Monday, January 10, 2011

Tucson, Ourselves, and Violence

Yes, I have been away a long time. Just have not much felt like writing. That is coming to an end, and I will return soon with much more.

In the meantime, here is something that I penned in response to a challenge from Diana Butler Bass, adapted from my sermon yesterday. I have included her words because they provide the context.

With remarkable clarity, Dianna Butler Bass, Church historian and frequent Internet writer summed up the situation surrounding the violence in Tucson on Saturday. Within hours, she posted this note:

“The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband's family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

“My husband's family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

“This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

“That would be a mistake.

“Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party's violent rhetoric and "Second Amendment solutions." Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

“But who will speak of the soul?

“Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest "someone get hurt." Well, someone is hurt--and people have died--most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

“At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

“Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: "When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'" Jesus' baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, "All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood." Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

“American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God's love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.
“If we don't speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.”


So let’s speak for the soul today. Let’s be reminded that Jesus’ life and ministry were all about not doing things the normal way. Let’s remember that, when the people were looking for a powerful military hero as the Messiah, one who would bring that baptism of blood, John and Jesus held to a different way of change, one that started within and spread out. Let’s remember that violence—even the violence of hate-filled speech—has never been the way of the Christ.

In just a few minutes, we will recite the words of our Baptismal covenant. Now, the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was unique in the Anglican Communion when it came out. Back in the 1970s, the Episcopal Church was still referred to by many as the Republican Party at prayer. We had more members in Congress than any other religious group at the time, and, despite being 3% of the population then, we had produced more presidents. We had the highest level of education and income in the land.

What made our Baptismal Covenant suddenly unique from those of the rest of the Church—and not just the rest of Anglicanism, by the way—was our addition of five questions in the end that were not about what we believed but about how we intended to live out the Christian faith.

People outside of faith communities often think that liturgy is just the repetition of words for some kind of comfort that has little or no meaning. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liturgy done well shapes meaning and understanding in our lives, gives context and purpose to our behavior.

Bishop Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina believes, and, upon reflection, I have come to agree with him, that those five questions about our behavior have been transformative, not only for individuals in the Episcopal Church, but for our Church as a whole. Preachers quote them all the time. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And we as people respond, “I will, with God’s help.”

If Bishop Curry is right, the repetition of those vows, the teaching of them, and preaching about them have changed us. And those questions are largely behind what has put us at odds with much of the rest of Anglicanism. Those words have pushed us from merely thinking about what we believe to attempting to live what we believe.
When I tell students—even students who have been raised in the Episcopal Church—the line about us being the Republican Party at prayer, they are shocked. That Church is not the Church they know. Even those who have been raised in fairly conservative Episcopal churches wonder how that appellation could have ever been applied to what is now seen as the left wing of Anglicanism and of American Christianity. It’s not that conservative thought has disappeared by any means. But we have become a much broader church, open to exploring a lot of new ideas of what it means to live our faith.

So what are we to do now? We celebrate and remember our baptism. In January, the first month of the year, we also frequently on who we are and what changes we wish to make.

Now, Church critics are right if that Covenant ever becomes merely comfortable words for us. If we are not the Republican Party at prayer, then we are not the Democratic Party at prayer either. Or the conservatives or progressives or the Tea Party or the birthers. We are the body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring a different way of living into the world.

And, in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy, that means refusing to accept a place in business as usual, upholding one set of talking head commentators as it blasts another set for what is exactly the same behavior. It means turning off the 24 hour news media, that—have you noticed—almost never broadcasts news shows anymore.
Most of all, it means seeing one another, including those we have come to see as our enemies, as human beings, even when they cannot see us in the same way. Jesus never said do unto others as they do unto you. He said do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It means refusing to accept soundbite theology as being any way for Christians to think or express ourselves. And it means the renunciation of violence as a destructive rather than constructive force for change—and I mean the language of violence in which we destroy our opponents with our arguments.
We Americans are amazing in our desire to see the Israelis and the Palestinians sit down and talk through a settlement rather than go to war. We said the same thing in South Africa, in Northern Ireland, in other global hotspots. Yet our language towards one another is death and destruction. And, occasionally, it erupts in actual violence.

The Unibomber. The Oklahoma City massacre. The recent Post Office bombings in Maryland. And now, the death of a nine-year-old girl and five others, along with a Congresswoman fighting for her life. That language eats at our souls. Is that who we Christian Americans really want to be?

Notice the order I place those words. Christian Americans, not the other way around. In so doing, I remind us of the proper order of those two commitments. Peter reminds us in the tenth chapter of the book of Acts that God shows no partiality based on nationality or class, and calls us to do the same. Let us vow to make the language of our mouths reflect the language of our Savior.

So we begin again today. With the words of the Baptismal Covenant. With the commitment to changed lives. With not just the denunciation of violence but the renunciation of it. With our vow to live differently, according to the will of God.
And then, slowly, surely, we might begin to reclaim our souls. Then we can truly transform this country from hatred. Then we can see the Shalom that God calls us to as we live out the Kingdom of God. Then we will understand, finally, the meaning of death and resurrection that is our baptism. Let us begin.