My beautiful wife Elena has a very placid nature but, if you want to ruffle her feathers, you simply have to call her “nice”.
As her faith has deepened over the years she has come to recognise how she and many other Christians have allowed the teachings of Jesus to be painted over with a veneer of “niceness”, consequently undermining the meaning, power and authority of his words.
Elena is not alone in her observations. Over recent years there has been a growing awareness of what has become known as the “tyranny of niceness”.
It is the illusion that being compliant and socially appropriate equate to being a “good Christian”.
In June this year, Pope Francis warned followers to not allow Christianity to become a school of superficial niceness.
He described this false understanding as “liquid Christianity” – a concept without substance that favours a love for external appearance rather than a love for Christ.
It is an image that seems to have taken a firmer root over recent years as the reputation of the Church has taken a battering.
Many followers, not wanting to add to the tide of Catholic negativity, have sidestepped any stance that may be considered confrontational or provocative – to the point of watering down or even misrepresenting God’s truth.
This is, effectively, the choice to hide behind a cloak of submissiveness and drift passively along rather than making any waves.
But not making waves is the state preceding drowning according to US author Paul Coughlin.
In his book on how to raise secure and assertive Christian children, No more Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps, Coughlin is adamant, now more than ever, that Christians need to re-align their understanding of the Gospels if they are to live out Christ’s message of love.
He believes equating “nice” to “good” is one of the most damaging deceptions of our time and has resulted in profound spiritual and relational degeneration.
And he is right. Many Christians have managed to mellow Jesus’ radical and life-changing message to a form of tepid and uncontroversial social niceties.
We have embraced teachings such as “turn the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the earth” to justify a stance of submissiveness rather than incorporating them into a broader context of Christ’s call to realign the world to his Father’s Will.
Christ’s call to meekness is a practical instruction to not return evil with evil and also a spiritual call to be pliable to God’s will rather than the ways of the world, but it is not, as Coughlin proclaims, an invitation for Christians to become defenceless punching bags.
In an environment where criticism toward the Church has become a secular pastime, however, it is far more comfortable for Christians to take a passive and non-confrontational approach than to stand firm on the foundational truths we have inherited.
It is easier to ignore those moments when Jesus vehemently stood up to the authorities of the day, when he angrily drove out money-makers from the temple and expressed exasperation toward his disciples, because we can then hide behind a cloak of niceness and justify any inaction.
By substituting love with “niceness” we can shelter ourselves in a cocoon of “holiness” but, in reality, we are ignoring vital aspects of Jesus’ earthly life.
US Comedian Jackie Vernon once said “The meek shall inherit the earth because they’ll be too timid to refuse it”.
It is an observation that is a little too close to reality to be humorous.
As society increasingly abandons or modifies the teachings of Jesus, Christians seem to be inheriting this reality without a fight.
Coughlin believes fear, under the guise of purity, has led Christian parents of recent generations to disengage their families from the world, effectively raising children who are pleasant and have good manners, but who wouldn’t have the courage to intervene when confronted with injustice or oppression.
It is one reason why the present day defence of the Church’s teachings on abortion, euthanasia, marriage, contraception etc has proven to be so ineffectual.
We seem to believe that remaining socially polite and not offending others is more Christian than passionately defending what we know to be true, but it is certainly not the stance adopted by our Founder.
Jesus may have been meek and submissive when it came to the will of his Father, but he was certainly not fearful or hesitant to confront and challenge sin in all its forms.
His level of gentleness, however, was not determined by social graces or a desire to please others, but rather by the hardness of heart of those he encountered.
To the woman condemned to be stoned, his interaction was loving and compassionate but, towards the Pharisees, he displayed anger.
It is a model we are called to follow if we are to lead others to God – a gift that may not always be wrapped in “niceness”, but one that should always be delivered with love.