Sunday, February 19, 2006

Politics, Religion, and the "other"

I'm going to be taking alot from Street Prophets today, and, as the lawyers say, "incorporating herein by reference." Starting here, in fact, so you'll have to read the post first to understand what I'm on about.

I'm a jackdaw scholar, I pick up on the all the shiny little things, and take them back to my nest. Before I found pastor dan's post, I had found this, in Harper's. It's from an article about the "intelligent design" trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, written by the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. At one point while covering the trial and talking to the participants, he meets with the pastor of a local church, a proponent of teaching "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools. Here is his description of what happened:

When I visited Groves in his cinder-block church, he had set up his own video camera to film me filming him. He told me it was just to keep a record of the event, and I did not object. At the end of my interview, he asked me if I was an atheist, and I replied that, no, I was an agnostic, believing that faith even in nothing was too much faith. I finished by observing how odd it was that a country as riddled with Christian faith as America has so little regard for its poor, sick, and imprisoned.

Two days later, two reporters told me they had visited the church in search of local color and found me booming from a TV on the altar, declaring my agnosticism to many gasps of horror. Apparently, the consensus was that I'd end up in hell, probably to find Great-Great-Grandpa sitting at the Devil's side.

When I upbraided Groves about this-he had not told me I was to be used in this way-he shrugged off my objections and told me it had been "educational." He and his flock concluded that I had a different understanding of Christianity. Coming from Europe, mine was "more socialistic," while his was more concerned with "individual salvation." ("God or Gorilla," by Matthew Chapman, Harper's Magazine, Feb. 2006, vol. 312, no. 1869, 54-63)
I know people like this, and you can no more disabuse them of such notions than you can make the earth stop turning. But notice not just the strange misreading of Matthew 25 (I've always contended American evangelicals leap over Matthew 25 in their haste to grasp Matthew 28 with both hands, generally around the throat), notice the casual justification of deceit by dismissing Chapman's concerns because Chapman has a "different understanding of Christianity."

There is, quite simply, no talking to such people. Nor do we even need to try.

Or do we? I found this from Anne Lamott this morning. Does not talking to "such people" mean we cannot speak at all? Is silence and holding our tongues what Jesus would do? I was thinking about that question when I lead the reading of the psalm this morning:

1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2 Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6 I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD."*
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8 You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

True, it's a psalm about confession, but sometimes might our sin be not speaking the truth as we understand it? We admire the prophets today for speaking up; we overlook that, by their own admissions, they often suffered agonies for being the ones to say it. Jeremiah writhed under God's hand; Amos said he'd rather go back to dressing sycamore trees; and Ezekiel must have seemed simply crazy, even by a Foucaultian understanding of insanity.

And that's when pastor dan's exegesis seemed to have a connection here (I told you this was a jackdaw's nest today). He reminds us of the place of humility, of the importance of setting aside the ego ("me, me, pick me!"), and also of being careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

I have to admit, when I heard this Gospel passage read this morning, my first thought was about the hole torn in the roof, and no mention of the displeasure of the homeowner. That, it occurred to me, was a very modern thought, and a very perverse one. Where building materials are plentiful and cheaply acquired, and labor ready to hire on almost any street corner (in sharp contrast to Jesus' day), we are more and more concerned with what we can own and preserve against loss and destruction, and less and less concerned with each other. There is no mention here that the homeowner was particularly aggrieved about the destruction of his property. I can't help but think today that that's the next thing we would all think about, if it wasn't the first thing.

So what does this all have to do with the other? Just that; a kind of concrete meditation on the 'other' is, it seems to me, always important. To Pastor Groves, Mr. Chapman is so wholly 'other' as to be beneath concern or consideration, an already lost soul who is doomed to perdition and therefore worth no more thought than a bug on the floor. Anne Lamott made herself 'other' to the group she spoke to, but was she therefor wrong to speak? The paralytic was not 'other' to either Jesus or the homeowner, but did Jesus become 'other' to them by what he did? Well, yes, at least to some, according to Mark's story.

And this whole post, in its divagations, seems, at least to me, both inviting and obstinately "other" at the same time. Part of me likes it, and part of me wants to scream with the poet: "It is impossible to say just what I mean!"

All the others we meet, encounter, perhaps even create by our behavior: are we responsible for them? Not entirely. But neither can we just go around them, as if they weren't there. Even the others we admire, as Ms. Lamotte shows, affect us.

Sometimes it's just about learning the limits of our reach.

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