Our communal life is in crisis. I do not know how things got so bad — how I can see something one way, while others see it so very differently.
When it comes to who we should listen to and which voices we can trust, Christians are also divided. The gulf between us has grown so wide that some days I fear we may never bridge the gap. Our tolerance for navigating conflict is quite low; our default is often silence.
I wonder if the Galatian churches were in a similar state when Paul wrote this letter. Were they a community that could not agree on what was real and what was fake, what was true and what was a lie? Fearful of conflict, had members chosen to go silent rather than speak up and act upon their newfound freedom in Christ?
The tie that bound the Galatian church community had been compromised. The new thing God had done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was being undone by some community members’ decision to revert to the old ways. If they continued down this path, the community would not grow through the power of God’s Spirit, but rather it would grow through human attempts for justification — works of the flesh.
The challenge Paul put before them was to put aside the works of the flesh and to surrender to the life-giving force unleashed through Christ’s resurrection. By doing so they would reap spiritual fruit nourished by the Christ vine — fruit especially good for navigating conflict. Fruit like kindness.
But to paraphrase Inigo Montoya in the 1987 movie, “The Princess Bride,” that word – kindness – may not mean what we think it means.
Kindness. Chrestotes. Its root, chrestos, connotes something that is serviceable, good and useful. The “HELPS Word-studies” lexicon adds that kindness connotes something “well-fit for use (for what is really needed).” Kindness is contextual. Considering that Paul’s context is the new creation birthed through Christ’s death and resurrection, kindness is an intervention that is well fit for new creation. It is what is really needed for a new possibility to occur — a possibility that leads to reconciliation, redemption or renewal. A possibility that brings healing. A possibility that leads to wholeness. Kindness, therefore, is not the same thing as niceness, though the two are often conflated.
Niceness. Though this word has had a variety of uses over the centuries, its current usage connotes the quality of pleasantness, something agreeable. For the sake of engaging in a productive conversation, I offer a conflictual interpretation of niceness. Nice is self-interested. As Sharon Hodde Miller points out in her book, “Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More,” niceness is self-interested. I am nice so people will like me. I am nice so I do not get kicked out of the collective. I am nice so that you do not get mad at me. I am nice to win your approval.
Niceness looks a lot like following the rules. Niceness does not rock the boat. Niceness upholds the status quo. Be nice, we tell each other, when we do not like what is being said. Be nice, we teach children, when we do not want them to quarrel. But what we really mean is keep quiet and stay in your lane. Niceness cannot be a fruit of the Spirit if new creation is what the Spirit is after.
Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is not an example of niceness. I have often wondered what it felt like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s criticism. I imagine I would not have appreciated it. I am astonished that you have turned to a different gospel! You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Whoever is confusing you will pay the penalty. I wish they would castrate themselves!
No, his letter was not nice, but we could consider it an act of kindness — that is, if we understand kindness as action that is good and useful for the need at hand. Paul wrote to liberate gentile converts from enslavement to a false gospel. The need at hand was nothing short of freedom.
The Galatians began on the right path, but circumcision, festivals and traditions had beguiled them away from the wonder of the new thing God had done when Christ disrupted the present evil age with the birth of a new creation. The only thing that matters, Paul wrote, “is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) — yet these Christ believers were being taught, oh so subtly, that works would seal their covenantal relationship with God. If these works were a true means of justification, “then Christ died for nothing,” Paul said (Galatians 2:21). “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).
I understand why the Galatians wanted outward signs, traditions and festivals to mark their new identity in Christ. Don’t we all want this security, and aren’t we taught, oh so subtly, that our Christian traditions are what set us apart from the secular world? Rituals are easy to enact; symbols are easy to wield. I can observe a whole liturgical year without allowing God’s Spirit to grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control in my heart and in my life.
If we are going to embody the wholeness of new creation, if we are going to join the Spirit in manifesting the truth that in Christ all distinctions and boundaries have been removed, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), we will not get there through the observance of ritual and tradition. Nor will we get there through being nice. We will get there when we allow the Spirit to till the soil of our hearts and minds – to break up the clods of the values we have inherited and the behaviors we have learned – so that new fruit can grow.
I want to wrestle the niceness out of kindness, because there’s far more niceness expressed in the church than destabilizing, status-quo-disrupting, what-is-really-needed-for-new-creation kindness. As long as we value the safety and comfort of niceness, we won’t be able to address the conflict within our community, let alone the conflict outside our community.
If kindness is nothing more than responding to a crisis, a challenge or a moment with what is really needed, then sometimes it will look like the actions of the Samaritan who took on economic, social and physical risk by tending to the welfare of the beaten man (Luke 10:25-37). But it can also look like tearing open a roof that does not belong to you so your friend can be healed (Mark 2:1-12).
While Christians may agree that the Samaritan and the roof-tearing friends embodied prime examples of kindness, our on-the-ground truth is that we do not tend to interpret a boundary-breaking intervention as a manifestation of kindness. To those calling for change we ask, Why can’t you just be nice? And yet, in Scripture as in our lives, new creation is the result of disruptive acts. When Jesus stopped the men from stoning the woman caught in adultery, his kindness went beyond saving her life and restoring her dignity — he saved the lives of the men poised to commit murder. Whether or not the men felt good as they walked away, they were given the rarest of gifts: the ability to see themselves in the woman they were ready to stone and the chance to repent — to turn around and change their minds.
The Samaritan, the paralyzed man’s friends and Jesus acted in ways that brought about something new: restoration to those who had been dehumanized. Their actions were destabilizing in different ways, to be sure, but the impact of their behavior was a disruption of the status quo. Each example expressed love, and yet each intervention did not conform to the social or cultural expectations of the day. They still don’t. Kindness is risky.
There is no going back to the way things were before the great unveiling of the global pandemic. There is no going back to a time when we thought we were all on the same page, a time before cancel culture, a time before the white Christian church was called to account for its role in creating and maintaining white supremacy. Yearning for a return to an idealized past is human, but this desire does not serve to grow us into the new creation Christ unleashed into our lives and into this world. And as Paul says at the end of this letter, “a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:15b).
We have been set free, not so that we can return to justification by the law of niceness, but so we can freely follow God’s Spirit into all the broken places of this world and in our hearts. I do not have a very clear sense of what new creation looks like. I do not exactly know how we get to wholeness and abundance for everyone. But I suspect one step down this path requires learning to exchange the idol of niceness with a commitment to intervene in ways that allow new possibilities to emerge — for others and for ourselves.
Jen Brothers is a Presbyterian pastor and a licensed professional counselor in Roanoke, Virginia. She is a co-founder of House of Bread, a nonprofit providing job skills training, mentoring and friendship to formerly incarcerated women through baking and selling bread.