Nearby our church, there’s a halfway house for men who are nearing the end of their incarceration. One of the core families in our church lives in between the church and the halfway house. The father in that family is an interesting character. He looks like some cowhand from an old cowboy movie: a rough, tough, fifty year old man, dirt all over and skinny as a nail. He wears an old hat with a hole in it, smiles with crooked teeth, has one eye that works, and loves to talk to anyone who walks by the place. Underneath that rough exterior is a very intelligent, thoughtful follower of Christ who loves to get in people’s faces, (lovingly, of course) and ask them questions about their life. Around the church, we call it the “GP interrogation” (although we say his full name). If you survive the GP interrogation, you can usually handle anything after that.
Well, a few weeks ago, one of the men from the halfway house was returning after work. The men are allowed to attend work and, sometimes, church, with very strict guidelines and rules. The man from our church (GP) met him on the street and began his loving interrogation. After spending some time to get to know the man and his story, GP asked him if he’d met Jesus while in prison. The man responded, “no, not really. I’d already met Jesus in Sunday School as a kid.”
Our friend asked him if he’d attended any churches yet since he’d arrived at the halfway house. The man said, “yes, just one. I attended a church not too far from here but it was bad. All the pastor did was rant and rave about how bad President Obama was and how he was ruining the country. He talked a lot about terrorism, too.” The man then said something that I’ll never forget. He said, “I don’t need no preacher to tell me who to hate.”
Those words reverberated around in my head. I can’t seem to get away from them. “I DON’T NEED NO PREACHER TO TELL ME WHO TO HATE.” I knew he was right on. He most certainly did not need the help of any preacher in hating other people. None of us do. Nobody needs help hating people. It comes natural. Hating people – especially hating our enemies - is as natural to us as breathing. It’s what we do. It’s what the world does. It’s what our culture teaches us to do. It’s the American way. It’s the human way.
Here’s the problem: it preaches well. It preaches really well! Some TV and radio talk show hosts have picked up on this and turned it into a multi-billion dollar industry. Many preachers have likewise picked up on this and learned that if you want to make people feel good about themselves and like you as a preacher… all you have to is identify some common enemies and let ‘er rip. People will eat it up. And it has a double benefit. It thrills and satisfies the listener’s hunger for hate while simultaneously providing an outlet for the preacher’s own anger, insecurity, and fear.
The problem is this: it might be the natural way, the human way, and the American way, but it’s not the Jesus way. It’s not the gospel way. It’s certainly not the narrow way. And when we allow ourselves to take the easy way out we are abandoning our posts, our calling. And we do it to our shame. As Eugene Peterson pointed out nearly twenty-five years ago, we pastors have taken vows of ordination that commit us to standards of integrity and performance that cannot be altered to suit people’s tastes or what they are willing to pay for – especially people’s tastes for hate and revenge. It’s possible to view our angry preaching as “courageous” when it might well just be cowardly accommodation to our hate-loving constituency.
What is the Jesus way? What is the difficult, narrow, gospel way to which we have been called? To paraphrase pastor Brian Zahnd in his forthcoming book on radical forgiveness, “If Christianity isn’t about forgiveness and enemy-love, it’s about nothing at all.” That’s what I need a preacher to tell me. I need a preacher to tell me who to love and how to love. I need a preacher to tell me how to love my enemies, how to forgive those who have sinned against me, how to understand the “other”- the foreigner, the alien, the least, the last, the lost, and the little – and to tell me to do unto them as I would have them do unto me.
I don’t need no preacher to tell me who to hate.