Respecting Others

1 Corinthians 8: 1-13

Would you agree that manners are on the decline? A recent study revealed that 70 percent of adults viewed society as having fewer manners than it did twenty years ago. We might agree that manners are held as sacred as they were twenty years ago. Maybe new technology, for instance, has caused us to get behind in our manners, especially the new communications technology. New manners should come with new technology, but it is a slow learning curve. Take for instance our newest bulletin announcement regarding blackberry handhelds, email smartphones, and cellular phones. When we bring these into church we set them on silent mode, intending to respect our neighbors in the pew, yet setting the instruments on silent does not prevent the buzzing that happens on the sound system when a text message or email is arriving in the inbox. We need to remember to turn them off completely in order to prevent that buzzing. This is a very subtle change in manners, but there are others that are very obvious.

Have you ever received a cellular Heisman trophy? When you are in a face to face conversation with a friend and the friend stops to answer the phone, extending an arm outward in your direction, you have received a cellular Heisman. In any interpersonal exchange, each side seeks to control and also to connect, to have autonomy and also participation. This creates natural conflict, but we know from our childhood lessons respect for others is the antidote.

No one will deny that good manners, respect for others, and being polite helps keep the peace. If you were planning a study on manners and had to choose two groups with a history of conflict, who would you choose? Would you choose the Sunni and Shia in Iraq? The Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland? Would you go to the Middle East? How about anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists? Let us go with this last group- they need our help and prayers! I use this group because we often take the familiar for granted.

In our homes and work, we may fail to recognize less than perfect manners because we are in familiar territory. Hopefully this 2004 study will provoke us to translate the issues that are discovered into our own familiar settings. Maybe you did not realize that certified registered nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists were at odds with each other. At the turn of the 20th century, nurses certified in anesthesia worked with a patient from beginning to end of a procedure. As medical specialties developed, anesthesiologists began to manage the procedure. As these two groups work together, apparently there is rich opportunity to study interpersonal exchange and organizational health because each side believes they possess a certain authority the other does not have. The nurses know the patient and the procedure from beginning to end, the anesthesiologist are MDs. The study provided conclusions about how these two sides’ conflict and politeness affected the hospital’s social capital. Since a hospital setting involves including patients in communication, a very complex dynamic exists.

A doctor may mediate information to a patient using impersonalization, a term that means using a third party in the dialog to reduce imposition in communicating difficult information. For instance, “The Surgeon General has recommended that you stop smoking,” instead of “You should stop smoking.” This is a face saving technique which is part of the underlying structure of manners. There is even something called face negotiation theory, which states that we either save face, protect another’s face, or create mutual face saving, each depending on our needs for autonomy and connection. The certified registered nurse anesthetitians and anesthesiologists operate out of balance as their need for autonomy and connection produced recurring conflicts. Neither side realized that they would increase their own autonomy and the health of the hospital if they could collaborate better. Their conclusions revealed that if they could “think dialectically” and less about protecting their own interests, ironically they would actually increase their own autonomy as they began to trust each other in collaboration. Yes, this does sound like a fancy way of saying the golden rule!

Now consider your workplace and your home. Can you see with fresh eyes the  needs for autonomy and connection, the need for control and participation, the face saving theories that are at play? If not, at least we can be more sensitive to our friends at the hospital when we need anesthesia! This leads us to our Scripture lesson today that features other groups who need to apply face saving techniques. Paul writes to Christians in the city of Corinth who believe that they possess a higher knowledge than their fellow believers because they are getting a great deal on steaks. They want Paul to address the logical implications of their superiority, but Paul shifts it to the ethical implications.

Paul writes that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. He gives them a recipe for respecting one another because logic does not always work and lead to respect and community building, but love does. In ancient Corinth, when a Christian hosted a dinner party, meat could be bought at the regular market or at a local temple. The local temple sold the same quality of meat except it was much less expensive. The only difference was that the meat had been used in idol sacrifice. The strong members of the church realized that idols could not contaminate food, so they saved money by purchasing this cheaper meat available from the temples. This created a conflict with the Christians who had converted from pagan idolatry. They could not understand why their fellow believers would want to have anything to do with meat sacrificed to idols. There was a potential division in the church. Paul states that he is aware of their logic about the idols, but one cannot always solve a problem with logic. Any parent knows that a child who is scared of the dark cannot be convinced that there is nothing to be afraid of simply by turning on the lights for a moment. The little child who is afraid of the dark will not be assured by arguments, especially if the adult  adopts a superior attitude.

Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. If it “puffs up” then it cannot “build up.” Paul wants these Christians to know that it is one thing to know doctrine and another to know God. It is possible to grow in knowledge and yet not grow in grace or in one’s relationship with God. Paul wants these Christians to relate to each other not through competing knowledge, but through respect for the other with love. Let us recall Paul’s definition of love from another portion of his letter:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Whether we are striving to look spiritually mature or exert authority and control in life, we go to knowledge first to give ourselves the upper hand, and that is when our manners fall by the wayside. As we strive to be strong in our roles in the home, in the workplace, and in the church, it is love, not knowledge, that puts us on solid ground. A Johns Hopkins University Professor wrote a book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, filled with useful observations, but my favorite quote is “rudeness is the weak’s imitation of strength.” In striving to be strong, let us not check our manners at the door, rather let love be the source of how we act and react to others. Paul’s definition of love says it all about what it means to be human and make love the premise of our lives. Love creates civility and respect for others. Love builds up! Amen.

Pier Massimo Forni, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, Macmillan, 2003.

Jessica Katz Jameson, Negotiating autonomy and connection through politeness: a dialectical approach to organizational conflict management. Western Journal of Communication, June 22, 2004.