A little follow up conversation with Sherry Weddell on ‘Kumbaya’

A little follow up conversation with Sherry Weddell on ‘Kumbaya’ March 21, 2019

Over on the Book of Face, I remarked that I’ve been Catholic for 30 years and I cannot remember ‘Kumbaya’ ever being sung in a liturgy or even at a charismatic conference. The claim of overuse that I perpetually heard from ‘faithful conservative Catholic’ bashers of ‘Kumbaya Catholics’, like the claims of the allegedly ubiquitous Clown Mass, strike me as urban legends.

Sherry replied:

I’ve been traveling the Catholic world endlesssly for over 20 years, attending Mass in and working in hundreds of different parishes and dioceses around the world and have never heard it either. Not once. I associate it with my evangelical childhood where no one seemed to treat it with contempt. It was just a song we sang at camp.

But in the Catholic world – especially online – I heard the term “Kumbaya” used over and over by white “conservative Catholics” as an expression of contemptuous disDain for any kind of Catholic practice associated with the honoring of kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, love, joy, peace, patience. Any talk of social justice and of repentance was also Kumbaya.

And now we know it was a cry from the heart from a people whose centuries of suffering were perpetuated by many white Catholics. Who needed to repent of horrifying things.

The assumption of contempt is such an easy way to avoid repentance and taking responsibility for individual and corporate evil. I remember the horror of white conservatives when JPII proposed to offer a public and very extensive apology for the sins of the Church over the centuries as part of the change to the third millennium celebrations. How dare he undermine the dignity and credibility of the Church through public repentance of evils that the Church had committed? Not even the Pope had the authority to do such a thing.

But no one thinks it was excessive now. How the last 18 years has changed everything.

The renewed scandals have wiped that old Kumbaya smirk off our faces – at least for the moment. In the last year, I worked in a famously conservative diocese that was presumed to be immune to the struggles the rest of American Catholics wrestled with. What I heard from every significant leader was “We are facing the same problems as everyone else. We’re not special.” Pastors accused of abuse. Schools and parishes have to be closed. The millennial children of large, home-schooled super-orthodox families filled with religious and ordained aunts and uncles just walking away from the Church in large numbers. Mass attendance dropping etc. Check.

I’d like to think this was the end of what I think of as “Kumbaya contempt” in the name of orthodoxy. But I know it will rise up in another form as soon as the worst memories of 2018 have faded. Because it is a very human way to fend off the demands of following Jesus Christ which force us to look at the evils we have accepted or even espoused.

Remember: When someone starts spouting off about the evils of “Kumbaya” or some equivalent, it probably means that the time for repentance is at hand.

I’m working on a book on the creed. One of the things I’m realizing is that a considerable discussion needs to happen, centering around Jesus’ saying, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” He ends with the stark and terrifying warning that those who do this will be told “I never knew you.  Depart from me, you evildoers.”  There is no comparable warning to those who do as he says but do not call him Lord.  It’s almost as though he cares more about obedience than about empty words, “thoughts and prayers”. It’s the same lesson as the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep are not rewarded for their theological knowledge.  They have, in fact, no awareness that they were serving Jesus and are surprised to find themselves welcomed.

It’s also the same lesson as the parable of the two son who were asked to work in the vineyard by their Father.  The one son said ‘yes’ but did not go.  The other said ‘no’ and then went and worked.  Which did the will of his Father?

We live in an age of ‘thoughts and prayers’ Christian conservatives who use words, empty piety, and respect for symbols as a prophylactic against the weightier matters of the law. The idea that one can heap contempt on kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, love, joy, peace, patience and any talk of social justice is now endemic among super-Catholics, right next to the idea that ritual or theological correctness is all that matters.  The idea that getting your words and rituals correct is the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit is utterly foreign to the New Testament.  May God heal the schism between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

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