A Time of Testing

1.  There is nobility in compromise.  Two groups of people with different ideas, finding a way to bridge their differences, or at least find a way to co-exist within their differences--that is something that a healthy society, on whatever scale, needs in order to function.  We need more people willing to do the hard and at times humbling work of compromise, and I think most people in the United States believe we have far too few of these people.  Everything seems to be polarized unnecessarily, and people call out for those willing to roll up their sleeves and find that magical middle ground.  And rightfully so.

But, here's the thing.  Compromise and mediation is good until it is not.  There are times, times we might call the times of testing, when the time for finding the middle ground comes to an end.  In those times, attempts at compromise are pointless, and even counter-productive, as compromise often becomes a cover to justify failing to stand up for what is right.  People who insist on holding the middle ground in the wrong time will often find themselves on the wrong side of the cut.  They will say, "hey, that's not fair!  I should get credit for the work I did trying to find the middle ground!"  And no matter how justified that would be in more placid times, in the time of testing the compromisers and middle-grounders will be ignored and lumped in with those on the wrong side of the cut.

2.  The phrase "a time of testing" comes from Luke's Gospel, where Jesus gives His gloss on the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:11-15).  A seed that falls on rocky ground is like a future compromise--open to be carried by the wind or some other vehicle to a fertile place.  But when the time of testing comes, those possibilities are closed, and the seed dies in the heat of the day.  Matthew expresses the same idea in an even more famous passage--the separation of the sheep and the goats.  (Matthew 25:31-46).  Or, if you prefer a more modern prophet, Johnny Cash gives us his take on the same notion.

There is no shortage of Christian commentary on these passages.  But I think there are two big mistakes people make when talking about times of testing.  The first is to identify the time of testing exclusively as judgment upon death.  That is indeed a time of testing (at least, I think so), and is maybe even the paradigmatic example of times of testing, but it is not the only time we are tested.  Times of testing come to us periodically in life, and they come to every level of social organization that we can be apart of--families, local communities, religious organizations, nations, and the world as a whole.  To reduce the time of testing to only our final judgment, we avoid taking seriously these interim tests that all of us will face, making it easy for us to flunk them without noticing.  If all we focus on is the final exam, we will be unprepared for the midterms that will be coming for all of us.

The second mistake is to turn these stories into an excuse for completely binary thinking.  The message is not, it seems to me, that there are only two ways of proceeding in the world.  Again, compromise and nuance is good and necessary.  Instead, I think the point is that there will be a time when those gradations and nuance will be collapsed into the two binary outcomes.  Whatever nuanced middle ground we are able to find in the days prior to the time of testing, when the testing comes that position will either be "rounded up" into the sheep or "rounded down" into the goats.  That's not a mandate for ignoring nuance, but it is a warning to make sure that whatever middle ground we have staked out will ultimately leave us on the side we want to be on when the multiplicity becomes the binary.  Keep working on compromise and nuance, it seems to say, but also keep your eyes on the prize.

3.  On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan placed 15 sticks of dynamite under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  16th Street Baptist was an entirely African-American congregation, and was on the front-lines of the Civil Rights Movement.  Four young girls were killed in the blast, and twenty more people (many children) were injured.

Whenever a tragedy happens, especially one with a human origin, our natural inclination is to determine who is responsible.  The problem, I think, is that too often we view responsibility like a pie, and we try to apportion blame among various people and causes by slicing the pie into pieces.  Or, seeking to avoid that problem, we declare that only one person or cause is responsible, and to suggest that someone or something else is involved is to diminish or excuse the "real" party responsible.

It is true, I think, that responsibility is binary--either something or someone is responsible, or it is not.  But I don't think responsibility is exclusive, as more than one person or thing can be responsible.  We can, and often should, distinguish between the magnitude of one's responsibility as among an array of responsible parties, but we should never try to hedge or suggest that something is "partially" responsible, because that's too often a vehicle for excusing our role in the event.

In the case of the 16th Street Bombing, obviously the people with the greatest magnitude of responsibility were the four men who did the deed.  Next on the scale are their fellow members of the KKK who no doubt encouraged the act.  But those who condemned the Civil Rights Movement, supported the social institution of segregation, and vocally and often violently criticized the "uppity" folks who attended 16th Street Baptist Church--they are responsible as well, no matter if they would recoil from slaughtering girls in choir practice.  They are responsible because they created and environment that facilitated and encouraged such an act.  Responsible also are those who simply acquiesced to the status quo.  The magnitude of their responsibility may be less, but they are fully responsible nonetheless, no matter how much they might have said that they "privately" oppose segregation, or hid behind the idea that "they didn't teach their kids to hate blacks."  All of those middle positions rounded down to being among the goats in the end.

On the flip side, history shows that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was a watershed for many people.  Whatever they had thought before the bombing, after the bombing they saw that they could not find themselves on the side of the bombers and their ideology.  Most historians see the bombing as a key moment for President Kennedy and then-Vice President and future President Johnson, pushing them fully and finally toward support for the Civil Rights Movement.  They may have been late to the party, but when the time of testing came they ended up on the side of sheep.  It is certainly better to be early than to be late, but in the end the most important thing is to get there (and, BTW, Jesus would seem to agree--see Matthew 20:1-16).  President Kennedy and Johnson, and uncounted numbers of others who had their minds and hearts changed by the bombing, get to round up into the sheep.

4.  In the last few years, as the LGBT rights movement has gained steam, there has been a controversy over whether it can or should be compared to the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Without passing definitively on this question, this weekend has taught us that there is at least one similarity between the two movements; they have, to re-purpose a line from Pope Francis, an "ecumenism of blood," as they both can die in the same way.

Based on what we know right now about the shooting at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 patrons, there are at least two ideological causes behind the shooting--the radical Islamist ideology of ISIS and homophobia--and one proximate cause--the easy and legal access to military weapons.  Again, it is purposeless and counter-productive to distribute blame among these causes, though clearly that is not stopping everyone and anyone from trying (here's an excellent example of such excuse-making and equivocation, with an added dose of pro-Trump propaganda).  And, as with the four Klansmen in 1963, Omar Mateen has the greatest magnitude of responsibility for this horror.  But it is worthwhile for all of us to take a moment in times like this to assess where we might be responsible as well.  And, for me, one of these causes jumps out immediately, and that is homophobia.

The religious institution that I am a member of says publicly that the people who died in that club are intrinsically disordered.  Public leaders of this institution have called for the forced, legally mandated humiliation of a subset of the people who died in that club every time they want to use the bathroom in a public place.  Good, hardworking people who have given their lives to this institution have been cast aside the moment they decided to publicly identify as part of the same group that died in the club.  We are about to enter into a two-week "Fortnight for Freedom," which is explicitly premised on the notion that Christianity is in general is under assault in part because those people who died in the club are now allowed the same right to civil marriage as everyone else.  These are facts, and they create and contribute to an environment where horrors of the type we saw on Saturday in Orlando are possible.

In the face of these facts, there are people trying to take a middle ground.  Some of these calls, like that of Archbishop Cupich, seem sincere; others, such as the one by the head of the U.S. bishops Archbishop Kurtz, seem utterly pro forma.  But the point about times of testing is that those sorts of middle positions, no matter how well-intentioned, get swallowed up into the whole.  No one remembers or cares about the white Southern politician or clergyman who condemned the bombing but refused to address their support for segregation.  All of those folks get rounded down into goats, and rightfully so.

Am I the modern version of the legion of people who privately tsk-tsked at the crude racism of the KKK and George Wallace, and assuaged their conscience by pointing to how much more liberal they were than their fellows?  The ones who stayed silent, afraid to rock the boat in their own lives as the time of testing came upon them?  Because I worry that I am playing out precisely the same story in my own time.

5.  Conservative Christians of whatever type often claim that the more progressive end of the Christian spectrum has no consciousness of the judgment of God.  I can speak only for this progressive Christian, but I take the parable of the sheep and the goats very seriously.  My soul has been troubled for the last two days, because I am worried about what I am going to say to the Man when He Comes Around about the Orlando bombing.  And I am worried that the answer that I can give will cause me to be rounded down into the goats.

 Because, I think a time of testing is coming, if it is not already here.  Don't you?


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea