Can the Episcopal Church Help Heal the Nation?

By | January 17, 2021
Can The Episcopal Church Help Heal the Nation?Pin

Okay, I admit. It sounds improbable. But hear me out.

For several years, the Episcopal church has talked about the need for racial reconciliation. And even as it does so, we now have some saying that there needs to be reconciliation following the coup attempt at the US Capitol.

But both the Episcopal church and those who urge political reconciliation miss the importance of accountability and making reparation as essential parts of the healing process.

Perhaps, as the Episcopal church brings its witness to bear in the political arena, and in race relations, it will have the opportunity both to think through its theology of forgiveness, and to perhaps improve it. And in so doing, perhaps we will finally see the Episcopal Church actually make progress on its stated goals of further social justice and racial reconciliation.

We can only hope.

The Perils of Universalism

One of the challenges, I suspect, is that many in the Episcopal Church are, for practical purposes, universalists who do not believe in a literal heaven or hell.

So what does that mean for the theology of forgiveness?

It means that, with little notion of divine judgment, there’s often little notion of earthly judgment. Or accountability, for that matter.

Instead, the emphasis becomes on maintaining the church as an organization, maintaining relationships within the church, protecting the status quo, or protecting the privilege associated with unbridled clericalism.

As a result, far too many Episcopalians, including bishops, clergy, and denominational officials, de facto view accountability as the opposite of forgiveness.

But can a church, or a relationship, be healthy if the underlying offense is brushed aside? If someone tries to shut down the discussion that needs to happen with, “How can we move on?”

I think the answer is no.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the question in 1967 when, standing outside a prison where protestors against the Viet Nam war were being held, he said, “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”

Dr. King’s experience mirrors that of South Africa and other areas that have sought to move past intense hatred and conflict. In those situations, peacemakers have consistently found that healing and reconciliation requires truth telling and accountability.

Why Can’t He Just Move On?

Why We Can’t Just Move on From Donald TrumpPinMy experience with conflict in the church is that demands to “move on” are all too common when doing so would let the other side off the hook.

In other words, it’s all too often a hit-and-run tactic used by those who behave badly to try to extricate themselves from the mess they created.

Or the offender may try the line, “But I apologized.”

But many apologies in the church are fauxpologies, intended not to heal, but instead to shut down open conflict. When that happens, the conflict doesn’t end—it simply goes underground, where it festers and rots relationships and the church from within.

Of course, that’s not to say that a sincere apology isn’t a good starting point. A sincere apology, in which the offender tries to place himself in the position of the person or organization he has hurt, can lead to a deeper, more meaningful conversation.  But assuming that healing or reconciliation will occur solely on the basis of an apology is nothing but cheap grace. And as a practical matter, it’s unlikely, without sincere efforts to address the underlying root issues, to work in real life.

Restitution and Reparation

In addition to truth telling and an apology, restitution and reparation are vital. That is not only a biblical requirement, but its an essential component of restorative justice. In the latter, injury typically is perceived as creating an obligation to the injured party. When that obligation is fulfilled, it releases the victim from the negative power of the injury they have suffered, while freeing the perpetrator from his obligation to the victim.

In short, restitution helps both the perpetrator and the victim actually move on, versus  “moving on” in the sense of walking away from the conflict. It brings closure, healing, and recovery. It addresses the “things left undone” part of the Book of Common Prayer’s confession.

Civil Society, Race, and Reconciliation

So what does all this have to do with the coup attempt?

Anglican Watch tries to steer clear of partisan politics. But at the same time, we don’t make any effort to hide the blog’s progressive perspective. And given the dire situation facing American society, it seems appropriate to wade at least into some aspects of the recent events at the US Capitol.

Most notably, we see demands, primarily from the GOP, to not proceed with impeachment on the basis that doing so will prevent healing.

But as we saw above, healing is all but impossible without truthtelling, accountability, and restitution. In short, “healing” without these things is not healing at all, but further trauma in the form of repressing legitimate anger and hurt, as well as a sense of betrayal. And while we cannot open windows into the hearts of men, it appears Trump’s actions have hurt persons on both sides of the aisle.

So what might truthtelling and restitution look like?

First, we need to see Donald Trump, or failing him, the GOP leadership, tell the truth. That includes saying, without hesitation or equivocation, that:

  1. The election was not stolen.
  2. There is no Q-Anon conspiracy. No pedophiles, no rapture in which Donald Trump frees the country from control by secret elites
  3. The Trump administration’s policies of xenophobia, racism and hatred are wrong and unacceptable.
  4. The coup attempt was illegal and immoral.
  5. The Trump administration bollixed its response to the pandemic.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

It may also be time for leaders on both sides of the aisle to band together to form a truth and reconciliation commission.

Such a group could draw on the collective wisdom and skills of past presidents of both parties, as well as the past members of similar commissions, to not only issue a Warren Commission-style report, but to go one step further by inviting stakeholders into further discussion.

In that regard, the Episcopal Church, if it clearly states that it is not going to lobby for cheap grace and an easy exit for the president, could play an important role in furthering the discussion. Certainly, the denomination has both the physical assets, like the National Cathedral, often proclaimed as a “house of prayer for all people,” as well as the convening power. Indeed, the Bush family is Episcopal, as are several key former members of Congress. And all sides recognize that influence, as evinced by Trump’s tragic photo op in front of St. John’s Lafayette Square.

To be sure, telling the truth would end Trump’s relationship with his base. But that’s not a bad thing. And his current base — which is heavily populated with Q-Anon conspiracy theorists and other marginal characters — should not be preserved solely in order to provide Trump with future access to the levers of power.

And while telling the truth likely would end the possibility of a second term for Trump, it would defang calls for an impeachment. Plus it is the one thing that could really end the nation’s current wave of hatred, conflict, and suffering.

In other words, it would be both the patriotic and the Christian thing to do.

Perhaps we can even hope that the Episcopal church might take a closer look at its own theology and help further the difficult conversations that need to occur.

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