Grateful to feature this week and next two pieces from the forthcoming book by Stanley Hauerwas entitled The Character of Virture. What do you get when a world-renowned theologian writes letters to his god-son? This...
I’ve been given the happy assignment to write to you every year on the anniversary of your baptism to reflect on a virtue. “Reflect on a virtue” may be too weak a description of my assignment. I am not only to reflect on but also to recommend a virtue I hope you discover you cannot live without. I use the grammar of “discover” because it would be a mistake for me to “urge you to develop” a virtue that may be missing in your life. My task is not so much to recommend but to help you name the virtues that already possess your life.
I write to you on the first anniversary of your baptism to discuss the virtue of kindness. To be kind in a violent world is very dangerous, but fortunately you will discover you were destined to be kind. The Spirit of kindness stirred in the waters of your baptism, setting you on a difficult and rewarding journey. You are also surrounded by the kindness of your family and friends. Our gentle God created our kind to be kind by making it impossible for us to exist without caring for those both like and unlike us.
I’m not recommending that you try to be kind. As you grow up, you’ll discover that you are kind.
Oddly, we usually don’t become virtuous by trying to be virtuous. The virtues ride on the back of forms of life we discover along the way. The virtues are, so to speak, pulled out of us by our loves. That’s why it’s natural for us to be kind— because we were created to be so.
I believe kindness to be the very character of God, and it is because our faith centers on the Incarnation that kindness is the very heart of the way we are called to live. We believe, even in a world as violent as the one in which we find ourselves, that we can risk being kind. We are called to be like God, but we are not called to be God. In fact, we believe we can be like God precisely because God is God and we are not.
We are creatures created by kindness to be kind to all that is. To be kind is to learn how to be a creature with other creatures without regret. To be kind is to learn how to receive kindness from others without protection. To be kind is to be drawn into God’s good creation without fear. To be kind is to be disposed to trust the gifts of others that quite literally make life possible. To be kind is to know when not to speak because nothing can be said that is not false. To be kind is the willingness to be present when nothing can be said or done to make things better.
One of the ways we try to understand the nature of a virtue is by contrast with its opposite. The opposite of a virtue is called a vice. Often there are several vices that can be contrasted to a virtue, but the contrary vice of kindness is singular and clear. It is called cruelty. Children are often thought to be “naturally” cruel because they haven’t learned to regard the needs of others. But to so attribute cruelty to children is usually a mistake. Children may sometimes act cruelly, but children are seldom cruel.
I suspect that in general we don’t like to think that anyone is cruel “on purpose,” but unfortunately some people have developed a steady disregard for others that is rightly called cruelty. And because we’re extremely subtle creatures, we can actually disguise our cruelty as a kind of regard for the well-being of others. Once the habits of cruelty are learned, we can’t change them by simply trying to will our way free of them. Instead, we must be offered a new way of life that can come in small steps—steps as simple as asking forgiveness from one to whom we have been cruel.
I suspect you’ll find that you’re seldom tempted to be cruel. The greatest threat to our being virtuous usually comes not from vice but from dispositions that are similar to virtue. The great enemy of kindness, for example, is sentimentality. Sentimentality is the greater enemy of the life of virtue just to the extent that sentimentality names the assumption that we can be kind without being truthful. Sentimentality mocks kindness by confusing the public display of concern with genuine tenderness. Sentimentality hides the ugly truth that our gestures of recognition are actually expressions of our self-centeredness.
You won’t always be able to tell if you’re being kind or sentimental. Most often we’re only able to come to some understanding of our habitual dispositions and actions retrospectively. To have the appropriate self-knowledge that kindness requires means you will need good friends. Through such friendships you will be able to see who you are becoming, who you are, and to whom you belong. You belong to God, to God’s people, the Church, and all those whose kindness makes it possible for you to be kind.
You will have noticed that kindness, like all the other virtues, cannot stand alone. For kindness to be rescued from sentimentality requires the virtue of honesty. I believe that God gives each of us all we need to find our way to kindness. We believe that God gave his Son that we might be freed from the temptation to treat others cruelly in the name of a good cause.
Now, take joy in the life you have been given, because joy makes possible the way of kindness. In Christ,
Excerpted from The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas. © 2018 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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