During my first year as a parent, I often marveled at how quickly my newborn could cycle through emotions, and how easily I was carried along the same journey. One second he would be cooing contentedly; then out of nowhere he would start crying. At times he’d be inconsolable, prompting me to burst into tears along with him. And suddenly we’d be back to happiness, both of us smiling and giggling. The entire range of emotions sometimes happened within five minutes.
The journey of racial reconciliation is a lot like that. In rapid succession, we celebrate signs of the hope of reconciliation and lament the continuing evidence of racism. We even do both at once. The emotional roller-coaster can be draining.
At this moment, I am feeling the fatigue. I am tired of the reconciliation roller-coaster. This past week has had some incredible highs. On Sunday, The Nett Church held its first preview service. I’m the discipleship pastor for this new worship community that is trying to become beloved community. It was refreshing and inspiring to be able to name that openly in the context of worship and to invite others to join us on the journey.
There’s also my ongoing racial reconciliation course. Each week I am energized by my students and their openness to engaging a difficult subject in a different way. I am grateful for their willingness to journey with a professor who is, as Dr. Gardner C. Taylor would put it, complicit in the brokenness against which she preaches. I am excited by their affirmations of the significance of the course and their grappling with how to extend their learning beyond the classroom.
If racial reconciliation were simply about focusing upon and healing past divisions, I could probably bask in the promise and possibility of these experiences. I wouldn’t have to also confront the fear and anger that comes from passing the full-size confederate flag that a neighbor (about 1/4 mile down the road) posted at the edge of their front lawn last week. Technically, it’s the old Georgia flag, which pisses me off even more because if they’re gonna make a statement, they should just do it.
Nor would I have to keep getting angry with white people – especially so-called liberals – telling me that I don’t know when I’m experiencing racism: the neighbors who told me it wasn’t about race last year when a white man aggressively tailed and photographed an African American woman visiting my home for the first time on the very same block where the flag now stands; the psychology colleagues who insisted that “You speak English very well” is not an example of a racial microaggression in last week’s continuing education workshop on diversity.
Sometimes I wish I could utter the prayer of Gethsemane: Lord, if it be thy will, take this desire for reconciliation from me. But having been seduced into God’s mission of reconciliation, I could not, even if I wanted to. So I keep pressing forward, training my gaze to focus on the visible signs of hope as I endure the pain of the struggle.
And when that fails, it’s time to get a massage.
At 12:21am on Wednesday, September 30, the state of Georgia put Kelly Gissandaner to death via lethal injection. It was the third time that Gissandaner’s execution had been scheduled, the others having been delayed. Like many others, I’d hoped for a clemency decision by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. When that failed, I prayed for a last-minute intervention by Governor Nathan Deal. Neither happened.
State execution by any means is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When it comes to issues of divine retribution, justice, and forgiveness, many Christians are incredibly egocentric. When we aggrieve others, we lean on texts such as Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We even get extrabiblical: “God knows my heart.” But when it comes to the sins of others, especially those sins that we cannot imagine ourselves committing, suddenly God’s forgiveness and mercy has limits. It becomes a purely eschatological reality. But God’s forgiveness is not just about us and the people we love. God’s gift of life is not restricted to the innocent, to unborn babies. What does it cost us to care for the lives of those who are like us, those who are innocent? As Jesus teaches us, even sinners can do that (Luke 6:32-36).
The Gospel calls us to extraordinary –indeed, seemingly impossible– grace toward sinners like Kelly. I admit, it would be comforting to believe that the folks who hurt me will get their “eye for an eye” comeuppance. But Jesus turns that law upon its head:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:3-11 NIV).
Last night, the state of Georgia stoned a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, a woman who had conspired with her lover to kill her husband. There is no doubt that she had done wickedness. There is also no doubt that, at some point during her 17 years in prison, she heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Those who encountered her in prison provide many testimonies of her obedience to that voice and her impact upon their lives.
Three times the people of Georgia were given a chance to examine ourselves and put down our stones. May God have mercy upon us for our disobedience.
I’m giving up selflessness for Lent. That may seem counterproductive to the Lenten focus on denying self. I should probably do something more…spiritual. Like committing to fast. Or getting up before dawn to spend an hour in prayer. Or giving up Facebook, Twitter, and television so that I can spend more time reading Scripture. Even something seemingly as mundane as giving up chocolate might be more high-minded than giving up selflessness.
Trust me, I tried to think of something else. I was really thinking about giving up social media. That’d be a tough one for me. I will try to curtail my compulsions to check Facebook. But that’s not my Lenten discipline.
Nope, my discipline is being less selfless. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines selfless as “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s owns.” The chief antonym for selflessness: unselfish. New Oxford has nothing positive to say about selfishness.
That’s problematic. It would seem that a certain level of selfishness, or self-centeredness, is necessary for the preservation of the self. By the way, New Oxford seems to approve of the idea of having a self, “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”
But what about Scripture and Christian tradition? Scripture is a pretty strong advocate for self-denial. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them” (Luke 9:23-24, see also Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-37). A whole host of monastic movements and practices of asceticism have been based, in part, on such teachings.
However, denial is not the final word that Scripture has to say about the self. Embedded in the Great Commandment is an often overlooked element: Christ’s assumption – in fact, his command – that we love ourselves. In response to the legal expert who asks which commandment is the most important, Jesus responds: “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31). It turns out that Jesus thinks that loving oneself is connected to loving one’s neighbor.
For Christians, then, self-love and self-denial live in an
dynamic interplay. It’s a tension, to be sure. Straying too far into self-love can lead to all manner of sin, not the least of which is idolatry. But excessive self-denial is just as problematic and can also be a form of idolatry. For some of us, self-denial comes easily precisely because we don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with. That’s often the case for women and girls, who are often taught to put others before themselves. The helping professions (including ministry) also tend to attract people who are good at putting the needs of others before themselves.
So being a woman in the helping professions (both a psychologist and minister), self-denial comes easy to me. To make matters worse, I’m the eldest child of a single mother. By the age of twelve, i was a full-fledged parentified child, taking care of my younger brother while my mother worked long hours, often on the night shift. My mother, coincidentally, was the eldest of eight children. And her father had to drop out of elementary school so that he could take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi. That’s at least three generations of training in self-denial culminating in one package…me.
I’m always looking out for the needs of other people, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. I don’t even wait for people to express a need; I anticipate it. I’m the person who sees a problem, develops a solution, and assumes the responsibility for implementing it so as not to add a burden to anyone else. Even when I’m driving, I look out for the needs and feelings of others. If my turn approaches too quickly and I’m in the wrong lane, I’ll miss the turn rather than cause other drivers to slow down momentarily. For some reason, one of my chief driving rules is that it’s wrong to inconvenience other drivers. I have no idea where I got that from, but it’s paradigmatic of my life.
Selflessness has gotten me in trouble health-wise. About ten years ago, my body sent a not-so-subtle message: “You’re doing too much for other people and you need to take better care of yourself.” I listened, at least until I went to seminary, where the workload and content taught me that good Christians (and good students) take up their cross by pulling all-nighters, living off caffeine, and putting off health until they graduate. Moreover, they should do this without uttering a complaint, otherwise their professors might accuse them of having the wrong priorities.
There have been plenty of reinforcements for the message that I should focus less upon myself than upon others. The devotional that I use, with its heavy emphasis upon social justice, instructs me to direct my prayers toward others. Save for the Lord’s Prayer, there is no space within its daily liturgy to bring my own needs before God.
And sometimes churches add fuel to the fire. One night during a church committee meeting, I tearfully shared my struggles with balancing my teaching position, being a new parent, and serving the church. Several committee members responded by telling me that I needed to get better childcare so that I could do more for the church!
It turns out that my body’s early signals of physical distress were roadside signs warning me of the all-out roadblock up ahead. I now find myself living with a chronic illness that could possibly have been prevented if I had put more focus upon myself than upon others. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the condition can be managed if I finally learn to do what I’ve been so horrible at doing: loving myself. Hence, my Lenten discipline.
It’s not the easiest discipline to observe. There is no clear checklist or set of rules that I must follow on a daily basis. Right now, I’m beginning with something simple: praying for myself. Each morning, I pray the Psalms. After I read the Psalm through once, I pray it through, putting myself in place of the petitioner, even altering the words to reflect my situation. It makes me feel less guilty to pray for myself if I’m following a Biblical precedent.
So kudos to those of you who are practicing some form of self-denial this Lenten season. As for me, I’m practicing self-love.