Jared Witt l March 31, 2018
I’m not wired to be a very religious person.
I say that knowing that not everyone will understand what I mean by it, and the ones who get me right away are likely wired in the same way.
When I first went to seminary in 2008, I was sort of surprised that there were pockets of otherwise normal, healthy people who were really into the whole bit. And whether it be the featureless praise songs or the plodding organ dirges, the Greek tattoo and pompadour haircut or the clergy collar and Great Clips haircut, the professional stage-lighting or the incense burning made no difference to me. This rendered the red-faced debates over "traditional" vs. "contemporary" worship somewhat humorous, seeing as I was what you might call a neutral third party. Without knocking any of it, for me, it all just kind of lumped together as so many different shades of generically religious shtick. I accepted that certain types were just more inclined toward that whole thing than others.
One barrier to entry for me was it all seemed so horribly made up. I couldn’t get over the feeling, “Wait, so you’re telling me some guy just started lighting that candle and this time a while back, and so now we all have to do it?”
I’ve since matured and reconciled with the religious accoutrements that tend to accumulate around any faith tradition like boxes in a hoarder’s basement. I’ve basically realized that, eventually you have to start making stuff up, or there will be nothing to do or say with your devotion to Jesus other than to just sit quietly in a room with other silent devotees hoping that everyone is on the level.
I guess that's why I stuck with the Lutheran tribe. I figure, if we have to do or say something when we come together, then it might as well be the stuff that has been vetted through a few generations. We all know that Leonard Cohen’s music has been around for a while and that Taylor Swift’s won’t be for a reason. So I guess I just like to err on the side of some monk from long ago to have invented the regalia I’m wearing than some guy who found his acid washed jeans on the same shelf at Express where I found mine.
But even still, that doesn't explain why I found myself in school to be a pastor. I tolerated all the religion. But the reason I went to seminary was that I was pissed off about a kid I saw eating a half a rotten cob of corn for his dinner outside Mirebalais, Haiti.
I had sort of known he was there, my whole life. But I didn’t really know. It was different actually seeing him do it. This whole time—as I had been playing tee-ball, and beating my sister at Mario Kart, and riding bikes around the cul-de-sac, and pushing corn around my plate so as not to contaminate the top of my food pyramid—that whole time, this kid had just been there, eating a half a rotten cob of corn and nothing else.
How is everyone not enraged by this 100 percent of the time?
And what I discovered in Jesus was someone who was even more enraged than I was that there are kids eating rotting cobs of corn outside Mirebalais. I knew he was, because he was angry enough to die over it. I obviously am not that angry, because I’m still here writing blogs and not dying.
And that "new atheist" blogger who is always pointing out how hypocritical the church is for not doing enough for that kid (not wrongly, btw)? He's not as angry as Jesus either, because he's here blogging instead of dying too.
But I discovered something else in Jesus as well. He wasn’t just angry for the right reasons. Rage Against the Machine was angry for the right reasons, and I loved them for it, but it wasn’t the same.
Jesus was also joyful for the right reasons. Somewhere in my coming of age, I discovered that there were a hundred Che Guevaras in Jesus’ day, all ready to call their comrades to them, take up arms, and shout “Enough is enough!” They were the “by any means necessary” sorts to use the phrase of Malcolm X.
And if that is what a revolution looks like, then Jesus’ movement looked more like a fiesta than a revolución but no less a weird fiesta than it would be a weird revolution.
Maybe, at first, he invited all the right guests: influencers, and job-creators, and clergymen—the sort you would invite onto any respectable board of directors. But none of them RSVP-ed. And he had already purchased all the drinks and spent all day making the food, so he needed to run out and find some drifters and women of the street to come eat all of it. And it turns out, everyone is more relaxed around the sort who have nothing to prove. So at that point he must’ve just decided that all of his parties and revolutions should be like that. He probably would’ve gotten along with the Russian activist Emma Goldman who said, “If I can’t dance, then I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”
And here was the clincher: this little gathering seemed just weird enough that there might even be a place at the table for me, a privileged, suburban, white kid, who, let’s face it, is more often the reason a revolution is needed in the first place than I am a revolutionary.
(I’ve since learned to get angry at The Man while looking in the mirror.)
This is the weird thing about Christianity. Typically, were I forced to pick a religion, I would think it prudent to pick one based on whether it successfully solves the problems that only a religion can.
All the reasons humans have for ascribing to whatever belief system they do ultimately boil down to this logical structure:
(Antecedent - A) Your world has problems. (Consequent - C) My religion has solved them.
(And understand that, in terms of being hypocritical and impossibly simplistic, this is functionally no different than: (A) Your religion has problems. (C) My humanism has solved them.)
But for me, Christianity, properly understood, is different. We worship a guy who basically failed as a revolutionary and as a religious functionary. And for that reason, he has become folly to the irreligious and a stumbling block to the religious.
And this next part I can’t really explain well, because no one can. All I can say is it’s something that rings truer and truer for me the longer I live with it: by failing, he somehow dignified failures.
Or better yet, all religions promise to turn failures into successes—(A) to (C)—through enlightenment, or through moral training, or through club membership or what have you. And, of course, this kind of religion is so prevalent that a bunch of mistaken Christians have turned their own story into this, more often than not.
But what Jesus does instead is change the meaning of success itself. When God becomes humiliated (this is what we claim), it is humiliation itself that changes.
Once in a while, there is a brilliant non-Christian who, from a distance, can see the big picture of our faith better than we can on the inside. The famous French philosopher Albert Camus was one of them. A non-Christian himself, he had a very complex admiration for Christianity, because, in his words, “The paradoxical greatness of this faith is that it poses the should against the is of this world but yet cannot bring itself to despise the is.”
In other words, the typical religious move is to say, This world is a shithole (A), here’s a religion to make it great again (C).
But this is transparently disingenuous. The speaker who posits this kind of religion never really believed the world was great in the first place and so doesn’t actually believe it can be great again. You can’t do anything for the child eating a half rotten cob of corn outside Mirebalais, if you can’t even stand to look at him without turning away in disgust. Actually, you'll just make it worse.
What’s missing is love.
If you don’t love the shithole, love it desperately, at the core of your being, then whatever you transform it into will just be more shithole.
The thing can only be redeemed if you love it enough to die for it.
And so God does.
And so, all stage-lights and incense aside, I'll take my place gladly at the table but not at the seat of honor. That seat is reserved for Wilky. That’s his name, the boy outside Mirebalais. And he is the guest of honor at this weirdly joyful revolution (or revolutionary joy) where the first are last and the last are first.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.