This month, we’ve made a point of curating essays and conversations around the idea of “the other.” With this in mind, I interviewed Brandon Hatmaker, whose ministry, along with his wife, Jen, has long focused on the homeless, the marginalized, and the underdog. Brandon is the author of Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture and his latest: A Mile Wide: Trading a Shallow Religion for Deeper Faith.
Cara Strickland: Hi Brandon, it’s so great to talk with you today.
Brandon Hatmaker: Hey Cara, thanks for having me, excited to hang out a little bit.
CS: Absolutely. We’re here to talk a little bit about your new book and then it’s also kind of a special month for us, we’re kicking off our new author interview series this month at Off the Page. This month we’re going to be focusing on the concept of “the other,” which is a big one, I know. I’d love to know a little bit about what this broad concept means to you?
BH: Oh wow. You know, when I wrote A Mile Wide, I had the other in mind. I think Christians have a strong foundation in thinking about who we are, and how we want to worship, and how we want to grow in faith. Then it ends up falling short, and Christians start trying to apply that to people that maybe aren’t in the same circle. In fact, I think of it as there are insiders, outsiders, and outcasts. Anyone who’s not an insider is typically the other, the other person. I wrote a little bit about Jesus and his journey right after The Sermon on the Mount. After he came down the mountain, you see him address three different kinds of people. The first one was someone who was considered an outcast, it was a man with leprosy who came to him, and he healed him. After that, it was a Roman Centurion who was an outsider because he had faith, but was not Jewish. Then, after that, you see him with Peter’s mom, who was an insider, so there’s a precedent for followers of Christ, to think about and to move toward the other. When it remains all about insiders, it seems like that was a struggle for so many people from the beginning, even before the cross, and so the gospel changes things, and it invites us into going beyond. If I was to think about one thing: where we historically have been hung up in the church, it’s moving into that space, so I’m glad you guys are tackling it.
CS: Can you talk about some people who have gone from being others for you to having faces, and names, and a space in your life?
BH: For us specifically, when we thought how do we do this, we started with the homeless, a lot of people are there. I’ve always thought of the homeless, you know to be honest, and it’s embarrassing now, you think of them as maybe most of them are just lazy, or they’re on drugs, and we stereotype these crews. Once we started getting into it and going beyond just handing someone a sandwich, or something like that, talking to people, you discover a real name and a real story, and maybe they’re fathers or mothers or grandparents. I saw people who have gone through some tough things, and the moment I began to see that, to see their pain and their need, it started changing things inside me. What happened to us, is we began serving in that capacity and started seeing and learning to identify pain in other people, or recognizing a need in other people. It went from physical, then you see an emotional need, to see a spiritual need, and it begins to open your eyes to need all around us. That’s one of the things I think we have neglected as believers, in the church many times: we have neglected working hard to see the need around us outside of spiritual need. We see spiritual need everywhere, right? But where are the places where people are suffering, and they’re hurting? Whether it’s the poor, or whether it’s our neighbor. So some of the people? Man it’s been all of the people, even down to myself, to learn to see that, and I think that’s what Jesus did well, even those who were hungry, he looked at people and had compassion for them. To learn that I think has been our journey, but any people group that is not “us” I think those are the people that have impacted me so much over the last few years.
CS: There are some great divides in our country and world, currently. What would you say are some practical and productive ways you would see for bridging some of the chasms between ourselves and people we disagree with, or just people who are different from us?
BH: I mean it’s huge. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a time where it’s been so charged, dealing with racism, dealing with equality, dealing with politics, it’s just incredible. Sometimes it’s just like you feel like saying: ‘OK, I’m going to just cut Facebook now. I’m not going to go on Twitter until six months from now. Then honestly, as a human, you start getting curious, and you have a fear of missing out, but for a Christian, hopefully, the thinking is: ‘Yeah, but I want to make a difference, I want to have an impact, I want to do something.’
But it’s interesting because you’ve found, especially with the political climate right now, you find yourself with other believers that are friends, and people that you know, and family. Thanksgiving and Christmas were awkward for so many people this year because it’s people you care about. So when you think about bridging the gaps, first of all, think about whether or not you want to do that, and whether or not it’s you, or whether or not you recognize that it’s our responsibility. When I think about bridging, being a bridge maker, I always go to Matthew 5, when Jesus was giving the Beatitudes. He seems to be outlining a new kind of disciple, and what it looks like and the attitude to take to be effective in bridging those gaps. So I always start with do we think that God’s Kingdom is advancing in this? Is it something that we need to be thinking about? Then I always go back to myself, ‘Okay, what’s wrong with me, why am I so mad? Why does this make me so frustrated? Why do I take this so personal? What’s the root? And I have to think about it, is this scriptural, or is this cultural? Is this personal? Is this me that I think that guy’s wrong? Then I begin to consider the other person, where are they coming from? What’s their agenda? Why is it? Do they know it? Is it willful? Is this being mean? Are they just trying to attack? We need then to think about the question: ‘is this something that we should allow to divide the Kingdom? Christians struggle to stop and think that real people are involved. There are real reasons why certain things trigger them, but we just have to make a decision to seek justice or to seek God’s Kingdom, and think about what our agenda is, what the problem is, and set our personal things aside. Hard to do, but it can be done. In fact, Jen and I have a handful of celebrity friends who we disagree with politically, completely are on other ends of the spectrum, and even the way we’ve done church, they grew up in a different church environment and different things that we disagree on. But we’ve just decided that we’ve been able to do so much good together, and partnering together with organizations around the world, that there was a conversation we just had to have and say ‘Hey is this something we’re going to allow to get in the way?’ And we just said no. There’s just too much if you respect that other person, and you care about the advancement of the Kingdom and not our agenda, that’s the root of beginning to build bridges and to bring those things together. I think taking an honest look at ourselves, that’s the first and most important part, in my mind.
CS: One of the things you say in your book, you quote Paul, when he talks about being willing to be all things to all people. What do you think that means, and how does it apply to our times today?
BH: I think that’s important, I mean if you continue to read the Bible, Paul says he does that for the sake of the Gospel, that he would share in the blessings of that. He understands that the gospel is a redemptive work, and this is what I write about in the book, a bigger gospel. It’s not some loosey-goosey, everybody, all the time, no matter what, whatever. It’s talking about a gospel that doesn’t just save us, but it’s a gospel that continues to work in us, to transform us, and then the gospel works not just in us, but through us, and then the gospel then restores. I think Paul understood that the gospel is active and that he got to be a part of it, so first of all, it was his target. How does it apply today, is that it’s active and it’s working, and we are invited into this redemptive story. It’s being written, and we get to be a part of that.
But the focus of being all things to all people, Paul was writing the church in Corinth, under Roman occupation. Paul was struggling with the old, Jewish Christians. When the Romans were becoming Christians, Paul was not making them go under the Old Law that Jesus came to fulfill, and so they were struggling with it. He was teaching them that not all sacred cows are supposed to be there forever. Paul changed the rules and got into talking about our freedom a little bit in Christ and how Christians can loosen up a tad and not worry so much about all the rituals and going through all of the motions. He also said: be careful not to abuse that freedom, but the reason for that is others might see the truth, and we would become good news to other people. Maybe how it applies today is to realize that it’s just not always an exact faith system where God is working. He’s working around us all over the place, and so that allows us a little bit to let down our guard and be vulnerable and meet people where they are instead of expecting them to meet us where we are, and you know what that takes? It takes us trusting that the gospel can work without us, that we are invited into what the gospel is doing, it’s not contingent upon us, it’s contingent upon what God has done and what he’s continuing to do. So it’s a new perspective of trust, and I think that’s what Paul was talking about.
CS: As we begin this new year, we’re almost done with this first month, what is your hope for the Church and the world?
BH: I don’t know exactly where the church is but I think it’s maturing and so I’m hopeful, and why I’m hopeful is: I’m seeing people ask the right questions, like what you’ve asked. I think millennials, and even a lot of the older folks that I’m running into and hanging out with, are starting to ask the question of you know what do we need to be doing? What’s really important here? How do we become good news to other people? You know, I’m so afraid to even mention that I go to church because of my neighbor, I’m afraid they’ll never talk to me again, or avoid me. How do we change that? How do we flip that without compromising it? How do we become good news to everyone? That’s what people are asking.
So I think now, Christians need to press into that and say ‘Well let’s learn how we did that together,’ and everyone’s looking at the life of Jesus and that’s beautiful because that’s the answer. So I’m so hopeful that we would trust what the prophets talked about, and our humble postures, and loving mercy, and seeking justice, and that we’d trust, and what Jesus talked about and being peacemakers and joining him and this restoration. I think it just means getting over ourselves. If we could step back, get over ourselves, seek out what Jesus wants to do, and just say ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what I want to do, too.’ Stop performing, stop pretending like we have to have it all together, and our culture is demanding that anyway. I think everything is beginning to align, in the middle of all this craziness, and we’re learning how to live in the tension, knowing the tension is never going to go away. Instead, how do we live among it? How do we glorify God? How do we love each other as we wrestle? So I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful, and there’s a lot of people who are hopeful, there’s always hope, and I’m excited about what this year holds for us.