Monday, July 16, 2012

“Russ Douthat is a Fruit Fly”

My mother, an op-ed columnist, used to say (with a twinkle in her eye), “Never let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good opinion.”  But at least she, a fierce liberal, accepted the ultimate authority of reality over ideology.  Russ Douthat’s analysis of liberal Episcopalians, found in the July 14 NY Times, sails beyond the realm of facts altogether, and comes to illustrate the brave new world of conservative commentary, where rhetoric creates the impression of truthiness long enough to reproduce itself into the 24-hour news cycle, facts be damned.

Yes, that’s right, I said it:  Russ Douthat is a fruit fly.  

Diana Butler Bass has written a devastatingly factual reply to Mr. Douthat, which will enjoy only a fraction of the coverage Mr. Douthat has received.  Thus, once again, the conservative argument has won the struggle for ideological survival in the artificial habitat that is our national consciousness.  Well played, sir. 

But the more troubling element of Mr. Douthat’s column is his bizarre premise: that Christians should base their theology on what is popular, rather than on what is true.  His preoccupation with liberal vs. conservative popularity (the facts of which he misrepresents) implies that if only Episcopalians were more conservative, they would be more popular, and therefore we have erred.  He even defends the Vatican’s investigation of the nuns as motivated primarily out of a concern for institutional self-preservation: “Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.”  Wow.  This is his breathtakingly cynical reasoning: If those nuns would only preach a conservative gospel (contrary to their consciences) - a gospel in which women are properly subordinate to men - then their convents would blossom with devout and properly respectful sisters, and the hospitals would be saved.   

Funny: all this time I thought the argument was over a question of truth – whether or not women are, in fact, equal to men.  But no, it seems to be an argument from the most base form of pragmatism.

Thus the conservatives seek to change the subject.  And this laughable argument is made with high-minded seriousness in the most prestigious news outlet in the world.  Huh.  If only it had integrity.

This is what happens when conservatives can no longer defend the substance of their ideology.  The Vatican can no longer plausibly argue that women are not equal to men; very few American Catholics care what the bishops think about birth control; the number of Catholics who use condoms and get abortions are about the same as the national average.  The Catholic Church is beginning to look ever more like the great and terrible Oz, desperately twirling valves and pulling levers behind the curtain, hoping against hope to forestall the inevitable day when its people will see past the curtain.

Rather than do the hard work of changing the institution in order to conform to the truth of things, conservatives are creating truthy arguments of smoke and mirrors, in this case appealing to the myth that conservative theology is more attractive to the American people than liberal theology.  Fact one: it is not (see Butler Bass).  Fact two: since when do Christians proclaim a Gospel based on institutional self-interest?  (Answer, only when they are desperate and have lost their way.)

So congratulations, Mr. Douthat: you won the 24-hour news cycle battle.  The bad news for you is that you have exposed the hollow and desperate rhetoric of 21st Century American conservatism for what it is: a mad attempt to change the subject.  Speaking on behalf of millions of happy and spiritually alive Episcopalians, I say to you, and the Vatican, the following: if we have to choose between a theology that we think is true, and a theology that your church cynically (and wrongly) believes might be popular, we’ll take the former, any day.  And this is what we think is true: women are equal to men.  Period.  Gays are equal to straights.  Period.  

Ahead of every other denomination in Christendom, the Episcopal Church has demonstrated its willingness to proclaim this truth and accept the consequences.  And the consequences are on our side: it just so happens that God favors truth.  When my congregation proclaimed our truth, loud and clear, we gained at least four new members for every member we lost.  But this is not why we proclaim that truth.  We proclaim it because it happens to be true.  And nothing on God’s green earth will get us to turn our backs on what we know is true.  Period. 

Maybe that makes us dinosaurs.  But I’d rather be a dinosaur than a fruit fly, any day of the week.

The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence
Rector, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, California

Monday, July 9, 2012

Grudge Match: Alpha Male vs. Jesus

Sermon preached July 8, 2012
Year B Proper 9

I don’t know if it was Saturday morning cartoon, or a comic strip, or what, but it’s planted firmly in my brain: there’s a man who gets yelled at by his boss; he comes home and yells at his wife; she yells at the oldest child, who yells at the youngest child, who kicks the dog, who chases the cat, who kills the mouse; and as the mouse floats up to heaven he thinks, “What did I do?” 
We recognize a kind of truth in that, because it turns out, of course, that that’s exactly what happens in real life: aggression begets aggression.  Animal behaviorists have seen the same thing in chimpanzees and other animals, especially where strict hierarchies are in place: whenever the alpha male gets aggressive, he starts a chain reaction of aggression that goes right on down the line to the weakest and smallest member of the group.  

We have all grown up with some form of this – in our families, schools, sports teams, playgrounds.  The strong rule the weak and so it has been since before we were chimps.  It is, as they say, the law of the jungle; and I suppose in nature it’s all perfectly well and good – for animals, anyway.  But if you happen to be the smallest kid on the playground, it’s not so great - in which case you better learn how to crack jokes, or run fast, or make friends with the biggest kid in the class.

I wasn’t the smallest kid on the playground, but I was the smallest person in my family.  (I did have a younger sister, but throughout my childhood she was bigger than me.) So I got it from all sides - and I lived every day with that law of the jungle.  For me it was a daily experience of being humiliated and belittled. 

During those years, I used to dream of a different kind of family; a family where everyone loved and supported each other rather than competed unfairly and cut each other down.  I used to imagine a place where the person with the best idea won the argument, not the person with the most power.  I went to bed at night wishing I would wake up in a world where people actually listened to one another, no matter if they were big or small, strong or weak.  I made a solemn promise to God: that when I grew up, I would never treat people the way I was being treated.  This became my most sacred vow.  I would never care how strong or popular someone was; I would treat everyone the same way that I wished to be treated.

By the time I got to high school, I had developed a deep antipathy toward bullies, and I came to resent any community – whether it was a family, or a school, or a church, or a nation – that favored the strong over the weak.  I was a popular kid in school, but not by being athletic and not by hanging out with the other popular kids.  I made friends with everyone, regardless of status, and especially with the losers and the freaks, the artists and the musicians and the skinny kids and the fat kids.  Together we formed a kind of family of rejects – open to all, uninterested in status.  I started to believe that we could create the kind of community I had imagined as a younger child – a community of respect and love and decency and fairness.  You know: a community of nice people!

 The other day someone asked me, What do you actually do around here?  I gave her a copy of my letter of agreement and I talked a little bit about my goals and how I spend my time – but after we spoke I wished I had said something about what I don’t do – because it’s what I don’t do that’s maybe just as important.  I don’t act like that alpha male chimp, setting off chain reactions of aggression; I don’t show preference for the popular and the strong; I don’t ignore the less popular people and spend all my time with the movers and shakers.  I try to model respect and love for everyone and try to create a community where everyone feels they have a voice and their concerns are heard. 

I’ve never believed that the only way to lead is to be a tough and aggressive alpha male, barking orders, suppressing challenges to his authority, telling everyone exactly how it is to be done.  I believe in a different kind of power – the power of a just community – the kind of community that is created when people start putting aside their high school behaviors and actually start to listen to and care for one another.  

The solution to aggression is not more aggression.  Schools are learning this: that when bullies start terrorizing a school, the best thing to do is teach the nice people how to band together; how they can create alliances with other nice people; they don’t have to go one-on-one, toe-to-toe with the meanies; instead they can find strength in numbers, they can pick their battles, and have confidence in knowing that the nice people outnumber the bullies by about 100 to 1.  

Healthy communities are like healthy immune systems –antibodies surround and overwhelm viruses and bacteria.  Antibodies are not Lone Ranger type heroes – they work cooperatively, in groups, to keep the organism healthy.

This, I believe, is exactly the kind of thing Jesus was trying to teach us.  He knew what it was like to grow up feeling small and humiliated.  In today’s Gospel, we read that when Jesus came to his hometown, he had no power.  He could not perform his miracles to save his life.  The people he grew up with gathered around him and shamed him; they said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?”  

Now, it’s telling that they didn’t say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Joseph?”  In Jesus’ society, a man was always identified by his father – the only time you would call him the son of Mary is if his father was unknown or had abandoned the family; it’s clear by this that Jesus was either the product of a broken home or born out of wedlock.  Whatever it was, exactly, it was shameful, and when Jesus came home they threw all that shame right back in his face, so much so that he felt so small he had no power.  

So Jesus knew all about shame and humiliation from a very early age.  Like me, he probably went to bed at night praying to God that he would wake up in a better world.

He saw the same kind of thing being perpetuated by the Roman Empire – where domination and brutality were everyday realities.  It was in that context that Jesus became a prophet; for him it was both deeply personal, and the ultimate in a communal identity.  Like the prophets before him, he imagined a world where people would be respected and loved regardless of their power and social status.  And like every good prophet, he didn’t just talk about this vision - he went out of his way to eat with the tax collectors and the sinners.  This is why he delighted in scandalizing the powerful society of Roman collaborators.  There is a different way, he kept saying; we don’t have to be so powerless; we don’t have to feel so inferior; we don’t have to bow our heads and kiss the ring of the emperor or his bullies.  

The emperor can call himself the son of God; he can even have this idea stamped on his coins and spread throughout the Empire; he can set up temples in all the cities and demand that people make sacrifices to him; he can even kill anyone who says different – but that doesn’t make it so.  We Christians need not be afraid of him; because for us, the son of God is a poor peasant of dubious parentage hailing from a remote and poorly regarded outpost of the empire.  

St. Paul, who wrestled with his own alpha-male tendencies, makes the same case this morning.  “I will not boast,” he says, “except of my weaknesses.”  He is tormented by his weakness; he speaks of having a “thorn in the flesh” – something shameful that humbles him and causes enormous anxiety.  Of course, everyone in these hyper-sexual times assumes that Paul’s affliction was sexual in nature, maybe that he was gay – but we have no idea.  Whatever it was, somehow Paul found the courage to stop pretending that it didn’t exist.  Instead of overcompensating and getting even more alpha-male-like, God gave him the grace to talk about it – extremely unusual for his time.  And God answered his prayer by helping him to see this deep and true lesson: that “power is made perfect in weakness." 

The Empire wants us to feel shame for our weakness; but when by the light of God’s love we get past the shame we learn that it is our weakness that binds us all together.  The Empire wants us to worship power; but we come here to worship the one who died in humility.  The Empire wants us to be aggressive and mean to one another; to spread a culture of competition and cruelty; but we stand together, united against pettiness and prejudice of all kinds, seeing Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So, yes, in the words of St. Paul:  “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”  I pray that we all will meet there, in the land where there is no pretense or arrogance or rudeness or folly of any kind, just the simple, unpretentious love of God in Christ Jesus, our humble Lord.

Amen?  Let’s say Amen.