Courageous Love in the Midst of Imperial Push and Pull

As I sat there in my thinking chair, pondering my recent study of Christian doctrine from the fall of Rome to the eve of the Renaissance, I asked myself: where does all this lead? Before I could think too long, my daughter Rosie brought me a live “cave” cricket she found in her room. She found it caught on a piece of duct tape and was obviously fascinated by it. I, on the other hand, was more fascinated by her fascination than in the cricket itself, the creepy thing! Rosie and her cricket came unexpectedly upon my work, but also as a welcomed interruption. I was reminded of the line from Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Cave crickets do not make a sound, according to Rosie. Being no authority on insects, I only argued with her briefly out of fun. She talked about naming the bug and stroked its spindly legs. I asked myself: how many fathers have a daughter like mine who is fearless of bugs and of so many other things that are supposed to frighten adolescent girls? Rosie's fearlessness is an example of those things not “dreamt of” in the philosophies of conventional wisdom often served up to us as fact rather than as only one, over-blown and selective, interpretation of the facts. This cricket conversation reminded me how important it is to set my mind free of slavish convention and get myself more fully involved in the sometimes surprising realities right in front of my face.

Rosie's confidence also reminded me of that “All shall be well” notion of Julian of Norwich. I freely transpose Lady Julian's words to mean that all things are well in my life despite the pressures of what I call “branch manager” consciousness. I recently experienced a brief brush with the prospect of unemployment and family hardship. I realized—more concretely—that financial security is a gift that can't be taken for granted and that one's very identity depends to a great extent on economic and social forces, such as job status and income level. My study of the early Christian mystics reminded me that our only security in life is to be a child of the divine, a friend of friends and an intimate of intimates. Despite personal misgivings about our prospects in life, we are invited to the divine banquet, to our heavenly homeland, to the mystic bedroom, to behold God's temple. I do not have to physically go anywhere to get this experience or fit myself into any stereotypical mold. The people who taught us this lesson were women and men, but mostly women. In this impressive group were monastics and world travelers, married and singles, young and old, beautiful and disfigured. Just reflecting on their examples helped to lift the fog of depression I sometimes got, and they gave me a sense of empowerment which is so awesome because it is also so free and accessible.

According to Julian and her kind, this sense of empowerment is available as we reflect on those “dangerous” notions embedded in the gospel message of Jesus, including not only “All shall be well” but “All are invited.” The mystics are those who somehow managed to break through that wall of depression/compulsion of the imperial program which we all experience to some degree. Jesus' call to “change your mind” is a universal message echoed by mystic-types who live in caves or on the streets of the city, throughout time and around the world. Theologically, there is quite a bit of push-back to this notion of living fearlessly and courageously, particularly as it leads one to question the practices and patterns of the imperial culture. So the question I ask is this: What are the dynamics of this courageous love which allows it to struggle and thrive in the very midst of imperial push and pull?

New Skins for an Old Wine

Up until the twilight of the nominally Christian Roman empire, the church had been growing up, defining itself, and securing its political existence. Transitional times politically and economically translated into new structures socially and theologically. In response to change, the church grew new skins to house its treasured memories of Jesus the Nazarene. In the West there were new tribes of people who would be introduced to the faith. In both East and West there would be challenges to the faith from the new religion of Islam. New skins of the faith would include that of the crusading knight and of the crusading preacher. Alliances would be made between bishops of the church and warrior kings. The energy of the spontaneous monastic movement would in many cases be co-opted to support the powerful even while keeping up the appearance of devotion to sanctity. In the midst of all this evolution and change, there were many sensitive women and men who saw underneath the new skins of the church to a different sense of what the memory of Jesus called them to be. These are the folks who managed to stand out in a conformist age and in a culture and church that hardly tolerated such exceptional people with their out-of-the-box ideas.

Deep down I feel the Christian faith is potentially much more than the product that has been handed down to us by (mostly) men whose names became associated with the intellectual pounding-out of church orthodoxy, hierarchy, and laws. Some of it was surely lost or never fully allowed to develop itself. But I believe that something that is deeply true, something that is unmistakably and honestly real, can survive even the suppression of empire and the amnesia of whole generations of people. How many stories are there about genocide and near extinction in the Bible and in folk stories around the world? The Moses and Jesus infancy stories are prime examples of empire foiled by the return of the hero that the tyrant thought was wiped out. In my own studies, I noticed a theme repeated over and over again: someone stood up against empire, not with a sword or some political maneuver, but with words and a lifestyle of radical commitment. These new heroes were not critical scripture scholars—a category which didn't even exist yet—so the manner of their imitation of Jesus lacked in some ways historic continuity with his original message set in first-century Palestine. Like the crusaders, and like the monastics and martyrs before them, the new heroes forged new skins of the faith. Their skins had some resemblances to the gospel, some to the monastics and martyrs, some even to the crusading knights and lords of the spiritual realm who they were so closely related to in culture and context. But there was something very different about them.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

I could talk about a number of witnesses who lived according to a hope bigger than empire. Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Prague, Beatrice of Nazareth, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, and the beguines are folks that come to mind. What a breath of fresh air to study these women! They lived a freedom of the spirit that eschewed the little intellectual boxes of their day. In an age of men and in a religious culture of crusade, they rocked as harbingers of a deeper contemplation-in-action, perhaps foreshadowing the perspectives of early Friends in the centuries to come. The beguines in particular found ways to break the mold of a woman as being either wife or nun with a corresponding focus that went beyond domestic duty or intercessory prayer. The beguines went out into the world to do good without concern for male escort or the oversight of an ecclesiastical “big brother.” It is interesting to note how their influence on the ancestry of my family of faith has been lost to a great extent to history's eraser. So much energy lost through lack of recognition! But the energy wasn't really lost forever. We have no idea how much of it has survived in the works of others, whether recognized or not.

Many men also witnessed against the empire's “love it or leave it” mentality. A case in point is the icon controversy in the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire. One of the basic concerns of the Eastern emperor in the iconoclastic controversy was how to control the spirituality of the people. The sacraments could be controlled. The liturgy, to a great extent, could be controlled, but icons? How to keep this deep and emotionally appealing spirituality under the control of big brother—the emperor and his political machine of lesser and greater officials and clergy? Spirituality and public policy were closely tied together from the earliest days of Constantine. When the Emperor Leo III issued his first edict in 726 against icon veneration, he was continuing the imperial habit of intruding on people's faith as an exercise of imperial power. John Damascus and Theodore the Studite were not too afraid to stand up against this power in order to defend a beloved aspect of people's piety. Through spoken and written words, in exile and out, these Christians were able to lead others to oppose and eventually to successfully overturn the policies of the imperial military-religious complex; but it did not come without cost. Like the courageous women mentioned earlier, these folks were only able to stand up to the push-back of empire because they were willing to give up security, esteem, and comfort for a deeper cause. They gave these up because they were absorbed by a more compelling cause mediated to them by their unique brand of memory in regards to the man from Nazareth.

The Epitome of This Courageous Love

Perhaps the most exciting passages that I have read recently were by Julian of Norwich. I already alluded to her famous “All shall be well” line from her Revelation of Love. I realize I have only scratched the surface of Julian's deep spirituality, but I believe that she stands solidly in the tradition of courageous love and independence outside the box of the imperial-religious complex of her day. Julian, like all of the courageous and mystical Christians touched upon here, was a person both of her time and above it as well. She was a woman who found her freedom in the confines of a solitary cell. She was a universal type of spiritual writer who found her images in a particular faith tradition. She spoke of titles like Lord and Servant, and of relational terms like mother and son, in somewhat predictable ways common to her culture and times. But she could be creative in the surprising ways she mixed the terms, such as a Lord who transgresses the usual boundary between high born and low born, or of a God who is nurturing instead of demanding. Boundaries seem to be made for crossing for Lady Julian! Most strikingly, she seems at times to cross the boundary between the soul and God as if she were skipping over a small creek:

...our soul is made-trinity like to the unmade blissful Trinity, known and loved from without beginning, and in the making it is oned to the Maker.

                                                                                    Revelation 55

I was struck by the correlation brought out in Shelly Rambo's study Empire and the Christian Tradition (ECT), Chapter 12, between Lady Julian's parable of the Servant/Lord and the our modern American context of empire on the down-turn. The fourteenth century was a disastrous time for Europe and Christianity due to problems like the bubonic plague, wars of all kinds, the Babylonian captivity of the Pope, plus the usual amounts of corruption, disease, and human ignorance. In the midst of all of this chaos, Julian of Norwich becomes an anchoress and eventually writes down her extraordinary visions of courageous love in the midst of imperial mismanagement of the garden of humanity. Without detailing Rambo's ideas in ECT, I want to respond to the new memory of Jesus put forward by Julian. In short, it is a memory in direct contrast to the Jesus and God of her prevailing culture. Instead of a crusading warlord or a stern judge of good and bad “soldiers for Christ,” Jesus' God is depicted as a person who deeply feels the wounds of human beings and who desires to bring them back to health and to home. Jesus' role in this scenario is to be both the Adam who is healed and the healer himself who heals by patiently working in the garden of the city. The Adam-Jesus doesn't go on the offensive to fight and kill the enemy. Instead, he turns his eyes to the wounded ones and witnesses for their needs in a world gone cold and confused. I love how Rambo compares this with the soldiers of American wars who need to be seen instead of ignored by a nation more concerned with imperial image than for human dignity.

Of course, the wounded are not only the servant-soldiers. Branch manager is another name for servant. Like the wounded servant, I too am, and everyone who reads this is to some extent, a member of the walking wounded. We are tangled up with the demands of empire and the resultant experiences of inadequacy and defeat—by trying to do every impossible thing that this empire impels us to want. The more I reflect on this drivenness, the more real is my need for such a God and savior as Julian describes.

Why This Topic Is Important to Me

Courageous love in the midst of the suffering caused by empire is as timely a topic now as it was in the Middle Ages. This makes sense because people are still trying to live a dream, any dream, that can lift their lives above the chaos of mindless manipulation, which is one way to experience empire from below—where most of us live our lives. Empire is short-hand for many things, including disregard for the dignity of persons, egotistical promotion of the powerful over the disadvantaged, war as a constant pattern of conflict resolution (which never resolves the underlying causes for war to begin with), and so on. For theological purposes, empire is especially a concern as it takes control of a religious memory and puts a new coat of paint, the color of “fool’s gold”, over it. This is done consciously or unconsciously, and it fools most of the people most of the time. About the folks of courageous love it can be said: you can't fool all of the people all of the time. (Thank God!) Some precious few will opt to remember Jesus, or Mohammad, or Moses, or add your own teacher in this place, in a new and radically freeing way, inspired by an ideal in many ways incompatible with empire. In the faith traditions that memorialize Jesus, that ideal is most often called “love”.

So, without intending it, I wrote this piece through the inspiration of my spontaneous love for Rosie, my brilliant middle child, and more specifically, out of a love for her fearlessness in the face of a big, creepy cave cricket. Perhaps we are born with such fearlessness, or meant to be. The people I wrote about here as a group, and more selectively with Lady Julian, could look in the face of gloom and suffering and callousness, and not lose their courage to love. I doubt if there is such a thing as love without courage, but what my faith teaches me is this: if I am knocked down and feel defeated, I can depend on a source of courage greater than mine to pull me back again into the place of love. There certainly is nothing creepy about that!

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  1. Jeff Arnold | | Reply

    Wonderful meditation, Ray. Scholarly and deeply spiritual at the same time.
    You remind me of the fact that those who are called to love and serve the lord have always done so in the context of the demands of “empire”- nothing new about that! The imperial demands of our day may seem particularly urgent, but thus it has always seemed.
    Your thoughts on Jesus as the new Adam remind me that in Jesus we see not a return to the “dreaming innocence” (Tillich) of the old Adam, but in fact a “new” Adam, one who is fully conscious of the post-Eden history of humankind, the history of empire as you describe it. That is what we are called to, and what you find in Julian and the others of her ilk.

  2. Michael Ramos | | Reply

    Your essay reminds me of Soren Kierkegaard’s quote which speaks to the values of autonomy and authenticity as guides towards personal religious beliefs and practices. “The first condition of all religiousness is to be an individual, for it is impossible to build up or to be built up en masse.”

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