Yesterday, All Things Considered’s Melissa Block interviewed the Rev Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, MO, a town where what’s apparently been simmering for a while has come to the boil this week with the police killing of a teenager named Michael Brown there last weekend.
I hadn’t really been following all the details of the shooting and aftermath, but that made the impact on me of Johnson’s comments and actions no less powerful. I consider his embracing of 18-year-old Joshua Wilson a deeply heroic, Christian, Buddhist, human act . And I use all those words to describe it because his actions and reflections on it reveal:
recognition of himself in another person, including when the other person is shaking with anger, about to do what he thinks is a mistake. And that awareness comes to him as a human, living a particular human experience in time and place (“I’ve been Joshua before”), and because “I do understand what it means to be that angry.” This reminds me of tonglen practice in the Buddhist tradition, where we bring up our own experience of emotion to tap into compassion for others feeling the same way. We all know what strong emotion feels like and knowing that, we can understand “the other” at a deep level even when we don’t fully understand. I think this is good action in and of itself (this heightening our awareness of the sameness of self and other), but Johnson takes it further when he
risks self, by touching, speaking, holding the other person in the midst of chaos, and accepting into himself the other’s pain and his desire to harm: “I’d rather you, if you gonna fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear.” This is the essence of being a hero and of being a Christian, to my mind: being willing to carry and bear another’s pain, regardless of potential cost to self. Not in a martyr sense, not in a belief that ‘I’m strong enough to bear your weakness,’ but in a clear
realisation of interconnecteness, a felt sense that my being willing to carry your pain is not only for your benefit but for my benefit, too: “We kept each other from harm’s way.” Johnson realised he needed affirmation, embracing, and being held back as much as Joshua did. I see this sense of interconnectness as a particular facet of the Buddhist tradition as well as of the Girardian Christian tradition, where we are all seen as interdividuals, our identity constructed not in and of the self but in the relationships between and among us.
Finally: Johnson speaks several times in this 7-minute piece of “human nature,” what makes us human, including empathy for others as well as feeling deeply the pain of the human condition: “If it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.”
Co-mingled with his words about being human are the tears when he talks about being a black man in America today: his father’s fears for him, his own fears for his teenaged son, feeling like a scared kid when he’s pulled over by cops. He speaks of a need for “reconciliation, resolution and resurrection.” I see actions and reflections like Johnson’s as enacting reconciliation and resurrection here on earth.