Nuns, Bishops, and the Mind of God

As you may have heard, last week the Vatican issued a document that was quite critical of a group representing most of the Roman Catholic nuns in the United States.  The report concluded that the nuns had emphasized certain social teachings of the Roman Church over others, and had shown signs of departure from certain of the church’s doctrines.   The public reaction in the United States seemed largely sympathetic to the nuns, and largely critical of the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church.   My own friends who are Roman Catholic were somewhat divided in terms of their reaction, with some pointing out that the nuns seemed to indeed have departed from some of the teaching of the bishops, and thus the criticism of them by the Vatican was appropriate; others sided with the nuns.   One commentator remarked online that the Roman Catholic Church is, after all, “not a democracy.”

That the Roman Church is not a democracy is manifestly clear.  For centuries upon centuries, the authority to discern the truth for Roman Catholics has been reserved to the church’s bishops, who are (as the document about the nuns reminded people) the church’s “authentic teachers.”    But even all bishops are not quite created equal.  Among the bishops, there is a hierarchy which ultimately leads to Rome and to the pope, who is THE teacher par excellence in the Roman system.    The question that most interests me is that, given the clear lines of authority within Roman Catholicism, why did the nuns walk so far out onto an ecclesiastical limb?  They must have known that there was a rather high risk that a bishop, or group of bishops, or even the pope himself would eventually climb their tree armed with a saw.

While I don’t have access to any inside nun information, I think that their willingness to hang out near the end of that limb is, at least in part, meant to question the official Roman position about how truth is discerned.   The nuns, I think, are not convinced that the bishops alone have access to the mind of God, and they dare to suggest that the Spirit moves not only among the bishops but among their community of women, as well, and that this same Spirit is whispering some new things that the bishops are unwilling or unable to hear.   The question for the bishops, it seems to me, is whether the challenge posed to the church’s hierarchy by this group of nuns is a challenge only from the women themselves or whether the women are instruments through whom the Spirit is seeking to say new things to the church?

My own experience of church (which has been not in the Roman mode, but first in the United Church of Christ and then in The Episcopal Church) has helped me to see that the process of discerning the movement of the Spirit within communities of faith is a messy business.  It has also taught me that most people wish it was not messy.   So many people would like things to be clear when it comes to the mind of God so that they can be sure that they are living in harmony with God.  It also seems true that there are a number of people who would like to have the work of discernment done for them by others rather than have to engage it themselves.   But, as Jesus reminded us, the Spirit blows where it wills, and one can never quite know where it is coming from or where it is taking us.  This makes it difficult to insist that the Spirit must operate only through particular channels.   I sometimes think that the more we insist the Spirit move through our structure in a particular way, the more the Spirit seeks to unsettle and confound us by moving in unexpected ways.

I am not Roman Catholic, so I really don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak.  However, I cannot help but think that through the nuns, the Spirit is indeed trying to say something to the church.  These women have devoted themselves to an ordered life of prayer and service for many years, and to some degree, they have surely learned the subtle language of the Spirit, and they have sought to share the fruit of those sacred conversations with the larger body of the faithful.   Certainly, the bishops have their own ordered life of prayer and service and undoubtedly they, too, have to some degree come to know the intimations of the Spirit.   Christian tradition, at its best, has long maintained that the most reliable way for the church to discern the leading of the Spirit is by bringing the people of God together to take counsel with one another and engage in the difficult and often messy conversations that help to uncover the leading of God among them.   Whenever a church — any church — narrows the number and kind of people who are allowed to participate in those conversations too much, we risk missing something important.

Our lives as faith communities may become messier for a while, but they will always be enriched and, ultimately, become more faithful when we are able to recognize that whatever hierarchies we may value, the Spirit moves where it will, and sometimes those we think least likely to know the mind of God may actually have the greatest insight into where the Spirit is leading.

The Power of Words

Just this week, I read a sickening piece of news, a very small article about a man who stomped on his girlfriend’s pregnant stomach.  When asked why he had done such a thing, he was quoted as saying his girlfriend “didn’t deserve” the baby she was carrying.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the way in which women’s issues have become a matter of political debate.  Regardless of where one stands politically on issues of reproductive health, I know that most of the women in my life feel that the term “war on women” is a rather accurate assessment of the way they feel about the way in which male-dominated politics seems to be intersecting with a variety of women’s issues right now.  I have no idea whether the man in the news story who stomped on the stomach of the mother of his unborn child has anything to do with the larger issues of women and public policy, but as I hear about this story and other stories in which women become victims, I find myself reflecting on the power of words, or language, to shape human behavior.

Like it or not, we live in a world in which a lot of words get thrown at us constantly via internet, email, television, and radio.  Many of these words we might not give much attention.  But over time, they work their way into us little by little, giving them the opportunity to shape our actions in ways we may not even notice.  When we hear lots of people suggesting that women’s choices about their health, and other aspects of their lives, should be narrowed on the basis of some public policy position, the language used in some of this conversation – some of it exceedingly careless language – creates the suggestion that women are somehow less valuable, and in the minds of some men, this can get translated, I think, into a sense that they have the right to exercise a certain control over women.  And in the minds of  a few men, this can get translated into a license to control women through violence.  This is only reenforced when certain states are seen adopting draconian legislation that basically legalizes the violation of a woman’s body in the pursuit of some perceived public policy interest.

The Christian tradition puts a high value on language.  John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, and the words of the Bible occupy a sacred status in our tradition, even if various churches and Christians define what that means in different ways.  The point is that our tradition makes a sacred connection between the idea of speech and action in the world.  Indeed, the poetry of the Genesis creation stories depict God speaking all of creation into existence.  Divine language is seen as having fundamentally shaped our reality, and human language also has power to shape and influence action in the world.

When we speak carelessly, when we seek to define others with language that demeans or devalues them, we may think that we are simply being terribly clever.  We may cling to that old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  But we forget that sticks and stones usually end up getting thrown and breaking others only AFTER words have already done so.

The Judeo-Christian teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves is a commandment not only about our actions but about our speech.   Let us all be more careful about what we say, because the sum total of all those words that come to us all day long do have power, and they do help to shape the world around us, for better or for ill.   Language is instrumental in creating either a climate of compassion or a climate of violence.   There are far too many people these days working on making a climate of violence and fears that they think somehow serves their interest.  Women and others among us are paying a price for that.  And that needs to change.  We need to do better.

I’ve Had Enough

What a depressing thing it was to look at the news on Good Friday morning to see an article about the opposition of “Christian groups” to anti-bullying laws.  These groups, it seems, feel that laws against bullying others infringe on their religious freedom (primarily because they’re afraid that they will be accused of bullying if they pick on gay people for being, well, gay).   If we ever needed an example of the way in which some religious groups have lost their way, this is it.

Good Friday is dedicated, of course, to remembering the death of Jesus.  Before being put to death, Jesus was tortured.  One might say he was bullied in a rather extreme way.  On Good Friday, Christians remember these horrible events, and in remembering them, we should be moved to remember not only Jesus, but all those in our own day who are made victims of human cruelty.

Apparently, these “Christian groups” who feel their religious liberty could be infringed upon by anti-bullying laws believe that bullying is a legitimate tool for proclaiming the Gospel.  Either that, or their way of “bringing others to Christ” is such that it is in danger of being mistaken as bullying by others.  The use of bullying, cruelty, torture, and even death has been used in the cause of the Gospel before – the Inquisition comes to mind.  But whenever such methods have been used, they have constitued a betrayal of everything that Jesus taught, of everything the Gospel stands for.   Likewise, any way of proclaiming the Gospel today that would be ruled out by anti-bullying laws would similarly be a betrayal of Jesus and his Gospel.

This Sunday, Christians will celebrate Easter (well, our Eastern Christian friends will be doing so next Sunday).  Easter is, in part, a celebration of God transcending death in the Resurrection of Christ.  The Risen Christ comes to offer us new life, a life that is shaped by divine love rather than human cruelty.  Likewise, the Christian proclamation of the Gospel should not resemble the cruelty of the Roman soldiers who presided over Jesus’ torture and death, but should resemble the new life of the Risen Christ, rooted in divine love, mercy, and compassion.   Last time I checked, showing others love, mercy, and compassion did not meet any definition of bullying, legal or otherwise.

This blog post is not particularly eloquent, I must admit.  Working on sermons for Good Friday and Easter, and preparing for lots of Holy Week and Easter services have left me short on eloquence, I’m afraid.  I was tempted not even to update the blog this week.  But I’ve had enough. I am angry at those who parade around carrying the banner of Christianity making victims as they go.  I’m angry that they get to represent what being a follower of Christ is about.  Why should anyone think that there is a anything valuable in the Christian tradition when all they hear about are “Christians” opposing anti-bullying laws, “Christians” opposing contraception, “Christians” insisting that women undergo 1,001 cruelties and indignities if they wish to have an abortion, “Christians” claiming that gay and lesbian people should be second-class citizens, “Christians” showing up at funerals waving around signs about how much God hates certain kinds of people.

This stuff isn’t Christianity.  It’s an ideology walking around in religious clothing, twisted by human anger, fear, and hatred.   It’s Christianity reflected in a carnival mirror.  I’m sick of it.

I am a Christian, and I SUPPORT anti-bullying laws.  I SUPPORT the contraception.  I SUPPORT the rights of women to obtain an abortion if that is their choice.  I SUPPORT equality of gay and lesbian people.  And I don’t believe that God hates anyone.  Basically, if you take everything you read about “Christians” in the media, I’m pretty much the opposite of that.  And I’m not alone.  There are a whole lot of people like me out there.   I go to church with a bunch of them.

But don’t expect to read about us in the press.  They don’t find us terribly interesting.