Saturday, February 04, 2017

How to be a Christian in the middle of this crisis

During a crisis, by necessity, time is allocated differently. You stay home from work and care for your ailing parent. You stop writing the novel to muck out a flooded basement. You stay up all night putting out a house fire.

There's no doubt in my mind that we are living through a national crisis, created by a strange confluence of the rise of global nationalist populism, the celebrity of a narcissist, and a long-waged ideological class war waged by plutocrats.

So in that moment, a Christian rightly asks, "What is my responsibility during this crisis?" And also rightly asks, "If it is a crisis, am I sure, and what should I do meantime to care for myself and guard against exhaustion?"

Many of us have thrown ourselves into the fight of alleviating or averting the crisis. It's why senate offices are getting 1.5 million phone calls a day, mass marches are happening all over the country, and smart lawyers are bringing lawsuits daily to courtrooms all across the United States. We all know something's up.

Unfortunately, humans are nefarious enough that they find various kinds of uses for crisis. If you'd like to read a bit of the history of that, I recommend two books, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, on the rise of "disaster capitalism, and Dave Egger's Zeitoun, a harrowing and worrying story of Hurricane Katrina. Guaranteed, some entities and individuals are going to use crisis for their own purposes. Certainly, it is the case that in this instance, Donald Trump the walking disaster is either being used or is using the wake of the crises he creates for his own interests and purposes; and those around him are also, like circling vultures.

Meanwhile, many Christians, especially liberal ones not used to a daily struggle, find themselves over-whelmed by discovering they have to do what they did yesterday yet again. And they're right to wonder about that. Democracy is work, but it shouldn't be a battle. Right?

On this point, C.S. Lewis got it right:
"A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion: to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease." (The Weight of Glory)
Politics should not be our natural food. Facebook should be equal parts photos of dinner, gifs of cats, political posts, and poetry. That it's all about politics right now gives indication of how sick our society has gotten. If we do get around to removing that which ails us (hopefully via the resignation of Donald Trump and full recognition--then reversal--of the white supremacist take-over of our executive branch via the Bannon--Pence--Sessions triumvirate), perhaps we can return our attention to the natural foods of the mind. That would be fantastic.

On the flip side, anyone with long experience in other kinds of struggles (global warming, civil rights, #blacklivesmatter, nuclear disarmament, women's rights) might remind those new to the fight, "You know, we've been in our fight for decades. I know it seems hard, but really, welcome to the club. It's just like this. If you weren't in this fight for a long time, that's an indication of the level of your privilege."

"The struggle is forever. We are forever in the struggle."

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr.

During a crisis, the voice of clergy changes as well. Whereas on a typical Sunday the sermons might make the circuit of a wider array of spiritual issues, during the crisis the sermons hone in on the needs of the moment, lest the proclamation ring flat-footed and detached from real need.

In a crisis like this one, the spiritual dangers are manifold. Pastors may choose to avoid the crisis, out of false desire to remain apolitical. Perhaps they've confused partisan politics with the theo-political, and so find themselves in dereliction of their duties as proclaimers of the kingdom of God.

Alternatively, they may wed themselves too much to one particular partisan position (or even a politician), becoming blind to the corruption that ensues in their reading of Scripture and their proclamation as a result.

How can Christian leaders speak to the political? Here I offer a long quote from Martin Luther's To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate (which should be one book everyone is reading this 500th anniversary of the Reformation):

The time for silence is past, and the time speak has come, as Eccles. [3.7] says. I am carrying out our intention to put together a few points on the matter of the improvement of the state of Christendom, to be laid before the Christian nobility of the German nation, in the hope that God may help his church through the laity, since the clergy, to whom this task more properly belongs, have grown quite irresponsible. I am sending the whole thing to you, reverend sir, that you may give an opinion on it and, where necessary, improve it. 
I know full well that I shall not escape the charge of presumption, because I, a despised, cloistered person, venture to address such high and great estates on such weighty matters, as if there were nobody else in the world except Doctor Luther to take up the cause of Christendom and give advice to such highly competent people. I make no apologies no matter who demands them. Perhaps I owe my God and the world another work of folly. I intend to pay my debt honestly. And if I succeed, I shall for the time being become a court jester. And if I fail, I still have the one advantage that no one need buy me a cowl or provide me with a cockscomb. It is a question of who will put the bells on whom. I must fulfill the proverb, "Whatever the world does, a monk must be in the picture, even if he has to be painted in."
Luther then proceeds to offer point by point advice to the Christian nobility on their policies as heads of the German nation.

What Lutherans have learned from this, and continued to practice, is the right ordering of the spiritual and the secular estates. They are not divided, as if there were a higher spiritual estate to which clergy attend, while the politicians and the lawyers attend to the lower secular estate. Instead, all those baptized into Christ are all called to the spiritual estate, and everything is spiritual, with each of us simply fulfilling different offices.

Then, from the office of the pastor (or monk) sometimes we play the part of fools and speak to the other estates and offices. And in point of fact, it is a crucial responsibility of clergy, precisely in and from their office, to lay before the government a reminder of its proper responsibility and role.

Other offices ought to listen to the clergy (and in our modern context, we might add non-profit leaders) more. Certainly that is the case with immigration and refugee resettlement. There would be far less confusion this week if some of those in the highest offices of our nation (I'm looking at you, Tom Cotton and Donald Trump) would have taken time first to learn about refugee resettlement from some of us who work in that arena.

And those of us in the church need to be going back to our social statements over and over, and bringing a word from them of clarification to those in elected office, so that they pursue legislation that comports better with the social ethics of our faith traditions.

Allow me to end with this insight into proper behavior in a crisis. Let's say, for example, that you are currently responsible for rescuing people from a sinking ship. You were just handed the job. Even though you are inexperience, even though it's all new to you, you should not in that moment say, "Can we all take a pause? I need to figure out what is going, to get caught up? Let's resume this boat rescue in a couple of days after I read all the manuals on boat rescue and make sure they're written properly."

This would be inhumane and cruel, ludicrous and wrong. Your responsibility is to jump into the fray and trust the work of those already engaged in the rescue. In a crisis, you get dirty. You participate. While participating, you review your options and make improvements as you go.

I have a feeling that one mark of the dangerous narcissism of our current president is his inability to actually pause. He thinks a pause is everybody else waiting for him, rather than he pausing himself.

I love this line from Thomas Friedman in his new book Thank You For Being Late:
When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start... you start to reflect, you start to rethink your assumptions you start to reimagine what is possible and, most importantly, you start to reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. Once you've done that, you can begin to reimagine a better path.
There is one thing spirituality might offer for a crisis that we can take into account, and that is, once the immediate threats have been assessed and neutralized, there will come a time when one can pause, and then start to reflect. Reimagine what is possible. Reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. Reimagine a better path.

That is, you can pray.

All great social movements, all great forms of resistance to the principalities and powers that have bent the arc of this life toward justice, have been grounded in prayer. Luther famously remarked that when he had much work to do, he got up and prayed for two hours.

Social justice groups like the Catholic Workers, or the New Monastics, grounded themselves in the Daily Prayer Offices.
From the Berlin Wall
Christians in the middle of a crisis sing songs (think of Paul in prison, Acts 16:25).

Those resisting empire often paint art on the very walls they are tearing down.

Christians find the resources both for reframing, resistance, and renewal, in the classic Christian disciplines: prayer, fasting, Scripture, shared meals. And they discover that in the middle of a crisis, those shared disciples take on greater poignancy. They become, in a sense, more real than real.

Because what we really find in a crisis is new vitality precisely in the midst of exhaustion. Just when you thought you could no longer, by your own effort or strength, get it done. When you thought all things were lost, everything was impossible... there God makes a way where there wasn't a way.

For what is impossible for mortals, is possible for all. For God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

How can we be Christian in a crisis? Love our neighbors to the absolute limits, and discover beyond our own endurance the possibility and strength of God.

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