Don’t Be Nice to Other Christians
Don’t be nice to other Christians — specifically those in other churches than yours. God doesn’t want you to be nice to them. He doesn’t want them being nice to you. Bad things happen when everyone is nice to everyone else.
God wants us to be kind, respectful, generous, empathetic, to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile. He expects us to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ that way. But that’s not being “nice.” Being nice is when you say kind things to others that you don’t really believe, because saying nice things makes everyone feel good and get along. You talk about the weather to avoid talking about anything difficult. You can have a very pleasant afternoon when everyone is being nice to each other.
But no one leaves that nice afternoon closer friends with anyone else. No one leaves more committed to working with others because they spent the afternoon saying, “Lovely weather we’re having, Mrs. Jones.” They haven’t faced the elephant in the room. Talking about the elephant wouldn’t be nice. People might not feel so good or get along so well after talking about that elephant. Some people might yell or even throw punches. This is the way a lot of Christians have tried to deal with the differences.
No one talks about the elephant. Everyone acts as nice as pie. And the unexpected thing is that people being nice to each other don’t become friends and allies. People only find real friendship, life-changing friendship, by facing and working through their differences — un-nicely.
For divided Christians, the elephant in the room is all the deep, serious differences between us. The Reformation wasn’t one of those arguments that end with everyone happily agreeing to disagree. It was a fork in the road and the two forks have been getting farther and farther apart for almost 500 years. There’s a lot we need to talk about.
After an early meeting of some of the Stream editors, I wrote a column for the Catholic website Aleteia about it. In “High Fiving the Pope,” I described the electric moment — electric for me, anyway — when our publisher James Robison said, “I’ve met the pope. I love that man.”
James is a Southern Baptist. Our executive editor Jay Richards is a Roman Catholic. Even more to the point: James is an evangelist (with a television show, even) and Jay is a convert (and everyone knows how hardcore converts can be). These guys are serious about what they believe. They’re all in. They’re also close friends and committed comrades.
But they’re all in on the other fork from each other. Southern Baptists and Catholics disagree sharply about some very important matters. The Stream deals with matters that are not just political or cultural but religious and theological. Sometimes we’re not just looking at the elephant but poking him with a sharp stick. How can this possibly work? It does work. It probably wouldn’t have worked thirty years ago, or even twenty, or maybe even ten. I know both Catholics and Evangelicals, some of them the nicest guys in the world, who even today wouldn’t be comfortable working so closely with people from other traditions.
The Stream works, I think, because James and Jay aren’t nice. Neither is our managing editor Jonathan Witt, and neither are any of the other editors and staff. Everyone accepts full-heartedly what their traditions believe and that includes believing the other traditions have got some important matters really wrong. Everyone sees the elephant and will talk about him. No one talks about the weather because they can’t face disagreement.
And — this is also important — everyone tries to treat the others with kindness, respect, generosity, and empathy. Everyone tries to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile. If two people are poking an elephant together, they should take care not to upset each other. The elephant’s very big, and easily annoyed.
There’s a second, crucial, step. The thing doesn’t happen without this second step. Being not-nice is just being honest. Being honest (“You’re wrong, Mrs. Jones”) is better than being dishonest (“Lovely weather we’re having, Mrs. Jones”), but it doesn’t provide a foundation for working together. You can treat the person you think wrong with kindness, but you’re not going to go to work with him. You won’t become comrades in arms. You need something on which you both agree, something great enough to bind you even when you disagree over things you think really important.
The Stream has that. The work’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord, and not the sentimentalized Jesus of so much of popular American religion, but the Jesus whose story the four gospels tell us, the Jesus the other New Testament books tell us more about. The Jesus who died and rose again. The Jesus — to take the hard case of the moment — whose instructions St. Paul relays to us when he tells us that only a man and a woman can be truly married. That Jesus. The Jesus the New York Times and Planned Parenthood don’t like.
As I wrote in the column, listening to James and the other Protestants at the meeting, I thought: Here are men who love Jesus. If Jesus walked into the room, they’d hit their knees as fast, if not faster, than the Catholics with them. If he told them, “You go join their Church,” they’d do it. Perhaps not right away, and not without grumbling, and only after double- and triple-checking, but they would do it. Because Jesus said so.
That means a lot to the Catholic, and I hope the Evangelicals recognize the same love for Jesus in their Catholic comrades. The elephant’s still in the room, but no one tries to be nice and pretend he’s not there. No “Lovely weather we’re having, Mrs. Jones” as the elephant crushes the tea table. Because no one’s being “nice,” everyone finds themselves comrades, and even friends.
For an article on this subject from another angle, see The Quaint Quibbles Dividing Catholics and Protestants, published at Aleteia.