A friend and colleague commented three days ago that a local school had a single rule: be kind. And that seemed like a good approach to Christian life and ethics, so would become this person’s New Year Resolution. For many people it feel as though the last year was not kind, and a little more kindness would be welcome. When my late mother still owned her Catholic faith, one of her favourite prayers went something like this:
Lord, keep me from saying that which is not true, and from that which, being true, is only half the truth, and from that which, being the whole truth, is not kind.
When we think of what is kind and unkind, though actions are important it is often words that make the difference and leave their mark, in both positive and negative ways.
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words can also hurt me.
Sticks and stones break only skin,
While words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the words-swords fall
To pierce and stick inside me,
bats and bricks may ache through bones,
But words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its scar
On mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed,
It’s words that I remember. (Brendan Byrne)
Kindness of actions has long been a central focus of Jewish ethics. Part of the Mishnah, the record of the oral teaches of the rabbis, includes this saying in Pirke Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers, supposedly going back to the first century):
Shimon HaTzaddik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly.
He used to say:
On three things the world stands.
On service [of God],
And on acts of human kindness.
A contemporary resource on Jewish life includes this comment:
We have three primary relationships in life. We have to learn to live with ourself, with God, and with others. Human beings interact with the world on three levels: thought, speech and action. Each of these three is the key to the three basic relationships: You act on yourself through thought or will. You interact with God through speech. And you relate to others through actions.
The word tzedakah is often translated as “charity.” It is anything but. Tzedakah is “righteousness” ? doing the right thing. How are you supposed to react to other people? Ayn Rand and the Objectivists held that the needs of others create no obligation on your part. This is a very un-Jewish idea. Torah demands that we be other-centered.
We are required to look at other human beings, try to understand what they are lacking, and endeavor to help them. One of the worst mistakes is to turn a blind eye and become insensitive to the suffering of others. At its highest level, tzedakah requires us to “understand” another human being: Who is he? What does he lack? How can I help him fulfill his role in life? Then I need to act.
For me this approach has a vital sense of integration, between the self and others, and between an emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ and relationship with God and the ‘practical’ and relationship with others. It is mirrored in recent teaching in some of the ‘new monastic’ communities who use ‘up, in, out’ as a framework for reflecting on different aspects of life. But it is also striking that the term we would normally translate as ‘righteousness’ is interpreted here as a practical quality, rather than a spiritual virtue, something that we find more difficult in our post-Lutheran readings of Paul in Romans.
We find a more characteristically Jewish (and OT) understanding or ‘righteousness’ in Matthew, who uses it seven times to refer to right action, and this approach explains apparent misquotation of Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 and 12.7. Jesus rebukes his contemporaries for not understanding ‘I require mercy [eleos] and not sacrifice’ whereas Hosea 6.6 actually says ‘I require loving faithfulness [hesed] and not sacrifice.’ The reason for the difference is that in Matthew Jesus is following the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, which often takes a freer approach to translation and includes interpretation; and the difference is disguised by some English translations which line up their rendering of Hos 6.6 with Matthew’s quotation of Jesus. The theological issue is that hesed in Hos 6.6 is directed towards God, rather than others, since the context is about the vagaries of God’s people in their ephemeral loyalty and superficial repentance—whereas Jesus’ ‘mercy’ appears to be directed towards others. Perhaps we need to consider the two issues as more closely related, not least because hesed is exactly the term used in Pirke Avot to describe kindness towards others.
There are two key challenges in the commitment to be kind. The first is highlighted by the etymology of our English term—what is the relation between ‘kind’ and ‘kindness’ meaning our attitude to others, and ‘kind’ meaning ‘a group of people or things having similar characteristics’? The word comes to us through the Germanic (rather than Romance) languages:
The original sense was ‘nature, the natural order’, also ‘innate character, form, or condition’; hence ‘a class or race distinguished by innate characteristics’.
The secondary meaning, that quality of ‘having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature’ arose from the observation that this is a deep-seated characteristic, something that seems deeply rooted in a person’s nature.
In Middle English the earliest sense is ‘well born or well bred’, whence ‘well disposed by nature, courteous, gentle, benevolent’.
If we are to live with kindness, we need a remaking of our nature, a ‘transformation by the renewing of our minds’ (Romans 12.2).
But the second challenge is to distinguish kindness from a polite, English, and dare I say Anglican ‘niceness’, which aims to be polite and inoffensive, and suppresses differences and disagreements which are then subversively manifested in passive aggression. Part of the challenge here is to note the way that the ‘loving kindness’ (hesed) of God is described in the OT—it is not separated from his concern for holiness and truth, and does not inhibit his call to his people to live in holiness and righteousness themselves. And Jesus’ gentleness and compassion is never separated from his passionate challenges in his preaching and the consistent call to repentance. It’s often suggested that this call was only to the hypocritical religious leaders, but any Jewish reader would see it as a consistent part of Jesus’ teaching, and so Luke makes explicit for his readers what Matthew assumes to be obvious: ‘I have come to call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32, compare Matt 9.13).
Paul holds these two things together in exactly the same way.
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2.4)
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. (Romans 11.22)
The term he uses here is chrestotes and other NT writers make use of the similar sound of the adjective chrestos (kind) to the title of Jesus ‘Christos’ to make a pun.
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good (chrestos ho kurios) (1 Peter 2.2–3).
Just as our worship of God and our ‘obedience to Torah’ cannot be separated from expression in kindness to others, to our kindness to one another cannot be separated from our mutual accountability in our worship and obedience. God is kind to us to bring us to holiness and maturity, and he surely longs that we do the same thing for the same ends. To be nice to someone whilst undermining faith by word or deed (or colluding in such) is no kindness.
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