The following is from a talk by Gene Robinson to the Center for American Progress, on the topic of Working for Justice and the Common Good. It took place on the third anniversary of his becoming the bishop of New Hampshire. Initially, I was thinking I would just try to summarize it, but there is a lot of good stuff here, so I ended up largely transcribing about the first third of it. Will share more in a future post, and in the some of the parts toward the end of the talk/interview, I’ll have more of my own thoughts to share.
Bishop Gene Robinson: Micah said “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God”. For the Episcopalians in the crowd, there is a typo in the prayer book–whoever did the typesetting transposed that into “love justice and do mercy.” That’s been in there since 1979. And I think that’s the temptation that we have, which is to just love the notion of justice, and be perfectly willing to do those merciful acts of charity. But not do the hard work of justice.
And who is the common good for? This year (in the liturgical cycle) we are reading from the Gospel of Mark. It’s the oldest, “lean and mean”, “Cliff’s Notes” version. Gene mentions being a proponent of studying the Gospels in terms of how they depict “what did Jesus know, and when did he know it” with regard to who he was and the nature of his mission. In the Gospel of John, which is believed to be the latest written, Jesus seems to know all.
In Mark, Jesus seems to be figuring it out as he goes along–which to Gene makes sense, because if God chose to live a completely human life, we don’t know what’s going to happen an hour from now. “And I think that’s how Jesus lived his life, so, as you read Mark’s Gospel, you can begin to see Jesus kind of putting all this together in his mind…I think Mark’s Gospel gives us an idea of the development of Jesus’ self-understanding.
Gene goes on to set the stage for telling a story that he sees as a turning point in Jesus’ self understanding.
“Jesus is, of course, always in trouble, especially with the religious types. … So Jesus was really fed up to here with all this, and he goes on vacation. Well, it doesn’t actually say that. It says he went into a foreign country–into Tyre, which is in modern day Syria. It does say that he didn’t want anybody to know he was there, he didn’t want anybody to know his name (which I can perfectly understand these days!) He just wanted a little peace and quiet.
But a woman who’s described as Syro-Phonecian finds him. But she finds out he’s there, and she comes to him and says “My daughter’s possessed of a demon, will you heal her?” Now, he’s still feeling pretty cranky–he’s up to here with all the crowds and demands and stuff. So he says something that’s really quite amazing that it made it into scripture. Because, if you’re going to whitewash the story, this is not something you would tell.
He says to her, “Woman, the bread that I have to give doesn’t belong to the dogs.” Meaning her.
Now, she’s got three strikes against her. She’s a foreigner, she’s a Gentile, and she’s a woman, which counted for simply nothing in those days. And all three of which would have made him ritually unclean as a Jew.
And, she may not have been a Jew, but she sure had chutzpah. She kind of like puts her hand on her hip–you can almost see it–and says to him, “Well, you know, the dogs even get to clean up the crumbs after the meal!”
Now, Mark doesn’t say this, but I would have put in a little thing that says “Gulp!” Because you can hear Jesus react like, “Whoa!” Here’s this woman who has no business being with him,who has no claim on him, and yet she is laying claim to the good news that he’s been preaching to the Jews.
And you can almost hear the wheels in his brain turning to say, “You know, maybe my mission isn’t just to reform Judaism” (which is what I think he first had in mind). But maybe the mission, maybe this good news about the love of God, extends to everyone–to the whole world.
I think that’s the kind of shift that we need, especially in this country, around who the common good is for. It’s not just for me, it’s not just for people like me, it’s not just for people who think like me, but it’s for all. And I think that this is a very difficult time to get that message across. I think it’s a particularly American problem with our focus on individualism. Whether we say it or not, it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. It’s at least my family for themselves.
People will tell you that Scripture says “God helps those who help themselves”. It’s not in there. What is in there is this mandate to care, not only just for everyone, but especially for the marginalized, for the poor, for those who have been pushed to the sides of society for whatever reason. We seem to be at no loss for finding yet more reasons to push someone to the side.
I think that the greatest enemy of the common good is anxiety. And probably every age has felt anxious, but boy, let me tell you, this one feels like it’s right up there with the greatest times. And we have an administration right now that is using that anxiety, promoting anxiety, I think, to forward its own agenda.
Because, if I’m anxious enough, I’m willing to give up all kinds of things to make the anxiety go away–whether that’s in the name of Homeland Security or–well the list goes on. Our anxiety is even color coded…you go to the airport and find out how anxious you should be that day…. We’re told to be anxious–but we can’t tell you what to be anxious about, we can’t tell you where you should be anxious, or what to do about it, or how to avoid it, just be more anxious. And it’s just in the air that we breathe these days.
And I think it’s a great enemy to us, because when people are feeling anxious, they’re thinking more about themselves and not about the common good. And I would say that one of the great instruments of promoting the common good right now is to acknowledge people’s anxiety, and to look for value systems that speak to that anxiety.
Robinson goes on to tell about a book by Ron Heifetz called Leadership Without Easy Answers, in which the author says that leadership in today’s culture is really about holding the hand of the organization, the people in the organization, and assuring them that we’re going to live through this. That’s the primary role of the leader is to lower the anxiety level of the institution enough so that they can get their work done. Because if they’re highly anxious, if they’re worried about survival, they’re not going to be about their mission, because they’re going to be all about survival.
…and I say this to clergy, with all the hubbub the Episcopal church is going through these days. We need to take the hands of those we are leading and say, ‘You know what? This is going to be okay. God’s in charge here.’ We may not see the end of it in our lifetime, but, okay. That’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay, but we can live with it. And we can work with it. And in the end, God’s will will be done. Every human being will be valued for who they are, so let’s do our piece, and let’s not beat ourselves up when we’re not successful. And, by the way, let’s find a little joy in it along the way!
And, my message would be, it is exactly where you find God. It is exactly where you find God–in the midst of that struggle.