On April 27, 2019, I will be running in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Race Series in Nashville, Tennessee with the Preemptive Love Coalition Run Anyway team. We are raising awareness and funds for refugees in Iraq and Syria who have been displaced by years of violence and war.
Would you consider joining me in remaking home for those who’ve fled oppression and violence? By sponsoring my race, you are helping to replant families, repair houses, restore health, restart careers, and renew the future for families in Syria and Iraq.
For this writing I want to break from my usual tone and reflect on the journey that brought me to today, and I want to look at it through one of my favorite pastimes: running.
Here’s a short story.
As I looked down at my GPS watch trying to keep my heart rate below 136 beats per minute (bpm), I marveled at just how untrained my aerobic system was. My whole life (at least since I was a junior in high school) I’ve been trying to run faster. I would run as hard as I could as often as I could but I seemed to plateau at just below an average pace.
My frustration–not to mention my self consciousness–was only heightened when I arrived at West Point. Track-and-Field stars, marathon runners, triathletes, sprinters, it seemed everyone arrived with a prestigious running background except for me.
During our basic training, known as Beast Barracks, I was often relegated to the dreaded Brown Group. The third in a tiered running system–blue, green, brown.
There in the Brown Group we would sprint hills, jog for long slow miles in the rain, be randomly set to sprints such as to induce vomiting, but mainly we were just disdained for the “shit” we apparently were–as denoted by our group’s designated color.
Running wet, bedraggle, and discouraged all I could think about was how miserable I was while running.
The message to us was clear, it went something like this:
“We’re not sure how you got in to West Point with these run times, but if you want to stay, you better figure it out.”
So like I had in high school and like I did at the West Point prep school where I had been the year before, I began running as hard as I could as often as I could until I was able to convince our group leader I was ready to move out of the team most associated with fecal matter.
To me though, the message had been sent loud and clear and I would often repeat it back to myself.
“I’m a slow runner and always will be. I’m ashamed of this.”
What’s strange is that from the first time I tried going out on a simple job with my dad in middle school I loved it. But my inability to run faster or farther always sat there–at first questioning me, then accusing me, and ultimately discouraging me.
Taking a PT test at West Point and watching many of my peers do literal laps around me (while the marathon team would joke how they hadn’t even warmed yet as I dry heaved across the finish line) my internal narrative would solidify even further.
Even though I loved the experience of running on my own, I would never be good at it and would forever feel ashamed of my abilities. I was even afraid to go on a jog in the middle of the day for fear of being quietly judged by the people I passed for my slow pace (a ridiculous thought that carried to this day!)
“Better not run past the Superintendent’s or Commandant’s house” I would think as I would plan my hidden route.
I did have a few bright spots, the greatest of which came when I was working on my stride. I learned to ditch my heal-strike gait and saw a bit of improvement. But ultimately it wasn’t what I was hoping for.
I remember my worst run time came the last PT test I took before getting out of the Army as a Conscientious Objector. I was worn out from fighting the system all by myself, hopeless, and anxious not to mention out of shape. I passed by 2 seconds.
As we would cover those miles in formations up and down the mountains of West Point, or as I would secretly jog by myself so no one could judge me, my mind would often enter the common reflective, meditative state that many endurance activities encourage.
It was on many of those mediative, quiet jogs that I would find dread, confusion, or worry waiting for me as I considered what I was really training and working so hard for at the academy. I would think about the logical end of my time at West Point which was always in some way supporting “to close with and destroy the enemies of the United States.”
I could barely muster enough energy to warrant hitting my friendly opponent in the face at boxing or combative class. This sort of behavior, practice, or mentality didn’t seem very helpful. This “warrior” they want me to be, it’s not my true self. I’m not violent, I’m not a killer, I don’t believe in aggression or destruction to solve any type of problem.
“This song makes me want to beat the shit out of ISIS,” I would then hear in my ears, remembering one of our senior leaders bellowing proudly as he ran past me on one of our infamous brigade runs–a 4,000 person painful speedwalk through West Point and the surrounding village. An activity of whose purpose I am still uncertain.
These runs were led by our senior leaders–our Superintendent, a 4 Star General, and Commandant, a 1 Star General. They would stand in front all 4,000+ Cadets and our instructors and we would just, run.
The senior leader who made the aforementioned remark had sat with me at a contemplative prayer vigil a few weeks prior to his public confession about wanting to beat the brown group out of his enemies.
“Am I really ok being this hypocritical?” I wondered.
“Can I love my enemies while training to kill them?”
A few years later I would submit and be granted discharge as a Conscientious Objector. The culmination of years of contemplation, reflection, and trying to be honest with myself.
So yesterday, when I looked down at my heart rate monitor on my GPS watch my mental landscape was quite different.
The pace was comfortable. I learned that, “In order to go faster, you have to go slower.”
By training in my fat burning zone (or zone 2) I’m teaching my body to use fats as a fuel. In the past when I would run as hard and as fast I could I would instead use carbohydrates and sugars in zones 3 or 4.
As it turns out, this was forcing my body to deplete all of its glycogen–something it can only sustain for about 90 minutes. Training in this way leads to the grey zone, or zone 3 plateau. Basically, you only train your quick twitch, fight or flight energy system which always leaves one fatigued, unimproved, and unchallenged. Hence the name the gray zone.
So I learned I needed to stop running as fast as often as I could and slow down to train my zone 2 endurance, for me anything under around 136 bpm. The more I train in this zone the more efficient my body becomes and my pace is slowly catching up to its usual time but my heart rate is staying low.
In life, I’ve also had to slow down to go faster.
I had to abandon my career–which has meant serious social, financial, and life-altering consequences. I had to be real with myself about what I was working for, and slow down to evaluate the direction of my life, how it was going to impact the world around me.
Once I was going slow enough to listen to the still, small voice of divine consciousness inside me (inside all of us) it was clear what must be done.
I’d rather be a dead seed in the forest of peace than a blind, scared cog in the machine of violence and hypocrisy.
As I looked down at my GPS watch and settled into my new, slower pace I hardly even noticed the sideways, freezing rain beating my body as I made my way down the lonely street.
“Mutual Love is nothing special. It only means repaying good with good. But love of our enemy is not love as repayment; it is prevenient and creative love. Anyone who repays evil with good is truly free.” – Juergen Moltmann
If there is any single, one thing that I could mark as the turning point in my life, it was a time in college when I finally decided that loving my enemies was not only attainable but essential, if not the cornerstone of christian practice.
I sat there reading
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I love especially “To you who are listening.”
“Was I listening?” I wondered.
This is Jesus, as remembered by Luke in the 6th chapter of his gospel narrative.
I was at a time in my life in which I was experiencing great dichotomy, great tension within myself. So much of what I was trying to work into my life from studying the wisdom teachings of Jesus had no room for expression in my life.
I read this above passage for example, over and over again while training to become an artillery officer in the US Army at West Point.
It felt clear to me that in the gospel stories, I was much more like the hypocritical religious leaders and Romans than like Jesus. Yet, so much of my religious life at West Point revolved around the affirmation of our chosen profession and lifestyle.
To say I was confused would be an understatement. In this time, I decided to just go for it, to just run with it. I thought, “what if this is actually as clear and simple as it seems, but it’s just really hard?”
So I did what any philosophy student does when they’re confused, I wrote an essay.
It was titled, “The Ethic of Love.”
In the midst of a semester on ethics it became clear that if you really believed what Jesus taught, it would naturally manifest itself in something like an ethic, a way to live one’s life.
I fleshed it out as best I could and sat dumbfounded as I realized that I was a hypocrite of hypocrites.
I was the furthest thing from loving my enemy (let alone my neighbor, or myself.)
Over the course of the next few years I would walk down the lonely road of quiet dissent, deciding to leave the Army as a conscientious objector. And along the way I found out that the reason I was such a hypocrite for so long was because hypocrisy had been normalized. And, to question the status quo was sinful, prideful, or unpatriotic.
Ironically, the very same people who were obsessed with a fundamental adherence to the scriptures on every other point (especially where we get to marginalize people like women and our LGBTQ family) somehow were alright killing others, so long as they did it for the government or those in “authority.” Such killing is orthodox, after all.
But I wondered if maybe loving my enemies is simple, and maybe it is attainable. Maybe choosing to obey the law of love over that of the land, that of social convention is a worthy decision. Just really difficult.
Maybe choosing to side with the oppressed and love the oppressor means we need to identify first with a helpless refugee baby and executed prisoner before we identify with power, influence, and social status.
When I consider the life and example of Jesus, I find it off-putting that his modern day followers are seeking so hard to change the world through seats of power.
And I wondered, instead of sacrificing my creativity at the altar of economy, injustice, or war, like Jurgen says above, what if I can use my creative energy to find new ways to love those who hate me, to return evil with good, to give to all who ask.
That sounds like a place I’d like to visit.
This is the hardest of the love teachings. In western culture it’s wrong to think of yourself first, these are the narcissist right?
At the same time, how can one even survive in a modern capitalistic system without ever considering themselves first? In fact, our international economic system is based on the idea of scarcity, a zero-sum game.
Talking about this, Susan Wolfe coined what many in western culture consider “Common Sense Morality,” as she puts it. This is anything or anyone who is selfless–who considers themselves last if at all.
What she is trying to get at it, is that to be moral in a western setting, one must be selfless. These two concepts are inherently linked (based upon her own research and findings).
Ironically, this is overplayed against a backdrop of an economic reality in which selfless entities cannot survive.
This paradox has left a lot of room for guilt, confusion, and self-denial especially in religious communities. There are more unhealthy expressions of this paradox and confusion that I have room to explore here.
But at its root is a truth to the universe that we all seem to deny: we are all connected. We are already one, we are not separate.
So much of our modern life expresses back to us our own false projection of separation. But it’s just that, a projection from our psyche.
Instead of looking at our own delusions and theories, let’s consider nature.
Nature exists in ecosystems. Ecosytems are inherently interdependent. It’s utter foolishness to think about the world in any other way than interdependent.
Without really knowing why, many of us simply perpetuate the belief that we were created by a discrete super-being in the sky to be independent identities, inherently flawed and separated from one another and the divine.
These ideas are rooted in Greek philosophy, specifically Plato and his musings about a perfect world of forms as he callas it, of which we are all mere shadows, he postulates. This was accompanied by the original Greek idea of individualism, that we are discrete and separated from each other and our environments on our own journey back to perfection, a perfection we have lost.
These ideas, once absent from judeo-christian thinking found their way into christian theology during an era in which greek philosophy was fashionable in the church, and become intertwined with the theological narrative.
But what if we allow the parables and powerful poems of the Bible to speak to us in the way they are meant to–our psyches and subconscious, our spirit and soul–and let nature explain to us clearly what is.
And what is, is an uncomfortably dependent universe that has co-evolved to give, receive, and need all else that is. I remember learning in elementary school science that when one species of an ecosystem is damaged or lost, the whole environment suffers. This should be basic knowledge of our reality.
We are not separate. We need each other, and what’s more we belong to each other.
Cynthia Bourgeault captures this reality from the wisdom teachings of Jesus in her reflections on the parables Jesus tells about grapes and vines. She notes,
No separation between human and human is an equally powerful notion—and equally challenging. One of the most familiar of Jesus’ teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39). But we almost always hear that wrong: “Love your neighbor as much as yourself.” (And of course, the next logical question then becomes, “But I have to love me first, don’t I, before I can love my neighbor?”) If you listen closely to Jesus however, there is no “as much as” in his admonition. It’s just “Love your neighbor as yourself”—as a continuation of your very own being. It’s a complete seeing that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals out there, one seeking to better herself at the price of the other, or to extend charity to the other; there are simply two cells of the one great Life. Each of them is equally precious and necessary.
When we are able to shed the lie that we are separate, and we see ourselves as flowing in and out of god, and in and out of each other, we are able to live in the mutually beneficial and abundant reality that the universe we inhabit has to offer. The only true scarce resource in our reality is money, and funny enough anything that money touches seems to somehow become scarce as well (even water which we now have to purchase in polluting plastic bottles).
The modern economy is the culmination of this projection of scarcity onto our abundant reality (to paraphrase Charles Eisenstein.) But, when we instead see ourselves for how we really are, extensions of the divine and of one another, not in competition with but in extension of each other, we are able to see another reality, a truer somehow more spiritually attuned reality.
In fact, when we turn into one another, and into god in us (Emmanuel) we instead find exactly what we’v always been looking for.
This idea of loving your neighbor is a cornerstone of the christian tradition. From it, we are informed about charity, generosity, and thanksgiving fleshed out in later reflections from early church leaders.
In many of the stories where people argue with the teacher Jesus about who is a neighbor and who isn’t, people try desperately to hammer down where they are allowed to draw the line. Of course, they always find there is no line but you already knew that.
In the most relevant text where the teacher Jesus speaks with someone about loving their neighbor someone quips, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied by telling a story [the story of the good Samaritan] of showing empathy, compassion, and sacrificial generosity to someone that many in the crowd think should not deserve their help (someone stupid enough to get himself into trouble). Furthermore they are being helped by someone who shouldn’t be helping (an evil, malicious foreigner!) But you probably already knew that too.
But it’s worth reflecting on this idea that stopping to help, and showing empathy and active compassion to someone you think doesn’t deserve it, is a good starting point to love. And what’s more, the people who are already living like this are the ones we think are other, unlike us, maybe even dirty or evil.
After all, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Jesus asks.
I will let you put that in your own world to consider what that might look like in your life.
This isn’t a Sunday Morning sermon where you feel guilted into giving a pot pie to your actual next-door neighbor, chances are you live next to them because they look like you anyway and probably think like you, plus modern suburban culture has greatly confused this word neighbor in the first place.
But if we take a moment, we see Jesus leading the conversation away from the usual text -based legalism of the day into a deeper reality that is present in all of his teachings:
We are not separate.
And as evidenced by who is saved and who does the saving in the parable of the good samaritan, unity is not based on all believing the right and same thing (that idea is a hold over from what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has dubbed Slaveholder Religion.)
Rather, what we see here is that love is manifested when we cross ethnic boundaries, socioeconomic divides, race and class boundaries, and even enemy lines.
This is where a lot of people would get fired up for a missions trip, but we have to remember that the gospel is written from the bottom up perspective, not the top down. The point wasn’t to prepare the kingdom “up there” by telling people everywhere “down here” to believe the right things.
That idea comes from Plato and was and injected into early christian thought in the 300s AD. Plato believed that we are discrete beings and this world is ugly and imperfect, therefore, we must be a reflection of a perfect “world of forms” toward which we are all straining to return.
Originally, the good news of the early church was curated for the poor, the marginalized and outcast, the oppressed and diseased. It was a way to bring out the better world we all know is possible from inside each of us, as a gift to your neighbors.
As mentioned above, around the the 300s AD the story was hijacked by the wealthy and powerful who needed a new moral justification to stay in power and suddenly the church’s story was told from the top down (all this borrowed from one of my heroes, Richard Rohr). This is where the platonic ideas of separation and metaphysical eternities was mixed into the church.
It’s interesting to read the early church leaders and witness the appropriation of greek philosophy over the course of the Byzantium era and onward.
So if we consider the parable of the good samaritan again with a bias for the poor, migrated, outcast, homeless, sick, and marginalized suddenly it means so much more.
It means that the ones the privileged dislike (the migrants, the poor and homeless, the minority, the other) and are trying to “keep out” are actually more likely to stop and help in their genuine love of neighbor than the religious and pious. This same social critique of Jesus’ day remains true today. Like the religious elite in ancient Israel, many of us in modern privileged, white christianity are too busy “winning souls” (like my colonizing forefathers) to consider first how to love all of our neighbors .
The real message of loving your neighbor, is that showing compassion, empathy, solidarity, and sacrificial hospitality is how we love. Especially if they seem different.
We love with compassion, with action, without judgment.
We don’t love by getting the answers right.
In that case we are legalistic text-obsessed lawyers straining at gnats while swallowing camels.
What would communities look like that prioritized compassion and empathy followed by active expressions of hospitality ? Imagine if all of the energy used to convince people we had the right answer, was translated into active love of neighbor.
That feels, at least a little, like hope in the future repaired.
I remember a few years back when I really began to pivot in my spiritual journey. I was on the trail of discovering what I knew to be true but was yet unsure how to articulate it.
One day I was wrapped in a sort of quasi-argument with someone in my church community and like many before this man was agitated and confused by our conversation.
We kept doing this awkward back and forth until we finally reached it.
As we spoke it seemed clear that his perfectly ironed and pressed worldview was beginning to falter, and in his mounting frustration I saw a moment of vulnerability that I don’t necessarily think he meant to show.
“My life’s goal is to love well,” or something like that I had just conceded.
With a mixture of longing, fear, and denial in his eyes he snapped back, “But what does that even mean?”
A few awkward seconds went by while all of his religious instruction took back over his thinking from his momentary flirtation with his own uncertainty, “we need things we can measure, we can count, we can see. We need to see the fruit of our labor in how many people come to faith, that’s what love means.”
He confirmed something I knew all along but finally was said in plain language. I think this is a subconscious truth buried beneath mountains of denial and notches on the belt, fruit harvested and labor rewarded as they say.
Of course, in retrospect this was an extreme example regarding the confusion with love in the church, but the longer I kept my eyes open, the more I found it to be an unsettling reality in many spiritual communities. Some, it seems, are just better at talking around or hand waving through the existential crisis of realizing we have no idea how to love.
Few of us at all, in fact, seem to know how to love. Or even what love is. If it’s not the physical fruit of “souls won” or “truth told” or “missions trips taken” or “times I was nice” than what is it?
I wasn’t sure how to reply to such a stark contrast of worldview in the midst of this deteriorating discussion. So I smiled in anxious heartbreak.
“This is where we part,” I thought silently to myself.
Since that time I’ve grown in a capacity to articulate why I was comfortable seeking love as my life’s goal, and many around me would remark on my “compromise” or “backsliding.”
Since this time I’ve been learning how in the evangelical, sacred text-based culture that I came from, deciding that people don’t need you to save them is the ultimate sign that satan has won over your heart.
From another perspective though, I found Love. And Love doesn’t need converts.
Sometimes, it seems, that in our pursuit of “winning souls” we were straining at gnats while missing the camel, traveling land and sea to make them twice the children of hell that we were, to paraphrase an old teacher.
After all, a world based on the premise of me, “empowered by the spirit” or not, saving other people from a a vague metaphysical eternity of torment seems like a contender for hellish living if you ask me.
So in this vein of thought, I want to unpack three ways that we are encouraged to love from the christian tradition. You don’t have to be a christian to read or be encouraged by these meditations, they will in no way be sectarian or denominational. Having come from the tradition of the christian church, however, it is a healthy starting point for my own psyche as I begin to parse through the ways that my faith actually informs me to live verses the hell in which I was spiritually weaned.
I desire that together we can sow the seeds of hope repaired and love restored in a short series of mediations.
First, “Loving Your Neighbor”
Finally, “Creative Love.”
We will see how each of these three arms of love work like a family where each member is uncomfortably dependent upon the other.
I’d be honored if you’d join me.