Just how radical is the way of Jesus? There is a real possibility that we’ve only barely scratched the surface here in America. The upside-down way of Jesus calls us to love our enemies, be the servant of all and be last so that we can be first. Such teaching has always been counter-intuitive, but in a country with unprecedented wealth and power, it can feel even more radical than ever.
That’s something Marlena Graves takes seriously. The author and professor is striving to see the Bible’s teaching clearly, while being honest about where we as a Church are cutting corners for the sake of convenience. In her new book The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself, Graves writes that no matter who you are, where you are or what you believe, Jesus will scandalize you. She sat down over Zoom with RELEVANT senior editor Tyler Huckabee to talk about why she believes the way down is up, why Christians have such a difficult time internalizing things they know to be true and what it means to love your enemies.
You’re a person with a lot of interests in things that we as Americans are collectively thinking about right now. How do you even begin to narrow it all down into a book? Why did you decide that this was the message for right now?
Prior to the 2016 election, I was just very disappointed. I was thinking “How can the people that I listened to on the radio, who told me that character matters, just sell their soul for a song and dance and political power?” Sometimes I feel like Christianity or following Jesus is used when it’s convenient. Like it’s all well and good for the masses but the leaders, they can do whatever they want. I doubt that they would say that, but that’s how it appears to some of us.
So I was thinking about how Jesus would live in this time right now, in these days that I’m living in. Of course, I’m not saying anything new, I’m saying it in my voice. There’s a lot of talk about humility, about serving, about things like that. Jesus says himself, “Many of the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. And the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will be the servant of all.” I was like, “OK, what does that mean?”
Every church has its problems so I’m not trying single anyone out, but the people that have the mic now — I don’t see much of “the last shall be first mentality.” I see us crushing the most vulnerable people. People at the border and immigrants and others. This is not the way of Jesus. And so that was the background for my book and what I wrote what I did.
Something you highlighted there that I see a lot of myself is the disconnect between what we say and what we do. Most Christians know, in theory, that the last shall be first. But in practice, many of us are still chasing influence and power — both personally and, as you’ve noted, culturally and politically. Why is it so hard for us to internalize that teaching?
It takes practice. It doesn’t just happen overnight. We have lots of idols. We want to be liked.
Many years ago, around 2012, in one of my Facebook groups, I asked this question: “Why do so many Christian women who are writers say nothing about racism? Why?” It’s a little bit different now, but in ’10, ’11 and ’12, it was not. And it was because, “If I do that, then I’ll lose followers on my platforms. So I’ll lose book sales.” And I’m like, “Well, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to follow Jesus. Right?”
If we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to lose our life. So I’m going to say some things that might not make me popular, but my point is not just to stir up problems or make enemies. It’s just sometimes Jesus said things that people didn’t like. Jesus scandalizes me with his own words. That’s why it’s hard. It requires sacrifice. And sometimes we don’t have a lot of examples around us.
And also I think we’ve had bad teaching for a couple of hundred years. Christianity, consumerism and nationalism are so mixed that it’s hard to separate them.
That seems like a huge part of the problem. It can be very difficult for those of us raised in America to know where nationalism ends and Christianity begins. Separating the toxicity from our theology takes some very cautious and kind of scary surgery that not everyone is equipped for.
This struck me as I was reading the Gospels again. In Matthew 13, it talks about the riches of this world and the distractions of life that choke out the seed of the Gospel. I think that even being so wealthy as a nation, and taking so much for granted, that can choke out the Gospel. Like Puff Daddy said: “More money, more problems.”
How do you deal with the charge of being divisive?
I heard that from where I used to work, where I lost my job because of caring for the poor and the immigrant. There was a fundamentalist take over at the place where I used to work. And because I said we need to talk about racism, about immigration. We defended a friend against false accusations against his theology, and we lost our jobs because the institution was taken over by Paige Patterson and his cronies. They didn’t like this message. They thought of it was liberal. But as Richard Hayes said at Duke, “The Bible transcends our political party categories, liberal and conservative. Jesus is going to scandalize you wherever you are on the spectrum.”
If I say what appears to be divisive, I can say: “This is scripture. I have scripture to back me up.” Now if I’m being hateful and I dehumanize the people that dehumanize me, if I become the oppressor to the people that have oppressed the poor and the marginalized, then that’s where there’s a problem. Like Paul says in First Corinthians 13, “I’m going to be a sounding, annoying gong.” We might be right about something, but no one’s going to hear us if we’re being hateful. And it’s easy to become hateful when you see people being oppressed and hurt.
I think that’s the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us to communicate. I guess it’s divisive, but I might want to ask why it’s divisive if these are the words of Jesus. I mean, check me. I have the Eastern, Catholic and Protestants to back me up.
Of the many counterintuitive, countercultural things you talk about in your book, what’s been the most difficult for you personally to live out?
Repentance. I was at the gym and I was exercising after I had my two daughters. And there was a guy that really loudly said to another one: “You know what I did this morning?” And other guy’s like, “What?” He’s like, “And I smoked some weed and watched some porn.” And I was like, “Oh God, thank you so much that my husband’s not like that and that I don’t have to put up with that. And that’s so demeaning.” And I was going on and on. And then the Lord’s like, “Marlena, you sound like the bad Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector: ‘Thank God that I’m not like so-and-so.'”
The hardest part for me is repentance and forgiveness. I’ve know people who really destroyed a whole community and ousted us of work. People had to find jobs. Some people didn’t find good work for six years. The children of some of them were like, “Why be a Christian if this is how Christians act? I want to leave the Church.” And I’ve had people ask me, “Marlena, how can you still be a Christian after all this happened to you guys?” And my answer to that was, “If this is all I knew of Christianity maybe I wouldn’t be one.” But I’ve seen people that are like Jesus and like Christ.
But I think the hardest part is just not reacting in kind, not only with my mouth or my keystroke but in my heart. In Psalm 15 it talks about loving our brothers and our sisters from our hearts. And you might not love them from your heart right away and it also depends on the level of transgression. If someone was sexually and physically and spiritually abused in severe ways, this is an incredibly difficult thing to swallow when Jesus says to love your enemies. It could take your whole life to not wish them to eternal torment or temporary torment or whatever you believe about hell. That’s the hardest thing when people unjustly hurt you, and you know they’re wrong. Other people tell you they’re wrong. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but they move on and you’re still in pain.
I have to pray for Stephen Miller, who orchestrates all these immigration rules. I pray for the President. I want him to flourish and know God in a deep way. Sometimes I don’t want to pray, especially when they’re hurting so many people. But I’m like, “Jesus, you ask us to pray for our enemies. And so I’m going to try and obey you in this way, even though I’m not feeling it.”
That’s a real struggle for me. I think it’s a growing struggle as more and of our lives are lived online around people we do not have any real human connection to. It makes what loving, forgiving and humanizing look very different. And I’m not sure that our theology has caught up to our technology.
That’s a good way to put it. In my last book A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness, I talk about the wilderness metaphor and where God is in the wilderness of our lives, or the Dark Night of the Soul. The only reason I’m saying that is because I say this very line in the book, and I was just convicted: “All of us are Cains with our own Abels.” We can act like Cain. We’re not always Abel. And, Tyler, and I wasn’t judging anything you do online.
I understand. It was just convicting.
I have to think: the person behind that keyboard, whether that little picture is an anime or whatever it is, there is somebody. I’m told that I’m going to be judged for every thought, word and deed. How I treat you, how I treat that person online, I have to give account. I think taking that seriously helps me in my reactions.
One last question, because I know it’s important to you. Why do you think we, as an American Church, have gotten immigration so wrong? What’s the biblical alternative?
First of all, it’s actually not contingent on whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or in between; we’ve had a bad history in the United States. When Obama was in office, he also deported a lot of people. The Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, at one point the Irish, the Italians. I think we’re much more captive to the culture than we say we are in terms of scapegoating and treating people a certain way.
Also, we’re just not proximate to people that are suffering. In general, we don’t know a lot of people that are going through this, so it’s not our problem. I think there are many key factors, but I also think, again, it’s just bad teaching in the Church and a lack of proximity.
What’s the alternative?
A way forward, it’s just people don’t want to do it: Do exactly what the Bible says. Welcome immigrants and try to integrate them into society.
And I’m going to say this real quick. I mean, people get money for for-profit detention beds, just like a prison. It’s in our financial interest to have people in for-profit prisons and for-profit detention centers. So we might have to disentangle ourselves from the love of money, then maybe we would do what’s right. We should do exactly what scripture says to do: welcome the stranger and work out what that means publicly together. What we are doing as a Church, that ain’t it.
Marlena Graves’ The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself is available now.