Step inside my rivalrous heart for a few moments. This won't take long. Any of this sound familiar?
My meditation:There is a marvelous chapter in Rachel Held Evans' endearing Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church in which she describes her ongoing struggle to reconcile herself with her roots in evangelical Christianity, having moved into a more diverse vision of Christianity, embracing the Episcopal tradition. She tells of working as a blogger to get the word out about the work that World Vision is doing for children around the world. Acutely sensitive in her religious heart to church prejudice against women and gay marriage, she rejoiced when, as reported in Wikipedia, "on March 24, 2014, the United States branch of World Vision announced that it would no longer bar employees from being in same-sex marriages." The rub came two days later, when "facing protests from donors and the larger evangelical community after the announcement, World Vision reversed the policy change…." It felt to her like "a punch in the gut," she reports, that "using needy kids as bargaining chips in the culture war had actually worked." (Kindle Locations 2929-2930). The chapter is entitled "Evangelical Acedia," that is, apathy or spiritual not-caring. She is at war with herself over her feelings, her (justifiable, in my opinion) outrage, and finds these actions of other Christians cause her to sink into deep spiritual depression and cynicism. She knows it's not a healthy path, because, she concludes, "We have to allow ourselves to feel the pain and joy and heartache of being in relationship with other human beings." Faith is a relationship with other people who are as crazy and fallible as we are. We have to embrace those differences, without allowing them to crush us or participate in ecclesial behaviors that offend our conscience, "even if it means taking a risk and losing it all." (ibid, Kindle Locations 2987-2988).
Who are these Catholics who think Pope Francis is a communist?
Why isn't the Catholic majority in Congress doing something about the death penalty, about guns, about war, about helping refugees and immigrants? Don't they have ears?
Why was I so relieved at the "retirement" of Pope Benedict? Why am I so angry about virtually everything about EWTN?
"Those idiots, those craven politicos, those religious fascists are teaching, healing, doing good works in your name. Stop them!"
"Whoever is not against us is with us."
Turning the jewel of contemporary gospel wisdom a bit, I was also reminded as I reflected on this Sunday's gospel (and the first reading from Numbers) of a story in Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, in which she speaks of encountering at a conference a Lutheran blogger who ridiculed her, calling her a heretic for being a female pastor, having gays in her church, etc. etc. He showed up at a talk she gave and introduced himself, which put her into a panic, evoking "fight or flight" mode, and causing her to say a prayer for deliverance. But, she said, they "proceeded to have a conversation about our need for God’s grace, forgiveness of sins and the Eucharist." He wept during their conversation. Twice. And they talk by phone every couple of months now. She still "can't stand the guy," she said, but the opportunity for reconciliation and the conversation itself "could only flow from the heart of a forgiving God."
One more story, this one from Malcolm Gladwell, in an article from New Yorker back in May of 2015. In discussing the tactics of the DEA and other covert operatives, Gladwell refers to a 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter, that offers some insight into the process of demonization of the other, idealizing the enemy as a master of his craft, and then imitating him:
Hofstadter observes, “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him,” and he goes on:People we disagree with aren't always our enemies, of course. The prophesying elders in Leviticus and those outside Jesus's immediate circle who were preaching and healing in his name were, from all we can tell, doing good. And yet, for those on the inside, like Miriam and Aaron, like the Twelve, the represented a challenge to their status as insiders, as people close to the heart of some kind of real, experienced "power," and therefore they present as rivals. Our instinct is to circle the wagons and bring out the guns.
The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.The paranoid crusader is not disdainful of his enemy. He is in awe of him. Hofstadter quotes that staunchest of cold warriors, Barry Goldwater: “I would suggest that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.”
But as Gladwell sees in the activities of black ops in the government, what we generally are doing in situations like this is fashioning projections of ourselves. We want the same power, recognition, freedom to act that our rivals have shown that they have. And here's the thing: they must want that because we have it, and there's not enough for all of us. Therefore, "Tell them to stop!" That counterfeit of light inside of us that wants to win, that wants to have the power, that wants to be known as the friends of the powerful god-who-is-really-an-idol, we project that upon the other, and make the announcement that God must put an end to their falsehood.
But the thing is, there is no rivalry in God. God works in all kinds of ways, through all kinds of means and people, and in ways that are unfathomable to us, completely unbound by our categories, expectations, or even by death. So Moses is able to say, "If only all people were prophets!" And Jesus is able to say, "Whoever is not against us is with us."
I'm only too willing to project my own vile pettiness onto, say, Pope Francis's detractors, or people who disrespect the "Nuns on a Bus" movement and the LCRW, or Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, or any of the Catholic Supreme Court justices who gave us the Citizens United ruling. What I need to do about that is not participate, I think, in the ad hominem attacks, not use the name calling and trolling tactics that I despise, and acknowledge the possibility that in a pluralistic world and a pluralistic church it's quite possible for us to come to different conclusions about the same data. I need to remember the political differences around the table of Jesus, where the zealot and the collaborator both found a place, and who both became saints.
Mostly, I want to be grateful for people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans and even Pope Francis who bravely work inside and outside of their traditions and continue to tell the truth even when other Christians who ought to take their side try to break their hearts and spirits with words of derision and attempts to marginalize them as irrelevant. That isn't my particular sin, because I agree with them. What I need to do is to try to act on what I believe, and not try to deride or marginalize others within the Christian fold who want to pray in Latin, or champion a celibate male priesthood, or demonstrate against gay marriage. By acting on my faith, speaking my truth without rancor, advocating for diversity with love, I will promote what the gospel of Jesus by my life, by persuasion, example, and enthusiasm and not by tactics that imitate those of my "enemies." That's what God does for me; shows me that, in spite of how I feel and how I act, I am not a rival or an enemy but a beloved if recalcitrant child, just like every other person who ever is, was, or will be. How did God do this? By coming into my world and teaching me to love my enemies, even my "frenemies," by saying, "whoever is not against us is with us."
It's not easy to opt out of rivalry in such a competitive society. But to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" means trying to do just that, to recognize, with the servant Christ, that there's nowhere worth going but down.
What we're singing Sunday:
Entrance: A Place at the Table (True)
Psalm 19 Your Words, O God (Cooney, OCP)
Presentation of Gifts: In Christ There Is No East or West (MCKEE, arr. Cooney)
Communion: We Are Many Parts (Haugen)
Recessional: Send Down the Fire (Haugen)