Joy caught herself nodding off at the wheel. She and Meredith were making the three-and-half-hour drive back home from New Orleans. On the night before, they had taken in a performance of “Rent.” Lack of sleep and the onset of a cold had left Joy feeling wrung out. So when Joy spotted the Starbucks sign ahead she took the exit.
In the parking lot Joy signaled as she approached an open spot. A man driving a huge F-250 with dual rear tires gunned it and swept into the space ahead of her. Irritated, Joy parked farther away. When she entered the cafe, she found herself standing directly behind the man who had swiped her spot.
The man ordered for a dozen or so of his closest friends. Each of his friends had requested a different speciality drink requiring a team of chemists and hours of preparation to make. Joy was steaming. This inconsiderate, self-absorbed jerk was wrecking her morning.
Finally, the first item of his lengthy, complicated order arrived. Chocolate milk. Without thinking, Joy said aloud, “Oh, chocolate milk. I love chocolate milk!”
The man turned around and smiled. “That’s for my daughter. She had her very first dance recital this morning. The whole family came to watch her. So I wanted everybody to have something special.”
Everything changed in an instant.
This was no longer some guy who had inconvenienced her. This was a parent sharing a special moment with the daughter that he loves. Joy was doing the same with Meredith. Standing in precisely the same Starbucks line, Joy traveled an infinite spiritual distance. From resentment to delight. From enmity to friendship. From hell to eternal life.
In his play “No Exit,” the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell is other people. By that he meant that other people inevitably objectify us. It’s inescapable.
They see us as the shape of our body or some action of ours that they witnessed. The clothes we wear, the job we occupy, our accent, or the color of our skin. Other people forget or disregard that, at the next instant, we are always free to choose who we will be. By objectifying us, other people assault our freedom.
In a way, Jesus turns Sartre’s idea on its head. Sartre pointed out that how other people see us can torture us. Can be our hell. By contrast, Jesus says that we make hell for ourselves by how we see other people. Or more precisely, we make hell for ourselves by failing to recognize people—including ourselves—as people instead of things.
That’s one of the lessons of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. (Luke 16:19-31) It goes like this.
A rich man with a snazzy wardrobe regularly threw extravagant parties on his estate. A sickly beggar named Lazarus frequently took shelter at the gate to the rich man’s mansion. Each man died. Lazarus found himself lounging by the pool with Abraham. Meanwhile, the rich man roasted in Hades. If we look at what the rich man says to Abraham from the depths of Hades, we’ll see that he’s in a hell of his own making.
First, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus down with some Perrier. After all, it’s blazing hot and he’s starting to feel like a toasted cheese sandwich. When that request is denied, the rich man has another errand for Lazarus. “Send him to warn my brothers about all of this!” No luck on that score, either.
The key is that the rich man never recognizes Lazarus as a person just like him. The rich man never directly addresses Lazarus. And crucially he seeks to use him as an inanimate tool to accomplish his own ends without consulting him about his willingness to help.
Martin Buber would have said that the rich man had only an I-It relationship with Lazarus, as if he were just a thing to be used. Human beings have the capacity to choose. We have values and purposes of our own. Recognizing and respecting another’s freedom brings us into what Buber called an I-You relationship with that person.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it this way. Every human being has an intrinsic value. That’s because we are capable of valuing one thing over another. We can pursue purposes that we have cast for ourselves. So to be truly moral, to be truly human, we must follow a basic principle. Always treat people—including yourself—as an end in themselves and never as a means only.
The rich man’s life was so consumed with getting what he wanted for himself, that he began treating others as means to his own gratification. As human-shaped things. And this is why his life was a hell of his own making.
Among our deepest, most fundamental needs is the need for the recognition of our own personhood. Mere things cannot offer us such recognition. We can use things. But things cannot listen to us, laugh with us, cry with us, forgive us, and miss us when we’re absent. Things cannot love us back.
Hell is a world in which nothing can love us back. If we see other human beings as mere things to be used—for profit, for pleasure, for power, for status—we gradually construct for ourselves a world of mere things. No thing can love us back.
But you know, Christ can. Christ can love us back even when we’ve built an elaborate hell for ourselves. As the old version of the Apostles’ Creed put, Jesus descended into hell. I’ve always imagined he would say something like this to me in my deepest funk:
“What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Sometimes, Jesus shows up with chocolate milk.