There are two topics you’re not supposed to bring up at family reunions: politics and religion. Thus it was unsurprising when my uncle Joel said, “Morgan, I’ve got a challenge for you. Come up with a sermon comparing the Exodus story to the 2012 presidential election. You have thirty seconds. Go!” In my late grandparents’ house in Jackson, MS, there was a picture of Joel grinning widely, arm in arm with long-time Republican Senator Trent Lott. I’m not sure whether Joel pegged me as the kind of guy who would have a “Barack the vote 2008” shirt at the bottom of his t-shirt drawer. But I have a feeling that’s why he gave me the challenge.
It’s of course comically ludicrous to make any sort of comparison between the liberation of the Hebrew slaves and our thoroughly cynical and hope-bereft political process. I can’t remember a presidential election that seemed less likely to result in anything remotely positive than this one. In any case, I chose to respond to Joel’s challenge by identifying the Egypt we desperately need to be delivered from as opposed to whatever baby God is going to send us in a basket to liberate us.
It’s fairly easy to name what Egypt is for us today. Most basically it’s the way that a critical mass of people in our country have been manipulated into seeing the world around us in “us vs. them” categories and spending so much time and energy demonizing whoever we have defined as the opposing team. I’ve already written way too much about all the social forces that contribute to this phenomenon. There’s an outrage industrial complex that makes billions of dollars perpetuating it. I honestly don’t see any way that we could emerge from our category-infested world short of a national disaster comprehensive enough to force us to shut up and work together (like 9/11 or the 2008 stock market crash… sigh!). So that’s pretty much the answer I gave Joel. We need to be delivered from slavery to our categories.
Of course, I exemplified the problem I’m describing in the title of this blog post (yes, I did it for the hits). Joel is so much more than a Republican (if it’s even accurate to call him that). He savors life. He plays the trumpet. He loves talking about the big questions. He’s a devout Jew, but he reads the New Testament because he enjoys discussing theology with Christians. My favorite thing about Joel is that he’s feisty and provocative in a way that Guytons are sometimes reticent to be (Joel married into my family). He stirs things up, but he’s quick to laugh at himself and self-deprecate when somebody gets ruffled.
In any case, Joel and I had a great conversation about our culture’s slavery to categories and the idolatry it represents. We agreed that the reason people define themselves according to these categories is because we forgot that worship is our vocation as God’s creatures (I got that from Alexander Schmemann who calls humanity homo adoranis). People still worship because that’s what humans most naturally do, but they worship “created things instead of the Creator” (Rom 1:25), which is to say that we have converted the beautiful artwork of God’s creation into a market of consumable goods, some of which include the categories by which we define ourselves.
My conversation with Uncle Joel framed my experience of the family reunion as I looked around at my cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most of my family is in a higher tax bracket than I will ever be, and too often I label them accordingly, but they have so much more to them than that. This really hit me talking to another uncle who explained that his confidence as a surgeon came from having a father who made him do things like fix a broken washing machine when he was 11 years old. Though all of my uncles and aunts have had very successful (and lucrative) medical careers, this was only made possible by a childhood in which my grandfather forced them to master a broad variety of blue-collar skills that I wish I had. Though they’ve got enough money to afford waterski boats, they don’t have to pay somebody else to fix the engine if it breaks. So it’s pretty ridiculous to think that the word “rich” is a label that could ever adequately categorize my family, since my dad and his nine brothers and sisters will always be the kids who grew up in a hot, crowded house on the north side of Jackson and learned that they could fix anything from a father whose paralysis from polio was the catalyst that made him a world-famous inventor, medical researcher, and textbook author.
I also found my categories muddled in my interactions with my cousins, the second generation of Guytons. I’ve got two cousins who are bright, compassionate people that have chosen the career field of investment banking. As someone who spent his early twenties in the street protesting the World Bank and IMF, I tend to harbor a lot of negative assumptions about investment bankers, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, stock brokers, and other people in the financial industry who do things I don’t understand because they make lots of money doing it (which means it must be wrong). But I know that my cousins are good people and they seem to have a genuine passion about the work that they’re doing. That creates a category crisis for me. Maybe investment banking isn’t inherently evil, even if I don’t understand the ins and outs of it. Maybe there’s a way of doing it that benefits society, even if there is a way of doing it that harms society.
The other categories that I carry into every social interaction have to do with religion. As an evangelical Christian, I have been fitted with a constantly streaming radar that analyzes my interactions with other people to determine whether I’m talking to believers or non-believers. Guytons don’t wear their religion on their shirtsleeves even when they are religious, so it’s hard to tell who is and isn’t part of my Jesus family. A few of my cousins are active leaders in their churches. One of them was wearing a Chrysalis (Methodist youth) t-shirt when I walked into her lake house which made me do an invisible fist-pump in my head. But I get the impression that many of my cousins are not terribly religious. And yet they often exuded the spirit of Christ this past weekend, whether they would call it that or not.
In particular, I was touched by their hospitality to each other. See, there are two types of Guyton. Some of us are socially dynamic, relaxed, extroverted, and well-rounded. Others of us are shy, introverted, and anxious. I tend to fall into the latter category (which is how writing became such an important outlet to me in the first place). It was beautiful to see the effort exerted by my more extroverted cousins to make the more introverted ones feel welcome, such as enthusiastically engaging a super-geeky topic of discussion as though it were the coolest thing in the world to talk about. I remember a conversation I had with one of my cousins on the beach in which she was asking me all about my work as a pastor. It seemed important to her to make sure I knew that she thought I was doing something relevant and valuable (though I suspect she doesn’t share my religious convictions).
I’m still trying to figure out what the take-away message is. I feel like it was a lesson in appreciating the beauty of humanity. I spend a lot of time studying ideas that I think are beautiful and trying to get other people to recognize their beauty. I don’t think I need to abandon my own convictions to recognize that I have too often succumbed to a kind of misanthropy in which I speak cynically and presumptuously about people I don’t know based on the categories I have filed them into. It’s horrifying to realize that I have often loved my categories more than I have loved other people. I’m still in Egypt and my heart is still Pharaoh-hard, but I think God is softening it bit by bit so that I can love other human beings the way that He loves them. A family filled with amazing people like the Guytons is helpful to that process.