Dexter Goes to Church (Again)
Friends, I have posted and removed this blog entry several times now, demonstrating the deep ambivalence I have about publishing it. If you are reading this, you are seeing it before I delete it again. I fear I have slipped into cynicism in a time when we need hope much more than despair. But if you make it to the end, I think you may find hope. And I have written words that will offend almost everyone. I've spent my life trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid offending people. If you feel hurt by my words, I truly will experience sorrow for that, and welcome a conversation via private email to work toward mutual understanding and healing. Okay, here goes....
Someone once recommended I watch the Showtime classic, Dexter, about a forensic technician who solves crimes by day and then secretly executes guilty but exonerated criminals by night. Nominated for multiple Emmys and Golden Globe awards, and now making a reprise as Dexter: New Blood, the show must have some redeeming features, but they are lost on me. After one episode I gave up on Dexter forever. The violence was distasteful, but even more the hubris. As a research psychologist, I know how we tend to be overconfident even when we’re wrong, assuming our version of the truth to be unquestionably correct. When Dexter serves as judge, jury, and executioner, shouldn’t we be troubled by the possibility that he could be mistaken? All of us are wrong with alarming frequency, regardless of how confident we are in our correctness, making vigilante executions dangerous business.
When the religious right made a political turn 40 years ago, I remember having a similar reaction. The moral majority seemed happy to cast judgment on whoever stood in the way. This is the way of fundamentalism, to lean toward Dexter's hubris, to be judgmental and harsh, and it ultimately gave way to a politicized evangelicalism culminating in a shocking 2016 presidential election. The common thread tying the moral majority, Dexter, and the Trump presidency together is narcissism—elevating oneself above others, seeing others as intellectually and morally inferior.
Pause to ponder Jesus’s words about paying attention to the plank in our own eye before removing the speck in our neighbor’s.
Now Dexter is back—not just on Showtime, but at church, too, and this time he’s showing up among the religious left. It’s the progressives who seem convinced only one political view is acceptable and should be the priority for everyone. It's the left that is judgmental and harsh now as they focus on defining morality and calling out those who don’t conform for scrutiny in the public square. Vengeance is celebrated under the thin veil of justice, and those who resist are deemed to be primitive, misinformed, or self-deceived. The familiar scent of narcissism is in the air.*
And Jesus is still asking us to remember the plank.
I’m reminded of the words of two literary and faith heroes of mine. One is Barbara Brown Taylor, who once titled a chapter “Sin is Our Only Hope.” In this, she speaks like Jesus, reminding us to notice our failings before pointing out the iniquities of others. Oh, how desperately we long for grace when we honestly look at our own struggles, and what deep peace settles in when authentic grace shows up amidst our failures.
The other is Frederick Buechner, who penned these words in A Room Called Remember:
What it means is that if we come to a church right, we come to it more fully and nakedly ourselves, come with more of our humanness showing, than we are apt to come to most places. We come like Moses with muck on our shoes—foot-sore and travel-stained with the dust of our lives upon us, our failures, our deceits, our hypocrisies, because if, unlike Moses, we have never taken anybody's life, we have again and again withheld from other people, including often even those who are nearest to us, the love that might have made their lives worth living, not to mention our own. Like Moses we come here as we are, and like him we come as strangers and exiles in our way because wherever it is that we truly belong, whatever it is that is truly home for us, we know in our hearts that we have somehow lost it and gotten lost. Something is missing from our lives that we cannot even name—something we know best from the empty place inside us all where it belongs. We come here to find what we have lost. We come here to acknowledge that in terms of the best we could be we are lost and that we are helpless to save ourselves. We come here to confess our sins.
Lord, have mercy.
*Yes, I have caricatured both the right and the left here, and caricatures oversimplify matters. Many who are part of these movements are able to avoid the narcissism I describe. And for whatever it's worth, I identified with the religious right many years ago, and now I identify more with the religious left. I'm not trying to point fingers as much as to acknowledge our universal struggle with self-centeredness. Maybe that's why Jesus talked about planks and specks.