I’ve spent the past week in conversations off and online, listening and speaking, consoling and questioning, with those I know and those I’ve met on the street, in church, around tables, at vigils and protests, on walking trails and working side by side. While some have viewed the electoral results as a vindication of their fears of being forgotten, mistrust of institutions, and certitudes about what to them is due, others have experienced it as a revealing of what they feared was underneath a normalizing of vilifying language, mistrust of their neighbors and a destabilizing of their liberal (in the true sense of the word) sense of inevitable social progression. It’s messy. It has been. It will be.
I myself found my heart torn, my stomach twisted in disgust of hateful positions being normalized, mistrustful of those who seemingly were justified and rewarded for fanning the deplorable flames of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious extremism and imperial patriotism targeting anything “other.” What my feelings were in the patois of my heart was actually more along the lines of “damn those racist, misogynistic hate-mongering pigs!” Damn them for screwing up our country. My country. For legitimizing language that makes me fear for the safety of my daughters, for the security of my gay family and friends, for the vulnerability of friends who are immigrants, legal and illegal.
I was angry not with any candidate or voting block per say, but more so with other Christian people, in particular the large evangelical swath across our nation which militantly advocated voting for a man who claimed to have never sinned or made a mistake (all while supposedly being a true, faithful Bible-believing follower of Jesus) because they thought that the other candidate, she is a liar. But in my focus of being pastoral, of creating and curating space for all peoples to share, listen, mourn, cry and be silent, I stuffed those frustrations and anger into the back corners of my attention.
Moving to create a communal space for lament and listening, for consolation and counsel in the worship service I am charged to fashion and organize I settled on consecrating half of the service time to a symphony of scripture: a public reading of principal sacred words from the Bible, along the lines of the ancient Israelite King Josiah reading the Torah of God aloud to the people that they might learn, remember and recognize who they belong to and their life vocation. The beauty of a symphony is the vastness of the music. Too much to hold on to. You can’t remember all of it. You can catch a taste of a melody that weaves through the whole musical tapestry, or be present in a moment that catches you by surprise, swelling up emotion and awareness.
And so we did a Symphony of Scripture, read by various members of our church community, interspersed with chant and song.
The microphone amplification was inadequate for the noisy space. Some readings were unclear. Some went unheard in the ambient noise. While I braced for complaints and comments of what could have been done better, I overlooked the true sanctity of the moment. What is majestic about Christian faith, what is overlooked by the Bible quoting thumpers and pundits, is the power of reading the Word together as a community. Around the sanctuary were folks who voted in ways that disturb (maybe even disgust) me; as well as some who articulated fear of being rounded up, or singled out for persecution because of their disabilities. There were visitors, whose story I do not know. There were folks weeping tears for which I intimately know the reasons. It was a time of lament, listening, being still, seeing, being awoken, reminded and formed. It definitely was for me.
Standing at the pulpit, surveying the congregation, ensuring that we were in the flow of the plan, that folks were able to be safe and present, the tears came and went. In my preoccupations of caring for everyone, curating the space, the emotion flowed over me. I realized that I was exactly what I claimed disgusted me. Listening with a community of people with whom I identify, some of whom I disagree with, and some who share my same convictions; I had the truth reflected back to me.
The truth is larger than us, larger than me. I too am motivated by fear, moved to action from mistrust, all too quick to rallying around my own self-serving certitudes. While I felt disgusted by those I consider haters, quasi-fascists and extremists; I was disarmed by the realization that I too hate and mistrust what’s different than me. Certain that I’m in the right, or at least headed in the right direction while admitting my own brokenness, I judge them. I feel superior, not in a smug way, but with a certainty nonetheless.
The reality is that I’m broken. Others are too. This doesn’t justify violence, vilification or the persecution of any minority group. This doesn’t limit or dampen my vocation to resist evil, to do good, to love as God has loved me. It does call me to come out of my own self-congratulatory confession of sin, thinking that I’m aware of my “stuff” and able to see beyond. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called such blinding spiritual pride Christian Realism. It’s the reality that the injustices and brokenness in the world are unavoidable, tainted and twisting everything. Impacting the best of us, implicating all of us, in particular when we claim to be beyond or even aware of it thinking that we have progressed in some way to a more perfect spirituality, awareness or perspective.
31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32
Jesus is talking about the shackles that are on all of us, the blinders that trip us each one of us. It’s a riff on this teaching about judgment, in which he says that you must first take the log out of your own eye before you talk about the splinter in your neighbor’s. [Matthew 7:5) It’s an invitation to vision – one that doesn’t confuse, collude or coalesce without any sort of conviction to an opposing or divergent view. Rather it’s one that is real and realistic, fleshy and messy, muscular and fierce. I have to recognize my own limited vision, my own “bubble” as many have written these past weeks. And it implies a strength of conviction, a resistance to simply agree to keep or make the peace, a refusal to sacrifice the rights of some to recognize the feelings or fears of others. In the story in which Jesus talks about the freeing power of truth, he’s speaking against a dominant cultural position of tribalism: a binary vision of the world based upon and from the perspective of “us” versus “them.” [John 8] The notion of spiritual authority, moral superiority, was tied up in religion, based upon what we now call DNA. Those issued from Abraham, of a certain race, were a certain way, and were thus certainly better than everyone else because that was how God made it. Their tribalism pushes them to want to eliminate Jesus, to eradicate his threat to their established order, one we might now call misogynistic, discriminatory monoethnicity, race-baiting, destructively nationalistic. What they don’t see, is what I struggled with – seeing beyond “us” and “them”; past tribalism, to the notion affirmed in the beginning of the Bible: that together, we are all made in the image of God. While we may have different perspectives, priorities and passions, we are not different. When we’re divided along tribal lines we become divorced from our own connectedness, destroying our own self.
I’m convinced that I have to love my neighbor, not to keep the peace, but because it’s the foundation of what I believe, how I see the universe, how I believed we are intimately fashioned and made as porte-paroles of God’s image. This necessitates that we stand for what we believe, affirm and see. But not that we stand for belittling, besieging or butchering of anyone. Our own freedom is dependent and intertwined with those of the people alongside and in front of us. True life is messy. Hollywood story-telling would have us believe otherwise. Our culture that insists upon happy endings entices us to naiveté. Trust not ventured in another, is merely trust in oneself.