Agree in What You Say (even if it includes dissent)©
Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
So now’s the time of year to settle in between the seasons of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and of Lent-Easter-Pentecost; time for us northerners to get through the rest of winter. This is the time for drawing closer to the fire (figuratively speaking as that may be) and pondering while the cold outside blows against the house. In that spirit of pondering, I would like to consider inclusion from the side of dissent. And that takes some time and focus, so let’s ponder away. In today’s passage from 1st Corinthians St. Paul invites his readers to “agree in what you say.” I interpret this invitation as one to step off on the journey of growth, expansion, and inclusion. And, may I add, sometimes dissent or disagreeing is the path to the wider embrace of the Message of Jesus.
We will be hearing a lot from 1st Corinthians over the next 6 weeks. So, I thought it might be helpful to take a close look right from the start – to distill down to the basics as it were. Paul encourages his readers to “agree in what you say.” Agree is a word easily read and heard, as well as overlooked. I mean, it’s not a faith-filled word like, well, Faith, Hope, and Charity; not a theological term like Trinity or Creator or Redeemer. But it stands out for me in these 5 verses from Corinthians which we heard today. (1 Cor 10-13,17) In fact, there are just three phrases that really stand out for me from all the words of these verses. They are: Agree to preach the gospel of the cross of Christ.
Now, to agree does stand out. Let’s think about what it means to agree. It occurs to me – if you will pardon my binary way of thinking – that one of two things occurs when we humans agree, that is, in a purpose-driven way of thinking. One way to agree is to limit what we agree upon. This is the way of closely defined principles and narrowly decided ways to act. It’s the way, so I have read, of the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI. He was known to have supported the idea that what the Roman Church needed was clearly defined rules and actions which favored shrinking church membership to those who would thus agree to become the “real Catholics.” That’s one way to agree.
A second way is to expand what is agreed upon. This is the less clarified yet more widely embracing way to include. This way may be said to keep a closer eye on the prize and not so much on the specific ways to achieve it. This second way may be more tolerant of differences and dissent; it may even regard dissent as a sign of health in the community, a cautionary way that checks those who are and who – in their conviction – must be certain and in control.
I, like many of you, am familiar with dissent, likely as one who dissents. My familiarity, though, includes being the object of disagreement and dissent. It’s a story that I have told before, but I think it helps to consider dissent as a positive way to inclusion; a way for those who regard the cross of Christ as a universal sign of witness to the Message of Jesus.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was assigned to my first parish immediately following my ordination. When word of my impending arrival got to certain members of the parish, including the Parish Council President, it caused a great stir in the land. You see, these parishioners had read the articles that I had written against the Viet Nam War and in favor of Amnesty for Draft Resisters. A letter-writing campaign was thus begun; letters sent to Cardinal John Deardon of Detroit and my provincial superior, Paul Boyle of the Congregation of the Passionists. These letters shared the disagreement about me; no hippie priest for them. Their dissent to this decision was made clear.
The matter became such a brouhaha that the Pastor decided that he and I should have our first meeting at the monastery which was next door to the church. He didn’t want anyone to see me going into the rectory. Of course, in that time of long ago and far away, dissent was met with the pronouncement, “Like it or lump it!” – a message that always conveys the message, “You don’t matter!” I frequently think back on that episode in my life and wonder whether a healthier way – morally, spiritually, and communally – to deal with this dissent would have been to just gather the parties and discuss the disposition of the case. I could have stayed at the parish or moved on to another assignment – no harm, no foul. Parishioners could have gotten, I think to myself, a more positive impression and understanding of who I was; as well would I have of them. But dissent was to become subject to the authorities and their clerical hold on final decision making in the Roman Church. Thus it was, thus it may ever be; but maybe not.
This year I would like to explore this matter of dissent and how a people of faith could gather in community while embracing their differences. Wouldn’t that be a novel idea? For example, I worship with a community who welcomes whoever enters our worship space to share in the Word and Sacrament of our faith life. Wouldn’t it be a sign of Jesus’ embrace, just as he welcomed Judas, his betrayer, to share in that final meal he had with his disciples and other followers? Wouldn’t it be a welcome sign for the Roman Church to embrace such dissenting communities in the spirit of just such an embrace? They may actually discover that we have not betrayed anyone.
I have settled on not one, but three, reading buddies this year to carry on this exploration. Each one has addressed, though in varying fields and contexts, this issue of dissent in community building. You will be hearing more about and of them in 2023. For now, let me introduce you to Judith Gruber, a theologian on the faculty of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, to Bradford Hinze, faculty in the theology department of Fordham University, New York, and to Jacques Ranciere, French philosopher who has written extensively on dissent, disagreement, emancipation, and the communal space he calls politics.
Stay tuned. For now, please share with me my reading, in distillation, of St. Paul’s passage from his first letter to the Corinthians. (1Cor 1:10-13,17)
Agree to preach the gospel of the cross of Christ.
A Prayer (JR)
Praise to you, Holy Source of Life for all creation.
To agree in what we say is to expand, and grow, and deepen
as a people who preach the gospel.
To include everyone even, and especially, in disagreement
is to embrace the cross of Christ, the Beloved One.
This sign of contradiction and death is our message of
inclusion and life, now and evermore. Amen.