"The Importance of Emotional Health in Discipleship and Liberation" Transcript
Season 1, Episode 19
Jonathan Walton: I know that for myself, particularly around issues of injustice, I was much more concerned with how I was going to be perceived as an activist, or perceived as a leader, or perceived as a Christian than I was about my actual life with God. So my life with God was oriented around getting the right directions.
The stories that I would know from scripture are, were marked by people who did things wrong. I think there's a powerful invitation for people who desire to follow Jesus and decolonize their faith to stop trying to perform Christianity and to live a life with God that is genuine with ourselves, genuine with our neighbors, and genuinely resistant to the patterns and structures of the day. Which would, Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. My name is Sy Hoekstra. I am here with Jonathan Walton. And... just Jonathan Walton this week. Suzie will be back next week, never fear. This week, Jonathan and I are going to be talking about emotional health and its importance to justice work, to discipleship, and to liberation of communities.
We're going to kind of get into how systems of oppression, systems of colonialism rely on the suppression of emotions. We're going to get into how communities who practice emotional health together have an easier time talking about controversial issues. We're going to talk about how dealing with people who disagree with you on fundamental things can be done in an emotionally healthy way. And a whole lot more… It's going to be a good conversation.
But before we get started, as always, remember if you like this podcast, you can support it by going to KTFPress.com and becoming a subscriber- a monthly or annual subscriber. You can get a free month of that subscription by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth. And that gets you our weekly newsletter with resources for discipleship and political education as you leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. It gets you bonus episodes to this show, and some writing from us. It also helps support the free version of this show and our future book projects. It also, you know, we never bring this up, but it also helps with things like transcribing this show to make sure that it's accessible for everybody, which is something that Suzie handles, which we really appreciate and something that our subscriber’s money supports.
Also, by the way, speaking of the book project that the subscribers are helping support, keep an eye on this podcast feed next week. You're going to get not just our regular episode, but a little something extra. We're going to be able to tell you some really exciting news about stuff that we're doing.
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Okay. So Jonathan, let's just start with the first basic question, which is when we're talking about emotional health and justice work, why? Why do we need to do this? This is something that a lot of organizers and a lot of churches do not talk about. So why are we talking about it?
Jonathan Walton: I think we're talking about it because when we refuse to recognize our emotions, when we recognize our emotions but then downplay or diminish or dismiss them, I think we're actually crushing an essential part of the image of God being reflected in us. And that is our anger, our frustration, our sadness, our jealousy, our core desires for things to be different than what they are, or to celebrate the things that are reflective of what God intended. So I actually think that the reason that we need to talk about it, talk about it more and then begin to engage and understand in a more deep and profound way, is because when we dismiss, diminish, or otherwise just get rid of our emotions, what we're actually doing is missing a part of the image of God in ourselves that we then can't even reflect or accentuate or call out in other people.
Sy Hoekstra: It’s also then something that you are just excluding from your discipleship and your movement toward God in any way. If you're dismissing or diminishing it’s like you don't have emotions or they're not important, then yeah, just by definition you're leaving that out of your spiritual direction.
Jonathan Walton: Right, and I mean, fortunately or unfortunately, that's the… stripping people and individuals and systems of their emotional lives allows for control. It allows for some sort of cohesion and manipulation that gets helpful for systems and structures that abuse and oppress to have emotions not be a thing. Because I can't acknowledge pain, I can’t acknowledge abuse, can’t acknowledge mistrust, can’t acknowledge confusion. Like we need to be objective and engage in a way that is harmonious. Usually just harmonious for people in power and not those who are actually experiencing pain. But yeah, there's all kinds of unhelpful things like you said, when emotions are stripped out of our discipleship and formation.
Sy Hoekstra: Which is why so many people push back when there are just calls for unity in the face of discord and oppression and harm, right? Is because the unity that a lot of people are calling for is actually just like submission to the same old people and “Stop complaining, and stop telling us how you are hurt and how you are sad and all of that.”
Jonathan Walton: Yes, because to acknowledge that someone else has feelings, I then have to engage with my own emotions. That's why the commandment or invitation by God to mourn with those who mourn is really difficult. Because then we have to actually mourn our own stuff. So for example, a conversation around race. I remember the first time Priscilla told me, she was like, “Jonathan, you need to figure out what it means to be Black for the sake of our children and the sake of like, just that would be exceptionally helpful.” She actually just said it, like we were in the kitchen one day… because it's an essential thing to her for me to know those things. But I didn't want to engage with the emotions around what it would mean to do that. And so most people don't want to talk about race and conflict like other things, because we don't want to actually deal with our emotions. So I think unlocking the emotional stuff is actually the key to discipleship around these foundational, foundational topics.
Sy Hoekstra: Can I ask you to go like one level deeper on that story and get a tiny bit more personal, just for the sake of having an example for people?
Jonathan Walton: Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: What were the emotions that you were trying to avoid?
Jonathan Walton: Oh, for sure. I have, it was really, really difficult for me before Maia was born- my first, my oldest daughter was born. And before I was… I was really, not confronted, but lovingly confronted by my brother and my sister-in-law, who were like, “Jonathan, when are you going to tell Maia that she's Black?” And I did not have any concrete things for me to hold onto post Trayvon Martin being killed that did not associate being Black with being in pain and being afraid and be like… I was like, “How can I tell this child that I love deeply about this yoke that she has to bear?”
Now, Blackness and the Black experience in America on this side of the Atlantic and all of those things, is much, much, much deeper and more beautiful and more profound and more amazing and more wonderful, and all of those things than slavery and oppression. But slavery and oppression were all that I could conjure in the moment to share. And that's very different now, but what I didn't want to deal with at that time, was the pain. And that is not just a lack of knowledge of history about Nat Turner and Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Like it is… I don't have the emotional strength and emotional formation to deal with pain and struggle and lament. And now that I've been working on that, I can invite my daughter into something that is much more profound and robust.
Sy Hoekstra: And a bit context for people who haven't paid attention to every single detail about our personal lives that we've said on the podcast. You're talking about your Chinese and Korean American wife and your mixed race daughter. That’s why these are questions.
Jonathan Walton: Yes. That is why these are essential questions, yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: So then, just to make things crystal clear for everyone- Jonathan, had you not done that, had you not engaged in that deeper way and been able to talk to Maia about a tradition of which she can be proud of and engage with in a nuanced and complex way, basically what happens is Blackness gets diminished within your family, which then supports the system. That's what, I'm just trying to connect this back to what we said before. Like the idea, basically by you not engaging in your own personal emotional health, racism is perpetuated within your own family.
Jonathan Walton: Yes, absolutely. Right. Right. And then, so then my daughter does not actually get the formation necessary for her to know God, know herself, and know her neighbor. She doesn't get it. And so she ends up with an ethnic identity seesaw, where she just like swings back and forth because she's going to get hit by things the way that I was. Like oh, Blackness only comes up when you need to worry about getting stopped by the police. It doesn't come up as we explain the food that we eat, and the way that we pray, and the conversations that we have, and the music we listen to, and the family that we see. It needs to be much more of a meal on a table that she can imbibe and receive as good, as opposed to this pendulum that swings back and forth where Blackness only comes up when her Blackness is a problem.
Sy Hoekstra: Ethic identity seesaw. That's a phrase, that's a good poet phrase.
Jonathan Walton: [Laughs] The image in my head was like, “I'm Black, and then I'm Chinese. And I'm Black, and I'm Korean. And I’m Black.” And it doesn't have to be that way [laughs] you know? Inherently unstable.
Sy Hoekstra: You’re right. Inherently unstable, not holistic, not like an integrated person. Yeah.
So one example from my world, from like the disability community, I think, that we run into all the time is disability rights people are constantly trying to encourage disabled people to be self-advocates. Meaning to stand up for yourself, to tell people what you need and to try and fight for yourself to get it in all kinds of different scenarios. In the workplace, and in school, and in just dealing with the benefits system that so many disabled people have to deal with. And so the way that emotional health comes into this is one of the things that disabled people are constantly told is that you're a burden, right? That you're difficult. You are causing trouble. You're rocking the boat, whatever.
And so, if you are somebody whose reaction to that, like me, is you just become sad and you become someone who says, “No, I'm going to be reliable at all turns, and I'm going to ask as little of people as possible,” basically so that I can counter the stereotype and show them that they're wrong. And instead of just dealing with the fact that I'm sad about the fact that it's hard to ask for accommodations as a disabled person, implicitly in all that is I'm listening to them. I'm agreeing with them. I'm saying, “Yes, I am too much of a burden and I shouldn't be asking you for all of this.” And then I stop asking for things, right?
If you agree with it, if you listen, if you think of yourself as a burden, if instead of dealing with the sadness, you’re just trying not to be a burden, then what happens is, you stop asking for things. You stop asking for the accommodations to which you are legally and morally entitled. You stop rocking the boat. You end up excluding yourself from things. Or not excluding yourself, but participating in the exclusion of yourself from things because you didn't ask for what you needed, because it's too hard, and the emotional weight of it is too much. And I do not in any way, and you don't either, I know, mean to shame people who haven't done this, because both of us are hyper aware of how incredibly difficult it is to engage in these things.
It's just like, we're just saying that's just how it works. And that's the importance of engaging in emotional health and discipleship around your emotions, because even though it is extremely hard and I don't mean to judge or shame anyone who hasn't done it, it is incredibly important.
Jonathan Walton: Just to press into that a little bit, that is a, that self-removal to the corner, it’s a coping mechanism, right? Because we don't want to deal with the rejection. We don't want to deal with the dismissal. So the layers about that, it's like emotional health is not just like our emotions, but then it's the emotions about our emotions and then assigning those emotions value or judgment as good or bad. So I can feel anger, and then I get frustrated that I'm quote unquote, “always angry.” And then I think that it's bad to be an angry Black person. And so therefore I'm going to work really, really hard to not be seen this way. So I've got to actually do like three layers of work to deal with the reality that I'm actually angry about a Black person getting killed by the police.
Sy Hoekstra: Right. To get back to the original thing, takes moving through so many layers specifically because you were not able at the time to just say, “I am angry.”
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, exactly.
Sy Hoekstra: That idea of trying to avoid how you're seen instead of dealing with the emotions, that immediately took me back to me as a kid. I have, the technology has changed, so they're not as big as they used to be- I used to have very, very big, extremely thick glasses. And I never wanted to wear them. I would have them in my pocket all the time as a kid, and people- parents and teachers and whoever, “Why aren't you wearing your glasses, why aren’t you wearing your glasses?” It’s because I don't want to be seen as someone who needs glasses. That's the answer. So my glasses were just sitting in my pocket all the time. That is my…. instead of just saying, “I'm sad that I am someone that people exclude and marginalize for some…” Obviously I would not have had that language when I was like six. But take your glasses out of your pocket and put them on your face, is what I’m saying.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course.
Sy Hoekstra: You had some specific thoughts about ways that groups of people who have discipled themselves around this, around these issues will be able to engage better in issues of justice together. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jonathan Walton: Mother Teresa’s quote about doing small things with great love. I think putting that into context, one of the small things that we can do with great love is listening and affirming the emotions of the people around us and ourselves. Because when we have people who do small things with great love, and they have the emotional awareness to go along with that, we can experience a deeper level of love and acceptance that actually shows us what it's like to be loved by Jesus. And so I, when I turned 30, I had surgery on both feet and both ankles. And so my good friend, Courtney Wong, came over to help out because my daughter was six months old and we just needed help because I was in bed.
She was vacuuming our bedroom and picking up my clothes, and she looked at me and she said, “Jonathan, does this make you uncomfortable?” So she's acknowledging an emotion that I am not even aware that she can sense, but she affirmed it. She said, “You know, it's okay to feel uncomfortable, but I'm really glad that you can rely on us and we can help you.” So I was able to receive the thing that she was doing for me, and also accept myself in that moment and go deep, and say, “You know what, I can actually receive this as love and not just like a violation or like, or I'm inconveniencing her in some way.” I could make all these assumptions about what she might be feeling, but she acknowledged or called out my emotion that she was sensing and then was able to share how she was actually feeling. And that gave me peace and I went to sleep, and, after taking Percocet, right?
Jonathan Walton: But it was a…
Sy Hoekstra: So a combination of the peace and the Percocet put you to sleep.
Jonathan Walton: The peace and… the two Ps, yes. The peace and the Percocet. But I was able to receive what she was doing and rest.
Sy Hoekstra: So that's a great story. I know Courtney too and she's awesome. I… how does having communities that are able to love each other like that with emotional health in mind then affect when those communities run into controversial and difficult issues surrounding justice?
Jonathan Walton: So the way that this can manifest itself in community when there's like racial conflict or tension, or just some other systemic issue is, when Eric Garner was killed, I was supposed to go to Bible study that night at our pastor’s apartment. And I could not bring myself to go to Bible study when there's people suffering in the street, and I needed to be in the street, but I didn't know that. And I was afraid of being rejected. I didn't want to argue with these people that police brutality was a gospel issue and Christians should be on the streets. So I just left. I didn't even engage with it. But I had a wife who desired to be an ally with me, and was willing to press me to say, “Jonathan, why don't you just ask us to come?”
And this is an example of like the, what we talked about before, where like, I don't want to be a problem, so I'm just going to remove myself to protect myself from the potential rejection, protect myself from the potential dismissal. But because we're pursuing emotional health as a church and me and my wife are pursuing an emotionally healthy marriage where our emotions are part of our formation in Jesus, I was then able, a year and a half later, when I think when Terence Crutcher was killed I believe, I was able to ask five friends to come march with me. Like I was the only Black person in this group, but they were willing to march with me, and I was able to ask them to do that.
And that was terrifying for me, and Priscilla literally held my hand through that whole experience of like, “Jonathan, you can ask these people to come with you, and if they don't come with you, that doesn't mean that you are not valuable. That doesn't mean that you aren't essential to the community. It just, it means they're not there where you are or that they're just not available, they have something else to do.” But I don't have to assign value to my humanity based on the emotions that I have about what these people can or cannot do, or are willing or not willing to do.
Sy Hoekstra: So then multiply that by a whole church congregation. If you have people who are willing to ask people to join them in whatever it is that they're grieving, that they're trying to deal with it, that they're trying to fight, who all understand that rejection, while it can mean that the person is rejecting you as a person, that you don't have to personally take it in that way. Or meaning you don't have to listen to them. You don't have to listen to the rejection, right? And then you have the opportunity within that community to try and change those dynamics. Again, it's always going to be hard to deal with people who are rejecting you as a person, which sometimes they are. Sometimes people will say, “I don't want to march with you,” it's because they do not understand, they do not care. They're actually happy with whatever you are mourning, and that can be a real thing.
Jonathan Walton: It’s much easier to deal with a copperhead that is out than it is to assume that every drawer in your house has a copperhead in it.
Sy Hoekstra: This is such a country example [laughs].
Jonathan Walton: I know. But this is a very real example. So one time when I was a kid, we brought this table in the house from the shed outside. And there was a copperhead in the drawer. And so when we turned the table over, it just fell out into the floor. And we killed it, but it was one of those things where I could, then I could just walk around assuming every single drawer had a copperhead in it, and that's not true. I just needed to check.
Sy Hoekstra: We should tell people that a copperhead is a poisonous snake, because there's gotta be somebody who doesn’t know [laughs].
Jonathan Walton: Oh yes, I’m so sorry. So a copperhead is a type of poisonous snake common in the rural South of the United States. But the reality of like, when a community can actually pull that stuff into the open, then you can deal with it. And I think people, like I remember having a conversation with someone, and again, I had grown and done some work and she had voted for Donald Trump without very much thought. And so she said to me, “Oh yeah, I voted for Donald Trump.” And then she said… from the look on my face, I didn't say anything, she goes, “I guess I didn't think about what that would mean to other people.” And then she said, “Hmm, I probably need to think about that.” And then I said, “Yes, you do.” And then we went about our day, you know? But I didn't try to condemn her with like this argument that I learned on Twitter or from graduate school. I just said, I just went, “Hmm, you didn't think about that, like you sit with that for a second.”
Because I think often what people like myself do, is we see an opening like that, and we say, “Let me teach this person as much as possible in this moment.” And that's just not, it's not helpful every time. We make doors where there are no doors all the time to try and have these conversations. And a lot of the times we need to allow Jesus to deal with people so that we can work with God to do it. Because if we, if someone can be convinced that Black lives matter, they can be convinced that they don't. I think there's actually revelatory, Christ-centered Jesus work that happens when someone recognizes that every person is made in the image of God.
Sy Hoekstra: Which again, doesn't mean don't learn the arguments. It doesn’t mean don’t make the arguments publicly. It doesn't mean that sometimes getting in the argument is beneficial. It just means when you're operating with some sense of your own emotions and how they work and other people's emotions and how they work and how they can be submitted to Jesus, it’s going to create a level of nuance in you when you're dealing with other people that you would not otherwise have.
Jonathan Walton: Right. And a foundation of emotionally healthy communication is that it's honest, it's respectful, and it's timely. And some people are just not able to communicate around a conflict honestly. And I don't think we're communicating around conflict honestly or around an issue honestly if we're not able to acknowledge our emotions. It might be true, but it might not be honest from where we're coming from. You know what I mean? Similarly, it's really difficult to understand the timeliness of something when we're not able to hear and see the other person. And so often the people that are sitting across from us become the idea that they have as opposed to a person made in the image of God, an individual with thoughts and opinions that are different from ours, you know?
When people or individuals become their ideas solely, when we reduce someone to the idea that they hold, we dehumanize them. And that, again, we cannot have emotionally healthy conversations when we're not honest, respectful, or timely. And reducing someone to just their ideas and what they believe is a disrespectful thing. Because you're minimizing, like we're not flat people. We're not arguments on pieces of paper. We embody so much more than that.
Sy Hoekstra: It's a disrespectful thing and it is also, again, what oppressive systems do, right?
Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Reducing someone down to just their ideology, what they think, what they believe, and using that as the basis to oppress or harm them in some way.
So let's talk for a second then, not so much about like when people are questioning you or your humanity or what you believe or what you're fighting for, but when people are questioning their faith or trying to deconstruct and all of the emotions that are behind that. Right now, for people who don't know, “deconstruction” is a word that gets applied to kind of a wide swath of things that are happening in the church in the United States in particular. I think there was just a surge of people questioning their faith or the politics of their faith or the truth of their faith, a whole lot of things, after Donald Trump was elected and after kind of the support for him became so kind of obvious and insidious throughout the country from Christians. A lot of people have been walking away from their faith or their politics or their specific theology within their faith, or there's just a whole lot of people questioning. And one of the labels that gets applied to all of that questioning is deconstruction.
Right now, in particular, there are a whole lot of people who are, to the more conservative end of Christianity, who are trying to kind of codify deconstruction as a bad thing [laughs]. Who are trying to point out, who are basically kind of, there's a bit of a backlash to it now, like trying to stop people from questioning things. Trying to argue that their motivations are bad or that they're inevitably going to end up all as atheists, or something like… So anyways, there's a lot of, I think, emotional, unacknowledged emotional health questions that go into dealing with someone who is questioning their faith or their politics, right. We could just be talking about trying to leave colonized faith too.
So Jonathan, what are your thoughts around that?
Jonathan Walton: Colonization is- I think we've said this before on many podcasts and other people have said it- it's a complete and thorough process. It governs every phase of your life. And I think that, because with decolonization, if we remove it from a political systemic level and what it is in America, it usually gets, in the United States, it usually gets applied into individuals. It's “I'm going to decolonize my faith.” What that means to the people around us is that they're normal because their interrelation to us is going to be disrupted. I think that conflict, because we don't live in differentiated relationships most of the time, it becomes very… deconstruction or decolonization becomes a threat to the quote unquote “norms of our lives”.
Sy Hoekstra: What's a differentiating relationship?
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. So if I am not differentiated from my wife, I am then enmeshed with her. So enmeshment would be, we have to have the same thoughts. We have to have the same beliefs. We have to have the same values. We have to exercise in the same way. She's not allowed to be her own person. She's not allowed to be Priscilla who has her own thoughts, her own feelings, her own beliefs, independent of me. Independent of me and just as valuable. And colonization does that. Colonization says, “This is what's valuable. This is what's good. This is what's right. This is what's just. This is what's beautiful, and we're all going to think this way.”
Sy Hoekstra: And just as valuable, we should probably say, doesn't mean just as correct.
Jonathan Walton: Right. Exactly.
Sy Hoekstra: I think the reason that that's important to say, is I think that's what a lot of people think about deconstruction and emotional health and all that stuff is like, “Oh, you're just going to say that nobody needs to have any views on anything.” [Laughs]
Jonathan Walton: Right, right. You’re throwing out absolute truth and objective… all those things, and that's not true.
Sy Hoekstra: Exactly. Right. That is nearly always a bogeyman.
Jonathan Walton: Right. Exactly. But it gets people afraid, which pushes us back into whatever system or structure was already at work. And so I had a conversation with someone and he said, you know, white male, mid-30s, suburbs of New Jersey background, lives in Pennsylvania now. And he goes, “I just can't bring up conversations about race with my mom.” And I said, “Oh, are you differentiated from your mom, or are you enmeshed with your mom?” And he goes, “Oh, well, I guess I'm enmeshed with her.” Because the mom doesn't actually fear having the conversations about race, it's actually more traumatic to think about being separated from her son and thinking differently from her kid.
Sy Hoekstra: Because in her own family, that's how it works. If you disagree on political things, you're out.
Jonathan Walton: Yes, and that may have happened to her uncle. He disagreed with her father and then they don't talk anymore. They only talk at Thanksgiving around things that don't matter, blah, blah, blah, blah. So we fear that type of estrangement. And so then we don't actually do the work of conflict, which, people suffer because of that. Because we don't actually enter into the destruction of systems and structures that oppress and violate, because we're afraid of offending that uncle or being disowned by our parents or whatever those things are.
And that's where I think, forgive me for going out on a limb here, but like when Jesus says to hate our parents, and to hate the things of this world, I don't think he's saying to hate these people and disown them and all that stuff. But compared to how much we love God and love our neighbors and love the things of God, we're going to hate these things. So there's an invitation, I think, to love the things of God and reject the things of the world. When we reject systems and structures that abuse, violate, oppress, and marginalize; we are loving God.
Sy Hoekstra: And it's going to come off to a lot of people as hating them. They're going to think that you hate them. So I think then what you're saying is, partially at least, is when you're talking about how you think about somebody who's questioning something that seems, feels fundamental to you, you can't do that from a distance. The way that you just talked about how this person interacts with his mother is deeply tied up in his and his mom's relationship and their relationship to the rest of their family and the community around them.
So I think what that means is, people now who are trying to sort of collectively diagnose what's happening in the minds and hearts of people who are deconstructing their faith, or really anybody who's doubting their faith as part of like a movement, something that's happening en masse, you can't do that. You're inherently on a fool's errand trying to say, “Here's what's happening to all of them in their minds and in their hearts.” It's ridiculous. It cannot happen. You can, look, people can analyze social trends and you can come up with reasons that movements happen and all that, but you can never say, “People who deconstruct, people who do this are doing, are just doing X, Y and Z. They just feel this way. They just think this way, and if they would stop doing X, Y or Z, then they would sort of come back to what makes me comfortable.” You need to stop if you're doing that and think about yourself and your own emotions and where those thoughts and those… why those words are coming out of your mouth, frankly, is something that you have to deal with. Not something that they have to deal with.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Part of how colonization works is you have to classify and over-generalize at all times, as quickly as possible. Like there's, “Oh, women do this. Men do this.” The reality is, that's not true. That dynamism, I think, is actually more beautiful and more robust, but it's uncontrollable in a society. You actually have to approach every person as an individual, and have to engage with each person as though they have values and opinions and stuff like that. And stop trying to put our boxes of prejudice and proclivities and assumptions and the last eight podcasts we listened to and three YouTube clips, and say, “Oh, well, every Black person is going to behave this way, because I heard this.”
And I think that is all in a pursuit to make me feel comfortable in a world that is changing. And as long as we're trying to control someone, we cannot love them. All that to say, going back a little bit, the reason that pursuing emotional health is important to decolonizing your faith, our faith, is because it is very, very difficult to love our neighbors well, love God well, love ourselves well, if we're not willing and able to engage with systems and structures in an honest, sincere, respectful way with ourselves and with other people. We can't do that without pursuing the emotional health and having the internal fortitude to engage for the long term.
Sy Hoekstra: And I think we should probably emphasize, that doesn't mean ignoring real trends in the world. Like I can say, “I have experienced, or lots of other disabled people have experienced able-bodied people reacting to our beliefs or our experiences in X way, it happens all the time.” And when I see it again happen, I can say, “Okay, this is part of a larger trend, and here's how I deal with this trend when it comes up.” This doesn't preclude you acknowledging realities of patterns around you in society, right?
Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes, yes.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. We're talking about how you deal with individual people that you're talking to. Individual groups, like people who have, because everybody has their context. That's kind of, I think that's what we're saying. And the ways that people find their ways into those patterns and into those behaviors are incredibly complex and nuanced. And to be able to engage with that complexity and that nuance, instead of engaging with them as part of a monolith, even when you are engaging with a monolith that is like someone who is harming you because of a system that harms you, you still have to engage with them, you don't have to. You can engage with them as individuals if you are approaching it having really discipled yourself around emotional health.
Jonathan Walton: Right. So being in relationship with Sy, does not give me license to treat every disabled person like Sy. What it should do is say, oh, cultivate in me a posture of empathy, so I'm able to ask similar questions that I was able to grow and then ask Sy. I'm able to listen and engage with each person, not just blanket this community of people as like the next Sybren that I'm talking to. You know what I'm saying?
Sy Hoekstra: [Laughs] The next… I don't know if we've ever said this- Sybren is my full name- on this podcast.
Jonathan Walton: Oh yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: So one other point with anybody who's questioning something that you think of as fundamental. If you're talking about somebody who behaves towards you in like a prejudiced or oppressive way, or somebody who's questioning their faith or becoming what you perceive as to be like to the left of you or whatever. One thing, Jonathan, that you've said that I think is really important, is that the main question that you should be asking to try and individualize that person, to try and understand them better, is to ask yourself, like primarily, “How did they get to where they are?” and not ask yourself primarily, “How is what they think wrong and how can I get them to what I believe to be right?”
Which, again, does not preclude saying that they are wrong and trying to get them to where you think to be right. What it does is, if your primary posture towards that person is “How did they get to where they are?” then you're going to seek to understand them as an individual. And that's going to just lead to infinitely more fruitful interactions that respect them as a person, that respect you as a person, and that are going to humanize the conversation you're having, instead of engaging in that categorization you were just talking about, which is so essential to oppression.
Jonathan Walton: So as we're talking about engaging with people on an individual level and understanding and not being ignorant of stereotypes and statistics and things like that, but not letting them define the person sitting in front of us, I think part of pursuing emotional health is judging and understanding what you have capacity for and what kind of relationship you want to pursue with the person that's in front of you. So with this guy that I was talking about before with his mom, he knows he wants to keep a relationship with his mom. These are not necessarily skills that you're going to exercise on a deep level with a troll on Twitter, or a comment section on Facebook.
What we're talking about is, is really trying to pursue a deep offline and online community of people that can move forward together. And I think oftentimes what happens when we're trying to have these conversations, is we're trying to be classified as someone who is good. Like, “I did a good thing, and therefore I'm a good person. I treat this person good. Like good on me.” As opposed to, “How can I live with God in such a way that when people encounter me online or in real life, they feel and receive that they are a person made in the image of God, regardless of how they treat me?”
And I know that for myself, I have been, particularly around issues of injustice, I was much more concerned with how I was going to be perceived as an activist or perceived as a leader or perceived as a Christian than I was about my actual life with God. So my life with God was oriented around getting the right directions, so I would be perceived as the right way, doing the right thing and be a quote unquote “good disciple.” And so the stories that I would know from scripture were marked by people who did things wrong. So like Moses shouldn't have killed the Egyptian, shouldn't have gotten angry and hit the rock, didn't get into the Promised Land. I don't want, I want to get in, so let me not be Moses in that way. Okay, Peter was hot-headed and didn't know how to control himself, and was like always impulsive. Can't be that person. As opposed to looking at the sheer number of yeses, and the pursuit that these people had of God through and in Christ, when we talk about the New Testament, right?
So I think there's a powerful invitation for people who desire to follow Jesus and decolonize their faith and deconstruct their faith and have it be rebuilt and given back to us by the power of the Holy Spirit through the resurrection of Jesus and the love of God; is like to stop trying to perform Christianity and this activism nature that is cool right now and has been cool at different points, and to live a life with God that is genuine with ourselves, genuine with our neighbors, and genuinely resistant to the patterns and structures of the day. Which is what Romans 12, I think, really embodies, where it's like, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world, be transformed by the renewing of your mind. For this is how we know what God's good and perfect will is.” There's something transformative about wrestling with God that then renews our minds, that then allow us to resist the patterns of the world.
Sy Hoekstra: So I think a couple of things in response to that. One is, it's in, I think it's in 2 Peter, where he talks about the process of sanctification as being like becoming basically more and more useful to the Kingdom of God, as opposed to, it has… at no point does anybody mention sanctification as becoming a good enough person. Reaching a bar where you have been, you get a certificate now. You're a good Christian, or you're a good enough activist or whatever. Congratulations you're done. It is a constant, ongoing process, and it's just a question of the type of person that you're turning into. Which is why, I think, this emotional health stuff is so incredibly beneficial to sanctification, because sanctification is not about learning the correct things or behaving correctly. It is about the type of person that you are becoming, and how much closer you are growing to God.
The other thing for those of us who are trying to move toward and fight for justice in one way or another, I think a lot of people get frustrated with people who don't want to do that sort of thing. Like more conservative people who are trying to tell you to stop, trying to attack you as emotionally unhealthy. Basically saying like, I think this is a way that people who are involved in justice work get distracted from emotional health, is that people who want to maintain the status quo, just arguing that you have some emotional problem that you need to deal with. And if you were just kind of more sensible or more stable or more together in one way or another, you would not be so difficult. You wouldn't rock the boat so much, you wouldn't be agitating so much.
Jonathan Walton: Or people would believe you and be what you want them to be if you were just more stable and not as argumentative and angry.
Sy Hoekstra: Yes, exactly. Right. If you were less emotional than, this kind of fake acting like they want what you want. “Yeah, but I just want you to be a little bit more calm about it,” or whatever. Like trying to moderate you in that way. And I think that actually does stop a lot of people who are trying to agitate for justice from engaging in self-examination about your own emotional health. Like that's a real impediment. Like, “I don't want to do what those people who are fighting me who want to maintain the status quo are saying I need to do.”
But I think what we're saying is that both of us, and a lot of people that we know, have actually found that like in bringing your emotions and your psychological and mental health and everything under the discipleship of Jesus, has actually like put us in a place where we can do these kinds of things for a much longer period of time. And I don't, and having nothing to do with how many people we're going to convince, having nothing to do with whether anyone is happy or not with where we end up when we are emotionally healthy, forget all that. It's just, it's a matter of discipleship and endurance.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, and imagine if like, oh my gosh. Imagine if Jesus had taken everybody's advice on how to convince people that what he was doing was good. Something that happens when we engage with our emotions in a healthy way and use them as signals for what we value and what we hold dear, what we think is beautiful and things like that, is we don't become our emotions. And so something about a baby is when they have sadness or when they have anger, it consumes them. If you take something from a child that they want, a tantrum can ensue. They will throw themselves into the floor, like flail, yell. There's nothing else to be done, except addressing that thing. They become the rage, the anger, the pain, the sadness that's happening.
If we are more mature, then what we are able to do is not become our emotions. We feel them, interrogate them, figure out what the narratives are, right size them so that we can then respond as Jesus would. So when we have, when we are angry, I think a healthier way to deal and engage with people who are angry, is to hear and receive their anger and then pursue proximity to that person so that you're able to love them and to hear what the other narratives are, and do that work yourself. If the relationship that you desire calls for that and there's space and safety to do that.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. I think just before we end, we should also emphasize that this is an always ongoing process. Like anything else in discipleship and sanctification and all that, Jonathan and I are going to screw up and contradict everything that we just said within the next like 10 minutes I'm sure.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: It is something that you get better at over time, and just like I was saying before, there's no point where you get a certificate that says you're emotionally healthy and you're done now.
Okay, we need, Everest is going to wake up from her nap soon, so Jonathan needs to go. Jonathan, thank you so much for sitting here and talking with me today and for being open and vulnerable as you always are.
And just a reminder, go to KTFPress.com, check that out, consider becoming a monthly or an annual subscriber. If you want a free month of the subscription, go to KTFPress.com/free month. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KTFPress. Consider please telling somebody about us. Word of mouth is a great way to help the show. And write in to firstname.lastname@example.org to get us your questions. We're going to do, two episodes from now, a reflection episode at the end of the season.
Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all next week!
Jonathan Walton: Thanks!
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: As like the next Sybren that I'm talking to, you know what I'm saying?
Sy Hoekstra: [Laughs] The next… But I don't know if we've ever said this, Sybren is my full name, on this podcast. They might've been like, “What on earth are you talking about?”
Jonathan Walton: What is a… what is a Sybren? [Laughs]