Monday, December 9, 2019

Advent Journal: An Uncomfortable Reflection in the Mirror

In the years my wife and I were vegetarians, we received frequent unsolicited opinions about our diet.

Humans are designed to eat meat. 

You won't get enough protein. 

Surely you eat fish, right? How about chicken? 

I could never give up meat.

How do you find enough to eat?

Those were the more innocuous comments. They got worse:

You know, plants have feelings too. A carrot screams when you rip it out of the ground.

Do you wear leather shoes?

Mmm, look how good this steak is. Want a bite? Cows are delicious!

After a while, you get numb to the mockery. But you also realize that the rudeness comes from a place of vulnerability, because your dietary choices hold up a mirror to the food other people consume without thinking about it. And it's easy not to think about what's on your plate, because we're disconnected from our food. We no longer hunt and process our own meat. We don't see the inside of a slaughterhouse. We only see the nice, neatly packaged burgers and T-bones in the cooler at the grocery store. So after a while, I (mostly) stopped taking offense at such comments and realized that, even though I was never an in-your-face vegetarian, the things I chose to eat -- and not to eat -- uncomfortably pricked at the consciences of some onlookers. And sometimes people lash out when you make them uncomfortable about their choices.

Those old comments came rushing back to me yesterday when I saw a Facebook post about a church that had taken its Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus nativity figures and placed them in metal cages, all separated from each other -- an obviously pointed commentary on the nature of ICE detentions of migrants at the southern U.S. border. The comments spoke volumes about just how uncomfortable the display made a lot of people.

This is blasphemy! Don't politicize Jesus!

Let these people come back legally. If they break the law, they get what they deserve.

Jesus and his family didn't enter Egypt illegally. It was part of the Roman Empire.

The Holy Family weren't refugees! They were going to Bethlehem for the census! [Yes, I'm aware Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The flight to Egypt came later, when Herod sent out an order to kill all male children. Are you telling me you're not aware of this scripture passage?]

The people at our borders are drug runners and violent criminals. 

These people just want to come over here and get free handouts. 

What kind of irresponsible parent would endanger their kids to get to our border?

Let them go back home and fix up their own countries. 

And on and on. From self-proclaimed Christians, mind you.

When I see so many "Christians" acting so un-Christ-like toward their fellow human beings, I think about my dilemma of faith I talked about in my last post, and I wonder why I even bother to stick around. Because let's be very clear about this: Scripture abounds with passages exhorting the people of God to care for the strangers in their midst, not to dehumanize them and find excuses for why we shouldn't have to tend to their needs. Jesus himself says that those who welcome the stranger will be among those he gathers up as his saved flock, and of course the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan was to impress on the person challenging him that your neighbor is anyone in need, not just people of your own tribe or nation. Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to be the good guy in his story, as that choice would have shocked his listeners in his time, since the Jews hated the Samaritans -- almost as much as some people today hate, say, migrants, or Muslims. Yet the hated Samaritan was the one who selflessly stopped to help the man lying along the road, while the good, pious priests and Levites walked right on by. No doubt they may have been thinking "What kind of irresponsible idiot would walk this dangerous road alone from Jericho? He should have expected he'd get mugged." Or "Let someone else take care of him."

That hits home. The nativity figures in cages hold up an uncomfortable mirror to what many American Christians support and defend. And when they lash out and ask if you're going to take care of all the people at our border, their anger leaves them unable to see that that's the exact same argument pro-choicers use against them when they rally against abortion -- "are you going to adopt and feed all those unwanted babies?" For I can assure you that many of the most vociferous anti-migrant voices, ironically, also consider themselves part of the "pro-life" community. Actions always speak louder than words, of course, and if "pro-life" doesn't mean all life, then it really doesn't mean very much.

I say things like this, of course, and right-wing Christians accuse me of being a hardcore liberal -- when all I'm doing is trying to follow the example Jesus set for his followers. In fact, truth be told, I have just as little patience for progressive Christians who constantly let contemporary culture shape their churches, as they try to turn Jesus into some kind of anything-goes hippie. Jesus did preach love of neighbor and enemy alike, of course, but loving doesn't necessarily equal permissive. Feeling out of place in right-leaning churches that had too much anger and too little empathy, I quickly grew weary of left-leaning churches that almost seemed embarrassed to talk about Jesus except as some sort of vague avatar for wokeness, with the result that progressive churches often feel bereft of spirituality and instead sound like some kind of NPR coffee klatch. I don't go to church to hear woke political harangues and endless virtue-signaling. I go for spiritual enrichment. And that's sorely lacking among progressive churches.

Catholic author Peter Kreeft helped me understand my unease with both sides when I read an article of his recently. I've always said that the right has no empathy and the left has no common sense -- and while that's certainly painting in broad strokes, I find it generally to be true. Mr. Kreeft said much the same thing, albeit in nicer terms, when he opined that the challenge for Catholics, and indeed all Christians, is to have a hard head and a soft heart -- for those on the right often have a hard heart to match their hard heads, while those on the left often have a soft head to match their soft hearts. Think of someone like Mother Teresa -- an old, withered lady who was as tough as nails yet would pour her heart into helping anyone in need of aid. When Jesus said we should be wise as serpents yet harmless as a dove, that's what he had in mind.

We can see this more clearly when we stop trying to re-create Jesus in our political image and let his words lead the way instead. That's a tall order for a culture that fits Jesus into its politics rather than the other way around.  But it's the only way we can ever hope to walk in his footsteps and be the light of Christ that the world needs.

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