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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Prophets and martyrs for a new world

I've been wanting to write about this for some time, but haven't been able to find the words or even the right thing to say. Then, a couple of things happened over the weekend, and they may or may not help. I'm about to find out. First, I was listening to the gospel for the umpteenth time Saturday evening and, not unusually, something so obvious struck me that had never struck me before. It was those climactic words of Jesus that make the cosmos tremble and set into motion the events that led to his death: "Lazarus, come out!" I heard them differently from how I've heard them before, and I'll say more about them in a minute. 
Iconographer Robert Lentz O.F.M.'s 1994 icon of
Ss. Sergius and Bacchus

The second event was an article that appeared in the Washington Post today, that has begun to be shared among my many friends in the Catholic church music business and I'm sure will be read by thousands by the end of today, about our friend J. Michael McMahon, the longtime president of our guild, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. While the article is silent on the details of his departure from NPM last spring, it tells the details of his firing from his post as a parish music director in the Diocese of Arlington (Va.), an event that preceded his departure from NPM, as a result of his having married his partner of many years, Ray Valido. While one must be careful about jumping to conclusions in events that involve complex realities, relationships, and theological issues, I am certain that it is safe to say that there is a relationship, if not a causal one, between his marriage to his partner and his departure from the helm of NPM, an organization with a higher percentage of gay members, I'd go out on a limb to say, sans evidence, than, for instance, the AMA or ABA, if perhaps not of Catholic clergy. I may be wrong, but I think everybody in the organization knows that, and, I'm happy to say, almost nobody cares. 

I'm not an expert in any of this, but the gradual empowerment of the LGBT movement, especially since the 1969 Stonewall Riots, has been on a collision course with many mainstream religious denominations because of long-held beliefs about sexuality. While even "Caesar," that is, American civil and military culture, has begun to move its legal and cultural boundaries wider to embrace the science and widely attested experience of homosexual people as part of a diverse "norm" rather than as derogatively abnormal, the church, at least its Roman Catholic administrative body, continues to use arcane and unintelligible Thomistic language ("inherently disordered," for instance) to distance itself from gay persons and legitimize its sacramental proscription of persons who "act on their disordered impulses" (more philosophical jargon) no matter what science or personal witness may have to say about the lives of gay persons. 

Needless to say, this makes for difficult decisions for real human beings already burdened by the difficulties of self-discovery and acceptance in a culture that places an unnatural value on majorities. And let me just say, as a person of sixty-one years and a lot of experience with both clerical formation  (as a seminarian from 1965 to 1973, not to mention my years of work in the church and my many friends among the clergy) and people who make music for the liturgy (as an NPM member or associate since the early 1980s), that I grew up so completely naive about gay people and their struggles and subculture and closeted lives that I didn't even know that some of my closest friends and acquaintances were gay until, I'm ashamed to say it, decades after we met. That says more about me and the quality of my friendship, I suppose, than about anything else, but it leads me to wonder about other peoples' experience. I mean, if you love somebody, and you learn they happen to be gay, how on earth, why on earth, could you stop loving them? My first instinct was not that they were wrong about something, but that I was wrong about something. I think, for a change, my instinct was right. 

mar·tyr  (märtr) n.

2. One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle. (Free online dictionary)

proph•et    1.  a person who speaks for God or a deity, or by divine inspiration.

Those are dictionary definitions of "prophet" and "martyr," but I prefer a more theological and radical use of the words. In scripture, a prophet does, in fact, "speak" for God, and since scripture is a book, it appears to be with words. But prophets often "speak" through prophetic actions, even symbolic acts and pantomimes, in order to get a message across that something is dreadfully wrong with the status quo and needs to be changed. The prophet Hosea, for instance, marries a prostitute and loves her as a sign of God's enduring love for Israel in spite of Israel's infidelities. The book of Jeremiah is full of prophetic puzzles and street theater meant to awaken the city to its evils. Jesus himself used similar actions: the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, a week before Passover when the legions of Pilate from Caesarea Maritima would be making a similar procession on horseback in full Roman regalia, was meant to conjure to those gathered a scene from the prophet Zephaniah, in which a peaceful king rides into the city riding on a beast of burden.

Similarly, a "martyr" in the Christian church is a witness to Jesus Christ, to the truth of him which surpasses and transcends all other truths. It is this witness that is the cause of the sacrifice or suffering that the martyr endures. The witness makes the martyr as surely as the suffering that is the martyr's lot. In fact, the word martyr itself is from a Greek word that means "witness."

Exhibit A in the prophet and martyr department: I have a friend who is a pastoral musician with a young family, who decided to leave his job as a liturgist musician at a Catholic university, relocate to another city, and begin a doctoral program in choral music. He applied for a scholarship from a national association in his field, which he won. Though certainly in need of the money offered by the organization, he refused the scholarship money offered, in solidarity with the (perceived, at least) injustice to Mike McMahon, the musician who was the subject of the article mentioned above. Others have left church jobs in anger over the incident, shaken the dust from their feet, and canceled their membership in the organization.

Mike McMahon, my friend the doctoral candidate, and the others of whom I'm thinking of today would hardly think of themselves as prophets and martyrs, but I feel in my heart that that is what they are. They are my colleagues in church ministry who have taken a public stand as or for members of the LGBT community, advocating for equality, and transparent equality, in the Christian church (including, let me just say it, the Catholic church) in matters related to employment, membership, and marriage. They want to be known as Christians, not gay Christians. They are musicians, not gay musicians.

Before I say the rest of what I want to say, I want to say categorically that I stand with them. I believe that they are on the right side of history, and that those who quote chapter and verse and canon are on the wrong side of history, and that discrimination of all kinds, inside and outside of the church, that is based on sexual preference will go the way of slavery, geocentrism, heliocentrism, and gender discrimination, and not in the long term, either. 

The tough part about being a prophet, though, is that you cannot expect to be welcomed with open arms. The very nature of prophetic action is that is goes against the current of culture and government because it is on the side of God, whose inclusive and agapic nature is the opposite of those human endeavors. Prophetic action makes martyrs. There is no other option. The more uncompromising, outspoken, and radical the prophetic action, the more swiftly and decisively the opposing forces sweep in with cross and nails, sniper's rifles, warrants, summonses, and pink slips.

The passion story in which we are immersed at this time of year tells all of these truths without equivocation. The good guys, the religious leaders of Jesus's time, wanted to keep the peace in a city and culture that was a tinderbox of unrest and revolution. In less than half a century from the time of Jesus, their greatest fear came to pass, and when nationalists rose up against Roman rule, Rome responded by leveling the temple and the city of Jerusalem at the cost of perhaps a million lives. They perceived Jesus as a threat to them, and they probably convinced the Roman governor that he represented a threat to the pax Romana as well. They may have rejected or misunderstood what Jesus had to say, and he was certainly not advocating any kind of violent revolution, but his message was pretty clear: what passed for "peace" in the empire of Caesar was a counterfeit, and a different kingdom was available by a turn toward the Father, and thus, one another, in love. There was still no mistaking his intention in an empire where god and emperor were the same person: he was guilty of both blasphemy and sedition.

Gradually, though, as more and more of us become convinced that the prophets are right and the status quo is the problem, we can insist that the repercussions stop and that structures be rethought. In church time, this is probably a matter of decades rather than years, down a bit from what used to be centuries (it took three and a half centuries to rehabilitate Galileo). What can we do in the meantime?

I think that many in the institutional church, the magisterial church, are beginning to sense the disconnect between gospel principles and the way LGBT people are treated, on better days, as second-class citizens of the reign of God. Somehow, we have lost sight of the fact that all of us are sinners, that all of us are colluding with Caesar and mammon in violence and oppression of other people as well as in the exploitation of creation for the profit and comfort of a few. Maybe that kind of sin just seems too big for us to tackle, so we focus on what we perceive to be, with microscopes formed by pre-scientific views of Scripture and philosophy, psychology, and sociology, the "sin" of minorities that we haven't really tried to understand.

We who believe in Christ need to agitate with love, and not venom. We need to live in solidarity with those who are hurt and cast aside by the institutions that are currently unable to negotiate that passage from law to love. We need to keep avenues of dialogue open and build consensus, as slowly as that happens, and employ our best powers of persuasion and exhortation, relying on the truth of the gospel and faith in the Holy Spirit to bring the truth forward. What we can't do is expect change immediately, or make demands on our timetable. Anything that engenders further division or hate can't be our way. In reductionist language, we can give our lives away, but not take life. We can lay down our lives, but not maim or kill. When the ultimate goal of Christ is "that all may be one," we cannot continue to use the strategies of Caesar that employ various kinds of force to accomplish that goal, nor can we accomplish unity by breaking away into a kind of pre-selected homogeneity. 

A few years ago, I got a letter from a federal detention facility in California from a woman named Susan Crane, asking for music for a song of mine entitled "Trumpet in the Morning" that she wanted to use in prayer while in prison. After a couple of rounds of having lost the music in the processes of the prison's mail filtering, I was finally successful in getting the music through to her. I didn't know who she was when she wrote to me, but discovered she was a member of Plowshares, a Christian group of peace activists including the late Philip Berrigan who have for about thirty years made prophetic actions against government nuclear installations around the United States. They do peaceful prophetic theater, symbolic actions against stunningly powerful weaponry, and they expect to have their day in court, and go to prison. Another prophet and martyr, Sister Megan Rice, a sister in her 80s, was sentenced recently to three years in prison for breaking into a weapons-grade uranium storage facility in Tennessee and splashing the walls with human blood. She carried the blood in baby bottles to symbolize the danger to children and human life by nuclear weapons. When Archbishop Hunthausen withheld a portion of his income taxes to protest the deployment of Trident missiles from his see, he became not only the enemy of the Reagan administration, he became the target of retribution from within the American episcopacy, the very place from which he should have encountered solidarity. Rejection and retribution are part of the prophet's calling. This explains why so few of us really want to take it up. The list of scriptural objections to the calling runs the gamut: I'm a stutterer, I'm too young, all I know about is growing trees, I'm a sinful man. Jonah, for one, makes a run for it.

This past weekend, to (finally?) put some scriptural and personal context to all this, it struck me why perhaps the raising of Lazarus put the wheels in motion that ended on Calvary. The gospel story that we heard Sunday of the raising of Lazarus, in chapter 11 of John, ends at verse 45. But look what happens in the next seven verses.
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said,
“What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs.
If we leave him alone, all will believe in him,
and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.”
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them,
“You know nothing,
nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year,
he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation,
and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
So from that day on they planned to kill him.
In John, at least, the raising of Lazarus set in motion the wheels of church and state that led to the death of Jesus. And my mind went to those words Jesus had spoken at the tomb: Lazarus, come out!

I heard those words spoken to my friends for thirty years who have left the priesthood or their church work, or were forced out of them, because of their inability to cooperate any longer with the code of silence that made them deny the way God made them. They heard the call of Jesus "Come out!", and they began to live in the light of freedom even if and when for a time it meant not knowing what the meaning of their training and education might be, where even their next meal might come from. But they responded to the voice of Jesus, and their friends untied them, and they were free.

I heard those words spoken to all LGBT Christians and Catholics, including Catholic priests, who are inhibited from living full lives because of fear of being known for who they are. I heard those words spoken to the institutional church, trapped in the death of its own aged moral theology and finding itself unable to extricate itself from its bonds. Lazarus, come out! That death has no power over you. Come out, and begin to live in the freedom of the children of God. Learn the meaning of "It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice," and live in the covenant of agape to which you are called.

And mostly, I heard those words spoken to me, formed by many of the same thoughts and people that formed the institution, but blessed with friends and teachers who have taught me to listen with an open heart to all those who are seeking the truth. Lazarus, come out! Don't be afraid to live in the light, don't be afraid to live at all. No one in the land of the living has power over life and death but the one who is calling you out of the grave of your fear and indecision, the one who is resurrection and true life. Lazarus, come out! Advocate without prejudice, advocate without violence, vitriol, and blame, advocate without abandoning the heart of the mission, which is unity among us, peace with justice among all the children of God, friend and enemy alike.

To all of you who have shown me the way with your patient love and faith willing to suffer rather than to keep living a lie, thank you for being the voice that says, Lazarus, come out! Thank you for showing me, and all of us, that the only path to the resurrection goes through the cross.