Saturday, April 10, 2010

Charity Doth Not Behave Itself Unseemly

My resolution this month is taken from I Corinthians 13:5. It is to "behave more seemly". As I always do at the begninning of each month, I will parse the meaning of the phrase first - and deal with my immediate, initial reaction to that exercise.

Unlike some of the words I have analyzed in previous months for my New Year's Resolution, the word "unseemly" means exactly what people who have used it generally mean when they use it. There appears to be nothing unique or special in its usage in this verse. The definition is:

not suited to the circumstances; inappropriate

The interesting thing is when "appropriate" is used as a verb, since this aspect of charity explicitly and obviously is sited as a behavioral pattern. ("Behave itself unseemly" might be translated into our modern usage as "behave in an inappropriate manner".) In that respect, "to appropriate" means:

to make one's own

This means that behaving "unseemly" means acting in a way that is not consisent with how one should act in making a pattern of behavior one's own. In other words, as in all of the other manifestations of charity I have studied this year (and like all of the characteristics in the Sermon on the Mount I studied during the last two years), "to appropriate" means "to internalize as one's own".

That definition, in and of itself, might be routine and not profound at first glance, but there is an underlying assumption of a common, if not universal, standard that can be identified and understood - and my initial reaction is that finding and identifying that standard is not as simple as the definition itself initially makes it seem. After all, what generally is seen as "appropriate" is tied closely to "communal culture" - but surely not everything that is culturally acceptable is appropriate if viewed by a universal standard.

How, then, are we to determine what is "unseemly" - what we should avoid "making our own" (internalizing) - from among the many things that are considered appropriate and inappropriate within the various cultures in which we live? How are we to avoid rationalizing our actions in order to do exactly what we want to do, while also avoiding an unthinking acceptance of what others would demand that we do based simply on collective, communal expectations?

Often, Christians look to a standard like, "What would Jesus do?" I think that is a good starting point for Christians (and it can be applied generally to any other religion or even the irreligious by focusing on someone else who is esteemed highly), but, even then, there is not an easy answer for all situations. Consider only the example of "Do good to those who dispitefully use you and persecute you" vs. clearing the temple - or "turn the other cheek" vs. "ye generation of vipers". If we are to use Jesus as our example, I believe we must recognize that "unseemly" might be situational in more cases than we are wont to assume - that determining what is "unseemly" might be tied in more to being "in touch with the Spirit" than to "memorizing the rules".

Perhaps the definition of unseemly for this post can be summarized best as:

not appropriate for the circumstance at any given moment - and subject to change at a moment's notice when the circumstance changes in any way

Perhaps not behaving unseemly hinges on establishing an internal compass, if you will, that points someone "truly" - or in the right direction. Perhaps not acting unseemly is the result of suffering long and being kind, envying not, vaunting not itself and not being puffed up.

That defnition is a bit scary in a way, but it also is liberating and enabling and empowering - since it places the responsbility to determine what is unseemly and what is appropriate directly on the shoulders of the person experiencing the circumstances. It rests on a fundamental need to understand one's circumstances well enough to act appropriately - but it also rests on developing charity, not acquiring it - of becoming, not getting.


djinn said...

I'm impressed. I agree totally, and that rarely happens. I'll be rereading your post several times. Thanks. This is truly decent. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The only problem with your parsing is that "appropriate", the verb form, is NOT a synonym for "seemly".