I noticed it first back in my days of parish priesting. See, Christians “meet” a lot. It’s our first response to everything, followed closely by potluck dinners. Christians are clear there is only one way to get to heaven: You gotta bring a covered dish.
Christians meet a lot. Meetings. Meetmeetmeet. Appoint a subcommittee. And a search committee to find candidates for the subcommittee. Or, wait — everybody should have the chance to be on the subcommittee, so we’ll announce it in worship on Sunday. Then meet again to elect the subcommittee. Then we’ll meet and hear the committee’s report.
Meetings are why the church will consistently beat any glacier in a foot race.
What I noticed at these meetings was the variable use of Robert’s Rules of Order, also called parliamentary procedure. When the mood was warm and easy, the meetings were laughably informal. But when consensus turned to dialogue, and dialogue to disagreement, and disagreement became umbrage, indignation, antagonism — when people began to tell each other how Jesus would vote if he were on the subcommittee — well, that’s when Robert’s Rules came to the rescue.
Suddenly we would follow the rules, meticulously and to the letter.
But of course. Rules, respect, decorum, good manners — these things never matter more than when I don’t like you and you don’t like me.
A dear friend once observed aloud to me that I become hyper-polite in direct proportion to my loss of respect or feelings of anger/contempt in a given relationship. “It’s a little creepy when you start going all ‘English gentleman’ on me,” she said with a shudder.
She’s right, of course. When I’m offended, I’ll flat drip decorum on you. It’s why I’m president of the local chapter of Passive-Aggressives of America. Not saying I’m proud of it. Just that it’s true.
But the point remains, just because you’re angry, have a grievance, hate me or even think I’m the devil, none of that suspends the duty to behave honorably, fairly and respectfully. Same for me.
Honor in relationship matters especially when those relationships are absent affection and good faith.
I talk to a woman who has caught her husband in an affair. She tells me of her plan to storm the office where the mistress works and confront her. I discourage her plan. It’s understandable. Even sounds like a lotta fun. But it’s “bad form.” It’s beneath her.
I love dialogue. I dig a keen argument. I actually have a sense of exhilaration when someone shows me the flaw in my thinking. It’s a rush. It compels me. But I won’t grant an audience to any grievance that comes to me wrapped in dishonor. I don’t get how we’ve normalized ad hominem vitriol as an OK way to confront relationships. Wanna have a conflict with me? You gotta mind your manners.
In the months following al-Qaida’s 2001 attack on America, I would occasionally hear voices rising in criticism of the United States. The gist of it seemed to be, “Well, what did you expect?” These people observed the long-seething anger in the Muslim world regarding U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
These voices all but said we got what we deserved. A few took the remaining step and said we got exactly what we deserved.
And I remember thinking …
You know, if your country has lots of oil in it, there’s a fair bet you might have noticed a certain, uh, well, opportunism in the United States’ friendship. Or perhaps you’d call it capricious. How ’bout fickle? Logically inconsistent? Contradicted? Hypocritical? Now, now — exploitive is such a harsh word. Let’s go with “a bit like being buds with Vito Corleone.”
You might believe yourself to have a legitimate grievance with us Americans.
If it matters to you, I don’t particularly disagree. When the subject turns to oil, the United States tends to start making offers you can’t refuse.
If you should decide to open a formal grievance procedure with us by hijacking and then crashing commercial airplanes into high-rise real estate, then, sorry, but I’m gonna have to table your grievance and turn my attention to my grievance.
A hierarchy of values, don’t you know.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.