The wonderful thing about working in D.C. is that the Smithsonians are a short distance away. I can metro/walk to them with ease. And they’re free. FREE, I tell you.
Except…I usually end up spending some money there. They are very clever about putting the gift shop in just the right place. At the end of an awe-inspiring exhibit, I don’t want to leave. I want to take something home with me. I’m not content with letting the art remain hanging on the wall, I want to put a bit of that awe in my pocket. And so I buy a blank book that has my favorite painting. I purchase a postcard that reminds me of a favorite artist.
I’m a consumer.
When a person is attending seminary, there are certain thinkers who begin to walk with you. And they stay with you, whispering in your ear, for the years to come.
For me, the thinkers have been Meister Eckhart and Emmanuel Levinas. I regret that there’s not a woman there. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, and Sallie McFague. But if I’m completely honest, I have to stick with Eckhart and Levinas–I’ve just grown with them, and they’ve grown within me.
I discovered Levinas through Derrida. I think it was The Gift of Death, my favorite Derrida book, that drew me to him. Since Derrida’s writings are often secondary texts, I always want to track down the source. Which can be annoying, because the primary text are often not translated. But Levinas is available in my mother tongue, and so I began to consume all that I could.
The thing that this Jewish philosopher has taught me is just how much we grasp for things. He uses the story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate this. Remember Jacob, the “grabber,” who seized his brother’s heel on the way out of the womb, and never quit scheming for Esau’s inheritance? With help from his conniving mom, Jacob’s insatiable need to consume even led him to deceive his very own father on his deathbed.
But Jacob’s moment of redemption occurred when Jacob and Esau reunited, and Jacob said, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Levinas speaks of this as the epiphany of the face. It was as if Jacob saw Esau for the very first time, because he wasn’t trying to figure out what he could get from his brother, how he could consume his brother’s wealth or position in the family, but instead, he saw God in his brother.
In our churches, we so often talk about how we need to grow our membership, because of our anemic budgets and our tired volunteers. We need to grow because we used to be a much bigger church, because we need those numbers to get back to the glory days of the mainline church.
But in all of this, our motivations seem to be based on consumption. Instead of loving people for who they are, for the awe that they inspire, we see them as commodities, and we try to figure what part of them we can put in our pockets.
Levinas has been whispering in my ear for a long time now. And through him, we can learn how to minister to people, not because they are tools for us to implement or numbers for our bottom line, but because they are beautiful reflections of the image of God.
The painting’s Harlem Cityscape with Church by William H. Johnson