Column: Seeking the Middle Way in Challenging Times

By The Rev. Marek Zabriskie

Memorial Day weekend was not just a time to enjoy opening of swimming pools and hosting cookouts or beginning to wear white shoes or poplin and seersucker suits. It was a time to remember the countless men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to our country from the War of Independence to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last weekend, people across our nation paused to salute those who fought and died on Concord’s Bridge, Little Round Top, San Juan Hill, Chateau Thierry, Pont-du-Hoc, Pork Chop Hill, the la Drang Valley and Kabul.

They died for our freedom and democracy, and we honored them with parades, speeches and the mournful sound of taps. Fifteen million American soldiers served during World War II, and now just a few thousand remain.

I recently read an article about letters that soldiers had written to their loved ones at home. They shared all sorts of things, not knowing that these would be among their final thoughts conveyed to their loved ones.

Their letters dealt with the mundane and ordinary – blisters on their feet, sand in their teeth, and mice in their tents. They died believing in their families, their president and their God. Many were men and women of faith. May they rest in peace.

In the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, we find another memory worth preserving. Here we find the final words of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples, which anticipate a difficult dilemma. Will later generations experience the unity with God that Jesus shared with his disciples?

Jesus desired that we would all be one. His prayer for unity has been perennially relevant to Christians during unsettling times in history. Now is one of those times – war rages in Ukraine, Climate Change stokes fears about our future, and we have witnessed major mass shootings.

When people of faith are unified for the good, we are at our best. Our unity inspires humanity. Jesus does not call for doctrinal, organizational, or even political unity. Instead, he calls for spiritual unity, a sense of communion where we are all one.

Bishop Charles Henry Brent, the great missionary bishop to the Philippines, said, “Unity is not a luxury, but a necessity. We must work for the unity of the church, not at all costs, but at all risks.” The fourth century theologian Athanasius argued that one proof for the truth of Christianity is revealed by how the Church was able to transcend so many cultures and transform so many different individuals into a unified people.

Many decades ago the pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson coined a term called “pseudo-speciation,” to indicate the human tendency to identify with a select group rather than with the entire species.

This leads us to think in terms of “us” and “them” – and in which the “us” is typically superior to the “them.” We sacrifice the larger community for the sake of the advancement of our smaller, more select group. We are all prone to this.

There’s nothing wrong with people having different ideas about things. Diversity is part of life. But factionalism is a giant step beyond diversity. Factionalism occurs when we strive for control and domination and to impose our views and values on everyone else. This can lead to arrogance and turns the “other” into my enemy.

Every time we find ourselves thinking, “Thank God, I’m not like him or her,” Jesus urges us to stop and re-evaluate. Whenever we feel superior or uniquely virtuous and mentally set ourselves apart, reducing connectedness and unity with others, Jesus calls us to re-evaluate.

It is when we are most vulnerable, most open, honest and real with others, that we are closest to God and divine mercy and love flow through us.

The Episcopal Church strives to be a Big Tent. It’s not easy. We try to be an expansive place where people who share different views on controversial subjects like abortion, the death penalty, gun rights, stem cell cloning, and Climate Change can pray, seek forgiveness, and receive Communion together and be sent out into the world to love and serve others.

We strive to be a place where conservatives and liberals are spiritually fed. It’s a worthy challenge. We don’t have to agree on everything. God knows that we cannot. Our job is to respect the dignity of every human being.

In the past few weeks, we have been shocked to learn of several major mass shootings. An 18-year-old, who was not old enough to buy beer or cigarettes, legally purchased two assault rifles and killed 19 children and two teachers.

There is something fundamentally sick that this could happen in our nation. The mass shooting in Texas came just days after 10 persons were gunned down in a grocery store in Buffalo by a white supremacist who specifically targeted Black Americans.

We have now had more than 200 mass shootings in less than the first 200 days of 2022. Each year there are more than 30,000 gun fatalities. Over 60% of the deaths are suicides. The majority are white males. When suicide is attempted by a gun, there is a 97% success rate.

Our nation has become numb. The world cannot understand our country, because no other nation in the world has mass shootings in schools like ours. In the last twenty years, 300,000 students in America have had a live shooter in their school. Children must routinely practice hiding in case a live shooter enters their school. That ought to concern all of us.

Some blame the mass shootings on mental illness, which certainly contributes to it. We must rigorously address mental illness across our country. Yet, mental illness is prevalent in every country, and we are the only country with hundreds of mass shootings in schools each year.

It is time for us to come together as one as Jesus prays in his farewell address and find our unity in the center between extreme positions that say, “Take away all guns” and “Pass no gun laws at all.” We must find a middle way, which the Church calls the via media, between the extremes in order to create a safer nation for all.

The middle way in between extremes, must demand background checks and mandatory safety classes for every gun purchaser, a ban on ghost guns, assault rifles and body armor.

No normal citizen needs a military grade assault rifle. This not what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind. Should we allow citizens to have military missiles? There is no story of Jesus carrying a weapon, using a weapon or supporting the use of a weapon. Rather, the opposite. Whatever the middle ground is, we must find it soon and come together.

We have other blights on our nation like the opioid crisis, which took my own mother’s life. Death from opioids is rampant. The funeral director Sharon, CT where my mother is buried, had already conducted 12 funerals for opioid overdoses the year when my mother died.

We belong to each other for better or worse, because we belong to God. It’s something that the priest and poet, John Donne, recognized as he lay on his sickbed 400 years ago, “No man is an island entire of itself, each of us is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

The religious path is not easy. When we enter our places of worship, we don’t need an echo chamber. We need to be challenged to think and apply the teachings of our faith to our lives.

When we label ourselves first by saying, “I’m a liberal” or “I’m a conservative,” we have failed. Our first identity is found in our faith. Otherwise, we turn our politics into our religion and only accept what affirms our political stance. Our faith comes first. Everything else comes second. No document or law should come before our faith. Let us seek the middle way and unite.

The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie is Rector of Christ Church Greenwich

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