Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Praying for George W. Bush

I delivered the following sermon to the community of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, Minneapolis, in January 2003.

Sadly, its contents (and its prayer) remain as relevant and vital today as they did four years ago, especially in light of such things as the ongoing US occupation of Iraq and this occupations role in increasing global terrorism; the moral and legal outrage that is Guantánamo Bay; and the reputed plans of the Bush Administration to expand its so-called “War on Terror” by launching military strikes against Iran.

I offer today this sermon (and its accompanying readings) as both a prayer and a Lenten reflection.


Contemporary Reading
by Aurora Levins Morales

They say that other country over there, dim blue in the twilight, further than the orange stars exploding over our roofs, is called peace. But who can find the way?

This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way.

This time, that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none.

Scripture Reading
Matthew 25: 34-40

Then the ruler will say . . . “Come you that are blessed by my Father-Mother, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the just will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

And the ruler will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Praying for George W. Bush
A Sermon by Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
Minneapolis, Minnesota
January 12, 2003

Recently, I’ve been praying for George W. Bush.

I realize that some of you may find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

And it’s not just Geroge W. Bush I’ve been praying for, but Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair and indeed all people who, rightly or wrongly, are in positions of earthly power.

You see, I consider many of these so-called leaders to be enemies of humanity, enemies of that abundant life that our brother Jesus spoke of. I hold this view as I consider many of these leaders to be fundamentalists of one type or another – religious fundamentalists, free market fundamentalists – it makes little difference to me.

Fundamentalism is a form of idolatry. We think of idolatry as putting something above God. Yet if we believe in an incarnational God, than idolatry must also be understood as putting something above people – within and through whom God is incarnated.

All fundamentalists reject the essential bonds of human community and connection, opting instead to idolize limited, exclusionary and self-serving things. These “things” might be a literal interpretation of a sacred text, or a rigid adherence to a particular economic agenda. It could be the love of money and power manifested in a political doctrine of “full spectrum dominance” – an empire-building doctrine currently endorsed by those in power in this country.

Whatever the form of idolatry, it is everyday people – be they in Baghdad or Lower Manhattan – who lose out to the idolatry of those in positions of power.

It’s taken me a while to get to the point of being able to pray for those I view as “my enemies.” I recently realized that in part, popular culture – and Hollywood in particular – has had a lot to do with my struggle to live out this aspect of my Christian calling. Let me explain.

Just before Christmas, I saw the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy – The Two Towers. It’s an undeniably impressive film. But like so many works of popular film and literature, it was on a very basic level, a cop-out.

In the battle scenes of The Two Towers, the enemy is comprised of hoards of creatures known as orcs. They’re hideous, blood-thirsty creatures devoid of reason or morality. Their depiction in The Two Towers is utterly dehumanized; they are utterly “the other.”

Accordingly, it becomes very seductive to buy into the cult of war that the film lifts up as heroic and, indeed, necessary if evil is to be conquered. Such an understanding of the use and necessity of violence has theologically been termed “redemptive violence.”

I struggle with the concept of redemptive violence. Increasingly, I see it as the flawed and dangerous idea that out of violence – and I include here political violence such as acts of war and terrorism – can come ultimate good; can come authentic peace. Redemptive violence is a primitive notion – one that reflects a primitive and limited understanding of God and a simplistic, black and white view of the world.

Such a view is clearly reflected in The Two Towers, where the bad guys are ugly orcs and the good guys are brave hobbits, wise wizards or handsome kings. It’s all so clear cut and straight forward. Such simplicity in literature and film is not new, but I find myself hungering for a more honest, a more authentic representation of the human condition.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.” So wrote the great Russian writer Solzhenitsyn. Yet like all who are open to the reality of the human condition, Solzhenitsyn knew a disturbing truth: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Real life, as each one of us knows, is indeed much more complex, much more ambiguous than any Hollywood blockbuster. And I think this fact is especially, and sometimes painfully, discerned by those who understand that as humans we are called to be active and loving agents of God’s transforming presence in the world.

That’s an awesome privilege and responsibility when you stop and think about it. We are called, like our brother Jesus, to be the incarnation of God’s saving and transforming love in the world. This means we have to engage the world in all its complexity, enter into all kinds of relationships, take risks, build communities, reach out to others, recognize ourself and God in those different from us.

I believe that it’s always been through such activity – such compassionate engagement – that the sacred has made him/herself known to the world. Relating is God’s very essence, and accordingly relationships mediate God to us.

The love that we allow to infuse our relationships with others is truly the measure of our awareness, openness and active dwelling in and with God. And this love cannot solely be understood as a warm, glowing feeling inside. This love, in fact, is a restlessly active reality – urging us to ever-new and expanding levels of consciousness about ourselves and how we are to live in the world.

It was just such an expansion of consciousness – informed by years of compassionate engagement with the world – that compelled Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to declare that “nationalism has been superceded by the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.”

For Dorothy Day, the Mystical Body of Christ was an expression of the indestructible interconnection of human beings with God and one another. Dorothy maintained that Christ – the living spirit of God – was beyond the confines of any humanly organized religious structure. She infuriated conservative Catholics by declaring as heresy the idea that the Mystical Body includes only the Roman Catholic Church. “The Mystical Body is the inseparable oneness of the human race,” insisted Dorothy Day.

We have an articulation of the ancient doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ on our beautiful banner – one which proclaims that, “The Body of Christ is Living with AIDS.” It’s a proclamation that affirms the belief that God dwells in each one of us – and accordingly, experiences the joys and pains that we experience.

Because of this, Christ transcends boundaries of race and nation: “There is no nationality,” Dorothy Day insisted. “The only foreigner is the one who does not have Christ within. But in all human creation [and I would add all non-human creation as well] there is no one that does not have Christ within. If only men and women could recognize this, there could never be war,” said Dorothy.

Well clearly, men and women – and I’d argue men in particular – don’t recognize the indwelling presence of God within each of us and thus the eternal truth that we are all brothers and sisters, that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Tragically, for many who find themselves in positions of dominating power, or who are trampled upon by such dysfunctional power, the incarnational God is superceded by idols, by those expressions of fundamentalism I spoke of earlier.

Which brings me back to my recent praying for our various world leaders – those men who seem determined to label and treat whole sections of the human family as “evil-doers,” or “Western devils,” or “terrorists.” I’m surprised the term “orcs” hasn’t been thrown out there.

So, what is it exactly that I’ve been praying for? Well, if you receive the church newsletter you probably already know, as in the January newsletter you'll find “A Prayer for 2003.” I guess that’s one good thing about being editor of the newsletter: You get to plug your own prayers! Anyway, my prayer for George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and indeed each and every one of us, goes like this:

Let us pray for the fearful, broken world of humanity,
pray that each one of us may seek and find deep within,
the flame-like seed of compassion.
May this compassion be lovingly cultivated by all
so that it blooms in desires and actions for justice, community,
and a sustainable world for all living things.
And may the fragrance of such blossoming
be recognized and celebrated
as peace in our lives and in our world.


So, beneath the flowery words and imagery, what I'm basically asking for is that we all open ourselves to the presence of God within ourselves and others. I want us to hunger for one another’s stories, to be prepared to experience one another’s joys and hardships, to seek out alternative sources of news and views that lift up those voices and stories that are marginalized or ignored by the mainstream media.

Indeed, I’d like to see us become the media – jamming the airways and the switchboards and the mailboxes of the corporate media with messages that challenge and oppose those life-denying messages we are daily inundated with – those messages urging unconscious consumption and unfettered accumulation of resources, wealth and power, those messages of war, destruction and death – all in the name of “national security.”

I guess I want a revolution. At least that’s what I’ve always thought I wanted. But lately – and maybe praying this prayer has led to this – I’ve been more focused on evolution. Evolution, unlike revolution, requires participation from each one of us.

For example, the opening to compassion by those people in this country fixated on the false god of empire is dependent on the engaging, sharing, and challenging actions of those of us committed to a living, incarnational God.

I see my life in activism as a reflection of my commitment to such an incarnational God. This life in activism has shown me that mindless ranting and elitist pontificating merely result in polarization. Lately, when I participate in various rallies protesting the policies of the Bush regime, I attempt to engage those who invariably turn up to support such policies.

I don’t set out to convert them to my worldview. Instead, I simply ask them questions and then listen. Their responses provide opportunities for challenge, for them and me – usually through further and more pointed questioning.

I guess I aim to build bridges, to sow seeds, or better still, awaken both of us to that seed of compassion deep within. I’m not saying that I’m always so measured or conversational in my approach. I can get pretty fiery. Yet I consciously seek to always lovingly challenge, rather than hatefully condemn as I believe we’re all called to be God’s loving challenge to those who have chosen to channel their energy into life-denying practices, policies, and modes of thinking.

Greedy and destructive power fueled by unquestioning obedience, is extremely vulnerable to compassionate rebellion. And it’s just such compassionate challenge and rebellion that can facilitate spiritual and moral evolution.

Such evolution may indeed led to positive social transformation – to revolution, if you like. Yet I doubt that any form of violent revolution from without will ever lead to inner spiritual evolution. And so while my hope for social and political revolution remains, my practical focus is on facilitating spiritual and thus social and political evolution – my own and others.

It's an enormous task – one that requires nurturing from a supportive community, a community like Spirit of the Lakes, for instance. It also requires an attitude that actively seeks out signs of hope rather than wallowing in the numerous examples of injustice and oppression we have in the world. I’ll close with some examples of signs of hope that keep me going.

I find it hopeful that the people of Brazil have elected a president willing to suspend the purchase of twelve military jets so that Brazil can spend more on social programs and feed the hungry.

I find hope in the upsurge of independent media outlets and publications, and in the fact that the war-mongering and empire-building of the U.S. government has served to mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to lift their voices and say “No! to an invasion of Iraq.

Closer to home, I find hope in the programs and projects of our church – and in particular those of the Education for Liberation program which I coordinate – projects and programs that provide opportunities for us to compassionately engage the world.

I find hope in the young people of this community – in Logan and Mason and their great love and respect for the environment. In Jonathon’s willingness to share his enthusiasm for the books he’s reading and the films he wants to see. I find hope and encouragement in the way Olivia, Maya and Luke spontaneously and trustingly engage the children they encounter at the Families Moving Forward shelter at Lyndale UCC.

I find hope in Kevin’s exuberance and longing for human connection despite all he’s been through prior to his adoption by Fintan. I find hope in Beka’s activism, her willingness to journey – geographically and spiritually – so as to stand in solidarity with others and model for all of us an active and compassionate engagement with the world.

I find hope in Esphenia and Pablo’s presence among us and in particular of Pablo’s brave seeking of an authentic life far from his homeland and his openness to share his boundless energy and talents – most recently in organizing our community’s Christmas pageant.

And I find hope in the trusting, inquisitive and loving spirit displayed in the smiles, hugs, and energy of the youngest members of our community – of Bella, Jordan, Brin, Keenan, Kaylee and Eli.

In the lives of our young people – beautifully attuned to the inward love of God – we have well-springs of hope. For me, it’s a hope that serves to illuminate and nurture that flame-like seed of compassion within. We all have this seed, this presence of the sacred. Let us honor this presence, celebrate it, embody it.

And what of our enemies? What of those who ignore or distort this presence, and who accordingly – either consciously or unconsciously – trample upon the body of Christ through their treatment of others and the environment?

Perhaps a start would be to stop thinking of such people as our “enemies,” and instead as our brothers and sisters who have lost sight of the presence of God in themselves and others, as our brothers and sisters who have turned from the incarnational God in their sacrificing of humanity (theirs and others) on the altars of idols.

Maybe then we can more readily commit ourselves as individuals and as communities to compassionately engage and lovingly challenge them – recognizing that our salvation is ultimately connected to theirs.

I find it very difficult at times to consider the likes of Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush as my brothers, but stronger than this aversion is my conviction that until I and all of us do, the Body of Christ remains anemic, and the fullness of life that our brother Jesus spoke about, elusive. Our challenge is to embody and share that fullness through invigorating and compassionate engagement – even, indeed especially, with those we consider our “enemies.”

Michael J. Bayly
January 12, 2003


Tess McGowan said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for sharing your sermon. It blows me away and I find myself sitting here in front of the computer nodding and thinking how what you have written is so true. Your worldview seems so in-perspective. I find your words inspiring. I feel challenged to ask myself how I am going to contribute to a more just and loving world; how I am going to respectfully challenge others and myself. I try to now by the lyrics I write (I'll have to send you a CD!). We can always work on who we are, but I assume I'll find a niche or two in terms of what I do in a few years.

Hey, there was one sentence that I really liked: "This life of activism has shown me that mindless ranting and elitist pontificating merely results in polarization." I could imagine my English teacher giving double ticks for that! I guess sometimes I avoid speaking my thoughts freely because I fear being pushed away from someone, or someone feeling pushed away from me. Sometimes when you really believe in something it is almost natural to engage with others, but sometimes it's not so easy. I respect the way you use your voice. I hope you are happy.

Have a great day today, Michael, and thanks for making mine!


Tess McGowan

Nancy Johnson-Maloney said...

I read your sermon and I have to tell you it was just marvelous. I loved your quotes from Solzhenitsyn. I thought your use of the term "compassionate engagement" made a lot of sense. I see that you shared your spiritual journey in the sermon, especially where you say, "Evolution, unlike revolution, requires us all to participate." I also loved how you named the kids at SOTL, and talked about signs of hope rather than wallowing in injustice.

I am a huge fan of good sermons, and your words, as written, are a gift. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have heard you deliver them. Thanks again.