The Northern California clergy I know are in trouble. On the one hand, most feel deeply disturbed about American attacks on foreign countries, the proposed defunding of programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency, threats to the Affordable Care Act, a new climate of incivility in public discourse and spiteful treatment of immigrants. They are speaking up for the poor and mistreated.
At the same time, clergy recognize that the pulpit is not the place to work out their own issues. They also serve churches with a diversity of political views. In this divisive environment, where politics has become more about identity than particular policies, many have heard a parishioner say, “This just doesn’t feel like my church anymore.”
This is not such a recent development. A 2014 Pew Study found that the most politically engaged Americans saw those in the “other party” not just as wrong but as, “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild studied Tea Party activists in Louisiana and coined the term “empathy wall” to describe the obstacles to a deep understanding of another person that “make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs” or grew up in a different setting.
Communities further away from our city centers have a greater diversity of political views and suffer more from our growing empathy walls. A priest from Contra Costa County spoke about tensions in her community, where 30 languages are spoken in the public schools and two-hour commutes are not unusual. For her divided church, she offered a Lenten series to heal the community. She began with people talking about where they grew up rather than who they voted for.
Another local minister spoke to his congregation about the difference between anger and contempt. He asked them to give up contempt for Lent, to avoid both snarky media and dismissive thinking.
Today, more than a billion Christians will celebrate Easter in massive ornate cathedrals, in small mud-brick country churches, in hospitals and outside. It is the holiest feast of the year when, in the words of the theologian Karl Barth, the followers of Jesus who had lost him in death were sought and found by him as the resurrected one. It is the ritual observance of the Christian experience of being delivered from death by the power of God. It is beyond merely resistance to an unjust political order — it is the genuine hope of new life in God.
Every week, various churches offer a glimpse of this. Social scientists have even found that regular religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, a 30 percent lower incidence of depression, a five-fold lower rate of suicide, better survival from cancer and what they describe as “numerous other positive outcomes.”
These health benefits are not associated with a particular belief or private spiritual practice but with the communal experience of participating in worship. Poet Robert Frost may have been correct in writing, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …”
Perhaps the clergy I know are not so much in trouble as they are being challenged to define what is really important and to gather people together for action. They share responsibility for our society’s religious communities, those uniquely heroic and healing places where people are transformed by love.
This Eastertide, we need to move beyond our narrow sense of political identity. We need to stand up for the vulnerable and seek opportunities to replace our empathy walls with empathy bridges.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.