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How I became in touch with my sadness, without giving in to my anger
Numbness and the royal consciousness
I wrote last week about finding my sense of sensitivity and emotion after having it knocked out of my by my dad. My thought was largely based on Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination, a book that I’ve doused myself with over the last few months. Brueggemann argues that the prophet is deeply emotional and deeply in touch with the suffering in the world and the suffering of death, particularly. Jesus is also deeply sensitive to death and the pain it causes, despite being victorious over it.
He contrasts this sensitivity with the numbness of what he calls “royal consciousness,” what my brother Rod has called “empire thinking.” The violence of the empire is so apparent that in order not to suffer it, one has to be numb to it. I think the United States at large is numb to its violence. And I think the populace at large learns to be, in order to cope with it. How else can we stomach the horror that is around us? The mass shootings? The police killings? The drone warfare? The so-called War on Terror? These are all heinously violent acts that require numbness to endure. The powers and principalities benefit from such numbness, and seemingly, so do we, because we can live our lives unfettered by the reality of the violence we live in.
Our numbness is further enabled by how we’re entertained and occupied. Our capacity for consuming entertainment and our demand for instantaneous distractions seems to be growing. Couple that with the fact that our interpersonal suffering through relationship conflicts, job stress, and debt slavery make existential suffering even more abstract, and it’s clear that the numbness from the royal consciousness has covered our society. There’s too much evil in the world, too much to distract us, and too much personal stress and strife to make any sense of it, or to feel it in a prophetic way, and that is to say, like God feels it.
This was no more evident to me than last week during John McCain’s funeral when George W. Bush and Michelle Obama were passing candies. My friends were noting how cute it was. It seems like their numbness became amnesia. It wasn’t so long ago that the wars that Bush started and that McCain enthusiastically supported were protested fiercely because of their sheer brutality. I think we’ve quickly forgotten how horrible they were, perhaps because the news cycle is now fixated on Trump. When the greatest travesty of the week among liberals is Trump’s tininess demonstrated in not lowering the flag to honor McCain’s longevity and service, and not the wars that he supported that killed hundreds of thousands, I think the numbness is on full display. (For what it’s worth: in remembering John McCain, it's possible to mourn his death, to praise him when he did good, be critical of his record, name his moral failings, and be respectful at the same time. Here are two good editorials: New York Times from Nick Kristof, and the Guardian’s.)
Once more: we’ve become numb to the war crimes of our heads of state. Perhaps because they are too horrible to endure, we don’t have the attention span for them in this news cycle. We are endlessly entertained and distracted, and our lives have enough trouble of their own.
Why I can’t be numb
But I can’t be numb and I won’t be numb. I pray for a softened heart so that I can keep feeling the sin and the wrongdoing of the world around me. I can’t get cynical, I can’t let my practicality trump my prophecy. I need to keep feeling because God feels. The way of the world can’t numb me to God’s feelings lest I become numb to God’s call for me and the way God is leading my life.
Christians are particularly attune to the suffering in the world, and need to be, because God softened our hearts. Our softened hearts is evidence of God’s work. My tears get me to closer to God.
It is hard to endure this alone, and so I suffer with those who suffer and mourn with those who mourn. Suffering in community lightens the load and increases our capacity to suffer. Maybe if I do it with you, I won’t need to numb it. Maybe if I’m in community, I can create an alternative consciousness that isn’t subject to the royal one, as Brueggemann put it.
And that’s my story with Circle of Hope. If nothing else, I found a group of Christians who suffered the Iraq War (2003) along with me. There didn’t need to be any practical action, necessarily. We didn’t need to end the war (but we did try and we did protest), but just share the feeling. Even sharing that feeling of hopelessness matters. Somehow, though, in that common experience, we find hope. We find hope in knowing that there are people who feel like we feel and feel like God feels. When we allow our minds to be renewed and remade by God, when we allow God to soften our hearts, we are more able to serve and follow him. That’s why I can’t be numb. I have to feel what God feels in order to move where the Spirit moves. I want to keep moving with the Spirit.
My empathy doesn’t give me license
However, along with this empathy and pathos, comes a lot of anger. I admit I am often angry, even in a righteous way, at the tolerance of oppression and violence. I admit, seeing everyone forget Bush’s war crimes the minute he passed a mint to Michelle was enraging. I am someone comically enraged, but that kind of sarcastic tone and entitlement is actually a turn off to many. And it's not me at my best self. Just because I'm not numb, doesn't mean I can be poorly tempered. I can feel sad and angry without being overtaken by those emotions. I can not be numb, and also be self controlled.
Here’s the thing. I found Circle of Hope and a lot of like-minded and like-feeling people. In many ways I was pre-packaged for Circle of Hope. Rebellious, post-Evangelical, ready for something new. But if I’m too entitled about the requirement to immediately share my convictions about things like peace and war, I miss an opportunity to share the Gospel with people who aren’t quite there.
For me, a passion for justice and compassion is a refreshment from the reputation of Evangelical Christians in the United States. But I know I’m not everyone. I had a Christian upbringing that instilled some of the morals and values that actually led me to contradict it, but not everyone did.
If we’re too loud about our love for justice and for peace, I think we miss an opportunity to disciple people who aren’t there yet. Jesus does not call us to be neutral on a moving train. In fact, we all have to be of one mind. But that takes time, effort, intentionality. Discipleship isn’t an on-demand process. It takes a journey, and relationships, and community.
We still have to meet people where they are
If I wanted the truth to be jammed down my throat, I would have never left the Evangelical church I grew up in. That sort of fundamentalism, even if it’s of a different ideology, is not what Jesus had in mind. He met everyone where they were at.
As we work on becoming sensitive and overcoming the numbness of the royal consciousness, I hope we also do that with sensitivity. Just because we’re sad or angry doesn’t mean everyone has to be, or else they are condemned. Part of discipleship is meeting people where they are and deepening their sensitivity. Quite possibly, we’ll be made more like God as we grow in sensitivity in order to empathize with the person who doesn’t quite get what we are talking about.
Can we hold the tension then between the prophet and the evangelist? Can we have the pathos of the prophetic but the flexibility of the evangelist? Can we call out the evil in the world, without calcifying evil in people by leading with our anger when we approach them? We need to actually convert someone in order to change the world. Condemning doesn’t help. And our insistence on right actions, right principles, right ideology, and even right emotions can hurt our cause and isolate us. Even if I’m reacting to my upbringing and I’m certain I’m right, and I was certain when I was nineteen, a little quietness and humility might help me relate to someone who isn’t quite where I am. And that’s worth it. I might learn something too.