define and re-envision how we see others, and practice hospitality based on that renewed vision. What does that mean in a practical sense? It means that hospitality is more about how you receive those you didn’t invite than those you did.

It is about the choice to actively and intentionally display love.

Walter Hooper,  who would become C.S. Lewis’ personal secretary, recalled his first meeting with the author. He was so excited about the meeting that he arrived very early. Lewis saw him and rather than making him wait, insisted that he come in for tea. Hooper writes of the experience,

“We were drinking so much tea that eventually (I’d only just arrived in England and I didn’t know that in England the bathroom and the lavatory were separate rooms) I asked like almost all Americans, ‘Do you mind if I use your bathroom?’ And he said ‘Certainly not!’ And he took me to his bathroom, which had nothing in it except a bathtub. And he got out several tablets of soap and several towels, a real exaggeration, and said of all of that stuff, ‘Now do you have enough for your bath?’ Anyway, he left me in the bathroom, and I was wondering what on earth I was going to do. I was really uncomfortable. Anyway, I went back in and I said, ‘Actually it wasn’t a bath I wanted.’ Well of course he knew that, he was laughing, and said, ‘That will cure you of those American euphemisms. Now let’s start over again. Where do you want to go?’ Well, it made me love him, you know? It broke the ice and I felt at ease with him and that was a very important thing for him to do. It might have backfired with somebody, but it didn’t with me. I liked him all the more.”

It was this sort of good-natured, open-hearted hospitality that informed Lewis’ understanding of the practical and volitional nature of love in his collection of essays known as Mere Christianity, “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

This is the kind of intentional presence of love that can overcome both the perceptions and practice of xenophobia. It’s when we see the other not as one to be feared, exploited, or avoided, but as one to be valued, engaged, and invited into a relationship of love. This embodies Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as you love yourself, “yourself” being your own person as well as referring to your own people; your family. Don’t forget that Jesus ties this love for neighbor directly to one’s love for God.

Hospitality then is an essential expression and demonstration of divine love. It is through philoxenia that the agape love of God overcomes xenophobia.

Let’s get to work, then!

Election Day Prayer – Unity

November 8, 2016

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Election Day Prayers

November 8, 2016

Today marks the conclusion (maybe?) of one of the most contested, emotional, and uncivil campaigns in recent memory. Throughout the day, I’ll post some thoughts and prayers that I hope will keep us focused.


Today, we will exercise our right to choose.
Some of us will vote for Donald Trump.
Some of us will vote for Hillary Clinton.
Some of us will vote for another candidate.
Some of us will choose not to vote.

We make different choices for different reasons, with certain results in mind.

But today, while our nation turns its attention to the outcome of the presidential election, I ask that we take time to remember what truly unites us as the Body of Christ.

I pray we will remember …

That real power in this world — the power to save, to transform, to change — ultimately rests not in political parties or presidents or protests, but in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.

That, through the Holy Spirit, this power dwells within otherwise ordinary people who as one body continue the mission of Jesus: preaching good news to the poor, freeing the captives, giving sight to the blind, releasing the oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor.

That freedom — true freedom — is given by God and is not free. It comes with a cost and it looks like a cross.

Our sin and our need to repent.

That the only truly Christian nation in this world is the Church, a holy nation that crosses all human-made boundaries and borders.

That our passions are best placed within the passion of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

That we do not conform to the patterns of this world, but we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

That God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

The body of Christ is united in Christ, and to confess the ways in which partisan politics has separated us from one another and from God.

That regardless of who occupies the White House after this election, Almighty God, You will occupy your throne forever.

Lord, hear our prayer …

Civility, Polish, and Grace

November 1, 2016

Last week’s post on civility compared and contrasted it with the virtue of courtesy. This week, we’ll look at how civility is related to the notion of being polite and practicing manners. Finally, a personal story to apply what we’ve learned so far and to prepare us for what’s to come.

The Light and Dark Side of Being Polite

The act of polishing brass, silver, or fine leather are images lending significance and meaning to the word, polite. The abrasive act clears away what obscures the object’s brilliant beauty. Polishing must be repeated, for left unattended, the polished object’s beauty will become obscured once again. In the same way, politeness takes constant work. Forni observes that polite people “have put some effort into bettering themselves.”[1] While the French civilite’ is often translated as politeness, Yale law professor Stephen Carter asserts that the word means more than merely being polite. It calls for a way of living that relates to others in a manner that promote the advancement of civilization. “In short,” writes Carter, “living in a way that is civilized.”[2]

However, something can be polished in order to disguise its flaws or imperfections. Some polishes can work to cover up areas of weakness and deficiency, such as applying stain and polyurethane to rotten wood. Politeness has such a downside. For example,under the sheen of politeness, conflicts can be addressed in a passive-aggressive manner. A co-worker may offer a “polite” reply, under which anger boils. For various reasons, one tells a “polite” lie when asked for advice on an important decision. A less than stellar business presentation garners, at best, “polite” applause, or what comedians call “sympathy applause.” Each of these glossed over responses “connect politeness to hypocrisy.”[3]      Carter goes on to recount sinister actions that have been carried out through a twisted application of politeness. Segregation required black passengers to ride in the Jim Crow car and to use separate drinking fountains and restrooms. Women were forbidden to walk along the street alone or to vote: All as “simple matters of politesse.”[4] In its purest meaning, however, politeness remains such only as long as it does not become a tool of manipulation.

Getting a Handle on Manners

Many of us recall being told to get our elbows off the table, to wait until our guests are seated before we sit down, and to use our “inside voice,” when talking. (In my household, we’re still trying to help our son with the concept of utensils and saving his words until after he swallows his food.) We were reminded, begged, warned, and in my case often bribed to practice good manners as kids. Basic to good manners are offers of “please” and “thank you.”

Like the previous words, manners are practiced out of regard and sensitivity to others, but the origin of the word encompasses far more than simply chewing with your mouth closed.  Manner is derived from the Latin manus, meaning “hand.” Manners are related to the use of one’s hands, or in a more connotative sense, the manner by which something is handled. Forni again provides an observation, using the image of the hand:

“Thus manners came to refer to behavior in social interaction – the way we handle the encounter between Self and the Other. We have good manners when we use our hands well – when we handle others with care. When we rediscover the connection between manner and hand, the hand that, depending on our will and sensitivity, can strike or lift, hurt or soothe, destroy or heal, we understand the importance – for children and adults alike – of having good manners.”[5]

Finally, while civility is incomplete without its connection to courtesy, politeness, and manners, it is superior to each of them. Civility is the proverbial glue that binds together a communal framework within which each of us interprets and interacts with others. Unless motivated by civility, there is little initiative to behave courteously, engage politely, and practice good manners. In a previous paragraph, Carter argued that civilite’ is more than politeness. He goes on to explain the word “suggests an approach to life, a way of carrying one’s self and relating to others – in short, living in a way that is civilized.”[6]

Civility finds its origin in both the French civilite’, and the Latin civilitas and civilis, each expressing a life lived in relation to citizens.  In the earliest records of its use, the term was connected to an idea of citizenship that included “good behavior, for the good of the community.”[7] Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, confirms and expands the idea of civility as a vital component of social interaction. His thoughts contain the elements of politeness, manners, and courtesy; yet he also includes important essentials of fellowship and hospitality. These two are necessary for the relational aspect of civilized living. It’s possible to practice politeness, good manners, and courtesy, yet remains detached, disconnected, and uninvolved in the life of the civilization. Mouw writes,

“In the past civility was understood in much richer terms. To be civil was to genuinely care about the larger society. It required a heartfelt commitment to your fellow citizens. It was a willingness to promote the well-being of people who were very different, including people who seriously disagreed with you on important matters. Civility wasn’t merely an external show, it included an inner side as well.”[8]

A commitment to the well-being of others also forms the heart of Aristotle’s contribution to civility’s development. Aristotle’s idea of human beings as “political animals” is derived from the Greek word polis, pertaining to the city. Aristotle believed we realize our humanity only to the extent we function as good citizens of the polis.       

Themes of hospitality and fellowship also emerge in Aristotle’s view. He believed good citizens would live in relationships that moved beyond the parameters of familiarity and intimacy. In other words, we learn to live by extending courtesy to someone not because we are familiar them, but because we see them as fellow human beings, seeing them the way we see ourselves, and treating them accordingly. Aristotle believed that when we express our citizenship in this manner, “we have truly begun to flourish in our humanness.”[9]

There is an important sacrificial foundation to civility. It is “the sum total of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”[10] By treating others civilly, we subject ourselves to each other and to the principles of humanity that underlie a common life together.

Sacrifice for the sake of others. Sounds a lot like what Jesus did for the world. It’s something I learned from a girl we’ll call “Grace”.

Grace was new to our middle school. She didn’t fit the “cool” profile in our tightly knit cliques. She was very quiet, and only spoke to me one time. Out of my own insecurity, I verbally bullied her without mercy. My friends thought it was hilarious. None of us knew her. She never said a word.

This went on for a few months. Then one Sunday night at church, my youth director said he wanted me to meet a new young lady. See, at church I was a leader in our youth group and I was supposed to help welcome new people. The new young lady was Grace. She looked at me and quickly looked at the floor. My youth pastor said to her cheerfully, “Kevin is one of our ambassadors, and I thought you’d like to get to know him since you are in the same grade.” Grace looked in my eyes, and I heard her speak for the first time, “I know Kevin, he’s the first person at school that spoke to me. Nice to see you, Kevin.” Then she held out her hand. After an awkward pause, I took it and looked at the floor. I’ve never forgotten that moment. She had every right to lash out at me. She would have been justified to tell my youth pastor how I’d treated her, to yell at me in front of the youth group, or respond in some other way to pay me back. But Grace was the bigger person. She was polite, she was courteous, and she was meek. She absorbed my incivility and opened her hand in an expression of all that makes civility both beautiful and essential. In doing so she exposed how ugly and destructive my incivility had been.

She and her family moved shortly after her visit to the church and I never saw her again. I’ve thought a lot about Grace while writing this blog and I’ve often wondered how many others like her have been the targets of uncivil, insecure, big-mouth bullies like me. I’m convinced there are too many.

Perhaps this is why displays of incivility, manifested in rude rhetoric, either/or propositions, vilification, or even inhumane violence has attracted the attention of so many. The shared sense of shock and dismay I and others experienced that fateful day in the parking lot of a Tampa gas station awakened the motivation for this invitation. In many areas of life, that same sense of dismay is an underlying reality in the face of an overwhelming problem of incivility present in our communities, our families, our corporations, on our highways, among our elected officials, and sadly, even in our churches.

Next week: “Incivility in Real-Time”


[1] P. M. Forni, Choosing Civility the Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), 10.

[2] Stephen L. Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 14.

[3] Forni, Choosing Civility, 10.

[4] Carter, Civility, 16

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Hacala, Saving Civility, 8.

[8] Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 14.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Ibid., 11.


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