By Kathy Staudt
Annie Dillard describes a visit she made once to a neighbor near her home in rural Virginia. Trained by Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell to greet any stranger with a faith-challenge, the neighbor asks Dillard, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Dillard, a Roman Catholic, writer and mystic, relates, “She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party.”
I’ve thought of that encounter as I’ve heard the word “Christian” used in the media lately, especially reading about the rally led recently by Texas governor Rick Perry, strongly supported by the American Family Association and other “Christian” groups. Are we all talking about the same party when we say we are followers of Jesus, the Christ? Is it possible even to have that conversation? Absent any agreed- on source of authority, we are left with Christians of different political stripes hurling accusations at each other, saying, “Well, these people are not real Christians” (reminiscent of Muslims after 9/11 who insisted with deep plausibility, “This is not Islam). I’ve done this myself.
Particularly distressing to me is seeing the practice of prayer co-opted as a political tool, by any side of the spectrum. Tilden Edwards, writing about Contemplative Prayer, warns against what he calls the “God and me” approach to faith, widespread in our culture, which sees God as “out there” and assumes that we can somehow direct or control God’s actions through prayer, to support our agendas. He connects this to what Parker Palmer names as the “functional Atheism” of our society — the belief that really we control everything, and we invite God in when we choose, to bless or ratify the judgments we’ve already come to, thus claiming the moral high ground.
If we’re honest, we have to admit that all of us do this sometimes. But it is a perilous thing, closing off the living God who desires to heal and transform us. Contemplatives everywhere will tell you that going into prayer begins with letting go of our most firmly held agendas, and being open to a deep and risky conversion of heart. How many Christians really have the courage to embrace a life of prayer that relinquishes our own agendas, and opens us to deep transformation? And what do we believe about the call of Christ in this kind of prayer? I have more questions than answers here, but perhaps the questions are the place to start.
It seems to me our first call as Christians, of whatever stripe, is to open ourselves in prayer to the possibility that our most beloved political agendas may be flawed, and that our political enemies are fellow human beings — and to be available to the best ideas for meeting the urgent needs of “the least of these.” My own process, looking at our broken world, from a prayerful place, is to ask, what does the Scriptural tradition say about this? (Not a verse here or there but the whole arc of the Scriptural story of God’s call to covenant living). It’s worth asking: how has this tradition seen issues of social justice, the right use of resources, and the needs of the poor? ( It even helps to ask what do other monotheistic faiths — say about what God desires for the social order? There is remarkable consistency here, across Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, about our obligations to the poor and to the care of creation). And how can a thinking person be guided by the tradition, knowing what we know from our best and most careful observation of social and economic realities? (Scripture-Reason-Tradition — my Anglican orientation is obvious here).
When I try to turn to Scripture without proof- texting, I remember God’s instructions to Israel to leave food in the fields for the gleaners, to observe a year of Jubilee when debts would be forgiven and slaves set free, to even the playing field and prevent the emergence of the super-rich. And I remember the hug gap fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and the separation at Judgment day between those who did and did not recognize Christ in “the least of these.” And I am challenged more and more by the parables of Jesus that present a world radically different from the status quo.
This is not the time to surrender the label “Christian” to a particular right-wing or even left wing social agenda. It is a time to reflect openly, with our friends and in our writing and public discourse, on how we connect our politics and our faith, resisting labels and speaking out of a core of faith and prayer, and using whatever forum we have. To do this I think we have to assume, for the sake of connection, that we’re all talking about “the same third party” in our claim of faith in Christ. I ran across a delightfully unexpected example of this the other day in a quote from comedian Stephen Colbert posted on a blog I’ve just discovered called “Dover Beach”, Colbert writes: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
It’s a start: What Colbert is doing here, in his sharp way, is having the conversation as if we were all talking about the same third party, and without succumbing to either “God and me” or “us and them”, at least not in this moment. This is the challenge for all of us who are speaking and writing publicly, out of our professed Christian faith, in these times of pervasive social and economic suffering and injustice.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.