A lot of bumper-sticker theology passes for wisdom these days, especially in the moments after a public conflict. White supremacists march in the streets. Precious lives are snuffed out in yet another mass shooting. And Christians paste platitudes all over their Facebook walls.
“It’s time to love each other. . . . We need to turn back to God. . . . Jesus is the answer.”
This is certainly true. But who are you loving? Which areas of your city are enjoying the fruit of your repentance? What questions are you answering exactly?
The late Brennan Manning understood that banal truisms were neither helpful or thoughtful. In his book Abba’s Child, Manning penned these words:
How I treat my brothers and sisters from day to day, whether they be Caucasian, African, Asian, or Hispanic; how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street; how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike; how I deal with ordinary people in their ordinary unbelief on an ordinary day will speak the truth of who I am more poignantly than the pro-life sticker on the bumper of my car. We are not for life simply because we are warding off death. We are sons and daughters of the Most High and maturing in tenderness to the extent that we are for others—all others—to the extent that no human flesh is strange to us, to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love, to the extent that for us there are no “others.”
Love is specific. No bumper-sticker theology—even the greatest, truest bumper sticker you can think of—can convey what it means to be for someone else. Only presence can do that. Only tenderness working from the inside out.
There is no greater example of presence than Jesus Christ. And Jesus also possessed a wild imagination for specifics. The way he talks about sinners sounds reckless in our ears. His eyes were colored and clouded by the good news about himself. He imagined sleazy tax collectors and gamy fisherman as pillars of his church, so he called them. He envisioned adulterers and prostitutes sitting near the head of God’s banquet table, so he welcomed them.
This defies our conventional wisdom. Yet, in gospel imagination, Jesus saw these things as true before they were. Then he made them so.
In a total break from reality as we’ve ever known it, Jesus imagined becoming just like us—and imagined that making all the difference. He saw himself setting his heavenly privilege aside, imagined what it would be like to feel all the cuts and bruises of being human—and all the bliss. He pictured delivering us from death to life, humbling himself so we all might be exalted.
Gospel imagination leads to incarnation. It can’t help itself.
The Blind Mind’s Eye
Sin can be defined many ways: Anything that displeases God. Missing the mark. Open rebellion. These definitions are helpful—and we need all of them. There’s another we should remember: sin is a profound lack of imagination.
Too often we love in general, with kind abstractions, because we can’t, or won’t, or are too self-occupied to love particularly. And that just won’t do—because when the world hurts, it hurts specifically.
Then we wreck ourselves and wound others because we cannot possibly imagine that God is right about the way we are supposed to be living in this sin-spoiled world. Surely God doesn’t mean what he says about caring with our own hands for orphans and widows? And all that about welcoming the stranger can’t be applied to us? He can’t want me to know my actual neighbors? Doesn't he know who these people are?
But that’s just the problem, he does know, we don’t. We treat people like poorly drawn characters in paperback novels. All because we can’t imagine someone more complicated than our stereotypes.
So we miss out. When we refuse to see how God sees, we avoid participating in his great reclamation project because it sounds too far-fetched. Our way seems more reasonable, more realistic. Nothing really changes because nothing really bothers us because no one is worth caring about all that much. We don’t do anything, or worse, we do things that hurt others.
Every violence we visit upon one another, whether with our fists or our silence, proves what little imagination we have. Maybe we strike back, or strike preemptively, because we can’t picture the contours of peace. We keep our weapons close because we can’t come up with another way to be disarming. We scoff at those who speak peace—we don’t have the luxury of living in the clouds or believing fairy tales. Not when we have another watch to keep.
Reclaiming Our Sanctified Imagination
Hearts and minds seized by gospel imagination send strange signals to the tongue, changing the way we use language. Words like “other” and “them” start to bounce off the walls, as if sounding in an empty room. These are among the least creative words we can use. They get replaced by talk of “us” and “one another,” that last phrase just dripping with possibility.
It’s only when this happens that the flesh of the refugee or the unwed mom becomes less strange to us. We will be more uncomfortable in the skin and shoes of marchers, their grief over an act of police brutality hovering dangerously close to anger.
In the eyes of an undocumented worker, we’ll recognize the times we felt alien; see our desperate grasping after hope in the ways of an ex-con trying to rebuild his life; reconnect with our crippling anxieties when we reach for the hand of a transgender kid scared to make a peep in this world.
Those who carry this sort of imagination around risk being called dreamers for daring to see things as they were meant to be—and one day will be again.
Imagination sets our bodies in motion. Without thinking, we’ll rise to our feet to stand beside the brother or sister who has had the imagination beaten out of them. Coming alongside those who’ve never seen three-dimensional expressions of justice and peace, we’ll imagine it for them.
Jesus imagination far exceeds our own, yet he empowers us to put imagination into practice. To see beyond the surface to the heart, beyond differences to dignity, to see with his eyes that all things are possible, that no body or thing is a lost cause.
To be pro-life, Manning says, is to be for particular lives. With real names and real problems. Lives with flaws and warts and rough spots, lives that don’t always merit the love and loyalty they receive.
The heart of Brennan Manning’s message is this: Loving your neighbor as yourself is the most imaginative thing you can do.
Cover image by Bern Hardy.
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