When Atheists Have More Faith Than You Do

How Harold Braswell Considers Christ’s Crucifixion

Kendall Gunter / 2.7.20

Harold Braswell grew up a nice atheist Jew. Then, he researched hospices, and he started to ponder Jesus.

The hospice he studied was Our Lady of Help in Atlanta, a free Roman Catholic facility for those who are dying but can’t care for themselves at home. The Dominican nuns there offer extraordinary service, and the whole operation depends entirely on donations. Braswell was looking for models he could extend to other healthcare facilities, but as he noted with dismay, the home didn’t offer general “charity” but specifically Catholic love, making his research a little stickier. To understand how their facility worked “would require engaging the home’s Catholic theology. It would thus be necessary, to my relative consternation, to spend some time thinking about Jesus Christ.”

Which was hard not to do. He hung in every room, and more, he was on every nun’s mind:

The sisters tried to see Jesus in every patient they cared for. This was, on the one hand, a statement of ethical obligation: a commitment, on the part of the sisters, to give every patient the same level of care that they would give to Christ himself. But it was also a quasi-meditative practice that made it possible for this obligation to be realized. Seeing Jesus meant to look at Christ on the cross. … But it meant also to find him—to visualize him as being present—in the patients who, on the surface, he least seemed to resemble the least. Patients who were “difficult,” and not just in a technical sense, but also an emotional one, even a moral one: the patients who you did not enjoy being around because they could be insensitive or mean. That was not Christ-like behavior! Yet, in them, there was still Christ. Seeing Jesus meant to find him there where you least expected, and to care for those who you were, in every other sense, predisposed to turn away.

… At Our Lady, Jesus was not to be seen solely in the home’s patients. He was to be seen in everyone—including yourself. “When I look at the cross of Christ I think of them”—the home’s patients—“going through their cross. Or me going through my cross,” said the home’s priest to me one day. Apparently, part of the point of looking at Jesus—every morning at mass, every time you entered a room—was that doing so brought you deeper into yourself. And, paradoxically, into others as well. Seeing Jesus was neither isolating, nor narcissistic. On the contrary, by further embracing your own suffering, you were to become more sensitive to the suffering of others: to patients, to family members, to everyone who you encountered in your day. Mediated through Christ’s body, sorrow that otherwise might put you on an island could be used to build a bridge.

Braswell found that keeping the crucified Jesus in his mind not only stabilized him in a crisis but made a lot of sense. The biographical reason that the cross transformed him is worth reading in his own words, so I won’t spoil it here. What I want to focus on is how he, a secular Jew, appreciates Christ’s wounds while I, an observant Christian, resent them.

He repeatedly describes the “duty” and “moral obligation” of considering Christ’s wounds. They enter his consciousness so thoroughly that they become pedestrian:

It was, if nothing else, a routine. To visualize Christ if I found myself suddenly distracted during a conversation, to read his wounds as a kind of map that might better orient me to the person before my eyes. To sit in the chapel and recognize that, underneath my seemingly stable appearance, there had always been an underlying tremor.

But even this routine becomes “feel[ing] obligated to explore myself and encounter others.”

Now, all of these ethical compulsions are good in themselves; we feel them because we see the bruises and lesions in the world and know they need healing. But the pressure is also endless, or its only end is your end, in death.

The hospice chaplain mentioned patients or himself “going through their cross.” But in the New Testament, “one’s cross” isn’t misfortunes that happen to befall one, however anguishing they may be; it’s the active choice to negate oneself for singleminded service. Braswell suggests a much safer and more desirable Christian moral imagination, with lots of breathing room. By contrast, being saturated by Jesus and Paul since birth, I find his appraisal credulous. “Take up your cross” is a demand with no space for balance or self-concern. It compels not only painful self-renunciation but delight in doing so.

It’s Braswell’s secularity that gives him the critical distance to appraise Christianities without feeling their full weight. He only gets a glint of how they understand suffering, which is why he appreciates them so. His “fundamental inconvertibility” protects him from the absolute demands to imitate a tortured virgin slave. My cradle fundamentalism left me totally vulnerable to His vulnerability, beating my body and making it my slave.

Now would be a good time to invoke Jacob wrangling God till God blessed him. That is, God may want something from me (absolute self-emptying), but I also want something from God (not that). But I’m too tired to struggle with the Almighty. If there’s any place in scripture for someone averse to God’s demand, perhaps it’s not a patriarch but the disciples, who were so tired from trying to follow Jesus that they couldn’t stay awake when he asked. And when they did finally wake up, at the worst time they ditched him.

But at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.