As the fear of being late to a Friday night baseball game loomed in front of us, I frantically handed pieces of my son’s uniform to him trying desperately to get him to focus on changing… and quickly. “But mom, I have to tell you something!” I sighed, “What! What do you have to tell me?” Clearly excited to relay what he had learned, he seemed to skip right over my exacerbated tone. “Did you know that even God had bullies?” I paused in my sorting of cleats and socks to take in what he had just said. “I’m sorry, son, can you repeat that?” He went on to tell me about the “bad guys” (a favored term for kids this age, I’ve noticed) that hit Jesus and yelled at Him and made Him carry a large piece of wood. “Mom,” he whispered pointedly “It was so heavy I don’t think he could even carry it alone.” Then, he insisted on showing me what the “bad guys” had done after he was dressed by taking me on a quick tour of the the school hallway. As he pointed out each station, I saw the scenes anew from his eyes. “Mom, it’s just so bad that God had bullies.”
A few days prior, I noticed a colleague wearing a shirt that said “It is hard to hate up close.” On the sleeve, the shirt carried the title of Michele Obama’s memoir Believe*. That phrase written in small white letters across a black long-sleeved shirt returned to mind as I journeyed with my son through his elementary school stations. “It is hard to hate up close.”
But is it? I looked intently at the soldiers standing right up next to Jesus. They breathed the same air and took up the same plot of land. They watched Him bleed and heard His suffering, but still they continued to demonstrate contempt, still they continued to inflict the wounds of hate. Perhaps, however, the case can be argued that these soldiers really didn’t know Him closely. After all, they had probably never sat next to Him eating dinner with Him or walked long journeys between towns, sweating and laboring alongside him. Maybe that’s why they could exercise hate in such close proximity.
But then there was Judas and Peter – two men who had dusted the same dirt from their feet and walked the same journey alongside Jesus. Judas turned Jesus over, sold his friend for a few coins. Peter, also close to Jesus, denied ever knowing Him, not once but over and over again. Both men spent significant time with Jesus, participating in His story and learning from Him. They were certainly close.
Perhaps, however, this statement “It is hard to hate up close” also rings true for these men in a different way. Judas first gave up Jesus in secret. He gave the silver over in the dark of night when it was impossible to feel Jesus’ eyes on Him, when he could hide from the light of truth. And Peter, Peter waited until Jesus was arrested with no hope of acquittal before he decided to save himself by denying his friend. It was at a distance that both were able to exercise hate even for someone they had loved.
Up close, however, they still felt the crippling pain of their choices. Judas came forward in the darkness to kiss the Lord, and soon after he could no longer live with himself. And Peter wept bitterly after hearing the cock crow – a sound that brought him back to the night he had dined alongside his friend and said he would never betray Him.
So maybe this statement is one of the “both – and” variety. Distance, whether from lacking up-close knowledge of a person and their story or of putting a more physical separation from the gaze of a person you love, makes it easier to practice hate.
But Jesus, fully human and fully divine shows us still a more excellent way… for there is no amount of distance that can lessen the degree of love and mercy he has for every person. Jesus loved Judas. Jesus loved Peter. Jesus loved His bullies both up close and far away… even when those bullies are us.
Yes, Son. It is terrible Jesus had bullies. Even more it’s terrible when we, too, act as bullies to one another and consequently as bullies to God. Allowing enough distance between our heart and that of another person can so easily allow hate to seep in, even, at times, without our notice.
May we seek today to shorten the distance between ourselves and another person, particularly another person who’s story and experience is different than our own.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
*Side note – I listened to the audible version of Michele Obama’s Believe on a recent road trip. I did not know how much I did not know about our former First Lady until I stopped to listen. And I am incredibly glad to have heard her story.