“You do not have to be good,” wrote the mystic poet Mary Oliver. As a social justice organizer, these words feel both comforting and threatening. If goodness is not mandated, then how do we call out greed and cruelty? If we cannot claim moral high ground, how can we challenge injustice?
One thing that many churches and activist communities have in common is the emphasis they put on being “good.” One of Jesus’ sayings that seems to celebrate being good is found in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is hanging out with social outcasts. Some of Jesus’s religious colleagues are outraged that Jesus would spend time with immoral people, and Jesus replies: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do.… I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I have always found the declaration “those who are well have no need of a physician” to be horrifying because it reinforces the ego of self-righteous religious people. But recently I came to the realization that Jesus was probably just throwing shade at the “righteous.” Those who think that they are “well” are too self-satisfied to participate in the realm of unconditional, mutual love and liberation.
Of course, the word “sinners” is a trigger that has been used as a weapon, and the theology of self-hatred has been so successful that billions of people believe they are morally corrupt bags of trash. But the way Jesus is using “sinner” here is simply as someone in need of medicine and a healer. You do not need to believe you are fundamentally wicked in order to need medicine. You might simply be suffering from exhaustion, grief or fear.
Some of us have been so traumatized by a theology of self-hatred that we also need a period of declaring ourselves to be perfect just the way we are. But I believe that seeing oneself as blameless and pure should only be a transitional experience to counterbalance deep-seated self-disgust. Believing ourselves to be angels still buys into a binary of sinners versus saints. This binary makes our self-worth very precarious, because it means we are only loveable as long as we are “righteous,” and at any moment we could fall into the other camp. That binary excuses us from real responsibility, and prevents us from feasting at the banquet table of grace—where you are loved not because you act right, or believe right, or look right, or say the right things, but simply because you exist. When the security of unconditional love is yours, then you can be free from the need to be perfect, can accept that you have within you both sinner and saint, and get down to the hard, dirty, complicated work of making the world a better place.
Rev. John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain-Hillman City.
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