Appreciating Others’ Religions As Well As Your Own
NOTE: This sermon was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church, on Sunday, January 10, 2010
When we woke up in our several beds on the morning of December 30, 2009, we were one people. Now we are a different people. One of our members, Jean Montrevil was detained at his regular check in and first put in a detention center on Varick Street, right down the street from our solemn assembly. He was later moved to the detention center in York, Pennsylvania where he now resides, precariously perched on the tip of deportation from his country, my country and your country. For the details of this captivity, please come this afternoon for the gathering at 2 or refer to the web site. There will be several people at the welcome table who can give you a thumbnail sketch of this injustice, which is a dam in the river of justice and blocking the flow of the everlasting streams.
I have a problem this morning because all of you are on different learning curves on this egregious manner. Some of you know how these things can be, how a father of four and husband of one can be summarily and unjustly uprooted by the state. Others are just figuring it out. My own husband, who is intimate with me and with this matter, asked me in a quiet moment yesterday, can you explain to me how this could be happening? I heard his plea and while I can explain it legally, I cannot explain it morally. What is happening is just plain wrong, in addition to being stupid. Like the government’s current intention to not even allow some immigrants to BUY health insurance, Jean’s captivity by the state is stupid, impractical, uneconomical and risks putting a whole family on welfare, which welfare the same punitive tax payers who want to be safe above all, will end up paying for. Immorality joins stupidity in this potential deportation.
Still others of you are here for the first time, hoping for some kind of spiritual experience to get you through your week, which is filled with its own detentions and captivities. And others of you are remembering that you joined 17 others in being arrested this week; outside of Varick Street, and that you have a court date on March 8. We are necessarily in different places of involvement in something, which at one level is just another oppression of another good person. You may care more about the homeless woman who shivered on your step last night or the fact that you can’t yet get health insurance. You may be more involved with your own addiction or the early failure of your New Year’s resolutions. Forgive me if I overdo one matter on behalf of creating a spiritual floor for us.
Today I want to stick to my topic, which is about appreciating our own religion in the midst of many competitors for our spiritual attention. Jean is one doorway to all the rest, including the doorway to things, which you may think are small, compared to his grievance.
Today we need to connect the dots. Yes, that is what the President said; we must connect the dots in order to be secure. One of the dots is Jean and the thousands like him, already detained. Another of the dots is the way our own religions are too pathetic to stop injustice. Another of the dots is the way we are overwhelmed with clusters of injustice. There is a good word for this cluster, and some of you know what I mean. It is like cluster freight or a cluster of fears or a cluster you fill in the blanks. The American people are experiencing a tsunami of trouble; so fierce are its waters that we can barely gather our forces to focus on one. But, and here starts the good news. We have gathered with hundreds of others this week to face what has happened to Jean and to say no to it. For a brief update on the situation, just let me say that we have a legal, political and spiritual glimmer of hope right now that Jean will not be deported. It is only a glimmer. But it is a glimmer. Again, I don’t want to get into the details of that glimmer so much as to announce that there is a glimmer. You may clap now.
The spiritual floor for this glimmer of hope in the face of the cluster of fears starts now. It begins with the text from the prophet Amos which has God announcing how sick God is of pathetic religion. Pathetic religion is a bunch of rituals which are empty. Pathetic religion is a bunch of symbols without any relationship to human reality. Pathetic religion is frequently the victim of nationalism or state security. Many of us are triple agents in these terms. We say we are Christians but we are more pantheistic than not, more nationalistic than not. When the president, whichever president, it matters not, implies that the purpose of the state is to protect us from dangerous others and we bow down in compliance, we are singing noisy songs or banging out music on bad harps. We have burnt offerings and grain offerings but no resistance to the lie. Let’s start with the big lie that is the basis for Jean’s captivity. The big lie is that we can fight off terrorism by deporting people or having more wars or better-organized national security agents. Terrorism will not be fought off by torture or war or deportation. Justice rolling down like waters, internationally and not just domestically, will tame terrorism. When righteousness comes, people will stop bombing us Religion that lets itself be lied to by the state is not religion at all. It is triple agent religion, saying it believes in the power of an almighty God who is our only security and whose laws is our delight but actually doing whatever the state tells it to do. At the heart of Jean’s situation is the absurdity of our foreign and domestic policy regarding terrorism. Of course it is scary when people get bombs on airplanes or penetrate the security systems we idolize. Very scary. If we really wanted to stop that kind of terrorism, we would not house potential terrorists together for years in Guantanamo so they could cook up better plots and more hates. We would not torture, hoard, or kill.
We are in a religious fight here at the deepest of levels. We hear a God who is international, and not just American; tell us that there is no delight in our solemn assemblies, bunt offerings, grain offerings, and fatted animals. Instead this God wants one thing and that is for justice to roll down like mighty water. When that justice rolls down, we will be safe, saved, secure, and know salvation. Until that justice rolls down, there will be fights over security. At the deepest level of religion, we are not interested in our own petty safety. We are interested in it, of course, but we are more interested in justice for all and to just for ourselves. Some people have decided they need to be afraid of Jean, who did two crimes, as a youth, paid for them in prison, and now is paying again for them. Why be afraid of Jean? Because we are so deep in a cluster of fear that we don’t know how to get out. This cluster of fear will soon keep immigrants from getting health insurance. It has already drained the national treasury in undeclared and immoral and ineffective wars. If we want to connect the dots, we need to connect the dot of Jean’s oppression ot the national insecurity state.
The great sociologist, C. Wright Mills said, “The biographies of men and women, the kinds of individuals they variously become, cannot be understood without reference to the historical structures in which the milieu of every day life are organized.” Jean is right now the victim of historical structures, which now organize every day life, which structures are at their base petty. By petty I mean self-serving, selfish, and deeply nationalistic. Americans were attacked, Americans need to protect themselves, we are deserving of any kind or level of protection because we are the best of all people. God is laughing at this. Just laughing but in that painful kind of laugh which goes to tears of shame. There is nothing mighty about a river that flows only for one kind of people. It is actually terribly weak and invites others to attack it.
I said that Jean has a glimmer of hope right now. This congregation has worked tirelessly for over two years to work the system to make sure this captivity did not happen. It has happened. We are deeply sad when not just plain apoplectic. Because of this grave emergency, our efforts have quadrupled in size. We have been joined by a national movement that has said enough, enough, and enough. We have corralled and lassoed every political person in New York City who we could find. We have sat in on the street. W e have put up an enormous web site. 78 organizations have joined our efforts officially. We have talked to dozens of people in the press. Riverside Church has called an emergency council meeting for today to decide about whether they want to offer physical sanctuary to some of our other families who are equally endangered. Our glimmer is lighting up the hearts and faces of thousands of Americans who like us are tired of triple agent religion. Triple agent religion is pathetic and just keeps shifting its loyalties in a kind of espionage of spirituality. Something different is happening here. We are getting focused, not just on one man but also on how the injustice done to him is the link to the cluster of injustices our nation faces.
So let me summarize here with my little scaffolding about religion and its imposters. Religion that does not demand justice is not religion. It is triple agent religion. It is spiritual espionage and pathetic in its loyalties. Religion that does demand justice has deep action at its heart. By deep action I mean action that connects the dots between one man’s captivity and that of a nation’s heart and soul. Deep action reveals the apostasy of solemn assemblies that don’t do justice. Deep action shifts power, and we are experiencing the ever so slight shift of the tectonic plate. Ever so slight it is but it is shifting. And we are the shifters. We are shifting because we have been shifted, shifted to see how wrong our efforts at national security are. Once we have seen that, we can’t not see the rest. We will not be safe till others are safe. Deportation will not make people safe. Welcoming immigrants and growing a great openhearted nation will make us safe.
There is now a national movement for Jean, and you are at the heart of it. I almost want to do a roll of honor but that would sound too much like the noise of a solemn assembly. But I must give a few images of the shifting. Our offices were so full of humming computers and people all week that we got a message from our internet people. We are only paying for ten on line experiences at a time and had gone over our band width limit. When we explained why to the person with the concern, he said, “wow, that’s great.” Lenny Fox made sure we got the microphones for the rallies, which was no small thing. Many of you shivered through them.
I have always wanted to be like Leo Lionni’s Frederick. You do know Frederick, don’t you? He is one of the great children’s book’s characters. Frederick saves colors for the other mice so that in the winter they don’t get to grey. There is a ton of color happening in and around us right now. Watching Clover Vail be put into the police paddy wagon, I just wanted to paint the contrast of her white plastic hand cuffs and grey coat. One of the police officers took a good look at Lulu Fogarty and said he was thinking about coming to Sunday School himself. My assigned cop realized I had come out of my cuff links with ease and said, just put them back on when you get out of the paddy wagon. It’s all for the show, you know.
In DC on Friday, with one of our board members, Father Mark Hallinan, Janay Montrevil and her three kids. At one point, when Janay told her story to a congressional aid, she started crying. Then Father Hallinan started crying. Then the children started crying. Then the aid started crying. This is what we mean by spiritual transformation. We have begun to shed tears over the stupidity. The tears are the mighty rolling river of justice.
At another point, on what seemed to be our sixteenth security check, going from house office building to house office building, and Craig was carrying one of the kids, whose jackets and scarves we had to keep taking off, and we were all getting bored with the “who gets to push the elevator button” game, Jamiah said, “Where’s Daddy?” I knew Jean was with us in spirit and if anything just shocked and awed that we have put together so much energy for him this week. I think we are a little shocked too. Articles in CNN, Sunday School teachers in jail because how could she face her children, knowing that their father had been detained? Sequential arrests by people who didn’t know each other at all but now do. Money raised to keep our staff going..yes you may contribute.
Amusing things happened in each congressional office. At one point, Jamiah was wearing one of Charlie Rangel’s African masks in his office, as our legal back up team in New York was sending us non stop messages on our several blackberries. At the last hour on Friday, by the work of 7 of us in DC and literally dozens behind us on the net in New York, the same dozens who had been working all day and all night all week, we were told that Jean would not be deported on Monday. New information and new legal efforts are at work. That is our glimmer.
On the way home on the train Josiah totally took apart in the large ball of rubber bands someone had given him to play with. They were all over the train, amusing our entire car. This ball of rubber bands gave me the image of community with which I want to end. Somebody added one of those rubber bands at a time to the large circled web that it was. That was our action all week.
If you don’t want to be a triple agent in your religion, feigning commitment to a justice oriented God but living by the state’s self-protecting rules, all the while telling people you are spiritually drained and that you need a shift, stretch yourself now and join our ball of energy. Wrap yourself around it. We won’t let Josiah pull you off…. and some day maybe we’ll have the joy of taking all our parts off the center of this activity and putting them back together in a different way. For now, please stretch. Stretch to see one glimmer of justice that might grow into a flame. For now do us the favor of not snapping or popping or stretching yourself too far. There is a cluster freight of stuff trying to keep you down, trying to break your spirit, trying to sell you lies, lies that are actually very dangerous to you as well as being dangerous to others. For now every time you go through one more security check, ask yourself where your true security lies.