How can we talk about what we need to talk about?
A parish reflection in tense days
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
I remember when I heard someone describing Social Security as the “third rail of American politics,” and I actually took the time to research what that meant. I learned how subways are powered by a third rail that carries electricity between the wheels—and that you don’t want to ever touch that third rail, else risk sudden death. At that time only Social Security was described that way; however, these days, subways must need forty-seven rails to power them. There are so many areas of conversation and discussion that risk apparent danger in even getting near them.
I often feel as though I walk very slowly and carefully, trying to speak and act consciously as a husband, father, priest—as a human being sharing this world with eight billion other humans and all else that breathes in its own way. Being a parish priest–being a conscious human–these days feels so strained as we try to navigate the political and social tensions that press on us from many angles.
Over the past few years, I have found myself asking people in their seventies and eighties if the 1960s felt the way things feel now, if this pressured experience feels familiar to them. Selfishly, I have wanted someone to tell me that we would be alright. Navigating through these past years has not been pleasant, but it did teach me a lot about myself and people in general. We struggle to make sense of this world, and we are so easily pulled into camps when we feel anxious and threatened. We all yearn for wholeness, and we are so often gripped by fear. Even as we wrestle with the clashing dynamics of power, we are called to always ground ourselves in a practice of prayer that reminds us of our deepest identity in Christ—the essence of who we are that shows us our union with one another. Colossians 1, Romans 8, and John 17 are foundational to my vocation in that regard.
It does feel like the pressure of our cultural conversation has taken on a fever pitch. The election cycle of 2016 triggered much anger, and this frustration was only heightened through the onset of Covid and the election of 2020. One could argue that the election of 2016 was a reaction to prior elections. Social media feels pernicious even as we all seek ways to foster connection. The media seems obsessed with ratings and advertising revenues that increase relative to the degree of sensationalism. “Truth” with a capital “T” feels amorphous now, at best, with everyone able to spend their time in self-curated spaces with like-minded people. Politicians have become masters of the expediency of anxiety while the noble pursuit of public service seems a quaint memory of bygone days. Now, Artificial Intelligence has our attention, as we are being called to weigh our hope of having an easier life against the risk of outsourcing our very volition, what choices we make in our lives as humans. While the algorithms may foster some sort of so-called “intelligence,” what we are starving for is wisdom.
Our collective anxiety nurtures a market of sedation and distraction. We want to maintain a sense of the pace we had prior to Covid, and the expectation of success and production is relentless. When the stress wakes us up early in the morning, the thoughts and fears come slinking in the dark room, and perhaps we are brave enough to just whisper “there has to be more to life than this.” I believe we know this pattern isn’t sustainable, it’s just that the vicious cycle we find ourselves in has built up a sort of centripetal force that makes us feel trapped. Our practice of prayer, however, reminds us that we do have the potential for greater consciousness.
I notice what language we all use in our conversations, and I always think back to what Walter Bruggemann told us in class once. Dr. Bruggemann was my Old Testament professor at Columbia Seminary, and he reminded us that we can only respond with what we have at our fingertips. The role of the Hebrew prophets, he said, was to nurture a more expansive imaginative capacity within the hearts of the people, so that they could respond with an increased faithfulness rather than revert to the gravity of mere social expectation and the powers of successive empires that are focused on preserving power and control. This call, he told us, is always before us as we nurture our prophetic imagination within ministry.
How often do we revert to the short-hand and catch phrases from political agendas and social customs? Have you ever given thought to the choice we are apparently forced to make between being “pro-life” and “pro-choice”? Or between understanding ourselves as “conservative” or “progressive”? We feel we know what these loaded terms mean, but do we pause and wonder how we are actually expected to sort ourselves into these camps? We want to belong, given all the anxiety we feel, and we so easily yield that sense of conscious engagement that can actually root us in an embodied life.
When it comes to what “stances we take,” “moderation” apparently has become enormously suspect, although it was once understood to be a virtue. When I think of moderation, I don’t think of neglecting an honest engagement with injustice; I think of that life-giving pause before I speak or act, to become aware of where I am grounded. I want to “moderate” myself, to make sure my ego hasn’t already grasped onto an agenda I want to assert. The anxious reactivity that marks our days has squeezed out any possibility for nuance and complexity. And what of those who have figured out a way to make a fortune off of our frenetic anxiety, with a political industrial complex structured on opposing camps raising billions of dollars battling it out in a zero-sum game with one supposed “winner”? Yes, we feel trapped in this sort of centripetal force, and we can understand what St. Paul meant when he described the “powers and principalities” to the early Christian community at Ephesus.
When it comes to the tension around language and social relationships, I am paying a lot of attention to the conversation around gender and the perceived acceptable roles of men and women these days, with how we understand ourselves. It was not that long ago that I was on a zoom call with a group where the leader of the conversation asked us all to update our names with our preferred pronouns. I didn’t fully understand, and I didn’t feel welcome raising my hand–and if I didn’t feel welcome… The use of pronouns has definitely become an electrified rail for us. I was curious about what was stirring in me as I simultaneously understood the deeper questions being asked and the purpose of the conversation while also resisting the expectation to unconsciously conform to labels. It feels so difficult to engage in any conversation around gender these days without everyone immediately reverting to a defensive or offensive posture.
I first learned about the complexity of gender twenty five years ago in undergrad when an elder in the Lakota tradition led a two-year program with a small group of students. The ten or so of us spent a lot of time together, and we openly discussed the pressures of fitting into narrow social frameworks of “masculine” and “feminine.” We named the dramatic lack of initiation rituals in our society and the impact that has on young men and women who struggle to find grounding in a culture that is much more concerned with them being good consumers than it is with them being conscious participants. As someone who has never fit in with stereotypical images of masculinity (shocking, I know), I felt affirmed in seeing how cultures around the world celebrated a broader imaginative understanding with an emphasis on wisdom. When I reflect on my vocation as a priest, I look to those early conversations to find the roots of that development.
As part of those conversations, I learned that indigenous cultures around the world actually affirm a spectrum of gender. The apparent rigid dichotomy we may be familiar with isn’t a universal pattern. Not only is there a wider spectrum with what is “masculine” and “feminine,” with men and women, there are also affirmed gender identities that exist between these. Such “two-spirit people” were and still are recognized within their cultures, and when I learned about this, my understanding of many of my friends and family increased. I was fascinated that such a spectrum has existed within indigenous cultures across the globe, each with a deep concern for the way gifts are embodied and shared within a community.
We need to face the reality of how our culture projects our image of a narrowly understood masculinity onto God. Such a constricted patriarchal framework has had dire consequences throughout the centuries. Yet, the reality of who–or what–God is is far more complex. When I first studied Hebrew in seminary, I was shocked to learn that the word “God” as it is printed in the texts is actually an English translation of a wide range of Hebrew descriptors. One of those words, Elohim, that is used in Genesis 1, is actually a plural word. “Let us make humankind in our image,” the text says. We read it all the time, but I bet it passes right over us, because what we see is driven by our cultural expectations.
While there is a variety of masculine images for God, there are also deeply feminine images for God, to utilize those frameworks. Images within the book of Proverbs evoke the feminine Sophia dancing and co-creating all of life. God’s care for Israel is described as an eagle shielding her young (Deuteronomy 32). We also see the challenging image of God as a mother bear mauling those who would dare threaten her cubs (Hosea 13). Jesus Himself builds on such maternal images with his own, describing the desire to guard the wayward children of Jerusalem like a mother hen (Matthew 23, Luke 13). Our collective texts are full of diverse images of God that invite us, in turn, to reimagine our understanding of ourselves.
Coming at this point from a slightly different angle, I spent last Summer focusing on the Song of Songs, and I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if we had focused on those texts to the degree that we have focused on a few verses in the New Testament Epistles that highlight narrow expectations of women–texts written to certain communities that we have so readily universalized. What if we had universalized a spiritually-grounded celebration of imaginative and embodied love as we see in the Song of Songs? How would a wider engagement with such texts increase our imaginative capacity to understand and appreciate one another as people in community?
Of course there are many other examples of complexity and nuance within the texts and the writings of both the Jewish and Christian writings, but my point is that I first learned about the complexity and diversity of gender, identity, and human life in a way that was theologically and spiritually grounded, with a keen appreciation of the spiritual nature of human life and creation. I didn’t pick this up or impose it from any political agenda. I am grateful for this engaged awareness, and this is the grounding I want to foster even as we struggle with the perceived political shorthand and catch phrases that feel so triggering–again, those electrified rails.
The question always before us is this: How can we talk about what we need to talk about? How can the church, as a Christian community grounded in the living presence of the Spirit, foster a depth of engaged conversation that gets underneath the rigidity and brittle reactivity of much of our political discourse? What imaginative capacity are we being called to nurture? What tools–images, language, practices–do we have at our fingertips, and, when we recognize that we lack these resources, what spiritual courage are we willing to embody to foster them?
We should face the truth that there is an efficient market for creating a mechanism that feeds off our anxiety, stoking fear and tribalism. People have gotten very good at manipulating anxiety and fear, and many are making a fortune off it. We sort ourselves into opposing camps, these zero-sum associations, that then clash against one another, with fights that are fueled by the enormous sums of money that we all pour into the mechanisms that, honestly, wreak havoc on our souls. It is a vicious cycle.
Another of my teachers, Richard Rohr, once told us that he wonders if there aren’t two key tensions or points within human life: on one hand, there is a pull toward certainty, and on the other hand, there is the potential for curiosity. These two postures, if you will, describe so much of how we move in the world. Some people seem drawn predominantly to one or the other, with their temperament and life experiences and such, and while we all can understand the desire for certainty in trying times, we are reminded again and again that the Spirit of Christ calls us to an openness and curiosity, to a wonder, that allows us to see the presence of Christ in one another. This wonder, rooted in awe at the presence of the Living Spirit, defines our common vocation as disciples of Jesus as we are called to listen to one another.
As well, when it comes to such a fuller imaginative awareness, we must also ask ourselves how we can guard against mere self-expression that is not grounded in a communal life. As the Body of Christ, we are called to live together, with and for each other, so our aim is never merely to express ourselves for the sake of expressing ourselves. In a time when such rampant hyper-individualism flavors so much of what we do, how do we orient ourselves toward a spiritually engaged community?
Let’s be clear: we have work to do, and it is not going to be easy to resist the pull of this machine that feeds off our anxiety and fear. The Christian community must be willing to be honest about the lure of power and control. We have to ask hard questions about how we have yielded the narrative to cultural and social platforms rather than doing the intentional spiritual work that is called for as people who dare say we follow Jesus as Lord. We may not all arrive in the same exact place when it comes to the challenges we face, but I believe if we ground ourselves in such a posture of prayer and curiosity, we at least have oriented ourselves around the Heart of Christ rather than the raw and cynical pursuit of political power and prestige that plagues so much of our lives today.
So, how can we talk about what we need to talk about?
Since I am a curiosity person, I am frequently appalled at those who dwell in the certainty camp. I don’t want to tackle those rigid beliefs.
As an individual, it is up to me to engage with those who are not just like me. When you converse with someone you begin to understand that their differences are not so great.
I don’t like loud, in your face people. Unfortunately that describes many activists. Listening, conversing with individuals has been a big help toward empathy.
Group discussions aren’t much help.