We tend to reduce people to simple understandings. In his memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson reflects on his Uncle Sven. He first heard stories about Uncle Sven from his mother, who was nearly two decades younger than her brother. She said of him that he was kind, playful, and had infectious joy. However, others remembered Sven differently: as the promiscuous, abusive, alcoholic husband who was shot and killed by his wife in self-defense.
Not trying to diminish or condone his uncle’s evil actions, Peterson writes, “The contradictions in Sven, the affectionate and playful big brother set alongside the abusive and violent husband, worked themselves into my adolescent imagination. Did one cancel the other? Was there any way to get the playful brother and abusive husband into the same story?”
In the current climate we as Americans live in, it seems they cannot. When a man is killed in the street by police officers, he is either an intoxicated criminal who deserved what he got, or an innocent martyr, murdered by villainous oppressors. I’m not trying to comment on the conflicting political interpretations of George Floyd’s death except to highlight the quick tendency to reduce human beings to one-dimensional caricatures. It’s a technique that makes the world (or at least our impression of it) much easier to understand, navigate, and control.
If we are honest with ourselves… well, to speak for myself, I am aware that at every moment there are contradictory thoughts and urges within me, and that I have lived a double life of some form or another, at varying scales, my entire walk with Christ (think: Romans 6-7). As Christians, if we reduce people (including ourselves) to oversimplifications, we will not be able to communicate the gospel, or live it, in a healthy way. We will see unbelievers as broken objects to judge and fix using our vast knowledge, instead of broken image bearers to love and reach as Jesus did. If God, who knows all things more deeply, more intimately, more thoroughly than we can ever truly wrap our minds around, still needed to literally become one of us, experiencing life the human way, in order to reach us, maybe we, as his representatives now on earth, need to act similarly. In our finitude, to seek to understand others, seeing each person as a complex being who, as Peterson says, “requires a context as large as the Bible itself.”
If our job is to reach people with Christ, I pray we have the compassion to do it thoroughly, rejecting what has become the mainstream approach in our culture of person reduction, prioritizing what God has always prioritized: relationship. May we always look at others and wonder about their backstory, what brought them to where they are, what hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties are inside them, and see what we will always share with them, which is the image of God.
—Cameron Peters, Director of Communications