By Sheri Hostetler
We are created in the image of God. Inside each of us is a radiant wholeness that seeks to be expressed in our human form. Thus, we have the mystery of the Incarnation. That mystery is not just that God became flesh in Jesus but that God — this radiant wholeness — seeks to become flesh in each of us. Jesus’ calling was to show us that it was possible to be whole within this human form, to show us the way.
And so he started like each of us do — a small, powerless being in a large and often overwhelming world. The bulwark against this world is our parents or guardians. They are the ones who, hopefully, protect us, feed us, comfort us when the inevitable overwhelm happens. Quickly, we learn that these people, these gods, expect certain behaviors of us. We are given smiles when we do the right thing, frowns and possibly “consequences” when we don’t. Soon, others enter the picture — teachers, peers — and they, too, have their expectations, as does the larger society. We learn what parts of us are desirable and what are not. The undesirable parts are stuffed into our shadow, that long, black bag we all carry behind us. They become the “not me.”
These rejected parts of ourselves impinge on our awareness from time to time. When they do, we experience guilt, shame and unworthiness, and we fear that we will be rejected, abandoned, should our shadow self be exposed. To own one’s shadow, then, to own the “not me” is a painful and potentially terrifying experience — so much so that we usually protect ourselves from this awareness by denying the existence of our shadow self and projecting it onto others. This is done “not as a conscious act of will but unconsciously as an act of self-preservation” (from Archetype: A Natural History of the Self by Anthony Stevens). We see this very early in children: “I didn’t want to hit him but he made me do it.”
What we do as individuals, we do as collectives, to more terrifying ends. As one writer (Anthony Stevens) has said, “This act of unconscious cunning (by which we deny our shadow and project it onto others) explains the ancient practice of scapegoating: it underlies all kinds of prejudice against those belonging to identifiable groups other than our own and it as at the bottom of all massacres, pogroms and wars. Through shadow projection, we are able to turn our enemies into ‘devils’ and convince ourselves that they are not men and women like ‘us’ but monsters unworthy of humane consideration.” From Golgatha to Guantanamo, history is littered with evidence of our propensity to separate ourselves into “us” and “not us” and then unconsciously project our fear and aggression onto the latter.
This cycle — of separation and projection — is an endless one. It’s the old, old story. In fact, as social mammals, we are biologically programmed to separate into social groups, fear the other and defend our territory. Almost every society throughout history has insisted that “while it is wicked to murder your own kind it is good to kill the enemy.” It’s part of our survival instinct. There’s a Blood Wolf in each of us. We all know how good, how right, it can feel to “other” our enemy, those who threaten us or our group. We all have felt that desire to do violence to those who done violence to us or our own. And we all know where that gets us — an endless cycle of violence in which we are trapped in our roles as victim and victimizer, a history littered with unmarked tombs like the one that held Jesus.
Is there no way out of this endless cycle? Can nothing new every happen? “But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Here, we begin to realize just what Jesus is asking of us. He is asking us to grow beyond the survival instincts of our animal brain and our self-preservation shadow projection systems.
And he shows us the way. First, he descends into the waters of his baptism where he hears himself named as the “beloved.” Then, wearing the full armor of God (for remember, God is love), he descends into the “dark” wild places of his own soul by heading into the wilderness and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights (40 being the number that represents the renewal or new beginnings in Scripture). There, he does some serious shadow work. He meets the Devil, the collective shadow of those living in the Roman Empire, the domination system of his day. His inner Caesar, the dominator in him, tempts him with unlimited economic, political and religious power-over. Give in to me, the shadow says, and you will have the power to dominate the Empire that dominates you. Here we are, trapped in the endless cycle. It would be so easy to unconsciously choose that hamster wheel. Who could blame Jesus if he did? If this were a movie, we’d be cheering him on.
But Jesus, having nothing else to eat, eats his shadow instead. He consciously assimilates and metabolizes this inner Caesar. He tastes the will to power in himself and refuses, as one of history’s endless victims, to become the victimizer. Now conscious, he sees that there is no separation between himself and others. Unconscious fear and domination exist in all of us. In another life, he could have been the Roman Emperor. That’s why he is able to ask God to forgive the people crucifying him even as they are doing so, because “they don’t know what they are doing.” They are unconscious, still on the hamster wheel.
In eating his shadow, in becoming conscious of it and refusing to project it onto others, he breaks free from the endless cycle of victim and victimizer. He reconciles these opposites in himself, and then offers that wholeness as a gift to the world. As Addie said two Sundays ago, this is what the cross symbolizes — the reconciliation of opposites. Reconciliation with the despised shadow, the “not me.” Reconciliation with the despised other, the “not us.” And there’s only one place in us where this reconciliation can happen, in our spacious center, where the opposites intersect – our heart.
I was blessed a few months ago, to “meet” a woman of Christ-like heart and wholeness, the civi rights icon Ruby Sales. She was interviewed in an “On Being” podcast that we were assigned for our first East Bay Discipleship Group. Ruby grew up in the Jim Crow South and was active in the civil rights movement. In 1965, she was arrested with other activists for picketing a whites-only store and jailed for six days. As they left the jail, Ruby was threatened by a shotgun-wielding man. A fellow activist, a white seminarian named Jonathan Daniels, pushed her out of the way and took the bullet meant for her, dying instantly. Ruby later went on to found an economic and racial justice organization in Daniels’ memory. During the course of researching a bit about Ruby’s life, I found out that both her and Jonathan Daniels went to the seminary I attended near Boston.
Ruby grew up in what she calls black folk religion, the religion of the slaves, a religion that taught people who were considered property and disposable that they were not victims — that they were essential in the eyes of God, and even essential to the democracy. Amazingly, Ruby said in this interview that through the spiritual genius of her ancestors, she was able to grow up in a world where the notion that she was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched her consciousness. She was able to hear herself named as the Beloved. Talk about resisting a really huge shadow projection.
That same black folk religion taught her to sing; “I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.” Hate was not in their vocabulary, she said. That song meant, she says, that “‘You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.
Then, Ruby showed what a radiantly whole heart looks like now. Speaking of our current situation, she said:
“I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is how do we develop a theology in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been (formed by) whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, (like) heroin addiction… That’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling.”
Like Jesus, Ruby is is able to have heart for everyone caught up in the madness of the domination system of white supremacy, dominator and dominated alike. By refusing to play along with the old roles of victim or victimizer, Ruby’s heart, like Jesus’, reveals the redemptive pattern, the third Way, the way out of the endless cycle of violence and shadow projection.
This is what Resurrection looks like. This is new life — something other than the old, old story of Golgathas and unmarked tombs. In the reconciling wholeness we call Christ, the cycle of death is broken and something new can enter into our lives and into history.
Now, I just made that sound so pleasant. The reality is that “eating our shadow” and being crossed by these opposites for any of us will feel like a death to our small self, our ego. As Addie said during her sermon two weeks ago, for the parts of my identity that benefit unconsciously from domination systems, “eating my shadow” means “an allowance of a shattering, a surrender and a willingness to be continually humbled… it also requires a re-evaluation of how my money is being used and a willingness to give up some aspects of comfort and some illusions of safety.” And that’s just the collective shadow. I have some of my own personal shadows that I’m still eating, and they do not always taste good either.
But this is the soul work that Jesus calls us to. Because inside each of us is a radiant wholeness that seeks to be expressed in us, in our particular, unique way. Because the Spirit of Life needs that particular, unique wholeness to bring forth the new thing for which all creation is groaning. Because this is the work that we — as beloved ones of God — have been given to do in this life, within this human form. It’s our sacred calling, and our sacred destiny to die with Christ and to rise with him into newness of life. Alleluia and Amen.