Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Building Bridges as an Exercise of Hope

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 21-22, 2017.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Most Americans pride themselves on a constitution and set of laws that facilitate the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next every four to eight years. That said, these changes are never easy, and some would argue that this particular shift, given the political divisions in our country, has been more challenging than others. These past few hours, days, weeks and months have been an emotionally fraught time for many of us. In monitoring my own feelings, talking with family and friends, interacting with colleagues and students at the college where I teach, and watching the reactions of others on the news, I have witnessed the entire panoply of human emotions: from depression and despair, to anger and protest, to joy and jubilation.

My family and I happened to be visiting my parents in Milwaukee the week after the election this past November. My father had poured his heart into the campaign. For someone approaching 80, I marveled at the hours and miles he logged walking the streets of his city to canvas and knock on doors. He was now deeply depressed, more depressed, frankly, than I had ever seen him before. When he and I stayed up late that first night chatting, he shared with me that he had a plan to move to Canada. While many of us have said we might move to Canada in jest, my father had actually worked out the details of such a move. He had identified a small town over the border from Niagara Falls, explored the real estate market, and calmly explained that they would only be a few hours from where my brother lives in Northeastern Ohio. Now, thank God for my mother, who had the fortitude to tell him that he’s nuts and they’re not moving anywhere. To be clear, I think my Dad had a right to be depressed. He had worked far harder than I to get out the vote, only to see his efforts come to naught.

Many of my students and co-workers were also deeply depressed after the election. I recall taking a photo of my female colleagues in their pant suits the day of election. There was a sense of anticipation and optimism in the air. The next day could not have been more different. Some students were crying and others were genuinely scared. In some cases this depression and fear would eventually turn to anger and then calls for political organizing. On Thursday and Friday of this week I found myself in the heart of a teach-in on my campus, and yesterday I marveled at the tens of thousands of people who gathered for women’s marches in DC and Saint Paul, including my wife and many of you.

I have also read in the papers, and heard on the news, the joy and jubilation of those who supported this election result. While there is a dark element to our new president’s constituency (a group motivated by racism, misogyny and xenophobia), let us not forget that there are also folks who have been left out of the new knowledge economy, who have seen their livelihoods unravel as manufacturing jobs have left the country, and who have felt looked down upon by urban elites. For them, they are elated because they feel like their voices have finally been heard.

Not unlike our contemporary political climate, today’s readings are also filled with darkness, division and hope.

In our first reading from Isiah, we hear about areas near the Sea of Galilee (Zebulun and Naphtali), a land that was “humbled and in gloom, darkness and anguish,” yet a land that will also experience a light that will bring them joy and rejoicing.

In our second reading from Corinthians, we learn about divisions and quarreling in the early Christian community. These tensions are clearly troubling to Paul. The source of these divisions has to do with people lining up behind different leaders in an emerging Christian tradition. Paul confronts these divisions with two arguments. First, he suggests that his role, and those of other preachers, is both minor and in service to the same, larger Christian message. As such, their work and message must not become a source of division. Second, he argues that we are all one. We might imagine critical and consequential differences among ourselves that are worth fighting and dying for, but these divisions are illusory and we must recognize that we are all connected. We are all one in our common humanity.

Lastly, in our gospel reading from Matthew, we learn about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry which, frankly, is not a very happy story. Jesus’ spiritual mentor, John the Baptist, has been arrested and, we know, murdered. God did not intervene to save Jesus’ beloved John. This had to have been a very difficult moment. How do we have faith, how do we believe that there is good in the world, when bad seemingly triumphs over good? It is at this point, I imagine, that Jesus could have made the decision to move – metaphorically - to Canada. He might have been deeply depressed and it would have been quite normal to just want to escape.

Alternatively, Jesus could have fomented violence. These were, after all, challenging economic times for everyday working people. The area where Jesus retreats to after John’s arrest, to the western shores of the Sea of Galilee (the same lands mentioned in today’s old testament reading) were hit hard by the extractive practices of the Roman Empire. Farmers were losing their lands and becoming sharecroppers who were barely able to survive. People living in communities on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were losing their rights to fishing. It is here that Jesus started his ministry and recruited his early followers. These lands were ripe for an insurrection and Jesus could have chosen to channel peoples’ economic anxieties with a message of hate and violence.2

What ensues, instead, is something remarkable. Rather than retreating from the world, or being fueled by anger over the murder of John the Baptist, Jesus appears to have had an epiphany that God does not intervene from on high, but that he works through us. And so he begins his ministry as an itinerant preacher, spreading the good news and curing people of diseases. Furthermore, his philosophy and message is completely counter-intuitive for his time. As we willlearn next week in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Sundays thereafter, he has a message of hope for the poor and the downtrodden. His message is also not solely reserved for those in good standing with his group. He understands that he needs to cross social boundaries, to cross party lines, in order to build his vision for the future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these readings and how Jesus started his ministry this past week. I’ve also been asking myself what a person of faith should do in this particular moment of our nation’s history. Clearly, after taking some time to reflect, we need to move forward. Working peacefully for what we believe in is important. For me, this means fighting for political change and not accepting the normalization of racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia.

But if Jesus could acknowledge the common humanity of tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers (the untouchables within his community at that time), then we can also engage outside of our own political and cultural comfort zones. Jesus was roundly condemned for consorting with the outcasts of his era, and many today may scoff at efforts to reach across deeply entrenched political divides. But as the Apostle Paul suggests, we likely imagine our differences to be greater than they really are. Despite the invocations of some political leaders, I believe there is much common ground and shared concern over issues like inequality, under-employment and trade. While there may be disagreement about the best way to address these issues, we can’t have a thoughtful, provocative and transformative dialogue about them if we don’t recognize our common humanity and engage.

My favorite example of this approach is the marriage equality movement in Minnesota. This movement started with the basic premise that change is not just about partisan politics, but about getting to know the other side. Once you acknowledge family members, neighbors and friends in same sex relationships, once you recognize their common humanity, hopes, aspirations and concerns, then it is much more difficult to see them as an abstract ‘other’ and to demonize their perspective.

Like a shroud torn asunder, the current political rifts in our social fabric may seem insurmountable. And while clearly there are some who stand to profit from such cleavages in the short term, and they will do everything in their power to deepen them, we all stand to lose if these differences are left to fester. While Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power, and to hold those in power to account, he was also a social bridge builder. He was willing to sit down with anyone regardless of their past. It is never easy to build bridges, to understand the hopes and fears of our enemies, to see the divine in all of us, but it’s the only way forward. As Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

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