“I don't play in these shoes, I walk around in them,” said UDC basketball player Henry Moton, 22, wearing a pair of Nike David Robinson Force shoes. “You know, I just sport them, let people say, 'Whoa! He's got the David Robinson pump on.”
—Athletic Shoes Beyond Big Business - The Washington Post
Getting your kicks on
I have been thinking a lot about sneakers recently. How did a flat rubber-soled canvas shoe, developed for wearing on the beach and playing sports, become a twentieth and then twenty-first century fashion fetish? Today, we wear sneakers for their ability to make us figuratively fit as much as literally. Most sneaker action is on the street, not the court. They are a lifestyle commodity that can be bought, sold and stolen.
Sneakers are an example of a practical article of dress which has come to stand for more than the sum of its parts. Bell-bottom trousers, originally worn by carpenters to keep the sawdust out of their shoes and sailors to provide extra buoyancy when thrown overboard, escaped those practical applications to become what the cool kids wear in the nineteen-seventies. Form follows fashion, rather than function?
Bustles had only a tiny connection to utility and everything to do with looking and feeling better. The codpiece, an item of clothing to cover manhood, evolved to boost the knob it was meant to conceal. Practical and impractical, people use what they wear to personify what they are or what they want to be. Perhaps form follows feeling. We are what we wear.
Two men went up to the temple to pray
Thinking about sneakers was arrived at via a account in the bible of Jesus telling a parable — a story with a point. The parable was about God’s priorities and has to do with who is “justified,” according to God.
It features a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. New Testament memes on the opposite ends of the right-living and respectability continuum. Jesus’ original audience would have recognized the story’s characters.
According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish Roman historian, Pharisees were popular with common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite religious group, the Sadducees. Pharisees did not use status, but behavior, as their metric for righteousness. These were good people.
Those listening would have also recognized Tax Collector, the 'publican' in some versions of the Bible. A collaborator with the occupying Romans, the Tax Collector was someone operating on the margins of society.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector.”
Jesus begins his story by putting the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, not in the market place where they led very different lives, or at home, but in the temple, doing the same thing — praying and, also, considering their value in God’s eyes.
The Pharisee looks around, and feels justified, not because of his birthright or social standing, but because of what he does. He is comfortable with the mechanics of righteousness and knows his place in the holiness stakes in relation to others.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this Tax Collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
The Tax Collector’s self identity chimed with what the Pharisee saw in him. The Tax Collector doesn’t sit with his fellow congregants. He stands apart. Estranged not only from the community around him but also from God, all he wants is mercy.
“But the Tax Collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
According to Jesus, the Tax Collector went home closer to God, not the Pharisee.
What is Jesus getting at here, with this story?
While many of Jesus’ recorded interactions are fragmentary, they never, at least to me, seem superficial. Again and again in New Testament accounts, we find Jesus digging into the people’s dirt, focusing on the disreputable aspects of the lives of those he meets. On the imperfect, in the friend and foe alike. Lifting the curtain on the embarrassing and the unworthy.
This is counterintuitive for most of us. We are so used to glossing over the failings of friends and focusing on the shortcomings of enemies. Jesus, seems to have turned that on its head. Why does he do that?
In the parable, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are in the temple, both are entering into the presence of God. Jesus contrasts the certainty of the Pharisee, which elevates him from the others surrounding him, with the abject diffidence of the Tax Collector which separates him from community surrounding him. For Jesus, the difference is where God’s goodwill is extended.
According to this story, this divine focus on failings, on shortcomings, on brokenness, is not to drag sinners into the hands of an angry god. It seems to be the only path to grace, justification, which can extend into the dark, grotty bits of our lives. When it comes to extending grace, Jesus isn’t really interested in “good” people.
My friend Father Martin, when talking about the value of what used to be called, in the Catholic tradition, Confession, said, “Same old sin, same old penance.” In other words, grace cannot extend into the brokeness, unless we acknowledge mess in in the first place. There can only be healing if there is revealing. And, if we are human, no matter how high functioning we are, grotty bits in need of grace exist.
Christians, like many religious and right-living people, and the Church in general, have a hard time with this. In all its wonderful diversity, the Church, is full of nice, spruced up people. Some of this is causal — after all, the point of healing is to find a way to live a healthy life. There is value in fasting twice a week and “giving God” a tenth of all that you get. But, often, because it is so hard to be good we settle for the outward effects of the holiness continuum. We settle for being pleasant. Because it is so hard to be holy, we settle for being well-dressed. Because extending grace is tough, we settle for being polite. None of this is bad. These are imperfect tools for really dealing with the important parts of our lives. According to Jesus, grace does not come to pleasant, well-dressed people who know how to be holy. Like a doctor who can't cure a patient who does not think they are ill, God, in the person of Jesus, seems to want to extend grace into the place where goodness is not, to the shitty shambolic parts.
The next time you see someone standing in the sanctuary, who seems like they do not belong, who doesn’t look right, doesn’t smell right — who is talking to God — stand next to them. That will be where the lightening bolt of grace will strike. In God's economy, there is no Sunday best, only Sunday blessed.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this Tax Collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the Tax Collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
—New International Version