Living in the Tension


Photo: Michael Smith

By Tommy Airey

So many of us wake up in the morning and eat a breakfast of food we don’t believe in and then drive a car we don’t believe in to a job we don’t believe in. We do things that we know are wrong, day after day, just because that’s the way the system is set up, and we think we have no choice. It’s soul-devouring.
Kathleen Dean Moore, Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University

A hundred days after the U.S. military drone bombed a hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 patients and doctors, and about an hour after I filled up my car for $1.53/gallon, Rev. Peterson shot me an anguished text:

How does one live in an oppressive system but not be of it? My clothes bare the label of oppression. My little retirement fund bares the gains/losses of corrupt capitalism.

For all of us with some semblance of privilege, working tirelessly for church renewal and social change, this is the question. We live in The Tension, a stressful, uncomfortable, inconvenient space often bombarded by guilt, shame, anxiety, fear and exhaustion.

Living In The Tension is a third way, transcending our dualistic tendencies: either going all-out, off-the-grid or resigning our lives to indifference, apathy and/or cynicism.

Living In The Tension, so many of us become workaholics, without the time and energy to pursue active recovery, suffering through an onslaught of all sorts of other addictions, just coping coping coping, bereft of boundaries, the Sabbath just some biblical fantasy.

Living In The Tension, we find ourselves playing the comparison game, struggling against an inertia coaxing us into homogeneity, the illusion that our lives surely must look exactly alike, that we must share the same skills, roles and responsibilities.

Living In The Tension, shame shakes us into compulsively judging, projecting and scapegoating each other.

Living In The Tension, we swim in despair, as our home feeds remind us we live in a world imploding with structural injustice and oppression.

Living in The Tension, we come to the humble realization that perfection and purity are unattainable and, as we fall short, we are too often sent spiraling into a cycle of shame.

Living In The Tension, we work to resist and repent from imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but, at the same time, knowing full well that we First World citizens benefit from it in various ways.

To be sure, there are varying degrees of complicity: I’m a vanilla male who recently moved to a Chocolate city under neo-liberal assault. Rev. Peterson is a black man dwelling in a majority white context, one of the oldest inland towns in America. My angst ought to at least match his (I’m both humbled and ashamed it doesn’t).

We are both ministers of the Gospel though, attempting to reanimate “justification,” “grace” and “forgiveness” for people of faith and conscience, weary pilgrims who embrace The Tension, but get weighed down by guilt, shame, addiction and alienation. As I’ve found myself muttering recently, “Fuck, this shit is lonely.”
Because our lives our flooded with hypocrisy and incongruity, we desperately need to experience a Grace that empowers us to move beyond it. We fall down. Grace enables us to get back up. Our copings counterfeit us. Grace tenderly accepts us anyways so that we can come out of hiding and pursue active recovery. We hurry and hobble in this struggle. Grace gives us permission to fail. Grace allows us to name, to confess where we fuck up in this bold Journey of unfucking ourselves from imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Grace pulls us out of hiding and commissions us to live authentically, vulnerably.

Grace gives me the cover to be authentic, to admit when white supremacy works through what I do or say to dehumanize others (and myself in the process), where I’m totally blinded by my own race privilege and entitlement: this is what St. Paul means by “sinning boldly.” It’s not what I’m aiming for and I’ll never make excuses for it. I can fully own it, seek to understand the harm it caused, apologize and hope (but never expect) to be forgiven or to be reconciled.

Grace, though, somehow means that the Love that created the world acquits me, freeing me from a life sentence of imprisonment to guilt and shame and fear—dropping the shackles, liberated to work towards robust reparation and for policies that undo white supremacy: in housing, banking, education, criminal justice and employment. We are motivated by Love, not guilt. And this makes all the difference.

Indeed: by grace we have been saved. And salvation has everything to do with what we are experiencing right here, right now, freeing us from fear & fantasies, anger & anxieties. Salvation doesn’t get us off the hook—it hooks us with a mission to live for the sake of Every Living Thing. It punctures a hole in our addictions and counterfeit copings. It compels us into embracing a witness that is actually compelling.
Justification is not about what it takes to get to heaven.  It is about what qualifies us to participate in a movement committed to the healing and redemption of the world. While the death of Jesus signaled the world’s “No!” to his radical platform, the resurrection of that ancient prophetic Jew from Nazareth countered with a Divine “Yes!” justifying his lifestyle of nonviolent resistance, simple living, unconditional love and the radical sharing of resources. It justifies, too, our participation in this movement, a radical inclusivity that vetoes the old definitions of what is clean and unclean, pure and impure.

Jesus was shamed and scapegoated, the evil and addictions of the world projected on to his tortured body. This image exposes our own purity codes and litmus tests, used to disqualify others from the race. In short, justification must always be about justice, about the Real-time determination of a covenantal community, not the post-death destination of isolated individuals.

Purchases and policies that create poverty, oppression and violence ought never be justified. We will never be perfect, but this ought not keep us from striving for a non-narcissistic, non-self-serving, non self-indulgent spirituality that is deeply committed to serving the less privileged in the world, and advocating for those most heavily targeted by our destructive lifestyles and exploitive imaginations.

Indeed: we are justified by faith. But faith means allegiance to a Way far more than mental assent to a doctrine. It means trusting that there is a demanding Love that will forgive us in the midst of a historic challenge that has beckoned sojourners to live sacrificially for the sake of others. Love itself is willing to die, not kill, in order to bring about a whole new world.
Two key theological convictions carry a life built on Grace and Justification onwards, and remind us that, although this shit is lonely, we are far from alone. We are enveloped by so great a cloud of witnesses. This is not just emotional inspiration—there is Something metaphysical at work here, Something really connecting us with our ancestors that enables us to do and be in ways we could have never imagined when they were in our presence physically. This is one of the crucial aspects of what we mean when we say that Love governs the universe.

The other is what French poet Charles Baudelaire beautifully articulated 150 years ago:

We walk through forests of physical things
            that are also spiritual things
that look on us with affectionate looks.

Every Living Thing, past and present, the plants, animals, minerals and humans, seen and unseen, is part of the Love revolution that comprises the arc of the universe that is long indeed, but surely bends towards justice.

The bottom line (and by this, I mean that we keep coming back to it over and over again) is that Love beckons us,

Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.

When we know that Every Living Thing is lurching, groaning towards justice, then we can relax and rest. We can take Sabbath. A grace that overcomes our hypocrisies and incongruities justifies our strange experiments of Living In The Tension. And, rest assured, if we forget all of this, in moments of distraction or distortion, we will be forgiven.

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