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Courtesy, Etiquette,
& the Wedding of Truth to Love

F. Earle Fox

The piece below evolved out of a rather intense family internet discussion which arose when someone received an email which he found distasteful, perhaps insulting.  My own cogitations on the matter led to the following.  It may seem trivial to some, but it involves some of the deepest issues of family, church, political, and social life with which we must deal.   See  article on the Pope's comments and the threats against his life.


The matter I wish to address is our willingness and capacity to engage in open, honest, candid, and graceful discussion about matters of the deepest disagreement.  Our inclination is generally to avoid the issue -- "keep the peace".  In some circumstances, that might be the right response. 

But any family or society which is unable or unwilling to openly discuss issues affecting the life of the group will soon find itself irrelevant to the real lives of people.  I would say that that is true of most families and societies.  We are not good at putting truth together with love.  Yet a part of the definition of heaven is living in the light, living openly, a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) life style. 

In our fallen world, all communities develop tacit agreements about things that are Not To Be Discussed.  You Don't Go There.  Our defensiveness, or spirit of control forces us into those decisions.  We are not willing to risk openness on those issues.  They may be religion, politics, family secrets,  who was guilty about xyz, etc.  The price for shining the light on those issues seems too high to pay.  So we choose to Keep The Peace. 

But the price of those kinds of decisions is the erosion of relationship.  We become unable to share our lives in those areas, and they almost always include some arbitrary and authoritarian structure, open or implied, which enforces the code.


"Courtesy" evolved out the court life in Europe, their attempt to form rules of relationship which would allow the life of the royal court to conduct its business in the context of the passions and disagreements which any such court would entail.  Certain things were forbidden, certain things were expected.  No doubt the rules were often controlled by those at the top of the pyramid to keep underlings in line.  But rules were necessary.

The American Congress has such rules, many of them unwritten, but which help grease the skids of discussion in volatile issues.  Senators address each other in language which seems stilted and unreal --  "the esteemed Senator from...."  At one time, I thought of such language as dishonest, because the speaker might have an unprintable opinion of the Senator being addressed.  Why not just be honest and "authentic".  Or, at least, avoid the pseudo-polite language. 

In my older and wiser years, I have change my mind.  Such language can be stilted and formal, and sometimes not "authentic".   But it does force those engaged in often terribly volatile and heated debate to publicly respect the persons of the opposition, and thus helps focus the issue on the issue rather than on persons.  Without such safeguards, rational legislative debate would, in many cases, become simply not possible.  


But the same conditions apply to nearly every kind of debate or discussion, including on the internet, or within family situations.  If we are to succeed in such exchange of opinion, we MUST distinguish between person and issue.  The law of God requires that we love our enemies.  We are not required to agree with them, or there could be no discussion.  But we are required to love them, no matter what their opinion might be.  That is honest and realistic "inclusiveness".

How, then, are we to unite truthful discussion with love of persons?  Unless we can do that, civilization and deep relationship in any meaningful sense become impossible.  The ultimate civilization is the Kingdom of Heaven, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual high ground of all life.  Adam and Eve, before the Fall, were able to stand before each other naked and unashamed, to be open and free in their relationship because there was no predatory or dishonest intention hiding in either of them.  They were living in the light. 

But that stability was based on their security in God.  They knew that their being came from Him, and thus was unassailable by any worldly force.  And they knew why they existed, what life was all about, because they had a living-in-the-light relationship with God as well as each other.  When they lost that relationship with God, they automatically lost it with each other because they had abandoned the relationship with Him who was the source of their stability.  That was the Fall.  It was a fall out of stability of being and out of meaning and purpose. 

So here we are, all defensive and scared to be open and honest with each other.  That defensiveness will never be overcome until we get the stability of our being and of our purpose in life back in our relation to God.  No one but God is capable of giving it. 


I have had those issues forced upon me in both family and professional life.  My intellectual life took off with great strides ahead of my emotional/relationship life, so I knew early on about these principles, but was often not able to live them out, and found myself often in discussion of deep issues unable to do so gracefully. 

As email chat groups developed on the internet, I plugged into various Episcopal discussions, in which sexuality issues were being discussed because homosexuality was being proposed as acceptable by some -- beginning about 1987 with Bishop Spong.  I would state my views, and was surprised to find that some persons were offended.  I attributed that to their inability or unwillingness to have honest discussion. 

But the internet is seductive.  It is a superb way for transmitting information.  But unless we are careful, it does poorly at transmitting compassion, caring, love.  It became clear to me that at least some of the problem I was experiencing had to do with my style. 

Email is an information technology.  We can quickly type a bit of information and naively expect the recipient to get our point.  Which brings us back to courtesy and etiquette -- or "netiquette" as it is called.  (For a good discussion of etiquette, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etiquette

I get emails with no salutation, no reference to the preceding discussion to which the current email points, and hardly the briefest signature.  Just the barest "information", which, because of the lack of courtesy, is often unintelligible, no real info at all.    That would be considered rude if done in a postal letter, but is routine on the internet. 

It occurred to me somewhere along the way that my emails on the homosexuality issues were too much like that -- a bare statement of opinion and argument with no personal sense of caring.  I was not rude in any obvious sense.  But the erosion of love and caring took its toll.   I was not communicating that I cared about the person. 

Getting bare information is like talking to a robot.  There is something demeaning and depersonalizing about it -- like not being able to talk with a real person on the telephone, only one recording after another. 


When I began working with Exodus, helping persons coming out of homosexuality, the revelation hit more deeply.  I had gotten into the homosexuality debates as debates on issues with an aggressive and often irrational opposition.  But in working with people coming  out of homosexuality, I discovered the obvious, that homosexuality is a people issue, not an issue issue.  The issues must be confronted, but if not done uniting truth with love, it turns out a disaster. 

At Exodus conferences, the opposition would often turn up and picket on the street in front of the auditorium.  ACT UP! and Queer Nation were in their aggressive hey day, screaming obscenities, blowing loud whistles, etc.  But I learned that if you were courteous, you could talk with them fruitfully. 

At one occasion in Washington, DC, a few of us from the conference went out to talk with our "visitors".  They were screaming and holding large obscene pictures.  Four policemen were standing in a row in front of the doors.  I ventured out around the edges of the noisy crowd and began talking with one of them who told me his story, how he was the "wife" of a wonderful fellow.  I told him how I disagreed with his lifestyle, but that I loved him as a person and wanted to be his friend.  I talked with him and others for quite a while. 

I did not realize it for some time, but one of the policemen, who probably thought I would get my face punched in, had silently come up behind me and just stood there.  As I and the fellow talked, more and more of the hostile crowd began gathering around, listening intently.  They really wanted to know what we were talking about.  They were amazed that any of us would come out and talk to them in a friendly way. 

I discovered in these events that most of them were not hostile, just wanting to know that Christians loved them, and that many of them would leap at the chance to come out of homosexuality if they thought they could. 

You do not discover that kind of thing unless you are willing to risk the dangers of honest conversation, willing, as best you can, to unite truth with love. 

In each such discussion, I always began by setting up the rules of etiquette, that we would respect each other as persons, that each of us was free to speak his mind, the other to disagree, and that the aim of the discussion was to find the truth of the matter.  I assured them that if the evidence showed me to be wrong, I would change my mind. 

One of the rules of etiquette is to make yourself in that way vulnerable to the truth.  "If I am wrong, I want to know."  It never once failed to bring the walls down and lead to honest dialogue.  Never.  Once I became vulnerable, they were willing also.  The walls came down. 

That is the meaning and purpose of courtesy and etiquette, not the silly parody we make of them because we are too ignorant or too cowardly to be honest with each other.  The rules of courtesy are probably set up at first as realistic necessities.  Honestly used, they require courage, and openness to disagreement. 

But we learn how to compromise them because we lack the courage or skill to insist on honesty.  Or, the powerful use the rules to control those under them (as in royal courts) rather than to encourage openness.  And then the rules of courtesy become stilted and we learn to hate them. 

Question:   Is there any reason that honest rules of engagement should not, or could not, be employed in family discussion?  Should we not rather insist on them?  The family, church, and school are the smithies where we are forged as persons.  Most of all, family. 

If living in the light is a quality of the Kingdom of God, then how can we say "no"?  I can think of nothing at all that would do more to expand, enlarge, and set free our lives than to teach the obligations and skills of truth-seeking in our families. 

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