Friday, September 18, 2009

Hope and Fear in the Halls of Congress

Lynette Wilson photo
From left, Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton, Connecticut Bishop James Curry, Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith and Maine Bishop Stephen Lane.

We call ourselves “Bishops Working for a Just World”. The group has been around awhile, since before my time as bishop. Our mission is to convey a moral imperative for justice – and to act together on behalf of that commitment. Six of us gathered in Washington DC earlier this week to discuss how we can incorporate community organizing into our mission – and to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. The staff from the Office of Government Relations, which promotes the policy agenda of the Episcopal Church as it is established through General Convention resolutions, briefed us on policy, set up meetings with Senators and members of Congress, and accompanied us through the halls of government.

While there were several directives from General Convention around a variety of issues, the focus of discussion in the offices -- and demonstrations outside the offices, was about health care. The particulars of health care policy are complex and ever-changing, and are very difficult to follow; but the feelings of resistance to a reform of health care policy are raw and real – and are being released in increasing bursts of verbal violence. Those outbursts need to be challenged and curtailed; and norms of behavior need to be established or in some cases re-established – not just in town hall meetings or in joint sessions of Congress, but at the dinner table, in Vestry meetings, in the classroom, wherever people share communal life.

And it won’t be enough. We can – and should, try and manage the behavior, but the fear that underlies the verbal violence is harder to get at. And that fear is real and raw – quite powerful, and easily manipulated. The fear has been fueled by an economic recession – which brings loss to many – loss of jobs and savings and insurance coverage; and leaves many others at the edge of loss, in the uncomfortable place of being among the ‘worried well’.

“Fear not”, Jesus tells his disciples. Scholar and modern prophet Walter Brueggemann argues that “fear not” is the primary message of the Gospel. The challenge sounds like we all have some psychic switch that we can push that can make fear go away. Which is part of the problem. It seems that more and more people are pushing their fear switch, which releases even more fear and ratchets up the level of verbal violence. “Fear not” is not a management directive, but an invitation to go to the depth of fear and have it transformed by the holy one who has already been there – and who has promised to take the journey with us. And who has promised – mysteriously and sometimes miraculously, to transform the fear into hope.

As people of faith, we have the opportunity to reframe the conversation – by welcoming the hope. We welcome hope through the discipline of seeing Christ in the face of the stranger, acknowledging the presence of Christ in the heart of the person with whom we strongly disagree; by giving from a place of gratitude and abundance. It is hard work. It is holy work. This welcome is radical hospitality in its purest form – and it can move us down through the confining and confounding arena of fear to a deep and liberating place of hope.

Each of the six bishops on the Hill yesterday witnessed to the moral imperative that the health care issue begs in terms of universal access, and greater efficiency and affordability. When the final health care bill is presented (and everyone we talked with figures it will be ready by Thanksgiving), it will have political fingerprints all over it. That is to be expected, because that is how the system works. But beneath the details and political negotiations, there is another moral imperative to frame the process in terms of a hope that casts out fear.

My hope is not a wish, but a deep trust that God’s grace and our ongoing commitment can set us free.