“Incels” and the Challenge of Unchosen Lives

According to various news outlets, the man responsible for attacking pedestrians in Toronto self-identified as an “incel,” someone who was “involuntarily-celibate.” These reports suggest he believed this justified his violence. Whether or not this bit of information will hold up to further scrutiny is yet to be seen. There will surely be other complicating factors. “Cause” and “motive” are tangled things.

As a pastor of a Mennonite church, I have some stake in the importance of things being voluntary. Mennonite churches and the larger Anabaptist tradition from which they stem began with the idea that joining a community of faith should be a voluntary act. The early Anabaptists were dissatisfied with the practice of baptizing infants. Infants can’t choose whether to identify with a community of faith or not. Their status as members of the church would have been involuntary. This would have obscured the identity of others who deliberately chose to follow in the way of Jesus. I mention this just to say that if any tribe within the Christian family values lives chosen voluntarily it is us.

Yet even within a ‘voluntary’ community we are awash in lives not chosen. There are, I’m sure, the involuntarily-celibate. There are also the involuntarily-ill, the involuntarily-poor, the involuntarily-unemployed, the involuntarily-childless, the involuntarily-parentless, the involuntarily-stigmatized. There are those who would rather be at home, wherever that might be. There are those who hate their work. There are those who would not have chosen their body, had they the choice. Even for those of us who believe strongly that faith is something that should be voluntary, we know that this cannot be the dominant shape of our lives. The choices of others and the ‘choices’ of nature press in on us.

In some ways I believe our culture recognizes this. I cannot think, for instance, of a recent example of someone choosing to kill innocent people because he or she was involuntarily-sick. Perhaps it is simply because being sick is so common. Or maybe it is because, generally speaking, we retain some wisdom from an earlier time that reminds us disease is beyond our control.

One of the biblical readings for this next Sunday is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. Parts of the story are strange. For instance, we don’t know exactly what is meant by the fact that the man is identified as a “eunuch.” Was this literally the case? That was not an uncommon requirement in some ancient nations for serving in the court. Or was this an illusion to some other way in which the man was a sexual minority? We don’t really know, we can’t. We do know that when the ancient interpreters of the scriptures mulled over this story they would have thought of the words of Jesus in Matthew 19. In that setting Jesus is being questioned about marriage and chastity. His disciples are surprised by this interpretation of the law and suggest that maybe marriage isn’t such a good idea after all. Part of Jesus’ response is this: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” This too is a strange passage, but maybe that’s what we need. Maybe we need unfamiliar wisdom in days like these. One of the things that underlies Jesus’ words is the assumption that our hopes and desires are complicated by choices others make and by priorities we choose.

I worry that our culture lacks the moral vocabulary to deal with unfulfilled desire and the simple fact that many of us do not choose the lives we have. As this horrific incident in Toronto reminds us, Christians are called to weep with those who weep. I was in Toronto just a few weeks ago. Walking up University Avenue reminded me of the wonderful energy and industry of that city. I cannot imagine looking over my shoulder at every passing rental van, wondering if the driver might try to run me down. Yet I cannot help but hope that, in addition to sharing in a community’s sorrow, churches in that city and across the country feel a renewed sense of urgency in their work. The morally formative power of our communities is significant. As we listen to our scriptures, we weep for those who weep, we include those who are excluded, but we also speak boldly about the fact that there is more to human life than the fulfillment of desire. If that is all there is, it is difficult to fault those who harm others when they don’t get what they want.

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