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Missouri Supreme Court justice urges greater civility in society

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–“Countless random acts of hard-heartedness have descended all across our country and the world,” said Missouri Supreme Court Judge Duane Benton in a Feb. 1 academic convocation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Society would do well to heed the words of the apostle Paul, Benton said, citing Ephesians 4:32 for instruction on being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.

Benton, a member of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Mo., shared results of a survey of bar association presidents in which 90 percent of them cited a lack of respect as a serious problem within the legal profession. “Attorneys speak friendly and cordially less and less, make derogatory comments toward one another, do not consult with each other and often do not return phone calls,” he said.

While serving as chief justice, Benton called on Missouri attorneys to practice with greater civility. “How can the legal system expect respect if the participants do not respect each other?” he asked. As a result of his challenge, a special committee has been formed to recommend actions to be taken.

“It’s easy to blame attorneys and the legal profession as rude and crude,” Benton said. “Some of you know, as Matthew 1:7 says, if you point one finger at someone else, about three of them point back at you. We know that this is broader than just the legal profession. It’s [in] all our society.”

He cited sources as varied as Timothy Jay’s “Cursing in America” and San Francisco Theological Seminary President Donald McCullough’s “Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another” which appeal for greater civility. Benton said indications of a problem include widespread cursing, road rage, negative advertising in political campaigns, highway littering, tardiness, hate speech, violent videos, pornography and sexual harassment.

One of the roots of incivility is selfishness, Benton said, offering Galatians 5:13 as a prescription. “The answer is to use your liberty to serve others and not self.” While some discourage mannerly behavior because it is costly and time-consuming, Benton said his experience, particularly with churches, reveals those that show interest and care are rewarded for their time and effort.

“Probably the biggest resistance to civility in our society is ideological,” Benton said, noting the likelihood that seminary students had encountered modern critical theory, postmodern critique and deconstructionism. Under the guise of different names, Benton said the thesis states “that civility, manners, courtesy and respect are just hypocritical, artificial and restrictive,” preventing people from being “open, authentic, equal and spontaneous.”

Quoting Cambridge professor Carolyn Moore’s essay which calls for “a grammar of social life” to provide respect within society, Benton said the passages in Galatians and Ephesians affirm Moore’s contention that “the truest form of love is love for others.”

“Acting decently does not mean you agree entirely with the other person,” Benton said. “Some artificiality is needed so our society runs.”

From retired Methodist minister Robert Fulghum’s book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Benton recounted insights such as “share, play fair and put things back where you found them” as a call for civility. “Although secular, it’s a pretty good summary in modern dress of what Paul was writing at various stages of his life,” Benton concluded, stressing the need for society to hear the biblical message today.

During the convocation, Midwestern’s academic dean, Jim Cogdill, provided new faculty members an opportunity to sign the seminary’s Articles of Faith. The action represents a commitment to teach in accordance with the doctrines of the Baptist Faith and Message as revised by Southern Baptists in 1998. Participating were Carrol Fowler, domestic missions instructor; Thorvald Madsen II, assistant professor of New Testament, ethics and philosophy; and Lee Hinson, assistant professor of church music.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter