Friday, January 27, 2023

Of Priests and Prophets


 It has been a quiet week on the island.  No unanticipated, bewildered migrant guests, no repeat of the bizarre bank robbery of a few weeks ago.  No terrible storms in spite of dire forecasts.  Just the mostly gray, soft, damp, chilly weather typical of January as we hunker down for the "dead of winter."  I've been enjoying the off season luxury of running errands without encountering summer irritability and traffic jams (although somehow the lines at the Post Office never seem to move any faster).  

All of this is to say that for a moment, time seems to have slowed down a bit and there are hours here and there for uninterrupted contemplation.  Also an off season luxury.     

I've been reflecting on Fr. Richard Rohr's (Center for Action and Contemplation) daily offerings, this year focused on the roles of priest and prophet in religious tradition.  He makes a pointed comment about the nature of evil:

The only way evil can succeed is to disguise itself as good. And one of the best disguises for evil is religion. Just pretend to love God, go to church every Sunday, recite the creed, and say all the right things. Someone can be racist, be against the poor, hate immigrants, and be totally concerned about making money and being a materialist, but still go to church each Sunday and be “justified” in the eyes of religion.

I recall, as a young teenager, being invited by a friend to attend a banquet event at which the keynote speaker was a popular evangelist at the time.  He was a powerful preacher and the culmination of the evening was an altar call - a highly emotionally charged invitation to come forward and confess "Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior."   I recall feeling pretty intimidated by all the emotional drama and decided to "sit this one out."  As my table mates, mostly middle aged, well be-jeweled, fur wearing  women returned from the altar  "saved,"  I overheard several critiques about what other women were wearing, about whether other people were sincere or not and so on.

The memory has stayed with me along with the lingering impression that the centrality of personal salvation was not a lasting thing.  I guess my skepticism about personal religion and salvation was seeded at that time as I watched and listened to a powerful preacher with whom everyone agreed and whom no one questioned. The money poured in to the velvet lined baskets that were passed among the banqueters following an impassioned urging to support the ministry of the evangelist.

Looking back, any reference to ministry with the poor was noticeably lacking. There was not a single person of color in the banquet room. Social justice was not on the menu.  Still, the preacher was a nationally popular figure. His impassioned sermons about the need to "come to Jesus," to confess whatever moral degradation people carried  and to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior drew large numbers to the altar at his events which, of course, resulted in well filled velvet lined offering baskets.

Fr. Rohr: Jesus is not too interested in moral purity because he knows that any preoccupation with repressing the shadow does not lead us into personal transformation, empathy, compassion, or patience, but invariably into denial or disguise, repression or hypocrisy. Isn’t that rather evident? Immature religion creates a high degree of cognitively rigid people or very hateful and attacking people—and often both. It is almost the public image of Christianity today, yet God’s goal is exactly the opposite.

I wish I had had the benefit of Fr. Rohr's thought and wisdom as a teenager.  It might have saved a lot of the spiritual wandering and puzzling I went through as a young adult, trying to discover for myself an authentic, life sustaining religious awareness.  But his wisdom is available now.  And it helps in the process of trying to bring some sense of order to the chaos that runs through our politics these days.  There is a disturbing disconnect between a kind of "christian" preoccupation with control of women's bodies, with seeing that migrants seeking asylum are punished rather than welcomed, with insistence on the safety provided by gun ownership, with the negation of the precious lives of so many human beings because they do not conform to a male or female notion of gender identity - -  a disturbing disconnect from the ancient teachings that call for welcoming the stranger, offering compassion instead of judgement - a tradition that over and over again invites humankind to "Fear not..."

So - - a question from those early and impressionable tenage years surfaces again: If it is true that  "Jesus saves" - - How does he do it???

I was struck by a recent reading of Matthew 4:12-23 - the scenario where Jesus calls his first disciples.  He didn't ask about whether they were worthy or not or if they had been "saved." He just needed help as he set out on his brief ministry - and the first thing he did was lead them into the lives of others with compassion, healing bodies and spirits, attending to the needs of the poor - - holding out a prophetic vision of a better way of doing human life. In the process, as those who followed him entered into his way of doing things, they were, indeed, transformed - - "saved" if  you will.  

As "priest" Jesus promised that he was not there to abolish the religious tradition that shaped him, but rather that he had come to fulfill the ancient law.  This required him to also fulfill the role of "prophet."

Fr. Rohr reminds us that prophets aren’t nearly as popular as priests. Priests keep repeating the party line, so there’s no reason to fight them. But prophets do both: they put together the best of the conservative with the best of the liberal, to use contemporary language. They honor the tradition, and they also say what’s phony about the tradition. That’s what fully spiritually mature people can do.

Still at the beginning of a relatively new year, I find myself attuning my ears to the voice of the prophet abroad, wondering where the voice will surface.  It is out there - sometimes in tiny rural churches, often in local synagogues and large metropolitan churches, whispering clearly in the silence of a sangha at meditation.  At its best, the prophetic voice finds its amplification in our own voices as we find grounding and order in our religious traditions while at the same time critiquing their shadowy sides - exposing them to the light - moving closer to that vision that unites a diverse humankind in the prophetic vision where we will not hurt or destroy in all God's holy mountain.

 Vicky Hanjian


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