Healing the Divided Self

by Joshua Paul Smith

A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a trendy coffee shop near downtown Denver, surrounded by tattooed hipsters and graduate students staring at computer screens in a deadline-induced stupor. I was reading the Acts of the Apostles and thinking about the President of the United States.

In Acts, Luke recounts a public address delivered by Herod Agrippa to the people of Tyre and Sidon. Agrippa succeeds in winning over the crowd, whipping them up into a frenzied mob, which heaps lavish praises upon the king: “The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:22–23).

Still thinking about the President, whose raucous campaign rally from the night before had been dominating the news cycle that day, I suddenly caught myself wondering: Is it too much to ask for a good old-fashioned divine smiting every once in a while?

The following Sunday, I visited a small Episcopal parish not far from the apartment where my wife Alyssa and I lived. As it happened, there was a baptism scheduled for that morning. As we recited the baptismal vows of the Episcopal Church together, I twisted uncomfortably in the pew as the priest intoned the following questions:

It was that “every human being” part that bothered me. Because “every” means…well, every. Full stop. No exceptions. No exit clause.

In addition to seeking justice for the marginalized and dispossessed, affirming the intrinsic value of Black and Brown lives, queer lives and the lives of the working poor, “every human being” also means respecting the dignity of the very people I find most repugnant. It means respecting the dignity of the people who use their power and privilege to disavow responsibility for their fellow human beings. It means respecting the dignity of the Agrippas of this world, and also the dignity of those who divinize and venerate the Agrippas of this world.

It is because of this hard contradiction that I so often find my heart divided against itself, caught in a shrieking feedback loop between mercy and justice, forgiveness and accountability, progress and stasis. I affirm the baptismal vows of my tradition, and with my very next breath invoke the God of Jesus Christ to rain fire upon those whom I judge to be beyond the pale. In doing so, I become guilty of a sin which Miroslav Volf describes as “the kind of purity that wants the world cleansed of the other rather than the heart cleansed of the evil that drives people out.”[2]

Yet if we truly affirm reconciliation to be one of the central charisms of Christian faith and practice (2 Cor. 5:16–21), these contradictions all must hang together somehow. If every human being is indeed created with inherent divine dignity, if every corrupt politician or white supremacist lays claim to the divine image as much as Oscar Romero or Dorothy Day, then I am forced to rethink what it means to be a part of the human community in the first place.

Rowan Williams has explored these inner contradictions for years in his various reflections on personalism. “If I conclude that my Christian brothers or sisters are deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decisions,” Williams writes, “I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds, just as those who disagree with me are wounded by what they consider to be my failure or even betrayal.” Our shared death and burial with Christ in the waters of baptism, according to Williams, ought to disabuse us of our desire for everyone to think and behave like ourselves. “The communion’s need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who are wounded as well as wounding the Church, in the trust that within the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing.”[3]

This is more than a blandly pious insistence for us to “go high” when others “go low.” It is a call both to radical humility and faithful persistence, an impossibly tall order for any one of us these days. To open ourselves to this sort of healing means acknowledging that our own humanity is bound up with those whose dignity we’d really rather not respect at all. God, of course, understands the difficulty of all this. That is why each of the questions from the baptismal vows listed above is met with the simple response, “I will, with God’s help.”

If we can acknowledge that we are all pulled in countless contradictory directions by the sum of our experiences, to the extent that even our own actions become mystifying to us, perhaps this is an opportunity for grace to take root. Each of us receives our dignity from the complex web of mutuality into which we are born already entangled. If we can face this reality unblinkingly, without giving into the impulse to erase even our enemies, perhaps — with God’s help — we will find our shared inheritance as a community of deeply broken people, united and restored by the waters of baptism.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the tenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to ghunt@cbts.edu for possible inclusion in the blog series.

Joshua Paul Smith is an alum of CBTS and a Ph.D. candidate in religion at the University of Denver. His dissertation research focuses on the Gospel of Luke, the negotiation of early Jewish and Christian identities, and contemporary post-supersessionist biblical theology. Joshua is also passionate about exploring fresh, creative ways to form and sustain Christian congregations, especially in rural communities. He currently lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with his wife Alyssa (also a CBTS graduate), their three cats, and eighty thousand honeybees.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, p.305

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 74.

[3] Rowan Williams, “On Making Moral Decisions,” Anglican Theological Review 81, no. 2 (1999), 304–305.

Painting by Matt Hindley, The Divided Self2018, Oil on Linen, 57 x 47 1/8 in.

NEW PROD: 1600678617