Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why I Need the Religious Right



I would like to think I am difficult to categorize.

I hold some conservative views that would surprise my liberal friends. I have other views that would make not just conservatives but even liberals uneasy. I am probably more traditional than conservative and more radical than liberal. I am strongly Catholic but in a way that forever needs explanation--everyday Catholicism is filled with beauty, but the blasé cultural stereotype falls so far short.
 
Since the internet is not in any dire need of more self-indulgence, why am I taking the time to write all this on a blog about Christian unity?
The reason is this: There are a lot of words and phrases you could use to describe me. Each of those words needs context and qualification before they feel right, but there are many hats that fit and many others I can fit into by degree. However, out of all the categories that I can be associated with, out of all the labels that folks might think apply to me, at least in part, the designation “religious right” is almost certainly not one of them.
That is exactly why I need them.

***

The Southern Baptist Convention.

Some would say this is Ground Zero of the Religious Right. A key partisan figure in our society. A hotbed of intolerance. Some would say they manifest everything that is wrong in America. And they have horns and smoke comes out of their noses, too.
Others would call them the daring voices standing up for what is good and traditional. They manifest the soul of small town America. They dig their heels in and resist with all their might the culture's downward slide. Some might say they represent everything that is right in America.

Another way of saying this is: Welcome to the Culture Wars.
***
I would like to think I can find common ground with just about anybody. I enjoy the company of folks all over the religious and political spectrum. I do not just tolerate but enjoy diversity. I love a vigorous debate of opposing, well-formed, sincere views. I soak up just about all forms of diversity, with one notable exception: The intolerance I find within religious or political fundamentalism.

I wonder about the limits of tolerance--is it okay to be intolerant of intolerance?

Or is that just another form of intolerance itself?

***

Throughout my life I have found myself regularly associating with the religious right.

I keep asking—Why me? Why this? Out of all the groups to be in dialogue with, why have I found myself so consistently face-to-face with them? Is this the Holy Spirit jerking my chain or karma playing games with me?
I would absolutely enjoy sharing company with Buddhist monks or Hindu priests. I have a lot in common with many mainline Protestants. But almost as if it's right on the schedule of some cosmic clockwork, I find myself face-to-face with the religious right--whether it be in friendships, work or joint projects.

Don't get me wrong--I have a lot of good things to say about the Southern Baptists in general and the religious right as a whole. Some have become my friends. I have worked together with them in many circumstances. It is not that they are unfamiliar, it is just that--as a whole--they are difficult. For me.
It may be strange to hear that a person who works full-time in reconciliation between Catholic and Evangelical Christians is someone who is not comfortable with a significant part of that role.
But that is exactly the reason--I believe that is why they are in my life: I need the religious right because they are difficult for me.
***
The work of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue has many facets. It is academic; it is social. It takes places at conferences and in meeting rooms with long tables. It happens in the trenches of community service and neighborhood Bible studies. Representatives meet each other everywhere from the pages of peer-reviewed journals to long discussions over a favorite beverage. They share thoughts, they confront differences and they bring messages back to their respective communities.

However, the work does not truly begin--not really--until the moment you find yourself uncomfortable.
***

I have been an activist for much of my life. The bulk of my work has been trying to persuade people—trying to stir up action, trying to convince people, trying to organize people for the sake of the Gospel.  

Trying, trying, trying . . . to do what, exactly? To change hearts and minds, I would say--to help us imagine the Kingdom and work towards that Kingdom on earth, through God's grace.
I fancy myself like that man in Plato's cave who got a glimpse of something important who is desperately trying to turn the heads of everyone else to see. How to form conscience, open eyes, organize for positive change, preach the Kingdom of God--these are the matters I have brooded over for years.

In doing ecumenical and interfaith work, I have to suspend a lot of that. Or at least, change my approach dramatically. In this work--and perhaps in all work--change comes about in a different way.
It is easy to point to a group of people and start criticizing, saying, this is their fault here and this is their fault there. Whether this method actually works or not is another story, but it is easy to do.

I never wanted to be a judgmental activist. I always found that attitude and those methods counter-productive and disrespectful. In fact, I once led advocacy efforts half-jokingly subtitled "peace activism for the rest of us." It was an attempt to be a voice for social justice causes without the self-righteous egoic posturing common in activism which only ends up marginalizing both itself and the causes it champions.

Still, the urge to get others to be different has always somehow been an underlying, motivating impulse.
 
The prophetic voice has always come easily for me.  What has been harder to come by is the wisdom voice. I describe this as accepting others for who they are--beginning every relationship with this deep respect, interest and fascination for who they are--exactly as they are--at this moment. Coming without an agenda. "Patience" is the word that keeps coming to mind here. Letting go. Calming that all-to-quick autonomic impulse to rush into action, defend my views and resist what I fervently believe needs to be clarified or corrected.

There is still a need to advocate for causes--we are not to be paralyzed into inaction. However, a wisdom figure would do this through friendship and invitation rather than through force of any kind, including manipulation, pressure or even sometimes firm argumentation. The first step is respect: Tell me who you are and I will tell you who I am, and before we do anything else let's just sit with that for a while.

(This section owes a debt to Richard Rohr and Walter Brueggeman. See this piece. Brueggemann suggests that the three sections of Hebrew Scriptures--Torah, Prophets and Wisdom--roughly correspond with the three main stages of human development).
 
***

The paradox is that if change is going to come at all, it will come most readily when you quit trying to change things and simply respect everything as it is right now. That moment of sincere acceptance--and it has to be sincere--creates the space for movement.

***

It is easy to write off the Southern Baptists and say these are narrow minded people who are brimming with intolerance. There is always someone they are opposed to. Anti-gay is the current one. Always anti-someone.  Anti-Catholic is an old favorite and reliable go-to. There are still some rather steamy anti-Catholic blogs you can find, and some folks are more than happy to disseminate them through the SBC's twitter hashtags.

Contemplatives tell us the ego defines itself by being opposed to other things, by grouping: I am this so therefore I am not that. In that scenario, however, the end result is that you always need an enemy. You cannot have an identity until there is someone to compare yourself with who is not like you. When the ego needs a fix to affirm itself, it predictably bashes someone. Conflict is inevitable so long as we are living out of the ego stage.
 
They say this is what Jesus meant when he urged people to look beyond the transient nature of this world to discover that which is eternal. The ego is an overall word for this false self of pride, jealousy, competition and other qualities Christians have long identified as sinful--expressions of our "fallen" nature.

***

The religious right is the group I do not know what to do with.

I often try to ignore them. I pretend they just do not exist. 

At first, this sounds reasonable, and it works for a while--we disagree, so I will live my life as I see fit, and they will do the same and we will muddle through life the best we can. We will simply coexist. It is not bad, and heck, at least we are not killing each other.
Our paths inevitably intersect, however. We do share the same planet, after all.

I think to myself that they are the source of all our problems. I say, subconsciously or otherwise: It would be better if their viewpoint simply did not exist.

I might approach my ecumenical work with the silent agenda that the only way for us to move forward is to convert them all to my way of looking at things. At least get them into the ballpark.

This is not to say that there is not a place for legitimate growth. Perhaps we would all be better off if some things were to change. However, I am talking here about a problem which is my attitude and agenda that I bring to the conversation before it even happens. This is the interior work I need to do. I need the religious right to remind me of this.

***
 
Jesus told us to share the Good News. He did not tell us to homogenize the world into our own image. However, this is what I see the religious right doing which I oppose so strongly. In my opposition, my approach has to be something different.

Even naming my concern in the above paragraph could be my ego's sneaky way of getting a jab in. And even stating that covers it up even more by feigning humility while letting the original comment still stand. It's good cop bad cop, ego style. I get to make my jab and then get the redemption that comes via apologizing for the jab. The ego can hide so well behind many layers.

Better people than me have pointed out that this impulse to convert is actually a sinister form of violence--I want to erase all the things about you that are distinctive, everything that I do not like about you which makes me uncomfortable--which ultimately leads me to say: I just want to erase you.

In doing this, my ego derives its identity in its opposition to another group, and the only solution is obliteration of the other--a goal that may never be possible since I need them for my own identity.

If I go through my life telling myself I am tolerant, except for groups that are hard lined fundamentalists, then am I not doing something very similar? How do I witness the one human family if I choose to ignore or metaphorically eradicate people who are difficult for me?
My intolerance to what I perceive as their intolerance is not good enough.

Jesus pointed out that even sinners love their own friends. How we relate to those we consider "enemy" is pivotal to the Christian witness. The paradox is that those we consider our "enemy" are actually much closer to us that we ever care to imagine. The very fact that they trigger us so strongly demonstrates how personal and visceral their resonance with us actually is.

The surprise that comes is that in order to accept others as they are, I must also accept myself as I am--the two go hand in hand. My intolerance of them might be a signpost of an intolerance I have of myself.
Even these people? Even the Southern Baptists? Are they not the ones who are doing all sorts of things I do not like or support?

Yes, even them. Especially them--especially the group you do not want to be in relationship with, that is who you have to reach out to.

***

It is probably no surprise that contemplative religious monks who are sometimes the ones most drawn to ecumenical and interfaith work. It forces you into an encounter with yourself. It provides the raw material for meditation. Encountering someone different, especially someone who makes you uncomfortable, puts you face-to-face with your own jagged edges.

Contemplatives are invested in finding and overcoming unhealthy attachments, to use a Buddhist word. Coming face-to-face with someone who is different gives you an opportunity to work on yourself. Contemplatives take a proactive stance toward their own fears and often go right toward them.

I have read some Southern Baptist blogs. A number of folks are very sympathetic to Catholics and are very willing to work on common areas. There is also a strong, more old school Baptist mindset of people who are very anti-Catholic and not shy about expressing it. It can be hard to read some of that. My first impulse is to want to write back and engage in a debate. That can be a worthwhile thing to do. But for the sake of my own growth, I sometimes hold back and first try to understand.  Instead of that knee jerk defensive response, I cultivate patience and simply accept--accept the situation, accept what is, accept myself in my triggered state and accept the other people.

The reply may still come--but it may come from a gentler, more humbler plateau, a more informed place, a more self-reflective place, rather than a knee-jerk reaction, and is that not just a healthier way to be in relationship with anybody, including a relationship with myself? It's Newtonian--actions cause reactions, angers leads to anger, and violence continues in an unbroken chain throughout the eons--that is, until grace comes in. Letting my triggers constantly manipulate me is a less happy, less empowered place to be. Always reacting and responding from the place of my own triggers makes me feel like I am dangling on an existential fishing line--but I am the only one holding the rod and reel and I can claim the power to change my reaction.
The presence of these knee-jerk triggers then begins to look different. Instead of something to fight back and immediately oppose, they are a beacon on the road map of my own personal growth and self-awareness. Their presence shows me where my unfinished internal work is.
***

The funny thing you find out when you get in relationship with someone is that they are not as one-dimensional as you may have thought--or even wanted. It would be so much easier to put them all in a box with a single label. However, there are always more than small nuances of difference. Despite the best attempts by SBC President Ronnie Floyd to set the tone of this year's Southern Baptist Convention with themes of "clear agreement, visible union and extraordinary prayer," no group is quite that monolithic. There is a spectrum of ideas and a spectrum of people.
It might have been easy for me to write off a group of people as just one thing, only to find out that there are many tones and timbres present. Everyone has a story to tell. It is so tempting to reduce them to just the religious right or just narrow or just intolerant, but I run a huge risk of being guilty of that same thing by rushing to these conclusions.

I need to discover their humanity in all its depth and nuance--and that requires discovering my own and then responding to them from that place.

Getting together sometimes means resolving differences. First and foremost, it means working on our own selves to be okay with difference--why am I uncomfortable around you? That is my problem and I should not make it your problem.

It is when you are intolerant of intolerance you may be called and driven to be a prophetic voice and say this is not right, something has to change. There is no question about that. You may have to do that as a person of conscience. But you have got to be in relationship with that person and that group. You have got to be self-reflective. And in doing that, the person who changes--first and foremost--is you.
The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues.
It will come from valuing our differences.
-- Parker J. Palmer



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