I’m going to tell you a secret. A powerful secret. It will sound strange at first, but I have it on good authority (the best in fact) that if you use it well, it will change not only your life, but the lives of many of the people you meet. Are you ready? Here it is:
Learn to pretend.
That’s right. Pretend. If you learn how to pretend, then you will be able to turn iron into gold and beggars into kings. Let me explain.
In the early centuries of Christianity, few things about the Christians irritated the pagans more than the Christian habit of trying to turn sinners into saints and rabble into royalty. Christ’s command to treat the poor, weak and sinful as though they were each Christ Himself sounded positively insane to the typical, upper class pagan. For many pagans, a poor man’s poverty and sinner’s sinfulness weren’t injustices that needed to be corrected, they were simply reflections of that person’s weak, inferior nature. Treating a poor man or a prostitute with the sort of respect you would render to a king or a priest, as Christians did by Christ’s command, was like talking to a statue and expecting it to talk back. In treating paupers like princes, the Christians seemed to be playing a ‘pretending’ game. Pre-Christian societies would have generally preferred that sinners be treated like sinners, and that Christians cease their silly make believe which made them treat the foulest sinners like good, worthwhile people.
Now let’s be frank; modern popular culture is considerably more ‘pagan’ than we usually bother to appreciate. In some ways, arguably, we moderns are even crueller and more brutish than the pagans of Rome, because although we certainly enforce standards of social worth, we don’t seem to think that we do. School children know this far better than adults. In a schoolyard, the social hierarchy is fairly clear: ‘cool’, ‘popular’ and ‘pretty’ at the top, ‘loser’, ‘freak’ and ‘ugly’ down the bottom. Those at the top are worth your time, the others aren’t. Adults are no different. Apart from obvious social outcasts (criminals, the homeless, prostitutes), our appearance/success-obsessed culture strongly implies that each person’s worth depends on their financial success, their social skills (usually synonymous with their ability to sleep with whomever they choose) and their physical appearance. Those who do not possess these qualities are viewed as, in a very real sense, inferior members of the human race. And like the pagans, to justify our cruelty, we often blame these people themselves for their ‘inferiority’. That fat person would be thinner if they could stop shoving food down their gullet. That nerd would have more friends if he would just stop being so weird. That drug addict would have his life together if he would just develop some self control. There’s no point denying it – we are all pagans deep down. In the deep, dark closets of our minds, there is a part of all of us that wants to blame those less fortunate than us for their own misery, and thereby free ourselves from any responsibility to help them. This tendency is not only ‘pagan’, unfortunately. It’s also essentially human.
At all times and in all places however, Christianity goes against this tendency.
We refuse to see what the rest of the world sees. Where the world sees beggars, losers, failures and sinners, we see only Christs, and we treat them as such (or we ought to, at least). We ‘pretend’ that the poorest, most broken and tortured members of the human race are glowing with the glory of God Himself. We are pretending just as Christ pretended when He said “Blessed are the poor” (for the poor certainly don’t seem blessed.) We are playing make believe. Or at least, that’s what it looks like when worldly people see us bowing to beggars as though they were kings, and admiring the ‘ugly’ as though they were beautiful. The strange thing is, our make believe has a strange tendency to come true.