The Sunday Project

Hell is Other People

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe |

By Zinzy Nev Geene
Sheep on a mountain, with one standing on a stone
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First Reading
EZ 34:11-12, 15-17

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.

As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.

Second Reading
1 COR 15:20-26, 28

Brothers and sisters: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

Gospel Reading
MT 25:31-46

Jesus said to his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

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Let's meditate on us scattered sheep today, shall we? After all, if not scattered, then what are we? It has become a running gag in our household: I will be reading the New York Times, shaking my fist at whomever is responsible for the failed separation of Church and State, or at those who think their Christian inclination allows them to dictate what happens in other people's bodies, and my Jewish partner will do the eye roll of eye rolls and say: “funny how you all kind of do that, wouldn't you agree?”

She's right: we Christians have a peculiar propensity for thinking ourselves better than the rest. And I'm not talking communal, but rather individual superiority. It's really quite basic. We all have our individual interpretation of what signifies the core and what is merely peripheral in God’s message to the people. I may very well believe that God's love can triumph when we give queer people room to breathe (which is to say to live, love, and all that comes with it), but another equally Christian Christian may think this triumph of love requires the exact opposite response. Despite this reality, we deem ourselves the Good Follower, and the other one Not A Real Christian.

In short: 

Hell is other people. 

When I open my Bible to Ezekiel 34, I hear the echo of the Parable of the Lost Sheep: 

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

There's something so tender and kind in both these texts; no matter who or where or how lost, we are all equally important to God. Even when we sin, through repentance we can be found again. But who is a sinner and who needs repentance? 

To many people in the flock, the entire Vine & Fig community is a sinner in need of repentance. Disguised as well-intended good Christian ministry, their anti-queer violence saturates our daily lives. And let’s be clear: when I say violence, I don't just mean the 350 trans and gender diverse individuals who were murdered in the past twelve months. I mean your brother who didn't come to your wedding, and your mother who keeps saying she "doesn't believe in gender diversity". I mean your employer who forces you to sign a document indicating that you condemn homosexuality while you try to hide your girlfriend from your Instagram timeline. I mean the godawful things your siblings parrot over Sunday supper, and your father reminding them all that he has no love in his heart for gay people. 

Jesus Christ, it’s great that you have your flock, my man, but should we queer people even want to be a part of it? 


I’d like to think ‘yes’.

Because hell is other people, and during our journey towards them we encounter God. When I dive deeper into Ezekiel 34 and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the words take on a new meaning. To me, they are not a personal consolation, reminding me that I will be found if I’m lost. They tell me, above anything, that I am part of a single enormous flock, made up of everyone, filled with people whom I think are lost, and who, in turn, believe that I’ve gone astray. The passage tells me to love God above all else, and my neighbor as myself. Even if that neighbor is keeping their foot on my foot. 

“What might that love look like?” we all rightfully ask, immediately. In my case, love may be a ‘yes’ and it may be a ‘no’. 

A “yes, you are right, thank you for teaching me about yourself.”

Or a “no, what you are saying about me and my siblings is false, destructive, and traumatizing. Here, let me help you see things through a new lens so that we can coexist.”

Through God, I am granted the wisdom to know the difference.