A Tribe of Grace

This morning, driving to work, I was between audiobooks and so tuned in to our local NPR affiliate.

Morning edition co-host Steve Inskeep introduced a bottom-of-the-hour human interest story about a husband and wife by alluding to Valentine’s Day. That’s pretty unremarkable, but something about it got my hackle up.

He said something along the lines of “It’s the day before Valentine’s Day—did you hear that? The day before. You’ve been notified.” It was a throwaway line, signifying nothing more than a popular radio host yukking it up for listeners, but my mind started to go toward how I perceived that nod to societal pressure to do something above and beyond for my wife because of the arbitrary yet sacrosanct commercialism of February fourteenth. Then I drifted to thinking of how single friends might feel about that, and before a few seconds had passed I was mad at someone I’ve never met about something I don’t really care that much about, all while trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour.

Mercifully quickly, though, another thought pushed in, and I cut Steve the slack he’s certainly due as someone who spends a few hours each day with a hot mic stuck in his face.

In politically right-wing circles, a popular bogeyman is the politically correct, “woke”, “social justice warriors” who supposedly want to police our thoughts. On the left, people are equally incensed at the insensitive, boorish, racist, sexist, talk and actions emanating from locker rooms (and often the White House) these days.

Of course the traction these stereotypes get is due to the fact that their worst expressions do actually exist (though likely in much smaller numbers than either side perceives). In reaction, we keep pushing ourselves to ever greater hyperbolic contrast to distinguish our own virtue. In the froth, we’ve accelerated our sociopolitical sorting, with a default setting of anger at the other side (never mind that the lines between me and the “other” are ever shifting).

This isn’t news to anyone with eyes and ears in America today. But what hit me after my momentary bristling this morning is how much both broad camps that we’ve sorted ourselves into suffer the same core problem.

One group is so sensitive to any transgression against any historically oppressed group (or chosen identity) that the day is filled with microaggressions—many of which are very real, but many of which are as ephemeral as my NPR rage (call it “centering commercial-romantic synthesis” if you will). They cannot brook any dissent from their campaign to purge judgment and negativity from public discourse.

Another clustering of people is so self-assured in their own normalcy that can barely be bothered to extend sympathy to anyone who is different, broken, scarred, or scared. They increasingly delight in stepping on toes for the sake of breaking them, with “owning the libs” serving as more of a motivator than any substantive statement.

Both of these subsist on a failure of grace, practicing the same excessive self-interest—whether it is expressed as moral codes decoupled from repentance or stumbling blocks unhitched from a meaningful path forward. And as we pull in opposite directions, rifting an entire society, the legitimate concerns of racial injustice, family disintegration, lack of economic mobility, freedom of speech, mistreatment of women, care for the unborn (and their mothers), environmental degradation, etc., to just so many tribal shibboleths. And our media outlets act as gasoline on this fire, reducing the public square to all outrage, all the time.

This is getting us quickly into a hole that I’m not sure we can find a way out of, and the church of Jesus Christ too often hastens to leap in to the fray by joining one side or another rather than presenting a transcendent community that addresses earthly problems with the perspective of the kingdom of God. Neither trying to be right as a bludgeon nor trying to be kind at the expense of eternal truths does our calling any favors.

I’m not going to try to offer solutions today (though there’s plenty of other spots on this site where I’ve tried to do so). I’d simply like to say that I’m embarrassed by how seldom I think before I emote, and how my emotions are so culturally and politically malleable. It’s a complex world out there, and the complexity is a feature not a bug—designed to keep us humble, both dependent on and freely bestowing grace. As C. S. Lewis has a character put it in The Great Divorce: “‘But of course!’ said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. ‘That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.'”

Steve, I’m sorry.

Image: North Carolina Museum of Art, “Swan Attacked by a Dog”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745. Photo by me, January 2019.

Notes from Un-Sovereignty

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you
Were young, you used to dress yourself and walk
Wherever you wanted, but when you’re old,
You will stretch out your hands, and another
Will dress you and carry you where you do
Not, in the very slightest, want to go.

So Christ said to Peter, then bid him go.
That goes for him, we reason, But not you.
It’s fine to call him out, but please don’t do
Anything to upset plans as we walk
Head-high, knee-deep, this path or another,
No thought of stumbling, falling as though old.

All things, once fresh, grow stale, pale, cheap and old
to youth, who only ever want to go.
Not for us, attending to another,
To listen, learn, to sort out me from you.
Patience is anathema. Why not walk
When told to sit? Why walk? Running will do.

It’s all well and good, doing what we do.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I’ll die when I’m old.
Until one day, hand in hand, we two walk,
Without a care for where all this might go.
My run inevitably stops for you;
One soul, beneath the weight of another.

But are we to carry one another
From strength to strength as lovers? Say “I do”;
Wait, spent, for the same words to come from you?
If we must, let us together grow old.
What you want, I give. Where you lead, I go.
Cradle to altar is not far to walk.

Back again, from altar to cradle walk
The two, from whose lives has come another,
Crying, You may not, now or ever, go
Where you want to go. Neither may you do
What you wish to do. I’m young, and you’re old.
Only on paper I belong to you!

To walk from dust to dust is what we do;
In this life or another, whether old
Or young, we go. I think I’ll go with you.

Photo: Path with Beeches, Reflection Riding Arboretum, Chattanooga, Tenn., November 2017.