Melissa Harris Perry, Luke 12:48 and the Power of Public Theology

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25:  Author, MSNBC television host and Tulane Professor Melissa Harris Perry addresses the 2012 graduating c
BOSTON, MA - MAY 25: Author, MSNBC television host and Tulane Professor Melissa Harris Perry addresses the 2012 graduating class at Wellesley College on May 25, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

It started with a comment I made on the April 8 HuffPost piece on the controversy around Melissa Harris-Perry's recent "Lean Forward" ad, which I thought made the perfectly reasonable case that we're better off as a society when we recognize that all children are "our" children and challenged us as a nation to take collective responsibility for the next generation.

What got me going enough to comment was this ridiculous assertion by Newsbusters' Ken Shepherd, who wrote: "the notion of collective responsibility for children was a philosophy that undergirded the Cultural Revolution in Communist China under Chairman Mao." And so I dashed off a quick comment about not forgetting that another guy who talked an awful lot about collective responsibility was that "love your neighbor as yourself -- inasmuch as you've done it unto the least of these you've done it to me" dude Jesus, the Radical Rabbi from Nazareth.

I wasn't the only one with an opinion on the post. When last I checked there were more than 10,000 comments -- and after I posted mine I didn't give it another thought.

Until I got this email on April 10 from someone who, having read my comment, went to the trouble to track down my email in order send me the following:

Reverend Russell,

I am emailing you in response to your recent post on Huffington Post. As I am not a subscriber, I was unable to post a response your recent comment about the Melissa Harris-Perry/Sarah Palin issue.

Let me start off by stating that I am a proud 'cradle' Episcopalian. This pride has come from my very (what you would call) 'conservative' parents. In fact my mother is so conservative she doesn't like virtually anything that has come about in the Episcopal Church since the 1979 Prayer Book :)

My brother and I have been -- through her (and my father, of course) extreme hard work and financial sacrifice -- educated in expensive Episcopal schools. Never once did she flinch from her support of her Episcopal faith or in her love for the Church and what it stood for. In the face of extreme elements my parents would always show compassion and understanding -- even with those persons they 'theologically' disagreed with. 'Reasonable persons will 'agree to disagree' she would say ... we were all 'God's children'.

Which brings me to the point of Melissa Harris-Perry's comment- I was never a child of 'community' I was child of God in the spiritual sense. My mother taught me these values of compassion and understanding not the community---- I am my mother's child not society's. While I understand the general point Ms. Harris-Perry was trying to make, I am still extremely concerned at the implications. By saying that children are the 'community's' responsibility are we not giving parents a 'pass' to be irresponsible or at least complacent the upbringing of children -- either prospect is scary.

Your referencing Communism bothers me as I do not believe that Christ was a Communist ... If you could clarify your comments????

Finally- I thank you for reading through this ...


Clearly a chord had been struck. And although I couldn't even find the comment I'd made wading through the now thousands on the post, it seemed only the polite thing to do to follow up with a response. And so I wrote:

Dear XX XX,

A necessarily abbreviated response as it's a very busy day in parish priest land here, however I appreciate your email and want to honor your questions with a response:

To clarify, I didn't "reference Communism" ... Ken Shepherd did in attacking the MHP spot - as noted in the Huffington Post piece I commented on. My point was simply that to dismiss the idea of collective commitment to the well being of society as a whole as "communist" is as ludicrous as dismissing Jesus' call to minister unto the least of these as socialist ... and to abandon completely his core message -- the one on which he said hangs "all the law and the prophets" - and that is love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

It sounds as if you were very blessed to have been raised in such a strong, faithful family and to have had the privilege of "expensive Episcopal schools." I had a similar upbringing and I suspect our mothers would have been very much in alignment on many things.

What I have come to embrace as a core component of my theology is Jesus' call in Luke 12:48 -- to whom much is given, much is expected -- and to recognize that my privileged upbringing comes with the responsibility of not just talking about loving my neighbor as myself but making sure that my neighbor's children have the same access to health care, safe streets and good schools as mine do. And that's what I believe Melissa Harris Perry was talking about.

At All Saints Church, my congregation, we talk about our mission as "turning the human race into the human family." We believe that is the core value Jesus came to preach, teach and ultimately die for. And I, personally, believe that when we deny that collective responsibility we deny Jesus just as clearly Peter did when he stood in the courtyard in Jerusalem on Good Friday .

Thank you for taking time to write. I suspect we will continue to disagree about how best to live out the values we were raised with ... but I wish you every best blessing and thank you again for taking time
to connect.

Susan Russell

And not long after I received this response:

Thank you for your response and your point is well taken. Perhaps if Ms. Harris-Perry had constructed in a more 'religious' context there might not have been such a 'fuss' or a 'fuss' of a different kind :) But that is another topic all together.

Thank you again for your insight.


And that was that.

And I've been thinking ever since about the power of a random comment on a blog post to engender what resulted in an exercise in public theology -- giving me the chance to think through "what did I mean by the comment I posted?" and inviting my correspondent to hear a perspective different than her own.

And it's gotten me wondering about the ways and times and places we all can benefit from asking questions of those with whom we differ -- like my email correspondent did -- and also about challenging ourselves to respond to those who question us as a way of building bridges of understanding across those differences. An email at a time. A conversation at a time. An inch at a time.

It may not heal the world. But it sure won't hurt!