Dark Devotional: Kindness Is Next to Godliness

by Michelle Arnold

May your kindness, O Lord, be upon us who have put our hope in you (Ps. 33:22).

During the years I worked as a professional apologist, I occasionally ran across mention of David Bawden, who died this past Tuesday—usually as a punchline in jokes about the papacy. After John Paul II died, then again after Benedict XVI retired, discussions of the subsequent conclaves included at least one mention of Bawden and his claim to be pope.

“A new pope? Don’t we already have one living in Kansas?”

Bawden and his family were Traditionalists, adherents of the Society of St. Pius X for a while. Eventually they became sedevacantists and decided to solve the problem of an “empty” Chair of Peter by electing Bawden pope in 1990. He called himself “Pope Michael.” Bawden later claimed to have received ordination to the priesthood and to the episcopate from a rogue bishop.

Whenever talk would turn to Bawden in the conservative Catholic circles I ran in, the general consensus was that he was a screwball unworthy of being taken seriously. The guy thought he was Pope, what else needed to be said?

Except…. Every now and then I’d hear from Catholics who’d interacted with him online.

“Really good guy,” they told me. “A sweetheart.”

When news broke that he’d died unexpectedly, I found more comments of this type. One woman recounted on his Facebook page that Bawden went out of his way to visit her when her newborn needed baptism—then did the grocery shopping for her.

The same day Bawden died, I’d argued with an obnoxious priest online. I commented on my Facebook page that “considering that [Bawden] was technically a bishop, if I were in extremis I’d much prefer he heard my final confession than the [adjective redacted] priest I tangled with today.”

In retrospect, I’ve wondered why “Pope Michael’s” death affected me. Aside from seeing the occasional mentions of him in conservative Catholic media, I didn’t follow his “papacy.” When I read he died, read the eulogies recounting his personal kindness, I kept being reminded of something but couldn’t place what I was remembering.

Then I found an essay from last month that I’d bookmarked on my computer. Oh. Yes. Now I remembered. A conservative Catholic social media influencer had recently penned a rant on one of her favorite themes: the dangers of niceness.

The friendly person who accepts us, the one who reaches out to “accompany” and affirm us—that person may not always have our best interests at heart. And sometimes a person who does want the best for us is harming us unknowingly despite his good intentions. We cannot know by outward appearances or our emotions whether or not the other is truly being Christ to us. The only standard we can use to measure another’s advice and guidance is whether or not that advice conforms to objective truth and goodness.

The influencer apparently learned early on how dangerous Nice can be. As a teen, she’d asked a friend for her opinion on an issue of personal morality. Her friend smiled and said, “I just want you to be happy,” which was just what the writer wanted to hear. Years later though, her friend’s support for another friend who’d chosen to have an abortion appalled the writer.

My eyes were opened to the evil, and I was horrified. [She] fell off her pedestal that day, shattering into a thousand pieces. Though there was minimal contact going forward, I did learn that [her friend] began living with a man, smoking weed, and embracing leftist causes. We eventually never spoke again.

I’ve long railed about the dangers of Nice myself, so I was initially interested in this essay. My concern was somewhat different though. What bothered me wasn’t that there are nice people out there and I may not always agree with them on important issues. What concerned me was that I’d seen a lot of people conflating “niceness” with kindness.

Reading the influencer’s essay carefully, I noted she made the same mistake. She said her high school friend was “caring, kind, sober, and chaste.” She wondered if she’d “grab a beer with [Bill Clinton] and call him friend if he sought me out with kindness and a listening ear?”

But kindness and niceness are two distinct characteristics. Kindness is the act of reaching out to another person and taking action that addresses a need that person has, even when there is nothing in it for you. Going out of your way to visit a new mother and her baby, then helping her by going shopping for her is kind. Niceness, on the other hand, is an attitude in which someone interacts with others in a way that’s friendly and genial.

Because niceness is an attitude, it’s a surface characteristic. You can fake being nice. In the weeks after the presidential election in 2016, I found plenty of people online who’d interacted with Donald Trump in person and remarked that he seemed like a “nice guy.” He could grin and grip with the best of them, throw money at a problem if doing so kept wheels turning in a direction he wanted them to go. That’s Nice. It’s not Kind. You can’t fake Kind.

In this week’s psalm, the Lord is said to be “our help and our shield.” Giving us his assistance, sheltering us from harm, are the evidence the psalmist said we have that God is kind and that our hope in him is not misplaced.

God isn’t always nice to us though. Scripture gives plenty of evidence of that too. Sometimes he lets us suffer—anything from decades of infertility, as did Abraham and Sarah, to centuries of enslavement, as did the Israelites in Egypt.

But Scripture also gives us plenty of evidence that God is kind. Abraham and Sarah had to wait many years, but eventually they were granted the son they wanted so badly. God kept his promise to them that their descendants would eventually outnumber the stars. Not only were the Israelites eventually freed from enslavement, but God punished their captors. God’s chosen people might only have hoped for freedom, but they were also given justice.

Yes, be somewhat wary of nice people whom you don’t know, especially if they might have hidden agendas. But a kind person, even one who is eccentric, should be loved unconditionally and remembered with fondness.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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