Many people are familiar with G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” We like the quote because it confirms our suspicions that a faith grounded in gratitude and a wider perspective can create a solid tarmac from which we may soar.
That’s easier than it sounds, of course, and Chesterton knew it—the fully delicious and playful quote comes from his profound masterwork Orthodoxy, and reads, “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
And gravity, as we know, is the law.
Lately, I’ve seen in some of my acquaintances the development of a very grave and solemn habit indeed—a tendency to expect niceness in everyone they meet, particularly in professed Christians. When exposed to someone’s overwhelming urge to snark at politicians, headlines, celebrity sham marriages, and overplayed cards of indignation—all sound targets deserving a bit of cathartic scorn—these folks turn their heads away and, with a heavy sigh and choked tone, wonder Why, oh why, can’t we all just get along?
Snark, they insist, is pointless, lacks charity, and tears at the Body of Christ. To be a good Christian, in their book, one must be nice.
Well, I concur; I agree with that sentiment. But only to a point; if one is pleasant, kind, generous, interested, or helpful, one may generally be characterized as exhibiting “nice” behavior, and whether the effort is natural or self-conscious, that courts virtue. So does holding one’s tongue in charity, so as not to unduly wound someone or promote gossip.
But does a tossed-off snark of exasperation really warrant the nitpicking of the niceniks? Does Christianity demand “niceness”?
The question always brings me back to the Gospel of John and specifically to the calling of Nathaniel by Christ. Encouraged by his friends to come meet the one “about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth,” Nathaniel snarks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
My nice friends would be all over that. What a mean thing to say about someone he didn’t even know! What a hurtful and dismissive remark to the people of Nazareth, who are as good as anyone else, and deserving of full respect.
Again, I concur, to a point. Depending on one’s leanings, that uncharitable snob, Nathaniel, was either an elitist one percenter or an aloof ninety-nine percenter, but either way, he wasn’t nice!
Interestingly, though, Jesus didn’t seem to find Nathaniel’s demeanor too uncharitable for his company or even to mind his tossed-off derision. One can imagine him smiling and putting a friendly arm around Nathaniel’s shoulders as he responds, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” In a manner of speaking, then, he was saying Nathaniel was someone who he could trust to speak the unwelcome word from time to time or to, at the very least, not simply tell Jesus what he thought that the rabbi wanted to hear.
Jesus, it seemed, preferred someone who would speak a slightly edgy truth over someone who would be “nice” but dishonest. Being himself all Truth, dishonesty in the guise of niceness could not serve Christ.
In fact, Jesus said many things that probably make our sensitive moderns squirm in their social media threads:
“Let the dead bury the dead!” (But Jesus, how dismissive!)
“I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.” (You’re so divisive!)
“Shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against them!” (Hater!)
“Get thee behind me, Satan!” (But Jesus, Peter was just trying to be nice!).
The thing is, Jesus did not want Peter’s niceness; he wanted Peter’s self-awareness that he was not nice. Jesus’ prophecy of his denials ensured that Peter would, finally, see his wretchedness and so be humbled, the better to be rebuilt in Christ. We have to see past the self-consoling illusions about what “nice” people we are, if God can ever work on us and make us not “nice” but truly loving.
The truth is not always pleasant; it is often scalding. In Nathaniel, Jesus saw someone willing to acknowledge what he thought was true, even if it exposed him as imperfect in love—as are we all. But when we are, sometimes it’s not a bad thing to be able to laugh our ourselves, and each other—to take things a bit more lightly than we are currently managing, rather than be spiritually grounded by the weight of our gravity.
If, as is generally agreed, there is freedom in naming a thing for what it is, then there can only be oppression in refusing to do so, all for the sake of being nice. Chiding others for daring to say (with lamentable levity in our increasingly humorless age) what many others are thinking is not a productive means of promoting truth or of serving Christ, in whom is our freedom. Quite the opposite; it serves only to shut down those realties that make us uncomfortable, or shake our illusions or stab at our worldviews.
In which case a sanctimonious “Shush, be nice”—far from being an admonishment to charity—equates only to “Shut up,” and there is nothing light about those words, whether they are coming from the mouths of those who think they’re too nice to ever say something that rude or, even worse, from the self-knowing tyrants who just want you to believe it.