Telling a Better Story
Plug in the headphones. Tune out the chatter of voices around me. Try to angle my laptop so that the sun-glare is minimal, with little luck. The only seat left was here by the window on a stool that’s forcing me to use my yoga abs to keep from slouching. It’s busy in the coffee shop this morning. Unexpectedly cool summer weather today must have people craving warm drinks; or maybe it’s just that it’s Friday and there’s a certain ready-for-the-weekend vibe. I sip of my latte, trying not to disturb the delicate foam-etched leaf formed on top. I should have gotten a bigger coffee. These words sometimes need a lot of caffeine to be brave.
I’m tired. It’s been a long year. Is it really only June? 2017 feels like forever. I’ve gotten used to time speeding up faster and faster as I age, so this sudden slowdown is disconcerting. In some ways I don’t mind it…treasure the moment and all that; in just three years’ time we’ll be packing up the oldest and getting him ready for college. But this summer it’s a lot of back and forth to band practice, which means a lot of conversations in the car.
The conversations this summer are hard, so very hard. They’ve been hard all year, it’s just that the drive to band practice is longer than the drive to school was, so we have more time to talk. The radio is always tuned to news, and this bright, inquisitive, passionate kid of mine is noticing things. Hard things. Things I don’t know how to explain to him.
This past week it was the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile. I've talked to my son about implicit bias. I've talked about a legal system established on the premise of protecting the rights of white property owners, a system we still haven’t managed to make truly just for all. He's talked about the legacy of centuries of enslavement that can’t just be erased by wishing it away, by pretending it doesn’t exist. We’ve talked about his responsibility as a white male to understand the perspectives of people of color. It’s perhaps a bit easier for him; as a neuro-diverse individual he understands the power and the danger of stereotypes and is passionate about issues affecting the autism community. (And then we talked about intersectionality, because there are so many things he needs to understand before I turn him loose in this great big world we live in.)
We’ve also talked about health care. We’ve talked about why in the United States we might be resistant to the universal health care so readily available in other developed countries. We’ve talked about power and special interests and profit margins. We’ve talked about what it means to really care for our neighbor, to love them as we love ourselves.
The most difficult part of the conversation always comes when he asks “Why? Why don’t people just understand this?” I don’t know how to answer. I especially don’t know how to answer without making monsters of the people who differ from us in their views. Passion turns all too easily to demonization and dehumanization. Even among those who should know better.
In case it hasn’t been obvious, my politics tend to skew liberal, although I’d really prefer not to affiliate myself with any party. My faith also skews Big Tent…removing the shibboleths that the Evangelical church often uses to determine whether people are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Kingdom. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told directly or by association that my faith is in question, my salvation is tentative at best, I’m a tool of Satan at the worst. It’s fun. (No, it really isn’t.) This is one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to believe that I belong in the Church.
So, knowing how much it hurts to be booted out of the kingdom by the self-appointed gatekeepers, it hurts to see how vulnerable we are to doing the same thing when we feel that we are in the right. Decades of having verses ripped out of scripture, tied to verbal stones and hurled at us and yet when given the chance, we do the same thing, don’t we? There’s been a shift, a turning of the tables that I expect will only become more pronounced in the years to come. We are picking up our stones and we’re tying them to Deuteronomy27:19, Isaiah 61, to Matthew 25, to the book of James, to verses about a Jesus who came incarnate in the form of the poor, the disenfranchised, who cares for those on the margins. These are all verses that we need to take seriously.
These verses don’t give us license to set up our own gates, our own tests to start kicking people out of the Kingdom. Still, it seems we’ve been doing this with a vengeance and with no small amount of delight at being able to turn the tables. “They aren’t really Christians!” we declare about the Evangelical leaders who seem to be running after power, who seem more intent on maintaining Old White Guy rule than on seeing the in breaking of a Kingdom where the last become first and the least will inherit. I’ve thought it, believe me, I have. There are certain Evangelical leaders whose mere names raise my hackles. I've learned how to block most shares of their posts on my Facebook feed, because I want to love my friends well and I can't do that when I'm typing and deleting angry retorts.
This is what I know from nearly three decades of feeling that there is something wrong or bad about my faith. It hurts to be turned on. It hurts to spend an election season wondering if you really belong in the Church. It hurts. I don’t want to be the one causing the hurt. I don't want to be the one making lists of who is in and who is out of the Kingdom, because once you start making the list it is really hard to decide where to stop and anyway it's way above my pay grade.
Can you be a Christian and support gay marriage? I believe so. Even if it galls you to think that I am.
Can you be a Christian and not speak up about systemic racism? I believe so, but it galls me to think that God might just be gracious enough to still love those who perpetuate it by their silent consent.
Can you be a Christian and hold a different view of the theology of the atonement? I believe so. God and I are the only ones who know the degree to which my heart is bent towards Him, which in the end is what matters, isn’t it?
Can you be a Christian and hold a different view of government’s role in providing health care? I believe so. I can’t actually know the degree of care which someone holds towards the sick, the poor, the disabled. Perhaps, in the absence of governmental aid, they would be the first in line to give thousands to someone in need. I simply don’t know.
We like to mark out our territories. Good. Bad. In. Out. Christian. Not Christian. Loving. Not loving. This is what I struggle to express to my son during our car ride conversations. “How could they be so stupid?” he asks. But there is no line with the good people, the always-right people standing on one side and the bad people, the always-wrong people standing on the other.
In her book, Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World (available for pre-order now on Amazon), Osheta Moore talks about telling a better story. About seeing each other for the complex individuals we are, composed of every bit of our history, every bit of the life that we’re living, every bit of the hard and the beautiful that we encounter each day. People with good hearts can do hateful things. Lord knows it’s easy; I’ve done and said things that make me wince in the aftermath. Sometimes I’ve been wrong. Sometimes I’ve been hurtful. Sometimes I’ve drawn lines and put people on the other side. Is it so hard to believe that other people can do the same thing and not actually be evil? Still be Christian? Not be tools of Satan? Is it so hard to believe that right and wrong aren’t the highest values we can attain?
No, that doesn’t mean we can’t still challenge systems of oppression. That doesn’t mean we can’t lament Black lives that are lost for no reason other than the fact that systemically we are taught to be afraid of those Black bodies. I have no intention of shutting up about Black Lives mattering, about a house that’s burning down and people who need us to stop using the flames to toast our marshmallows instead of helping them to douse the fire.
That also doesn’t mean you can’t challenge my view of the Atonement. You can ‘Penal Substitutionary’ me all day and night and I’ll ‘Christus Victor’ you right back but in the end we have to figure out how to live in the same Church because neither of those views are going to separate us from the love of God even if we interpret the acting out of that love in different ways.
So I have to tell a better story about you, one that doesn’t begin and end with “Narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, anti-science, bigot, hateful.” And you have to tell a different story about me, one that doesn’t begin and end with “Moral relativism, liberal, hippie-dippy, anti-religion, heretic.” And then we need to teach our children to tell better stories. Yes, my son knows where I stand on issues. He knows what breaks my heart, what brings lament. I hope that he also hears me trying to tell a better story about those with whom I disagree. I can have all knowledge, but if I don’t have a deep and genuine love, it means nothing. So I’ll keep on trying to tell better stories, bit by bit, chipping away at what divides us, trying to love even when I don’t understand, even when our disagreements seem irreconcilable.
What are the better stories you need to tell about someone today?