The word “clergy” makes me uncomfortable. I’ve always thought of myself as a nonreligious person, and the idea of a class of people separated from the rest of us, granted special privileges due to their position as representatives of a religious tradition, worries me. Too often, it seems to me, these privileges are held by those who should least exercise them: people whose personal conduct makes them unfit for the positions of authority they are given, and whose public values promote a meaner, less equal, and more narrow-minded society.
Clerical privilege frequently hands the worst ideas the biggest megaphone, putting the values and beliefs of a far-gone age on a pedestal, while shielding those who abuse their position from the consequences of their actions. The fact that when I’m fully-trained as an Ethical Culture Leader I will formally be a clergy person myself is the source of some discomfort, as if I’m being offered a fancy uniform I’m not certain I want to wear. The work of an Ethical Culture Leader I love and want to continue – the position as clergy makes me nervous.
In the past few months I have spent many hours with clergy in the St. Louis area, as we have planned and worked together in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. In that time I have seen, over and over again, enormous moral courage and principled leadership from the clergy. Professional representatives of a wide range of faiths have consistently been some of the first to respond to calls to action, and have been pivotal in organizing actions across the city.
I’ve seen clergy show the wounds they have received on the front lines of this struggle. I’ve seen them mobilize faraway communities to stand vigil night after night in the freezing cold. I’ve taken notes as clergy taught me how to de-escalate a conflict. I’ve wept as they described the beatings they’ve seen the police give protesters. I’ve heard clergy express fear that the teargas they were attacked with, having seeped into their clothes, will affect their sleeping children when they return home. I’ve taken calls from them as they were released from jail.I have sat for hours with clergy as we planned to engage in civil disobedience. I have marched with them, in Ferguson, in Clayton, and in Downtown St. Louis. I have seen them risk arrest – even provoke their own arrest – multiple times. I have attended press conferences with them, written talking points with them, staffed jail support with them, spoken out with them, stopped traffic with them, sung freedom songs with them. I’ve been encouraged by them, inspired to live out my own values more fully. And I have prayed with them. Well, stood with them while they prayed – I can only go so far.
I am thankful for them.
The clergy here in St. Louis are a credit to their traditions and to their profession. They are doing what religious leaders ought to do: holding society to a higher moral standard, using their authority as a weapon against injustice, mobilizing the rich resources of their religion to bring hope and encourage change. I’m glad they are here, and I feel privileged to work with them.
As a committed Humanist and freethinker I will probably remain skeptical of the clergy – skepticism is in our blood, after all! But my experiences in St. Louis have convinced me that clergy have a role to play. If clergy conduct themselves with the ethical and personal courage I have witnessed in St. Louis and Ferguson, I’m thankful they are here. This atheist will keep working with – and learning from – the clergy.