Two weeks ago, a woman who had become known to our church community through the course of the past several months suddenly passed away on the sidewalk in front of our church building. Her name was Jenny. Jenny was a particularly private person and at the time of her death we didn’t even know her name, let alone much about her life. We did know her, though, for her gentleness of spirit and her smile. She was one of so many who make their dwelling on the streets of our city and one of the number who make their way to our particular community of faith.
For our church, Jenny’s passing has only deepened our resolve to reach out in friendship and service to those most in need, at times right there on our doorstep. Yet her death has also opened up a more mutual space of relationship and identity for us. A couple of days after Jenny died, family members from across the country began to get in touch. We were able to gather with them for an evening’s service of memorial in the side chapel that Jenny had sometimes known as her church home. The family members who came joined us around the communion table as we were reminded in that simple meal of bread and wine how our difference is subverted by the Spirit who binds all humanity into one.
For me, the question of how we retain the memory of Jenny’s life and loss is to ask how we are to be the Church in the liminal space between street and sanctuary. In the night, Jenny would straddle that edge between the street and the sanctuary, sleeping under the eaves of our church entrance. In the day, she died on a small strip of grass with that sanctuary space as most likely her last image of life on Earth. The between-space, that for us marks a death, is now the place where we are called to find the Lord of life. As we seek him there, may we dare to hope that by pitching the tent beyond the church walls something might be changed, starting with ourselves.
So, I did it again. Ashes in small bowl, purple stole, black clerical shirt, down to the boardwalk. Placing my heels on the first grains of the sand of the Pacific, I stand. I wait. This goes on for a while.
As I stand, I notice the range of responses that passers-by have. The most common reaction is the non-reaction. Most people walk by, say nothing, don’t look my way at all. After all, this is Pacific Beach, and people do weird things all the time, so much so that you can stand out here if you aren’t making a scene of yourself.
The second category of passer-by is the ‘sniggerer’. Some sneak a sideways look, others nudge one another and grin. This group often contains a sub-group of ‘double-takers’, just to ensure that what their brain is telling them they have just seen is actually what they have just seen.
So, I stand there, and wonder to myself, ‘is this street theology?’ an embodied evangelism minus the soapbox and loud haler? As I ponder the nature of what exactly I am up to, I notice the third category of passer-by: the one who stops. They are few, it must be said, but their diversity of responses is fascinating.
‘You getting many customers?’ one man asks. He’s one of those who stop to ask a question. Another asks what the ashes stand for, another why Ash Wednesday is today and not another day. My favorite of this group of question-askers is the elderly Italian woman on a bike who comes abruptly to a halt to ask,
‘Episcopal’, comes the reply, and she rides on, arguing with her husband in Italian.
With all of this are the family dynamics that get revealed as people choose to engage the religious-looking person a little out of place at the beach. One woman brings her mother to be ‘ashed’, another commands his wife to have their children have ashes imposed – ‘they have to do it!’ – despite the mother’s protest (they end up moving on, with only the dad receiving ashes). ‘This is church’, he retorts, prophetically.
Lots to to think about in the course of an hour. Nice weather too. But what was it all for? Was it art, as the young man who asked to take my picture on his i-Phone, ‘It’s pure art, man, and you don’t know it’. Is that the life of the Church in today’s society, a relic of an art form, a beach walk show? Or is it about being recognized, ‘being visible’ as churches like to say? As I made my way back to the church at the end of my time on the boardwalk, a young man in shirt and tie says to me as he passes, ‘People treat you differently when you’re all dressed up’. Is that it? Is this about being treated to a different kind of conversation than normal? Do church symbol and ritual action allow us to speak to one another in different ways than we might otherwise?
Perhaps the Church in our world is all of the above: a spectacle, something to ignore, something to joke about, a space to ask questions, a space for family and other relationships to get played out within a narrative of the divine-human relationship, a vehicle for symbol and art, a way for us to have a different kind of conversation with one another. In the end, the Jehovah’s Witness who cycled by and stopped for a chat had it down to one concise insight: ‘people think that we are trying to convert everyone, we just want them to make a connection to God’. This is the age of connections after all, the networked age. Maybe I should come down here more often.
French philosopher, Michel Foucault, made the case that society is governed by an archaeology of knowledge, a set of unwritten rules that influence what is stated about a particular category of knowledge at any particular time, and how that statement of knowledge is related to other statements of knowledge. These ‘rules of formation’ of the discourses of society are what Foucault describes as an ‘archaeology of knowledge’.
We are living in a time of such a discourse, a discourse about mental health that has been co-opted into the political struggle over gun control. Early on in the public debate over gun control following the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, mental health entered the scene, touted as a serious contender for American society to find a lasting solution to the problem of mass shootings. As well as the assertion that ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun‘, the National Rifle Association made the case in its very first public statement of substance following Sandy Hook that what was needed was an ability to know who is sane and who is not:
“How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame …A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”.
Mental Health advocates have rightly cheered the efforts being made to bolster mental health services that could help millions of individuals and families gain access to preventative care and on-going support and advocacy. Yet, beneath all of the rhetoric is an archaeology of our society’s discourse about mental health. A mass shooting of children is such a hauntingly terrible loss of human life that we are inclined to look for apparently productive ways forward wherever we can find them. Yet, the rules of the formation of our discourse of the past several weeks have led to a conversation about an archaeology of difference: the point about Adam Lanza that all of this public narrative drives home is that he was different to us. The photographs, the descriptions of the life he led, the covers of magazines all seemingly cement this view.
Yet, what this accumulation of image and word around Adam Lanza’s supposed difference to the rest of society most reveals is not difference but sameness. In a society such as ours where between the Sandy Hook massacre and the President’s Inauguration there were over 1000 fatal shootings, the conversation that we are yet to have is why we are so easily inclined to react violently to one another. Sandy Hook stands at the apex of a vast trend in our nation where angry outbursts aimed at complete strangers are not only common but to be anticipated, so much so that our lexicon has enlarged to accommodate the shades of rage we should expect on one another: road rage, web rage, air rage, even desk rage.
We equate freedom of expression as our ability to say what we want, when we want, and how we want. We live in times when our ability to customize our daily experiences – from our music to our Facebook friends – is in danger of making our worldview myopic. Ours is an age of profound impatience and excessive demand for consumer satisfaction. And all of this, in all of its ubiquity across America, is the context within which a desperately deranged young man tragically took the lives of 26 human souls two and a half months ago.
One of the most essential gifts of the Christian tradition to our world is the theological assertion that we are fundamentally the same. Each of us is made in God’s image. Each of us bears his likeness. Each of us is beloved by him. Christianity’s voice in the public square is one that says to the world that an archaeology of difference is ultimately a flawed project. One of the Church’s great gifts to the societies that it finds itself in is that it has been willing to offer public voice to the deep need we have to reflect on our life together. Our current debate in this country about gun control and mental illness is too narrow. We need to look at ourselves and ask why it is that we are willing to live so estranged from one another, and the Church needs to offer a word of hope to that conversation that says a customized and ego-driven universe is not the only one on offer.