Thursday, May 31, 2007

Diana Butler Bass: "No Nose Thumbing From TEC"

We have previously discussed the work of Diana Butler Bass here and here. She recently offered an article at God's Politics entitled A Post-Colonial Pageant. It is a commentary on how the Miss Universe pageant, which recently occurred in Mexico City, has changed over the years, with the insight that in some ways this change mirrors a global shift:

...As I watched, I realized that I was witnessing a kind of Philip Jenkins (The Next Christendom) meets Miss Universe, a pop culture sort of post-colonial, post-feminist, and post-modern global gala – one to which Western Europeans were not being invited.

Of course, we were not very good hosts when we were the ones handing out invitations, as we expected everyone to come to our party our way. But as the gravity of pop culture moves south – as the gravity of religion already has – it might help for Miss USA’s fellow citizens to be prepared for some big changes, shifts in power, influence, understandings of truth, and yes, even the idea of beauty...
Here is one of the comments in response to Diana's commentary:

Dr. Bass’ commentary is insightful. I think it is ironic though, that she seems to welcome the non-western people’s influence in world affairs (including beauty pageants) while her church thumbs its nose at them in matters of religious doctrine.
"Her church" is a reference to TEC.

Let's stop right there for a moment. We all encounter these kind of comments on a regular basis. We know that they misrepresent the truth. We also know that they are intended to cast TEC in a bad light. How do we respond?

If you're like me, the first thing I try to do (not always successfully) is to get a bit of distance from the emotion of the moment. Such statements hurt. The dishonesty is also cause for me to get a bit angry. And anger tends to cut off the blood flow to the brain.

After getting a little emotional distance, a response can be made. At this point, the problem becomes our willingness to still respond. We've gone through this so many times that it probably makes us weary just to think of plodding through it yet again. And it is going to consume so much time composing a response; time that might better be spent on more important matters. After all, it's just another opinion. And everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it is a wrong one. Right?

Wrong. This is how the misconceptions get planted in the public consciousness. When such statements go unchallenged, over time they become accepted as the truth. Even if it is a pain to do so, we must challenge every single misrepresentation of our Church that we encounter.

Diana Butler Bass offered an excellent response. It is so good that I am reprinting it here:

I don't often jump into the comments, but my church--The Episcopal Church--does NOT thumb its nose at non-western brothers and sisters on matters of faith. The Episcopal Church has been greatly enriched by a willingness over the years to learn from our global friends, an opennesss to non-western theologies and political expressions of the Gospel.

In Episcopal pews (not the desks of the evangelical seminary from which I graduated, one that was relentlessly Euro-centric--even to to point of ridiculing the rest of the world), I first learned various African, South American, and Asian theologies, heard the voices of African and Asian preachers, prayed the liturgies of Native New Zealanders, Native Americans, South Africans, and Indians. As a church we weren't always historically very sensitive--and too often outright oppressive--but, overall, we learned from our mistakes and have been moving toward a much more generous theological vision, one that includes the insights, perspectives, struggles, and hopes of the God's beautifully diverse world.

That said, the Episcopal Church is struggling with SOME African, South American, and Asian church leaders at the moment over one issue: What is a deeply Christian understanding of sexual identity? (Although we probably should be struggling over the roles of women and children, the sex trade, poverty, and political oppression, too--if we were as faithful as we should be). That one issue, and the myriad of cultures in which the question is being addressed, should in no way obscure what has been, over the last half century, an increasing open, charitable, and mutually beneficial relationship between members of a great communion of Christians across the West and well beyond.

If we were just snubbing the non-western churches, this all wouldn't hurt so much. And, if you doubt me, ask any Episcopalian--even the most theologically liberal, pro-gay ordination one you can find--and ask how terribly painful, conscience-stirring, and prayerful this all has been. Nothing that has happened in the last six years has been done in the trivial, dismissive way your post suggests.

But pain doesn't go away by ceasing to be one's authentic self in God in order to please other people and make conflict disappear. Diversity, and true openness to diversity, will always cause conflict and tension because we are all different--even if we all live into the baptism acclamation that Jesus is Lord. Indeed, conflict suggests that people take one another more seriously than not (I fight with my husband more than anyone else!) and suggests that, as a church, the Episcopal Church has genuinely opened itself to being a true partner in global Christianity. We are trying to find ourselves in ubuntu theology--the theology expressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu--that "I am a person insofar as you are a person." In mutual humanity, we find wonder, love, and God.

As we have opened to others and their voices and visions of God, we have also found God in new ways in our own midst--with our unique voice, history, and perspective. Indeed, being able to listen to people from the rest of world taught me how to listen to my closest neighbors--including my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. To communicate the biblical passions of the American Episcopal Church, our historical experience, spiritual insights, and the pain of our prayers is our vocation in the midst of all this global change. It is a noble task, even if we don't always get it just right.

And the struggle makes it a great time to be an Episcopalian. You can't avoid tough questions, you have to know what you believe, you have to delve into God's embracing heart of love and justice. Frankly, as churches go, it is a really pretty good one (How's that for a church sign? "The Really Pretty Good Church"). You just wouldn't know that from the partisan blogosphere or from reading the New York Times.
"Diversity, and true openness to diversity, will always cause conflict and tension because we are all different...We are trying to find ourselves in ubuntu theology--the theology expressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu--that 'I am a person insofar as you are a person.' In mutual humanity, we find wonder, love, and God." Rather than thumbing our noses, we are willing to struggle with global diversity, because we take such differences seriously, because we care.

Thank you, Dr. Bass, for this powerful example of how to respond to those who attempt to misrepresent the character of our Church.

The Really Pretty Good Church...I like it. From now on, at Jake's place, TRPGC will be an synonym for TEC.


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