A few years ago I was an active member of an atheistic, freethinking group in my area. Their honest friendship humbled and challenged me in ways that were deeply formative. In fact, I often found myself growing more in my relationship with Jesus through their group than I did within Christian ministries! I longed to see a similar space created, led by Christians, where deeply formative conversations and relationships could be built with those who do not yet share our faith.
This space was later created when I partnered with a local brewery to start a monthly group in their building. Every month we gathered as many as 35 or 40 people to discuss important topics such as the nature of community, politics, the arts, or climate change. I was thankful for this neutral space and the opportunity to share faith in a natural setting.
Not everyone shared our excitement, however. Many were confused by the intent to go out and do ministry in a place like a brewery. I’ll never forget one conversation I had with an older Christian. After sharing what I believed God was doing through this unique ministry, he antagonistically shot back at me: Well what are you going to do once all these bar people are coming to your church!?
I was shocked! How could a professing Christian have such a strong, negative view toward people they hadn’t even met?
As time has passed I’ve been better able to understand his response because I see similar reactions to people in my own heart. So often I jump to negative conclusions about others who I hardly know or understand. The weaker my relationship with someone is, the faster I can be to cast harsh judgement over their character, actions, or intentions.
It is so easy for us to deal with others in the abstract rather than as actual people, isn’t it? Some have called this othering – labeling, judging, and treating other people as being intrinsically different and therefore unrelatable to ourselves. Many forms of injustice which plague us – racism, antisemitism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and so on – are often fueled by othering in the gap of relational distance.
The atheist philosopher Alain de Botton has said, “When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage.” As a result, we are pulled inward and made to think only of ourselves, trampling on all that is valuable and honorable in the world; even other people. If he is correct, then this tendency toward othering – to treat people in the abstract – is not simply a human flaw, nor is it a characteristic that simply separates the good and the bad among us. Something is baked into the human condition when, lacking anything good and beautiful that can draw us out of ourselves and toward others, we collapse on ourselves until all that is left is the destruction of a dark and unjust world.
At Christmas we celebrate a God who has not othered us. Although we are flesh-and-blood creatures who are other from their Creator, in his great love for us he “partook of the same things” (Hebrews 2:14), taking on our humanity so that we might be drawn close to him. The birth of Jesus Christ testifies that our God does not deal with us in the abstract. He does not cast harsh judgment on us from afar; he puts on our humanity and deals with our sin in his own person. In his flesh he dies as one of us, in his deity he dies for all of us.
The Apostle John describes the advent of Christ as light breaking into the darkness of the world (John 1:4-5). Peter would later pick up this idea, describing the call of Jesus as one that brings us out of darkness and into his light (1 Peter 2:9).
In other words, Jesus is the beautiful good we need which can pull us outside of ourselves. Captivated by his love and drawn toward his light, his heart becomes our own. Just as He has come near and drawn us close, we become those who draw near to others.
It’s no wonder that the angels sang a word of peace on earth (Luke 2:14). Peace is not abstract; peace is a Person. Through Christ we are drawn close to enjoy peace with God; in Christ we draw close to enjoy peace with others.
May the peace of God find you this Christmas through Him who draws near.