Yesterday Michelle Heyne and I went to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Afterward she was so touched by the movie that her first thought was to return to see it again with Sean, her husband.
We went across the street to Murphy’s for a bit of reflection. Michelle mentioned how the movie portrays Lincoln as a kind man. I never quite thought about that before but agreed that was what was in the film.
Later I heard about the vote in England on women bishops. That’s when it occurred to me that Lincoln was a kind man but he was not a nice man.
The movie portrays him as pushing so hard to get the 13th amendment passed that he allows the war to go on for several more months at the cost of many thousands of lives. It shows him trading political jobs for the votes to get the measure passed. It shows him strong-arming opponents.
Not a nice man but a kind man.
In one of the Guardian's opinions about the vote on women bishops it suggested that one of the reasons it failed was that some people were trying to be nice.
The word on the street is that most of the house of laity who voted against didn't object to female bishops anyway, but were just trying to be nice. Niceness is the death of true religion and virtue.
Niceness, being nice, is seen by many as a kind of virtue; maybe as a kind of spiritual gift and practice. There are two errors here.
Being nice isn’t the same thing as being kind. Being pleasing and agreeable is not the same thing as being generous and compassionate. I do understand the desire to be in a parish that is pleasing and agreeable. But it is a treacherous harmony.
The other mistake we make is when we focus on one virtue and fail to keep in mind the relationship of that virtue or gift with all the other virtues. Lincoln’s kindness was certainly there, but so was his justice and his courage.
When we separate out one of the virtues and hold it above or apart from the others, we do terrible damage to the spiritual life of the Body. In Ephesians and Galatians Paul writes of the graces and practices necessary for our real life --humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance born of love, eagerness to maintain unity in the bond of peace, truthfulness mediated in love, mutual kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The one balances and informs the other.[i]
Our parishes stink of niceness. We are often lost in niceness. It’s suicidal. It’s connected with the extreme number of parish closings and maybe to our decline in numbers and courage.
Niceness is rooted in fear.
In many of our parishes we fear having the conversations we need to have.[ii] We fear challenging and really accepting each other. We fear being open with one another. Of course there are exceptions and in all parishes there are moments of grace. And because of that, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church—there’s something to hope in and possibilities to pursue.
In many dioceses the response to these fearful parishes is to give up on them; to speak of closing them. We write them off. And in our doing that there’s another example of being nice. We try to be nice to leaders who resist learning new ways. We start out by giving up on them.
There’s a difference between being nice and being kind.
[i] Also see -- Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church, See comments on the gifts of the spirit and the four cardinal virtues, pp 162-163