Washington D.C., makes me feel little. I used to want to be a high-powered journalist, investigating big-wigs, making them sweat, basking in the glow of the television cameras, making a difference! But I decided years ago that I didn’t want it badly enough to ask my family to make the necessary sacrifices. I didn’t want my work to own me. And I didn’t want to try and raise my daughters in a stressed-out, expensive place like New York or Washington. And, perhaps, most significantly, modern journalism’s priorities show its obeisance to worldly power – politics is king! – while Christian conscience dictates that I tell stories of a different kind of power found in weakness. Still, whenever I visit the capital, as I did this past weekend, I wonder. Could I have made it? Could I still?
On this visit, I met 20-somethings who’ve written important books and appear on important cable news programs and wear suits on the weekends. One had a book release party in the $3 million home of another D.C. journalist. There I sipped scotch and met a prominent inside-the-beltline economist. Julie and I were just tagalongs with a friend who was a friend of the author. We’d been greeted at the door by a servant or a caterer or other such “service professional," offered drinks by another, hors d’oevres by another. This was not my world, and it made me feel little. I would have felt more comfortable taking over for the very busy, sweating bartender behind the kitchen island. As we are all well aware on the eve of the election, there are wealthy, well-connected people who make things happen (or don’t, as the case may be) in the power-center of the free world, and you and I are not among them.
On Sunday, we went to the Washington National Cathedral, a gigantic Episcopal church and self-professed “spiritual home for the nation.” This strikes me a bit funny, as a) Episcopalians make up fewer than half a percent of the nation, and b) America, regardless of religious affiliation, seems more interested in mammon than it does in spirit.
But our friend has been attending the cathedral since she moved to D.C. a few months ago, and I worshipped in Episcopal churches for about seven years, not since 2007, and, frankly, I had missed how the traditional liturgy can transport me to a different place, psychologically speaking – a place where a man dying on a wooden cross 2,000 years really does seem to matter in a cosmic, world-changing kind of way. Plus, I wanted to see the neo-Gothic architecture in its transcendent beauty. This is the rub, right? Mammon makes beautiful things. What was difficult for me about the Episcopal church is the same thing that’s difficult about Washington, D.C.: It’s the wealth, it’s the power, it’s the privileged way of life that seems very distant from my beer-and-burgers existence, let alone from Jesus who had no place to lay his head.
The cathedral’s new dean, The Very Rev. Gary Hall, defied my expectations. Preaching from the Gospel of Mark, Hall told the story of the disciples James and John asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in heaven. This was a power grab, he said, a temptation that Christians have faced from the very beginning. Hall came close to apologizing for the cathedral’s pointed arches, grand columns and stained glass. They represent the church’s institutional power, he said, a reality at odds with the Gospel of self-giving love the church is supposed to represent. He was hinting at one of contemporary theology’s favorite themes: The critique of Constantianism (Constantine was the first Christian Caesar). If the church gains worldly power, it loses its spiritual power, and that’s why faithful people had to flee to the monasteries in the Middle Ages.
Hall mentioned St. Francis of Assisi, who took a vow of poverty at a time when the church was amassing wealth and power and using violence to maintain them. Perched in the massive pulpit of the National Cathedral, just below the ornate chancel screen separating the congregation from the high altar, Hall recalled a scene in the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon when the ragged Francis confronted the royally robed Pope Innocent III and his cardinals in the Vatican.
“How little faith you have?” Francis said. “You ask, what are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear? When all these things are for the pagans to run after. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you.”
“It’s the economy, stupid,” has been THE given of this election season. I know people are out of work, and that’s not easy. But it seems to me America is still a land of overabundance – a land of plenty stored up in barns. If we were to lower our sights, to adopt a humbler way of life, we’d have more than enough to go around. The logic of capitalism pressures us to want more than we need. The advertising industry is built on it. “I’ve got bills to pay,” is not an unassailable truth. Which bills? And why this particular spending? So many of us don’t want just a job – we want a good (?) job that lets us maintain our uniquely privileged American lifestyle.
Too often, religion has been used to underwrite our quest for power, privilege, and control. The cathedral aims to be an interfaith community, and Hall’s criticism went beyond the Christian church. He also mentioned Malala Yousufzai, an Afghani girl shot by the Taliban because of her advocacy for women’s education in her country. Again, religion loses its spiritual power when it turns coercive.
“It’s really a short step from James and John to the Crusades,” Hall said. “When you and I see things like God sees them, we will see that it is people like Malala and St. Francis who will sit at Jesus’ hand in glory.”
It was good for me to hear that. No matter who wins this election, the United States of America and its government will one day fall away. It happens to even the greatest empires. I recently got a contract offer for a book I wrote, but chances are, no one will be reading it 50 years from now, (except maybe my own family!). The “last” — people like Malala and Francis – will be made “first” because they put themselves in solidarity with the poor, the weak and the mourning, all those Jesus called blessed in his Sermon on the Mount.
As if to underline Hall’s point, he had to eat his words. Hundreds of people lined up for Communion on Sunday, and an altar girl had to replenish the host in the preacher’s silver plate. During one exchange, they fumbled a handful of wafers, and Hall had to eat them off the floor because in the cathedral, you don’t throw the Body of Christ in the garbage.
So what if Washington makes me feel little? Even the dean of the National Cathedral has to be little sometimes. We’re all little before God. Holiness, to the extent that humans can embody it, lies in remembering just how little we are.
Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.
Washington National Cathedral, Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com