taking the words of Jesus seriously

We are living in a time of camps and drawn lines, yeah? Are you with us or are you not? Are you faithful or are you not? Are you intelligent and loving or are you not? I am a cradle member of the United Methodist Church, where it can be argued this isn’t unfamiliar. Certainly in our political environment (which is most environments right now) this rings true.

It is a quickly changing moment in history. The world is more global than it ever has been. Our lives are saturated with more news of abundant tragedy and rapid innovation than any other century before ours thought possible. As earth stares down the barrels of extinction, our political pendulum widens and the institutional Church fights the whispers and realities of disintegration. For many, it feels like chaos. For many, chaos is best combated with control.

One form of such control is dualism: the reality of dividing something into two opposing states. In a dualistic world, we can contrive an ideology where we feel safer because we have defined who is the enemy and who is the friend, who is right and who is wrong, or who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. These categories contribute to our lives a (false) sense of security and power. Because, well, if we know who is bad, we can be good. And if we are good, we can have hope when we are scared.

The problem is of course this: The world — humans, politics, faith, art, etc. — is far too complex to be pigeonholed into two categories. Furthermore, minds rarely change simply because someone has drawn a line and berated the opposing side long enough to convince them to hop over. I think I’ve never seen it happen. Like simple Sunday School answers, retaliatory violence, and Facebook fighting, feeding the machine of two-ways is an easy and unproductive route to take for multidimensional and creative people.

I’ll say it. Binaries are boring.

This morning, I gave a group of people sheets of paper with a geometric shape of a quilt square printed onto them along with a pack of colored pencils each. (Making adults mewl over mandatory crafts continues to be a spiritual gift of mine, it doth seem.)

“I am going to now read off a list of hot, opposing topics and assign a color to each side. You’re then to pick a shape to color based on your beliefs and ideologies,” I instructed. “If you fall somewhere along the spectrum, use both. If you are undecided or fall outside of the spectrum, choose a different color.”

And all God’s peacemakers said, “I’m sweating.”

Republican, red. Democrat, blue.

Pro-life, purple. Pro-choice, orange.

Full LGBT church inclusion, brown. Limited inclusion, green.

The list went on.

“Now, we’re going to color the rest of the page based on aspects of your own special personalities and experiences. Take some time to make sure that there are shapes and colors representing things like your childhood, your passions, your trauma, your achievements, your interest, your loved ones, your fears, and your dreams,” I said.

After a few minutes, I harvested the finished squares, shuffled them about like UNO cards, and hung them on a clothes line set up at the front of the room. It looked like a kaleidoscope, truly.

“We are not altogether different people here,” I remarked. “In this room, we’re Americans. We’re Shreveportians. We speak English. We know what a King Cake is. Yet, we can see just by looking at this display that it would be impossible to separate us into two camps accurately. Each person brings too much to the table to be written off simply because of one color of one tiny shape.”

Every single person on planet earth brings too much to the table to be written off simply because of one thought about one thing. So? How do we move out of two-way-only thinking? How do we encourage the alternative?

Though I’ve considered the facts, as Wendell Berry said, I still find myself compelled by Jesus who was always subverting the narrative of “friend or foe” by saying “foe is friend.” “Life or death?” Well, “death leads to life.” “Kingdom here or Kingdom there?” Yes.

Using mostly creative and confusing parables, Jesus found a way to disarm the this-or-that attacks of his day. “Should we honor Caesar or God?,” they asked him. Then he took a coin out of a fish and said, “Give Caesar his stuff,” which was incredibly creative since the coin had Caesar’s face on it, but the fish was made by God.

“Should we be passive and let people walk all over us, Jesus, or fight back when they attack?” “Turn the other cheek,” he said, which in that culture would have required the person hitting you to acknowledge you as an equal.

“Who is right and who is wrong, God?” And God tells a story that makes it all a little bit more grey than comfortable — that challenges all sorts of listening ears.

God calls us to create opportunity for more imagination, stories, and questions than answers and judgement. Parables allow people to find themselves within the character that they most relate to in a moment, meaning we don’t ever have to be anywhere we’re not in order for God to speak to us. I suspect, so it is with our neighbors. Today, I may relate to the innkeeper in the story of the Good Samaritan. Next year, maybe the wounded roadside man. Most days, I am the lawyer in the audience provoking Jesus to tell me the way to eternal life and getting miffed when he launches into another tale.

Without imagination, we say that we must conquer or be conquered, while faith calls us to be more than conquerors. Without imagination, we brace ourselves for divine punishment or reward, while God floods the world with grace and the sun rises on both good and evil. Without imagination, we either argue violently or we cower in passivity, while the spirit prompts us to craft parables that appeal to the Imago Dei (image of God) in another. Without imagination, we compulsively categorize things as sacred or profane, while Jesus holds up the very normal wine and bread and says, “This is my body.”

So while our feeds and screens, dinner tables and pulpits shout this life vs eternity! traditional vs progressive! obedient vs inclusive! innocent vs criminal! right vs wrong!, let us creatively consider what actually relates to a life or changes a mind — like narratives, small steps, friendships across lines, stories of hope, content that evokes empathy, movement that shifts pain, humor and celebration, communion and confession.

Third way creativity is about veil-tearing, enemy-loving, sea-parting, tomb-emptying, ex nihilo-creating, cheek-turning, land-healing, imaginative living into which we’ve been called and for which we’ve been equipped. But like any art, it must be surrendered to, practiced, embracing of vulnerability and forgiveness, and have room to contain multitudes all at once.

The kingdom of God is always on the other side of the fences we construct. Third-way living is the holy mischief that wells up in our chests and asks if we’re ready to hop said fence and paint a mural on the other side, or better yet, turn it over entirely to create a table for all.

I pulled the paper squares from the line, trimmed their edges, and placed them into rows of four. A poly-chromatic, complex wonder. And aren’t we, though?

This article originally appeared on Britney Winn Lee’s blog.

About The Author

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Britney Winn Lee is an author and community arts director living in Shreveport, LA, with her designer husband and big-hearted son. She's written "Deconstructed Do-Gooder: A Memoir About Learning Mercy the Hard Way" (Cascade 2019), "The Boy with Big, Big Feelings" (Beaming Books 2019), and is the editor of "Rally: Litanies for the Lovers of God and Neighbor" (Upper Room 2020). Britney is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, serves part-time with Red Letter Christians as the Editor & Communications Director, and is ever dreaming up ways to connect the church and the world. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @britneywinnlee.

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