Monday, April 6, 2015

Fickle Religion

I'm rather fickle when it comes to my spiritual life. On the one hand, I find myself asking, "Isn't there more I can be doing? People are dying of preventable disease and even more preventable starvation. More children are being enslaved and trafficked every day. Can't I do more???"

On the other hand, I also constantly ask God, "What more can I do? I'm so busy I hardly have time for life. I can't fit anything else in. I'm doing everything I can. Can I have a break? Can someone please step in and help?"

That, in turn, makes me feel guilty. Who can ask for a break when people are being murdered for their beliefs, their location on the globe, or their gender expression?

These two ideas war for control over my life: justice and rest. I believe all people have the right to rest: getting a break from hard labor and enjoying its fruits. That belief inspires me to work hard in the cause of justice. Consequently, I rarely take a break.

I'll take a break when everyone has equal rights and accessibility to enjoying their lives, I used to say. Which is ironic, because I wasn't enjoying my life: I was working myself into the ground. At some point I had to ask myself: what am I pursuing justice to?

Am I seeking freedom for modern slaves so that they can enslave themselves to the process of justice instead? Will I work hard to free trafficked individuals, giving them access to counseling and education and a home and a job, in order to rehabilitate them into sacrificing everything, working all day every day to set others free? Isn't that another form of slavery?

Or do we rescue and restore individuals so that they can be and do whatever they desire? They can work at Disneyland. They can become extremist treehuggers who never shower and live in yurts. They can spend every weekend on a beach doing nothing. They can spend their lives in isolation making digital art. They can take a year to hike the Appalachian Trail.

They can pursue any of these "lesser callings"* without feeling guilty that they're not in the trenches, working for IJM, on an FBI task force, a counselor, or some other profession that directly provides for the freedom of others.

They're enjoying themselves, and that is the point of freedom.

This extends to other human rights issues too. If you work so hard for marriage equality that you're not spending time with your spouse and enjoying your own marriage, what's the point? No fight should kill the very thing it's trying to save.

We have so many comicbook superheros who valiantly sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of others. Arrow's Oliver Queen repeatedly swears off romance because he doesn't have time for that: his life is about saving the city so that other people can enjoy all that mushy-gushy real-life stuff. It appears so self-sacrificial and beautiful.

It's total crap. It idolizes self-denial in a way that would make the Puritans proud. This is the Christianization of Western culture. Various Christian sects spent so long telling us that love, sex, food, and anything else you enjoy is bad that we have begun to believe them. We believe that self-denial is selflessness.

But while self-denial can play a part, true selflessness is learning how to live for others without nullifying the dignity of anyone--including yourself. You, too, are a creature of the divine, and your body, your emotions, your tastebuds, your favorite pastimes--all of these things are created in you for a reason. Not simply to sacrifice them, but to learn how to attune them correctly.

Consider: Jesus didn't make a list of foods we aren't supposed to eat. Instead, he said all foods were now holy. We aren't to deny good things, but rather give thanks and enjoy them.

If people are going to be set free, whether from sex trafficking or sexual discrimination, it needs to be into a life that is better than the one they had before. Trading an unjust machine for a "just" machine solves no problems. Treating people as humans--giving them their rights and dignity--involves actually doing so.

And doing so for myself too.

I want to devote my life to justice, but I also want to have a life. Why can't those goals collide? For instance, I create art. Some of that art contributes directly to the cause of justice, but the rest of my art still contributes to the cause simply by being good art. Art makes the world more beautiful and livable. Thus my creative output contributes to making the free world something worth living in.

My rest days, weekends, and vacations contribute to justice in the same way. By granting myself the grace to take time off, I'm laying down a precedent that says in the free world we don't utterly destroy ourselves by working too hard.

This won't make sense to some of you. Some people struggle with laziness and need the exact opposite pep talk from this. But I struggle with overworking. The question of whether taking a break is morally responsible or not is one I struggle with often.

The tension between justice and rest is precisely what Easter is about. It's about seeking justice for those who don't have it, but also about appreciating what we have.

Easter is about God's kingdom coming, which gives us a twofold directive. First, fight for justice because all human beings are worthy to God. Second, know that justice isn't dependent on your actions, but on God's. Understand that justice in many forms already exists in the world. Make the most of your freedom and give thanks for it.

Word count: 962.

* I don't believe there's such a thing as higher or lesser callings. Whatever you do with your life is good and worthwhile. Anything can advance the cause of justice and goodness. Anything can help us better look to the rights of others. You don't have to be a pastor or a politician to wield power for real change.