Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Week of Amazing Grace, and of No Grace at All: Reading the Testimony of the Mother Emanuel Martyrs Alongside the Dissenting Obergefell v. Hodges Statements of Four Supreme Catholic Men

What's a church for?, President Barack Obama asked the American people on the day on which the highest court of the land struck down barriers to legal civil marriage for same-sex couples What's a church for?, President Obama asks us as he delivers a deep-souled eulogy for the martyred pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, that will go down in history as one of the most significant orations made by any U.S. president.

And then the president answers the question he has put to the nation:

A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.  

Wild applause as the people gathered for the eulogy stand and clap their approval.

Here's what church is, our president informs us as he preaches on this historic day on which rights long denied are extended to a long-excluded, long-despised minority group, on the very same day on which the martyred pastor of an historic church founded by and ministering to members of another long-excluded, long-despised minority group was buried after he was gunned down in his church in an act of racist terrorism: church means "a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all."

If it means anything at all, church means "a sacred place" in which those committed to "the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity" find refuge.

And then President Obama asks the nation another question on this momentous day: grace — what's that about? Churches talk about grace as their raison d'être, the cornerstone of their message of good news to the world. The American people talk constantly about grace as the very foundation of our national experience.

So what's this grace talk all about? President Obama's answer:

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.  
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It's not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

And the people gathered to hear this eulogy now go even wilder in their applause. They leap to their feet and call out their approval. They do so because they understand full well that, in the complex rhetorical style of the black church, which constantly segues back and forth between the Word of God and the lived experience of the people of God, the president-preacher is testifying to the grace in his own life as the nation's first African-American president, at the end of a week of amazing grace for his historic presidency. 

The people eulogizing the Mother Emanuel martyrs know that, rooted as he is in the African-American experience of unspeakable oppression and amazing grace, President Obama is speaking of the astonishing grace of a week in which his commitment to extending healthcare coverage to citizens on the margins of society and his commitment to equal rights for LGBT people have both been vindicated by a court not inclined to care a flip for those on the margins. From a court dominated by a clique of Catholic men who are inclined, rather, to ditch any message of grace for those on the margins as they fawn over and worship at the feet of the rich and powerful . . . .

The people to whom Barack Obama is preaching fully understand that he is folding together the historic events of a single week of his presidency — the turning back of a vicious, dirty, wholly partisan attack on a program that has brought many more struggling citizens within the circle of healthcare coverage, the extension of rights to LGBT citizens — with the martyrdom of Clementa Pinckney. And Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

These events, this expansion of human rights and human dignity in one amazing week, the same week in which the martyrs of Emanuel A.M.E. church are eulogized and the Confederate flags come down, place the black church's message of what church is about and its messsage of amazing grace front and center on the stage of American society. In this historic week, on full display for any American citizen with ears to hear, the message of what Clementa Pinckney died for (and what the black church has long lived for) is being spoken loudly and clearly — I repeat, for those with ears to hear:

Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world.  He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.

Where grace is, there is no me here and you over there. There is the recognition of ourselves in each other. Where grace abounds and is authentic, there is no liberty for you without liberty for me. Where grace lives in people's open hearts, history is not used as a sword to justify injustice, as a shield against progress: it is not used in the precise way that the four Catholic men fawning at the feet of the rich used it in their dissents from the majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

President Obama knows this, and his audience knows this, because the minority statements of the four Catholic Supreme justices were issued on the same day on which Clementa Pinckney was buried, as each gentleman justice in his own way did everything possible to stand history on its head to jusify the continued denial of rights to a long-excluded, long-demeaned minority group. 

On the very same day in which the four Supreme Catholic men sought to ground their message to the nation in a church offering neither grace nor mercy to those on the margins, the first African-American president, speaking from the depths of the African-American experience of simultaneous savage oppression and amazing grace, pointed the nation to the gift the black church has long held out in its hands for all of us, insofar as we've been willing to see and hear. This is the gift of real grace, of grace bought at a real price, of the cross that is never disconnected from the lynching tree (to cite James Cone). This costly grace is sharply different from the cheap, bogus grace offered to the American public by churches that disconnect the cross from the lynching tree, that preach as if the message of Jesus's crucifixion at the hands of the merciless authorities of his day has no connection at all to the crucifixion of people deemed nobodies by the merciless authorities of the world in which we live today.  

The cheap grace (which is no grace at all) offered us by the four Catholic gentlemen justices in their dissenting opinion Friday is rooted in the experience of many American churches that do nothing at all to connect their preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ to those struggling for rights and dignity as they live on the margins of society. The message of cheap grace offered to the nation on Friday by four Catholic gentlemen sitting on the highest court of the land — grace that is, truth be told, no grace at all for those struggling for rights and dignity on the margins of society — is rooted in the experience of many American churches that actively resist the message of costly grace, insofar as it requires them to care about those on the margins of society, or to connect their proclamations of the cross and grace to those people.

It was because his message this Friday was grounded in the costly grace of the black church and of all other communities of faith struggling for justice for those on the margins that the church rose up when the president spoke — a point that Joshua DuBois has made powerfully: 

We also rose because Obama had given the country a window into something black folks have known and felt deep down in our bones: the power of grace. He opened up the doors of our church and let folks peek inside. He showed the world that this grace—unmerited, undeserving, given freely and flowing from God—is not some passive quantity, the response of a defeated people. Rather, it is a potent, courageous, and healing response to a broken and fallen world. From slave ships to cotton fields to the Underground Railroad to the streets of Mississippi and Alabama to today—we have been specializers in active, lived, powerful grace. Amazing grace. President Obama understood that—so we rose.

And so, as David Reminick says, "What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace." What absolutely has to be noted, though, is who is offering the uncommon forgiveness, the justice, and grace — and who remains bitterly committed to resistance. Who's offering the nation real, costly grace, the foundation of the church's message, and who's offering cheap grace that is no grace at all — especially for those living in the underbelly of society?

Here's the New York Times editorializing yesterday morning about Obergefell v. Hodges:

The humane grandeur of the majority’s opinion stands out all the more starkly in contrast to the bitter, mocking small-mindedness of the dissents, one each by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia. 
Faced with a simple statement of human equality, the dissenters groped and scratched for a way to reject it.

They groped and scratched for a way to reject the simple statement of human equality enshrined in the majority ruling that is now the law of the land. Four Catholic gentlemen justices groped and scratched for a way to reject the simple statement of human equality in the majority ruling, offering the nation, instead of grace, bitter, mocking small-mindedness. 

Actually, it's worse than that. As Jay Michaelson has noted, the four Catholic gentlemen justices deliberately sowed the seeds of sedition in their dissenting statements. They provided ample ammunition — and willingly so — for those who will now claim that the majority ruling is not valid and does not obtain where people of faith continue to claim a religious "right" to discriminate against LGBT human beings. Justice Scalia's ruling, in particular, contains one dog whistle after another to white Southern right-wing evangelicals, as it actively encourages that sector of American society to defy the ruling of the court on which he himself sits. 

As I think about this seditious behavior emanating from a group of highly placed Catholic men, I ask myself what American Catholics should make of such behavior — and to be honest, why American Catholics aren't hanging their heads in shame after those four Catholic men issued their dissenting statements on Friday:

1. You who are Catholics and American citizens, does it bother you to have our church and its gospel message represented by highly placed Catholic men who grope and scratch for a way to reject simple statements of human equality for those on the margins of society, and who encourage sedition when courts do make such statements?

2. You who are Catholics and American citizens, does it trouble you in any way to discover that four highly placed Catholic men are capable of offering the nation — as their expression of what it means to be Catholic, clearly— a message of cheap grace that is no grace at all for those on the margins of society, while a people and church many American Catholics have felt beneath our notice continues to offer the authentic gospel message of grace to the American people?

3. You who are Catholics and American citizens, does it occur to you that the behavior of the four Supreme Catholic men in the Obergefell v. Hodge case might go a very long way towards explaining why people are leavying our church in droves — especially young people? Do you think that the behavior of the four Catholic Supremes in this case, and of the not inconsiderable body of white American Catholics who applaud this behavior, attracts people to our church?

4. Should people continue to connect their lives to churches that turn the message of grace that is the very foundation of the Christian gospels into a message of no grace at all —for those on the margins of society?

5. And what kind of catechesis and formation in the Catholic faith produces men like Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Roberts? By contrast, what kind of catechesis and formation in the Christian faith produces men of the ilk of Obama or Pinckney? Can a catechesis and formation in the Catholic faith that causes people to imagine they can be good Catholics while they do not recognize themselves in others (especially in others on the margins of society) be called authentic catechesis? 

Where's the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, to be found in our nation today? Who's building a healthy, humane, inclusive society, and who's groping and scratching to impede, in every way possible, the building of such a society? What's Catholicism really about, when all is said and done?

And is it possible that men like Barack Obama and Clementa Pinckney, men not even Catholic, represent a more authentic catholic message than do men like Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts?

Later: it occurs to me that I should also note that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in this ruling, is also a Catholic man — one representing, at least on the issue of human rights for LGBT people, a version of Catholicism closer to the thinking of a majority of American Catholics than the other four Supreme Catholic men.

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