Getting Proximate with God’s Love for the Poor

Photo: ATC Comm Photo

Good Guys and Bad Guys

A few Sundays ago, I was sitting in a worship service at my church, and my friend, the preacher that Sunday said, “Jesus is never on the side of condemnation.”

This stuck with me. Even more than that, it gutted me, taking the wind from my lungs and slapping me in the face with my own punishment-centered theology. This was a simple declaration and yet it began to shake me from my sleep, revealing the red flags in my relationship with God.

As an American, it is hard for me to not view the Gospel through the lens of “good guys vs. bad guys.”

From the time we are children, Americans are taught about the bad guys from foreign lands who have tried to steal our freedoms, and how the good guys are entitled and even tasked with destroying the bad guys at all costs.

The identity of the good guys and bad guys in this type of narrative usually depends on who is sharing the story. In white American Evangelical circles, the good guys are usually white suburban churches and the bad guys typically range from refugees, to queer people, to “social justice warriors,” and pretty much anyone else who may be perceived as a threat to the word of God.

While I am queer person of color and I have been an advocate for social justice, this line of thinking is pervasive, and I don’t get to avoid it just because my experiences tend to be the target of criticism from white Evangelicals. It has been ingrained in me just as it has been in most others.

I haven’t openly demonized anyone whose life and experiences differ from the false standard of holiness set by white Evangelicals, but in my heart, I have looked down on people who don’t at least try to make it look like they have it all together. This broken theology and ideology caused me to care more about outward appearances than the condition of someone’s heart.

In my actions and in my lack of action, I have reinforced the idea that there are good guys and bad guys, and that Jesus prefers the good guys.

Uncomfortably Close

This false narrative of good guys and bad guys was undone this past weekend in Philadelphia when I attended a conference called Get Proximate through the Vineyard Justice Network.

The purpose of this conference was to become uncomfortably close with the social justice issues that plague our society such as mass incarceration, the opioid crisis, as well as many other systemic evils that we encounter in the States. We certainly did become uncomfortably close with all of these issues as we met real people who were impacted and who were fighting for justice in response.

As I walked through the streets of Kensington, Philadelphia with other conference attendees, I saw a level of brokenness that I had never witnessed in such vivid detail. I saw people whose lives had been devastated by addiction, sex workers who were forced into sex trafficking at a young age, and children who were growing up in the same streets that host endless gun violence.

As I walked through Eastern State Penitentiary, I learned about the gross realities of mass incarceration and how the prison system often leaves individuals with little to no possibility of holding down a stable job or a career after incarceration; how one in nine people on death row are innocent; how countless people who are incarcerated have endured significant childhood trauma, leading them to continue to make destructive decisions which then harm the lives of countless others.

Growing up in the inner city of Upstate New York, I was definitely exposed to some of these realities, but never to the extent that I witnessed in Philadelphia. At least, these realities never seemed to be quite so out in the open or so widely known. Even with the experiences I’ve had, I learned to separate myself from these realities- these people who seemed to suffer more than I ever had.

Giving Up My Broken Theology

My heart was broken in Philadelphia. I was left physically weary and often speechless at what I had seen and encountered.

I began processing important questions with other believers I had met at this conference, trying my best to make sense of the difference between what I saw and what I believed about God’s love for humanity:

What did my theology have to say about all of these people? What does it mean that God sees every trauma, every decision made out of trauma, and every situation where people do not have a choice in the kinds of brokenness they experienced? What does it mean that God sees the systemic evils that keep people in bondage to addiction, abuse, and violence?

My theology has historically been fairly black and white about the grace that I thought God was willing to extend. Sure, there are layers of problems that lead people to self-destructive habits and behaviors, but if they don’t even try to ask God for forgiveness, what more can God do? Jesus loves all people, but surely doesn’t accept or approve of all people, right? It is surely enough for me to pray for the brokenness in my own community, but God doesn’t call me to actually hold the broken hands of hurting people, does he?

My theology has often avoided these complicated people and circumstances, but what does Jesus say about them?

“Jesus is never on the side of condemnation.”

While my theology was influenced by a culture that needs there to be bad guys in order for the good guys to actually be good, Jesus seeks restoration, holding together both the good guys and the bad guys, and saying to both, “This child of mine was dead and is alive again.”

Jesus walks through the streets of Kensington and looks at each person with nothing but unconditional, relentless love that sees the dignity and humanity in each person before he ever considers the weight of their brokenness. Jesus held the hands of lepers, alcoholics, and sex workers, and greeted them all as his beloved friends. Christ broke bread and wine with the same friends who betrayed him and allowed him to die alone, and still called them his friends when he rose from the grave!

Jesus allowed himself to earn the reputation of a heretic and a drunk because it was more important to him that he sat with those in desperate circumstances without judgement or condemnation than it was to appease or uphold the status quo of rejection and shame for the “bad guys.” In fact, the only people we really see Jesus cast judgement upon are religious leaders and those with the authority to oppress and manipulate others.

The Endless Love of God

My preacher friend said to me in an email, “…there is nothing my daughter could ever do that would make me love her one iota less than I do right now… there is nothing she could do that would make me give up on her.”

This is the love that Jesus has for all people, both the sinner and saint, if there ever was a difference between the two. The love that my friend has for his daughter is the love that Christ has for every single person who has ever lived. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys,” there are simply those who God loves unconditionally.

As I begin to unpack this reality, it becomes easier to hold the hands of those who I have long considered to be untouchable. As I release the American concept of good guys and bad guys, I have more freedom to embrace people as they are and seek restoration for them instead of seeking my own comfort.

I believe in a God who defeated death. I believe that God has made a home in my heart. If this God lives inside of me, then I carry the ability to call others out of the grave, too. I carry the capacity to see people not just as they are, but as God has created them to be- not a good guy, not a bad guy, but beloved.

As I begin to see people as God sees them, how can I not live for them and be willing to sacrifice my life for them? How can I not be willing to be counted as a heretic for those I choose to fight for?

Jesus is never on the side of condemnation. I pray that the same would be true for me.

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