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Learning to Feel it in the Gut

A recent study of the role of progressive religion in American public life from the Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2014/04/24-faith-equality-economic-justice-religious-progressives) concludes by saying,

Religious witnesses have been essential to the success of movements for justice throughout American history. While religion in the United States has always shown its progressive and conservative sides. . . , the country’s faith communities have been able at critical moment to speak to “the jangling discords of our nation” with prophetic power. At a time of deep mistrust of politics, government, and collective action, religious Americans engaged in public life have both an opportunity and an obligation to challenge, to inspire, to heal.

While the study makes an eloquent case for the engagement of progressive religion in issues of economic justice, and describes a number of opportunities for leveraging the power of the faith community in the political arena, it also describes a number of obstacles. One obstacle in particular seems particularly important for understanding why progressive religious leaders do – or do not – become actively engaged.

John Carr, formerly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and currently at Georgetown University, describes the influence of the social and economic backgrounds of current bishops, an influence that I think is equally relevant for understanding engagement by many leaders in mainline Protestant churches as well:

In the past Catholic Bishops tended to have roots in the working class, while the new generation – reflecting the upward mobility of Catholics generally – was often raised in better-off families with management or professional backgrounds. The past work histories of this era’s Bishops are also different from those of an earlier generation, according to Carr. Today they’re rarely from Catholic Charities or former school superintendents. They’re often canon lawyers, seminary professors and people who have served as bishops’ secretaries in the dioceses. The early generation of clergy felt the call to social justice “in their gut,” whereas for the current generation, it is more a “matter of the head.” In the past it wasn’t that bishops read the encyclicals and were converted. It was that they came from union households. . . . Their stance on social justice issues was a part of who they were.

It’s important for our concern for social and economic justice to be a matter of the head. But absent the fire in the belly, we almost inevitably lean toward caution and moderation, lured by the attraction of middle to upper middle class professional and institutional respectability.

Those of us who are or have been leaders in our churches can’t change our parentage or the dynamics of our childhood. But we can spend time listening to those locked into minimum wage jobs, struggling with income insecurity, and enduring the abuse of employers indifferent to health and safety standards. We can support workers in their organizing campaigns and sit at shelters and soup kitchens listening to the stories guests will share. We can join religion-labor coalitions to hear what the managers who sit at our board room tables don’t hear or won’t share. We can walk in protests with workers and allow ourselves to be arrested in acts of public witness. Who we spend time with will have a lot to do with how we behave. Even Tim Geithner acknowledges that courtly relationships with the titans of finance may have had some impact on decisions made during the financial crisis, which may have a lot to say about why Wall Street, where he’s heading to work after his book tour, is thriving while Main Street is not. But that’s for another blog.

Last week Chicago Theological Seminary presented an award to Father Michael Pfleger, an activist priest in Chicago. In his remarks he said, “I pray for the destruction of the safe church,” by which he meant the end of the cautious church, the timid church, the respectable church. As long as our pulpits and pews are primarily the precincts of the privileged, the power and voice of the progressive church will be muted, speaking the right words but without the passion of those who must struggle day by day. We will play it safe instead of leading. No one will accuse us of the intemperate and intolerant passion of the religious right, but no one will pay much attention, either, and few among our most vulnerable neighbors will be really helped.

John H. Thomas
May 22, 2014

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