Sunday, January 22, 2006

Praying With Our Feet

Praying With Our Feet

[This article was first published on May 8, 2005, in the online magazine 'The Witness',]

Ask the person-in-the-pew what he or she thinks Christianity is and you will get an amazing variety of answers. Some will wave their hand vaguely and say, "Oh, you know, like, it's about being nice. It's like, you know, about loving people. Have a nice day."

At the other end of the spectrum you might evoke some glazed-eyed ranting about "the rapture," a mythology dreamed up by a 17th century Roman Catholic preacher using a textual snippet from one of the more paranoid sections of the Book of Revelation. (Williams 1994). This vengeful fantasy was taken up by English Protestants, incorporated into American fundamentalism, and is now driving much of American public and foreign policy (Moyers 2005). The ir-rationale goes like this: the sooner we destroy the ecology, create wars, shed more blood, the sooner the rapture will come. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, but hey, since we're bringing about the end of the world, who cares? (It is also possible that the religious posturing of the present Administration is simply a cover for short-term greed.)

Both the indifferent and the rabid fail to engage reality. The first fails to engage life; the second has embraced death, whose "despair...[is] as much a cry for help as a suicide." (Arditti 2000) Neither of these responses has much to do with "therefore chose life" of the Old Testament or the "learning to die so you can live" of the New.

Christianity is not about being "nice": sometimes love requires you to be not nice at all. (Mt. 21:12) Nor is "faith" about credulity: credulity is a blasphemous counterfeit of faith. Faith is not about suspending critique, but about exercising it.

More specifically, it is about exercising a critique over those things that contribute to fear. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us succinctly that the purpose of Christ's incarnation is to "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." (Heb. 2:15) In an age ruled by the politics of fear, it is of the essence to learn to be free from fear so that we may be uncoerced, that we may see clearly and take decisions that make for life, not death.

Note that the Hebrews passage doesn't say "free from the fear of what happens after death." (Ancient Christian witnesses confirm that "the world to come" in these texts do not always mean "after death" but spiritual awakening .) The sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels apply to discernment in this life. He wishes to teach us a wisdom into which we grow progressively that enables us to shake off the shackles imposed in the name of the closed and unthinking strictures imposed by family, culture and even religion. We might say especially religion, since our Christian religious institutions seem to have recreated the very sort of religious climate that Jesus spent his entire ministry criticizing.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to extol the lives of those who, freed from the fear of death, persevered in "faith....the conviction of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1) Note that the passage does not say, "faith in their ideas about things unseen, their fantasies and images and hopes for revenge," which would not be faith at all. (Faith differs from belief in this respect. To paraphrase an apocryphal saying by Abraham Lincoln, believing a sheep has five legs don't make it so.)

Our forebears' heroism in faith consisted precisely in that they persevered in spite of the fact that did not know and could not know where they were going, what the future held, or how it would all end. They were willing to let something new unfold in the world through their lives, even though they would not live to see its fulfillment. They were willing to have a hole torn in the membrane of repressive convention that encapsulated their self-consciousness. (Ross 1998)

The list of saints who persevered in the hope of things unseen and who have planted that hope in others is not confined to those mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, and certainly not to Christianity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Ghandi, Dag Hammerskjold, Rosa Parks, Wyangari Matthai, Nelson Mandela are but a few of the names that come to mind. But history has a way of sanitizing even the most irritating gadfly, once they have been martyred, or received the Nobel Prize, or become victims of celebrity. History is written by triumphant organizations, which manage to absorb the contrariness of the saints. Organizations have little use for those who engage in critique, rattle cages, or make awkward observations.

But faith is precisely about challenging complacency. It is about finding security in insecurity, the realization that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens (Lathrop 2003) by which the closed universe of human self-consciousness is breached, human engagement will be tragically determined by the fear of "death," which is not mortality but our fantasies about mortality, which are in fact fantasies about power and control, in whose name real death is inflicted on others. If we are not aware of the determinative force of this fear of losing control over what we imagine to be others' thoughts, and if we do not learn and practice the means by which it can be thwarted, this fear and these fantasies will affect every aspect of our lives, from the most trivial preoccupation with fashion to the fate of our planet.

This awareness can be enabled only by those who have faced the fear of death in themselves, who have shed the tyranny of "what people think" (law) for the clarity that faith bestows (spirit), a clarity that not only reveals that the emperor has no clothes on but demands a commitment to spreading that truth, so that others may witness the scales falling from their own eyes. Only someone thus committed can have the reverence for the mystery of the other that allows the other enough holy space for constraints to lose their power.

By contrast, so-called values imposed on others by frightened people can only be abusive, and values inflicted under the name of religion by the bigoted, the arrogant and the greedy are no values at all. A culture based on greed and fear wants its members to be a team players, sycophants, ciphers. It does not want to produce people who can exercise a critique.

Does this mean that we should not try to teach right from wrong? Not at all. It does mean that we have to teach by evocation, not by violence. It also means that in our learning and teaching we have reverence for a kind of holy self-doubt. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts, and when we start pretending they are, we create havoc.

We must always be able to question what we think and do in the light of outpouring Love who is still engaged in the costly creation of the universe, who is still offering us salvation from the fear of death by the Mercy that flows from the cross of Christ. It means that while we must set rules for infants and children as we would put loose ties on a weak plant until it is strong enough to stand on its own, we equally must teach children to mature in discernment, and to reject any aspect of religion that would infantilize them by subjecting them and those about them to fear, instead of teaching them "to care and not to care." (This is one of the more cynical phrases from T.S. Eliot's "The Four Quartets." However, I intend it honestly. We must take great care to be clear-eyed and to free others from the fear of death; we must not care what the price is.)

The sayings of Jesus carry a particular force because precisely because they teach this. To care and not to care rattles cages. Jesus refuses to separate the mundane and the earthy from the "spiritual." They must be lived as a unity; their separation will lead to madness. Hedonism is just as lethal as hatred of material things, or taking refuge in schizoid paranoia.

The truth of these sayings echoes down the millennia: realize that rescuing your ox has nothing to do with the prohibitions about the sanctity of the Sabbath: if the Sabbath is not about life, it is not the Sabbath. Understand that the stone you hold in your hand represents the far greater sins of judgment, condemnation, shifting blame, scapegoating hatred of life, ambiguity and the feminine than the adultery of the woman whom you are about to kill.

Listen to the message of the Cross: Jesus is Lord precisely because he refuses to dominate, and Judge because he refuses to condemn.

Perseverance in faith in the thoughts of God that are not our thoughts is the struggle not only of those mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews or those truth-speakers claimed and sanitized by institutions, but of countless people, unknown, unrecognized, unnamed, those ridiculed as "different," condemned for "behaving badly." ("Behaving badly" usually translates as "you will not let me control you.") They are hurting human beings who have reached a limit, who are unwilling to let a destructive and hypocritical situation continue. They will not support a group or institution that inflicts pain, sustains lies and cheapens life, especially when these actions are done in the name of God. Life is not worth its name when others are deprived of their humanity, nor is religion worth its name when people are deprived of their spiritual birthright, which is to behold the face of God.

There is always risk involved in such a stance. Such people may be regarded as mere crackpots. As non-members of the establishment, particularly the religious establishment, they are considered presumptuous even for raising their voices to be heard, much less insisting on keeping on being heard. And if by some miracle they escape censure, or persecution, or being silenced if only by being ignored or isolated, they will continue to speak out until their last breath.

Stubborn, pig-headed, recalcitrant, intransigent—these are some of the kinder names that are applied to such people. Jeremiah was lucky that he was only thrown into a cesspit. These days such a person is more likely to become a "designated target," or to be disappeared for "rendition" to a country that specializes in torture.

People tend to fall into these gadfly roles by circumstance and by chance. When finally they realize that a modest attempt to redress a wrong has now taken over their lives completely, it is already too late. Like Tevvye in "Fiddler on the Roof" they may ask God why he doesn't choose someone else once in a while. Not that such questioning does any good. Especially since it has become their role by default (the institutional church being too preoccupied with self-preservation); especially since the Club of the Ordained has made it very clear that the gifts of the laity aren't wanted—except for their cash. Professionals, after all, only listen to the ideas of other professionals.

What is happening in the Anglican Communion illustrates exactly what I am trying to say here about fear and the freedom from fear that is the message and mandate of the Gospels. Don't believe for a minute that the quarrel is over homosexuality. What we are observing is a classic Girardian scapegoating cycle. (see notes) Don't believe for a moment that this fight about "morality" or "values." It is not. (see notes)

—It is about developing countries so decimated by AIDS that denial generated by terror blocks any rational examination of sexuality in any context.

—It is about the chickens of patronizing, strait-laced, arrogant Victorian missionary bigotry coming home to roost. It is about race.

—It is about the developing world gloating over the opportunity to hold the whip hand over the developed world. This is not my judgment. See below.

—It is about money: the conservative bishops are now accepting money from banking heir Howard F. Ahamason, Jr., who is on the record as advocating the imposition of Old Testament law (including the stoning of recalcitrant children along with homosexuals) and from Mellon heir Richard Scaife, who has funded the Bushes and far-right political vendettas. (see links in notes) If the twenty conservative Anglican Primates force their will on the Anglican Communion, these two men will literally own the church. Through the Institute for Religion and Democracy these men have spent funds in the seven figures in their efforts to destroy the Anglican Communion as well as the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Churches in the US. (see link in notes) A church that has tried, at least occasionally, to have a social and ecological conscience would be in the way.

—The Anglican battle is last and least about the interpretation of writings of a marginal desert tribe that may have been specific to particular contexts several thousand years in the past, but which are highly questionable when applied to what we know today of how God in fact made the creation called "good."

What is at stake is the "historical generosity" of the Anglican Communion and a considered decision by the Canadian and American Provinces to repent of the churches' hypocrisy over the issues of homosexuality through the ages, especially among the clergy, and a desire to bless the world as God made it. The question is, are we going to worship God in humility and truth or are we going to bow down to the idol of paranoid fantasies and malice? To succumb to the latter would be an ironic repetition of Sodom's sin against hospitality with the boot on the other foot.

At the February 2005 meeting of the Anglican Primates, many of the 20 conservative archbishops were clearly not interested in communion, in "finding a way forward in penitence and faith." A number of them were openly rude to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some are on record in the conservative press that they will not listen to any discussions about sexuality, discussions that are schedule for June 2005. (see links in notes) When the Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded with them to attend a special liturgy, they went off to a banquet financed by their American right-wing supporters to celebrate the fact that the Rowan Williams would now have to do what they told him. The articles about this meeting by Stephen Bates in the Guardian do not make for bedtime reading. (see links and Guardian article in notes)
While the North Americans may have upset everyone else by their honesty, it is clearly the 20 conservative bishops who have chosen not to be in communion. Communion implies, at minimum, communication, and these men (they are all men) have said in so many words that they will not listen, that their cosmology is closed. Furthermore, they have shown by their preferring the banquet to the liturgy that they would rather party than pray.

Then let them.

I may not be ordained but I came of age theologically during Vatican II. I studied with observers and periti. The ideal of unity has always been sacred to me—but it has to be unity in truth. The present situation in the Anglican Communion is not about unity and it is most certainly not about truth. It is about revenge, bullying, hostage-taking and corruption. It is about attempts by corporate secular interests to destroy or take over inconvenient religious groups. It is about egos, power and posturing, and many of us are thoroughly sick of posturing. The seminaries don't seem to teach much else these days.

In my view, the North American churches should refuse to back down. Rather than sell the soul of the Communion in the name of a false unity—for unity is the opposite of subjugation—they should ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to suspend the articles of unity for everyone until all parties are willing to listen and to learn from the others, and above all from what the Spirit may be saying to the Churches. Perseverance in the consultative process has no meaning if there is no humility before God and before one another.

Perseverance in keeping the heavens open is worth not less than everything. If keeping them open must be bought at the price of the organization known as Anglican Communion, so be it.

Perseverance in acknowledging and repenting of our presumptuousness, of our imposing our ignorance on others, is worth the weeping.

Perseverance in awe before the mystery of the human person is worth the risk of ostracism and censure.

Perseverance in insisting that Jesus is Lord because he refuses power, and Judge because he refuses to condemn may be folly to archbishops but it is wisdom to the disenfranchised laity. Institutional decisions are rapidly reaching the point of complete irrelevance. The clergy seem to forget that they preside by sufferance and not by right.

Whatever the outcome of this sorry spectacle, we, the laity, are the Church, the People of God, Christ's Body, and we will persevere in our vows of baptism, in prayer and the breaking of bread. We will baptize and we will read the scriptures. We will bless lives that cherish other lives in the boundless love of God. We will do all of these things whether the clergy are amenable or not.

And we will pray with our feet.



*See Rowan Williams "The Touch of God" in Open to Judgement, London, DLT, 1994, pp. 112-117.
* See "There Is No Tomorrow" by Bill Moyers, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sunday, 30 January, 2005..
* Michael Arditti, Easter, London, Arcadia Books, 2000, p. 125. "Fundamentalism isn't faith, it's, I'm serious. It's as much of a cry for help as a suicide. it's a flight from life, a denial of that human freedom which is the most precious gift of God. Fundamentalists leave their brains outside their churches the way Moslems leave their shoes." p. 125.
* See my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, and Original Silence: The Death of Self-Consciousness and the Birth of the Soul forthcoming 2006.
* See Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003.
* For a succinct and excellent introduction to the important work of René Girard, see Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan, forthcoming from Cowley Press, Cambridge, MA.
* The last section of this article grows out of a dialogue with Professor C.A. Conway, formerly of McGill University, now vicar of Great Tew in Oxfordshire.
* See www.; www.;;
See www.
* See also www., 3 March 2005 for the Archbishop of Uganda's hardening position from the previous week's statements.
* See also the excellent comment by Colin Slee at the same website, "The Price of Unity Is Too High."


Anonymous Presbyopia said...

Ah, I've missed your voice, Maggie. Welcome, a very hearty and heartfelt welcome, to the blogosphere. The great blessing of the High and Holy One be on every word you write here, and protection from all assaults of the Enemy.

1:40 am, January 24, 2006  

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