I’m confident I can state this without raising any eyebrows: Life is strange.
Life is strange. It’s a strangeness we probably experience on a day to day basis. It’s the strangeness of not being in complete control, where daily life continually onslaughts us with the unexpected. It’s the strangeness of poverty, where the poor are blamed for being poor and the rich are applauded for being rich. It’s the strangeness of inequality, where oppression abounds and the needs of the oppressed are generally ignored. It’s the strangeness of isolation and fear, where the weak are shunned and the powerful are embraced. It’s a strangeness that challenges us on a daily basis, and yet recent events have only increased this strangeness, leaving us baffled as to how we got here and what went wrong.
This strangeness perplexes and baffles our own sense of purpose and identity. So much so that it leaves us on the verge of nihilism and despair. It’s the overwhelming feeling of meaninglessness that leaves us on the verge of hopelessness. Life is tough, it breaks and divides us. Strangeness stems from separation, a separation that is threefold. It is separation from ourselves, each other, and God. Paul Tillich writes that there is
separation among individual lives, separation of a man [or woman] from himself [or herself], and separation of all men [and women] from the Ground of Being. – Shaking of the Foundations (1962), 156
This threefold separation divides us from ourselves, manifesting in internal feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment. The things we desire to do, the goals we set for ourselves, remain unfulfilled. What do not do the things we want to do. We don’t understand our own actions, thus our identity and purpose remain illusive. It’s the mystery of the human condition, a mystery the Apostle Paul famously summed up in Romans 7:15 (NRSV), “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” We don’t understand ourselves, therefore life almost seems preconditioned to be strange and unfamiliar.
This separation within ourselves invades our relationships with others, life bumps into life with the strangeness of fear and anxiety. Therefore the other, the one outside the self, is viewed with hostility. This separation manifests in a variety of ways, ways in which we have unfortunately grown accustomed to. Today we witness the most visible and prominent effects of separation, and the effect it has on our communities. Across our nation we witness the ways we are separated by race, sex, economics, and religion.We see the brokenness of our institutions and political systems, in their blatant disregard of people those institutions are supposed to serve. As such we observe the ways in which politicians have elevated division and separation as things to be celebrated. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that separation and division are powerful weapons. People can be manipulated into celebrating separation and rallying around the strange.
We give into the strangeness of life, turning this strangeness into fear. Thus we’re convinced that those we don’t know and what we don’t understand are to be shunned. The answer offered to division is further division, between individuals and communities. Some choose to dwell in this strangeness through apathy and disregard for the other. Yet far too many embrace the strangeness, reveling in the hostility of the strange. We trade love for fear.
In doing so, we normalize separation as the natural state of humanity. We become accustomed to the strangeness of separation, also know as estrangement. This estrangement becomes the new normal. We come to believe that it will always be one vs. another, us vs. them. All the while we miss our own entanglement with estrangement, the ways our embrace of separation and division have deepened the estrangement within us, between each other, and with God.
This state of estrangement is the state of sin. Tillich writes that, “To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation” (Shaking of the Foundations (1962), 156). Sin is not a thing we use to categorize or label evil or immoral actions. Sin is not something we do, instead it points to something well beyond good or bad actions. Sin describes the deeper problem of the human condition, sin is separation. It is the estrangement of the human condition.
I believe that this separation, or estrangement, is the biggest challenge facing our nation and world. In part, it’s challenging because we are naturally inclined towards separation. Sin demands our isolation, thus encouraging us to fear and forsake the other. It privileges the individual at the expense of the other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
Sin demands to have a man [or woman] by himself [or herself]. It withdraws him [or her] from the community. The more isolated a person is the more destructive will be the power of sin over him [or her], and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his [or her] isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown…it poisons the whole being of a person. – Life Together (1954), 118.
Every man [or woman] exists in a state of complete voluntary isolation; each lives his own life, instead of all living the same God-life. – Sanctorum Communio (1963), 71.
Bonhoeffer knew this better than most. He witnessed the destructive power of separation during the reign of the Third Reich, when estrangement was embraced and love shunned. Estrangement has and will always remain a challenge for humanity. Human history is a testament to this. We are inclined towards separation, making love something we have to fight and work toward. The problem is not that estrangement is more powerful than love, rather it’s that estrangement is easy. Estrangement requires no work or effort on our part. Thus we refuse the other (the refugee, the immigrant, the Muslim, etc.) because it’s the easy thing to do. Fear prevents action and resists reaching out, therefore fear is always easier than love. Fear holds one hostage to the self and the familiar.
Today I’m concern that as a nation we have not only accepted estrangement, we’ve embraced it. I worry that we’ve chosen to be estranged, that we haven’t just unconsciously succumbed to estrangement. Thus here is where the danger lies. For it is one thing to be estranged, but quite another to prefer estrangement (sin) over love and acceptance. To choose estrangement is to choose fear, and hate is never far from fear. The boundary between fear and hate is permeable, and too often we don’t even realize we’ve crossed from one to other.
So yes, I’m worried that we no longer have the willpower to fight for love. I wonder if our estrangement has become so great that we’ve given up on love. In my heart I don’t believe so. For despite all of this, I have to believe that love will overcome estrangement, and that acceptance will triumph over fear. This belief in the future victory of love is what sustains me in face of the overwhelming darkness of the present.
If the Christian is still possible, it must be found in love. If love has been conquered then so has the Christian life, and this I can’t accept. Karl Barth writes,
The Christian Life begins with love. It also ends with love, so far as it has an end as human life in time. There is nothing that we can or must be or do as a Christian, or to become a Christian, prior to love. – The Doctrine of the Word of God: Second Half (1963), 371.
I still believe in love. I still believe in love despite estrangement and the overwhelming burden of strangeness. I still believe in love despite rampant fear and hatred. I still believe in love despite our seemingly preference for separation over unity. I have to believe in love, because I believe that God is love. Thus our intrapersonal estrangement has a double effect. Estrangement not only separates us from one another, it separates us from God who is love. We cannot choose both estrangement and God, because a choice for one excludes the other. Therefore I take it seriously where in scripture it states,
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. – 1 John 4:7-12 (NRSV)
If God is love then I can’t give up on love, because to do so would mean giving up my faith in God. Thus I believe that estrangement will fail even though the current powers that be espouse fear, anger, bigotry, and hatred. Love motivates us to work hard and resist such hatred. Love calls us to continue to embrace the other. Love pushes us to speak out against injustice and inequality. Love drives us to work for the betterment of all.
Life is strange, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. However, we do have a choice in the face of strangeness. Will we choose estrangement or love? I for one choose love.