Monday, August 27, 2012

Pain, Privilege, and the Call of the Comfortable

Last Wednesday at Johns Creek UMC marked the first session of a four-week class on Howard Thurman's seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited. I am facilitating the class.

Let me say at the outset that while I love this book, I do not accept every word of Thurman's as Gospel truth. I have some quibbles with his Christology, for one thing. But as the class has begun reading together, I have been very pleased to learn that there are at least several people who have found the book as eye-opening as I have.

I must admit that not only am I pleased that people are finding the book life-giving, but I am also surprised anyone signed up for the class in the first place! My surprise just speaks to my own prejudices, of course, but it is legitimate surprise, for at the heart of Thurman's argument is the notion that God is on the side of those who are disinherited. As a white American who comes from relative wealth, this means, of course, that God may not be on my side.

Now, before I dive into just what it means that God may not be on my side, let me acknowledge that this idea smarts a little. There is something of American Christianity so programmed into me that I have always lived with the assumption that the God who lives in my heart is inherently on my side: God wants what I want and roots for me every step of the way. It is as God is my own personal Dr. Phil.

But I am reminded of the great line in the movie I Heart Huckabees, in which a child says to Mark Wahlberg, "Jesus is never mad at us if we live with him in our hearts," to which Wahlberg says, "I hate to break it to you, but he is. He definitely is."

This is not to deny the Christ-within-me, nor is it some self-defeating impulse that makes me want God to be mad at me. It is simply an acknowledgement that while God does love me, having the image of God within me is not the same thing as driving all of God's actions and preferences. God can deeply love me and disagree with me at the same time. I trust you have at least one personal relationship in which this kind of disagreeing love is made manifest.

Still, it hurts. The idea that there are situations in which God is not on my side hurts. I've given my life to this work, after all. I take it seriously. I hope you do, too.

But pain is only an indication of inflammation, the first sign that something is wrong. There is nothing wrong with pain itself, but pain points to something which needs adjusting. If God is not cruel (and I believe, deeply, that God is love), then I think there is a message in that pain.

You could ignore the pain, I suppose: you can pretend it is not there. That is a coping strategy, and it is a popular one. Many Christians--especially those of us in the United States--suppress the pain that comes from the incongruity between the things God calls for and the ways in which we live our lives. That pain is also made manifest in humanity, in our broken relationships.

But we ignore that pain at our own peril. Think of the two kinds of pain we wrestle with daily: psychological and physical. The inability to deal with psychological pain is called suppression, and the problem with most suppression is that it does not work. Until you (forgive my lay language here) deal with your stuff, your life's balance will remain out of whack. Your pain will present itself in different ways.

Or think of physical pain. You ignore that pain in your chest at your own peril, for it is often a sign of deeper damage going on. It is best, in each case, to deal with the pain, to admit to its presence, to explore the reasons behind it.

So why are we so unwilling to deal with religious pain, that pain that comes when what we want for ourselves and what God hopes for humanity are not the same thing?

And so we arrive back at the problem, which is that if I take the Gospel message seriously, I must acknowledge that there are situations in which God is not on my side. There are structures in which I participate that are inherently unjust. There are times in which my own well-being stands in opposition to those whom Jesus calls "the least of these, my brothers [and sisters]." I am pained by this admission, and yet, the pain points to the answer, which is to work such that the gap between who I am and those who are on God's side is shortened. The shorter the gap between me and the disinherited, the less pain I feel at being left out.

The solution is simple, and yet it is monumentally difficult. If we take the Gospel seriously, if we care to deal with the stuff of the Gospel, if we want to reflect God's great hope for humanity (which, I am convinced, includes the erasure of the cause of that great pain), we must shorten the gap. I do not mean to suggest that we ought to form some Marxist society. I am not even sure it requires that you follow Jesus's advice to the young man that he ought to sell everything he owned.

How about just starting with wrestling with your pain, doing what you can to find its root, diagnose the issue, and work to correct it? How about just building relationships with people outside of your own community? How about just beginning to think through what it means to be on God's side, and rather than complaining that this is all so very difficult, do (as Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said) worry less about whether God is on our side and figure out how to be on God's side?

Let me share how I am dealing with all of this. Stacey and I spent the week before last as New Clergy Fellows at the Chautauqua Institution, a religious/cultural/educational center on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, NY. During our week, we spent time with several new clergy colleagues from across the country. We talked about our ministries, worshiped together, learned from one another. We also had the opportunity to spend time in conversation with several religious leaders.

The chaplain for the week was the Very Rev. Tracy Lind, the dean of Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) in Cleveland. During one of her sermons, she asked us to think about the "question of your life." Later, in small group conversation, she asked us to share that question. I have forgotten the exact what in which I phrased this, but I said something like this:

I am trying to figure out the intersection of comfortable and uncomfortable. I want to be comfortable enough that I do not find myself split down the middle and rendered useless to myself or anybody. I want to be uncomfortable enough that I am attuned to cries of pain from those who have found themselves met with the business end of power's nightstick. I want to find that intersection of comfortable enough and uncomfortable enough.

Tracy's response to me was this: "I see that you are a straight white guy. That is a particularly important question with which you are wrestling, for the structures which have given you privilege stand in opposition to those who are not so fortunate."

Wrestling is painful. It is a difficult thing to acknowledge that the structures which have helped me succeed are, in many ways, unjust.

I would much rather suppress the pain, go along with my life and my personal, individualized faith and worry about myself. I would much rather pray only for things that will make me happy. I would much rather be my own God. But each time I come to Thurman, each time I come to the Gospels and hear Christ's call, each time I take Paul seriously when he calls the church the Body of Christ, I am reminded that there is a world beyond myself. I am reminded that God is relying upon all of us to accept God's kindom call.

This is, of course, too much to do alone. It is even too much for the church to do on its own. But for all that God expects of us, nowhere in scripture is it even implied that we must go alone. God goes with us.

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