The Main Character

Every story has a main character – the protagonist – around whom the story unfolds and revolves. It is his or her thoughts and experiences that drive the narrative. All others characters, though they may be important, are really only important insofar as they relate to the central character.

In many respects, that is the nature of our lives. We are the main character in our own story, and regardless of how important another person may be, we tend to relate to them based on our concerns and not as they are in themselves . Even when a loved one dies, it is our own grief that is central to us. This is all quite natural. After all the only eyes I have to see the world are my own.

It strikes me however that Jesus is the one human being who lived and died and yet placed himself as peripheral to his story. He is the only genuinely non-self-centred person in human history. All that he said and did was for others and in response to the Father. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t glorify himself. He didn’t look down on himself (which is but a distorted kind of self-centredness). He was entirely unselfconscious and consequently was entirely free to give and to receive.

In so many ways the invitation to Christian discipleship is an invitation to self-displacement, to a radical de-centering of self as the protagonist of our life stories. The paradox of the Christian faith is that life is found in losing it, strength found in weakness, gain is found in giving up pursuit of it.

I must confess that this is incredibly difficult in practice, regardless of how lovely it sounds in theory. Well I suppose the saying is true, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Yet Christianity is exactly about death – about living as though already dead, which is what Jesus himself said we are to do.

I haven’t attained this level of self – displacement yet. Maybe I never will. But occasionally, when I pause the never ending stream of thoughts and emotions of how I feel, what I think, why this one is wrong, what I want, etc., occasionally I am able to catch a glimpse of what it is to live as a side character in God’s story instead of as the protagonist of my own.

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The First Time I ate dinner with a multi-millionaire

I don’t recall exactly what I ate, though I know I opted for the chicken instead of the fish.  And I cannot recall the details of the conversations we held. I was far too nervous for any of that, and besides, it has been twenty-five years since I stepped on that elevator and ascended to the top floor of the bank building and entered an exclusive club to dine with a millionaire.

I received the invitation because I, along with several other people, were recipients of a scholarship designated for minorities in a particular field.  The scholarship was substantial – more than enough to cover room and board for the year with some left to spare. The requirements were not as substantial – maintain a certain G.P.A. (which, if I recall correctly, was lower than I thought it should be). The sponsors of the scholarship wanted every year to meet the recipients, to dine with the beneficiaries of his largesse and to see on whom his money was being spent.

The hosts were hospitable. The wife especially had that indescribable quality that so many southern women of a certain age and of certain means possess – that ability to be self-possessed and gracious no matter what the subject of conversation, the level of the person with whom she was speaking, or even the extent of the social awkwardness of her guests. Such women, either through long experience or practical training, are the type that make excellent wives to high flying business executives and politicians.

I remember her quite well because of something that happened that nearly flapped her unflappable demeanour. Something that embarrassed me though I was not the cause.

As I remember, we were engaged in the kind of mindless small talk that seems to dominate these meetings – this chicken is very tasty, I’m not a fan of asparagus – that kind of thing.  Our hostess commented that one or another thing on her plate was very nice. Then, to my shock and amazement, one of the scholarship recipients, a young woman older than myself, a sophomore to my freshman status (and even more awkward than I was) boldly asked her, ‘Can I have some of it?’  The eyes of our hostess widened a bit, but she quickly recovered. ‘Sure,’ she said, and she adopted the unmistakable pose of someone poised to call the waiter to table when suddenly, unexpectedly, my fellow scholar thrust her fork and knife into the woman’s plate, cleaving off a healthy portion of the (I believe) fish, and shoving it with gusto into her mouth.

Now let the reader recall, we were there, all of us, as young minority (read Black) recipients of an academic award dining at an exclusive club with the White multi-millionaire sponsor along with his wife, whose eyes were blinking now in rapid succession as she endeavoured to find a way to respond. My thoughts raced as quickly as my hostesses eyes were blinking. In truth I wanted to give the young lady the stare of death and ask if she’d lost her mind, but that would only serve to make matters worse by drawing attention to her egregious breech of not only social etiquette, but common decency and respect.

So we sat there in what seemed like hours of awkward silence as the young lady unashamedly chewed the food like some kind of cow grazing by the roadside oblivious to the consternation she’d caused. ‘Oh, it is good,’ she remarked as our hostess continued to blink and wear an impregnable Mona Lisa smile. I continued to stare, she and I together caught in a web of social awkwardness and breached dinner table etiquette.

The moment passed somehow and I and our hostess somehow managed together to salvage the conversation and steer a clear course away from the rocky shoals of further social embarrassment. I am not quite sure how the evening ended, but I do recall that our hostess didn’t touch the food on her plate again.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH POLICING

I ran across a video on a friend’s Facebook time-line about some recent shooting, I do not recall which (which is itself problematic).  The issue raised and passionately discussed with the issue of racism and policing – the seemingly overly common situation in which a Black man (or child) is shot for a minor reason or for no reason at all.  This is followed by the usual internal investigation, paid leave, policy was followed, we have decided not to indict, hearts and prayers for the family, and life goes on as usual.

As I watched the video it occurred to me that though race and racism are key to understanding the problematic situation the United States faces in relation to all too frequent police shootings, there is a more fundamental problem with policing that goes deeper than the colour of skin.  That problem is one of the foundational and enduring cultural myths of America:  I call it The Myth of the Barbarous Other.

THE BARBAROUS OTHER

The idea of the barbarous other has deep roots in Euro-Western civilization – too deep to get into in this brief essay.  But in short, it is the idea that civilization lies within and without is rank barbarity. Barbarity must be kept at bay by any means necessary, violence being the first and not the last option.  The United States in its founding and history typifies this cultural ideal.  Within that historical context, the American colonies, later the United States, were founded as outposts of European civilization.  The villages, cities, and towns spread along the eastern seaboard were islands of civility hemmed about by the great darkened woods beyond – the realm of the barbarous.

THE BARBAROUS OUTSIDE

The first of the Barbarous Others against whom civilized society must be defended (according to this mythology) is the Barbarous Outside – the Red Indian.  He was the wild, untamed, savage of the woods.  While he might at best be a subordinate ally, he was, at worst and most commonly, a villain ready at any moment to strike in the heart of civilization, do his malevolent work, and then melt, unhindered, back into the dark woods beyond.

To tame him, the wilderness that sheltered him must be tamed.  The frontier must be pushed.  He himself – the wild Red Indian – cannot be tamed, so he must be contained.  Hemmed in by rugged frontiersmen and brave frontier women who with their long rifles standing in front of the log cabin, were the necessary vanguard of civilization; they were sentinels minding the frontier until civilization could catch up. Ultimately this untamed Barbarous Other was hemmed in – restricted to concentration camps reservations where he would be rendered harmless – a curiosity, like a defanged lion in a circus show.

THE BARBAROUS INSIDE

The second of the Barbarous Others was more problematic, because they were more numerous and much closer.  While the Red Indian could be considered the Barbarous Outside, the Black man was the Barbarous Inside.

These men and women were not untamed savages, but semi-human brutes. Imported for their raw strength – a necessary evil to subdue the land vacated by the Barbarous outside. His supposed lack of intelligence was made up for by his sheer propensity for violence – violence and the threat of violence that must of necessity be met by greater violence in order to contain it.  The threat of the Barbarous Insider was not that he would strike and slink away, as the Red Indian. That, at least, was exotic and could be romanticized. No, his barbarity was more perverse and thoroughly unromantic – the barbarity of the unrestrained animal, and yet riskier because he could by his proximity pass on the ‘infection’ of his barbarity to others – through his degraded and barbarous culture at best, or through sexual liaison with civilised women at worst. And so he was treated as one – beaten, chained, castrated, sexually violated, sold individually or severally, and when his behavior became too much, he was simply killed – sometimes just as an example to the others, to prevent any notion of freedom ever being seriously entertained.

THE BARBAROUS FOREIGNER

The last category is the least distinct, because it is also the most malleable.  It is the Barbarous Foreigner. His barbarity is the one which is in many ways, the least barbarous because he, at least, can symbolically ‘lose’ his barbarian status – something like the purchase of Roman citizenship (but I was born a citizen St. Paul said).

This barbarian is barbarous only insofar as he remains a cultural alien and his barbarity is thus provisional.  IF he is willing to cast off any trappings of his previous self, shed and shred his previous identity, deny any validity in it (excepting perhaps the food and the occasional cultural event), he can become civilized.  This is, after all, the path trod by many before him – the Irish, the Pole, the Czech, the Ruthene – you name them. Cease to be those things and your barbarity will be lifted.  We will treat you as a full citizen with only the occasional teasing about a hard to pronounce surname.

The Barbarous Foreigners used to all be Whites of European extraction and there was quite a debate as to whether certain of those barbarians would ever make the cut.  They did.  The barbarous foreigners now are mostly East and South Asians, Latinos, and, to a lesser extent, those of Islamic faith.  Mostly these groups straddle the symbolically white line – their civilized status provisional. That is for those already within the country.  For those outside, they are less provisional, and their barbarity is kept at bay with the combined force of the military of the United States. We try our best to only allow the ‘good ones’ in (but how can you tell?)

THE PROBLEM WITH POLICING

The problem of all this, and it intersection of it with policing, is that by and large, the Barbarous Others have always been contained by extreme violence.  This is what we expect.  That is why it is unsurprising that the barbarous ones, particularly that Barbarous Insiders, are treated with such violence by our police forces. (The Barbarous Outsiders are too, but because we kept that violence safely hidden away on reserves, it is less noticeable.)

The problem of our policing is that it is fundamentally not about crime control – it is about defending the bounds of civilization – which is why people speak of a thin blue line – the line which is the supposed defense against all the hell that will break lose if we stop the constant violence or threat of violence against the Barbarous Other. The problem of policing is that certain people literally embody the idea of the Barbarous Other – they cannot be anything other than threat by their very being. They are never provisionally civilized – they are the eternally barbarous other and if they are not kept down, beaten down, or at least threatened with that possibility – barbarity will ensue.

That is why the standard of police killing non-police comes to something like ‘did the police have a reasonable fear’ – which of course is easy to demonstrate.  When you are met with the barbarian, the only and best response is fear – fear that necessitates a violent response because you don’t know what the animal might do.  After all, no one questions if you are met by a lion or a bear on the road if you are fearful – of course you are. And not one will condemn you if you kill it. It is a bear. It is a lion.  It is a barbarian and there isn’t much difference.

The problems we have with policing and police violence go well beyond a police officer or police department, most of whom are fine people trying to do fine work.

The problem is embedded in the culture that says we must maintain a line against the barbarous other else we’ll be obliterated.

It is not only a myth – it is a lie.

It is a lie that permits politicians to conscript resources from the citizenry that would be better spent on education, or housing, or health care, or virtually anything and put it to use strengthening the line of defense against the Barbarous Other.

It is a lie that allows police to be placed in a separate category of justice – much as we do for those at war – because it is perceived as a war – a constant ongoing and relentless struggle against barbarity and we can never afford to lower our guard. Therefore if the police officer shoots, it is presumed to be justified until proven otherwise which is quite the opposite of what happens for the rest of us.

It is a lie that makes us not only tolerate, but celebrate, brutality in defense of liberty, even if it means our own liberty is in fact an illusion.  We are not really free when the citizenry lives in fear of the police — and let us be honest — that is the reality, even for those who are not the Barbarous Other. Our freedom is at best experiences contingently – we are suffered to live freely so long as they permit us.

Postscript:

In my current context, I have seen policing done differently, and though I cannot attest entirely to the ethics of the police service in Ghana, one thing is certain – they are not treated as people apart.  It is an interesting thing to be from the “Land of the Free” to see truly free citizens arguing with police about whether or not they were right to stop them, to see police on their way to work boarding public transport like everyone else, to see them treat and be treated mostly as ordinary people who are enforcers of law but are not considered above it. Land of the Free? Hahahahahaha

 

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the Lenten season leading up to Easter – the high point of the Christian year. As a day, it is intended to be a solemn reminder of the brevity of our lives – from dust we came and to dust we shall return – and so the ashes smeared on our heads as a marker of death.  But it is also a reminder of the inconstancy of our faith.

Those that welcomed him into Jerusalem waved the branches and shouted in celebration, ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’.  They thought, as we think, that Jesus had come on the scene to restore their kingdom, to satisfy their hopes and aspirations, to make them have the worldly success and prosperity that had been denied them under Roman occupation.

That is not why he came.

And so it is that year by year, the same palm branches that were used to celebrate are burned to produce the ash that marks us. It is a visible reminder that the triumphant joy we feel when Jesus comes turns to dust when we realise that his agenda is not our own. That his agenda is not the satisfaction of our aspirations. His goal is not to make us have worldly success and prosperity.

His kingdom, he said, is not of this world.

And so we are marked. The ashes symbolising the reality that the journey of discipleship is the downward journey into death.  Sanctification is about letting go, giving up, losing. It is about dying to our own plans for our lives, about relinquishing control of our destiny, about committing ourselves body and soul into the hands of the Lord.

To be sure there are joys, there are triumphs, there are blessings, but these things are beside the point. They are the things that attend our salvation, but they are not salvation itself. They are the graces that sustain us along the difficult downward path, but they are not the path. If any would come after him let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow him – and where is he headed?  He is headed to the cross. To shame.  To humiliation. To suffering.  And yes, to resurrection! To victory! To triumph! But these cannot be had without the other. We cannot pass over the painful downward path.
May God grant us grace to tread it well.

 

That Time I Almost Became an Atheist

I cannot now remember exactly when or how it happened, and thus it is difficult to describe with any lucidity. But, I do remember that it happened or rather, did not happen.  That is, I did NOT give up my confident belief in the reality of God. But I almost did.

As I said, I cannot quite remember the details so my description may be less than helpful for some.  I hesitated for long to write about it publicly, though I did reference the experience once in a sermon I preached. I do know that it was not precipitated by any particular event or culmination of events.  There was no great crisis, no singular moment of peril where I questioned God and all the things I had been taught, believed, and taught others.

No. It was not quite like that.

As I recall it now, I read a book. It was not a refutation of Christianity or anything like that, no.  It was a book about people who have walked away from their faith.  It was not especially well written or compelling and there were no arguments presented that were persuasive. It was mostly stories. Narrations of people who had been Christians and now no longer were.

Somehow it shook me.

Fear began to creep into my soul and I found it difficult to sleep well at night. I began wondering, ‘Will I too abandon my faith? Is there no God? Why do I persist in believing?’ It did not help that I was, and had been, in a very long dry season of faith.  My prayers, feeble and infrequent as they were, felt as if they reached no further than the ceiling, if that. Worship was dull and uninspiring. Bible reading – boring. There was so little there at all. A deep dryness had overtaken me, such that walking away would not have entailed much change, if any, in my daily habits and routines.

True, I would have lost my job in ministry and would have my Sundays free. There would have been tremendous disruption to the network of family relations and friendships.  It would have been isolating. But that is not what prevented me from walking away, though if I am honest, those considerations did enter in. And it does not really bother me that they did. I do not lack the courage of my convictions to face things honestly and only maintain a façade of faith for social reasons, which would have been the easiest thing. Not at all.

And it was not that I was afraid to face the arguments against theism – though I didn’t read them at that time. I did not need to read them, nor did I need to read defences of theism.  I knew, intuitively, that what I was going through was not about such arguments. I knew that they would not be persuasive one way or another. Besides, I had read them  before and knew (more or less) what they were all about.

There was one thing that restrained me however; one ‘argument’ that I found compelling – though not at the level of my intellect.

I call it the argument of humility, though perhaps that is a poor choice of words. Ultimately I could not walk away because I was burdened by the weight of mystery … the weight of history … the weight of, well, of experienced reality. And not only my reality, but the reality of tens of millions, of billions of others around the world historically and even now. There was something that would not allow me, though I had every reason to. I could not believe, yet, I could not NOT believe too.

So I allowed myself. I read no books in defence of faith. I did not aim to pray or study or meditate more. My prayers, feeble and infrequent, continue to bounce off the ceiling. I continued to be dry.  I simply allowed myself to drift on the current of faith (if you can call it that, as it felt like anything but), and at some point I cannot now recall, the moment ended – the crisis, as it were, subsided.  And I was left with God.

On Washing Clothes

Today I will not wash clothes. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will.

Washing clothes back home (in the U.S.) is such an unremarkable thing. Gather up the clothes, sort them (or not), then throw them in a machine, push a button, and walk away. Some time will pass, a buzzer will sound, you remove the clothes, throw them in another machine and walk away. That’s pretty much itwhatsapp-image-2017-02-20-at-4-31-00-pm

Not so here.

Here, washing is done on hand. Of course, some people do have washing machines, but we don’t.  We wash on hand, like most people.

What that means is buckets of water, washing soap, and time. Wash, wash, rinse, rinse, hang to dry. And sometime rushing out to gather the clothes from the drying line before a sudden rainstorm hits.

My wife hates washing clothes. It is tiring and dull and not so gentle on the hands.  Me? I don’t mind it so much. Except washing towels and jeans. That is no fun.

But I will not wash today. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will.

 

On Writing

I have recently joined, if one can call it that, a writer’s guild. It is rather an exalted title for what, in reality, is an eclectic collection of people on Facebook who have agreed to write, to typewriter-1024x1017encourage one another in our writing, and to respond with helpful critique to the writings that we offer.  For some it is a spur to greater creative activity. For me, it is a discipline I’ve chosen to impose upon myself.

Writing, you see, is not something that comes especially difficult for me. I don’t usually struggle to write,  that is, when I decide to write.  That decision point is really the challenge.

Give me a topic, any topic, and I can throw together words about it that are coherent and at least mildly entertaining, or at least not devastatingly dull.  Call it a gift, the gift of gab, or of know-it-all-ism, I am unsure which would be the better moniker for it. I am sure that I have it.

What I lack, however, is the discipline.  The iron will to write something whether I feel to write or not. To compose even on those days and in those moments when I would rather do something else.

Like sleep.

Nevertheless, I have committed myself. Perhaps this commitment will aide me.  Perhaps it will stir me from the haze of complacent over-thinking of every post and enjoin me to simply write whatever the result may be – whether good or bad.