The Undercover Christian

Despatches from the front line of the Church

Why bother being nice?


Megiddo, Israel

With January nearly over, 2014 is starting to lose its new car smell. But even as 2014 blunders into the present and begins shuffling into the past, there are still moments when you think you might be living in the future.

The BBC (they of the political interview with Cookie Monster) revealed this month that intergalactic mega-corporations have been planning to mine asteroids for resources.

But lo – don’t rush out to buy your hover-shoes and jet cars yet. The article goes on to explain that scarcely had Richard Branson started painting the ‘V’ on the first of his fleet of mining spaceships, when academic Dr. Martin Elvis (seriously) pointed out that it wouldn’t be cost-effective. So, sadly, it seems that the most impact that asteroids will be having on the global economy is when one smacks into us.

The entire article (all 700 words of it) can therefore be summed up in this short pub conversation.

“We’re going into space to mine asteroids!”



The article, however, doesn’t discuss the ethics of such massive-scale consumerism. Having nearly finished our merry consumption of our own planetary resources, we invest not in developing a more sustainable existence, but become  intergalactic foragers looking for other passing floaty spacey things to loot. Like eating everything in the fridge and, still feeling hungry, starting to eye up the cat.

Good things happening in Splott

Whether it’s the morals of the extraction industry, or other issues like conflict or gender justice, ethics has been a major area of human dialogue since we first started painting stick men on cave walls. And it’s important – critically important.

But when we think about good and evil we tend to think in extremes. We think about things like genocidal events in Darfur and Rwanda as our examples of evil. And when we think of good we look for examples that are outside our norms too, such as the recent press coverage of Boudicca Stretton-Brown (seriously) from Splott, Wales (seriously) who offers a free, home-cooked meal for struggling families every Monday.

What we tend not to think about is the vast volume of interactions, the things we say and do to each other, on a daily basis (which is odd, because that’s exactly what Paul thinks about in Galatians 5:22-23).

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

We don’t think, for example, about minor discourtesy on the roads (if, like me, you’ve ever found yourself driving a Ford Fiesta in front of an aggressively-driven eighteen-wheel articulated lorry, you’ll know it’s like the first scene in Star Wars where that tiny spaceship gets sucked up into that giant spaceship). Or about how our online scribbling might impact others. Stumbling too far across the blurry line between debate and hurt is easily done. Back in May 2013, this blog was a bit over-zealous about failed Armageddon predictors like Randy Bullock (sorry, Randy). There was a complaint. The article had to be edited, and a description of fringe religious ideas was replaced with the word ‘exotic’. This blog is as guilty as the next guy of being un-nice.

Sorry about that, Randy.

Sorry about that, Randy.

We often, then, fail to connect the day-to-day being nice that seems to be part of how we’re supposed to live our lives, with the wider human reality of good versus evil. And this might be because we’re not reflecting deeply enough about why we’re not supposed to swear at each other, or shout at each other, or elevate religious ideals over acts of love.

We tend to think about the why in one of two ways. Either it’s expected of Christians (it’s just ‘what we do’), or because being un-nice is a sin. And while both of these might be true, there’s something very unsatisfactory about this. It becomes a matter of compliance. We do it just because. This isn’t very inspiring. Instead, there might be another way to understand it. And when we understand why we do something, it’s easier to do it.

The hidden wiring

In Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s comedy novel Good Omens, we encounter a demon called Crowley, who was responsible for engineering the construction of the M25 motorway.

Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders…the thousands of motorists who daily fume their way around its serpentine lengths have the same effect as water on a prayer wheel, grinding out an endless fog of low-grade evil…

Although Terry and Neil are describing a spiritual dimension, there’s a physical truth here too. We are not very good at relating our individual actions to the large-scale impact of our collective actions. We are all connected, and the tiny decisions we make about how we act towards each other have ripple effects.  Every action that we take will have consequences in the world around us. Remember Jeff Goldblum’s explanation of chaos theory in Jurassic Park? Every tiny thing we do is part of a colossal network.

And there might be a bias in the system towards behaving in a way that’s contrary to the Galatians passage. Over the last few years, an interesting academic discipline has sprouted up. It’s called behavioural economics, and it looks at how we make decisions. The discipline is responsible for some fascinating experiments showing that, basically, we’re pretty selfish, irrational, and a bit horrid. Paul Piff, for example, recently used a rigged Monopoly game to show that the richer we get, the more our feelings of compassion and empathy decline.

“You are the light of the world.”

In these circumstances, great evils like the financial crisis and economic injustice are functions of a giant network of human behaviours in which we’re all participating: planet-sized balls of tangled string in which we all tied a few knots.

So where’s the hope?

2000 years ago, Jesus challenged us with a way to live that could short-circuit the cycle of selfishness that governs human existence. Christians believe he then proved he was who he said was, and therefore knew what he was talking about, by being resurrected from the dead.

Jesus began the process of dismantling evil. All evil – the tiny acts that we commit every day, and the giant issues that are, at base, made up of billions of these little acts. He set out a way to live that minimised our participation in it, and instead slowly began to make the world better. To redeem it.

There’s been lot of talk of discipleship in the church recently. What it means, how we do it, why we do it. We all have a role to play in Jesus’ dismantling of human evil and suffering. And that includes trying not to let our daily actions be part of the giant Jenga tower of evil. Part of discipleship is about participating in the process of making the world better. Being part of the solution, not the problem.

And while that might finish with giant actions like controlling climate change, it starts with tiny actions – like controlling our tempers.

That’s why we should bother being nice.

2 comments on “Why bother being nice?

  1. Professor VJ Duke
    January 29, 2014

    Absolutely! Are you happy most of the time?

    • theundercoverchristian
      March 30, 2014

      Great question, professor – but the key question from the article is… how happy do you make other people, most of the time? :)

      Thanks so much for reading!


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