Can We Master the Power of Civility?

Modern society is uncivilized because it acts without anyone's conscious understanding of what is happening. So says psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck in his new book, A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered (Bantam Books). He proposes that we often behave inconsiderately through unintentional, unanticipated, and undesirable actions to where it becomes the norm in American culture. Incivility spreads as we live through an "unconscious form of consciousness" in ways harmful to ourselves and others.

Dr. Peck cites an example wherein a salesperson checks a potential client's credit rating before he "buys a beer for his new best friend." This demonstration of superficial politeness exposes the self-serving and manipulative ways we humans relate to each other. Dr. Peck affirms that it becomes easier to act dishonestly as we learn to tolerate similar scenarios in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. "Incivility is uncivil because it is unintentional," writes Dr. Peck. "To become more civil, [we] must become more conscious of [ourselves], of others, and the organizations that bring us together."

Pointing to living civilly, Dr. Peck unites two seemingly incompatible phenomena: politics and spirituality. He defines civility as "The consciously motivated behavior that is ethical in submission to a higher power." We are to manage ourselves and others as a function of a higher spiritual calling. Accordingly, society should strive for the civil use of power.

"Political power," Dr. Peck explains, "is the capacity to influence others by one's money or dominant organizational position; a matter of externals." It has everything to do with ambition and control. Spiritual power is a matter of what is within. It renunciates ambition and surrenders control. Yet, these two powers can be integrated to work together. We are empowered spiritually to act as a conduit to empower others (politically), and they likewise empower us. It is a difficult exercise. The tension between the spiritual path of "godly authority," which requires an emptying of all ambition, and the political path, which leads to power for its own sake, involves a great paradox. The only civil reason to seek power is to lose it, to give it away.

Uncivil responses to the above tension, Dr. Peck warns, include desiring power to maintain a high self-image, trying to satisfy needs for security, or to sustain the illusion of immortality through the pursuit of glory. Such were the temptations of Jesus during His forty-day sojourn in the desert. His example showed us that the desire to serve should not be self-serving, or else others would be deprived of opportunities to nurture their potential to serve. For Jesus, there was only a single response to the temptations of power: God. As God is the sole source of civil power, Dr. Peck contends, the power of the civil person is power that cannot be possessed.

This definition of civility implies that the higher authority or God's will--the ethical imperative, is frequently at odds with our will. Society becomes civilized when we recognize our spiritual vocation and act upon what feels right within our hearts. It is our goal to seek that place to which God calls us where "our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

(Digest by Clayton Montez, Atlantic University.)