For the past year, I’ve been having a crisis of faith. And it’s not about my faith in God, which is unshaken. Rather, it is a crisis of my faith in humans, and in my capacity for loving my enemy, even some of my neighbors. My own crisis has to do with a few personal relationships and lines of hurt and division where it seems better to disengage and ignore than to stay open to verbal assaults. Also, I’m just so mad that I don’t trust what I would say to them. It is not likely to be loving. Meanwhile, the weekly lectionary has been mocking me with Luke’s parables and Paul’s exhortations toward radical love and discipleship.
Then I picked up Colson Whitehead’s recently released, brilliant novel The Nickel Boys, and my crisis sharpened and deepened. Set in the early 1960s, Whitehead’s book follows two black teenagers, Elwood and Turner, who are incarcerated in the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida based on the actual Dozier School. The boys face their time, and the cruelty and injustice they find everywhere at Nickel, in different ways. Turner keeps his head down and does his time quietly. He endures the humiliations of the place and simply seeks to avoid the harsher punishments.
But Elwood, before he was unjustly sent to Nickel, had a teacher who was a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, and Elwood had spent considerable time listening to and contemplating the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., which he had on a record. So, he entered Nickel with a strong belief in the basic goodness of people and a belief in Dr. King’s words. And because of that he is more apt to act, to fight injustice or to help someone weaker and in trouble. But he is in Nickel, probably the worst place to believe things can change, populated with the worst kind of human beings: sadists, violent racists, and child molesters.
Every Sunday for weeks, the readings from Luke have spoken to me of this radical love as I have struggled with certain people in my life.
As Elwood struggles with whether to keep his head down or act, he contemplates Dr. King’s words:
King described agape as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side of the struggle.
Like Elwood, I want to believe in a “pure love for their oppressors.”
And every Sunday for weeks, the readings from Luke have spoken to me of this radical love as I have struggled with certain people in my life. That experience culminated in a recent homily on Luke’s parables, focusing on the Prodigal Son. The visiting priest interpreted it as an example of “the difficulty of achieving pure, unreasonable love.” Jesus was crucified for that unreasonable love. King was shot. Love like this requires the ability to suffer.
Elwood knows love often means suffering, but he desperately wants to believe and act according to King’s exhortation. The passage continues:
Elwood tried to get his head around [King’s message], now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now.
Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.
After thinking it over, Elwood shakes his head. “What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.” And yet, he cannot give up his desire to act in a way that will expose the horrors of Nickel and set the boys free. To do nothing makes him feel dead, “like one of those Negros Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.”
I’m with Elwood: What a thing to ask. And of course, in my situation the stakes are low. If I provoke with love, there’s no risk I’ll be met with actual violence. Unlike Elwood, these people only have emotional power over me, not actual physical power. But also like Elwood, I wonder how I can actually love them given what has happened.
I won’t tell you what Elwood does or doesn’t do, and what happens next, because everyone should have the pleasure of reading this book without spoilers. It is important. It is a classic, sure to be a high school textbook for years to come. And for Christians, those who desire to live the radical love of Christ, it is essential reading. Jesus asks us to love our enemies with agape love—that’s where King got it.
Personally, I got tired of squirming in the pew and went to see my priest (a big deal, because I am very distrustful of religious authorities), to ask him what I could do to remain Christian in my relationships. He heard the story and said, “Disengage. It’s over. There’s no relationship there and unlikely to be one.” I asked him: “What about agape, practicing the radical love of Christ?” He said, “Yeah, but there is also ‘shake the dust off your sandals.’ Why keep putting yourself in a position of being hurt?”
To cultivate that love for those specific people may be a way beyond the hurt and anger, a way to know when I encounter them I will only speak with love.
I wasn’t satisfied with that. For one thing, I am not going to “leave town.” I talked with a church friend about my struggle, and she recommended praying for them as a way to build empathy. It’s advice I tend not to think of because I was raised in the school of: “pray the person will come around and be who you want them to be” not “pray for empathy and love for that person and the ability to see your own faults as well as accept theirs.” Needless to say, I’m practicing the second kind of prayer. Because to express agape love, I have to actually feel it first, burning in my chest. Perhaps it could even become like armor.
To cultivate that love for those specific people may be a way beyond the hurt and anger, a way to know when I encounter them I will only speak with love. It will hopefully be so strong that they are unable to hurt me with their responses. Or maybe they will surprise me. Maybe there is a way to restore my faith in both my ability to love and others to respond in kind.