01 February 2010

On Being Nice

I had a teacher in elementary school who, I believe with hindsight, wanted to teach us to be literate people and good, interesting writers. This teacher would not accept the use of the word "nice" in a book report to describe the book itself, the characters in it or any part of the plot. He would kind of sneer and say "Nice is such a nice word". I'm pretty sure he meant meaningless and not very descriptive but I also got the impression that he thought that the word "nice" and the concept it conveyed were both a bit weak and wet.

In light of the discussion over the Methodist Social Media principles, I want to say that I believe in being nice, although I don't always achieve it. Or rather, there is one kind of "nice" I do believe in and one kind of "nice" I don't believe in.

The kind of "nice" I believe in is the kind of "nice" that we are called to in what Christians call The Great Commandment. (I recently heard a Jewish Rabbi say that Jesus' disciples asked him what was the greatest commandment and that, like a good Jewish Rabbi, he gave them two answers rather than one!) I believe in the kind of "nice" that is defined by "loving your neighbor as yourself". Christians call this "agape" love, taking on board the Greek concept of the kind of love that comes from positive actions that we actively decide to engage in. As opposed to the kind of love that comes from romance or parental or familial ties.

Many leaders will say that it's way too simplistic to simply say "Everyone should be nice to each other" as if this will solve all the power struggles in the world. Yes, its true that this is a simple concept. Yet I believe that this simple concept is necessary, if it is not sufficient, for those bigger initiatives of peace to begin. Agape love doesn't require us to stir up warm feelings in our gut for someone who just punched us in the face. But it does ask us to use our will to restrain from punching the other person back. In a sense, I think agape love is freeing: we don't have to be all warm and fuzzy about those who have done us wrong. But we are asked to use our wills to treat the person fairly.

But there is another kind of "nice" that I don't believe in. And I suspect it's the kind of "nice" that people think about when they are sneering about being nice. And that's the kind of "nice" that is not about agape love but rather about the path of least resistance or "I just want a quiet life". The kind of "nice" that doesn't want to stand up for injustice or truth or fairness because it is either afraid or it can't be bothered. That sort of "nice" I don't believe in. At it's very worst, this kind of "nice" can destroy clubs, schools, congregations and sometimes even communities: when no one will stand up to destructive factions out of fear or "laziness".

1 comment:

Judy said...

Obvious question - was Jesus "nice?" No - in point, he was often a pain in the wazoo. Prophets are. I try to remember that when I want to be "nice" and not prophetic. But, we all do what we can when we can. There is a time for prophecy and a time for conciliation. Never though, is there a time for niceness masquerading as courtesy. (Not nice to laugh at racist jokes, ie.)