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Friday, August 19, 2011

Assuming virtue

Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?  --Malachi 2:10

I was privileged to hear, during my time at theological school, an excellent address by the Rev. Richard Kydd, who revealed a startling bit of the school's history. Luther King House, as it's called, was so named out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King. This was thought appropriate especially since Dr. King was a Baptist minister, and the college was originally a Baptist college before adopting the partnership model and therewith incorporating other 'free' churches into a happy mix. (This is not the startling bit.)

Dr. King's portrait hangs in the entry way. But a former Head of the College, whose name escapes me, fought vehemently against having the portrait hung (despite the College's name). But why?
Inspirational leader or ladies' man? Apparently you cannot be both.
It seems this person had read Dr. King's biography. In it, he discovered that Dr. King had, shall we say, a thing for the ladies. The biographer referred to Dr. King's "compulsive sexual athleticism" in some detail. This was apparently too much for the Head; he did not want Dr. King the all-too-human-man to be unduly venerated, therefore.

That for me is the startling bit--not Dr. King's sexual proclivities (these are well-known and were helpfully documented by quite illegal FBI invasions of privacy), but the presumption that a man of the cloth's personal misdemeanors and weaknesses necessarily invalidates or eclipses the massive good he quite clearly did.

My Moravian ministerial colleague Jane Hutchings posted this roll-call of biblical inadequates on her facebook status today:

"Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a temper, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure, Miriam was a gossiper, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sara was impatient, Elijah was moody, Moses stuttered, Zaccheus was short, Abraham was old, and Lazarus was dead...."

She could have added that even Jesus could be a right pain the a*se at times.

Hey! What are you, anti-businesss?
 Her point I think is that the Judeo-Christian tradition mercifully does not require people to be perfect in order to be called to spiritual leadership. She adds: "God doesn't call the perfect, he perfects the called." 

Leaving aside for a moment the dubious theology that there is a personal God that actually calls (i.e. tells you in clear terms that you are destined to be his special agent in the world), I think there is something in this that's important to consider, both for leaders of spiritual communities and for the people in those communities.

Much of the contempt (or at least unease) many people have with clergy comes at least in part from the litany of abuses of trust (sexual and otherwise) committed by the clergy, reported as a sensational side-show in the information age of the last 25 years or so. Wrapped up with this is the outrage at the seeming hypocrisy of the cloth itself, which suggests you to be better than you are, perhaps better than 'ordinary' mortals. Furthermore, it's in the (self)interest of the clergy to foster (or at least not challenge) the impression of 'holier than thou'.

Father Jack, clerical id.

Unitarian theology, which I claim is essentially rational humanist, would find the notion that clergy ARE to any degree above human fallibility to be totally anathema. In his address, Richard bravely and refreshingly confessed that he himself is right in there with Dr. King too in terms of fallibility. Even more refreshingly, he said that, if we're honest, all of us are too.

Does this mean that anything goes, therefore, and there are no standards of behaviour clergy must aim for? Richard quoted a Greek interjection from St. Paul that translates as: "Not on your Nelly!" Though nothing can put us outside the love of God (this is his theology remember), nothing should put us outside of human forgiveness.

We are all of us broken creatures, and any moral authority we would hope to project must come from a candid acceptance of our all-too-human weaknesses, coupled with a genuine professional practice which aims higher.

As Emerson said, you need to aim above the mark to hit the mark-- a parable drawn from archery. And the mark, for me, is that of the Greek tragic hero--a good but not perfect person, whose suffering is brought on by those very imperfections. We will all be laid low at one time or another by our faults; even Dr. King's reputation is not unsullied, and he was a far better man than I by any measurement. What I strive daily for is the strength to lift my sights above my manifold and deeply ingrained faults, toward 'the better angels of my nature'.

We might think of this spiritual practice as living "as if". We are no more tolerant than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we were. We are not more loving than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we are. We are not more honest than our fellows, but may try to live 'as if' we are.

When considering an action (or often as not, a re-action), I try to imagine a guy who is smarter, wiser, more compassionate than me, and ask myself "Well, what would HE do?".

Shakespeare, as always, said it best. From Hamlet--

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.

That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either beat the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

Wondrous potent, indeed, and wondrous simple, this practice. It requires mindfulness, as well as a clear-eyed familiarity with the devils that live in each and every one of us. Clergy included. Recognizing this common humanity, we may be the less inclined to 'break faith' with one another.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"By their fruits shall you know them"

As the UK spirals into an anarchy of seemingly organised and systematic youth criminality, you wonder where the on earth these little rapscallions got their values.

Why would they want more phones?

Where did they get the idea that greed is okay when you can get away with it?

(Oh, right...Lehman brothers, the looting of the economy by the banks...every single advertisement for status objects.)

Where did they get the idea that self-righteous revenge on bystanders is justifiable?

(Oh, um , yes...two illegal wars after 9/11, waged on those innocent of the offense.)

Where did they get the idea that violence is wicked-good fun?

(Ah. Yes, well. Every movie, TV show and video game ever marketed to them by adults.)

Where did they get the idea that governmental authority has forsaken them?

(Oh my yes...end of student benefit, introduction of University fees...zero employment prospects...)

Where did they get the idea that high-end STUFF is the ideal?

(Ah. Well,...rampant consumerism...massive rich/poor divide...status culture.)

I think I'm sensing a ---gasp!---context here...


Now before you start writing outraged comments about how these lawless youth need to be held accountable for their actions, let me say I agree with you. Yes they should. Under no circumstances is violence, theft, and lawlessness excusable.

But it is understandable, in the same way violent revolution (such as the Arab spring) is understandable. It is a well-established sociological axiom that countries with greater social equality (meaning not just economic equality, but equality of opportunity, class equality) have fewer incidents of this sort of spectacle. Conversely, countries with a large divide between those at the top and those at the bottom experience more such nightmares.

Simultaneously, young'uns at the bottom are steeped from an early age in a culture of consumer envy, violent entertainments, and role models who support, encourage and revel in violent reprisal, be it in foreign wars or the criminal justice system. It is a combustible combination. At the end of a long, hot, muggy British summer, where you can't even buy a cheap fan 'cause they're all sold out of the shops, when school's been out for weeks, all it took was the shooting of a Tottenham youth by police to spark it off. Sure, what followed was opportunism, not necessarily political protest, but it didn't come out of nothing. Nothing comes from nothing.

You can't start a fire without a spark

It is far easier to urge violent reprisal on the symptoms than look for the systemic causes--cultural, social, political--that condition such sad events as we've seen. But that's the only way to make it go away for good. You can try to swat and kill every single mosquito, OR you can drain the swamp that breeds them. Your choice--but cracking some head sure feels better, doesn't it? It's also easier to direct your rage down the social scale (as witness the recent demonization of "chavs"). The real thieves who robbed you good and proper are still working in the finance industry--but what can you do about that, tough guy?

There's an old story about Diogenes (who famously carried a lamp through Athens day and night, looking, he said, for an honest man). Once, he heard a youth curse openly in public, and he strode up and slapped the youth's father.

If he ever found one, history does not record it.
By their fruits shall you know them. Looking for causes as to why this happened? Look in the mirror, and look hard.