Talking Christianity, walking privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus and about why it’s so difficult for members of Congress to follow Him. … Continued

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus and about why it’s so difficult for members of Congress to follow Him.

Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s new book, “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” states:

Surely this doesn’t describe a group engaged in Jesus-like behavior. To me, this instead screams “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” a sentiment often attributed to Vince Lombardi, but uttered first by UCLA Bruins coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders.

This seems like governance conducted as though it were a winnable game. Has our largely Christian, Republican-dominated Congress really sunk to this?

Has Jesus become the Gipper?

I recently met a young Methodist-ministry candidate-turned-graduate student/blogger, Kelly Figueroa Ray, who got me thinking about why a lot of those powerful, privileged people in Congress appear to be ditching the teachings of Jesus in addressing the needs of poor Americans. (Or at least the Jesus who regularly chastised the rich and powerful for being rich and powerful. After all, Paul Ryan did say his Catholic faith directly influenced his budget. So maybe there’s a different guy named Jesus out there in history who preached trickle-down economics.)

Kelly Figueroa-Ray is a graduate research assistant with The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. “The meaning of Scripture,” Kelly tells me, “becomes how you act because of your engagement with it.”

This thirty-four year old began life in California as a child of privilege. Her mother is a lawyer; her father, a neurosurgeon; both were non-practicing Unitarians. Mother and father dropped 14-year-old Kelly off at a local Methodist church offering interesting youth activities, thinking she might find some nice, neighborhood friends.

Which she did. But she also found Jesus. Not in any shouting way, but in a life-informing, rigorous, demanding way. Kelly went on to U.C. Berkeley planning to be a scientist, but a C- in organic Chemistry put the kibosh on that, so she switched to development studies of third world countries. This her to Wesley Theological Seminary, which led to immersion experiences in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Peru, and Mexico; places where a lot of her social assumptions as a rich American were useless. It yanked her, she says, out of her comfort zone.

During seminary, Kelly, did her practical ministerial internship at First Methodist Church at Hyattsville, Maryland, which during the days of segregation had been all white. So white, Kelly says, that when Martin Luther King died, a member of the congregation stood up in church and voiced approval.

Then in 1998, the Rev. Vance P. Ross (who is black) arrived, followed by Rev. Dr. Miguel Balderas (from San Agustín Zapotlán, Hidalgo, Mexico), followed in 2003 by Figueroa-Ray, as one of their new student ministerial interns. Over time, the formerly all-white church became a thriving, growing, multi-cultural community, gathered together by the sheer narrative power of the Scriptures.

What I think Christian congresspeople need to learn from Kelly’s story is what she learned from living it: You cannot help people without first valuing their cultural context.

In her own words:

“When you come from where I come from you are told you can do anything and everything. I really believed that. I mean, I was a white, amazing person – who better than I was equipped to go help people who need people. I made many mistakes before I was able to see how much I hurt people because I don’t listen. Or because I think I know better. Or that I can run a meeting better.”

“Every time things didn’t work out I’d be shocked. Then gradually, I came to value the idea of submission, of shutting down my own ego, leaving my comfort zone, and listening to learn. I recognize that this is not a popular concept. And, please, I’m not talking about women submitting to men. What I’m talking about is people who are in power, if they do not exercise submission, they are probably hurting people.”

Congress is full of Christians who, from a safe, comfortable position of arrogant remove, ponder the needs of poor people who live very different lives. Or at least who say that’s what they’re pondering. In the meantime the rich – and members of Congress – get richer, and the rest of us get poorer.

Where’s Jesus in all of this?

Just as there’s no crying allowed in baseball, there’s no hunkering down in one’s comfort zone allowed in following Jesus. Living one’s faith has nothing to do with the ego-satisfying experience of imposing your own ideas on others without having to live with the consequences.

Martha’s note: This essay is a feature of Faith Unboxed, an ongoing, civil, respectful conversation about faith I invite you to participate by sharing your own ideas and experiences (either here or on the Web site), rather than by denigrating the ideas and experiences of others.

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  • Rongoklunk

    People. Stop teaching your children to believe in a God. As far as we know there aren’t any, and never were. It was cool for the caveman to believe that there was somebody up there, watching over him. But what did he know? He knew about hunting, gathering, and procreating – and that was it! To him everything was magical, supernatural, spooky and fantastic. So he invented gods; for all manner of things. Sungods, Moongods, Seagods; gods for this and gods for that. Gods of food and gods of drink. Gods of Peace and gods of war. Good gods and bad gods, big gods and little gods. But what they all had in common was that they were, of course, all mythical.

    And that goes for Allah too, and Brahma, and Vishnu and the whiteman’s noname God; all made up. All we have to do to move civilization forward, is to stop teaching our kids supernatural nonsense about gods. Didn’t we learn ANYTHING from 9/11?

    We have to slowly get rid of religion. It’s only science that is interested in the truth, and truth is religion’s enemy.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Nice sermon Ms. Woodroof. Let me share my own experience, as you have suggested. I find the liberal definition of compromise is always rendered thus: Compromise is when conservatives give in to the demands of unyielding, immovable liberals. In that case, why have political parties? Lets just make everyone a democrat and pass out rubber stamps to all members of congress. Psst, by the way, the Senate is controlled by democrats and they don’t seem to be compromising very much either.

    I note with interest how liberals have suddenly become so concerned with Jesus. There seems to be a new spiritual awakening among liberals. Now they all love Jesus. They are even evangelizing the rest of us, preaching to us how sinful we are for not living our faith the way THEY think we should live it. How shameful we are for not supporting the platforms of big government and gay marriage and such. Furthermore, they seem to think that if Jesus lived in America today, He would do government the way liberal democrats do it.

    If I remember my scriptures correctly, Jesus actually didn’t talk much about government beyond the subject of giving Caesar his due (that may be the only time we find Jesus even mentioning Caesar). Did He even refer to Pilot by name in the gospels? He didn’t seem to hang-out much with government officials. Jesus didn’t say that he would build his political platform or his political party or his public office exploratory committee.

    No, he said he would build his Church. Oh, he also said the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

    Anyway, I’m glad your friend learned some valuable lessons from her experiences in the mission field. “Congress is full of Christians who, from a safe, comfortable position of arrogant remove, ponder the needs of poor people who live very different lives.” But wait a minute. When she says that, is she not, from her position, pondering the lives (and motives) of members of Congress who live very different lives, and have very different responsi

  • SODDI

    Most people in power think they are in power because God has chosen them.

    Rudy Giuliani. George W. Bush. Lloyd Blankfein.

    Most people in power are psychopaths and should be forcibly medicated to stop the voices in their heads claiming to be gods.

  • WmarkW

    In Jesus’ time, until a century ago in America, and still in much of the world today, poverty can be regarded as a circumstance of birth. But today, the correlation of poverty to bad decision-making in areas like unwed parenthood, dropping out of school, and getting involved in crime and drugs, is too obvious to ignore, or to claim that cause and effect are being reversed.

    Some of us think the poor need a toughlove approach emphasizing personal responsibility and discipline; and stop this nonsense of assuming every difference in outcome is attributable to societal opportunity barriers. The poor might like to think they need handouts and preferences; that doesn’t mean they’re right.

  • tony55398

    People find all kinds of excuses for not helping, tell that to God when you die, of course He will tell you He could have used the same excuses to not die for us, personal responsibility being one of them. If you don’t want to help people at least say so and leave the excuses for what they are, lies and a total lack of Love for your neighbor, that’s why the rich man ended down in hell.

  • ccnl1

    Martha,

    A prayer to recite while you walk:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

  • DRJJJ

    Most of the top 1% in this country are Democrats FYI!-Check the data if you doubt! These are the crony capitalist-just the facts Jack! As far as Repubs being hypocrites for embracing Christianity and falling short-you’re right, we fall short! There room for one more!

    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received
    instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled
    by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can
    read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality
    pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life!”

    Secularization of church and state sure isn’t working-see all data!

  • swainstephenr

    This concept of submission is not easy to practice. It often takes us into a collision, or a process of collision, with the dominant culture(s) of the world and the times, and it can do wrenching things to our sense of who we are, and what we believe our rights and privileges ought to be. But it’s a profoundly powerful way to learn that “there is a God, and I am not s/he.” Very lovely article. Thank you so much!

  • swainstephenr

    Happy landings.

  • TopTurtle

    WmarkW,

    Nearly everyone in America can get out of poverty if they make prudent choices, but it’s much easier for those born into relative comfort than those born into more difficult circumstances. Accidents of birth are still a large factor in determining poverty even if they’re not wholly determinative.

  • PhillyJimi

    Please quote the source, I would like to check the full article out for myself.

  • PhillyJimi

    Sorry I just saw you said Time Mag.

  • PhillyJimi

    You so wrong, god loves you and if you don’t accept this (with no evidence) he will burn you forever in hell!

    Kind of like a crazy boyfriend telling is girlfriend she has to love him or he’ll have to pull the trigger on the gun he has to her head. How is that a choice or an expression of freewill?

  • PhillyJimi

    Found the article. Einstein subscribed more to Pantheism and not a personal god.

    Einstein said “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

    Exactly what is the “secularization” of church and state? The United States was founded as a secular democracy and is the most successful country ever to have graced the face of this earth we all share. Along with being the most free to worship any god or gods you want. Not sure how one can state it isn’t working with a straight face?