“Those” people. We each have “them” in our lives. You know who “they” are. “Those” people. “They” are not us.
“They” are the ones that disagree with us politically: “they” are red and we are blue, or we are blue and “they” red. Perhaps “they“ are religious or a particular kind of religious that we find offensive. Maybe “they” are irreligious. Have you noticed that “they” rarely drive as well as we do. “Those” people are the ones who have different ideas from us about sex and relationships and marriage, and “they “ are so blasted insistent on the correctness of “their” views. Often, “they” refuse to live and let live; rather, “they” prefer to tell us what to do or to shove “their” lifestyle down our throats. If only “they” would listen to us and our own good advice for “their” lives.
Sometimes those people are entire people groups. “Their” culture is different: “they” have different music from ours, “they” like different food. Maybe “their” skin is a different color than ours or “their” accent is strange, if “they” even speak our language at all. “They” often don’t look or dress like us. Perhaps “they” are younger than us, or older.
Those people. “They” are all around us, aren’t “they.” Certainly our lives would be better if it weren’t for “them.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if it weren’t for “them”? If only “they” would listen to us, we could fix “them.” If only “they” were more like us.
C.S. Lewis was a British writer who lived during the first two-thirds of the 1900s. You might know him from the Chronicles of Narnia movies released over the past fifteen years. During a talk in 1942, he said this:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.—C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
Lewis says we have never met a “mere mortal.” Of course! Each of us is made in the image of God and through our cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit in us, each can be transformed into the likeness of God (Genesis ref). This has been the view of the Christian Church since the beginning. However, Lewis says something else that shouldn’t be overlooked:
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
The destinations to which he refers is Heaven or Hell: our experience the eternal loving presence of God or the eternal torment of the loving presence of God whom we have rejected all of our lives.
Back to “those” people. Lewis is saying to me that I have a hand in making “them” into “those” people. How can that possibly be? In our post-Enlightenment, modernist world, individualism is the governing philosophy. I am autonomous and responsible for me alone. My rational choices determine my life, is the current thinking. So, if you are one of “them,” it is entirely your responsibility, right?
That has never been the case, regardless of what modern philosophers say. And, it has never been the position of the Christian Church.
Take, for example, our current experience of racism in this country. Each of us is influenced and effected by the issue. And, it is not entirely of our making; it is a largely product of our ancestors actions and was handed down to us. While we are not guilty of their sins, not one of us can be fully autonomous and unaffected by the actions of those before us (and around us).
As a Christian, when considering “those” people I must come to grips with the reality that by my sin I have helped make “them” into “those” people, as Lewis said and the Church has known all along.
Remember one of the early examples of Chaos Theory: the minute wind currents created by a butterfly flapping its wings in the southern hemisphere could cause a hurricane in the northern hemisphere. Similarly, my sin against you could start a chain of events that results in a catastrophic event. But, even if it doesn’t, my sin against you adds to the general fallenness of the world in which you and I both live, and it makes life harder for you, even if only in a small way.
What a curious and uncomfortable thing it is to look at one of “them” and think I bear at least some responsibility for their thoughts and actions. It is quite disconcerting, actually.
For many years, the Christian Orthodox Church has held an annual forgiveness service (Forgiveness Vespers). During this service, lines form. The person on the outside says, “Forgive me, a sinner.” The person on the inside replies, “God forgives, and so do I.” Then she asks for forgiveness in turn. The end result of the ceremony is that every person asks forgiveness from every other person present.
This service usually begins with nervous laughter and ends with tears and an overwhelming sense of God’s mercy on us all. There is a powerful sense of spiritual cleanliness.
From a Christian Orthodox prayer book:
For all the sins of men I repent before You, O Most Merciful Lord. Indeed, the seed of all sins flows in my blood! With my effort and Your mercy I choke this wicked crop of weeds day and night, so that no tare may sprout in the field of the Lord, but only pure wheat…For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, a sinner, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.— St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Prayers by the Lake
The next time you encounter one of “them,” or even one of “us,” remember this prayer. And remember, as C.S. Lewis said, above, no one, them or us, is a mere mortal.
Forgive me, a sinner.