So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.Ephesians 2:19-22
Although today’s reading from Ephesians is a very familiar one, we might ask ourselves to pause for a moment and attend to why it is that Paul or one of his disciples characterizes our membership in the church as that of “citizen.” This is, of course, in part because the author of Ephesians is asserting that Gentiles are no longer strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens in the church. As citizens, they have all the privileges and advantages of every other member of “the household of God.”
To be a citizen is to have the protection, rights, and privileges of the state, but it is also to have a degree of responsibility to and for the common good in that state. In the course of my lifetime, I have been fascinated by the diminished use of the term “citizen” to describe the inhabitants of the United States, for example. The term is almost completely absent from the discourse of our political campaigns as each candidate seeks to outdo the other in how much more he or she, if elected, will give to the voter.
In his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin marveled at their result, given the diversity of the assembled group. He noted: “…when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” Yet, Franklin saw in the document the best result that one could have hoped for. It is said that after the convention Franklin was asked by a group of citizens what sort of government the delegates had created. His oft-quoted answer was “a republic if you can keep it.” It is so difficult to keep a republic, or a church for that matter, because to assemble people is to assemble with them their prejudices, passions, errors, myopia, and selfishness. One answer to this difficult problem is monarchy, patriarchy, and hierarchy. These forms of governance require primarily submission rather than disagreement and passivity rather than responsibility on the part of the members. As Franklin implies, a republic, on the other hand, requires responsible citizenship.
Yesterday I listened to an Open Source podcast on “Monopoly vs. Democracy.” In it the question was posed: “Do we want democracy or two-day shipping?” Although admittedly somewhat glib, the question is perhaps the most salient one of our political time. We are losing, or perhaps have already lost, our republic to plutocracy. This did not happen by violent revolution but rather by an ever-growing hedonism and passivity leading to the abrogation of responsibility and citizenship. Political campaigns are no longer, if in truth they ever were, moments of appraisal and discernment of our civic direction and so personal and shared civic responsibility. They are rather a competition for who can deceitfully promise the most gratification to the largest number of people without making any demands in return. Of course, the truth is there are plenty of demands, but they are mostly unstated. They are demands to continue to be victimized by the greed of the few, a greed that has not only created some of the greatest inequality in history but has also brought our very planet to the point of extinction. For Abraham Lincoln it was the sacrifice of the soldiers at Gettysburg that was the guarantor of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet, today their death does seem to have been “in vain,” as for the most part we experience government of the wealthiest, by the wealthiest, and for the wealthiest.
Similarly, we are also citizens of a church in crisis. Excepting a very brief moment in the mid 20th century during and briefly after the Second Vatican Council, the vision of the church for much of its history has been of masters and servants, of shepherds and sheep. The institution has tended for a long time to forget that “Christ Jesus himself is the capstone.” No person or persons alone are to take his place. The rest of us are “citizens” of the “household of God.” Yesterday in Rome the Synod of Bishops of the Amazon concluded. In his homily, Pope Francis powerfully addressed the disregard for the persons and voices of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
While the prayer of those who presume that they are righteous remains earthly, crushed by the gravitational force of egoism,that of the poor person rises directly to God. The sense of faith of the People of God has seen in the poor ‘the gatekeepers of heaven:’ they are the ones who will open wide or not the gates of eternal life. They were not considered bosses in this life, they did not put themselves ahead of others; they had their wealth in God alone. Let us pray for the grace to be able to listen to the cry of the poor. This is the cry of hope of the Church. When we make their cry our own, our prayer too will reach to the clouds.
In faith, we believe that the church is “the household of God,” even when its public face betrays that. It is the voice of those in authority, of the chosen leaders, that we ordinarily take to be the “voice” of the church. But Pope Francis says that we hear the voice of the Church when we hear the voices of the poor. They are the true “citizens” of God’s household; it is in them that the Church is “being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. The Amazon and the earth itself is in flames due to the “gravitational force of egoism” of the self-righteous. While the church of the arrogant and the proud is imploding, the Church of the poor remains rooted in love and grounded in faith. Pope Francis says it is the poor who are the “gatekeepers of heaven.” What Pope Francis teaches us, in word and action, is that it is time for those who have held the power to shut up and to listen to the voices of the poor. We, the affluent and powerful, those who presume ourselves wiser and privileged, are to look again that we might recognize those we have disregarded as “no longer strangers and sojourners, but . . . fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.”
For Francis to call the poor, the disregarded, the disrespected peoples of the earth “the gatekeepers” is meant, for certain, to startle us into realizing the truth of Jesus’ teaching. For, Jesus tells us, he is the gate. It is the poor and the disregarded who keep the gate. It is only in them that we can pass through it. Francis does not say the Pope is the gatekeeper, or the college of bishops, or the theologians and superiors. It is the poor who keep the gate, Jesus himself, alive among us. Pope Francis is teaching what it means to be a leader by creating a space where the true citizens of the Church can be heard. It is the Lord in them who “will teach us the way we should go” (Psalm 32:8).
We live, hopefully, with a somewhat deeper understanding of human consciousness and the evolution of creation that did the author of Ephesians or the drafters of the Constitution of the United States. We realize that whenever we gather persons (no longer just men) to achieve the benefit of their wisdom, we inevitably gather their prejudices, passions, errors, myopia and selfishness. And yet, we also know that there is, in truth, a wisdom and potential discernment that can only come out of a sense of shared and equal citizenship. If there is a “way out” of the dissolution we are experiencing in ecclesial and civic society, it must lie in the voices that have been and are continuing to be disregarded. Obviously the voices of entitlement, privilege, wealth, and power have nothing more to offer us except more of the same. The Wisdom we crave is that of the Lord, the gate. Today, perhaps as always, the keepers of that gate are those who are poor and oppressed, who have been marginalized and silenced.
What looks like destruction to us, might it be God’s finally silencing the dominant voices that have brought us to where we are? In the silence of the institutional collapse, are we being given the space to recognize our responsibility as citizens? Because we live so strongly from the functional dimension of our personality, spiritual or transcendent directives can seem naive or meaningless in our reduced version of reality we tend to call the real world. Nothing can seem more unrealistic or impossible to us than hearing the voices of those we have disregarded even oppressed. For, whenever we as human persons consider ourselves superior to others, we shall inevitably oppress them. We have heard how some in the church with power are so upset at Pope Francis and at those whose voices they see as disruptive and heretical. Francis, however, insists that it is these marginal voices that are keeping alive the life of Jesus at the heart of things. When church and culture begin to choke on their own prejudiced, erroneous, myopic, and selfish definitions of “reality,” however, perhaps it is time to look and to listen at that which has been marginalized and disregarded. It is our certainties that block out our access to the Mystery. If we dare to see the moment with all the desperation it contains, we might, even in the limitations of our own passions and selfishness, recognize our need for those whose truth we have so long ignored.
I want you all to look around and find someone you don’t know. Maybe someone who doesn’t look kind of like you, maybe somebody who might be of a different religion than you, maybe they come from a different country. My question to you now is are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you are willing to fight for yourself? Are you willing to stand together and fight for those people who are struggling economically in this country? Are you willing to fight for young people drowning in student debt even if you are not? Are you willing to fight to ensure that every American has healthcare as a human right even if you have good healthcare? Are you willing to fight for frightened immigrant neighbors even if you are native born? Are you willing to fight for a future for generations of people who have not even been born but are entitled to live on a planet that is healthy and habitable? Because if you are willing to do that, if you are willing to love, if you are willing to fight for a government of compassion and justice and decency, if you are willing to stand up to Trump’s desire to divide us up, if you are prepared to stand up to the greed and corruption of the corporate elite, if you and millions of others are prepared to do that, there is no doubt in my mind that not only will we win this election but together we will transform this country.Sen. Bernie Sanders, October 19, 2019