Politics of the Soul
In the small Episcopal parish church in Boston where I serve, there is a stained glass image – an apse window rising up behind the altar – that startles me every time. I’ve been in many churches – Anglican, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, Eastern Orthodox, monastic, and non-denominational. I’m used to seeing images of Jesus crucified, hanging on a wooden stick, sometimes with chubby cherubim in happy attendance, or as a plainclothes shepherd holding a crook in one hand and a restless lamb in the other.
This image of Christ is different. It shouts welcome. Jesus stands in colorful garb holding out bread and cup. It towers over the whole community, and when I preside at the altar, this Christ literally has my back.
Even more astonishing than its beauty is its politics, a politics I’d been searching for since childhood. By politics I do not mean elections and party platforms. I mean something deeper: the politics of the soul.
Soul politics energizes people to interact with each other in respectful ways, to value all living things, and to argue when necessary for common truth. Such politics compels us to stand back and get perspective, the way impressionist art invites us to step back just to see what is pictured.
God Under a Table
When I was three years old, I met God under a huge dining table where I sought refuge from my parents’ eternal cocktail hour and the reign of the omnipotent martini glass. I snitched Ritz crackers from the tray and crawled under the table, where I lined up my crackers on the cross beams and settled crosslegged on the worn maroon carpet. There I chattered and lamented to my three imaginary friends and a fourth friend called God. I’d heard of God from my mother who’d told me I was a gift from God. In my favorite book at the time, The Little Book About God by Lauren Ford (Doubleday, 1934), God was pictured sitting in a lovely garden listening and cataloguing all the sounds of earth with care – even a toddler’s tiny sounds like mine. Unlike my inattentive disruptive imaginary friends, God listened – and I mattered.
This early experience was foundational to my Christian formation – the first stirrings of divine welcome and care. I was important to this God, and so was everybody else.
Christian religion has something to contribute to the shaping of soul politics. It’s not a PAC, not a caucus or program, not money, not best intentions, not even preaching or prayer or beauty. It’s a doctrine and a practice, and both are elemental to the health of the polis. The doctrine is Incarnation. The practice is Eucharist.
Incarnation: Divinity animates all living things. Years after I’d graduated from Yale Divinity School, I got in touch with some of my former refectory buddies to ask one question. In seminary, we ate lunch together, swapped favorite heresies, giggled and fretted our way through mysteries we solved one day and dissolved the next. My question now: Which Christian idea is more difficult for you to believe, Incarnation or Resurrection? Incarnation, they all said. To imagine God in one’s own flesh was, well, too scary.
Incarnation is a magnificent and scary idea when you let it get under your skin. To me, it is the only idea that provides hope enough for what Judaism calls tikkun olam, mending the world – in an era so embattled by violence, discontent, pollution, and political bile. What if it’s true that we all are incarnate?
Reservation Not Required
If soul politics is undergirded by Incarnation, it is equally strengthened by Eucharist. In its simplest form Eucharistic practice is a community meal. Theologically, it is a sacramental ritual through which divine grace is communicated to all who come to the table. In many restaurants you need a reservation to secure your table. At the table of Eucharist no reservation is required.
Over many years I have presided at Eucharist in congregational settings. At the altar, I am a priest but also a communicant, experiencing this meal in three profound ways. It provides radical, almost implausible hospitality – open to all who desire to eat. It discloses radical justice – everyone gets the same, no more or less, a miracle of distributive economics. And it offers radical intimacy – the sharing of body and blood. The Eucharist is as good an enactment of God’s nature and politics as I can imagine.
In Sunday school I’d memorized many words for God, yet the only one that my early experience confirmed time and again was Omnipresence. It stuck, later reinforced by Eucharist and Incarnation – which are given not just for me, as it turned out, but for every living thing everywhere in this travailing cosmos. This is no abstraction. We can discern it in our scriptures. We can honor it by adjusting our behavior, our talk and walk. We can teach, preach, write it.
And we can loosen it from its strictly Christian history in order to expand it. One does not have to be a Christian to be a christ. That’s a hopeful politics – the soul kind.
I imagine every creed, even the secular sort or the none kind, has at heart the same idea and practice, the same impulse. If we scrape away the cultural, linguistic, and religious details from our different perspectives, we will discover that we hold something precious in common: the idea of divine goodness omnipresent within and among us.
To seek and find such commonality will mean lots of honest and soul-stretching conversations – and lots of shared meals. Such conversations will likely be much more difficult than fighting over our cozy, isolating ideologies, which are the disastrous opposite of soul politics. Risking connection takes more courage than shouting in place – or hiding in place.
Can you imagine a world in which all of us see ourselves and each other as incarnate? In American politics we embody pluralism and claim to value diversity, yet we seem to have no idea right now how to use our diversity to shape our politics in a positive way. Our democratic ideals become empty, giving us cause to hate and fight. The doctrine of Incarnation grants us freedom from the fear of diversity. It tells us we share a soul politics beneath the incessant pluralism and invites us to imagine a more open communion and community.
If we do not love the God of life in all things for all its worth, it will be worth nothing to anyone.
Lyn G. Brakeman ’82 M.Div. is a retired Episcopal priest in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of a new memoir, God Is Not A Boy’s Name: Becoming Woman, Becoming Priest (Cascade Books, 2016). She ministers as a spiritual director and parish priest associate and blogs at spirituallemons.blogspot.com.