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Commusings: Communion

commusings Nov 08, 2020

I grew up without much religion. I briefly attended the Unitarian Church as a result of a negotiation between my parents to placate their respective families. My mother was raised Methodist from strong Midwestern stock. My father is Jewish, and is bald, fancies rye bread and lives in Southern Florida if you need further proof.

I remember the Unitarian church as a feelgood operation, a bit like a field day where all the kids got ribbons even when finishing last. I resonated with the minimal dogmatism and absence of a monopolistic claim to theological truth. The Unitarians essentially portrayed Jesus as a nice Jewish boy and the exemplar model for living one's own life, not as the earthly incarnate of an invisible creator of the universe.

I currently fashion myself as Buddhish, spiritually Buddhist and culturally Jewish. As a kid though, while I wasn’t a heathen, I wasn’t exactly walking in the footsteps of the ascendant host either.

When I was ten and living in Connecticut, I had a best friend named Patrick Murphy. You could live within the walls of the Vatican and not be as Catholic as Patrick’s family. Patrick and I would engineer sleepovers every weekend, eat popcorn into the wee hours and relentlessly watch Grease on VHS, rewinding the bit with Olivia Newton-John dancing on the Shake Shack in her tight leather pantaloons. That was my conception of heaven. To this day, I hold a petty resentment that Patrick always assumed the role of Danny Zuko in our imaginary Fairfield County gang life. I was left playing the unsavory and morally rudderless Kenickie.

One Sunday morning in January, we woke to a foot of snowy powder. In what might be considered divine intervention, my parents were unable to fetch me from the Murphy’s. Our impious driveway was snowed in.

“No worries,” replied Mother Murphy, with a Christian sunniness that belied the weather. “We’ll bring Jeffrey to mass with us.”  A nauseating dread consumed me as I eavesdropped the call. I had barely set foot in a church, let alone attended a formal mass.

Even though the sleeves ended halfway up my forearms, I packed my corpulence into Patrick’s slim-fit blazer in much the same way that we crammed into Murphy’s minivan. Evidently, their drive had magically been plowed by a celestial seraphim overnight.

We disembarked at St Aloysius, the Catholic parish in town, and waddled single file into the church, the upstanding parents leading the way and children dutifully following; Kevin, Megan, Erin, Colleen, Patrick and me, bringing up the rear.

Thankfully, this waterfowl sequence landed me on the end of the last row of pews, my natural habitat. I have always associated my proclivities for anxiety, hypochondria and claustrophobia with my Jewish heritage. Somewhere buried in Leviticus it is likely decreed that those who escapeth enslavement from Egypt must sit on the aisle, else they panic convinced they’re having cardiac arrest.

Adorned in a resplendent bejeweled frock, the priest strolled majestically to the altar. The congregation crossed themselves and settled. Befuddled, as if I were in an ASL crash course, I mimicked awkwardly the best I could and sat down. The priest’s sermon drew from the Book of John. It was the story of an adulteress who had been brought to Jesus for condemnation by a group of men keen to stone her. Jesus demurred a reply but the men kept demanding an answer, so Jesus stood up and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone.” The men sheepishly left and Jesus forgave the woman and told her to sin no more. 

As the liturgy came to end, the congregation stood and people began to file down the nave toward the altar. Everyone began to sing a hymn. I recognized all sorts of folks from my town.

My friends, Brian and Peter, from my basketball team, with their families. The Riggio’s who ran the eponymous pizza parlor downtown. Manuel, the crossing guard from South School. And Mr. C, my math teacher, who wore cardigans and overused Binaca spray.

Patrick whispered to me to follow him down the nave to take Holy Communion. Petrified, I floundered down aisle, hands clenched in prayer, trudging toward the unknown. I reached the front, and shakily formed a throne with my hands. The priest intoned something incomprehensible in Latin and placed a wafer in my sweaty cupped palms.

As a boy with significant appetite, I was mildly disappointed in the measly, singular cracker with a cross on it. It wasn’t until I was outside that I was informed that I had partaken in the body of Christ himself, if perhaps only a sacred hangnail.

The congregation had thronged to the plaza outside the parish, solemnity giving way to an equally fervent jocular camaraderie. Folks back-slapped and laughed, exchanged compliments and admired each other’s children. For this ephemeral moment, on this picturesque snowy day, roles and rank dissolved. A group of people of diverse race, creed and political persuasion congregated to acknowledge something bigger than themselves. And, in the receipt of this Holy Eucharist, in the utter humility of it, a communion of souls extended beyond the walls of the church and the notion of a separate self briefly vanished.

The monumental election of 2020 is mercifully over and the winner is determined. Some will cry tears of joy and jubilation and others of sorrow and indignation. But after a year of indelible anguish and vitriol, a catharsis is overflowing into the streets, like champagne spouting from a shaken bottle. We can hear a giant exhale, a collective purification of spirit and purgation of fear. To watch my three daughters intently transfix their eyes to the Vice President-Elect, as she delivers her speech, restores my hope in American possibility.

The outcome is tremendously meaningful, particularly for those who have been impacted by the policies of the past 4 years, but the ground conditions in our country remain the same. While a new president will take the highest oath, if Americans are going to confront the colossal challenges ahead, each one of us must commit to the sacred oath of the citizen. We will need to find common ground. Even more, we will need to recognize our common humanity, to appreciate that, behind the plate mail armor of our political selves, we share the sorrows of death, the joys of new life, the trials of work, the thrills of accomplishment and the hopes for a better world for our children.

E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One,” is the long-standing motto of the United States approved by Congress in 1782. This maxim speaks to a shared recognition that, as individual citizens, we collectively participate in the greater national project for freedom and justice. That our liberation is indeed bound. However, as I sit here typing, there is little sense of unity or oneness in our nation. The cultural chasm that gapes between Americans has never been wider or deeper. We are bunkered in tribes of political identity, tethered by our ankles to the thoroughbred of social media dreck that gallops toward one extreme or another dragging us along, leaving our nation drawn and quartered.

Given the freshness of the wounds, it will take considerable time for our cultural lacerations to scab and heal, but the noble hearted among us must begin to suture the gash. This is my purpose here, both at Commune and in my broader life, to foster community through compassion and conversation, to create a safe and inclusive space in which people can disagree without being disagreeable. I believe in true belonging, being accepted without compromising your beliefs, and tolerance for everything except intolerance.

The following observations are just my own and I am quite certain that your input will only improve them. This is the nature of ideas. In an open marketplace, the best notions simmer, comingle and bubble to the surface.

I did not choose our out-going President. I find him to be a confection of vice and believe his pathological narcissism and mendacity are a political danger. But these sentiments do not extend de facto to those who support him. In response to those on the left who seem incredulous as to how any sane human could endorse this President, I have worked hard to understand his appeal and his utility. And over the past months, through extensive communication, I have made efforts to cultivate relationships with his supporters. In order to work together, we need to understand each other.

He has become a champion for the white working class, largely left in the dust of corporate globalism. There is real hurt in these communities, places that once thrived with manufacturing jobs and vibrant downtowns, now moonscapes pocked with mini-marts, boarded up retail and fentanyl. These communities, mired in economic despair, long neglected and flown over, find agency in this President. And in this agency, life has meaning where it might otherwise not. This is potent. We all want to be heard and seen.

When I listen, really intently listen, to rural voters – like Susan, from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, who has become a regular presence in my Sunday inbox – what I hear is a deep resentment of being shamed. They don’t like being called racist and ignorant. Who would? These are the most profound insults one can levy and for good reason. This President does not pass judgment on these folks. And it might be argued that, through his own moral vacancy, he expiates their sins. A man who embraces the meek, passes no judgment and expiates sin. Does that remind you of someone?

It is said, “Wise are those who look at others with the same generosity they offer themselves, and at themselves with the same critical eye they have for others.” Given that essentially 70 million people pledged for each candidate, more than in any either previous election, neither side can logically argue the other is completely deranged. In the pursuit of common ground, it may be time for both left and right to turn a critical eye on itself.

And here I will teeter on a tightrope spanned over the third rail. These are the hard, thorny conversations of reconciliation.

It must be our collective project to eradicate racism from every corner of the earth. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent national reckoning for racial justice has inspired many to engage in a deep moral inventory, to examine their implicit biases and to question historical narratives. Personally, I can attest to having learned more in the last six months than I learned studying race relations in college about the war on drugs, criminal justice reform, the history of the American police, redlining and housing policy, and the scale of the persistent wealth gap.

But while white liberals unpack their complicity in systemic injustice and attempts to untangle the web of privilege, it also seems all too ready to sanctimoniously levy the epithet of “racist” on anyone who deviates from its orthodoxy.

My pen pal Susan is a white single mother living in a trailer who works two minimum wage jobs at Burger King and Home Depot. Does shaming her, not for any reprehensible action but simply for her politics, advance the cause of racial justice? Because, while she may benefit in some ways from the color of her skin, I guarantee she feels no privilege, nor does she feel a sense of guilt for the atrocities her great-grandfather may have committed. She is simply scraping by.

This practice of hurling slurs, largely behind the shield of an iPhone screen, is not only arrogant, it is also, evidently, not good political strategy. And it will never bring us together. If we are committed to healing our country, and there’s every reason to be, then perhaps white liberals can consider this aforementioned quotation before casting invidious aspersions, “Let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone.”

Instead of broadening the definition of racism in a manner that ostracizes half of the population, we can unite around the collective project for racial equity; ending the war on drugs, enacting criminal justice reform (which has bipartisan support), expanding access to education and health care and building affordable housing.

As I read Susan’s emails and others who echo her antipathy for the moral posturing of the left, I attempt to don her emotional clothing by understanding her lived experience. And, like some kind of strange cultural interpreter, I try to explain to her the lived experience of others, particularly marginalized people, who not only feel a denial of opportunity but unsafe in their own country. One group’s empowerment cannot come at the expense of another’s. She seems to hear it.

America will need a truth and reconciliation process that can lead to dialogue at scale. The road to reparations must be paved with empathy rather than shame. And part of this exercise will include the establishment of a shared vernacular.

One of the most prominent themes in my exchanges with Susan is that she believes that the left are all “socialists.” She hurls the rubric with reckless abandon. The right has weaponized a warped misunderstanding of socialism. In reality, there is no leftist platform in support of collective ownership of industry or nationalization of banks. There is no one arguing against free market capitalism. There are social programs that include social security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, public education and many others. These programs exist to dull the knife point of capitalism, to protect the vulnerable. The extent to which this safety net should be cast should be the topic of vigorous debate in a democracy, but to misrepresent these programs, especially to some of the people who need them most, is a crass kind of political maneuvering.

The chasms that divide us as a result of misinformation and fearmongering are daunting, but more intractable still are the wedge issues that spring from deeply held personal beliefs. But if we are to bridge the cultural divide, we must now step back from our political and religious identities in an effort to recognize the moral underpinnings of our different respective beliefs.

I have written extensively about human moral intuition. Sitting behind religion, I believe there is an innate shared sense of universal truth. Before Moses raised a stone tablet above his head etched with “thou shalt not steal,” we collectively knew thievery to be unethical. And this precept is virtually unanimous despite our religious affiliations. I contend that a belief in a common moral bedrock can undergird our political and social identities as well.

For example, Susan considers her “pro-life” stance as a deeply moral one. There may be no issue more culturally divisive than abortion. Those who are “pro-life” castigate the other side as morally bereft in their disregard for the sanctity of human life. Those who are “pro-reproductive freedom” rage against their opponents for their disrespect of a woman’s right to control her own body.  You can set your watch to the party affiliations of these positions.

We can debate incessantly about whether life begins at conception, whether the government has a right to dictate a woman’s decisions over her own body or why legal abortion is really just safe abortion. But is it possible to find a spirit that recognizes that the positions adopted by both sides are rooted in profound moral conviction? And though legal wrangling will always be fractious, is there not at least the possibility of uniting around a shared goal of minimizing abortion through supporting women, addressing the root causes of unwanted pregnancies and providing wide access to family planning?

The rancor of this time has not only worn the nation threadbare, but it has ruptured friendships and torn families apart. If there is any remote hope of finding reconciliation, we must collectively eschew our addiction to social media. The weaponization of misinformation on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube imperceptibly pushes us toward the edges, radicalizes our opinions and lures us into acts of public vitriol, executed in private. Social media may be the primary engine of our national self-hatred. Healing will not happen digitally. It will only happen in real community. It will happen by powering down and going next door.

Four years ago, some felt emboldened in their beliefs by the outcome of an election. And, today, others feel a similar vindication. But I call on each of us to be brave enough to walk the middle path. This is not limp conciliation. On the contrary, the pursuit of unity emerges from a robust patriotism.

The first words enshrined in our greatest piece of American literature are “We the people.” Compassion is brave. And it is compassion we must now find to revive the quest for a more perfect union, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare for these United States of America. It’s time to heal. As the President-Elect implored, “Let this grim era of demonization begin to end here and now.”

Jesus’ sacrament is not marble and brass, but bread and wine. We must now bake the bread in order to break it with each other. We must sit around the supper table and drink wine with each other, not to be further drunken in our opinions, but to foster fellowship through hard conversation. Now is the time to summon the better angels of our nature, to sit together in a Holy Communion each of our making, for the sake of our flawed, beautiful, messy, soulful country.

God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

~ Jeff Krasno

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