We who live on the planet are in the midst of a huge, grief-inducing identity crisis, and it’s frankly overwhelming. Extremists on both ends of the political spectrum notwithstanding, most of us—both conservative and liberal—are stuck in the middle, not knowing what we can do. It is so easy to be dispirited and paralyzed. We don’t know how to help.
I used to love Bill Cosby so much. But it turns out that the “Cosby” l liked was just “Show”: the Pudding Pop pitchman, the guy who says the darnedest things. It’s not just Cosby, though. Icons are falling like dominoes: the Confederate flag, Atticus Finch, “traditional” marriage. Other painful and divisive issues—like gun control, race relations and gender politics—have not fallen but persist like an incurable virus. And as Nanci Griffith says: compassion fails us with the meanness in the air.
It is not entirely a bad thing that nostalgia is taking such a beating. We will never return to the Good Old Days when men were men and women were girls, when black people knew their place, when there was no such thing as gay people, nobody talked about rape or sexual abuse, and white Christians were in charge. Yes, in many ways those were simpler times. But in many other ways, those times were not the best of times, they were the worst of times. The upside of today’s overwhelming clamor is that many voices are only now finding their voices. The downside is that we have lost every single helpful filter too: we’re back to Babel.
I recently preached a sermon after which someone accused me of “making white people feel bad.” Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about, because if I’m trying to make you feel bad, I’ll know it. I got to thinking, though: we all feel bad about something. And we are addicted to arguing about All The Things. But we also agree–that is, most of us would agree–that people are mostly good, and that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” We want to do something, but we’re paralyzed.
Allow me to offer a word of encouragement: we are not in a crisis of a thousand things. Amidst the Babel-clamor there are not, even though it seems like it, a thousand competing causes. It’s not like we will find answers, because these are not problems that can be solved by any of us.
Let’s not simply feel bad; let’s go ahead and do good.
I can’t do something about everything. But I can practice one thing. I can do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with my God. And then pick a task and do it. Pick a kindness, any kindness.
And what’s so bad about “feeling bad,” anyway? Yes, we hate to admit that something we have believed turns out to be a lie. But once we get over ourselves, stripping away falsehood is a good kind of feeling bad: it strips us fresh and clean, like Aslan stripping Eustace Scrubb of his dragon skin:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone…I’d turned into a boy again.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly teaches you not to turn a blind eye to your fellow human. And for me—admittedly, not for everybody—my life in a religious institution is the place to do it. Just because some people have ruined religion for other people doesn’t mean all religious life is bullshit. Edmund Burke (the father of modern conservatism who may or may not have said the thing about “good men doing nothing”) did in fact say: “I take toleration to be a part of religion. I do not know which I would sacrifice; I would keep them both: it is not necessary that I should sacrifice either.” True religious practice is not self-centered, it is Other-centered. Which, in turn, means God-centered.
Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly enhances my peripheral vision so I can see beyond just me and my little bubble. I don’t have to do everything. Just the one thing.