A Birthday Party for Whores
Agape is the love that can conquer hate, fear, and isolation—anywhere. First, we have to cultivate it.
By Lincoln Swain
Mrs. Swain is a busy lady. So if the good reverend Swain can’t bestir himself to work some magic with the pots, there usually won’t be a dinner.
We find ourselves in restaurants more than we would like. The other night, Mrs. Swain was bullish on Italian.
After an appetizer and soup, the main courses arrived. I was famished and as I tucked my napkin into my shirt collar, I gave my plate a very appreciative appraisal, breathing in the aroma of the pasta with half-closed eyes. When I looked up, I noticed a young girl at the next table smiling at me. I smiled back. We held our gazes.
It was such a fleeting exchange that I hesitate to make much of it. But, upon reflection, the event was significant. One of the things we learn early in life is the reciprocity of sight—I see you, you see me. But what do we see when we look at strangers? People we don’t know, people we will never know. We are strangers to them as well. They see us but don’t know us. We are objects to them. Reciprocity is reciprocity.
Agape makes the stranger familiar. One transcends oneself through tenderness, a sincere concern for the other. That little girl was watching me in appreciation of my delight. My delight was her delight and her smile broadcast that fellow feeling.
What if I had looked up to find the little girl frowning? I might have asked myself two unpleasant questions: what’s wrong with me and what’s wrong with her? I would have been conscious of myself as an object. Were it not for the powerful Swain self-confidence, I might have been ashamed. And the next time I was out for dinner, I might scan the room for little girls in fear of a repeat performance. In fact, I might avoid going out to dinner altogether, sequestered by anxiety–the anticipation of the fear I might feel once I discovered that there was a little girl seated nearby.
Shame and fear are two sides of the same coin: objectification. Before he could kill Abel, Cain had to transform his brother into a stranger, into the Other. He had to detach himself from Abel; yet in doing so, he diminished himself! Look at any tribal conflict in the world and you will find the same story. Each side wants to think of itself as Abel and therefore must create a Cain, an object through which to see itself as the righteous victim or victor.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously remarked, “Hell is other people.” Perhaps he had in mind the bleak purgatory that is daytime television. Soap operas chronicle endless scheming, conniving, lying, and abject narcissism. Conflict and objectification are a must. The girl-next-door falls under the sway of a young buck, fresh into town under dubious circumstances, who has one eye on her daddy’s money and the other on her older sister’s heaving bosoms. The real stars of talk shows are the bouncers. They never have a moment’s rest when two or more women are gathered onstage to duke it out over a runty would-be rapper who has impregnated the lot of them.
No pimp or pusher can ply his trade without objectification. No genocide or slavery or war or torture can take place without objectification. The genocide in Rwanda was an example of double objectification—one tribe slaughtering another and then the key countries of the United Nations writing off the slaughter as more African savagery. When Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” he intended to inspire people to objectify and hence fear the Jews, the ethnic minorities, and homosexuals he considered guilty of ruining Germany and the Aryan “race” (I use quotations here because we know full well that there is no such thing as race, genetically speaking; we are all one species). The Nazi’s Final Solution was the action necessary to deal with the “problems” they had created in the German public’s mind.
Every survivor of slavery, torture, or genocide first must unlearn their objectification before they can entertain even the possibility of renewed subjectivity. One learns to be human again after being denied humanity; at last, the “problem” triumphs over the “solution.” There is a lesson here for all of us: you are a born a human being but you must fight for your humanity against savagery at all times.
The torture scandals in Iraq and Afghanistan have been blamed on a small number of bad apples who lost themselves to porn and boredom and went off on power trips that got out of hand. What about the role of fear and shame? A lot of the kids that we send to fight our battles know little of the world and life outside of the United States. Most of them are from poor families in podunk outposts where employment opportunities are limited. They’re afraid and well they should be. War is an absurd, man-made situation that seems so important as it rages yet quickly becomes a melancholy puzzle in reflection after fighting ceases. There should be a wealth of pastoral service available for those soldiers, to tell that them it’s ok to be afraid, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t need to displace your fear, your frustration and your shame onto those you don’t understand. The people involved in the scandals—be it grunt or general—should be compelled to perform community service in the countries where the coalition forces are already engaged in fantastic public works projects. Benevolent action fosters understanding and short-circuits objectification.
As someone who has spent time ministering in a number of Detroit area lock-ups, this is a very important lesson. People who break the law should be punished, but how? Long mandatory sentences for first time offenses, often involving drugs, are the result of public fear and politicians’ exploitation of that fear. More prisons are being built in more and more obscure, hard luck places yet increasingly less money is being spent on rehabilitation programs. Unless you are a cynical accountant you must wonder where’s the sense in that. Where’s the agape?
Christ, nailed to the cross, invited the thief to heaven with him!
Prison is a dangerous place, not just physically but existentially. Prison without means and encouragement for personal reform is nothing more than a zoo. And the longer individuals spend in the poisoned atmosphere of that zoo, the more savage they are apt to become precisely because the possibility of betterment diminishes. Meanwhile their families, hundreds of miles away, live with them in a phantom prison of longing, struggle and exasperation. Woe to us when the prison gate finally swings open, 25 years later, and out walks a savage with no humanity and little hope of regaining it. More fear, more prisons, more zoo animals.
No crime can take place without objectification, even those we call “crimes of passion.” Take the man who shoots his estranged wife and children and then tells the police he killed them because he loved them. Is this true? How can it be? Murder is not love. It is the extreme end product of objectification—killing the Other because the Other is either unfathomable or uncontrollable. To possess the Other in his or her death is to declare defeat in one’s own ability to negotiate the human condition of competing freedoms.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the 9/11 attacks was the fact that some of the hijackers had been living for a considerable time in the United States. What a terrible thought. First, they exploited our open and free system to move around at will. Secondly, how could they live here, amongst all our blessings, and not be swayed by them? Granted, many of these man spent their time in parts of the country that are hardly inspiring even to us—tawdry strip malls, sprawling apartment complexes perched on busy highways, gymnasiums, topless gentlemen’s clubs. Perhaps that made their objectification of us all the more easy.
Indeed, one writer suggested that the hijackers were blind to us. We did not exist to them. They had objectified America and Americans to the point where we ceased to be. The innocent people on the planes and in the buildings were inconvenient specters easily dispatched in the wretched “glory” of their plot.
And what of that plot? The egomania, the narcissism, of their alleged martyrdom was astounding. The attempt to blast their way into Paradise was a diabolical, grandstanding capitulation to the confounding inscrutability of the Other, an inscrutability of their own making, I might add. They chose to do evil because it was the path of least resistance. They couldn’t figure out how to live in a modern world of many peoples and many faiths so they worshiped death as a solution to life.
Agape banishes objectification because it achieves a profound equilibrium, however temporary, between two irreconcilable forces—my freedom and the freedom of another. Self-interest and self-consciousness dissipate in that moment. The force of agape brings our shared humanity into focus.
It always makes me laugh when scientists refer to human beings as “the human animal.” Genetically, we are mammals, subject to the same primal surges of hormones and impulses of our species. I will give biology its due.
But biology is not destiny. Yes, the topsoil of civilization is very thin and can be quickly stripped away. Look how quickly gilded Europe, puffed up on piety and propriety, descended into the horrors of WWI. That is why we should be oh so vigilant in our collective maintenance of humanity. Agape is a state that we can create only through our actions. It is not something that is bestowed upon us. In my journey as a Christian pastor, agape is essential in the project of witness. I have cultivated a hungry anticipation of agape, of its possibility. I don’t have to try to be affable, friendly, understanding. These qualities have become my nature because I have lived them and am living them.
Anyone can do this.
There is something more. I am willing to put my subjectivity and my freedom at risk because the rewards of connecting with another human being are so great. Good will is my olive branch and my sword. The possibility of agape exhilarates me. The experience of agape barely slakes my thirst for it.
If the human condition is exile, if we are all, believers and non-believers, out of the safety of paradise and in the wilderness, then we must look to each other for solace and support in whatever journey we choose. You can’t go it alone. And you shouldn’t.
I remember well a magazine story that quoted the suicide note of a young man who threw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge (where, ironically, they have concrete barriers to prevent traffic “accidents” but as yet no barriers to deter suicides). “If,” he wrote, “someone, just one person, smiles at me between here and the bridge, I won’t jump.”
I’ve been at the top of that marvelous structure many times. I can’t imagine the level of despair one needs to hit in order to jump from such a commanding and daunting venue. But I can imagine the power of agape to intervene.
In his book, “Living Faith,” former President Jimmy Carter offers the story of a preacher fighting jet lag in an all-night diner in Honolulu. He overhears a group of painted ladies in the booth behind him. One of them is turning 39 that day and she’s never had a birthday party. The preacher takes the manager aside and arranges an impromptu celebration.
“What kind of church do you belong to?” he asks the preacher.
“The kind of church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
Some Christians might see agape as a scheduled weekly sharing between themselves, an opportunity to re-affirm membership and solidarity. But as I have matured in my pastoral work, I have come to realize that agape is something that is born “on the fly” in the midst of living every day often outside of my faith community. A gesture, a word, a glance, a touch. A birthday party for whores. Agape is a secret agent against hate, fear and isolation.
Lincoln Swain is the pseudonym of an Episcopal priest and theologian living in the Detroit area.
Excerpted from Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith, by Lincoln Swain. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Atomic Quill Press.
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