Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tells a story in his book “Sex God”. Back when he was a 12 year-old boy in that hellish period of life we euphemistically call “Middle School” he attended a dance. This is an archetypal situation in our culture so I know you can picture as I can the cafeteria of the school, tables folded and stashed, streamers hung, and a wide open linoleum floor on which virtually no one is actually dancing. Instead, adolescents lean with forced casualness against the walls in suspiciously gender-homogeneous groupings. Occasionally one of the boys walks across the floor and asks a girl to dance while everyone else watches. Rob got up the guts to be one of these boys and this is how he describes the experience:
I remember walking up to a girl, whose name I can recall with clarity twenty-four years later, and asking her if she would like to dance with me. Those of you who have walked this road know the determination and fortitude it takes to leave the boys’ side, walk across the lunchroom-turned-dance-floor to the girls’ side, and make your request. It takes all that a young man has in him not to buckle under the enormity of the pressure. But I did it. I made it to the other side and asked her if she would like to dance with me.
She burst into tears and ran into the girls’ bathroom, where she spent the rest of the evening.
Harsh. He got rejected. For the rest of the chapter he writes movingly about love and the risk of rejection that expressing love entails. He takes us on a metaphorical journey that leads us to understand that this is God’s experience. We are continually rejecting God’s expressions of love, and that rejection means brokenheartedness. God walks with the brokenhearted because love is risky for God just as it is risky for us.
I can relate to this story because it is a lot like my story. I’ve walked that lonely walk across the dance floor and screwed my courage to the sticking place to ask actual females out on dates only to be rejected. Been there. Done that.
And it is nothing like God’s experience.
Rob Bell hasn’t read his own memory through the right eyes. As he understands the story he took a significant risk, made himself vulnerable before this girl and offered her the power to choose, and was then rejected. What would be her understanding of this event, I wonder? He remembers her name all these years later because of the embarrassment of rejection, but he stayed at the dance. She spent the rest of the evening in tears in the girls’ bathroom. What is the significance of those tears?
We don’t know who this girl was and we can’t read her mind, but if we zoom back out from the story a little more we might see what Rob is missing. When he crossed the floor and asked her to dance he may have been making himself vulnerable, but not nearly as vulnerable as she already was. He was able to offer her the power to make a binary choice “Yes, I’ll dance with you,” or “No, thank you,” because he had been empowered by the social expectations of the situation in a way she hadn’t. She had the power to reject his one offer, but he had already rejected every other girl at the dance, at least temporarily, by choosing to ask her. In order for him to dance he had only to ask girl after girl until one said yes. He had the entire female population of the school to choose from. She had to wait until a boy approached her – whether it was a boy she was interested in or not, or if she was even interested in boys, and could then only choose between two options with everyone watching.
Maybe she was crying because there was a boy she was hoping to ask her and when Rob approached she thought it ended her chance of dancing with the boy she had her eye on.
Maybe she was crying because she actually really liked Rob and was suddenly over-excited or frightened at the prospect of realizing a secret desire.
Maybe she was just very shy, or maybe there was something entirely unrelated going on.
Regardless, the power Rob perceived her to have was paltry in comparison to his own power in the situation. The person who asks the questions is always the one with the power.
In the endnotes for this chapter Rob illuminates the power dynamics I am referring to when he offers forgiveness to this unnamed girl, saying he long ago got over the embarrassment. What is to forgive? She was the one who spent the rest of the evening in tears. Had this been a situation of equals, or if she had truly held the power in the exchange, then she would have been empowered to give authentic consent. Authentic consent means, among other things, that there are no repercussions for choosing to say no. If the choice we are presented with contains some threat of judgment or punishment should we choose to decline, then authentic consent is not possible. That Rob forgives her shows that he believes he was injured when she declined his invitation to dance. He believes, consciously or not, that he was owed a return of his affection, because his was the position of privilege.
This misreading of his own experience sets the stage for a misreading of scripture.
The quintessential act of invitation toward loving relationship in scripture is the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Here I agree with Rob Bell. God so loved the world that God chose to take flesh and come to live among us. This is an act of vulnerability, of self-emptying, on God’s behalf. In telling his own story about asking a girl to dance Bell puts himself allegorically in the shoes of God.
Except the rejection in the story of Jesus’ life is what occurs in his passion which, far from being a surprise, is anticipated by Jesus throughout the various gospel narratives. Jesus doesn’t cross the dance floor believing there is a risk he may get rejected. He knows from the outset what is coming. This isn’t mere semantics – the rejection becomes the crux of the story. Jesus doesn’t choose to love despite a risk of rejection, Jesus acts to demonstrate that love is not defeated by rejection.
Most importantly, the choice to love despite the certainty of rejection, even a rejection in the form of abandonment, torture, and death, is vindicated in the gospel by God’s resurrection of Jesus. The message is not that loving is risky, because we might get rejected. The message is, to quote Rob Bell: “Love Wins”.
What risk is it for God to create free creatures capable of love compared to the other option – a universe that could never love God at all. I don’t think God took some great risk in loving humanity. I think God loves because God knows the alternative, to die to one’s own ability to love, is infinitely worse – even worse than rejection.
It is vital that we not construe God’s love as containing the hidden hook of privilege which I described in relation to Rob Bell’s experience above. God is not owed the return of the affection God gives, and God’s invitation to love does not contain a threat of punishment should we decline. Such conditions put on God’s love would undermine the possibility of our authentic consent. God’s love is a free gift. God’s tactic is not to stand there, palm out, waiting for us to give back what was given.
Jesus teaches his disciples that living a loveless life is worse than death. He convinces them that rejection is nothing to fear. He shows them that death itself can be defeated by love. Far more important than any risk Jesus took in his life is his success at empowering others to take the risk that Rob wrongly felt he was taking at that dance. He goes to Samaritan women, lepers and prostitutes and he makes it possible for them to love in the face of rejection. The miracle he performs is not so much that he goes to the cross, but that he manages to convince Peter and Andrew and a bunch of other people to face crosses.
To dance with Jesus means dancing in the knowledge and certainty of rejection, having shed any power or privilege which makes you believe you are entitled to a dance partner, and in the confidence that dancing this way liberates not only yourself but those around you. It frees them to dance with joyful abandon, when they want, where they want, with whom they want. It is a style of dance that dismantles the delusion that love unrequited is diminished. It celebrates our ability to love whether or not we are loved in return. The dance of Jesus is not love waiting for an answer. It is love – full stop.
If Jesus had been with Rob at that dance he would not have been another boy with his hand out hoping the girl would say yes. He would have been the freak in the middle of the dance floor writhing and gyrating away while everyone else propped up the walls. He would have been the one laughing and convincing those girls they don’t have to wait for a boy to ask them to dance. They can ask boys, or other girls themselves, and they can dance anyway, even if rejected. They can dance right now, and who cares if people laugh. They have been made free by Christ on the dance floor.