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Speaking the parable of the rich young ruler to theological institutions

"I'm making you go through this because I went through it." What if we left this way of thinking behind to follow Jesus, Eric Barreto and Willie James Jennings ask?

This video clip and transcript are the last in a series of bonus content from a conversation between Eric Barretto and Willie James Jennings for Outlook’s April issue. Stay tuned for more extra content and read the full, edited version of their conversation here.

Eric: I’m struck by how that first step (in deconstructing the systems that have formed us) is going to be filled with pain and grief and lots of sorrow. Because part of naming that story and naming those wounds is not just naming them and walking away from them, but knowing that those wounds are always going be integral to who we are. They don’t go away. We carry them with us into those further steps, into dealing with the fragments in a different way, and knowing that at the end, we’re not going to get one (single) fragment that we can put together, but it’s fragments all the way down.

Willie: All the way down. You’re exactly right. To step into the melancholic and get a sense of what has happened to you is challenging and painful, but important because in this way, you don’t become, you know, a hazer of the next generation. And so many people, whether they’re in the parish or they’re in the academy, what they have said implicitly is “I went through this, so we’re gonna make you go through this.” Whether it’s a professor behind the lectern or someone who’s in charge of the ordination process or a pastor who has interns. They are going to make sure. “I’m going to make you rigorous” And what they’re saying is that “I’m going to inflict on you what was inflicted on me. For your own good.”

“I’m going to inflict on you what was inflicted on me. For your own good.”

Eric: So often the stuff that’s gonna be inflicted in the future is rooted in a nostalgia that enhances the pain that people suffered in the past, that doubles down. It’s not carrying the pain over from one generation to the next, but doubling down on it. (It is) kind of this exponential rise: “I went through this pain and I’m going to make it worse for you.” And I think, is there something about that that’s rooted in a grief about what’s been done to me? It’s not enough to do the same to someone who comes after, (I must) do worse.

Willie: This is one of the challenges, I think, for all of us, especially for non-White folks and for women and non-White women especially. Given the horrors that so many of us have gone through, we have, in many cases, taken on that what I consider a horrible dictum — that you have to be twice as good as the White guys to get half as much. Now, when you live into that dictum, then what happens is that the way you imagine your work of forming others becomes incredibly cruel and mean. Because as an act of love, you feel like you have to be incredibly harsh so that they’ll be ready for what’s coming.

I have recently talked to someone who brought this into their home, and the way in which they were raising their daughters in order to prepare them was in a sense to bring the cruelty home so that they would be prepared for the cruelty in the world. And there’s something profoundly tragic about that logic … what I call that sick wisdom. So how do we walk away from that form of what I call diabolic love, where you feel like in order to prepare people for what’s coming, and you have all the right intentions, but in order to prepare them for what’s coming, you will be as harsh as you feel like you need to be.

Eric: And I think we come back to the feet of Jesus, right? The one who exorcises those demonic powers, who heals us of our wounds, who draws us into community and feeds us and nourishes us at a bountiful table where the food never runs out. There’s a picture there of belonging that isn’t incidental to the Gospels, or, as I tell my students, it’s not an accident that Jesus is eating all the time in the gospel of Luke. It’s not just a setting for these miracles. It’s the embodiment of the good news. It’s good news that’s connected to our bodies, connected to our physicality, and connected to the ways that we draw together.

Willie: That’s a wonderful image for us. I think of that great story where the rich young ruler comes to [Jesus]. In many ways, the rich young ruler is somebody who’s gone through it all. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. I’ve gotten straight A’s. My test scores are high. I’m ready to go. So I wanna follow you. Now what? Jesus said, “Well, just give it all up. Give it all up and just come with me. Give up all your riches, all your attainments. Just give it all up, give it to the poor and come with me.” And then, as you and I both know, that passage says that he became “very sorrowful” to use the old King James language. And walked away. Because what Jesus wanted was too much for him. And what [Jesus] wanted was for him to give up everything. And it’s precisely that giving up that I think we have to keep in mind inside of theological education. We want people to let go of that, that man that’s self-sufficient, independent, always correct, always clear, always precise, always decisive. Let him go. Give him up. Because Jesus doesn’t need him.

We want people to let go of that, that man that’s self-sufficient, independent, always correct, always clear, always precise, always decisive … Because Jesus doesn’t need him.

Eric: That’s a wonderful place to end our conversation. Dr. Jennings, thank you for your work, for your insight and for all that you’ve shared with us today. I’m really grateful for you and for the witness that you bear to this generous and graceful God.

Willie: Well, thank you, Eric. It was great to talk with you. And thank you, Teri, for your wonderful leadership. It’s been great to be here.

The April 2023 issue of Presbyterian Outlook explores the concept of belonging from various perspectives, identities, places and positions.

Order extra copies of this special issue for use in independent study, congregation-wide discussions, Sunday School classes or small groups. You can order extra copies today for just $4/copy while supplies last.