July 24, 2013

My Sunday with Sister Simone

(Photo credit: The White House)

This past Sunday, yours truly visited Foundry United Methodist Church, in downtown Washington, DC, to hear Sister Simone Campbell speak as a part of Foundry’s “Outstanding Preacher Series”.  As Alexander Griswold noted last week, “The church is a “reconciling” congregation that disagrees with United Methodism’s official disapproval of homosexual behavior.” It was my first foray into a Methodist Church, and while I’m not sure how I feel about referring to God in the Lord’s Prayer as “Mother/Father”, I have to give this congregation credit for creativity. (After all, I grew up with only one version of the Lord’s Prayer – who knew that there were actually twelve?)

Sister Simone is the executive director of NETWORK, a left-wing lobbying organization behind the infamous “Nuns” on the Bus. You may remember that I profiled the Nuns on the Bus and their return this summer in another article. Sister Simone has spent much of the last few months campaigning for “comprensive immigration reform”, alongside her Soros-funded evangelical counterparts.

Sister Simone’s topic this Sunday was the miracle of the loaves and fishes from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9:10-17). Her first concern to address about this Gospel reading was why it says that the 5,000 were “men”. Well, she said, “Probably only the men were really worried, because the women knew they had brought food along if the men would only ask. Isn’t that the way?”

She went on to criticize the foolish apostles, who wanted to send the people “off to take care of themselves.” She called this the “temptation of individualism that we’re suffering from in our nation now. Where we want to say, politically, let them take care of themselves.” She then went on to criticize the recent action of the House of Representatives in cutting the food stamps program from the Farm Bill, which reduced the overall cost of the bill from $930 billion to $196 billion. She also hearkened back to the sins she perceived in the “Ryan Budget”, which was the reason she launched the first “Nuns on the Bus” tour.

When she mentioned the Ryan budget, a member of the congregation called out, “Shame!” and she responded, “Shame is right.” (It’s a sign of some lack of cognitive dissonance, I think, that Paul Ryan continues to get such a bad rap from Sister Simone, when he is very much on her side when it comes to the immigration issue.)

“But Jesus is right,” she went on, “we have the capacity to feed each other.” Now, at this point, I began to wonder if she missed the part where the miracle of the loaves and fishes was, in fact, a miracle. Indeed, there was no mention in her talk of the miraculous nature of the event – so it may be that she thinks the unmentioned women in the story did, in fact, share their food with the throng of 5,000. That is speculative, but it seems to accord with what she said on Sunday.

There was a sort of principle of subsidiarity at work in Sister Simone’s message. She spoke of how Jesus had the apostles organize people into groups of 50, and called Him “a community organizer”. This rings true for me (not the community organizer part), that we relate to one another on a human scale, on a much smaller scale than 5,000 or even however many millions of people live in our country. But this principle of subsidiarity which seemed to underlie this part of her message simply doesn’t jive with her political activities – namely, individual dependence on a massive, bloated Federal government, rather than on local communities.

The reflection on how to form community turned to individual connections and personal relationships with one another, which she said are best formed “when we are willing to share the place where we are broken; that is the most sacred place of all.” By way of example, Sister Simone told the story of a woman she met in Topeka, Kansas, who told her something that she said she hears from many people: “I used to be Catholic.” But, “She left the Catholic Church because she’s gay. And it just made me want to weep. So of course, I cried.” There was nothing inherently wrong with the telling of this story: it is indicative of a terrible kind of human suffering, and Sister Simone did not directly criticize the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, but neither did she defend it. Granted, given the environment in which she was speaking, a defense of the Catholic view of human sexuality might not have gone over too well. But by the same token, by telling this story to a non-Catholic, avowedly pro-homosexual audience, it seemed as though she was going out of her way to undermine her own Church.

Sister Simone then turned her attention to the issue of immigration reform. The first story she told was about Congressman Pete Gallego, who, at a rally for the Nuns on the Bus in San Antonio, Texas, said that his ideas about immigration changed when he first held his newborn son, and realized that he would give his life for his son, and that was something he shared with all parents. It seems hard for me to believe that one has such insights about the mass of humanity when holding a human being who is uniquely yours, and connected to you, for the first time. But at any rate, she said, this was his experience. And because parents all over the world want to feed their children, they want to come to America. This was Sister Simone’s starting place for her analysis of the American immigration problem.

Her premise is that we, as Americans, have “exported hope”. She pointed to “universal television,” something that she said was one of her favorite things, because it awakens the desires of people all over the world, for “something better”. And just as Sister Simone says we must feed the hunger of the poor for food, we are obligated to feed the hunger of the world for a better life.

“We need to deal with the fact that we have exported hope, and that we’re denying entry,” she said. According to Sister Simone, the consequence of the spread of the American dream is that we are duty-bound to share it with whoever else desires it.

“Jesus tells us we must feed the hungry,” she said. And her solution to the problem of feeding the spiritually and physically hungry?

“We must let our lives be broken open, to let our hearts be touched by other’s sufferings, and to share our own. So that in small groups of 50, 60, we’ll know community. As a nation we must take responsibility for the fact that we’ve exported hope.  We must fix our laws. It doesn’t mean that it’s open borders and everyone comes and goes, though part of me would just as soon have that, but in our current political economy we have to be moderate and realistic. But we also have to be responsible. We’ve got to fix this law. And we have to feed the hungry. Jesus did it by breaking open our lives. He’s shown us the way. And when our lives are broken open, justice comes.”

She finished her sermon by returning to the theme of rejecting individualism, by citing the American Constitution. She called individualism an “unpatriotic lie”, by pointing to the phrases “We the people of the United States”, and “promote the general welfare”. She concluded with an appeal for general “sharing” of food and of self, and with a poem that she wrote, entitled “Loaves and Fish”:

I always joked that the miracle of loaves and fish was sharing
The women always knew this
But in this moment of media notoriety
I ache, tremble, almost weep at folks so hungry, malnourished, faced with spiritual famine of epic proportions
My heart aches with their need
apostle-like, I whine, “What are we among so many?”
The consistent, 2000-year-old, ever-new response is this:
“Blessed and broken, you are enough”
I savor the blessed, cower at the broken, and pray to be enough.

In a way, I admired Sister Simone’s nuanced approach to her causes. Her appeal to subsidiarity and her critique of individualism seem compelling on the surface, and her appeal to the Constitution was certainly a surprising one, but all of these fall apart when examined more closely. The people of the Constitution are the American people, and the general welfare to be promoted is that of citizens, not of the whole world.  Ironically, the idea of “the individual” only arises in Western thought with the advent of Christianity, because of the relationship of God to each unique human soul. But Alexis de Tocqueville identifies individualism as a uniquely difficult problem for democratic man, because of democracy’s tendency to dissolve the bonds of community. At any rate, I think Sister Simone’s identification of harsh individualism as a problem is correct, and that building communities and personal relationships should be a priority for Christians. But a nation can’t exist on the basis of self-abnegation. Politics looks to the good of the political community, but the duty of the sovereign is not identical with the duty of the Church, nor can it fulfill the role of Christ.



One Response to My Sunday with Sister Simone

  1. Txcon says:

    The problem that I see with the Sister’s perspective is that it leaves no room for disagreement on the method by which the commandments are to be accomplished. It does not necessarily follow that I want to feed the hungry therefore I need to support the crushing burden of a federal bureaucracy.

    The United States spends $65,000 per poor family to fight poverty, even though the average national family income is $50,000. Most of the money actually goes to finance members of the upper or middle class, who become a powerful lobby for never solving the problem. Maybe a more effective solution would be to just send poor people checks and cut out the middle man.

    Gordon MacDonald says “the world can do almost anything as well or better than the church. You do not need to be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”

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