Meanness explains a lot and it is real. Meanness is behind terrorism, abuse, backstabbing, violence, and murder in the world, not to mention a host of wars and international problems. It leads to fear, loss of hope, anxiety, depression, and despair. A work of the devil, meanness underlies corruption and its consequences, even in the church.
What is meanness? Its most basic definition is unkindness.
I can remember being punished as a child for being mean, that is, unkind, to my siblings and seeing them punished for being mean to me. It was a big deal and the consequences were harsh. In my family, you did not want to get caught being mean in word or action. Our parents found out and held us accountable pretty much every time we stepped out of line. Eventually, my siblings and I learned, whether we wanted to or not, that it’s in everyone’s best interest to be kind and forgiving, rather than mean. This was just one of the Christian values we were taught.
Some years later, as a youth pastor, I found myself on the other side of the equation. Our rapidly growing youth group was tainted by the same kinds of meanness that plagued junior and senior high school communities in general: teasing, taunting, ridiculing, and so forth. The youth group leadership, which included youth officers, came up with a remedy that, amazingly, worked quite well. Anyone caught being mean to another was required, on the spot, to apologize and then to pay three truthful compliments to the one they had offended. The compliments were sometimes silly or superficial, such as “I like your hair,” “I like your shirt,” or “I like your shoes.” The exercise was nonetheless effective, as it was inconvenient, a bit humorous, and it got the point across. It was not okay, as Jesus-followers, to practice meanness, even casually.
In a better world, we would all have outgrown being mean by the time we reached adulthood. It doesn’t take much of a reality check to realize this is not the case, both within and outside us. Meanness abounds in our hearts in our worst moments at the very least, not to mention its prevalence in society, politics, and in the church. Even during Christmas, recognition of meanness is captured in the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Why is meanness so prevalent? From a Christian perspective, meanness is a consequence of original sin and of actual sin. John Wesley thought the pervasiveness of meanness in the world and in the church was absolutely convincing evidence of original sin. In a letter to Samuel Sparrow he wrote, “Such are the tempers, such the manners, of Lords, gentlemen, clergymen, in England, as well as of tradesmen and the low vulgar. No man in his senses can deny it; and none can account for it, but upon the supposition of original sin.”
The condescension of God into human affairs as the infant Jesus, whose birth we celebrate during the Christmas season, was not an act of naiveté on the part of the Holy Trinity. No, God knew exactly what was in store. In fact, according to Christian doctrine, this is exactly why God came into our midst. In all God’s wisdom, it was clear as a bell that humanity was not capable of saving itself from our meanness, sin and corruption. God, who is love, the antithesis of meanness, entered this world as an expression of this characteristic of God’s perfection.
Sure enough, even the precious, infant Jesus was severely threatened by human meanness. King Herod and his associates set about immediately, but unsuccessfully, to destroy him. The baby survived the unconscionable slaughter of scores of his peers only through a combination of divine intervention and stealth. He was spared to grow up, but among a people occupied and sorely oppressed by the Roman Empire rule that had no appreciation for his people’s faith. As he matured, the study of his family’s Jewish religion opened his eyes to yet another layer of meanness: the abuses of the faith by those entrusted with its care, abuses that would soon turn their laser focus on Jesus, in another effort to destroy him.
At every turn, even at the cross, Jesus met meanness with exceptional love. In doing so, he demonstrated his godly power that is capable of victory over meanness and all sin, and the cold cruelty of death, itself.
We have been blessed to celebrate another Christmas and a new year is upon us. Let’s not be naïve. Apart from God, human nature is not kind, nor is the world in which we live.
The good news is, in the face of all meanness, a follower of Jesus need not be afraid or discouraged. Not only has Jesus walked this path before us, but he walks it now with us on our way to victory over meanness—sustained by his everlasting, unquenchable love.