Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Right To Exist

“Ever since the “Holy Land” was invented as a pilgrimage-center by the
Empress Helena in the fourth century, it had been the scene of acrimony
and violence among the rival religious groups. . . . Throughout four centuries
(15th- 19th) it had been the task of the Ottoman sultans to impose, for the
sake of civil order, a culture of mutual tolerance . . . . Where religious difference
was in question there really was only one political option: live and let live. Muslims
and Jews were nearly always able to accept this in relation to one another
and to the Christians. The followers of Christ, however, while finding
it possible to live at peace with . . . monotheists of the Islamic or Jewish
persuasion, could not always resist outbursts of violence against their
co-religionists (fellow Christians) . . . .” A.N. Wilson, The Victorians

For a long time, it seems, Christians have been more tolerant of other people of other faiths than we are of each other. Strange, how proximity breeds intolerance. I suspect it is that the closer people are to us, the more they make us nervous about our right to be here.

Today, a sticking point in the search for peace in the Holy Land is “the right to exist.” Israel insists on one key point before making major agreements with its neighbors – that the neighbors acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Palestinians want to be recognized as a state with the right to defend its borders and preserve its sovereignty, which is essentially the same thing. The situation is admittedly complex. Both God and the devil are in the details. But the threshold question they cannot seem to get past is simple: acknowledging each other’s right to be present.

To deny someone the right to exist is the primal attack. In Madeleine L ‘Engle’s sci-fi book, A Wind In The Door, the galaxy is threatened by death-eater-like beings called Echtroi who go about x-ing or un-naming things, denying their existence. L’Enlge insists on the innate value of each of us and on our right to be here. She challenges us not only to acknowledge that each other belong on this earth but to actively defend each other’s right to exist.

One may well wonder: why is this an issue? Why do we deny each other’s right to exist? Why is there genocide? Why is there war? Why are the different oppressed? Why are English speakers so distressed by the sound of Spanish?

If we are secure in our own place, confident that we belong on this earth, we can allow others to be here too. We can even enjoy the wild diversity of creation. We can delight that God is a unity who proliferates into diversity and that the diversity of creation is rooted in one existential ground, God. But if our self-worth, our sense of belonging, is fragile, then the presence of someone a bit different from us becomes a threat. We need to be the only ones here; or if we cannot be the only ones, then the others must be entirely like us. By being like us, they reassure us that we are the right way to be.

One way to avoid feeling threatened by people who are different is to avoid them. In his book, The Big Sort: Why The Clustering Of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop demonstrates that our nation is dividing up into smaller and smaller conclaves of people who look, think, and live more and more alike. Our gated communities are populated by racially, economically, socially, and politically similar people. The new social ghettos are far less porous than the ethnic neighborhoods of old, perhaps because they so intentionally formed out of fear of encountering someone different.

We invest a lot of energy and money so that we can at least pretend each other do not exist – to make for ourselves a seemingly safer but smaller and less interesting world. A political consequence of this fragmenting of society is the polarizing of our politics. Each congressional district has a cohesive ideology and elects people to represent that ideology. A think tank that rates congressional representatives as liberals, conservatives, or moderates notes that the number of moderates has steadily declined until the current congress, which for the first time in their studies, does not contain a single moderate. The moderates are the folks who broker the deals and work things out of gridlock. Without the moderates to negotiate the compromises, each side seeks to make the government work by subjugating the other.

The Episcopal Church, in keeping with the Anglican tradition of moderation, the via media, tolerance, and our identity as a “bridge church” has traditionally resisted such polarization. We have been a people who worship and serve together out of personal affection and a common form of prayer – not theological or ideological agreement. How has that played out in Nevada?

I am continuing my pastoral questioning of the divisions in our Diocese that keep us from flourishing in God’s mission. I am also continuing to look for whatever bonds of affection might run counter to those divisions. The first thing I sense here is a quiet respect for each other’s right to exist, a willingness to sit at the same table. It isn’t a bold statement of conviction. It’s more of a tacit assumption which is probably better. Even this tacit acknowledgement runs counter to secular culture. The divisions in Nevada are not merely North and South. There are divisions of East and West, urban and rural, mining and ranching. The groups so divided resent each other’s presence most grievously. So it is a spiritual accomplishment to be a diocese of people, parishes, and missions that accept each other’s place at the table.

But there is a residue of resentment, a suspicion that others do not respect us, a prickly defense against those who might do harm. That confused me at first since I have so rarely experienced any group here actually hostile to any other. But the sense that someone does not want us here is not pure fantasy. There is real history to our nervousness about each other.

There have been times in the past when people in larger churches said that the smaller churches should be closed – which naturally lead to people in smaller churches saying that larger churches should be closed or rather broken up into small churches. There really were people proposing to close Camp Galilee. Others suggested that saving Galilee could be best achieved by preventing or stopping ministries in cities. Seminary trained priests thought the locally trained should not be ordained; the locally trained thought the seminary trained should not be called. Parishes have divided internally over whether to engage in spiritual renewal of the congregation or commit to mission serving those outside the church – as if either project could succeed without the other. We also participated in “the controversies” as they say – meaning national disputes over the roles of women and LGBT persons in the church. Both sides of “the controversies” eventually tried to exterminate, excommunicate, or deport each other – though those issues have not divided Nevada to the extent that they did elsewhere -- perhaps we had too many other kinds of differences to identify with.

Two things here strike me as noteworthy: First, we stopped x-ing each other years ago. Second, we still feel at risk of being x-ed by our fellow Nevada Episcopalians. For example, I have found only one seminary trained priest and one locally trained priest who actually speak ill of those who were trained differently. But it is not that unusual for me to find clergy who suspect that they are secretly disrespected by clergy of the other species. I never hear people from one area speak ill of the churches in another region, except that they suspect that the people elsewhere think ill of them. It is as if the bullets have been removed from the flesh, but the wounds have not yet healed.

Where then do we go from here? I am sure of only one thing. It is good to trust in God’s grace. It is good to know that we belong here, that God has claimed us as beloved children, that God has named us (Isaiah 49: 1), sealed us with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked us as Christ’s own forever. We don’t have to x each other to claim a space. God has given us our space, our right to exist. We know that, we feel it, and we believe it. That is why we have stopped x-ing one another. But what about the wounds that are not yet healed? I do not know the answer to that.

At John 5: 1-17, we read about a man who had been ill for 38 years lying near a healing fountain. Jesus, with his insight, did not assume the obvious. He asked. He said, “Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6) The man’s answer was equivocal. Do we want to be healed? We may have grown accustomed to the wounds. We may have identified with them. We may not be ready to part with them just yet. We are not x-ing each other. We trust in God’s grace. That much is good. Do we want to be healed? What would happen if we were? Who would we be if we were? How might that healing take place?