Sept. 28, 2008
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Every year when Michaelmas rolls around, part of me wishes that we had a different patron saint. Perhaps Francis, who preached to the birds and kissed the leper. Our patron saint Michael leads God’s army, destroying and excommunicating the enemies of God. He fights a holy war against evil, and we all know what horrors have been wrought out of that myth.
But then I think of those sacred battles here on earth that seem to pit angels against demons, where God’s purposes seem to be at stake. There are those who have to fight in order to protect God’s green earth, or to bring about basic human rights for all of God’s children. I think about how so many of us on both sides of the aisle feel that in this election cycle and economic crisis, we are in a fight for the soul of our nation, a potential turning point that cannot be made without great struggle to bring it into being. I also know, as we all do, that inner spiritual and emotional healing and growth can be a sacred wrestling match.
But how shall we enter into these battles, and what kind of victory do we hope for?
Recently I’ve been doing some reading in Hinduism, which has its share of holy wars. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of their holiest scriptures, Krishna gives advice to the warrior Arjuna on the eve of battle. When I went to the Asian Art museum in San Francisco recently, I saw statue after statue of Hindu gods with flaming swords, menacing eyes, and necklaces made out of human skulls.
But the interesting thing is that Hindu holy wars seem to be more about integration of light and dark than domination of good over evil. One member of the Hindu trinity is Shiva, the god of both creation and destruction. Both elements are honored as integral to the cycles of life. Devotion is made to the powers of light and dark, chaos and order, life and death.
I suppose the closest thing we have to this is our devotion to the cross and the resurrection, but we usually treat Good Friday as an evil over which Easter emerges triumphant. We sing I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. Really?
Seven of your clergy and one lay person have just returned from diocesan clergy conference, where a kind of sacred struggle is taking place. After 20 years of exhausting polarization in this diocese, we are trying another way, under a new commission for healing and reconciliation. We told stories from our different histories, and just listened, without correction or comment. We identified those areas where we differ and those where we agree, and we started to articulate a path forward that we could all live with. All of us deeply desired - and really struggled to create - a safe place where our differences could be acknowledged and respected, and also where our essential unity in Christ could be celebrated.
Now I really don’t agree with about half of the others, and I will work to prevent them from doing some of the things they would like to do, but I don’t want to demonize and dominate them, to cast them out. I want to be in relationship with them, and hope that through this relationship, we will give each other space to be. This is the kind of victory I hope for in the current battle in our church: that we can stand firm in our convictions and fight for what we believe in, and as we do so, live together in respectful and loving relationship. It is will be a struggle to get there.
Internally, in the holy war within, I have learned that it doesn’t do much good to try to defeat and cast out our so-called “negative” emotions and habits. Splitting off our anger, fear, and compulsions, they eventually rear their heads again in a new form, just when we thought they’d been put to rest. Instead, we might learn to channel our anger into action for good, embrace our fear and realize our dependence upon God, and see the passion and love for life that is the gift within our compulsions.
Many years ago, through the practice of meditation and contemplative prayer, I shifted from a spirituality where I tried to walk as a child of the light, with no darkness at all, to a spirituality of light and dark. Sitting in silence, as my own inner demons revealed their faces again and again, I let them be: feeling them, seeing them as they are, without any effort to judge or rid myself of them.
As I befriended these demons, they came into the open, and they lost some of their power. Because the problem with splitting off things we don’t like about ourselves is that these things only grow more powerful when they’re forced into hiding. Out in the open, they can be put in perspective, and we can even find a gift in each one of them, something that contributes to our becoming whole.
The victory of this kind of spiritual battle is not the purity of self-perfection, which is a dangerous illusion. It is the victory of a fuller humanity, one that will always seek continuing growth, but at the same time is also able to enjoy the imperfection of what is, today.
I think that we can apply this kind of spiritual battle to our current culture wars, the conflict between worldviews that is becoming so apparent in this election cycle. Polarized into opposite camps that demonize one another, neither can even comprehend how the other could possibly think the way they do. We want to split off the other party, dominating it once and for all.
But no matter who wins, the other side is not going away. So we need to learn something that we are beginning to try in this diocese, and what my meditation practice taught me. Guarding our lips, even our thoughts, we refrain from making sarcastic and demeaning comments about one another, and we try to be in respectful relationship. We might befriend those that we think of as demons, and look for some gift in their presence. If you’re a Democrat, what gift might Republicans be trying to offer you? If you’re a Republican, what gift might Democrats have for you?
Yes, we should stand firm in our convictions and fight for what we think is right. But we are one nation, one big and very diverse family, and we’re all in it together. The victory that might come out of this kind of attitude is not the triumphalism of winner-take-all, but a world where opposites live in creative tension until a new and surprising third ways emerge.
We say that God is ultimately victorious, and this is the message of the story of Michael’s war in heaven. Good wins out in the end. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
What this means is that even as we struggle to move our church forward into an authentically modern expression of ancient Christianity, even as we fight our spiritual battles with inner demons, even as we contend with the culture wars and economic crises of our day, we already have a safe place in which these struggles take place. We live in God.
Our security does not therefore have to fearfully depend upon how much fragile progress we can temporarily make in our church, in our nation, in our souls. Our security is rooted in the eternal goodness of God, who is always present, always powerful, always true. As Thomas Merton said, at any moment we can break through to the underlying unity that is God’s gift to us in Christ. At any moment we can abide in the fullness of life that the Spirit offers.
That is our safe place in which to do battle. That is the only thing we can truly depend upon - not a new economic plan, a new president, a perfected self, or an enlightened church. Our only place of ultimate safety is in God.
So, as Krishna said to Arjuna, as Michael said to his angels, go into battle. But know that the outcome of the war has already been won, and it takes place in heaven itself, here and now, like a play within a theatre. Take your battles seriously, but not too seriously. For we live in God, and all shall be well.