By Parker Brown
Originally published in The Spirit of Grace, Grace Episcopal Church, Syracuse, New York.
Reasonable Christianity is an oxymoron. The Gospels bristle with categorical imperatives, which have nothing to do with measured or reasonable behavior. In Luke 14:25-33, for example, we find Jesus demanding that discipleship come ahead of family and laying down the law that whoever fails to bear his own cross and follow him cannot be his disciple. Furthermore, anyone who doesn’t renounce all that the person has cannot be his disciple. Throughout the Gospels we read of Jesus placing radical demands on his adherents, not just that they lay down their nets and follow him, but that they practice nonviolence, forgiveness and reconciliation.
And yet most of us manage to proceed quite happily, thank you, in a different spirit, the spirit of measured behavior and reasonableness. We substitute reasonable Christianity for radical Christianity. We do not drop everything and follow Jesus. We do not part with all of our possessions for the sake of others. We do not take to the streets in opposition to our country’s wars. Instead, we do what we can, often in a minor key, and sleep well enough at night.
Who wouldn’t welcome a reasonable attitude, you may be thinking, after the horrors of zealotry in the 20th century. Lenin and Stalin, for example, expected the faithful to put Party ahead of family, did they not.
But reasonableness can lead to complacency, turning commandments into suggestions, turning “thou shalt” into “why not consider.” Which brings me to one of the Grace Church Book Group’s reading selections last fall, Wallace Shawn’s one-person performance piece titled “The Fever” – not a popular choice.
Wallace Shawn is the son of longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn and may or may not be a guilt-ridden Park Avenue liberal. But he wrote – and performed himself – the role of such a person in “The Fever.” It has come to the attention of the “I” in the piece, the narrator/performer, that he lives a life of privilege while others do not. He knows about the poor and oppressed, but they are remote from his cocooned existence. He likes classical music and the good things that go with a Park Avenue life: “the city with its lights, the theaters, coffee shops, newsstands, books. The constant celebration.” But the others, who do not enjoy the good things, weigh on his conscience.
How did the gulf between haves and havenots come about, the narrator asks. He then recounts details of his family and childhood: Before his birth a fortune was patiently, and violently, amassed. When it had reached ample proportions, the expansion ended and defense of the fortune began. “The violence can stop,” the narrator says. “From now on, no more stealing, no more killing. From this moment, an eternal silence, the rule of law.” The rule of law, that is, which keeps the poor at a safe distance from the narrator.
But the poor are needed to support the Park Avenue life, to pick the fruit and wash the babies. “And so in our frozen world, our silent world,” the narrator says, “we have to talk to the poor. Talk, listen, clarify, explain. They want things to be different. They want change. And so we say, Yes. Change. But not violent change. Not theft, not revolt, not revenge. Instead, listen to the idea of gradual change. Change that will help you, but that won’t hurt us. Morality. Law. Gradual change.”
But “first, we have to make more…, so more will be available for us to give. Otherwise, if we give you more,” the privileged narrator says to the unprivileged, “we’ll have less. When we make more…, we can all have more – some of the increase can go to you.” “Last year, we made more…, but we didn’t give you more. All of the increase was kept for ourselves. That was wrong. The same thing happened the year before, and the year before that. We have to convince everyone… next year [to] give some of the increase to you.”
In a delusional moment, however, the narrator believes he is approached by a beggar: “Yes, you think – there’s money in your purse – you’ll give her some of it. And a voice,” – presumably conscience, as the writer Wallace Shawn sees it, but why not the Holy Spirit? – “says – Why not all of it? Why not give her all you have?” But the narrator continues, “Be careful, that’s a question that could poison your life.” “If you hear that question, it means you’re sick. You’re mentally sick. You’ve had a breakdown.”
Well, to the Book Group, I think, this hardedged monologue came across as hectoring. What gives Shawn the right to label others as morally deficient? Shawn himself didn’t give away everything in his purse; he continued to lead the good life, didn’t he.
My own – minority – take on “The Fever” is that it is a provocation, which, as a work of fiction, doesn’t depend on the moral stature of the author. Nor is Shawn necessarily advocating that everything be given away. Rather he is reminding privileged Park Avenue listeners that they are privileged.
So far as I know there isn’t a single Park Avenue liberal in the Grace Church Book Group, yet, even there, the shoe pinched. In relative terms, few of us are not materially better off – or better off by a country mile – than those living in much of the planet. “The Fever” and its implications makes us uncomfortable.
But do the Gospels, which we read every Sunday, make us uncomfortable? What Jesus is recorded as having said may not be as raw as Wallace Shawn, but it is as uncompromising. Has reasonable Christianity pushed the real thing aside?