Friday, November 23, 2007
Classism and the Maze of Schism.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about “The Great Divide”. By that I mean, the difference between Evangelical Episcopalians/Anglicans and the rest of us in North America.
I’m tying to understand the anger and the harsh, often violent rhetoric. Who are these people? Who is their God? Why are they hell-bent on the ruination of The Episcopal Church?
I’m thinking that class issues play an important part in all of this.
Let me explain by way of thinking out loud. I don’t mean this as an essay that is definitive, but rather, evolving. No where will you read, “Thus saith the Lord.”
I do not mean that to vacillate. I only mean what I say: I am trying to understand what it is that exists, way, way down at the bottom of the deep valley of “The Great Divide” in the present troubles in the church.
Why? Because, for all of my glibness and defensive posturing, it simply pains me to see the church in the state of schism. I am looking for some comfort.
I suspect that understanding the dirty little secret of classism which has long plagued the Episcopal Church just might hold one of the keys which may unlock the confusing, chaotic mess of schism. I may not be able to connect all the dots, but there is an odd sort of comfort in the exercise itself.
Then again, I often retreat to my intellect to find solace. It happens a lot in the LGBT community, as well as among many of the oppressed. If we can make sense of it we can live better with it, since we can’t seem to change the human dynamics of oppression, prejudice and bigotry.
My father was a simple man. A working class man. Although he had a sixth grade education, he was, by no means, dumb. Just uneducated. He would never, EVER, have been an Episcopalian.
That’s not just about education, much less theology or ecclesiology. Being a Portuguese immigrant and Roman Catholic were inseparable – you know sort of like being a Jew. It's your nationality and your religion. The same was true for any immigrant group. Consider the Irish.
Even more than that, however, my farther would have felt singularly out of place in an Episcopal church. The central, albeit least talked about reason for that would have been an issue of class.
Oh, he would have been met and greeted warmly on his first visit – even his second or third. But, he wouldn’t have become a member. He wouldn’t have felt comfortable. More importantly, no one would have encouraged him to do so.
His great gifts to me were his stories. I don’t believe he ever considered them gifts. Rather, he simply told them as story – an answer to a question from his eldest daughter. His duty as a father to try and explain and impart his understanding of the wisdom of the world.
I just read an essay entitled, “Not My Father’s Religion” by a man named Doug Muder, an Unitarian Universalist pastor which calls his religious denomination on their classism and elitism.
He says, succinctly, “Unitarian Universalism has a class problem. Like our race problem, the class problem seems paradoxical to many UUs: We try to stand for all people, but when we look around, we’re usually standing with people like ourselves.”
He continues, “One reason this paradox is hard to talk about, I think, is that a lot of us believe an explanation that we don’t’ want to say out loud: Working-class people are stupid. The powers-that-be have duped them into pining for Heaven instead of changing Earth.”
He could be talking about The Episcopal Church.
Here’s the thing that caught my imagination. Muder uses a very apt metaphor of baseball. He talks about his father, a factory worker in the cattle feed industry, a Missouri Synod Lutheran by religious affiliation, who often worked the night shift and overtime. Muder describes how he’d race home from school on his bike and they’d play baseball – father and son in the front yard.
“Dad had a method for teaching me not to be afraid of the ball. ‘Let it hit you,’ he said. Because that’s how Dad thinks: If the worst has happened already and you survived, what’s to be afraid of?”
He could have been talking about my father.
“Consider baseball helmets,” Muder writes. “The major leagues didn’t make batting helmets mandatory until 1971. You know who fought that rule? Hitters. The league had to grandfather the active hitters in, so that they could keep facing Nolan Ryan’s fastballs without helmets until they retired. The last batter who didn’t wear a helmet was Bob Montgomery in 1979. The same thing happened in hockey, whose last helmetless player retired in 1997.”
“Now, from the outside it sounds crazy that the players would fight against people who were trying to protect them, but it makes an odd kind of sense. You see, the players knew the lesson my Dad taught me in the front yard: If you’re afraid of the ball, you can’t hit it. They just took it one step further: If you’re really not afraid, why do you want a helmet?”
“When you’re doing something hard like hitting a baseball,” Muder writes, “sometimes the mind-set you need, the one that works, is not the objective, big-picture view. It’s the one that tells you to be brave, not the one that tells you to wear a helmet.”
I’ve been thinking about this image, and applying it to the rhetoric I hear from the Episcopal Evangelical Right. I’ve had to look beyond my disdain for the religious machismo in order to hear strains of this metaphor in everything that is said and done from that side of the church pew.
Don’t believe me? Here are the scriptural mantras of two of the major Evangelical Blogs:
“Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be brave. Be strong. Be loving in everything you do.” (Oops. Well, not so much on that last part., but yes, that is ‘Stand Firm’.)
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it." (T19)
Stand firm. Hold firm. Firm, no matter what comes at you. Let the ball hit you.
I think of my own working-class parents – my mother was a ‘presser’ in a dress factory, my father, a rubber worker for Firestone Tire and Rubber. If they knew what it was to ‘follow your bliss’ they also knew enough to resist the temptation.
‘Discernment’ was something clergy did in seminary or “Father” talked about on spiritual retreats which they would have loved to attend, but never had the time because, well, there may be overtime available and that paid ‘time and a half.’
They didn’t go off to work in some dirty, dingy factory because they had discerned this as the work they were called to do. They went to work every day and to church every Sunday because if they didn’t, they were convinced something bad would happen. They’d be punished. Get fired. Go on (gasp!) welfare (‘The Dole’ as my father called it).
And, in the long run, if they were to be punished, so would their children in the form of some awful illness. And, THAT was just not gonna happen. No way. Not if they could help it.
My parents didn’t need help discerning what to do. They just needed to make themselves do it.
Is this starting to sound even vaguely familiar?
The maze is another metaphor Muder uses to explain the Great Divide. “Picture it like this,” he writes. “Imagine society as a giant maze, with success as a prize at the end. Some people are born right by the exit. Others start in more difficult places. They can’t just wander out. They have to make all the right moves.”
“Now,” he continues, “if you imagine yourself standing in a high place overlooking the maze, compassion for the people deep inside might raise questions like these: Why does it have to be so hard to find the prize? Couldn’t we knock out a few walls? Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”
“From a God’s-eye view,” continues Muder, “those are great questions. But, if you’re inside the maze, that mind-set won’t get you out. It doesn’t help. No matter how good those question are objectively, if I’m so deep in the maze that I seriously doubt I’ll ever get out, I don’t need them in my head.”
I have a clear childhood memory of the times my father would get frustrated and angry with me. That was when I was curious and asking lots of questions. Questions, to him, were the enemy. Follow them, and they could lead you down the path to sin and perdition.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” he would warn. My father also used to say. “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”
I always thought it was a joke. Now, I understand.
I think I’m also gaining an insight into the Evangelical resistance – no, repulsion, actually – to ambiguity and paradox, which, for me, are two of the compelling parts which form the nexus of the Spirit of Anglicanism.
If your world is black and white, however, I suspect you might tend to read the Bible from that same color lens.
If your working class world is harsh, your God is bound to be harsh; so, too, will be your theology. Ordain women? You mean, ‘the weaker sex’? How could a woman be ‘proper matter’ for the Herculean task of fighting against Satan, the incarnate form of Evil which is as present and real on Earth as the goodness of God.
Ordain homosexual people? Those men who appear feminine? Those ‘sissies’? See the argument about ordaining women above. And, if you don’t believe that, well, just read the Bible. It’s all there. In black and white.
People of color? That just adds to the difficulty of the task of getting out of the maze. Might take the job that is the one chance I have to escape. They might get out before I do, and you know that ain’t right. There is an order to the world. White men first. Just read the Bible. It’s all there.
Often, this harshness is communicated in the language employed in daily conversations – especially if the carefully balanced order of the harsh world is threatened in any way. Then, there is no hope for ‘dialogue’.
I can hear my father, “Talk. It’s TALK, Elizabeth. I don’t know what the hell ‘dialogue’ is supposed to mean. Whatever happened to people just TALKING with one another? You want to know what’s wrong with the world?” he’d ask, his face flushed with anger.
“People don’t TALK to each other anymore. They DIALOGUE! I’m the father. I talk. You’re the daughter. You listen. Easy, see? Jesus Christ!” he’d mutter under his breath and walk away in absolute disgust.
Professionals tell their kids to find something they love and do that as your life’s calling. If you do what you love you’ll be brilliant, creative, and energetic. You’ll succeed – and the road to success is paved with inspiration.
It’s the way out of the maze. Or, at least, it’s one way. The good way. There’s also the bad way, driven by fear and greed – those who sell their time and money for a lot more money than the folks in the factory who work for them.
In the working class families, the road to success is paved with self-control. Children are taught to resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.
Unlike the professional class kids who get a second chance – and even sometimes, a third and a fourth – you only get one shot out of the maze. And that shot is usually through education. Sometimes, it’s a combination of things. Sometimes, you get a lucky break – being at the right place at the right time.
Whatever. You got one shot. If you blow it, you not only ruin your dream, but the dreams of everyone who worked and sacrificed to get you to this country and have this opportunity. That’s an enormous burden.
All of this has helped me understand the harshness of the rhetoric from the Right. The need to shame and blame. The impulse to destroy. The drive for power and control. To take the hits in order to win.
Clearly, sexism is one of the driving factors. It messes up the ‘natural order’.
However, I think some of it also has to do with our own classism. At least, that’s the way it seems to me as I listen to some of those who leave comments the three or four Evangelical conservative Blogs I check into periodically.
Here’s the thing: my own classism is not helping the situation. Yes, I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. The simplicity of some of their arguments and the fundamentalism of their logic may cause me to cringe, but these folk are not ‘stupid.’
If I consider their theology as too focused on the wretchedness of the human condition and ‘otherworldly’ matters, it’s only because their understanding of the human condition and their world view are so very different from mine.
I am coming to understand that class status – mine and theirs – has a primary role in informing that perspective.
I’m working hard to understand these things because I’m tired of banging my head against the wall and going nowhere in the Maze of Schism in our church. Which leads me to end with one of my father’s best stories – one I’m thinking is more and more a parable about the Maze of Schism.
My father fought in World War II in what he always called, alternatively, “The Pacific Front” or “The Pacific Theater.” He saw most of the action deep in the jungles outside of Manila. One night, in the heat of battle, he and two of his buddies got caught off from the rest of his battalion. It was very, very dark. They were tired and scared.
They had come upon a wall, which seemed to be preventing them from finding their way back home. The more they moved along it, the more their frustration and anxiety grew. Finally, in exhaustion, they fell asleep for a few hours.
As morning began to break, they awoke to hear voices. Carefully peering over the wall, they could see, not too far away, a battalion of Japanese soldiers. “Turns out,” my father said, “the wall we had been cursing had actually protected us.”
He would get quiet and pensive and then add, “So, if you are ever in a dark and scary place and there’s a wall, don’t curse it. Don’t try to take it down. Just move along it for a while. Rests when you need to. Sleep if you have to. It may not be a bad thing. It may actually save your life.”
Let those who have ears, hear.
UPDATE: Check out the very thoughtful comments on another verse of this conversation over in MadPriest's Neighborhood.