Thursday, September 5, 2013
Compassion, Victims, Offenders, and Johnny Manziel
If you are a sports fan (or even if you aren't) you are probably aware of Johnny Manziel. Last season Manziel became the first Freshmen ever to win college football's highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. Since that time, his life has been a trainwreck. He has been in the tabloids on a consistent basis, making bad decision after bad decision. He has regularly alienated his family, his teammates, his coach, and his fans.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a sports radio show in which one caller said that he felt compassion for Manziel. The host responded by saying that he felt no compassion for Manziel, since he had been handed a silver platter, and then had made all of these bad decisions on his own.
Is Johnny Manziel worthy of compassion? This question brings up a bigger issue.
Victims or Offenders?
A while ago I was having a conversation with my friend Phil Shahbaz and he made a comment that stayed with me. He said that when people behave badly, they do so because they are acting out of a place of pain. His point was that when we, as church leaders, interacted with people who were rude or angry or condescending, that we needed to step back and recognize that their bad behavior was an opportunity for compassion.
Phil's point might seem obvious to many, but this was not the case with me. While I smiled and nodded, in my heart I disagreed. I thought, "No, we don't sin because we are victims of pain. We sin because we are sinners." After all, I attended The Master's College. I embrace evangelical theology. At the core of what I believe about humanity is the teaching that our primary problem is that we are sinful rebels who have offended God and gone our own way. When we behave badly, we don't reveal that we are victims; we reveal that we are guilty.
The more I thought about Phil's comment (and my reaction to it), the more I began to conclude that it is overly simplistic to conclude that we are simply victims or simply offenders. After all, Phil was not denying that we are sinners. And I was not denying that we have pain that impacts us. But most of us champion one of these realities at the expense of the other.
For the record, this is not just a Christian problem. Every four years we get a solid dose of this debate. I know I am oversimplifying here, but most conservatives say that the problem with society is that people are not taking personal responsibility. People need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, own their mistakes, and stop mooching off others. For the most part, conservatives are harder on crime, and they are less supportive of government intervention in bailing people out of their messes.
On the other hand, liberals tend to say that people find themselves in bad situations because they have been kicked around and received a tough lot in life. They are in favor with giving people more chances, and they support government involvement in helping people who are down on their luck.
So, what does the gospel of Jesus say about this? Are we victims or are we offenders?
Scripture definitely does not paint us as innocent victims of this world. We are all sinners, enemies of God, children of wrath. We all have turned away from God to go our own way. In the garden Adam and Eve willfully chose to sin despite the fact that God had shown nothing but goodness to them. We are not simply victims of our difficult circumstances.
Victims and Offenders?
Not simply victims . . . but we all have certainly been victimized. We live in a broken world, surrounded by broken people. Even those of us who grew up with both of our parents around were still raised by broken and sinful people. We grew up with broken and sinful siblings. We've had broken and sinful teachers, broken and sinful friends, broken and sinful neighbors, and broken and sinful employers. The culture around us assaults us with temptations toward further brokenness. Some people in our world have been horrifically victimized through molestation or physical abuse at the hands of those who should have protected them. We all have experienced the crippling pain of loneliness and rejection and harsh words. While we are not simply victims, it does us very little good to overlook the fact that we all have pain.
Through the gospel, Jesus comes to us not only to bear our personal sins, but to bear all of our pain. He does not simply make of innocent before God, but he gives us life in God. He does not simply promise us a future in which we will no longer be guilty, but a future in which we will have no more pain and death, and in which every tear will be wiped away. Jesus acknowledges both our guilt and our pain and he sets us free from both.
On a practical level, this reality has huge implications not only for how we think of our own pain and sin, but also in how we relate to others. We all experience times when others behave badly toward us. If we see those people simply as victims, then we will dehumanize them by robbing them of the chance to grow and take responsibility for their actions. If we see people simply as offenders, then we will have no compassion on them, since their bad behavior is all their own fault. But if we embrace the gospel, something profound happens. We are able to have compassion on others, even while we hold them responsible for their actions. I can believe that those who hurt me are wrong and sinful. And yet I have compassion that their pain is so deep that they would lash out at me.
As a Christian I can have compassion for prisoners, even when they are guilty of crimes. I can have compassion on the divorced man, even if he was unfaithful. I can have compassion on the pregnant teenager, even while believing that she made bad choices. Compassion is not reserved for the innocent, but can be freely given to all.
Thank God that compassion is not reserved for innocent victims. After all, Christ compassionately came to die for sinners. He freely showed us compassion, and yet he did not dehumanize us by excusing our decisions. We can do the same. The gospel allows us to give people the dignity of believing that their actions have true significance, but it also sets us free to show compassion even to those who exploit their freedom by hurting themselves and others.
With Jesus, compassion is unqualified. It is offered to all. And the more that we realize that we are recipients of divine compassion, the more that we will be set free to offer that compassion to others.