Frederick Buechner writes, “If you want to be holy, be kind.” Buechner, an American theologian, writes of how to live well with clarity and compassion. His language is accessible, straightforward, and unflinchingly true – a breath of fresh air, in a theological landscape otherwise (often) defined by unwieldy language and weighty existential concern.
When I chose divinity school for my graduate education, I wondered about the place of virtue in public life. Could religious wisdom make culture more humane? Could contemplation inform action? So I turned to Buechner for guidance on subjects like discernment, vocation, love, and compassion. Buechner’s prescription for kindness is worth repeating daily.
In our broader cultural discourse, kindness is not often discussed. It is true that kindness is not a substitute for the work of justice. Civility alone does not ameliorate racism or bigotry or xenophobia or sexism. Friendliness is flimsy, when discrimination has borne legacies of violence, intergenerational maps of suffering, and systems designed to inflict trauma. Further, it is dangerously irresponsible to say that treating one individual kindly absolves us from the work that justice demands of us, which more often than not, is navigating when to speak up and when to silence ourselves, and moreover, understanding what it is we need to sacrifice.
Justice is the work of discomfort, which if we consider ourselves people of faith, we must take such work seriously. Rachel Held Evans, in Searching for Sunday, writes in a similar vein, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” For example, sanctuary, as most racial justice advocates would argue, would be a place that is actively anti-racist. Kindness alone cannot create sanctuary.
That said, kindness is also a virtue. It is part of living morally and with integrity, for we see the deleterious effects of its absence. If the antithesis of goodwill is hostility, then certainly kindness has restorative and protective power. During our final week in New York City, Jack and I were walking home from our restorative yoga class – we often joked that our walk home undid the benefits to our nervous systems – only to witness an upsetting scenes. One driver hit the roof of a cab with his hand, leaning out of the window as he passed, shouting at the cab driver for moving too slowly. Another pedestrian, trying to jaywalk, hit the roof of a passing car even more angrily for not stopping for him, even though the car had right of way. (Toxic masculinity, anyone?)
Sociological discourse could certainly deconstruct these interactions with precision, but it also sparked me thinking about how often other impulses eclipse kindness. In large cities, people push in line, push past elderly people on the sidewalk, yell before they understand, ignore the needs of other people, whether that be for spare change, recognition, or directions. Living in New York showed me how distant we can grow from one another, how frayed our cultural ties have become, and how lonely living in little boxes can be.
Following the massacre in El Paso, I heard of a “22 Acts of Kindness” mission to honor and remember the victims of the mass shooting. A woman spent her morning in New York swiping people into a Subway station for free, buying a stranger’s groceries, buying a new driver’s tank of gas, handing out flowers and bottles of water, giving free hugs, and more. I witnessed, albeit on line, a city I’d lived in and loved transformed into place of connection. While her kindnesses could not solve the issue of gun violence and racially motivated violence in the United States, they still restored hope and brought joy to many.
For the last two weeks, Jack and I have been basking in the warm, light-filled summer days. While we get organized for our next chapter, which will include new jobs, a new city, and upcoming international travel, we have taken some time to breathe in my hometown, which always reminds me of the values I have always carried within me.
A few days after our arrival, we learned that dear family friends were grieving a personal loss. With our arms full of one-sheet pan chicken and peach cobbler, we went to visit them, our love poured into the food. Kindness is holy, and like religion, love is expressed through action. Kindness is sacrament, its fruits signs of grace.
Kindness is the balm to some worldly wounds. While it cannot do everything, it is a ministry unto itself, one that should not be forgotten in a world that feels increasingly more alienating. If you want to be a little holier today, find a way to be kind. Kindness is brave and important.