Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jeremiah Wright was Barack Obama's pastor. Hillary Clinton -- and others -- have said that Obama should have left his church after Wright made his controversial statements.


But a pastor is not the church. He may run the services and have the most visible role and (in the worldly sense) be the most powerful man in the congregation, but he is not the community.

The community is...

The old ladies who have the prayer group who are always requesting God's help for everybody, whether they ask for it or not. The youth minister who makes sure that a bunch of unruly adolescents have a group to run with that won't lead them into trouble. The men who helped landscape the yard for the woman whose husband was dying of cancer. The mothers who organize the church nursery. The Sunday school teachers. The women who make sure that there are refreshments after the service.

It is the man struggling with addiction; the woman with mental illness. It is the family dealing with death and disability. It is those who found community after a long time wandering in the wilderness; it is those who are descended from generations of clergy and church leaders.

The church is people. At its best, the church is connection. It is the chance to experience God in other people.

How could he walk away from that?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

I have been thinking a lot lately about the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Aside from the double standard -- what about all of the conservative politicians over the years who have embraced right-wing religious figures that condemned the United States for its perceived moral failings in language no less strong than that of Pastor Wright? -- Hillary Clinton and many others have stated that they would have just "walked out."

All of which makes me wonder -- what sort of church, if any, do these people attend? Is church a spectacle? Something they consume, like entertainment? Or a community, of which they are a part? Walking out on a show is one thing. Walking out on the community quite another.

I know, because I have done both.

I am a progressive who has spent a great many years in churches more conservative than myself. I was raised Roman Catholic, and was rebaptized (I refuse to say "born-again") as a Southern Baptist in the early 80s. In that time, I sat through many a sermon equating birth control (let alone abortion) with murder, and homosexuality as a grave sin, and (in the SBC) detailing why a woman is subordinate to a man. I gritted my teeth and stayed in my seat, because it mattered to me to be part of the body of Christ gathered in that place. So I stayed, even though my heart and conscience told me the church leaders were wrong.

And I was not alone: there are people in the Roman Catholic church who strive to change it to be more welcoming and more inclusive of all people. It was hard for me; I can only imagine how hard it must be for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I had no calling to the priesthood, but other women I know did, and had to leave the faith into which they were born to follow that call.

The first time I walked out of a church, it was the Roman Catholic church in which I had grown up. On third Sunday in January, the priest gave his usual anti-abortion sermon. And it was a doozy.

Abortion was murder, he said. Women who had abortions were the vilest evil human beings on the face of the earth, for which there could be no forgiveness.

I sat frozen. I was home on winter break from college, my senior year. I knew that a friend of mine had had an abortion. I was saddened by her decision, even though I knew why she had made the decision she had made, and felt deep in my heart that she had acted out of fear and uncertainty. She was not the devil incarnate; she was a frightened woman in her early twenties.

I left. And as I left, I knew I was leaving for good, and it was hard. My mother was there, and a lot of the people I had grown up with in the church. I was walking out on the community of faith that had nurtured me from a child, and it hurt.

The second time I walked out on a sermon... was a very different experience. My husband and I were shopping for a church, and were in a large SBC church which I found uncomfortable from the beginning. And that was before the Tim LaHaye gave his guest sermon.

Yes, that Tim LaHaye. It was before the Left Behind books, with their atrocious writing and even worse theology, when he and his wife Beverly were the hottest shots around on the evangelical lecture circuit.

I expected the "abortion is murder" and the "women be subservient to your husband" exhortations. This was the Southern Baptist Convention, after all. But then LaHaye stated that women who placed their children in child care were selfish and evil and destroyers of society. What? I had had enough. I was sitting about two-thirds back in the sanctuary, in the middle of the row. I got up and left, as noticeably as I could, and my only regret was that I had not been able to get a seat closer to the front. I never looked back.

I had not been a part of a community, had never fit in at that church. I was a consumer, not a participant. Leaving meant nothing at all to me.

The third time I left a church service, I did so quietly, from the back, crying in anger and frustration, during a sermon given by a man I consider a friend at a church which was not merely a community but a home. It was hard, but necessary.

But this time, I did not leave the community. I went in the next week and talked to the priest about what he had said, and what I felt.* In the end, I did not change his mind, nor he mine, but we recognized that disagreement need not mean abandonment. Much like Barack Obama does when he talks about not abandoning the pastor who taught him the love of Christ, even though that pastor has made statements he vehemently disagrees with.

Because that's what being part of a faith community means.

* On at least one other occasion I argued with this pastor while he was giving his sermon. I didn't really intend to, I just couldn't help myself. He was actually amused. I would not suggest trying this with most clergy, however.