A Lenten Reflection

The Garden of Love

William Blake

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
 Image
___________
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day of repentance, of accepting one’s sins. One would think the evangelicals I work with here would be super into this celebration, but despite all the sooty-foreheads I saw in the streets, I didn’t see one in my office.

Repentance, conversion, religiosity and evangelism above all have been topics of deep thought and frustration for me over the past 8 months. I recently received an outraged email from a friend related to missionaries screaming:

“I DONT UNDERSTAND THE POINT OF GOING SOMEWHERE REMOTE JUST TO CONVERT SOULS !!!! IT MAKES NO SENSE. HOW ABOUT CONTRIBUTING IN A REAL AND PRACTICAL WAY INSTEAD? THIS ISN’T A RACE TO CONVERT THE MOST PEOPLE! GRRRRRR!!!!!!!!”

I received this email the day I accompanied the prison ministry I’m working on Peacebuilding workshops on to the women’s jail for the first time. In the taxi on the way to the jail, 20 seconds before having to run out the door (we were already 45 minutes late, of course) the leader asked our cab driver if he died tomorrow if he knew where he would go. I half expected him to tell her to take a hike but instead he said heaven and explained why. She said “ok” and we left. In that moment I empathized with my friends’ frustration.
It was one of *many* moments that day when I felt like an absolute fraud pretending to be even somewhat of one mind with my coworkers. (Stay tuned for a post on gender equality…) Just yesterday I had a missionary spontaneously share with me that she had led 52 people to Christ already, 1 just yesterday! And I said, weakly, “That’s so great…”

Because really, isn’t it so great? I really do believe Jesus saves, or maybe that following Jesus saves, or that Jesus is always and continually acting a plan of salvation we can link in to. It’s not that I’m ashamed of Jesus at all– it’s that I’m skeptical, justifiably, of what this kind of quantifying of souls, confrontational/black and white/ judgmental attitude has to do with walking in a new way, with following the ever-loving, nonviolent, empire-resister, humble Jesus.

Yesterday I read an article about new Anti-Restitution (as in land restitution from the new Law of Victims and Restitution) paramilitaries being formed in Cesar, on the northern coast of Colombia. Large land owners, like Chiquita Banana and Palm Oil companies before them, are finding that doing justice by returning stolen land is economically detrimental to them and that, on the other hand, there’s a ready supply of ruthless mercenaries on hand to “protect” their investments. This, I believe, is  something Jesus wants to save us from. And yes, I agree that if all the large landowners involved, or all the ex-paramilitaries involved, or whatever converted tomorrow, and truly understood Jesus’ message, this situation could drastically improve. I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea. I’m saying that in the meantime, is the Jesus you’re preaching and so proud to be gaining followers for the Jesus who would know, care, and work against this situation. What is the message of the evangelical church here?

My concern is that many pastors and evangelicals here are hugely influenced by tele-evangelists from the states who either explicitly or implicitly support the economic status quo, do not mention the need to rethink our economies or political priorities in terms of war and violence but rather focus almost entirely on issues of sexuality, abortion, and “Family Values” (not as in “Don’t use a gun and teach equality” but more like “Don’t have sex and remember women should submit”)
A wise man I know responded to my friends’ frustrated email with an analogy from the movie “The Blind Side” :
“At some point the kid she adopted is having trouble using his skills to play decent football… she goes to him, takes him aside and tells him: “The Quarterback is me. When you see the QB, you see me. what would you do to defend me? do that.”
And the kid gets in the game and grows to become a professional football player.
My point?
The adoptive mom played by Bullock gives him an emotional mission. Maybe it’s not really the mission. after all the QB is not the guy’s mother and the game is far more complex than “protecting the QB”. But bullock’s speech unlocks the emotional courage, the vision for the guy to do what he was supposed to do in the first place.
So — I don’t know what I believe about what preaching the gospel is all about…
Be that as it may, this call to go and “save souls” can lead people to miss the point, but it’s also provided a big enough motivator to get folks off their butts and meet other people. And along the way, they’ve ended up doing pretty amazing things. Just like the guy in the movie had to start with a simplistic, maybe “wrong” motivation, it got him to get to where he needed to be.”

The day I visited the prison I also heard the testimony of a coworker who spent 11 years in US federal prison for drug trafficking. She described a complex and heartbreaking background of broken relationships and hurt and a time of utter despair her first years in prison. And she describes meeting, actually meeting, a God who loves her unconditionally and that same God working in her heart, like yeast through bread dough, healing the hurts and leading her to places of forgiveness and a desire for service and love of others. And these women who are going to the prisons with messages that make me cringe (sneak preview: “If  you want your daughters to be real women, feminine women…”) are also going with messages of enormous hope and helping women caught in violent circles break free.

Lent is about repentance and heaven and history knows Christians as a group have enough to repent for. It maybe fair to say that modern neoliberalism, and its related oppression, is to Evangelicals what the Crusades were to the Catholics. We have many farmers, peasants, workers, homosexuals, transgendered people, heck whole countries to apologize to.

I am working in an evangelical environment, I have to admit that. But I will not adjust to this worldview. I don’t want to. Yet I have to also repent of the judgmentalism I carry with me every day, I cannot judge being black and white by saying simply “Your entire point/worldview/approach is wrong. All wrong. All black”. There are grains of truth to be found everywhere, to be collected and gazed at and lived and tested. But William Blake is right, we need to make sure to plant our seeds of faith in a Garden of Love, not try to squeeze them through cracks in a stone-chapel-floor. And we need to repent in every situation, whether its ramifications are social or personal, in which our flowers turn to grave-stones.

This is a conversation I’m still really interested in, haven’t figured out– I welcome all comments and thoughts.

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About Magelette

I use too many parentheticals, tend towards run-on sentences, and am a terrible self-editor. That being said I'm honest to a fault and fairly easily enchanted, so if you're into that, read on.
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