The self-made man. This is an image (misogynistic as it is) that defines an ideal in our country. It paints a picture of the man who is on his own who is independent who is strong who dont need nobody, no how.
It is an enticing image that plays into and supports the culture of self-improvement that has grown up around us. Taken to its extremes, as theologian Dylan Breuer points out, self-improvement moves toward self-reinvention. Think about Madonna or better yet, Prince. Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he went by his first name, Prince, became The artist known by an unpronounceable symbol or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, then returned to Prince.
With examples like this, when we more ordinary folks look in the mirror, I wonder how many of us suspect our lives could be more exciting or better if we were different a bit thinner a bit faster a bit more efficient a bit more (fill in the blank). We are easy prey for an entire industry that convinces us to buy CDs and DVDs that promise us fewer wrinkles flatter stomachs sharper minds a better us!
And the newer, improved us would have no end of self-esteem. We would be the us that finds the purpose that is destined to drive our lives. We would be the us that connects in just the right way with the Divine, by whatever name It/He/She is known to us. There we might finally escape the voices in our heads that say we arent good enough. We could become those new, improved people who, at last, deserve good things.
We Christians have a particularly insidious bent toward self-improvement to which we can fall sway. Some of us refer to it as the call to discipleship. Once we have signed on the dotted line as believers, we do what we are certain Jesus would do. We work for justice and peace and we are grateful that we are counted among Gods good boys and girls. Or we might call it being born again. We say a formulaic prayer and we are grateful that we are among Gods good boys and girls those who are saved.
Whether we attribute our new and improved status to God, Jesus, ourselves, or a combination thereof, we are convinced we are on the path from here to there from what we were to a better us. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is, following Jesus is not about how to be good. Its not even about how to be better at least, not in the way our culture teaches. Jesus way is not about self-improvement.
As Breuer puts it, Jesus way invites us into a community where we disconnect from the network of relationships we live in that perpetuate injustice, death, and alienation. As much as we may think of ourselves as independent, you and I are all part of interlocking, overlapping systems family systems, political systems, economic systems, environmental systems. The list goes on. How many of those systems rely on those without power to keep those with power at the top? How many of those systems divide us one from another and keep us isolated and vulnerable? How many of those systems psychically and spiritually diminish and eventually destroy not just the weakest among us, but even the powerful?
Jesus way invites us into a network of relationships that brings healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in the eternal. Giving ourselves to new or redeemed systems, even when we can see how they may be more life-giving, calls us to step away from what is familiar. Just because you and I might step out on Jesus path, theres no assurance that we wont bring our old habits with us.
But we have a choice. What if we really (no, I mean really) lived as though we were bound together as one loving family ... not self-made, independent people, but part of a loving whole. Can you imagine how the patterns and systems of this world, which are typically about self-perpetuating power, would be different? Those systems will change only as we, their constituent parts, choose a different way. Imagine an economy that took seriously that this world is our common inheritance. Consider a world view in which we saw each and every child as our own little sister or brother. What would having a focus on the family mean then?
These are things Jesus was about. He saw a different reality and lived it. He threatened the systems and the status quo on which those in power relied, and they killed him. You can believe a lot more about Jesus. Many of us do. But what if the world were to turn to the reality Jesus called the Kingdom and started living there? Forget the whole world. What if just we who call ourselves Christians did?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or [email protected].