Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outburst of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. In contrast the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Galatians 5: 19-22
To hear once again the listing of the “fruits of the Spirit” can be a somewhat discouraging experience. Even in many so-called “religious” circles, our experience seems more in line with “the works of the flesh”: hatreds, rivalry, jealously, outbursts of fury, act of selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, and the like. Is there really much connection between faith in God and in Jesus and the development of those dispositions of heart that reflect the fruits of the Spirit? Is it possible, that true faith has not so much to do with having “arrived” at a state where we incarnate at all the times the fruits of the Spirit, but rather with how we deal with the ongoing life tension between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit within us?
Our hearts are formed in large part from those “key formation situations” that occur in the very early years of our lives. Most of these come out of our need to protect and defend ourselves against whatever we experience as threatening and painful. So, for example, to the degree that we experienced a lack of the love and confirmation that we craved as infants and children, we create dispositions that lead us to relate to others and the world in such a way as to protect ourselves from the arising of those feelings in the present.
For example, later in my life I began to be aware, mostly through the example of others I grew close to, that I often withheld my best efforts to attain what I most wanted in life. It was only as an adult that I realized how enjoyable it was for me to gain new insights through study, reflection, writing, and speaking. Only in graduate school did I realize that being a student was a significant aspect of who I was, and that learning with others was one of my greatest joys. In time, I came to see in a more general way, how my dissociation from this desire reflected my failure to recognize and acknowledge my desires on many fronts. Slowly, I began to understand that I avoided experiencing really wanting or desiring things because I feared the experience of disappointment. If what I wanted didn’t matter, then I wouldn’t have to suffer disappointment when it failed to happen, or even the disappointment that comes when we get what we want and realize it doesn’t satisfy us.
Of course, the difficulty with such an approach is that it suffocates to a significant degree the life of spirit and soul in us. Our souls are formed by suffering the limits of “the flesh.” Yet, if we fail to be present to and aware of our desire for those experiences, we cannot know their limit. So, any spiritual interpretation we put on our lack of experience is mere pretense. When we are living a life that is dissociated from “the flesh,” our kindness, gentleness, patience, generosity, and self-control are affectations. Underneath the appearance of these dispositions lies fury, rivalry, envy, even hatreds. In the example, it is unrecognized hatred at those who are failing to give us that of which we are not even aware.
The problem with much religious, and for that matter civil, practice is that it goes only skin deep. For the Spirit to reform and transform our dispositions of heart, we must awaken to the reality of our own unconscious. We must dare to suffer what we are avoiding suffering, for example disappointment, if the Spirit of God is ever to transform that disappointment into the awareness of our need for God. Once we recognize that need, our demands of others begin to change. Instead of resentment, anger, rivalry, envy and hatred for other’s failures in our regard, we become thankful for, in a limited human way, all that others do give to us.
Something akin to what we describe is also true at the social level. At the heart of the American civil dilemma, there lies the horror and sin of slavery and racism. I often am astounded to see that in our day it is a legislature and a Supreme Court, made up in their majority by Roman Catholic adherents, that refuse to acknowledge the continuing wound of racism. It is our refusal to acknowledge the reality and guilt of the basic American disposition, that is largely responsible for much of the deformation that we inflict on each other and on the world. It is repressed racism that accounts for our willingness to exacerbate and perpetuate wealth disparity, militarism and violence, xenophobic immigration policy, and a perpetual “civil war” between political and geographical factions.
Generation after generation the fears and hatreds based on race are perpetuated in our culture, in large part, because we, as a people, have never truly acknowledged them (made them conscious) and so repented of them. The other day, a black high school student who missed his bus rang a doorbell to ask for directions. He was met at the door by the white resident holding a shotgun. As the young man ran away, the man actually shot at him, fortunately missing him. The homeowner told police that they had been robbed several times. Yet, the point is that the race of the young man at the door triggered in the homeowner and his wife the fearful reaction that this was another home invader — although most home invaders don’t ring the doorbell.
Without acknowledgement and reflection on the truth of things, we, as individuals or as societies, can never open up space in our hearts for the Spirit and the Spirit’s fruits. Our ruling class continues to suppress the right to vote of largely non-white citizens under the pretense that racism no longer exists. As a society we continue to create structures to suppress the increasing population of people of color. We do this because, as in an individual’s own psyche, we dissociate from the truth of our commonality. From the beginnings of American colonialism, there has been a project of de-humanization: first of the Native Americans, and then of the subjected slave population. This is an American disposition of heart, among the most hurtful and violent “works of the flesh.” The way back is a way of awareness and of empathy and association. What we repress and make distant, we must awaken to and receive. A beginning would be to allow the experiences to arise in us that we have been repressing. It would mean, not from our segregated experience in rich Washington suburbs to declare that racism has ended, but rather to come to know and to feel especially the experience of the black person in America. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes of a moment of awakening for him, as he experiences walking down the street where everyone else is white and moving against him.
We continue to have civil and legal structures that are meant to move against and repress fellow citizens. And, as with each of us as individuals, as long as we attempt to live only by these false and security-based structures, we shall continue to live the works and dispositions of the flesh. The truth can make us free, but we confront the truth so seldom because it terrifies us. To see the works of the flesh and its causes in us is not a pretty sight. Yet, such truth, such returning to our real selves, in the personal and social sense, is the only access to forgiveness and grace, whereby the fruits of the Spirit may be released in us.
This was the time of what was called the “brown-out,” when the lights in all American cities were very dim. When we re-entered the streets something happened to me which had the force of an optical illusion, or a nightmare. The streets were very crowded and I was facing north. People were moving in every direction but it seemed to me, in that instant, that all of the people I could see, and many more like that, were moving toward me, against me, and that everyone was white. I remember how their faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut. I began to walk. I heard my friend call after me, but I ignored him. Heaven only knows what was going on in his mind, but he had the good sense not to touch me — and I don’t know what would have happened if he had — and to keep me in sight. I don’t know what was going on in my mind either; I certainly had no conscious plan. I wanted to do something to crush these white faces, which were crushing me. I walked for perhaps a block or two until I came to an enormous , glittering, and fashionable restaurant in which I knew not even the intercession of the Virgin would cause me to be served. I pushed through the doors and took the first vacant seat I saw, at a table for two, and waited.
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, pp. 95-6