A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003 and beyond
It began as a day like any other, with places to go, people to see, and things - oh so many things - to do. There were deals to make, appointments to keep, children to care for, and groceries to buy. There were ordinary plans for an ordinary day. But for 50 million people in the northeastern United States and several cities in Canada, Thursday, August 14 turned out to be anything but ordinary. At precisely 4:11 p.m. their best laid plans went wildly astray as a massive power grid failure sent them spiraling back to the mid-19th century. Their orderly high-tech lives instantly dissolved into disorderly no-tech mayhem. Trains and subways stopped dead in their tracks and elevators dead in their shafts. Gridlock reigned in the streets as traffic lights ceased to function. Aggravation reigned in homes as appliances ceased to hum. Panic reigned in offices as computer screens went black. Hundreds were trapped, thousands were stranded, and millions were frustrated by the Great Blackout of 2003.
But as we have learned so well in recent years, massive emergencies have a way of bringing out the best in us human beings. And the Great Blackout was no exception. It quickly became a testimony to that which is good and hopeful about human community. Drivers in Detroit developed their own methods for navigating congested intersections without accident. Subway commuters in New York helped one another steer their way through the dark tunnels and onto the streets above. People shared what they had with those who had not: cars, cell phones, flashlights, water, encouragement, comfort, and kindness. And so the long, dark night passed without serious incident.
But not without blame. No sooner had police officers begun directing traffic, firefighters begun prying into elevators, and average citizens begun lending a hand to their neighbors in need than public officials began pointing their fingers, a witness one might say to the failure of community. Officials in Canada were quick to blame faulty equipment on the American side. Officials in the U.S. were just as quick to deny it. Others, at both the state and local levels, began blaming the power companies and government officials for failing to update critical electrical facilities. Down on the ground, goodwill was the order of the day. But up on the ladder of responsibility, the name of the game was blame.
Writing in the New York Times on the Saturday after the blackout, Notre Dame physics professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi offered this editorial insight:
Once power is fully restored, it will take little time to find the culprit: most likely, it will be a malfunctioning switch or fuse, a snapped power line or some other local failure. Somebody will be fired, promotions and raises denied, and lawmakers will draw up legislation guaranteeing that this problem will not occur again. Something will inevitably be missed, however, during all this finger-pointing: this week's blackout has little to do with faulty equipment, negligence or bad design. President Bush's call to upgrade the power grid will do little to eliminate power failures. The magnitude of the blackout is rooted in an often ignored aspect of our globalized world: vulnerability due to interconnectivity.
Barabasi goes on to describe the process that led to this ``interconnectivity'' as a gradual shift away from local provision of utilities toward regional and then national consolidation. Local power companies found they could cut costs by linking to regional generators connected to a national network. The nation's power grid comprises thousands of generators joined together by seemingly endless miles of cable. While this ``interconnectivity'' lowers the cost of utility services, it raises the risk of their interruption. For a failure at any point along the chain of power can mean rolling blackouts down the line.
But that which Barabasi deems a dangerous weakness in our nation's electrical networks - ``vulnerability due to interconnectivity'' - the biblical writers deem gospel. Just last week we heard Jesus declare that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him, and he in them. In language designed to shock, Jesus invited his disciples to an outrageous level of intimacy not only with him but also with one another. To ingest Jesus is to share in his substance, his spirit, his life. But it is also more than that. It is also to share in the substance, the spirit, and the life of each and every other person who has the guts and the gall to make a meal of the Master. Just as baptism initiates us into union one with another through Christ, so the holy food of his body and blood sustains us in that union. That is why Paul could chide the Christians at Corinth for misusing the Lord's Supper as an opportunity to flaunt their wealth and status. They were coming to the table as separate individuals, some guzzling the wine while others were thirsty, some hoarding the bread while others had none. They were eating and drinking, Paul said, ``without discerning the body'' - by which he meant not the body of Christ in the Eucharistic bread, but the body of Christ in the Eucharistic community. Indeed, Paul says, when we come to the table and yet fail to recognize our unity in Christ we eat and drink judgment against ourselves. When we fail to see Christ in our neighbor and our neighbor in us then communion becomes a curse, a sort of anti-sacrament that does not unite but rather divides.
And sadly, it seems that some would prefer it that way. Some find the holy risk of community, the ``vulnerability due to interconnectivity,'' simply too much to take. For it requires that we be willing to bear the pain and the grief, the doubts and the fears, the faults and the failings of those with whom we share a common life. It means we will at times be distressed and disappointed, worried and wounded by those with whom we share a sacred bond. For ``we, who are many,'' Paul says, ``are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.'' The Christian life is not a duet; it is a chorus. It is does not have to do with Jesus and me, but with Jesus in me and Jesus in you and thus you and I in each other. That means that I am vulnerable to you and you are vulnerable to me and we are vulnerable to Jesus and Jesus is vulnerable to us.
``Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me,'' Jesus said, ``and I in them.'' ``When many of his disciples heard it, they said, `This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?''' Not ``who can understand it?'' but ``who can accept it?'' Understanding is the easy part; the meaning is all too plain. But acceptance, that is another matter. Most scholars will tell you that the disciples balked because of the Jewish prohibition against the consumption of blood. And that makes ample sense. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there was something deeper involved. While the notion of eating flesh and drinking blood is enough to rob anyone of their appetite, and perhaps of their commitment, I have a hunch that it was not so much the eating and drinking itself that gave them pause, but rather its spiritual consequence - Jesus in them and they in each other, for good or for ill, now and forever. I think it was the fear of ``vulnerability due to interconnectivity'' that finally sent them packing - the realization that a blackout for one could mean a blackout for all.
And it's hard to blame them really. We in the Episcopal Church are currently experiencing first-hand what that sort of vulnerability entails. And it's hard. It's hard for some to understand how we could see fit to elevate an openly gay man to any office of leadership in the church, much less the highest one. It's hard for others to understand why we didn't take this step decades ago and why we continue in many places to exclude homosexual persons from full participation in the body of Christ. Still others find it hard to understand what all the fuss is about. A non-Episcopalian friend of mine recently asked me what a gay bishop in New Hampshire had to do with parish life in Austin. I told him, on the one hand, nothing - we are going about our life and work at Good Shepherd much as we always have, proclaiming the gospel, celebrating the sacraments, reaching out to those in need, and caring for one another. But on the other hand, I told him, the New Hampshire decision has everything to do with us, and with every Episcopalian, and with every Christian for that matter. Because Bishop-elect Robinson's life is our life and our life is his, the Diocese of New Hampshire's ministry is our ministry and our ministry is hers. We all share the same heritage, the same calling, the same destiny. We all share the same baptism, the same body, the same blood. Whether we view the events of the recent General Convention as a blackout or a power surge, we all feel its effects. That is a good thing, I think. Because it proves we are vulnerable and thus still connected.
Of course there are those who want to lay blame - ``If those bleeding-heart liberals would just use their heads...If those hard-headed conservatives would just open their hearts...If those mealy-mouthed moderates would just take a stand...we wouldn't be in this mess.'' Now I'm not much for laying blame, but if we're going to do it then let's get it right. It is not those on the left who bear the blame, or those on the right, or those in the middle. It is rather Jesus Christ himself. The mess we are in is the direct result of his insistent proclamation that despite our significant personal, moral, and theological differences we are nonetheless in and through him one body, one family, one people, one church. The principle cause of our present difficulties is not our diversity, but our unity. Were it not for that unity we would not be in this mess because we would long ago have splintered apart over slavery or civil rights or prayer book revision or the ordination of women or who knows what else. Were it not for that unity each province, each diocese, each parish would long ago have become a church unto itself. We stay, we struggle, we fret, and we fight because somewhere deep down we know Paul was telling the truth: ``We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.''
``Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them'' - Jesus in us and we in each other, for good or for ill, now and forever. ``Vulnerability due to interconnectivity'' - that is the perilous blessing of Christian community, the high and holy risk of our life together; that is the glorious offense of the gospel in which all are invited to share.
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