“This is going to be awkward,” our professor said.
The lecture was about ethicist Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of seeing God in “the face of the other.” To illustrate his point, our professor proceeded to pace up and down the rows of desks, stopping at each student and making eye contact with such intensity and for such a duration of time that it was, indeed, awkward. But, we were seen, known, attended to, treated not just as distant students but as uncomfortably-close human persons.
This is perhaps what Nadia Bolz-Weber does in her recently released memoir-style essay collection Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Convergent, September 2015). She walks through rows of accidental saints and looks them in the eye and learns from them—no matter how awkward.
According to Bolz-Weber, “what we celebrate in the saints is not their piety or perfection but the fact that we believe in a God who gets redemptive and holy things done in this world through, of all things, human beings, all of whom are flawed.”
The accidental saints are an unpredictable cast of characters. They include a pink-haired girl on an airplane, a self-described redneck, a skeptical agnostic who still enjoys going to church, a compassionate bishop who’s still a recovering alcoholic. They include the author herself—the Lutheran pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints whom the book jacket describes as “tattooed, angry, and profane.”
And their unifying characteristic, I would argue, is their knack for making us hold in both hands good and bad, sacredness and sinfulness. They make us look squarely at humanity and see glimpses of good where we’d prefer to see only bad or see pieces of pain where we’d prefer to acknowledge only pleasantries.
During one such quandary, the self-described redneck invites Bolz-Weber, ordinarily a “liberal gun control advocate,” to a shooting range. To her surprise, the author enjoys the experience. What’s more, she soon learns that her brother has been bringing a gun to church in an effort to protect their mother from a life-threatening stalker. Suddenly, the “issue of gun control” has a face. For the author, this experience doesn’t bring about a change of mind, but it does bring about a powerful change of heart, as she confesses: “my own life and my own heart contain too much ambiguity. There is both violence and nonviolence in me, and yet I don’t believe in them both.” Such acknowledgement of ambiguity lies at the heart of each accidental saint.
This has profound effects for the ethics with which we treat ourselves and our neighbors.
According to an Accidental Saints ethic, we can look upon our neighbors as equals, for “we all are equally as sinful and saintly as the other.” Justice is real, to be sure, but mercy is just as real and really necessary—for the criminal and for the court, for parishioner and for priest.
Try, for instance, as Bolz-Weber does, disagreeing with someone about an issue…and accepting an invitation to experience the issue. Consider, as her church did during one unusually somber Advent service, praying for the souls of the victims—and perpetrator—of the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. These are the kinds of dilemmas Accidental Saints puts us in, asking us to see individuals instead of issues, souls instead of sins.
We live in a world, I think, where the verbs that we do shift quickly into becoming the nouns that we are. If we lie, we’re a liar; cheat, we’re a cheater; fail, we’re a failure. And so on. But, Bolz-Weber draws us into stories of characters who cut themselves but can’t be quickly called “cutter” or who drink but can’t just be labeled “drinker.” Because the “cutter” is also an artist, thinker, daughter, and beloved child of God. The “drinker” is also a pastor, traveler, widower, and beloved child of God as well. Bolz-weber herself confesses to hate but you’d be hard-pressed to call her a hater. Because, in fact, Bolz-Weber is a lover, mother, wife, pastor, writer, speaker, struggler, and beloved child of God.
It’s like Romans 3:23 says—a verse sometimes used for holier-than-thou condemnation of others but here for humble equalization of self and others: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In context, Romans reads: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (ESV).
Are you a sinner? Yes, says Accidental Saints, and so am I. For there is no distinction.
Are you a saint? Yes, says Accidental Saints, and so am I. For we are justified by God’s grace.
If you’ll let it, Accidental Saints will walk around your soul like my professor walked around our classroom, look you in the eye, see your sin and your sacred sitting there side by side, and call you saint. Then, it will slowly, annoyingly start making you see the same in all the surprising, saintly strangers on the streets.
[Image: “EucharistELCA” by Jonathunder – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons]