Linda McKinnish Bridges* October 26, 2016

I must confess.  I am weary, and I am tired.  Weary and tired from hearing bad words from bad people who do bad things and create bad worlds.  I need a little peace from the rancor, a little quietness from the chaos, a little respite from meanness.   You know what I mean.  I need to go sit on a long front porch on one of these beautiful autumnal, crisp mornings, surrounded by color, and just remember what a good world we live in, the absolute goodness of people who live in it, and experience rejuvenated hope that the world is not going to collapse in on itself from all of this hate and divisiveness.

I was raised in an Augustinian universe, as is most Christianity.  The idea that we are sinners by nature, even the little baby fresh from the womb, prevails.  That we all bear this tremendous stain of guilt and sin until we are washed in the blood and cleansed to be made holy is my default theological position.  Both tradition and scripture uphold this truth.  And certainly our favorite hymn, extolling our badness and the joys of grace, now regarded as a kind of national anthem played at funerals, weddings, and military battle, regardless of religious affiliation: “Amazing grace . . .  that saved a wretch like me.”  Wicked, wretched, sinful, bad, prone to evil rather than good—all these attributes given to human nature, some say, originated from Augustine (d. 430), who with great influence and power over Christian thinking, introduced the concepts of original sin and the need for redeeming grace in the fifth century.

Much of my youth was spent in trying to eradicate those sins—daily list of sins, overt and covert, early morning prayers in the top floor of the college dormitory to cleanse my thoughts for the day ahead, confessions of those sins in the evening in late night prayer group, in front of really holy leaders who demanded an accounting of every minute of the day.  (We forgot to ask the leaders to do the same!) The idea was clear—if one can list all of one’s sins, go to the one to whom you have abused and confess your sin, then ask God for forgiveness, only then you can be whole and righteous.  Lots of list making, lots of personal contact information, lots of prayer.  Then wholeness, maybe . . . . . .

It really was not until my middle life years, upon meeting Dr. John Kinney, Virginia Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, that I really knew how to respond to my neat and dramatic, to say the least, Augustinian universe.  John Kinney, who has shaped the theological thought, especially for the African American community, and a not a few white people who could see the theological jewel therein, helped me to see that if you are broken, the least possible help for restoration is the Augustinian universe.  Kinney explained in both personal conversation and public lecture, to a group of already broken, busted, downhearted folk, to stand in the pulpit and declare their wretchedness is not going to change a thing—except to make more wretchedness.  I began to see it!   Kinney has a way of making it clear.  For those busted, broken, downhearted people need to hear that they do hold a God-light inside them that can make them whole—that their life, even though busted and broken, has the seed of wholeness.  And the goal is to grow that seed not kill it.  Kinney used to say it this way: “We begin with the credit column, not the debit one.”  I began to see another universe—slowly but surely.

Studying a contemporary of fifth-century Augustine in my research in Celtic Theology—Pelagius (d. 418)– gave me more words and much hope.  Thought perhaps to be from Ireland, and certainly a participant in the fifth-century Irish Christian movement raised without conformity to Roman standards until the 10th century, Pelagius introduced another way.  That way was, of course, denounced and condemned, as the concepts seemed light and airy compared to the heavy-weighted dicta of the Roman church and Augustinian pillars of thought. Pelagius believed in the power and quality of human nature—not deeming all flesh as ineffective and sinful.  That the human spirit had promise and could do the right thing.  In other words, human nature has a propensity for goodness not badness.  Why should that be a such a surprise, we are created in the image of God, right?  Pelagius believed in God’s grace, certainly.  But free will also reigned.  That is why John Wesley and Methodism even today can describe Pelagius as a “wise and holy man.”  The universe that Pelagius inhabits says that we can create goodness, that we begin as whole and then err, but that we can begin again. Our nature is bent toward the Light, rather than Darkness.

What a difference that would make if we could reclaim hope, compassion, goodness in this world.  If we could see the goodness in our neighbor—deep inside, resting, sometimes hidden by bluster, ego, wounds, but still there deeply within the soul, how would I treat the guy beside me on the plane, the young woman at the stop light in the car beside me, my estranged family member, my bully colleague?

We need help these days.  Bring back the noble character of those who refuse to call names, who refuse to talk when someone else is talking, who makes a point by acknowledging the point of the other, even though vehemently disagreeing, but politely, with civility.  Bring back “yes, sir,” “yes ma’am,” “you go first”, “I understand you”. Bring back a basic belief in the human nature of all of us.  We have all that we need to be all that God has intended us to be—with us, in us, around us, through us, behind us—all around us.  Hope in the goodness of our neighbors, compassion for the world, kindness and civility even in heated disagreements, and a general awareness that the Grace—that Amazing Grace– is available and has been there from the beginning—inside all of God’s created order.  Live into it, my friend.  It is time to find an alternative universe, don’t you think?

*Rev. Linda McKinnish Bridges and I first met in 1991 at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State. She was the chaplain of the week and it was my first time attending there. She made a lasting impression on me and I have followed her career since then.