Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.
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To Know, To Love, To Heal
“The spirit that enables one person to overleap the boundary of the body in knowledge and love and to incorporate the other in the self is matched by the same spirit in the other.”
~ Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel
“He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”
~ Mark 5:34
After several days of renewed public debate about health care, we hear this weekend the familiar healing stories from Mark chapter 5. By Sunday we will know the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding challenges to the Affordable Care Act. So politically charged is this discussion, so designed is it to distort, divide, undermine, and confuse, it’s easy to forget that the issue, at its core, is a simple one: how ought a humane society tend to its suffering ones and aim for the well-being of all?
We will also hear this passage on a day when many will be anticipating the Fourth of July, and perhaps expecting their Sunday worship to kickstart the holiday’s celebration. In hearing the text from Mark, such worshipers might well wonder: What does Jesus’ encounters with a desperate, suffering woman and a young girl believed to be dead have to do with America’s love of freedom and fireworks?
Community of the Heart
A dear friend recently reminded me of David Ford’s gem of a book, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life. On the back cover, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it beautifully: “[This book's] spirituality is profound and reflective, yet always concrete, and never dishonest or evasive; it uses not only Scripture but literature with creative facility. Simple, yet rich. A jewel of the spiritual life in its everyday manifestations. I want to savor it with repeated readings.”
Ford traces the “multiple overwhelmings” in our lives — the forces that shake us and shape us, those with the power to wound or crush and those that are life-giving and transformative. At stake in reckoning with such tumult is the whole of our lives and our living. “How,” he asks, ”in the midst of all our overwhelmings, are our lives shaped?”
More Books on Faith and Politics
Sidebar to "Bearing Witness in Contentious Times"
Bearing Witness in Contentious Times
ELECTION-YEAR POLITICS reveal the struggle faced by people of all political persuasions: how to meaningfully engage a process that increasingly sows division, disappointment, disgust, and even despair. Americans, no surprise, are more cynical than ever. Our elected officials are spectacularly unpopular. While there has never been a golden age of American politics, the current levels of vitriol, fear-mongering, and childish bickering have unsettled even the most jaded of political observers. And the corruption wrought by money? Let’s not even go there.
Navigating the intersection of religion and politics in such a toxic environment poses an even more acute challenge. What’s a person of faith to do? That, of course, depends on whom you ask, since the political battle lines in religious communities are often drawn as rigidly as they are in the culture at large.
Four recent books, each dealing broadly with religion and politics in contemporary America, offer insights on these and other pressing questions.
In Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics (Georgetown University Press), ethicist William F. May takes the historical approach, examining two competing accounts of America’s origins—the contractual and the covenantal—and the prospects and promises held out by each. He notes that the preamble to the Constitution begins with a given identity—“We the People”—followed almost immediately by the acknowledgment of ongoing work (to form “a more perfect union”). May argues that this “American identity of gift and task” is best held together by the concept of covenant. The nation, he says, “is both a community and a community in the making.” May is a keen observer and an eloquent chronicler of the “runaway fears and appetites” that have driven a good deal of self-deception in American public life, and he reckons honestly with the harm done to our national character and, more urgently, to decision-making in policies both foreign and domestic. His final chapter, a moving discussion of immigrants and undocumented workers, brings the theme of “keeping covenant” to bear on one of the most pressing moral and political issues of our time.
Abu Ghraib, Unrepentance, and the Way of the Cross
You remember Abu Ghraib: the correctional facility in Baghdad where such atrocities took place that the prison’s very name is now synonymous with and shorthand for torture, degradation, military scandal, and unchecked American hubris.
A young army reservist named Lynndie England came to represent the horror of that dark chapter (one of several, as it turned out) of the war in Iraq. Photographs of England posing with abused Iraqi detainees led to a dishonorable discharge, a felony conviction, and a two-year prison sentence. Also revealed during and after the shame of Abu Ghraib was England’s own status as both a co-conspirator and an unwitting casualty. She was not a victim in the same way that the Iraqi prisoners were but, given her rank, gender, background, and the weird sexual dynamics she shared with the scandal’s ringleader (and father of the baby she would give birth to a few months later), England’s culpability, like that of many who commit heinous acts, was not separable from her own troubled life.
In the tidy way we like these narratives to play out, England was supposed to pay her dues for the evil she had done and, with time for reflection and introspection, own her guilt and express her sorrow. Or at least, for public consumption, she was supposed to voice regret for the tragic choices she made back in 2003 and offer an apology to those whom she had wronged. But in a recent interview, England was unrepentant. Her only regret, it turns out, is that her actions at Abu Ghraib may have directly caused American casualties.
Mitt Romney, the Poor, and Women’s Breasts
“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus once said, and for centuries his followers have struggled to understand what he meant.
Or maybe not.
“The poor will always be with you” — especially if you’re not poor — seems straightforward enough: Look around, people ! The poor (and their problems) are very much with us!
Viewed through this kind of realpolitik lens, this verse (and the Bible generally) pose no real interpretive challenges to our reading or our living. The world, regrettably, is simply thus. The poor, alas, will always be with us.
Columbus Day, Wall Street, and Alabama Immigrants: "It's About Power, Stupid"
In our own time the "jobs" rhetoric from both the right and the left ignores the power grabs and power differentials that led to the hemorrhaging of American jobs in the first place. The simple truth is that multinational corporations could make more money for their shareholders by outsourcing jobs to third-world countries so that is what they did.
This was not a moral dilemma for CEOs; it was a "sound business decision." And the gospel according to free-market capitalism (the USA's true religion) preaches that what is good for American business is good for America.
Turning Mourning into Voyeurism
I'm sure it will end on September 12 when the news media go back to reporting the most urgent question of our time -- which GOP candidate will win the tea party debate on Monday night? -- but this past weekend's coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was relentless. (I know I could just turn off the TV, but when you write a blog on religion, culture, and politics, you gotta do the research).
The packaging of the 9/11 narrative, with its stunning visuals, has been masterful these last 10 years -- compelling, emotional, inspiring. And ratings gold.
But it strikes me that grieving-through-media does not serve us well, individually or collectively.
Hurricanes and Spoiled Romance
When our ideas about nature come primarily from Sierra Club calendars or selected snippets from Thoreau, an east coast earthquake and monster hurricane (in the same week) are powerful wake-up calls.
We modern urban dwellers and suburbanites like our nature contained and manageable: a nice hike in the woods; a pretty sunset on the drive home; a lush, green lawn (chemically-induced, alas)
Sometimes we like nature so much we decide to worship it -- or to make it the medium for our worship of God or the "higher power" we think might be up there, out there, presiding over it all. We've been wounded by organized religion, perhaps, disgusted by its hierarchies and hypocrisies. "I can worship God on a mountaintop," we decide. (Or -- conveniently, happily -- on the golf course).
Should Worship be Entertaining?
In recent days I've been thinking through with a friend one of the enduring challenges of pastoral and catechetical ministry: how to dispel the notion that worship should be entertaining. It's not as hard as it used to be -- there are books (and blogs) on the subject; it gets preached on fairly often these days. But it's not as easy as it ought to be. It seems we are a species ever in need of amusement.
One of the most compelling arguments against the persistent idea that worship ought to entertain, dazzle, distract, or otherwise charm us is found in James Alison's insight that true worship is "orchestrated detox."
The Importance of Sharing Our Stuff
"And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children." --Matthew 14:13-21
Immediately before the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer's head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the multitude fed on the beach (a detail unique to Matthew's version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John's demise: Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and serves up the plated head to her mother. (That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew's gospel - recall also the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one -- is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas's 1990 essay in Theology Today).
Loving Casey Anthony in a Culture of Vengeance
I couldn't bear to watch any of the coverage of the Casey Anthony murder trial. I heard snippets of information on occasion: intimations of incest; a car that "smelled of death"; fist fights breaking out as the curious and obsessed (or the profoundly bored?) tried to get a seat in the Florida courtroom.
Malick's Metaphysics: Creation, Being, and The Tree of Life
When evangelical politicians pronounce on topics like the origins of the universe, the results are almost always awful -- embarrassing, infuriating, unwatchable. When a reclusive, visionary filmmaker like Terrence Malick treats the same subject matter, as he does in his new movie The Tree of Life, one is transported. Which is a useful reminder that the mysteries of creation are best grappled with through art. The book of Genesis, after all, begins not with scientific description or theological argument, but with a poem.
The Violence We Live By
Burning Anger and Small-Minded Men
The Real March Madness
At the end of Roland Joffé's exquisite film, The Mission, a brief exchange between a Portuguese ambassador and a papal emissary sums up the tension between globalization (the movie's subject matter) and a worldvi