Stature, Discomfort, and Empathy: Responding to Erin Straza’s “Comfort Detox”

Stature, Discomfort, and Empathy: Responding to Erin Straza’s “Comfort Detox” February 10, 2017

In the Christian year, we are leaning toward Lent. Lent is the season of simplicity that enables us to widen our hearts so that we can more fully experience the pain and joy of the world and God’s vision for our lives. The Quakers use the term “cumber” to describe the comforts that come to control us. Many of us have too much. We seek comfort and find security in shopping, consuming, owning, and pleasuring; none of which is bad in and of itself, but each of which is destructive when it comes between us and God’s vision for our lives. Simplicity gives way to cumbersomeness and peace to busyness.

Jesus goes into the wilderness for a retreat and experiences the temptation of good things – power, comfort and sustenance, and security – that get in the way of him following his vocation as God’s Beloved Child. Years before, when he was twelve, Jesus went to the Jerusalem Temple to dialogue with the leaders. The account of his Temple experience concludes with the words, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humankind.”

Jesus grew in stature, in spiritual, intellectual, and relational, size. Nothing became foreign. No pain or sorrow became strange. His hospitality embraced friend and enemy, neighbor and stranger, revolutionary and oppressor, women and men. Jesus’ empathy was boundless. He had the spiritual size to embrace pain and diversity without losing his spiritual center. Jesus taught us to be fully compassionate as he was.
Erin Straza rightly notes that we need a “comfort detox.” We need to move from the small self and small world to a larger vision, she asserts, a vision as much determined by God as our own self-interest. Staza’s vision is countercultural in that same way that the apostle Paul’s counsel is countercultural, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This renewed mind is the “mind of Christ,” described in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a spacious mind that sacrifices power and otherness to be in solidarity with our world of pain and joy.

Discomfort is essential to the spiritual journey. One obvious area where we need to embrace discomfort is in the political realm. We have lost the sense of empathy and common purpose in the body politic. We no longer experience the pain of others as important to us. Threats and pain that refuges and the children of undocumented residents experience are discounted as unimportant. Immigrants and refugees are defined as “cardboard” people, stereotyped as threats, as radically different than us, even though a parent in Syria feels the same love for her child when he is threatened as the parent in Pennsylvania who is concerned with her own child’s safety. We dismiss the inner life of political opponents assuming that our opponents do not share the same love of nation that motivates us. We stereotype Muslims as radical terrorists even though Muslim Americans are among our most patriotic citizens.

Erin Straza challenges us to become large souled persons who have sufficient stature to embrace the other, welcome diversity, and dialogue with opponents. This may be uncomfortable at times, but for those who gain large souls, the world is a place of wonder and beauty, new partnerships emerge, and enmity dissolves. Detoxed, as Straza counsels, from the divisive and destructive habits of our culture, our restless hearts find peace – though a dynamic and lively peace – in relationship with God and world of neighbors.

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