Volume 5, August 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cathedrals and Cornerstones

On other pages in this publication, my much-beloved predecessor, Rev. Clete Kiley wonderfully sets the place of The Faith & Politics Institute at the heart of Capitol Hill. Since I only very recently have my feet under the desk, I will speak about more personal cornerstones, hoping they serve as pointers to the future.

I grew up in an English village that traced its roots back to the French invasion of England in 1066 and a little church that was constructed at around the same time. When I was six, I remember wondering if the church's ancient minister, who sported a shock of white hair, arrived with those same French invaders. Belief there was as old as the hills and my juvenile mind knew God as a constant presence, a simple child's thing, like mother's love and bedtime. It was perhaps the simplest and most wondrous faith I ever held. Though of course it was to change, I believe the inculcation of a sense of wonder in childhood (perhaps even more than specific belief) creates a secure base from which to build a life. Seeking to give every child and young person the gift of a secure base upon which to build a human soul would be my first cornerstone.

It was not until my journey took me to seminary that I grasped another truth I now hold dear: that almost all faiths call us to have a bias to the poor and the needy. This wasn't to say that any one viewpoint, like liberals or the conservatives held all the answers as to how we were supposed to do something about it. In fact, they did not, but the answer was more like a jigsaw puzzle, and everyone had a piece of it. But the important thing was that it was more that I realized that this was not just something we did at Christmas, or something we did if we felt like it, but it was inherently one of the things that faith was actually about. It was as if I'd heard the voice of Jesus say: 'Get with the program.' Now, in my Christian tradition, to the poor belongs the kingdom of heaven; and the meek, we are told, will inherit the earth

Since those pieces of real estate, especially the second one, seemed firmly in control of the wealthy, this was quite an epiphany. My college had two campuses. One campus, sited in Durham, was perhaps the loveliest spot in the whole of England. Sitting right next to a spectacular cathedral, on the tip of a gorge looking down on a curving river, the campus held a croquet lawn so close to the edge of the bluff that if you hit the balls too hard, they were likely to disappear down the cliff. You get the point: it was quintessentially English-beautiful. In complete contrast, the other campus was 20 miles north in Gateshead, a city that (then) had a reputation for urban blight, high-rise developments with all the crime and dependencies that can come along with them. And God's favor, I was reading in my spiritual texts, rested less on that beautiful Durham spot, and more in glowering, mean Gateshead.

But it was there I had to be. We are called not simply to live for ourselves, but to make a better world. We are called to rid the creation of inequity. For me, that is what politics is for. That is what our heroes, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin King, and the extraordinary Conscience of the Congress and friend of this Institute, John Lewis, didn't simply believe, but made real.

But these solutions cannot be owned by any one political party. Many political beliefs have part, and no-one has all, of the answer. It might be found in conservative understanding of the value of individual effort. Another insight is that justice is also done by the collective power of a society, which can effect change in ways individuals simply cannot match. Among the many voices calling members of Congress to heighten contrasts and party divides, the Institute's work is to bridge those differences where it can, and call all of us to hearing the multiplicity of approaches, in order to make a more perfect union. Since faith is in our title, my third cornerstone is this: that you can hold a deep, living faith in one tradition and still be inclusive of other faiths. Similarly, you can also hear the voices of other politics, though you sincerely hold political beliefs that are diametrically different. If we do not at least respect the many voices of our public square, we are picking away at our union.

For example: I make no apologies for my Christian belief: it is the deep stream of my life, and the well upon which I draw for wisdom and authority. And yet I stumbled into understanding that this does not need to exclude other beliefs, and other believers.

For a while in my early ministry, I worked closely with a Rabbi from a nearby synagogue. She undeniably had faith: God worked in her. She ministered to her flock, as I did to mine. Her faith worked just like mine. But the ultimate revelation was that staring out at me from the pages of my Bible was not one faith, but two, hiding in plain sight. My precious Christian Bible was actually a book that actually offered us two religions: Judaism and Christianity. It was not hard to see validity in such similar traditions. It dawned upon me that the overlaps between these two faiths, both obviously blessed by God, actually are replicated in many others: the reflectiveness of Buddhist thought, the all-encompassing nature of God in Hinduism, and the deep compassion of Islam, each contain part of the truth. It is time we recognized that we need not give up our faith to include others, and that our nation will be the richer for our welcoming those whose faiths are already among us.

The Faith & Politics Institute is deeply concerned with reconciliation across the divides of a thriving democracy. It is about creating better American leadership. So: I add a final cornerstone which is an insight from my time working as a psychotherapist.

If your aim is to bridge divides, among many others, there is perhaps one best way to do that with someone with whom you disagree. It is this: with your opponent in earshot, articulate his or her viewpoint — in a way in which she or he agrees with how you have stated it.

You have not necessarily agreed with the content, you have not "given anything up," but try it, and you will find that the simple act of making your opponent's case in front of them, is one of the most successful ways to create simple human connection and break down walls. Our aim is to bring leadership together. If FPI can find ways that our audience can better learn and speak each other's leadership language, in public—or in private—we will be doing our job, and creating healing and connection in our divided democracy.

There are deep roots to why this works, but at heart it is that each of us yearns to be heard. If we are understood, then we are more able to connect. And of course, in the old phrase, you are walking a mile in their shoes. You will find that if you do this, pretty soon it may be the case that you are sharing shoes on a journey together.

 

 

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