Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Mindshift Part 2: Dialogue and “the Poor”

A friend of mine is looking for a job. She has a wonderfully diverse background but, for various reasons, has spent years living around the poverty line. Recently she was asked to interview for a job in line with some of her prior education (law school). To me, it had all the earmarks of a calling.

I find vocation fascinating, because it’s such a wondrous process. Elements of your background fit together in a way no one could have predicted. Something triggers a yearning you never knew you had. A passing remark illumines a pathway for the next stage of your life. I think I see that happening with my friend, and I told her so.

She was having none of it.

In no uncertain terms, she expressed her impatience with talk of vocation. When you know poverty, she said, you’re not focused on some ethereal call; you’re looking for a job. Something that puts bread on the table and keeps body and soul together till the next paycheck. This friend of mine consistently seeks God’s will for her life, so the notion of calling is not foreign to her. But her concern here was more immediate.

See the key words in the previous paragraph? When you know poverty.

I don’t. I never really have. My one brush with poverty lasted only a year or two, and even then I always knew where my next meal was coming from. By bringing me up short, my friend shed light on an entire frame of mind that I had never even considered.

I need a mindshift. A big one, as I mentioned in our previous post.

This particular mindshift is essential for people of faith in general, and middle-class (and up) Christians in particular. The Bible is rife with evidence of God’s concern for the poor; some theologians call it the single most important message therein. The Magnificat, Mary’s glorious prayer in the Gospel of Luke, expresses this elegantly:

(God) has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

Churches can serve poor people without knowing them intimately—through financial support, for example. But if we stop there, I think we fall short of God’s call to stand in solidarity with the poor. That requires something deeper: face-to-face encounters, together with the mindshift in which we set aside our preconceptions, our experiences, our whole ways of thinking, and listen intently to the experience of the other.

If we do that, our eyes will be opened and our perspective expanded. We will stop thinking of “the poor” as a monolithic group and see the diverse humanity therein. Our approach to social issues surrounding poor people will change. So, in essence, will we—toward a more open heart, hand, and mind. All due to a mindshift that prepares the soil of our soul for authentic dialogue.

God’s Dialogue Command

If you pray the Daily Office, you may have run across this passage earlier in the week: 

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18, RSV) 

This comes from part of the Torah known to many scholars as the Holiness Code. According to the text, God has called the people of Israel to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), and now he’s telling them how to do it. The list of commandments is an inspiration to anyone with high ethical standards: do not oppress your neighbor, do not be partial to the rich (or the poor) in judgment, leave produce in your field for the poor. 

And reason with your neighbor. 

It’s hard to reason without dialogue. Can we say, then, that God called the people of Israel—and, by extension, is calling us—into dialogue? 

Maybe. Speaking for God with certainty is risky business, of course. But it is interesting to find this command ensconced amid so many others that lay out the basics of just, fair, merciful behavior. 

Even more interesting is how close this passage ties “reasoning with your neighbor” to matters of love and hate. You shall not hate, so you must reason. You shall not hate, so you must love your neighbor as yourself. 

That says two things to me. First, dialogue is an alternative to hate—even a way through hate. It’s difficult to hate someone when she’s talking with you. 

The second thing keeps us talking: a commitment to love. When, in our hearts, we can commit ourselves to seek the other person’s good, for better or worse, we don’t give up. We might take a break from dialogue to clear our heads or let the emotion dissipate. But love keeps us coming back to the table—if not to agree, then to learn how to respect each other within our differences. 

Imagine what would happen if, say, the warring factions within the Christian Church acted this out. Might they actually find a way to live together, conflicts and all?

The More Things Change…

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before—and who was one of the Pharisees—asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The Pharisees replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)

If you think the state of civil discourse has reached an all-time low, this story may surprise you.

Allow me to introduce the cast. Jesus was from Galilee (hence the reference in the passage above). The Pharisees, a Jewish sect, emphasized rigorous adherence to the law that God had given to Moses, as well as to the traditions that sprang from it. Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, had visited Jesus early in the gospel of John to hear what he had to say.

Previously, the Pharisees—who were offended by Jesus and worried about civil unrest among his followers—had sent guards to arrest him. It backfired: the guards came back awestruck, saying, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”

From here the story could go one of two ways. Hearing the guards’ new perspective could inspire curiosity. Maybe, the Pharisees could think, it’s worthwhile to talk with Jesus. They could see if his ideas shed a new light on their beliefs. Perhaps, through dialogue, an exchange of views might draw them both closer to God.

That’s one way. The other, alas, is all too familiar to us: dig in, protect our position by insulting the other side, reduce thoughtful positions to bromides that obscure more than they clarify. This is what happens, for instance, when pro-life adherents call their adversaries “baby killers,” or when pro-choice advocates incessantly trumpet “a woman’s right to choose.”

That’s the way the Pharisees go in the gospel account. To the guards, they say, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?…the crowd [of believers in Jesus], who do not know the law—they are accursed.” When Nicodemus tries to put the idea of a fair hearing before them, they insult him too, dismissing him with a one-liner.

As always, let me offer a caveat. Any of these positions may hold truth. “A woman’s right to choose” is a factor worth considering in the abortion debate. Maybe the fetus is a baby. Perhaps there is no mention of a Galilean prophet in the Hebrew scriptures.

The problem is that the advocates of these positions assert their position and stop there. That cuts off the possibility of exploring for a deeper truth. If the fetus is a baby, does it too have a right to choose? If we can’t determine when babyhood begins, what then? If the scriptures are silent about a prophet from Galilee, does that mean it can’t happen?

Questions like these—when we ask them of each other—help us probe deeper, uncover more truth, and become more empathic with those who disagree. Insults and repetition block our way.

Even two millennia ago, the dynamics of dialogue and polarization were at work. Ultimately, I think, this is encouraging news. It means our divides never go away—but neither does our desire to reach across them.

The Priest and I

This past Wednesday, our interim priest said his last Mass before retiring to Maine. In honor of the occasion, allow me to tell our dialogue story.

He would have been at home in the Middle Ages; I fall into a fuzzy moderate-to-liberal spot on the spectrum. He lamented the decline of proper authority in the Church. He summarily dismissed many perspectives I found worthy of exploration. Some of his comments were withering. Yet when I objected to a point in his sermon one Sunday, I could not manage to keep my mouth shut.

That led to nearly a year’s worth of email discussion on all manner of things spiritual. We exchanged views on evangelism. We wrestled over the Jesus Seminar and the literal truth (or lack thereof) of the Bible. We discussed the state of our own local congregation. 

An academic exercise? Not even close. This priest came to our church when I was in a pivotal but delicate phase of reevaluating my beliefs. My inner wrestling kindled a desire to talk with clergy, because we think about the same things and they’re more educated than I am. Into this situation walks a conservative, combative old priest.

And the dialogue changed my thinking in some unexpected ways.

For one thing, it gave me a place to articulate the vague theological cross-currents in my head. I realized, for instance, that it was possible to hold the Bible as divinely inspired and still accept it as what Marcus Borg calls it: a book written by humans about God. I decided that my progressive friends were right in their embrace of gays and lesbians but maybe not in their denial of the Resurrection. The dialogue allowed me not so much to adopt the priest’s ideas but to test my own.

In short, I learned more about myself, more about what I could believe, and perhaps even a tiny bit more about the Divine.  

Not that the discussion was not all peaches and cream. His emails could be strident; I got exhausted at times. Moreover, I couldn’t see that the dialogue was giving the priest anything new to think about. Is dialogue even worth the effort when one party gets nothing out of it?

Every time I worried about this, I came back to one email. 

Early on, I expressed a desire not to let our discussions get in the way of his church work, and his response stunned me: “If only you knew how deeply many clergy, myself included, long for discussions of this kind.”

We’ve talked here about dialogue’s role in resolving issues and promoting mutual understanding. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe dialogue can be a tonic for the gnawing loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition. Even if we solve nothing, even if we learn nothing, we have talked. We have listened to others share the things that matter to them. Sometimes that simple connection is all we can ask—and more than we could ever hope.