By Jane Redmont
The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and that on this we are fed.
Dear Anne Rice,
I heard you on NPR on Monday. I had already read about your highly publicized declaration that you had “quit being a Christian.”
I understand rage at the church’s injustices, external and internal. As the saying goes, if Jesus were still in his grave, he’d be turning over in it, seeing what we have made of him and his message.
The problem is, you can’t do the Jesus thing alone.
There are plenty of reasons for leaving the church, any church. Common life is messy. Institutions are messed up, and I am using polite language. It’s not just individuals who sin. There are, as Catholic social teaching and liberation theologies have noted, sinful structures and systems. Religious institutions can be even more disappointing than others because we expect them somehow to be better, untainted by the dirt of daily life; instead we find that they are, like all the rest, “seared with trade; bleared, smeared,” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would say. Dorothee Soelle, the German Protestant theologian and activist, wrote a combination of poem and creed that spoke of her belief in Jesus and admitted:
every day I am afraid
that he died in vain
because he is buried in our churches
I’m not saying there are no good reasons for leaving the Catholic Church. I left it myself for the Episcopal Church nearly a decade ago, after a long discernment. I hope that I emigrated with some integrity along with my lifelong vocation to ordained ministry. I remain in affectionate contact with my former church home; I didn’t leave in a huff. On the other hand, many friends of mine did, and I empathized. I wept with them and felt their anger: lesbian and gay friends claiming the full humanity that is rightfully theirs, women called to ordained ministry, parents wanting to raise children in a tradition with less overt hierarchy and more freedom of inquiry, adults of all genders and sexual orientations wounded sexually, psychically, and sometimes spiritually.
I also have friends who stayed, members of warm, life-giving Catholic parishes, sustained by the rich prayer traditions of their church, by its sacramental life, by its work with the most poor among us and its social analysis of the causes of their poverty, by the church’s universality, its strong intellectual and theological traditions, and its diversity. They too include people of all genders and sexual orientations with good hearts, good heads on their shoulders, and a passion for justice.
I even have friends who converted to Catholicism, some recently, some long ago as I did in my early twenties after a humanist upbringing. In fact, there has been so much traffic in both directions that a couple of decades ago, when I wrote a book on Catholic women based on interviews around the U.S., I had to include a chapter called “Why They Leave and Why They Stay.”
I understand the commitment to Christ of which you spoke on your Facebook page, where you first told the world of your departure from the church. Those of us who have had our doubts and struggles (and any adult Christian who says she hasn’t is probably lying) know that even in the times of emptiness and discouragement and anger, there comes a moment when we throw up our hands and say, as a disciple did long ago, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The thing is, the only way any of us knows about Jesus and those words of life, the way that we know about Jesus’ actions, the way that we know about the life Jesus breathed into those whom he encountered and continues to encounter, is from Christian communities. They are the ones, first the eyewitnesses, then their descendants, who told and retold the story of Jesus’ suffering and sorrow, his death by torture, and his resurrection. They are the ones who carried his wisdom sayings in their hearts and forward into the generations. They are the ones who testified to the healings, the changed lives, the rising of hope. The reason we have the story and the memory and thus the presence of Christ is because of, well, the church. With the Holy Spirit, of course. But the Spirit had to work through those humans. Us. Christians. Christianity. In many forms, some of them unsavory, some of them life-saving.
As for the earliest community of the friends of Jesus, let’s not idealize it. It had major problems. The betrayer of Jesus is repeatedly referred to in the Gospels as “one of the Twelve,” as if to remind the remaining friends, to their shame, that betrayal and abandonment existed among them. It was one of us who did this: perhaps any of us could have. Jesus’ friends fell asleep the night he prayed and sweated blood and prepared to die. The one who ended up, the story tells us, as the “rock” on which Jesus said the church would stand, was Peter. That’s Peter the bumbling one who never ‘got it,’ more impetuous than wise, and in the time between the dying and the rising, a denier of the long months of friendship and accompaniment. How’s that for a group of best buddies?
And then there were the women, the other best friends, whom an already patriarchal church could not erase from the story because they were too central to it. Did I mention patriarchy as one of the church’s ongoing little problems? The women did not run from the site of torture and death and they ran early, despite their fear, to the tomb. One of them, Mary of Magdala, faithful to the end, preacher of new beginnings, was the first witness to the Resurrection according to the official accounts, the ones the men approved as part of the canon. There were, off course, other gospels that got left off the list; in one of them, Mary of Magdala is a major actor. And what about Martha, who made the same profession of faith as Peter, naming Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Son of God? Peter, after his confession, is promised the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Where are Martha’s keys? (The question is not original to me. I first read it in the works of Edwina Gateley, English Catholic writer and founder of Chicago’s Genesis House for women involved in prostitution.)
If only the message came to us pure and not through the filters of flawed communities. Alas: no flawed communities, no gospels.
I’m glad you still have your faith, Anne Rice. Or perhaps it has you. When you pray, alone in your room, you will still draw on the presence and power of the Communion of Saints, that vast expanse of witnesses across the entire geography and history of Christianity, the community of the friends of Jesus.
Who handed down the faith that is still yours? Who made the prayers? Oops – it was the church. Does that mean you’re going to stop saying the prayers, singing the songs, remembering the saints and their desire to walk in the footsteps and spirit of Jesus? And the Nicene Creed, the one that speaks in 4th century language the orthodox faith that you hold? It was developed in messy councils at Nicea and Constantinople. Those councils were summoned by emperors, by the way: talk about lack of boundaries between religious and secular! I know that has been one of the most distressing issues for you, especially recently.
I’m not writing to urge you back into the Catholic Church. Nor to enter the United Church of Christ, some of whose members have already made a Facebook page urging you to join up. Nor even to lure you into the Episcopal Church, my dear and frequently fractious home, which, I am duty bound to remind you, welcomes you. People have been falling all over themselves and each other with come-hither invitations since you made your announcement. There are also communities that don’t engage in much overt outreach but may offer you a welcome. The Orthodox Church: ancient faith, beautiful spirituality, Eucharistic liturgy, no Pope. The Society of Friends (Quakers): no Eucharist but the sacrament of silence and a long tradition of "testimonies” of integrity, simplicity, and justice. Or the other places some find church: Twelve-Step groups, women’s liturgy gatherings in living-rooms, meditation societies. But the last thing you need is another splashy move. Besides which, the Catholic theological tradition, as you know, has taught for centuries something called the primacy of conscience. You have a conscience and, you told the world on Facebook, you listened to it.
What I am writing to tell you is that there’s no such creature as a lone follower of Jesus. You can’t be a Jesus-person away in a corner. Even hermits pray in communion with a larger tradition, a church beyond themselves in a world which is the place where God becomes incarnate.
The world: that’s why Jesus showed up. That’s why we are church. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian whom the Nazis killed for resisting Hitler and the Third Reich. He wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
I want the church to meddle in the world just as God meddled in the world and invited us along. As I understand the Good News (not every Christian agrees with me, as you noted in your mention of some Catholic bishops’ donations to anti-gay-marriage groups) this meddling need not and should not involve the breaking down of the wall between church and state, nor should it mean funding bigotry. On the other hand, I am all for meddling in the way churches in the U.S. served as bases for the Civil Rights Movement and produced its major leaders. Or the way my sister and brother Episcopalians, along with religious believers and leaders from many communities -- Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists – protested and prayed in public in Arizona the day SB 1070 went into effect. And yes, the way some (as you point out, not all) Christians and other religious people are speaking up to remind their neighbors that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are fully human and fully worthy of God’s love and of equal rights and protection under the law.
I am all for meddling in the way some churches in South Africa spoke out against apartheid, the deadly and dehumanizing system that other churches were helping to sustain and justify. The Christians weren’t just on one side. In fact, we may often be on the side of the losers. There’s this little passage in the Beatitudes about being persecuted in the cause of right. It happens. It hurts. Sometimes it even kills. “I think Christ didn't promise us victory,” Dorothee Soelle said about 25 years ago in a conversation with South African anti-apartheid churchman Beyers Naudé. “Christ promised us life, and that includes death…We hope to win… we give our blood and our lives... but I think we cannot understand our own struggle in terms of success and non-success.”
This is where the religious rubber meets the road: in the struggle for life, among the most vulnerable, when out of faith we give of ourselves and risk our reputations and sometimes our lives.
This Christ you believe in, Anne Rice, where do you meet him? He doesn’t only live in your head and heart, or in the Eucharist you told us you will miss so deeply, or in the scriptures that are our legacy from the early churches. We meet Christ every day in others, especially in what Mother Teresa called “the distressing disguise of the poor.” Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, knew and lived this also, but she went a step further than her co-religionist in analyzing the causes of poverty, the deadly rush to war that robs the poor even when we are only preparing for military battle and not waging it, the love of possessions and power above the respect for the dignity of humans all made in the image of God.
One thing that being an adult Catholic for a quarter of a century taught me was not to confuse the church, any church, with its hierarchy. I still think it’s a good idea not to do so, and I belong to a church with some pretty cool hierarchs. I owe my having become an Anglican and an Episcopalian to some of them. But with several shining exceptions, many in my own church and some in others, they are not the folks who keep me a Christian on the days when the bureaucracy (not the same thing as the hierarchy, only sometimes) is concerned only with preserving and perpetuating itself. Along with those shining bishops and other leaders are the holy people and the resisters, many of whom were and are the same folks. If I began a litany of their names, we would still be praying an hour from now.
Those people are the ones whose names we will never hear in the formal litany of the saints at Easter or at ordinations, even in the most inclusive of churches, because they are not religious celebrities: they are the congregations to which I have belonged, both before and after joining the Episcopal church, whose members and pastors I know I can trust with my life; they are the motley group of Catholic Workers, Episcopal Peace Fellowship members, Quakers, Franciscans, and others with whom in my Bay Area days I demonstrated every Good Friday at Livermore Labs, which designs weapons of mass destruction in the suburbs of San Francisco; they are communities of theologians, artists, and activist friends in faith.
Those people also include groups of Christ-followers I barely know, like the congregation that got our bishop’s annual award a couple of years ago for the work it has done with persons in its community who are poor and suffering and grieving: a tiny church of unpretentious, quiet, steady Christian people whose goodness was written so clearly on their faces that it made me weep; or the congregation of Latino and Latina immigrants I recently visited whose members have built a playground and planted trees on their small plot of land in a neighborhood where there isn’t much green, who put on a great feast to celebrate their new vicar, and who run a monthly food pantry with the help of an interfaith food project because they know there is always someone more hungry than they.
I wish you well, sister in Christ. You’re a friend of Jesus; so am I. We’re in the same boat. It’s called the Body of Christ. I hope that some part of it will continue to nourish you. Call it the church, call it communion, call it a meeting, call it solidarity, call it what you want. It won’t go away.
Jane Carol Redmont is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today and When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life. She is a professor of religious studies and women’s studies at Guilford College and a member and former chair of the Bishop’s Committee for Racial Justice and Reconciliation in the Diocese of North Carolina. She blogs at Acts of Hope.