Why Are So Many Christians Unkind?

Why Are So Many Christians Unkind? March 15, 2016


Barry Corey has written a new important book entitled Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue.

Recently, I caught up with Barry to discuss the book.


Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”

Barry Corey: First of all, I want to dispel any preconceptions that kindness is the same as niceness. I debunk this idea head on in the book, arguing instead that kindness is a radical life not a random act. One reviewer of the book wrote, “I must admit that when I first started to read the book, I was concerned it might be one of those books that insists on kindness to the exclusion of standing for what is true in terms of right beliefs and right practices.” Not long into the book, she recognized that kindness is about firm centers and soft edges. The fact is, too often we are witnessing firm centers and hard edges.

I have a feeling people are getting tired of the rampant unkindness of our times. Whether it be the political campaigning or the culture wars in Christianity or the overheated debates of cable news and social media, our world is saturated with uncivil debate and shrill voices yelling over one another. We are exhausted and frustrated by this, and I suspect there is a deep yearning for another way.

I think there are a lot Christians who are hungry for an alternative to the voices of barbwire-wrapped Christians who are picking fights from pulpits, blogs, tweets, talk shows, town meetings or political platforms. What if Christians rediscovered kindness, a virtue Christ exemplified and which should characterize his followers? I think readers of this book will see that kindness can and must coexist with conviction.

Rather that erode the “firm center” of our faith, the “soft edges” of Christian kindness will only make our center more secure, believable and attractive. Kindness has the power to influence others, revealing the truth and grace of the Christian faith far more than the insecurity of confrontational posturing.

Someone told me recently that we never lead our enemies to follow Jesus, but we do lead our friends. Kindness helps us build relationships and build trust such that our message is more likely to be received. I think readers of Love Kindness will be reminded of this and encouraged to see the critical importance of kindness for our Christian witness and mission.

What is the “forgotten Christian virtue” and why has it been forgotten?

Barry Corey: The forgotten Christian virtue is kindness. Sadly, Christians have been quick to bypass kindness and often prefer to begin a shouting match, or they just talk among themselves about how awful the other side is. We have ranted before we’ve related, deeming the latter too soft on sin. Christians—and I’ve seen this especially in American Christians in recent years—have employed the strategy of winning the combative way, and it’s not working.

The “culture wars” have done little to change our society, and we’ve lost many if not all of these wars. As a result, the church too often is marginalized and mocked, and increasingly people are viewing the Bible as just as intolerable as our aggressive tactics. It’s time for a new way of living lives of radical kindness, not to be accepted but to be faithful.

I’m willing to bet that if Christians leaned more into kindness and understood more its revolutionary power, the world would see a side of us that would cause many skeptical and irate folks on the other side to take notice. Our radical gestures of kindness may be rejected. They may be received. But they will not be forgotten.

Tell us a bit about the personal experiences you’ve had that shaped the insights in the book and provoked you to write it.

Barry Corey: This book was born out of a personal experience. There’s a lot behind this story, but during a yearlong research assignment in Bangladesh on a government grant, I was becoming cynical about how much influence I could really have not just on programs but on people.

My father came to see me for a few days, almost like an angelic visitation, and he wanted to tell me about the revolutionary power of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” All my life I’d watched my father live a life of uninhibited kindness, and that day he said those words of Jesus all the pieces began to come together. I recall few encounters with shopkeepers or waitresses when he didn’t ask questions or offer encouragement, when he didn’t make himself receivable.

Usually, he was unashamedly kind. Those moments were often awkward—at least they were for me, his shy and self-conscious son. He hugged the local Muslim Sunoco station attendant. He asked the Armenian cobbler to pray with him over the polish-stained counter while I kept an eye on the doorway, hoping no one would come in and catch them in the act of talking to God. I was embarrassed then, but more recently I’m embarrassed by that childish embarrassment. His friendly smiles, kind words, and waves to strangers were occasionally met with a brush off, a scowl, or even a finger.

That day in Bangladesh that Matthew 10 verse fell on the fertile soil of my life, and I’ve been pondering since the power of Jesus’ words to his followers about a receivable life. This may sound counterintuitive, but the objective of the receivable life is not to be received, but to be receivable. The goal of the kind life is not to be thanked; it is to be obedient. Jesus simply said we need to make ourselves receivable—that is, to remove the obstacles or the distance that keep others from seeing Jesus within us.

I sometimes confuse living to be received and living to be receivable. Living to be received focuses on how others respond to my kindness. This is out of my control. Not only that, but living to be received ultimately inflates my ego. Living to be receivable is different. It decreases the ego because it’s kindness that is not awaiting a thank-you. Living the way of kindness should not be measured by how people perceive me. Living the way of kindness calls me to a posture of humility, and humility is most authentically lived when I accept that my kindness will sometimes be rejected. Kindness focuses on how I open myself for others to receive me, whether they choose to or not.

Without a doubt, Christians have a reputation for being judgmental, self-righteous, hateful, and mean-spirited in the eyes of many unbelievers. But why do you think so many Christians are unkind and vicious toward their fellow Christians with whom they disagree?

Barry Corey: We have a lot of fear. Fear of being overrun by “liberal” Christians, fear of not having our candidate win, fear of losing ground on biblical standards, fear of softening America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, fear of those more tolerant to religious pluralism and on and on. And so we respond to fear with fighting. Standing for our dignity and in defense of the convictions we hold, Christians often lead harshness toward those who don’t hold to the same convictions they do.

To prove we’re not going soft on our faith (and sometimes understanding that fighting words raise more money), we’re quick to label others from a distance. Christian leaders have been known to whip up their supporters into a frenzy over the antics of their political, media, or theological “enemies,” inside and outside the church. Plus, it’s far easier to lob accusations and criticisms from a distance through social media than it is to have a conversation.

I also lay part of the blame on Christians’ finding it more convenient to mimic cultural norms than creatively and biblically being countercultural in how we engage with each other. We are quick to follow suit with the trends of what seems to be working in the general culture, and our attempts to grab power in politics have particularly made us polemical on some issues.

I wrote this book out of frustration that those who represent the gospel are often caustic and harsh, picking fights with those whose views are hostile to theirs. In other words, Christians are often starting with unkindness. Unkindness has little effect beyond marshaling other Christians in our particular tribes to admire our toughness and raise our own profile. This has gotten us almost nowhere in the cause of the gospel, our Christian call to be redemptive voices to that which is broken. Our increasingly shrill sounds across the aisle may be done in the best of intentions, protecting our view of what Christianity should look like, but they are not strengthening our witness.

Bullhorns and fist shaking—mustering armies and using war-waging rhetoric—are far less effective than the way of kindness, treating those with whom we disagree with charity and civility. That doesn’t mean we don’t stand courageously for what we deem right, true, and just. But kindness is not incompatible with courage. Kindness embodies courage, although courage does not always embody kindness. Too often our centers are firm on conviction, but our edges are also hard in our tactics. This way is characterized by aggression, not kindness.              

What should a Jesus-follower do when they see a so-called “Christian” attacking another Christian with vitriol or slander?

Barry Corey: Crassly, kindness works. It works because it was the biblical model for our engagement with each other as the people of God and with the world. Jesus-followers need to be voices of virtue to others when Christians are attacking each other.

There need to be pastors and professors and authors and bloggers fanning the flames of kindness as the antidote to our vitriol and slander. Kindness is a biblical way of living. It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit on Paul’s short list in Galatians 5. It’s not a duty or an act. It’s the natural result of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. We exhale kindness after we inhale what’s been breathed into us by the Spirit.

Many Christians nowadays tend to talk with bravado and bluster about heroism that impacts the world. I’d rather talk about the power of kindness to change lives. Paul got this when he said to Jesus’ followers in Rome that God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Repentance, more than anything else, changes lives. And kindness leads us there.

Christians need to hear that kindness is not a virtue limited to grandmothers or Boy Scouts. We devalue its power when we think of kindness as pampering or random acts. Kindness doesn’t pamper, and it’s not random. It’s radical. It is brave and daring, fearless and courageous, and at times kindness is dangerous. It has more power to change people than we can imagine. It can break down seemingly impenetrable walls.

It can reconcile relationships long thought irreparable. It can empower leaders and break stalemates. It can reconcile nations. Kindness as Jesus lived it is at the heart of peacemaking and has the muscle to move mountains. It’s authentic and not self-serving. I want Christians to hear that they should not sell kindness short.

Kindness enables us to negotiate in a time when negotiating is dying and friendly discussions are yielding to rancor. Kindness—the higher ground—helps us find middle ground and common ground. Christians who are in it for the long haul in the new world order we’re entering (post-Christian and religiously plural) need to grasp that the greatest leadership influence lies ahead for those who walk the way of kindness in an increasingly fragmented and skeptical society. It’s a path that will help us to be stronger leaders, more winsome neighbors, healthier husbands, better mothers, truer friends, more effective bosses, and faithful disciples.

Give us 2 or 3 practical take aways from the book that readers can apply right now.

1) One thing I suggest as a practical way to live a life of kindness is to become more involved in the culturally unfamiliar, to actively engage with those who are unlike us. If we reach outward, open ourselves to “common good” conversations and collaborations with people who might otherwise oppose what we stand for, it’s going to be a lot harder for us to be criticized or even penalized for what some believe are out-of-date principles.

When we are in the cultural crosshairs, I want leaders in our cities and in the public square to say, “That’s the church that works with the city helping undocumented children. That’s the Christian college partnering with HIV research or helping to draft a policy for urban educational reform. That’s the campus ministry hosting conversations with voices of differing perspectives.”

Absent these collaborations, we could be defined merely as anti-this or anti-that organizations rather than as organizations that standfor  We don’t need to be part of the arsenal. We need to be part of the dialogue. When we act this way, we will be less on the defensive and more in a position to be heard and understood, though not necessarily agreed with. And though at times we need to fight to hold our ground, the benefits of opening ourselves to civil conversations outweigh the risks of shutting out other voices.

2) Another practical way to live a life of kindness is to be creators of goodness and beauty. My ongoing desire is for Christians to create more beautiful things through music and the visual and media arts, as writers and performers and storytellers and movie producers. And let’s extend our creative work beyond the bordering streets of our organizations. If God is the author of all things beautiful, we become his fragrance as we fan the flames of imagination and invest in the many arts: written, culinary, spoken, visual, dance, digital, and on we go. This is the way of kindness.

I am convinced we have more and more to contribute to the arts. Just think of what would happen if we extended beauty and goodness beyond our own organizational walls. Just think what would happen if we reached across the gallery to collaborate with artists with radically different frames of reference. What if suburban parochial schools rented a city theatre for a play or leased space in the arts district for a gallery? What if a suburban church and an urban church combined their choirs so that the performers truly looked and sounded like Revelation 7’s gathering of every tongue and tribe and nation?

We can be communities that attract artists and intrigue those who love beauty regardless of their perspective on faith. When we do this, we are making our edges soft without tampering our centers. The way of kindness means we generously explore beauty and goodness.

3) Another practical way to live a life of kindness is to approach the growing opposition in our day by leading with humility. Something’s changing in our culture. And I say this not as a fighter or a right-winger. I was never a member of the Moral Majority. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with friends who belong to the NRA or who have harsh views on immigration.

So when I say something’s changing, I’m saying this from a measured perspective. What has happened in the last few years is staggering. And a part of the reason why Christians are increasingly less tolerated is that our conversations are in-house, and we’re not making connections to the wider world as intentionally as we could. We need new and more conversations that build bridges and not walls.

I applaud my friend Gabe Lyons and his efforts with Q to help us embody the gospel and be restorative voices in culture, working toward the common good and doing so in conversation with those who may not believe as we do. We need these conversations more than ever. It’s easier to be kind when we are in the dominant position, but this position is no longer ours. To be heard, we need to have civil voices and thoughtful ideas. This will take more work from our minority position.

The Jewish community, a religious minority like we may be becoming, has long seen the academy and culture-shaping institutions as places where they should invest their time and talent, not without little influence. Not long ago I was sitting in my office talking about convicted civility with University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty, who wrote in one of his books, “People today who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. And people who have strong convictions are not often very civil.”

I commented to him how we need universities that embody both conviction and civility: firm center, soft edges. We must continue to be among the relevant voices by creating conversations and reaching outward, engaging in the marketplace of ideas with a gentle and respectful voice that will be heard. The risks are too high to do otherwise. We don’t need to be part of the arsenal. We need to be a part of the dialogue.

When we act this way, we will be less on the defensive and more in a position to be heard and understood, though not necessarily agreed with. And though at times we need to fight to hold our ground, the benefits of opening ourselves to civil conversations outweigh the risks of shutting out other voices or of solo saber rattling.

What else do you want readers to know about your book?

Barry Corey: One thing I would want to clarify with readers is that this is not a book about niceness. It’s a book about kindness. There’s a big difference. By kindness, I’m not talking about when you buy a stranger coffee or when you bring in your neighbor’s trash cans or when you tell someone they have food in their teeth. These are nice random acts. But kindness is not a random act. It’s a radical life.

Kindness is not limited to grandmothers or Boy Scouts. Kindness is all over the Bible, plentiful in both Testaments. But you won’t find niceness in the Bible once—nor the word nice, for that matter. Kindness is fierce, brave and daring. It’s fearless and selfless, never to be mistaken for niceness. They’re not the same and never were. Kindness is neither timid nor frail.

Niceness is kindness minus conviction. I think we should scrub “nice” from our vocabulary. We need to stop telling children to be nice and instead tell them to be kind, and then tell them the difference. Niceness is about being polite and politically correct. The call to kindness is a call to sacrifice, to embrace discomfort, to put action behind our words. Niceness is circumstantial but kindness is a way of life.

Browse Our Archives