on being a street preacher

If I could assassinate anyone on this Tuesday, it would be the street preacher in front of the university here.

There is another girl talking to him first; I join the conversation out of interest in the kind of person who talks to street preachers. After it becomes clear that her straightforward questions are not being met with straightforward answers, and that she for whatever reason is not going to cease trying any time soon, I take to looking around the intersection. The sheer number of people streaming by suddenly overwhelms me. How could this man refuse to see the consequences of his actions – the anger, confusion, discomfort, and hatred in the eyes of passersby? The damage his thoughtlessness has already sown is breathtaking.

I am seized by a desire – a need – to somehow undo all this. I want to shout that this has nothing to do with Jesus, or write it in the sky, or hand out cookies, or cause some kind of permanent damage to the man’s vocal cords. I want to cry, but instead I look at the next person who stops to watch. “I am a Christian, and I’m sorry for this man’s actions.”

“YOU! I WILL NOT TALK TO YOU ANYMORE. GO AWAY! YOU ARE A HYPOCRITE! HYPOCRITE!” The heretofore levelheaded street preacher is suddenly shouting at me, and waving his arms, and I am hurrying across the street because now everything looks even worse. I care only that the screaming stop.

Later I do cry. Because of how much one person can hurt the world, because I was verbally attacked on a street corner, because I didn’t undo anything at all.

But even later, I realize he was right. I am a hypocrite.

For one thing, I can’t apologize for his actions. At best, my apology was a poor substitute for his; at worst, it was an insult to the person being wronged.

For another thing, I should have apologized for myself. No, I’ve never preached condemnation on a public sidewalk. My list of sins is much longer: I have condemned and judged others on sight. I have cared more about being right than about being loving. I have failed to recognize the needs of people around me. I have been slow to listen and quick to speak. I have feared others. I have used my sacred text to congratulate myself, instead of listening to its call for humility.

Through all those attitudes I have created street preachers of myself and other people. I have contributed to a world where the truth is adversarial, not shared; where it is possible to pretend to love by using violence; where the other ceases to be truly human.

I am sorry.

And I think it is because I am sorry that I can forgive the street preacher. Let her who has never been judgmental, smug, immature, mistaken, insensitive, or arrogant, cast the first stone. Let her who knows the street preacher’s story judge his actions now.

Everyone else: please forgive us.

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