Kindness Replaces Tolerance

I warned about the dangers of the tolerance movement over a decade ago. This was a cultural buzzword aimed at disarming anyone critical over the massive changes being pushed onto our society and culture by a very small minority of people with powerful, well-placed allies in media, education and government. Don’t like the idea of marriage being redefined arbitrarily by the State – or by the individual? You’re not being tolerant.

The danger of the movement was that tolerance flowed only in one direction. Everyone was to be tolerant of the minority opinions of marginalized groups, no matter how small or how outrageous their demands. But nobody needed to be tolerant of long-standing institutions, practices, or beliefs. These were inherently excluded from the mandate to tolerance because they were deemed to be intolerant themselves. A convenient argument that served it’s purposes. Massive changes to our culture were forced through as critics from any quarter were silenced by the demand to be tolerant.

Tolerance hasn’t been heard much in recent years. But a new, related buzzword is rising to prominence – kindness. I was sitting at LAX a few weeks ago and saw a woman and her young children sitting nearby – two of the three of them had shirts touting or demanding or encouraging kindness. Later on landing from various flights, the flight attendants invariably reminded everyone to be kind as they went on their way. An Internet meme showed a letter ending with the exhortation that, if you had to choose between being right and being kind, you should choose being kind.

Kindness is a tricky thing. It sounds good. Who doesn’t want to be kind, after all? Kind, nice, these are words in our cultural that hold appeal. They’re often wrapped up in the explanations we give about how we want people to be. Don’t we want our kids to be nice?

I guess it depends on how you’re defining the term, and that’s the slippery part. Ultimately, as a follower of Jesus Christ and an adherent of the Bible as the sole infallible repository of instructions and examples of what that means, I want my children to be loving. Kind as a variation of loving might work, but kind in substitution for loving will never work. Not for very long. This was my critique of the tolerance mantra as well – it’s a lousy substitute for love. So is kindness.

Biblically, kindness isn’t a major theme. More often than not in the Old Testament when a translation (such as the English Standard Version) employs the word kindness in translation, it’s referring to God’s disposition to us, the Hebrew term chesed. Otherwise, kindness is sometimes the Hebrew word shalom, which more commonly is associated with peace. But peace isn’t necessarily a word we use as much today and so kindness is used instead (Genesis 37:4, for example). Kindness is not a common Old Testament term (if you do a word search for kind, be aware that more often than not the results refer to the translators use of the word kind as a synonym for type).

In the New Testament when translators employ the word kind, they are translating a variety of Greek words with a fair variance of meaning, such as epiekeia (also meaning gentleness), philanthropos (courteously or, more literally, humanely), chrestos (good) (Luke 6:35 – the only place in the Gospels where the ESV makes use of the word kind in translation). This Greek term word chrestos in various forms is the primary word translated as kind by the ESV.

The Bible is far more apt to talk about love, and specifically exhorting followers of Jesus Christ to love rather than to be kind.

Kindness as a metaphor or synonym for love would then be an appropriate goal for my children or for myself. But kindness as a replacement for love doesn’t work. Not for long. Kindness has too many problematic connotations. It’s possible to be kind without love. Kindness is more perfunctory, more a matter of how things are done rather than why things are done. I could imagine someone to be kind who was merely very good at superficial displays. Someone who aspires to be kind has no problem with saying whatever wants to be heard, pretending to agree with whatever is requested. In fact any number of things we consider to be quite bad in general could be justified under the banner of kindness. The goal is to spare hard feelings or difficult conversations or unpleasant disagreements. The goal is not necessarily what is best, or true, or right.

Love recognizes that there must be a best and a true and a right and sometimes, unfortunately, in the name of love we must confront people with this reality who would rather believe otherwise. I could be kind to someone and not point out the dangers of a course of action or an ideology. But I wouldn’t be loving them. I’d be more accurately loving myself but excusing myself from a difficult conversation or their disapproval or rejection of me for not simply supporting them in their erroneous ideas. Love must be tough sometimes, because love presumes some hard truths and realities, and recognizes that our feelings are very fickle and fragile. If my goal is only to spare someone’s feelings I will inevitably fail at this, and in the meantime I will likely have also failed at being honest or any number of other things as I go to greater and greater lengths to try and spare their feelings.

And of course, like tolerance, this kindness movement is only in one direction. We must be kind to very small minorities of people who insist on changing everything in our culture to suit their personal preferences for how things ought to be. Anyone who would disagree with them is being unkind and is therefore to be denounced and if necessary destroyed.

Examples? How about the evolutionary biologist having his career shredded because he insists on the science that shows that male and female are not simply cultural and social constructs that can be arbitrarily redefined or done away with completely. Science in no way supports the demands of radical LGBT supporters who insist that gender is a spectrum to be defined by the individual rather than a binary reality to be dealt with. Apparent exceptions may arise to this, but it doesn’t change the fact that in the overwhelming majority of situations, men are men and women are women and this is biologically not sociologically dictated and should be supported as such.

Or how about the sanctions enacted by more liberal democracies on more conservative democracies who refuse to embrace LGBT demands for redefinition and reconstruction of society around their ideas?

How about people losing their jobs for having the audacity to state the obvious – that not all protests and protestors are equal, and that there are some very awful things being done right now and hidden behind the masquerade of protesting racial injustice?

How about people being vilified and criticized for not simply doing what everyone else is doing, or what some people demand that they do? Being criticized for their rightful recognition that body language matters and therefore we should be very careful in what we demand from others?

The overly simplistic attack that someone who refuses to do what others arbitrarily demand them to do is evidence of racism or some other inappropriate motivation is unkind, but it is sanctioned under the kindness banner because not providing the demanded response is itself deemed unkind and therefore not entitled to the protections the kindness banner would otherwise extend.

If my goal is not kindness but love, then I am forced out of my own head and my own ideas and my own hopes to engage with another person as another person, not just an extension of myself. I am driven to listen to them, to seek to understand them. I may in the end still not agree with them, but love also prohibits me from discarding them or attempting to destroy them simply because they disagree with me. It also prohibits me from accusing them of being unkind or unloving simply because they don’t look at things the same way I do.

Kindness dispenses with all of that effort.

So beware of this latest Trojan Horse called kindness. It isn’t necessarily what you think it is, isn’t necessarily what Sesame Street claims it is, and you aren’t required to live and act and believe by it’s precepts and demands. Especially if you claim to have a Lord and a Savior who has given you far greater and deeper and richer commands to love, even if it isn’t always perceived as kind.

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