Opinion

Do you even know how to behave?

My wife is always the first to see these things. “What the world needs at the moment is finishing schools, courses in manners, learning some basic respect,” she says after watching some dross on TV. She’s no prude, and it’s not politeness she is on about. It’s manners.

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William Wilberforce had beaten her to it, of course, with his Society for the Reformation of Manners in 1787. But Wilberforce’s focus was on suppressing vice and reforming British society by force (such as by sending minor offenders to Australia). Today we would offer something different.

Force isn’t the way to go about it, least of all for Christians. Legislating morality doesn’t change society (even though it does minimise harm). It doesn’t get to the heart of the issue, which is the issue of the heart. But the heart does need support – stents, perhaps – if it is to deal with its own weaknesses.

… People don’t think of others before themselves.

Not long ago, these stents were provided in the form of manners. I have in front of me a lovely little book from the 1960s, The Christian Gentleman: A Book of Courtesy and Social Guidance for Boys. It’s hard to imagine such a book for Australia today. But buried within some antiquated views of gender roles and table-setting there is a golden rule: have “a kindly regard for the comfort and happiness of others.”

This really is the heart of manners and it’s what my wife was getting at: people don’t think of others before themselves. It’s not about showing off your social graces, because you know which fork to pick up first or how to address a member of the royal family. It’s not about being “seen not heard,” as some Christian traditions have interpreted our behavioural requirements. It’s about knowing the manner in which to behave.

There are some very basic manners that are obviously not being taught now. “Do not force a woman to have sex with you,” seems to be one, judging by the tidal wave of #MeToo reports about sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Others include “don’t post online about things when you are ignorant,” “be kind,” “care for those in need,” and “realise you are not the centre of the universe.”

More stories of good manners, please.

Society’s focus on the individual as the ultimate good has pushed the concept of manners into the background. Manners are by nature focused on relationships, not you, you, you. You can’t just say whatever you want to, whenever you feel like it, if you are concerned about the impact of your words on others. It can’t all be about personal fulfilment, following your dreams and being a winner.

Although we might not imagine a book of manners being written today, perhaps we do need to state more clearly examples of good manners of behaviour, in order that people have some models to draw upon. It is not as if presidents, politicians or even (God help us) some church authorities are necessarily providing what we need. More clear examples of ways to turn the other cheek, speak the truth in love, think of others before ourselves, and caring for the needy – more stories of good manners, please.

Manners are the shoes of virtue. Or the stents of the heart. They are the point at which your inner convictions about what is good turn into actions and words. They are also habits; the more you practise manners, the more they become reflexive to you. There’s nothing inauthentic about that; it’s something you have committed to do because it is good. You are not relying on your heart alone. You have your stent in place.

It’s actually pretty simple. Think of others as if they were you

It’s about treating other people well. This is by far the key emphasis in the New Testament’s teaching about Christian behaviour. In fact, Jesus says that loving your neighbour as yourself, along with loving God, really does sum up all of the laws and prophetic teachings of Scripture. As ever, Jesus is the model. If you haven’t spent much time reading his books (the Gospels), there is no better place to go.

It’s actually pretty simple. Think of others as if they were you: that’s what having good manners should mean to a Christian.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

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