Because Facebook knows marketing, I have ads for Catholic t-shirts. (Go figure.) The first one to pop up was of St. Catherine of Siena, with the caption: “Be you. Set the world on fire.”
She is one of my top-5 favorite saints, but what I loved about that ad is that it showed up the day that Betsy confessed that she’d love to design fireworks shows someday. I don’t think that’s what Catherine meant, but you do you, as they say.
If I’m being honest, I’m still sorting out what exactly “you do you” looks like for me. Because it seems like, a lot of times, “you do you” means finding your way on a path that doesn’t fit into the culture’s binary choices.
Jesus does this a lot. I think about the time that he came upon a woman caught in adultery (John 8). The gang of leaders wanted Jesus to endorse them killing her, and presumably the other option would have been to fight off the mob on her behalf. But instead he wrote in the dirt, threw out a prerequisite that they weren’t prepared for (“Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”), and waited for the crowd to melt away. An unimagined third response.
Or when they asked Jesus whether or not to pay taxes (Matthew 22). The binary options were “yes – submit to the foreign empire” and “no – fight the power”, and instead he asks whose face is on the coins and then says, pay that guy his due, but pay God HIS due as well. An unimagined third response.
St. Francis of Assisi (who didn’t actually say “Preach the gospel at all times. Use shirts when necessary.”, even if it IS a good t-shirt) sort of modeled this, too. He lived during the Crusades – he actually set off to fight in one before his conversion – and the option was really to fight against the Islamic rulers who occupied the Holy Land or acquiesce and, well, mind your own business. Francis didn’t do either of those. He took a brother with him to meet the sultan and try to make peace (by converting him to Christianity). That Francis wasn’t martyred was a surprise, even to him, but it showed the power of an unimagined third response, and is why it’s Franciscans who still run the sites in the Holy Land.
In the gospels, Jesus said both “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” (Matthew 12:30) and “if you’re not against us, you’re with us” (Mark 9:40, Luke 9:50), but this world definitely leans heavily on the side of the former. I get declared somebody’s enemy for not being sufficiently committed to their side a dozen times before lunch, in a dizzying variety of settings. (I’m pretty sure you do, too.) The issues people are fighting over are at turns momentous and eye-rolling, but regardless, the choice is always “Are you in, or are you out?” No third option.
I am still looking for some unimagined third responses. The examples that inspire me are self-effacing, even to the point of self-sacrifice. They are humble and yet bold. And they shift the focus in ways that unsettle the parties at war, focusing not on the battle line, but on some question or perspective that helps shake the confident and recast the enemies according to their common humanity.
We need the grace to imagine more unimagined third responses – at least I do. Because in enough areas of my life, I yearn to show up in a way that resets the conflict, even if it’s in a way that’s weird enough that people shake their heads and say “You do you.”
It’s the openness to imagine, and courage to enact, those kinds of responses to our intractable conflicts that would truly set the world on fire, like an inspiring fireworks show rather than a dangerous arson.
So you do you, and set the world ablaze.
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