Last week, I was in a room full of villains.
At least that’s what some would say.
I was attending a Southern Baptist conference on “homosexuality.” (Longtime readers know I’m not a fan of that word, but we’ll ignore that for now.) The conference was filled with church leaders who oppose same-sex marriage and, in many cases, believe that it’s a sin for Christians to even call themselves gay.
I, on the other hand, am fairly well known as a gay Christian speaker and author. Soooooo you can imagine why there might be some conflict there.
I sat quietly in the audience as one speaker after another got applause for saying that people like me are sinning against God—some speakers going as far as to call this a “gospel issue,” something so central to Christian theology that there can be no reasonable disagreement on it.
Back home, gay-affirming folks were following the conference online, tweeting their frustration and anger at the speakers. I was trying to practice listening and watching for the good in other people, so I mostly limited myself to tweeting positive things I saw. In response, I found some of the angry tweets directed at me as well. Justin, how can you sit quietly in the midst of all those villains? they seemed to say. These people are doing harm. You have a responsibility to speak out.
Meanwhile, a number of the Southern Baptists were expressing similar sentiments—except that in their eyes, their LGBT critics were the villains doing harm and they, the Southern Baptists, had the responsibility to speak out.
Both sides agree there’s harm being done. Both sides agree there are villains to be fought. The trouble is, we don’t agree on who those villains are.
Will the real villains please stand up?
Whenever I hear the word “villain,” I think back to my childhood watching Disney movies. Disney’s villains are some of the most memorable characters ever to appear on film: Maleficent, Scar, Ursula, Jafar, the Wicked Queen, Captain Hook, Cruela DeVil… We love to hate them, and we love to see them punished in the end.
Movie villains are typically one-dimensional: They’re all bad, all the time. We know they’re bad, and they know it, too, with their wicked laughs and mustache twirling and plots to take over the world. They delight in evil for its own sake, and they form organizations with names like “The Legion of Doom” or “The Secret Society of Super Villains” or even “The League of Evil Exes.” In old Westerns, they wore the black hats. There’s no question they’re the bad guys, and they’re proud of it.
But real people aren’t so simple. In real life, the people we see as “villains” usually don’t see themselves that way. Most of the time, they see themselves as the protagonists—the heroes!
I often say that “everyone is the protagonist of their own story.” Every one of us, if we were to write the story of our life, would portray ourselves as the “good guys.” Yes, maybe we’ve made mistakes, but to us, they all feel like understandable mistakes in the context of our own stories. And in general, we all tend to think that we’re right.
If for some reason you and I end up on opposite sides of a conflict, I’m going to see myself as the protagonist and you as the antagonist. But you’re going to see yourself as the protagonist and me as the antagonist. In my mind, you’re the villain. In your mind, you’re the hero. In truth, we’re both fallible human beings.
It’s easy to see that in theory, but in practice, when someone is actively doing harm to me or to people I care about, it can seem impossible to see them as anything other than a villain.
Take wars, for instance. If I’m fighting in a war and there are people with guns pointing in my direction, how can I see them as anything other than the “bad guys”? And yet, this is exactly why nations use propaganda. Every country tells its citizens that they’re fighting for what is good and just. Every nation at war paints the other side as villainous caricatures.
So as I march into battle against the “bad guys,” with images of their crimes against humanity in my head, they, in turn, have been fed propaganda to convince them that I’m the bad guy, and that they are doing the right thing by avenging or putting a stop to my side’s supposed crimes against humanity.
Maybe the truth is in between. Maybe both sides have done bad things, and I’m just not aware of my own side’s wrongdoings. Or maybe not. Maybe my side really is in the right and their side is blind to the truth.
But even if my side is completely in the right and theirs is completely in the wrong, that person I’m facing on the battlefield doesn’t know that. Through propaganda and prejudice, they’ve been led to believe that they’re fighting on the side of goodness and truth. That person with a gun pointed at me isn’t a villain. He’s a human being—maybe even a very good person—who believes he’s doing what’s right, even if I know he’s wrong.
Of course, no government wants its soldiers thinking about the other side’s humanity on the battlefield. From a tactical standpoint, a good soldier is a killing machine, not someone who hesitates due to empathy. When countries go to war, they intentionally take advantage of propaganda and prejudice to demonize the other side.
Political campaigns do the same thing. Rare is the campaign that says, “Candidate X on the other side is a good, honest person with some good ideas, but I believe my ideas are better in the long run.” No, most of the time, the message is that Candidate X is untrustworthy, incompetent, dishonest, self-serving—essentially, a villain. It’s effective propaganda, and people believe it.
So when I find myself as the only openly gay person in a room of people who don’t like gay folks—or the only openly Christian person in a room of people who don’t like Christians—I try to remind myself that these people aren’t villains, even if they say or do things that I believe to be wrong and hurtful. Most likely, they’ve believed the lies (and maybe some unfortunate truths as well) about people like me, and they honestly see me as a villain.
Are there real villains in the world? Sure. Hitler was a villain; I don’t know anyone who would deny that. But I think we jump far too quickly to seeing our opponents in life as villains rather than seeing them as flawed human beings who sometimes make mistakes and who don’t see the world the same way we do. Maybe they don’t realize the harm they’re doing. Maybe they don’t really know us. Maybe they believed the propaganda.
And if that’s true, maybe our best solution isn’t always to go to war with them. Maybe we should be getting to know them and fighting the propaganda instead.
So, last week, as I shook from the pain of their words, I knew I was in a room full of—not villains, but people. And I listened to them. They said things that cut me deeply. But I stayed, and I listened, and I had conversations with them.
So as the culture war rages outside, I’m going to keep having these quiet conversations with my enemies and breaking down that propaganda until we can see each other fully, not as villains, but as people.