Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The pastor intones the Benediction, citing Paul, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” And then the congregation files out into a world seemingly consumed by rage.
Angry thoughts. Angry words. Angry faces. Angry gestures. They surround us, often defining us. We nurse the smallest slights, imagining delicious retribution. Inadvertent hurt draws ballistic reactions, sometimes literally. Conflict, combat, and confrontation have become our entertainment whether as spectators or participants. Inspiring rhetoric has given way to clever insults. The politics of rage define and shape this age of rage, but it spills out far beyond the political into the personal.
Pastor, mystic, civil rights mentor Howard Thurman puts it this way, “We are stifled by the odor of death which envelops our earth, where in so many places brother fights against brother. . . . We are proud and arrogant; we are selfish and greedy; we have harbored in our hearts and minds much that makes for bitterness, hatred, and revenge.” (Meditations of the Heart, 1953)
Consider again the Benediction. Stripped of the occasional intrusions – a reminder about the coffee hour, an announcement left off the bulletin – this last word of the liturgy is also the first word of what the Orthodox called “the liturgy after the liturgy” when the faithful embark on God’s mission in the world. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Could there be any more important, prophetic, or counter-cultural word for us today?
Thurman concludes his prayer with these words: “Grant us the courage to follow the illumination of this hour to the end that we shall not lead death to any man’s door; but rather may we strengthen the hands of all in high places, and in common tasks seek to build a friendly world, of friendly men, beneath a friendly sky.” In other words, he calls upon us to take the words of the liturgical blessing and make them our daily practice so that our lives may radiate the friendliness that offers this age of rage another way.
I suppose this may not seem particularly profound. Perhaps you even find it weak or naïve. A tough, combative world requires response in kind. So we’ve been told. So we’ve come to believe. And yet the daily practices, the disciplines required to build “a friendly world of friendly men beneath a friendly sky” are anything but weak or retiring. They reflect a determination far greater than the reactive default to rage which most of us find so easy. If rage is our entitlement, friendliness is our calling. One we protect zealously, carrying it like a concealed weapon with the safety off. The other must be practiced persistently, worn openly, with no assurance of what it will provoke. Whose witness displays the greater risk, and therefore requires the greater courage?
“Go out into the world in peace.” The impending political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia portend a severe test of our benedictions. But so, too, does the call to customer service, the rebooking line at the airport, the license renewal counter at the department of motor vehicles, the traffic jam on the way home from work, the comment sections of online forums and blogs, and a thousand other places. And it is here in these unassuming encounters, as much as in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail that is built a “friendly world, of friendly men, beneath a friendly sky.”
The mandates of justice and the requirements of peacemaking may seem to dwarf these intimate personal practices. But even the prophet pairs the doing of justice with kindness and humility. If liturgy is truly the work of the people, then the Benediction is our work, not merely a signal that it’s time for coffee and goodies. And may the peace that passes all undersanding. . . .
John H. Thomas
July 7, 2016