Thursday, September 16, 2010

Agonistic Respect

Today we stand at the cross roads of pluralism. Layers upon layers of identity create frictions of differing world views, greased from one to the next by the media and the internet. The debacle over the burning of the Koran, despite a worldwide out pouring of tolerance and restraint shows us just how powerful identities can be and how difficult it can be to find a middle ground. The six decade struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is the longest running example of the ugly side of pluralism.

The sad news is that this will not get any easier. With the speed of media transmission and the demise of news reporting towards the blogs of political position staking, we are in a world of agony. What will save us? How can we help save this world?

I have been struggling with this question for many years. All my professional life I have believed that we could dismantle fears through understanding and dialogue. I founded an interfaith alliance after the attacks of 9/11. I have invited Muslims to preach in my pulpits. I partnered with a Pentecostal minister to achieve civil rights in housing and employment. I have initiated discussion groups with Christians, Jews and Muslims. I have done all this, and while I and those who participate feel good about that work, I have to say honestly that I am not sure it has made much difference.

What I found is that inclusive pluralism does not necessarily lead to meaningful social change. Increasingly, I found myself frustrated with the reluctance of inter-faith organizations to work together towards change practically (such as feeding the hungry) much less politically (such as taking a policy stand on hunger). The dialogue we encouraged seemed to keep us safe from our differences as long as it was wrapped in the mantle of respect. These inter-faith organizations shied away from action because to do so would be to offend the other or, even worse, to risk censure by the religious authorities these good meaning people had to report to.

The result of this was a disappointment and a retreat for me. Not only did I begin to disengage from inter-faith work, but I stopped trying to involve others in that work.

Something, fortunately, has changed. I realized it this summer while studying in Chicago. It was there that I met young and committed people, Unitarians, Buddhists and Christians who understood that while dialogue is a first step, ultimately it takes something more. And that something more is happening.

Micah’s Porch is a universalist community church in Chicago dedicated to bringing people of radically different religious and political views together for worshipping the God of Love and, more importantly working together side by side to change the world (see link below) . And the important characteristic is that the members of this church are almost all under forty, most under thirty years of age. Evangelical Christians alongside professed pagans working on the front lines of a soup kitchen. The more I learned about this model, the more enchanted I became. Could this actually be the respect that might save our increasingly pluralistic world?

There is a generational shift occurring right around us. I believe we must acknowledge that shift and be a part of it or we will fade into mediocrity as people of faith. The prevailing theology of fundamentalism is there is only one way: One mountain, one path. Those of you who are older than me are inclusive of other religions: One mountain, many paths but our path is best ;). My late boomer generation is more pluralistic, believing that we may not have the best path towards ultimate meaning: One mountain, many paths, take your pick. The generation of my children, are “radical pluralists”; willing to engage from multiple faith perspectives: Many mountains, many paths, (and a few valleys) all good. Our role  must be not to hold stubbornly to what we once were (you are welcome but here is how we do things) to helping us shift to what our more progressive children call “many kinds of welcomes”.  We will need to create more, not less, spiritual opportunities; pagan circles, Buddhist meditation, even bible study. But even more important than that is how we can partner with people who are agonizingly different than us. Religious liberals working alongside members of a fundamentalist church.

The name for this paradigm shift is what the philosopher William Connolly calls “agonistic respect”, centered on social action towards the most vulnerable in our community. “Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented ...the importance of the struggle itself.” (Wikipedia)

Agonistic Respect. Agonizing as in agony. Respect as in accepting the other people as people. Protecting your enemy from an unjust death. Building a house with someone who thinks that even though you seem nice, you are going to hell because you have not accepted Jesus as your only savior.

The reason we have to do this is because the alternative is untenable. We can remain for the next fifty years being comfortable with who we are, attracting and surrounding ourselves with people just like us or we can be truly open to grace: we can make an effort to work alongside others who are very different than us.

Where talking fails to promote a radical pluralism in this post modern age, perhaps acting will. In Connolly’s words: “…Agonistic respect is a cardinal virtue of deep pluralism.” We might actually learn more about what we truly believe, not in discussion groups, but in action groups. Less talking more doing.  Facing grace through our actions not our words.

One of my greatest insights recently was that I have been measuring success with the wrong yard stick. I have been trying to create a common theology from which our action can emerge, when what is needed is to engage in a common action through which theological understanding can emerge. The kind of trust that comes from working together breaks down the barriers that exclusivist doctrines have erected. By working alongside people of different, even agonistic faith positions, we will not only broaden our own religious understanding, but encourage those of other faiths to broaden theirs.

Perhaps even more importantly such multi-faith action will move us towards relevancy with the next generation of radical religious pluralists. Rather than arguing or even acting from within a doctrine, such multi-faith social justice orientations might open doors of understanding and deepen our faith. The Christian proclamation “That if you want peace work for justice” can just as easily be understood by the Buddhist understanding “That if you want justice work for peace”. True pluralism might actually be more likely among those engaged in multi-faith justice making which actually compels us to live out our beliefs in the company of others who might challenge those beliefs.

And when you truly understand the other you soften the edges of your differences. I am not saying we are all the same anymore. We are different in more and more ways all the time. Where before we could unite under the banner of our nationalities or political persuasions, I realize now that our pluralism has overtaken those identities. They are not enough to hold us together. The downside of so much diversity is a tendency to segregate into smaller groups. That is how a wacko Pentecostal minister in Florida can get the President of the United States to pay attention to him. He never claimed to represent Pentecostalism, just his little church “doing the work of the Lord” by burning Korans.

What will hold us together beyond our increasing pluralism is a respect of the other as other. The generations that will follow us will not have the ability to unite us all in a "brotherhood of man". But they will have the time to take on projects together that help people in need.  And that may just be enough to save the world.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, September 9, 2010

We Must Be Prepared

This Saturday will be the ninth anniversary of 9/11 a time when the terror of the world came home. In many ways, not much has changed since then; the poor are still getting poorer and the rich richer. Corporations have more power than before. And we are clearly the world’s imperial power. But in other ways, subtler, and more personal, life has changed for almost all of us. We grieve those losses still, with a mixture of sorrow and righteous anger. We have politicized that anger in our foreign policy and we have ratified our fear domestically through terror alerts and homeland security.

Our world is such a fragile place. A pastor in Florida is planning on burning Korans this Saturday in protest to Islam as “a religion of the devil”. Religious pundits are making political hay from speaking out against an Islamic center being built near the World Trade Center. Religious intolerance seems as prevalent today as it was on 9/11/2001. If we ever needed to work toward restoration in our world and even among ourselves this would be the time.

What happens after a traumatic event, an illness, a disaster, a fight, or the loss of a loved one is that we tend to lose our way. We become fearful, we change. We hunger for a return to our true and better selves. I believe that all this anger and conservative backlash, including Glenn Beck’s “I Have a Scheme” speech on the National Mall around the same time MLK gave his dream speech a while back, is a misguided attempt at restoration. A return to what is familiar is often born of fear.  What we need, rather, is a return to promise and hope, along with the loss and change which brings us through our darker hours.
In order to be restored we must be prepared to speak out against fear.  We must be prepared to speak truth to ignorance.  We must be prepared to bear witness to reason and love. We must be prepared to stand on the side of love.
With Grace and Grit,  John