I’m afraid I’m becoming a person I don’t want to be.
Over the last few weeks as I watched protestors on the news who were gathering in crowds, not wearing masks and demanding governors and/or mayors rescind stay-at-home orders, I found myself thinking, “I hope every one of you gets COVID-19.”
I don’t really wish that, of course. Or at least I don’t want to wish that on anybody.
And therein lies my dilemma. People are behaving badly with reckless disregard for others. They show up in statehouses armed to the teeth; they deny science and traffic in irresponsible and dangerous conspiracy theories; they welcome tweeted lies and disparagements; they go out to grocery stores without wearing masks and congregate on beaches; and they thoughtlessly disregard the value of the lives of vulnerable people.
I want them to pay. I want them to suffer the natural consequences of their selfishness, carelessness, contempt and pig-headedness. I want (while masked and gloved, of course) to wrestle them to the ground and demand they cry “uncle.” I want an apology. I want them to admit they are wrong. I want to bring down divine retribution on their heads.
Only I don’t want to be the kind of person who wants these things.
“I feel like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, still needing grace to pursue me, to reveal the burning away of the dross of my own self-righteousness.”
I don’t want to lose compassion, not even for the gun-toting, Confederate flag-wearing white nationalist; not for the megachurch preacher who blames the pandemic on queer folks like me; not even for the lying divider-in-chief in the White House.
In response to a question about forgiveness from Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, the Dali Lama told a story about a Tibetan monk who was long imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese. The Dali Lama asked the monk what, during his imprisonment, he most feared. The monk replied that what he most feared was losing compassion for the Chinese.
I fear losing compassion. Or, as the poet Wendell Berry asks:
If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind?
And then there’s Jesus. I marvel at the ability of Jesus to be moved by the condition of the very people who opposed and mocked him and eventually called for his execution. To be fair, Jesus did lose his temper on occasion, as in the temple courtyard with the moneychangers, and this story does give me some hope for myself in this moment of outrage.
Loving, even in opposition to those who carelessly endanger others, and having compassion on those who would do us harm – this is indeed the narrow way.
It seems that it would feel so much better to give in to the rage, to let loose the pent-up fury, to call people names, wish locusts and “murder hornets” on them, banish them to the wastelands of my concern. Yet, just as I consider doing so, I hear that niggling, annoying, still small voice that calls me to do better than that, to be the kind of person I really want to be.
This is what we get for answering that exasperating call to discipleship. We do not have the luxury of hating people, writing people off, dehumanizing them or wishing them ill even when they are acting in the worst ways possible. We are called to something more.
Sometimes I just hate that.
Then I remember that I, too, have often needed grace and compassion. I’ve been wrong and done wrong. I have not loved God with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbor as myself.
“We are called to something more. Sometimes I just hate that.”
I feel like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, still needing grace to pursue me, to reveal the burning away of the dross of my own self-righteousness.
How hard this becoming Christian is!
The apostle Paul said it well: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19, KJV).
Too often evangelicals have acted like becoming Christian is simply a matter of saying a formulaic prayer, and, presto, change-o, you’re a Christian. I am convinced that this theological misstep has contributed greatly to what we see passing for evangelical Christianity in the United States today.
Although many claim to read the Bible literally, a lot of evangelical Christians seem to overlook Jesus’ clear words in his Sermon on the Mount:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:32-35, NRSV).
We progressive and liberal Christians have a hard time with that one too. And moments like this – with COVID-19 ravaging the world and so many people ignoring public health guidelines, spreading misinformation and recklessly creating risk for others – make loving those angry protestors and Fox News commentators and Trump himself almost impossible. And yet, that’s exactly what we’re called to do.
I don’t want to … but I do … but I really don’t. And so the struggle of becoming Christian continues deep in my soul. I hang on by my fingertips and refuse to give up the struggle. For today, that may be the best I can do, because it’s almost time for the nightly news and a new round of outrage – and that troublesome still, small voice that asks me to love without limits and to be a better person than I think I can be.
Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic: