Two weeks ago, I began my first semester of Divinity School, the result of several years of discernment and contemplation, doubt and resolution. As I watch the turning world, with its chaos and tumult, its joy and meaning, the simultaneous emptiness and fullness, faith is often, paradoxically, the only thing that makes sense. Faith seems like the only way forward. From where I am standing, we could use more radical love in the world.
The state of this world is messy, confusing, and frightening. Suffering surrounds us. Violence, racial bigotry, and unequal opportunity plague our communities. Our environment is deteriorating. Our public life lacks wisdom and perspective. I often think to myself how the hell did we end up here.
Of course, most of us know how we ended up here. Centuries of white supremacy, of justifying patriarchy, of fear of the other have engendered dark divides in our society. Centuries of pillaging the earth for resources without regard for the health of coming generations affects the quality of human life and puts the possibility of sustaining life in jeopardy. We know what causes communities to falter and what sustains oppression.
What continues to baffle me is that waves of people who continue to turn away from these realities, refusing acknowledge our common humanity and refusing to acknowledge that the earth as we know it is slipping away. The future of our political, cultural, and ecological worlds is uncertain. Though the problems in each world present themselves with wildly different discourses, they share the same roots: turning away from and desecrating the Good.
In light of the racial violence in Charlottesville, many people are waking up to the realities of racism in the United States—both overt expressions of white supremacy and structural oppression. The KKK and other white supremacy groups claim Christianity as their own. They pull the most hateful portions of the Bible that condone slavery and condemn interracial marriage as justifications for white dominance. They say, “Look, God doesn’t want you to replace us!” The KKK may arrogantly wear the history of racial violence on their sleeves, but the Tea Party, the Alt-Right, and the Religious Right are founded on the same principles, the same fear of displacement, the same false injustice simply with veiled language.
Christianity has justified domination since before this country’s founding: the brutal treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow, environmental devastation, the list goes on. Of course, Christianity has also served as the foundation for abolition, for Women’s Suffrage, for the Civil Rights Movement, and for social welfare. However, the fact that our history is riddled with intolerance, bigotry, and violence while drawing from a religion founded on love, mercy, equality, compassion, forgiveness, and grace is infuriating to me. Violence against human beings labeled “other” and disregard for creation are inseparable and sacrilegious; both are rooted in ignorance and denial.
Denial and ignorance are the anti-theses of faith. Faith asks us Christians to keep our eyes wide open. To pay attention to the life and suffering in front of us, and to work to bring love and light to the forgotten and forlorn.
Indeed, human beings have a propensity to shut down in the face of shame, fear, confusion, and ambiguity. Our culture fails to teach wisdom and critical thinking, thus the fallen parts of us—our egos— often get in the way. Unfortunately, many Christians align themselves with fear instead of love, with turning people away instead of protecting the vulnerable. I think to myself: Wooooww. It must really be comforting to go to church every Sunday and not worry about the refugees, about innocent black lives lost, about the oppression of women and minorities and never be hit suddenly by a crippling, existential fear about the rapid deterioration of the environment. That would be an easy life.
And yet, we are not called to live easy lives. We are called to lead just and brave and true lives. The right action is usually (if not always) the challenging action. In the Bible, Paul states, Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. We are called to love all creation, to turn towards all life and see the divinity within. As Van Jones says, “When it is harder to love, love harder.” This is what faith asks of us: love first and always because love is the gateway to everything else that heals.
People—of all races, genders, shapes, abilities and religions—are equally sacred because they are all children of God. The Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement practiced looking their racist enemies in the eye. They were taught to look past one of the most horrific expressions of evil as they were being beaten. Eye contact was a powerful tool to force recognition of shared humanity, of the shared divine spark that is True and tangible. The heroes and heroines working for civil rights, those light-workers who paved the way for a more compassionate world, turned towards ignorance, pain, fear and shone the light of God, the light of love, with beautiful, unflinching courage.
It is sinful to turn away from the Good or to stand in the way of justice and mercy. The lack of consciousness, the self-satisfaction in many Christian circles is striking and devastating to me. This turning away from God is known in Latin as cupiditas. True Christianity asks us to practice turning towards God, towards truth, towards love: caritas.
Despite its complicated, checkered history, Christianity’s most important teachings – love God and love your neighbor as yourself—hold the possibility of collective redemption through faith. Jesus walked gently upon the earth. He found those in the most need of love and was merciful to them. Jesus, the non-white refugee, taught us to remember love, to be still, and to pay attention. This is where we are. It is a complicated, messy, violent, brutal world. It is our job to see and perceive. And then, protect the Good, the vulnerable, and the sacred, to learn to walk in the light together.