Pre-Inauguration Jitters: A Tense Outlook, A Faithful Outlook

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. …it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.” (Brueggemann, “Prophetic Imagination”)

One aspect of Christianity that I both love and hate is what I think of as the call to live life in tension.

The same faith that tells us to “mourn with those who mourn” is the same faith that admonishes all to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The same faith that caused Teresa of Avila to proclaim:

“Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices”

is the same faith of who Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same faith that produced the fearsome non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. produced the gruesome righteousness of Nat Turner. I’ve heard Christianity derided as too timid, too extreme, too pliable, too puritanical, too forgiving, too angry, too abstaining, too engaging, too strict and too loose.

Of course, man interprets religion himself, for his own ends. But, there’s also something to be said for a faith that places tension at the very center of its narrative: the tension of a God who chooses to be killed by his own creation. For most of us in modern America, we have no sense of how repulsive such an idea must have seemed to those hearing it for the first time. (Blasphemy! How can God be killed?) The site of this greatest injustice is yet the site of the greatest mercy on earth. From death comes life. Divinity made low that man may be lifted high.

Chesterton captures this central paradox of Christianity symbolically through the image of the cross: “The cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.” (Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”).

The substance of why this topic interests me involves how Christians interact with pain. Christianity is a faith that invites us to lament, but not despair. This is problematic for me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that I struggle to separate these two ideas in my mind. Because I in large part interpret my faith through an intellectual lens, the fact that I cannot adequately understand the distinction tempts me to ignore it altogether.

What I have come to realize, though, is that while I remain intellectually unconvinced of the specific way a Christian should navigate between these two conditions, my heart feels the distinction in my own emotional reactions. I cannot adequately define what it means to lament without despairing, but I can recognize in myself when I have slipped from one condition to the other. This leads me to remind myself of two facts: 1) Faith cannot only be filtered through an intellectual perspective (my brain is not big enough to understand all that faith entails) and 2) I have to be careful when deciphering the reactions of others through my own intellectual lens. If I am not capable of fully understanding my own emotions, nor of understanding how to tread the line between lament and despair, then I am certainly not capable of fully grasping the nuances of someone else’s emotional responses to pain. Crucially, I am also not capable of fully appreciating the calculations that lead to joy directed toward the object of another’s despair.

In the aftermath of the presidential election I read many articles (and had conversations with many people) evaluating others’ emotional responses to the election. I primarily experienced these articles and conversations in Christian circles. On the one hand, I heard a crowd of people berating negative responses to election results, because “God is in control.” On the other hand, I also heard a crowd of people berating the detached response of “churchy” people as “insensitive” and “condescending.” I myself had my own opinion in these debates, and happily criticized the side that I disliked.

However, with some time and reflection I have had to admit that scripture and tradition speak in the affirmative of both responses, the lament and the constancy. The first part of this blog post points to the fact that Christianity contains both strands of thought, and in fact there are too many such examples to mention. Just as I struggle to reconcile a proper understanding of faith, pain and hope with my own emotional conformity to the ideal, so too I have to give space to others who also fall short of the ideal.

This, then, is another tension in Christianity. We do not want to hastily declare that all responses are good or equal; yet, we also do not want to paint the picture of a faith that is inhuman in its inability to cope with the spectrum of human emotions. Detaching oneself from hardship and suffering does not make a person more Christian; it does make one less human. It’s one thing to use Jesus as a pair of glasses to see the world more clearly, and another to use him like a drug to numb oneself to the world. We all, regardless of how we view the election, must reaffirm these tensions if we truly wish to see the world as Christ does, rather than deaden ourselves to those things we don’t wish to see.

This blog post does not really add to the post-election and pre-inauguration conversation, except to say that all who call ourselves Christian could stand to be more cognizant of the Christian call to embrace both lament and hope, and the call to humility when evaluating the reactions of others. How we strike that balance is an open question, but it will never be answered if we dismiss the tension itself.

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Courage

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” – Albus Dumbledore (aka J.K. Rowling)

If you haven’t read Harry Potter, perhaps the idea of an adult quoting one of its characters seems juvenile. But in fact, this reminder from the wizard Dumbledore that life’s choices often don’t come down to right or wrong, but right or easy, is both true and important.

I’ve been thinking about the virtue of courage a bit lately. It wasn’t an over stressed virtue in my upbringing, which I now think was unfortunate. I heard the negative “don’t be afraid” much more often than the positive (and significantly more powerful) corollary “be courageous” or “be brave.” Love, faith, patience, honesty, happiness, even confidence were verbally extolled, but courage much less so.

I have often been taught confidence as an antidote to fear. Confidence is not courage, cannot take the place of courage, and is not equal to courage as a moral. Confidence is an assurance that one will perform well; courage is the quality that compels us to perform even when we have no assurance that we will succeed, or even if we are assured that there will be negative consequences. It has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with acceptance of what we cannot know, perhaps even of suffering. When confidence is no longer sufficient, courage pushes for action.

It is no secret that our society suffers from virtues gone wild (read G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” if you’re skeptical). We pick and choose and under and over emphasize certain virtues to fit our present causes, which is an abuse of both morality and mankind (C. A. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” has a good discussion on this). Our horrible exercise of separating and dismissing virtues, rather than accepting and harmonizing them, renders even the virtues we retain useless. For what use is tolerance if I’m too afraid of the social consequences to oppose bigotry? What is generosity if I’m too protective of my safety to help the homeless man on the street? Virtues need each other, and courage is needed no less than any other.

If love is the virtue that provides the reason for all others, then courage is the virtue that moves love into action; love compels while courage propels.

Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best when she said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”