Some time ago I read the synoptic Gospels with a group of literature students, only a few of whom professed to be "reasonably familiar" with the material in those books. We made our way through the Nativity stories, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracles, and the teachings. We struggled through some of Jesus' "hard sayings" and disconcerting acts, such as withering the fig tree and casting demons into swine. ("They were innocent swine!" someone protested. "They belonged to some innocent pig farmer!") I was glad for the chance to retrieve some of the shock value of stories so often flattened in an effort to make them palatable.
As the unit on the Gospels drew to a close, I asked the professing Christians, "How has this reading of these accounts of Jesus' life and ministry changed your understanding of him?" A hand went up in the back row. "I don't know exactly how to put this," the young woman mused, "but this isn't the Jesus I grew up with. He doesn't seem very ... nice." She was thinking, no doubt, about the embarrassments of the pigs and the fig tree, or perhaps his "Who is my mother?" or his calling Peter Satan. Careful explanations notwithstanding, what remained troubling to her was Jesus' rudeness.
I thought a minute. Which is to say, I prayed for an appropriate response to what I believe was innocent, if amusing, distress. "Nice," I told her, "is not the point." Nice isn't the same as holy. "God is love" doesn't mean "God is nice." Sometimes God isn't nice at all—not by our standards.
Indeed, as Christians we might strive less for niceness and more for loving rightly. One of my husband's finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in the eye, and said, "Honey, this is what love looks like." Love, in that case, must have seemed to her a far cry from nice.
Many unresolved conflicts in churches may, in fact, come from trying so hard to be nice. In our efforts to make each other feel good, we may neglect the harder business of learning, deeply and specifically, what love might look like. Love involves us in the "scandal of particularity." It seeks to discern what the moment calls for at a level much deeper than social sensitivities. Sometimes it is sharp, hard-edged, confusing, apparently unfair. What love demands, parents realize, may differ markedly from one child to the next.
And we all have some idea of the costs incurred when parents try too hard to be "nice" to misbehaving offspring. In church communities as in families, too much niceness may mask conflict that needs to be healthily aired, carefully mediated, patiently negotiated. It's a rare congregation that knows how to tolerate deep differences and stay in conversation about them without retreating to safer ground where everyone can be nice.
But love is not always and not only nice. Love is patient, and patience is not the same as passivity. Love is kind, and being kind is not the same as placating. One reason to reread Paul's epistles is to learn something about love from a man who gave up a great deal, including the cheap grace of congeniality, for the sake of the gospel.
Paul was not out to "win friends and influence people," though he had both deep friendships and profound influence. He also had disputes with Peter, argued and admonished erring churches and named their sins without an excess of tact. The energy of his love went far beyond mere diplomacy and took a kind of courage that's hard to develop when niceness offers so much safety, affirmation, and good feeling all around.
My prescription for too much niceness, besides a long look at the New Testament, is to read a few of Flannery O'Connor's vigorous, hilarious, acerbic stories. Her nice Christian ladies are hard to forget or forgive. They have fashioned Jesus in their own image: a Jesus who thoroughly approves their tastes, judgments, and social biases. O'Connor implies there will be no room for their like in the kingdom of heaven. They will have to be purged of their niceness. Insisting that sentimentality was a close kin to obscenity, she used her fiction to expose the sin of self-satisfied niceness in images that recall whited sepulchers.
We are called to be "tenderhearted, forgiving one another," to empathize with one another's pain, to imagine one another's point of view, to reckon with our own limitations, to pray for the grace of the healing word, and to not sidestep the arduous business of acknowledging hurt, anger, or confusion and seeking authentic reconciliation.
That task demands a great deal more than niceness. It demands that we be tough-minded as well as tenderhearted, that we sometimes be "in each other's faces," as well as cherished in each other's hearts. It may even demand that we be downright eccentric, at least if we are to believe O'Connor's word on the subject: "You shall know the truth," she warned, "and the truth shall make you odd."
Learn more about Flannery O'Connor's life at this site, or visit the Special Collections at the Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College, Milledgeville.
The December 1994/January 1995 issue of Sojourners featured Flannery O'Connor, with essays by;
Julie Polter, "Obliged to See God"
Shane Helmer, "Stumbling Onto the Spirit's Signposts"
Alice Walker, "A South Without Myths"
Danny Duncan Collum, "Nature and Grace: Flannery O'Connor and the healing of Southern culture"
In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women, McEntyre's latest book, is available from Amazon.com.
Previous McEntyre columns for Christianity Today include:
The Fullness of Time (Oct. 12, 2000)
'I've Been Through Things' (Sept. 6, 2000)
Silence Is to Dwell In (Aug. 10, 2000)
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