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The End of Good Manners – 12/11/2016

At the start of JRR Tolkien’s famous novel, The Hobbit, his unlikely and erstwhile hero, Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet, comfortable life in a pastoral, quasi-medieval land called the Shire. Bilbo is a hobbit – the hobbit, of the story, in fact – a member of a small-statured branch of the human family that, at the start of the story, are renowned only for their love of good food, leisure, and the simple comforts of home.

Then, the strangers come to town. A band of adventurers pour into Bilbo’s home, uninvited, there to recruit him to join their quest for treasure and glory. Now, hobbits are hospitable folk, but these interlopers weren’t merely hungry and unlooked for – they were terribly poorly behaved. They make an utter mess of both his table, and his house. They even sing a little song about it:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—

Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

This goes on, in fact, for another two-and-a-half verses. The scene comes at the beginning of a story originally written for children; a playful-spirited adventure tale. But because it is the prelude to the much longer, much darker and more complicated Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is really the threshold of a world-spanning crisis, nothing less than an epic battle between the justice, and tyranny. And it all begins with the upheaval of a complete disruption in the social expectation of table manners.

Every society has standards for polite behavior. In Japan, it is customary to slurp one’s noodles noisily when eating them, as a sign of satisfaction. In most Arab countries, it’s considered very rude to let anyone else see the bottoms of your shoes. And, of course, the standard for whether one ought to arrive early, on time, or late for a social engagement vary wildly, not just from culture to culture, but also within them – I say this as a north-easterner who spent several years living in California. There is an order to every human group that is built not out of laws but out of habit, precedent, and expectation. When we are sufficiently comfortable with and accustomed to these, well, customs, they become invisible elements in the background of life. We only notice them again when they begin to break down. In the film, No Country for Old Men, two aging Texas law-men commiserate in a diner about the sad state of the social fabric. Their conversation quickly drifts from the serious and immediate problem of a killer on the loose, chasing after a vast sum of money, to what they see as the larger problem. One laments the sight of teenagers with, “green hair, and bones in their noses.” The other opines that, “once you stop hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon to follow.”

But it’s not just old Texas lawmen who associate manners and the unwritten expectations of society with a peaceful and healthy order. In differing amounts and for different definitions of good manners, this is actually a very common attitude. And I submit that we are, all of us, much more likely to feel attached to and defend the customs that somehow benefit or protect us personally than the ones that are irrelevant or antagonistic towards us. Complex table manners, for instance – all that business about which fork to use – may be very well-suited to folks who can afford multiple forks. To those of more modest means, the rules might still matter – but the chances are a good deal less.

Still, practicing careful manners and following standards of behavior meticulously has been a survival strategy for many people from marginalized groups. This includes African-American mothers emphasizing the importance of a neat, clean, respectable appearance to their children – because they knew their children would find themselves in dangerous situations in their lives, and that the slight edge of conforming to social expectations about clothing, hair, or manner of speech could make all the difference in those crucial moments. The same principle was at play in many of the arguments used to advance marriage equality in this country. That campaign emphasized the sameness, the normalness, the respectability of same-sex couples, and indeed, same and mixed gender couples can be very similar to each other. But they can also be different; in principle, this should have no particular bearing on whether or not any such couples, or such people, deserve respect. But in the moral universe of manners, difference is, at best, always suspect. The unwritten rules of society – any society – may comfort some, but they afflict others, or at least fail to shield them.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote,

I, too, sing America.

 

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

 

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

 

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

 

I, too, am America.

The stifling and unjust expectations of the table eventually give way, as Hughes describes, and the old order is ended. The breakdown in good manners isn’t always a crisis for those on the margins – sometimes, it is an opening into the possibility of liberation. In just a few weeks we will be celebrating two holidays – Christmas, and Hanukkah, which begins on the same night as Christmas Eve, this year. Both festivals recall a time and a place where the social contract had begun to unravel. In Judea in the 160s BCE, the Jewish people of that place had already lived as subjects of the Greek-speaking Seleucid empire for well-more than a hundred years. The arrangement was not just, but it was dependable, and the people of Judea were allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture so long as they obeyed Greek law and accepted Greek control. That was the case, until it wasn’t. There eventually came a Seleucid king who forbade the practice of Judaism in Judea and banned its holy texts, its festivals, and the teachings of its traditions. The polite order had become impossible to accept; it’s the uprising that followed that forms the basis for the holiday. Hanukkah is the celebration of a victory won by people who refused to continue to practice good manners in the face of colossal injustice. There is no such thing, we must remember, as a polite revolutionary.

The Christmas story, of the birth of the teacher Jesus, also opens with Judea under foreign occupation, this time by the Romans. The yoke of imperial domination weighed heavily upon them, and strained the traditional relationships between land owners and the poor. Customs of mercy that had allowed the very poor to survive, and the working poor to eke out a living were abandoned by the owners in favor of maximizing profit, spurred by the demands of the Roman economy and the pressures of its tax code. It was into this world and its unraveling social fabric that Jesus was born. His movement never quite cohered into an organized rebellion – we can argue as to why, but the most straight-forward answer is that he was murdered by the state before his campaign could have a decisive confrontation with Roman rule. But Jesus, it is sometimes strangely forgotten, was a man who did not care about manners. According to the accounts of the Gospels, he presumed to lecture his elders on scripture and religious law when he was still just a boy – hardly the last time he would speak in a manner someone else might call ‘impertinent.’ He frequently issued religious rulings to his followers that flew in the face of established practice – such as his ban on divorce, and allowance that people could work for pay on the Sabbath if it were necessary for their survival. And he instructed those who would be his followers that they must first leave their families behind to do so – a nearly unthinkable breach in a society built around family structures. Jesus’ teaching was grounded in love and justice, and a particular compassion for the poor and the oppressed; but it had no time for social convention or custom. Any such that stood in the way was tossed aside without hesitation.

My friends, we find ourselves, today, in an age when the social compact is once again unraveling. Where what once seemed unacceptable has come to pass. Where what was normal is no longer normal anymore, and in particular where the overt rhetoric of hatred based on race, religion, national-origin, gender, gender-expression and sexual identity, which many of us thought had been banished forever to the periphery of our politics and our discourse, has now come roaring back into the center of power. That old way, now gone, relied on custom to render out-and-out bigotry unacceptable in polite society. That custom never did its job properly. It was never thorough enough, never sought out the roots of injustice deeply enough, and it never did enough to change hearts. It was pleasant enough bandage over ugly wounds of our nation. Still, there is danger in the loss of that poultice – the spread of infection, the further worsening of the patient. But there is no restoring the deeply flawed spell of normalcy and “we don’t do that sort of thing here.” Instead, the work before us is to replace the passive protections of convention with the active work of loving relationship. For the best form of manners, after all, are never really manners at all, but honest expressions of care and respect for others and ourselves. As in the tale of the young man who sat at the table beside his mother, and pointed out with glee that his father had rested his elbows on the table – something the boy had been chided for many times. But then his mother pointed out that the child’s father had only made this grave social breach after his guest had done the very same. The host was not being casually offensive or intentionally disrespectful: he was simply trying to make his guest feel at ease, and reassure them that he was not judging them on arcane points of etiquette.

The poet Rachel Kann had something to say about how the turning point we are now passing through as a nation calls for all of us to reimagine what is possible and escape from the constraints of the polite into the wide open field of the truly kind, and justice-oriented. In her recent “What to Tell the Children,” composed only a few weeks ago, she writes in part:

Tell them that everything is not ok,

And knowing that is ok.

Tell them that pretending

That what is unacceptable is fine

Is what got us to this sick and dysfunctional spot on the timeline.

Apologize for any prior attempts to teach them denial.

Tell them you were blinded by desire for comfortable numbness.

Express that you had the best of intentions,

That you were working within a broken system,

Where few benefitted at the expense of many,

That you laid low,

Kept to the status quo,

Obediently played your role,

But those days are over, because

Now you know better.

The decidedly not normal moment in which we live, in which bullying is rewarded at the ballot box and hate crimes are measurably on the rise is not an era I would have chosen for the raising of my children, or for yours. But it does allow us to face honestly how the old, polite order served few and stifled many. Now is no longer the time for good manners, if ever, in truth, there was such a time. We live now in an age that calls on us to be more bold than that. To be ready to speak out of turn, to misbehave, to endure the clucking judgement of the powerful and the comfortable – among many other hardships – in order to be true to what is right and just. This is not the work of being polite, but the work of being real, and really loving towards each other. It is not that we must abandon every standard of how we had previously been together in society, but we must re-measure them. We must be fearless in our willingness to discard any social rule which serves to accommodate corruption or follow along quietly with injustice. So as the old standards and mores fall away one by one each day, it is important not only to acknowledge that something large and crucial in our culture has changed, but to be engaged in imagining and bringing into being the far greater future that remains possible, together.

 

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

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