A Sacred Circle

As I was getting ready to fly back to Iowa a few weeks ago, I made a trip to my local library to find some good reading material for the plane.  As I usually do, I headed first to the New Books section to see if anything strikes my fancy.  This time I discovered an interesting book by Arlie Russell Hochschild.


Ms. Hochschild is a sociologist and a liberal out of Berkeley, California; and she went to the heart of conservative Louisiana to try to understand the mindset of Tea Party conservative supporters of Donald Trump.


In the process, she discovered what she calls their “Deep Story.”  In other words, it’s the story that underlies their understanding of themselves and their world.  And their Deep Story is this:


You are standing in a long line heading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who, like yourself, are white, older, Christian, and predominantly male.


Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of every one waiting in line.  Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old.  It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well.  Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving.  You deserve to move forward a little faster.  You’re patient but weary.  You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill.


You’re a positive person.  You’re not a complainer.  You count your blessings.  But the line isn’t moving.  And after all your intense effort, all your sacrifice, you’re beginning to feel stuck.


Now there are people cutting in line ahead of you.  You’re following the rules.  They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back.  It’s not fair.  [And you’re angry.][1]


I know a man who probably would see himself in that story.  He’s not from Louisiana.  He’s not even from the U.S.  He never heard of the American Dream, but still, this was his story.


His name is Paul, and he was from a place in the Middle East called Tarsus.  He had followed the rules.  He had studied the law.  He knew what God expected of Paul and what would be the consequences of failure to conform.  He had invested a lot of time and emotional energy into preserving and promoting his cultural heritage. 


But then something happened.  Call it a paradigm shift. Call it a cultural revolution.  Paul probably would have called it apostasy or heresy.  Whatever label you want to apply, Paul felt the ground crumble under his feet.  His foundations were being shaken.  Those followers of Jesus were challenging his Deep Story.  They were challenging his very identity.  And he was angry.


To preserve his place in line, he sought the authority to hunt down and arrest these “trouble makers.”[2]  He even stood by as one of these “radicals” was killed by a mob.[3]


In many ways, the white supremacists in Charlottesville, the armed Neo-Nazis standing outside the front door of Charlottesville’s Temple Beth Israel, and particularly the Ohio man who drove into the counter-demonstrators killing one woman and injuring 19 others; all of these are as hate-filled, as Non-Christian (even Anti-Christian) as Paul at his worst.


Such hate, such racism, such attempts at intimidation, deserves to be condemned from every Christian pulpit and from every American politician.  White Supremacist Neo-Nazi hate is not Christian and it is not American. 


And here, let me take a momentary side-track.  I feel the need to respond to our President and to his supporters that justify extremism on the right by saying there is equal extremism on the left.  Well, the simple truth is that they are not equal.


According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League, of at least 372 murders that were committed by domestic extremists between 2007 and 2016, 74 percent were committed by right-wing extremists. Muslim extremists were responsible for 24 percent of those killings, and the small remainder (2 percent) were committed by left-wing extremists.[4]


Even seven deaths by left-wing extremists in a ten year period is too many; but to use that to excuse more than 27 deaths per year by right-wing extremists in inexcusable.


Rather, it seems to me, that White Supremacist Neo-Nazi hatred and violence must be acknowledged as the extreme extension of the Deep Story Ms. Hochschild discovered in Louisiana.


But there is another Deep Story, a story shared by many of us who call ourselves “Liberals.”


In this story, the people are not standing in line but are standing in a circle holding hands.  It’s a circle made up of people of every color and ethnic background.  The circle surrounds a park where we all share together in a huge potluck picnic.  It surrounds a free library which we support with our taxes.  It’s a circle where we all succeed or fail together.  It’s a circle where we care for the sick, the lonely, and the down-trodden; and where we know there are others who care for us as we share our joys and our sorrows.


And the really beautiful thing about a circle is that it only gets bigger and better when we make room for someone new.  No one ever loses their place by welcoming in someone else.


Paul of Tarsus was bitter.  He was a hater.  He felt he must be condemned by God because, no matter how dedicated and committed he was, it was never enough.  Paul was part of the line and not part of the circle.  He “was” (past tense).


But then Paul was confronted by Christ.  He was overwhelmed by grace.  He discovered a loving God.  He discovered a generous God.  He discovered a God of mercy.


Paul hated everything Jesus stood for, but still found himself accepted (loved) by Christ.  Paul had persecuted and tried to kill the young church, but then he found himself called to expand that church into new lands and even into the previously despised Gentile community.  Paul admitted he was unworthy to be an apostle.  He was there only because of God’s mercy and God’s grace.


Writing to the church in Rome, Paul proclaimed God’s mercy when he wrote:

For God does not change his mind about whom he chooses and blesses.  As for you Gentiles, you disobeyed God in the past; but now you have received God's mercy because the Jews were disobedient.  In the same way, because of the mercy that you have received, the Jews now disobey God, in order that they also may now receive God's mercy.  [Romans 11:29-31 gnt]


We are flawed, selfish, disobedient people, unworthy of God’s love.   But God is merciful.  God loves us anyhow.


Linda Petrucelli, a United Church of Christ Minister in New York City tells the story about growing up in a strict Catholic school.  One day, Sister Mary Roberts Cecellia preached to the children at the school, telling them that everyone, everyone including and especially Lutherans and Episcopalians who were not Catholics, were going to hell.


That afternoon, when Linda returned home, her mother asked her a usual question, “What are you thankful for today, dear?  Linda answered, “Today I am thankful that Sister Mary Roberts Cecellia is not God.”[5]


If the choice is between standing in line and seeing everyone else as a competitor and threat; or standing in a circle and seeing others as partners in the common good; then I choose the circle.


If the choice is either the closed fist of combat or the open hand of friendship, then I choose friendship.


If the choice is either to hate and fear or to show Christian mercy, then I choose mercy.


In the words of William Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is … twice blessed; it blesses him that gives and him that receives.”[6]


[1] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, p. 136 (abridged)

[2] Acts 9:1-2

[3] Acts 7:54-8:1a

[4] Murder and Extremism in the United States, an Anti-Defamation League Report

[5] William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 1, p. 50

[6] Wm. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, IV,i,184