Discerning the Good after Conversation with the Philosopher Barber
My barber is a philosopher. (I know, I know, aren’t they all?) At least he struck me as particularly philosophical the day I sat down in his chair and asked for his help with my beard. This was a couple of years ago and I’d grown what was my first significant beard for charity. Charitably, I didn’t know what I was doing and desperately needed help. Now that the money had been raised, the parameters of the agreement followed for the allotted length of time (namely abiding an alarming degree of hygienic negligence), I needed the beard trimmed into respectability. The barber nodded knowingly as he listened, taking in my situation. When he finally picked up his scissors and began to go to work, he broke a thoughtful silence with this truth:
“Beards,” he said, “are remarkable achievements of inaction. You did a thing by not doing a thing, am I right? People gave you money not to shave. But,” he went on, “the verb is active. That’s the madness. We say you grew a beard because of this thing you stopped doing. And we notice. We say to people with beards, ‘I see you grew a beard.’ But we never say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you decided not to grow a beard today.’ Every day we should say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you opted yet again not to grow a beard. How interesting. Well done.’ They’re the ones day in and day out giving honest time to their invisible decisions.”
There was no judgment in my barber’s words, although had they been intended to communicate humility to me, they certainly would have been effective.
I marveled at the barber/philosopher’s consideration of the matter, but then decided that this was not really that surprising. Hair and hair cutting are kind of his thing. Still, as a good Episcopalian, his words stayed with me. After all, in the list of all-time favorite and famous phrases of the liturgy, right up there with “The Lord be with you” and maybe also “Guide us waking, O Lord,” from Compline, is that line from the corporate confession of sin. We name “things done and left undone.” That line has always struck me as beautiful and true, calling me to a more fulsome imagination for what might have been done and how I might have lived. Now, though, post conversation with the philosopher barber, I was haunted. While not a sin, maybe, which was a beard? A thing done or left undone? Was it both? And what about other similarly ambiguous acts of inaction? When someone talks about turning the other cheek, for example, the cheek may have been turned, but the real accomplishment was the retaliatory punch not thrown. Similarly, to make space for another’s pain is a very active thing facilitated, in large part, by certain words not spoken. When John the Baptist looked at Jesus and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we can recognize decreasing as an action that definitionally doesn’t take much action, even if in a peculiar sense John’s is a difficult and intentional action to take.
An especially relevant contemporary application appears in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s remarkable book, “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion,” in which he astutely observes that “‘Just shut up and listen’ might be the most important instruction for anyone committed to unlearning whiteness.” Sometimes to act is to roll up your sleeves and throw your hat the ring. Sometimes to act is to grow the beard.
The complication is that it’s not enough to fall back on sayings like, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” because, the line between action and non-action is difficult to spot, if it exists at all. If I say that to you – “Don’t just stand there, do something!” – it’s actually not possible for me to know that you were not doing something by standing there. It would probably be more honest then for me to say, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Do something else.” In other words, many times we call on people to act when we simply don’t like how they are acting. But precisely for all its reliance on these arbitrary judgments, parsing action from non-action is an insufficient and reductive way to tell if we’re doing the right thing.
Was the thing I did done or left undone? It depends on what you’re trying to do and therefore also on what you recognize as the good for which you’re aiming. For Christians, the good is not an abstract judgment made for the purposes of filling out the scorecard of faith. Ten points and you’re in. For Christians, goodness has to do with discerning where God is, what God is doing, and tending to God’s presence with our own. So Christians gather around the table to discern the Body. Having been gathered by God in this way, we continue from this place in the baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help. In this way, our worship of God and our care for one another are inextricably bound up in each other. So in the letter that bears his name James can ask a question that appears to blur moral and theological categories, the question he asked in his letter last week, “Do you, by your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James can question his hearers’ belief in our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of their treatment of each other and the stranger because James sees that goodness is not a dry application of an arbitrary assessment but has everything to do with where and in whom they believe the living God will show up. Goodness has everything to do with employing the discernment they receive as gifts of this table as they leave from this table and encounter all of those who bear the image of God.
In today’s lesson, James is still talking favoritism, partiality, that thing that God does not have that makes God so generous, but he’s writing about speech and the ways people sometimes talk poorly about the ones who are not their favorites. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James writes. “And the tongue is a fire…a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My sisters and brothers, it should not be so.” Now, if it sounds to you like James is channeling Ralphie from A Christmas Story, threatening to wash our mouths out with soap until we go blind if we don’t watch our speech, you can be forgiven the impression. “Only I didn’t say fudge,” Ralphie memorably confesses some decades later. But the context is more insidious than bad words; the context is cursing others; the context is the tendency in followers of Jesus to separate love of God from love of those God also loves; the context is an indefensible separation of the discernment of Body at the table from the care with which we speak of about people we have learned to despise and in whom we do not acknowledge the image of God. James doesn’t say what Dorothy Day would later say, but you get the sense he would have very much approved when she confessed, “I only really love God as much as the person I love least.”
It is really easy to imagine morality as the things we do to impress God apart from God for the approval of God. James will have none of it. Instead, James presents a sacramental world in which goodness only finds substance and direction and meaning as it attends to the presence of God and in which the people who fill our ordinary days bear the image of God, as we give one another by our being opportunities to honor the goodness of the God we have discerned in worship here. So James invites us to consider that the mouths that sing God’s praises here might well consider these prayers and praises to be our mouths’ true vocations for all the other days as well. In other words, how might the ways we have learned to speak to God and, maybe most importantly, the ways we have heard God speak to us, inform the ways we speak to one another? I think for myself that works like gratitude, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness might find new prominence in my day to day vocabulary. In any case, this is James’ question for us. Our answers are free to take the shape of words and silence, both, because the answer is not in the words alone. Remember, there is no logic to things done or left undone apart from God’s first call to us and the good work of tending to where and with whom God is. Our answer to James lies in the discernment that is God’s loving gift, in the discernment of where God is, what God is doing, and, with God’s good help, tending to God’s gracious presence there, and here, with our own.