I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’m not sure I have ever needed a book more at the moment that it found me. It’s the story of a guilty, angry, oh-so-certain, baptist preacher who drags his wife and four daughters into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 1960’s.
I carry it to Starbucks during my lunch breaks and allow it to swallow me, emerging 40 minutes later into a world that makes little sense.
It’s pulling, again, at the threads of wealth and poverty, war and power, the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of the Moral Majority.
“Bingo Bango Bongo. That is the story of Congo they are telling now in America: a tale of cannibals. I know about this kind of story-the lonely look down upon the hungry; the hungry look down upon the starving. The guilty blame the damaged. Those of doubtful righteousness speak of cannibals, the unquestionably vile, the sinners and the damned.
It makes everyone feel so much better.”
I close my book reluctantly. My hour is nearly up; the blinking clock and an office-full of expectation calls me back to work.
As I leave, I sip my coffee – or cinnamon, soy latte if we’re being honest – from a re-usable plastic cup, 10 cents off and BPA free. This, one of my little choices that is supposed to help save the world.
I wonder, again, about the men and women who have drug my coffee up from the earth; have sorted through the uncooperative berries to find those ripe for the picking; have shelled, roasted, and packaged them. I wonder about the hours of human labor that I have bought with $4.29. I don’t know if I have supported workers in a country that desperately needs jobs, or offered another contribution to the gods of power and human enslavement.
I am complicit, an active player in the injustices of the world, and I don’t even know the breadth or depth of it.
“Maybe I’ll never get over my grappling for balance, never stop believing life is going to be fair, the minute we can clear up all these mistakes of the temporarily misguided…Just when I start to feel jaded to life as it is, I’ll suddenly wake up in a fever, look out at the world, and gasp at how much has gone wrong that I need to fix.”
HEB sells exactly one variety of fair trade chocolate chips. They are milk chocolate. So every time I decide to make cookies, I choose between buying fair trade and buying the dark chocolate that I prefer.
I buy the dark chocolate about half the time.
That choice is so utterly inadequate.
I feel swallowed by a problem that I can’t even comprehend.
Like my freshman year of college, when I tried to give up Nestle and Cocoa-Cola products after finding them both on a list of top human rights violators. After a couple months of trying to remember which energy drinks Cocoa-Cola owned and attempting to unwind the web of corporate entanglements, I gave up.
It didn’t seem possible to exonerate myself.
“We have in this story the ignorant, but no real innocents.”
Sometimes, I feel so tainted by my wealth and my citizenship, by the atrocities committed before I was born. I realize that those were not my decisions, that no one asked me, just as no one asked the children of the Congo.
Yet I have benefited from them, innumerable odds stacked in my favor before I ever learned to walk. And still today, I buy Oreos, knowing full well that I just paid for the children harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast.
I am not innocent.
The reality sneaks up on me again, and I don’t know what to do with it.
Because I have no honorable way to justify it.
“Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything.”
Then, I read an article yesterday that claims young people are leaving the Churches of Christ because the churches aren’t experiential enough, because there aren’t enough videos or stadium seating.
As though all young people are so distracted by sparkling objects and fog machines that we are destined to follow the shiny veneer wherever it may go.
But in reality, I see a church that will get up in arms and coordinate support when Chick-Fil-A declares its support of “traditional marriage”, but couldn’t care less about that company’s contract with Cocoa-Cola* or the implications of that bed-fellow.
At least a quarter of the children in this city go hungry, and yesterday we received the third straight week of elder selection sermons, this one entitled: Men with Experience.
Young Americans are not leaving the church because you lack a “three projection screen set-up”. They are, in my experience, leaving because your gospel is hollow and self-serving.
“It came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.”
In the book, this preacher comes to Africa bound and determined to baptize every last child in the Kwali River, never mind that several children had been eaten by crocodiles in that river the year before.
He is determined to stand by his principles, to never give-in, to never-not for one moment-admit that he might be wrong.
In the end he baptizes not a single person. And in the process he loses every one of his children, who see only his arrogance and his portrayal of a distant, careless God.
I love the bible. I really do, for all its mess. And in spite of her failures, I love the church. It was, and is, the church who taught me to care for the world.
But I wonder if the American Church isn’t portraying its own distant, careless God. Only this one isn’t screaming in the jungle; it’s singing “post-worship” music on a well-lit stage, broadcasting the same empty from message from every wall of the auditorium.
It’s so frustrating, that they would watch a mass exodus and think “I know what we need: more YouTube videos. That’s what young people care about, right?”
Because the gospel that my church taught (with just the one projector) allows me to hope that I might live in a world where everyone has enough to eat, on earth as it is in heaven. It gives me grace for all the ways I fail, and conviction to keep trying.
I hope that won’t be lost in the production. Because showmanship and crowds and experiences are not the gospel. They are a distraction. The gospel is better than that.
“So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again….
I rock back and forth on my chair like a child, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere, damnit.”
* I will not even pretend that I understand contracts between restaurants and beverage companies, nor do I necessarily understand the implications of those arrangements. I’m just saying that this company has purportedly done a lot of evil in the world, and no one seems to care.