Princess Diana popularized the slogan: “Practice Random Kindness and Acts of Senseless Beauty.” I’d like to replace it with “Practice Deliberate Kindness and Acts of Sensible Virtue.” Random kindness, however delightful, is more about demonstrating niceness than about intentionally extending care and compassion to another. Virtue ought to be a beautiful, habitual pattern in our souls, not an occasional spasm of goodwill.
If you follow the cartoon strip “Baby Blues” in the Carroll County Times, you know that big sister Zoe is currently “enforcing virtue” in her brother Hammie. Christmas is coming, and Santa won’t bring him any loot if he doesn’t toe Zoe’s line! Hammie’s is a spasm of senseless virtue, for show only — not a habit of the heart. Once the goods arrive on Dec. 25, he’ll return to grossing out his sister.
Last week, I attended a retreat with several other Lutheran clergy. One is African-American. A former Navy medical corpsman, he is a no-nonsense man of great integrity and theological conviction. As we discussed where our next retreat would be held, he joined me in expressing misgivings about a lovely but isolated center in the Virginia countryside. But whereas I was simply worried about getting stuck while traveling there in midwinter, he was concerned about getting stuck in this area near Charlottesville, where there were subtle but clear signs of support for the KKK.
He spoke of the hard, challenging stares he gets in areas like that, even when he’s in full clerical garb. He described the patronizing speech that thinly veiled contempt, suspicion and outright threats. “You could be stupid and pretend they don’t mean anything,” he concluded. “But this is what we go through all the time. People that do this don’t speak or act that way by accident. That is not an area I would want to be stuck in — especially at night.” This from a strong, courageous Christian priest who knows how to handle himself — and who doesn’t brand every white person as a racist.
He was describing habitual racism: an ugly amalgam of meanness and vice, not unlike greed, lust, apathy, slander and a host of other evils. Regularly practiced and effectively rewarded, these all form ingrained patterns of thought, speech and behavior that are the stark opposite of virtue. They become, over time, habits of the heart that corrode lives and communities.
People of good will cannot be moral dilettantes. We can’t coast through life, mindlessly scattering petals of goodwill here and there when the fit takes us or the occasion suits us. We can’t be good just for Santa, or just in case we might be caught. We need to learn the virtues “by heart.” We need to exercise the “muscles” of wisdom, patience, faithfulness, self-control, honesty, courage and just plain goodness, as if in preparation for a marathon. We need to be as intentional about personifying these virtues as racists are about demonstrating “racial superiority;” as persistent in pursuing these virtues as predators are about stalking victims; as diligent in increasing these virtues as the most rapacious robber baron is in amassing wealth.
It’s hard to be as intentional and persistent in kindness and respect, honesty and integrity as we too often are in laziness, nastiness and selfishness. But if our protestations that “we aren’t that kind of person” are ever to be believable, we need to value, learn and practice deliberate and beautiful patterns of virtue. They must truly be the habits of our hearts.
Our efforts will always be partial and imperfect. Sometimes, nasty impulses are too easy and alluring. But even Hammie senses that having Santa think well of him is a good thing! Conducting ourselves with kindness, patience, respect and honor, is a good thing — for ourselves, and for the people around us. I want to be the sort of individual of whom my colleague may say, “I’m so glad you’re this kind of person.” I bet you do, too. This holiday season and afterwards, let’s all commit to persistently practicing deliberate kindness and acts of sensible virtue. That would be beautiful.