by Nathan Brown
A few years ago I was teaching university English classes part-time. In a second-year Modern Literature class, one of the most interesting students was a young gentleman who worked hard on his image: torn black T-shirts, camouflage pants, ragged haircut and multiple piercings. He regularly stood out from the rest of the class by his dress and matching attitude. And he was also one of the top students in the class. His questions and answers in class discussions regularly upset the expected and forced the class to consider different perspectives. As class teacher, I appreciated his unique input.
But one day I was stopped in my introduction to the day’s class by his arrival. It was not the lateness or other disruption, instead it was his T-shirt of choice for that day, which read, “Jesus hates me.” I simply did not know how to react to such a statement, so contrary and outside my usual way of thinking about God. His T-shirt statement had a similar effect on me as his input often did on class interaction.
In reflecting upon this experience, we probably should begin by questioning just how seriously we should read T-shirts and, by analogy, bumper stickers and the like. One suspects that often these pop culture artefacts are more marketing than philosophy, focused far more on whether they will sell than on the statement itself. But the question remains as to what would motivate someone to buy or wear such a label; and why would such a T-shirt sell.
After my initial T-shirt-induced shock, my reaction to the slogan was one of sadness, either at the misrepresentation of God’s love he may have received at some stage or at his rejection of that love. I wanted to shout, “No, that’s not the God I know, the God who died for our world — for us. You have it so wrong.”
I wanted somehow to show him or explain to him a different Jesus, whatever his knowledge or experience might have been. It is one of the constant tasks of those of us who wish for others to connect with the love of God — as Dallas Willard begins The Divine Conspiracy — “to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus…presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt and contempt has led to profound ignorance.”
At the same time, we need to check our representations of our all-loving God. Perhaps to the detriment of those with little understanding of the ways of Christianity, we as Christians have struggled to put into practice the fine and somewhat artificial distinction we have made between ‘hating the sin’ and ‘loving the sinner.’ We need to be careful in how we explain or employ this well-worn axiom, making sure those unfamiliar with Christian terminology and who very much identify themselves by what they do are not unduly alienated from the ultimate Source of accepting love. “‘God hates sin,’ some emphasise. But God hates sin like the parent of a leukemia victim hates cancer. God really does love the sinner” (Frederica Mathewes-Green).
A ‘Jesus hates me’ T-shirt is such a long way from the real Jesus — a God who “showed the disciples the full extent of his love” (John 13:1, NLT), by stooping to wash their dusty feet. The servanthood of God is one of the most profound realities of the Christian faith, something we who should know too easily take for granted and which struggles to become reality even in the most faithful of His saints.
And that’s the other thought that struck me as I contemplated this student’s T-shirt statement: the overwhelming humility and graciousness of the love of God — a love that reaches out even to those who wear ‘Jesus hates me’ T-shirts and to many of the rest of us who do worse. As the hymn puts it, “There for me the Saviour stands,/ Shows His wounds and spreads His hands;/ God is love! I know, I feel;/ Jesus weeps, and loves me still.”