It was the sort of call I suspect most pastor's get, though I feel certain progressive pastors get more than their fair share... an anonymous caller quizzing me on our church position on women's reproductive rights, though he did not use those words. Nope. He just came right out with the “A” word.
I'm sure he didn't like my answer. As a congregational church, we don't use a top down model, no man speaking for God to dictate our position. If we have not sat around, praying, studying scripture, discerning God's will, and then voting on a subject, we simply don't have an official position.
To be sure, I informed the caller, a theologically progressive congregation tends to have socially progressive members, so most members are no doubt pro-choice. And then, as mysterious as the call itself, he was gone.
The caller wanted to essentialize my congregation's belief, to reduce it to a soundbite-sized statement.
The result was disappointing, but we humans do this all the time. Trying to reduce complex subjects to a simple binary, a right vs. a wrong, is in our nature.
If the caller has asked about my position on reproductive rights, he'd have been even more confused, for I am at once both pro-choice and pro- life. I'm pro-choice if it means that as a man I don't believe I have a right to tell women what to do with their bodies, even if I find abortion as routine birth-control morally questionable. I'm pro-life if it means I oppose the death penalty and support universal healthcare.
We try to tell essentialized stories of our religious traditions, though no tradition has ever been reducible to a single form. There were multiples form of the Hebrew tradition by the first century, one of which grew into Rabbinic Judaism, though other forms have survived.
Another form morphed into Christianity, though there have always been multiple Christianities. Diversity of belief, even contradictions of belief, were hard-coded into the canon of scripture, as the followers of Jesus scattered into numerous churches. There was never a single church, despite the myths we like to tell ourselves.
The stories of the four patriarchs that refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the fifth are seldom told, but still true, and still real in churches from the great Orthodox basilicas to the small Coptic Churches of northeast Africa.
The American story has been essentialized repeatedly. The land of freedom wasn't for African slaves, impoverished indentured servants, indigenous peoples, women. The land of opportunity has always been a fertile ground for exploitation and fraud. Many of the largest fortunes were built through brutal means, crushing spirits, and sometimes bodies.
It is even our tendency to essentialize the story of our beautiful little hamlet. Sayville, a diamond on the Great South Bay, is two villages, with multi-generation families and a gentrifying new population, attracted to the excellent school system.
As an outsider to both groups, I am often keenly aware of these dual tracks. When my congregation started the process that created Having Friends INN, I am told locals said there was no hunger in Sayville. A nice story, but not true.
Today, in economically tough times, there is no doubt even more hunger, though the ways we deliver assistance are inaccessible to anyone who isn't willing to sacrifice their dignity. Our forms of charity are often anything but charitable.
And in our quaint beautiful hamlet, we have a drug problem. Not kids smoking doobies behind the bleachers, because quite frankly, I was no angel as a teen, so I can't throw stones. What we have is a heroin problem. And it's not just off in those poor center island communities. It's right here in Sayville, with deals going down in Gillette Park, in the same place 10-year-olds play ball.
There is no truth in our essentialized identities, as comforting as they may be. What is essential is action to save a generation that has lost hope, that faces crushing debt and no economic opportunity.
It is essential that we dig deep, find our better selves, and lead our young adults to a productive future where they can live into their potential.