I have a friend who is going to jail. Actually he’s likely going to prison but he’s in jail right now. I took him there last Thursday afternoon. It’s an awkward thing to drop someone off at the jailhouse so they can be locked away behind layers and layers of bars and doors. Especially because dropping someone off at the jail means one has to drive away and go back to living life. Self-conscious and sweating we drove around the county trying to find our sordid destination. We were lost because it seems directions to the jail are not something they worry about getting right on their unbelievably obtuse jail website. Were it a party or a retail establishment we would have surely given up and driven my old Nissan Maxima, whose air conditioning long since crapped out, to a McDonalds for some cheese flavored fat and a post dinner smoke. But not on this day. This day we were stuck driving down dirt roads in rural Kansas until we finally found the place and my friend turned himself in.
My friend, who is incidentally a really good guy, got in a lot of trouble and it seems as though this is one of those dreadful situations through which several whole lives are dragged through the muck and mire. As the dust begins to settle on this very human and dark circumstance, I find myself struggling to make sense of the way we live our lives. What my friend did, which is awful enough, isn’t the point of what I’m writing here today. What’s going to happen to him, equally awful, isn’t either. But I think there’s something about watching the carnage on the side of the road after somebody totally wrecks their own life which forces us to reach down and check to see that our seatbelt is on tight. Nobody can resist a good crash. I’m no exception.
Anytime something such as this happens to a person such as my friend, especially a religious person, others will say things like “we’re all broken people,” or “there but by the grace of God go I.” I guess those things are true enough, but something about them just pisses me off. What is it that causes one to flirt with the fringes of social behavior and delve into the depths of human depravity? What allows one to live a normal life on the surface and a completely dark and twisted private one where nobody can see? What is the volatile mixture of fuel and oxygen which allows a tiny spark to ignite a firestorm which consumes whole lives, relationships and families? I want to know what it is so I can stay away from it. I want to know what it is so that I can teach my children how to stay away from it.
I haven’t made complete sense of it all yet, but it occurs to me that there are a couple of different realities at work in our culture, which when combined in a careless fashion can create quite a lot of destructive horse power. The first is hard to nail down, because it seems a mixture of several things, but for the most part I’d term it the big lie. This is, in large part, an American lie which is told to us when we are very young. We are taught to believe it and soon enough we’re teaching our children and grandchildren the same untruth. This lie is the ontological landmine which plagues most if not all Americans who unknowingly buy-into the idea that essentially, we are what we can produce and consume. We teach our young what it means to be a “productive member of society.” Sadly but routinely, we measure the worth of individuals according to how much income they can generate and how conspicuously they can spend it.
This tremendous pressure in our culture to succeed, advance, become upwardly mobile, to live a certain kind of life which promises some sort of meaning for us bears down on us like gravity. It plays out in our relationships, families, careers, body image, faith, self-esteem, art, music and virtually every area of our lives. This heaviness elicits an unusual amount of social anxiety. Social pressures form in us an idea of what a successful life might look like. We adopt that idea or ideal, sometimes with little or no questions, and then begin to try to conform to it. We try to be whatever it is we’ve been told to be by the big lie. Living up to that ideal carries with it a natural amount of anxiety – this is an inescapable thing if you’ve bought into the big lie.
The second reality is something like isolation – I like the term “margins.” Margins are the buffers we put in place between our core-self (our innermost being – the self only known to self and maybe one or two intimate friends), and those we encounter in social space. Margins are how we often deal with the social anxiety we all experience as we continue to struggle to move our little quarterly report arrow up and to the right. We can’t do it so we escape into the margins. Some margins are good, but the big lie carries so much pressure that we often resort to forming larger and larger margins in our lives. We hide in them. We grow them like a garden in which we can conceal our nakedness.
One of the most amazing things about American suburban culture is this relentless drive to widen these margins. Something about a two-lane highway just makes a guy from the suburbs nervous. We prefer six to eight lane autobahns. We build our houses just a little farther apart. We commute in cars by ourselves. We have self-contained neighborhoods within our own homes. Internet communities, online shopping, hundreds of channels of digital cable with HD pay-per-view movies, concerts and sporting events make it possible to amuse ourselves and have pseudo-social connections at a reasonable distance. We can create identity within these margins and it doesn’t even have to be real. We can conjure up the sensation that we are living the American ideal without ever really living it.
Margins are like jails. We are driven there not in our Nissan Maximas but the big lie takes us and kicks us to the curb at the front door. We think we are creating space in which we can have our own lives, or be who we really think ourselves to be. But, in the end, margins keep us from the kind of transparent, intimate relationships which serve to keep us on a path of continual growth and health. Margins render us incapable of true intimacy and community. If you combine the tremendous social pressures involved in the big lie with an almost infinite ability to create margins, someone’s going to get in trouble.
My dad taught me how to shoot a shot-gun while I was just a grade school boy. I remember being frightened of the report, but even more so by the kick of the little twenty-gauge break action single shot Smith & Wesson. The kick is the force of the re-coil brought to bear on the shoulder when the ammunition is released. Even on a little gun the kick can be surprisingly strong. My dad taught me that you won’t really feel the kick if you press the stock tightly against your shoulder. There it feels like a push, but hold it out even an inch or so and your shoulder is going to be turning black and blue.
Make a fist and hold it twelve inches away from your thigh and then punch your thigh as hard as you can. It hurts. Now make a fist and hold your knuckles right up against your thigh and try to punch. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t even work. If you really want a lesson in the difference try this exercise with concrete or hardwood. You can’t punch something without a margin between the fist and the target. The danger is in the margins.
One of my favorite passages of prose in the entire world was written by Deitrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together.” He wrote:
“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer and all their fellowship in service may still be left to their aloneness. The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur because, although they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from the community. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are all sinners!”
I cannot help but think it was easier for Abraham and his buddies, hanging out beneath the stars, dreaming up a future for the people of God by the warmth of their fire. There was just no hiding when the tents were made of animal hides and the neighbor could hear every word said in anger. Human brokenness was all to manifest in the everyday and there was neither the ability nor the intense pressure to hide it.
I’m looking for a fellowship of the undevout. I’m looking for a smaller margin. While I do not know if God is ultimately concerned if we have a personal relationship with God’s self, I’m certain that relationships with other people are inescapably part of the plan. Perhaps in drawing near to each other we will find ourselves drawing near to God. Like it or not, we do not suffer from the human condition, we are the human condition. We are to one another both the wound and the elixir; we live it we breathe it and we will one day die with it and it’s scent will remain in our noses. It is what is making us crash into each other. The big lie is a flawed narrative. It cannot tell us who we are. But it can hold incredible power over us when coupled with our new found ability to create margins around our lives.
I’m thinking of my friend tonight. I’m thinking of the wide margin between him and anything normal right now. I feel scared for him. I feel scared for me, for all of us. God help us to reject the big lie and to pull up close to each other along the road. God help us to erase the margins we create to make ourselves feel normal. Let us make a connection based on the truth about the way we are, not a carefully crafted illusion. God let us begin to relate to one another in oneness as it is with you, Father, Son and Spirit, and keep us safe from the crashing sounds.