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Compassion Play

Each month a bunch of local Lutheran pastors meet. We start with coffee and bagels or maybe those store-bought muffins you get in molded plastic packages.

Then we have a worship service. Then some kind of presentation. Sometimes the presentation is boring as hell. Other times it’s really pretty good.

I like most of my colleagues. Some more than others. There are divisions among us over a few things—attitudes about sexuality is kind of the hot button. But for the most part, this particular bunch of clergy isn’t riven with much disagreement. And for the few who hold to different views, we’re knit together by something stronger than our diverging intellectual convictions.

I guess it’s really compassion that knits us together. The God we acknowledge is, above all other attributes, compassionate. And we believe we are called upon to embody that.

So, though we may disagree, the call to treat each other with compassion is one we can’t ignore. And to be perfectly honest, it makes for a remarkable degree of collegiality. I can be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone I don’t even particularly like and we’ll be singing a hymn and I’ll hear our voices mixed with all the other voices, and in that blended sound there is some kind of healing or some kind of connection that feels like a little amen in my soul.

But on the whole, this is a hard, hard time to be a mainline Christian. And lately, when I gather with colleagues, I know I’m with people who don’t misunderstand what it means to be Christian.

Thanks to our president, thanks to the blurring lines between church and state, thanks to the rise of fundamentalism in religious traditions all over the world, the word Christian has come to be the broad brush that tars over elemental differences between different kinds of Christianity.

For many (if not most) people, the word Christian describes someone who is prudish in behavior, moralistic in outlook and right-wing in politics, someone who is anti-choice, homophobic, pro-war, someone Bible-thumping, brash and quick to push their faith onto others.

There are, in fact, Christians like that who hold to a law-based theology, quick to define right from wrong.

These are Christians to whom I, and many other mainline Christians, probably wouldn’t even really be considered Christian. Mainline Christian theology is grace-based, driven by the belief that without forgiveness and compassion, we’re all goners.

These different flavors of Christianity can be so different from one another that in some cases a grace-based faith has more in common with some forms of Buddhism, for example, than it does with conservative, evangelical Christianity.

Nevertheless, ensuring religious tolerance was one of the biggest reasons the United States came to exist. That means that these diverging interpretations of what Christianity is all about have to co-exist, along with all of the many beliefs that people hold to be true for themselves.

But now we have a Christian fundamentalist in the White House. We have a rhetoric for patriotism that seems to link faith with unquestioning loyalty to country.

And we have a popular image of Christianity that is a grave distortion of what many Christians actually believe.

And why does this matter?

It matters because when virtually every mainline denomination requested to meet with President Bush to oppose preemptively attacking Iraq, their requests were ignored.

It matters because these mainline denominations are important conduits for humanitarian aid—Lutheran World Federation is the world’s largest distributor of aid gathered from many sources. And these are conduits devoid of any kind of religious agenda, which sets them apart from groups like the Southern Baptist Convention or Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse.

And it matters because, just as fundamentalist Islam is a sharp thorn in the side of many Muslims, legalistic Christianity runs counter to what most mainline churches teach.

Jerry Falwell’s brand of Christianity is no more valid for me or my clergy colleagues and parishioners than Osama Bin Laden’s brand of Islam is valid for all Muslims.

All this seems kind of poignant this week—Holy Week—when most Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus. That was not a show of military victory or the triumph of might: It was a radical defeat. And Jesus was neither warrior nor politician.

And the Easter morning celebrations that will draw so many into churches who normally never go? That’s not about the triumph of might, either. Rather, it’s a celebration that though the body might die, compassion cannot be crucified.

For mainline Christians, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection makes talk of might, coercion and supremacy not only beside the point, but also an offense against the faith. Faithful Christians don’t seek to make Christian nations, but peaceful and just ones.

The Presbyterian Confession of 1967 makes this boldly clear:

The church in its own life is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics, the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God betrays its calling.

If you drop by a church this Thursday or Friday night, or if you go on Easter Sunday morning, keep in mind that victory, in Christian terms, means having no need for victory over others at all.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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