In his open letter to the Church the week after the election, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reiterated our commitment, as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement today,” to living out in full the motto on our signage: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
The remainder of Bishop Curry’s statement addresses, primarily, the role of the church in society, in the light of the political sea change that our nation has now brought on itself. In a nation torn by competing visions of how we should live, and fed by competing versions of facts and policy and competing interpretations of history and of sacred texts both religious and civic, Bishop Curry issues a call to the Church for a proactive witness on behalf of the marginalized, the scapegoated, and the demonized.
For those of us now in our sixties—the infamous Baby Boomer generation—this document evokes memories, not only of the political activism that engulfed us in our young adulthood, but also of the dramas of conscience from World War 2 and the Cold War whose retelling colored so much of our childhood. And if the divisions in our society continue to harden, as the new president—so unprepared, so vindictive, and so recklessly infatuated with power—begins to flex his muscles, it is not inconceivable that the witness Bishop Curry calls for might lead to actual risk: risk to livelihood, even to personal safety.
And this in turn leads me to ask a related, but different question: If the vocation of the Church (Episcopal or otherwise) is to convey a holy welcome to all in the context of society as a whole, then what does it mean to welcome people into the church itself? What is the Church’s vocation in dangerous and unbalanced times? Does Jesus offer us safety? Can we offer it to others? Or is the Church a community defined by its embrace of risk and danger in the service of its witness?
I went to high school in the late sixties, that long-ago age of idealism and activism, of the civil rights movement and the peace movement, when the Baby Boom was coming of age and beginning its God-given mission of proving to our parents how small-minded and conformist they were, and how much better we would be at running the world once we got the chance. We saw our parents’ generation as fearful and calculating—more concerned to protect their material comforts and security than to live by the very ideals they had taught us. The struggles that had so shaped their world were ancient history to us. Deep down inside, we thought everything bad was as unreal as the Depression and War were to us—as easily mastered as the small challenges of our own sheltered lives. Unlike our parents, we would not compromise our principles in any way. We would be courageous and pure, and we would change the world in ways they never had.
Criticism of our parents’ world extended to all the institutions they had built—the government, the school system, and also the church. In my intellectual and left-leaning high school crowd, it was not cool to go to church. It was OK to be Jewish, but the best thing to be was Unitarian. Unitarians didn’t believe in God—they had outgrown that need. They had what it took to do what was right entirely out of their own inner strength.
One of my friends was Unitarian, and she thought I was really weird to believe in God and pray and go to Communion. “God is such a crutch,” she said. “God is for weaklings who can’t face reality, and superstitious people who don’t believe in modern science. God is for people who don’t care about justice and are only interested in getting to heaven when they die.”
I told my friend she didn’t know what she was talking about. “If you think God is a crutch, you should read the Bible,” I said to her. “Faith isn’t easy. It means working for justice and helping the poor and standing up for what you believe even if you are tortured and martyred.” I pointed out the role of the churches in the civil rights movement. But I don’t think I convinced her. She had too strong a mental image of complacent people going to church in order to feel good about themselves.
But I was making a very real point, and one that many in the church in the sixties saw very clearly: God calls us to discipleship, which involves ministry in the world—and this may mean political action and social engagement as well as safe, respectable activities like Boy Scouts and the United Way. This was a threatening message to many in the church in the sixties; in fact the church began to polarize between “activists” like Doonesbury’s Scott Sloan, the “fighting young priest who can talk to the young” and traditionalists who wanted to keep out of political controversy and stick to “religious” pursuits.
But there was a second reply I could have made to my friend, and didn’t. That reply would have been to confess, “I do need God. I don’t feel very strong a lot of the time. I need help to make it through the week and through my life.” But that would have been an admission of weakness— an admission that I needed a “crutch,” that I was not liberated and brave, the way I was supposed to be. Our Eucharistic Prayer C, a product of this era, reflects this reluctance to admit our need for comfort from God, when it asks God to “deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.” It’s a very activist, virile, outward-looking spirituality, with little patience for the spiritually needy.
A mere dozen years later, Ronald Reagan announced that it was morning in America, and the scene changed. On the right, the Silent Majority found its voice: fear and anger about social and economic change were stoked into paranoia and bigotry. The left withdrew from the arena and turned inward: Doonesbury’s Scott Sloan morphed into the pastor of the Little Church of Walden, where the week was jammed with self-help seminars, support groups, yoga and acupuncture. The national trauma of 9/11 accelerated these trends. No longer out to show off our courage and idealism, instead for decades now we have all tried to outdo each other in how victimized—how damaged, or oppressed, or aggrieved—we are.
The Bible and the Church offer us at least two distinct ways of seeing ourselves: two messages, spoken in two voices. Neither message alone is the whole Gospel; neither is the exclusive territory of left or right.
In this pendulum swing, the Church, of course, mirrors the wider society in which it finds itself. But it also displays a basic tension that exists within the Church and within the Bible itself. The Bible and the Church offer us at least two distinct ways of seeing ourselves: two messages, spoken in two voices.
The first is a message of comfort. This message tells us that we were lost—exiled and alone, sinful and alienated—until God reached out to us with life-giving love, healing us, taking on our burdens, passing for us through suffering and death, and returning to raise us with him to glory. We are the prisoners who are set free, the lost sheep for whom the Shepherd lays down his life. Our role is, in a sense, in the passive voice: we were lost, we are found, we are given life, we are saved. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The second message is a call to discipleship. Here we are no longer simply the object of God’s love and Jesus’ work; we have work of our own to do. “Follow me,” he says to us: “listen to my words, see clearly, make choices, bring forth fruit, go out and do as you have seen me do … . Pick up your cross, lose your life. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” This call may be terribly disturbing and disruptive, as it was for the prophets, who were called away from their yoke of oxen or their sycamore trees to prophesy to kings and people who had no wish to hear them, and for the apostles, who left all and followed Jesus, and were baptized with his baptism and drank of his cup of suffering.
These two voices can be, and often are, placed in opposition to each other, so that one is seen as the True Gospel and the other as a dangerous distortion or distraction. Some forms of “old time religion,” both Protestant and Catholic, speak overwhelmingly in the first voice. Believing in Jesus, for them, means above all that we receive the benefits of the Gospel. We “are saved,” we are rescued from damnation, and we have no obligation other than to respond with thanks, praise, love and faith. At the other extreme, there are Christians who conceive of God’s impact on our lives almost entirely in the form of demands for action and perfection. God is a God of righteousness and judgment; Jesus is Master, Leader, and example— “captain in the well-fought fight.” He commissions us, inspires us, and (sometimes) seems to set impossible standards that leave us guilt-ridden and disheartened.
Neither message alone is the whole Gospel; neither is the exclusive territory of left or right. The Church, for two thousand years, has struggled to follow Jesus himself in expressing both the tender news of salvation and the stirring call to discipleship. The message of grace and salvation is preached not only by traditional pietists and revivalists but also by such communities as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints, where the homeless, the marginalized, and those who have been judged and excluded at other churches are welcomed into full fellowship. And the message of discipleship may come not only in the form of calls for activism and service, but also in expectations of zealous evangelism, “winning souls for Christ,” or extreme standards of conformity, obedience or sexual purity.
And when we read the Gospel, we find that neither message is as simple as it may seem. “Follow me,” says Jesus to Matthew—the tax collector who lines his pockets with money he has extorted from the poor and helpless. Is this amazing grace pure and simple, or is it a call to repent and change? Jesus eats with sinners—not just harmless social misfits or victims of prejudice, but corrupt people who have done truly destructive things, who should be the objects of contempt. He knows perfectly well that these are not nice people; he is not endorsing their behavior; they are sick, they are sinners, and he is here to offer them amazing grace. Then he says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” What an odd thing to say to the Pharisees, who weren’t justifying themselves by their observance of rituals, but were appealing to Jesus to respect the very ethical demands made by the Scripture Jesus is quoting.
Jesus turns ethical perfection inside out and twists it round into a kind of endless loop: the hardest work of ethical perfection, he suggests, may be that of letting go of our claim on God based on our efforts at ethical perfection. The most important part of God’s call to righteousness may be the part where we make our peace with God’s forgiveness of people who are not even trying to be righteous, or whose ideas of righteousness and virtue confound and offend us.
Every call from God is a call to repentance and action, and a call to acknowledge our helplessness and rely on God alone. Unless we deliberately and consciously listen to both voices, we will find ourselves in a constant pendulum swing back and forth—from the “establishment” church of the fifties, offering consolation and security to a generation hungry for a safe and predictable world in which to raise their children, to the “prophetic” church of the sixties, sounding a call to activism, telling us that if we are not a part of the solution we are a part of the problem, quick to condemn and almost forgetting about prayer and the need for healing and the terrible brokenness of even those who seem most competent and confident; from the therapeutic church, so eager to comfort the afflicted or to fly its flag of inclusiveness that it once again risks losing sight of the call to repent and believe—to a revived activism that naively exposes its members to danger or inflames further the divisions in an already polarized society and church.
Somebody in the sixties said that the job of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In the sixties we all thought we knew what that meant.
Somebody in the sixties said that the job of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In the sixties we all thought we knew what that meant. In the last few decades we have spent a lot of time and energy drawing and re-drawing boundaries between the afflicted whom God comforts and the comfortable whom God afflicts. Perhaps the truth is that in following Christ, we will always find both comfort for our afflictions—whatever they may be—and a call to let go of our comforts (especially our false and deceptive comforts, but often enough, some other comfort as well). And when we invite others to find comfort in the household of faith, we are also inviting them into the challenges, and afflictions, of discipleship.
© 2017 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.
Image: The Calling of Matthew, by Caravaggio, 1599