Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prophet in a Trenchcoat

The Spirit Has Anointed Me…
• Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
• Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
• 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
• John 1:6-8, 19-28
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, 12/11/11

As an Episcopal Priest in Berkeley, I not infrequently find myself at dinner tables or in group conversations with all kinds of people. And at the revelation that I am a priest, a kind of shocked and horrified silence often settles upon the crowd. And I hear all sorts of unsolicited opinions. Some that have been stated before they know I am a priest.
“All religion is absurd!” I hear.
“Why does there need to be a “magical being who controls everything?”
or “We don’t need God to be good people”
“More harm than good has been done in the name of religion”
“And finally, “You have no hold on reality”

Once I gather my tenuous hold on reality, I say,

“What a bleak world it must be, to believe only in science, to believe only what is visible, what is scientifically provable. What would we do without people of imagination, people of faith, people of the Spirit, what would we do without our prophets? What new invention could come into being without the inventor having imagination, taking a leap of faith, trusting in something that has not yet been proved, and that possibly never can be? What artwork would be created if everything had to have a logical and practical use and explanation and be proven to fit into the scientifically defined realm of reality?
And what force would help us to resist our human tendencies toward greed and self interest and spur us on to a compassionate and just world?”

None of these arguments particularly convince.

I am used to being around atheists here in Berkeley, and I am used to seeing intelligent people on the news or on talk shows who seem to share those views. So I was quite astonished to hear this from the brilliant comedian and writer of the priceless “The Daily Show,” John Steward. He said the following when referring to the great economic inequities in our country. “It’s not Christian!” Then recovering himself, he said, “Or Jewish or Muslim!” He himself is a Jew, married to a Catholic. Then soon after, on a different news show, I heard the wonderful and always controversial Keith Olberman say, when describing Michael Blomberg’s destruction of the Occupy Wall Street camp, exactly the same thing- “Its not Christian!” he bellowed.

But nothing surprised me more that the amazing words of the prophet Chris Hedges.

Chris Hedges is a modern day prophet, whom the Spirit of the Lord has surely anointed. He is a hugely talented, Pulitzer-prize-winning author, journalist and war correspondent, who is also, I found to my amazement, a faithful Christian. I had no idea of his religious background until he made an extraordinary speech, and I looked him up. Then I read that he had gone to seminary at Harvard Divinity School, and that his father was a Presbyterian minister. He has been absolutely fearless, as a prophet must be, covering wars all over the world, and seeing the inevitable horrors. He is quoted in the beginning of the award-winning film about the Iraq War, “The Hurt Locker:
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
And yet with all this experience, all this knowledge that would turn most people cynical, he has held on to his faith- in God and in humankind.

Chris Hedges wrote a book, as it turns out, called “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” which came out of a series of interviews he did with three prominent authors, who have been called “The New Atheists.”
Chris Hedges compares the new Atheists with the Christian Fundamentalists, in that the Atheists have made science an absolute religion, whose every word must be taken for absolute truth. They see nothing in shades of gray- everything is absolute- everything is black and white. There is no room for diversity of thought, diversity of belief.

Then I saw another astonishing piece written by Chris Hedges that truly had the passion and fiery certainty of an Old Testament Social Justice prophet, and the blazing heraldry of John the Baptizer proclaiming the coming of something great. This was a defense of the occupy movement, which was also a defense of Christianity, pointing out the great social justice movements in history have been inspired or led by religious leaders. He urges the church of today to embrace the Occupy movement- not let it die. The name of the piece is “Were You There when they Crucified my Movement?”
He started out by saying that outside the doors of churches, many of which have trouble filling a quarter of the pews on Sundays, struggles a movement, driven largely by young men and women, which has as its unofficial credo the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied….
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
He goes on to point out that it was the church, and its expression in Liberation Theology in Latin America, which gave moral support and direction for the opposition to dictatorship in the bloody 1970’s in those desperately oppressed countries.
It was the church in East Germany that organized the peaceful opposition marches in Leipzig that would bring down the Communist regime in that country.
It was the church in Czechoslovakia, and its 90-year-old cardinal, that blessed and defended the Velvet Revolution.
And of course it was the church, and especially the African-American church, that made possible the civil rights movements. Not only Martin Luther King Jr, but other the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. John Duffy and so many faithful lay people.
In Advent, when we celebrate hope, when we remember in the church how Mary and Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem, we remember who it was who came into the world. We remember who was incarnated on that holy night. Who it was who gave us the Gospel’s radical message of justice and compassion. Who gave us the message of love.

I saw a film of Chris Hedges as he was walking down a New York street, talking to someone about the Occupy movement. He said something like, “I’ve got kids now (he has four as it turns out) and this is not about us anymore, it is about the next generation, my children’s generation. This is about them. My passion for the justice of what you young people are doing, and I would even use the word love, is that you are fighting for the future of my three year old daughter [and here this hardened war correspondent began to cry] and he said, God bless you for it- God bless you.” An unnamed long-haired young man appeared from outside the frame of the film, and, Jesus-like, embraced the tearful prophet, bringing him good news, indeed.