FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke, 2017. ©A24/ Everett Collection.

I recently saw the movie First Reformed on DVD (having missed the theatrical run last year). The film is writer-director Paul Schrader’s most significant work in years, and Ethan Hawke has been widely praised for his portrayal of Reverend Ernst Toller, the troubled pastor at a historic church in upstate New York. The church has only a handful of members and is being kept alive through the efforts of Abundant Life, a local megachurch whose theology and approach to ministry are far removed from First Reformed’s Calvinism (Schrader does know Calvinism, having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church, a North American bastion of Calvinist beliefs. I’m from the same tradition, and in fact attended the same church-related high school and college as Schrader did).

Most of the plot has to do with Toller’s efforts to help Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), and her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist who despairs for the planet and is opposed to bringing a child into it. Toller tries to foster hope in Michael, using arguments like the following:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

If you don’t find that a stirring call to a meaningful life, well, I don’t either. The problem may be that Toller is himself forlorn. He is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist. When his son was subsequently killed, his wife left him. He tells Michael,

“I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”

Much of what we learn about Toller’s interior life comes in the form of voice-overs from the journal he resolves to keep for a year. His intent is:

“To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.”

He quickly displays such mercilessness towards himself:

“I look at the last lines I wrote with disdain.”

A few days afterwards, he’s again faulting his efforts:

“When I read these words I see not truth but pride.”

He’s even critical of his criticism:

“I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.”

Give it a rest, dude! Your self-loathing is getting in your way.

Toller describes his journal as a means of communication, “a form of prayer,” though he later laments that he is unable to pray. Apparently, talking to himself in his journal is an attempt to obliquely talk to God. It isn’t quite true that he can’t pray–when Mary asks him to pray for her, he does so without hesitation. He just can’t take himself before God. This is despair of the Kierkegaardian sort, not over God or the state of the world but over having to be oneself.

Toller is what the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James called a “sick soul,” a person whose view of everything is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence.” Even if the sick soul believes that evil will eventually be overcome by a greater good (as Toller apparently does, since he leads the congregation in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which points to Christ as savior), evil is not easily dismissed. By contrast, Reverend Jeffries, the pastor of Abundant Life, exemplifies James’ contrasting “healthy-minded” religious type, the optimist who is taken by the goodness of life and dismisses the seriousness of evil. Jeffries tries to be pastoral towards Toller, but there’s no crossing the gulf between them.

A while later, there’s another revealing voice-over from the journal:

“Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness. They are called by God because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands. They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our Savior.”

Toller is such a lonely, desolate disciple, responding to the call but in travail. Though he states that Christ’s presence can fill his emptiness, that’s not what he’s experiencing. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola describes the contrasting states of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as follows:

“I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Savior and Lord.” From the Third Rule

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” From the Fourth Rule

Per Ignatius, believers typically alternate between consolation and desolation. Except possibly at the very end of the movie, Toller receives no consolation, only desolation. Perhaps his compunction and self-reproach dam the flow of God’s mercy. I am, like Toller, more inclined to be sick-souled than healthy-minded. I am grateful that, unlike him, my spirit receives much more consolation than desolation.

When true consolation is absent, it’s tempting to seek ersatz consolations. Perhaps Toller’s growing fanaticism over environmental activism serves that purpose. He spends considerable time on Michael’s computer viewing sites that document  environmental degradation. He eventually has to choose between committing a violent act that would garner attention for the environmentalist cause and protecting the well-being of someone he cares for–you’ll have to see the movie to find out what he does. In the end, he may be heading toward recovery, but he’s still an ailing soul. It’s an unflinching portrayal of what might happen to any of us if we go too long without God’s consolations.

I recently read As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by historian Daniel T. Rodgers. The book is a history of John Winthrop’s address (it doesn’t actually fit the conventions of a sermon) to the Puritans who immigrated to New England in 1630, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop’s manuscript is titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he worked on it not just on the boat to America but for some time before that. It is often cited as one of the founding texts of the American national enterprise. However, as Rodgers explains in some detail, Winthrop’s document was not consulted by the nation’s founders or anyone else, since it quickly sank into obscurity. It only gained some recognition in 1930, with the 300th anniversary of the Winthrop expedition’s arrival in Boston, and subsequently in the work of historian Perry Miller. Even then, it would have remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans had not a politician who was later to become president found a passage from the “Model” and incorporated it in many of his speeches.

The politician, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the two sentences he fixed on read as follows:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

It’s interesting that Reagan used this passage in two distinctly different ways. From the late 1960s through the 70s, governor and then presidential candidate Reagan used the second sentence to warn that the country could fall into barbarism and anarchy if current cultural trends weren’t reversed. As president in the 1980s, he emphasized instead the first sentence, talking reassuringly of the city on the hill as something already accomplished, a reality that offers hope to the world. I was struck by his vision of the city on a hill, offered in his farewell address to the nation:

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.” Quoted in AACOAH, p. 245

The contrast with more recent political discourse about walls is notable.

Neither of Reagan’s readings of the city on the hill was all that close to Winthrop’s original meaning. Winthrop was writing not of America but of a specifically Christian settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It wasn’t the eyes of the whole world that the Puritans were concerned with; the eyes that mattered were those of England, and the hope was that the colony would provide their home country an example of how a Christian society should operate. Being on a hill was not an occasion for pride but for anxiety, since visibility would expose the colonists’ failures to their critics and to God, whom they feared they would disappoint.

Similarly, the other modern political appropriations of Winthrop’s city on a hill haven’t used that image in a way similar to what it would have meant to the Puritans. Rodgers suggests that the closest usage has been that of American evangelicals, who like the Puritans believe that they have a special place in God’s providence and who, also like the Puritans, see themselves as misfits in a culture that is going astray. Though I don’t identify as an evangelical, their take on Winthrop’s message resonates more with me than do either of Reagan’s uses or subsequent appropriations of the image to support American Exceptionalism.

Rodgers points out that the city on the hill comes only in the last section of Winthrop’s manuscript. The previous three sections have been neglected by modern audiences, but they were Winthrop’s main concern. Those sections detail what he hoped the colony would be an exemplar of, namely charity as it ought to be practiced by Christians. He began by noting that there would always be inequality between rich and poor. Rather than lamenting such imbalances, he pointed out several advantages, especially that through charity both rich and poor “might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” He distinguished between two divinely established laws–laws of justice and of mercy. Mercy–and, with it, charity–is not optional, but is an obligation that Winthrop traced through both the Old and the New Testament. It is founded in love, which is the primary obligation of all followers of Christ. And Winthrop carried this emphasis on love and charity over to his conception of how business should be done and markets operate. Rodgers notes:

“To the extent that the Model stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.” AACOAH p. 97-8

Would that America embrace Winthrop’s concern for mercy as integral not just to religious settings but to the world of commerce as well! Then, in the place of capitalism little influenced by moral constraints, we would have markets in which the flourishing of all members of society are as much a goal as is earning a profit. Modern-day Americans can most profitably look to “A Model of Christian Charity” not as a foundational text for the nation but as encouragement to display love and charity in every realm of life.

“Flight of a Thousand Birds” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Should life be this balanced?

I was intrigued when I ran across an article on the New York Times website titled The Unbalanced Life. It’s widely accepted that we should strive for balance between the various areas of our lives, but Brad Stulberg, the author of the article, tells us that he has been happiest and most alive when his life has been unbalanced:

“Falling in Love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced–devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life–would have detracted from the formative experiences.”

Though he advocates sacrificing balance to pursue a passion, Stulberg acknowledges that there is a cost to this approach to life. Not only do we miss out on other facets of life, the intensity of our passion may prevent us from being aware of what we are lacking:

“When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without every really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.'”

When it comes time to stop performing the activity–when the event you trained for is over, the money runs out, or the book/play/painting is finished; when you can’t compete successfully anymore, or you’re injured or muddleheaded or exhausted–you’re not only likely to miss what you had been doing but also to realize everything else you have neglected. You also might discover that your sense of self became so completely entangled with your passion that you don’t know who you are anymore. As Stulberg notes, “It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.”

Despite these problems, Stulberg doesn’t think striving for balance is the answer. Instead he advocates for internal self-awareness, or “the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.” Then, presumably, you’ll not let the thing you’re passionate about control your life. You’ll be deeply involved in something that excites or entrances you, but still will keep up with work, family responsibilities, or the like.

Self-awareness is certainly a good thing; it might help prevent the sort of disaster fueled by passion that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the account of an Everest expedition that went disastrously awry. Still, I’m not sure that self-awareness is enough. I’ve known at least a few people who, while pursuing some passion, clearly knew that they were missing out on important things or were negatively impacting themselves or others. At the time, they just didn’t care. They loved what they were doing so much that the consequences didn’t matter.

Stulberg is a proponent of the “Do what you love” approach to life. Many who follow this  path don’t think that it matters what you love, as long as it stirs your passions or emotions sufficiently. Unfortunately, some of us are stirred by things that are really harmful to ourselves or others–substance abuse, gambling, rape, torture, child molestation, and on and on. Other loves do harm in more subtle ways–television, shopping, and overeating come to mind. Some people who do these things lack self-awareness regarding the harm they’re doing, but many are aware.

St. Augustine wrote about the loves that guide our lives. We go astray, he thinks, if we love the wrong things, fail to love the right things, or excessively love things that are only worthy of limited love. In his view, we are fully happy only if we love God first, then order the rest of our loves in accordance with their  ultimate importance. (David Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness is an excellent guide to Augustine’s approach.) It’s great to devote ourselves to things that we are passionate about. Writing and running have long been two such things in my life, and they both give me joy. But some passions can harm us and others, and we need more than self-awareness to keep that from happening. We also need to know what things are worth loving, both as to our highest devotion and as to lesser allegiances. That sort of analysis can present us with a dilemma if our passions don’t match what we know is worthy of our devotion. That is an issue for another post, though.

I am a coordinator for a group studying Live Justly, a ten-session curriculum designed to help followers of Christ to pursue justice in every aspect of their lives. There would be no need for such a pursuit if our world was already a mostly fair and equitable place, so the study has pointed out various ways in which injustice pervades the world in which we live.

The most recent session was titled “Justice and Prayer.” It included a short essay describing how believers in Africa and North America responded to the plight of 160 women and children who had been displaced by the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. The author, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, described an outpouring of prayer for those who had fled the violence and ended up in an abandoned UN camp. VanderBerg reports, “God not only heard their prayers, and our prayers, but worked in us to make clear what we could offer to bring his kingdom in that place.” That meant mobilizing aid–food, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, laundry soap, cooking pots, and more. As a result, “The semblance of normal life returned to those families in need.”

The essay was written sometime in 2014, less than a year after the outbreak of violence. I recalled later reports of continuing armed conflict, so I did an online search to find out what’s happened over the last four years. There’s an extensive Wikipedia page describing the war and its effects on the population. After the initial fighting, there were a number of cease fires, with each typically violated within days by whoever thought they could gain an advantage by doing so. The rebels split into competing factions, as did the majority Dinka tribe, and no peace deal (including the one that some parties are now following) was comprehensive enough to end all violent conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, famine, and attacks on civilians and aid workers. Over four million people have been displaced either internally or to surrounding countries. A study in early 2018 estimated that at least 383,000 people have died as a result of the war. I looked specifically for news about Yei, the city to which VandenBerg’s initial 160 women and children fled, and found that the population of refugees there has grown substantially. In July of this year the UN refugee agency was planning to distribute “plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets, buckets, jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and soap” there. The need for such items seems to be never-ending!

South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda, 2017. Image from http://www.worldvision.org.

It was disheartening to find out how much worse things got after VandenBerg’s optimistic report of a successful relief effort. As she notes, by praying for peace we become more aware of how we may be peacemakers, and that’s a good thing. But subsequent events in South Sudan also show us that it is tremendously difficult (sometimes impossible) to make peace no matter how much we pray and work. Why is that so? Why doesn’t God intervene? What’s the point of either prayer or relief efforts in a situation like that?

The persistence of evil and suffering has caused many to lose their faith. We often don’t notice that not only faith but the other two theological virtues are impacted as well. Many lose hope–not necessarily for the blessings of an afterlife, but for “the goodness of the Lord/ in the land of the living,” as the psalmist (Ps. 27) put it. Others lose charity, not only in that they no longer try to alleviate human misery but also that they uncharitably accuse sufferers of being responsible for their hardships. So as not to blame God, they blame the victims instead.

I don’t blame God for what’s happened: He gave humans free will, never intending that they use it to slaughter their enemies or innocent bystanders. Neither do I blame those who have lost their livelihoods, their communities, their innocence, or their lives. For a few days after reading about the war, I was preoccupied with and saddened by the enormity of the suffering that it brought. I was sensitized to news reports of other conflicts, especially the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Unlike South Sudan, my country is implicated in perpetuating that conflict.

My morose state of mind was mild, though, and I knew that it would pass. To some extent it already has. While in the midst of my preoccupation, I happened upon a TIME magazine cover story on parents who have had a child die in a school shooting. They never recover fully from their sorrow, not even after decades. One couple, the Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, sold almost everything they owned, moved into a mobile home, and devoted themselves full-time to helping survivors of gun violence. What would it be like if all of us were similarly touched by the world’s pain, giving our lives to help those who are suffering?

That thought brought me back to God. He is not a distant deity who watches us from on high, tossing down an occasional thunderbolt when things get out of hand. He’s not like me, saddened by what he sees but not doing much in response. He’s like the Phillips’, who changed their lives totally in response to human need. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, after all. God gave up the glories of heaven to be born as one of us, surrendering everything for the sake of the suffering world. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”  wrote Isaiah (53:4). I take that to mean that he suffers with the victims of every war that has ever been fought. And one day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, war will be no more. For now, when I struggle to hold on to my faith–and also my hope and charity–I look to his example to get the strength to go on.

 

 

Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

Denarius

This morning we had an interesting discussion at the Men’s Bible Study I attend. The passage we looked at was Mark 12, which includes an attempt by Jesus’ opponents to trap him by asking a politically charged question about whether it was permissible to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus first asks his questioner to bring him a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. The passage continues:

They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (NIV)

Our pastor suggested that Jesus was implicitly comparing the image on the coin–Caesar’s–to the image on the hearts of his hearers–God’s. In other words, Jesus was alluding to the account of creation in Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

A member of the group questioned whether we make too much of the image of God, thus neglecting that a couple of chapters later Genesis describes the Fall, an event in which humans lost a substantial part of what it means to be like God. This resulted in a lengthy discussion. My contribution was that we can mistakenly focus too much either on the ways we humans fall short of the image of God or on the ways we continue to display that image. Each is monumental in scope, and to lose sight of either is to have an erroneous view of what it means to be human. When we focus too much on how much humans fail to display godlike characteristics, we are tempted to dehumanize them. When we focus too much on the ways in which humans still have godlike features, we are tempted to idealize–and often idolize–them.

Thinking about this further after the meeting, it seemed to me that the major philosophical streams in Western society that inform everyone’s sense of self–enlightenment rationalism and romanticism–are both prone to these sorts of errors. To oversimplify here, the enlightenment rationalist may idolize humans who exhibit our capacity for godlike qualities such as reason, objectivity, and commitment to truth, while dehumanizing those they consider still trapped in superstitions like religion or respect for tradition. The romanticist is prone to idolize humans who take the inner journey to discover something true about their nature, but dehumanize critics who question the verities that inner journey supposedly reveal.

As I thought of the errors we make when we have either too high or too low a view of God’s image, I thought also of the political controversy of the moment in the U.S., i.e. the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Christine Blasey Ford presented riveting testimony of her memories of attempted rape. As a therapist who has had many conversations with trauma victims, I found her account convincing. To my mind, she showed in her brief time on the public stage a desire to tell the truth, a radical openness about a terribly painful experience, and a willingness to sacrifice her own well-being for the good of society. In all these things, I think she showed something of what God intended all of us to be. But couldn’t she be mistaken as to the identity of her assaulter? I tend to think her memory was accurate, but it might not be. She’s only human, after all. Those who think she couldn’t possibly be incorrect are overestimating human capability. Our memories aren’t godlike, after all.

So some are overestimating the image of God in her, seeing her as incapable of error. Others are making the opposite mistake, dehumanizing her so as to discredit her testimony. President Trump may unfortunately be among those losing sight of her humanity: at a rally last night, he took a mocking tone in describing her testimony, then added, “They [apparently meaning Dr. Ford and other accusers of sexual assault, though the reference isn’t clear] want to destroy people. These are really evil people.” So she’s not merely wrong, she’s one of those others, the evil ones, who are in some sense less than the rest of us good folks.

How about Judge Kavanaugh? I only heard about 20 minutes of his testimony, then saw clips from the rest of it. In the part I heard, he seemed arrogant, defensive, and entitled. His tone has generally been described as angry. It’s easier for me to come up with reasons he might deny a sexual assault that he actually remembers than to imagine Dr. Ford making up such allegations.

Yet I remember that he, too, bears God’s image. As such, there may be more truth in his denials than I am inclined to believe. I think his anger has resonated with conservatives, many of whom have had their motives impuged in a way similar to what they see in the commentary about Kavanaugh.  David French wrote of this in support of Judge Kavanaugh the day after the hearing:

“[I]t is a simple fact that time and again good conservative men and women have been subjected to horrific smears for the sin of disagreement, for in good faith believing in different policies, or in good faith holding different religious beliefs. They (we) have been called bigots, racists, and — yes — evil.”

In other words, they have been dehumanized for their political views. They’ve been judged not just as mistaken but as having evil intentions, as being somehow less than the enlightened ones on the Left. There have been plenty examples of this in responses to the Kavanaugh hearing. For example, Jeff Flake, who as much as any other Senator seems to be trying to hold in mind the humanity of both Ford and Kavanaugh, has for his troubles been labeled a “rape apologist” by the Woman’s March.

Ford, Kavanaugh, Flake, Trump, me–all of these bear the image of God. In all of them the image of God is distorted, shadowed by human corruption. To find my way through these troubled times I need to continually remind myself of these truths.

 

 

A Milwaukee Eviction. Image from Sally Ryan/ZUMA

I recently posted some thoughts about Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016). Desmond writes about a dozen or so individuals or families in Milwaukee who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads (or in some cases to find another roof after losing the one they had). Many of them spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent, so coming up with the monthly payment is often quite a challenge. Even small unexpected expenses can put them behind on rent and push them to the edge of eviction. One question that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “Who is there to help poor renters?” Some benefit from government programs, but these programs meet only a small fraction of the need. Who else is there to help?

Often the first person who provides help–limited and self-serving though it often is–is the landlord. One of the two landlords featured in the book, Sherrena, doesn’t immediately address the delinquency of one of her tenants, Lamar, because Lamar is legless and has young sons in his care. Her reluctance doesn’t last long, though. Desmond quotes her as saying “I guess I got to stop feeling sorry for these people because no one is feeling sorry for me.” Lamar tries to work off the amount in arrears, but Sherrena won’t give him credit for what he has done. The other landlord in the book, Tobin, quickly evicted some tenants who fell behind, but let others remain for months. Desmond notes one factor that affected whether a landlord would proceed with an eviction:

“How a tenant responded to an eviction notice could make a difference. Women tended not to negotiate their eviction like men did, and they were more likely to avoid landlords when they fell behind. These responses did not serve them well.”

Jerry, a biker who lived in Tobin’s park, responded to his eviction notice by angrily threatening to hit Lenny, the property manager. Surprisingly, that didn’t make the situation worse. Desmond attributes tolerance for such aggressiveness to landlords’ “gruff masculine way of doing business. That put men like Jerry at an advantage.” Jerry subsequently offered to work off the debt and was allowed to do so.

Renters facing eviction sometimes turned to family for help. Desmond describes the efforts that Larraine, one of Tobin’s tenants, made to get family help when faced with eviction. Two of her siblings had less income than her and couldn’t provide assistance. Relationships with impoverished family members may provide some benefits, but financial assistance isn’t one of them. Her sister Susan was a little better off but wouldn’t help because Larraine had mismanaged money in the past. Larraine hesitated to ask Rubin, her youngest brother, because they weren’t close and she didn’t want to imperil his future willingness to help by making frequent requests. The fear that a relative in position to help will decide that the person in trouble doesn’t deserve additional help is apparently a major reason why some relatives aren’t contacted.

Larraine can’t ask her oldest daughter Megan for help, since she hadn’t paid back an earlier loan, and Megan held that against her. She asks her daughter Jayne, who has a fast food job; Jayne promises to help but has no money until payday. Larraine goes next to her church, from whom she has gotten help previously, though she was only partly truthful when making that request, a deception that her sister Susan, who attends the same church, brought to the pastor’s attention. Pastor Daryl is torn. He believes that the church should help the poor, In Larraine’s case, though, he thinks that much of her hardship is because of her bad choices. Eventually he tells Larraine that the church won’t be helping this time. Finally, Larraine goes to Ruben, who agrees to help. In the end, though, Tobin refuses the money, having by this time decided he wants Larraine out of his park. Having family to ask, even family willing to help, by no means makes it certain that eviction can be prevented.

Since my church is currently discussing ways to help with the affordable housing crisis, I was particularly interested in what role churches played in the lives of those facing eviction. Though Larraine didn’t get financial help from Pastor Daryl on this occasion, her church is an important part of her life. She attends every Sunday and has loved going to church ever since she was a child. Regardless of whether the church provides emergency funds to poor congregants like Larraine, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else that churches can do to better equip them for the hardships they faced, perhaps helping with budgeting or decision-making so that a housing crisis was less likely to occur in the first place.

Crystal was another struggling renter who was heavily involved in church. She was evicted by Sherrena and wound up in a homeless shelter. Even while homeless, she put a substantial portion of her monthly check in the offering plate. Her reasoning is as follows:

“I need something from God. So I sow a seed…. I need a house. I need financial breakthrough. I need healing from stuff. I need to be made whole.

She got some assistance from the church–an occasional bag of groceries, a place to stay once in a while. But she kept from everyone but the pastor that she was homeless. Desmond described her motives as follows:

“Crystal didn’t want members of her church to reduce her, to see her as an object of pity, a member of ‘the poor and the orphaned.’ She wanted to be seen as Sister Crystal, part of the Body, the Beloved.”

So Crystal got what she most wanted from her church–affirmation of her identity. I wonder whether the church has encouraged her transactional view of giving, though. If so, it seems her church is letting her down.

Lamar, Sherrena’s legless tenant, doesn’t attend church. One day, though, as he is sitting around with his sons and some neighborhood boys smoking a joint, Colin, a young pastor from a nearby church, comes to the door with his Bible and some cookies. Ignoring the smell of marijuana and sounds of a sexual encounter taking place in the bedroom, Colin opens his Bible and goes over some scripture passages. Lamar knows many of the passages by heart. When one the topic of the devil comes up, Lamar adds “And earth is hell.” Colin corrects him: Well, not quite hell.” Colin leads them in prayer and hands out a list of items Lamar can pick up at the church. Colin tried his best, and he’s certainly doing more than most churches do. Nevertheless, it seems that he misses what’s being said about how Lamar’s life is truly hellish. No matte what tangible help we offer, it’s important for those who seek to minister in Christ’s name to listen to those in need as carefully as he did.

So once one falls through the frayed safety net the government provides, it’s very much hit and miss as to whether those about to be evicted can find anyone else willing and able to help. I pray that God will help our church reach out to the Lamars in our city–and the Larraines and Crystals as well. May we be able to understand their struggles–including the hell on earth that some experience–and have wisdom regarding how we can help.