By Caleb Hutcherson
Have you ever thought about your theology of sin in the middle of being stuck in traffic? That chortling I hear doesn’t faze me. And of course, you are right. My friends and family chuckle, too, at my goofy probing of the everyday with theological lenses. But, I think there is something to be gained when we recognize and reflect on how the actions and practices of everyday life are, in a very real sense, a form of speaking about God. Reflection can be short or long, focused or philosophical. But the practice of reflecting theologically on the everyday can help us to grow to be more mindful of the ways that our speaking about God (in words and actions) shapes and is shaped by life.
This particular reflection burst through the mind-bending frustration that built as I once again sat in traffic in Beirut, trying to get home from work. It was just after the light summer traffic of steaming August had begun its annual thickening.
Now, a bit of background before we go on. Without fail, as the days turn towards winter and schools begin opening for the fall, it takes longer and longer for anyone to get anywhere in Beirut. Traffic jams up and a 12km trip across this city can take anywhere between 40 minutes to 1.5 hours. Unless ‘fi shi’ (there is ‘something’). ‘Shi’ may be a road closure for ‘3am yizafitu’ (they’re paving), an accident, or just because somebody drove ‘3aks lseir’ (against traffic) up a one-way street. Then everything jams and the heat amplifies already aggressive drivers beyond the boiling point.
I had been working on revising a course that traces the historical development of the Church’s understanding of salvation and atonement. One of the points where our understanding of salvation gets hung up has to do with atonement. What does it actually do anyway? Specifically, what is the problem with which atonement deals? Yes, of course, atonement ‘fixes’ the problem of sin. But how? And in the days and weeks leading up to that particularly frustrating day of being stuck in the aggressive traffic of Beirut I had been re-reading notes, articles, and theological tomes that grapple with the question, ‘what is our problem anyway?’. Sin was on my mind.
One of the lenses that stuck with me from my own days in seminary was a way of getting sensitive to my own brokenness when that very brokenness was preventing me from actually seeing it. I think the idea came out of our reading of Cornelius Platinga Jr.’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Softening to the brokenness all around us, and within us, was the basic outcome for me from this book. I don’t remember if it was from the book itself or the professor guiding our reading, but I learned to be more mindful of my own contribution to brokenness with this simple test. When I am going about my daily routine and find myself frustrated or annoyed about some problem, the solution I come up with somehow needs to start with my confession of my own complicity. That a contributing source of the problems is in me. Put another way, if you want to see what is wrong with the world, start by looking at yourself.
This axiom is so effective because one of the ways I express the systemic problem of sin is my deep-seated pride, arrogance really, that I’m fine. My brokenness shapes me to only see the problem lying outside of me, in everyone and everything else. But I’m just fine. And perhaps one expression of our brokenness is that we all go around thinking this, and behaving as though what ‘I’ do is okay, but what everyone else does…well, they are the problem.
Enter the notorious Beirut commute into this equation. Here is THE rule for driving in Beirut: everyone thinks they are the most important thing on the road. It is the governing principle by which traffic flow is organized. Assume that everyone you see around you is doing the same. If you leave 5cm of space between your front bumper and the back bumper of the car in front of you, someone else will whip into that space to pass someone else. Survive by doing what you must to get where you need to go. My agenda is the most important. Everyone else should just get out of my way. I don’t think Beirut is the only place where traffic is governed by this principle. But the lack of oversight makes it more noticeable.
As I was making my way home again on that late summer day, I got into a jam on one of the main routes I use. And the thought crossed my mind, ‘stuck in traffic again!’ (only in all caps and with some steam coming out my ears). And then I thought about this theology of sin and how it might work in this experience of the brokenness of commuting.
Here are some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I sat in traffic:
- I am not just stuck in traffic…I am the traffic. For the guy stuck behind me, I am the traffic. Everyone around me had an important agenda, just like me, and I am their traffic jam. The problem here is me, just as much as everyone else.
- My agenda of sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned cage with room for 7 (it’s a small room for 7) by myself as I moved from my work to my house was causing the people around me to experience one more car in front of them on their route to their important destination.
- My agenda of being safe on that journey from work to home meant that I was subjecting the environment and the people around me to pounds of CO2 and other exhaust fumes to move myself and a ton of my steel, plastic, and glass protective cage on wheels around with me. My agenda was ruling out.
- My agenda of getting home as quickly as I can drove me to cut off however many drivers I cut off, all justified in my mind as necessary to keep them from cutting me off. My commute home: important. Their commute to wherever they are going: not important. And everyone else was operating with the same framework.
Those are the shareable thoughts that ran through my head. The other ones are best left off the permanent record. Reflecting on the brokenness I was experiencing in traffic challenged me to recognizing my own complicity in the problem. I invite you to do the same. What do our practices of commuting, as followers of Jesus, communicate about God to the community in which we live? My reflection wandered from there to what salvation might mean in the context of traffic. What might the good news of salvation…restoration into the way things are supposed to be…mean in the mundane practice of commuting?
Caleb Hutcherson is a lecturer in historical theology at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and faculty development lead. Caleb is a research student at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre Amsterdam on track to PhD candidacy with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His work explores the practice of theological reflection in Arab contexts. The post reworks a reflection he posted a few years ago on his blog.