By Bill Carroll
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“In Times of Conflict,” Book of Common Prayer, p. 824.
For a couple of months now, I have been praying out loud during the Prayers of the People for “civility in our national life.” I am terrified, frankly, by the prospect of political violence in this country. This is fueled in part by talk radio and cable news, but these are really the contemporary media for an old and ugly message. More fundamentally, what we are seeing is driven by ancient malignancies at the very foundations of American life. Populist paranoia about government is nothing new. Nor is the appeal to violence to subvert the democratic process and thereby preserve privilege based on race and class.
I have been following the debate about whether and to what extent the unrest is fueled by racism. In one online conversation here in Athens, Ohio, I made the following points:
I think it's obvious that racism plays a role. Certainly in the level of vitriol and implicit and explicit threats against the President and his family. Also in the fantasies that Obama's rather moderate policies are somehow radical. But more fundamentally in the way in which some opposition movements…center around fears of lost white privilege. Sadly, this kind of visceral argument still has traction among many Americans. Wait till we get to immigration reform. Bob Dylan had it right. The poor white person is "only a pawn in their game."
I don't believe that focusing on racism as a property of individuals is much help. Far more helpful to focus on racism as a property of systems, in which we all participate, from which some of us benefit more than others, and which we are all responsible for fighting. (Guilt is another matter and rests squarely with those who benefit.) Ultimately, I believe, only a very small minority truly benefits from racism and other interlocking oppressions.
That said, it is also obvious that not everyone who opposes this or that policy of the President is doing so out of racism. Obama himself invited a vigorous public debate. Nevertheless, the very real threat of political violence to undermine the policies of the first black president is thoroughly racist and truly frightening. Members of both parties and of neither need to insist on civility and on moving the focus away from ad hominem attacks that have nothing to do with reality and on to the issues, many of which call for fundamental changes in our economy and our society.
The only qualification that I would make to these remarks is the following: in the end, no one truly benefits from oppression. Oppression of any kind involves spiritual death, even for those on whom it confers wealth and worldly power. As Dr. King liked to point out, it harms the oppressed, first and foremost, but also the oppressor.
It is no secret that the Episcopal Church has struggled with our own forms of polarization, some of them driven by the same dynamics that are present in secular politicsw. At our best, however, we have been able to come together as a single Body around the Lord’s Table, even when we disagree. Our Church’s bold stand for universal health care, which favors a single payer system and pragmatic steps toward such a system, should make it clear that our commitment to civility and encouragement of conscientious dissent should not be confused with being wishy-washy or failing to take a stand.
As important as it is to take such a stand in the present debate, however, we have another witness to make. Because we believe in Jesus, because we share a distinctive history as Anglican Christians, and because we have been shaped by the Gospel story and the particular practices defined by our baptismal vows, we know how to stay connected with those with whom we disagree. We can “confront one another without hatred or bitterness,” whether as members of Christ’s Body or as members of the body politic.
Both in the Church and in society, we need people who passionately advocate for a vision of the common good without losing sight of the humanity of our opponents. As Christians committed to a Catholic vision of comprehensiveness, we know that our salvation is closely bound up with that of our neighbors. The Reign of God that Jesus brings is at bottom a social reality. The Church is a highly imperfect but real anticipation and sacramental sign of that Kingdom. In Christ, we are being saved together—or not at all. Because our visions of the common good conflict, we can and must confront our neighbor. But because he or she is our neighbor, we can lay aside the spirit of fear and violence, as we seek peace and justice for the earthly city:
O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon us the Spirit of love, that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.