The Second Vow

January 8, 2005

Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon him alone for salvation as he is offered in the gospel?

This is the toughest one, I think. Tough to get beyond the Xian lingo and understand what it’s really saying, on the ground level, where we actually live. To do that, I think you have to both burrow underneath it and climb over it altogether.

I don’t do a very good job of believing in Jesus. I do a much better job of believing in, say, Malcolm X.

I think I first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X while I was living in Boston. I was working at a business that duplicated huge sets of legal documents, depositions and so forth. There was a sales department, and a handful of managers, but I worked “on the floor,” actually standing at a copy machine for hours at a time. Most of the people who worked on the floor were black.

Keep in mind, I had spent four years on a college campus full of people who prided themselves on their sensitivity to issues of prejudice, including racism. Conflict over issues like the lack of African-American faculty escalated. One rogue activist firebombed the president’s office. Another group of students went on a hunger strike. In spite of abundant opportunities to learn, I was clueless about race when I left school. That partly demonstrates how dense I could be, but it also says something about what happens when you have a lot of highly politicized talk going back and forth between a lot of twenty-year olds, all of them privileged enough (one way or another) to attend a good school. It doesn’t matter how agitated or inflammatory the talk, because beneath the talk very little is at stake.

On the floor at the copy shop, I was a middle-class college-educated white boy, visible at last in a context that threw those markers into sharp relief. For the first time, I met people who were bitter, who were underpaid, who didn’t give a shit about me because I belonged to a different world. It came sharply to my attention that something was at stake. I didn’t want to be stuck forever on the other side of this great divide; I thought there must be a way to bridge it for the well-meaning, diligent white soul. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I read books.

Of course I picked up Malcolm’s book to learn about race, but what galvanized me was his pilgrim’s progress – the way his religious convictions changed over his short life. His conversion in prison was extraordinary enough – but that he should have to reevaluate his beliefs about Elijah Muhammad and then basically reconstruct his Islamic faith on a new foundation – amazing.

One of my favorite essays is by Alisdair MacIntyre, and it’s about the dramatic narratives we construct out of the raw materials of our lives. Every now and then it becomes necessary to tell a new story, and what makes this an amazing achievement is that the new story has to make sense of why the old story worked for us – it has to reinterpret the old world in terms that free us from the old perspective. It is here, I think, that Malcolm X was most heroic. Here we see a man who made an international reputation for himself for, in part, scathing rhetoric condemning the white majority in America for its sins. Then he went to Mecca, and had an insight that more fully radicalized his politics – he could acknowledge, in direct contradiction to what he had believed and taught as a minister of Elijah Muhammad, that whites and blacks were equally precious in the eyes of God.

So I was impressed right away. But it wasn’t until I went to Washington D.C. to be part of a youth corps doing community service, and was trying to pull away from Xianity, that I began to believe in him. I remember seeing a documentary about his life, called Malcolm X: Make it Plain. There was a clip from an news broadcast, where the reporter asked him, “Do you consider yourself militant?” and he said, with a little laugh, “I consider myself Malcolm.” That one little image was like a grenade that rattled around in my head for a while before going off.

Here’s what I mean by believing in Malcolm X. Were it possible, I would have gladly taken that shotgun blast in his stead. I believe that, had he lived, he could have achieved miraculous things. I would have crossed any distance and endured any trial to earn his respect. To receive a smile from him would have warmed me for years afterwards. He was a good man. He was a brave man. He was smart, funny, and angry with a righteous fury. He was always willing to learn and endured change with grace. He was living proof that human beings are not always doomed to compromise, to corruption, to despair. I believe, irrationally but deeply, that he had authority to cleanse me of all racism, to forgive me for all my complicity in oppression.

Of course, to believe in Malcolm in this way is to do him a disservice. I should let go of this myth. To pretend that the myth is nothing more than wishful thinking, however, is to do myself a disservice. There’s something pathetic about the person who cries out for a hero, but there’s something glorious about that person too – that man or woman who, strangely enough, in the midst of a crummy world full of crummy people, can conceive of such a thing as a hero. Or maybe the glory should be given not to that person, but to the true hero who calls out to us from behind all the myths.

That’s burrowing underneath the vow, towards Jesus.

To climb over the vow a little bit:

The fact that Xianity is based on a historical figure and events that are supposed to have taken place in history raises extremely complex problems. I can’t imagine anyone being compelled by the evidence to first of all, equate the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament with the “real” Jesus, and furthermore, to trust in him as a divine champion. Something else has to happen. You have to be called.

When I got confirmed at the First Congregational, at the age of thirteen, I received a verse typed out on an index card. I stuck it in my unbelievably lame Children’s Bible, which gathered dust on a shelf in my room, and forgot about it. Six years later, crashing to the ground after my dogfight with evangelical Xianity, scorched and battered, I came home to my parents’ house and came upon that card. It read: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you…” It was John 15:16. After what I’d been through, the words struck me with an impact that would have been invisible to an outsider. I tell you that, although I was not a Xian at that moment and rejected what I understood, I heard the message loud and clear: I was not a spiritual tourist, who had taken an unwise detour into Jesus-freakdom and was now going to get on with his life. Jesus himself was after me, and my opinions about his reality or lack of it were actually secondary. It was a done deal; sooner or later, I would have to come to terms with Jesus Christ.

That sign would not be persuasive to anyone else. I tend to think that, in the lives of more people than you would guess, other signs have been given which likewise were only perceptible to them – and which they may well have denied and/or forgotten. It’s none of my business, really. For myself, I can say: there was an audible call. It came in multiple forms and through a number of different people. I spent years trying to find a way out from under it, but ultimately turned around and started to try to walk in the direction from which I had heard my master’s voice come.

I’m willing to believe that Jesus lived in history, because he’s evidently alive now. I’m willing to call him Lord, because he was first willing to call me friend. And I want to know the rest that he offers, the cessation of the dreary lifelong effort I’ve made to justify my own presence in the world by making myself useful. Chuang Tze says, “All men know the value of what is useful, but few know the value of what is useless,” and I entrust the meaning of my life to the Christ, who knows the value of all things.

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