“Survival is Not a Worthy Moral End”

“Survival,” Stanley Hauerwas writes in the Foreword to Truthfulness and Tragedy, “is not a worthy moral end.” These words seem like ones we should be meditating on during this time of pandemic, fear, and death gripping our nation and world.

They are shocking words, especially coming from a Christian. Too often, our faith is equated with the American pro-life movement that has co-opted much of the public persona of American Christianity. Yet, as Hauerwas highlights, our faith is not – or at least, should not be – one predicated on a monomaniacal pursuit of life for life’s sake. The question is not whether we live or not, but how we live. Upon baptism, we take on a new life, one dedicated to imitating the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Our lives becomes dedicated to something beyond our own needs, our own desires, our own mere survival. As Christians, we have a duty to conform our lives and our priorities to those of God as revealed in Christ.

This reorientation of self, this submission to the life of discipleship, rather than being a restriction on our being, instead is the root of the greatest freedom of all: the freedom from fear of death, the freedom for a life, life lived for love. In Christ, we become free of the need to survive, which leaves us free to love God, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to practice love through open, selfless service of others.

We become capable of this kind of love because by being freed from the fear of death, we no longer are driven by our need for validation, for acknowledgement, for the stroking of the ego so often sought in our relationships with others. We no longer need an enemy to define ourselves against in order to be reminded we are good. And we become capable to living our lives in a way that orients our actions and priorities towards practicing love for God and love for others in service to those in need, those we meet everyday.

In short, through life in Christ, we break free from our existential fear in order to love freely and wildly.

I’ve been thinking about this all as I watched the news of protesters taking to streets and capitol buildings in places like Michigan, in opposition to the social distancing and shutdown measures our leaders are putting in place to help forestall the spread of Covid-19. I thought about the interplay of fear and love when looking at images like these:

TOPSHOT – A protestor with a sign that has Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whittmer depicted as Adolph Hitler is seen at an American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses, on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020. – The group is upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

These protesters think they are being brave, that they are standing up in the face of fear. But, I don’t think this is right. As I wrote last week, taking seriously the threat of Covid-19 is not driven by fear, but by love of neighbor. We are called to not fear laying down our own lives, not the lives of others.

Instead, what I see in these images is deep, existential fear. It’s fear revealed in the intense desire to reopen to economy, to sacrifice others, to display a false bravado in order to mask a fear of their own mortality. Men and women standing in a state capitol with guns and fatigues to protest quarantine orders aren’t the epitomes of bravery and courage; instead, they are the purest distillation of fear.

It’s a fear that we channel quite well here in America: the fear of being called on to sacrifice something for others, of being asked to submit our own primal needs in order to promote a good far beyond our own. It is a fear, in short, of other human beings, and the demands their existence puts on our own.

Understanding as I do the demographic makeup of political coalitions in America, I have no doubt many of the men and women in the photos above would describe themselves as Christians. But the Christianity they practice seems rather small and sad. It is a faith that has been subsumed under American individualism and capitalistic greed. It is a faith that has been conquered by death and insignificance, and thus can no longer recognize the radical call of Christ lose one’s self and become willing to lay down our lives for others, even those that may seem undeserving.

To follow Christ means, again the words of Hauerwas, “we are freed from the obsession of securing our significance against death.” It means living in such a way that our love and trust in God through Christ becomes apparent in our actions. This love in action never looks like an assertion of self, or a need to strike fear into others, or in the need to protect or assert oneself. Instead, this love in action looks like just what Christ described: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

In this time of pandemic and fear, we Christians have a unique duty: to stand up in the face of death and remind the world it does not have the final say, to assert that in Christ we need not live in fear, but instead, we have the freedom of the love of God that allows us to live in joy and hope of a better tomorrow. It is to remember that we aren’t here merely to survive; no, we are here to love, and love fully, wildly, radically, and without bounds.

May those who live in such a way be heard.

Excerpts #6

By renouncing their allegiance to the King, the delegates at Philadelphia had committed treason and embarked on a course from which there could be no turning back.

“We are in the very midst of a revolution,” wrote John Adams, “the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”

In a ringing preamble, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the document declared it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” and were endowed with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And to this noble end the delegates had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence, of course, the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and eminent member of Congress who opposed the Declaration, had called it a “skiff made of paper.” And as Nathanael Greene had warned, there were never any certainties about the fate of war.

But from this point on, the citizen-soldiers of Washington’s army were no longer to be fighting only for the defense of their country, or for their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen, as they had at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and through the long siege at Boston. It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America, a new America, and thus a new day of freedom and equality.

[…]

At a stroke the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical junction something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.

David McCullough, 1776, 136-37

Amber Guyger and Christian Forgiveness

I wrote this piece a couple of months ago, after the Amber Guyger conviction, so it is a little dated. I never did anything with it, but I like it, and I think the points I make stand, so I’m posting it now.

What is the state of the specifically Christian virtue of forgiveness in our world today?

Recently in the news, the story of Botham Jean and Amber Guyger returned to the headlines, following Guyger’s conviction and sentencing for the shooting death of Jean in their apartment building one night several years ago. Guyger was a white police officer who was off-duty and entered Jean’s apartment one night (mistakenly taking it to be hers, according to her own account of the incident) and fatally shooting what she thought was an intruder, but in reality was simply a man in the supposed safety of his own home.

Guyger became another symbol of the continuing problems of racism and the inability of people of color to occupy spaces – both public and private – free of harassment or even the threat of harm due to their skin color or ethnicity. This young, white, blonde woman is an easy caricature of both white fragility and naivety, but also of the problems with the relation between policing, guns and race.

So, for those (like myself) concerned with the state of race relations in our country in 2019, and who accept as truth the idea that racism still plays a potent and important role in American public life, the scene of Botham Jean’s brother, Brandt, embracing and forgiving Guyger at her sentencing hearing last month is one that is difficult to contextualize, to say the least. The avalanche of praise heaped on Jean’s act from media organizations and representatives who are white or who present a view of the world that historically is white, brought up questions of both the responsibility of POC to practice forgiveness and whether doing so does more harm than good to race relations.

I want to leave those questions aside, and address one more nakedly sectarian in nature: what is the state of the specifically Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation in a world that is becoming more and more cognizant of the historical problems related to power relations around race? To be more specific: is Christian forgiveness still a virtue worth being practiced? This question is especially relevant when we think about the ways in which forgiveness has been wielded as a manipulative tool of false healing by those who have long benefitted from the subjection of one group of people based on their skin color. Is forgiveness an outmoded and quaint relic of the past, one that must, according to some, be sublimated beneath the seemingly more pressing virtues of justice and equity? Do Christians even have the right to encourage an ethic of forgiveness when it comes to these issues of immediate socio-political concern?

My own leanings in favor of forgiveness are probably evident in the framing of these questions. These questions arose for me in the days after The Hug as I watched progressive Christian friends and acquaintances on social media (many of them white) lambast the scene as one that was unjust, unfair, and manipulative, and the accompanying screeds against the necessity of historically marginalized groups to forgive those who have historically committed wrongs. What happened, I wondered as I read post after post, to Jesus’ directive to his disciples (of which we Christians today are to still consider ourselves) to “forgive others as your Father forgives”? Where did the imperative to “forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others” go? What happened to the reversal of power imbalances inherent in the act of forgiveness freely given? Did we learn nothing from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to say nothing of the words of Christ himself? Why does a beautiful act of forgiveness – one not performed, as far as I can tell, due to coercive outside forces – spark such anger, and frankly un-Christian responses, from those I consider siblings in Christ? When did forgiveness become something to avoid for fear of the release of anger and hate that such a freeing act conveys? Why must the praise directed at one man’s act be equated with those acts of deceit and deception I referenced earlier?

Questions upon questions upon questions, all struck up by one act that should have been a beacon of light in a very dark time. I suspect I am not the only one asking such questions. And I suspect I am not the only one who gets whiffs of not totally true outrage at a specific wrong, but rather, an eagerly seized opportunity to practice virtue signaling.

None of this questioning is meant to dismiss the honestly articulated concerns and questions raised by POC about the way people with less-than-honest motives manipulate these kinds of scenes to quash down any actions or conversations that may actually address issues of race relations. I completely understand and sympathize with these arguments; I too have seen where bad actors have been able misuse false scenes of forgiveness to further oppress POC.

On the other hand, none of that very real danger should allow us who claim the mantle of Christianity to set aside the need to practice forgiveness, and to practice it when it is especially hard, inconvenient or dangerous. Our example for life comes from him who forgave his murderers as they crucified him on a cross. His act of forgiveness was an act of seizing power from his oppressors, even as they continued to oppress. The forgiveness he showed – an act that was the culminating moment of a public ministry that was by and large predicated on the need for oppressed peoples to practice radical forgiveness towards those who were afflicting them – initiated a world-changing revolution, powered by a love for the other that is not dependent on that other performing some act worthy of love. In fact, the radical nature of that dangerous love is made all the more earth-shattering because of the reluctance, inability and/or refusal of those with power to forgive first. When one chooses to be the breaker of the cycle of violence through an act of unsolicited and unfairly given forgiveness, they become in fact the bearer of a new kind of power, a power more akin to that wielded by an non-coercive and completely loving God. It really is the only kind of effective power that an oppressed people has that can really begin the process of correction and healing. God’s kingdom – a Kingdom predicated on love, on mercy, and on justice –  cannot be initiated by the sword. It can only be brought about by laying down one’s self for others, to show what is in fact possible to a world that only sees impossibilities. That Kingdom  is one where reconciliation – the joining together of those once separated by the powers of sin and death – is present, because reconciliation can only come from a people willing to forgive, no matter the cost.

When Christians see the act of forgiveness that Jean practiced towards convicted murderer Amber Guyger, we should see an act that is in harmony with our own story of how the world works. Rather than sacrificing our story in order to be relevant to the political concerns of the world – no matter how right and just those concerns are – we must instead recognize that the liberation we want for the world, and for all the oppressed peoples who inhabit it, will only come from countless small acts of unsung forgiveness, forgiveness given when it seems completely uncalled for or unfair. Forgiveness, and the attendant reconciliation it entails, is the only way to achieve the justice and love of God; in short, it is the only first step possible towards the world we all want.