Tuesday, April 02, 2013

President Goes to Church; Right Wing Freaks Out

On Easter Sunday, President Obama and his family attended St. John's Episcopal Church, in Lafayette Square.  It is, we are told, one of the churches they frequent.  The rector preached a sermon, as you might expect, and then all hell broke loose.

Hate speech!  Preaching politics instead of religion!  Does Obama ever go to a church where they talk about God, or only to the ones where they attack his political enemies?  Does the President personally inspire racist sermons?

It is apparent at a glance that the president's political foes hope, whenever he worships, that they will be able to score the sort of propaganda victory that they did during the 2008 election, when they dug up some poorly-phrased remarks by his then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright.  Have they succeeded -- and if so, have they done so fairly or unfairly?

At the moment, it is nearly impossible to say, because neither a transcript nor an audio file of the entire sermon has been released.  Sermons from St. John's are normally posted on the parish website, and we suppose this one will be as well.  (Click here to check.  By the way, his Laetare sermon is pretty good.) At this writing, however, the only document in circulation consists of notes made by the press pool.  Here it is, as posted by the Washington Times:
Highlights from the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon’s sermon:
Opened with a welcome and a joke about people who came to church just so they could tell their parents or people they’re having lunch with later that they did.
What God wants of every one of us is to believe as much as we can at a given moment … it’s all right to have doubts.
We often want things to go back to the way things used to be, before “work got difficult and faith got confused, and life got more confusing,” but when we dwell on the “if only” of life we forget that “God addresses us in the now.”
As Jesus told Mary not to hold on to the past, “You cannot go back.”
“It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back … for blacks to be back in the back of the bus … for women to be back in the kitchen … for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.”
“The message of Easter is about the power of love over loveless power.”
“Easter vision” will allow you to see the whole world in a different way. “There is no injustice so insidious that there can be no truth … no war so deep that there can be no peace … no enemy so bitter that they can’t become a friend.”
“Easter vision” means recognizing reality in a new and wonderful way.
“May God bless you with Easter vision now and forever.”
The sermon was followed by the prayers of the faithful, led by Rev. Patrick Williams, which included prayers for “Barack, our president,” and for “leaders in Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Middle East.
Next on the program was “The Peace”(during which members of the congregation shake hands and greet each other with “The peace of the Lord be with you,” etc.)
This was followed by the Holy Communion (along with its accompanying collection, hymns, and recitation of The Lord’s Prayer).
Pool was able to catch a glimpse of POTUS and the First Lady taking communion.
The post-communion prayer was “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Pool was ushered out at 12:39, before the dismissal. Now outside the church waiting for the president’s exit.
A correction: It was an error to assume that the Obamas were seated in the first pew. National Journal’s George Condon has pointed out that, according to the church website, it is tradition for the president to sit in pew 54.
The transcript ends there. The pool report was filed early Sunday afternoon by Jenee Desmond-Harris of TheRoot.com, an online magazine.
Obviously, this tells us very little about the service, or about the sermon.  Was the text from Luke or John?  (We gather John, from the reference to noli me tangere, but can we be sure?)  How did Fr. Luis Leon, the preacher, handle the apparent conflicts in the Resurrection narratives?  Did he treat the Resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, an eschatological foreshadowing, or a symbol of the individual soul's mystical journey from sin to forgiveness?  Nobody knows except the people who were present, and then only if they were listening.

(We do have to love this commentary in the HuffPo takeout:
A person who who attended the church service told The Huffington Post there was no audible approval or disapproval from members of the congregation when León made his remarks about the religious right
Well, obviously.  They're Episcopalians.)

In any case, the freakout is entirely concerned with the single paragraph about "captains of the religious right."  Nobody seems to care much about what "Easter vision"might be, or whether Leon danced around the matter of a bodily Resurrection.

 Republicans are, understandably, sensitive about charges of racism these days, since only about 10 African Americans voted for them in the 2012 election, since their election strategy routinely includes suppression of the black and Hispanic vote, and since one of their elders recently spoke nostalgically about the good old days when "wetbacks" picked his tomatoes.  They are sensitive, in other words, because -- despite the presence of Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio among their stars -- they are still old and white to a degree that poses serious questions about their future as a party.

Still, that begs the question of whether their concern in this case is valid.  Was Fr. Leon out of line, and if so, then how far?

To be honest, our own experience of the Religious Right suggests that, although it is home to many strange ideas about the relationship of church and state, Islam, Judiasm, women, science and history, it is not, by the standards of American conservatism, particularly racist at all -- and for good reasons.  Notwithstanding the likes of James Cone, black churches in America lean in a theologically and socially conservative direction that is familiar and congenial to the white nondenominationals.  Both groups like their families traditional, their gays closeted, and their Bible literal.  Among mainline Protestants, it is the Southern Baptists, rather than Lutherans or Episcopalians, who have been most effective at diversifying their own pews.  Racism may be at home on the American right, but the churches are not where it dwells most naturally.

So it seems to us that Fr. Leon might have chosen his words more wisely.  A lot more wisely, and more charitably to boot.  [UPDATE:  Mother A., who was raised in the bosom of the religious right, disagrees with our analysis.  She argues that racism is so deeply ingrained in American culture, and especially the culture of the South, that it is tacitly present in the life and teaching of most right-leaning Bible Belt churches.  We're still unsure, but she does know a lot more about that world than we do.]

The second, and broader, question is whether he should have mentioned politics at all in his Easter sermon.

This is tricky.  In our polarized nation, there is no easier way to divide a congregation than to treat the pulpit as a politician's rostrum, and to take firm positions on hotly disputed questions.  On the other hand, a preacher who looks away from the real world gives a poor testimony to the Incarnation or the Biblical vision of a just and merciful society.

In other words, the dichotomy between talking about God and talking about society is false, because God has quite a bit to say about how society is ordered.  (Related note of over-the-top hypocrisy:  When First Things writers argue that religion and politics don't mix.)

Our own Easter sermon, on "Why seek ye the living," etc., included this passage:
So if you are looking for Jesus, don't stand in the cemetery, reading the gravestones.  They are beautiful and touching, but they are not where Jesus lives.  If you are looking for Jesus, look among the young people held in an Italian prison, look among the victims of war in Afghanistan.  Look for him here on Long Island, among the families that have lost their homes and their savings in a hurricane.  Look for him among migrant workers, exploited because they do not know the law, or worse because the law does not protect them.  Look for Jesus in hospitals and nursing homes and hospices, where people are suffering and struggling and maybe, just maybe, making peace with their Creator and their Judge.  In Sandy Hook or Aurora, Colorado; in the Bronx or Brooklyn, any night of the week.  Anywhere there is pain or fear, injustice or violence, oppression or tyranny; anywhere that people are held captive by their own sin or by the sins of the world around them.  That's where Jesus is, because those are his people; that's where Jesus is, because it is his power, the power of love that leads to new life, that can set them free.

This may not look as "political" as Fr. Leon's sermon,  but it helps to remember that we are preaching in an area notorious for is exploitation and outright criminal abuse of Latino farm workers.  The guilty hear their sin named, while the rest barely notice.  And please do note that we share with Leon an emphasis upon the liberating power of God's love.

And let's be serious.  How many other preachers spent some time on Sunday talking about moral questions that happen also to be matters of political dispute?  We're willing to bet that more than one Roman Catholic mentioned abortion, and that more than one nondenominational mentioned the Second Amendment.  We can't swear to this, but we'd be surprised if it were not true.  For an Episcopal priest to express concern about racism, sexism and the treatment of immigrants is hardly surprising.

Mind you, we're waiting to hear the whole sermon.  We certainly hope that Fr. Leon had more to say about Jesus than the press pool cared to report, and we do wish that his one paragraph about the the backward-looking elements of American society had been phrased more tactfully.  And, for all we know, the rest of his sermon was a rousing call to sacrifice goats to Baal.

But, barring that, it must be said that by gum, our nation has more than its share of people who want black people and women and immigrants to go back to the places they used to have.  And, by further gum, these people are missing the moral mark, and badly.  If it is not a preacher's job to identify the sin, then whose?

No comments: