A number of years ago, I suggested in this space that you can fairly easily take every acquaintance you have and pigeonhole that person into one of four categories:
1) People who you think are wrong about most things, and not very nice about their wrongness.
2) People who you think are wrong, but pretty nice about it.
3) People who you think are right about most things, but not very nice about it.
4) People who you think are right about most things, and nice about it.
We’ll come back later to the obvious question: Which category do folks who know you well use to classify you?
But I bring this up again because I thought it might be helpful to our new secretary of state, John Kerry. Just as you can use this homespun system for categorizing friends and acquaintances, maybe he could use it to categorize nations.
Category 1. Certainly it’s easy to think of countries—like North Korea and Cuba—that start with ugly assumptions, and then carry out those assumptions in ugly ways.
Category 2. And you can point to many other nations—like Japan and Turkey, for example—whose dominant worldviews are rooted in error (like Shintoism and Islam), but who by God’s common grace make significant contributions to global prosperity, peace, and well-being. They typically act like responsible citizens of the world.
Category 3. Around the world, on the other hand, are dozens of countries that have been historically blessed by the fruit of the biblical gospel, but have traded away those birthright benefits for a stew of collectivist restrictions and regulations. Take your pick of European nations that have cashiered their Reformation-style freedoms for empty packages of humanistic promises.
Category 4. So does that allow us to describe at least a few of the world’s nations as societies rooted in the truth—hey, let’s call that the Truth with a capital T—and still demonstrating the ability to exercise that Truth in a positive and winning manner? Does a sweet spirit of kindness and generosity spill over into the lives of those people affected by those nations’ policies and practices?
And then on to the obvious point: Is there even a remote and wispy sense in which you still think of the United States that way—as a nation where God’s Truth is held high and lifted up—and that those engaged in such a hoisting exercise are doing it with a bright and winsome optimism? If you can’t say that any longer about the United States, is there any place in the world where it can be said? Is there not a single nation anywhere around this big globe that is like the person in Category 4 above: Where you think most of the time the outlook is at least consistent with the Truth, and where everybody’s “nice” about making that proclamation? Out of 200 nations, not a single one?
For a couple of centuries, the United States probably had a right to such a claim. America could typically talk about its commitment to Truth. And, with a few exceptions, America was “nice.” It almost always deserved its reputation as a friendly force for good in the global community.
But now this related question: In societies—both national and global—that appear to be drifting farther from the Truth, and increasingly alien to those who want to live by that Truth, what will help such Truth-tellers enhance their “niceness” quotient? How can we resist the tendency to live defensive, angry, ugly, and unattractive lives? How can we avoid filling up Category 3, and instead populate Category 4 in engaging and compelling terms?
Being “nice,” of course, is not ultimately what the Christian walk is all about. But neither is it just a low-level option for those who are commanded by Scripture to “speak the truth in love.” Even the order of that commandment—truth first, love second—suggests that being “nice” can’t happen unless such behavior is rooted first in the Truth. My suggestion is that that order is just as true for nations as it is for individuals. That’s a sober thought for citizens of a country that has forfeited so much of its inheritance of God’s eternal verities. Could we, in the process, also have given up our ability even to be “nice”?