I grew up in Midwestern dairy farming and factory country, where people are really pretty nice. But we had a saying about people who were tooooo nice in that way you know means it’s somewhat of a veneer: “She wouldn’t say s— if she had a mouthful.” If you were raised around farm animals and ever mucked out a stall, you understand what was in that mouthful and how easily it might happen to you!
Avoiding coarse language is a virtue worth cultivating, and I admire people who manage to keep it clean even when they are not feeling…nice. But there must be a reason that niceness is not one of the seven Christian virtues (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, humility or kindness) or one of the eighteen Jewish virtues, called middot: equanimity, patience, order, decisiveness, cleanliness, humility, righteousness, frugality, diligence/zeal, silence, calmness, truth, separation, temperance, deliberation, modesty, trust, and generosity. (Chesbon ha-Nefesh and Addendum)
Neither Hebrew nor Christian scripture mentions the concept or the word “nice.” But both speak of “kindness” frequently, as was noted by Rev. Ian Cummins (of Montview Presbyterian Church) last week in his contribution to the interfaith Gathering for Peace in Israel and Palestine.
I joined about 175 people at this service of prayer and reflection, held at Temple Micah (a Reform Jewish denomination in Denver) at the invitation of Rabbi Adam Morris. Leaders contributed from diverse Christian churches: Catholics, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. (The Muslim community, though invited, was unable to participate at the time.) The mood was solemn, and Rabbi Morris, expressing what felt true for many of us, said he was “heartbroken” over recent escalating violence between Israel and Gaza. We sang hymns and Psalms, including a song for peace in Hebrew and Arabic. We heard from both the Gospel and Torah. Rev. Cummins spoke on the difference between niceness and kindness: nicety is polite and welcoming, to be sure, but not necessarily giving, whereas kindness has a warmth and hospitality we trust.
Like many things of the spiritual life, kindness is not always sweet but is often salty, a truly nourishing food that sustains life. Kindness is a generosity that knows what is needed by those who suffer, for its sister is sorrow. Here is an abridgment of the poem Cummins shared, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment…
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness…
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
In the suffering of both sons of Abraham, there is no room for the luxury of niceness. But individual and communal peace rely on kindness, which is, after all, a divine attribute. Our God, in loving-kindness, mercy and justice, is present everywhere. How small our minds are, that we struggle so hard to accept this! How much we depend on God to save us. May we work on our individual and corporate capacities for kind words and actions, as we work for peace.