Friday, December 18, 2009


by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Today I was thinking about what kind of obligations we have as Christians, given the call to imitate Christ and the reality of our sinfulness. Remember when we were in middle school and the trend was to wear a "WWJD" bracelet? ("What Would Jesus Do")... After a while I kind of thought it was a God-awful idea, because there are a lot of reasons why we either shouldn't or cannot respond the way Jesus does or did. For instance, if I walked into a church today and saw a market or even a Starbucks in the foyer, I would certainly not walk around turning over tables and coffee grinders. Some things Jesus does because He has authority- divine authority. And if I have a realistic self-conception I'll recognize when I actually ought not do what Jesus would.

But I also consider the whole "fallen world" thing and it creates tension, in my mind anyway, with doing what Jesus would... because, unlike Him, I am one of the fallen creatures, part of the problem. I don't just pick up the pieces, I shatter the glass. So my obligations extend into a realm that God's never do-- like asking for forgiveness, being repentant, and changing.

That spills over into what Christine Swanton calls "constraints" on virtue. Since I am not omnipotent or omnipresent, and I'm really imperfect, there are limits to what I can expect of myself. Here's an example: I have told my child I will take her to the zoo on Saturday; come Saturday morning, my in laws decide to drop in and ask that I show them around town for a bit. It looks like I have obligations as a mother to fulfill my promise and obligations as a daughter-in-law to be kind and hospitable. Swanton says that in cases like this, we must recognize our constraints and come up with creative solutions that may not "hit the target" both ways (accomplish the fulfillment of the promise or being ideally hospitable. Today I was thinking about how our fallenness and the fallenness of others can act as a constraint... If someone is a victim of abuse, it seems reasonable that that imposes a limit on the kind of love the victim can show the abuser, because she cannot just continue on in a relationship with the abuser as if nothing is wrong. In fact, how much is she actually obligated to love that person considering the emotional and maybe physical constraints on virtue in that case?

Tonight, I watched Invictus, a movie about Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. Despite the fact that he had spent 18 years in prison under the Afrikaners, after having emerged and then become president, he refused to fight his former enemies. He worked to draw them into "the new South Africa." I just kept thinking, wouldn't we all have thought it reasonable for him to throw these guys in jail or try to yank them out of high power political positions? But instead, he kept saying that greatness requires more of us than we expect of ourselves. And throughout the movie, that's exactly what happened-- in this nation virtually wartorn by the apartheid, suddenly people were working together and learning to forgive one another. It was like he helped people tap into this superpower within to rise above normal human limits and do more than seems obligatory, sui generis.

Maybe what was happening was an act of grace. Maybe we can actually expect more of ourselves than we're obligated to give if we rely on a little divine infusion of grace to do what we normally just know we can't. Maybe Henley was both right and wrong-- I am the captain of my soul, but I always need the wind in my sails and the current at my back.