21 August 2010


Well, my last rant arrived in the nick of time, it seemed. Within days (if not hours) others chimed in - notably John Stewart - and wiser (and funnier) voices were raised in response to the craven demagoguery that made me fulminate a few days ago.

Thanks, those of you who chimed in here and on FB, sharing your own outrage along with mine. I doubt we turned the tide, but oceans are made of zillions of drops of which we were a few. It feels good to be on the side of the angels, especially when they prevail.

Since then, I was at a garden wedding where I met a man who some years ago urged me to share 'my outrage' in my preaching. I remembered that moment, and how when I did share my outrage at close range - meaning my outrage at churches and liberal religion as well as national politics and policies - he stopped coming to church.

Bad advice, I chuckled, as my outrage is deep and people in church do not want to be scolded. "Beware of what you ask for," someone famously said, "for you just might get it."

There's my dilemma, to be honest and passionate but also kind and hopeful.

Individuals need kindness and hope. Everyone, no matter how fortunate compared to others, feels vulnerable and fearful from time to time. Religion is supposed to offer strength in the face of those feelings.

But religion must also be about the world at large, about matters of right and wrong, justice and injustice. These are, by nature, discomfiting things that make us feel 'vulnerable and fearful' when we face them head on.

An old saw about journalism is that it should 'comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.' Here is one provenance of it, from my friends at Wikipedia:

As a journalist in the age of "muckraking journalism", (Finley Peter Dunne) was aware of the power of institutions, including his own. Writing as Dooley, Dunne once wrote the following passage cautioning against the power of the newspapers themselves: "Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward".
The expression has been borrowed and altered in many ways over the years:
Clare Booth Luce employed a variation of it in a memorable tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Several religious leaders (including one Archbishop of Canterbury) have called it the goal of religion.
Social activist "Mother" Mary Jones was once quoted as saying "My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
A version showed up in a memorable line delivered by Gene Kelly in a great newspaper movie, Stanley Kramer's 1960 film, Inherit the Wind. Kelly (E.K. Hornbeck) says, "Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".

I was told that was the preacher's mission as well. What my teachers did not tell me is that the people in the pew are both afflicted and comfortable. They are both guilty and innocent, in need of love and judgment.

I see no way to get around this paradox, as a person or as a preacher. It may be the essential matrix of honest spiritual life. My only hope is that some of those I serve and lead come to see this paradox as well.

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