I have been a pastor for 30 years now. And some combination of the specific calls to ministry I have had (being UCC) and my personality, together have translated into my having often found myself in ministry in deliberately public settings, in close contact with people of other religions and from the full spectrum of Christianity. Confident in my own progressive understanding of the faith, I am not easily upset or frightened. And, I’m not adverse to understanding how other Christians’ faith, worship and church life work (even or especially when I might disagree with them). Really, I have never thought myself naive. But this week, wow. I’m sort of astounded by the church I stumbled into.
The prayer would have been, in my opinion, inappropriate on any day in the legislature. I tend to go with “nondescript God-language” as best for public prayer in mixed company. But in POWER, we trust each other enough to pray, if we wish, in the idiom of our own faiths, so I can imagine a Christian prayer in such a setting. But, if I were to try the overtly Christian route, such a prayer, despite being “in the name of Jesus,” would be inclusive — praying for “a sister and brotherhood that rises above race and creed so that we can, with all help from God, be about the common work that has been given to us to do as public servants, representatives and leaders entrusted with the common good, etc.”
But it wasn’t just any day in the State House for Rep. Borowicz’s ceremonial invocation. Instead, it was the day that Pennsylvania’s first Muslim legislator, Movita Johnson-Harrell, was being sworn into office. She was there with 50 guests, 35 of whom were Muslim.
Do you think I am being too sensitive to hear Borowicz’s prayer as more holy war cry than welcome?
At first, I was just surprised that such a thing could happen. I wondered if in Pennsylvania, we shouldn’t honor our Quaker roots and just begin each session with some silence. Or maybe the separation of church and state means that prayer has no business as part of the legislature’s official agenda?
But the more I thought about it, the more I worried that some might think Borowicz’s angle is how all Christians approach non-Christians. I posted a message on her page as a State Representative that, as a Christian minister I found her prayer not just wrongheaded, but offensive. More like an arrogant attack than a humble prayer. I wondered where in what she prayed, was the love of neighbor that Jesus taught?
As my post elicited a torrent of comments, I added that “in the current climate of Christian-Muslim relations, such a prayer in ‘the public square’ could not be heard as anything but a modern echo of the crusades — Christians in their triumphalism walking over other people.”
Another side of Christianity was opened up before my eyes. As of my writing this E-pistle, almost 800 people have affirmed my position. In the thread of comments, too, there are people affirming a Christianity that has room for respect and neighbors of other faiths.
In those same comments, however, the opposition to my openness to a Muslim neighbor is loud, not always articulate, but very strident. It reminds me of the tenor or feeling of the animal rights activists on the church FB page after the escape of Stormy. They cared for animals, but they could be quite hostile to another human. In this case, the respondents might love Jesus, but sheez, that didn’t hold them getting hateful with me!
“Have you ever read the Bible? You should…”
“Do you not recognize that ‘the enemy’ has been sworn in to be your Representative?”
“Your shame and embarrassment about Jesus is telling.”
“You are a Pharasee (sic)” (My sermon title this Sunday is “What If We Are All Pharisees?”!)
“You are a nothing but a forsaken hired hand.”
“You may be ordained, but that doesn’t mean you are a true servant of God.”
“Michael Caine, you are slime.” (One of my favorite Christian responses?)
“If light disturbs you, you belong in the darkness.”
“You’re no minister. I think you confused the word with liberal democRAT.”
“You are obviously a false prophet. Jesus is coming back. And you are not ready.”
“I feel sorry for you and your flock that you minister to… I guess you are one of those denominational sheep in wolves’ clothing, leading people astray… You’re actually apologizing for the One and True Lord. (I don’t think she really means to be calling me an apologist!) You
need to find the Lord.”
I tried two more times to redirect us to more substantive dialogue about God and people of other religions.
First, I asked:
“You read the Bible and hear it labeling other people ‘the enemy,’ namely the devil? You don’t remember the stories about folks of other faiths being good neighbors, playing parts in God’s plans, showing themselves more ‘faithful’ that those who style themselves religious and right. Your question, ‘don’t I recognize that ‘the enemy’ has been sworn in as my Representative?’ sounds more like religious paranoia and projection than faithfulness? We all have enemies (though that’s not what you mean by ‘the enemy’), and that’s why Jesus tells us to love and pray for them.”
And second I tried:
“It’s called separation of church and state. And while it might impinge upon our evangelical impulse a bit (humility and some sense of hospitality should as well), it also protects your right to practice your faith according to your faith community’s understandings, rather than having to tow the line according to some authorized version established by the decision of secular government. It protects you… keeps you free to live out your faith and worship as you feel called to. Of course, the same separation affords your Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist… and nonreligious neighbors the same freedom. …Sort of basic William Penn founding Pennsylvania material…”
My attempts didn’t elevate the conversation. In fact, as it went on, it definitely devolved. More name-calling and people arguing, even the conservatives going after each other over theological differences. And some of the progressives also resorted to insulting their opposition. And one respondent is sure the separation of church and state is in the constitution.
The issue isn’t how hard they came back at me. I am a big boy! The issue is how oppositional they are to anyone who does not believe like them; and how that distrust has focused on Muslims.
Hmm, if one ever thinks the polarization in contemporary American life is primarily political, I wonder if at its root, it isn’t mostly religious?
And I am reminded of what a mentor tried to teach me as I undertook ministry in my late 20s: religion can also very easily become a sickness.
Was it worth my time to try and reason in such a conversation? Probably not with “my enemies” (even if I do have to love and pray for them!) But maybe what I said was helpful for some one… or 800… who needed to hear the church sounding more like Love Thy Neighbor than like the Crusades? It wasn’t bad for me either — to have to articulate my faith and to stand up for the Jesus I know (even as I was being accused of being a traitor to theirs).
See you on Sunday,