Just a couple of weeks ago, a police officer was shot and killed in a neighborhood not far from where I live. He was serving a warrant when a man inside the house opened fire, killing the officer despite a bullet-proof vest. News about the shooting emerged only hours after it happened, so it very quickly became the topic of conversation in our community.
I happened to be meeting with a friend of mine that afternoon – who was himself a retired police officer. He shook his head sadly while talking about the incident, recalling that when he had been on the force decades ago, he didn’t have to worry about getting shot the way officers do these days. “Times have changed,” he said with gravity. “Used to be I could walk my route and know all the people in my district. People would give us a cup of coffee; they’d ask us for help. Not anymore.”
“What do you think’s changed?” I asked him. I knew that the landscape of our city had been radically altered by drugs and guns over the last thirty years, but I wondered if he saw something even deeper than that, something in the culture, perhaps, that was leading to this violence.
His answer was simple, “People are so angry these days. They’re so much angrier than they were when I was working. The people in the neighborhoods, the police, everyone. Just – angry.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard words like these. One woman had recently told me that she was appalled by how frequently our public discourse was marked by ire. She worried that people had lost all sense of respect for the humanity of those around them. “Our country’s being taken over by anger,” she said. And she wasn’t happy about it. The question is: why? And what can we do about it?
Well, I’m no expert in the realm of psychology – but as I read the lectionary text for the Sunday right after these encounters (Luke 14:25-33) I did start to wonder.
In the text, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” One of the notes in my study Bible very helpfully informed me that Jesus wasn’t telling the crowds to literally hate their loved ones, but that they had to put their relationship with Christ before all of their other relationships if they wanted to be a faithful disciple. As I was sitting with the passage over the course of the week preparing to write my sermon, this one concept kept coming back to me. It was something that we had talked about in a seminary class on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In one of his books he wrote about how, when we approach another person, we must look at him or her through the lens of Christ. When we see him, we see him as another person for whom Christ lived, died and rose again – we see another person for whom God became incarnate, whom God loves so deeply, God died for him. And we therefore cannot ignore her basic humanity, her intrinsic worth as a creature created and redeemed and loved by God. It strikes me that part of this call to put Christ first in our lives is the command to see every person with whom we interact through this lens of Christ that Bonhoeffer talks about. Part of this call – this command – is to see every person as an individual for whom Christ was crucified and resurrected.
I bring this up because I’m worried that in our increasingly high-tech, individualistic culture we sometimes forget that in our day-to-day lives we’re dealing with other human beings whom God loves deeply. Here’s what I mean:
Recently, I was reading an interesting post by one of the other Outlook bloggers and when I came to the end, I decided to read some of the comments. I wish I could say that it shocked me to see how vehement some of the responses were – you could almost hear the snarl in the commenters’ voices – but I wasn’t surprised at all. Read just about any online article and you’ll find one or two (or a whole lot more) responses where the anger seeps through the words so powerfully you can almost feel it. It is so much the norm that I expect it from the online community. These are words that I’m not sure we’d say if we were standing face-to-face with the person whom we are attacking. I have this sense that when we’re reading something online, we sometimes forget that there is another living, breathing human, created by God and redeemed by Christ, on the receiving end of our words. With so much technology separating us, it’s easy to reduce another person to words on a screen, forgetting the flesh and blood that lie behind those words, which certainly affects the manner in which we respond to what we read.
But I don’t think this happens just in the blogosphere. I find that I, myself, am most guilty of forgetting the humanity of others when I’m driving. Cruising down 95 with cars all around me, it’s not always easy to remember that the Jeep that just cut me off is more than just an inanimate hunk of metal on four wheels – that there’s actually a person in there. It’s even harder to remember – in that moment when my rage is roiling in my chest – that that driver is someone that God loves so much that God died for him or her. Yet if I’m to be serious in efforts to be a faithful disciple, then seeing the driver as a beloved child of God must be my first reaction, not my last and the manner in which I respond to this person must reflect my understanding of their identity as one created in the divine image. It may not quell my anger, but it would certainly affect the way that I act on it.
I don’t know why it is that our culture seems to be marked by increasing anger – I don’t even know if this is a quantifiable fact or if it’s just the perceived reality of the people with whom I’m closest. What I do know is that we are called to see others through the lens of Christ and to treat them as creatures worth so much that Christ died and rose again to save them. The anger might still remain, but perhaps our interactions with one another will be a little bit more…human.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.