Wouldn't it be nice if the world were always ... nice? You know, like that dreamy, gauzy cotton commercial on TV-full of peace, and love, and a considerable helping of harmony and good will?
Wouldn't it be nice if next time at the supermarket check-out line, when the woman behind you cracked an off-color joke, or said one of those fatuous anti-Christian things that people say, making you her instant ally with a wink and a gentle poke in the side, you could just for once relax and smile and go along, just to get along?
You know how it goes: Someone strikes up a conversation. Someone (in a hit-and-run intimacy that Americans are famous for worldwide) shares a confidence, a private nugget to a perfect stranger, about her mother-in-law, her divorce, her goiter. You hazard a sociable rejoinder. You may even screw up your courage and divulge that you are a Christian. A more or less lighthearted exchange of worldviews ensues, which then, in the clipped format dictated by the pace of cash registers and whining children, winds to a pro forma close with her remark, "Well, different strokes for different folks, I suppose. As long as you're a decent person, that's all that counts, right?"
Say yes at that point and you've blown the whole thing. Though you have eked out 10 solid evangelical statements in the course of the encounter, you've just canceled them all out and relativized the truth by capitulating to "nice" in the end. You've given away the store.
I heard a story about a man in some office who became a Christian over the weekend and enthusiastically told the guys around the water cooler on Monday. Later, one of his colleagues took him aside privately and said, "Guess what, I'm a Christian too. Now we can do Bible study together sometime." The new convert replied, perplexed, "You, a Christian? You were my biggest stumbling block. Your life looked so together that for the longest time I thought to myself, 'See, it's possible to live a moral, upright life without Christ.'" So much for a Christian witness style of "nice" that doesn't acknowledge Christ with words (Luke 9:26; 12:8).
When the headlines are too much for me, I like to open up to the "Food" section of my Philadelphia Inquirer. It's that nice part of the paper where I feel all warm and comfy and accepted, where political animus seems a tempest in a teapot, and where we all here on page F-1, above the fray, discuss in mouthwatering detail what is, after all, the basic, unifying stuff of life. Chocolate mousse doesn't polarize; there's no secular humanistic slant to making a decent roux.
Occasionally-not too often-on a Sunday afternoon I have pounded the pavement in front of the local hospital carrying a sign that said, "It's a child, not a choice." The things people shout from their rolled-down car windows, the gestures they make to us, are such that I cannot relate here. And I'm talking about little old ladies in tweed coats. Experiences like these break right through the veneer of nice.
Neville Chamberlain liked nice. "Peace in our time," he declared, returning to London waving a piece of paper called the Munich Pact with which he and French Premier Daladier had made nice with Hitler. Not too long after, World War II began.
With the White House scandals now officially behind us, and many of us feeling burned, we too will be tempted to indulge in "nice" for a while: Let's call a temporary truce to this culture-war thing, soft-pedal the morality issues for a while, put some cheery faces on our magazine covers. Movie stars. Change the subject.
And yet, Jesus never did nice, did He? Never seemed to take a holiday from truth and acknowledging the Father. You could always count on Him to spoil the most genteel dinner parties, upset the apple cart in the Temple, commit some faux pas on the Sabbath, and violate the rules of social etiquette when talking to some Samaritan woman at the well. It cost Him His life in the end.
"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other ... father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother ... " (Luke 12:51-53).
But here is a promise: Forgo "nice" for a little while longer, for this trifling nanosecond of eternity, and a day is coming that will be so wonderful that the word "nice" won't be grand enough to describe it. It will be a day full of genuine peace, and love, and a considerable helping of harmony and good will.