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Holy Interruptions and Transforming Initiatives

I am an ordained American Baptist minister, though I teach religion and philosophy in a liberal arts curriculum at Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina.

Your call to speak of our own responses to this economic crisis comes during the observance of Lent. Lent was not in my tradition growing up, yet its pull upon me in later life has an appropriate and even necessary correlation to Socrates’ high call to the examined life that renders life human.

This year, I experimented with a new ear to listen to the call of Lent. It has two chords. The first sounded during a course I teach on human nature. A challenge emerged after a week of studying Plato’s depiction of his mentor “The Apology of Socrates”, and of Glaucon’s more terrifying challenge to the human spirit to become vulnerable and visible in his story, “The Ring of Gyges.

“Lend me your cell phone batteries,” I asked, “for 24 hours. If that’s too threatening because of circumstances you cannot control, then lend me your iPod, your X-Box, your computer cable – whatever it is, and whatever it takes, to demonstrate how much reach the electronic, virtual culture has a reach into our individual and common lives.” (I am a participant too.) Right then, we watch together a segment of the first Matrix movie, the part that has the following quotes.

Morpheus: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

[Neo's eyes suddenly wander towards a woman in a red dress]

Morpheus: Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?

Neo: I was...

Morpheus: [gestures with one hand] Look again.
[the woman in the red dress is now Agent Smith, pointing a gun at Neo's head; Neo ducks]

Morpheus: Freeze it.
[Everybody and everything besides Neo and Morpheus freezes in time]

Neo: This... this isn't the Matrix?

Morpheus: No. It is another training program designed to teach you one thing: if you are not one of us, you are one of them.

I emphasize from this quote that most of us (1) “are not ready to be unplugged,” and will (2) “fight to protect” an enslaving system, AND (3) one is either a plugged-in agent who can be anything … and dangerous, or one has unplugged and thus cannot be a deceiver.

This really gets the students thinking! Heck, it gets me thinking!

I ask the students to figure out where they are plugged in, living virtually, and not concretely. If it’s a cell phone (for many of my students 300-400 texts per day are not uncommon, a feat that must take hours each day), then offer the battery up for 24 hours. If it’s X-Box or anything else, go on a 24-hour fast from that. Write about your experiences, with the Matrix dialogue above sounding in your mind’s ear.

The papers turned in were astounding. “I didn’t realize how much I had sold out!” “I actually read – finished – a book for the first time in years.” “I feel like I am a prostitute; I can be bought. I have a price.” For someone who listened to music literally all day, came this Aha! moment: “I had never heard birds on campus before!”

These responses affected me deeply. What I unwittingly initiated was a spiritual practice – holy interruption. While our lives get interrupted by the unexpected time and again (for Mary, the visit of Gabriel; to us, the phone call in the middle of the night), what would happen if we “planned” interruptions? Could we “transubstantiate” or render these naturally occurring interruptions into sacramental, free-willed intentionality – freely willed choices to remove something through holy interruption?

With the above in mind, for Lent this year, here is my second chord: I have initiated Sundays interrupted by not eating solid food. In contrast to this interruption, I have begun an integration (“addition” is not the right word) of reading and learning more about hunger, with an eventual end to doing something more about hunger in my area.

This regular interruption/integration has led me further afield. An interrupting city bus ride instead of taking the car brings up fascinating conversations that would otherwise never happen. Sitting with students instead of work colleagues in the school cafeteria invites surprising and often in-depth conversations.

“Transforming initiatives” is a phrase by ethicist Glen Stassen. Instead of waiting for the sky to fall, the world to intervene or something to occur that stimulates a mere reaction, can one speak of pro-active initiatives that bring about conscious, transformational initiatives?

How does this work with the current economic crisis? Why not live “already on the edge,” remove more and more of the unnecessary, and integrate a transformed consciousness? While there’s a good chance that I will not be really seriously affected by this crisis, does that mean that I have a right to live above it? Can I not live “as if” it’s affecting me as much as it already affects my neighbor? Can I not remove key elements of my lifestyle, learn its transformational and interrupting power, and then live in accountable ways to the fact that most of the world already lives like that, and then donate my excess to those in more need?

Where’s the human nature here? Since I teach a course on human nature every year, I think of this a great deal. For me, the Sermon on the Mount, and the hard teachings of the recognized spiritual masters in the world’s faith traditions, are NOT impossible, but “difficult possibilities” for which we are capable, the more so that we are conscious and living an examined life. I do not think I could love my enemies as well if I am being merely reactive, for example. Joining this, the Confucian point of view demonstrates to me that our human nature is almost infinitely malleable; we are teachable and can adapt to almost any circumstance. These insights give me great hope that we can weather great trials, because we can initiate such trials – even if on a “trial basis” – before they become trying.

So I write about these reflections to you. Hope they help.

Marc Mullinax,
Associate Professor of Religion & Philosophy
Mars Hill College
Mars Hill, NC 28754