Rembrandt, “Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses,” 1653.
“I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”
Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.
In a mission-related meeting that occurred not too long ago, in the midst of a tense discussion about old conflicts and current, difficult issues, one of my colleagues blurted out, “I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t feel good.”
I hear some version of this at least once a day.
“These discussions of privilege make me feel accused.”
“Talking about power makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I don’t like conflict. The Church should be a place of peace.”
“This doesn’t feel good.”
In all of these situations, a relatively privileged American was explaining how being involved in our mission as a delegate to El Salvador or a volunteer in the USA sometimes makes one feel uncomfortable, sad, angry, out of place, discouraged, hurt, ignored, or any number of other negative emotions.
Don’t get me wrong: no one ever wants to feel bad, and it is never my or my Salvadoran colleagues’ intention to make people feel bad. Feeling sad, hurt, or just generally uncomfortable because there are religious, cultural or linguistic differences and differentials in power and privilege in our relationships as Christians is never pleasant. Feeling sad, hurt, or generally uncomfortable when we have relational issues, communication problems, or conflict (as any organization does) is never pleasant, either.
As someone who believes that God has created us for happiness, I agree that we are not meant to feel bad all the time. As a liberationist, I am weary about glorifying sadness, discomfort, and suffering.
But you know what? It’s not always a bad thing to feel so-called negative emotions, either.
Somehow, at some point, we mainline Protestants became a little too comfortable with ourselves, didn’t we? We came to expect that we would go to church on Sunday, hear an inspiring sermon that would apply to our largely white, wealthy, suburban or small-town lives, and then ponder it with our friends and neighbors—largely people who identify with us in terms of race, class, and culture—over a cup of coffee in the basement. We show up expecting to be made comfortable by the familiarity of the experience and the content of the message. We expect any challenge to be of the relatively light, inspirational, and personal variety. We do not expect a challenge to the very social, cultural, or economic systems that our privileges are built upon, because church is not a place we go to discuss things that bother us.
We expect that being involved with church will generally make us feel good.
We especially expect this to be true when we are doing more than simply showing up on Sunday mornings. Helping with Sunday school. Brewing the coffee. Volunteering at the homeless shelter or soup kitchen. We expect that doing these good things will make us feel good.
We expect the same when we participate in foreign missions, whether we are volunteering in the USA to help the mission stay organized and financially viable or spending our own time and money to visit a far-away place. We spent all this time and all this money to come here and be with these people, we think. It should feel good. It should feel fulfilling. It should feel fun. We are doing good, and doing good should feel good, right? We should feel comfortable. It should never involve difficult conversations about privilege or power. Things only feel bad if we are doing something wrong, right?
I was having a very hard time (psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) a few weeks ago. Blanca and I had a long conversation about why I was feeling so bad and what might be done—as my American, privileged, mainline-Protestant mind always thinks—to fix that.
“Katherine,” she said, “Christ has chosen you to suffer with Him for his work. You should feel honored.”
Blanca did not mean to say that I am particularly important, my situation is particularly important, or my personal suffering is particularly important. Quite the opposite. She was pointing me to a truth that many Christians like me who live privileged lives have forgotten: following Christ should not feel good all the time, and if it does, we are probably not actually following Christ.
If what we are doing is really solidarity and not charity, empathy and not empty sympathy, real love and not transitory affection, real relationship and not cursory familiarity, we need to feel the pain that our brothers and sisters here feel because of their systemic poverty and oppression. When something is causing conflict, gets relationally messy, or makes us feel bad, we should not run away from those feelings, from the mission, or from these relationships to seek a more pleasurable experience.
Instead, we should lean into and feel their pain with our whole hearts. We should get stuck up to our noses in their mess—or, when we are truly embracing solidarity—our mess. We should confront the ways in which the world gives us more power, privilege, and opportunity than our Salvadoran brothers and sisters in Christ. We should examine why our Christian relationships expose how we are ultimately vulnerable to and dependent on the Other—both when these relationships are working well and perhaps especially when they are not.
We should be undone by each other. This is the price of love, vulnerability, and connection.
To ignore the pain, the discomfort, the awkwardness, the “bad” feelings that we are taught to avoid at all costs in our own American culture, whether those feelings arise due to challenges to our privilege or the general mess that is living with and trying to care about other people, is to lose an opportunity to draw closer to the heart of Christ, to kneel at the foot of the Cross.
When our sisters and brothers living in extreme poverty and oppression suffer, Christ suffers. When we suffer for Christ’s work to right a world gone wrong, we push ourselves past our customary discomfort with the uncomfortable and find something beyond price: the place where the Cross meets the ground.
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
After all, the Cross is where God and humanity undo one another. We find that place in the messy complexity of grief, suffering, joy, conflict, sadness, anger, grief, happiness, and grace that comes from really knowing and loving the people our mission experiences connect us with. We find that place when we realize that the systems of privilege and power that benefit us and damage others’ lives in the process are the nails that hold the Crucified God and his Crucified People in a suspended state of agony.
We find that place when we stop trying to be comfortable and start trying to be Christians.
Friends, someone bled and suffocated to death for us. If we think that should make us feel comfortable all the time, we’re doing it wrong.
And let’s face it: we’re probably missing something, too.