I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus and about why it’s so difficult for members of Congress to follow Him.
Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s new book, “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” states:
“One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier - ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”
Surely this doesn’t describe a group engaged in Jesus-like behavior. To me, this instead screams “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” a sentiment often attributed to Vince Lombardi, but uttered first by UCLA Bruins coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders.
This seems like governance conducted as though it were a winnable game. Has our largely Christian, Republican-dominated Congress really sunk to this?
Has Jesus become the Gipper?
I recently met a young Methodist-ministry candidate-turned-graduate student/blogger, Kelly Figueroa Ray, who got me thinking about why a lot of those powerful, privileged people in Congress appear to be ditching the teachings of Jesus in addressing the needs of poor Americans. (Or at least the Jesus who regularly chastised the rich and powerful for being rich and powerful. After all, Paul Ryan did say his Catholic faith directly influenced his budget. So maybe there’s a different guy named Jesus out there in history who preached trickle-down economics.)
Kelly Figueroa-Ray is a graduate research assistant with The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. “The meaning of Scripture,” Kelly tells me, “becomes how you act because of your engagement with it.”
This thirty-four year old began life in California as a child of privilege. Her mother is a lawyer; her father, a neurosurgeon; both were non-practicing Unitarians. Mother and father dropped 14-year-old Kelly off at a local Methodist church offering interesting youth activities, thinking she might find some nice, neighborhood friends.
Which she did. But she also found Jesus. Not in any shouting way, but in a life-informing, rigorous, demanding way. Kelly went on to U.C. Berkeley planning to be a scientist, but a C- in organic Chemistry put the kibosh on that, so she switched to development studies of third world countries. This her to Wesley Theological Seminary, which led to immersion experiences in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Peru, and Mexico; places where a lot of her social assumptions as a rich American were useless. It yanked her, she says, out of her comfort zone.
During seminary, Kelly, did her practical ministerial internship at First Methodist Church at Hyattsville, Maryland, which during the days of segregation had been all white. So white, Kelly says, that when Martin Luther King died, a member of the congregation stood up in church and voiced approval.
Then in 1998, the Rev. Vance P. Ross (who is black) arrived, followed by Rev. Dr. Miguel Balderas (from San Agustín Zapotlán, Hidalgo, Mexico), followed in 2003 by Figueroa-Ray, as one of their new student ministerial interns. Over time, the formerly all-white church became a thriving, growing, multi-cultural community, gathered together by the sheer narrative power of the Scriptures.
What I think Christian congresspeople need to learn from Kelly’s story is what she learned from living it: You cannot help people without first valuing their cultural context.
In her own words:
“When you come from where I come from you are told you can do anything and everything. I really believed that. I mean, I was a white, amazing person - who better than I was equipped to go help people who need people. I made many mistakes before I was able to see how much I hurt people because I don’t listen. Or because I think I know better. Or that I can run a meeting better.”
“Every time things didn’t work out I’d be shocked. Then gradually, I came to value the idea of submission, of shutting down my own ego, leaving my comfort zone, and listening to learn. I recognize that this is not a popular concept. And, please, I’m not talking about women submitting to men. What I’m talking about is people who are in power, if they do not exercise submission, they are probably hurting people.”
Congress is full of Christians who, from a safe, comfortable position of arrogant remove, ponder the needs of poor people who live very different lives. Or at least who say that’s what they’re pondering. In the meantime the rich - and members of Congress - get richer, and the rest of us get poorer.
Where’s Jesus in all of this?
Just as there’s no crying allowed in baseball, there’s no hunkering down in one’s comfort zone allowed in following Jesus. Living one’s faith has nothing to do with the ego-satisfying experience of imposing your own ideas on others without having to live with the consequences.
Martha’s note: This essay is a feature of Faith Unboxed, an ongoing, civil, respectful conversation about faith I invite you to participate by sharing your own ideas and experiences (either here or on the Web site), rather than by denigrating the ideas and experiences of others.