Joan Chittister, O.S.B., is a member of the Mount Benedict Monastery in Erie, PA. She edits “The Monastic Way,” a monthly periodical of daily meditations, and is the author of several books, including The Story of Ruth, Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life; The Friendship of Women: A Spiritual Tradition; and Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.
The following is a transcript from the 2000 National Forum of The Center for Progressive Christianity, held in Irvine, California, June 1-3, 2000. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org.
The function of spirituality is to enable us to leaven our times; to stretch our times, to bless our times, to break open our own times to the present will of God. And what does all that mean to us today?
Thank you. It’s very nice, if you’re Joan Chittister, to have somebody applaud before you speak. It’s particularly nice because you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen afterwards. It was a wonderful introduction as only Mary Ellen (Kilsby) could or would do – scary as the devil. I sat there, and I thought two things. I tell a wonderful story about Harry Emerson Fosdick. You know that very renowned preacher? He got this fantastic warm and mellifluous introduction before some particular conference. They say Fosdick went to the podium, and he looked at the group for a minute, and he said, "You realize, of course, there’s not a word of truth in any of that. But Thank God for the rumor."
I happen to like particularly the great interfaith introduction about the rabbi and the priest who went to the prizefight together. When the little Jewish boy got into the ring, he jumped up and down, he flexed his muscles a little bit, and he went to the corner. Then the little Catholic kid got in the ring. He jumped up and down, he flexed his muscles, he made the sign of the cross, and he went to the corner. The rabbi looked at the priest and he says, "Is that gonna help him?" And the priest said, "Only if he can fight."
There’s no doubt that this is indeed a difficult weekend for me physically. I’m very grateful to you for making it possible. I simply could not for my own sake spiritually miss the opportunity to draw some spirituality from yours, even if I can’t take it all home with me. You are the hope that sustains me, and under no conditions do I agree to give you up.
I want you to know that the following comments and reflections are made from the perspective of several other pieces. One is about the famous guys who goes up in a small airplane with a parachute that, when the motor fails, does not open. So they say the guy is coming down, and as he’s coming down he sees a guy on a kitchen chair going up. So he yells over. He says, "Hey Buddy, you know anything about parachutes?" And he yells back, "No. Do you know anything about gas stoves?"
I’m going to talk this afternoon about the relationship between culture and spirituality. Anybody with a brain in their heads knows that to talk about culture, in this day and age, is one thing, but to talk about spirituality is even worse. To try to do both of them in one standing is not the smartest thing anybody can do. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I remember with Boethius that every age that is dying is simply another age coming to life, and with the Chinese poet, "If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there."
Somewhere there reads the following definition of an American: Americans are people who are born in the country where they work with great energy so they can live in the city, where they then work with even greater energy so that someday they can live in the country again. I don’t know if that definition is right or wrong, but I do know that it has a great deal to say, underneath, about the relationship between culture and spirituality, about what you do with what you are and why you do it.
Two pieces of religious literature indicate, to me at least, with special clarity this essential connectedness of spiritual maturity and cultural development.
The first one you know too well, from Exodus 3:18. On Horeb, the scripture tells us, the angel of Yahweh appeared to Moses in the shape of a flame of fire coming from the middle of a bush. There was the bush blazing, but it was not being burnt up. "I must go and look at this strange site," Moses said, "and see why the bush is not burnt." Now Yahweh saw Moses go forward to look, and Yahweh called to him from the middle of the bush. "Moses," he said, "come no nearer. Take off your shoes. For the place where you are is Holy ground." Then Yahweh said, "I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their appeal to be free. I am well aware of their sufferings. And I mean to deliver them. So I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people up." Now that’s the only place in scripture where I’m sure God has an Irish sense of humor. I have a rotten problem, he’s saying. You go solve it. The message is a most dramatic one. Just at what would seem to be the moment of Moses’ total immersion in the mystical presence of God, God stops Moses where Moses is, to teach him that his holiness depends on finding holiness where he stands. And then by taking that energy to other people for their liberation, Moses learns that holiness is made of virtues, not visions. Moses learns that holiness depends on being for the other. Moses learns that holiness depends on being something greater than the self. Moses learns that holiness is being present to the presence, everywhere it is, and even where it seems it isn’t.
The second story of culture and spirituality comes from the tales of the Hasidim. This story tells us that there was an old rabbi of great wisdom whose fame had spread far beyond his own congregation to the villages and rabbis on the other side of the mountain. One day, suddenly, he died. So the young rabbis were bereft. Now they said, "What are we going to do when our people look to us for guidance? Without the old master where are we going to get the answers to the great questions of life?" They decided among themselves to pray and fast until the old man’s holiness and wisdom would be infused into one of them. And sure enough, one night in a dream, the old man appeared to one of the younger rabbis. "Master," the young teacher said, "it’s so good that you’ve returned to us. You see, with you gone, the people are now looking to us for answers to the great questions of life, and we’re still unsure. For instance, Master, they’re demanding to know on the other side of what account are the sins of youth?" And the old man said, "The sins of youth? Why, on the other side, the sins of youth are of no account whatsoever." And the young rabbi said, "On the other side, the sins of youth are of no account whatsoever? Then what has it all been about? On the other side, what sin is punished if not the sins of youth?" And the old man answered very slowly but very clearly, "On the other side, that sin which is punished with constant and unending severity is the sin of false piety."
The point is clear, isn’t it? Piety is cultural. Holiness depends on our choosing the pieties proper to the times. Now I am definitely not saying that there’s anything wrong with our past pieties. I would argue that past piety is the reason that most of us, starting with me, are even in this room this afternoon. It isn’t that past pieties were wrong. It’s that past pieties are past, that there is a present that calls for a piety applicable to the present. Culture and spirituality, in other words, are of a piece. They are the same thing. If you want to know your spirituality, ask yourself about your culture. As Moses and the old master both knew, the function of spirituality is not to protect us from our times. The function of spirituality is to enable us to leaven our times; to stretch our times, to bless our times, to break open our own times to the present will of God. And what does all that mean to us today? To spirituality? To ministering? To being a progressive Christian here, today; now?
If culture is the way people think and feel and behave as a people, and if spirituality is the way we live out the life and teachings of Jesus in this particular culture at this particular time, then the questions for thinkers, writers, theologians, and religious professionals must become: What cultural realities are challenging the Gospel now? And how can the Gospel best challenge the culture, if we, here and now, are really to be a holy people, a progressive people, Christians at all?
The history of spirituality identifies three basic responses to culture. If we go back through the strands of Christian history, we can find three streams converging as common responses to cultural periods of one age or another: (1) the intellectual, (2) the relational, and (3) the performative.
An intellectual spirituality the scholars define as a spiritual life that is creed-centered. People who are creed-centered are committed to a checklist of beliefs, and they’re committed to union with God somewhere else. They’re waiting to get to God. God is the brass ring – if they stay on the horse long enough. An intellectual spirituality, in other words, is very good at drawing denominational lines and maintaining orthodoxy. These are the people who can tell you at any minute of a 24-hour day who is in and who is out. They’re the heretic hunters of every denomination. And they are committed spiritually to having personal, mystical experiences. The intellectualist wants to stay and contemplate the "burning bush". They want to draw it to size, and define its properties, and dogmatize its meaning, and describe the distance at which presence to or from it becomes a venial or a mortal sin.
The second stream of spirituality in the Christian tradition is relational spirituality. Relational spirituality is committed to the development of human bonded-ness, of community as the preeminent model of the Christian life. So the relationist talks a lot about love, and the relationist is willing to stay in Egypt if necessary, bush or no bush, to keep the slaves company in their pain. The relationist comforts the oppressed, sits down and reads Calvin, does a bit of Luther, says a novena, and sells a rosary or two (nothing wrong with a little business on the side if you’re relational). They comfort the oppressed, but they do very little to change the oppression.
Finally, the third stream of spirituality in the grand history or sweep of spirituality is performative spirituality. It’s very action-centered. Performers in the spiritual life pray every day, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done," and then they do something to bring it. Performers are people who know that the Word is incomplete until it has become transforming action. Performers would prefer to reform Egypt by carrying the lousy bush back there, to create a bright new world in the shell of the old, shine it up, refurbish it a bit, shape it up, and prod it on.
All those spiritualities are real, and all of them were historically prominent in one period or another. The question for us is, what’s our cultural situation now? And which type of spirituality is then most needed? And how do we build it? And what does that have to do with the Christian life today, with being a progressive Christian today – when for the first time in polling history the military now supercedes the Church as "the most trusted institution"? According to the 4/28/99 USA Today publication of the Harris Poll on the subject, 55% of those respondents said they have a great deal of confidence in military leadership, but only 25% of those respondents have as much confidence in leaders of the church.
Like Moses, let’s look briefly at the cultural situation in the United States from 1960-1998, the era that formed, institutionally, the spiritual life of most of us prior to the new millennium theologies. Like Moses, too, in this period we have experienced major shifts in our own national belief value system. No? You don’t believe it? Well, family patterns have changed. Sex roles have changed. And governments, including our own, that talked freedom and justice and human rights have been riven with one corruption after another and so have become daily less and less credible to anyone, anywhere. The most dramatic transformation of world view that ever took place has taken place in this period, in your lifetime and mine. John Glenn, our first American astronaut, took from outer space the only picture of the planet that had ever been taken, and he took it, they say, on a $45 camera that he bought at the local drug store the night before he took the trip. But the image of that bright blue globe lost in black space spins in your mind and mine even now, doesn’t it? We’ve never forgotten it. But don’t you understand why? Because up until that moment in your lifetime, the human view of earth and its place in the universe had never been anything else but theory and speculation and educated calculation. Up until that moment in your life, you and I knew where we lived only on the basis of artistic guesses. Now, for the first time in history, we could really see ourselves in all our grandeur. And in all our smallness, too.
This generation saw scientific progress that was often more threat than help. In these few years of your lifetime, science changed life and changed death, changed family and changed sex; changed birth and changed creation from critically unique to cloned, and changed war from struggle to human annihilation – until finally science has managed, in our generation, to change the very meaning of meaning. In this era, military security became our highest priority, our greatest expenditure, and our scarcest commodity. Thanks to our military security, indeed, we created the end of the world, and we stored it in the cornfields of Kansas, using it indirectly to kill millions who were refused, because of the skewing of a military budget, their direct development needs. In this age, too, we have seen new interest in the wisdom of the East, as the wealth of the West lost its power to save. American dominance and isolation and perfect security ended with the launching of Sputnik and the rise of a third world with its commitment to neutrality rather than to either communist or capitalist ideologies, and it challenged your notion and mine of this country’s manifest destiny to be the city on the hill, the new Eden, the covenanted people – as never before in U.S. history.
In this same time frame, integration (Black, Hispanic, Indian, Inuit) challenged white supremacy, and feminism challenged the white male system and even the white male God. And so did great poverty in the midst of great affluence. The working poor – that 20% of Americans out on the streets while we sit here reflecting – cannot get in the richest country of the world full-time work. And six million out there on those streets today will work two full-time jobs and still not get full-time pay. This very moment challenges all the American myths ever made about fair play, and blessing, and the protestant ethic, and the American dream, and freedom and justice for all.
All this has happened in a society, remember, where 10% of the world – the Western Europeans and North Americans – consume, hoard, waste, or control two-thirds of the resources of the entire rest of the world. Indeed, social consensus on values and beliefs has broken down. An annual survey of college freshmen, sponsored by the American Council on Education and the University of California (so it couldn’t be wrong), found in the midst of all this that, unlike their predecessors, college freshmen in this last decade were far less concerned about pollution, more approving of abortion on demand, less opposed to the death penalty, more intent on cohabitation before marriage, less committed to the elimination of racism, less obligated to help others in difficulty, considerably less concerned about developing "a philosophy of life", and extremely more interested in being "very well off financially". And all this while the government spent, on average, only twenty cents of every disposable dollar on human resources – education, employment, job training, social services, health, and fiscal assistance – but spent fifty-five to sixty-four cents of every tax dollar that congress has the authority to distribute, meaning minus entitlements, on the military. And all this in peacetime, they told us.
How can we say that we do not badly need, sorely need, definitely need spiritual-cultural revitalization? Indeed, the consensus on old values has broken down. Indeed, the spirit is dying in the most churchgoing nation in the world. Indeed, the current spiritual-cultural dilemma looms large. Individualism affects every institution. Individualism has been raised to the point of high art. Individualism runs rampant to the point of the pathological in this society. At a time when global community is urgent if both this planet and its peoples are to be safe, our current spiritual dilemma, then, must be, "How do we link the personal with the public dimensions of life?" How do we take this great churchgoing nation and make private spirituality the stuff of public leaven in a world fiercely private and dangerously public at the same time?
The fact is that simple spiritualities of creed, and community, and cooperation are obviously no longer enough. They’re not working, obviously not working. We need now surely a spirituality of contemplative co-creation if the culture is to be Christianized – no, my friends, if Christians are to be Christianized. Genesis insists that the function of humanity is to nurture, and cultivate, and care, and procreate, and take responsibility for. Carrying on God’s work in the world is, in other words, the spiritual life.
What do religion and religious professionalism have to do with all of that? When culture is in chaos and society is in upheaval, it may be important for us to step outside the religious categories in our heads and look for a moment at the process of social revitalization to see what that process might have to say to the church. The anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, in a little known classic on social change and culture, teaches that major transformations of thought and behavior happen in a society when a society discovers that a once common set of religious understandings has become impossible to sustain. To keep gluing them together, Wallace would say, simply obstructs social revitalization. At that point, Wallace says a society begins to undergo a revitalization movement of four major stages.
Stage one of the revitalization process, he says, is a period of serious individual stress. In this stage people begin singly, alone, privately, silently to question their own past values, and they start to establish new patterns of thought and behaviors in the face of the old. Translation: they don’t think about things anymore as they were brought up to think about them or as they once did think deeply about them. What the generation before them took for granted about divorce, or mixed marriages, or birth control, or segregation, or homosexuality they begin to debate and discard. Now how do you know if you’re there? It’s when your mother says to you, "Honey, by all means come to Thanksgiving, but do not talk about X, Y, or Z in front of your father." You are there when you cut the family social calendar to two meetings a week and have someone call you in the middle of one with an emergency you have to leave for immediately. You are there when you hear yourself saying, "My sister and I were always best friends. I love her dearly, but we just can’t talk anymore. We’re okay as long as we’re on shoes and cars, but by God, we cannot get on kids, marriages, and churches."
In stage two of the revitalization process, there’s now a very wide reaching sense of social stress. It becomes apparent that I’m not in this alone. I’m not the only crazy one. My God! They have conferences now; these crazies called Progressive Christians. What we once called "our culture" is now barely recognizable in any of our cultural institutions. And people begin to decide that their problems aren’t personal. They’re not the only black sheep of the family. They’re not just nuts. They don’t have to pay anymore for something to calm their nerves. Without nerves, they’ll never know they’re alive. Their problems, they decide, are a result of failure in the anchor institutions that they depended on for stability and direction. The institutions have let them down. We begin to hear things like: the churches are simply out of tune with the people; the schools are so remote from real life questions; the government is corrupt and corrupting. Suddenly the pot begins to boil over, and there’s political rebellion in the streets, schism in the churches.
In stage three of the revitalization process, the people as a whole all agree now. We do have a problem. They cannot agree on how to cope with this new social situation. Some of them want to change the whole system. Delete! Erase! They just simply want to wipe it out and start over. New church. New government. New schools. Just forget it. And some of them want to send in the troops. Stop this nonsense. Excommunicate those heretics. Crush these people if necessary, but hold the line. The two groups quarrel and divide, and they both blame authority. These people won’t do anything. Then, Wallace says, inevitably (Did you hear? Did you hear the word? If you hear no other word this afternoon, what’s the word you just heard? Inevitably.) inevitably, in stage three of this revitalization movement, a nativist or traditionalist movement suddenly arises out of nowhere. The traditionalists, the nativists, argue that the danger has come from the failure of the people to adhere more strictly to the old beliefs, and the old values, and the old behavior patterns. They want you to do more of the same and do it better. They want the "old-time religion", and they find scapegoats aplenty. The economy would be all right, they argue, if it weren’t for unions. Marriages and families and children would be all right if it weren’t for feminism. They never seem to notice that it’s precisely those past perfect families that brought us to this messy imperfect point. And the country would be fine if it weren’t for communism or liberalism, or Blacks or Arabs or Mexicans or Japanese, or Khadaffi or Hussein or Miloševiƒ, or whoever or whatever is the convenient scapegoat that day.
And in the fourth and final stage of a revitalization movement, Wallace says, comes the building of a new world view, and the restructuring of those old institutions to enable it. But how? In simpler societies, the leadership for this rebuilding of the society usually came from a single charismatic person. Psalm 99 is very clear about it. Moses intervened, and you, oh God, turned aside your destruction. But in more complex cultures like our own, multiple spokespersons, many leaders, a chorus of high clear voices are needed to lead people to new understandings about old values. The role of these spiritual leaders is not to repudiate the older world view entirely, but to shed new light on it so that it can be remembered that God’s Spirit manifests itself always in new ways to meet new needs. Then more flexible people begin to understand, and they start to experiment with the new consensus so that cultural transformation, this movement from death to life of an entire people, begins to happen.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wallace points out that it is not the older generation – not the people who brought the old ideas, and goals, and values, and designs, from one desert to another with them – that will change this culture. It’s not you and me. No, he says, it’s the new generation that grew up with the emerging insights, the generation that has spent their entire lives wandering in the desert. This is the generation that every time you start to talk about how it used to be in the old days, they start to hum a tune and start to go, "He’s going to do it again; he’s going to say it again; he’s going to preach it again." It’s the generation that spent their entire lives wandering in the desert with no experience, no memory of the past before the chaos because they knew no other. It is this generation that then comes to maturity, and old institutions find themselves with new leadership. Then the institutions are restructured.
Put no hope in the younger generation unless you have listened very carefully and heard that this only will happen in the next generation provided that someone from the older generation, you and I – the theologians, the thinkers, the teachers, the preachers, the progressive Christians – insist that this generation is brought up with, confronted daily with, required to think about the new questions and the new insights. On the days we are the most tired, the most rejected, the least wanted by own, how do we know it can happen? Because in this country alone, we have seen one generation withdraw their allegiance to a king, and the next abolish slavery, and the one after that regulate businesses, and the last one empower laborers. And this one, now, here, yours, mine beginning to struggle for liberation, for equality, for survival. Moses intervened, the Psalm teaches, and you turned aside your destruction. What God saves, in other words, God saves through us. Just as God did with Sodom and Gomorrah, and Mordecai and Esther, and Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph and the Pharaoh, and every requester of miracles in the New Testament. We need to intervene for one another. We need a new world view that puts the old one in new light, and we need the character and the courage to say it where it is least welcome to be heard – in every office, in every cocktail party, at every family gathering, in every conference everywhere – no matter who gets bored, no matter who gets tired, no matter who gets mad.
But how? And where will this spirituality of contemplative co-creation come from in an individualistic culture? And in what way can the religious leaders of our time help to build this bridge from privatized piety to public moral responsibility? I suggest that as religious persons, we begin to look again at the basis of social broken-ness that is found in every major religious stream in the world throughout time, that we ourselves begin to see the spiritual link between the personal and the political. I am suggesting that as religious teachers, counselors, directors, Christians, we begin to look again at what we used to call, and ought to call, the seven capital sins, the seven deadly sins, but this time on two levels rather than on simply one. At the level of the personal of course, but at the level of the global as well. Look again at envy, pride, lust, gluttony, covetousness, anger, and sloth and the way you’re teaching them in your Sunday Schools and from your ambos to your children.
On the global level, can sin be an expression of ethnocentrism? National chauvinism, as well? In Bangladesh, each person each year consumes an average of six and a half pounds of meat, and they consider themselves "blessed". In America, each person consumes an average of two hundred and sixty pounds of meat a year, and they think themselves entitled to do it. So we level other people’s forests for grazing ground because our own isn’t enough for us. We laugh at the vegetarians in our midst who have changed the family menus as well as their own. And we never see it as the beginning of global sin.
We uphold criminal governments politically for our own good – as we did in El Salvador, and Chile, and the Philippines, and Nicaragua – rather than recognize the needs of the people of those countries. When we impose our values and structures in return for trade and profit and power, isn’t that a form of envy? Isn’t it a fear of the other? Don’t we need to think and write and talk spiritually about that?
Pride is, of course, the need to dominate and coerce others on the personal level. But on the global level, isn’t it also the mania for national superiority? For racial superiority? For being number one? For having the best of everything? For having strawberries in January, whatever the cost to the pickers? Americans spend eight billion dollars a year on cosmetics. That’s two million dollars more than the amount that we need to provide a basic education for everyone in the world. If we want to be progressive, don’t we need to think and write and teach and talk spiritually about that?
Lust is clearly the exploitation of another for the sake of my physical gratification. We are beginning to recognize it, finally, when it’s date rape, or pornography, or selfish sensuality. That’s true, but is there yet enough spiritual conscience in us that allows us to see lust as the national passion for instantaneous gratification that justifies the exploitation of whole peoples? So that we can have the cheap cash crops and conveniences that we demand, we are raping their lands and looting their futures – without ever having to follow the legislation that is enabling it, without ever having to pay the decent wages, pensions, or benefits to those people to get them. Isn’t it the exploitation that comes from lust that leads to the feminization of poverty and the loss of feminine resources and feminine values in a world that is reeling toward its own death from the institutionalization of purely masculine values? Two-thirds of the minimum wage workers, who are earning an average across this country of five dollars and fifty cents an hour (they’re in this hotel today, and you’ll pass them in the hall over and over again), are single mothers with three children. To support those children and be self-sufficient, that mother needs to earn sixteen dollars an hour. But we have politicians who tell the people on Monday, "We’re not picking up your health bill, your dental bill, your milk bill, your kids’ bill, again." And on Tuesday those same politicians go to those same cameras and say, "Every one of you people on welfare have to get a full-time job." You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have mothers in the home, and working mothers on starvation legislation. Get it together spiritually, before you vote for anything. Isn’t it the institutionalization of lust that makes it possible to condemn the use of condoms or sex education in our schools but never to say a word, not one word, from an ambo or the pulpit or in a catechism class about the rape hotels in Bosnia? Isn’t it lust that drains the life out of a man for a company, and then when he’s middle-aged, throws him away, useless, so the company doesn’t have to pay him the pension he spent all those years earning? Isn’t that lust? Aren’t you sucking up somebody else’s life and calling it good business, and the American dream, and the twenty-first century culture?
Gluttony, the over-consumption of food, leads to waste and bloated-ness and misuse of resources on a personal level, yes. But it’s also surely at the base of the lack of distribution of surplus in this country that we refuse to the dying in Ethiopia and North Korea and the destitute in Haiti and the farmers in the Soviet Union. All the while that Americans and Europeans are spending seventeen billion dollars a year on pet food, which is four billion dollars more than would be needed to provide basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world. How can we say – unless we are preaching, teaching, talking, and organizing for these things – that we are developing a spirituality for this culture? Someone wrote of this culture: "We do not have a war on poverty. We have a war on poor people." And what are Christians, as churches, doing about it – as we say our prayers, give our retreats, organize our church socials, celebrate our feasts, publish our creeds and catechisms and our new old dogmas and doctrines? The last act of a dying institution, John Gardner says, is to get out a new edition of its rule book.
We speak of covetousness as a lack of a sense of enough, and we know that on the personal level covetousness leads us to the sinful brink of hoarding, or an inordinate desire for unnecessary possessions at least. But you tell me, what’s the difference between that kind of covetousness and the national demon that is fueling a military budget in the quest for world dominance? If we forgave the bilateral debts of the entire third world to us, that would equal 6.8 billion dollars. Do you know what that would cost us, while people are sitting around in the living rooms in the United States livid about the very thought of it? It would cost the U.S. Treasury the price of three B-2 Stealth Bombers for a fleet in which we already have twenty-one such things in peacetime. Or it would equal the money that is lost in accounting errors in the pentagon budget every year.
Anger we recognize as the cultivation of an eschatological sense of righteousness and judgement, putting ourselves in the place of the patient justice of God. "Vengeance is mine. I will repay," we remind one another. But what has happened to the national moral fiber when whatever evil we and our newspapers say of the others – the Japanese, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Serbs – is counted as national virtue? What about the sin of demonizing our enemies to justify the military-industrial complex and of determining our immigration quotas accordingly?
We abhor sloth and the assumption that if anyone has the right to live off the efforts of others, it is sheer laziness. It is lack of responsibility. But where is Christian leadership in the building of a new world view about the sinfulness of multinational structures that are living off the backs of the poor by giving unjust wages and benefits but will spend 165 billion dollars of bail-out welfare for the rich in the S&L’s? How do we take for granted the unequal treatment of women and the blasphemy of absorbing a woman’s life at lesser pay for the convenience of others, moralizing about that kind of institutionalized domestic servitude in the name of God’s will? By the year 2050, in your grandchildren’s lives, eight billion of the projected nine billion in the world will be living in developing countries. Over half of them will be women with no influence whatsoever on the systems that control their lives, while we take for granted our own feminine gains, small as they are financially, and say nothing in behalf of women who cannot say a thing. And we call ourselves models of the perfect Christian families.
So we go on blindly as a culture in our search for goodness, oblivious of new moral imperatives. Our institutions counsel and educate for individuality and autonomy and control and independence in a world that needs community and mutuality and cooperation and interdependence and human responsibility and a new spirituality for contemplative co-creation. Instead, our churches divide over pronouns. And our sermons float high, high above the fray because, Sister Joan, if I said what you are saying, do you know what would happen to my collection? Do you have any idea what would happen in my church? I think I know. I heard of one pastor who met another one downtown. He said, "How’s it going at the church?" The first guy says, "It’s terrific. We had this absolutely fantastic revival meeting this weekend. We’ve never had anything like it." The second guy said, "Is that right? How many signed up?" He answered, "Signed up? Five hundred of them left."
Indeed, we counsel and educate for individuality and autonomy, when we need community and mutuality. We do all that while we go to church, and we go to church, and we go to church. Seventy percent of the respondents to a survey conducted by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation (a non-sectarian organization concerned with religion and public life) said, "Religion has a place in public life." Where is that public religion in private life supposed to come from, if not from the leaders of the Christian community? If not from you and me? If not from Christian communities everywhere? When Jacob saw Joseph in Egypt, he said, "Now that I know that you live, I can die." And God said to Moses, "Stay where you are. Where you are is Holy ground." An ancient people tell the story of a seeker who asked, "Before I follow you, tell me, does your God work miracles?" And the Holy one said, "Well, it all depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of the people. We say that a miracle is when the people do the will of God."
Clearly the role of progressive Christians is, like Jacob, not to die until we have assured the rise of those questions, the life of those questions, in a dynamic and meaningful spirituality as the next generation comes to grips with them. It is like Moses to recognize where we are – with all the depression that it brings us day after day, week after week – as the gate of God’s grace and the cult of God’s work. It is certainly like the Sufi master to see the link between culture and spirituality differently – not to allow ourselves to be pressed back and put down, not to simply abandon the fray, not to say, "I can’t take them on one more time." Why? So that God’s miracles can happen in our time. So that we can find meaning in life by being about something greater than ourselves. So that we can realize the truth of Templeton’s insight that if we had been holier people, we would have been angrier, oftener. Social justice committees won’t do it. We need socially just Christian communities now. For the sake of the people, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the planet, I’m begging you to maintain this group, to build this group, to speak out as a group, to challenge your own as well as the others, to see your contribution to Christianity as the spiritual globalization of the seven capital sins. And I’m praying to have rise in you again the kind of holy anger that makes the Christian life of the new millennium even holier than the last. Though nothing we do changes the past, everything we do changes the future. So do it. Change it. Go on. Now.