this is not normal


The past few days I have been captured by James Carroll’s book, Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in the Modern Age, in which Carroll articulates what faith in Christ looks like in the light of the Holocaust. He begins with a question Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend: “What keeps gnawing at me is this question, . . . who is Christ actually for us today?” (2)

This post will not be the last time I quote from his book. Today he set me thinking with these words about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

The imitation of Christ was for Dorothy Day a matter of the biblical reversal—seeing the story of power not from the winner’s point of view but from the loser’s. (261)

My mind went two directions. First, of course, to a soundtrack and I could hear Steely Dan singing,

they’ve got a name for the winners in the world
and I want a name when I lose . . . .

Then I went back to my childhood and my father’s belief that sports was the best metaphor to learn about life, which meant learning about winning (and losing). Losing was parenthetical, because winning was what mattered. I remember him quoting Vince Lombardi:

Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

As someone who has been an amazingly average athlete my whole life, my dad’s leading metaphor taught me something he wasn’t expecting: how to lose, for which I am grateful.

But I don’t want be too hard on him. More than anything else, he wanted us to learn how to work hard, to try hard, and to play hard. And, when it comes to games, I like to win as much as the next person, I suppose. I am not without a competitive streak. But Dorothy Day was talking about a different kind of winning and losing, as was Jesus. Life is not a game, neither is it a competition.

The tenor of our current cultural conversation in America contradicts that perspective. In the most recent presidential inaugural address, the speaker said,

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. . . .
America will start winning again, winning like never before.

Throughout his campaign and what I have seen of his public life, he is obsessed with winning. He has the best of this, the largest crowd. America First is a restatement of what appears to be his own mantra: Me First.

Me First has nothing to do with the gospel Jesus called us to follow. The winner-loser dichotomy is the language of conquest and division, not relationship and community. Jesus said, “Love one another,” not “Love better than anyone else.”

I was writing something this week that required the date and it struck me, as I wrote 2017, that those born after September 11, 2001 will finish their first year of high school this spring. This fall they will get driver’s licenses. They have lived their whole lives in the context of war. Those of us born in the last century moved from one where the wars had names and numbers to one where we have normalized the ongoing nature of conflict such that it hardly makes the news.

But war is not normal. War is the ultimate myopia: we can’t see beyond the conflict. Our language is reduced to Us vs. Them. We use fewer words. We see fewer choices because war’s primary fuel is fear: fear of the enemy, the unknown; fear of losing. War justifies violence as a means to an end, as a means of punishment, and then we too easily begin to see it as a means of existence. War destroys our sense of ourselves, our connectedness.

How have we allowed the vocabulary of fear to become normal?

In New York City during the 1950s, civil defense drills were mandatory exercises—practice runs fore the dreaded nuclear attack. All citizens were required, once the sirens rang out, to huddle in designated fallout shelters until the all-clear blew. The requirement was essential to the American people’s acquiescence in a runaway nuclear arms race, and in the government’s campaign to make nuclear war thinkable. On June 15, 1955, when the sirens sounded, Dorothy Day and a few other Catholic workers saw on the sidewalk in front of New York’s City Hall. They refused to take shelter, and they refused to leave the sidewalk. Their leaflet read, “In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend on the atom bomb.” . . . She was arrested. Every time the sirens sounded after that,s he returned for the demonstration—not sheltering, not leaving the sidewalk. She was arrested repeatedly. (Carroll 264)

After a week of fear-mongering by executive order and dare I say evil justification of prejudice and hatred by a self-proclaimed Christian spokesperson, I think it is fair to say the gnawing question is, once again, who is Christ actually to us in these days? The corollary question is who are we as Christ’s followers?

Jesus’ refusal to engage in the language and behaviors of war was not in a vacuum. He lived his whole life under Roman occupation. The Romans killed him when he became too big a threat. So, turn the other cheek is more than a quote that made for cute Palestinian needlepoint. The Jesus that stood up for the poor, the women, the outcasts, and was willing to sit down and eat with everyone on the economic and political spectrum is the one who actually calls us to follow. To follow Christ in these days is to widen our vocabulary; to articulate that violence against anyone is wounding or killing a loved one; to make a place at the table, or the border, or the boardroom, for everyone; to choose our words so we find ways to protest that do not attack or foment verbal violence; and to let love be our common currency rather than fear.

The story of creation says we were created in love, that we might love God and one another, and that we will return to love. Our world at war and our nation governed by fear are not normal. Let us not get used to it. Let us not run for cover. Let us not pretend, or evacuate, or hide. Let us not be drilled into fear.

Let us not be quiet.



  1. Very astute and timely comments, Milton. Thank you for helping me to experience hope rather than despair. Much love, Julie Cochran

  2. Write and call our congressmen and women to say what we believe and ask for their help! What other non-violent steps can be taken?

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