Dec  2016 06
Hope Recedes

When I was a child in Chicago, the nuns at the Catholic school across the street from my school told the Catholic kids not to play with public school kids (or so our Catholic neighbors told me when they refused to play with me).

When I was in high school, while walking past a Catholic Church with our youth group leader, he quipped—with a hint of fiction, but just a hint: “Watch out, we’re passing through enemy territory.” But I knew there was something afoot with Catholicism; I was soon seeing ecumenical prayer services and invitations to visit each other’s churches.

Years later, I learned about forces behind those innovations—Vatican II, and the ecumenical movement. I learned that veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II experienced chaplains who, by the nature of the chaplaincy in times of war, acted ecumenically.

 All the leaders who were formed in national and global youth movements carried ecumenism into everyday life.

The devastation of World War II, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the identified need for a moral and spiritual power to provide a Christian equivalent to the new United Nations also contributed to an ecumenical age. Centripetal forces were powerful.

There was optimism and hope that Jesus’ prayer in John, “that they may all be one,” and Paul’s declaration to the Galatians that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” could be realized, maybe even in a generation. It was a wonderful vision, and at the tail end of that vision’s height, I was grabbed by it.

Except that the vision did not hold, or perhaps I should say it held me longer than it held many of my peers. For a while, it looked as if the U.S. civil rights movement would unite not only Catholics and Protestants (well, some Catholics and some Protestants), black and white, but that other faiths—especially Jews—might also with a united Christianity find and cultivate a great swath of common ground.

But the civil rights movement went only so far. Racism was not healed, economic injustices were not effectively addressed, and churches were little changed. Within the so-called mainline churches (my home), the plan of church union, known as the Consultation on Church Union, was undone in the late 1960s by several factors.

A prominent factor was that the newly-included historically African-American Methodist denominations could not trust white church leaders, who drafted the plan before the Black Methodists joined, sufficiently to co-lead a church with them.

Moreover, structural ecumenical talks were conducted predominantly by men. There were women-controlled ecumenical organizations (e.g., Church Women United), but few women were respected participants in ecumenical discussions about structure and doctrine.

In some discussions, half the human race was not even welcome. Feminist theologians were challenging patriarchy and hegemonic use of male metaphors for God. Every Protestant denomination that “allowed” women to be ordained distanced themselves from official representations of Catholic and Orthodox ecumenism.

Look no further than the Episcopal Church and the “breaking of union, or the possibility of union” that first they, and then the Church in England, were accused of by other branches of the Anglican Church and by Catholic and Orthodox leaders, accused because they ordained women and elected them to be bishops. Arguably, nothing has strained relationships between Christian denominations, and within Christian denominations, in the past 50 years as much as core-deep conflicting convictions about sexuality, gender, and what constitutes legitimate sexual and gender identities.

Also, in the late 1960s, around the world, post-colonial expressions of politics, economics, culture, and religion were emerging and challenging white Euro-North American hierarchies, norms, universals, and narratives. The Euro-North American ecumenists in the 1930s and 40s thought of churches Asia, Latin American, and Africa as “younger churches.”

The World Council and other organizations have struggled to stay together to do their work from the “younger church” leaders claimed equal footing to the older churches.

So, I should have seen much earlier how Christianity was not only toothless when it comes demonstrating publicly how to be a community, but (and to change the image) that Christianity has voraciously torn at any semblance of community in church or culture.

I’ve followed the ecumenical movement since I took on a class on the subject that included a three-week trip in Western Europe in 1975. I wrote a dissertation on the topic 16 years later.

I even argued in the dissertation that the ecumenical movement should be about the community we seek rather than the unity we seek. But it took the recent campaign and election season to drive home for me that Christianity has not been, and is not positioned to be, a community-building force in the U.S.

There is a difference in arguing with a spouse when you care about the marriage, when you want to make the marriage work, when you want to stay, that is distinct from when you could not care less, you don’t want or need the other, and you want to leave or want your spouse to leave. Christians are arguing with each other in the “leave” mode, and we’ve fostered the burn the heretic/make-every-opponent-an-enemy culture we also deplore.

I don’t like this narrative. Apparently, I’ve kept the emotional impact of this narrative in a lockbox. No longer.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” testifies the author of Hebrews (11:1). An understanding and practice of community that is large and generous and hospitable enough to embrace all but those who don’t want to be within a community seem very far away to me.

I’ve felt the ideal recede, or perhaps I’ve been seeing a fantasy evaporate like morning fog burning off. I’m trying to hold onto an assurance and a conviction. But right now, the centrifugal forces out-pull the centripetal, the centrifugal forces spin us into ever smaller clans, and we don’t want to play with persons from the other schools.

So, for this Advent, I experience only the first part of the verse: I am with the people sitting in darkness. I hope for the light, which I do not see.

Maybe, that is when hope becomes real.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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