I’m tired of being told to be nice. Niceness doesn’t change the condition of the world very much. Niceness often requires persons trying to be nice to choke to death on too much bile. I praise God that the most authentic baptistic Christians the world has known were not very nice.
No matter how many times I flip through the pages of my concordance, or type it into my handheld computer’s Bible dictionary, I cannot find the word “nice.” For years I heard injunctions like “Junior, be nice to your sister.” Or, “God doesn’t like nasty, so be nice.” And, “that would be a really nice thing to do.” Raised to be nice by really nice people myself, it feels so strange to me that the word “nice” doesn’t appear between “Nicanor” and “Nicodemus” in Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version Bible.
Commonly used, “nice” describes something as pleasing and agreeable, well-executed, appropriate and fitting, socially acceptable (i.e., well-bred), polite and kind. These are not bad things in and of themselves. Such behaviors are required of members of society needing standards for getting along together, and they are rightly enjoined by parents, teachers and elders. However, they fall far short of what is required of us in the company of Christ and his followers.
John 19: 39 tells how Nicodemus was transformed from a secret seeker of Jesus who came to him by night into a daring day-time disciple, laying claim to the broken body of Christ amid the stark realities of Roman terrorism and legalistic, religious ostracism. And then there was Nicanor, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-5) as one of seven men, “wise and full of the Holy Spirit” put in charge of the food distribution program to ensure fairness for Greek widows, discriminated against by the early Jewish disciples. Nicanor knew that if you want peace, you have to work for justice.
It’s no wonder “nice” does not appear between “Nicanor” and Nicodemus!” They were not nice–they were compassionate.
Maybe my parents called me to niceness because the word “compassion” scared them to death. That’s the real word that belongs between “Nicanor” and “Nicodemus.” Mama and Daddy knew enough about what happened to people like Jesus and Jeremiah, Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day, when they staked their lives on compassion.
Compassion, at least biblical compassion, is not about warm, fuzzy feelings, smiles of encouragement or periodic hand-outs. Compassion, as Linda Gaither says in her article, “Proclaim Jubilee,” is about seeing “the dignity of every child of God, and acting to protect and promote that dignity, even at a cost to ourselves.”
While niceness pursues privileges, compassion threatens our privileges. While niceness seeks to fit in with the prevailing cultural ethos, compassion demands that we change our social structures. In times like these, the world doesn’t need just another nice person. Instead, the world needs compassionate persons.
Isn’t it nice that “nice” never made it into the concordance?
Aidsand Wright-Riggins is executive director of National Ministries for American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.