Last Sunday night, I started flipping through stations after the adrenaline finally crashed, post-preaching…when I stumbled onto The Walking Dead. I long ago swore off of the show. Like all good post-apocalyptic fiction, The Walking Dead at it’s best is not about zombies, but about what it means to be human. I agree with the show’s premise, that the real terror is not in the things we are ostensibly most afraid of, but what the things we are afraid of can turn us into. Perhaps precisely because I have lived long enough to cause real hurt and experience real hurting though, I lost my appetite for the show. The graphic violence, not just to the undead but to the humans, became too much for me. I know enough about trauma now not to need it simulated.
But I couldn’t look away from what I saw. The small band of survivors at the heart of The Dead’s narrative were in a circle, where the new villain, brandishing a barb-wire baseball bat, was monologuing threats to kill one of them to make an example. The conceit is that he actually ends up killing not one but two characters, including the most beloved, altogether “good” character in the seven year run of the show. Not only does he kill them—but he kills them slow and relentless, the camera unblinking as he grinds them into meat. THWACK. THWACK. THWACK. The show’s lone guileless character, the familiar and comforting face, disfigured and crushed. It was horrifying. I was mad at myself for not changing the station. It took me hours to go to sleep. I felt like I couldn’t wash the awful images out of my hair. For me at least, it was not entertainment, but emotional torture. It unnerved me to watch something like it on prime-time cable television, the kind of thing that makes you feel less good about the world the next morning.
The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was precisely the same one I had deep in my belly in the days that followed after the publication of this interview with my friend, Jen Hatmaker. In a violent world where I do in fact have moments where I feel surrounded by mindless zombies, Jen is one of those people who over and over models grace, radiates goodness, emanates peace. As a writer and speaker, devoted mom and friend, she is everything offstage you’d want her to be—deeply kind, gracious, an enormous heart for God and for people. Her witness for the peaceable kingdom of Jesus has been clear and consistent. Jen brings grace into every room she walks into large, or small.
The backlash to her remarks in support of the LGBTQ community was swift and furious. I was not surprised there was heat—the issues Jen talked about in the interview are among the most sensitive in Church and culture. What I was not prepared for was the sick splat of THWACK THWACK THWACK. A serious disciple of Jesus known to bring so much light and love to the body of Christ and to the world, not just disagreed with but mocked and marred, a public image forged from years of loving real people in the trenches, disfigured beyond recognition. We are often ambiguous in the North American Church as to what we believe about the body and blood of Jesus, but quite certain of our appetite for cannibalizing our brothers and sisters. The Church too often mirrors the brutal dehumanization of our culture’s politics and pornography, rather than exist as a protest movement against it.
It is more sickening than a TV show. Part of why we love our screens is because they give us power to dehumanize an other, to reduce woman and man to parts, son and daughter to mush, like the scene in The Walking Dead. A couple of days before that, I was sitting across the table with Jen and Brandon and a few other friends after a night of the Belong tour in St. Paul, MN, sharing much life and laughter. That was the last time I saw Jen’s face, before the unrecognizable version that kept popping up in my social media feed. And once again, the next morning the world felt much darker for it. It is the depravity of this Roman circus we call an election infecting Christ’s Church. I am over it—the sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing, carnivores who do it in the name of Jesus.
I understand that sexuality matters, and that the weight of how to work out these most sensitive issues of human existence in a way that is faithful to Scripture, Christian tradition and the experience of the Spirit within the Church is difficult to parse. I know that for many of my brothers and sisters, they sincerely believe they are at war for the truth and for people’s souls over these issues. I am in deep relationships with people for whom I love on all sides of these conversations. Like the Christians I just referenced, I too believe these are high stakes times, that there is a battle with cosmic implications of which we are a part.
That battle, however, is not between conservatives and liberals, but with principalities and powers—forces of wickedness in high places. It is the struggle between God in Christ who is the advocate, and Satan who is the accuser. Creedal faith, the faith of the apostles, gives us both a lot of room to disagree, and parameters. It is possible to be an orthodox Christian and to have severe, serious disagreements about weighty social and theological issues. It is okay to have robust arguments. But the degrading, dehumanizing rhetorical bludgeoning has its basis in the spirit of the age, not the Spirit of Christ.
The global Church, like the early Church in Acts 15, is in a volatile time of upheaval, change, and challenge. Like those believers, we have inspired texts, the witness of the Spirit, and the testimony of the saints to guide our discernment. We do not have a spirit of slavery again to fear, but the Spirit who casts out fear, the Spirit by whom we say “Abba, Father.” The questions with which we are wrestling are important questions, but I am convinced they are not the ultimate questions. Sexuality matters, justice matters, the role of Christian tradition matters. But the particular questions are not as weighed as the larger, overarching one: What do we believe God is like? What is the character of God? If we are called to be ambassadors of the kingdom, what does the heart of this king look like?
I am committed to wrestle with the particulars in ways that are hopefully faithful. I am in the late night conversations. I am not a spectator but a participant in the nitty gritty of work of being the Church. I need the wisdom of the Spirit, the resources of Christian tradition, the experience of brothers and sisters who are “other” than me. I do not claim to have all the answers. I am an open failure, on the road like anyone else. I am committed to remaining at the table with people whose convictions are deeply different than mine, because I believe that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more powerful than any ideas that divide us.
What I know for sure is that the heart of this God is love and mercy. What I do know are the fruit of the Spirit. What I do know is that I see them in abundance in the life of Jen Hatmaker, publicly and privately. I see a lot of sincere people standing up for Jesus, believing themselves to be standing for the truth. Jesus, however, is not in need of anyone’s defense—He’s already risen from the dead. I see Jen’s consistent witness of standing with Jesus at the margins. If you disagree with her conclusions, I cannot imagine how you can disagree with the heart of cross-shaped love which clearly animates her. Because she is humble and operates in the Spirit of Christ, I know that no matter the THWACK THWACK THWACK, she will get up tomorrow and work to bring grace to bear in the morning all over again.
These are contentious times, the days past civility. I will be glad for them to be over. I have considerable ambiguity about this election. I am unambiguous about my friend Jen Hatmaker: I’m with her.