This summer I have been watching a CNN documentary mini-series called Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury. One historian on the show invokes the saying, “the past is never the past,” and goes on to remark that “if there is one place on earth where that is true, it is Jerusalem.” What makes Jerusalem the most conflicted place on earth is the number of communities who lay claim to the city, especially the historical depths of those claims. The three Abrahamic faiths all claim Jerusalem as a holy city, and their adherents regularly make pilgrimage to it. The importance of Jerusalem has led to millennia of contested claims to the city that continue to this day, for Jerusalem physically captures a sense of the holy for the groups who lay claim to it; it symbolizes something important about the identity of those communities. To lose the city is to be displaced, to be cut off from the sacred in a visceral sense. This isn’t just about territory. It is about belief, identity, a sense of grounding in the moral cosmos, a connection with the holy. The city’s religious significance—and the Abrahamic faiths’ inability to imagine it as a shared space—is what makes the history of Jerusalem so tragic.
The conflict around Jerusalem is a particularly painful example of the intense importance of place to our sense of meaning. We are embodied creatures, so time and space are important to how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. Our sense of place reflects and gives identity, and when we are disconnected from meaningful places, we feel displaced—rudderless, vulnerable, perhaps not really ourselves.
From the description: In this second of a two-part episode we continue a conversation with James Calvin Davis, religion professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Presbyterian minister, and the author of a book for just such a time as this: Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017). Joining the conversation is the Rev. Leeann Scarbrough, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Talladega, Alabama.
Tune into this episode of my good friend Ken Broman-Fulks’s podcast, Pastors4Pastors, as we talk about Forbearanceand the challenges to maintaining community in church and civil society in these tumultuous times. Joining us in the conversation are two other good friends who also happen to be Presbyterian pastors. The Rev. Leeann Scarbrough serves a church in Alabama, and the Rev. Susan Takis pastors in The Villages, a gigantic Florida retirement community where political tensions have made national news.
By the way, some time ago I wrote a piece on the theological importance of friendship that was inspired by time spent with these three amazing people. Ken’s podcast just goes to show that there is some thoughtfulness to this group, to go along with the shared fondness for bourbon.
Part two of our conversation on Forbearance will drop next week!
Lost in the traumatic aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, including President Trump’s assault on the right to free speech and peaceable assembly, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on another First Amendment issue late last week. The case involved a church suing the State of California for prohibiting large in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church argued that assembling as church is a fundamental expression of Christian faith, and that the order to limit gatherings is therefore a violation of the First Amendment. A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the prohibitions on mass gatherings did not constitute a violation of religious freedom.
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
“The war to end war” or “the war to end all wars”—Woodrow Wilson’s borrow from H.G. Wells to justify World War I was met with cynicism even during the First World War, and since then has become a sardonic lament. Here, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, we know it ended nothing. The culmination of that conflict directly contributed to the rise of the Second World War, the end of which fed the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, which motivated interventions in the Middle East, and on and on and on…. World War I ended nothing; instead it contributed to the bloodiest century in human history.
The persistence of war in our world prompts the question for Christians: should we even expect the end of war? Is war a scourge to eliminate, or is it a necessary evil that we sometimes endure or even actively utilize? Should Christians be opposed to war, even when undertaken in the name of justice and peace?
I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”
Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?