Every generation, every culture, shapes Christianity to reflect that culture's concerns. In Europe in the second millennium, it seemed to be very political as kings and popes, people and priests fought over power, property, and the question of who governs. In South-East Asia today we see Christianity being about enduring under the yoke of persecution and oppression. In South America since the 1960s it has been about Liberation Theology as the church, once again, becomes politicised as a social movement.
In the United Kingdom it seems this tendency expresses itself in niceness. Whatever the cause, however engaged with the issues we might be, however we might disagree, lets not be unpleasant, lets be nice about it. The referendum that has just passed has people in its grip and they are engaged with politics in numbers not seen in my lifetime. We fall into three categories. Those delighted with the result, those disappointed with the result, and those confused by what just happened.
While feelings are running high, many are insisting there is virtue in being a good loser, as though this is a game of table-top football. They 'regret' the unbridled language used in claims and counter-claims, insisting the right response is niceness, especially if you are a Christian. 'Lets not allow things to get out of hand,' they insist. 'We don't want any unpleasantness.' Then they reach for the kettle, break open a fresh pack of rich tea biscuits and, 'tea anyone?'
Niceness is not, however, a fruit of the Spirit. There is, 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' (Galatians 5:22) but I don't see niceness in there. I can have love, experience joy, show kindness, pursue goodness and faithfulness, be gentle and self-controlled and still be forthright and outspoken in pursuit of what I regard as right, just, and good, still challenge what is wrong, unjust, and evil.
New Testament figures were many things but nice wasn't one of them.
'John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? produce fruit in keeping with repentance.' (Luke 3:7-8) I don't think John was 'nice' and nor do I believe he would have been impressed with the response, 'OK John, we will try to be nicer.'
Confronted with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, 'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness...You snakes! You brood of vipers!' (Matthew 23:27-33) I don't imagine the disciples saying, 'That's so rude Jesus! Why can't you be nice?'
In refuting the Jewish Christians who wanted to circumcise Gentile Christians the apostle Paul wrote, 'Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you if you let yourselves be circumcised Christ will be of no value to you at all...I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!' (Galatians 5:2&12) I don't hear anyone saying, 'Really, I don't see surgery as the answer Paul. Can't we sit and talk about this over a cup of tea?'
When Simon the Sorcerer offered to buy from Peter and John the power to endow spiritual gifts, the apostles didn't say, 'You know, there's been a misunderstanding here. Put the kettle on and we'll talk about a preaching series in the Autumn.' No! 'Peter answered, 'May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent..!'' (Acts 8:18-22)
In writing to the church in Sardis, Jesus says, 'I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!' (Revelation 3:1-2) John on Patmos, who wrote and delivered these messages, didn't say, 'That's a bit harsh Jesus. Can't we talk about this over coffee and cake?'
Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see, and the deaf hear, raised the dead, loved children, stood with the disaffected, returned dignity to ordinary people, preached hope and the need to pursue virtue and goodness. He also challenged the rich and the powerful, fought against injustice, shamed hypocrisy, spoke out, stood out, called out and confronted all that is evil in this world. Nice people don't do that. But then, Jesus wasn't nice.