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Last spring I was hiking along a section of the Saline River that shambles through the city of Milan, Michigan, and I came to a rail bridge spanning the river. The trail dipped under the bridge, and before descending, I looked up and saw a number of boxcars stationed on a side-track. They were covered with graffiti, much of it colorful and quite beautifully drawn.
Some drawings were gang-symbols whose meaning was lost on me. Some were the expressions of lovers, hearts with arrows and initials. Intrigued, I climbed up an incline and onto the tracks to take a closer look. Walking past the graffitied boxcars, I came to one that stopped me in my tracks. On it someone had written the words: Jesus Hates Me!
Who was this person, and what kind of life led him or her to say something like this? Maybe some young person had been out carousing in the railyard with a group of friends and had written these words with little or no aforethought, nothing more than a lark. Maybe, but most likely not.
This graffiti-writer had taken the time to erase the word “love” and replace it with “hate” and had added an exclamation point. Adult, youth, or child — this person had taken hatred to infinity–not the world hates me, my parents hate me, my lover hates me. He or she had declared that Jesus Hates Me! This writer wanted to negate a belief that has given comfort to millions over the years, a belief so beautifully expressed in the children’s song, a song that Karl Barth once told a student was the simple summary of what he was trying to say in his voluminous and often complex writings: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Boxcars are moving billboards; someone wanted this message of hate to be seen by thousands of people waiting at intersections in cities, towns, and villages across this wide country, people walking along tracks as far away as Milan, Michigan. Jesus Hates Me! Was this someone’s version of, “Curse God and die,” or was it a cry for help?
Pondering all this, I realized I did not need to speculate about the identity and motives of this anonymous person. I knew any number of people who could have written it, people who had suffered horribly in life with no relief in sight and whose faith in Jesus as the source of the abundant life was fading. I knew people who were caught up in political, economic, and theological systems that not only ignored their presence but impugned their personhood, people of faith who wondered whether God had turned against them.
I was raised in a stream of the Reformed tradition that emphasized the love of God. My mentors taught me that the sovereignty of God was not, in the first instance, a doctrine about God’s power and control of the world but about God’s love and commitment to it. They emphasized that the Sovereign had lowered the scepter and sought communion with us. The coming of Jesus into the world was the quintessential lowering of the scepter. Jesus was the love of God embodied for us to see and follow. We, the followers of God, we the church of Jesus Christ, were to be the body of Christ, the embodiment of the love of God in the world. We were to be the arms of God embracing all the prodigal and pharisaic children of the world.
The message, Jesus Hates Me!, hit me like a stone on my windshield. Its initial impact made a small nick in my soul, but over time cracks spread out in all directions. The psalms affirmed repeatedly that the steadfast love of God fills the earth, and Jesus said that the mark of a true church is the capacity to love. I want to believe that God takes up our small acts of kindness and thereby fills the earth with love, even if imperceptible from moment to moment.
But can I sustain such a belief in the mission of the church in a society where belittling the other is increasingly common in our discourse and where hatred for the other is increasingly manifest in our actions, where victims of repressive regimes and environmental degradation are walled off at our borders?
Jesus Hates Me! Whoever may have written this, I hear it as a cry for help. I wonder what role the church might have played in this graffiti-writer’s life? Was the church the arms of God embracing him or her or the arms pushing him or her away?