“We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.”
These words from the final sermon in the movie, Chocolat, resonate deeply with me. Part of the reason why, I guess, is because it seems so inherently logical. One can not define oneself by negativity, by what one is not. For example, if I were trying to define a tree, I would not start by listing all the qualities that a tree doesn’t have; that would be silly! How much easier and more precise is it to define the tree by the qualities which it possesses.
I think that’s one of the many reasons I am bothered when Christians define themselves by what they are not, or by what they don’t do. It’s fine to oppose certain things (I oppose all sorts of things!), but should opposition really be the essence of our being? Shouldn’t there also be something that we do, something that we are?
In her book, The Other Face of God, Mary Jo Leddy offers further insight into the danger of defining ourselves in terms of our enemies instead of in positive terms. Here’s what she says:
It is a sad and simple truth that we become like what we fight against. It is simply true that if we look at an enemy long enough we begin to replicate its patterns within ourselves.
When we spent decades fighting the materialism and lack of freedom in communism, we became more materialistic and less democratic. So too, in fighting terrorism, we become more accustomed to disregarding the innocent, in justifying torture.
This dynamic, in which we become like what we fight against, is also (let us confess) present in groups working for justice and peace. In our struggles against racism, there is a good chance we will become racist. We may struggle against patriarchy and become more dogmatic than the pope. If we are simply against violence, we are likely to replicate patterns of violence within our groups. What a difference to be not only against violence, but also for peace.
So Jesus commanded us then as now to love our enemies. He understood that otherwise we will become like the enemies we struggle against.
Now, I think she paints history with a really broad brush there in the middle, and I for one can not speak to the accuracy of her statements on communism’s impact on our society. However, I can say that I have been appalled by the things that have come out of Christians’ mouths in defense of torture as a legitimate means to fight terrorism. Sometimes I shudder to think of the effect that the terrorist threat has had not only on our safety, but on our nation’s collective soul. In that way, her words ring true to me.
And they remind me that my goal is not just to “fight” brokenness; my goal is also to seek, to embrace, to model wholeness. I am not simply to stand against child abuse and neglect in “our” neighborhood; I am also to love the children in our church and at Y.E.S. My job is to make them feel like the cherished, special, remarkable people that they are. I can’t just be against child slavery; I should also be for more education and resources to vulnerable areas of the globe.
This line of thinking helps me because darkness easily overwhelms me. The other day, I made the mistake of reading a depiction of some of the horrors that go on in Uganda. Naturally, the idea of a child being forced to kill his mother with a hammer threw me into a pit of despair. What helped me recover functionality was not to fixate on how much I hated that that happened. Instead, what helped me stop hyperventilating was to click over to Amazima’s website and read about the positivity and light and love that was flowing from that organization into Uganda.
God knows I have seen some darkness in ministering to teens. There were times in college that I would leave Y.E.S. and have to pull over before I got home just to cry at the heartbreaking things I heard from those kids. I will never forget some of their stories. However, if I fixated on the hate and ugliness and despair that I heard in their stories, I know I would have become hateful and ugly and despairing. Instead, I had to focus on the positive. I had to keep my eyes on God and on His will for these kids.
One more little sidenote to these thoughts: Part of the problem of spending all my time “fighting darkness” is because usually I try to do so by externalizing it, by putting it into the “them” category of “us and them.” In the meantime, I ignore the obvious truth that my own heart is full of darkness. The title to this post is from a Derek Webb song that illustrates that truth quite well:
“Nothing unifies like a common enemy
And we’ve got one sure as hell
He may be living in your house
He may be raising up your kids
He may be sleeping with your wife
Oh he may not look like you think”
Change the gender of the speaker, and you get a picture that is closer to the truth than the idea of “darkness” being “out there.” So ultimately, I can’t fight darkness without destroying myself. Instead, I have to seek, and to be, light. That’s how you take a stand against darkness.
At least, that’s my current theory.
What’s your theory?
Leddy, Mary Jo. The Other Face of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011. 92.