My friend Eric has a saying: “Don’t be nice, be kind. Being nice is about you. Being kind is about others.”
American Christian culture is often fronting. There are certainly all kinds of people in all kinds of subcultures that front, but when we Christians do it, it’s especially frustrating because we basically front for God. To put it in terribly generic 80’s rap terms (I am obviously old and not very knowledgable about rap), we have a tendency to make Jesus the DJ to our dope MC. We like to say it’s “all about Jesus,” but really, we’re the ones rockin’ the mic all day and all night, and we’re the ones trying to get all the fellas and shorties hyped about…us.
The thing about fronting is that it presents a false image to guard the reality. If the real story is a privileged kid from the suburbs, the front is a hustler from the hood. If the real story is a guy with dubious natural freestyle skills, the front is a big chain and fresh Adidas and well-rehearsed (but still whack) rhymes. The purpose of the front isn’t to indulge in the art for the art’s sake, but to fast-track the benefits – the success, the fame, the power. When Christian culture fronts, it does so to conceal deep injustices and abuses and privilege and pain, and it does so at the expense of the Healer who is pushed into the background to support our success-driven agenda.
Our Christian culture fronting manifests on multiple levels, but it is perhaps most obvious in our pervasive practice of being nice. For American Christians, being nice has become the ultimate virtue. It is the tone with which we speak (especially on Christian family radio), the standard for censoring our (actual) music lyrics, and the overriding definition of what it means to have “Christian kids” and “Christian families.” And, “Be nice” is the second strongest commandment we hear from the pulpit, next to “Don’t have sex.” To be nice while not having sex is, apparently, to fulfill all the law and prophets.
Even in our edgier, more relevant churches and ministries – you know, the ones that swear sometimes and drink a lot – still prize niceness as the king of virtues. The greeters at the church welcome desk or coffee bar are nice. The pastor making the announcements is nice. All the folks in the seats near you seem pretty nice. And the training on how to have a good marriage or how to be a good member of the church or how to be more “missional” with your non-Christian neighbors all revolve around the practice of outward niceness. If you are nice enough to your neighbors, then maybe they will want to come to church! Because they see your Christian niceness! I mean, that’s what drew you here in the first place, right? (Oh, and if you are married, it is nice to have sex, and especially nice for wives to be available for sex whenever their husbands want it. And husbands, if you really want that sex, it’s nice to listen to your wife and have a conversation with her once and a while.)
There are two big problems with being nice. The first is that anyone can do it. Anyone can be nice, no matter what kind of person they really are, just like anyone can put on a Kangol and a chain and memorize Run DMC well enough to rap at a party. Some of the worst people who ever lived have been the absolute nicest. Some serial killers are super duper nice. So are some genocidal dictators. And you’d be hard-pressed to watch an episode of Dateline where the guy who molested all the kids was anything other than the nicest guy to everyone who knew him. Let’s face it – the biggest jerks you know are nice to some people at least some of the time.
The second problem with being nice is exactly what my friend Eric points out. It’s the perfect way to get what you want. Outward niceness is the ultimate manipulation tool, the best means of exercising control over individuals and groups. My friend Stephanie often points out that Christian culture is perpetually “doing stuff and avoiding relationship.” And what she means is, we seem to be the best at avoiding deep relational experiences in order to obtain and maintain superficial success. Instead of truly knowing ourselves or others, we opt for growing our churches and cajoling our neighbors and broadcasting our numbers. All while being nice.
In this sense, being nice can be the ultimate vice – because it is fronting instead of revealing true and deep virtue. And when the church does this, we are putting Jesus on the tables to support our rap agenda, instead of giving him the proper MC status. We are, in essence, placing our big programs ahead of people, and in so doing, letting our blind privilege drive a wedge between Jesus and the ones he loves. Deep justice and healing will always be sacrificed when the church becomes selfish about success. Selfish power will prevent peace every time, no matter how nice it looks on the outside.
My understanding of the prophetic call is precisely a confrontation with niceness. Those who function prophetically in the contemporary church are not called to be mean – but they are called to cut through the front. This, as it happens, is exactly what Jesus did with the religious culture of his own day:
Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You scrub the outside of the cup and the dish, but the inside is full of extortion and moral flabbiness. You blind Pharisee, first make the inside of the cup clean, and then the outside will be clean as well.
Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed graves, which look very fine on the outside, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and uncleanness of every kind. That’s like you: on the outside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. – Matthew 23:25-28, KNT
It’s also what the old prophets did before Jesus, even as their own religious culture warned them to be nice:
“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
“Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 6:13-15 (NIV)
The church in America is in need of some prophetic real talk. We’ve got to stop fronting. And we’ve got to hand the mic over to the Healer, step back, and follow along, spinning in sync with the Spirit.
The fruit of the Spirit, after all, is not being nice, because that’s all about us.
The fruit of the Spirit is being kind, because that’s all about others.
Zach J. Hoag wrote a book called Nothing But The Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter and curates The Antioch Session. He also once planted a church, and currently ministers in Burlington, VT in several capacities. Most importantly, he watches movies and plays in the snow with his family. Make sure you follow him on Twitter.