July 22, 2012
The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Josh Griffin
An Entirely Different Episcopal Critique of Liberal Christianity
This past week, in the wake of The Episcopal Church’s 77thGeneral Convention in Indianapolis, the internet has been abuzz with opinion pieces (and opinionated rebuttals to these opinion pieces) about the future of mainline Christianity in the United States. As our Church prayerfully approved liturgy for same-sex blessings, conservative pundits decried a Church which had become unmoored from its “traditional” foundations.
In a culture such as ours, where quantitative growth is a god, church health is also very often reduced to raw data. It is true that over the last decade, for many mainline denominations, average Sunday attendance has declined considerably throughout the country. (23% in the Episcopal Church.) But The New York Times provoked some controversy last Sunday with Ross Douthat’s piece “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” in which Douthat ties declining Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church to the erosion of traditional Christianity, as evidenced by our recognition of gay and lesbian people as people.
Showing little understanding of historical Anglicanism, Douthat writes that the Episcopal Church “still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
The problems with Douthat’s analysis range from false causal assumptions and factual inaccuracies, to a total lack of understanding about just what Anglicanism is—a non-dogmatic tradition of common prayer. Writing in the Huffington Post, the Rev. Winnie Varghese, of New York City, penned one of the best replies to the Times piece, writing that “liberal and progressive Christians believe…[that] those liberation movements from the 1960s on… were right, and [that] our church should change in response to that revelation.”
Varghese goes on to write, “If our increased thoughtfulness in understanding the human condition causes us to be open minded in a way that offends your prejudices, yes, the Episcopal Church might not be for you. I hope I’m being clear,” she continues, “I believe our decline is a sloughing off of the baggage of [the] establishment and [the] American Empire and [from] not quickly enough embracing an expansive view of humanity within our Eucharistic communities.”
Many of those who are upset with our affirmation of queer sexuality are very concerned that the Episcopal Church has turned away from the Bible, which is funny, because we actually take the Bible very seriously. We take it so seriously that we cycle through (most of) it every three years and some of us, myself included, are quite committed to lectionary preaching. (As a mentor of mine likes to point out we read more than a few hand picked verses from Paul, the Old Testament, and John’s Gospel.) Not surprisingly today’s readings are well suited to address the debates currently circulating in electron-land.
The question of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons and the Church is another example of the old insider/outsider problem which affects all human communities no matter how small—and it’s certainly nothing new. It is precisely the pastoral problem to which Paul is dealing with in his letter to the Church at Ephesus. (Ephesians 2:11-22) Addressing non-Jewish followers of Jesus, who, being uncircumcised Gentiles, he writes, were once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
That was then, but “now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near…in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…” Jesus, teaches Paul, “has abolished” all religious logic that elevated Jews above Gentiles, “creat[ing]… in himself one new humanity in place of the two” and reconciling “both groups to God in one body through the cross.”
Rev. Varghese is right. The movement of God is towards the elimination of social domination and toward a leveling of hierarchical categories of human identity—that much is clear in the arc of the Biblical narrative. God’s Spirit, we believe, erodes all formulations that hold some people at the margins so as to benefit the few.
Following Paul, we Episcopalians understand the work of Christ to be the work of reconciliation. But to the chagrin of some observers, we als take human difference seriously. Paul’s universalism should not be misinterpreted, as it was and is by many missionaries; it is not a call to remake all people into the “universal,” white-European, landowning man of the Enlightenment. The mission of the Church today is not the obliteration of difference, but rather the compassionate embrace of all Creation, and the work of building and sustaining beloved communities among, within, and between all manners of people.
Rev. Varghase is right to see the living, active, and restless Spirit of God at work in social movements. This morning’s first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-14a) is a testament to the uncontainability, irreducibility and unpredictability of that which we call “God”. King David says to the prophet Nathan, “You know, it really isn’t fair. I live in a great big house of the finest cedar, but the ark of God lives in a measly tent out back.” Nathan says, “Do what you’ve got to do, man, sounds good, I’m sure God won’t mind.”
But later that night, the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go ask David if he really thinks he is ‘the one to build me a house to live in?’ Remind him that ‘I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.’ In fact,” God says, “I don’t remember asking anybody to build me a house. David’s got it backwards. Nathan, go tell David that the Lord will build him a house.”
We would do far better, wouldn’t we, if we thought of the Church as movement, not an institution or even a non-profit organization. God just won’t be pinned down like that. God has other plans: to build the Kingdom of God, a divine kingdom, a kingdom for humans becoming divine, not becoming gods, but becoming like God, and learning to love with an open hand.
We don’t always recognize it when the Spirit moves to challenge and overturn daemonic hierarchies of domination. Many have seen God’s spirit at work in the aspirations of Occupy Wall Street—a radical democratic movement which seeks to establish autonomous zones of communitarian democracy outside the reach of the corporate capitalism and it’s politicians. Almost overnight the Occupy Movement changed the political discourse in this country, reinvigorated progressive politics, and unlocked the mental, emotional, and affective blockages, which have long cramped our collective social imagination.
But one notable parish, Trinity Wall Street missed a great opportunity. As Occupy encampments all across the country were being suppressed by local governments, often violently, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) thoughtfully and respectfully turned to Trinity for political sanctuary, asking to relocate it’s camp to a piece of Church owned property. When Trinity Wall Street refused, many were disappointed, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Several local priests and the Rt. Rev. George Packard, retired Bishop of the Armed Services were arrested and prosecuted for civil disobedience after joining OWS members in nonviolently laying claim to the vacant parcel.
The Episcopal Church has a long way to go. As Varghase writes, “We have been a denomination of privilege, but we are working on that.” The Times editorial was right about one thing: there is an affinity between “liberal Christianity” and a host of secular liberal institutions. If, as Douthat claims, “the Episcopal Church and similar bodies… don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism,” then we have a huge problem on our hands. It’s just an entirely different problem than he has in mind.
In his stunning 2010 book, The Death of the Liberal Class, the seminary-trained journalist, Chris Hedges observes that for the most part, the institutions which have been pillars of liberalism, including the media, the university, the arts, the unions, the Democratic party, and the mainline churches have bought into the neoliberal ideology of corporate-capitalism, which revolves around the mythology of abstract growth at the expense of human and nonhuman wellbeing, thriving, and increasingly, life itself.
In a word, political liberals talk a good talk but have sold out people at the bottom. A splintering of “causes” and the reduction of politics to “issues” has left the liberal class “obsolete” and clinging “to its positions of privilege within liberal institutions.” And “[l]iberal religious institutions,” writes Hedges, “which should concern themselves with justice, embrace a cloying personal piety… and small, self-righteous acts of publicly conspicuous charity.”
If Hedges is correct, and on balance I believe he is, then Douthat is also correct about one thing: the Church shouldsplit from the secular liberal class. We should split from those who talk a good game but make peace with all manner of corporations whose time has frankly come. We might start by challenging the power of coal, oil, and gas industries and the big banks that fund them, as has been prophetically suggested by Bill McKibben, a lay-Methodist, in a disturbing new piece in Rolling Stone.
This type of resistance is thankfully now official Church policy, after the Resolution B023 on climate justice was adopted by this year’s General Convention. (Locally, in our region, at the very moment when our atmosphere really cannot afford to absorb very much more carbon, the coal companies are desperately seeking to export coal to Asia from West Coast ports. You might google the group: “No Coal Eugene” to get involved.)
Rather than continuing to vie for the recognition of the power elite and their politicians, Christians might do better to conceive of ourselves as communities on the move, communities tasked with, what the Italian theorist, Bifo Berardi, in The Soul at Work, calls, “the creation of social zones of human resistance, zones of therapeutic contagion.” How’s that for a mission statement? “Our Church is a zone of human resistance to social evil and we offer a contagious form of therapeutic personal and social transformation!”
In theological terms, we are tasked with affirming life in this moment of planetary exhaustion and pervasive social death. Ours are the works of resistance and restoration, of resurrection and reconciliation, and such works require us, always, to undertake some risk.
In today’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56), Jesus just can’t beat the crowds. He tries to get away, to take the disciples away for a break, for a little rest, just to breathe, but his compassionate healing love was Jesus was too recognizable, “When they got out of the boat,” we are told, “people at once recognized him.” They “rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever thy heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages of cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
To whom are we recognizable? For what are we recognized? Are we recognizable to those who have been oppressed, dispossessed and kicked to the curb? Are we recognizable to the Earth? Are we recognizable to God?
(Sermon given on July 22, 2012 at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Eugene, OR