These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew. (Grace Lee Boggs)
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12)
I got an email early this week that had a story I thought very poignant. It read,
“On Sunday night of last week (there was a gathering in New York with a group of women organized by Rev. Kaji Dousa of Park Avenue Christian Church, standing on the steps of City Hall in Foley Square protesting the process our elected officials are enabling around the appointment of Brett Kavanagh. (Ironically, this pastor also studied at Yale)
Present were high school students from the school that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford attended, lots of women from the community and a few faith leaders. As we were standing there in front of three news crews who were recording our speakers, an angry man came up and started screaming at us. He lobbed all of the predictable slurs one uses to demean women – “You’re all a bunch of whores,” “You hate men,” “Women are always right; men are always wrong.” On and on and on…
(As adults) our hearts were breaking for these young students who were experiencing this; he was relentless, and it seemed there was no line of decency he wasn’t willing to cross. Then he saw three of us in clergy collars and took out after us… We were staring him down, ready to form a wall of protection.
And then, in the most beautiful moment of grace, Rev. Kaji Dousa began to sing. Her voice, crystal clear in tone and tear-jerking in power, rose above his shouts. She sang and sang and sang us through that hate-filled moment. She did that…by herself…as the rest of us stood around her with our candles holding vigil for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford…and for ourselves. The man turned around, silenced, and left.
It feels like the world needs a new kind of leadership from us, one that requires we dig deep in our resolve and act with courage we’re not sure we have. (Cameron Trimble, Piloting Faith, 10.1.18)
(as a side note, I wonder what she sang. I wonder what we’d sing in that moment?)
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed and renewed,” the Apostle Paul said centuries ago.
“These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction … we have the power within us to create the world anew,” said urban organizer from Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs.
I don’t know much about Foley Square where this incident took place, so I looked it up. One of the things I found is that what today is an intersection of green space and streets in Lower Manhattan was originally part of the “Little Collect Pond,” one of the original sources of fresh water for the city (long since abandoned and filled in after being polluted).
As I imagine this scene from last Sunday I imagine a spiritual spring of living water bubbling up through the voice of this singing pastor, creating something beautiful in another otherwise polluted spot. I imagine the voice, the emotional energy, the sense of inspired community that resulted as a powerful alternative, a powerful ‘counter-narrative’ to a week of troubling, confusing, empire supporting narratives throughout our land. As I imagine this scene, I give thanks for a soul who could see – and sing – their way to a new place when the rhetoric, tension and ugliness was at its worst.
If there is a new kind of leadership needed, it is a leadership that, among other things, can see an alternative beauty, a substitute truth, or a powerfully different narrative. It’s a leadership that offers a cool spring water to a polluted and stagnant world.
The vision for something different than what we currently see is precisely where I see the value and purpose of the progressive Christian tradition. To be a bastion, a community, and a movement that sees a new vision into being – even as the world around us tries to convert us to its violence, it’s consumerism, or it’s apathy.
For centuries, theologians have wrestled over the proper or appropriate relationship between the church and the culture. Scriptural voices provide language for all different kinds of interactions, and thus it becomes the task of the church in every age and in every location to sort out its own answer to this question.
Broadly speaking (and there are tomes written on this), there are 4 main ideas for how the church should relate to the wider culture.
1. In lock step with the culture.
2. An agent of transformation within culture.
3. Separate and removed from culture.
4. An alternative community side by side with the culture.
In lock step. History is full examples of church/state coordination and confusion. I’ll be speaking about Christianity, but these same dynamics play out in every culture and its majority religion. Constantine is the most obvious example – that emperor who declared that henceforth, the empire shall be Christian. He backed that up with the power of armies and economies. It resulted in the Christianization of Europe, among other things.
Religion came to the ‘new world’ in this form as the Spanish royalty and papacy saw great potential to enrich the home country leaders and subjugate natives through combining the forces of religion and economics.
We see this theology in several soft forms in our country among religious conservatives.
As an agent of transformation within culture: There are lots of examples of this too.
One that comes to mind immediately is the Sojourners movement in Washington DC led by Jim Wallis. He said about 15 years ago that all politicians ever do is put their finger up to see which was the wind is blowing. Our job, as the church, he said, is control the direction of the wind! If we can do that, we can achieve transformation. Martin Luther King’s early work in the civil rights movement took this approach – transformation of our democracy through the Christian tenets of love and justice.
Separatist movement removing itself from the corrupt culture. North Dakota and Idaho have several modern-day groups now with this attitude. They’ve separated themselves from all institutions – banking, educational, and legal, etc.
The Essenes of John the Baptist fame were also of this bent.
So also, were the desert fathers in the 4th century, the Mormons of the 19th century.
And finally, as an alternative community side by side in the culture. The Anabaptist tradition is in our day is a good example – preaching peace, non-violence and pacifism even in the face of war -even WW2. They seek, in their churches and sometimes in their communities to create enclaves of Christianity that witness another way to the world around. Unlike the Separatists, they are not hostile the wider world but they do seek to create an alternative.
The Mennonite congregation that meets here on Sunday nights often feels like this to me.
The role of the church, and the theology that guides it, evolves through different historical periods, but it is my belief that in this particular cultural moment, one of the great gifts of the Progressive Christian movement is our determined effort we’ve made to create something wholly other in our spaces, our worship, and our witness. Certainly, as a tradition we are also hoping for transformation, but in the meantime we are creating something unique, special, and otherly for the world.
In 2006, residents of this state were asked to vote on whether they thought it was appropriate for same sex marriages to be made legal. Churches like ours had been performing religious ceremonies for over 10, sometimes 20 years, by that time. We knew where we stood. So, at our annual meeting in early 2006, the congregation voted unanimously to publicly oppose this November ballot measure.
Many of us signed up to work with Fair Wisconsin. The political and emotional winds seemed toxic to us. As we literally canvassed the county and the state, we worked alongside others of like mind. We were asked to canvas and phone bank, which we did. We felt our faith being both maligned and undercut. It was a troubling and disturbing political season; mostly because people near and dear to all of us felt their lifestyles and loves vulnerable and at risk. It felt like open season to spew bigotry and hate. And this was before ban on same sex relationships was affirmed overwhelming that November at the ballot box.
Suspecting the worst, we planned for a service the night after the election. I remember specifically inviting our straight ally members to come. “We need to be here in support of one another this week. This is not just an LGBT issue. This is an issue for us all. Hurting, angry, confused, dejected – please come.”
And we did come out on that painful Wednesday night. We sang, we prayed, we spoke, and we cried. My sense that night, and in the years since, is that in the midst of all our pain and appreciation, we realized that this alternative community we had created, this church we had come to believe was prophetic and compassionate, contained great power, while at the same time was fragile. The gains we thought had been made were real, but could also be taken away. While we had felt led by the Spirit for so many years on this issue. It was clear – especially to those among us whose loves were relationships were most at risk- that this bastion of love and acceptance was no longer something we could take for granted. We knew, now more than ever, that we had to work hard. We had to show up. We had to be for each other what the wider world was boldly proclaiming it would not be. Welcoming.
I quoted a Minneapolis pastor that night who suggested this anti-gay sentiment was “a spasm of hatred that is the lashing out of a dying dragon.” A frightened, angry, but dying dragon.
11 years later I am uncertain of one thing and more certain of another.
I am less uncertain today that the dragon of hate is dying. I am less convinced of our collective ability as humans to evolve toward more compassion and grace.
I am more certain that the creating and maintaining of this alternative community is possible and necessary. I am more certain that such a community will thrive only if it is nurtured. I am more certain that if we value a place of openness and progressive thinking – we can ill afford to be passive bystanders. We can ill afford a casual approach to our spiritual community.
We can celebrate diversity, questions, doubts and uncertainties in how we understand God and what it means to follow Jesus. But we must be fierce in the power and necessity of our gathering together, our coming to know one another, our witness to an alternative way in the world.
Almost once a year since I’ve come to ORUCC, I have sat with a teenager or young adult raised in another church struggling to get out from under the powerful and destructive emotional trauma of growing up in a hate filled church. Often this hate has been directed specifically toward LBGT folks, but often hatred spewed in many ways. It is so toxic, so contrary to the the gospel and the God I hold dear.
At the same time, I come away from these heart breaking interactions even more convinced that we play a powerful role in the lives of our children and families, and even ourselves, in providing a space where God is known and experience as loving, open hearted, merciful and grace filled. If we are not here, where will any of us have a chance to come to know the power of that God? If we are not here, how will any of us withstand the onslaught of apathy, indifference, and hate that surrounds us. If we are not here, where will that spring of lifegiving water come from? Who will sing that song of beauty and hope that we all need to move through these confusing days.
Keep the faith, friends. We are not alone. A tribe of us are in this together. Every. Single. Step. But let’s stay on the lookout for people who can sing us through, for songs and harmonies that will silence oppression and save our souls.