It was totally my fault. I was leaving the Costco parking lot, and a lady walked in front of my car. I didn't see her right away. I stopped in plenty of time, but it was pretty close. Nobody was hurt, and everything ended up fine, but she screamed at me. Again, it was my fault, so after apologizing, I took the litany of f-bombs and questions like "Who taught you to drive, you stupid kid?" as best I could.
Ten years ago, I was walking out of Albertsons with a cart full of groceries. As I was headed toward my car, a guy stepped out of his truck (which was parked in a parking spot) and started screaming at me. "Do you know how close you were to my truck???" I hadn't moved the cart since he got out of the truck, so I looked over at his truck. It was about ten feet away from the two of us. I was not even close to hitting it.
"You could have hit my truck!"
"Sorry. I didn't hit it." (There was probably a better way to respond.)
"You could have."
"Okay. Sorry I was so close."
"You'd better watch where you -----in' walk, 'cause if you hit my ----in' truck, I'm gonna ----in' take all your money."
"Okay? That's all? You almost hit my ----in' truck."
"I didn't hit it. I'm not even close to it. We're like ten feet away from it."
(Good job, David. Antagonize the guy. This should go well. Seriously, with the way I respond to angry people, it's amazing I've only been punched once.)
After about two minutes of this back-and-forth, he got back in his truck and I continued walking to my car.
That was ten years ago. I'm still mad about it.
In the heat of the moment, we tend to lash out at people with whom we're angry or frustrated. We may do this especially with those we don't know. This was the case with the two folks mentioned above. Both the woman who thought I was going to hit her and the guy who wanted his truck to remain dent-free considered me to be a stupid kid who doesn't know how to drive/walk.
I was no better. I stewed over the situation with Angry Trucker, and viewed him as irrational and a bit crazy.
In both of these situations, people were dehumanized. There are a thousand different things that could have led Angry Trucker to lash out at me. He could have had problems at home, or money troubles, or issues with someone at work. These situations could have added so much stress to his life that he was likely to snap at just about anybody. However, my reaction was to feel insulted and to silently stew about it for years. I chose to think about him simply as Angry Trucker. I've pulled away much of his humanity and left only his rage.
I used to work a drive-thru window for a fast food chain. I was simultaneously working as a youth pastor at the time. One day, a lady was annoyed with how slow her food was coming, and took it entirely out on me. She said that if I didn't spend so much time smoking pot and would go to college (I didn't smoke pot and I did go to college), I could make something of my life. She pointedly asked me what I do when I'm not at work. "I'm a youth pastor," I told her. At that moment, her entire demeanor changed. All of a sudden, we were all doing a great job, the food wasn't late, and I was not a layabout and a pothead.
Side note: fast food employees get this kind of abuse from customers a lot. If you do this, please stop.
When we're angry, we often give people labels or names like "idiot" or "moron" or worse. We may not say these things out loud, but we think them pretty hard.
We label people that we don't know, and sometimes we label people that we do know. I have had conversations with people I know and love that have ended poorly, and in the days and weeks following, I continue to think about each and every detail of the conversation. Over time, I will mentally put together a story about how the other party was at fault in the straining or breaking of the relationship. It's not exactly lying to myself; it's more like 'selective memory.' I want to justify to myself that I acted rightly, and the other person acted wrongly. I recently heard a story about a group of people doing this very thing. It's common for people to see themselves as faultless in a spat. "I can't believe he said that!" "She just walked away. Can you believe it?" "I'm not talking to him until he apologizes." We're quick to blame others, and slow to accept responsibility.
What happens, then, when two parties who are at odds get together? Defenses are up. Shields are raised. Instead of working things out, we accuse; we name-call; we provoke.
We choose to view people in a certain way. But how does God view them?
Paul says in 2 Corinthians that "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them...God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:19, 21). Titus 3 talks about the hate and general jerkiness of people, but then says that "when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). God's salvation came to the sinful, the hateful, the angry, the envious, the greedy, the destructive. He didn't come to save because people were righteous, but because he is merciful to those he loves.
In the book of Luke, Jesus calls Levi as a disciple and goes to a banquet at Levi's house. The Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize Jesus for attending a banquet with "sinners," and Jesus responds, "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Lk. 5:31). Jesus, in the face of criticism from the Pharisees, shares a table with Levi and his friends. Sinners.
A couple of years ago, I started rewriting the story of the Prodigal Son as a choose-your-own-adventure book (Why? I have no idea. One day, I decided that the world needed the story of the Prodigal Son as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Does it? No. Not at all. Or does it? Probably not. But maybe?). This is a story in which a kid asks his father for his inheritance--basically saying to his dad, "I don't care about you; I don't care about our relationship; I don't care about our history; I would rather have you dead than alive, because your money is more important to me than you are." The father gives the kid his money and the kid blows it all on wild living. He returns home with nothing, planning to ask his father if he can live as a servant on his father's property. His father sees him and immediately runs down the street to him and embraces him. His twice repeated pronouncement that his son "was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found" shows the heart of the father toward his son whose last conversation with him was far beyond offensive. The older son is angry because he's never had a party thrown in his honor, even though he's faithfully served for his entire life with nary a peep (Nary a peep? Did I really just write that? Ugh). His father responds with "All I have is yours." Both children are deeply loved by the father.
God's love for his children is extravagant.
Our posture toward other people can often be combative. We may desire nothing but bad things for another person. At the very least, we may look at others with contempt; whether it is a person who cut us off in traffic, a friend with whom we've had a falling-out, or someone from a different class of people that we dislike. We minimalize them. Rather than seeing them as people with backgrounds and joys and fears and hopes and disappointments and families and loneliness and a history and a future, we place upon them an identity: "idiot."
Our conversations with people can easily go poorly if we enter these conversations with the point of view that the opposite party is a jerk, or a moron, or a whiner, or uptight.
What if we saw people differently?
What if, instead of the negative identities that we give to others (jerk, idiot, moron, whiner), we gave them a new identity?
What if, before every conversation, we reminded ourselves that the person with whom we're speaking is a child of God?
What if we reminded ourselves how much God loves that person?
Would the conversation change? Would I be less likely to scream at someone in traffic if I recognized that person's identity as a beloved child of God? What if, when I sat down with a person with whom I had a disagreement, I recognized his or her identity as a child of God? Would my shields stay up? Would I speak to them defensively? Would I work harder to repair our relationship if I remembered how deeply God cares for them, and how he has called them child?
I have returned to 1 Corinthians 13 repeatedly throughout the last year. It seems that anytime anything happens in the world, it quickly becomes a left/right, liberal/conservative thing. Every discussion seems to quickly become a fight in 2017. The love by which Paul calls Christians to live is not like that. If we live with this kind of love, we should not be so quick to divide.
Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
When I think on these words, I recognize how often I miss the mark when it comes to my relationships with others; those I know well, and those I don't know at all. When someone irks me, I don't have a lot of patience and kindness for them. I tend to boast about my own "rightness," and the other person's "wrongness." I dishonor others by seeing them as the enemy and myself as the hero or victim. I keep record of wrongs, and use those records to justify the other person's "wrongness" and my "rightness."
The world needs more patience and kindness. There is plenty of anger and recording of wrongs in the world already. What if, as a spiritual practice, we reminded ourselves before every interaction, that the person with whom we're talking is a child of God? What if we reminded ourselves how much God loves that person? Would we be more patient? Would we be more kind? Would we act more humbly? Would we be less likely to harbor anger and to keep a record of wrongs?
I think so.
I hear so often people saying that "our nation is divided." And they are right. But the ones with whom we're divided are other children of God--people who are loved by God, and saved by God.
May we be reminded of that fact as we continue to live as followers of Jesus.