Thursday, January 26, 2017

Confessions To a Friend

Dear Charles,
Good to hear from you. Thanks for asking my thoughts about the recent inauguration, protests, and the events in the first week of the Trump Presidency.
First, I confess that living in Washington makes me different in only one respect from anyone living, say, in Kansas. And that is that the people around me are by and large liberal and progressive. Even the Republicans here tend to be sane and Eisenhoweresque. I’ve lived in other places where that was not true. But I don’t have an inside track on what is actually going on or how people are reacting, except through what I read in various places, principally the internet, news outlets (I tend NOT to read The Washington Post because I find it so aggravating, but instead read The New York Times online). And The New Yorker, of course.
But you ask my reaction. Joe and I were in New York with friends and his sister from Thursday through Monday, so we were happy to miss all the goings-on, although snarled traffic might have been the worst of it. I somehow felt that being away from it all was a form of protest. We did some shopping on Fifth Avenue, and as I neared Trump Tower I found myself feeling viscerally ill, the way I have sometimes felt passing through Catholic University’s campus, especially when Benedict XVI was about as awful a pope as Trump is a President.
I was present at the first Obama inauguration, on one of the coldest days imaginable. I nearly froze, but happily so. I was standing just yards away from the Washington Monument and there were about as many people behind me, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial as there were in front of me. And the crowd was jubilant. I’d take nothing for having been there. In contrast, Trump drew die-hard supporters who, I suspect, are about as full of hate as he is, although I don’t necessarily assume that. I suspect that a good many of Trump’s supporters are people who have hopes that they cherish as much as I cherished mine when Obama was inaugurated. But who knows?
Nothing that has happened in the week since has astonished me. I think that Trump thinks that he can do anything he jolly well pleases and is thus setting about making changes that he either believes or has come to imagine will correct all wrongs and straighten up the world. As I predicted, he is having the opposite of the desired, or desirable, effect, from his point of view. Precisely because he has great performance timing but little political sensibility, he knows nothing about working for consensus, and is thus stirring up one after another of hornet nests that are beginning to unleash their full strength in reaction. Really. If you had to exacerbate all the anger, piss off everyone imaginable, alienate allies, invite lawsuits (the Muslim ban will certainly be challenged in court—the ACLU has bared its teeth already—and the flagrant espousal of torture in the news today is a demonstrable show of support for breaking international law), what better a series of plays could you make than what Trump has already done? My prediction is that he will create a disaster both physically and politically if he gets behind (or leads) the Republican assault on slashing Medicare and Social Security as well as abolishing without replacing (how would they even imagine doing the latter?) “Obamacare.” It was easy, if not smart, to keep voting to repeal the ACA when they knew Obama would surely veto them. That way they could bait their base, claim to have done something, and pay nothing for it. It was all about Obama anyway, not about medical care. So now they have to either pay up or eat their words. Guess which they’ll choose. And the cost will be magnificent.
Any political analysis of this country has told us for years that we are pretty much equally divided between left and right. If anything, the “hard core right” accounts for less than a fourth of the populace (or maybe it's the voting populace). You saw how quickly George Bush’s second term deteriorated when things began to go sour. I predict that you’ll see it again. My hope is it won’t be in a second term for Trump. And I have no prediction to make about 2018 or 2020.
I called this morning to register my support for DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in standing firm in support of immigrants. I don’t know that Washington as a city has ever taken a stance, but many congregations, including St. Stephen’s, have been openly supportive of the Sanctuary Movement. While I was Senior Priest, St. Stephen’s became a sanctuary church. (We never had during my tenure a sanctuary person or families using our facilities, but we were prepared to do so if the need had arisen.)
Now, all of that said, the thing in this whole mess that has me most worked up is the support that Trump has been getting all along from the “Christian conservatives.” They have somehow excused or overlooked the most egregious things, telling themselves that the Supreme Court was somehow Ground Zero for God and Satan. Whether or not they will stick with Trump is their decision. But I look for no change. And I will take them on at every turn with every means I have (which admittedly aren’t many).
I think the women’s march was powerful and effective. Perhaps its effect was more that it seems to have energized and catalyzed many of its participants and their supporters than that it showed anything to Trump and the Republicans. Speaking of the latter, I think they are using Trump the way Trump has used the disenchanted and economically oppressed (largely white) people. I think that the Republicans despise him, know that he is unstable and utterly self-absorbed. I think they will use him to obtain a whole bunch of things that they have been salivating for for years: tremendous tax cuts for the wealthy, gutting social programs, building up a huge defense budget (really a war chest), rolling back regulations, unfettering the banking industry even more. A great part of me says, “Let them.” If it weren’t that so many people would suffer greatly, I’d be 100% in favor of their wreaking havoc on the American people to the extent that there would be no way that they could ever be elected again. I certainly have no fantasy that there is much of a way to stop them, though I think it is prudent for the Democrats to stall, delay, oppose, block every possible move every possible way.
Speaking of which, I am not one of these people who itches for fights for fights’ sake. I think that the Democrats ought to pick their battles wisely and strategically and keep their eye not on Trump (whose gift is Distraction) but on the people who are really hurt, or will be hurt, by Trump. There are some superb Democrats in Congress, like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Unfortunately too few. There are even some surprises among the Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, who is showing spine that I didn’t know he had.
So, Charles, that is my take. Although I don’t know that it is necessarily representative of the Washington DC frame of mind, take it for what it’s worth. In some ways I think it is far more important for people to raise hell in Kansas City, Toledo, Des Moines and other places in the heartland than it is for liberals like me to spout off in Washington. People expect me and my confreres to say these things. Not so much from people in “normal” places. My counsel: don’t underestimate your power.
I’ll close by saying that, optimist that I am, I am married to someone who has taught me some of the values in being realistic. And in my more sober moments I fear for the world. Trump is, after all, just the American version of what is happening in Europe, and what has been happening around the globe. It feels as if the great lessons that were thought to have been learned in the twentieth century are now giving way under stresses and pressures not unlike those that produced World War II. Some of this is a growing, and now decades old, reaction to the melding of immigrants into a polyglot society that doesn’t come easily. But some of it is, I think, the failure of liberal democracy to listen and respond creatively to the forces that Marx long ago correctly identified, chief among them being the utter disparaging of the true cost of labor and the resulting inequality built into capitalism. I’ve often said that the biggest enemy of Christianity is affluence. Or, in the immortal words of Dunn’s Law of Christian Functionality, "Christianity works in inverse proportion to the affluence of its adherents in a given time and place.” It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to be equally true of democratic institutions. The more people move into affluence, the wider the gap grows between haves and have-nots. And the less responsive the system is to the latter. Much of the rhetoric, even among liberals in this country, including Bernie Sanders, is based on the assumption that “getting into the middle class” is what life is all about. But as the standards of “middle” get higher and higher, the harder it is for those at the top to share. So it really is pretty much the same situation as the contemporary American Church finds itself in. Money. That’s the name of the god we serve. And, like the title of an old Cold War book about communism, our god is just another example of “The God that Failed.”
In truth,

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Late in the Day

Sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and before the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

John 1:29-42

This is one of those Sundays when several quite important things come into conjunction. We are in the middle of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration. We are days away from the most controversial Presidential inauguration that I can remember in seventy years. We are a week into the season of Epiphany. And you might add, the weather is not so hot.

My question, and I invite you to ask it with me, is what in the scriptures today sits closest to where we are living at the present moment.

I am struck by the story in which two disciples of John the Baptizer shift their attachment to Jesus. The gospel writer makes clear that they have John’s unqualified support, for he himself recognizes Jesus to be the long-awaited one who “baptizes with holy spirit.” He is unique enough for John to call him “the Lamb of God.” So there is not a dynamic of competition or disloyalty here. Interestingly, it is not Jesus who first calls these disciples, as the first three gospels tell us he did. Rather, they begin to follow him unbidden. They literally follow him, tagging along to find out where he is staying. Presumably they share the notion that when they find out where his lodging is they will perhaps have a conversation with him, or apply to be his students.

There is something charming about Jesus turning around and asking these two what they are looking for. They ask him where is is staying. And that’s all he needs. “Come and see.”  He invites them in. We are not told where—that is not important—but we are told when. It is late in the day, the tenth hour, 4 PM. That suggests that a transition is about to take place. Ironically, as we shall see in later chapters of the Fourth Gospel, they have found the Light. And they find the Light at just about the time darkness was to befall them.

late in the day

There. That is the place that the gospel seems to me to sit closest to us. First, it tells us of a shift in attachments, a transfer of loyalty from one authority to another. Second, late in the game these disciples discover something amazing: the true messiah.

A good deal of discussion, debate, argument, even out-and-out conflict has taken place in the Church—and not just the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion—over the last several decades around the question of authority. People have debated the authority of the Bible and debated about what is even meant by its authority. Everybody caught up in the argument has assumed that Jesus was on their side and that they were on his. That’s always the way it is. To be honest, Jesus himself is subject to so much interpretation and spin that it is almost impossible to say exactly what he stands for. And yet, at bottom, we know. He was a radical. The very trouble he got into which ultimately led to his murder was consorting with those who were outside the approved circles. Having open table fellowship with those outside the law, reaching out to social and political outcasts, breaking religious regulations, conversing with people one was not supposed even to pay attention to: all of these are things that Jesus is reported on good authority to have done and encouraged.

Yet, on the other hand, he was steadfastly disappointing to those who looked for political solutions to political problems. He refused to be co-opted by movements, like the Zealots, who were interested in fighting. He consistently held out the ideal of the Kingdom of God, which he said clearly was not co-terminus with any of the kingdoms of this world. He even said outrageous things that virtually no one believes either prudent or possible, such as “love your enemies.” The things he said about money drive even the most lukewarm capitalists crazy. So the Jesus that we actually could know from the gospels is hardly the Jesus that we really want to follow. Instead, the Church has fashioned Jesus into its own idea of Messiah, and essentially made the gospel about getting into heaven when we die, a topic that Jesus seems barely to have been interested in.

So what might happen were we to begin following Jesus with the idea of actually becoming disciples of his? I don’t, by the way, discount the fact that many of you are doing your best to do just that. I also know that the only way I’ve found to do it is to be constantly seeking the truth, assiduously asking questions, examining my heart and soul daily, being bold about accepting the uncomfortable truth of my real attachments, and above all being open to the possibility of change. Not that I do it well, mind you. Nor am I some kind of expert. I just know that settling into what I already embrace and calling it “Jesus” or “God’s will” is a delusion. What might it be like if we were to make a daily habit of taking his question seriously: “what are you looking for?” That might be a good place to start. And we might reply with a question like these two disciples: “where are you….?” The questions themselves might be far more important than particular answers.

That’s what I mean by shifting allegiance, shifting to another authority. It is endless work and requires some effort on our part. Now don’t confuse that with the issue of whether of not God loves you. You won’t get it right most of the time, and you’ll also find that living the gospel is hit-or-miss at best. And God’s love, thank God, is not predicated on whether you do or don’t get it right. Make a short list of stuff you don’t have to worry about and put first on that list, “whether or not God loves me.” That’s settled.

But then there’s the second thing we learn, and that is that these disciples become convinced fairly quickly that whom they have found is indeed the Messiah. Go back to the fact that it is late in the day. Symbolically, that lateness is what we are all up against, even the young among us. Frankly, as one of our Advent hymns puts it, there are signs of ending all around us. Climate change, economic upheavals, wars and rumors of wars, and now an incontestable wave of reaction and repression that appears to be sweeping much of the planet: these things together create a sense of urgency. They also create a kind of panic in which people are known to lose their heads and begin following false prophets and fake messiahs. There is nothing new about this, one of the reasons why it is so disturbing.

We do not have to follow suite. We have an alternative: to follow Jesus. And here is where I think that both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Donald Trump have something to teach us. I cannot imagine two historical figures much farther apart than these two. And I think that each of them would likely agree. Dr. King’s dedication to non-violence; his witness to inclusion; his courage in taking on the powers of evil; his steadfast casting of the movement towards greater human rights as a matter of getting on the side of divine justice: all of these things give us a model of what it means to proclaim the dawning of a real messianic age. And don’t forget that his life ended as those of many prophets and apostles: in death. The life of God, while full of joy and ecstasy, is not the proverbial Sunday school picnic.

And Mr. Trump teaches us some lessons as well. You read the news as well as I, and I don’t think I have to spend sermon time belaboring the obvious. But I’ll tell you what I have learned from his political ascendancy: how easy it is to fool people into thinking that whatever affirms their prejudices is in fact the truth. Now you might say that I am not being fair, and I won’t argue that I am. I’ll only tell you that my understanding of the gospel of Christ leads me to the conclusion that anything that oppresses the poor and weak is the opposite of the radical welcome of God. Anything that exploits and demeans the natural world is incompatible with the Creator’s purposes. Any deliberate attempts to sow dissension and division are contrary to God’s call for honest peace and reconciliation. Any effort to advance oneself and one’s own interests at the expense of communal integrity is at best suspect, if not downright counter to all that the gospel demands of us. How to respond? I choose not to react, or at least to keep my reactions in check. But I will not keep silent in the face of injustice and falsehood. And I call you to examine your conscience and to remember your baptism, in which you are called, as am I, to repent and return to the true Messiah when we find ourselves colluding with the forces of darkness and hate. Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being is a commitment that lies at the core of Christian life, and I refuse to go back on it. As the song says, “No turning back, no turning back.”

So there you have it. I have worked Martin Luther King and the President-elect into the sermon. But notice that this is not about King or Trump or somebody else. It really is about Christ. And that means it is about you and me. Those two disciples only had a couple of hours of daylight. No one knows or ever will know what exactly transpired between them and Jesus. But it is certain that Andrew was moved to go find his brother and introduce him to Jesus. And we see that same energy motivating other disciples in this gospel. In the gathering darkness, they have chosen the Light. Names change and identities are recast.

It is late in the day. Darkness is arriving, as it has a habit of doing. But remember what we have been celebrating now for well over a month, and many of us for a long, long time. The True Light that enlightens everyone has come into the world. You have a choice. Either succumb to the darkness or follow the Light which cannot be put out. The choice may be obvious, but it is not easy. Still, you will find when you ask, “Where are you?” you will hear a voice saying, ”Come and see.” That is your cue to follow where he leads.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017