I received an email last week from Beth Robinson, the director of the Vermont Freedom to Marry organization entitled, “Divisiveness and Democracy.” As you know the Vermont Legislature is considering a piece of legislation called “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom and Promote Equality in Civil Marriage.” In Robinson’s comments she acknowledges that the issue of marriage for gay people is divisive. Strong emotions are held by people on both sides of this particular debate. Robinson points out that the legislature is designed for this and wonders why, with respect to this bill, there is a call simply to ignore it, hoping that the fear we see and hear, swirling around it, will go away.
My take, having also been on the front lines of this issue, twice now, is that the debate is different from other bills because the stakes go to the heart of a fundamental issue that many religious institutions and their adherents do not want to address. The issue is, in a word, conversation. If we allow that conversation and debate can lead us to make informed decisions for the good of all, then we open the door to a different kind of understanding of God’s revelation. In other words, to participate in a country where decisions are made through debate is affirm that truth is a function of reason and not revelation. It is to allow that the eternal verities of one’s church may not be so eternal afterall. It is to tread on holy territory (or perhaps, some would say, trespass) and as a result to stir up fear and anger. This is my point today — that existing or even just dabbling in holy territory, is dangerous stuff and that we move to a higher religious ground as we evolve in our religious conversations toward the sacred – toward judgement within the holy of that which serves to cast out fear and build up human relations.
Truth, for some, has the characteristic of unchanging, eternal verities. Truth, as I try to think it and preach it, has a different characteristic. Perhaps something more akin music. How fast one plays the Emperor’s Waltz depends on many things. Is it a New Year’s concert? or is the economy in the dumps? Is the concert with young players or with professional ones? What about the audience? These considerations change the truth of the Waltz for that performance. Everything depends upon the conversation.
In the matter before the legislature good conversation is difficult to come by. On the pro-side of the argument, advocates of gay marriage are often reduced to sound-bytes about individual freedom, and on the con side of the argument, opponents are reduced to saying that because the church has always held marriage to be the foundational block of society, changing the law would destroy society. Conversation is stifled for fear that perhaps both positions are superficial and should be modified.
I believe that there are more nuanced middle- ground conversations to be had in the realm of religion than those charges tossed in the direction of the proponents and opponents of the bill as either liberal or conservative. I believe that if a real conversation were to be had, we might discover that, for example, the church has not always been in the business of marriage, and that even before that it condoned the unions of gay couples. I believe that if we had a real conversation about this, we might discover that there are reasons to be concerned about individualism as it tends to break down community. I believe that we might discover that religion has much more to offer society than moralisms on the one hand or charitable outreach on the other. We might discover that the real power of religion lies in its possibility that through conversation about deeply important things, justice might flow in new and powerful ways into the world, and that the prophets’ vision of a communities of care would be more fully realized.
As one Unitarian Universalist speaker put it last week during testimony at the State House, “Religion is so much more than a set of rules about how one ought to live and worship. The best of the prophetic tradition has sought a way out of fear and has encouraged another way, the way of love as the solution to the destructive forces of fear.” His was a call to put aside the fanaticism of both sides and to seek a via media where love is not just an emotion, but the moral command to respond to hate and indifference, not with hate and indifference, but with a sincere striving for community and for the good a vibrant community we can incarnate when differences are bridged because fear no longer estranges humans and indifference no longer stifles creative advance
Our story from Samaria is the story of two people, who would ordinarily find themselves arguing with each other and not listening. A Jew and a Samaritan, it is well known, do not consort easily with each other. Sometime long before Christ was born, the Samaritans split from the Jews over questions that still divide people of faith. The Samaritans believed that one particular translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, was the authoritative and holy scripture. The Jews were content to deal with their constructed Pentateuch, (that is they used many different variants in an attempt to get at a coherent and adequate scripture). The Samaritans also felt that the proper place of worship was on top of Mnt Gerazim, while the Jews held that the Temple in Jerusalem was the high, holy place of worship.
As in today’s argument about marriage, the argument between the Jew and the Samaritan, was often cast as an argument about what is more holy, or what is properly holy, or what should be considered holy and what not. The holy is the unreflective, powerful, hold that the experience of religious feeling has upon one’s entire being. The holy is dangerous because it leads to fanaticism. And fanaticism, as Eli Weisel notes in his book The Anatomy of Hate, inspires and breathes fear. The fanatic gives home somewhere in his or her being to a dictator. Intellectual or theocratic, that dictator possesses a unique and eternal truth and takes offense at conversation.
We can accept that many people of good faith have experiences of the holy. But we can also recognize that within the holy there are experiences which merely excite religious feeling but do nothing to serve the ethical community. We must judge within the experience of the holy what Aristotle calls spirit. In other words, the job is only just begun with what is experienced as hair-raisingly holy. The spirit is now just beginning its work to discover in that experience of the holy that which leads the self to higher purposes. For this work of discernment, we reserve the higher and more expressive word – the sacred. The sacred reveals itself progressively as humans think within the holy what is conducive to higher ends and to our common good.
Unfortunately, because of the general ban on reason in the religious communities, the widespread criticism of the human rights record of religious people, that we are dismall failures is well founded. The holy leads, when it is not engaged with spirit toward the sacred, to fanaticism.
Let me close with these words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham,
AL, written from a cell in the Birmingham Jail. He wonders if the church has lost this ability to distinguish in the midst of its holy stupor the right.
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan has been given short shrift. Through the ages attention has been focused primarily on Jesus’ words that he is the living water while the details of their discussion of holy things has been ignored. By paying attention today to the fact that Jesus and the anonymous woman are active conversation partners, by noting that both disputants to carve a new tunnel through their mountain of division by acknowledging that neither has truth wrapped up, but that truth lies in the direction of an encounter with the spirit in relation to itself through and within its relation to the other, is a move to the beloved community – or as the early Christians put it simply, to paradise. Amen.