Traffic jams force you to pay attention to the back of the car just ahead of you and after years of attending to the philosophical and political commitments of other drivers, I’ve concluded that not all bumper sticker wisdom finally wears well.
One of the widespread bits of wisdom that doesn’t wear well from a Christian point of view is the one that urges the reader to practice random acts of kindness. Of course, being kind is not a bad thing. And the great strength of the invitation is the freedom and surprise of such behavior implied in the word “random.” I am sure that at least some of what made this bit of bumper sticker morality attractive was that it leaves us in control and it allows us to be a surprise to others. That tracks well with the culture in which we have been reared.
Christian kindness, however, is not supposed to be “random.” It’s not even clear that the word “kindness” is really the central virtue of the Christian faith.
In fact, it isn’t even easy to convey the central virtue of the Christian faith any longer. The Latin for it is caritas and that word has been variously translated “charity” and “love.” But both words have fallen on hard times in the English language.
Charity often means little more than “hand out” and love has degenerated into something amounting to not much more than “affection.” By contrast, caritas is rooted in a different way of seeing the world that is rooted in an unqualified passion for God and for seeing the world as God sees it. The dignity, care, and love that is characteristic of caritas is rooted in the conviction that we are all the children of God, equally wonderful, equally in need of God’s grace.
Caritas doesn’t give, nor is it affectionate in a random fashion. It calls for much more and it calls for it consistently, because it is rooted in a fundamentally different way of seeing life. Random has nothing to do with it, because it’s not about the act of kindness, it’s about a fundamentally different way of being and seeing.
Beware of bumper sticker theology. There are times when it just doesn’t say enough.