I don’t like people, until I meet them.
I’m not proud of this. I want to be a person who loves as Jesus loved, unconditionally and across all kinds of borders.
A decade in animal protection—watching videos of humans doing things to animals that will haunt my twilight thoughts until the day I die—taught me to be skeptical of the possibility of goodness in a person, to believe that everyone was capable of horrific violence and sadistic cruelty.
Well, that’s what I tell myself. But I think I’ve always been a little too sure of my own right-ness.
Social media and internet silos that are designed to show me more of what I like and agree with haven’t helped matters. I eat a bland digital diet of confirmation bias, gobbling up the videos and articles and memes that reinforce my existing opinions. I engage with online friends who echo my own existing views and, too often, quickly dismiss dissenting voices.
Through what I consume, I train myself to pass judgement on vast swaths of the human population. Proponents of the political party that I don’t usually vote for? Dumb. Members of a religious order not my own? Probably brainwashed. People who view [fill in the blank hotbutton socio-political issue] differently than I do? They’ll see the light eventually. I really don’t like people…but then I meet them.
The generous, happy-go-lucky neighbor who holds views far from my own. He helped my husband identify a fulfilling business opportunity. The encouraging, patient gym coach who wears a different kind of #_____LivesMatter t-shirt than I do. She takes time after class to show me how I can improve my range of motion and strength. The old high school friend who predictably comments on every article about guns I post. He makes some valid points sometimes.
Shortly after football player Michael Vick was arrested for dog-fighting, I sat in a room with him for eight hours as he took a course on empathy for animals that I developed. We even did a Bible study together, since he identified as a Christian. I knew the terrible things he had been involved in, but was able to connect on a human level and felt no particular ill-will toward him.
Jesus understood the power of human connection. In the Sermon on the Mount, he is recorded as telling his listeners to go so far as to leave the altar if, in the middle of giving their gift, they realized they had an outstanding rift. Reconciliation and right relationship among the community was a higher priority that regulations or religious rituals.
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It’s an astonishing and impossible ask. And the instructions that precede it press into the need for relationship especially with people we are prone to hate. If someone strikes you, give them your other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak, too. If someone forces you to carry their pack one mile, carry it for two. And give to everyone who begs from you. (Matthew 5:38-42). How many times have I breezily lied to men and women begging outside of Union Station, or Fred Meyer: “Sorry, I don’t carry cash!”
In his book, Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink suggests that in telling his followers to turn the other cheek, give our cloak, and walk the second mile, Jesus is discipling us in the way of nonviolent engagement. Turning the other cheek “robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate” and offers a chance at redemption. Giving our cloak shames a system that would allow a wealthy person to literally take the shirt off the back of the poor. And walking a second mile carrying the pack of a Roman soldier, brutal occupiers of Palestine, helps “oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice.” Each of these methods of nonviolent resistance not only restores dignity to the one who is shamed or oppressed, but also offers an opportunity for the oppressor to regain their own humanity.
Ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee look at these same texts of Matthew in their book Kingdom Ethics and posit that Jesus’ commands here to turn the other cheek, give a creditor your cloak, and carry the pack a second mile are “transforming initiatives” that help Jesus followers break out of old paradigms. Rather than violent retaliation, or passivity, we’re to take nonviolent action to resist evil.
So, where does that leave me, with my propensity for judgement and dismissal, for distance from the people and situations that make me angry or uncomfortable simply out of my own sense of self-righteousness? How do I resist the temptation to surround myself with the people and ideas that reinforce my ideas of justice? How do I even begin to break down these border walls between me and the people that I am so eager to “other”?
I am fortunate to work with people who are smarter and more compassionate than I am. One of them helped start The People’s Supper, a way of connecting across difference over a shared meal. Another helps lead tours to important Civil Rights historical sites, to help equip the church to live into our biblical call to be ambassadors of reconciliation. I learn a lot from them, mostly by listening. I need to do a lot of listening.
And I’m spending less time online and more time with flesh-and-blood people. Because I love everyone, once I meet them.
About the Author
Sarah Withrow King is the author of Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan, 2016) and Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Cascade Books, 2016). She spends her days working for Evangelicals for Social Action and CreatureKind, helping Christians put their faith into action. She lives in Eugene with her husband, son, and animal companions and enjoys action movies, black coffee, the daily crossword, and dreaming of her next international journey.