The media is noisy these days with opinions about controversial issues. People on both sides of these issues advocate for something they call “kindness.” Earlier this month, I was in the presence of death three times in six days. I was also in the presence of extraordinary kindness. This kindness has made me consider: what sort of kindness cultivates Gospel justice and mercy in the midst of contention?
A friend’s uncle died first. He was a kind man. Many people said so at his funeral. I knew that about him too. He and I had shared few conversations. No matter. Hands leave impressions that linger, and kindness lived in his hands. His were hands trusted by puppies and people and plants that welcomed his touch. William taught people to fish and to grow a salad in their backyard. He cooked breakfast for his beloved of more than 50 years and “had tea” with his grandchildren and their dolls. Kindness—God’s kindness—lived in William’s hands.
They said Cynthia was kind too. I am a volunteer on-call chaplain at a local hospital. I was called in on a Sunday, the same day as William’s memorial service. When I arrived at the hospital, Cynthia was near death. “She is the kindest person I have ever known,” her daughter said. “I want my daughter to be like her.” Cynthia volunteered for several organizations in town, and she had owned her own business. But what Cynthia will be remembered for, her husband insisted, is her generous spirit. She was kind to family members and friends. Her kindness overflowed to strangers too. When Cynthia walked into a room, kindness came with her. Kindness—God’s kindness—dwells in some people’s presence.
And kindness dwells in some people’s eyes. “I wish I could have known her.” That is what people said about Rose at her memorial service. Five years ago a stroke left her unable to talk. But she never stopped being kind. “I sat next to her in the dining room,” one of the assisted living residents said. “Our elbows would touch. I never heard her speak with her mouth, but she said so much with her eyes. She was always kind. I will miss her.” I never met Rose, but I know her daughter. I see it in her too. Kindness. Compassion. Hospitality. Kindness—God’s kindness—dwells in some people’s eyes.
The Bible’s pages are seasoned with kindness. Galatians 5:22 says that “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Kindness is a fruit of God’s Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, God’s love is linked to kindness: “Love is patient and kind” (1 Cor. 13). And we see love-rooted kindness in how Jesus treats people in the Gospels. Jesus eats with people no one else will eat with. He befriends people who are rejected by others. He reaches out to people who are lonely and hurting. Ephesians 4 underscores the necessity of being kind for those who claim to follow Jesus: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
But being kind in this way is risky. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor write in On Kindness that “kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings.” This susceptibility, they write, extends beyond modern sentiments such as benevolence or altruism. Kindness of the sort they write about and that we find in the New Testament is anything but the shiny, superficial substitute that some people call “kindness” but that is in reality a veneer for demeaning judgment.
Authentic, Gospel-infused kindness demands that we link our well-being to the well-being of others, even the most distant-to-us and different-than-us others. This means that being kind is about more than charitable acts or volunteer service. Kindness that resists the labeling and exclusionary practices of power politics—something Jesus did by befriending disenfranchised people—is a matter of the heart. And kindness that stands up to heartlessness by standing with those who are mistreated is not meek. No, in the face of radical unkindness that is birthed by and gives birth to hatred, violence, and inequality, Gospel enlivened kindness looks, acts, and sounds more like open-hearted indignation. And that sort of kindness can be hard to find and even harder to know how to live out.
Here is what I learned from William, Cynthia, and Rose. Even when we can no longer do the things we once did, we can be kind. We can open our hearts to people we encounter. This is not always easy. We may not be able to see how some people deserve our kindness, and not all people respond to kindness with gratitude. But those funerals reminded me that God’s Gospel call stretches us beyond whether we feel kind or even whether we receive kindness on a given day. To open our hearts, eyes, and hands to others is to open our lives to God.
What if, at the end of our days, these were three words that lingered about how we lived? “She was kind.” In these times when racist violence continues to wound people, in these times when it is tempting to be anything but kind to those with whom we disagree, we need to hear again the old Gospel call: “Be ye kind to one another.” To do anything else is to grieve God’s Spirit and to cease reflecting God’s image of mercy and love in our lives. Besides that, I, for one, believe that God’s kindness, flowing out through us as we live and move and breathe each day, can change the world.
About Jill Crainshaw
Jill Crainshaw is a PCUSA minister and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is the author of several books on worship and ministry.