May 15, 2016 The Spirituality of Politics

                                                                                                                                                       By Art McDonald

As many of you likely know the Cape Ann ministers take turns writing for a weekly column called “Musings” in the Gloucester Daily Times; there are enough of us so that we each get a turn every 3-4 months. On Sunday morning, May 1, I received an e-mail before church from a colleague whose turn it was to write the May 4th column. However, wrote Lutheran pastor and friend, Anne Dineen, Fr. Daniel Berrigan just died and I think you, Art, should write the column this week; can you do it? After initial hesitation, since the column was already late, I realized later in the day, it would be a privilege to do this, so early Monday morning I sent it off and the editor, David Olsen, immediately replied that he would run it.

I didn’t remember if I had ever talked about Daniel Berrigan with Anne before, but somehow she imagined that I either knew him or was greatly influenced by him given my background in Catholic ministry. Not only did I know Dan, having met him several times, but beginning in my first year in the seminary in 1972, I began corresponding with him and he always took the time to respond, though at that point we had never met. Having read a few of his books, though, he had a huge role in shaping my ideas about just what Christian ministry ought to be about. Dan, a Jesuit priest, and his brother Phil, also a priest with the Josephite group, were leaders in the development of the Catholic Peace movement in the mid-1960s, strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, and as part of their opposition they drew on the long tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in the vein of Unitarian Henry David Thoreau,
Universalist Adin Ballou, Mohandas Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, jr. The Berrigan brothers became famous for breaking into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968, and destroying draft files as their symbolic act of resistance to what they considered, and I would say history has confirmed, to be a tragic and immoral war. They, and others, spent the next 30 or so years continuing their opposition to injustice and performing acts of non-violent civil disobedience, both spending significant periods in jail for their actions.

For myself, growing up in a pretty provincial and conservative Catholic family, where religion and faith were a very private, pious matter between oneself and God, with very significant priestly mediation and mentoring, mostly very positive I might add, the Berrigan brothers presented a very different model of priesthood and ministry, and, for that matter, being a Christian, one harkening back to Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, one I had never imagined but was suddenly completely converted to, i.e., the very essential role religious leaders have in promoting justice and peace in the world, and making sure the poor and marginalized have a voice. It was a time of amazing rethinking of the role of faith and religion in society, mostly encouraged by the reforms of the second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, initiated by the jolly and beloved Pope John XXIII. It was a very stimulating and exciting time. And I felt privileged to be able to reflect on the importance of Daniel Berrigan as I wrote my column a few weeks back.

Dan came to mind once again last Monday as the Worship/Celebration Committee ( Sean, Lindle, Molly, Fran) met to plan services for the next
months. As we discussed important topics for sermons, several spoke about the current political situation we are in as we look towards electing a new President in November. The gist of the discussion was how to deal with the current national political climate in which there is so much anger and frustration in the general public and so much obstructionism in Congress, partisanship and vitriol, viciousness and debasement, crudity, if you will, among many of the candidates. How have we reached such a level of incivility and baseness, shockingly in which the media and a segment of the population is encouraging and supporting? We have become an embarrassment to ourselves as the world community looks on and wonders and worries, what is going on in the U.S. of A? A situation in which it appears that the two major party candidates for President both have a disapproval rating of over 50%. What have we come to? What to do as concerned citizens and people of faith?

As I reflected upon this topic, I stumbled across an amazing reflection by a former monk, now therapist and spiritual counselor, who also writes extensively, named Thomas Moore, who suggests in a chapter in one of his books, entitled: “The Spirituality of Politics,” that in our determination to keep church and state separate (a very important contribution of this country to the idea of democracy), nevertheless, in the process “… we have created a wholly secular state that can’t truly govern a people, because it’s activities ignore the needs of the soul and play out as if a human community were a mere aggregate of inanimate bodies.” So is Moore suggesting a blurring of the lines of separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state? I don’t think so. So what DOES he mean and why do I think he might be on to something?

Firstly, Moore believes, as I suspect many of us do, and certainly helps explain why there is such anger, discontent, “throw the bumbs out” mentality in the wider citizenry, that our political system has become pretty corrupted by money, misuse of power, too many politicians serving their own interests or those of a privileged few, while losing focus on the essential role of government and political leaders to work for the common good, to especially look out for the poor and disabled, essentially serving and CARING for the community – public servants in the best sense of the term. And that is precisely where for Moore the spiritual comes into play in politics. “The ancient Greeks knew that they were held together as a community by a divine spirit, or by a number of spirits,” and Confucius argued that it was essential that political leaders have strong moral character and were motivated by service to all. So when all of this breaks down, writes Moore, as we could argue has occurred, we all must step up and be “politicians,” we all must be concerned about what’s best for the community, and we all must acknowledge that there is a “holy, sacred, and spiritual dimension to community life.” And we all become political when “… we realize that our lives are not bounded by the perimeters of self, family, and home … (but also include) neighborhood, town, region, nation and world.” That’s why Andrew DeFranza preached here two weeks ago and encouraged residents of Hamilton to attend an important meeting on an affordable housing project in Hamilton, and to voice one’s opinion as to whether or not this project was best for the community and society, and especially for people of limited means who need housing and schooling and public services. Andrew realized, as do many of us, that the religious community has a major role in the political world to
ensure justice and fairness and equal treatment, deeply spiritual values, Moore would argue! And the religious community has a key role in reminding politicians how essential THEY are to caring for people and the community – “care for citizens,” that’s the politician’s central role, writes Moore. Gandhi and King and Day and Berrigan all understood how important it was to bring spiritual values, concern and care for the community, to the political realm and to politicians. And to the extent that element is missing, some of us believe, the political system corrodes and corrupts and becomes self-serving for the few. And then we get candidates like we currently have, with, possibly, a few exceptions, yet the major two with deep unfavorable ratings and deep mistrust with the whole system. And that’s why beyond the wonderful charity and social service we do with Family Promise and Grace Center and Open Door, great hands on ministry, we also think it essential we work with ECCO and the North Shore Peace and Justice group, as we promote immigration protection and reform, police and community cooperation, economic equality and fair taxes, and peace in international relations. Some of us will go to the State House this Wednesday to encourage our legislators to support a constitutional amendment to add a higher tax rate for those earning over $1M dollars. Working on elections and political campaigns are very important, but no matter who is elected, our bigger job is to keep advocating for important issues that affect the common good, especially the poor and struggling. As one theologian writes from El Salvador, people of the religious community are called to “political holiness,” a wonderful expression suggesting the importance of the role of the religious community and people of faith in bringing the dimension of justice and love to our political lives together.

There is a very current example of a politician who, it seems to me, gets that a key role he is called to play is to care for people, especially those in need. The Globe had a wonderful piece on the town of Rutland, Vt. and its Mayor, Christopher Louras, as he and town leaders decided they would take in 100 Syrian refugees; most Rutlanders agreed. And not only did he suggest that this was the right thing to do to care for international refuges in need, but he imagined how these folks would bring a positive impact into the community and make Rutland stronger, fill some jobs that are currently open; a politician who gets it! I wonder who might be next?

I last saw Dan Berrigan at a retreat for UU ministers on Cape Cod, about 5 years ago. He was invited to share some personal testimony about the intersection of spirituality and politics. I had an opportunity to share with him the following somewhat humorous tale involving him, me and my former religious community, the Catholic Order of Dominicans. During my time as a seminary student in Washington, DC, in this monastic setting, it was the custom to have silent meals at Dinner. During the meals students took turns reading “spiritual literature” to fellow students and all of the resident priests. There were generally 60 or so monks in the dining hall. One night when it was my turn, I read an excerpt from a book by Daniel Berrigan entitled: NO BARS to MANHOOD. At that time it was a bible for me and Dan was my role model for ministry. In the reading Dan talked about the spiritual and political and the immorality of war, which all Christians ought to be protesting, he reasoned. The next day, I learned, that many of the
priests were outraged and demanded such readings be banned. To his credit my immediate superior defended me and suggested that for me this qualified as spiritual reading. At the next chapter meeting of the entire community, the priests who had all the votes had only one option to prevent such readings; end the practice of silent meals! And so they did, voting nearly unanimously. So we started talking with one another during meals! I loved sharing that story with Dan and he roared with laughter, his ageing almost 90 year-old body shaking with glee at the thought that this Jesuit was responsible for ending a long-standing Dominican tradition of silent meals at the House of Studies in DC, another chapter in the longstanding competition between Dominicans and Jesuits for influence in the Church! Rest in peace, brother Daniel, may your vision and wisdom and courage and words live on in those you have mentored; may you never be silenced.