I had dinner with a new friend Sunday night. She is in seminary studying disability theology (which I didn’t actually know was a thing). I am studying public health (which she knew existed but that was all). We talked quite a bit about how both of us are going to school because we want to help people. We want to make the world a better place.
That same day, someone significantly older than I am told me that he no longer believes in justice, even in God’s kingdom (by which I think he actually may have meant the Church). He said he had seen too many awful, undeserving people get ahead during his life while he had rarely gotten what he truly deserved.
My new friend and I talked about how hard it is to work towards the goal of saving a world that can’t really be saved, at least by our actions. We commiserated about how disheartening it is to work day in and day out with a vision of the potential of an individual or organization that will never really be fulfilled. We talked about how people generally suck, and it can be soul crushing to come to terms with that again and again and again.
I think the man who told me he no longer believes in justice was like my friend and I once. I think that he set out wanting to make the world a better place. Now he is older and wiser and more cynical. At some point he lost sight of that potential that he was striving for. He got so mired down in what is that he forgot the beauty of what could be.
I have stopped reading the Psalms. They make me crazy. They are so often about balance and justice and the writer insisting that he is RIGHT and they are WRONG and God should DO SOMETHING. But in my life, I mostly find myself holding up the shattered bits of what was probably supposed to be something wonderful, asking God if I’ve screwed it up too badly to fix. The idea that God is just or that the righteous are justified is not comforting to me. I am not righteous. Justice would not be on my side.
When I was a child, someone (probably a Sunday School teacher) told me that when we die and go to heaven, God will play our entire lives out on a big screen for everyone to see and then judge us based on what we did. At the time, I was utterly mortified that everyone would see all of the bad or silly or stupid things I would do in my ENTIRE LIFE. I’m not sure if that lesson was supposed to be a “Scared Straight” kind of thing, but I always left discussions of our future judgment promising myself to be absolutely perfect from then on.
(Please don’t judge me on my end-times theology. I’ve steadfastly ignored Daniel and Revelation since I gave up about halfway through the Left Behind series. I know. I’m a terrible Christian.)
As an adult, the idea of all of my deepest, darkest secrets being so exposed is oddly comforting. Not because I want the entire world to know how often I eat burritos for dinner or fail to make my bed, but because we will be in heaven, and we will finally know.
I have a theory. The kind of theory that will get me called things like young and idealistic and naïve. I think that there are very few truly, belligerently evil people in the world. I think that most people believe that their actions are right, or at the very least . . . justified. They act wrongly because they’ve reasoned their way out of it being wrong or they’re convinced the world owes them something. It doesn’t make them right. It also doesn’t make them evil, mustache-twirling villains. It makes them human beings, just as deeply flawed as the rest of us.
(Yes, even the baby-killers. Even the abusers. Even rapists and child molesters. Even the billionaires who cheat on their taxes. Even the drug lords who sell crack to eight year-olds. We are all of us deeply flawed, and only the world we live in makes the evil we are capable of seem good in our eyes.)
In the here-and-now, it is impossible to listen to all of these stories. It is impossible to understand all of these justifications. It is impossible to weigh and measure and balance all of these delicately constructed reasons for continuing to get up and go out and do whatever it is we do, good or bad, right or wrong. But in the hereafter . . .
Then, the Bible promises, we will know fully. Then, we will see the whole picture. Then, we’ll be able to get it. Then, God will take off the blinders of time and physiology and self-centeredness and limited human understanding, and we will know each other like we know ourselves. We will look with God’s eyes and see all of the extenuating circumstance and good intentions that support those threadbare justifications. My father will finally get what my struggle with depression has been like, and I will finally really know why he is so incredibly angry. Rachel Held Evans will hug Marc Driscoll, and they will tell each other, “It’s okay. I understand, and I love you.” It won’t be the horrible, humiliating time my small-self envisioned of judging and being judged. Instead, it will be a time of knowing and being known. Of giving and receiving compassion.
It is easy to love people we understand. The impossibility that Christ calls us to is to love those we don’t understand, to love those we cannot possibly understand on this side of eternity. Compassion is hard when you don’t have all the details, but we are told to offer it anyway. We are asked again and again and again to give of ourselves in this way, always as an act of faith.
And this, my friends, this is why we gather week after week. This is why we greet each other “Peace be with you.” Because loving the unknown is unsettling. This is why we offer the body and blood, the bread and wine. Because we are all invited. Because we are all loved. Because we are not alone in this spending of ourselves.
And this is how we hold onto hope. This is how we guard against cynicism. Because when we gather around the table and greet one another with comfort and compassion and companionship, we are reminded of the day when we will do this for real.