Whenever I can I go to Judson. And Judson seems to move with me, in my head, my thoughts, memories, hopes and meditations. Its been there for many years. But its also out there, at Occupy or the Anarchist Bookfair. When I was in Paris, I ran into Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister. And at my recent Rebel Friendships Reading, I ran into Micah Bucey in attendance. While I was there, Micah preached about love of people, of philia. This friendship moves us forward through time. Thanks Micah!
By now, you’ve probably seen the cover page of this past Thursday’s New York Daily News. In huge, white block letters over a black rectangle, the words, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS,” surrounded by photos and tweets of four politicians, all sending their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and families of the victims of this week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Beneath the main headline, the Daily News mocks these “meaningless platitudes” as the opposite of what is truly needed to fight gun violence in a country where the killing continues, in so many different ways and for so many different reasons. You don’t need to look very far down the information superhighway to find articles both celebrating the headline as a necessary shove and condemning it as an insensitive punch.
As one who straddles a vocation as a Christian minister with an active prayer life and a life as a postmodern New Yorker rubbing elbows with secular friends every day, I understand many facets to both arguments. Maybe you’re caught there as well. And I keep looking for more and more articles, more and more commentary, just to see if there are more ways to rearticulate my stance, to bolster my argument. And none of it gets me anywhere closer to alleviating the fear I feel in the wake of these events. How can we come together and ritualize something called “agape” when there is so much work to be done outside these walls?
To start, I’ll remind you and myself: I believe that prayer can be part of real action in the world. And I also understand and appreciate this headline. Because I don’t think the headline is simply about “prayers and thoughts,” in general. I think it’s about “prayers and thoughts” that don’t venture out from themselves, that don’t lead individuals toward collective action. Those mocked on this cover hold power to do something about the guns in this country and their “thoughts and prayers” become platitudes when their God remains a damp, dithery receptacle for soggy laments. But a God to whom one prays can also be a God who rallies us to preemptively keep guns out of the combustible mix of alienation and weapons that lie at the root of this terror. Alienation plus guns equals terror and, while we attempt to figure out how to eradicate the alienation part, we could stand to start more actively controlling the gun part.
Albert Einstein is famous for a lot of things around which I can’t even wrap my feeble brain, but something he said that really gives my prayer life an extra dose of action is this: “Nothing happens until something moves.”
Look at the movement between Mary and Elizabeth in today’s Ancient Testimony. We’ve got four gospels, but the author of this one has some unique interests. Justice-minded Luke loves telling the story from the female perspective, from the perspective of those on the outside, those whom society could easily forget in the hubbub of everyday life. Luke is also all about the Holy Spirit. Throughout this gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, characters are always getting filled with this mysterious thing. They feel something move within them, often metaphorically, and sometimes, especially in Elizabeth’s case, literally. And that movement doesn’t negate their prayerful existence; that movement is an active part of the prayer. It’s the propeller that kick-starts the prayer into more profound possibility.
And, in this mythical moment, it’s not just the Holy Spirit that’s moving inside Elizabeth. Mary’s news of her own baby connects to the baby growing inside Elizabeth, causing Elizabeth’s baby to leap for joy inside her, an odd image of brotherly love that really also reveals the connection between Elizabeth and Mary. We know little about Mary, but she’s probably fearful. She’s pregnant with something she doesn’t understand. But Elizabeth reaches out to her, across the fear, and affirms her cousin’s predicament, investigating it, not questioning it, connecting the story to her own. Elizabeth must feel trepidatious as well, but she doesn’t dismiss Mary’s scary news. She reveals her own experience of something moving inside her. In that moment, Elizabeth and Mary give birth to possibilities they’ve never been entrusted to trust before, even in the terror of their environment.
Our own environment is much more pregnant with mistrust than trust. One of my Facebook friends, responding to the San Bernardino massacre, announced that, no matter how closed-minded it seems, he has decided to no longer engage in debates with anyone who defends firearms or the NRA. He’s done with trying to change the minds of people he believes will never change. He’s going to focus solely on “preaching to the choir.” He’s turned off the energy he’s spent attempting to change minds and is refocusing that energy on reinvigorating the bedraggled members of his own tribe, trusting that there’re enough of them to raise voices and create change on the legislative level. It’s a rallying, positive assertion wrapped around a darker, negative decision.
This friend is lucky that he doesn’t frequent Judson, because at Judson, and especially on every first Sunday, we do our best to remind ourselves that “agape,” that Greek word for universal love, love for absolutely everyone, God’s love is the highest form of love and is our highest calling as a community in the Christian tradition. But, appreciating the declaration and clarion call of my Facebook friend and appreciating the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout Luke’s gospel, today might be a good day to also look at another Greek word for love that courses throughout our scripture: “philia,” or deep, deep, mutually beneficial and mutually felt friendship.
The Greeks had all kinds of different words for love and both “philia” and “agape” found their way into the first Greek gospels. But, before we get to “agape” in Luke’s gospel there’s a whole lot of “philia” building and transferring from person to person. Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, to love one another above all, to love every single one of us, regardless of differences, might be the endgame, but “philia,” forming friendship and familial bonds through common aims, common spirits, even the Holy Spirit, is a necessary step toward following that Greatest Commandment.
I don’t condemn my Facebook friend’s decision to cut off communication with those who can’t get onboard with him. The choir has to stay together by preaching to one another in order to keep raising a ruckus and passing changes in the legislative realm. Movement among like-minded people can be astonishingly effective. In our Christian mythology this is true of Jesus and John, even before they meet in real life. This is true of Elizabeth and Mary as they connect across the fear and move together. And it continues as Jesus grows and ministers, banding together disciples who are working toward “agape,” but doing it first through “philia.” They start with the love of human connection and try to move together toward another kind of love, something higher than that human connection.
Our own community member Ben Shepard explores the familial bonds that mobilize social movements in his new book, “Rebel Friendships.” Ben says that making friends, the simple act of welcoming and being welcomed into a group that is fighting for a common cause, is what historically undergirds political successes. I would argue that for all of these groups, these connections also erupt through some kind of fear. Ben focuses on more liberal movements such as ACT-UP and Occupy Wall Street, but the notion is universal. To start a journey toward universal love for all, individuals must start at the particular, with a like-minded tribe who will affirm them, empower them, change them and enable movement, together. This is “philia,” this is solidarity through friendship in the face of fear. It creates the space to ask the question: “What exactly are we really afraid of?,” fighting alienation with connection.
This past Tuesday, as I sat at our World AIDS Day vigil and listened to our own community’s stories, I was reminded of the tension that lies at the root of such an event. It’s simultaneously a time of mourning, of remembrance, as well as a shot in the arm, a regathering and recalibrating for the remainder of the fight in a time when many have forgotten about the epidemic. The stories are told, the prayers are prayed because they are an imperative part of the vigilant movement that must continue the moment the vigil ends. We remember that, at the height of the last outbreak, friendships reached across fear, asked, “What exactly are we afraid of?” and used the answers to fight, tooth and nail, for legislative change.
The World AIDS Day service reminded me of something else as well. I grew up in a generation terrified of AIDS, just before it started to seem like a thing of the past. When I came out to my mother the first thing she said to me was, “Be careful.” Then she told me she loved me. I have always lived in fear of HIV. So, a few years ago, when I had a very, very real reason to think I had contracted the virus, I went to get a Rapid Test, feeling very, very alone. When I arrived, the scene was the opposite of what I wanted. The woman administering tests was bouncing around, loud and boisterous, talking at the top of her lungs, seemingly paying no attention to the somber environment I’d decided I needed.
When she finally pulled me in to administer my test, the procedure began as expected: I held out my hand, she held it with one of hers, she placed the needle close to my finger. Then, she stopped. She put her other hand over mine and motioned for me to look her in the face. I reluctantly looked up and she held eye contact. Then, squeezing my hand with both of hers, she completely changed her demeanor and quietly said, “Whatever this is, I got you.” She didn’t give me boring platitudes about how I, of course, didn’t have the virus. She didn’t pray for me to not have it. She simply reassured me that I wasn’t alone, that we could move together, no matter what the results were.
That’s what I basically think Elizabeth is saying to Mary: “Whatever this is, I got you.” That’s basically all we can offer when we’re preaching to the choir. But it’s a necessary first step to preaching outside the choir. “Philia” calls us to reach across fear to those with whom we immediately connect. “Agape” calls us to investigate that fear and then reach beyond that fear.
Alienation lies at the root of terror and violence. Indifference and weapons enable it. Whether it’s a loner stepping into a church or Planned Parenthood and opening fire, or a couple building an arsenal to pick off a group of co-workers, it’s the lethal combination of alienation and weapons and indifference that connects the incidents. Alienation is the opposite of “philia,” the opposite of friendship and connection, and, if left to fester, alienation fills the space where “agape” could have been, leaving only fake substitutions for connection, whether that be through the promises of a radical terrorist group or through the chattering demons in one’s own head, both of which preach fear over love, violence over outreach. Alienation gives fear nowhere to go. If “philia” is not felt and not offered, and when that’s combined with our current access to weapons, fear putrefies, violence erupts. Without connection, we stop thinking of people as people and start thinking of them as obstacles to getting what we fear we need.
So we actually ritualize “philia” here at Judson and aim for “agape.” And, if our individual prayers call us to ask ourselves, “What exactly am I afraid of?,” and if we pray in a space where each of us is doing that, the alchemy of our answers might just move this ritual into something wholly new. Whatever that is, I got you.
For Your Meditation:“She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ancient Testimony, Luke 39-45In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this Ancient Testimony continued happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”