I don’t know about you, but when I hear people, including myself, say such pretty things as I did last post about seeing Christ in the other, even those who are different and especially those we experience as adversaries, a part of me wants to just roll my eyes and sigh.
“Well, that sounds easy for you to say. But do you even begin to know what it is like…?”
And then I want to go down the list of people who have deeply hurt me. I have my own list, don’t you?
People who I felt were friends who betrayed me, running my name through the mud. I can think of some folks whose actions helped contributed to ministries I started with great love and passion crumbling before my eyes. I can think of folks who deeply hurt me and those I love in ways that can never be undone.
I’ve also seen the heartache caused by people who oppressed and discriminated against people I love.
How can I be called to see the living Christ not just in the oppressed around me, but even in those who hurt them? In the families who I saw push out gay and transgender youth, so they struggled to fend for themselves on the mean streets, homeless and without hope? How can I see Christ as present in the man who, in my childhood, I saw new reports about shooting a couple walking down the streets of my hometown simply because of the color of one of their skins? How can I both see Christ as alive and present in Matthew Shephard who was brutally killed for who he was and also in the life of those who harmed him?
I have a hard enough time with people who have deeply hurt me in my own family.
However, one stunning example stands out to me, the work done by those who led South Africa out of apartheid. Like Hillary Clinton, who looked to how they put aside racial hatred and violence and calls for revenge against their previous oppressors so that then-president Mandela even invited his jailors to his inauguration as an inspiration for how she could work toward healing in her own marriage when her husband had been publicly unfaithful to her, I too find encouragement in their work.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu writes in detail of the way they chose to abandon calls for vengeance and chose instead to allow the path of compassion, understanding, to call the nation to reconciliation and healing. I do not know often how to walk the path he describes either personally or in the wider communities in which I find conflict and heartache so often. But I think his example suggests being able to see Christ within the other, even those who have harmed ourselves and others, is a part of finding a way forward in our lives and our world.
Notice how Tutu fleshes out the way in which being attentive to who Christ is in our lives calls us to such work of reconciliation:
“As I grow older I am pleasantly surprised at how relevant theology has become in my perception. In our particular work as the commission it was a relief to discover that in fact we are really all children of Adam and Eve. When God accosted Adam and remonstrated with him about contravening the order God has given about not eating a certain fruit, Adam had been less than forthcoming in accepting responsibility for that disobedience. No, he shifted blame to Eve, and when God turned to Eve, she too had taken a leaf from her husband’s book (not the leaf with which she tried ineffectually to hide her nakedness) and tried to pass the buck. We are not told how the serpent responded to the blame pushed on it. So we should thus not have been surprised at how reluctant people were to acknowledge their responsibilities for atrocities done under apartheid. They were just being the descendants of their forebears and behaving true to a form in being in the denial mode or blaming everyone and everything expect themselves. Yes, it was in our genes. ‘They’ were to blame. There we go again, showing ourselves true descendants of our first parents.
“There is a salutary counter to our tendency to push blame on others in a book by the Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox, with the lovely title, On Not Leaving It To the Snake. This helped me to be a great deal less judgmental and to avoid gloating at the misfortune of others. It was particularly important in the commission’s encounter with the perpetrators of some of the most horrendous atrocities. So frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monsters because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We have to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, the sinner and the sin, to hate and condemn the sin while being filled with compassion for the sinner. The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons, then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they have committed. Much more importantly, it meant that we abandoned all hope their being able to change for the better. Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained with the capacity to repent, to be able to change. Otherwise we should, as a commission, have had to shut up shop, since we were operating on the premise that people should change, could recognize and acknowledge the error of their ways and so experience contrition or, at the very least, remorse and would at some point be constrained to confess their dastardly conduct and ask for forgiveness. If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters they could by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners. The Good Shepherd in the parable Jesus told had been quite ready to leave ninety-nine perfectly well-behaved sheep in the wilderness to look for, not an attractive, fluffy little lamb – fluffy little lambs do not usually stray from their mummies – but for the troublesome, obstreperous old ram. This was the one on which the Good Shepherd expended so much energy. When he found it, it is highly unlikely to have had beautiful fleece. It would almost certainly have been thoroughly bedraggled and perhaps fallen into a ditch of dirty water and was thus smelling to high heaven. That was the sheep the Good Shepherd had gone after, and when he found it he did not pinch his nostrils in disgust. No, he took it and placed it gently on his shoulders and returned home ot throw a party because he had found this lost one. And Jesus says there is greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine needing no repentance.
“Christians are constrained by the imperatives of this gospel, the good news of a God who had a bias for sinners contrary to the normal standards of the world. This God in Jesus Christ scandalized the prim and proper ones, the orthodox religious leaders, because he companied not with the respectable, no with the elite of society, but with the scum and the dregs, those occupying the fringes of society – the prostitutes, the sinners, the ostracized ones. None of us could in my theology ever consign anyone to hell as being ultimately irredeemable. When Jesus was crucified it was in the company of two thieves. One of them became repentant and Jesus promised that he would be in paradise with him on that day. The thrust of that story is that not one of us could say with any certainty that so-and-so had gone to perdition, because none of us could ever know whether even the most notorious sinner and evildoer had not at the eleventh hour repented and been forgiven, because our God is preeminently the God of grace.
“What we are, what we have, even our salvation, all is gift, all is grace, not to be achieved but to be received as a gift freely given. God’s bias in favor of sinners is so immense that it is said we will be surprised at those we will find in heaven whom we had not expected to encounter there… Ultimately no one is an irredeemable cause devoid of all hope. No situation in this theology is irredeemable and devoid of hope.
“God does not give up on anyone, for God loves us from all eternity. God loves us now and God will always love us , all of us good and bad, forever and ever. His love will not let us go, for God’s love for us, good and bad, is unchangeable. Someone has said there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, for God loves me perfectly already. And wonderfully, there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become, and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover. Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law. An exhausted mother, ready to drop dead into bed, will think nothing of sitting the whole night through by the bed of her sick child.
“As I listened in the TRC to the stories of the perpetrators of human rights violations, I realized how each of us has the capacity for the most awful evil – every one of us. None of us could predict that if we had been subjected to the same influences, the same conditioning, we would not have turned out like these perpetrators. This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His beloved come to such a sad pass. We have to say to ourselves with deep feeling, not with a cheap pietism, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.”
I still struggle. I struggle to embrace that family member who has ran my name through the mud, hurt my heart so deeply. I struggle to see good in the ones who vehemently argue against my stands I see as stands for justice and inclusion of all at the table of fellowship in the church and world. I struggle deeply to see any redeeming qualities in the man I know molested someone I loved deeply for many years. That is ok, though. That is being human.
The call is very real, though, on each of those levels, to be attentive to the presence of Christ within my own stories, within others, and within even the person I find most objectionable.
I feel like this capacity grows in our daily spiritual practice, as we raise our awareness in every situation. As I learn to see Christ as present in you, it becomes easier to see it in one very different than me. As I learn to see Christ as present in one who annoys me, I learn to see Christ as present in the life of even the one who has harmed me. And that opens the door to seeing Christ as present even in one whose life brings harm to millions.
Ultimately the way forward in life is, as Tutu’s book’s title suggests, learning how to find the compassion toward each other to not lose sight of each other’s blessedness and beauty. Or, as one participant in his healing work suggested to Tutu, helping remember we are human beings and helping others who have lost sight of that for themselves recover their own humanity.
How have you embraced this call in your own life? What challenges do you face in growing in this lifestyle today?
Even though it is difficult, hard, and at times heart-breaking, let’s lean into the pain, embracing the potential for healing such work brings.
Your progressive redneck preacher,