Each time I look at the news, I feel like I did when I played with this awful jack-in-the-box as a child.
I knew I was going to yell and be scared, but I couldn’t stop myself from turning the handle. The music would play while I cringed, waiting for the terrifying clown to jump out toward my face.
When my friends came over, I loved to have them play with the awful jack-in-the-box, so I could watch them scream and jump. It was a terribly morbid thing to do — both to my friends and myself.
We are living in such anxious times. It seems as though there are enormous segments of people to whom we just cannot speak. We categorize people far too easily, thinking that folks can be reduced down to just one political platform or one religious test. We continually fail to remember people are complex.
My experience has shown me that, when I reduce someone down to one category and easily dismiss them, deep down I want to avoid being vulnerable. It’s terribly risky to have a dialogue with someone when my assumptions and beliefs are questioned. It’s far easier to label them and keep moving along, ego intact.
But, aren’t there absolutes? In theological terms, aren’t there elements of a moral order that we should agree on?
I think there are, but I think we have to approach the question itself in a different way than we may be accustomed.
In The Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being and seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
It turns out “our neighbor” isn’t the person we would naturally choose. It isn’t the person who is comfortable to us. “Our neighbor” is actually the person with whom God brings us into communion.
The story of the good Samaritan teaches us that. Remember, the priest and religious people keep walking by because they labeled the poor man as “other” or outside their acceptable category.
It turns out strictly adhering to doctrine and being blind to the invitation of the spirit caused those misguided religious folk to miss out on the opportunity for grace. Relationship trumps doctrine.
The Beatitudes teach us this too: “Blessed are the meek, those who mourn, those who are persecuted, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.”
However, often we might want to live as though “Blessed are those who seek power, those who are greedy and those who get away with what they can.”
That just doesn’t hold up in the Gospel’s light. The Gospel always calls us beyond our self-interest.
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how our particular church community can remain close in such anxious times. How does a diverse community hold together in the face of such political stress?
Ignoring the stress isn’t a faithful option, because it would mean categorizing a huge swath of our lives as off limits. And, Jesus seeks the reconciliation of our whole selves. Salvation comes to us not just as individuals but within the whole community.
Perhaps the answer lies in a willingness to be more vulnerable with each other. Gospel work is hard work — indeed, religious practice in all traditions is hard work — and we need to support each other and hold each other accountable in a faithful, supportive, encouraging way. We need to move from being partisans to being theologians. We need to move from “how can you possibly support that?” to “what is the Holy Spirit saying to us within this situation?”
I promise it works.
Each and every political position should be evaluated through the lens of Jesus’ own life and witness.
I wonder a lot about what would happen if we were willing to step into that risky space, release our grasp on our own ego’s protection, name our fears, take a deep breath and trust that God is at work.
Perhaps you think I’m naive. Maybe I am, but I’m going to stay here for a while. It’s better than continuing to turn the handle on that awful jack-in-the-box.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.