I heard once there are two kinds of people in the world: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don’t.
Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s really only one kind of people in the world: the kind that sees two kinds of people in the world. People for whom everyone registers according to a certain set of criteria, whether intentionally or not, or even consciously or not. The “like-me’s” and the “not-like-me’s”, perhaps, or the “desirables” and the “undesirables”. For example:
Fat people and skinny people
Pretty people and unpretty people
Pretty girls and everyone else
Rich people (aka “people who have something I want”) and average people
Intelligent people and stupid or ignorant people
Conservatives and Liberals (or pick your political dichotomy)
People who might be my friend and people who probably wouldn’t
People with authority or influence and people without it
People who appreciate me and people who don’t
Black people and white people
White people and minorities
Now surely no one thinks of everyone as always in one category or another. But everyone I think has a set of categories like this, or more than one. I know I do. It’s a sort of blindness, like walking through a breathtaking park and only seeing how much it needs to be mowed.
I’d like to be the sort of person with only one category of people around me: people who need love. Love sheds a lot of light on a person, or group of people, and makes it pretty difficult to relegate them to a category. And I think it’s a tall task to uncover someone who doesn’t need love. In our own ways we are all hurt, or forgotten, or angry, or alone in ways that only being loved can address.
I had an unexpected encounter with someone this week whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, someone who during her time in my life abused me emotionally in a fairly significant way. I don’t speak of her anymore except sometimes with others who know her, and then usually with a certain mutual understanding, like one speaks of a crotchety grandmother, or maybe Hitler. We rode the same elevator, she and I, and the people we each were with, and it was as tense a dramatic elevator moment as any Greys Anatomy writer could have devised.
I’m trying now to tie this story to the topic at hand and honestly I’m having trouble figuring out where I land on it. I can say with relative confidence that I have very little love for this person, and I can also say with the same confidence that that really bothers me. And not in a religious guilt sort of way, but in a way that goes right to the core of my faith. If what I say I believe is true, if there is a God who is all that is good in the world and whose nature is centrally love, then somehow this woman is loveable – and even loved.
Now would be a good time to bandy about the “love thy enemy” command, as though I knew what it meant. But that’s not the sort of command you just up and do, as with “fold thy laundry,” or “haveth some coffee,” two of the lesser-known biblical commands (at least around my house). As with most of the teachings Jesus delivered in the Sermon on the Mount, this one falls under the pretty-much-impossible category, the sort of task that’s unaffected by determination and willpower, that I can’t just rouse myself to do. In fact, I don’t think that overall the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are things I’m meant to do at all, so much as be.
Be the sort of person who loves the people you want to hate.
Be the sort of person who doesn’t hold judgments over others.
Be the sort of person who does the things that are good, rather than just learning and talking about them.
Be the sort of person who only sees one sort of person in the world.
Be the sort of person who is perfect, like God.
If I were a master web coder I would have put checkboxes next to each of those things to illustrate how ridiculous they are to do. Jesus has left absolutely no room to think I am capable of these things under my own abilities and motivation. What he is describing is a person with a fundamentally changed world view, and I clearly can’t just up and make that happen.
I believe it’s possible though, which must be why my feelings for this person bother me. Being in an elevator with her brought back many of the feelings of dread that she previously inspired in me, though this time noticeably without the anvil that used to rest squarely on my chest long after she would leave. She was a significant part of a season of hurt, disappointment and loneliness in my life, when I lost much of my youthful optimism and dreams. I don’t blame her for that, because that’s the sort of thing that no one can really be blamed for; on the other hand she did do her damage. So my context for her doesn’t help her much – I’ve sometimes wondered how I would have felt differently about her had I known her five years earlier, when I was well-supported relationally and better resourced emotionally and spritually.
Eh, I could go on about what her upbringing may have been like from what little I know, and find some other reasons to sympathize with her, but this is perhaps all an exercise in meaningless pity. The inescapable reality I keep coming up against is that no matter what she has done or what was done to her, she is either loveable or she is not. Either love can see beyond any evil or it cannot. I am banking my life on the former.
I started blogging through the book of Matthew this year, reading and ruminating on who exactly this Jesus person is who showed up out of nowhere on the planet and conducted a whirlwind ministry of healing, spiritual teaching, controversy and subversion, then died publicly and miserably, coming alive again a few days later and thus launching a massive worldwide spiritual and sociological movement (which has also unfortunately veered into the political and the violent, among other regrettable mutations.) The blog isn’t public, so don’t waste your time googling it; it’s more an electronic journal of my journey through the narrative with as much of an unbiased approach as I can humanly muster. I’m too early in the book for any verdicts, though perhaps I’ll cross post some of my thoughts here sometime.
One thing that’s struck me about this approach is the freshness of encountering this narrative from somewhat of an outsider’s perspective. It’s an easy thing for me to interact with the Bible through the lens of contemporary Christian culture, from the inside, as I’ve spent most of my life in it. But it’s also easy because contemporary Christian culture tends to speak from the inside to those on the inside. We’ve gotten much better in recent decades, at least many circles of Christianity, at broadening our scope and speaking and acting inclusively, or more specifically with broader regard for other perspectives and value systems. At least I think so. But I also think that Christians are still by and large perceived by others as speaking a message from the inside either to those on the inside, or those they hope will be on the inside. I read an article recently on Jim Henderson, a Christian and former pastor who conducted interviews with atheists on Christianity and church services trying to find out how we all come across.
“Many Evangelicals “are obsessed with conversion,” he says, and always speak of non-Christians as “lost.” The interviews show Christians immersed in their own culture and how that sounds to the people they approach.”…”Christians for quite some time have been creating events and trying to draw people into our little box, and we call that ‘outreach,’ ” he says. “This is an exciting opportunity – people are opening, listening, and seeking out spiritual things.”
It’s that sort of opportunity that has intrigued me lately. I don’t have a whole lot of personal stock in how a particular church service comes across perhaps, but what do people think of Jesus who don’t follow him? I can cite all sorts of popular Christian rationality as to why the Bible is the inspired word of God, and Jesus is the Son of God, and while on the one hand I don’t disbelieve them, on the other hand I wonder again how much is insider speak, and how they come across. I’ve had many engaging and enjoyable conversations about faith and the meaning of life (among other savory topics) with an atheist friend over the last few years which has also helped to whet my appetite for more conversations of this sort. When I look further though it seems this combination of civility and honesty is hard to come by in discussions about faith and religion. I could easily link to some examples but to do that would essentially be inviting you to waste your time. There is no scarcity of loud pontifications from both sides, with carefully constructed arguments and rebuttals, but even those that stick to intellectual and rational lines of thought and refrain from outright dismissal and name-calling still come across to me as lacking something essential – namely the faculty of listening and addressing the opposite perspective with respect for its own terms, or discovering perhaps what those terms are. This is the fundamental disconnect I’ve observed in most debates and arguments around faith.
Perhaps my conversations with my friend have spoiled me, but I have yet to find constructive dialogs of this kind on the web – not a string of message deliveries by agenda-pushers but conversations with open terms and a disposition towards listening and learning. I think like Jim Henderson and his conversation partners we all would benefit from getting to know someone from the other side.