Grape on the vine, we’ve been alone a long time.
Grape on the vine, why not be crushed to make wine?
Last year, I started off this column somewhat flippantly, detailing my strange journey in and out of evangelicalism, a Christianity that values safety over love, the malaise-inducing pursuit of the American dream, and my friendships with refugees. But my frustration has been anything but flippant, felt by so many others before me, crystallized in an unease with a country whose politics, no matter what party, seemed dominated by oppression and exploitation.
I suspect all of us, to a certain extent, feel it too: there must be a better way.
In the Old Testament, God had already sorted this all out. He dictated some pretty crazy rules for the Hebrews, ways of living life that seemed contradictory to everything they had been told. Some of my favorite laws are those concerning the year of Jubilee, written to remind the people of God where their real priorities lay. According to the book of Leviticus, every 50 years Jubilee was to be celebrated: all slaves would be freed, all land would be given back to the original owners, all debts forgiven, and the fields would lay fallow for a year. This was God, showing the third way: forgive, be free, celebrate, and be provided for. It is a radical concept, this cyclical command of rest and liberation, both bound up together, flying in the face of empire economics. I find it inspiring, hopeful, beautiful, and hard. Evidently, others did too: while written down in the scriptures, there is no evidence that the Israelites ever followed the law of Jubilee. It lay there, a symbol of how things could be, of how they were created to be, for hundreds of years.
And then, Jesus came. In the gospel of Luke, when Jesus chooses to introduce himself and his ministry to the crowd gathered at the synagogue, he chose to reference the year of Jubilee. He did not mention all the things we would think that he would: who was in, who was out. Sin, confession, redemption, predestination, holiness—all those things we talk about now. Instead, he talked about miracles, proclaiming good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to prisoners, the blind being healed, the oppressed being set free, of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He was declaring the third way, the miracles of the kingdom of God, a life where the year of Jubilee was meant to be lived all day long.
Jesus was just reiterating what had been the plan all along. All the dreary old prophets of the Bible had been saying the same thing for years, over and over again, how God’s politics are those of justice and compassion, how he has no stomach for systems where winning entails another person losing. And as I began to hang out more with people on the “losing” side of things here in America, I realized it was true. Here it was, right in front of me, miracles happening almost every day. Forgive me when I say, as it turns out, most of them were in me.
When Benedictine monks join the novitiate, they are simply asked, “what is it you seek?” The answer, passed down through the centuries, memorized and repeated by the novices, is never up for debate: the mercy of God and grace in the community.
We all could be asked the same thing. I have long thought that I was on a quest for justice, that truth was my number one priority. In this way, I have always loved God, and the Scriptures, for the framework they give for sorting through a very un-just life (I greatly identified with the dreary, weirdo prophets). For dealing with the reality that I live in a world where comforts are strangling, while there is another world where people are barely living at all.
To be a harbinger of justice, however, comes with its own downsides. You can get very angsty, or feel isolated, or alienated, always the bearer of bad news, the downer at every social event. Life can quickly turn into a different version of religious legalism, where coffee and chocolate choices are paramount, where dissecting the choices of others becomes all-encompassing, where you are very tempted to see yourself in a savior role and content to let others think the same thing. And later, when you let yourself feel it, you realize you have just become a very lonely grape, alone on the vine.
Jesus tells me what I already know, what I don’t want to believe. In order to do anything worthwhile, we must all be crushed into wine, mixed up with each other, enmeshed and entangled and bruised. This was never about saving anyone; it was about all of us, equally, being redeemed.
And so: this is our year of Jubilee. Our year of seeking mercy, of grace in community.
We are starting fresh. We have already sold or given away most of our possessions, already quit our jobs, ended all of our well-intentioned programs. The grounds of our good works will lie still for a year, our holy busyness coming to an end.
We are moving. We are taking only what fits into a Subaru wagon and driving across the country, to the exotic Midwest with its legions of refugees and immigrants, the new ghettos in the forgotten heartland, the promised lands of the people in exile (factory jobs, affordable housing, established communities). We must go where the miracles are, to be both the proclaimers and the receivers of them.
More importantly, we are joining an Order, a group of people committed to simple ways of life, of being transformed into Christ by relating to those who are so different from themselves. We are going to learn how to be silent, how to rest, how to learn, how to find Jesus where he always was: with those who knew they were in need of a healer. We are tired of being around people who think they are healed, complicit in being saved, in being right. We are going to unlearn everything we already know.
It has been hard to say goodbye to the past eight years, to my Somali Bantu friends who changed everything for me. How they opened up my eyes to things both wonderful and heartbreaking, how they enabled me to see both worlds at once. Some of them have already left for their own wanderings, others will be leaving soon after. As we packed up our apartment, my refugee friends and neighbors came and brought gifts: clothes for the toddler, fried fish cooked whole and sliced like a baguette, crumpled dollar bills that they shoved into my shirt. Instead of feeling ashamed, unworthy, like I could have done more, I felt relief. As my friends offered to help clean and pack and took many of our worldly goods back to their own apartments, it felt good to be the recipient, to be the one in need. It confirmed that this is quite possibly the only posture that Christians in this day and age can take right now, a place where we freely admit our shortcomings, where we desperately need our neighbors.
To not insulate, to not assimilate: I cannot do it without community, without prayer, without Jesus himself being both the model and the encourager, the one who prepared the third way. And although difficult, this way has already proven worth it. Already, we are feeling free. The possessions, jobs, ministries, programs, families and friends that we found our identities in are gone. We have nothing, just an old wagon’s worth of clothes and books and blankets, modern-day bohemians, diaspora in our blood as well, setting off as wanders, refugees from the American dream, from a safe and secure religion.
I think most of us—Christian, Muslim, Somali, American, and everything in between—have felt this struggle, longed for a world where Jubilee was celebrated. Where all of us are connected by the same spirit, are blessed to be poor and powerless, where all debts are cast off and we all stand equal. As I take tiny steps towards this, I can’t help but think how far we have to go.
Horrible missionaries, self-satisfied Christians, busy and scattered friends and neighbors: this is who we are. But in light of our Jubilee year, I am beginning to identify myself in different ways. Now I know I am just another novitiate in need of mercy, my wandering heart finding community in all of this.