The other day I was talking with my stepson about doing some exercise. He’s been wanting to work out for quite some time now, but can’t seem to get it together, you know? Sometimes it’s too cold. Sometimes it’s too hot. Sometimes chores need to be done. Sometimes it’s time to eat. Sometimes it just feels like a lazy day. And so the desire to exercise remains, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

I think we can all relate. Maybe it’s not exercise that dogs you, but something else. Maybe it’s wanting to spend more time outside, to cook or bake more, to stay in touch with friends better, to volunteer more, or to stop doing something that is harmful to your health or your relationships. Whatever it is, I think we all know what it’s like to have a sincere desire to do something, and then repeatedly not follow through.

This is the plight of human beings, I’m afraid, before a habit has been formed. In my experience, it’s this pre-habit stage that is so difficult to overcome, the stage where we want to do what we don’t do, and we do what we don’t want to do. This stage is so difficult because we have to muster things up – we have to muster up motivation or courage, we have to muster up energy, we have to make a very conscious decision, and we have to overcome inertia. That, as we all know, is very hard to do.

Now contrast this feeling with doing something that is already a habit. For me, in conversations with my stepson, I’ve talked about my habit of going to the gym. “I don’t think about it,” I explain to him, “It’s just on my calendar as a thing that happens at a certain time, and when it gets to be that time, I just put on my gym clothes and go.” When I get there, of course, I often become very aware that I’m quite tired, that I have no energy, or that my shoulder still hurts. But at that point, I’m already there. I’m warming up, I’m talking with friends, and so I do the workout and I’m glad I’ve gone.

The difference between the first scenario and the second—the first one in which we can’t seem to get ourselves to do something we really want to do, and the second scenario in which we do something without thinking and we’re happy about it—in this instance, at least, has to do with the fact that in the first scenario a habit has not yet been formed, and in the second it has.

This Lent, many of us have been attempting to make new habits, good habits that will stick with us throughout the year. In my church, we’ve been trying to inculcate habits of resistance to sinful structures of our lives and our world, and Jesus has been our guide.

As we enter Holy Week and imagine Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, we reflect on the fact that he knows that Jerusalem will be a very dangerous place for him this week, that he will be betrayed, and that he will likely be killed. We see him deep in the throes of anguish. As he is grieving and praying fervently not to have to go through the events of this week, we might very well wonder whether and to what extent Jesus deliberated about whether to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem that year, and how he could muster up the courage to accept the consequences of his claim to be the Messiah and to be the “Son of Man.” How did he make that terrifying decision?

When we see him in Gethsemane, struggling mightily with his imminent death, we might be reminded that celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem was one of Jesus’s habits. Luke tells us that his parents went every year, and Jesus surely went with them. Perhaps it was this habit that helped Jesus to make that decision—in the face of even death—to go to Jerusalem once again, to continue with his tradition of celebrating the Passover there. If this was one of Jesus’s habits, perhaps his incredible decision to go to Jerusalem this year was paved by a lifetime of the mundane, a lifetime of habit.

The United Church of Christ has a devotional called “Rise Up! Spirituality for Resistance,” that my local church has been using this Lent. One of the devotions was written by Rev. Rebecca Voelkel. It recalls the story of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in 1969 and catalyzed the gay rights movement in the U.S. and abroad. Voelkel writes, “They were drag queens and bull dykes. They were Black, white, Latinx, Asian American. They were mostly working class and poor young people. They had been beaten up, scorned by their families, committed to mental hospitals. But on this night, something happened. They recognized something about themselves and one another. They saw the holy in their midst, or at least the evidence of holiness—dignity—and, so awakened, they claimed a love that is resistance.” The police, as you may recall, had raided a gay bar, and arrested many of those inside. But this night, “the crowd resisted and they would not be quashed. At one point,” the Voelkel continues, “police found themselves face to face with their worst nightmare: a chorus line of mocking queens, kicking their heels Rockettes-style and singing at the tops of their sardonic voices: ‘We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls, we wear no underwear, we show our pubic hair, we wear our dungarees, above our nelly knees!’” (39).

Now Jesus’s path to the cross was not an active form of resistance, like the Stonewall Riots. And it did not have the same kind of flair or songs or chants. Putting the two examples next to each other is, indeed, a bit jarring. But they can illuminate one another. In both cases, those on the receiving end of insults were not put to shame, even in their nakedness. In both cases, the might of political authorities was resisted—Jesus by his refusal to recant, and the Stonewall girls by their creative defiance. In both cases, we see integrity and dignity maintained by those who were persecuted. And although these two cases remind us that there are different ways to “rise up,” they both involve risk.

My prayer this Holy Week is that the spiritual practices we have begun or solidified this Lenten season will have so conditioned us to rise up—like both the “King of the Jews” and these “queens”—for what we believe is right and good and beautiful, that we might continue to sing a song of resistance even in the face of great risk. May we have become, this Lenten season and throughout our lives, a people of habit, a people who, like Jesus, do what we do because it is who we are. And let us give thanks for Jesus, who has taught us how to live our lives so that when risks are involved, we might still set our faces toward Jerusalem.

7 thoughts

  1. I think these kinds of events are not the results of the habitual but rather breakings in/thru of something truly novel, not more of the same, and not the kinds of things that can be engineered, as John Caputo outlines in his theology of the event-ual, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event.

    1. Thanks for this thought! There are, happily, a number of ways of looking at this sort of thing. A number of theologians from the 20th century and into our own century are very much in favor of apocalyptic language (in-breaking, breaking through). Some feminist theologians have noticed that such language is built into theologies that have quite gendered understandings of God and humanity (e.g. Karl Barth). They’ve also pointed out that an “in-breaking” of the unexpected favors a masculine perspective, since men have historically and stereotypically (beware) had that kind of relationship to others (e.g. war). What I’m doing in this piece is to attend also to the perspectives feminists have brought to the table, where the focus is on the mundane, habitual, and the slow and steady. These are the historical and stereotypical (beware) relationships that women have had to others (e.g. rearing children). One of the dangers of Holy Week, I think, is to see Jesus as being so extraordinary in his decision to carry out his mission even unto death (slam, bam, whoah!) that we forget the very human ways in which the road to that decision was paved (“get your sandals on, honey, we’re going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover again”). I imagine a balance of these perspectives is key. These are, indeed, extraordinary events, but they do not come from nowhere.

      1. sure some feminists take that kind of pragmatist route but some like the Process feminists insist on more than mere anthropology, and for what it’s worth Caputo doesn’t see God as being (let alone male) at all, as he says it’s a matter of insistence rather then existence, but isn’t the point of Jesus as Christ (and so the events coming from the Divine) and not just as another example of human-being (why of all the folks who practiced Judaism before and during Jesus’s time did we not see this resulting from such habits?) ,
        what makes this account worth recounting as opposed to any of the other millions of accounts of persecuted people, why would one need a god in such an account at all? thanks

      2. Thanks for this reply! I’m definitely also in favor of “more than mere anthropology,” and for me, Jesus is not just “another example of human being.” At the same time, I don’t think that the relationship between the human and the divine is one of competition, where the one must decrease for the other to increase, or the one must be passive so the other can be active. Instead, couldn’t it be that we see the divine in and through Jesus’s very humanity? Couldn’t it be that we find the divine precisely in and through both the mundane and the exciting details of Jesus’ human life?

      3. hi, both Jesus’ self-sacrifice (as Paul points out as being both alien and alienating to Jews and Greeks) and Stonewall are notable for being/bearing the marks of something radically new happening, and one could give a kind of secular account (as say neo-pragmatist Nancy Frankenberry or Donna Haraway might) with no divine agency at work or one could see the divine as the spark or infusing spirit or the like but either way I think one has to say something about how the new thing happened to have these stories of all stories matter, and if they are not all the same (if Jesus is in some sense singular as in God incarnate and worth worshipping) then doesn’t one also need to account for that vital element as well?

      4. We agree on the fact that one needs to account for the divine. Where, how, and when one does so is another matter. I see the divine in, for instance, Jesus’s compassion for others that he maintained even while being crucified, and in the dignity maintained by activists when others attempt to humiliate or otherwise oppress them. In any case, I’m glad we’ve had this correspondence. Wishing you all the best in your theological reflections!

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