Sometimes a person will tell me about a group of people they don’t like. They don’t say it that directly, but you can pick up on group hatred fairly quickly in a conversation. These people are always other – something other than what you are. If you’re Christian, perhaps the other is Muslim. If you’re straight, the other might be gay. If you’re a Republican, those other people are Democrats. Liberals. Where there is a disliked other, you will probably find the word those.

Those Muslims.
Those gays.
Those Democrats.
Those__________. (you name it)

When I hear the word “those” in a conversation I sometimes say two words which, at best, draw a blank look and at worst draw an angry stare or angry words. Here are the two words: name some. Give me the names of some of the people that you are speaking negatively about. It’s amazing – or not so amazing – how many times people can’t name a single person they dislike. Why? Because people are frequently against an idea of a person rather than an actual person. The people they are against, in other words, are imagined. It’s amazing how quickly the conversation changes when the imagination becomes reality and it’s their kid who becomes gay, or a Democrat, or their new neighbors are Muslim. This person now becomes much more difficult to dislike because they are now relationally connected to the other person.

But here’s an interesting thing, I think we do the same thing with people that we supposedly love. I heard someone once say that when he heard people use the words “I love the poor,” he also responded with two words: “Name two.” Again, most people couldn’t even name one. The truth is, what the people actually loved was their imagination of the poor. Or perhaps more accurately, they loved their imagination of themselves loving the imaginary poor. Abraham Herschel once said, “It is one thing to be for a cause and another thing to be in a cause” (emphasis mine). This ‘for but not in’ that Herschel talked about has become increasingly easier. Andy Crouch talks about “virtual activism.” Virtual activism is this whole idea of loving someone without being able to name them and, in fact, without actually helping them. It works something like this: I decide that I really love the poor in Africa and want to be an advocate for them. So what do I do? I start to be vocal about the poor in Africa. When people say something disparaging, I speak up on Facebook and call people out on their words. I feel anger and it is, most certainly, “righteous anger.” After all, I care about the poor and you don’t. I repost blogs about the plight of the poor in Africa and talk endlessly to my friends about certain politicians who won’t help. 

Now, all of this can be good. Then again, I can do all of this without actually doing anything to help the poor. At this point, I enter a really dangerous game. I feel good about myself for speaking out, but in reality I haven’t helped. In fact, I’ve hurt. Why? Because it’s all talk. I’ve appeased my own conscious while the poor in Africa continue to suffer without my aid. But hey, I feel good so I can move on with my day.

My friend Dave once met a guy named Bernie who lived under a bridge. He told Bernie that we were a part of a big church who could help him with his needs. “What do you need?” Dave asked. “Not what do you want – don’t tell me you want a sports car or something – but what do you need? A new pair of boots? A sleeping bag?” Bernie looked back at him and said, “Really? Anything I need?” “Yeah,” Dave responded. Bernie looked him straight in the eye and said: “be my F#$*ing friend.” Bernie went on to explain that so many people came and gave him a dollar or whatever, but these same people didn’t even look him in the eye. Bernie saw through it. He told Dave that they gave him a buck not to help him out but to ease their own conscience. It is, perhaps, a very tiny step up from virtual activism, but the problem remains the same: we don’t love the person, just the idea. Most of the people that gave Bernie a buck couldn’t tell you his name and might not remember him if they saw him the next day. He remained an idea.

Barbara Brown-Taylor tells a story about when she first became a Christian. All of the other Christians kept telling her that they loved her. This made her feel good so one day she decided to ask one of the girls who repeatedly said she loved her why, exactly, she loved her.

“She made a surprised face, like I should already know.”
“Because God love you!” she said, throwing both hands in the air. “I love you because God loves everybody!”

“This may sound small,” Taylor said, “but I decided that was not enough for me. I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be love in particular, as I was convinced God loved. Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.”

That last line. “I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.” That is what you call a Brown-Taylor mic drop.

So what I’m saying is simply this: while loving people because God loves them sounds great, it can be very damaging if what we are actually loving is the idea of loving instead of loving the actual person herself. So let’s remove the word virtual from “virtual activism.” And when it comes to loving people, let’s learn to love in particular, not in general.