I can be a little bit naive. When I moved from my home in the far North of the Midwest to Texas I was utterly charmed by how sweet it was that everyone went around blessing each other! “Bless her heart,” I heard and thought how lovely people were here in the South. My poor (then beau now husband) had to explain to me that the woman who had just “blessed my heart” wasn’t being nice, and I shouldn’t bless other people ‘s sweet hearts either! It was an important reminder that there is a great difference between nice and kind.A whole lot of my fellow Christians today are not kind, they’re nice. And that’s a problem because Christianity isn’t nice.
You wouldn’t know it by watching the news however. The news is full of people who call themselves Christians who are certainly very concerned about doing what is proper, mannerly, “nice” (by the traditional definition). Sure it means they won’t even stoop to baking a cake for a couple of decent guys but at least they’re being “good Christian folk” and upholding nice traditional values. Yeah, no.
Polite & Respectable
At some point in our history (who knows, maybe it goes back thousands of years, I wasn’t there) we confused nice with kind. And around about the 1950s with its emphasis on image and respectability we made “nice” a virtue. Within the Christian church it became one of the highest virtues. Just about the worst criticism someone could level against a fellow church member is that they weren’t nice, polite, or respectable.
The problem is that niceness has never been a spiritual value of any religion I am aware of. It is absolutely not a Christian value. (I’ll say it again, Christianity isn’t nice.) Because to be “nice” is about being polite. It is those in power in a society that decide what “nice” means. Nice always works to keep those in power comfortable. Nice prioritizes maintaining the appearance of virtue rather than the fact of virtue.
It is better to look like you are a happy well adjusted family than to actually be one according to “nice.” After all, to tell the truth about abuse would disrupt the carefully constructed image of our community. That would never do, that’s just not seemly. This is what nice gives you.
You see nice says that black people marching for an end to police violence and racial profiling should keep their voices down, not block traffic, and basically not inconvenience the rest of us. They certainly shouldn’t confront white folks or make them uncomfortable in any way. That is what nice gets you.
To Love is Not Nice
Love isn’t nice. You will rarely find most of the great spiritual leaders who changed the world with their love described (honestly) as nice. Jesus said that those who abused the poor and helpless were unwashed tombs (eww). According to stories he flipped tables when he saw how poor people were being exploited by the economic and religious elite. And Jesus isn’t alone in the religious world.
The actual value we should be pursuing is to be compassionate, or loving, not nice. To be compassionate and loving is to behave in ways that prioritize the value and well being of the other. The spiritual value that should be our goal is fierce love, to be willing to break the rules to save another. To make ourselves and others uncomfortable for the sake of one in need.
Say it with me: Christianity isn’t nice.
Things Left Undone
Often to be “nice” is to refrain from doing something that would help another at the expense of the powers that be, or the image of the community. To be “nice” is to fail to report your suspicions of abuse by a community leader because you don’t want to embarrass anyone. But that is what my tradition labels a sin. When we confess to the ways we have missed the mark in our lives, failed to live up to our call we confess both those things we have done, and those thing we have left undone.
The time you saw a black woman being hassled at the checkout over something you’ve never been questioned about, that. Or when you fail to speak up when your uncle says something homophobic because you don’t want to upset your Mom, or embarrass anyone, that. The fake front of a perfect family you fail to call out, despite the fact that it makes others feel like a failure, that.
Nice is safe, for those of us who are already safe. It keeps things on an even keel, it doesn’t rock the boat.
But we’re called to go far, far beyond “nice.” Nice creates a fake veneer of the world that could be possible if we were willing to do better than nice. I don’t want the counterfeit, I want the real deal. Deep down I think we all do, but we’ve been conditioned to nice for so long that it’s hard to change.
The false values of “nice” rear their head every time an oppressed group steps out of line, whenever those whose voices have been silenced shout to be heard. And yet. My religious beliefs state that all people (all people) are precious and sacred, created in the image of God. That’s a pretty damn big deal and it blows nice out of the water.
When you believe that all people are worthy of dignity and respect nice ceases to be a value that matters when even a single person is suffering. As long as there is oppression, poverty, a single ism in our midst nice simply cannot be borne.
Fierce love is the value we should strive for, we who are pilgrims on the road of the soul. We who have looked around us and realized that everyone is a member of the same human family can do nothing else. The exquisite value of each and every ordinary life becomes our only value.
It won’t be easy, but we can demand better. It is really very simple. When someone chooses nice of just call it out. Name what is happening and ask the group to do better. When someone “tone polices” others (especially those with less power and privilege) call them out. It can be incredibly uncomfortable, but what is more uncomfortable is known we have stood silent in the face of injustice.
If all people of good spirit did the smallest things, if we simply spoke up the world would change.
When my religious community was in the midst of strife and conflict caused by fifty years of “being nice” (staying silent about abuse for the sake of the perpetrator’s relatives) I and a few other people finally broke the silence. We named the abuse of the past, we named the hurt and distrust that it had created and we refused to keep pretending.
It was extremely painful. But that community is healthier today than they have ever been.
Nice keeps us trapped in disease, violence, and injustice.
Truth, fierce love, frees us.
We stay stuck in nice out of fear. Fear of rocking the boat, fear of offending, fear of change. The only way to save the world, and our families, and ourselves is to become brave. When I finally named out loud what we had been dancing around my whole life I was utterly terrified. But over the course of years of spiritual practice I had been formed into someone who was also brave, and who could no longer accept a “nice” lie.
Nice works great when our religion, or spirituality is something we do for an hour a week, or now and then. When it is an addon to our everyday lives. But when the practices of a spiritual life invade every part of who we are and how we live, something changes. When we live out of fierce love, nice no longer matters.
Becoming brave might mean having to challenge the beliefs with which you were raised. It might mean upsetting your racist uncle. Sometimes that is the healthiest thing that can happen.
If you aren’t sure how to start let me suggest a spiritual practice:
The word compassion took a circuitous route into our vocabulary but it comes from ecclesiastical Latin (that is church Latin) from a word that meant simply to suffer with. And that is your spiritual practice for banishing “nice.” Suffer with.
This will be pretty natural for some of you, but for some it will be totally counter. Here goes. Let’s say you grew up in a traditional evangelical Christian household. You know damn well your brother is gay but no one says anything. It’s time for you to practice compassion for your brother. And by that I mean suffer with him. Sit down in your meditation and get out of your own existence for a moment and enter his. Can you imagine what it might be like to go through your life pretending? To go through life knowing your family will reject you if you tell the truth? Keep practicing until you get it. Because you will.
The next time Black Lives Matter protesters are on your TV shutting down a highway after yet another police shooting and you are tempted to change the channel, stop. And do you damnedest to suffer with them. To try to imagine even a little bit what it must be like to live in a country where your skin color means everything you do is harder, and every interaction with authority is fraught with danger. Keep practicing, keep researching, keep reading their words, until you get it. Because you will.
If you practice this long enough, if you dig deep enough into the stories of those who suffer differently than you, your life will change.
And when that happens nice, and quiet won’t be an option anymore.
Christianity isn’t nice
My spiritual teacher’s name was Jesus (well his Anglicized name). He was a brown skinned revolutionary living in an occupied land and he wasn’t nice. What he was, was compassionate. More than once stories of him show him moved by love and compassion for the suffering of another human being.
That is my goal.
Even if it means being really not nice. (The dude made a whip and probably did some good damage to a bunch of wealthy corrupt merchants, nice isn’t the goal here.) If we’re actually doing our job and following this guy then Christianity isn’t nice either. Christianity is radical. Like Jesus, it sides with those on the margins, with the suffering.