Faith and Action

pray-think-do

As the inauguration of the new president was approaching, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC — which is an Episcopal cathedral — announced that, in accordance with a tradition stretching back some years, it would be holding an Inaugural Prayer Service on the day after the inauguration.   At least within The Episcopal Church, this sparked quite a controversy.  Many Episcopalians who opposed Mr. Trump’s election felt that the National Cathedral should cancel its service, so as not to imply that either the cathedral itself or The Episcopal Church somehow endorsed the new president’s administration.

For me, it was an odd controversy.  Never before had I thought of the Inaugural Prayer Service, which has always been an interfaith service, as implying any kind of endorsement of whomever had been inaugurated or his administration.   It was, rather, a moment to pray for the future — not a president’s future, so much, but the future of the nation to which each presidency is tied.  The fact that this year, many people seemed to believe that the service somehow made the cathedral or the The Episcopal Church an endorser of the person elected perhaps speaks to the shift that has taken place in our political universe.

In the midst of this controversy, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, issued a statement on the matter, and I found his words quite powerful:

I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.

Bishop Curry, as an African American, spoke something that we needed to hear at that moment, and that, I think, we continue needing to hear.  He reminded the people who were upset about the cathedral’s prayer service — and, at least as I was seeing it in various articles and postings, seemed to be overwhelmingly white — that minorities and oppressed peoples in this country have been praying for a long time for those who wished them ill.  “We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”   For Bishop Curry, as for much of the African American community, much of life has been lived in this dynamic of prayer and protest, never failing to offer prayers for leaders with whom they disagreed and who often wished them ill, and at the same time seeking to hold those leaders accountable for their leadership.

Those who were disturbed by the fact that the National Cathedral’s prayer service are, I think, mostly people who have never had to live in this dynamic.  People who, like myself, have never felt themselves threatened by power in any fundamental way, and who, therefore, have never really had to contemplate the relationship between prayer and protest, faith and action.

And it also seems to me that, for many white Christians — particularly maintain white Christians — we have a long practice of isolating our faith from the way in which we act in our public capacity as citizens.  Many white, mainline Christians have not seen a relationship between their faith — understood strictly as a personal matter of salvation and transformation — and their political lives.   The institutional separation of church and state has been seen as also embodying a separation of religion and politics.

On the one hand, keeping religion and politics separate is not a bad thing, if we are talking about refraining from using politics or political institutions to impose our religion on other people.   On the other hand, it becomes problematic when we do not allow the values of our faith to inform our personal civic lives, because then the values that our faith holds up for us are not given public voice, they are not advocated for.  I am reminded of a line from the Letter of James in the New Testament, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25).  Too many of us have become too practiced at looking in the mirror of our faith that reflects Jesus’ words and teaching back into our lives, and then walking away from that mirror and forgetting about what we are called to do.  James sums up that call this way:  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).  In other words, for James — and, I would argue, for Jesus — “true religion” is one in which faith informs action.  And to be “unstained by the world” means to stand up for the values of the Gospel, rather than giving in to the values that the world may embrace at any particular point in time.

Bishop Curry, in large part based, I think, on his experience as an African-American among whom this separation of faith and action did not become a habit, puts it this way:

Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.

If we truly wish to build a “good and just, humane and loving society”, then we surely must act in accordance with those values.   And we also, just as surely, must pray for those who seem to us to be working according to some other set of values.  Because we are called to love our neighbor, and to do to others as we would have them do to us.  And that does not change, even when our neighbor is someone we really don’t like, or with whom we really disagree profoundly.

That is the difficult calling which Bishop Curry was holding up for us: the call to live as fully as possible into the dynamic of prayer and protest, of faith and action.

My Brother’s — and Sister’s — Keeper

europe-refugee-crisis-father-and-baby-caritas-greece_opt_fullstory_largeThere’s a common expression in English that is used when we find ourselves in a situation in which we are being asked to be responsible for someone for whom we don’t feel responsibility:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  When we use the phrase, we are saying that we don’t feel that we are responsible for the person under discussion, or the actions they have taken.  In other words, we use it to say, “It’s not my problem.”   And, in my experience, it gets used as if it’s a positive statement, with the user sure that he or she is justified in feeling he or she truly is not responsible for this other person, and that this should be easily recognized and seen by those around them.

It seems that we don’t often stop to consider the source of that phrase, and the fact that in its original context, it is not meant as either a positive or defendable response.

The phrase comes from an incident in the biblical book of Genesis (chapter 4), as part of the story of the rivalry between Cain and Abel, who along with their parents, Adam and Eve, are meant to symbolize the beginnings of humanity.  In the story, Cain becomes angry at Abel because Abel’s offering to God is “accepted” and Cain’s is not.  The reasons are never entirely clear, and one might forgive Cain for being ticked off at this apparent arbitrary decision on God’s part not to accept Cain’s offering.   The key phrase in terms of understanding this is perhaps the line that says “God had regard for Abel and his offering”, which perhaps is meant to be an indication of Abel’s character as opposed to Cain’s which, ironically, is revealed in what follows.

In his anger with Abel (which is really misdirected anger with God), Cain kills his brother. In the story, God — who knows full well what has happened — asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain’s response is the one that has become our common expression:  “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

So in this story (which should be read symbolically rather than literally), the phrase that seeks to absolve Cain from responsibility for his brother is a phrase that is used to cover up a murder, to cover up what is the worst thing that one human being can do to another.   It is a story in which Cain seeks to justify his disposal of his brother by disavowing any responsibility for him — by disavowing his connection to him.

God finds this response unacceptable, of course, and requires Cain to leave his home and to wander in the world.  Cain worries about his own safety, what will happen to him when he encounters other people who don’t know him.   Ironically, Cain worries that he will meet the same fate as Abel, but at the hands of a stranger.  God places a mark upon Cain which, in some mysterious way, serves to protect him, warning others not to mess with him.   But the effect of Cain’s act is that he becomes a refugee, he becomes a wandering soul without home nor people, and he must live the rest of his days in the knowledge of what he did.

One of the lessons to be drawn from the story is that we are not supposed to emulate Cain. In other words, we are never to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, because we are to realize that we indeed are our brother’s keeper — and our sister’s keeper.  We are meant to recognize that we are connected to our fellow human beings upon this planet, and the connection makes us responsible for their welfare.   We are not to emulate Cain because we are not allowed to pretend that the well-being of others has nothing to do with our own.  And Cain’s wandering in the world is, I think, as a wandering advertisement for this truth.   The mysterious mark, whatever the authors of the story imagined it to be, was a mark of our common humanity, and Cain was a sign to others that they could not hurt him because he was them, they were he, and their fates were inextricably bound together.

We find ourselves at this moment in human history awash in refugees, people who have been forced to wander the world without home, place, or people.  Except that they have not been made to wander as a result of any crime they have committed.  Instead, they have been forced to wander the world because of the crimes of others.   At the same time, this rising tide of refugees has led to a rising tide of fear toward them.  Rather than directing our attention to that which has left them as refugees, we more often choose to focus on them as “the problem”.  And as a result, we are increasingly tempted to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in response to the question about what is to be done for them.   There is a great temptation to say that we are not responsible for them, which means we have no obligation to welcome them or make room for them in our lives or in the lives of our communities.

But clearly, as the Genesis story is meant to tell us, this is not what God would call us to in this moment.  Today’s refugees wander the world as a sign to us not of that which we are to fear, but as a sign that we are all connected to one another, and that we ignore that connection at our own peril.   The mark of the wanderer demands attention and response.  Just as Cain was wrong to pretend that he had nothing to do with his brother, so we are wrong to pretend that the refugee problem has nothing to do with us.

It comes down, once again, to that most basic teaching of Jesus:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   And when asked by someone who our neighbor is, Jesus made it clear that our neighbor is the person most in need of our help.

Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?  Absolutely.

Politics, Priesthood, and Stolen Religion

A few people have noticed that I have not been blogging in a few weeks. My silence on the blog has been a result of trying to navigate a space that I have never quite found myself in before. I feel like I have been in a bit of a free fall, yet I think now I have landed somewhere — and so its seems right to share with you some of the contours of that free fall, and where I have ended up. This will take some time, so bear with me!

I realize that people have a variety of views on what I am about to say, and I also know that amongst my clergy colleagues, my particular journey may be strange, because they have approached this whole issue in a different way from the beginning. But, my journey has been my journey: we each walk the spiritual path in our own ways, and for those of us who are spiritual leaders, we each live that out uniquely, trying to be as faithful as we can to the way in which the call of the Sacred makes itself heard in our lives.

Politically, I have always been a liberal person. While the community in which I grew up could not be called liberal then or now, my early political views were influenced by the liberalism of my parents, and I have never departed from that. In my view, government’s primary role is to make sure that people have what they need, and that every opportunity to make a life worth living is made available to all. I believe in what has been called the American Dream, in the sense that I have always believed that this country wants to be a place where anyone and everyone is welcomed and given a fair chance to become what they want to become. It is a dream which has never been fully realized, but also one which we, as a people, have not been willing to give up. Our efforts to move more and more toward this dream have been heroic, painful, costly, incomplete, and imperfect, as any effort to move forward as a human community must be. The history of this struggle has given us a unique place in the world.

Religiously, my journey has been toward a more and more progressive view of theology. I grew up in a religiously progressive household, which certainly laid the ground work for my spirituality. For me, there has never been an “if” or a “maybe” connected to the existence of God. I entered a particularly deep period in my spiritual journey when I found my way to The Episcopal Church, and was able to fuse the religious perspective of my childhood with the deep sacramental tradition of Christianity. That ultimately led me to the priesthood, and to the privileges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership of various Episcopal communities. My spiritual journey has led me to an ever deeper conviction that at the heart of Christianity, and, indeed, all the great religious traditions of the world, is the call of God to an ever-expanding inclusiveness that rejoices in difference and distinction rather than recoiling from it. With respect to Christianity, I have come to believe that the kingdom of God is a condition of human existence in which no one is excluded, no one is scapegoated. It is a condition that requires us to be transformed into ever more compassionate, ever less selfish forms of living and patterns of relationship. The journey toward God is one of greater and greater opening of the self to others and the Other — a journey that is sometimes painful and demanding.

Throughout my ministry, I have sought to keep my political self and my priestly self separate from each other. It has long been clear to me that there must be a connection between one’s spiritual journey and one’s political journey, if there is to be any integrity to either. If I am honest with myself, I realize that my political and religious identities are constantly informing each other. Yet, I have always been keenly aware that the communities I have served have held a broad spectrum of political views. The truth is, they have also contained a broad spectrum of religious views! It has always seemed to me that if I were to ally myself too publicly with one particular political perspective, I would create an obstacle between myself and those parishioners who saw things differently. And so I made as much of a wall as I could between my political and my religious identities.
Over the past few years, I have felt like I was moving ever closer to the edge of a cliff, as both the political and religious worlds have shifted. Over the course of my ministry to date, the Christian world has seen the rise of a kind of conservative, evangelical Christianity which, in almost every way, has stolen my religion from me. What I mean by that is that the public image of what Christianity is has been taken over by the religious right, who have increasingly been given the power to define what Christianity is and what it means. That takeover has been so through and so complete that larger and larger numbers of people have no idea that there are forms of Christianity that do not at all resemble what the conservative branches of the Christian tradition are. And the result has been that Christianity is seen more and more as rigid, judgmental, uncaring, and much worse. Indeed, this has tended to be the case with religion generally, as the voices of more conservative parts of the religious traditions have gained the upper hand. What has happened to Islam is a perfect example. I have felt it was more and more important to affirm a different kind of Christianity, and I am certainly far from the only one attempting to do that.

Our political and social world has also been changing. There was a time when many Americans believed that we had dealt with the problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and moved to a more enlightened place. The victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia would have told us differently, of course, but we often weren’t listening. But over the past decade, that illusion was completely shattered, as more and more people came to believe it was okay to speak out against women and minorities in the most horrible ways, and as various organs of the media sought to present such points of view as legitimate options in a civil society. During this same period, America has become more and more divided, so that we are barely able to govern ourselves effectively. And we have seen these divisions mirrored all over the world, as nationalist movements have gained strength in Britain and other parts of Europe, pushed in part by an ever-growing refugee crisis which has led to a rising fear of “otherness”.

As I said, I have had the sense that all of this has been pushing me ever closer to the edge of some kind of cliff — and the election of Donald Trump pushed me over that cliff, and initiated the free fall which I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. That free fall has left me somewhat bewildered as to how I am to be a priest in a time like this, and has made the separation of my political and priestly selves harder and harder to maintain. And yet, despite the fact that I live and work in a notoriously liberal part of the country, I continue to serve a community of diverse points of view. It has left me wondering what I am called to do. And has led to this period of blogful silence.

But I think I have landed in a place of greater clarity. It began when, out of the blue, someone in my community (my town, not my church) called and asked me if I would be part of a Vigil for Kindness, to be held at a local park. It was an invitation to which I felt a strong inner obligation to say Yes, but it goes very much against my personality. I don’t think I would call this Vigil — which we have held twice – protest, so much as a witnessing to our better nature as human beings and as Americans. But, it certainly has the feel of a protest — and is the first time I ever participated in such a thing. It has constituted a huge stepping out of my comfort zone, and has felt internally very risky. It is as close, I think, as I have ever come to allowing my political and priestly selves to interact with each other in a public way.

Participating in those vigils — and the witnessing of millions of protestors a couple of weeks ago across the country — has given me, however, a deeper understanding of what I, as priest and citizen, believe I am called to in this moment.

For me, it has become clear that the intersection between faith and action lies in realizing when the “powers and principalities of this world” are moving away from the values of the Gospel, as I have come to understand them. And, as The Episcopal Church has largely come to understand them. That vision of the kingdom of God as a condition of existence where all are welcomed and valued, and the call of God to become every more open to the Other and to others, have to be accompanied by certain moral commitments. When those of us who understand our faith in this way see that we are moving away from that vision rather than toward it, then we must speak and act on behalf of those values. That speaking must, at times, be directed toward politicians, but for me, it is never fundamentally about those politicians on a personal level. Rather, it is about the choices they make in utilizing the authority entrusted to them.

This is not about imposing our religious commitments on others. Rather, it is about acting in a way that preserves the integrity of those commitments by recognizing how they impel us to act in the larger culture of which we are a part. And it is also not about maligning particular politicians or other people. Our politics in this era has become far too personal, and the line between disagreeing with how someone is seeking to use his or her authority and attacking someone personally needs to be preserved. Personal attack is not the way of Jesus, either. The way of Jesus calls upon those of us who are his followers to enact the vision of God’s kingdom as fully as possible — meaning that we find a way to advocate for the values of that kingdom without attacking someone personally. It seems to me we should bear witness to a different way of having public conversations.

So I find myself landing in a place of advocacy that I have never been in before. It is not an advocacy based on who is in office or who has power, but an advocacy which, in the political sphere, is based on whether we seem to be moving toward or away from God’s dream for humanity, as I have come to understand it. In the religious sphere, it is an advocacy for a way of being faithful that also moves toward that vision of the kingdom of God, and that also witnesses to the existence of Christians and other people of faith whose spirituality and way of holding their faith differs markedly from what has come to be the public image of religious people, thanks to the rise of conservative Christianity and radical Islam, as well as other forms of fundamentalism that distort and deform humanity’s great religious traditions.

For some of you, it may seem like I am arriving a bit late to the party, and rather than this seeming like some sort of epiphany, it might seem more like a “well, duh….” But for me, it has been something of an unexpected but necessary journey. Now that I have landed in this place, it marks the beginning of a new journey of how to live into this with faithfulness and integrity.

And perhaps I am not alone — perhaps I am among many people who are waking up in a new landscape that calls for some new way of engagement.