In his first book, Barry Corey, president of Biola University in La Mirada, California, and vice-chair of the CCCU Board of Directors, challenges readers to rediscover the power and importance of biblical kindness – a brave, daring, revolutionary way of life that challenges us to be authentic and vulnerable with those with whom we disagree. Recently, Corey discussed the book with Morgan C. Feddes, managing editor of Advance and the CCCU’s communication specialist. The interview has been edited for length.
What was the catalyst for writing this book?
Three things prompted it. One was the story of my father’s perspective on the idea of being receivable in Matthew 10:40, where Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” That influenced me for a long time, so I was mulling it over, wondering, “How do I process that powerful image?”
Second, I’m increasingly asking myself, “How do universities, organizations and institutions lean more into a posture of a firm center and soft edges?” In the current cultural climate, I think we’ve bought into the fact that shouting, fist-raising and saber-rattling seem to be more effective. Obviously, I wrote this book way before anything Trump-ish happened, but to me, the political campaign has underscored that, sadly, people are motivated by meanness, which I believe is grounded in fear. I think the opposite of kindness isn’t meanness; it’s fear. I think it’s fear that causes people to act so angrily at things and causes them to lash out. So that’s the second question – how do we posture Christian universities in an increasingly post-Christian, religiously plural world to be winsome without capitulating?
Third, I’m looking at students and realizing that those of us in these [leadership] roles are entrusted with this rising generation of Christian leaders. What will [students’] postures be, and how will they be able to be effective in the generation that God has called them to? This is a bit of an over-simplification, but I do think they might have seen in their parents and grandparents sometimes the firm center, hard edges: “We’re going to stand for our rights, and we’re going to knock down those who don’t agree with them.” The intention was good – we want to hold true to that which is right and not back down. But [it caused] a swing of the pendulum the other way to say, “No no, we’re going to be much more relational, and we’re going to be much kinder,” but in a way that sometimes the center becomes a little bit spongy. Sometimes we do that in such a way that we kind of give a pass on our convictions on these deeply held beliefs, because we want to form relationships, and we want to exercise Christ’s love.
So what’s been the reaction? Especially in this political age, I imagine you’d either get some raised eyebrows or smart remarks when you say, “Yeah, I just wrote a book on kindness.”
I think people are quick to mistake kindness as a random act and not a radical life. Leaders don’t have the time to pencil kindness into the margins of their life, because they don’t have any margins, so they’ll leave that for grandmothers and boy scouts and people with a lot more time on their hands.
The kindness experiment, if lived out the Jesus way, means you’re kind regardless of the response you get; you’re receivable not in order to be received, but to be obedient. This is the long game. The short game is the vitriol, the yelling and the combustible comments. That wins a lot of people over in the short game because it rallies people up and gets their adrenaline going. Kindness doesn’t get adrenaline going. Kindness is a long game, and I think it’s the most effective way for us to make a lasting influence for the cause of Christ in our world.
You dig into the difference between niceness, unkindness or aggression, and kindness, and the detrimental impact that the first two can have on Christian witness. Between niceness and unkindness, which one do you think is actually more dangerous in our world today?
I never thought about that. Yes, aggression is the firm center and hard edges, and niceness is a lack of conviction, trimming your sails to prevailing winds. Both can be really destructive. I lean more towards niceness in my own style; I think we all have a leaning. Some of us need to firm up our centers a little bit more and speak more truth into situations where we’ve given a lot of grace. Others are just so dogmatic about truth that they couldn’t give a rip about how they’re coming across to somebody; there you’ve got to understand more about how you live a life that bleeds with grace.
In a very brief example in the book, I said niceness is keeping an ineffective employee that works for you on the job, and kindness is releasing that person with a lot of dignity to go somewhere else where that person can flourish. Sometimes Christians can be too nice, and we don’t hold people to high standards because, well, we just want to be nice. I think that’s a bad example and a bad stewardship of our leadership roles.
This book is obviously very personal. You tell a lot of personal stories about your kids and your dad and your life as a president. What was that process like for you, especially as a college president, who is stereotypically aloof and impersonal?
When I set out to write the book, I didn’t realize that I would be as confessional as I was. But since kindness does require a certain degree of vulnerability and open honesty about who you are, then I can’t just define it; I have to describe it. In describing it, I have to put myself out there.
I have also noticed that when I talk to students about principles of leadership, they’ll take notes and their eyes will glass over a little bit. But if I say, “Here’s where I’ve failed,” suddenly they listen, and they listen with a lot more intentionality. They feel like you’re more of a legitimate leader if you can open yourself up. I try to distinguish between transparency – letting it all come through, which I try not to do – and translucency – letting just enough light come through so they can see who I am and where I’ve failed. I think that was why I felt I had to bare my soul a little bit in this book.
On the surface, “being kind” can seem such an easy thing to do. But the subtitles of your chapters really suggest the opposite: “The way of kindness is messy;” “it takes time;” “it sometimes gets rejected.” So for all the Christian leaders reading your book, what’s one thing that you want them to take away from this book, in realizing and wrestling with this really revolutionary idea?
One takeaway would be that you can live a profound life of kindness in the lives of those who are very different and engage in conversation without spending a whole lot of time worrying about whether they are going to receive you or how you are going to be perceived by others. We’re sometimes afraid of kindness coming across as theological weakness, and so we use certain language, or avoid certain conversations, or stay away from certain people because it may affect the way in which we’re perceived as leaders of Christian institutions. I think if we don’t push that kindness idea a little bit harder in how we’re living out our leadership lives, then we’re going to continually be more insular in our conversations, and we’ll actually withdraw.
The other is – and this is my own hang-up – underscoring that the [goal of the] life of kindness is not to be thanked, but it’s to be obedient. Often my own pride gets in the way; if I’m kind toward someone and that person ignores me, rebuts me, or rejects me, I’m done. I did my best, I made the overture, and now I’m just going to take that as it wasn’t even worth my time. That’s the wrong approach. Paul talks [in 2 Corinthians 2] about how we are the aroma of Christ; to some we’re the smell of life, to others we’re the smell of death. You just smell like Jesus, and don’t worry about how you’re being perceived or received.
Making yourself receivable is different than trying to be received. We have no control over whether or not people are going to receive us, but we do have control about how we make ourselves receivable. I don’t know if we should pay a lot of attention to how kindness can change others’ lives. I think it can; that shouldn’t be our concern. Kindness is far more about being faithful than being thanked.