John 15: 12-18 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
I used to have a running joke with a friend in Denver. Every time that we went out, usually to a show at the Bluebird Theater or Lost Lake, a bar down the street, it would end in disappointment. Our line for that summer was, “We never should have left the porch”. The sentiment expressed the tendency that has been common among all of my friends to stay in small places where we can hear one another. I don’t remember the content of many conversations, to be honest, I just remember laughing all of the time. When I think of my close friends, the most unifying thing among all of them is that we can make one another laugh.
My bachelor party was a day during which my friends and I sat together in a dried-up back yard drinking beer, grilling meat, and throwing rocks at empty beer cans. That night we sat around a fire in that same back yard listening to country music, smoking, and laughing at nihilist Arby’s Twitter quotes. The better the company you keep, the more mundane the spaces around you just become context. The thing about love is that it transforms and shapes perception. The way that it moves over dried-out lawns and empty beer cans and makes them into something else. The dead lawn was not a dead lawn to me.
I never would have returned to my faith at all had I not decided that Jesus is the kind of person who would’ve loved to drink beer and throw rocks at cans. I have not formed this conception from sermons so much as from reading the gospels. The kindness and mercy of Jesus are typically sidelined in sermons in favor of something about rigorous adherence to moral challenges or employed in the service of supporting the latest, sanitized and Christianized, American self-help narratives. I find true hope in the gospel, but flailing exhortations to literally be Jesus only result in me spending the following week bludgeoning myself for not succeeding at perfection. I used to think that it was because there was something wrong with me, now I think that we built a culture that viciously punishes integrity and honesty, then modelled the church around that. At the heart of evil is the inability to accurately see yourself. The cruelty, selfishness, and petty manipulations have to be called what they are because they are part of every human story. If you can’t find them it is because you are blind to them, not because they are not there. This is the exact environment racisim thrives in. “How do we fix the bad people?” Is a question designed to quickly dodge any and all complicity. It is a shortcut around the truth.
The verse in John circles around love, but it also challenges America’s favorite narrative. Choices. (You did not choose…I chose) We have built a fictional account of how reality functions and unwittingly set up the perfect framework for justified cruelty, greed, and racism under this one banner. Everyone who is suffering is only ever suffering because they didn’t “choose” better. We decided that we get to chose who matters. It’s a convenient narrative if your family happens to own property, be white, and have a healthy family. Everyone is just making up or exaggerating the suffering that they have experienced. An abusive system doesn’t just create suffering, it also has to justify that suffering to all of the participants. It has to negate suffering to pacify the fortunate. The reason that I believe that this country desperately clings to the born-again narrative is that it can seamlessly be shuffled into that fictional account of invincible American willpower. I chose God. Me. Mine.
The whole function of Jesus was to negate the human tendency to decide who is allowed to receive God (He didn’t say He was going to take some of the sin of the world, He said all) and we inverted it to make a system that worked for us. God just cares about white folks with perfect manicured lawns a little bit more.
Remember when being healthy was just a given if you were financially stable? Remember when you would just wake up and go about your day and not worry about losing a loved one? That was a long time ago, in a far-away land.
Is the poor architecture that we have built all of our reality around starting to become obvious?
None of us wanted to be part of a second depression, it wasn’t a choice. We do not control pandemics. All of humanity is extremely vulnerable. The lower on the financial ladder the more vulnerable you become. We don’t rely on ourselves as much as we rely on others and conditions that are bigger and more complicated than willpower. We don’t get to choose most of who we are, where we come from, how well we are loved by family, or the time into which we were born. All of these elements are the ground upon which we build the rest of the choices that we make, all of the choices that were made for us are wired into us. These conditions are entirely inescapable conditions unless acted upon by outside forces. If anything is ever going to change in either yourself or other people, it is always going to require a group, a God, or both. We cannot grow in isolation. If everyone around you looks exactly the same, the story you will get about reality will be the same.
To my Christian brothers and sisters, we have built an entire faith around the idea that faith is something you individually (boldly, always boldly) choose and not a God that utterly refuses to work within a limited human framework of who is or is not qualified. We take whatever teeny tiny square millimeter of passive helplessness that we contributed to our faith and reframe it as countless miles of perfect courage and invent a person. We constructed a faith that is predicated upon every participant pretending that they are isolated self-made superheroes. It’s tiresome bullshit and it makes you deaf to any kind of complicated or nuanced personhood. It allows for you make excuses not to love your neighbor.
Do you want to hang out with people who haven’t ever seen the shadow of failure and can only ever advertise about how incredible they are, how faithful they are?
Do you want to sit with people who can’t ever say that they made a bad decision, lest anyone discover that they are just a human being with entirely relatable mistakes in their background?
Is all the hushed confidence necessary because people are not as fantastic as you keep telling them that they are required to be?
My partner’s spiritual journey is a rejection of the self-made American ideal. She was walking through a parking lot one night in college, and because her night vision is not great, she ran into a pole. In her head, she connected running into a pole as being indicative that she had no idea what she was doing with her life and that she could use some help. Since she had a network of friends who happened to be Christian, that was the connection she made. Now, you can call that web of ideas a choice if you want, but that is shoddy construction if you are going to base your life off of brutal domineering willpower. The point of intersection was not a brave casting off into a life of faith, it was just the natural conclusion that comes from feeling lost and lonely. It is a human story about being tired. I find her story to be moving and poetic in its clarity and simplicity. It doesn’t make me throw up in my mouth the way that “I boldly chose Jesus” stories do. I think that “I boldly chose Jesus” stories are incomplete fictions designed to insulate the teller from healthy relationships. I think that a lot of people might want to sit down and reconsider the details in the story that they are telling. If you have to narrate out everyone else and cannot speak of failure, you have probably become excellent at lying to yourself. Which is normal, we are all always lying to ourselves to survive, but it is good to take a peak behind the veil.
All of this is funny because the whole point of the Christian faith is contingent upon the centrality of desperate human neediness above everything else. If my faith has any value at all it is that it refuses to enshrine willpower and self-management at its center, not because they are not valuable but because they are the far weaker cousins of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. None of these can be enforced, only freely given. They are also the natural outgrowth (or fruit) of being in honest relationships with other people who do not look like you and see reality through another lens. This includes people from other backgrounds and from other cultures. Your church is not multi-cultural because you put the word in a pamphlet, it is multi-cultural when you can be out-voted on a board by people who do not look exactly like you. If you surround yourself with yes-men and women (people whose jobs are in danger when they tell you the truth) you will never have open dialog and trust, only the illusion of it. You have to be willing to lose power, that’s what servanthood is. I understand that multi-cultural is almost impossible in many communities, but that really just emphasizes the problem. Why is your freind network composed of people who look just like you? It’s easier to invent narratives about people you never actually see in real life. The internet will help you lie to yourself.
My friends and I send memes back and forth about living on ice cream and chips during a pandemic because they are funny and because none of us are doing pummeling workouts. This is not because we are lazy jerks, these are some of the smartest and most brave people I know, but none of us needs to pretend to be someone else when we talk. That’s what real friendship is. That’s what grace looks like in action. It is allowing space for someone to be as they are without an agenda to “fix” them. Most healing and fixing has to do with being able to listen well and changing from the heart outward. This happens when you sincerely care for someone, when your life is invested in theirs. You desire to defend them and show up for them in real life. You get angry when they are hurt. If you get your heart involved everything else will follow. Having the right facts or saying the right things can just be another disguised form of racism.
You can ignore all of the relationships that shaped your entire life, all of the random occurrences and random thoughts that you happened to have at the exact time that they needed to arrive. I’m keeping the mystery because it seems hopeful. I am also keeping the mystery because the Jesus I read about goes to bars and drinks, he flips the tables of those who would prey upon the weak in outrage. From what I can tell He does all of these things because He wanted God to come off first and foremost as relentlessly accommodating to fearful and tired human hearts. He quickly and easily dismantles the narrative of people under the impression that they are spiritual winners. I don’t know why people prefer good advice over that wonderful story. I think it is because this culture asks us over and over again to mistake our performance or our career for our identity. When we write resumes, we are supposed to literally write-out our support networks, the people that helped us. I do believe that we are integrated into our actions, but everyone can only start from where they are. Good news is good news whether I am participating in the spiritual push-up challenge or not because goodness is not contingent upon my performance to still be beautiful. It is an act of love and grace upon me, despite me.
This perspective has become remarkably useful in a part of history when I wake up multiple times a night feeling anxious. It is a season where I have failed and succeeded in that exhaustion. I have met a Jesus who is not surprised by failures and fear, who employs flawed humans and tessellates them into patterns with one another jagged edges and all. A Jesus who works more through our relationships than our frantic “doing of more stuff to get more credit”. Death doesn’t diminish that story at all because the pattern continues and the places where we happen to fit are healed through relationships. The world does not require me to continue, it is a gift to be a part of all of it. The end is the same for everyone no matter how much they fight for permanent relevance.
One of the last things that my grandmother said to me while she was still partially in and out of Alzheimer’s was this, “I told all of my kids that life is too hard if you do not laugh. You have to laugh.” It is still the truest thing that I know about her children, my father, his brothers, and sisters. I believe that my father carried that gift from his family and gave it to me. They all make one another laugh. I choose to see that as a gift, just like it has always been a gift from all of my friends. I don’t deserve all of the good people that have loved me well because deserving is the wrong word for love.
We desperately need to (have always needed to, awareness fixes nothing) broaden the range and the scope of that love. It is an act of desperation to flood into the streets waving signs. It is an act of desperation to kneel in front of armored police officers with your hands up. In the long run it matters only so far in that it matters to your human heart. However, I believe that you will be steamrolled by love and mercy if you stand in the way because that story, the story at the heart of reality is bigger than some tired American propaganda about personal financial responsibility or superiority. It is not a political, but an evil spiritual opponent that you are facing when you imprison refugess and recycle old justifications for ongoing clearly documented historical violence against black human beings. Please, have the courage to come up with something a little more risky to you personally. Love is risky.