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Friday, January 04, 2008

Road Rage among Christian pilgrims

Louie Crew recently made a very provacative post on the "Road Rage" of some Anglican pilgrims. It raised some of the questions I have been sitting with ever since I posted a previous essay on class status (when I find it, I'll link it here).

Louie wrote:

I need to spend time studying the dynamics of road rage. It seems to be the model many are using for handling conflict in the Anglican Communion:people get so invested in the view from their own vehicle that they forget other vehicles are driven by real human beings like themselves.

We in The Episcopal Church have for too long presumed to connect to others in the Anglican Communion by sending money without faces. In a desire not to control how the money is spent, we have often stayed away altogether. No wonder that so few of those to whom we thought we were being supportive, sometimes with sacrificial giving, know us in any respectful way.

Money and power are impersonal: by themselves they do not promote solidarity, but resentment.

Would resentment of TEC be as common had more of us been in one another's homes across the provinces of the Communion? If we spent a week in the tents of Anglican refugees in Darfur or Kenya, would we ever feel as comfortable again in the luxury of our own homes?

Episcopalians wear too much armor. We allow ourselves to show very limited vulnerability, presenting ourselves as sufficient. We should not be surprised that those who disagree with us in the Anglican communion whack away at our metal armor and forget that there are real Christians inside it.

No wonder so few of our adversaries put down their swords to rush to aid those in the dioceses of Mississippi and Louisiana. or earlier in Manhattan after 9/11.

No wonder the guests from the ACC to the meeting House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans did not think to spend the day with our bishops when they worked on rebuilding homes.

I responded:


You bring up a very complex dynamic about the rich and the poor and the perceptions and misperceptions each class has about the other. You have provoked some deep thought in me. If you indulge me, I will share a few of them.

I was brought up in a devoutly Roman Catholic family who were very active in social justice programs for the poor. I didn't know it then, but I know now that we, ourselves, were 'working class poor' but we never thought of ourselves that way. We knew well our place and social status in society as 'immigrants'. We heard what they called us: 'Greenhorns,' 'High yellas', 'Darkies', 'Portugy pigs,' but we were too proud to consider ourselves 'poor.'

We may have had hot dog or rabbit stew and lots of tuna fish casseroles and mac and cheese with cod fish cakes made from cheap canned cod for supper, but we always had food on the table. And bread. Lots and lots of fabulous round loaves made daily in my grandmother's oven, crusty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, seemingly designed to make its way in to fill all the empty places in your tummy.

My grandfather, father and uncles were fishermen and hunters and my grandmother, mother and aunts were gardeners so Sunday dinners at my relatives homes (and we either always had guests or were guests in someone's home for Sunday dinner - right after Mass) were spectacular feasts - at least, in my memory.

We may have lived in crowded, immigrant, urban tenement housing, but we had a home filled with love and laughter and song and story - when we weren't arguing and fighting and drinking too much home made wine and beer and whiskey.

We may have worn hand-me-downs and patches and homemade clothes, but we did not go naked or cold. My uncles worked in dress and coat and shoe factories and always had "something in the trunk of the car" which was free to the family and sold on the cheap to neighbors and friends. I never thought of it as stealing. As my uncles used to say with a laugh, "Hey, it fell off the back of the truck." Some kids in school were cruel, but mostly we hung out with our own and we were a mostly happy lot.

We certainly didn't consider ourselves 'poor' but the income we lived on fell well below the poverty level - before anyone measured such things. We were resourceful and creative in a time and place where you still could be resourceful. Poverty did not have as much of a stigma attached to it as it does today. We may not have been 'poor' but we understood that we were not rich because we were immigrants - not because of our race or the color of our skin or that we were 'lazy' or 'stupid' and deserved our lot in life.

At least for me at that time and in that place, poverty was more a state of being than a judgement on your character. The 'Great American Dream' was a dynamic force in the life of my family of origin which was available to us because, while we were not as 'white' as the English, Irish and French Canadians who were immigrants before us, we were Caucasian and Western European and - more specifically - not Black.

At least, I didn't feel the stigma of poverty until I went off to junior high school and then the cruelty of class distinction collided with the natural chaos of adolescence which combined to make a very bitter batter, indeed, which then became our daily bread. I knew I was poor because my clothes were home made and hand-me-down, and I could not afford to go shopping for the latest styles with some of my girlfriends.

But I hated their pity more than I hated not being able to have a certain style blouse or shoe. I hated it that they had designer labels on their clothes and anything new I wore came from a discount store where that style wasn't even available.

They had natural fiber 'Jonathan Meyer' suits. I wore 'Robert Hall' polyester dresses when I wasn't in skirts and blouses from Kerr Mill or Arlan's Department store. Suits? Skirts with matching jackets? Are you kidding? Not in the stores where 'my kind' was 'allowed' to shop.

I hated it more when one of my classmates would give me her 'last year's' clothes. As much as I wanted to wear them, I hated that everyone knew that I was wearing someone else's clothes. And, they knew it because everyone thought 'Susan' or 'Becky' a veritable saint because of her generosity and kindness towards me. At least when I wore my cousin's hand-me-downs, no one at my school knew it. No one thought my cousin a hero because she gave me clothes she'd outgrown and never wear again anyway.

One of the things the nuns used to teach us about our participation in social justice programs for the poor came from Martin de Porres (or was it Francis de Sales or St. Vincent de Paul? - Oh dear! Sister would be so upset with me, I'd have to say 10 Hail Mary's and 5 Our Father's and say 'a good Act of Contrition' after 'making a good examination of conscious') who used to tell his brother monks and sister nuns, embellished, no doubt, by the nuns (I'm not quoting exactly - I couldn't find it on Google - but from memory):

"Do not be surprised when the poor hate you when you bring them food even though they are hungry. They hate you because that is not 'your' food that you give them. It is God's food and you act as if it were yours to give and they should be grateful to you. The food they receive from you is God's food that Jesus requires you to give them. The food may quiet the growl in their bellies but it will not quiet the righteous anger in their hearts and the injustice that burns in their souls."

I didn't understand this, at first, but as I grew older and experienced my own deep, smoldering resentment of the upper class kids who lived in places called "The Point" and "The Harbor", it became painfully clear.

Because of God's great sense of humor, I now live a very affluent community near two shopping malls - "The Livingston Mall" and "The Mall at Short Hills." I'm willing to bet 95% of the readers on this listserv who do not know Northern NJ will still be able to accurately guess which one has the 'Bloomingdales' , 'Eileen Fisher' and 'Coach Leather' stores and which has the 'Sears', 'Gap' and 'Payless Shoe' stores.

One final, important story: As Canon Missioner to The Oasis, I used to ask rectors who were local to that area to come to our weekly Eucharists to preach and preside. At the announcements, I would always ask our guest, "If an LGBT person came to your church this Sunday, what kind of welcome would they find?"

One rector of a very affluent church stunned us all with a statement that went something like this: "You'd be very welcome as long as you kept your mouth shut about your personal life. That's not a statement of homophobia, but rather, a statement of the vulnerability of the affluent who, I'm convinced, created 'don't ask, don't tell.' See, if you start to tell your story, then they'd have to tell theirs. And, if you knew their story, you might discover just how rich they really are. Or, perhaps more importantly, not. Either way, they are vulnerable to you and that's just not going to happen - not if they can help it."

There are other thoughts, other stories, other examples, but I've gone on longer than I intended. I apologize. I suspect part of what's involved is a bit of avoidance to continue working on a project which must be completed by the 15th. Forgive me.

"Road rage" among Christian pilgrims has as much complexity as that which we see on the secular, mean streets and highways of our cities. Some of it is justified, most of it, I think, has to do with class status and economic imbalance. When that gets mixed up with theology, well, as we're discovering, it's a bitter brew which becomes a poisonous, intoxicating drink that alters our perceptions of reality.

The image of God I prayed to as a young immigrant child and the idea of Jesus is very, very different from the image of God and understanding of Jesus I have now, being older and a great deal more affluent than my grandparents and parents were at my age. I wonder if that's also not part of the rage - that neither of us 'gets' the images of God to whom we pray, so charges that range from 'idolatry' to 'apostasy' rule the hearts and minds - and actions - of many on both sides of the fence.

Finally, I am reminded of this, from Matthew 10:34-39NRSV:

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worth of my. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

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