Learning to Love

learning to love

Our desire to demonstrate that we were on the right side of things—in our desire to demonstrate that we “understood” the injustice of it all—we were, despite our sincerity, turning a movement that was ostensibly about equal rights into a movement that was really about our own moral righteousness.

Excerpted From

The Pastor’s Bookshelf 

By Austin Carty

Learning to Love

During the explosive summer of 2020, as the COVID-19 crisis raged on and as social tensions reached a boiling point, I, like many in the country, found myself despairing over the state of things and desiring to be part of meaningful change. Riots and protests were occurring all over the nation, and news programs and social media were being daily flooded with images of violence and unrest. 

In response to this, I called my friend Ankoma Anderson, pastor of an African American church in my hometown and president of the local African American ministerial organization. I told Ankoma that if he were open to it, I would love to partner with him to host a prayer vigil, a worship event that would bring the community together to confront the reality of injustice and to pray for a peaceful and productive way forward. 

Ankoma was gracious, and he and I had a nice conversation, dreaming together of what such an event might look like. Within a matter of hours, we had spoken with our county commissioner and had secured the Civic Center parking lot for a venue. Now, all we needed was an event outline. We ended that day by agreeing that each of us would put together some notes for the service and that we would split the responsibilities of contacting local officials. 

I hung up the phone filled with anxiety, aware that I had started a ball rolling that would no doubt attract far more attention and publicity than I was ready for. Thus, I spent the evening working feverishly on an order of worship, going far beyond just “making notes.” I was meticulous in my consideration of each detail, staying up late into the night parsing each potential part. Who should do the words of welcome and who the benediction? Who should offer the invocation and who should lead the prayers of the people? I labored over the liturgy, trying to craft a responsive prayer that, while offered in the first-person plural, was appropriately sensitive to everyone. 

Finally satisfied with my product, I emailed the draft to Ankoma and headed to bed, eager to know how he would receive it. 

***

In Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, the story of Abraham’s journey away from his father’s home to “a land that I will show you” in Genesis 11 is emblematic. Commitment to Judeo-Christian faith, Volf writes, requires a similar journey to Abraham’s, a willingness to leave one’s comfort zone and go places one has never been and engage people and ideas with which one is not familiar.

“To respond to the call of God means to make an exodus,” Volf writes, “to start a voyage, to become a stranger.” In that way, “Departure is part and parcel of Christian identity.” 

This no doubt rings true. As Christians, we are not to hide our lights under a bushel; we are to follow the gospel to the ends of the earth, sharing it with Jew and gentile alike. 

The complication, of course, is that not all of us have sufficient opportunities to “depart.” Many of us would welcome the opportunity to live like cultural anthropologists or governmental ambassadors, living for years at a time in foreign locations. But for most of us, this is not our reality. Instead, the vast majority of us are tethered to one place due to the demands of work or commitment or circumstance. 

This being the case, how can we affirm Volf’s point without maxing out our credit cards and leaving behind responsibilities we cannot afford to neglect? How can we, as committed persons of faith, follow the paradigmatic journey of Abraham and depart our comfort zones without actually departing? 

Anticipating this question, Volf goes on to say that, because of the universal scope of the Christian gospel, “departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits.”

If we want to respond to the call of Abraham—if we, with Volf, believe that departure is part and parcel of Christian faith and that, in order to enrich ourselves as disciples, we must broaden our horizons and familiarize ourselves with people, places, and perspectives that are unfamiliar to us—then the best and most proven way to do this is through reading. 

“While reading,” Maryanne Wolf writes in Proust and the Squid, “we can leave our own consciousness and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture.” We can thus “try on, identify with, and ultimately enter for a brief time the wholly different perspective of another.”

This is an oft-touted thing, reading’s capacity to help us better understand and develop empathy for another—as well it should be. What often goes unremarked, however, is that reading also helps us develop the capacity to love. And while this may seem like an artificial distinction—like a matter of semantic hairsplitting—it is not, for there is all the difference in the world between understanding someone else’s perspective and giving oneself over to it. Walking a mile in another’s shoes is not the same as sharing one’s shoes to make another’s journey more comfortable. 

Which leads me back to the story. 

***

The day after I sent Ankoma the order of worship, I began to notice something quite striking on social media. Suddenly, people I had never heard speak out about racial injustice were posting notes in support of the burgeoning protests. Suddenly, people I had known to be quietly skeptical about the reality of systemic racism were decrying its evident horrors. 

And at first, I was quite heartened by this. But as the day drew on—and as the day bled into the next—I began to slowly intuit something that both sobered and convicted me. The more I watched these posts pop up on my Facebook feed and the more I watched folks like myself advocate for change (and then applaud ourselves for our own courage), I began to think, we are hijacking this moment. 

It became suddenly obvious to me that, in our desire to demonstrate that we were on the right side of things—in our desire to demonstrate that we “understood” the injustice of it all—we were, despite our sincerity, turning a movement that was ostensibly about equal rights into a movement that was really about our own moral righteousness. And like I say, I didn’t just behold the problem; instead, I beheld that I was part of the problem. 

Ankoma and I were scheduled to meet the following day to discuss the order of worship and to further brainstorm logistics of the event. As I arrived, we made small talk and then began to discuss the national unrest and the importance of a proper theological response to it. 

Then, finally, Ankoma said, “Well, to the event at hand, then.” 

“Yes,” I said, “but before we go any further, I want to make a confession and offer you an apology.” Ankoma looked at me, his brow furrowed. “It’s just,” I said, “that in the past forty-eight hours, I have come to notice that a great many folks seem to be trying to turn this moment into something different—something more about ourselves than about a real movement for justice. And I fear that, without meaning to, I have been part of the problem.” 

“Go on,” Ankoma said. 

“Well,” I said, pointing to my laptop. “This order of worship that I sent you the other night? I want you to know that I worked really hard on it; I tried really hard to make it meaningful.” 

“So, what’s the problem?” Ankoma asked. 

“The problem,” I went on, “is that I now realize that I created a worship service in my own image.” 

Ankoma sat back and put his fingers to his lips, thinking for a moment. Then he said something that will long stay with me. “You know,” he said, “I spent a lot of time this morning praying about how to say that to you—how to tell you that very thing without hurting your feelings—and I appreciate you saying it so that I didn’t have to.” 

From there, we went on to have a valuable and charitable conversation, my confessing to him a sincere desire to be part of the solution and his affirming to me his sincere trust that this was true. 

After that, I sat back and let him take the lead, and what ultimately came of it was a deeply moving experience, a community-building event that looked entirely different than the one I had conceived of, an event that was successful for that very reason. 

***

“Reading,” theologian John Dunne writes, “is a kind of learning to love.” Maryanne Wolf elaborates: “[Through reading] we welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves, and sometimes we become the Other. For a moment in time, we leave ourselves; and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally.”

I reference these lines in order to make this crucial point: On the day I realized that I was part of a group unwittingly (and counterproductively) hijacking the cultural moment, I immediately thought of Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man. Watching Facebook that day and reading one too many overly curated posts, I suddenly recalled the final sentence of The Invisible Man with an arresting exactitude. 

But before I share that sentence, I must explain that, a decade earlier, prior to my reading The Invisible Man, I spent about eighteen months committedly reading books by African American authors. When I finally got to Ellison’s The Invisible Man, I came to the book with a sort of moral pride, with a feeling that I was now “one of the good ones,” someone in touch with the inequities in the world and someone who, though I could not share the experience of others, at least now understood there was a problem. So was my mentality a problem when I began The Invisible Man

Throughout the novel, Ellison introduces a never-ending parade of do-gooder types, characters who traipse across the pages “helping” in one way or another, through political activism or academic largesse or charitable giving or the like. What I soon began to notice, however, was that while these characters were always performing moral deeds, Ellison, as the author, seemed to be eyeing these characters with suspicion. 

And to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t get it. Why, I quietly wondered, do these well-intentioned folks continue to warrant such cynicism? But then came the novel’s end, and with it, so too came the scales from my eyes. And here, now, is that final sentence: “Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through me?” 

***

Volf does not simply stress departure for departure’s sake in Exclusion and Embrace. Instead, the reason for departure—that is, the reason for leaving one’s home “for a land that God will show us”—is to eventually return home changed and enriched by the experience.

In other words, Volf is teaching us that when we open ourselves to the ideas and lived experiences of others, we become more fully realized human beings. We become more capable of apprehending the limitations of our own perspectives and of how much wider the world is than we previously imagined. We further recognize our own complicity in the brokenness of things, and we become inspired to repent of it and begin working toward restoration. 

Departure, then, is about (momentarily) shuffling off our own tribal and individual identities so as to more fully embrace the identities and lived experiences of others. 

Offering another this sort of “embrace” is an altogether different kind of act than simply trying to “understand” another’s experience—as if another’s experience were something that could be observed in a laboratory or detailed on a spreadsheet. Which is to say, this willingness to “embrace” is a call to a far deeper and more demanding kind of love than filial love or eros—that is, to a love based on kinship or warm feeling. This kind of love is not about generating emotion; it is about apprehending our responsibility to and for others and about developing sufficient resolve to respond to it. 

Embracing another—that is, leaving one’s home with the humble hope of being invited into the home of another—is to engage another as a neighbor. It is to desire not just to know another but to live in community with him or her; it is to affirm another in a person’s particularity without reducing the person to an object of study or superimposing upon him or her one’s own image and assumptions. 

In my experience, reading is the best way to learn how to depart and embrace in this way. It is the best way to learn how to love. For not only does reading enable us to learn about another’s experience, it allows us (momentarily) to live that experience through another’s eyes. When we do this over and over again, with no motivation other than to leave home for a land God will show us, we not only sharpen our understanding and slowly develop our capacity for empathy but soon enough we begin to grow in love: and not just in any love but in neighborly love—agapē love—the kind of love that is less concerned with understanding the other than with embracing the other. 

Writes Alan Jacobs: “To recognize the other as a neighbor, in which the other is purely other . . . [to be] outside what you read but not alienated from it, so that you take up the responsibility of loving that newfound neighbor as yourself—that is the philosopher’s stone of reading.”

This brings us back to The Invisible Man and my experience with Ankoma. When I read The Invisible Man all those years ago, it was not with the intention of “learning to love,” and it was certainly not with the intention of undergoing a life-changing epiphany. Instead, I came to the book with the simple excitement of reading a classic novel—with a certain eagerness to see what the fuss was all about, and, as I said above, with a sort of false pride regarding my preparedness for reading it. 

Yet, through reading The Invisible Man I apprehended—in a sudden, harrowing moment—how we as human beings are capable of reducing others to objects, capable not just of looking past others (which I of course knew) but, in the words of Ellison, of looking through others. How we are capable of rendering others invisible

Ellison’s novel helped me apprehend how I had confused self-love with true love, and then, a decade later, it helped me understand the kind of departure that would be necessary to embrace the societal moment with the agapē it demanded. 

Maryanne Wolf asks, “What will happen to . . . readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin?” One can imagine Miroslav Volf responding: “They will be increasingly unwilling to follow God into the holy lands God wants to show them.” 

Adapted from The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry by Austin Carty (Eerdmans). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

From Outreach Magazine  Scott Sauls: Irresistible Faith