It’s painful to face and hard to admit: by the time I was a young adult, fear and shame had formed a dark and dank swamp in my heart. The swamp was fed by slowly-moving streams of culture, family, and folk-religion, streams which carried commands, words, stories, and examples which had been washed away from their healthier habitats, rotted in the warm water, and churned into a deadly stew.
The result was a bayou of confusion, a quagmire of contradictory messages: You’re not enough, and you’ll never do enough. Work hard to prove you deserve to occupy space on the earth. You’re too much; back-off and throttle-down. Succeed, but don’t get “too big for your britches.” Go far in life, but don’t get “above your raising.” Be strong, not weak; be independent, not needy; and be self-reliant, not vulnerable. In those moments when you feel like you can’t go on and can’t do anymore—when you feel like what life demands exceeds what life gives, hide what you feel. Remember that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Adding to the confusion were the oddly mixed signals of what it meant to be “a man” in the 1970s (I graduated from high school in 1975 and from college in 1978, the same year Anita and I married). Raised, as I was, in the south with deep Appalachian roots, and nurtured by pentecostal and baptist christians, my images of what it meant to be a “man” came from football and Sunday School, the Green Berets and missionaries, James Bond and Captain Kangaroo, the Allman Brothers and Royal Ambassadors (“baptist boy scouts”), Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns and Jesus on his way to the cross.
The Atlanta of my boyhood swirled with stories about the ax-handle wielding segregationist governor Lester Maddox and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Even as a child, it bewildered me that I knew more Christians who supported Maddox than King.
At church, I learned that Jesus loves all the little children of the world, but I went eagerly to “Funtown,” an amusement park that I hadn’t noticed didn’t admit black children and their parents. When I realized, as a teenager, what Funtown had been, I was ashamed of how much I had enjoyed a place some of my friends could never have gone.
Though no one said these things directly, here’s what I heard: Being a man means you defend “our way of life”; and, since you are a white male who is entering the middle class, it also means you enjoy the privileges of it. Never mind that “our way of life” includes racism, sexism, and violence; we paper-over those things with superficial good manners and occasional acts of charity. Maybe you can find a token friend of another race to make you feel like you’re not really—not you, not personally—a racist. And, maybe you can privately say you support the full equality of women, even in the church; it will make you feel better if you do. Keep in mind, though, the “church isn’t ready for that yet.”
What this notion of being a man meant for my faith was: Confess your sins and accept Jesus into your heart as personal Savior, because we all need forgiveness and we all fear death and don’t want to go to hell. Do your best to keep your heart clean and clear, be kind, help people but don’t ask for help, go to church, give your money, support missionaries who work with people most of us don’t understand, and witness to other people so that they can have their sins forgiven and not go to hell. Then hold on, and help others hold on, until we all get to heaven.
What it also meant, I came to realize, is that this way of being a man and of being a Christian obscured the fuller and deeper questions of what it means to be human (which, for me, has come to mean being shaped and reshaped by the spirit, words, and deeds of Jesus and by the give and take of life in community with others of his followers).
The swamp-ways had gotten it wrong: to be human is to acknowledge the truths that, ironically, the gospel songs of the church voiced but which “men” could only admit as they sang: “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” Jesus shows us how weakness is strength, vulnerability is the doorway for grace, wounds are openings to wonder, and tenderness is real power.
And, the way of Jesus will not leave any unjust status quo in place. His way is not about quiet adjustment to how things are in all their brokenness; it is about mercy which mends brokenness and about justice which brings an end to the breaking. Jesus embodies God’s determination to make all things new: to transform us into the people we are meant to be, the people we dream of being, and to foment a revolution of love which heals every torn thing and all wounded people, so that all live in peace and joy.
We hear a lot about “draining the swamp” these days. I can’t do much about the one in D.C. I’m grateful that grace is draining the one in my soul.