Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Moment of Temptation: A Homily

"The scripture says, 'No one who believes in him will be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" Amen. (Romans 10:11-13)

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Notice that there is no qualifying clause here: “except for immigrants, or poor people, or rich people, or . . . gay and lesbian people.” St. Paul declares that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (which was the big cultural divide in St. Paul’s time).

This affirmation comes in the middle of a long and anguished argument in which St. Paul struggles to reconcile his Jewish identity with his Christian commitment. If the Church is the new thing that God is bringing into being, does that mean that God’s promises to Israel are void? Can Jew and Gentile live together in the Church, and what about those Jews (or Gentiles, for that matter) who don’t want to join? Paul goes back and forth through three chapters of his letter to the Romans before concluding that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29) In the final analysis, the mystery of salvation in Christ embraces Jew and Gentile; including even those who do not call on the name the Lord: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (Romans 11:32)

In other words, Paul recognizes that we are all sinners in need of grace, none better or worse than the next. Having realized this, Paul lets go of his need to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” He decides to leave that up to God, confident that God’s mercy is greater than our sin, however unsearchable God’s judgments and inscrutable God’s ways may be.

Today, we find ourselves trying to reconcile a cultural divide in the Church equal in intensity to that between Jew and Gentile: the divide between straight and gay. The truth is that we aren’t doing a very good job of it. The Church today is like Paul and the Roman churches, wrestling with whom to include and whom to exclude. Some in our Church are saying that salvation is of straight people, and that unless gay people renounce their identity they (and their straight allies) are cut off from the promises of God. I hear echoes of the first century debates about whether Jews or Gentiles must renounce their respective identities in order to become Christians. The difference is that back then the debate cut both ways; today it cuts one way – toward excluding folks like you and me.

The Good News is that this preoccupation with inclusion and exclusion is part of the old creation that is passing away. In Christ, a new creation is emerging that embraces all in the mystery of God’s self-giving love. Part of the wonder of this new creation is that it doesn’t require us to renounce our identity as Jew or Gentile, black or white, gay or straight. Nothing is lost in the mystery of God’s embrace. What in the old creation served as the basis for division and domination, becomes in the new creation the mosaic of a reconciled humanity spread over the face of a wildly diverse and renewed earth.

In the midst of the Church’s current preoccupation with the inclusion or exclusion of gay and lesbian people, our bishop, Marc, has reminded us of this truth. “The inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the Church,” writes Marc, “is a matter of justice: as we are all part of the world, and the kindom of God is like a net laid over that same world. All on the earth are connected by this net, whether perceived or not. Actions of justice and injustice reverberate throughout the whole, promoting either integrity, remembering, and shalom, or diabolic isolation. Understood as expressed above, our task in the Church is not actually to include or exclude anyone, but to show forth an intrinsic co-inherence that simply is, created and sustained by God.” (A response to the primates' communique, Shrove Tuesday 2007)

The images of the old creation and the new creation are simply ways of expressing what Bishop Marc describes as illusion and reality. Those who call upon the Episcopal Church to sacrifice the dignity of gay and lesbian people for the sake of the Anglican Communion are under the illusion that our unity can somehow be preserved on the basis of injustice. They are in denial of reality on two counts:

  • The reality of Communion as intrinsic and God given; a gift and not something we can or need to create.
  • The reality that injustice will only serve to obscure our connectedness and thereby harm the whole creation in ways we can not anticipate or understand fully.

In a way, I feel sorry for who labor under such illusions, so preoccupied with inclusion and exclusion. They believe they can bring about the kindom of God through injustice. In fact, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine, has gone so far as to implore us to accept a season of fasting from justice for gay and lesbian people for the sake of the Anglican Communion, when the truth is that the kindom of God is already breaking through the illusions of the old creation for those who have eyes to see.

Thus, we will have a Communion regardless of what the Anglican Primates, or our House of Bishops, or any other human authority decides. It may not be the Anglican Communion, the Communion we have struggled to create, or think we deserve; it can not be a Communion for which we have sacrificed others; we will have the Communion that God is giving us. There is no other, and it is already among us.

On the other hand, we must recognize that injustice and its consequences have their own reality. We are deeply affected by the words and actions of others, precisely because of the reality of Communion that underlies and envelopes and connects all of us. As Dr. King declared in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And so, we who are gay and lesbian members of the Episcopal Church, and the many straight allies who love and support us, find ourselves at a moment in the life of the Church fraught with temptation. There is, of course, the temptation to enact our legitimate feelings of hurt and anger in ways that play into the very illusions that are the cause of our pain. We can deny the reality of Communion, and respond in kind to injustice with retaliation and reverse scapegoating. Ultimately, this is the way of death.

There is also the temptation of despair, of internalizing our anger and hurt in ways that reveal we have accepted the lies that have been told by those who hold us in contempt. Despair says, “I’m getting what I deserve, and I can’t expect any better.” In the grip of despair, we metaphorically and all too often literally and tragically, give ourselves over to death so that others can not hurt us anymore.

Both of these responses remain in the grip of illusion, of the old creation. Both are bound up with the idea that God desires sacrifice: either of one’s self or of others. It is the very old and very false notion that God is placated by sacrifice. It is the last and most serious of the temptations that Jesus faced in today’s Gospel lesson.

Mark my words: it is not the temptations of the body for food or sex; it is not the temptations of the ego for power and status; it is the temptations of the spirit for righteous sacrifice that are the most dangerous. When the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and invites him to throw himself down, he is trying to ensnare Jesus in the belief that sacrifice precedes mercy. “Throw yourself down,” says the evil one, “and then God will vindicate you.” To which Jesus wisely replies, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Here, Jesus teaches us to reject the idea of sacrifice as a means to secure God’s mercy. The kindom of God is already cast over the earth like a net, connecting us all in God’s compassionate embrace. Engaging in some dramatic act of sacrifice, either of ourselves or of others, is both unnecessary and destructive. In fact, it is an act of faithlessness. We do not need to put God to the test in this way.

The irony here, of course, is that Jesus will eventually offer himself in an act of sacrificial love; not, however, in order to obtain God’s mercy for himself or others. Rather, as one who had already completely accepted and shared God’s love, Jesus chose to offer his life in solidarity with the victims of exclusion and as a sign of resistance to the purveyors of sacrifice. It is mercy which precedes sacrifice, and not the other way around.

My sisters and brothers, the gifts and calling of God to us are irrevocable. We do not need to sacrifice ourselves, alone or with others, for the sake of the Communion because it is already ours as God’s free gift. Our response to calls for sacrifice must be a clear refusal to embrace it as a means to curry divine or human favor. We need not, must not, put God to the test.

That does not mean that we will not be required to make sacrifices in the days ahead. Remember, we are in Lent, and the way of the Cross lies very close at hand. But whatever sacrifices we make must be rooted in a refusal to accept injustice. Anything else is a capitulation to the temptation of the evil one, make no mistake.

Our Presiding Bishop has called for a season of fasting this Lent, fasting from justice for gay and lesbian people. Contrary to her patronizing and heterodox request, the only fast God requires us to accept is that announced by the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

Our response must be a clear and honest declaration that we can not in good conscience refuse the gifts of gay and lesbian people for any order of ministry, laity, bishops, priests or deacons, and that we must recognize, pastorally and sacramentally, God’s blessing on the holy lives led by lesbian and gay couples. If we must make sacrifices for the sake of justice in this way, even at the cost of our standing in the Anglican Communion, then so be it. Our lives, our vocations, and our relationships are not negotiable.

Communion with God is not ours to give, and neither can it be taken from us. It just is. The only decision we must make is whether or not we will accept the mercy we have been shown by an outrageously loving God. Then – and only then – if we must make sacrifices, let them be offered in solidarity with victims as a sign of that mercy; not for the making of new victims. Let us offer up the sacrifice of heterosexual privilege; not the sacrifice of gay and lesbian people to preserve it. This is our hour to witness to the good news that there is no distinction between gay and straight; “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’" Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2007

All Eyes Now Turn to the House of Bishops

The Anglican Primates have finally released an official statement at the conclusion of their meeting in Tanzania, along with a set of recommendations related to "Windsor compliance" and diocesan border crossings.

The statement itself is largely taken up with a description of the current impasse in the Communion. Not much new light shed there.

The recommendations are the heart of the matter. They boil down to this:

1. A VERY cumbersome process to resolve diocesan border crossing and provide alternative episcopal/primatial oversight. It may work if people really want it to do so. We shall see.

2. A request to our House of Bishops to declare unequivocally that no more partnered lesbian or gay priests will become bishops and to issue a "cease and desist" order on the authorization of rites for blessing same-sex couples. The HOB must respond by September.

So, the question for our bishops is this: do you expect us to go back in the closet or not? What price are you willing to pay if the answer is "no"?

And the question for those of us who are gay or lesbian, and our allies, is this: what price are we willing to pay if the bishops' answer is "yes"?

The lie has been exposed: this whole impasse has been about sex all along. And the sole focus on the Episcopal Church reveals how much it has been driven by U.S. conservatives. I must admire their tenacity, even as I deplore their methods and their purpose.

"Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen." (BCP, p. 99)

An Anglican Covenant?

The Report of the Covenant Design Group has been published, along with a draft Anglican Covenant. Based on an initial reading of the text, there isn't much new here; the authors' explicitly eschew the new. There is one exception: what is new here is the role of the Primates in the life of the Communion, which points to a tension within the document regarding authority in the life of the Church. But first, a couple of preliminary comments.

1. This is a DRAFT. In fact, the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council, as well as the Primates Meeting, have reviewed the draft and already suggested changes. In a sense, the document we have is of little more than historic interest. We don't need to lose any sleep over it. Even so, it gives a sense of things to come and the issues with which we must wrestle.

2. There is a prior question as to the necessity of an Anglican Covenant at all. The only thing it gives us that we do not already possess as a Communion is a central authority that can discipline Provinces. Do we really want such an authority? Do we want to become a global Anglican Church rather than a global Communion of Anglican Churches? What do we gain and what do we lose? It seems to me that the main failing of this document is its failure to address this prior question.

Now, some comments on the text itself.

Section 2 (5) will probably be a bit controversial in affirming "that, led by the Holy Spirit, it [the Anglican Communion and its member Provinces] has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons": the important distinction here is between "truth" and witnessing to it. So long as these historic documents are not identified with the truth itself, but simply (not merely) witness to it, I can accept such a statement. But, again, don't we already affirm as much?

Section 3 (3) points out that biblical interpretation should be handled "primarily [not exclusively] through the teaching and initiative of bishops and synods" (emphasis added). This is consistent with the the Design Group Report's recognition that any Covenant must be approved in accordance with the Constitutional processes of the several Provinces. Happily, there is room here for the voices of the other orders of ministry gathered for synodical meetings; at least, in theory.

This brings us to what it seems to me is the central tension in this draft document: a tension between two different models of ecclesiastical authority. While the document acknowledges the authority of bishops and synods consistent with Provincial polity, it goes on in sections 5 and 6 to define the role of the Instruments of Unity in ways that enlarge the authority of the Primates Meeting while diminishing the role of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The former "works in full collaboration in doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications," while the later "co-ordinates aspects of international Anglican ecumenical and mission work."

Thus, while affirming the role of bishops and synods at the Provincial level, on the Communion-wide level it is bishops (Primates) who exercise real authority while the ACC becomes a vehicle for bureaucratic administration rather than a policy making body. At this level of the life of the Communion, it is really all about the Primates.

This becomes even more clear in section 6, where the Primates Meeting becomes the final arbiter of who is and isn't part of the Anglican Communion. Oh, the Primates will seek a common mind "with the other instruments and their councils," but "finally, on this basis, the Primates will offer guidance and direction."

If we are going to have a global Anglican Church, rather than a Communion of Anglican Churches, then why not have the ACC be the final arbiter, as it is the only representative body within the Communion that includes laity, clergy, and bishops? If, as Archbishop Williams noted in a recent sermon that "God is present when bishops are silent," perhaps this is so as to allow other voices to be heard.

I'm sure that other voices will be heard at General Convention in 2009, as well as in other synodical meetings around the Anglican Communion. The Covenant process has only just begun.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Counting the Cost of Communion

Thus far, the only substantive communication from the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Tanzania has been the release of the Report of the Communion Sub-Group (Report). Prepared by four members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council, the report examines the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. The Report has elicited a good deal of commentary already – from everyone except the Primates themselves. Presumably, we will learn of their response in the final communiqué of their meeting; quite possibly as part of the reception of the Anglican Covenant process that they also are considering. The “Windsor Process” will now morph into the “Covenant Process.”

This is mostly good news for the Anglican Communion. As long as mutual listening and conversation continue, the opportunity for the renewal and strengthening of the bonds of affection between and within the constituent Provinces of the Communion remains. This is no small thing. It doesn’t mean schism will be avoided: greater familiarity may lead to a greater perception of how wide the differences between us really are. The question remains as to how we will respond to those differences.

Of concern to gay and lesbian Anglicans is the extent to which reconciliation within the Anglican Communion will come at the expense of our full inclusion. One time honored, but not very Christian, way to respond to difference is to scapegoat one particular group within the community as the bearers of the burden of difference, and then sacrifice that group as the means of creating unity over-and-against the excluded other. This was the approach taken at the 75th General Convention with the passage of Resolution B033, barring gay and lesbian clergy from election to the episcopacy.

If any doubt remained about the intent of that resolution, the Report of the Communion Sub-Group has clarified the matter and inscribed its force ever more deeply into our common life. We now have a Communion-wide body declaring that B033 complies with the recommendation of the Windsor Report, and the request of the Primates, for a moratorium on the consecration of partnered gay or lesbian clergy. This moratorium is open-ended: until such time as there is a “new consensus” in the Anglican Communion. Perhaps the proposed Anglican Covenant will illuminate just how such a consensus is to be determined.

Of course, the effect of B033 preceded this report. With the exception of the Diocese of Newark, whose nomination process was very far along before the passage of B033, no diocese has subsequently nominated, much less elected, a partnered gay or lesbian cleric as bishop. In the case of Newark, it would have been quite unfair to change the rules at the eleventh hour of the nomination process. As it was, it can not be denied that B033 had a severe dampening effect on the candidacy of the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe there.

What is more, since the passage of B033 a number of highly qualified gay and lesbian clergy have simply refused to allow their names to be put forward for nomination. The cost of doing so is simply too high. Participation in an election process takes a great deal of time and energy, and it is unfair to a nominee and to a diocese to include someone on a slate of episcopal candidates who really has no hope of being elected or confirmed. With the acceptance of the Report of the Communion Sub-Group by the Primates, the chilling effect of B033 will become a deep freeze. It will then be argued that the sacrifice has been worth it. And it may be true that it has been successful if “success” is defined as preserving the unity of the Anglican Communion at any cost.

Of even more concern to me is the Report’s discussion of public Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions. The Report notes the variety of practice within the Episcopal Church, noting that authorization of such rites “would go against the standard of teaching to which the Communion as a whole has indicated that it is bound. We do not see how bishops who continue to act in a way which diverges from the common life of the Communion can be fully incorporated into its ongoing life. This is therefore a question which needs to be addressed urgently by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.”

With this statement, the Report throws down the gauntlet: banning the blessing of same-sex unions becomes the price of admission to the Lambeth Conference of Bishops. Does the Archbishop of Canterbury intend to enforce this criterion? How will he do so? Will some kind of “two-tier membership” structure within the Anglican Communion be part of the Anglican Covenant proposal, based not on Provincial decisions but those of individual dioceses? Sounds like a canon lawyer’s nightmare to me.

More likely, the Primates will look to our House of Bishops to collectively impose a real moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions. Given the support of the vast majority of the bishops of the Episcopal Church for B033 (based in no small part on a previous threat to exclude them from the Lambeth Conference) I am not hopeful that our House of Bishops will have the courage to resist this threat as a body. What individual bishops may do remains to be seen. Either way, our canon lawyers will be employed well for the foreseeable future (not to mention the issue of diocesan boundary violations, to which the Report barely alludes).

Of course, resistance to the scapegoating mechanism, which is a Gospel imperative, does not rest with bishops alone. In our polity, the General Convention will have to take up these matters in 2009. We then will see if the House of Deputies has more backbone than in 2006 when it comes to resisting the abuse of episcopal authority.

The truth is that if our House of Bishops refuses to consent to gay or lesbian bishops-elect, and bishops refuse to authorize rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, there is little recourse for clergy and laity until the next episcopal election. This was a hard lesson learned in the Diocese of California, whose Diocesan Convention has been calling for the authorization of such rites for twenty-five years. In the meantime, all of us who care about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Church, whatever our order of ministry, must pray and discern how best to respond to events as they unfold. We will need to carefully ponder the need for ecclesiastical disobedience and be ready to bear the cost.

My hope is that a better way will be found, which respects the diverse contexts in which the Anglican Communion is situated around the world. Rather than impose a single rule, it would be better to allow for a variety of practices that can better inform our common life over time. How else can the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people be heard respectfully? The “local option” enshrined in the resolution of the 74th General Convention, which “recognized that local faith communities within its common life were exploring and experiencing such liturgies [blessing same-sex unions],” while messy and “dissonant,” remains the middle way forward for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Much more will be revealed. While there is no need to be anxious, we do need to be vigilant, prayerful, and attentive to the process as it unfolds. We will also need to have the courage of our convictions, for only on that basis can we have a Communion worth the cost of sacrifices freely offered, rather than one based on sacrifices imposed by one part of the Body on another. Reconciliation by amputation is not the way to preserve the Body of Christ whole for the sake of the healing of the world. There is a more excellent way.

Update: be sure to read Bishop Marc Andrus' somewhat more positive assessment of the Report.

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Do not be afraid"

I've been following the Anglican Primates' meeting a bit while visiting my folks in Indiana. Having been on vacation for more than two weeks, I'm feeling a bit disconnected from all the drama playing out over what seems to me to be a non-event thus far. I take this to be a sign of health on my part.

Despite all the dire predictions, what I gather thus far is that:

1. Our Presiding Bishop has been seated without too much fuss as the duly elected Primate of our Church.

2. The report on the TEC's response to the Windsor Report gave us at least a "B" grade with a "needs improvement" on the blessing of same-sex unions. While I don't think we should be scoring points for banning gay and lesbian priests from the episcopacy, and while I hope we don't backtrack on GC2003's support for "local option" with respect to blessing same-sex unions, there is nothing here on a first reading to cause grave concern. It is just one more step in the reception of the Windsor Report, which is commendatory rather than binding.

3. Seven Primates (out of 36 present) refused to share Holy Communion at the same table with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. One report mentions that two others attended the service but didn't communicate. At the Dromantine Primates' meeting, 14 Primates refused to celebrate Holy Communion with Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. Seems to me we are making progress.

I continue to pray for all the Primates gathered this week. Much remains to be decided, but I'm hopeful. Archbishop Rowan Williams appears to be holding the space well, keeping a somewhat fragile Communion in play while refusing to capitulate to bullies afraid of getting cooties if they play with girls - or heretics - or sinners - or . . . (fill in the blank).

Who knows what the final outcome will be. Thankfully, it isn't under our control. Ultimately, it is in God's hands.

So, let our motto be that of the angels: "Do not be afraid."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day from the Heartland

Luckily, there were still tables available, but my husband demurred. We will be eating in tonight despite the temptation. I'm writing from Crown Point, IN, about one hour southeast of Chicago, where it has been snowing. And snowing. And snowing.

And it's really COLD.

Even so, I've been enjoying the beauty of w
inter wonderland in the part of the country where I was born and raised. We even managed to get out today for a little bit of sledding. My son, Nehemiah, has never in his whole life seen this much snow.

"Come on Pop, let's go again!"

Thursday, February 8, 2007

We will have a Communion

Much has been written in anticipation of the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Tanzania next week. The bloggers are having a field day, complete with prognostications, conspiracies, and plots on the left, center, and right. Will Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori be asked to leave the meeting? If not, will Archbishop Peter Akinola lead a procession of Global South Primates out of the meeting? Is this the end of the Anglican Communion?


But why should we be anxious about these matters? They are not the central concerns of our faith. They are very peripheral. The Church as the Body of Christ is always a broken (and breaking) Body, even as it is always a resurrected (and resurrecting) Body. Grief and joy are strangely mixed as we travel the Way of Jesus, but the joy overshadows the grief and gives it its shape. We grieve the potential loss of the Anglican Communion, because we recognize the joy of our common life in Christ and wish for all to share in it forever.

And so they will.

We may lose the Anglican Communion. It may be that the Anglican Communion is the life we must lose in order to gain it. To paraphrase Parker Palmer, they life we are living may not be the Life that wants to live in us. The Anglican Communion may not be the Communion that Christ wants to share with us. We shall see.

Here, I am reminded of the words that Bishop Marc Andrus wrote shortly after the 2006 General Convention.

If our commitment is to the relief of global human suffering, locally and globally enacted, we will have a communion. When we baptize and confirm it is into the Body of Christ, not into the Episcopal Church. The remembering of this may help us recognize a communion that may be given to us by our common commitment to the reconciling work of Christ in the world; that is, those who are also engaged in this ministry, or who recognize in it the traits of Christ’s ministry, will recognize us as brothers and sisters. We will have surprises in this, and there will be tears of repentance as all see what could have been but for our self-imposed barriers, and laughter at the gift of shared life.
- Bishop Marc Andrus, "Communion and the Particular"

We will have a Communion. It may not be the Communion we want or think we deserve or work tirelessly to create. It will be the Communion we are being given by a gracious God who loves us and desires to share his life with us in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Communion is a gift, not an achievement.

So, relax. Say your prayers. And, then, let go. We will have a Communion.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Innocence is a kind of insanity: Graham Greene and Iraq

Toward the end of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel, The Quiet American, the two main characters meet in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of a Saigon public square that has left women and children dead. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering the French occupation of Vietnam, suddenly realizes that Alden Pyle, an American intelligence operative, is supplying General Thé (a Vietnamese insurgent) with the weapons used in the bombing. Pyle believes the U.S. is supporting an anti-colonialist and anti-Communist “Third Force” in Vietnam. The violence is justified in the name of bringing democracy to Vietnam.

Standing amidst the wreckage, Fowler confronts Pyle.

I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around. I said, ‘This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children – it’s the shopping hour. Why choose that of all hours?’

He said weakly, ‘There was to have been a parade.’

‘And you hoped to catch a few colonels. But the parade was cancelled yesterday, Pyle.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t know!’ I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain. ‘You ought to be better informed.’

‘I was out of town,’ he said, looking down at his shoes. ‘They should have called it off.’

‘And missed the fun?’ I asked him. ‘Do you expect General Thé to lose his demonstration? This is better than a parade. Women and children are news, and soldiers aren’t, in a war. This will hit the world’s Press. You’ve put General Thé on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe . . .’

. . . He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

He said, ‘Thé wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists . . .’

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance . . . A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

- The Quiet American, Penguin Books edition, pp. 162-163

Different war. Same question. Alden Pyle personifies every U.S. administration from Eisenhower to George W. Bush that engaged in nation building based on a diabolical combination of good intentions and ignorance. The myth of U.S. innocence is indeed a form of insanity that is leaving thousands dead and millions homeless as refugees flee Iraq, while those remaining descend into the abyss of civil war.

Whatever the reasons for going into Iraq, and whatever the reasons for staying or leaving, let us not for one minute delude ourselves into thinking this war is based on anything but U.S. self-interest. We are not liberators. We are fools who had the hubris to believe we could destroy a thousands year-old culture shaped by a painful history of colonialism and remake it in our image. We have made an idol of our own imperial ambitions, and painted it with a thin veneer of benevolent nation building. Like the company commander in Vietnam who famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” we find ourselves repeating history in Iraq.

Where is our Graham Greene today?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Thinking Myself "Other"

I’ve been reflecting recently about race, identity, and power, prompted in part by an incident that reminded me just how much I take white privilege for granted.

While on vacation from my normal round of pastoral responsibilities, I attended the monthly family program at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County. It was a beautiful day, a thoughtful dharma talk, and a great opportunity for our eight-year old son to play in the great outdoors with friends. On this particular day, those friends included mixed race Caucasian/Latino, Caucasian, and African-American kids, some of whose parents are straight and some of whom are gay or lesbian.

As a mixed race family (my husband and I are white, our son is African-American), we try to be intentional about participating in communities that reflect the diversity of our family. We want our son to experience the dignity and worth of other people of color in the social networks of which we are a part. This has guided our choice of the neighborhood in which we live, schools, the friendships we cultivate, and the churches we attend (unfortunately, probably the least diverse community in terms of race).

So, I was somewhat taken aback when, after our visit to Green Gulch, we stopped at a fast food restaurant for lunch on the way home. It was surprisingly busy for Super Bowl Sunday, and I was glad to find a table while the rest of my family waited for our order. When they brought the food over, I overheard my husband and son talking about eating in the car or outside on the sidewalk instead. I was a little put out by the idea, and asked why. My husband said, “I’ll explain later.”

While eating our lunch outside on the sidewalk, he explained that our son was uncomfortable being the only “brown skinned” person in the restaurant. I hadn’t even noticed. My son remarked that it was embarrassing to him. My immediate response was, “But you are beautiful!” Clearly, though, the issue wasn’t that he felt ashamed of how he looked, but rather self-conscious about his being “other.” We praised him for sharing his feelings with us, assured him of his value, and promised that we would be careful about keeping our family safe.

In retrospect, I thought about situations where I was the only (out) gay person in a social setting, and how uncomfortable that could be. Being different from others necessarily places one in a position of vulnerability. We can not control how others respond to our difference, and we know that the responses are all too often negative.

And yet, our situations are by no means completely analogous. I was a young adult before I came out and began to deal directly with heterosexism, while my son, unable to “pass,” has had to deal with racism his whole life. My position as a mature white male professional gives me enormous social power that serves to mitigate the heterosexism I experience. The personal and social resources at my disposal are far greater than those of my son as a black male child. He depends mightily upon the protection of his parents, as do all children, but especially in light of the stigma associated with race and sexual orientation in our culture.

I’m conscious, too, that our son benefits to some extent from the halo of white, male, and class privilege that surrounds his dads. We are able to afford him opportunities in life that he might well have missed had we not adopted him. And yet I’m also very aware of our limitations when it comes to helping our son with one of the central challenges he will face in life: growing up black in a racist society. It reminds me of the very real limitations of my own parents as I struggled to grow up into a mature gay male identity.

I’m quite certain that if I were black, I would have noticed the absence of other black people in the restaurant. While it might not have stopped me from eating there, it would have sensitized me to the possibility that my son might be uncomfortable, and made me alert to check-in with him; and, of course, he would not have been alone in his racial “otherness.” Part of the challenge of parenting for me is to empathically think myself “black” in situations where I take white privilege for granted.

(If I had a daughter, would I not need to learn to empathically think myself “female?” As a Christian, do I not need to empathically think myself “other” if I am to be compassionate as God is compassionate?)

I’m proud of my son for being able to articulate his feelings and ask for help. I’m humbled by his maturity, considering how confused I can be about my feelings and how reticent I am to ask for help at times. I’m reassured that he is secure enough in our love, and God’s love for him, that he can speak up for himself and trust that we will support him.

My hope for my son, and for all children, is that they grow up feeling confident of their dignity and worth as children of God, comfortable with the diverse humanity created in the image of God, and committed to the creation of a world that reflects the justice and mercy of God. In this, my light is Jesus, who became “other” for our sake, revealing the insanity and cruelty of our divisions and teaching us that “otherness” is a gift to be received rather than something to be feared.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Theology of Desire

One of my parishioners recently pointed out this essay by the Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley on the theology of desire. Coakley identifies several cultural contradictions regarding human sexual desire, contradictions with which the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions are struggling:

1. Celibacy is impossible (hence the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the RC Church), but some people must be celibate (priests, queer folk).

2. Homo-eroticism is necessarily wanton and destructive (despite the evidence of long-term committed same-sex relationships), and hetero-eroticism is necessarily healthy and holy (despite the evidence of divorce, domestic violence, etc.).

3. Celibacy and marriage are opposites: the former is asexual and the later is omnisexual - as much sex as often as you like; these are fantasies that ignore the arduous ascetical practice required by both types of commitment.

Drawing on St. Gregory of Nyssa and Freud, Coakley seeks to find a way beyond these contradictions to a renewed appreciation for eros as desire for union with God, a desire which can be "rightly ordered" through celibacy or marriage, regardless of one's sexual orientation. Both celibacy and marriage are possible, both are legitimate ways of ordering our desire Godward, and both homo-eroticism (David learning the steadfast love of YWYH (and vice-versa?) through his steadfast love of Saul and Jonathan) and hetero-eroticism (the Song of Songs) are avenues of mystical union. Ted Jenning's Jacob's Wound is helpful on this point.

I would want to push Coakley a bit further, in line with an insight of Rowan Williams in "The Body's Grace," that there is a trajectory of eros that moves from isolation and self-centeredness through a variety of (erotic) relationships of increasing intensity, duration, and sanctity toward celibacy or marriage. If the opposition of marriage and celibacy is a false binary construction of eros, so too is that of marriage (gay and straight) or celibacy, and everything else.

I already can feel the horses getting nervous.