Easter has come and gone since the last time I posted, and like Christmas/Advent, my Easters are often tinged with disappointment and discomfort, as I struggle to believe and to feel the joy and certainty of so many Christians I see around me. “HE IS RISEN!” they say and post on social media, in every ALL CAPS kind of way, as if they themselves were at the empty tomb with Mary and the gang.
My faith has never been an ALL CAPS kind of faith. But I show up. I keep showing up. And I listen for something I might learn and something to which I might cling. This year, it was Jesus’s words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I’ve actually thought of these words a lot over the past few years, as my disillusionment with Christians (and specifically, white, American, evangelical Christians) has become overwhelming. I’ve watched them enable, or at the very least acquiesce to, what seems to me as racism, sexism, bigotry, abuse, bullying behavior, narcissism, lies, fear, authoritarianism, and just plain insanity. And I’ve tried not to judge, really I have, but it’s been hard.
And I’ve come back to this verse over and over. They know not what they do. That is not to absolve anyone of responsibility, but it’s to acknowledge the overwhelming cultural influences on them and the good intentions that most of them hold in their hearts and the fundamental uncertainties with which we all wrestle. And I try to acknowledge that I, too, ultimately know not what I do. In the grand scheme, and when speaking about things that are literally textbook-unknowable, none of know what we do. All of us human beings see through a glass darkly, getting brief glimpses of what it all means, if anything at all.
As I reflected on this verse coming out of Easter, I had an extremely enlightening conversation with Jennifer Christian, a dear friend and fellow MK who is now a therapist. And friends, I kind of thought I knew it all on that front, layperson though I am. I’ve been to a lot of therapy, I see a psychiatrist for a mental illness, I’ve read a lot of books and taken leadership classes at work (I’ve taught leadership classes at work!), I minored in psych, I love Brene Brown, I watch Ted Lasso (and on that last point, I am not joking. That show is a freaking CLINIC on leadership and vulnerability and healing and all kinds of amazing things. Just skip the episode where Beard wanders around London all night, it’s weird and irrelevant).
But Jennifer blew my mind, y’all! Blew it right up like a bean burrito left in a microwave too long. We talked about missionary culture and the MK experience, and the Sesame Street word of the day turned out to be:
In her view, being aware or unaware is some kind of Jordan River of human experience, marking the boundary between healthy and unhealthy human relationships and existence. Being aware is when you are tuned into self and others, open to hearing and validating them, open to learning, able to connect, empathize, and attach. Being unaware is when trauma, fear, overwhelm, or just simple distraction cause you to dissociate, which can manifest as detachment or anger, fight or flight.
“You know when you’re reading a book and you can’t remember a paragraph or even whole pages you just read? That’s dissociation. It’s mild/inconsequential dissociation, but that’s basically what can happen when you experience trauma, fear, or overwhelm. Your brain leaves the scene,” she explained. You become unaware.
And, in her view, unawareness is pervasive not just in missionary culture, but in ministry culture writ large, of which she’s been a part for decades now as a pastor’s wife.
“I see in ministry families a culture of martyrdom,” she explained. “It’s pursuing God’s will, full steam ahead, out of sense of ‘God needs me to save these people.’ People rarely if ever pause to consider the possible harm to self or others in their wake. And that’s unawareness.”
“With a dash of narcissism,” I chimed in, with one of my pet issues.
“What are narcissists? They are people who are unaware,” she said.
Boom. Light bulbs!!! Like flipping on the Rockefeller Christmas tree!!! Narcissism–and we all have a certain degree of it–is being unaware of how our actions impact others. It’s not being able to see, understand, and truly connect with others.
In talking to MKs, it’s clear that many (not all!) of their parents are unaware, due to their own trauma, fear, overwhelm, or single-minded pursuit of an agenda. For one thing, by virtue of becoming missionaries, they by definition adhere to a theology that puts enormous pressure on them, and agenda looms large in every context and relationship. Evangelical missionaries believe that people will literally go to hell if they don’t take action. They may also come into the work with their own unresolved trauma and pain. They may in fact be hiding from it through ministry. Lastly, of course, there is the stress of cross-cultural (or even dangerous) living and often the lack of an authentic community in which they can be vulnerable. It’s no wonder that missionaries and pastors may not be aware of their children’s needs or the emotional needs of others around them.
Jennifer showed me a video of a psychological experiment that shows the impact of attachment feedback, or its absence, on babies. First, the mother demonstrates attachment to and validation of the baby, looking where the baby points, giving facial and verbal feedback, touching the baby, smiling and talking. The baby is delighted, lights up, comes alive. Then the mother simply sits in front of the baby, staring blankly ahead, passively and unsmilingly, while the baby increasingly becomes frantic in trying to connect with her. Eventually the baby melts down.
I can relate to the baby. Probably we all can. Probably we’ve all tried and failed to get the attention and validation we need from important people in our lives at times. Probably we’ve also all been the stone-faced mother, too stressed, afraid, wounded, overwhelmed, or distracted to connect with those who need us.
Which brings me back to Jesus’s words. Father, forgive us all, for we are all unaware of what we do. We are all too wrapped up in ourselves, our agendas, our fears, our own survival to understand the impact of our words and actions, or lack thereof, on other people. We all need grace for ourselves and others, so we can heal and go on to lives of more awareness. Because any of us will remain unaware until we can recover from trauma, release fear, find peace, and approach others from a posture of love instead of agenda.
And in the broadest sense, we are all unaware of the ultimate meaning of life and the character and existence of God. We’ve tried our best to understand, and maybe some of us are more right than others. But we just don’t know what we’re doing down here. We really, really don’t. And I believe our loving God knows that and accounts for our inherent myopathy. And, yes, I believe Jesus intercedes for all of us, no matter how close our beliefs get to the mark.
But, as you know, I am a heretic. Father forgive me, for I know not what I do.