Perdoname, nunca lo haré mas. These words ought to haunt anyone who thinks to say them. They are the words of the overly confident disciple: “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). Most people, if they promise that way at all, do so sparingly. I guess we sense, among other things, that words like that have the power to make oneself plunge downward into an abyss of failed meaning or intention. For myself, there have been only two times that I’ve proclaimed this “plea and promise” and, surprisingly, both times were about the same sort of failure.
During the mid 1990s my white upper-middle-class family was breaking apart because of the stereotypical greed, self-preservation, and spiritual dis-ease that “life in the suburbs” has been known for. My father had made an unethical trade as a stock broker (before it became popular to do so), which led to the many subsequent forclosures of our stuff. It was there that I began to realize our “usefulness” in the world was shrinking fast.
Following this realization, as a 16 year-old kid, I gravitated toward a group of Latino peers who had learned to live a low-class position in our city without shame (or humility). I was attracted to them precisely because they almost always fought for their respect, something I had always been taught made you look ridiculous and rude. They bullied people that showed signs of fear—no matter what self-conscious adults or their privileged offspring would say. With them I began to feel powerful in a way that never seemed possible for me back in the suburban White crowd.
So when one of my new best-friends, Alex, told me about two female co-workers who had invited us to a party, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. They were older by a couple of years, probably 19 or 20, which looking back I can see heightened our already distorted judgment. Nevertheless, we threw back an extra shot of machismo and piled into my parent’s Jeep Grand Cherokee, hoping our adventure would lead to (among other things) sexual exploits. But that’s another story.
The party resided on the rural outskirts of our small Northern California city. Alex and I walked through the front door of the ranch-style house, while the two others stayed outside. Passing through the entryway, I looked around and may have been first to notice an over-sized Nazi flag on the wall, above the fire place. From there things started to slow down in my head. Then several guys in the crowded room gave us the Hitler salute and a territorial shout-out: “You down with White Power!”
Of course, somewhere around those foreboding alerts I realized that we had been mistaken—definitely about coming to the party and probably also about the women who had brought us there. I remember feeling a bit jarred and tried to cover over my reaction, that is, until Alex caught my eye and reverberated under his breath, “Fuck this place!”
Turning back the other way, now heading out of the house, the whole group seemed to take notice of us, apparently deciding whether or not to grab us by our neck and drag us back in. Thankfully, aside from menacing looks, no one really tried to get in our way. But Alex must have thought differently about our exit. When we got outside, with about half the party in earshot, he defiantly yelled toward a tall White Prider: “Fuck White Power!” Over and over again, he shouted this and, before anyone had a clue, he had already swung at his opponent.
The party then surrounded Alex, myself, and our two friends as the brawl moved out into the street, but surprisingly they kept it one-on-one. I threw a few half-hearted licks, preoccupied internally with our dwindling opportunity to escape. Around that time, I finally resorted to something fearful and embarrassing, something I had never thought would be possible for me to say. Instead of losing the fight with my Latino comerades, I argued with the bigger White Supremacist punching me: “Dude, I’m white! I’m white!”
Even though I felt worse saying it than I did getting hit, it just came out. Loudly too. All of them heard it, both the group of White racists as well as my best friends. The individual fights finished after several long minutes of fists and exhaustion. Believe it or not, the female co-workers actually helped us get to our vehicle. Everyone was fine. We left the party with our typical adrenaline rush, but this time no one talked about it.
On the way home, I thought to myself: I just wanted to make them stop, right? For everyone… I don’t actually remember if I went ahead and said that to Alex or the others, but I do remember the sad expression on Alex’s face and the detached way he put his disappointment to me when we got home: “I heard what you said, J. And I’m going to forget you said it.” His reply suddenly cut through my bullshit and brought up the shame I had put between us. All I could think to say was “I’m sorry, man. I won’t ever do it again.”
This next story is not as dramatic-sounding as the first. Yet I think the two of them belong together. Fast forward now to April of 2009. My wife (Julissa), my son (Santiago), and I are visiting her family in Lima, Peru, like we try to do every year. We were especially excited to meet my sister-in-law’s new fiancé (from the US). Right from the beginning, he and I got along great, talking about all the unexpected ways our lives had changed since meeting this family of beautiful Peruvians and falling in love. I was trying to play the bridge-builder between him—since he does not speak Spanish—and the non-English speaking family members, especially Julissa’s brother.
The fiancé had just begun a full-ride medical school scholarship through the Air Force. After general conversations between he and I about Christianity and following Jesus, he brought up some of his internal conflicts and reservations about entering a profession known for its wealth and privilege. Perhaps being in Lima put an interesting twist to our talks, since we both felt pretty comfortable right away to discuss a traditionally touchy subject. Peru’s capital city is one of the easy places in the world to see how unjust and violent it is for those with money to live within walking distance from the poor and, seemingly, to not care.
As our conversations were wrapping up—in which I had done my best to represent myself as a “radical” follower of Jesus—he mentioned that he was inviting me to an impromptu, low-key bachelor party put on by his friends from Lima. He had met these guys while volunteering in their medical ministry during his missionary stint the previous year. They were apparently going to be providing an enticing party menu—poker, cigars, scotch whiskey, etc. So I said yes. I had wanted the momentum from that morning to keep going.
As I was planning on how to best embody a true prophetic voice while at this party full of his well-off missionary friends, the new fiancé discreetly told me that he had forgotten something important. The party would be for English-speakers only, he said. What he didn’t know was that I had already invited Julissa’s brother to come with us. I told him at that point that we should invite her brother along anyway, thinking to myself that there was no way the new guy would say no, right? Well, he did say no. He was pretty firm about it, too, even when I looked confused and asked why. He explained that his friends would be kind of annoyed if he brought along just anyone from the church and his sentiment was that it would be frustrating to have to go back-and-forth with translators anyway. Apparently, his friends had experienced gossip and accusations from church members about their money, lifestyle, alcohol consumption, etc.
Sadly, in spite of my radical-sounding talk, I was starting to feel some pressure and embarrassment thinking about these guys at the party. Earlier, I had thought it was a good move to meet the very people I had criticized from a distance all these years (having attended their “prosperity” church many times), but now my feelings of opportunity and excitement were all gone. What came to me then was a simple mixture of anger, fear, and guilt because now I only wanted out of this situation without having to disappoint anyone.
I went back and forth about it with my wife. She told me that her brother would understand; I told myself that I could be a radical “instigator” if I went. Well, her brother did understand why he was being “uninvited” and it wasn’t difficult to explain either. It was like he had known what was coming and was not even surprised enough to ask me why. His look of disappointment rang inside me the same way that Alex’s did more than ten years prior. Even after I left I couldn’t get him out of my head, especially as I road with them into their gated community and listened to one of them insult and laugh at the Peruvian security guard before being let in.
At the party I did my best to throw out sarcastic criticisms of dumb wealthy people, while, at the same time, hoping I didn’t draw too much attention onto my own guilty conscience. I probably sounded somewhat “ironic,” but eventually I just felt insecure and got quiet. My approach, of course, didn’t really do anything. A guilty person won’t often convince people of good (in fact, it probably makes the status quo seem more ok). In the end, I basically grit my teeth, smiled, and got dropped off after the night was over.
Back at the family’s apartment, after a few cold moments alone with my thoughts in the bathroom, I caught up with Julissa’s brother. I wanted to look him in the eye when I said it. So I grabbed his shoulder and blurted out an apology: “Perdoname, nunca lo haré mas.” He didn’t immediately respond and maybe seemed a little embarrassed by my spontaneous confession. He may not have even interpreted the offense as seriously as I did. Though he seemed pretty cold toward me at the time.
Why had I suddenly conformed to this shame in the first place? Hypocrisy was easier than I thought it would be, I’ll tell you that. In the end, my brother-in-law didn’t thank me for apologizing to him or tell me to think about what I had done. In fact, he just looked at me. And then he said: “No te preocupes, J” (Forget about it, J). And, without waiting for me to respond, he took my shoulder in his hand, gently squeezed it and brought up another subject, as if nothing had ever happened.
I woke up early one morning thinking about these two particular events. God spoke to me in my restless mind about his forgiveness and their integration. Prior to that morning, I had not thought of these stories as being related at all. In fact, I had tried to forget about them. Now they seemed to form one whole memory, urging me to ask an age-old question: “Can I still be forgiven?” Even though I was wrong two times and, in both instances, my promises to never do it again came out somewhat unplanned and clumsily, the answer for me was (is) still a complete yes. And on most days I believe it.
I wish all of us who identify with being followers of Jesus (especially the radical kind) would examine our false-images and then confess them. Not that I can claim to have done that willingly myself. In fact, in all honesty, I resisted. Still, I’m learning to yield more quickly now and I want to continue on that path.