The Virtue of Embarrassment

John Olson

This week I had an odd experience. While out walking by the river, a woman on a bicycle came up behind me. I stepped aside to let her pass, but when she pulled up beside me and went no further, I looked over to see her staring back at me with what I can only describe as an unsettling smile on her face. She then proceeded, without invitation or introduction, to embark on a tirade against the new mooring rates, pedaling slowly alongside me as she went on about the ignorance of the powers that be toward the lives of those who lived on the river. Admittedly, I don’t keep up with such things, but there was hardly an opportunity for me to speak anyways, so I kept my mouth shut and endured it. After ten minutes of this, the woman and I parted cordially and I walked on wondering what exactly had just happened.

It did not take long, however, for the thought to occur to me that this kind of awkward occurrence—where a stranger blatantly oversteps the assumed bounds of social norms—is precisely the kind of social infelicity that must have characterised the life of Christ. We think of Jesus’ healing ministry as a series of triumphant miracles, but more likely his disciples held their breath in shame every time he touched someone he shouldn’t have. We romanticise Jesus as a radical and a righteous rebel, but every time he flouted religious tradition or went off on some dogmatically dubious sermon, they probably stared at their shoes or shook their heads and sighed, wondering how they were going to get out of this religious pickle. To follow Jesus in his earthly ministry, then, must have been a constant exercise in embarrassment.

If there is a lesson in all of this, I think it must be that the Christian life is not simply one of love-reduced-to-niceties or compassion-when-convenient, but that real Christian love has an innately transgressive quality. If we take Jesus at his word that “just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” (Mt 25:40), then as Christians we should have eyes to see Christ precisely in those people whose way of being makes us most uncomfortable, be they prisoners or the homeless or an awkward stranger on a bicycle looking for someone to complain to. That the people whom Jesus called were the kinds of people who leapt out of boats at the sight of a miracle or who casually walked off a decent job to follow a new teacher would seem to confirm this character of the Christian life as one predisposed to absurdity.

I don’t know whether the woman on the bicycle found my silent attention to her rant helpful or not. I don’t know whether there was something more I could have said or done in that brief encounter to be a more compassionate presence to her. And I honestly don’t know if I—or most of the Christians I associate with—possess enough appetite for awkwardness to truly perform the love of Christ on a regular basis. But I have learned that there is virtue in looking for Christ in the weirdness of people and in those encounters that push us beyond our comfort, “for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).

John Olson