Thursday, May 30, 2013

the cry goes up, "how can we survive?"

Progressives...see feeding the body as an act of hospitality.  We give aid because we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, because each person is made in the image of God and is a person of dignity, because we are trying to be servents of God.  We maintain that proselytizing the needy in conjunction with helping them can lead to the cruel manipulation of vulnerable populations.  We would never ask anyone to listen to a sermon or recite a prayer before they could get a shower and a hot meal.
The understandable outcome is that the poor we help rarely become the poor alongside whom we worship.  We are used to working with the poverty "out there," but sometimes our only real contact is the benevolence check that we write.  By the time a person walks into the door of a mainline church, he usually has his financial portfolio in pretty good order.
Another awkward truth is that some members of mainline churches can show subtle but harsh intolerance toward middle and lower classes.  I joined the Presbyterian Church in my early twenties while I was employed in a retail position, and...I'm surprised that I stayed...I'm [surprised] the front entry on that presitigious downtown church [didn't] become a revolving door, spitting me out as fast as I'd come in...
I have learned, after some embarrassing experiences, to be careful taking minister colleagues to a restaurant where I am friends with one of the wait staff, because I'm afraid I'll leave in shame at how the employee was treated.  Somehow the mainline church's healthy passion for education can become a boorish disdain for those who never attended college, or for those who have a PhD and yet find themselves waiting tables.
These notions drown out Jesus, standing on the Mount, telling us that the poor are blessed.  Instead, we have the idea that anyone who does not make it into the upper-middle-class is undisciplined, vaguely immoral, and needs to put in some more hours to make ends meet.  We see poverty as an issue of personal responsibility, not a systemic problem, and if a person is struggling, then it is she who must be bad or lazy, not the social system.  There must be an easy solution to the problem, we think.  If only she'd cut back on the lattes or quit spending so much with her credit cards.  She needs to look at her budget and stop thinking about that iPod.  She just needs to work a little harder--like the rest of us.
--from Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt (my emphasis)

Now that I have completed my seminary education I'm rereading this book in light of what my future might involve.  When I read it the first time, about four years ago, it was with the expectation that I was heading for parish work.  But now I am looking at chaplaincy as my practice and ministry and thinking about some of the ideas from that perspective.  (Oddly, and this is not to take a dig at Howard Merritt, but the book has taken on a different life in my memory, full of more examples and greater emphasis on change there than it has on the page.  I suspect it's my filling in gaps with what I have learned and thought since.)

I take issue with a couple things in this passage--that "never" in the first paragraph is belied by the history of the Social Gospel which did exactly that (and lives on in the Salvation Army, hardly a bastion of liberalism any more); I think she presumes too much about the order most Protestants (or anyone else) find their portfolios in today; and I would hope she'd leave any restaurant or establishment, indeed any church office, feeling shame at the way some ministers treat people, not only those where she knows the offended person--but in the main she is correct.  One of the great shames of today's churches are their insularity, a situation that makes no distinction for denomination or belief.  People of faith already tend toward a propensity for navel-gazing and add to that the problems we experience in the larger community and economy, and the cry goes up, "how can we survive?" 

Not "how can the single mother working at the convenience store survive."  Not "how can the immigrant father who came to collect a week's worth of food at the food shelf this afternoon survive."  Not "how can the Libyan family that miraculously lived through the waterlogged journey in a leaky boat to the Italian coast, only to be packed off to Germany where they now expect repatriation back to their dangerous homeland, suvive." 

This emphasis on ourselves is understandable but doesn't speak well of our compassion or our understanding of our place in the world.  To experience those it may be necessary that our congregations and churches and faiths don't survive.  If the Christian message is that death is necessary to a greater rebirth, then perhaps Christian churches, and by analogy all progressive congregations, need to die.

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