Yesterday, I posted about a frustrating experience I had where a young woman accused me, in a very confrontational and hurtful way, of not being a Christian. It wasn’t the first time the charge had been leveled at me, but something about that particular interaction really got under my skin, so I decided to write about it. (This is a new blog, so I’m still getting a feel for how much I want it to be personal and how much I want it to be theological.)
I ended the post with a rhetorical question, asking how we prove our faith to someone who looks at us with hate.
I didn’t actually mean it as a real question; I know there’s no way to “prove” my faith to someone who doesn’t believe I’m a Christian. But it struck a chord with some of you, and the responses to that post have been interesting.
A number of you chimed in to reassure me that you know I’m a Christian and that there probably wasn’t anything else I could have done to help her understand me. This made me feel better, which is probably part of the reason I posted it in the first place.
But as the responses continued, I began to feel uncomfortable. Here we were, talking about someone who isn’t even in the room. Of course, I didn’t say anything to identify this woman, and I don’t even know her name. But still, something made me uneasy about the number of responses defending me and blasting her. Were we all just piling on, sitting in judgment of this woman, making assumptions about her based on that one interaction?
I often tell people that when someone says or does something you don’t like, it’s important to try to put yourself in their shoes: what’s their motivation? What are they thinking and feeling? Why are they making the decisions they’re making?
Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. We all sometimes make mistakes, but we also all make decisions based on trying to achieve ends we see as good. Only in movies do self-avowed villains cackle gleefully as they plot to bring down the heroes and hatch evil plans for the purpose of evil. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Austin Powers’ nemesis notwithstanding, there is no “Evil League of Evil.” Even the most wicked people in the world are, in some way and on some level, motivated by something they view as good—even if they’re wrong, and even if that “good” is only for themselves at the expense of everyone else.
The antagonist in your story isn’t the antagonist in their own. So if you can get into their head and understand what it is they really want, it can totally change your interaction with them.
Anyway, that’s what I tell people. Two days ago, I was trying to do that with the young woman I encountered. But in the heat of the moment, I got hurt, and I stopped putting myself in her shoes and started focusing on defending myself.
A commenter named Jason challenged me on that in his response to my post. Was it really “hate” I saw in that young woman’s eyes, he asked me? Wasn’t it possible she was just angry, worried about the spread of false doctrine? Perhaps she was allowing her emotion to get the best of her, but wasn’t I falling victim to that as well, potentially mischaracterizing her in my quest to process my own emotions?
At first, that response frustrated me. Of course I knew that her response was provoked by anger and genuine concern for the Truth. I had said as much to her at the time. I had tried to reach out to her. What had surprised me was the intensity of her response even when I tried to reach out to her and listen to her. I had tried to put myself in her shoes, several times! And she had rebuffed me.
Jason was right. No, that young woman didn’t handle her emotion well, and I wish she had accepted my attempts to dialogue instead of attacking me with her words. But you know, I have a major advantage over her. I’ve been thinking about these issues for many years. I’ve known what it’s like to be attracted to the same sex since I was 11. I’ve known I was gay since I was 18. I’ve been writing about homosexuality and Christianity, and talking to people on all sides of the issue, for 15 years now. This may well have been the first time she ever met a self-professed gay Christian or talked about these issues in depth. Surely she can be forgiven for not being quite as nuanced on the issue as I am!
Why was she so angry? Why did she look at me that way? Because she heard, for the first time, a guy who really knows his Bible and who believes that people can be gay and Christian. Before that night, she probably had never distinguished between celibate and non-celibate gay people, so even though I wasn’t arguing for acceptance of gay marriage, the very idea that I identified myself as a gay Christian must have seemed to her like a blatant heresy.
Not only that, but her understanding is that people living in unrepentant sin—which would include gay Christians—will burn in hell for all eternity. So if she looks at me and sees a guy who knows his Bible and makes shockingly strong arguments for gay Christians to be accepted, what does that mean to her? It means, this is a dangerous guy whose heretical teachings will condemn many people to hell for eternity. And someone like that, no matter what he claims, cannot be a Christian who is led by the Holy Spirit.
She doesn’t know me. Her only interaction with me was when I was speaking at her school. As far as she knows, I’m Hitler—worse than Hitler, because Hitler killed people’s bodies, but in her mind, I’m condemning people’s souls. And all my attempts to reach out compassionately, ask for dialogue, and show her I’m not such a bad guy? Well, how would any of us respond if Hitler tried to prove he wasn’t such a bad guy? If he was friendly or eloquent, wouldn’t that just make him more dangerous? Wouldn’t we see him as even more evil?
Thinking about it from her perspective, I think even I would hate me!
When she has more time to think about the issue, to meet gay people and hear their stories, I suspect she’ll begin to see the issue with more nuance. That’s what happened to me. With that perspective, she’d be more ready to hear the message I was trying to share that day. But in the meantime, let’s not judge her for reacting in passionate anger to someone who must have seemed like a truly evil person with a dangerous and evil message. We would surely do the same in her shoes.
Instead, I need to ask myself two things: One, how do I get the judgmental plank out of my own eye so that I can see where people like her are coming from, even in the heat of the moment? And two, once I’ve done that, how do I modify my approach to have more helpful conversations with people who aren’t ready for the more nuanced conversation I want to have?
I will probably never meet that young woman again. I thought that I had something to teach her, and I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting through. In truth, God was using her to teach me.