020. Where Liberation Lies

A few weeks ago, a writer and blogger I love tweeted this:

This is where liberation lies: recognizing the systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice, not individual failings.

I can’t stop thinking about it: “The systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice.” I think about all of the ways in which I’m either a bystander or an active contributor to cultures and power structures of injustice, all of the ways in which I’m ignoring or benefiting from those weaker or less advantaged than I am. Cultivating apathy, callousness, inaction; enjoying the easy dividends of injustice; my inhumane habits and stances. Those are what human dark sides look like–not our “sins” of crudeness or immodesty or anger or lust.

Jesus spoke often and passionately about loving the weak and the needy and the downtrodden. He actively and effectively loved the overlooked and the scorned and the pitiful and the annoying and the under-resourced–and he didn’t pay attention to what they were wearing or eating or watching.

I grew up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian culture that understood sin, or evil, as the latter: individual failings. And not just failures of kindness or empathy or integrity; I mean “failings” of a very specific and petty order. It was a culture that cultivated fear at all levels of living. Fear of crossing imaginary boundary lines: interpersonal, emotional, physical, mental.

What strikes me as especially strange about the classic fundamentalist take on sin is the reasoning behind it–the idea that God is supremely and perfectly just, and thus cannot tolerate injustice. So, our individual sin separates us from God, a separation that can only be reconciled through the perfect penance of Christ’s death. It’s clean, incontrovertible logic. But in this paradigm, God’s need for justice seems to taper out beyond those individualized arcs of reconciliation.

It doesn’t tell of a God who’s saddened by the enormous systemic injustices of the world, a God who’s concerned with the the way human nature has spawned a society so tilted that some kids skip three or four meals in a row while other kids glibly let entire refrigerators of food rot away. It doesn’t tell of a God who can’t stand a world in which dead babies are acceptable collateral in national pissing matches. Or of a God who hates when someone doesn’t get a job or a loan because of their skin color. Or of a God who cares about your part and place in that global calculus.

But the God I know is more supremely and perfectly just than I was ever taught; he’s more bent on redemption than I ever knew. And it doesn’t have anything to do with curing my lust/immodesty/anger–it has everything to do with love.

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I’ve generally avoided writing about my spiritual and theological formation as a teenager, but this seems like as good an entry point as any. It’s something I keep processing and circling back to again and again, from new angles and with new information, so I’ll certainly write about it again.

From eighth through twelfth grade, I attended an evangelical Christian boarding school in the Kenyan highlands, located about an hour outside of Nairobi. It was populated mostly by missionary kids (with a few children of business-people and expats sprinkled in), and was staffed by missionary teachers and administrators.

The school’s geographical isolation, coupled with its intensely fundamentalist ethos, created what I felt to be a suffocating and even harmful spiritual environment. Many people (insiders and outsiders alike) would have called the campus spiritually vibrant: kids attended chapel daily and went to voluntary worship sessions on the weekends; friends prayed together before meals and teachers worked God into the curriculum; and the administration was hyper-invested in the students’ moral wellbeing.

But enforced spirituality is no spirituality at all.

Fear-driven faith is no faith at all.

We were a young community kept in line by shame, or by fear of being shamed.

The culture that my school cultivated was one in which even the smallest actions were morally weighted. There was spiritual meaning to every tiny decision: how your body moved when you danced, your sartorial choices and music preferences, whether you missed a curfew, or questioned a teacher, or kissed your boyfriend, or cursed, or got into a fight. Everything could be “a sin” or a disappointment to God or a sign of horrific moral disintegration. Everything was punishable. Pretty hard to be a normal teenager in that context. Pretty hard to ask questions or try new things.

You know what was easy in that environment? Ignoring the world’s real and immediate wrongs. Looking inward, not outward. Carrying guilt around my neck. Forgetting entirely what freedom looked like.

For years during high school, I operated in a fog of fear and shame. I cowered at the prospect of being shamed. I was afraid of being exposed as a fraud, afraid to voice my doubts or my disappointment with God. It was paralyzing, like living in a metal cell where all the walls were humming with live electric currents, so you simply could not dance or jump or relax or fall asleep for fear of hitting one of the walls and electrocuting yourself. My actions were considered, measured, fearful.

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Attitudes like the ones fostered at my high school plague so much of evangelical Christianity. They quell freedom and foster shame. They deflect our energy and focus away from the real injustices of the world, and funnel all of our energy toward policing ourselves and each other.

Instead of trusting a good God whose heart breaks for the forgotten and hurt and oppressed, we remake a god in our own image–pettiness and prejudice included. I truly believe the promise in John 8:36, that “if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed.” But what did freedom look like for Jesus? It looked like dismantling “that which feeds on injustice.” It looked like pulling out evil at its very roots. It looked a lot like the concept of ubuntu:

I am because we are.

Or, said differently, “I will be free when we’re all free.” Freedom–the way Jesus lived it out, and perfected in his death–is understanding yourself as your brother’s keeper, as someone whose freedom and wellbeing is deeply and intricately tied to the freedom and wellbeing of others. It leaves no room for fear or hesitation.

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019. Waking Giants

My life is in Disrupt Mode once again! It’s something I don’t love, but am used to. I don’t know to what extent I’m responsible for the instability of my years, and how much of it is inevitable. I think rapid-fire change is difficult to avoid in your twenties, but I could’ve made different decisions if I’d wanted a stiller life.

My disruptions-of-the-month include moving out of my apartment (but on very good terms with my roommate), and considering a job switch. I also recently made the decision to leave my church–not “The Church,” but my specific church.

The move from my church was precipitated by many things, but primarily by the church’s emphatic and extra-biblical dictums on gender roles (in relationships, in the church, and in society), and its absolutist approach to Christian praxis in general. I might write more about that later–about my experiences with authoritarian Christianity–but that will require levels of clear-headedness, forgiveness, and tact that I don’t currently have.

While I know leaving was the right decision, the weeks since have sometimes been heavy. I’d like to remain friends with many of the people at my old church, but some of those relationships carry a new distance, and are marked by hurt on both sides. I’ve also been feeling the disquiet of leaving a tight-knit community, even a community that I couldn’t support ideologically or culturally. You feel stripped and hairless; you feel exposed to the elements. You feel too-contrarian. You doubt the convictions that made you leave.

You spend hours sorting through the things you will keep and the things you won’t, like clearing out desk drawers: These are belief systems I refuse to carry with me, these are truths I will cling to with my life. Sometimes, without thinking, you crouch into a defensive position, a snarling cornered wild-dog; you have to remind yourself that there’s nothing fighting you.

I sometimes picture our lives like giants, slumbering on the earth. They almost look like mountains from far away: solid and strong and immutable, and so mountain-like that you can tell the time by when the sun grazes their shoulder-ridges. You start thinking maybe it’s not a giant, maybe it’s just a mountain, planted to the planet. Then the giant wakes, moves, stretches, rises, and you realize with half-dread and half-love that it’s been alive all along–it’s no longer a mountain, or at least its contours have changed for good. Now maybe it’s walking the earth with the force of a buffalo stampede. You step out of its way, you watch its shape against the sky and feel the ground rumble all around you. And if it ever comes to rest again, it will be a different mountain, still breathing and apt to reawaken soon. Don’t be fooled. If our lives feel stable as mountains, they’re not; that illusion will break at any moment.

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004. Moths

A few months ago, on the phone with my mom, I was crying. That’s nothing new. The crying was a new kind of crying, though—like relief, or release. The kind of release I imagine finally comes (in a much larger order) to people who have just endured an enormous feat of trembling psycho-physical endurance—the marathon, the trench, the slogging march of the exile.

Under those double-tests of both will and body, any falter in resolve, any sideways glance at the encircling darkness would lead to certain failure, and in some cases, death. The key to successful endurance is, I think, a temporary shrinking of the larger reality to focus only on the event at hand. It’s why runners can be stoic and soulless and steel-jawed straight through the finish line; and why, when the adrenaline of the race stops coursing through their bodies, they can become weeping crumpled children.

The sense of relief that had flooded me, and that I was haltingly relating to my mom through the radiowaves, was less dramatic and less identifiable than that of the athlete. I had just come from a weekend at Mount Hermon, a sprawling campus in the Santa Cruz mountains marked by spicy-smelling chapels, ropes courses in the redwoods, and cabins full of bygone accessories: a wood-burning stove, cast-iron skillets. It was the default site to which most Bay Area churches retreated for their annual weekends of communion—with each other, with the finally smog-less forest air, and, if all went well, with the Almighty God.

Meeting with God is rarely straightforward. I attribute this to many things, but most directly to our love of the darkness, our bewilderment in the light. We don’t know what to do in the light: flounder about in our newfound exposure, deem it uncomfortable. Undesirable.

At dusk this evening, I was assaulted by a moth on the porch of our house. I was trying to lock the front door as discreetly as possible, but the moth was making such panicked arcs around the porch-light that it kept rushing stupidly into my arm and shoulder—hurtling headfirst toward the glow to which it seemed so compulsively drawn, then losing all courage, tumbling back toward me or up into the cool wide night, keen to leave the yellow orbit. Its schizophrenia startled me. A new desire every half-second: beautiful light, abominable light. Consume me, leave me be.

I was telling my mom that, finally, I felt I was with God again, or God-with-me. Sharing the same spaces, Emmanuel. He hadn’t exactly found me at Mount Hermon, but during one of my antisocial flights from the campus, parked in a peeling 1999 Camry on the shoulder of the road beside the roaring Pacific. My sense of relief as I spoke with her came from being able, after a long period of self-imposed stoicism, to admit to all of my longings out loud.

Longings are not public things. They may determine entire human destinies, but rarely do they see the light of day. We tout our ambitions proudly, but our desires—the very marrow of our lives, so earnest and private we’re instinctively ashamed of them—remain securely trenched in us.

I told her that God had so often manifested in my life as an absence, a longing for reunion. I believe incompleteness is the most basic human condition. I have known God as a once-vital part of myself: a limb lost so early on that I can hardly remember my fully-formed self, but so great a loss that I re-encounter it every time I move my body. I told her that my longing for oneness with God, for reunion with my many lost limbs—it stretched backward like a thrumming thread through all the years I’d already lived, and even now it was stretched taut ahead of me, pulling me upward and outward with agonizing force like a newly-hooked fish.

“Well, most of life is just trying to get back to God,” she said.

Most of it is. Amen, amen.

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