At my conservative Christian university, I get an earful from some professors about how my generation sacrifices preaching the Gospel for social justice. In these lectures, “social justice” is a term my professors could easily replace with “the liberal agenda” or some other phrase smacking of implied conspiracy or bias. Often, I also hear accusations that we are self-centered, shallow, rude and entitled. While I feel criticisms of our generation may be a bit heavy-handed, I wonder if my professors have a point.
Our generation argues, “look at all the good we’re doing in the world, the action we’re taking on behalf of the poor and oppressed. That proves we are not all about us.” We have become known for our focus on the social ills of the world today. I have spent much of the past eight years talking about social justice and the call to demonstrate sacrificial love to the world by relieving the suffering of the poor and oppressed—specifically, helping in the fight to end modern-day slavery. When faced with poverty and injustice, this is how many of us have chosen to respond: We see needs in the world and meet them with action.
But what if some of the claims against our generation are true in spite of these good efforts? What if we are selfish, rude and demanding?
Some of the people I know—including myself—who care about the poor and hurting in their own communities and halfway around the world can be insensitive and just plain mean to their friends and family. This is unsettling and confusing for people who look to us as the new voice of Christianity, and it is inconsistent with the love-in-action agenda we seem to support.
The truth is, it’s much easier to feel compassion and show grace to people half a world away than it is to be kind to the people we live with, the jerk who took our parking space or the “idiot” who disagrees with our political views. We loudly post our opinions, call names and often act pompous or uncivilized all because we think we’re right. This comes from both sides of the political aisle and sometimes straight up the middle.
While we’ve seen great progress in the fight against poverty; while more and more people help their fellow humans who are hungry, sick, oppressed or uneducated; while social justice is once again becoming a common outworking of the Christian faith, I’m concerned we’re seeing less civil and kind behavior in many of our personal lives.
I think we’re a generation in conflict. Could it be we’re a generation of activists who are spiritual anorexics? Could it be we’re staying busy with our world-changing projects but forgetting about spiritual discipline and personal relationships with people in our own circles? Sometimes, our lives just don’t reflect the world-changer, compassion-driven labels we may preach to our social media “friends” and “followers.”
In this context, I’ve begun taking a look at chivalry—I’m not talking about the how-men-should-treat-women kind of chivalry. It’s bigger than opening doors or saying “please” and “thank you.” I’m talking about tearing down old ideas about only men having the responsibility to be chivalrous and instead imagining a society that is civil—both male and female.
Make no mistake; chivalry is not about learning how to be “nice.” Too many Christians are taught to focus on being pleasant and polite rather than being chivalrous. Women are often under pressure to “act ladylike,” while men are ordered to “be gentlemen.” At times, the pursuit of being more like Jesus can even take a backseat to being proper and correct. That’s a problem, since being “nice” is just external behavior.
Here’s the inconsistency: People can be nice without being kind and good. Niceness, in our society, is necessary to move up the corporate ladder and to get people to like us. “Nice” is how we act when we care about how people think of us.
True kindness and goodness is of the Spirit. It’s internal and lasting. Not just Southern politeness, “bless your heart,” but enduring and transcendent love. Chivalry is about the contents of our heart affecting how we treat people on a day-to-day basis—it’s about loving people in a way that makes us courageous and assuages other’s fears of being unlovable and unaccepted.
Here’s how kindness and goodness are different: When people see kindness in the form of social justice from Christians in my generation, they are pleasantly surprised. It’s something that is rare but not unheard of; it’s someone doing something for someone else that might require sacrifice. But, when they see a poverty of kindness and goodness—even civility—in the way we interact with those closest to us, it calls into question our motives and actions “far away.” When our neighbor sees goodness in us—a bone-deep love for others that results in actions and attitudes that embrace others—it is winsome. The point of taking a spiritual pilgrimage in our culture—the point of being so in the world, but so obviously not of it—is to walk in kindness and goodness that transforms us and draws, or attracts, others.
While we care for the poor, love our neighbors, and fight to right wrongs committed against others, we should want our lives up-close to be consistently marked by compassion and chivalry. We want to address the poverty of kindness and civility in our own lives so our work “out there” is authentic. I wonder: if “justice is what love looks like in public,” as Dr. Cornel West puts it, then perhaps chivalry, displayed as transformative kindness and goodness, is what justice looks like in private.
I still believe in living out justice and mercy to the poor and the oppressed, but I want my life at home to reflect the same principles. I’m on a quest to discover how to live this and I hope my generation is up for the journey.
Zach Hunter is a 21-year-old college student, speaker and author. When he was 12, Zach launched a campaign to end slavery. He now speaks around the world, encouraging people to love the poor by helping to end suffering. Zach has authored four books Ð the most recent Chivalry (Tyndale House Publishers) released in July. You can follow Zach on Twitter and Facebook.