Wednesday evening after the election our church gathered for one of our 6 yearly congregational meetings. We planned it for the night after the election on purpose, wondering if there might be a healing moment for us there. I’m guessing our church is half and half on red or blue politics. But our neighborhood is mostly Hispanic, predominantly poor, and definitely living on the margins. This is what I said that night.
There are about 16 kids from the neighborhood who are part of our youth group, 12 of whom are Hispanic. Any given Wednesday maybe 6 or 7 of them will be at church. They were all here tonight, all 12 of them… and they all came early. They brought stories with them about being harassed at school today. One young man was called a “stupid illegal” to his face. This is a sweet kid, a good kid, who’s just started to trust our church. One kid shared a text saying, “It hurts seeing people call Mexicans lazy when I see my Mom & dad come home from work tired after working two jobs that we stole.” Several endured comments at school along the lines of, “I’m surprised you are here today. I thought you’d be packing your bags for Mexico.” Another student was told, “You better watch out now, they’re gonna be coming for you.” They all agreed that this was a common experience.
There’s a lot of pain & fear in our neighborhood right now. Members of my congregation are wondering if their lives are about to be turned upside down.
Over the course of the last month I’ve had several good conversations with folks in our church who have felt on the fringes for a long time. Not just in our society, but sometimes even at our church. They’re not part of the cultural or intellectual elite. They’ve felt ignored for a long time, as if their concerns don’t matter. They are not bigots, nor are they uncaring or uneducated. They are good people—moms & dads who love their families—but they feel like they are being asked to compromise their values by those who want change to move quickly in our society than they’re comfortable with. They feel frustrated and disenfranchised. The appeal that Donald Trump had for them was that he was speaking directly to their concerns.
Learning to respect these two lived experiences is essential to our faith, and my role as a pastor. Listening with compassion to those with whose beliefs make us crazy, or frustrated, or sad is one of the hallmarks of any mature Christianity.
Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary from England, who served the church in India. He constantly bumped up against the English Colonial attitude. The English considered India’s culture to be inferior, and asked people to convert to British culture first, and Christianity second. So, their dialogue was never honest. They always dealt themselves the good cards. They were suspicious of people who had dark skin, and different beliefs. English missionaries saw themselves as smart, enlightened, & right. They saw the other people as a problem, an enemy who was both wrong and foolish. So no genuine dialogue among equals ever happened.
Newbigin would draw this diagram with two opposing staircases descending to a platform in between them on which a lone cross stood. One stairway represents your point of view. The other represents a person from a different point of view. They he would say, God comes to meet us at the bottom of our stairways, not at the top. If we want to have a real relationship with another human being we must descend our cultural staircase, and meet each other on common ground at the bottom, because that’s where Christ is.
Nobody has a privileged position before God. We are all beggars. You’ll never heal from your own hurts, until you surrender the moral high ground, and confess your own brokenness and need for understanding and healing.
Newbigin said our ascent of the staircase takes us both further away from each other and further away from God… “further away from the place where he actually meets us.” He wrote, “Our meeting, therefore, with those of other faiths takes place at the bottom of the stairway, not at the top. … There has to be a kenosis, a ‘self-emptying’.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of Christian community is humility. You have to walk down your staircase and enter into the presence of Christ as equals. It’s not as though I have some secret knowledge with which to enlighten you. I don’t have any answers right now. I’m confused and extremely disappointed in our society—both parties. But, when we both walk down our staircase and expose ourselves to God & each other & we are all called into question before Christ. Unless we are all receptive to this conviction and correction and a greater awareness of another person’s point of view, we’ll only create more problems. Standing at the top of our ideological staircase lobbing hand grenades is a tired script.
Christ meets us at the bottom of the stairs. We stand on common ground, all of us called into question by the cross. That’s Christian community. It’s possible that after I come down my staircase & meet Jesus, I may never see my staircase the same way again. A bunch of stuff I thought was important won’t look so important anymore, because my version of Christianity, my vision of reality is always incomplete and flawed. My ideas about politics or social policy always need refining.
I have to find a way to accept people who have experienced what Walter Brueggemann called “an alternative obedience” … a different lived-experience from mine, in regard to matters of faith and obedience.
We ended with a prayer exercise. We all came to the front of the church and stood in a circle. It was a tight squeeze, so most of us were nearly touching shoulders. I handed out copies of The Prayer of St. Francis, and we went around the circle each person reading one line of the prayer. When one person ended the prayer, the next person began it again. Around and around we went. We must have read it more than a dozen times together. At first people were nervous, a few people used their best TV host voice. But after awhile the words began to sink in. Every once in awhile, when it was their turn to read, people would have to gather themselves. Arms started to go around shoulders. I could sense the emotion, and hear the sniffles and see the tears. It was a beautiful moment.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.” … your peace. Where there is injury, let me sow pardon. Where there is discord, let me so harmony. Where there is doubt and despair, let me sow faith and hope. I do not know if this is possible for a culture so bitterly divided. But I am certain we have to find a way to do this as the church. Our legitimacy, our very being depends upon it.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.