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The Veneer of Civilization

Those of us who are fans of the AMC cable show The Walking Dead know that although this series began with the obvious threat of zombies (or “walkers” as the show refers to them), it did not take long before the threat of those still alive came to dominate.  Yes, it can be very bad to encounter a walker–one bite of their snapping jaws and you will morph into a walker yourself within hours.   But save for the times when the walker herd was so large there was almost no escaping their bites, mostly in more recent seasons of the show the walkers get dispatched pretty quickly.  No, the real and far more pernicious threat comes from the living, from other people.  The Governor, the sick cannibals who ran The Sanctuary, and now, of course, the dreaded Negan and his people are the real enemies in a way the walking dead could never be.

Sometimes when watching zombie apocalypses of various types on TV or at the movies it seems far fetched that people would begin to treat one another so horribly as soon as society broke down.  On The Walking Dead, the sudden emergence of walkers all over the earth meant there was no longer any military, any law enforcement, any amenities like electricity, telephones, cellphones, gas stations, restaurants, stores: it was just all gone.  And those who survived had to scratch out a whole new way to live, and mostly what that has meant is the proverbial “dog eat dog” world in which people will gladly lie, cheat, steal, and murder if that is what it takes to make their way in this new world.

I have concluded, however, that this scenario of ordinary people turning on each other viciously is by no means far fetched.  In fact, it is striking how close to such behavior people come even now in ordinary circumstances in a still functioning civilization.  Last week I had a quick airplane trip to Iowa and back.   My time in airports did not witness any incidents as dramatic as the recent sensation on a United flight or even a jetway brawl that a Delta airlines captain had to break up in Atlanta recently.   Still, I am often amazed at how the most common acts of courtesy–the simple things about being kind and getting along that we all ostensibly learned in Kindergarten–fall by the wayside in favor of selfish, rude, and flat out stupid behavior.

A small vignette: while waiting at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at Gate K1 for my flight to Des Moines, I stood up to stretch my legs after a long while sitting.   Near the gate agent’s counter a woman was standing some 5 or 6 feet back from the counter waiting to get called over.  Not long after she stood there, a man saw her and took his place in line behind her.  The gate agent had not noticed them and was not talking to anyone else, either.   Then, an older man of perhaps 70 came in from the side, walked up to the counter, and asked the gate agent for the gate number for the St. Louis flight that had originally been scheduled for gate K1.  The agent looked it up and it took only about 10 seconds for him to find the information.  Meanwhile, the man who had gotten in line behind the woman shakes his head, steps forward, and tugs on the older man’s shirt.  “There’s a line here, you know” he said sharply.   Of course, 15 seconds of patience were all that was required of this man–there was no need to yank on the man’s shirt.  But then again, for the older man it required no more than saying, “Oh, I am so sorry.  I didn’t notice you there.  I apologize.”   But no, instead he turned around and then made big sweeping motions with his arms to indicate how much space there was between the counter and the woman who was first in “line.”   To emphasize it, the man made the sweeping gesture again and said “How was I to know this was a line?”

Now no one came to blows, the man found out his gate for St. Louis and went on his way.  Still, just think of how a tiny, tiny amount of social grace on the part of both of those men could have greased the skids of life just long enough to avoid unhappiness.  Have we become so inept at simple patience, common courtesy, a willingness to admit an error that we have to begin chipping away at our veneer of civilization over every trifle we endure?

I have long been struck by some of the teachings of the New Testament.   When people came to John the Baptist and felt convicted by his calls to repentance, they cried out “What should we do?”  Who knows what they thought John was going to recommend.  Maybe they anticipated huge things, big tasks, mighty moral undertakings.  But no.  John just said to share what you had, be honest, do your jobs with integrity.   The bottom line advice of the last great Old Testament prophet and the first New Testament herald was basically, “Be nice.”

Or think of the Fruit of the Spirit that Paul says must grow on the branches of our lives.  Again, so many are Kindergarten-level commonplaces like kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness.  Indeed, it’s remarkable how high a profile simple kindness has in the New Testament.   “Be nice.”   That sums up the Fruit of the Spirit, too.

It may be that civil behavior teeters on the edge of a knife more than we know.  If things fell apart tomorrow and walkers roamed the land, we would soon discover that the real enemy is not the dead but the living.   In the meanwhile, however, here is to hoping that in these rude and uncivil times already today, Christians at least can lead the way in being nice.

It’s really not too much to hope for, is it?


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

One Comment

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks, Scott, your story reminds me of an experience I had a few years back at a baseball game. There were probably 12 people in line at a concession stand. A very elderly man, unaware, teetered right up to the counter and placed his order. Was wonderful to watch not a single person say anything. He took his order, went on his way, and the line resumed. Sometimes good happens, too.

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