Thursday, March 27, 2008

Leaving a church is never a simple transaction

Following the recent controversy over Barack Obama’s former pastor critics on the right, as well as the Clinton campaign, suggested the Illinois Senator should have abandoned his church. The idea that membership in a church or synagogue is similar to membership to a gym or club that one can drop in and out of overlooks the importance of community and continuity of community religious institutions can provide. Whether one agrees or not with the religion or the particular words spoken from the pulpit, the member relationship to the religious institution and the community that surrounds it is complex and not easily tossed aside. (Nor, necessarily, should it be.)

Martin Peretz has some interesting thoughts on the issue in this week’s New Republic:
The power of the preacher is an unmeasured force in American life. Of course, now that it has become an issue in a political campaign, we are focusing on the one minister and the one candidate whose lives at church have been intertwined both in fact and in the public eye. The two men are each charismatic in their own ways, different ways, as anyone who has seen them speak (if even just on television or on syncopated and, thus, distorted YouTube clips) can attest.

We are all linked to the places from which we came, though some of us have moved very far from them. My relationship to the different rabbis whose sermons I have not just heard, but heard intently over more than 50 years, would make a very difficult narrative--not quite as difficult as a narrative about my father and me, but up there. I now attend a synagogue in New York with my children and my grandson. I love the synagogue; I do not love the rabbis for I do not really know them personally. More to the point, I do not love their sermons. Two years ago, Yom Kippur, the rabbi parsed a banal speech by Bella Abzug, the old and (if truth be told) faithful red mama, as if it were a sacred text. Feh. One of this congregation's ingenuous innovations to the routine confessional of sins ("We lie. We cheat ...") in the prayer book is the following: "We rush towards war and crawl to peace." This is a lie! Why do I still pray with this assembly? Because, aside from the offending "hip" politics of the rabbis, there is an all-embracing warmth that suffuses the fold. There is beautiful music. The service is almost all in Hebrew. Still, my then-not-quite-four year-old grandson said to me on the way out, "I have never felt closer to God." Dayenu, as we say on Passover: "It is sufficient." Or, as one of the songs of the tradition known to almost every Jew puts it, Hinay ma tov ... : "How good it is for brothers to sit together ...".

The fact is that many of us were
astonished by the rhythm of the English language as it is practiced in Wright's church. Forget for the moment the content. Take a look at a service in what is now Otis Moss's church. This is a Christianity that seems to outsiders to have as much to do with break dancing as it does with the New Testament, and the culture of this one church is very much like the culture of thousands all over America. You may puzzle as to how Barack Obama, of the quiet demeanor and the Holmesian logic, can relate to this pattern of religiosity. But, if I may jog your oversensitized memory, there was more of Chicago's Trinity United Church in Martin Luther King's perorations than there was Reinhold Niebuhr. The typical black church service is not a Unitarian prayer meeting or Catholic devotions. It is something "other" that many of us have not experienced and do not know. It is not ours but theirs. And what's wrong with that?

You object: You were not caught out by Wright's rhythm or his vestments, by the congregation's hallelujahs or its songs of praise and prayer. What bothered you was his, their words. Mostly his, that is, Pastor Wright's words. You were concerned by the content. And so, at least in part, was I. Wright's content is not intellectually nuanced, and his words are in large measure crude. His content is often foul.

Of course, while one can assume that there is something in the style of Trinity's Christianity that attracts Obama, no one has even suggested that Obama agrees with any of Wright's controversial words. In fact, one knows from the senator's own words past and present that his love of country is unsurpassed--and unsurpassed in a way that will attract younger people who had lapsed into an unthinking and unrealistic internationalism.

Leaving a church is never a simple transaction. Episcopalians in America (and Anglicans elsewhere) have had all kinds of provocations. A gay bishop in New Hampshire has virtually split the communion. Some are secessionists because of Gene Robinson's elevation. Some want to stay and fight it. Others want to put the oppositionists to the fire. Some on the outs want to put themselves under the discipline of a religiously conservative African diocese. Mostly, they stay and grumble, one way or another. A similar process is underway in England, where suddenly the archbishop of Canterbury wants British Muslims to be permitted to live under Sharia law and forgo the liberties of British law. A church with leaders like that is bound to have troubles. But the church, big and small, national and local, will remain.

While pondering Obama's tribulations about his pastor, I also reflected about the far more laden crisis for Roman Catholic politicians who are for a woman's legal right to an abortion. Every so often, church authorities threaten to excommunicate them--a drastic act by a bishop or archbishop in his diocese. But it goes higher than that. On his trip to Latin America last year, for example, Pope Benedict approved a statement pronouncing that "legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist," and politicians who vote that way should "exclude themselves from communion." In 2004, Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said pro-choice politicians like John Kerry "shouldn't dare come to Communion." In any case, the position of the church is that such politicians have already excommunicated themselves. This is a far more urgent situation than the one in which Obama finds himself.
You can read his entire essay here.

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