♦ November 22, 2016 ♦

Our Lady of Ferguson icon written by Mark Dukes, commissioned by Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Trinity Church Wall Street
“What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’  Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.”

—Junot Diaz on President Trump and Radical Hope in The New Yorker

—♦—

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of offering the homily at the Bexley Seabury Eucharist, in the presence of the 15 or so seminary students and faculty assembled for a weekend liturgy class. I have preached many sermons in the past three decades, on many challenging scripture texts. But in the light of the events of the past few weeks, I found the two texts assigned for the day particularly problematic. In the first one (2 Corinthians 8:7–15), Paul urges the Corinthians to be generous in support of their fellow Christians in Jerusalem. “I am testing the generousness of your love,” he says, “looking for a fair balance between your present abundance and the needs of others.” The Gospel reading was even more troubling (Luke 6:35–38): “Love your enemies…do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Given the signs of the times, I now include these two passages in my growing collection of what Biblical scholars call, rather dispassionately, “hard sayings.”

What makes them hard? I will try to keep to the facts. At this writing it appears:

  • The Justice Department will be led by an attorney general with a history of racist comment; who is on the record as eager to initiate massive deportation proceedings and manhunts, requiring the cooperation of local police; who is on the record supporting policies that will continue to result in mass incarceration for minor drug offenders; and who has called the Voting Rights Act, already weakened by a Supreme Court decision, an “intrusion” on the rights of the states.
  • The CIA will be led by a strong proponent for restoring torture as an interrogation tool.
  • The EPA transition is being led by the most vocal proponent of the view that the 99% of scientists who have warned of the effects of climate change have conspired to perpetrate a gigantic hoax.
  • National security will be in the hands of an adviser who is convinced that Islam is an ideology, not a religion, with the implication that American Muslims are not protected by the freedom of religion clause enshrined in the First Amendment.

I have spent 32 years in the pulpit assiduously avoiding taking a position that might be construed or even misconstrued as political. That can no longer be the case. In this new dispensation, anyone with any credibility as a religious leader needs to exit the closet (and perhaps the pulpit) to stand in public solidarity with the oppressed, the marginal, and the vulnerable.

But I have also spent 32 years in the pulpit and the classroom urging my congregations and my students to take the lead as peacemakers; loving their enemies lest they become like them in hatred; to become repairers of the breach; to take down the walls that divide us. All this must still remain the case.

The challenge for me, for my colleagues, for my students, is to reconcile these two Gospel imperatives:

  • Imperative #1: To stand up for justice and mercy; to make no peace with oppression, and (to paraphrase St. Paul) to seek a fair balance between our own abundance and the needs of the world—for water, for housing, for refuge, and safety.
  • Imperative #2: To love our enemies; to forgive as we would be forgiven; to temper harsh judgment, lest we be judged; to become the ministers of reconciliation we have been called to become in our baptism.

Never before in my ordained ministry have these imperatives seemed so much at odds with one another, seemed so irreconcilable. But never before in my lifetime has it been more important, as a leader in the church, to embrace them both. As I said to my students on Saturday, that kind of leadership is what they have all signed up for.

To paraphrase the ordination rite, “May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things give us the grace and power to perform them.”