God: Forcing us into repentance or patiently waiting for us to ask for help?

September 5, 2006

Breaking down bordersI went on a retreat last week as part of my new seminarian orientation.  It was a lot of fun, and I am enjoying my new life tremendously.

As a part of the retreat, we were asked to watch a movie, The Three Burials of Melquidades Estrada,and asked to do so in order to discuss the movie’s position towards salvation and repentance.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, you should.  If you are going to see it, stop reading because I’m going to ruin the plot in the rest of the post…  I really enjoyed the film.  It does contain some pretty graphic scenes, but I think they are necessary as a part of the broken main character’s story.  The movie is the story of a border guard who accidentally kills a Mexican immigrant, and then does not face up to it.  The immigrant’s friend (Tommy Lee Jones) is looking for justice, and “helps” the guard to find repentance and ultimately salvation, most of the time through force- sometimes at gunpoint.

There is one sequence, though, where the guard has run away from the friend of the deceased immigrant into the desert.  The guard does not have any boots or shoes, so the guard can’t go far.  Rather than chasing the guard and forcing him back onto the path, Tommy Lee Jones (who plays Pete, the friend of the immigrant) waits patiently for the guard to realize that his only road to salvation is to come back to him; the bearer of water, horses, and who knows the way out of the desert and to their destination.

In processing this film, I was figuring out what I wanted to say when it came time to discuss the film in our group.  I decided that I was going to say something like this:  I realize that many people experience Christ much as Pete was acting in most of the film; as someone that is almost holding a gun to our head; an entity that requires of us much humiliation and potentially suffering in order to find the road to salvation because our ways are so twisted and sinful.  That is not my experience.  My experience is much more like Pete when he was in the desert; of Christ as the patient entity, knowingly waiting for us to come of our own accord to him, who bears the cup of life that can lead us into the promised land– not forcefully, but gently.  He that looks knowingly at us from afar as we struggle in the desert, consciously walking away from him rather than toward him, but he stands there with arms open- knowing that sooner or later we will figure out what it is inside of us that needs to be filled with the bread and the wine that only he has to offer.

I spent quite a bit of time pondering this, and the difference between the two paradigms.  We never got around to a full group discussion of the film (as one of my professors said, “You will learn very quickly in seminary that we many times start things that we do not have time to finish”), but we were sitting around the breakfast table one morning discussing it informally when someone said that they liked the film because it demonstrated that we are a “stiff-necked people” and that we sometimes need God to “beat us over the head” in order for us to find the way to salvation (in the movie, most of Pete’s time was not spent patiently waiting as I have focused on but beating the guard down and breaking through his stubbornness).

I used that opportunity to say, “Interesting- because that is not my experience…” and went on to describe my experience of Christ being patient as opposed to demanding.

I don’t believe that it is so much an “either/or” as a “both/and.”  I am reminded so much of the Groody book I discussed several weeks ago when I discussed humility and the power of the poor.  We are so trapped by our own experiences that it seems to be very hard to imagine that others may experience Christ as something very different than we do.

To quote Groody again on humility, because it seems relevant here:

Preaching humility to the powerless is enslaving, while preaching humility to the empowered is liberating.

It is so clear to me that there can be no “one size fits all” religion.  Christ is so versatile that he meets us wherever we are on our journey.  If we need humility, then we get it.  If we need strength, we get strength.  It is so dangerous in our faith to assume that what we get from Christ is what others need, and I believe it is a mistake that is made far too often.

One other comment that was made during the retreat that seemed to cause some discussion was what it means to be “of one mind” within the Body of Christ.  For me, being of one mind perhaps is the wrong metaphor.  Being of one heart perhaps rings closer- I do not believe that the theology, the doctrine, nor the “head-based” rationalization of our experience with Christ is necessary within this church nor within the Body.  But I do think that we must learn to feel with our hearts the experiences of each others stories, we must learn to understand how to hear how we affect each other in our common shared lives, we must learn how we can help each other in Christ Jesus who is here in the “least of these”, and we must agree that it is in the strings that tug at the corners of our hearts that we must work to ensure that our minds don’t work so hard to push these things out of our hearts that we don’t forget what it is that we are called to do in Christ Jesus here on earth- love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In my experience love comes not at gunpoint but comes from the heart; comes not from the head but from patience and kindness; comes not from judgement but from compassion.  In that compassion we must be open to all points of view, experiences, and the many ways in which Christ works in the world in order that we may not blind ourselves in our ignorance.



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