The first sign of civilization

REV. JACK HARNISH
Retired Clergy, Detroit Conference

If it’s on the internet, it must be true, right?  Recently I heard a preacher quote the great anthropologist Margaret Meade.  I asked him for the reference and he said he had picked it up somewhere but didn’t have the source, so of course I went online.
Come to find out lots of preachers have been using this quotation, however none of them gave the original source.  So all I can say is lots of preachers quote Margaret Meade by saying:

One day a student asked anthropologist Margaret Meade for the earliest sign of civilization in any given human culture.  He expected the answer to be a clay pot, or perhaps a fish hook or a grinding stone. Her answer surprised him.  She said she believed the earliest sign of civilization was “a healed femur”.  The femur is, of course, the thigh bone.  In a society based on hunting and gathering, a person with a fractured thigh bone would be unable to care for themselves and useless.  Meade explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, reigns.  Someone with a broken femur would simply be allowed to die. But a healed femur showed that someone cared.  Someone had to hunt and gather food for the injured person until his leg healed.  Someone had to provide care for the person who couldn’t care for himself. She said, “the evidence of compassion was the first sign of true civilization.” 

Sometimes I wonder if we have lost the first sign of true civilization.  When I hear the angry rhetoric and the arrogant talk of some of our talk show pundits and political candidates, I wonder what has become of compassion.  When I happen to catch a moment of a vicious voice like Ann Coulter (I can only take about a minute) I wonder what has become of civilization.

When I hear even Christians talk in such bitter tones about immigrants and minorities, anybody who is “different”, I wonder if they have ever read the Gospels and if they care about the values of the Kingdom of God. I realize it is an extreme voice, but I even heard an online preacher say he thought we should take the Bible literally and stone homosexuals. God have mercy!  If Margaret Meade is correct that the first sign of true civilization is compassion, I wonder just how civilized we really are.

Of course, there was a huge outpouring of well-deserved compassion and legitimate outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion, but what about the death of innocent children caught in the midst of war, or homeless families in our uncivilized urban centers?  The Old Testament all for welcoming the alien and the stranger, and the first ministry of the early church was to care for the widows and orphans.  Compassion is not just the first sign of civilization, it is central to what it means to be a follower of Christ. St. Paul draws a sharp contrast between the “works of the flesh” which include strife, anger, quarrels, factions, envy”  (…sounds like our current political climate)  and the “fruits of the spirit” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  (Gal. 5:19-23)

And so…I check my own heart and spirit.  Even when dealing with people I disagree with, can I make a commitment to live by the first sign of civilization, to live with compassion?

(First appeared in Jack’s blog, Monday Memo Aug 3)

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