By the Rev. Anne Howard, executive director of The Beatitudes Society.
My church is in the headlines again today. The headline is not “Episcopal Church Opposes Warâ€ or “Episcopal Church Supports SCHIPâ€ or “Episcopal Church Works to Fight Povertyâ€ or “Episcopal Church Lobbies for Katrina Aid.â€ No, my church doesn’t have time for such pressing social justice issues.
Today’s headline is “Episcopal Bishops Promise Restraintâ€, or in a slightly more active choice of verbs: “Episcopal Leaders Act to Avert a Schismâ€ or even more active yet “Episcopal Bishops Reject Anglican Church’s Orderâ€.
Forgive me, but I’m just so tired of it all. Don’t get me wrong, the issue is critical: the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church is indeed a social justice issue. But I’m not sure that’s the issue at hand. I’m afraid the competing issue is something called “unityâ€.
Our bishops are big on unity. We have been schism-shy since Henry VIII dumped the Pope for Anne Boleyn. We Episcopalians didn’t split over slavery, as many of our mainline colleagues did. (No doubt a few Episcopalians experienced “unityâ€ and even communion through the cotton of their southern plantations and northern mills).
I’m thinking that unity has become an idol. Our bishops have pledged to “exercise restraintâ€ in ordaining another gay bishop, and they are not authorizing rites for same-sex marriages. While the American bishops rightly did not cave in to pressure from the conservative bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion to stop ordaining gay bishops and reject same-sex marriage, they did assert their over-arching desire to remain part of the international body. Unity trumps integrity?
I hope not. I do love my church. I became an Episcopalian because I saw the Episcopal Church (in the local iteration of All Saints Pasadena) as the church that opposed the war in Vietnam, worked for Civil Rights, championed the ordination of women, fought the Reagan nuclear arms buildup, forged ahead with gay marriage and supported openly gay priests and bishops. And I have been proud to be part of a local church (Trinity in Santa Barbara) and a diocese (Los Angeles) that has been at the forefront of the struggle for our church to become open and welcoming to all.
I love my church, and so I want us to just get on with it. I want us to look like the church of Jesus, where all manner and condition of folks gather for the feast: everybody’s welcome at the banquet table. I want us to stand up for inclusion, and that might mean that unity takes a back seat.
It’s time for the Protestant Principle. Time to exercise not restraint, but protest.
Because, as Gene Robinson, our gay bishop from New Hampshire said about the New Orleans summit, “No one’s vision won.â€
And the people need a vision.
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One idea we’ve had at FPL is to feature some particularly inspiring sermonizing on the site from time to time. In light of this morning’s forum with Rev. Butler and Bishop Robinson, the following words seem especially fitting.
Father Matthew Ruhl, S.J., is the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Kansas City, MO. This homily is a discussion of Matthew 28: 18-20, a reading known as the Great Commission in which Jesus directs his disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.â€
This reading from the Gospel of Matthew is frequently referred to as the Great Commission. It’s great because Jesus asks us to do it, and great because it is much more radical than it seems at first glance. What makes it radical is that Jesus sends us out to all the nations. You see, after the Babylonian Exile when the Jews came back to Judah, they wanted to have the nation filled up again and all the prophets were saying there will come a time when Zion will be rebuilt, the hill within Jerusalem on which sat the Temple which had been destroyed. And so all these Jews, they were the good Jews, they were what they called the faithful remnant. They were so good they didn’t want anything to do with other Jews who hadn’t gone through this Exile. They were the elite of the elite. And it was they who wanted to rebuild the Temple with nobody’s help. They who wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They who wanted to build the city of Jerusalem with nobody’s help. It would be the purified Judaism that did it and it would be this purified Judaism that would give birth to this new Davidic king and we were going to be so great that all the nations would come to us. They would come to our hilltop and they would see how great our God was. Whoops! It never happened.
Six hundred years later, here’s Jesus. There’s no kingdom. There’s no king. The Temple that was rebuilt was such a shadow of the former Temple that half of the population wept in embarrassment when they saw it. It just didn’t happen. And here comes Jesus and the early church and they said it’s not going to happen. You and I have to go out to the nations. You see, it is completely radical difference. It’s a completely radical way of understanding. We’re not going to sit here and wait for God to come and then for people to come to us. We’ve got to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now, I think it’s quite honest and a good thing to say that Jesus was no idiot. He was sending the disciples out to countries and to the nations that they had been fighting with for about two thousand years–the Moabites, the Edomites, the Ammonites and all the other “ites,â€ not to mention the hated Samaritans. These people were at war with the Jews forever. And yet, Jesus sent his apostles out to all the world, even to the people who put him to death. Now, do you think that Jesus was so stupid that he didn’t know that there were going to be differences introduced into the church? And it was almost immediately. Almost as soon as Christ shows up, rises and goes away, people started saying to be a true Christian, you have to be circumcised. And Paul says whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! We have been not saved by the law. We are saved by the blood of Christ. And so circumcision was absolutely dropped as a requisite for being part of the church.
All right. When Jesus sends them out to the nations, he’s very aware that he’s sending them out into a group of people that are really different and, in fact, really sinful. And so this idea, St. Francis, that there could ever be a purified church or a faithful remnant is complete rubbish. The Catholic Church is for the hairy and the unwashed. It’s for sinners, and all sinners. There’s this radical inclusion. We’re all in this together. Okay. “Fr. Matt, where’s that said in the Bible?â€ Okay. Now, listen carefully. If there’s one sentence about one thing, then scripture scholars say, well, an editor probably slipped that in because he had a little axe to grind. Scholars, when they want to discover what Jesus really meant, they look for a thing called multiple attestation. That is to say it’s written several times, or the stories several times. Okay. Let me tell you what is multiply attested to in three parables–not one, not two, but three parables, all of which have the same message of radical inclusion.
In the first parable, Jesus says the world is like a great sea, and there are all these fishes. There are fishes that feed on the bottom. There are fishes that feed on the top. There are some fishes that aren’t fishes at all, but are mammals. There are some fishes that come out of the water for a little while and then go back in. There are all these fishes. And they all live together happily, except they eat one another every now and again. But they’re all given permission to live. And at the end of time, the Kingdom of Heaven will be like a great dragnet dragging all this sea life to shore.
And guess who gets to separate the good fishes from the bad fishes? No pope, no bishop, no priest, no pastor, no lay man, no lay woman, no lay movement. Who gets to separate the good fish from the bad fish? God, and God alone, gets to separate the fish.
And then there’s another story. There’s the sheep and the goats. God said, Jesus says, you know, if you didn’t read the one on the dragnet, let me give you another one. There’s this huge pasture and there’s a bunch of sheep and a bunch of goats, and those sheep and the goats, they get to enjoy the sunshine and the water and they get to eat grass all day long. And you and I, we’re those sheep and goats, and they get to live happily. At the end of time, all the sheep and the goats will be brought together and they’ll be judged. And who gets to do the judging? No pope, no bishop, no pastor, no priest, no lay man, no lay woman, and no lay movement. Who gets to judge between the sheep and the goats? God, and God alone.
As if two parables weren’t enough, Jesus says I’m going to drive this point home to these guys. They’ve got to understand it. And so he gives us another parable. He said the whole world is like a wheat field. And the householder comes to the master and he says, Master, somebody sowed these seeds of weeds in with the wheat (NAB, St. Joseph edition, Matthew 13: 24-30). Should be go ahead and dig up the weeds? And the master says, no, you let them grow together. And that was Jesus’ way of saying our judgment, mine and your judgment, is so shabby we can’t tell a poisonous weed from a foodstuff. No. At the end of time, we’ll do a harvest. And when the harvest happens, I will separate the wheat from the weeds. And no pope, and no bishop, and priest, and no pastor, and lay man, and no lay woman, and no lay movement will have anything to say about it. The separation of the wheat from the weeds belongs to God, and God alone.
Let me read something to you. In case you’re thinking I’m putting my own spin on this, this is a Catholic Bible. It’s got a little love note from Paul VI at the beginning. And this is a footnote on the parable of the wheat and the weeds. “The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they were still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the kingdom. In its present stage, it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful.â€
In short, St. Francis, the world is a sea, it’s a pasture, it’s a field, and the good and the bad and the ugly and the indifferent and the ambiguous, we all get to live together in the ocean, on the field, on the pasture. And if you and I start excluding people, pretty soon the Church is going to be the First Church of You and Me, and I’m a little suspicious of you. But the Church in this country is famous for excluding. Every time I see a black Catholic I praise God, because that is the only group of immigrants that the Catholic Church never conscientiously went out to try to evangelize. There was a great exclusion. And I have a friend in St. Louis. She’s only my age and they didn’t want her to go to the Catholic school because she was epileptic. And epilepsy, of course, was a sign of possession. And we had a most sorrowful instance across the state line — St. Agnes, when the young man, Nadeau, got kicked out of celebrating in that church for no reason other than he was gay. He was by all accounts a Christian, full of the spirit, but because he was gay, he was denied his opportunity to express his love for the Church in a fashion that the Holy Spirit had called him to.
St. Francis, this kind of exclusion has no place in the Catholic Church. This kind of bigotry has no place in the life of Christ. This kind of hate has no place in the Christian ethic. If you want to go out and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and promote this kind of exclusion, please stay home. The world is filled with enough hate already. But if you want to go out to the nations baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, then please preach the Gospel and preach the whole gospel. Please preach a radical inclusion as Jesus Christ did. Go out, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, but preach about Christ, who is about love. Who loves us all — the good, the bad, the black, the white, the straight, the gay, the short, the tall, the fat, the skinny, the sinner, the saint — loves them all equally.
If you can’t preach that, stay home. If you can, go on out, because the world needs you.
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Dear Amy and David,
Don’t worry about the optimism, Amy. We all need plenty of it! Actually, I’m fairly optimistic as well, I guess I just look for boulders on the highway too much.
I realize that I need to clarify something. I don’t think that Casey was able to demand equal time because of his pro-life credentials. That is pure political strategy and simply using the law as it was intended. I still think, however, that his reception by the group has more to do with his pro-life stance than anything else. They may respect him for standing up to his party on abortion and to conservatives on gay marriage, but that’s because he manages to stand up to different people on the two issues. If he was also pro-choice, then he’d have left a much different feeling in their bellies when he walked away. He still could have demanded, and probably received, fair and equal time. The result would have been different, though. In fact, I doubt he’d have decided it was worth his time.
The most precious resource in any campaign is time. The PPN has maybe three or four issues about which they want to hear a candidate speak. If he’s against them on all four, there’s no chance he’ll convince a voter to vote for him. From a campaign perspective, that’s a waste of time. That’s why Democrats have, for so long, eschewed many religious groups. It isn’t going to help them and they might say something that really gets the religious people lathered up. It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.
In Casey’s case, his pro-life position allows him to make the speech something besides a waste of time. There may be a few voters there that actually vote for him. Regardless, their attacks on him, as Amy points out, are going to be blunted. So while it isn’t his pro-life credentials that get him the time from a legal perspective, it is his pro-life credentials that make it worth his trouble.
The problem that this highlights is that there is no similar left-wing religious organization from which a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage candidate could get an equal political boost. That’s an organizational problem. Pretty much everyone on the left understands that we are decades behind the right organizationally. I believe that is also tied to the lack of an ideological basis (in political terms) and a strong theological basis (in religious terms) for collective action. Until we find an answer for the charge that we “stand for nothing and fall for everything” we aren’t going to change that. People don’t generally get out of bed early to vote or take time away from their family to attend meetings dedicated to “good government” – but if you make it about “liberty” or “doing what is right for your kids”, then suddenly they are interested.
That is currently where the Prevention First strategy is. It’s good policy. As Amy points out, it will do more for cutting abortions than overturning Roe. But, while there is an ideological core to that policy, it is not well articulated. Therefore Senator Reid’s speech has some rhetorical highlights, but no really binding ideas that will draw people out of their shells. Because it lacks a well-crafted ideological core, the only soundbites are policy-heavy and can be spun so hard it makes your head hurt. “Better access to birth control pills” suddenly becomes “Your daughter will be given birth control by her PE teacher and you’ll never know it.”
I want to stress again that it isn’t solely the job of our politicians to make create this ideological core. In fact, due in large part to their need to appeal to a larger group, they can’t. It’s our job as liberal activists to create a rhetorical base that our leaders can tie into in order to make those sound bites. “That isn’t conservative,” was a ludicrous statement twenty years ago. Today, everyone knows what it means – or at least they think they do. Either way, the core is there and it can be used to spin off sound bites in every direction. Since it’s my idea to bell the cat, I’ll take a short stab at it – with the understanding that it is likely to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But I think I’ll do it at my site rather than further sidetracking the conversation here.
Instead, I’ll end today by encouraging the party chairs who are reaching out to groups that may have been less than friendly in the past. You can’t steer a parked car, and it’s better to try and steer some of the politically active in our direction than it is to build an entirely new field of politically active persons. I don’t think that all of these groups are as conservative as the PPN. Rather, they are more “Republican leaning” groups that head in that direction because Democrats simply haven’t tried to engage them. Rectifying that oversight should put a number of races into play that wouldn’t be otherwise. If nothing else, it should help us engage a wider electorate and that should help us be more respectful of differences and perhaps – dare we hope? – bring a more civil discourse to our politics.
All the Best,
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