Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)
Disgust and contempt are the precursors to annihilation. Can we pull back from the abyss?
Some years ago in a church, there was a Sunday school classroom, shared by several teachers who team taught the little ones for years. On the wall of the classroom was a poster of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” The poster included multiple iterations of this concept from religions and cultures across the globe, and the teachers often pointed out to the children that we were not the only religion to say something like this.
One year later, there was a change in pastoral leadership. The new leader redecorated the classroom for the fall. She removed the Golden Rule poster and replaced it with a human-sized poster of a knight in metal armor. The lessons that year began with, “Children, let us put on the whole armour of God.” The children then learned about powers and principalities, Satan and temptation, evil and wickedness, sin and salvation and the power of prayer. They learned of the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, and especially of the sword of the Spirit.
The new poster and lessons surfaced the polarities of political and religious thought within our congregation—polarities that existed long before this latest classroom battle and will exist long after I am dead and gone. Put on the armour of God…Do unto others…how do we choose whether scripture commands us to annihilate evil or love beyond understanding?
These days, as we continue to move through glaring political polarities in our religious and political spaces, I have been paying close attention to how righteousness and disgust are manufactured in the public square (sometimes by me), usually for the well-intentioned purpose of protecting ourselves and our loved ones. Discussions about vaccines and masks and other protective measures against Covid-19 push us quickly to our corners.
“Put on the armour of God—put on the mask of disease prevention!”
“Put on the armour of God—our faith alone will save us!”
“Anti-vaxxers are ignorant… they don’t care about anyone but themselves… they are disease vectors… they deserve a Covid death…”
“The liberals want to strip us of our rights… force us to cover and cower… inject us with poison… they want us to die…”
This Ephesians passage is troubling for those of us who long to move through, around, past, underneath, and beyond these polarities. Taken literally, there is enough justification on all sides, to take up the sword and smite our enemies, in the name of Truth and Justice and Life and Salvation. Stand firm in your Truth, smite the Evil One, take down the System. Those people over there are trying to kill us and we are dead if we do not strike first.
Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave states:
Dehumanization, pseudospeciation. The tools of the propagandists of hate. Thems as disgusting Thems as rodents, as a cancer, as a transitional species, Thems as reekingly malodorous, as living in hives of chaos that no normal human would. Thems as shit. Get the insulae of your followers to confuse the literal and metaphorical, and you’re 99 percent of the way there…The tool of the propagandist is to effectively exploit symbols of revulsion in the service of hate. (573-4)
In both our public and private spaces, we are working overtime to protect and preserve ourselves and those whom we love. The pandemic has only exacerbated our existential anxieties. Overwhelmed, our brains search for shortcuts, both consciously and subconsciously. It is easier to deal with other humans if they are neatly placed in categories rather than individuals full of nuance and complexity. When communal death draws close, as in a pandemic, we draw our lines using disgust and contempt: these people are Us and those people are Them.
The line between “those people act like dogs” and “those people are dogs” is dangerously thin. Once we cross that line from metaphor to Truth we are 99 percent of the way toward justifying the annihilation of Them. On one side I hear, “Those people are disease vectors.” On the other side, I hear, “Those people want to kill Us with their vaccine. They are murderers.” Are these metaphors or literal Truths in our minds? What violence will we justify in the name of Truth?
This next year is going to be very complicated as everybody has different calculations to make in addition to our communal decisions (which are multiple as well). There is probably no way through without some measure of shaming, blaming, fear, anxiety, and broken relationships. We are in the midst of a lethal global catastrophe, and the consequences of all our choices and allegiances will not be fully known for decades.
Disgust and contempt are the precursor to annihilation of the Other. They are the foundation of all supremacy cultures. They make conflict unnecessary, because who bothers to argue with a dog? If we can convince ourselves that those people over there are a threat, an agent of death, a walking, rotting, disease-ridden, ignorant, disgusting, half-dead corpse, then we can justify any measure of violence. Children, put on the whole armour of God…
Two years ago, after I posted a righteous paragraph or two on Facebook (who hasn’t succumbed to that temptation?), an old friend of mine posted a link to a presentation by Bayo Akomolafe called “The Times Are Urgent, Let Us Slow Down” I was irritated, because I was right, I thought. I was speaking Truth on the Internet. I did not want to be talked out of my righteousness. But it was a friend who sent the video, and so reluctantly, I watched it. Somewhere in that lengthy presentation Akamolafe said this: “Once you frame your emancipation within the epistemology of your oppression, you run the risk of repeating your incarceration, of reinforcing that condition of your imprisonment.”
Now I was caught up short, and I realized that underneath my silver armor and sword of Truth and impatient disgust for those who saw it differently, was fear of my own annihilation. In seeking safety and protection from those who would harm us, we often find ourselves trapped within the framework used to imprison us. It is better, perhaps, to be the oppressor than to be oppressed.
Since that day, I pay attention closely to the times when I feel disgust or contempt for the Other, acknowledging that it masks fear. Nawal El Saadawi, in her book The Hidden Face of Eve, writes of the way man has always feared woman: “It was this fear, or even terror, that led him to oppress and subjugate her with all means at his disposal, be they economic, social, legal or moral. All these means had to be mobilized and synchronized to place at his disposal an overbearing and formidable armoury, used exclusively to conquer the indomitable vitality and strength that lay within women, ready to burst out at any moment” (100).
When we experience within ourselves the capacity to suppress, subjugate, humiliate, and annihilate the Other, this is a time to consider carefully, “What do I fear?” and “How might I move outside the framework of violence that traps us?” In 2021, with Covid-19 exacerbating existing polarities and extremisms, tempting us to consider the Other as Evil personified, we might pause and ask ourselves the purpose of our disgust and contempt. They are the precursors of annihilation and the tools of propaganda.
In all the overt and covert conflict caused by a human-sized poster of a knight in silver armor, I never noticed the Apostle Paul’s recommendation regarding shoes: As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. It was only now, twenty years later and as I write this reflection, that I see here a way through and beyond.
Put on your feet whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. These shoes are not weapons, nor are they articles of protection. We are instructed to put on a pair of shoes that makes us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. We are not prescribed jackboots to save ourselves. Nor are we charged with some soft slipper of gentleness. We are instructed to find shoes that make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
There is a pause here, in the middle of arming ourselves against evil, that allows for reflection and care. In our most threatened moments, if we paused for the length of time it took us to find the right shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace, we might pull back from the edge of disgust and contempt that disguises fear. We might, while debating a strappy sandal vs. a sensible shoe, consider carefully the annihilation we are about to bring to those we consider less than human.
I’ve taken lately to perusing my shoes whenever I am about to speak harsh words. If I put on these boots, will I still feel this way? If I lace up these sneakers, do I still hate this person? In the time it takes me to find my dress shoes is there another way to see this person I have called a dog?
Sometimes no. And that’s that. Scripture does call us to protection.
But sometimes, if I put on the right shoes, another path shows itself. The mystery of the gospel intervenes and makes itself known: in the destruction of the Other, I destroy myself.