On Easter: Separate and Unite

Sheil Easter 2019

What does Easter mean to you?

It occurred to me as I sat in the second pew today, coming to church on Easter labels me.  I declare myself Catholic on this occasion, in this place.  I separate myself, in a sense, from all who are not Catholic or Christian, from all who do not celebrate.  You might consider that I do this every Sunday at church, or every time I say I’m Catholic.  But on Easter it feels more intense, because this mass is all about the definition of Christianity—He died for us—we hold this to be true (I still have questions about that, actually) and that is what makes us Christian.  I apply this label to myself by my attendance at this mass.

I generally dislike being labeled, because of the assumptions that inevitably and automatically accompany labels of any kind.  You are Catholic, therefore you must be pro-life and thus anti-woman (I am pro-choice).  Your church is full of pedophiles and those who abet them; your religion, and you as an extension, represent the worst kinds of repression of the reality and diversity of human expression (if you think this please read about Father James Martin).  You are Chinese, you must be so smart and have a Tiger Mom (I am so smart but I don’t attribute it to being Chinese, and my mom is not Amy Chua).  You are a doctor in executive health, you must have done it for the money (this one slapped me recently, and I still seethe a little over it).

I have attended my church for 28 years this fall, starting my freshman year in college.  I was confirmed here, my children were baptized here, and I would have been married by the priest here, had it not been New Student Week that year.  I have so many friends here, from the couple who sponsored me for confirmation to the woman who ran the nursery where both of my kids played, to the director of the prison ministry who has kept the pencil record of my kids’ heights on the wall in his office.  I return to this community not for the ‘body and blood’ mass parts, which I could get at any Catholic church.  It’s how the people here put their faith into action that I admire—seeking connection across diversity, holding space for differing viewpoints and discoursing with respect and compassion.  Next month there will be a dialogue on the Ten Commandments led by our pastoral associate and a Northwestern campus rabbi, entitled, “The Big 10.”

I consider myself not religious at all, rather faithful and spiritual, and this is where I practice.  So while I separate from non-Christians this Easter, I unite with this particular Catholic tribe.  And let me be clear: separating into tribes is a GOOD thing.  Humans are wired for belonging and shared identity.  Support from those we identify with and relate to is essential for survival and thriving, especially in chaotic and uncertain times like now.

But it is in exactly such times when we must be wary of over-identifying with those we perceive as similar to ourselves.  Separating (or sorting, as Bill Bishop calls it) ourselves by religion, ideology, profession, or any other in-group carries risks for us all.  As I looked around the chapel today, I saw a widely diverse group.  Most people were white, many at least a generation older than I.  But there are always college students here, bringing balance, which I love.  I see also families like mine, our children growing up as members of the community, making it a whole of many assorted parts.  No doubt we are not all of one political persuasion, and we each have our own reasons for whatever opinions and positions we take.  We must not assume that just because we attend the same church, in this little building or the Catholic church of the world, that we are all the same, or wholly different from those outside of our church or faith.

As we unite as Christians this Easter, then, separating ourselves from ‘non-believers,’ what is the best object of our spiritual focus?  When we think of ourselves in terms of this religious tribe, how does it impact our identity and relationships in the tribe of humanity?

What are we called to do with this faith of ours, how are we meant to best manifest it here on Earth?

I hear Brennan Manning’s words in my mind all the time, like a warning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

By the end of mass, I decided that if I choose to accept this ‘religious’ label, oversimplified and overgeneralized as it is, then I must represent it well.  I must not personify the corruption and hypocrisy that so many identify with Christianity—I must demonstrate the opposite.  My faith in action must be driven first and always by love, and never by fear, never by suspicion.  If I can pull this off, then separating myself as Catholic or Christian serves wholly to unite me with all of humanity, because that is what my faith, and what I believe the best of all faiths, calls us all to do.