Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book .  Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:

Do justice

A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003


The Politics of Loving Kindness in a Heartless World:

The Politics of Loving Kindness in a Heartless World:

Working for the good beyond the boundaries of contention.

 

by

The Rev. Canon Mark Harris

(poetmark@worldnet.att.net)

 

(This essay is written in the context of the Episcopal Church’s current internal struggles and as it works its way forward to the General Convention in Minneapolis in 2003.  It is about finding common cause, common focus and blessing in a time when we are often snarling and growling at one another.  I began this essay before the Bishops had their 2002 spring meeting in Texas and am happy to read the report of that meeting which holds the promise of an emerging consensus on specific issues and a broad concern to address wider mission. We wait with hope the further work that body does.)

 

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England provides near the back of the book several essays easily read, say, in the time allotted in the service by a preacher’s rather uninteresting sermon. “His Majesty’s Declaration” regarding the Articles of Religion (p.690-2) falls into this camp. Reading this declaration is instructive since it makes a plea for the Articles of Religion as a base line of reasonableness in Religion. It failed almost immediately in its argument. King Charles, its author, lost his head in a struggle for power in which Religious contention among the Christian people of England played a major part. The Declaration also gives internal clues as to just how serious internal divisions in the Church can be. The author laments “these both curious and unhappy differences, which have for so many hundred years, in different times and places, exercised the Church of Christ…”  Unfortunately, his threats at the end of the Declaration were somewhat stern and a bit uncharitable: The articles were to be understood in their “literal and grammatical sense” and Charles warned teachers in his universities who might dispute them, “… the Offenders, shall be liable to Our displeasure…and we will see there shall be due Execution upon them.”

 

Right faith and right conduct are not enough. We may be thankful that, on the whole, our internal divisions do not lead to beheadings or Royal displeasures (with uncomfortable words such as “execution,” being employed for our edification.)  Still, the Episcopal Church and its sister churches throughout the world have their share of contention, and the costs on all sides are serious indeed. Our “in-house” disputes mostly involve real matters of faith, morals and church life, but they almost always have a second layer of contention – issues of polity and practice.  It is this second layer that turns disputes into contentions about power, and finally the power to curtail any further wrong-headedness. Somewhere in the development of our contentions these “curious and unhappy differences” shift from being arguments among friends to warfare with enemies. And, as with all warfare, an additional casualty is that both the world ‘gaze’ and the focus of participants is narrowed. By all accounts this sort of warfare is a scandal, even if the issues in contention are valid and important.  The question is: what is to be done?

 

The concerns of this essay are about expanding the gaze and directing the focus of the Church to the world that indeed suffers and hungers for the practice of loving kindness. By “gaze” I mean there the sum total of the experienced world at any given moment, a sum that varies with personal, cultural and intellectual location. Gaze does not produce judgment, everything experienced is just there. “Focus” concerns choosing from the experienced world that to which we give attention. Thus, in order for the Church to take seriously the suffering of the world it first must include peoples, events and ideas that it might otherwise wish to ignore.  And more, if the Church has any actual desire to show mercy and do justice, it must be willing to redirect its focus to be on those who are unjustly dealt with or treated without mercy, and not on itself.

 

Justice and mercy are linked inextricably to the suffering of the world. If that is not known and believed, the church will not connect with the one place where we know the Sacred Holy One is to be found. That place, of course, is in heart of those who suffer, be it found in the heart of Mary for her Beloved, in the heart of the nameless child starving in the streets of Port-au-Prince, in the hearts of those who grieve for human potentials and talents forever lost in the corporate world in which they work, in the hearts of those untouched by the plenty all around them and in those are the victims again and again of international, state and local violence. And on and on.

 

To put it succinctly, I believe that we Episcopalians will only be welcomed in heaven or on in most places on earth by the measure of our loving kindness in a heartless world. “By their fruits you shall know them,” remains the test. And to be known as having right faith and right conduct pales in a heartless world to being known by the fruits of acts of loving kindness.

 

The Fact of Heartlessness:  We must begin by observing that heartlessness is present at every turn. Heartlessness is no soft idea, no idle and polite patter.  “Heartlessness” refers to the inability of persons to feel at a “gut” level - to persons whose hearts indeed might otherwise race, or constrict, or pound from the impact felt from being present with those who suffer, but do not. Heartlessness is an unhealthy state.  Heartless people are in some way diminished in response because, in their experience of the world, either their gaze is limited or, more likely, their focus draws them away from the experience of the suffering of others. They lack the ability to experience empathy or to show compassion. Such heartlessness is present all around us, and within us. We are socially trained for it. The practice of heartlessness is found in every community in society, including the several churches.  

 

The Church seems bent on avoiding the fact of this heartlessness, perhaps because it seems so shameful to admit its reality. Sometimes the avoidance takes the form of mimicking the gaze and focus of the world, so that our shame is hidden in the society’s norms. That mimicking can be truly demonic, as when preference still given to those in the church who hold power or position (as happens in the general society), rather than those who cry for justice and mercy. The mimicking also tempts us to think that the church has the power to “combat poverty” in some way that the state can or does not. But we may need to take the more humble part: we may be asked to stand with the poor and the suffering, not stand for them.  Sometimes the mimicking it can be just comic, as when we talk of princes of the church and play monarchical games among ourselves, as if we were a mirror of earthly kingdoms.  

 

But of course these sorts of heartlessness, these means of avoiding the realities that the wider gaze and the sharper focus would bring, are nothing compared to the results of the heartlessness magnified into the accepted “realistic” world view we carry about with us as part of a society, culture or state. “Be realistic,” is the beginning argument of a heartlessness that has trained us to look away from injustice, or to see it without mercy or compassion.  “Being realistic” was the preferred stance of too many in the segregated South. It made it easier to look away from the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in the Second World War.  Too quickly these things are consigned to history and we “realistically” move on without any analysis. “Being realistic” provides considerable ammunition for limitations on rights in times of national stress, and we seemed to have learned very little from our past at all. 

 

In the larger context of a global economy and the urbanization of the world’s peoples, heartlessness is the special habit of the haves. We are quite aware of the categorizing of humans into units of consumption or production. We are less easily aware of the millions who are effectively considered waste - people who are collateral damage of the world economic machine, or worse, are deliberately put beyond the range of needed assistance so that the world economy can use their labor without reference to their needs. Such a world ‘gaze’ does not even need to identify the have-nots with evil; rather it is silent about their character. It is precisely this removal from gaze that makes this global “realism” so demonic.

 

Heartlessness reduces whole segments of humanity in this or that country to second class citizenship, to an underclass. They are untouchables, because untouched. The Church has played its part in this heartlessness, sometimes by accident of being part of culture or society, at other times by more engaged intent.  This, in spite of the claim that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” (BCP, p. 855) and the baptismal covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” (BCP 305)  

 

The vocation to a mission that concerns justice, peace and respect has a powerful enemy in the “reality” of the social and economic conditions within which whole peoples become disposable. Such a vocation is further debilitated when faithful people can not extend the mission of respect to include respect for the religious dignity of human beings. For all our ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, the notion persists that heretics and other religions have no rights, or more widely wrong- headed people (in or out of the church) have no rights to be here.

    

Racism stands as a primary example of this conditioning to “realities.” We are not yet out from under the yoke of the demonic spirituality exhibited in racism in either our church or in the society. One needs only look at the miserable track record in the church concerning the inclusion of persons of color in the full life of the church to see the close connection between racism as practiced in church and society. 

 

As the Church, the pervasive training we receive in seeing people as disposable or untouchable sometimes echoes cultural norms and sometimes seems deliberate policy. The homeless are seldom part of the leadership of the church. Until recently women exercised a narrow range of leadership positions in the church.  People of color are denominated within the denomination to churches of their particular racial and ethnic grouping. Those whose ministries are not in parishes – prison, hospital and college chaplains, youth and poverty workers, ministers to gay and lesbian communities – find their work marginalized, and they often participate in the undesirability or untouchability of their constituents. And we need not look too deeply to notice that the homeless, racial and ethnic peoples, prisoners, the sick, the young and the poor, the gay and the lesbian are a church underclass. We can tell that this is the case because they are often the objects of ministry but seldom ministers outside their own caste and class.

 

Of course there are examples of inclusion to be found. If there were not there would be no hope realized. But we need to be clear – training for heartlessness is furthered by the church’s avoidance of, and its unwillingness to include, the witness of those who are marginalized or who suffer. It is not that the church does not care for the marginalized and the suffering, rather it is not easily willing to bring them into the circle of decision making about that caring.  We have been trained for exclusion, trained to simply not see, experience or otherwise acknowledge even the existence of injustice relating to these exclusions. Happily we have examples of new efforts, as with the expansion of the 20/20 Committee to include peoples previously excluded.

 

Our beginning task as a Christian people is to retrain ourselves to expand our gaze to include, and focus on, those who suffer in a heartless word. As a Church we must continually work to see the world as God would have us see, with a new heart.

 

The Episcopal Church’s anti-racism training is a primary example of the retraining that is necessary in order to grow into the full stature of the children of God in this heartless age.  This training is a specific and profound example of the change of heart that is needed, but it will mean very little to this Church unless we see that training as essential, rather than optional. Anything less than a complete overthrow of old established habits of oppression ends up serving the heartlessness that is at the handmaden of suffering. 

 

The Politics of Loving Kindness:  The Politics of Loving Kindness is a very simple thing. So simple that writing about it seems unnecessary. Still, such simple things are too often simply forgotten. So let us remind ourselves: The Politics of Loving Kindness begins with a change of heart.  Its core principle is as follows:  "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (RSV Matt 5:43-44) It requires that we seen beyond the contention that makes the enemy our enemy, it requires a change of heart.

 

Jesus meant it when he said, “Love your enemies.” We can assume that goes for those within our church we have made our enemies as well as those personal enemies and enemies of the state.  Loving our enemies is outrageously difficult to do.  We have some idea that in practice such love calls us to reconciliation. So the first element of a Politics of Loving Kindness is a change of heart so that we can see in our enemy the presence of good.

 

The working out of our response to Jesus’ admonition provides a training ground for other larger, and perhaps more important, expressions of reconciling love.  It is with this saying in the back of my skull that I observe church contentiousness playing itself out (with me playing my part in it) and hear the whispered warning, “is this what Jesus really had in mind? And if not, why are you involved in this?”

 

The second element in this politics is in the admonition to “love our enemies.” It is change of heart put into practice. This is a directive manifestly not practiced by governments. In the end, enemies are enemies and there is collateral damage. Organized as states, we do not wish our enemies well; we do not love them. We wish them ill.

 

It is not at all clear that people of the church, including the Episcopal Church, do much better. When all is said and done, we honor Jesus’ saying in principle, but have great trouble doing more than vaguely muttering about distinguishing the enemy as unjust, wrong, dastardly, etc, and the enemy as a child of God. That is the sort of distinction that gives rise to the damning by faint praise saying about “hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” Still, on the matter of loving our enemies, we at least think we ought to love them even if we don’t know exactly how to. 

 

That is why the third element of the Politics of Loving Kindness is important. That is: “pray for your enemies.” In past, public prayers for our enemies seemed mostly to concern defense, as in “defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies…” That collect was written against the backdrop of a church life whose contentions could lead to beheadings and civil war. (Remember the fate of the author of His Majesty’s Declaration.”)  In the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer there are occasionally more balanced concerns expressed, as in, “O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge…” (BCP, p. 816) Still, the prayers seem directed to ending the persecution enemies inflict on one another, and particularly on us.

 

Suppose the object of prayer for our enemies was not to be directed alone to ending the divisions, or even to achieving reconciliation, but involved acknowledging the good that resides in our enemies as well as in us at this moment. Such a prayer that might go,

“O most merciful God we pray for those with whom we contend, that our enmity might cease. In our separation from one another save us from the presumption that our opponents are incapable of good, or we of evil. When those with whom we contend do what is just, give us grace to do likewise; when they open their hearts to show kindness and mercy, open our hearts also. For wherever justice is done and mercy shown you are with us.”

Well, maybe an imperfect prayer, but you get the idea.   It is the sort of prayer that makes us look again, not at the enemy as object, but the contender as a subject, a person.

 

Finding a home in the world for Micah’s vision “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, RSV) is just plain hard work. This work involves the politics of opposition, that is, political action in the context of people who oppose one another over real matters of justice. It requires that the issues be taken seriously, and the people too. At the same time it requires we work at the Politics of Loving Kindness.

 

The Politics of Loving Kindness is related to a dynamic found in Gandhi’s spiritual politics of active non-violence. It is the application of the force of the good against the enemy by among other things finding the good in the enemy and supporting it, costly as it may be in the present moment, until such time as the good within the enemy and the good within ourselves triumphs. After all, the Good is one.  The faith this spiritual politics requires is the faith that the good will prevail, and that it will do so of its own force, which is central to the whole created order, and not a result of our power or will.  At the same time such a spiritual politics is no passive thing, for its object is that the contention ends in doing justice and loving kindness, both.

 

The Politics of Loving Kindness requires getting a new heart and vision to see as widely the sufferings of the world, loving our enemies (or those with whom we contend) and praying for them as people, not simply as enemies.   As regards such a politics, how are we doing as an Episcopal Church?

 

How are we doing?   Getting as sense of where the Episcopal Church is these days is a bit like trying to get a sense about the prospects of economic recovery.  The Episcopal Church seems to be in the process of recovery from being in a fit of heartlessness, but who knows. We can only hope. The press release of the House of Bishops’ meeting in Texas seems to confirm this that things are afoot concerning reconciliation.  Even more hopeful are promises of a redirected focus on the mission of the church in a heartless world, understood globally and locally.

 

The contentions in our church are real. There are real divisions among us, and they need to be addressed.  This is not a time to “paper over” either the struggles to support a progressive Christianity that learns from the past or the struggle to maintain a church true to orthodox belief.  It is a time to put the struggles in a wider context of the practice of loving kindness in a heartless world. It is time for this church to live fully in the world, but not of it. It is time for global mission.

 

In the Church we more and more talk of mission as something discovered in letting go of our own agendas for the institution of the Church, or the Church’s own agendas, and becoming more open to God’s mission in the world. And of the many things that are said about the Missio Dei – God’s mission – it is a good bet it has to do with justice and mercy and not with that which degrades or marginalizes peoples or individuals.

 

Turning our gaze again to the whole world, in which so many suffer, will give a very different backdrop of information against which to enter into internal struggles about the roles of women in ministry, of gay and lesbian believers in the church, of church growth and maturation of faith commitment, of stewardship, and every other activity of church. It will not end our internal struggles, but it will change the character of those struggles. Contention will played out less in power politics which requires exclusion, and more in a politics of engagement in God’s mission. Perhaps it will turn us from the unseemly and often ridiculous pretensions to power. As we practice loving kindness and its politics among ourselves rather than the heartlessness of power politics we will become a storehouse of new available energy, as if having had a heart of stone we now are given a heart of flesh. Perhaps we will more clearly have an open heart, willing to empathize and have compassion in a world so greatly needing those gifts. We will find ways to collaborate with those with whom we contend.

 

The preparation work for such collaboration is already begun: in the work of church wide agents of mission support – The United Thank Offering and Episcopal Relief and Development; in the partnership of mission organizations – the Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission; in the growing network of dioceses in global Mission – the Global Episcopal Mission Network; in Companion Dioceses;  and in the outreach work of many thousands of parishes.

 

But this collaboration is only a start. Affirming and supporting the good that is done by those with whom we contend in the church will make for strange bedfellows. We will, I hope, revel in the seeming contradiction of collaboration with those with whom we contend. We should live in hope that enemies that see the suffering of the poor will support each other in responding to their needs.

 

Our real adversary these days is the demonic, sometimes even casual, dismissal of unjust and merciless suffering as a regrettable necessity of the real world. We can have no peace with the pervading heartlessness that is everywhere near at hand. The contest is only won by practicing the Politics of Loving Kindness and nourishing that practice even while contending among ourselves.

 

The great scandal of the church is our willingness to imagine ourselves with power, and indeed to imagine our church as building its foundation on power.  It turns out, as we all know, that the Politics of Loving Kindness eschews such power, even when we don’t. And it is loving kindness that will in the end prevail, for justice and mercy flow from it, and its force heals the nations.

 


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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