We all live in a world “laden with happiness and tears,” as a song from Fiddler on the Roof tenderly puts it. Sometimes our sadness and frustration can be very discouraging, taking the wind out of our sails.
We in the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes are not exempt from the sting of rejection by the priests and prelates in our own tradition. Nor can we avoid the body-blows that life brings to all humankind. Yet we take heart and draw strength from the encouraging messages that come our way from the true wisdom figures of our day.
Jim Wallis is one such figure — a person who can honestly wear the mantel of Prophet in our midst. He’s the one who created the Sojourners movement, now based in Washington, D.C. Its motto says a lot: “Faith in Action for Social Justice.”
One doesn’t have to be Protestant, Catholic or even Christian to resonate to Wallis’ words. He regularly takes our politicians and high-rolling investors to task for their failure to place the common good above their petty privileges and personal desires. He is the author, you may recall, of the 2005 book with the intriguing title God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In my view, this book and his work among the poor in the inner cities have given him enormous credibility!
Recently, despite a personal body-blow of cancer surgery, the Rev. Wallis has been on tour promoting his latest book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. It delivers a fascinating message, namely that “the common good” was essentially Jesus’ agenda — his principal reason for living among us 2,000 years ago.
That’s not what most Christians learned in catechism class or Bible study, is it?
We might have been taught to “love our neighbor as ourself,” but it was always understood as an individual, one-on-one, “good Samaritan” activity — not something collective.
When trying to spread the good news of this insight on his most recent national book tour, Wallis reported hearing the sounds of wailing in the land — a drumbeat of profound, paralyzing pessimism.
In his “Hearts & Minds” column in SojoMail (“The Post-Cynical Christian,” June 20), here’s what he says he picked up from (we presume) ordinary people: “Virtually every night, I would feel from those who came … a very deep cynicism about social change even being possible. And when it came to Washington or Wall Street, the cynicism was overwhelming.”
This led Rev. Wallis, against all odds and despite the prevailing pessimism, to shine a spotlight on this cynicism, contrasting it with skepticism in an effort to highlight its true nature:
“Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments?”
There’s a lesson here not only for those of us who seek changes in political priorities and governance, but also for those of us, like the members of the Beatitudes community and other reform-minded church groups, who seek changes in religious priorities and governance as well.
Our task is not an easy one. Do we become skeptical? Sure, just about every day. Do we become cynical? We try not to. Our task in the Beatitudes community is finding “a new way to be Roman Catholic.” In that regard we are not so different from those looking for “a new way” to be immigrants, or blacks, or [name your minority].
Giving up when we encounter discouragement or rejection is no way to bring about the change we hope for. Crawling back into our shells, like some crustacean taking a timeout, is not productive either. But surely in community (think of the Nuns on the Bus) there is, and there will always be, strength.
So if Wallis can respond to the discouragement he finds all around him with an exhortation for Christians to become “post-cynical,” why can’t we narrowcast and broadcast that idea for greater effect?
On the narrow end of the spectrum, replace “Christians” with any number of denominations, and we can work toward becoming “post-cynical” Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians and so forth.
On the broad end of the spectrum, replace “Christians” with faith communities from across the globe. If we do this, perhaps one day we’ll walk hand in hand with a new generation of “post-cynical” Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and secularists of all persuasions in a new kind of “civil rights” march — this time toward the “common good” broadly writ, in letters that stretch from sea to shining sea.
— Thomas Heck is a member of and music minister for the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns.