For some, the essence of Christianity consists of ‘being nice’ to everyone. But is it really a Christian virtue?
It was a near-idyllic summer day on the August bank holiday weekend, and my family and I were getting the ferry over to Piel Island off the coast of Barrow-in-Furness in Morecambe Bay. The plan was to stay the night in the island’s one guest house, the Ship Inn, before returning the next day.
‘Are ya mad? ’ave you seen the forecast f’ tomorrow? Never mind – we can do y’ funerals be lunch time...’
It was hard to take John the ferryman’s dire warnings seriously since he reminded me of George Formby and said them with a toothy smile before adding: ‘We are nice t’ya ’ere!’
I write this article in the Ship Inn, crowded with holidaymakers whose tents have blown away. The ferry was delayed until 11am and now it’s been cancelled until further notice. We are stranded. We should have listened to Ferryman John. He was right. He wasn’t nice but he was truthful.
I think the contemporary Western Church can learn something from John’s example. I wonder if many of us have forgotten about ‘speaking the truth in love’ and when we read the word ‘love’ in our Bibles subconsciously replace it with ‘nice’.
‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples – you are nice.’
Thank God not all Christians are nice.
In the summer I had the privilege of hearing Nicky Cruz speak at a church in New York. The 73-year-old evangelist was still as passionate as he ever was about preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and reaching the lost.
Cruz had been a hero since I read The Cross and the Switchblade – the story of his conversion to Christ in the 1950s when he was the one of the leaders of the Mau Maus, a Puerto Rican gang in New York City.
At one stage in his talk, Cruz reflected upon the death of David Wilkerson, his spiritual father who died in a car crash last year. ‘Dave Wilkerson wasn’t nice. I used to say to him, “You’re stricter than God – you’d send me to hell if you had your way!”’
People laughed because anyone who was familiar with Wilkerson knew that his brand of Christianity wasn’t nice. He was a tireless campaigner against sin and evil and also a fierce advocate for truth and justice. He was an outspoken critic of anything he deemed wrong, even if it flew in the face of the mainstream view.
As I heard Nicky Cruz speak, my mind went back to the time I heard Wilkerson preach at Times Square Church in New York. This was a church he started in 1987 in a part of Manhattan that was then known for significant social problems including people involved in the drugs trade and sex industry.
His sermon was on Noah getting drunk in Genesis 9:20-23 and his application was that we should all be teetotalers! Just in case your mind jumped to a certain wedding in Cana of Galilee, he cross-referenced his talk with John 2 and informed us that the wine Jesus spectacularly turned the water into was non-alcoholic.
He was obviously aware of a divergence of hermeneutics regarding this passage as I recall him saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re European or come from a culture where drinking alcohol is acceptable. If you have wine or Budweiser in your fridge, you need to go home today and tip it down the sink.’
I did not (and still don’t) accept his exegesis on this issue. I didn’t agree with him but I did admire him. Here was a warrior for truth who stood up for what he believed, even if it was countercultural, unpopular or even caused offence.
No, Wilkerson was not nice: he was, however, a man who sought to speak the truth in love.
Cruz informed us of a planned re-make of the 1970 film The Cross and the Switchblade and declared ‘...and this time it’s not gonna be cheesy.’
Cheesy it might have been, but nonetheless powerful and memorable.
One episode is imprinted in my memory when Cruz, full of anger and hate, threatened to kill David Wilkerson if he kept preaching to him. Wilkerson replied, ‘Yeah, you could do that. You could cut me up into 1,000 pieces and lay them in the street and every piece will still love you.’
The cult of niceness
There aren’t many like David Wilkerson. So where do many of us get the idea that being nice is what being a Christian is all about? Our culture has developed a cult of niceness and this has permeated many of our expressions of Christianity.
The great Victorian hymnwriter Mrs (Cecil Frances) Alexander (1818-95) schools us on this from some of her sentimental carols. A verse from ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ states that Christian children should be mild and obedient and as good as Jesus. In other words, nice.
Blaise Pascal once said that God created man in his own image, and we have been returning the compliment ever since.
Surely this is true. The distinguished sociologists Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen did some seminal research for their book Habits of the Heart (1985). They interviewed people about their concepts of the divine, and on one occasion spoke to a nurse by the name of Sheila who described God like this:
‘I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice… it’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess take care of each other. I think he would want us to take care of each other’.
The myth of the mild Messiah
Two years ago I was on a trip to Israel and was touring north of the Sea of Galilee when I came to the town of Chorazim. Immediately, Matthew 11:20-23 came to mind where Jesus stated:
‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But...it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades...’ (ESV)
The problem with this sentimental view of Jesus the nice guy is that it just doesn’t stack with the Jesus we see in the Gospels.
What about the Jesus who declared he would cast fire on the earth (Luke 12:49)? Or the Jesus who said, ‘I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). And what about Jesus taking a whip to the traders in the temple (John 2:13-17)? These do not appear to be the teachings and actions of a mild Messiah.
It appears that some of the people God Incarnate was least nice to were the religious teachers of his day.
Take for example some of the ‘Woes’ of Matthew 23: ‘hypocrites’, ‘blind guides’. ‘blind fools’ – ‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?’ (v 33) This isn’t very nice, is it?
To justify our theology of niceness, many of us practice a subtle form of practical Marcionism. Marcion of Sinope (c 85–c160) was a bishop and theologian whose heterodox teaching was rejected by the early Church. He came to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament. His criteria for getting to this conclusion was that the God of the Old Testament seemed to be portrayed as vengeful, wrathful and judgemental, whereas the God of the New Testament appears as loving, kind and gracious.
As such, Marcion ended up putting together his own canon of scripture that excluded the Old Testament and comprised of 11 books; only one of the synoptic Gospels (his own version of Luke) and ten of Paul’s epistles.
The problem with this theory is that it is not as neat as it first appears. God is revealed as loving and gracious in the Old Testament and also a God of judgement in the New: Ananias and Sapphira weren’t doing ‘carpet time’ as they weren’t so much slain in the Spirit as slain by the Spirit.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of recreating Jesus as an anodyne Christ is that discipleship is reframed to mean the art of producing nice people.
The problem with this, of course, is that nice people don’t transform the world.
When you’re nice, you’re not allowed to get angry with injustice, you’re not allowed to stand for truth if it’s likely to cause offence, you’re not allowed to be passionate about holiness and fight ruthlessly against sin, the world and the devil as they seek to assert control of your life. You are left with a middle-class, middleof- the-road spirituality about avoiding conflict, not rocking the boat and seeking to get on with life and not offend anybody.
Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-61), the renowned Swedish diplomat and second secretary general of the UN, stated, ‘It is easy to be nice, even to an enemy – from lack of character’.
The Power of Love
Jesus’ teaching and actions seem to be often far removed from nice, but they are never far removed from love.
Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ brought home to many the crucifixion in all of its visceral and horrific reality. Pope John Paul II watched it and reportedly said, ‘It is as it was.’ I was in tears as I left a cinema reeling in stunned silence. No one said, ‘That was nice.’ As CS Lewis reminds us ‘Love’s as hard as nails.’
Five questions to dig deeper
1. Do you think Jesus was nice?
2. Do you think there is a ‘cult of niceness’ in our culture? In what ways is the Church affected by it?
3. Name a Christian who has influenced you who has not been nice.
4. Are you tempted to practice a subtle form of practical Marcionism? If so, in what way?
5. What is the gospel alternative to niceness, and how do we cultivate it?