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The Gospel according to George Washington

By Father Woods

In a school writing exercise, a young George Washington borrowed heavily from a 16th century French etiquette manual to come up with a text he called Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior. Washington would spend the rest of his life trying to Iive this list of 110 rules for proper behavior and treatment of others. The Father of our Country tackled issues from appropriate dress, table manners, the treatment of superiors and inferiors, and appropriate behavior in the presence of others. Remarkably, the work steers a steady course between neglect of good manners and the temptation to affectation (showing off). Washington believes that everyone, no matter what their station in life, behaves with respect: respect for self and respect for others.

Perhaps our first President was on to something important. Should anyone be better mannered than a Christian? Can we imagine the Lord Jesus being ill-mannered to anyone? Would Christ treat anyone disrespectfully? Each of us should be models of Christ-like behavior in everything we do. This is particularly challenging when the world heralds being cool or glib or just plain old smart-alecky! Most of what we watch on television and see modeled in our interactions with others is based on being disrespectful. We find disrespect funny and make heroes out of those who perfect the art. Yes, occasionally someone famous will cross a line and be publicly reprimanded, but by and large we approve of disrespect and place little emphasis on manners.
Unfortunately many people equate manners with formality. In fact, manners have to do with appropriateness. This cuts to the heart of the Gospel: what is appropriate behavior for a follower of Christ?

Good manners are rooted in self-respect. If I have respect for myself, I will want to present myself respectfully to others. An awareness of the dignity each Christian has because of our Baptism should cause us to be concerned with a respect for self that prompts a profound respect for other people. The first etiquette book is the New Testament itself. The example of Christ Jesus in His dealings with other people and in His own personal behavior is the model for every Christian lady or gentleman. But, it probably wouldn’t hurt any of us to pick up a contemporary etiquette book and refresh ourselves on some of the finer details of personal behavior and treatment of others. Little things like table manners, thank you notes, cell phone etiquette, proper dress for proper occasions all speak to the type of person we are (in former times called the quality of person one is.)

Proper behavior is also a sign of humility. No one is so important that he or she is not deferential to someone else. No one is so insignificant that he or she is not the recipient of respect from someone else. George Washington would work on his Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior throughout his lifetime and was reme mbered as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” If we keep the same attention to our own behavior, we will certainly be first in the kingdom of Heaven!