A Life We Cannot Bear
This week marks one year since my institution as Rector of All Angels Church. Hard to believe it’s been both that long, and only that long. From the beginning, this first year has been incredibly full. And these last few months, as we have sheltered in place, have felt like temporal dysphoria. What a strange time we are living in right now.
When I sat down to reflect on this past year, especially in consideration of all we’re facing—not just a global pandemic, but a moment of deep societal transformation—I thought I was writing a different letter. As you all know, we at All Angels’ Church have been confronting the heresy of racism and its entanglements in the modern church since I arrived a year ago, and were raising these issues to the forefront months before the recent rise in advocacy. I, as a person of color, have personally spent more than the last ten years of my life raising these issues in churches.
So, as I began to write this letter, I thought I was writing something along those lines. I thought, for instance, I might follow up on the letter I wrote two weeks ago—when, as an initial response to the current escalation in racial tensions, I called upon us to “listen to the wounds—listen to the screams and tears and protests, and have our conscience shaken.” That letter signaled more letters to come, as we framed our response to the current moment in line with how Christians have traditionally attempted to come to grips with their own sin. So, one letter I thought about writing was along the lines of thoughts I shared here, to say why I *don’t* (yet) want “racial reconciliation.” Those thoughts are likely still forthcoming—but not for now.
I also thought about expanding on the thoughts I shared in this sermon on May 10th, about how modern racial discourse and the racially constituted modern world was theologically formed and informed. But, knowing that question would be dealt with more fully here—in our Wednesday evening class with Dr. Kris Norris—the need to say more about it in a letter seemed less exigent.
Instead, as I began to pray about what to say, I was surprised by a deep sense that God was calling forth a different word. I was surprised, in part, because I rarely feel so certain that a word is from God that I’m willing to lay that claim. In this case, I feel I can say that this is God’s particular word for us in this particular moment. Even more basically, I was surprised because it was not the word I would have chosen for this moment. To be honest, as I write this, I do so with some discomfort (perhaps, why I’m beginning with so much prolegomena) and, for that matter, a few worries. It’s not the word I wanted to say. And it’s not a word, I think, that some will want to hear.
Let me be clear. I believe that God’s word to us in this particular moment is a word about our own, very human, frailty. I believe God is pressing us to face and be honest about our own limitations. I believe God’s call for us, right now, is to humility.
This was actually, if you remember, the first point Jono Linebaugh made in his sermon at my institution. Citing the inability of anyone in heaven and earth to “open the scroll” (Rev. 5.4), Jono said this: You cannot give people hope by pointing people to themselves, and their worth. It does not matter how successful or significant—or how unsuccessful, or insignificant—a human life is. It cannot bear the weight of its own worth.
On the anniversary of that sermon, those words feel truer now than ever before. Think again about the moment we’re in right now—a moment that is actually the convergence of two “world-historical” moments. The difficulty is, these two moments present us with competing moral urgencies where there are, quite literally, zero perfect options. Two things are both profoundly true at the same time. We need to be out in the streets in defense of black life. Being out in the streets increases the transmission of a deadly virus that has taken the life of half a million people. These two things should not be pitted against each other. And yet, here they are. The inescapability of this tension bears again the impossibility of our lives.
We as human beings are not capable of circumventing this reality. Neither are we capable of bearing it.
Moreover, while the present moment offers us an extreme case, it is not unique. It merely makes inescapable what is always already true about human existence. This is what French existentialist Albert Camus had in mind when he described the human condition as being in a constant state of “plague-like emergency” (some irony in those words, in this season). According to him, we are only ever managing our losses, striving for dignity in the process. More than we care to admit, all the choices are bad; all the answers are wrong; and we, on our best days, are only doing some slightly better version of not quite getting it right. As St. Paul writes: “There is no one righteous” (Rom. 3.10).
Alongside the other urgent lessons of this moment, I take this lesson––that life in this world is always too big for us to bear––as among the most important. For if we cannot in this moment (of all moments) admit that we human beings sometimes face an impossible moral calculus, then I worry we will never admit it.
That word feels poignant on the anniversary of my institution because, like many of you, I was drawn to a church like All Angels because I saw it as a hopeful alternative to the conservative Christian subculture in which I was raised. I left that subculture in large part because it could not admit the difficulty of human existence. Rather than facing the complexities of real life in this world, it instead divided the whole world into insiders and outsiders, papering over its logical inconsistencies and moral hypocrisies with appeals to nuance-less dogmas and the logic of “the other.” More simply, it was a purity cult. And its most fundamental impulse when enforcing its credos was to cast those who disagreed “outside the camp,” exposing them to the shame of being outside its walls.
What happens in these cultures is that nearly all moral decisions get determined by a “yuck” factor. There is no real engagement. Instead, there is only disgust with those who are different. “You are one of those? You hold those opinions? You act in that way? Yuck…”
Upon leaving that subculture, however, I was surprised to find how unexceptional that kind of “purity thinking” is––especially today, as the onslaught of new media and social technologies are re-balkanizing the world. At present, it seems, the whole world is being formed and reformed into those kinds of insular subcultures. Not all these subcultures are the same. This is not, I hasten to say, a “both sides” argument. There are almost never “two sides,” and those who say there are two sides are almost always propagating the kind of dualism that is the deep logic of all purity cults. All the same, the reality is that much of our world is being bound up––now, perhaps more than ever––into competing forms of cultural orthodoxies.
I find this deeply problematic for any number of reasons. On the most basic level, their reductionistic logic limits our growth as rational thinkers and moral agents. That is, on the one hand, they detach us from reason (argument, critical thinking, etc.) and constrict our imagination. That cannot serve anyone well in the long run. On the other hand, in doing so, they make us less capable of producing true human flourishing. We cannot reach the fullness of human potential in insular communities, enclosed within boundaries reinforced by shame. And we cannot transform the whole of society by alienating large portions of it. In fact, more often than not, these subcultures produce backlash and greater opposition from those they deem “outsiders,” and so perpetuate a vicious cycle of endless violence and retribution.
These problems are problematic enough on their own. But even more so, as a pastor, I find these subcultures problematic because their inability to honestly face the complexity and difficulty of human existence robs us (as Jono said) of our greatest hope.
What I’ve said so far could, I know, sound depressing. It feels heavy to think about the depth of human frailty and limitation––to recognize that our lives in this world are too much for us to bear. But I want to suggest, in closing, that this heaviness also offers us some profoundly good news––nothing less, in fact, than the Christian Gospel.
Let me name two ways.
First, I firmly believe that the only possibility for human empathy is a “low anthropology”––when we realize our neighbor is also broken and sinful, just as we are broken and sinful. Oftentimes, people try to create empathy through the mutual recognition of shared worth. I think that’s a dead end. In the end, we are just too good at seeing what’s wrong with others for what’s good about them to overcome the barriers between us. It’s only when we see the plank in our own eye that we’ll forgive the speck in our neighbors (Matthew 7.5). It’s only when we come to terms with our own failure to bear reality that we can have compassion for all the ways our neighbors fail us.
Second, coming back to our frailty and limitedness grounds us again in the fundamental principle of the Christian life––and that, simply, is grace.
I’ll say again what should be obvious by now, just to make sure I’m not misunderstood––I’m passionately on the side of justice. I think justice is what is needed in this moment, and don’t think justice and grace should be juxtaposed, any more than (to put it into theological terms) “the law” and grace should be juxtaposed. Justice is decisive, and necessary, precisely so that grace does not become “cheap grace” (to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
And yet, even with all that said, it is still the case that, in the Christian life, grace is the reality that frames and grounds all others. Grace does this, precisely because we are the people who cannot bear the complexity and difficulty of this life. And, when the world becomes too much for us to bear––which it always, already is––grace prevents us from retreating to our insular subcultures; provides us the space to hold all of us together; and so, presents us with the possibility that justice might truly be for all.
My deep desire for All Angels is that it will be a place that can hold the complexities and difficulties of this life in tension––which is just to say, hold all our brokenness and frailty together––offering that kind of empathy and grace to one another, even as we work for God’s justice in this world.