January 25, 2005

An Interview with Rev. Fleming Rutledge

Rev. Fleming RutledgeOffering a stirring and humbling finale to the 2005 January Series, Rev. Fleming Rutledge reminded the audience of our ultimate brotherhood in Christ in a lecture titled "Christian Right, Christian Left: The Polarized American Religious Scene." One of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church, as well as an author and lecturer, Rutledge expounded on the work she sees God doing in the world in an interview with guest writer Katelyn Beaty.

Katelyn Beaty — I'm always curious to hear how pastors and theologians like yourself receive their 'calling' if you will, to their place of ministry. Could you share your own story?

Rev. Fleming Rutledge — Well, people always ask me that, and I never know what to say, because to me it's like asking a duck how they found out they wanted to be in the water (Laughs). (I've never said that before, I just thought of that.) I've always loved the church, I've always loved God, I've always loved the Bible, I've always been happiest when I was thinking about theological issues. I took a million and one Bible courses in college. It's just always been my primary, overriding fashion.

So there was never a definitive moment for you?

No, there wasn't, except for this, and this is I guess what you could call a definitive moment, and it took place on a very specific day, in December 1971. I had definitely been floundering around. I didn't know what to do with all my energy. I was a housewife and a mother, and it just didn't seem to be enough. But women were not ordained, women didn't go to seminary, and nobody ever mentioned to me that that would even be conceivable. It had never crossed my mind. And I was at home, and I looked at The New York Times, as I do every morning, and there was a small photograph of two women who were kneeling in front of the bishop of New York , being ordained as beacons. And I just looked at it and turned the page - didn't register at all. A few hours later, this man that I've known since I was 13 years old - and he drives me crazy because he's always trying to run my life - and I didn't really like him at all. But he called me up and he said, 'Fleming, did you see the picture of the two women being ordained? ...That's what you ought to do!' (Claps her hands) It was just 'bam' like that; it didn't even take me 30 seconds. I just needed someone to tell me that I could. That was in December. In January I had already signed up for seminary.

You seem to be rooted in the Episcopal tradition. You grew up in an Episcopal community and were ordained as an Episcopal priest. How has your rooting in the Episcopal Church informed that work that you do now? Does it provide any unique perspective to your studies?

Well, I don't know, it's hard to answer. I love the church seasons, and for me, there's a kind of narrative strength about the church seasons and the way that they unfold and change, and tell the story of our Lord, and involve us in the telling. It's extremely powerful, and I wouldn't want to do without it. And our ancient Catholic liturgy certainly means a lot to me. But at this point in my life, I feel almost estranged in a way from the Episcopal Church. The emphasis on preaching is gone, the liberal theology is ascended, and the high church party is sovereign, and it all doesn't please me or feed me the way it used to. In terms of actually affecting my theological perspective, I would say that was really more a result of the experience that I had at Union Theological Seminary and my subsequent involvement with the Presbyterian Church. But it's only been in the last 10 years that I've begun to feel disaffected. I would say that the first 60 years of my life were immersed in the Episcopal Church - I gave it everything I had. But at the same time, I watched it change, and a lot of the changes, I felt, were not for the better.

In your lecture, you quoted Karl Barth's assertion that a preacher in today's world needs to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and it's obvious that you agree with his statement. Why do you think that it's so important for Christians to be deeply imbedded in the Word but also in the events of our world?

Well, it's because God is doing things in the world. And God cares about the world. And God's purposes are for the world. So if we're not reading newspapers, we're not going to know what God is doing, or what God is calling us to do. We're just going to be enclosed in our own little individualistic 'you rub my back, I'll rub yours' kind of environment. I'm very saddened by pastors who don't keep up with the news.

Why do you think that pastors would ever not keep up with the events of the world?

Well, there doesn't seem to be the kind of involvement in political issues or world issues or community issues any more . people are just so darned busy . People are working two jobs, people's parents are not there to instruct them how to read the newspaper or what the newspaper means when you have it. One child's watching TV in one room, another child's in another room on the computer, the father's cleaning his fishing pole, the mother's cooking dinner . everybody's doing something different, nobody's talking about any issues. It's just this breakdown. And community organizations are having a very hard time getting people to volunteer for anything, whereas volunteering used to be a major part of life. So I think it has a lot to do with the breakdown of community values, a loss of connectedness.

Today you talked about the current state of believers, and their political and ideological beliefs. What are some of the duties that Christians face as citizens of both this world but also of God's Kingdom? What are Christians called to do in regards to their citizenship here on earth?

Well, nobody's asked me that question. But just off the top of my head, I would say that the first duty as a Christian is worship and fellowship . Because it's out of the worship and the fellowship that the grounding comes, so that the Christian understands that his or her true citizenship lies in the commonwealth of heaven, which doesn't mean floating off to the ether. It means though, that the governing reality of one's life as a Christian, is membership in the family of God, and participation in the kingdom that He is bringing into being. Now if that is really the central governing reality of your life, then you're not going to be as attracted by the lies that are told by our culture. And it also means that you know that the Republicans and the Democrats are not the last word in the world, that neither party holds all the answers, and that the reality of God and God's plan transcends earthly plans. This means that you can sit loose to them, to some extent; you don't get all wrapped up into them as if they were the be all and end all. You also learn by being in community and worshipping, that love and mercy are more powerful than revenge and clawing your way to the top. People can't sustain those kinds of countercultural values unless they're in fellowship with others, who hold one another accountable and who remind each other and who tell each other the story, so that you don't ever forget, who you belong to.

I think it's obvious that the American church as a whole has been hurt by these divides, which like you said, pale in comparison to what we do have in common in our brotherhood together. What are some ways, especially after this last year, that we can begin to reconcile our differences and work toward a more unified vision?

There are lots of things that could happen that are not happening. The clergy should be getting together across denominational boundaries, and they're not doing it. For one year I had the opportunity of doing that - the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and a couple other little denominations met together every month, and that was an extremely valuable thing to do, because we knew each other more as people and less as some rival organization. And some of these people were really godly people. They were really curious about faith and they prayed, and that was really wonderful, because I could call them up any hour of the day or night, to talk about issues in the community - young people on drugs or vandalism or zoning problems, or whatever kinds of issues come up that affect people and the quality of their lives. Then the clergy can immediately join together and do something and have some strength. I really believe in that.

You mentioned Jim Wallis of Sojourners in your talk and you identified him as a member of the evangelical left, and whether he wants it or not, he's kind of been the go-to guy for the Democrats in their 'soul-searching.' Do you feel like his voice and his involvement with the leaders of the Democratic Party will have any effect on their stances?

I doubt if he'll have any effect on their stances at all, except for one thing: I think God is using him, and if God is using him, God will do something. I don't think that most of these politicians give a damn. Maybe some of them do, because some of them are probably Christians, and they'll be impressed by what he has to say, and I think that will help. But in terms as far as any real kind of change? No. But the wonderful thing is that his voice is out there, and we don't have to hang our heads in total shame, because at least there's one voice, who's really good. Wallis wrote an article in the Op-ed page of The New York Times, about how even if the Democrats themselves weren't going to talk about faith, they at least needed to understand people who did, and I think that got him a lot of attention. And he actually - this is so sad, I think - when Bush first was elected, Wallis had access to him. Bush wanted to learn from him. But then as soon as 9/11 happened, it ended, because Wallis was opposed to taking military action, maybe even in Afghanistan , so Bush just cut him off. Bush now looks to people who agree with him.

So, the combination of Sojourners, which is very widely circulated, the books that Wallis has written, the Democratic loss, and the tremendous use of evangelical language in politics, and most people who take the contrary point of view don't have any credentials. Jim Wallis has all these credentials.

As you defined the term 'evangelical' in your lecture, we believe that God is at work in our everyday lives. He's not set away, and he intervenes constantly in our world to reveal His glory. This might be a really hard question, but how do you see God working right now, in this moment in history, to bring about His glory?

Well, you know, I'm worried that God is at work in a negative way in what's happening in our country. I'm worried that God will judge us very harshly, and that we'll be abandoned - not permanently of course, but that the torch will be passed. I do believe in American exceptionalism, as it's called, to a certain extent. I do believe that America was called to be a city on a hill, I really do believe that. And I believe we're in danger of forfeiting that. And I think this language about good and evil, and we're good and they're evil, is just tragic. I'm afraid that God is working in sort of a negative sense.

But God is definitely working, in my opinion, in the work of people like Jim Wallis and Mark Danner, the journalist of The New Yorker that I mentioned, who is probably not a Christian at all, but he's just doing this wonderful work. And I think my friend Richard B. Hays at Duke Divinity School, who is very actively speaking out, and wrote a paper to the Methodist church saying that we were in a grave moral crisis and that he was ashamed of his church for the first time, that the church was not speaking out about the tortures and about the folly of the war, and the way it wasn't planned properly and didn't meet the criteria for just war. So I think God is working through people like Richard B. Hays and Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas and other people who are trying to get the word out. But of course, the vast number of evangelical Christians in America believe God is working through Bush.

Stonewall Jackson, the civil war general, was one of the most devout Christians the Lord ever made, and he started a Sunday school for slave children and he was just wonderful - but he was on the wrong side! That can happen! I don't deny that Bush is a devout Christian - he's just on the wrong side. And he doesn't understand it, he doesn't get it. He has a strange indifference to the suffering of people. The fact that he doesn't seem to mind a $45 million inauguration with the tsunami just happened. He's oblivious. Just because a person is a Christian doesn't mean they're taking the right position on something. But I think the Stonewall Jackson image is a good one, because people keep saying 'But Bush is a Christian!' Yes, but you can be a Christian and still make a big mistake.

My beloved, adored father, one of the greatest men the Lord ever made, was only beginning to move away from his segregationist position when he died at the age of 91. He didn't really get it. And yet without meaning to, he taught me the kind of respect for human beings that made it inevitable that I would change my mind about segregation. So, people are mixed bags.

But that's not really what you asked me. I see God working through Jimmy Carter's initiatives. They have almost erased that river blindness, through his work with Habitat for Humanity. I really admire him. He's got defects of course, but I really admire what he has done since he was thrown out of the White House (Laughs). I think a lot of these great organizations like World Vision and Doctors Without Borders, these agencies that do these things in terrible circumstances; God is certainly there. God is where the poor are, God is where the downtrodden are, and wherever they're being helped, even in a tiny way, is where God is working. That's got to be said.

I find it very destructive when people put too much emphasis on buildings, and particularly 'sacred space' Sacred space is not a building! Sacred space is where mercy is happening, where compassion is being extended, where self-sacrifice is being made, where three or four poor people are gathered together. That's sacred space. A lot of the time God is at work where his name is not even known.

Katelyn BeatyKatelyn Beaty, a junior attending Calvin College, works as both a writer and copy editor for the weekly student publication Chimes.