At the heart and soul of our lives as followers of Christ is this: We are trying to walk the talk. In the Scriptures and in the healing witness of Jesus, we have encountered the powerful, life-changing invitation to an alternative way of living. We have been given a vision of the realm of God, and invited to live out that vision in the particular soil of our lives.
How do we incarnate Jesus’ values in our life choices? As I seek to answer this question in my own daily life, I find myself constantly confronted with contradictions, with times when my ideal paradigms meet the person I am — my limitations, my gifts, and the challenges of my unique circumstances and social location.
As I’ve wrestled with these dynamics, I’ve been drawn to a powerful but obscure story nestled in the Hebrew Bible. I’ve come to see the story as a metaphor for the struggle we all face in seeking to incarnate God’s way of justice and peace in our unique situations.
In 2 Kings 4:8-37, we find the tale of an unnamed woman identified only as “the Shunammite” who makes in her home a room for the prophet Elisha. It is a simple space — a small upper chamber with a bed, table, chair and lamp — and it is open to Elisha whenever he chooses. In response to her gesture, the holy man makes the Shunammite woman an offer: Perhaps she’d like him to put in a good word with the king or the head of the army? The woman’s response is both significant and powerful: “I live among my own people.” These are deeply rooted words spoken by one who is willing to know herself and where she comes from.
Like the woman, we have chosen to make a place in our lives for the Word of God. Yet our work of becoming who God created us to be must begin with being honest about who we are. I believe that this must include a willingness to explore how issues of race, class, gender and cultural assumptions have shaped us. Only when we have been unrelentingly honest and specific about who we are — and where we have come from — can we learn to build bridges across lines of difference.
I have found it important to name my varied identities: Christian, woman, white, North American, Southern, from a family background that includes both working and upper-middle classes. Surely, these terms leave out a host of particulars that shape who I am. But they are far more than just labels. These words represent real experiences in my life, powerful forces that shape how I see the world, how I read the Scriptures, and how I understand the teachings of Jesus.
Birthing the Unexpected
This story in 2 Kings also has an unexpected incarnation. Elisha, flush with the power of God and grateful for the woman’s hospitality, extends to the Shunammite woman the promise of a son. Within a patriarchal setting where women’s status and even survival hinged on having men to care for them, Elisha offers this woman security for her future. The Shunammite is taken aback — and is less than polite: “Man of God, do not lie to me.” Yet the following year, a son is born to her.
When the Shunammite woman built a room to shelter the holy one, she followed a call with no sense of where it was going. In following that path, unexpected things came to birth in her life.
Similarly, my efforts to follow in the way of Jesus brought new passions to birth in my life. Fired by his teachings, I became excited by how we, as Christians, live out genuine alternatives to the dominant culture. For me, that has meant thoughtful, intentional work on issues of race and gender. And that passion has been a gift of unexpected life.
As a white Southerner born in the plantation region of South Carolina, I have a complex racial heritage. My grandparents’ bed, which I played on as a young child, was made by slaves. One of my paternal grandmother’s relatives owned more than 100 human beings — a fact that was shared somewhat matter-of-factly in my family. In the world of my childhood, the lives of African Americans and European Americans were both interwoven and starkly segregated in a way that was somewhat surreal.
After college, I worked to organize a community-based health fair in North Carolina. The community was 70 percent African American and 30 percent white, and racially polarized. All farms (except the very tiny ones) were owned by whites — and I felt an eerie familiarity with their way of life. Members of my family in South Carolina worked similar farms and grew many of the same crops.
It quickly became clear that most whites in this county wanted nothing to do with the health-fair project, so almost all of my time was spent in the African-American community. It was as though I had suddenly crossed over; instead of living with my aunts, uncles and cousins, my “family” that summer were the workers who labored on the white-owned farms and houses or in the meat-processing factory down the road. These were the people who housed me, fed me, told me their stories and took me into their churches and lives. I suddenly began to notice how the assumption or reinforcement of whiteness dominated everything — television, media, social policy.
It amazed me then — and continues to amaze me — that this black community would offer such care for a naive white girl. In return, I tried to pay attention and learn my racial lessons. This was the unexpected miracle God brought to birth in my life — a chance to begin to understand, at a deep level, my racial heritage.
Since then, I’ve been very conscious of trying to be a “race traitor,” seeking to break down wherever I can the norms of whiteness. I’ve never again chosen to live in a neighborhood that is predominately white. I’ve tried to avoid taking leadership in racially mixed groups. It’s important to me that my children be in multiracial settings. I’ve tried to emphasize and build strong interracial friendships.
I have tried to raise my own racial consciousness and that of other white people. There have been some successes. But that is only part of the story.
Potential for Pain
The account in 2 Kings reminds us that the process of birth is fraught with danger. The child grows into a young man. One day, while he is working with his father in the field, he is overtaken by a powerful sickness. He returns home, only to die in his mother’s arms. She takes her son’s lifeless body upstairs, lays him on the bed of the holy man, shuts the door, and heads out in search of Elisha.
The story of miraculous birth and new life becomes a story of searing grief. This child — whom she did not ask for, who nonetheless burst into her world and changed it — dies. The prophet’s promised gift becomes a hole torn in her life — open, raw, and gaping.
As we begin to incarnate new ways of being, we learn that every birth carries with it the potential for deep grief. We will face moments of deep, intense loss. Those things God brings to birth are not invincible. They may falter, fail or die.
Whatever God has brought to birth in my heart, it has not flourished fully in the fruit of my life. This is a reality I weep over.
My husband and I have tried for the past 10 years to challenge traditional gender roles in our marriage. But with two kids under three, our egalitarian partnership seems suddenly skewed by gender stuff. Besides juggling childcare and work, we have church and activist commitments that take up our time. Internally, I find myself haunted by Heloise and her housekeeping tips — always longing for a home that is immaculate, orderly and wonderfully organized. But the 200-year-old house we rent gathers dust by the hour, and the always neglected yard is a weed nursery.
We’ve shared childcare for more than three years, and for the last year we have both worked as editors. Is this lifestyle rich? Yes. But it is also awful. I can’t keep up. In more traditional old days, I would be clear on which responsibilities were mine, and which were not. But while we are sharing editorial work and childcare and home-management and gardening — we both feel responsible for everything.
If we really begin living out alternatives, we hit the hard stuff. Our deep personal commitments against patriarchy or racism do not help us defeat those forces, because these assumptions and behaviors are as deep in us as our very breath. They will rise up again and again like the crabgrass in my garden, still vigorous after a decade. This is unimaginably painful.
It is essential to grieve our losses. When we try to break down the barriers in the world and in our lives, we are living in uncharted territory. This is a real strain that is fraught with the danger of losing out, of failure. In the back of our heads are voices that gloat that the traditional answers are right: “People are more comfortable with their own race.” “It is better for women to stay home and men to work — we’re just wired that way.”
Those things God promises to bring to birth — and does — die inexplicably and impossibly. Why would God give us these visions if they were to die? How do we grieve?
I am convinced that our inability to address issues we face in trying to live the way of Jesus is rooted in our having lost touch with whole parts of ourselves, the sad and wounded parts, the parts of us that have also been hurt by the injustice. We have not been able to cry, to lament. The witness of Jesus is that our lives must die in order to experience resurrection. There can be no death without grief, and therefore no life.
It is in our grief that the real work of God begins, in our particular lives. We have to find our own answers. When those answers come, they will not fit our perfect ideologies. They will be born of concession and compromise, of trying first one new model and then another. They will instill in us a deeper appreciation of grace — the kind of grace that infused the writings of Paul because he understood just how human he could be, a zealous murderer who was loved and transformed into a builder of community.
Hope for Resurrection
The story of the Shunammite woman does not end without hope. The child that God has brought to birth, the one who was lost, comes back to life.
It is not your typical cut-and-dried healing. It has little triumphalism. Elisha’s underling tries to revive the boy with his magic staff, and it fails. The expected solution does not work. So the holy man prays to God and then lays himself, eye to eye, mouth to mouth, on the boy. No life. He has to work with it — go downstairs, walk around, come back, and do it again. As readers, we have the sense that this is an uncertain process, that Elisha is groping, trying one thing, then another, sure of God, and yet…
How do we fully become ourselves? By knowing of the false gods of the world and resisting them, certainly. But I believe the workings of God are less in the resistance itself and more in finding the shape of our own particular incarnation of resistance. We must find an organic way to live out that resistance — a way that feels like our own face, our own flesh.
Once we move beyond the theories and constructs of what is wrong, we are on new ground. That new ground will shape us, if we work with it. And then, inexplicably, the joy erupts because, despite the failures and the deaths, we know that we are in touch with the holy path. Even if our lives have a clunky, experimental quality that strains us, we will also have some certainty that this is the path we must take. Although the Scriptures do not tell us, we know that both the woman and her child were never again the same. Those who have witnessed the power of resurrection will never again fear death.
Growing up, my evangelical faith taught me that we were baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection one single time. But the greater truth is that we spend our lives living into Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection, over and over. It is our ongoing struggle, but it is also our ongoing hope. It is the only way we find new life.