The (Completely Justified) Monster in the Mirror

I remember a moment from my childhood, in elementary school. It has always been emblematic of my experience of society in those formative years. For it to make sense, understand - I was an odd kid. Creative, cerebral, and not particularly socially skilled, I always struggled to find a place in the rural, red-blooded midwestern town where I was raised. Anyway, the moment was this. Two classmates, both well-liked and the 4th-grade equivalent of popular, came over that morning and started hanging out with me. I remember feeling pleased if a bit befuddled. Perhaps the mysterious gears of social connection had turned and I had somehow found a place at the center of things.

That lasted for a few hours, and then just before lunch one of them said the following: "This has been cool. They told us at church group last night that we should think about that weird kid, that loser in our class that nobody liked, and try to be nice to him. Anyway, you're welcome."

Of course, this act was monstrous, at least within a grade-school context for the word. I was devastated. Certainly, it and the many other experiences of being bullied and excluded account for the way I am naturally drawn to defend those I perceive as receiving similar treatment. However, I don't tell that story to explain my admirable qualities. I tell it because I want to reflect, as an adult, on something darker I've also come to realize.

As I grew older, my solution to these social struggles was to learn to fight back. Part of this had to do with developing certain skills - much of my capacity to use words well came from my learning to weaponize them all those years ago. If a physical conflict with a potential bully was a field heavily weighted in their favor, a verbal one was incredibly skewed in mine. I could leave people red-faced and spluttering, spread malicious talk and destroy reputations. At times, I did each of those things.

On a deeper level, I learned how to hate. Anger acts as a sort of shield we can use to blunt the world's attacks. All we have to do to keep someone from hurting us is to convince ourselves that they don't matter. They are nobodies, barely even human. I learned the art of resentment, the skill of taking what made me different and internally convincing myself it made me better. If their popularity was defined by not being someone like me, my identity was equally based on feeling superior to people like them.

I remember, just before graduation, a couple of classmates discussing how wonderful our years together had been. One of them was one of those in the earlier story. I wasn't really in the conversation, but one of them (out of what I realize now was a genuine and compassionate desire to include me) asked me what I thought. My response was to give them the finger and say, "My best years are still to come, motherf****rs."

Here is why I'm telling those stories now. I think it indicates a fundamental reality about our humanity, one that we must wrestle with if we are to grow to be anything resembling Jesus. Here it is: we are all broken by the sins of others, and as a result, we are also those who break others by our sin.

I realize now, years later, that there were ways I was deeply cruel. I could justify it - I have, and many of us do. It was a response I learned from the cruelty of the world. However, I cannot speak of myself as somehow not a part of that cruel world. I am sure I left people in tears, insecure, and not feeling like the dignified human beings God created them to be.

There are two points we should draw from this.

1. All of us have reason to feel like others are out to get us. From the dysfunctions of a family unit to the dysfunctions of our nation, we have all been victimized in various ways. Some perhaps more dramatically than others, but all real nonetheless. The heart doesn't avoid being wounded simply because it could have been wounded worse. There is no relationship within which we can't find ample cause to hate. What's more, there are relationships where the world will insist we have every reason to.

I was reflecting on this today at a national level. What is so striking about much of our political tribalism in America is that everyone tells a story in which they are the victims. It is the other side that is out to get them. What we must realize is that both sides are, in a sense, correct. They have been significantly wronged and dealt injustices by the other.

Now, here is where we must be careful. The natural response of our hearts is to say, "Maybe, but they were much worse." The pundits of the New York Times and Washington Post, the talking faces on cable TV - much of their rhetoric boils down to sophisticated versions of "but he hit me first! But she hit me harder!"

While there are probably degrees of fault in these matters, they are impossible for human beings from within the human frame to pass judgment on. This is, incidentally, why divine justice is such an important theological concept. God will render to each one their due; we are not to take it into our hands because we will always feel like they are due much more and we are due much less.

Given all of that, we must realize that pursuing Christian virtue means refusing to keep accounts. When we are called to love others, to be gentle and humble and kind toward them, our immediate response is but-what-about-ism. Sure, we should love, but surely that doesn't mean ignoring these legitimate grievances?

If we are to love any human being, it must be in spite of the fact that they sin and the fact that it hurts us. Otherwise, we won't love anyone at all.

2. All of us must focus on owning our sin rather than excusing it with the sins of others. This is a logical outworking of the first point. I could tell the story of my life in a way that makes every one of my failings someone else's fault. However, that does not breed righteousness. The end of that road is unflinching cruelty toward others and hatred of the world. The only way we can begin to become like Jesus is by ceasing to dwell on how others are crucifying us and instead own how we have been the crucifiers.

Of course, the only way to do this fully is within the context of the gospel. We are told that in the work of Jesus we are justified - made righteous by His death. Only by having such an external source of justification can we accomplish that hardest of tasks and stop justifying ourselves.

Perhaps the most necessary but jarring reality anyone can confront is that there are people in the world who justify their sins by the ways we have sinned against them. I am sure, at some point, that someone has used the way my evil has worked into the world to explain some evil in their hearts. I cannot sit in the posture of the victim; I am in truth often the one to blame.

Here is where that meets us in our community as human beings. We are told by the apostle Peter that "judgment begins with the household of God." Which is to say: we cannot live as Christians while pointing our finger at those people out there. We must always let the force of the finger drive into our hearts. We must stop listing the wrongs we have experienced and instead list the wrong we perpetrate. Only then can healing begin to come.

Make no mistake, though, this is a brutally hard calling. Life is far easier if we dwell within the ironclad certainty that we are right and have been wronged. Hiding behind the shield of anger is safer than opening our hands and accepting the blame. You can stay in that place, comfortably sure that you're the aggrieved party. Yet one day the illusion will be shattered. Whether it is in this age or at the final judgment, we will look in the mirror and discover something monstrous gazing back at us, teeth red from the people we have devoured.