Valuing being kind and prophetic over ‘being nice’ would help Unitarian Universalists speak more powerfully to the present times.
Activists gather in Boston for a vigil honoring Trayvon Martin during the 2013 National Youth Justice Training. (© UUSC, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There are people in our Unitarian Universalist faith who believe that “being nice” is a must for us as religious people. I don’t have much that’s, well, “nice” to say about that suggestion.
Seriously, niceness is not what our Principles call us to.
Our Principles—especially the first one—do not tell us to be complacent, compromising, and conciliatory. Our First Principle tells us to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” not “affirm and promote every idea.” In fact, our Fourth Principle stops that one in its tracks, because let’s face it: there are some wild ideas not based in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
No, we are not supposed to be nice. Niceness buys into the gospel of comfort and says we don’t want to offend. Niceness is complacent. Niceness doesn’t make waves and lets people have their own version of truth. Niceness doesn’t want to bother anybody. Niceness says comfort is more important than doing what’s right.
So why do we on the left side of the theological and political spectrum think we have to be nice? Why do we think we have to be conciliatory, and see all sides, and strive to be open to all points of view? Why do we think being liked is more important than being right?
The call to be nice is the theme of some recent articles running around the internet—in particular, a February 18 article from the New York Times asking, “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” Articles like this suggest that liberals are too mean to Trump supporters—who are predominantly white—and that progressives across the theological, color, and gender spectrums need to be nice to them, to not shame them for hateful and harmful rhetoric, and to let their views prevail. Articles like this, as Kenny Wiley wrote on Facebook, demand that we “humanize people who are already seen as full and complex.” Meanwhile, black and brown folks and queer and female-bodied folks so often are not, and simultaneously are told to suck it up and that our gentle reasoning about the moral and theological problems make those who don’t care what we think even less likely to hear us.
Now I’m not calling on us to be bullies—far from it; as former First Lady Michelle Obama famously said, “when they go low, we go high.” And we still must do that, because right now, because of all that Unitarian Universalists know about humanity and potential and how the world works, we do indeed occupy the moral high ground, and not being bullies is part and parcel of that occupation. But occupying the moral high ground and building the beloved community are not the same as being liked, and our generally conciliatory manner, born from centuries of Protestant decorum, will win us neither friends nor justice.
We need to shed that veneer of respectability in favor of our faith’s true call: to be kind.
Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, kindness holds the door, kindness builds a ramp, kindness explains, and kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.
Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness donates to groups in need and stands outside of Planned Parenthood and escorts women seeking medical treatment. Kindness puts on angel wings and shields a grieving family from a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water and asks forgiveness. Kindness mourns hate-motivated deaths, and kindness works for racial justice because it knows that black lives matter.
Kindness mattered to an older white woman who stood in line at a deli one morning before Thanksgiving. As I approached the line, this woman asked for a grilled chicken salad she’d take for lunch; the clerk said it would take five minutes and happily began the preparation. As the clerk was bagging my items, a Latina woman came in and asked for a grilled chicken salad. “We can’t do chicken right now,” the clerk said in a curt tone. The Latina woman began to slump off, and that could have been the end of it, but the older woman insisted: “You did it for me, you can do it for her.”
Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness matters.
Kindness, not arguing, is what’s going to make the difference. Kindness means that we’re working for equal rights and equal pay and safety and clean water and accessibility for everyone, even those who disagree with us at the tops of their voices.
Kindness answers yes. Kindness doesn’t calculate the return on investment or the risk to reputation or the fear of comments. Kindness is present to the moment.
Our seizing the moment matters. Our call to be uncomfortable matters. Our giving out of love and compassion matters. We can’t stop to be nice and conciliatory, or the dream will never be. We must stop being nice and answer the call of our faith. Because our kindness matters.
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The Rev. Kimberley Debus recently served as minister at First Universalist Church of Southold, New York. She is currently building a community ministry of the arts in the Capital Region of New York.
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