Remember back in the day when someone would challenge you to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time? You probably didn’t succeed on your first try. But you tried again. And again, and again, because you knew it was possible.
You knew that you could engage with two parts of yourself in different ways at the same time.
Eventually, you figured out a way to focus and you found your head-patting, belly-rubbing rhythm. (If you never did, there is no time like the present! Well, not right at this moment—keep reading, don’t get distracted.) For me, I had to trick my mind into not focusing on either motion and just let it flow. Over-thinking was a surefire way to fail.
I’ve found this principle to be relevant when it comes to living out a life of reason in an unreasonable world. When it comes to living a “both and” life in an “either or” land. Don’t over-think it, just let it flow. Eventually you will realize that you can pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. It is possible to do both. And when it comes to issues of justice and social responsibility, not only is it possible, it’s necessary.
Not only is it possible to be people of conviction and compassion, it’s necessary. Not only is it possible to be people who are engaged socially and empowered spiritually, it’s necessary. Not only is it possible to embrace our race, our faith, and our gender identities at the same time, it’s necessary.
I want to briefly comment on these three dichotomies (ok, one of them is a trichotomy), and offer a challenge to Christ-followers to reject the religious “either or” mentality in favor of a more constructive (albeit more complex) “both and” philosophy.
Church, if we are going to be a voice of reason in this unreasonable world (Acts 17:2-3); if we are going to build instead of tear down (Ephesians 4:29); if we are going to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8), we must to learn to pat our heads and rub our bellies at the same time.
1. Conviction + Compassion
I am unapologetic about my convictions as a Christ-follower. There are many things that I believe God has established as true and right that others (even other Christians) don’t see the same way. I’m okay with that. I am no one’s judge—not even my own.
I can believe things that you reject, reject things that you believe, and still love you well.
For example, I believe that the only foundation sturdy enough to build a life on is Christ. A life lived in him and according to his word is the only path to true human flourishing. I have never seen this as a religious thing, but rather a simple fact about life. You may disagree, but I can still love you well.
I also unapologetically uphold the sanctity of life. I believe life is a gift from God that begins at conception and it is His alone to give and take. You may disagree, but I can still love you well.
I will open my home to you. I will share a meal with you. I will pray and believe for life’s greatest blessings to come upon you. I will meet any need of yours whenever I am aware and however I am able.
Love does not assume assent. I don’t have to change my convictions in order to offer compassion. If I conform to everyone else’s personal convictions or bend to every pattern of culture, I will be in a perpetual state of crisis, never escaping the tyranny of double-mindedness.
I am steadfast in my convictions, but this is not the effect of hyper-spiritual mindlessness or the fruit of stubbornness. I have formed my convictions through concerted prayer and thoughtful observation of the world at large. Convictions aren’t spiritualized excuses for intolerance, they are beliefs born of truth and love. And while I will never bow before men but I will absolutely humble myself before God, knowing that he holds the power to change my convictions where His word allows for it.
2. Social + Spiritual
Faith without works is surely dead (James 2:26). And works without faith is just the walking dead (Ephesians 2:8-9). I can’t separate my faith from my works, and I can’t shun everything that is not overtly spiritual.
I can pray and protest the same time.
I can worship Jesus and work for justice at the same time.
I can believe in prophecy and sign a petition against a policy at the same time.
I can meditate on the scriptures and march through the city.
At the same time.
I can be socially engaged and spiritually empowered without compromising either. In fact, these two things work beautifully together, informing and encouraging one another as God uses my faith and my works to accomplish His will.
3. Flesh + Faith + Femininity (AKA the “Identity Trinity”)
Each of us has three identity markers that define and direct our understanding of ourselves and how we exist in the world: our race, our faith, and our gender (in no particular order).
No one is raceless—this needs no explanation.
No one is faithless—even atheists have a belief system. Some say it requires more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God.
And no one is genderless—there is a lot of confusion surrounding this one, but I believe that gender is an identity marker assigned by God at conception, not by a doctor at birth or anyone else thereafter. (Yes, there are medical mysteries that defy God’s perfect design, but this is not an essay about medical anomalies and the ethics thereof.) I don’t possess an ounce of judgment or hate toward anyone who might think or live otherwise. If this rubs you the wrong way, feel free to re-read the “Conviction + Compassion” section above.
Here’s my point. I don’t have to choose between between my race, my faith, and my gender in order to champion any one or all of them.
I reject the notion of being “a Christian first” (calm down, religious people), or “black first” (calm down, freedom fighters), or “a woman first” (calm down, my feminist neighbors). I reject every notion of any part of my identity being solely a social issue.
I am a black Christian woman, period. I am not too black to be Christian. I am not too Christian to be black. I am not too woman to be either. There is no space I can enter into where these three identity markers are not equally essential to my presence and participation there.
Think of God. He exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three in one. Each part is equally powerful, equally as necessary. Each part equally informs the experience, opinions, and actions of the whole. They work together to accomplish a mission that would be handicapped if all three of them were not in full effect. This is an obvious illustration of how I can and should to live when it comes to the “identity trinity” of my flesh, my faith, and my femininity.
Allow me to pause here for a short digression about race…
Christians who say they don’t see color are conveniently avoiding tough conversations—missing the gospel altogether while propping up their reasoning as a noble and godly viewpoint. Jesus didn’t die so that we could all go colorblind in order to love one another. This gives falsely implies that the agape love we are called to only works within a context of sameness. Jesus died to express the power of his great love to reconcile our differences within a Church body that celebrates every one of them. The Bible is so clear about this is in 1 Corinthians 12, and Romans 12, and elsewhere.
Back to the point…
My gender, faith, and race are never at odds with reach other. In the midst of the various social tensions of the current climate of our society, I have sensed mounting cultural pressure to create an identity hierarchy out of these three markers, pitting my blackness or my womanhood against my faith, or some combination of this. But I refuse to wage war against myself.
We now live in a society full of unreasonable pressure to wage that kind of war. To make choices that God is not asking anyone to make. We have erroneously placed conviction and compassion at odds with one another. We have falsely assumed that spirituality and social responsibility are on opposite ends of some fictitious spectrum of righteousness. We have created a chasm between the things we stand for and the things we stand up for—conveniently separating them as far as east is from west, and never the twain shall meet.
But if we are going to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on Earth, the Twain shall have to meet. And not in a dark alley somewhere off the beaten path, but in a well-lit public space where passersby can get a glimpse of what it looks like to pat your head and rub your belly at the very same time.
The world needs to see Christians following Christ—the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ tomb and the Jesus who flipped tables in the temple. Jesus was one person who did many things in many ways. In the face of religious persecution and cultural pressure, he was unwavering in his convictions yet unrelenting in his compassion. He challenged social structures while faithfully walking in the Spirit. He was the Jewish Son of God—his race, faith, and gender equally informing his life and ministry. He is the epitome of living a “both and” life in an “either or” land.
So, if we follow him, we should truly follow him. All of him. Out with the one-dimensional, paper cutout Jesus; and in with the multifaceted, creative champion of every good thing. In Christ, good things are not mutually exclusive because “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I added the emphasis there, but a promise is a promise is a promise is a…you get the point, right?