The pilgrims and the American Indians considered the first Thanksgiving a big success.
They saw it as a big success not because of the scrumptious food they shared but because people of two very different cultures chose civility over hostility.
They didn't use bows and arrows, tomahawks or muskets to settle differences. Instead, they chose a fraternal meal to understand one another. Mutual respect and courtesy made the first Thanksgiving meal special. It defined the true spirit of Thanksgiving as civility among people.
Today, Thanksgiving means many things: family, food, rest and a good football game, to name a few. But it doesn't necessarily mean civility.
In fact, many accept these days’ incivility or rudeness as something almost normal. No one seems surprised anymore by frequent outbursts of anger or impatience on the highway, in the workplace or even at home with our families. We find it nearly impossible to disagree with anyone in a civil manner. We take almost everything personally. Talk radio, news editorials and cable news often spins the news in the most acrimonious way. Sarcasm now characterizes our culture.
Some could argue that this highlights a culture that values frankness and sincerity over hypocrisy. Why act one way when you feel another? For this reason, we shouldn't regret our bluntness.
Yet a closer look at our incivility doesn't reveal a culture imbued with strength or courage, but moral decay. From an ethical standpoint, incivility denotes a lack of self-mastery or personal-domination. It originates from a lack of virtue. The Founding Fathers believed that incivility unchecked would dismantle our democracy. They often pointed out that democracy rises and falls on the virtue of self-government or self-mastery. Civility epitomizes self-control.
The great Samuel Adams explained it this way:
“A general dissolution of Principles and Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader. … If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.”
To win the fight against incivility, Christians need to rediscover the spiritual and cultural value of Christian chivalry. This term invokes for some an idealization of medieval mores, long gone with the Crusades.
Christian chivalry, in the modern sense, refers to the practice of those key virtues that ensure civility. The late Pope John Paul II stands out as one of the great examples of our times. He practiced the four key virtues of Christian chivalry. For example, John Paul practiced magnanimity, which means greatness of soul. It expressed itself in benevolence and disinterested service. Magnanimous souls keep themselves above pettiness or meanness by overlooking injury or insult.
John Paul also lived the virtue of munificence, or generosity. This virtue moves us to imitate God's liberality by undertaking enterprises for the common good of all at our own expense. Using our means to support hospitals, schools, retirement homes and the like comes from munificence. In short, it helps us overcome our natural attachment to money.
We all recall how much John Paul suffered the last years of his life.
His tired body became small and frail. It often trembled uncontrollably. The great hiker, skier and athlete lost his ability to walk. His once expressive loving face became pale, swollen, immobile and mask like. His strong, commanding, deep and articulate voice became no more than an unintelligible slur.
In spite of all of this, John Paul remained a very patient man. He practiced patience as a Christian virtue that makes the soul withstand with serenity the trails and hardships that God permits in our lives. The virtue of patience allows us to face hardships of all types with a mature faith in God's providence. Today, we want everything now. We wish to suffer nothing nor lack nothing. Yet patience takes us beyond instant gratification to strength of character. This explains why civil people remain calm and professional under pressure.
Over John Paul's long pontificate, he showed the world the meaning of fortitude. His fortitude, or strength of character, came from a resolute and powerful will. Christian chivalry requires fortitude of the highest degree.
As a virtue, fortitude consists primarily in undertaking and carrying out difficult resolutions. Many of us make difficult resolutions but few of us keep them. Why? The answer lies in weakness of will, the No. 1 enemy of fortitude.
To overcome weakness of will, Christians should keep in mind three things: First, perseverance in any resolution is a gift from God. Consequently, we need to insist constantly in prayer for the grace to persevere in any undertaking in life. After that, we need to take into account each day a few basic truths: the shortness of life, the need to live well and our ultimate accountability to God for our behavior.
These basic truths keep things in perspective for us. And finally, when we do suffer a setback in our resolutions, we must start again immediately, pushing aside any self-pity and trust more in God's grace.
At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and the American Indians showed their honor. We can do the same around the table this Thanksgiving.
Legionary Father Andrew McNair is a theology professor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, Rhode Island.