I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.
“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.
Of course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.
Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.
The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.
My friend Stephen Woodworth has written tenderly about a subject too easily avoided. Subject isn’t quite right; suicide is an experience, a moment, a tragedy, an ending and beginnings. Last week I heard that a former coworker had taken her life. It’s a confounding event that most of us have brushed up against and Stephen has written personally and insightfully about it.
At the close of last week I dressed early in the morning in order to attend the funeral of a friend who took his own life. The event causes me to come to the keyboard confused this week, feeling as if I have been turned inside out, my soul and my body somehow switching places. I dare not say I am feeling “sad” or “depressed” or even “melancholy” for that matter. Suicide has a way of giving a truer value to those words much in the same way Westerners are apprehensive to call themselves persecuted after hearing about the martyrs. I will, however, admit that I do feel quite vulnerable and fragile, like a sailor who has emerged from his cabin after a storm to find that the mast has been ripped from the deck. Disoriented. Not because I don’t know the right answers, but simply because I know that now is not the time for them to be given.Stephen Hightower was a pastor, a husband, a friend and a fellow brother in the faith that we both share. And despite the fact that the news of his suicide was given to me a week ago, the words still seem to hang in the air like a thick fog that has no intention of lifting.I have been confronted with suicide before. I have even written about it previously through this blog. I studied it during my years in seminary, read books and articles dedicated to it throughout my time as a pastor and I have counseled numerous people who had either attempted it in the past, or would attempt it in the future. Academically, I can interact with it. Theologically, I can wrestle with it. Emotionally, suicide leaves me feeling stripped and crushed, the weight of its darkness almost too much to bear.
Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?
Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.
Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.
Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.
One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.
For the ten years I’ve been a pastor there’s been one priority most everyone I’ve worked with (pastors, lay people, and ministry authors alike) has agreed with: authenticity. This is interesting. For one thing, church folks don’t often agree on priorities yet this one has gone unopposed. For another, how is authenticity a thing that can be prioritized? In an earlier age we might have simply called this thing honesty or telling the truth but somewhere along the way churches were convinced that ours is an age of authenticity. To attract the young and cynical then, churches must wear their authenticity on websites, mission statements, and sermon illustrations.
I started thinking about this as I prepared a recent sermon about worship. I was considering some of the obstacles to corporate worship – a particularly live question in a multi-ethnic congregation like ours – when the priority of authenticity started to seem more of a liability than an asset. Authenticity, as I understand it, means being true to myself. Maybe it’s easier to state it negatively: authenticity is not being fake. I’m all for not faking, but for Christians there are at least two problems with authenticity.
First, though being authentic requires being true to myself, Christians claim that most of the time we barely know ourselves. What, exactly, is it that we are being true to? The prophet Jeremiah was blunt about this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” If my decisions about how I participate in Christian worship and community are based on authenticity – my interpretation of my needs and desires – then I’m in for a fickle and shallow experience of the Christian life. Not only that but when my starting point is my authentic experience, no matter how altruistic I happen to be on a given day, I cannot help looking for an experience revolving around me.
There’s another problem. Historically Christians have assumed that our experience of Christ and his Kingdom involves a life-long catechesis. Our emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs at any given moment are a poor indicator of our place within the Kingdom and our identities as children of God. Rather, we have expected our desires to be schooled in the practices and habits of this upside down Kingdom. Submission to community, participation in corporate worship and Sabbath keeping, and practicing the spiritual disciplines have long been assumed to be the normal Christian habits necessary forming more trustworthy desires. Leading with authenticity may sound like smart strategy, but it’s hardly leading from our strength.
I’m pro-authenticity. I want to live an authentic life to the best of my limited ability. And I want to participate in a community of people who are learning to tell the truth about everything. As a value, authenticity is admirable and worth pursuing. But as a guide, we can surely do better. Much better.
We do not live by building ever more secure fences of possessions around ourselves, but by giving to others space to live. This is to give life to others. The human animal, human society, flourishes, not to the extent that it possesses riches, but to the extent that we give life to each other, to the extent that we imitate the creativity of God. Of course, as creatures we can only imitate it from a distance, We cannot act, as God does, for no benefit to ourselves. But we can live (either more or less) by the free gift we make to others. It is a question of which direction we are aiming for.
All this is just the platitude that the human animal lives by friendship and that human society perishes without it. But to aim at riches is to go away sorrowful because they are, in the end, corrosive of friendship. To aim at poverty, on the other hand, is to build friendship. And to aim at poverty, to grow up by living in friendship, is to imitate the life-giving poverty of God, to be godlike. The gospel does not tell us to have no possessions. It tells us to aim at poverty, to move towards it, and certainly not to aim at riches. We cannot serve both God and riches. There is something bizarre about the present popularity of the word ‘market’ as a metaphor for human society. Markets are surely a good and necessary part of living together, as are law courts and lavatories. But not of these are a useful model for what human society essentially is. Personal friendship is such a model. I am not saying that society should consist of nothing but personal friendships, for this is a greater friendship that belongs to our community in Christ. But personal friendship is an illuminating image or metaphor for a human living which would be an imitation or reflection of God’s creative poverty. The cares and insecurity of Mark’s rich man sent him away in sorrow. By contrast, to aim at poverty is to be given the joy by which we live in the Spirit – not only in this life but in eternity.
-Herbert McCabe in a sermon titled “Poverty and God,” collected in God, Christ and Us (2003). It might seem that McCabe is glorifying poverty but he dispels this earlier in the sermon. I’m interested in how he connects the aim toward poverty (in the pattern of Christ) with the priority of personal friendships for Christian people. I hope to preach a short series about friendship – a topic we Protestant people seem to neglect – and McCabe has been helpful a couple of times as I begin preparing.