Monday, March 21, 2011

Almost saved?

Sitting in church, I realized that I had come to see the style of the service – the singing, the “amens”, the famous lyrical tone of the preachers, and so forth. I had given little thought to the substance, however. Once Rev. Dr. Warnock reminded us that something might connect with us, I started really listening to what the preacher had to say rather than just focusing on the performance of it all.

There was a lot about the message I liked. I like the idea in the verse that even though those in authority had prohibited them from speaking the truth they were defiant and spread their truth – a crucial message that I most associate with Audre Lorde. I liked the way he took the miracles and healing of the gospel and related them to the present day miracles of building schools and winning the vote. I liked the idea of praying for courage from God to perform human actions. There’s an Ani DiFranco line: “God’s work isn’t done by God, it’s done by people” of which I was reminded. I have no patience for prayer in place of action, but I think prayer in order to provide courage (and judgment) for action is a great thing.

The message I found disturbing, however, is the idea that church was the most important element in life. That if you could do nothing else, you should pray. That people who didn’t attend church had no excuse. And that attendance (and giving money) to that particular church was important. I believe the church does great work. But there’s a dangerous sectionalism there. And the power churches have to raise wealth has always had the danger of being corrupting. I’m not making any accusations here, I don’t know anything about what the church does with its money. But the fact that they were asking for money without say what it was for made me very uncomfortable. I still chipped in a buck.

I was uncomfortable too about the words spoken about Japan. I think it is actually quite horrible to advise people who have been victims of such a terrible disaster to take comfort in God, to find courage in prayer. For a start, this is no help to the dead. Further, there’s a certain type of imperialism there. Japan does not have a large Christian population. I know this is not what the preacher meant to say, but his message was not so far from the Christian missionaries who did so much harm, cultural and otherwise. To put it another way, imagine a Christian in the US who had lost a loved one in a natural disaster being told by a Japanese preacher that they should visit a Shinto shrine and leave an offering for the earth. I think the Christian would find that pretty offensive.

Of course, on my mind was the good the Church has done in terms of supporting civil rights and organizing people around social justice balanced with the harm they have done maintaining patriarchy and promoting discrimination against homosexuals.

All this is prelude to a more important personal question I was forced to ask about the role God plays in my life. I am not a Christian. But I translated the core message of the preacher that courage to perform healing (understood in the social justice sense) comes from God (the force for truth and justice which is greater than ourselves). I spoke in class about my shortcomings in terms of the incredibly limited amount of my time and energy I devote to justice. Today, we saw the MLK Jr. quote “life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” My honest answer to that question is “not nearly enough.” Not to assume too much, but frankly that’s probably the honest answer of everyone on this trip.

Rev. Dr. Warnock asked us to surrender ourselves to Christ. I considered that question very seriously. I said after the service to some people that "I was almost saved but not quite." I was being funny, but I was also telling the truth. I don’t take it to be a literal call to Christianity, but rather to ask whether I have truly set aside my ego, my selfishness, my privilege, in service of truth and justice. I am a long way from doing that, or even from wanting to do it. There’s an argument, I think, that letting go of yourself in that way can be harmful, Elaine Brown (and many others) talk about the incredible toll that absolute dedication to social justice can take on a person, ultimately making them less effective. And then there’s the risk of fanaticism, of doing terrible harm in the over-zealous struggle to do good, of which history provides us with no shortage of examples. But these are just excuses. I’m struggling with my own level of dedication to justice and I heard a call today to surrender something of the worst part of myself to greater service. I honestly wonder if I will be able to heed that call.

Also, we got a shout out from John Lewis.

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