Monday, August 30, 2010

Jeremiah Wright's Little Rock Sermon: What He Said, What I Heard

When I blogged about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon at New Millennium Baptist church in Little Rock yesterday, I mentioned that I might add a bit later about what Rev. Wright said in his sermon.  I’m not sure that the notes I took are worth sharing with anyone else, because they’re idiosyncratic.  Like most longtime listeners to sermons, I hear what I want to hear in homilies that make a broader and more elegant point than the one I’m receiving—though I have long since trained myself to hear the text even as I weave my own subtext while I listen.

Fortunately or unfortunately (much depends on whether you really want to know my meandering reflections on Rev. Wright’s sermon), the church made it easy to record one’s thoughts, by providing both a program for the service and space in the program for note-taking.  And so note-take I did, copiously, as Rev. Wright spoke.

And here’s what I recorded:

The sermon itself was a meditation on 2 Kings 6:8-17, a passage discussing the prophet Elisha’s intervention as the king of Aram made war against Israel.  Beginning with stories about his own family’s history, Rev. Wright grounded the passage brilliantly in the historic struggles of the African-American community for liberation from oppression, and then moved to conclusions significant to us as we continue the struggle for liberation in the world in which we live today—“we” who are both black and white, American and Pakistani and Iranian, Christian and Muslim, etc.  

The passage ends with the king of Aram surrounding Elisha with the Aramean army, to entrap and seize the prophet and stop his intervention in the affairs of Israel and Aram.  But when the king’s army encamps around Dothan, where Elisha is lodged, they discover the mountain on which the city stands full of horses and chariots of fire safeguarding the prophet.

And so Rev. Wright concluded with the following exhortations:

•    When we hunger and thirst and struggle for justice, though we may not see the chariots of fire in which a cloud of witnesses surround us, we are not alone. 
•    And though we may not see God’s hand summoning that cloud of witnesses, God is at at work on our behalf as we struggle for justice. 
•    And we therefore have nothing to fear as we follow the example of the witnesses who have gone before us and continue the struggle for justice.

That was the heart of Rev. Wright’s moving sermon (one I was surprised to read about in the media as an attack on the president’s [whom he mentioned only once] critics), and I received Rev. Wright’s words with gladness.  Because the experience of the black church is grounded in an actual and longstanding struggle for justice, in which one witness after another has gone before us pointing the way to liberation, it is impossible to worship with an African-American community and not find one’s heart lifted up.

But here’s what was actually going on beneath the words, in my own mind, heart, and soul, as I took notes: I’m thinking first of all of how striking it is that the church housing New Millennium is also a white Baptist church, my aunt’s church (as I’ve shared previously on this blog).  Because they’re an aging congregation that is not attracting younger members, they have taken the courageous and generous step of joining with New Millennium and sharing their church buildings with this growing, significant African-American church pastored by a dynamic pastor (whose friendship I cherish along with that of his wife Pat), Rev. Wendell Griffen.

As we sit waiting for the service to begin and I start scrawling notes in the program, I think of how different the worship styles of the two Baptist churches that share this space are.  The rafters are already rolling even before New Millennium’s service has begun, as dueling electric organs play a jaunty musical prelude and, all around me, people stop to hug, kiss, welcome, and greet each other (and Steve and me as guests).

The service my aunt attends will, by contrast, be reserved, quiet, far less emotionally engaging: two churches, both Baptist, one white, one black, sharing one space.  A shared religious tradition, but with radically different historical experiences that yield radically different styles of worship.

And yet these two churches are definitely rooted in the same gospel.  My aunt’s church sponsors a food pantry in which my aunt works weekly.  She tells me she increasingly comes home exhausted from that ministry, because the number of people coming to the church to be fed is growing as more breadwinners find themselves out of work.  She and the other elderly members of the church make it their business not just to go to church and hear the word of God on Sundays, but to feed the hungry and tend to the sick during the week.

As do the members of New Millennium, who are involved in any number of ministries of outreach to the surrounding community.  And whose welcome of Steve and me has been insistent and warm.  Who have, in the past year, engaged in repeated intra-church dialogue about where gay and lesbian folks fit into the scheme of things, and how the church should respond to our presence in the world.  To the fact that we’re there.  And any church that claims to be welcoming has to be about the business of welcoming us, too.

Two Baptist churches, one white, one black, with wildly different worship styles rooted in very different histories, both hearing the same gospel and responding to it creatively, according to their own needs and styles.  Both hearing that social gospel that happens to be the real gospel, which Mr. Beck repudiates, and which he has now tagged as Marxist.

I’m glad to be here.  I’m glad to be worshiping with this warm African-American community, though the fingertips of all my nerves are already jangling from the dueling organs that begin the service, and now they are jangling even more acutely as (again, traditional black-church style) we’re exhorted to rise to our feet, give God a loud handclap, greet our neighbors, and engage in the call and response pattern that shows we’re there, listening with our minds and bodies, and trying to respond with every ounce of our being.

And then it strikes me: it’s, in part, my own formative experience in this evangelical church environment rooted in the Anabaptist tradition that makes me question the claim of some American Catholic centrists today that the Catholic church is inherently all about dogma.  That our tradition is, in its very roots, a dogmatic tradition, and this is what sets us apart among other Christian communions.

I don’t doubt this claim for a moment.  I do think it spectacularly misses a very important point about dogma, however.  This is that credal formulations and dogmatic statements are expressions of a religious experience that is more fundamental than, and is essential to, creeds and dogmas in a  foundational way.  Dogma enshrines religious experience in words.  It enshrines in words the lived experience of discipleship of the people of God.

That experience—the experience of the people of God at prayer and in ministry in the world—has primacy of place in our tradition.  Not the words of creeds and dogmas.  

Certainly the latter are important.  But their relationship to the Christian community’s lived experience of the divine is dialectical.  They formulate and channel our experience of God, absolutely so.  But they also remain always open to the corrective of that experience, as it unfolds over the course of time and space and radically diverse cultural developments.

The words of dogmas are sacramental, in that they point beyond themselves and channel the salvific experience of the divine that is their basis and raison d’ être.  To make them the center of our religious tradition, our identifying mark as Catholics, is to put cart before horse, to make the sacramental sign primary rather than the communication of the divine to which it points.

And, of course, this discussion has profound implications for how we view the role of the hierarchy as the communicators and guardians of creeds and dogmas.  Those espousing the “we’re-dogmatic-people” reading of the Catholic tradition are doing so to defend the role of the hierarchy in determining who we are as Catholics, what we’re all about, what defines us.

But as I wrote here back in July, in response to Michael Sean Winters on these points,as he seeks to defend Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, when George writes that the “Catholic way of life is based on assent to revealed truth and obedience to appointed pastors, both of which create the unity Christ wishes us to enjoy,” the unity of the people of God is created through the shared religious experience of the people of God first and foremost.  The dogmatic declarations safeguarded by the pastors of the church do not create that unity: they serve it and the religious experience to which it points.

And so I scribble in my program, “Here, Catholics stand to learn much from the Anabaptist tradition, if they were willing to listen.”  From people like Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, whose description of discipleship is close, in fact, to the insight of our own much loved saint Francis of Assisi, who told us to preach always, and only when necessary use words.

For that matter, those centrist apologists for the hierarchy today have much to learn from the history of our own theological tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries, from the turn to the subject that took place with theologians like Blondel and then Rahner, which calls into question the definition of our tradition as centered in dogma and not the shared religious experience of the people of God.

And then Rev. Wright begins to preach, and I’m spellbound.  I’m particularly impressed by his roll call of the cloud of witnesses who surround us: Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Barbara Jordan, his own great-aunt Hattie, and on and on.  They’re without number.  And they have never stopped witnessing along with us, surrounding us with their love and encouragement to continue our fight for justice.

At the same time, as I listen to Rev. Wright’s enumeration of the invisible witnesses surrounding us on our journey, I suddenly feel—as I often do in church—like a distant outsider looking in on an experience of communion denied to me and my kind.  Rev. Wright’s roll call does include Barbara Jordan, whose lesbianism was long an open secret in the African-American community.  And I welcome hearing her name in the list of witnesses surrounding me.

But I miss the name of Bayard Rustin, who is also significant for me as a gay man—Rustin, who spent time on the crosses of both racism and homophobia, and who witnesses to the need for justice in both areas.  It would have meant the world to me to hear Rustin enumerated in Rev. Wright’s cloud of witnesses—in part, because I am strongly aware that, while the African-American community mirrors society at large in its willingness to accept lesbians who remain relatively non-demonstrative about their identity, it struggles (again, with society as a whole) to welcome and accept gay men in particular.  Men who are perceived as letting down the side of masculinity, and who are particularly threatening for that reason.

I think, as I listen for Bayard Rustin’s name and do not hear it, of Islamic mystic poet Rumi, about whom I blogged glancingly a few days ago.   As I noted then, Rumi’s line “there is some kiss we want with our whole lives,” haunts me.  It haunts me because it is for me a beautiful articulation of the profound longing of our souls for the divine kiss—a kiss we encounter in the kisses of human beings through whose flesh, a sacramental token, the divine presence shines forth in our lives.

I think today specifically of how Rumi’s observation—“there is some kiss we want with our whole lives”—applies to church and to what churches are called to do by their very constitution, by their nature, by their vocation as signs of Christ’s salvific presence in the world.  I think:

Some kiss we want with our whole lives: We want to be enfolded.  We want to be held in tender and welcoming arms.  We want to be upheld.  We want our dignity to be upheld.  Our human dignity.  We want—desperately—to know we count.  To somebody.  To the universe with its cold, vast, dark, empty space.  Some kiss we want.  With our whole lives.  With the burden of our history.  And our existence.

And that’s what we come to church to find.  And what many of us continue not to find in even the most welcoming churches available to us.  Because, tragically, though we who are gay and lesbian have learned the courage to speak the love whose name we dared not speak before, the churches themselves often dare not speak the name of our love today.

Though we’re sitting right there in the pews as the gospel of love is proclaimed.  And though we’ve always been there, the Barbara Jordans and Bayard Rustins of the world.

Tragically, it is the church itself that now impedes our struggle to become visible in a world intent on making us and our love invisible.  Because the church dares not speak our names, or the name of our love.  Even as it speaks in the name of Love.

No comments: