A friend told me about her 12 year-old daughter's volleyball team winning a tournament two weeks ago. As the girls began to celebrate their victory, the parents of the runner-up team stormed the court and began screaming at the officials. Then they turned their wrath on the young girls and called them names, singling out the sole African-American girl for especially vile words.
Any politician who held a town hall meeting in the past year knows exactly how it feels. Many of them had people shouting them down and hurling insults. After the health care vote, some representatives in Congress were spit upon, some received death threats.
We read about children being bullied in schools: some youngsters are pushed around and threatened, others are beaten, and some have died from their injuries.
From sports fields to political gatherings to schools to road rage, there is a spirit of meanness in the air. What's going on? Why is there such a lack of civility? There are several reasons for the rancor, but fear and frustration may top the list. The deep recession has cost many their jobs and some their homes. People are afraid that things could get worse before they get better. Unpredictable times make people testy and their frustration quickly boils over into anger.
Tough times lead people to forget the links we have to one another and the need to support the common good. Many have forgotten what any Boy Scout can tell you: for people to get along with one another it is important to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous and kind.
In the first century, the Apostle Paul counseled those first, struggling congregations with similar advice. He instructed them to put aside their petty differences and to focus on what unites them. And he reminded them that all followers of Christ rid themselves of those things that emanate from a mean spirit.
In today's passage, Paul describes the change that takes place in us when we commit to Christ. Beginning a few verses prior to today's reading, Paul introduces a clothing metaphor to describe the transformation. He says that we must "strip off the old self" which is characterized by "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language" so that we can "clothe ourselves with a new self." Paul wants us to picture ourselves taking off a set of smelly clothes and throwing them away, and then putting on new and beautiful attire.
The verses just read describe the new garments we are to wear. Paul says "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you...Above all, clothe yourselves with love."
Paul describes the attitudes and actions that characterize a Christian. These values and behaviors cement our most intimate relationships with spouse, partner, child and parent. They infuse our relationships with our friends, colleagues neighbors. They should even be at the core of our relationships with strangers, complainers and enemies. As the old adage goes: "Don't respond with revenge, kill 'em with kindness."
All of us understand the need for kindness. Our homes and neighborhoods, our workplaces and schools, our whole world would be healthier and more enriching if everyone was kinder and gentler with each other. Debates in Washington would not become so inflammatory, differences of opinion would not destroy friendships, arguments between parents and children would not dissolve into screaming matches if, despite our disagreements, we treated each other with kindness.
How alert are you to opportunities to express kindness? They present themselves each day. The red-faced store clerk who just endured harsh tongue lashing from an irritated customer. Or the co-worker who tells you over lunch that her teenage son is coming home past curfew and treating her with contempt. Or the fellow church member whose wife has dementia and she no longer knows who he is or why he sits with her for hours. Or the young boy who is being bullied by classmates. Or the family member who has had a rough day and needs a sympathetic ear. You know people who could use a warm embrace, a thoughtful note, a word of encouragement. You could lift their spirits by simply being kind to them.
With so much acrimony and antagonism in our world, wouldn't it be marvelous if an epidemic of kindness broke out and everyone sought to outdo each other with acts of courtesy and compassion? With so much venom and vindictiveness, wouldn't it be wonderful if we countered with an assault of gentleness and generosity? Surely such actions would go a long way to cleaning out some of the hostility and cynicism and irritability that's in the air.
And yet, for all its virtue, kindness is not enough. And not only is it not enough, sometimes kindness is actually the problem.
Sometimes kindness can be a way of avoiding authentic human need. The Bible knows about this attempt to sidestep taking action by simply tossing out a few cheerful words. In the Letter of James, we read: "If a brother or a sister comes to us, lacking sufficient clothing or food, and you say, with kindness, 'Keep warm, be filled, go in peace,' yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?" (James 2:15-16) Kind words can bring healing, but they can also become pious, empty rhetoric if they are used as a way of avoiding human need.
What does the Executive Presbyter do when one of the ministers in the presbytery, who is also a good friend, is discovered to be embezzling funds from the church or having an affair with a parishioner? What does kindness require in that type of situation? Hearing him out? Yes. Getting him help? Certainly. But that is not all. There must also be justice. When kindness to the perpetrator ignores justice to the victim, it is not kindness according to the Spirit of Christ. It may be some form of kindness, but it is not in harmony with the way of Christ. Kindness can never serve as a substitute for justice.
On one occasion when Jesus was invited to dine with a group of Pharisees who were known as extraordinary examples of living according to God's commandments, Jesus chastised them. He said, "You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness." In other words, at first glance, you appear to be stellar examples of faithfulness to the teachings of God. However, your outward actions are a ruse. They are an attempt to cover up a rotten core.
Jesus follows with a specific example of what he means. He says, "You tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds." That is, you give ten percent of what you have to God. And not only ten percent of your main income, but even ten percent of the little herbs you grow in your garden, tiny additions that most people would overlook. However, while carrying out these scrupulous deeds of adherence to the law, Jesus adds, "You neglect justice."(Luke 11:37-42) Jesus was outraged by people who appeared to be shining examples of faithfulness to God's law, but totally neglected the demands of justice.
Imagine how differently history would have turned out if, following his Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem, Jesus would have treated the corrupt religious officials with kindness, yet not demanded justice? Jesus would have saved his neck, but lost the world. His mere congeniality to the leaders would have meant complicity with injustice.
Tom Long remembers a woman named Grace Thomas. She was the child of a streetcar conductor from Birmingham, Alabama. She fell in love with a boy from Georgia Tech, moved to Atlanta and married him and became a full-time wife.
To support the family she took a job as a secretary at the state capitol in Atlanta. She was now full-time wife and full-time secretary.
Through her job she became interested in politics and the law, so she enrolled in night law school. Now she was a full-time wife, a full-time secretary and a full-time law student.
When she finally graduated from law school, she astonished her family by saying, "I'm not going to practice law. I've decided to run for political office."
They said, "Mother, what office?" expecting her to say school board or library board. But she said, "I'm going to run for the governor of Georgia."
Now this was 1954. There were nine candidates that year: eight men and Grace Thomas. There were nine candidates, but there was only one issue. It was 1954 and Brown versus the Board of Education had come forth from the Supreme Court to integrate the public schools. Eight of those candidates for governor said that they thought Georgians ought to resist this ruling with every fiber of their being. Only one candidate, Grace Thomas, said that she thought it was the coming of justice.
Her campaign slogan was "Say Grace at the polls." Not many people did. She ran dead last and her family was relieved that she had gotten it out of her system.
But she hadn't. In 1962 she ran for governor again. This time the civil rights movement was in full flower and the stakes were high. She went around the state with her message of progress, prosperity and racial harmony. She received death threats and her family traveled with her to protect her.
One day, she was giving a campaign speech in the little town of Louisville, Georgia. The centerpiece in Louisville is not a Civil War monument or a county courthouse, it's an old slave market where human beings were bought and sold. She decided to give her speech under the canopy of that slave market. Addressing a small group of farmers and merchants, she pointed at the slave market and said, "This, thank God, has passed and the new has come. It's time for Georgians to join hands, all races together." Somebody in the crowd shouted at her, "Are you a communist?"
"Of course not!" she said.
"Well, where did you get those goldarned ideas?"
Grace paused briefly, and then pointed at the steeple of the Baptist Church across the street. She said, "I got them in Sunday school!" Some Sunday school teacher had taught Grace that God is merciful and just, and calls on us to treat others with kindness while standing up for justice.1
No one put it more succinctly than the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God?"
1. Thomas Long, "Where You Never Expected to Be," on 30 Good Minutes website for October 22, 2006
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