Confronting Tribalism

We all need boundaries. We all need limits. Without them there’d be chaos and anarchy. Without them, entropy would get the upper hand, and the edges of both things and ideas would become so blurry, so homogeneous, that (like in one of those science fiction movies) it’d become increasingly difficult to tell “which of these things is not like the other.” That’s why, in both physical systems and in human relationships, some form of energy must periodically be applied to help them maintain their integrity.

We all need boundaries. We all need limits. Without them there’d be chaos and anarchy. Without them, entropy would get the upper hand.

Some boundaries are like one-gallon milk containers––without them, milk would flood the bottoms of refrigerators. Some boundaries are like people’s front doors––you don’t cross the threshold without asking permission. And some are more arbitrary––like city, parish, county, state, and national boundaries.

Some limits are speed limits––though it seems that few follow them. Some limits are the highest level of decibels allowed in most residential areas––though that might be hard to know on the Fourth of July. And some limits are determined by age––like how old one must be to drive or vote or marry.

And denominations and religions are tribes which have boundaries, like the Twelve Tribes of Israel which were formed about 2,000 years before Jesus was born. These people would have identified with the idea of gods bound to their own particular cities, and these tribes would have practiced sacrifice to appease their gods and avoid their wrath. But in the seventh century BCE (when Deuteronomy was written), there was a theological insight among the Jewish people––a brilliant flash of light––expressed in the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One! They realized that there was only One God over all people and all Creation. One God who united all people. So for about seven hundred years, our theological ancestors were united in the One God; and this is the unity that (Jewish) Jesus and his Abba owned and experienced. And it is this dance of love, this dance of permeable boundaries that the (fully functional) Trinity experiences, without risking entropy or homogeneity.

They realized that there was only One God over all people and all Creation. One God who united all people.

In our own functional families, we begin life experiencing that “I and Mother” are One. Infants have no sense of separation from their mother. What’s referred to as the Terrible Twos are really the Terrific Twos, because children begin to differentiate. Children begin to experience themselves as separate people. People in relationships which have fluid and permeable and flexible boundaries.

And to the degree that parents are self-differentiated and emotionally healthy themselves, children experience five freedoms: the freedom to see and hear what is here and now instead of what should be, or was, or will be. The freedom to feel what they feel instead of what they “ought” to feel. The freedom to speak what they feel and think instead of what others say they “should” feel and think. The freedom to ask for what they want instead of always waiting for permission; and the freedom to take risks on their own behalf instead of just maintaining the status quo.

And when parents and their children function this way, they understand that what’s normal for them isn’t necessarily normative (determinative) for everyone else. When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that opening Christmas presents on Christmas morning isn’t “right” and opening them on Christmas Eve isn’t “wrong.” When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that being an Episcopalian isn’t “right” and being some other denomination isn’t “wrong.” When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that different pathways to God are: Simply. Different. Pathways. And as fully functional and self- differentiated adults, they find an underlying unity that overcomes all divisions. What matters is whether as adults, they foster the kind of relationship Jesus had with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, and live it out to create Heaven on Earth.

But while there is actually no evidence in creation that God favors uniformity, there are those who take the breadth of God’s diversity and use it as something divisive. There are those who hold on to various kinds of ancient tribalisms, and inject them with “life or death consequences.” Many churches are caught up in a kind of denominational tribalism, asserting their own inherent “rightness,” above and beyond all others. Global insistence that we are “right” and others are “wrong” is killing us. And it’s my belief that we cannot have bright, shining, glorious Gospel lives without also tending to and healing our society’s family of origin issues and our shameful theological agoraphobia.

But there is hope. There is always hope. The Episcopal Church is currently in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church, the Church of Sweden, and The Moravian Church – Northern and Southern Provinces. Full communion means that each Communion recognizes the catholicity and independence of the other and maintains its own; each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments; and that Intercommunion does not require from either Communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. And The Episcopal Church is currently in dialogue with three other traditions: the Roman Catholic Church (through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church.

The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church have recently presented a proposal for full communion: “A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness; The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church” which could be passed at the UMC’s General Conference (likely in 2020) and at TEC’s General Convention (likely in 2021). In the meantime, there exists a Eucharistic Sharing Agreement which was passed at General Convention in 2006, in which the two traditions recognize each other as members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in which the Gospel is rightly preached. The resolution permits common, joint celebration of the Eucharist where it is deemed appropriate for the sharing of worship by congregations of the respective Churches. And while UMC clergy cannot currently serve in an Episcopal Church due to the canonical requirement that clergy be ordained in the historic episcopate in its strictest, linear sense, that requirement would be waived in the case of the UMC, if passed. Though even now, UMC laity may become members of an Episcopal Church (those who have been Confirmed in the UMC would be received in the Episcopal Church).

The (late) Rev. Walter R. Bouman (contributor to the Called to Common Mission Concordat and professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary) said: “The agreement between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA is an essential dimension of the mission of the church because it is a witness that the Triune God is making One, what had previously been divided and at times even alienated.” And this Concordat shows how it is possible to maintain denominational integrity while allowing for permeability at the same time. It not only affirms a theological reciprocity between equals, but also establishes the groundwork for reciprocal practice in mission and ministry, since these arise out of that same unity about which Jesus spoke. It may never be that there is 100% agreement on all issues of church polity, theology, real presence, and Christology, but we can choose to not allow God’s diversity to be or become divisive.

It may never be that there is 100% agreement on all issues of church polity, theology, real presence, and Christology, but we can choose to not allow God’s diversity to be or become divisive.

I have been blessed to serve the congregations of Ascension Lutheran Church and The Church of the Holy Cross (known together as Two Churches), which recognize the authenticity of each other’s teaching and practices. And even as we strive to celebrate those things which make us uniquely Lutheran and uniquely Episcopal, we place our focus on that most important element which we hold in common––our faith in Christ. While leveraging resources, we come together in unity to live out the call and message of the Gospel in service to our neighbors. And as we continue in this common life, and the covenant which has come out of our relationship, we pray that we may be increasingly guided by God’s wisdom, illumined by God’s light, protected under God’s wing, and receive the courage to make bold decisions.

And that is my prayer for all denominations and all faiths.

The Rev. Mike Wernick is the priest and pastor of Two Churches (Ascension Lutheran and The Church of the Holy Cross Episcopal) in Kentwood, Michigan. He serves as the Ecumenical Officer for the Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan.

Bishop’s Statement on Charlottesville

My dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I write to you in the aftermath of the great evil manifested on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last weekend. I am deeply troubled by the images coming from the scene; angry young white men carrying torches like the Klu Klux Klan, heavily-armed uniformed militia roaming unregulated while mobs of white supremacists waving Nazi flags openly marched with the expressed intention to incite violence, hatred and fear. They succeeded.

Let me be clear, racism, in any form, along with the tenets of white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism and other similar ideologies of hate and divisiveness, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus Christ or the Christian faith. Anyone who proclaims these ideologies and claims to be a Christian is mistaken and in error. As Episcopalians, our mission is to constantly pursue unity and reconciliation with God and each other. Our baptismal covenant commands us to love ALL our neighbors and it commands us to respect the dignity of EVERY human being. All means all and every means every. There can be no compromise, equivocation or rationalizing of these.

Perhaps this horrifying incident will move us all to reflect more deeply on how we understand ourselves as members of the Body of Christ while considering how to more fully be children of light. Are we not called to proclaim hope, certain hope, in the resurrection to eternal life with Jesus or to proclaim ourselves? Are we not to live selflessly serving the least, the last, the lost and the losers amongst us or to serve our own special interests? Are we not to give our lives for the world as Christ did for us, or are we just hedging our bets?

My dear friends, in moments like these, when evil masked as righteousness rears its ugly head, we must be true to our baptism by unabashedly shining the light of Christ’s love into the world. It is our Christian task and duty to live compassionately, to pursue justice and mercy, to demonstrate grace, to offer forgiveness, to live, move and have our being seeking to bring reconciliation and unity to an ever more broken and divided world. We are built and empowered by our baptism for these challenging moments. If we do not stand up to hate by bravely, selflessly loving ALL people then we are nothing more than a worship club and our faith will make no difference.

I write this while attending our diocesan Episcopal Youth Camp for third, fourth and fifth graders at peaceful Camp Newaygo. I am thankful for this place and for the holy space it provides our children to experience and practice unconditional love. They are beautiful and good. Their future lies ahead of them open and hopeful even while threatening clouds of hate, violence and fear appear on the horizon. What we do now, in this time, affects their future. How we live now affects their prospects. What we teach them now informs their perspective, their faith, and their very souls. So, today, let us renew our commitment to Christ by seeking to love each other selflessly, generously. Let us firmly and resolutely reclaim our loving, liberating, life-giving faith. Let us humbly proclaim the good news of God in Christ which is the assurance there is nothing, not even death, that can separate from us from the love of God.

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (For the Mission of the Church, The Book of Common Prayer)



Bishop’s Statement: A Response to Violence in Our Time

My Dear Friends,

Last Thursday evening, a large Grand Rapids Police Department SWAT vehicle stopped in front my house. A dozen officers in full riot gear – helmet, body armor, shields and machine guns – moved with precision up the steps towards Dana and me as we sat on our front porch. At the top of the stairs, they turned right toward the four apartment house across the open lot, taking no notice of us. Immediately behind them followed another dozen or so armed uniformed and plain clothes police officers who took up positions at each corner of the neighboring house.

We quickly went inside, locked the doors and hid behind the curtains timidly peering out on the frightening unfolding scene. Dana downloaded a Police Scanner App to her smart phone so we might figure out what was happening. No luck. We watched and wondered, scared and confused, for a very long fifteen minutes until the tense scene began to break up with officers lowering their weapons moving back down to the street.

One riot gear clad officer came near our house so I went out and asked what he could tell me about what was happening. He very politely and directly said this was not an active scene. He said they were acting on a search warrant. I presume it involved drugs because soon after two police dogs appeared next door. He apologized for using our front steps. “No, no thank you for your service,” I said relieved the incident had ended peacefully and without violence.

Over the last two weeks, we have experienced gut-wrenching violence against police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. I am very thankful for those who take up the difficult, almost impossible job to protect and serve – police officers, fire departments, emergency medical technicians and our military personnel. To put one’s life in harm’s way for the sake of another is noble and holy. Please continue to pray for these servants and their families.

My recent encounter with our local police force was frightening, to say the least. I was, if only momentarily, very afraid for mine and Dana’s safety as that heavily-armed team moved toward us.

I think I may better understand now why people of color, who experience disproportionately more violence than white people, fear the police. Fear is never a reason to commit violence against another and yet fear is always the root cause of it. Perhaps, our fear of police officers is reflected in their being clad in armor which in turn reflects their own fear of us. It is fear that causes us to distrust each other, fear that leads us to arm ourselves and fear that moves us to acts of violence perpetuating a never ending cycle of violence and fear, fear and violence.

What do you fear? How does fear affect you, your relationships, your actions?

I am so deeply saddened by all the recent violence in our world that I barely know how to respond. The burden of it all bares down on me such that my spirit aches. The only thing I can control in all of this is me. So, when my spirit needs healing I return to my favorite source of comfort and strength I find in the Rule of St. Benedict as presented by John McQuiston in his simple book, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living, Morehouse Publishing, 1996. Listen to what he says about Paramount Goals, p. 21-22:

“What is wanted is not that we should find ultimate truth, nor that we should become secure, nor that we should have ease, nor that we should be without hurt, but that we should live fully. Therefore we should not fear life, nor anything in life, we should not fear death, nor anything in death, we should live our lives in love with life. It is for us to train our hearts to live in grace, to sacrifice our self-centered desires, to find peace without want without seeking it for ourselves, and when we fail, to begin again each day. If we adopt an outlook of confidence and trust and perfect our experience by care for others, if we live in the certainty that we are heirs in providence of the outmost mystery, we will begin to change into the persons that we have the potential to be.”

Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage, hold fast that which is good, render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you this day and always.

+Whayne M. Hougland, Jr.
IX Western Michigan