Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Talking About Exile: Valuable Testimony from Tom Doyle and Ruth Krall

Yesterday, I looked at the movement now developing among conservative Christians in the U.S. to herd the church into exile. The reasoning that lies behind this rhetoric appears to be that since contemporary American culture has resisted the attempt of the churches to control culture to offer the good news of Christ to it via culture wars, the churches are left now with only one plausible response: to turn their backs on contemporary culture and go into exile.

In what I posted yesterday, I sketched my own reasons for being underwhelmed by what strikes me as a petulant and immature response to the failure of right-wing Christians to capture the imagination of many Americans in the latter part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century, as those Christians have obsessively focused on opposing women's and gay rights and have equated this focus with the gospel itself. Today, I'd like to point to some contemporary voices that speak credibly about exile, as far as I'm concerned.

These are people with roots in the Christian churches who have actually experienced exile — as opposed to those who want to manufacture a reactive exile in which to nurse their bruised egos after they failed to seize control of American culture through their culture wars. These are people whom the churches themselves have shoved into exile, because they asked too many questions, wanted too much honesty, demanded too much justice for those on the margins.

These are some credible voices to which I've been listening lately as I think about themes of exile in contemporary Christianity: here's Father Thomas Doyle speaking at the recent SNAP conference (thanks to Jerry Slevin for putting the text of Tom Doyle's SNAP address online):

My own confidence and trust in the institutional church has been shattered.  I have spent years trying to process what has been happening to the spiritual dimension of my life.  The vast enormity of a deeply engrained clerical culture that allowed the sexual violation of the innocent and most vulnerable has overshadowed the theological, historical and cultural supports upon which the institutional Church has based its claim to divinely favored status.  All of the theological and canonical truths I had depended upon have been dissipated to meaninglessness.

"My own confidence and trust in the institutional church has been shattered": Tom Doyle speaks here from a place of authentic exile, in my view. This is the place in which he has ended up as he has come to terms, over and over again, with the "vast enormity" of a deeply ingrained clerical culture that permits the sexual violation of the most vulnerable. As Tom asks, how to maintain the traditional theological assurances we've been offered by the very same church leaders who have crafted such a vast enormity for us? How even to hold onto faith in God, in the face of this?

Tom Doyle speaks for many of us who have been driven by the leaders of our churches into such exilic places. Ruth Krall does the same, as a Mennonite theologian. Ruth recently shared with me by email an unpublished sermon she wrote in 2012, which deftly describes her exile to the desert (to the literal desert of Arizona), an exile set in motion by the refusal of many members of her Mennonite community to entertain her calls for honesty about issues of sexual abuse within that community.*

A central question Ruth asks in this sermon is how one handles the sense of isolation created by the experience of exile, while simultaneously managing to hold onto the communitarian aspect of Christian faith that is so strong in her Mennonite tradition and other Christian traditions. She writes, 

In the isolation of making moral choices, in the inner struggle of the soul for human decency and civility, each of us need to find and make a community for the living of our lives.  We must, somehow or other, find the courage to make a new home and community for ourselves even as we seek to make one for others.   
We need to learn how to make visible that which has, up until the moment we begin to act, been invisible – perhaps to ourselves but certainly to others.  

Exile reminds us of our essential aloneness as we confront any important moral choice — our aloneness with God and conscience, in whose depths we alone must make the moral choice that seems correct to us, no matter how steep the price. But exile also invites us, in that essential aloneness, to forge bonds with others who experience similar exile from various religious communities. Exile affords us the opportunity to refashion community in a way that makes it far broader than our communities of origin have ever managed to be.  

Voices worth hearing, it seems to me, as talk of exile is bruited here and there in the contemporary churches . . . .

*Note: Ruth's sermons is now online at her website. This link will take you to a page that allows you to download the sermon.

The graphic: artist Hung Liu's meditation on the classic biblical text of exile, "By the rivers of Babylon" (Psalm 137:1), from Photobucket. Hung Liu's website is here.

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