Jacob’s Hip by Kerry Walters

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist assault on the United States, philosophy academic Kerry Walters and a few other isolated American voices advocated a response from the U.S. that was not based in fear or outrage or a desire for revenge.  However, not only were their voices drowned out, they were subjected to hostile attacks from their fellow citizens, many of whom accused them of cowardice or treason.  Indeed, Walters was struck, not merely by the force of the response, but by the fact that some of the most virulent abuse he received came from fellow Christians, the very people he expected to be sympathetic to his cause.  Jacob’s Hip: Finding God in an Anxious Age (Orbis: Maryknoll, 2003) is his attempt to explain this phenomenon and articulate an alternative.

As the title suggests, Walters begins his exploration with an event depicted in Genesis 32: 22-32 – the night when, returning home after many years of exile, Jacob is attacked in his tent by a mysterious stranger, with whom he wrestles until dawn, and from whom he receives both a dislocated hip and a blessing/new identity.  For Walters, this incident is critical to any examination of why so many Christians responded to 9/11 with the same enraged fury that engulfed wider society: because they had constructed “safety spiritualities” that, mirroring the popular cultural narrative that meaning and security are to be located in material possession and overweening power, vested in religious faith a power of protection from the vicissitudes and uncertainties of existence.  The 9/11 attacks were thus akin to Jacob being assaulted in his own tent in the midst of his camp: they struck at the heart of society’s cultural and religious assumptions, exposing them as inadequate, fear-inspired constructions that collapsed at the first great shock.  And this is why, according to Walters, so many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, reacted with such fury: bewildered and exposed, they lashed out, seeking to re-create the sense of invulnerability that had been so violently demolished.

But Walters sees in the Jacob narrative a different possibility, one that embraces suffering and uncertainty instead of treating them as the “enemy” who must be resisted at all costs.  This is the spirituality of “precarity”, which recognises that the life of faith calls people out to the margins of existence, into a “spiritual poverty” that faces the terrible provisionality of being and sees in the depths of such tragedy, not insecurity and hopelessness, but a beauty whose grace wounds us so deeply and profoundly that we are transformed by the experience.  This, argues Walters, is the lesson the U.S. (and, by implication, the industrialised West) did not learn from 9/11: that the only adequate response to fear is not to try and destroy the source of our anxiety, but to engage with the potential for growth and change which the experience of suffering provides.   He writes:

What Jacob learned that terrible night on the Jabbok is what we’re being called to learn for ourselves today: that wounds, painful as they are, can also bring blessing – that, indeed, the two are frequently identical.  What Jacob learned is the great mystery that the Cross taught later generations: insecurity, vulnerability, living and dying on the margins, out on the open, unprotected plains, are all opportunities for blessings if we but allow them to speak to our heart and transform us. (p.11)

But this is what Walters believes has been the great failure in the wake of 9/11: a failure to let the wounding of terrorism speak to our hearts in such a way as brings to light the deeper wounds that were already present in society and which have little, if anything, to do with terrorism itself.  These wounds revolve around the incipient fear and insecurity which stalk our culture, and through which we place an emphasis on the acquisition of wealth, power, and material possession as bulwarks against the “boogeymen” of poverty, exclusion, powerlessness and, ultimately, death.  For Walters, the competitiveness of modern society is emblematic, not of a vigorous culture confidently articulating itself, but of a profoundly insecure social milieu trying to convince itself of its own invulnerability.  Like the frightened child hiding under the bedcovers trying to convince itself that monsters aren’t lurking in the cupboard, post-modern humanity clutches the safety-blanket of consumerism and celebrity culture in a futile effort to persuade itself that the triumphant, autonomous humanity it proclaims itself to be is something more than a figment of our own imaginations.  A figment brutally exposed by the 9/11 event.

And Walters sees this self-deception playing itself out in many modern expressions of Christianity – expressions whose adherents were among his most vociferous and persistent abusers in the days after 9/11.  These expressions are not actually representative of authentic faith, but constitute projections of popular culture into the religious sphere – whether the “prosperity theology” that marks many forms of megachurch/evangelical Christianity, or the simplistic popular piety of many mainstream churches, both of which attach themselves to nationalistic sloganism and assumptions of cultural superiority.   For Walters, these inauthentic expressions are merely attempts to construct “safety spiritualities” that pander to our fears and prejudices, reducing God either to an all-powerful tyrant who protects us so long as we slavishly obey his (and, Walters dryly notes, it’s always “his”) commands, or a deified expression of our own cultural prejudices that rewards us with wealth and comfortable living so long as we remain good consuming parliamentarian capitalists.  

Over against these “safety spiritualities”, Walters argues authentic faith understands that:

God is not only all-powerful, God is also all-powerless.  God is love, and love is powerful enough to create a cosmos, but vulnerable enough to suffer and die for the beloved’s sake.  To love is risky business, and to love supremely is to put oneself at supreme risk.  For the Christian, God isn’t a place of unassailable security, a divine fallout shelter.  God…is ground zero.  God is the bull’s-eye in the target.  God is that place of radical vulnerability on the other side of the fortress wall. (p.19)

Indeed, Walters argues that if authentic Christian faith not only involves the absence of, but active opposition to, idolatry, then Christians today need to take up Martin Luther’s exhortation to oppose the idolatry of security upon which our consumer-driven, celebrity-obssessed culture is founded.  Not in a self-consciously oppositional fashion that is “counter-cultural” for the purpose of casting judgement on others and placing oneself in a position of moral superiority: that would merely be creating another kind of “security spirituality”.  Rather, it is the opposition of love, which refuses to be dehumanized, or to dehumanize others, through the surrender of relationship and all its riskiness to the false security of idolatrous self-deception.  It is the loving opposition which understands that:

We are not made for safety spiritualities, for hunkering down or dodging risk.  We are lovingly made for love, and to love is to accept insecurity and risk and vulnerability for the sake of Love.  There is no painlessness in a love-ruled world, and that’s necessarily frightening.  But it is also a reasonable price to pay.  Even God has to ante up for the sake of love. (p.32)

So, how does an authentic Christian faith respond to the ghastliness of 9/11? If the “safety spiritualities” of culture and inauthentic religion are inadequate ground upon which to prepare a response, Walters argues that so, too, is an ethereal “spiritualism” that seeks to divorce the temporal from the divine.  Such “spiritualism”, in Walters’ view, necessarily disparages the value of objects, events, and people, since it bypasses the messiness of corporeal reality in an effort to cut straight to an imagined pristine “higher reality”.  However, an authentically Christian response begins by recognising the innately incarnational nature of reality, the so-called “scandal of particularity” that locates the divine infinite in the finite, contingent realm of creaturely existence.  Authentic Christian faith recognises that God is not some divine absentee landlord, remote from the world and ruling from afar; rather, God actually inhabits the cosmos that was created by divine love, infusing all the transient moments of temporal reality with the eternal reality of God’s ever-presence.  This, afterall, is the “scandal” of the Easter Cross, the “scandal” of the Christmas Incarnation: that as particular creatures living through particular experiences in a particular cosmos, the timelessness of God is actually manifested in and through all the contingent moments of time-bound reality.

The point being that, liberated from the anxious need to “seize the day” or the delusional quest for a “higher reality”, we can accept the riskiness of love and abandon “safety spiritualities” in order to pursue relationships that are themselves reflective of the risk which God takes in being lovingly present to humanity.  Community – and the fellow-feeling and mutual identification which it induces – becomes the location for precarious love, because instead of being a place of security and imperviousness, it is the realm in which we make ourselves vulnerable to one another.   Communities, as manifestations of the timelessness of God in the temporal now, are not hermetically sealed enclaves suspicious of “the other”; on the contrary, actuated by a compassion that seeks to share and alleviate pain, they are the medium through which we suffer for one another.   Incarnational faith, seeing the presence of God in the reality of existence, calls us to risk suffering for the sake of relationship.

And it is in this incarnational reality expressed as relational faith that Walters argues lies the necessary response to 9/11 and other traumatic events.  Since we cannot – indeed, should not – seek absolute safety, we must instead pursue engagement, encountering “the other” as it actually is, not as we would wish it to be.  For “the other” is as infused with the presence of God as we are; to deny “the other” is to deny the reality of God in our own existence.  Strikingly, Walters uses the figure of “doubting Thomas” to drive home his point: instead of being excoriated as the one who had insufficient faith, we should look to Thomas as a witness to the necessary importance of encounter, of gazing into one another’s faces and touching one another’s flesh.  Only through the concreteness of such encounter can we strip away the masks we impose on “the other” through cultural, social, religious, and political differences.   Only then can we build community; only then can the experience of suffering and trauma invoke, not a desire for revenge and a ratcheted-up fear that craves further assurance of security, but a response that embraces woundedness and is prepared to struggle for the sake of grace. 

Ultimately, Walters argues that what is required is not an “upward mobility” that seeks to manufacture security through the acquisition of wealth or the assertion of temporal power, but a “downward path” that is more concerned with peacemaking than power-broking.  Such an approach, based on an incarnational faith that emphasises the communality of relationship rather than the stranger-ness of “the other”, accepts the insecurity that comes with the preparedness to love.  This is the drive to engage that seeks out people, not from the perspective of the apex of power, but from the pyramidal base of shared powerlessness and mutual discovery.  But, warns Walters, this is not some kind of naive unilateralism or passive non-resistance:

Peacemaking implies overt activity in the world rather than a private spirituality in which we mind our own business and cultivate our own gardens.  So downward mobility isn’t a meek and mild withdrawal from the world, even though this is how it is frequently interpreted. (p.88, original emphasis) 

In other words, “downward mobility” is necessarily active, for it is only through active engagement that the riskiness of love can express itself.  The risks are considerable, but the “return” is immeasurable; not, it needs to be said, in the elimination or safe containment of all threats, nor even in the securing of an inviolable “now” or an untroubled future.  Rather, it is in a richness of being that grasps the truth that the very razor-blade of suffering that cuts us with such agonizing intensity can be the medium through which, if we let it, we are wounded into grace.  The Genesis story of Jacob’s hip is a startlingly truthful metaphor for the profound depths which lurk in the fractured reality of human existence.  

Jacob’s Hip is a moving and deeply relevant meditation on the wholly inadequate responses to trauma which the “safety spiritualities” of popular culture and inauthentic religion have provided in the wake of 9/11.  Beyond this context, however, it also offers a sharp critique of the “culture of triumph” which post-modern society embraces through the idolatry of success.  In this context, it is of particular relevance to Christians concerned with the so-called death of organised religion (or the corresponding, much-lauded rise of militant atheism), or who think the “solution” to declining congregational numbers lies in leadership theory or corporatised organisational strategy.  Although Walters’ prescription is not flawless – in the latter stages of this book, he attributes to Jesus and the Gospels a pacifism which an arguably more rigorous exegesis might struggle to find – he nonetheless reminds us that it is only through relationships that long-term hope is realizable.  The God of Christian faith is a relational God who loves us and seeks us out, regardless of the risks involved.   Walters’ book reminds us that Christian faith calls on Christians to do the same.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.