The film 28 Days begins as uncomfortably as any film could. Sandra Bullock plays Gwen Cummings who after a night of drinking and sex arrives drunk and late to her sister Lily’s wedding. She proceeds to make a complete fool out of herself and destroys anyone’s chance at having a good day.
The line that always gets me is uttered early on by Lily. She looks Gwen in the eyes and says, “Gwen, you make it impossible to love you.”
It is impossible to love an addict. Addicts are the most selfish people on the face of the earth. Addicts have a special brand of narcissism that is deadly and out of control. It is so out of control that the addict is often the last to realize he or she has a problem and in many cases will refuse to acknowledge a problem all the way to the death-bed. I have known people who literally drank themselves to death still convinced that they did not have a problem. As the Big Book of AA says alcohol is “Cunning, baffling, powerful.”
Unfortunately addiction and all of its vicious symptoms of self-centeredness and blatant self-destructive behaviors are not limited to the addict alone. These are behaviors that all of humanity engages in to some degree. The Buddha was aware of this problem. In his teaching everything is suffering and everything is suffering because we can’t let go of anything even if every power of reason tells us that holding on will hurt us and others in the process. If our beliefs about God are challenged, if our property is in danger of getting wiped out or stolen, if we might lose a friend or look bad in front of someone else, or if we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar, our first reaction is to tighten our grip. The threat of losing something is far more powerful than the lure of getting it.
The Christian saints and mystics are very intimate with their discussion of the passions and how our desires latch us on to everything that is not God. It is this addictive behavior that only fuels our ignorance to the good things of the world. Following our passions not only pulls us from God, but pulls us from the people were are supposed to be. The more we refuse to let go of what makes us feel safe and what makes our identity feel solid the more we hurt ourselves and others. The one source of identity that we are to seek is the mystical union with God as God is, not as we insist God to be.
Detaching from the world as we understand it and checking ourselves against the often brutal fact that we are not the center of anyone’s universe undercuts everything we grow up believing about self-esteem and the rewards of the endless popularity contests of a sick Western society. The religious ascetics, mystics, and monks dumped all of this by traveling to caves and deserts to find God and liberation. Their discovery is that God is inside of us. The problem is that the noise and psychological pollution of the world are so strong we are clueless to that simple fact.
Not all of us will go to caves and deserts. So what do we need to do?
The foundation for our spiritual malady is repentance. Repentance comes with honesty. Honesty to any addict can come only when others hold a mirror up to us and tell us more about the truth of who we are. Those who tell us only what we want to hear are called enablers. Those who tell us what we need to hear in order to recover from our world sickness are friends. But if the truth doesn’t sting a little, it’s probably not true.
The church today is loaded with enablers. It is loaded with people so blinded in their own biases and opinions both of their selves and others, that admitting personal responsibility for wrong doing is nearly impossible. From all of the crap surrounding both Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll to all of their apologists; to the crazed behaviors of Bob Jones’ casual way of dismissing its own history of mishandling sexual abuse; or the untold millions of dollars pilfered off the desperate, sick, lonely, and elderly by the likes of Benny Hinn and Robert Tilton; to the bizarre meanderings of Pat Robertson or the sickening cover-ups of Catholic bishops to avoid condemnation for complicity in sexual abuse; the only apology we hear is the kind that is a self-defense rather than a contrite begging of forgiveness.
Worse, even when it seems like an act of forgiveness, it is turned with an amendment of self-defense. Such a dodge nullifies any attempt at repentance. Anything after “but” is indeed bullshit.
Admitting when we are wrong is healthy but somehow we too often have the false idea in our heads that it makes us weak and weakness is a bad thing. The truth is that the admission of wrongdoing and the act of repentance is an act of admitting we are already weak. Humans are fragile creatures. The lie is the persistent bull-headed belief that we must be strong individuals in the face of everything that comes against us. That’s exactly what hurts us.
Even this can go too far into the territory of self-pity. This is also horribly exhausting. This is where we are so caught up in feeling lousy about ourselves that we still refuse to do anything to change. We beg people to look at how pathetic we are rather than doing something different to be less pathetic. This is no longer repentance, it is despondence. Progressives get this way because the expectation of moral purity might be too high. I am not talking about purity, I am talking about honesty.
When a group of people vacillate between bull-headed denial and self-defense on the one hand, and despondence and self-pity on the other, I don’t know about you, but I am done with that group. The only reason I have spent time as a religious person and with religious people in the past is because there is a nourishment that take place where somehow I feel that everything will be ok even when the evidence is to the contrary. Faith and hope merge in a beautiful dance. That’s when religion is at its best.
But the church is not at it’s best.
It’s hard to fill a bucket if people are pricking holes in it. The church is emptying out faster than anyone can fill it and right now it is becoming more and more impossible to love. It is a zero-sum arena of people fighting for self-interest and in that environment, it is not sustainable.
Do your part. Repent of something. Make amends with someone you have wronged and expect nothing in return. Lord knows we have enough people out there who simply refuse to do so.