I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks ruminating on faith, given both a string of personal tragedies this year, and that we seem to be collectively blazing through the ten Plagues of Egypt and will probably hit the Book of Revelation by October. Given my upbringing, a lot of this centers on the ministry of Jesus Christ; more specifically, on his love of using parables.
Can’t say that I blame him. Ya boy does loves a good metaphor.
And for the most part, even if the details are less effective than they were two thousand years ago, the lessons in Jesus’ parables hold up, and can be particularly prescient for the definitely-not-at-all troubled times we’re living in.
The wise and foolish bridesmaids? If you stay ready, you won’t have to get ready. The Good Samaritan? The righteous countrymen who you expect to help you most are just as likely to ignore your suffering, and the foreigners you expect to leave you in the dirt just might be the ones who would break their backs to save you. The rich man and Lazarus? People who won’t listen to mundane warnings all around them aren’t worth wasting more dramatic ones on. The sheep and the goats, which I always lowkey found a little unfair because goats are just as adorable as sheep? The way you treat the most vulnerable people speaks much more about your character than how you treat the strongest and greatest. And so on.
That Jesus, man, he was good.
The only parable I never really liked was probably the most famous of them all, and a particularly poignant one after this Father’s Day weekend: the Prodigal Son. Even if you’re not a religious person, you definitely know this one, if only because how much that story has utterly eviscerated the actual definition of the word “prodigal” in people’s minds.
But for the uninitiated, a reading from the Gospel according to Mick:
A rich man had two sons, the younger of whom asks him for his share of his inheritance upfront rather than waiting for his father to die. The man grants the request, and the younger brother immediately takes off and blows it all during an extended bender. A famine descends on the land, he falls on hard times, and gets a dead-end job as a swineherd. The brother hits rock bottom when he realizes the pigs are better fed than he is, and he decides to go home and throw himself at his dad’s mercy; not as his son, but as his servant. The second he sees his boy coming home in the distance, the dad has none of it, and the younger brother can barely get his apology out of his mouth before his father sweeps him up in an embrace and throws him a massive party in celebration of his metaphorical resurrection.
Hearing about the party, the older brother is apoplectic upon hearing that his baby brother is being thrown a homecoming party, and refuses to participate. When his father personally entreats with him to come, the older brother lights into him, saying that he’s barely put a toe out of line and never been rewarded, but the second the family screw-up comes back, everything gets dropped to celebrate him. The father gently reminds his elder son that he loves him, appreciates him, and all that he owns will be passed down in time. But for all they knew, his brother might have been dead, and has returned to them. However angry he might be, that’s cause for celebration, and so, they must celebrate.
The parable ends there. And it’s unclear whether the older brother ever joins in on the festivities, or forgives his little brother, either out loud or in his heart.
I’m still not sure what ending I’d prefer.
Because it’s very clear, especially when paired with other parables (pair-ables?) like the stories of the lost sheep or the lost coin, what Jesus is trying to get across. As natural as the gravitation in his direction is for some, the older brother is not who you’re supposed to be. None of us, no matter good we think we are or might actually be, are immune from being like the younger brother at some point, so as much as it might kill us, we have to try to be the father whenever we can. As God and His son would forgive us, so too are we to forgive each other. Even if an apology is long in coming, even if it never comes, to truly follow in Christ’s footsteps means to be willing to forgive, no matter how justifiably angry you might be.
The problem with that is that it’s really, really, really hard. It’s probably the hardest part of the faith, alongside the bits with turning the other cheek to those who strike you and loving those who hate you. It definitely was when I still actively adhered to it — Latin Masses notwithstanding, of course. And if you’re someone who, by the myriad details of your own birthright, finds yourself being held to a higher standard for your own behavior as a child and eventually internalizing that inequity as an adult, marshaling a modicum of forgiveness for those incapable of meeting their own comparatively low standards is often nigh-impossible to come by.
And yet, for those who would call themselves Christians, in the past, present, or future, aspiring to extend such forgiveness remains the calling.
Going to change tacks for a minute. That’ll all be relevant in a minute, promise.
For now, do you know the story of Patrick Hutchinson?
He’s a black personal trainer who was attending a Black Lives Matter protest in London about a week ago, his first. Hutchinson saw a white counter-protester named Bryn Male get separated from his fellow “protectors of British heritage,” surrounded, and tuned up. Without hesitation, Hutchinson swooped Male over his shoulder and carried him to safety, resulting in what outlet after outlet have since praised as a “powerful” photo — although for my money, the most powerful part is the sight of Hutchinson’s biceps.
Dude is jacked.
Hutchinson’s heroism was widely hailed as a selfless act in the international press, even though it wasn’t entirely selfless. Which, to be clear, is not at all a knock on his character; by his own admission, Hutchinson had no way of knowing Male’s true intentions, and was largely driven to simply help someone he saw in trouble.
But he also had the prescience to know that if he didn’t act, and Male had been seriously injured or killed, then the narrative of the day wouldn’t have been about the protesters, the cause they were fighting for, or the far-right douchenozzles who escalated the proceedings into the violence that put Male in harm’s way to begin with. It would have been that young black protesters killed a white man, and by this point, we all know whose deaths really matter in the course of historical narratives. Ultimately, Hutchinson did what he did as much for its own moral merits as it was to pragmatically construct a positive narrative out of what he knew could just as easily have become a negative one.
Maybe you didn’t see that story. No worries, there’s a lot going on. Have you heard about Daryl Davis?
If you haven’t, congratulations on never having gone to Reddit and seeing his picture resurface every three months like clockwork alongside frenzied conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s death.
Please don’t start now.
Anyway, Davis is a black blues musician and actor who, in his spare time and with a degree of borderline-suicidal self-confidence that I can only hope to aspire to, has been on a personal mission to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan — one person at a time, just by befriending individual members. By his estimation, he’s managed to convince 200 hundred Klansmen to walk away in the past thirty years, with no indication of slowing or stopping.
And if you have discovered Davis through Reddit as opposed to his TED talks, books or the many profiles and documentaries written about his lonely battle, then 1.) I’m sorry and 2.) you’ll know that for a lot of nonblack people, Davis is the epitome of what the modern civil rights crusader should aspire to, someone from whom all of those pesky SJWs and BLMers and other Three-Letter-Acronym members could learn a great deal. That if they would only commit to befriending people who’ve gone to such lengths to deny their humanity, the flames of racism would’ve been extinguished long ago.
Maybe you haven’t heard of Daryl Davis, either. Cool.
You almost definitely have heard of Dylann Roof, right? The little neo-Nazi who entered a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and after praying with the parishioners, murdered nine black people people in cold blood? The one that law enforcement was somehow able to take alive, despite incredibly recent evidence of the very real danger he posed?
What a world.
You probably also remember the reaction of much Charleston’s black community including many of the victims’ families, who told Roof that they forgave him in an act of grace that would put saints to shame, and the widespread adulation they received for having done so.
You might be picking up on a bit of a theme here.
As the resurgent focus on America’s disdain for black lives in the past two months has shifted from Breonna to Sean to George, there’s been a truly bewildering sense of mass optimism that somehow, this time will be different. That their deaths will matter to America at large in a way that, in the long-run, Sandra’s and Alton’s and Philando’s and Korryn’s and Tamir’s and Rekia’s and Harith’s and Laquan’s and Mike’s and Eric’s and Trayvon’s and so many others before never did. It’s an optimism that can be felt in the cautious softening of justified pessimists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the geyser of hashtags and black squares from people who had been pointedly silent on the matter up to this point, and in the hysterically tone-deaf responses from more entrenched power structures, like sports teams offering up token Juneteenth celebrations on social media, Democratic lawmakers kneeling in kente stoles, and a sudden mass recognizance that yes, the Confederacy actually lost the Civil War.
This is the part where I’d put in a joke about how these are all band-aids over a gaping wound, except Band-Aid themselves went ahead and ruined it.
And in every tweet and every fundraiser and every post and every march and every message from a nonblack friend checking up on my rapidly-deteriorating state of mind (the overwhelming majority of whom have been women; make what you will of that), that swelling optimism has put up an increasingly stronger fight against my innate cynicism.
It hasn’t won. Because all of this is too familiar, and I remember how it ended the last time. And the time before that. And the time before that.
When the protests first exploded across the country, there was a common rejoinder to the mass pearl-clutching at the vandalism, looting, and destruction of property: that if black people built the country, they got to tear it down. Like all pithy social-media comebacks, the snappiness obscured what was, to me, a more important truth.
Because yes, while black pain and suffering and ingenuity and tenacity and courage and sacrifice is in no small part of what both literally and metaphorically built this country, what has maintained it is black hope. If black folks, after everything, can still be hopeful, then so can everyone else.
Whenever salt gets rubbed into America’s racial wounds, a lot of emotions gets stirred up, and no matter how painful, you get used to feeling most of them. You get used to hatred. To fear. To anger. To sadness. To rage, to mistrust, to helplessness, to timidity, to disgust, and in the inevitable end, to apathy.
But you never get used to hope.
In the end, it is the hope that hurts the most.
In the end, it is the hope that kills you.
Hope that the Dream will stop being deferred.
Hope that in the end, it does indeed get better.
Hope that for all its rigging, if you play the rules, the game can still be won.
Hope that someday, and soon, a change is gonna come.
A hope that if you go to bed at night, you won’t be murdered in your sleep. A hope that if you exercise any of your constitutional rights, you won’t be shot for doing so. A hope that if you repeatedly beg for your life as the air is slowly crushed from your body, the person killing you will stop.
And by dangling that hope, the world wants to us to constantly forgive.
There are many perspectives on the merits of forgiveness, and I don’t know that any is truer than the others. But from the perspective of a former Good Christian Boy™, forgiveness I feel, is fundamentally rooted in hope. That in extending it, the harm caused can be healed, that amends can be made and redresses can be paid, that hardened hearts can be softened. That love truly trumps hate, that light truly drives out darkness. That in the end, forgiveness makes the world a better place.
And so, the world wants us to be Patrick Hutchinson, forgiving far-right protesters and risking our safety to protect those who we could be reasonably sure would never do the same us, all in the midst of protesting the fact that those sworn to do so often pose the biggest threat to our safety.
The world wants us to be Daryl Davis, forgiving people so committed to their antiblackness that they’re willing to dress up like pointy-headed ghosts to demonstrate their allegiance to the Klan and personally put ourselves at risk to bring them back to the light.
The world wants us to be the black survivors of Charleston, to have stared into the bowl-cut face of unrepentant evil, and to extend our last ounce of forgiveness for the fate of what remains of its soul.
No matter how prodigal it may be at our expense, the world wants us to always be the father; to bear every insult and abuse and always extend a kind word and loving hand in return. To forgive, and so to hope.
We are not allowed to be the older brother. We are not allowed to be angry, to be resentful, to ever center our own safety or pain. Forgiveness is not a calling above and beyond our humanity; it is an obligation to be afforded any of it.
It’s why the end of slavery is cast as a universally agreed-upon moral sin ended by the beneficence of the powers that had been, and not the end result of generations of the oppressed struggling to make it happen, why the civil rights movement of the 1960’s has to be the tale of perpetual nonviolence with nary an inkling of societal upheaval or civil disobedience to be seen, why the rage so thoroughly embraced and embodied by the current chief executive had to be so tempered in his predecessor. It’s why the echoes of Jim Crow and segregation and redlining and lynching have to be tuned out and relegated to an exponentially-more distant past, why even the thought of reparations must be dismissed as the pipe dream of hysterical rabble-rousers, why the notion of continuing to demand justice after the “bad apples” have been arrested already is so perplexing.
Anything more than quiet acceptance and acquiescence, or milquetoast demonstrations within the bounds of respectability that don’t make the mistake of promoting the well-being of a nation’s people over the flag ostensibly meant to represent them, and suddenly protesters become agitators. Looters. Vandals. Uppity and ungrateful. Domestic terrorists. Enemies to be mown down in the streets and shown no quarter.
In short, the world wants us to be superhuman, in a way far more damaging than any neo-phrenologist musings about innate physical prowess, pain thresholds, and fast-twitch muscle fibers could ever be. Anything less, and we go from super- to subhuman in the blink of an eye.
In so doing, I’m reminded of my old not-really-a-joke that the surest sign that superpowers don’t exist is that we have yet to see a black Magneto.
And in so doing, I’m reminded of Kimberly Jones’ furious admonition that it is very lucky that black people are seeking equality, and not vengeance.
A woman I went to college with once described herself in a poem as “Christian, but not quite Christlike.” Her words have haunted me for years, both for the subtle distinction between two facially identical labels, and for the quiet introspection they revealed about her thoughts on who she was and who she was trying to become. And in the decade since I first heard them, that distinction has come to encapsulate much of how I approach matters of morality, even and especially as my own became increasingly untethered to Christian doctrine.
That being an objectively good person didn’t mean that you had to be either a Christian or Christlike. That indeed, many Christlike people would never be Christians. And that being a Christian may not necessarily demand that you be Christlike, but that you at least had to honestly try.
With those words in mind, I have tried very hard in recent years to keep an airtight clamp on my snap judgments of the standards by which other people conduct themselves; the fact that I didn’t when I was younger remains one of my fresher embarrassments in growing up.
I have tried very hard to remember that in a world where there is no issue that cannot be seized and refashioned into a political football, much of what has come to be codified as fundamentally oppositional to left-leaning orthodoxy is intrinsically tied to people’s faith.
And even in a country where Christian faith has been repeatedly used to justify the worst of atrocities, I have to keep trying, very hard, to remember that for some people, the seemingly oppositional elements of that faith isn’t born from malice shrouded in faux-piety, but genuine belief — much as mine were when I was a believer.
This effort has bled into my writing. Even at my angriest and most profane, I try to pick my words as carefully as I can and keep some degree of measure in them — especially as, with Pride Month winding to a close, I’m far too acutely aware of my many shortcomings to regularly dictate to anyone How to Be a Good Person or What Makes You a Bad One, especially insofar as it might entangle with their faith.
That… is not going to apply to what follows.
Because as we have so many times before, we’ve reached the point after a black person gets murdered that we find out they, in Rudy Giuliani’s ghoulish parlance, were no altar boy. That George Floyd had an extensive criminal record, that Eric Garner was selling loosies, that Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun, that Mike Brown robbed a store, that Trayvon Martin smoked weed. Let’s ignore, for a moment, that none of this saved Breonna Taylor or Sandra Bland. And though the people bringing this up are often quick to offer up the disclaimer that, of course, they’re not saying that they deserved to die, it’s the kind of pussyfooted facade that suggests that it isn’t really all that bad that they did, and that all the hullabaloo from these protesters is rather overblown. And so often, these are people who proudly proclaim themselves to be Christians.
So here we go.
If you believe that a black person’s criminal history either justifies or lessens the horror of an extrajudicial execution, if you cannot personally extend the forgiveness that the country continuously demands of black America en masse to a single slain black person in return for sins that never affected you, and if while doing so, you have audacity to call yourself a follower of Christ — hear me, and hear me well.
You are an awful fucking person, and a worse fucking Christian.
Even now, there’s a part of me wincing at how venomous those words are. But so be it.
If you cannot extend the baseline degree of forgiveness that Christ calls for to someone begging for their life because they had a criminal record, and still claim to be following in his steps, you are an awful fucking person, and a worse fucking Christian.
And while I probably won’t know until it’s too late if there’s an afterlife, and it’s probably even money on what direction I’m going if there is, know this: I’d rather spend an eternity being tormented among the knowingly wicked than keep living life among the pretentiously self-righteous without having publicly said so at least once.
And any heaven that would accept your kind like is a hell all its own.
Because part of the fun of being baptized Catholic, confirmed Methodist, living in a de facto Christian nation that’s increasingly at risk of becoming a de jure Christian nation, and being part of a Haitian family where you can identify both the known and suspected non-Christian members on half of one hand, is that you will never forget the teachings.
And part of the fun of being neither Christian nor Christlike is that you get really good at identifying people who use the former to pretend that they’re anywhere close to the latter.
You remember that on the cross, Jesus not only forgave a fellow condemned man and guaranteed him a place in paradise, but also begged his father to forgive the very people putting him to death.
You remember that he constantly ate with and catered to sinners, and gave the metaphorical middle finger to those who would try to shame him for that.
You remember that Peter was able to overcome the dishonor of his denial of Christ not once, not twice, but three times to still become the metaphorical rock upon which the Church was built.
You remember that one of the most prolific apostles of the faith, Paul, started his career relentlessly persecuting Christians before pulling one of the most consequential heel-face turns in history.
You remember Christ’s admonishing of those who erroneously thought themselves without sin having the audacity to cast the first stone.
And, because you live in America, you remember all too well how every time a chronically mendacious and consistently cruel serial adulterer offers up some new obscene transgression, his thralls are lightning-quick to invoke the name of King David, a decidedly imperfect man who God still used to do great things.
These aren’t side stories, apocrypha, or footnotes that you’d need to be a pastor or seminarian to know. It’s not an esoteric question of who begat whom, who then begat whom, or the chronological order of the Kings of Israel, or the number of Psalms, or how to pronounce Jehoshaphat or Nebuchadnezzar. This is VeggieTales-tier Christianity. These are the foundations that the faith is grounded in, the lessons that a child would know, because I was a child when I first learned them.
Again — falling short of these standards of doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad Christian.
But situationally pretending that they don’t matter, just so you can disclaim your discomfort over confronting the darkest aspects of American life, makes you fucking terrible at both, and an utter fucking embarrassment to everyone in the history of the world who has ever looked to Jesus’ life and teachings as a model to emulate, however close they managed to get. In the tale of the Prodigal Son, you’re not the father, or either of the brothers. You’re the fucking pigs. In the annals of facially godly American icons, you’re not Rev. King. You’re Jerry fucking Falwell. And to badly paraphrase the work of a better writer, you’re even more full of shit than he was.
And if you’re one of those people, I’d like to leave you with a reading from Matthew 6:5 — a verse I’ve found as effective at helping you identify moral charlatans as it is ineffective at convincing your mother that you shouldn’t have to lead the family prayer before dinner.
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”
Or, as it would be recounted in the Gospel according to Mick:
“Either shut the fuck up, or go the fuck away.”