Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Getting Personal

In his book, Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype, Raimon Panikkar makes a fascinating distinction between an "individual" and a "person."  An individual is an abstraction, an arbitrary delineation of identity as bounded by one's corporeality.  An individual is coterminous with his or her body.  Such an identification removes the individual from the nexus of relationships - interpersonal, social, cultural, ecological, cosmic and spiritual - that defines the "person."

This more extensive relational field extends the boundaries of personhood in a (nearly?) unlimited fashion, and underscores the contingent, dynamic, and interdependent nature of reality - including the human.  The individual as an isolated, independent, autonomous existent is a conceptual conceit, requiring the vivisection of the human: cutting it into pieces to understand it.  Doing so may foster a certain kind of knowledge, but it doesn't foster the realization of human being in the world.

In a sense, getting "personal" opens us to the deepest and most expansive human potentialities.  It cultivates our sense of being in and of the world, rather than being alienated from it.  It points to the truth that we are a constituent part of reality, intrinsically related to everything that is, expressive of the harmonious complexity of life that is at the same time a blessed simplicity.  In Panikkar's terminology, it is to realize the advaitic (non-dual), trinitarian, nature of the real.

As persons, we are so much more than individuals.  We may think of the Body of Christ, then, as the community of persons, who are embracing their identity as co-extensive and mutually interdependent with reality.  To be united with that Body is to embrace a larger identity than that provided by the concept of the individual.  It is to come home again.

Friday, January 13, 2012

God Talk

Last night my parish began a five session adult education series featuring DVD presentations by Marcus Borg, entitled "Embracing an Adult Faith."  The topic for the first session was "God."  I was moved by the reflections people shared about their experience of God's presence and absence in their lives.  I was heartened to hear of their hunger for God.  I was blessed to learn from them.

In the course of the evening I was reminded how rarely - even in church - we make space for such conversations.  There are so few places where people can speak of their deepest spiritual longing and experiences.  This dearth of opportunities to express and explore our desire for God conditions us to ignore that desire, to think it odd or insignificant, and to direct our attention to other "more important" concerns.

Absent support for our perception of God's presence and grace operative in our lives, our capacity to realize our desire for God is diminished, if not altogether hobbled.  We need practices, rituals, disciplines that remind us of our deep hunger and train us to attend to God.  I was so bold as to suggest last night that this might be one of the reasons to come to church on Sunday morning!  That is true, but only to the extent that our worship is actually focused on fostering relationship with God.

One other thought: I began to wonder last night if the problem of evil isn't really the problem of our inattention to God's presence in our world.  It has been my experience that when I am most in touch with my desire for God, I am least likely to contribute to the fund of evil in the world.  I suspect there is a direct relationship between our direct contact with Reality and the flow of compassion in the universe.
The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us with Christ toward our suffering world in loving service and just action. - Saint Catherine of Siena

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Who would Jesus execute?

Celebrant:      Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People:           I will, with God’s help.

- The Baptismal Covenant, BCP p. 305

The promises we make in Holy Baptism are not easy to keep.  Doing so requires a lifelong process of transformation that leaves no area of life untouched.  Questions of justice and peace are particularly vexing, for they challenge us to practice our faith as we struggle with the complex moral and spiritual dimensions of public policies. 

The Church at its best seeks to create a space for communal discernment regarding issues of justice and peace, providing moral guidance and teaching that can inform – but does not replace – individual conscience.  The inviolability of individual conscience is a foundational element of Christian moral teaching, but we also have an obligation to listen carefully to the collective wisdom of the tradition, and to each other, as we strive to be faithful to our baptismal vows.

In that spirit, I would like to address the issue of capital punishment.   Since 1958, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has been on record in opposition to capital punishment.  This stance has been confirmed by subsequent General Conventions, including a 1991 resolution urging “the provinces, dioceses, parishes, missions, and individual members of this Church to engage in serious study on the subject of capital punishment and work actively to abolish the death penalty in their states.”

Some states have adopted moratoria on capital punishment due to inequities in the administration of justice, including racial discrimination in sentencing, and the attendant risk of killing innocent people.  More than 100 innocent people have been sentenced to death in this country and some actually have been executed.  In 2008, our Diocesan Annual Convention adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in California, as a necessary step in the eventual abolition of the practice.  It urged “clergy and laity to commit themselves to inform and educate congregations so as to strengthen efforts to abolish the death penalty.”

There are a number of pragmatic arguments against the death penalty.  It doesn’t deter violent crimes, which are often crimes of passion.  It is more expensive to administer than life imprisonment, due to the necessary procedural hurdles of the appeals process.  It doesn’t bring closure to victims’ families, who must endure an appeals process that is often a 20 – 25 year ordeal. 

The theological reason, however, for the Church’s opposition to the death penalty lies elsewhere: in the inalienable dignity of every human being.  That dignity entails, at the very least, the preservation of life: if for no other reason than to hold open the possibility for repentance, amendment of life, and reconciliation with those harmed.  Only a live criminal can make restitution for his or her crime.  Dead criminals may satisfy a desire for revenge, but they can’t provide for reconciliation, healing, or justice.

The taking of a human life, for whatever reason, is an affront to God.  The Christian community affirms that all persons are made in the image of God, thus making all people holy.  The death penalty is an assault on God's purposes in creation. - Bishop Edmond L. Browning

In keeping with the Church’s teaching, the Episcopal Diocese of California has endorsed the SAFE CALIFORNIA ACT, a proposed ballot measure initiative to repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  It also requires those convicted of murder to work while in prison, with their wages applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them.  Savings to the state will be allocated to a $100 million fund that will be distributed to local law enforcement agencies over a three-year period.

While separation of Church and state precludes endorsement of political parties or candidates for elective office, advocacy for or against particular laws, ballot initiatives, or policies is allowable.  Such advocacy is one of the ways that we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. 

I invite you to join me, and the Episcopal Diocese of California, in actively supporting the SAFE CALIFORNIA ACT.