Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Defense of Liberal Guilt

"Liberal Guilt," both the phrase (wielded as a snark-weapon against—among others—rich, white Obama enthusiasts) and the concept, is troublesome. I pass a poor person on the street and think: “something must be done!” yet I’m unwilling to actually do anything but spare a moment of existential angst. This scene is an example of what liberal guilt is meant to convey when used as a pejorative: bleeding heart + zero action.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about the concept a bit differently. What if, instead of smirking at ourselves for this pang of angst, we stopped a minute and really let ourselves feel it. What if we actually took ourselves seriously at this point, and allowed ourselves to go down "into the weeds” of this angst? What if this pang we feel moves us to action? Let me explain further by sharing my own story with guilt.

The Christianity I define for myself today looks so much different than the type I espoused growing up. In those days, I experienced a much different kind of guilt. It wasn’t liberal guilt but a legalistic, behavioral guilt. I felt guilt if I didn’t have my “devotions” for the day. (Having devotions, in fundamentalist language, means setting aside a quiet time each day to read a passage of scripture and have a time of prayer. Not a bad thing in itself, but for me it became a mindless task to check off my "be-a-good-Christian" list. If not done, fellowship with God would be lost—and who really knew what that meant? It was an effective threat!)

Another requirement that I never lived up to (and therefore always felt guilty about) was being a witness for Christ. Witnessing is another fundamentalist buzzword that means telling everyone you know (and also strangers!) that they need Jesus, and if they don’t accept him as their personal savior they will go to hell. Yeah, sign me up for THAT! Because witnessing was so hard to do and so incredibly socially awkward to accomplish, it MUST be what God wanted! We must take up our cross and “suffer” for him…apparently by acting like a know-it-all asshole to everyone we meet! Something about this didn’t ring true for me; however, that didn’t stop me from trying and from feeling guilty when I didn’t try hard enough.

I also felt guilt for lack of “purity.” Purity in fundamentalist language always means “sexual purity.” To be blunt, I think of all the various categories of guilt I experienced, I felt the most guilt after masturbating. Even to this day, that m-word is fraught with such heaviness and ugliness! Even the way it is spelled seems so sinister and degenerate!!! Add to it the fact that I was attracted to men instead of women, and this guilt became so big and so intense that my mind was consumed by it.

Later in my 20s, my energy was geared toward staying a virgin at all costs. That meant gritting my teeth, praying for purity and change, going to Christian therapists, going to ex-gay programs. I was defined by shame.

I point out all these categories of fundamentalist-culture-driven guilt for this reason: There was absolutely no room in my head to even consider those who were poor and oppressed. No room, in fact, to care about the people and the principles that Jesus actually cared about.

I now see my journey of the last 10+ years as a necessary undoing of every belief and assumption about myself, about God, about Jesus, and about people in general. These days I feel differently than I ever have. I feel a new level of confidence--a new lack of shame--about who I am. With this new grace, I am experiencing a new clarity of thought and vision. I’m beginning to see the world outside the tiny bubble in which I grew up. I am seeing injustice. HERE is where I am feeling a different kind of guilt; HERE is where I’m really feeling my true “sin”: in my unwillingness to radically give myself to the poor and the oppressed. To others it may seem like “liberal guilt,” but for me it is something more real than that. It feels like true conviction of the heart.

This conviction--of my own embarrassment of cultural and material riches, while others have it so much worse than I--is another reason why I’m intent on reading through the Gospels with a new perspective. In this unequal world with me near the top of the privilege-pyramid, I can see the "last shall be first" motif for sure. In this snapshot moment of my journey, I can’t emphasize enough this feeling of my own sin--my own failings. My response can only be broken humility. An open heart and open ears. A thick skin. A reliance on God’s grace. Prayer that God will make me more courageous, energetic, and willing to give to and work for the oppressed and the needy. How can I not forgive the minor, day-to-day slights toward myself (real and perceived) when I know that I’ve been forgiven so much?

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