Transcript: Our full interview with Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church
In this podcast transcript, host Rabbi Rami speaks with Bishop Michael Curry about how the church is being called back to its deeper roots in the teachings of Jesus.
This episode of Essential Conversations is supported by Rob Bell and his profound and deeply personal new audio book, Everything is Spiritual. Join Bell as he explores powerful insights into understanding your true purpose and place in the world. Order your copy wherever audio books are sold.
Rabbi Rami: From the Spirituality and Health magazine, I’m Rabbi Rami, and this is Essential Conversations. Our guest today, Bishop Michael Curry, is the 27th and current presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church. Elected in 2015, he’s the first African-American to serve as presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church. He’s the author of a number of books including Crazy Christians: A Call to follow Jesus, and his most recent book, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. We’re going to talk a little bit about both books. A review of Love is the Way appears in the September/October issue of Spirituality and Health. Bishop Curry, welcome to Essential Conversations.
Bishop Michael Curry: Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you for having me.
Rabbi Rami: It’s my pleasure, the books were fun. I am actually a big fan of the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Michael: Thank you.
Rabbi Rami: I have a lot of friends in the clergy, some my age in their 70s, some way younger. It’s a fascinating church.
Bishop Michael: Thank you for that. Good to have friends like you. [chuckles]
Rabbi Rami: I won’t call on you to explain what I don’t understand about the church, but I am a fan of the church. I’m also a fan of Jesus, and we’ll get into that as we go along. Before we get into the new book, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, I want to ask you about Crazy Christians. In that book, and I’m going to quote you, you write, “Forgive me for saying it this way but Jesus was, and is, crazy. Those who would follow Him, those who would be His disciples, those who would live as and be the people of the way are called to be exactly that: crazy. If you asked me what the church needs today, I would say this, we need some crazy Christians.” I love that. I wrote a book called Holy Rascals. It’s a similar kind of thing, I see Jesus as a holy rascal. I have two questions so we can get into this a little bit. I’m going to ask you to define crazy Christian for us, and then after you do that, I’ll ask you a second question on that.
Bishop Michael: I preached a sermon by that title, which was the springboard for the book. The occasion of the sermon was at a convention of the Episcopal Church. The particular feast day that was being observed was the feast day of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I started reading about her a little bit more than I knew from school, been reading up about her. The more I read about her, the more I realized that whatever her Christian faith did for her, it caused her to be out of step with many in the society and the culture.
It caused her to be almost intrinsically counter-cultural, which is to say Harriet Beecher Stowe could have lived a life of wealth, of satisfaction, of going to parties and cotillions and that kind of thing, and just living it up and having a nice life. Instead, she made a decision to be somebody who would participate in the movement to set slaves free, to participate in the Underground Railroad.
At one point I remember saying I had this image of this quaint New England lady in her rocking chair knitting, meanwhile in her basement, runaway slaves were on their way to Canada. To ask, how does somebody like that who could have just lived a life of self-centered privilege become someone of self-sacrifice? That’s where I made the connection to the teachings and the way of Jesus of Nazareth and his way of love, that it is intrinsically counter-cultural, and the world will call you crazy when you do that.
That was where it really came from. I can even connect the way of love is sometimes counter-cultural, sometimes it seems crazy. I used the metaphor of craziness, and then even the sermon just saying, "Think about people who have changed the world, and they have tended to be people who were labeled crazy in their time.” Yet, the thing that was called sane in their time was actually the thing that was crazy.
Rabbi Rami: Given the cultural norms, love is crazy. I mentioned at the top of the show, the introduction that you are African-American, and I am not. I want to be respectful and not-- Let me put it this way, I’m just going to ask my questions and you can tell me how stupid I am.
Bishop Michael: Go ahead, man. Go ahead. [laughs]
Rabbi Rami: If I remember right, one of the big criticisms of James Baldwin was that he talked a lot about love. His own people didn’t see that as counter-cultural, they saw it as, what, collaborating or something. I’m going to ask you what you think about it, but it seemed to me to be radically counter-cultural then, no less than it is now.
Bishop Michael: There is. I’m 67, so I’ve got a few years under my belt. I’m not as old as some, but older than others. Been around. One of the things I'm beginning to realize, and the more I listen to scripture, the more I live, I’ve come to the conclusion that the opposite of love is not necessarily hatred, it's not hate. The opposite of love is unbridled self-centeredness, that the nature of love is that it is giving, it’s not self-centered.
It actually seeks good and the welfare and the well-being of others, as well as the self but it seeks the good and welfare of others as well as the self, not just self. I think, biblically, you can look at that. It’s all over the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, this is all over. It’s all over the scriptures that self-sacrificing love is seen as one of the greatest and highest forms of love. There are many forms of love but that scene is one of the greatest and highest forms of love.
I just think that that notion in and of itself is intrinsically counter-intuitive to myself, and counter-cultural for all of us, because it means that I’m being called to live a life that is not centered on Michael, that’s not about me but that's about we. That is sometimes counter to my instincts of my own self-preservation first, and yours second, and counter to our cultural instinct, “We’re number one, we’re all that matters, and everybody else is on the periphery.” That’s counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.
Rabbi Rami: Sure. Mainstream American culture, and maybe elsewhere, but certainly mainstream American culture is all about “me,” all about the self. It’s a zero-sum game that if I’m going to win, somebody else has to lose. You do give a very succinct, wonderful definition of love in the book, but I want to hold onto that for a second, because I want to stick with the crazy Christian idea.
Actually, before I even give you that, I don't know if you’re familiar with Rabbi Hillel, who lots of scholars thought Jesus either came out of his school or perhaps was actually taught by him. Just apropos to what you just said, Hillel is famous for a number of one-liners. One of them in English is, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?” It's not an either/or, it’s an and. I think Jesus embodied that. That’s what makes him crazy.
You say we need some crazy Christians. I think I’ve got the definition of what a crazy Christian is, but I want to know how ... Here you are, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, you're trying to raise up crazy Christians. I want to know how that’s going, and how the church, if this true—I’m just assuming because it’s an organization—how the church is pushing back against the very notion of raising crazy Christians.
Bishop Michael: That’s a great question. Part of what’s going on there, I think, is calling the church back to its deeper roots in the teachings and the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. My sense is that if you look at the history of Christianity or history of the church, it has erred profoundly, the further it has gone away from the core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his spirit, and embodied all sorts of abstractions, and just become part of the world, or part of empires, or part of the culture, and all of that kind.
When the church has been reformed historically, it’s been when somebody has pushed it back to it roots, to actually take a look at the Jesus of Nazareth in the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor and the meek and those who seek for justice, the peacemakers, have pushed it back to the Jesus of Nazareth and actually listened to his teachings. I love that conversation with that lawyer who says, “What's the greatest law in the teachings of Moses?” Jesus reaches back to Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and he says, “You shall love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself,” which gets to the point you’re making, you love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. There’s the whole law, there’s the key to life.
When the church gets back to that Jesus, then the church doesn’t sanction slavery, then the church doesn’t sanction the subjection of anybody, then the church is not on the side of those who would oppress and put down, but always on the side of those who are put down and needing to be lifted up. Then the church finds itself on the right moral side, if you will. When it becomes complicit with the culture, with the way things are, that is when the church has historically gotten into diabolical stuff that has hurt and harmed human beings, and sometimes the creation itself.
Rabbi Rami: The last thing it deals with when that happens is, Matthew 25, what you do to the least of these. I totally get that. As the head of the Episcopal Church, Martin Luther was an attempt to go back to Jesus, and it's all a matter of opinion, I would say the Quakers tried to do that. The Anglican Church, that was a political thing. That wasn’t, “Let’s get back to our roots,” that was, “Let me do what I want to do as king and tell the pope to shove it.” The Anglican Church, which I know is not exactly the Episcopal ... The Anglican Church becomes the church of Empire. When the Brits used to say, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” well, the sun never sets on the Anglican Empire. How strong is this penchant for Empire, even in the American Episcopal Church?
Bishop Michael: Some of its cultural in the culture, how something from the past gets carried on in the present. It's almost just like it’s in the water, it’s there. You hit on something, whenever religion gets allied with the Empire, whatever Empire is, it’s in danger of losing its soul. That’s what Jesus of Nazareth ... His way consistently points away from being allied with Empire, but actually seeking the good and the welfare and the well-being of those who are part of the Empire, including the Emperor, if necessary. [laughs]
You said that, we struggle with that in the Episcopal Church, in the wider Anglican Communion, even though the British Empire, doesn’t exist anymore, the culture of it and the history and the legacy of it does. That's why I’ve been really encouraging—time will tell whether it bears fruit that I’ve said to the Episcopal Church, “We must no longer simply be the Episcopal Church.” That’s fine. My pension is tied up to that, I get that, but that’s not good enough.
We must become a Jesus movement that has its institutional embodiment as Episcopal Church, but at its heart and soul is actually trying to live out the teachings of Jesus about love, and forgiveness and compassion, and justice and goodness, and about changing the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intended, when God first said, “Let there be anything.” That’s what this faith is about. The closer we get to those teachings in that core of Jesus of Nazareth, we will find our soul again, and we will be liberated from Empire.
Rabbi Rami: Amen, Brother Curry. [laughs]
Bishop Michael: Amen, Brother Rabbi.
Rabbi Rami: We should be clear, at least I want to be clear, that this is not a Christian problem. This is a problem with religion and power.
Bishop Michael: Right.
Rabbi Rami: You could say the same thing about Judaism in the State of Israel, where for the first time in 2,000 years, Judaism has an army, and it doesn’t go well. Religion always becomes the handmaiden of the powerful and not the prophetic counterculture.
Bishop Michael: Yes, exactly.
Rabbi Rami: The same thing with a lot of what happens in Islam and actually, in Buddhism and Hinduism in India with internationalism. It’s happening on a global scale.
In the book, you’re also talking a more personal level. The title of the book begs the question, What is love, and you gave this one a beautiful answer. You give another one in the book that really struck me. I’m just going to quote it to you, not going to ask you to remember it. You write, “Love is a firm commitment to act for the well-being of someone other than yourself.” How difficult is it to overcome what you called a moment ago, this unbridled self centeredness? You could talk as a culture and and that’s fine, but even as an individual, how difficult is it to do that?
Bishop Michael: It is difficult. I was talking to somebody earlier today, not about the book specifically, but we were getting through the conversation. I said, “If you hit me, my instinct is probably going to be either to hit you back or to run.” It’s going to be fight or flight. I don’t know if that’s just part of our evolutionary biology, I have no idea, but that’s the way human beings are. Love is a third way, that sometimes there’s a third way.
It is a way to engage that seeks the good and it seeks to bring out whatever the good is possible in a given situation. That is the way of love. That is not easy to do, because that’s not often my automatic reflex. I have to learn it. When Dr. King, and going back to Mahatma Gandhi and others back to Jesus of Nazareth, you go back there, non-violence is actually almost any equivalent of love lived out in action, that the non-violent way, the way of love, they’re almost synonymous.
That was the genius that Gandhi realized, that, wait a minute, this talk of love—he saw it in Hinduism, and he saw it in the sermon on the Mount of Jesus, this is not a passivity that doesn't seek to accomplish the good and that becomes complicit with evil. It’s a way of overcoming evil, not with more evil, but with good. That takes work. That’s hard, that’s not easy. I’ve realized, at least in my own life, there’s some capacity within all of us to do that.
It gets enhanced and strengthened from two other sources. One is other people, and mentioned communities of love. Other people can help us on that journey, both in terms of accountability, and in terms of support, and in terms of guidance. I think ultimately, God—I mean, the source of love. I believe that God is the source of love, the energy of love. Like the New Testament says, God is love. I think that is about the best theological definition of God. I haven’t thought of anything better, that God is love.
Rabbi Rami: You want something better?
Bishop Michael: [crosstalk]
Rabbi Rami: You want a better definition? This one comes from Rabbi Saul of Tarsus who you know as St. Paul. God is that in whom we live and move and have our being.
Bishop Michael: Oh, that's a good one.
Rabbi Rami: That, to me from the book of Acts is the best definition of God. True to the Hebrew, true to the Chinese concept of Dao, to the Buddhist to the Hindu Brahmin. I think I love that definition, but I absolutely love what you're saying about God is love. I want to talk a little bit more about God with you in a sec. I feel you. I get it. Jesus is all about love, yet turn the other cheek as if that were an act of passivity, when in fact—I’m going to tell you what I know and ask you to see if you think that’s true. This is not my own idea. This comes from the Christian theologian, Walter Wink.
Bishop Michael: That's right. Right.
Rabbi Rami: You want to unpack Wink for us, and I don't have to do it, but Wink’s understanding of, turn the other cheek?
Bishop Michael: Yes. It’s the backhanded slap thing.
Rabbi Rami: Right. Right. Exactly.
Bishop Michael: That you turn the other cheek, and you force the person who is imposing the violence to actually hit you with respect and not with disrespect. It’s moral jujitsu. You take the energy of negative and you flip it into a positive.
Rabbi Rami: Exactly. Jesus says, if they strike you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek. For 2,000 years, we remembered that it was the right cheek. Like you said, the backhanded slap. Romans were obsessed with being right-handed. It’s a backhanded slap, the way you'd smack a dog or it’s a sign of dehumanization. When Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” the only way a right-handed Roman can hit you on the on the left cheek is with an open palm or a fist, I suppose. That’s a sign of anger between equals. There’s a bunch of these, go the extra mile. There's a bunch of them. These are all powerful confrontational moments in the Gospel that we have, over the millennia, turned into Jesus, meek and mild when he was anything but.
Bishop Michael: Right. Right.
Rabbi Rami: What happened to Jesus? [laughs]
Bishop Michael: Jesus was founding a non-violent movement.
Rabbi Rami: Right. What happened?
Bishop Michael: Well, I think it’s deliberate. On the one hand, he is much more manageable when we turn him into Jesus, meek and mild because he doesn't demand anything of me. He doesn't challenge me. I know full well, I have domesticated Jesus whenever I’ve made myself too comfortable with it. I don’t think it would have been particularly comfortable to be around Jesus.
Rabbi Rami: Yes, I agree. I would have loved to have been there.
Bishop Michael: I think he would be lovingly unsettling. [laughs]
Rabbi Rami: Yes.
Bishop Michael: Well, I think the same kind of thing has happened to Martin Luther King. I get Martin Luther King was a human being and he had frailties like everybody else, just like me, just like you, but he was a remarkable person who did some remarkable stuff, but he was not popular in his own time. Even his method of love and non-violence was challenged especially in the later years of his life. When he died, he did not die with his birthday being a national holiday. He died at the bottom almost, if you will, in despair to the point that some of his closest followers were really concerned about him being in a depression. We forget that.
Rabbi Rami: When he turned against poverty and he turned against Vietnam War, he made it.
Bishop Michael: Right.
Rabbi Rami: He wasn’t the white man’s partner in this effort to cover over the racism that existed and still exists.
Bishop Michael: The way of love calls out truth, it names injustice. It names wrong. I grew up hearing the language of love in the movement of civil rights. That’s where I learned it from, and from a family that was involved. That was just so that I can’t conceive of love as simply sweet and sentimental. There's a place for that. I’m married. I know about Valentine’s Day. I got it marked on my calendar so I don’t forget my anniversary.
Those kinds of things are important, but love is bigger than that. Even that. It actually, I think, is the way we were intended to live, which is why it has such positive energy. Why does it feel good when you know you’re loved? I was an inner city pastor for years, before I became a bishop, in Baltimore and worked a lot with kids in the city. Many came from struggling homes and a lot of that. One of the things I came to realize was that the reason for gangs was that kids who weren’t getting it from home and environment, were looking for the love of a family.
Whereas, everybody knows my name. Even though the behavior, the outward behavior was tough and dangerous and sometimes violent, at the root of it was this deep longing to be loved. Brother, you’ve been a rabbi. You are a rabbi. You've been a pastor, you know--I have been with tough folk when they’re dying and I’ve never seen any of them just simply want to get more revenge.
Rabbi Rami: [laughs] Yes.
Bishop Michael: [laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t want be in trouble on Judgement Day with that on me. Most people don’t. Think about it, why does it feel good to be loved? It’s because you were made to be loved. You were made to love. You were made to receive it and give it. When we live out of that energy, in spite of the fact that it can be very difficult and sometimes painful, sometimes may need sacrificial death, there’s a power in it that is salvific and whole-making. It takes community. I really do. I think it takes community and takes an ongoing living relationship with a living God, with the energies of love that come from the source of love itself. I don't think there are any secrets. I think it’s tied to that community and God.
Rabbi Rami: Let me ask you one last question. I think you've helped us with the God idea. You're talking about God is love but not this weak thing but this real searing, prophetic, powerful counter-cultural love. You've been very clear about that. I just want to ask the question, can love really change the world? I'm thinking that one of the things I love about Christianity is that the Christian mythos.
I don't mean that in a negative way but the metaphor of the life, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus is such a powerful, powerful luminous educational story. Whether it's true or not, is irrelevant. We're not talking about history. I have a sense that our culture, not just America but the whole capitalist or maybe humankind itself, is undergoing this global crucifixion, this global dark night of the soul, that we have to be crucified on the cross of our own ignorance and arrogance and fear and our own unbridled self-centeredness.
We have to go through that. It’s got to be this absolute death of all that crap, and then we go into the cave of unknowing, I guess. Then there’s a hope of a resurrection. No guarantees, I’m not saying that. There’s a hope of a resurrection. When you look at all the madness going on with Kenosha and the elections and all this stuff—I don’t want to say the resurgence of racism, I think it’s always been there at this level but someone’s pulled the scab off and we can see it in a more raw way. What do you think is going on? Can you see it, or do you see it, or can you help me understand it in the context of the crucifixion and the resurrection?
Bishop Michael: I don’t know why, but I do know that in the dynamic of human change, both little and big, something has to die in order for something new to be born and to come to life. Most of our religious traditions talk about this dying to self and something new rising to newness of life. Something emerging out of that.
You know what I mean? Something must be shed. In the dynamics of social change and personal change, something must come to an end in order for something new to be born, even though that something new, maybe related to what it was. That is true and so there is no—I don’t know exactly why change happens that way. I just know that it does. I know that there in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, which for Christian folk is patterned almost after the night of the Passover and the dawn of freedom and liberation in Exodus.
Hebrew slaves aren’t set free until after the night of the angel of death passing over. Why? I don’t know. I just know that that’s how personal change and growth and social change happens. There's a great sermon, Dr. King preached the sermon, he preached it a lot, several times but early on called “A Knock at Midnight,” where the dawn in the dark are battling. That it’s out of that midnight that any hope of a new dawn actually begins to emerge.
It’s in the midst of that titanic struggle between dawn and darkness. It’s true for us now. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like but I know that part of our job now is to work to call out the best because we cannot tolerate the worst. When we think about Kenosha or George Floyd, watching that man, another human being, with his knee on another person's neck snuffing out the breath of life that God put into him.
That man cries out, “I can't breathe. I want my mother.” We saw that. We saw the abyss in Charlottesville, when we saw neo-Nazis and Klansmen walking through the streets of Charlottesville shrieking hatred and bile in khakis with tiki torches in their hands. We saw what the abyss looks like. We saw day and night challenging and confronting each other. At some point, it’s in those moments when people like you and people like me must make a decision, ”Are we going to choose the darkness or are we going to claim the light?" That’s what the way of love is about.
We must claim the light in ourselves as well as the light around us and we must as your buddy Paul, Saul of Tarsus has said, ”We must cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” That's the choice we make in those moments. There used to be an old hymn, it was taken out of our new hymnal. It was James Russel Lowell. It was, ”Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side.” There’s a reality. We may be in one of those moments of decision where we as a nation must decide, will we choose to live in the darkness, or will we choose the emerging dawning possibility of the light?
Rabbi Rami: Amen to that. It seems to me you can tie both your Crazy Christian book and the way of love by—what I’m hearing you say is we have to hold on to the craziness of love in the deepening darkness of this social-cultural collapse. This has been a great conversation. We are out of time and I’m really disappointed in that because you are such a delight to talk to with.
Bishop Michael: As are you, brother.
Rabbi Rami: Our guest today, Bishop Michael Curry is the current presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and is the author of a new book, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. Bishop Curry, thank you so much for talking with us on Essential Conversations.
Bishop Michael: Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you, and God bless.
Rabbi Rami: God bless you.
Rabbi Rami: Essential Conversations with Rabbi Rami is the bi-weekly podcast of Spirituality and Health magazine. If you like Essential Conversations, please rate and review us on Apple podcasts and subscribe to the show on your preferred podcast app. You can also follow me on Spirituality and Health’s website where I now write a regular column called Roadside Musings, and on my new podcast, Conversations On The Edge. Don’t forget to subscribe to the print magazine as well. Essential Conversations is produced by Ezra Baker Trupiano and our executive producer is Kathryn Drury Wagner. I’m Rabbi Rami. Thanks for listening.
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