Countering Religious Extremism: A Conversation with Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop and Primate, Episcopal Church
Bishop Michael B. Curry reflects on his recent trip to Ghana and discusses the role religious communities can play in countering radicalization and violent extremism.
GJELTEN: Grateful that I didn’t have to go through all those announcements, which we often have to do up here. So I don’t have to repeat them.
I’m Tom Gjelten. I cover religion and belief for NPR News. And you know very well that our guest this morning is the Most Reverend Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, primate of the Episcopal Church. And we’re going to have a very interesting conversation.
Bishop Curry just got back from Africa, one of many trips you’ve made to Africa, I believe, and we’re going to be talking about that—some of the issues that came up during that visit, some of the lessons you learned. And as the moderator, I’m going to—I get to—I get to have Bishop Curry all to myself for 30 minutes. And then, after about a half hour, we will turn it over to questions and you’ll have your opportunities to ask him anything you want, pretty much.
But I think that we’re going to be focusing this morning on the future of Christianity in the Global South. I’m sure that’s an issue that you’ve thought a lot about, Bishop Curry. The topic that is on the invitation is “Countering Religious Extremism,” which is something—of course, a very real and serious current problem in Africa in particular. Also interested in the role of the Episcopal Church here in the United States, especially at this particular moment, and what role the church can play. So we have a lot to cover.
Let’s start, Bishop Curry, with your recent trip to Africa. You just got back from Ghana. How many trips have you made?
CURRY: To Ghana or to Africa?
GJELTEN: To Africa.
CURRY: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. How many fingers do I have? (Laughter.) But this was my third time, I believe, in Ghana.
GJELTEN: In Ghana alone.
CURRY: Third time. And it was—this particular trip was actually a pilgrimage for a number of folk, some of whom are involved in the work of Episcopal Relief and Development and doing international development on behalf of the church. Others were some leaders in the Episcopal Church. But the rubric under which this particular trip happened was a pilgrimage to Ghana, facing racial reconciliation. And the design and the intent was to actually return to the embarkation port, if you will, place, for many who were enslaved here in the—in the Americas, in the Western world, and to reenter that past. It’s sort of like—some of you know that in the Buddhist tradition part of redeeming the past is by reentering into it, and reentering into it, facing it, and then moving forward in a new direction. That actually is the meaning of the word “repentance” in the New Testament: to reenter, the face the path honestly, and then to turn in a new direction, and to create a new future. That’s how you redeem the past. You can’t change it, but you can redeem it. And so this pilgrimage was kind of modeled on that notion in terms of both racial reconciliation now and also reconciliation that involves dealing with the antecedents to some of the situations that we’re dealing with now.
GJELTEN: That must have been a very emotional experience.
CURRY: You know, it really was, for everyone. It was both emotional and a deeply spiritual one. You know, certainly—I mean, I have to say that when we were at Cape Coast, at the two castles which were both dungeons and the prisons where slaves were kept. And you’ve probably seen the images of the door of no return or the Gate of No Return, where slaves would pass through and would go on the boats on this ocean, on this strange land. I mean, even in the biblical and the Hebrew tradition, the ocean water, that turbulent water is seen as the chaos, the primeval chaos, and that God conquers that chaos and causes creation to happen in Genesis 1. Imagine for traditional peoples who had not even seen the ocean before, had no concept of it, to suddenly be thrust out of the womb that they had been in, the world that they had known, and then to be thrust into that primeval chaos of absolute insanity and nothingness, and then to be taken somewhere you had no idea where you were going, many of the people who were with you had died along the way. It’s similar to the indigenous—to the Trail of Tears in this country, the numbers of people who literally died and were left to die. All of that horror, and they passed through one of the castles in particular, passed through the Gate of No Return, and the slave dungeons are underneath what was an Anglican Church. And Anglican’s in my tradition. I’m an Episcopalian. I’m proud to be an Episcopalian, but we’ve got some history. As we say in the family, we got some issues. (Laughter.)
GJELTEN: Are you talking about complicity of the Anglican—
CURRY: That’s a good word. (Laughter.) Yeah, that’s a good—sure. But that’s—again, that’s part of our history, and that’s part of the history we have to face in order to face a new day, in order to move forward. And so to stand there and to know that these slave dungeons, which are just unimaginable in terms of just—even now just to look at them, the darkness, the dampness, the absence of light, absence of oxygen, and people piled on each other like bodies. I mean, you all have seen some of those images. But actually see some of that, and then to realize there’s a church on top of it. There was a church on top of it where people somehow had the audacity to blaspheme the name of God with worship that doesn’t lead to actual following. And that was—you know, the Western world was complicit in that. I mean, I can honestly say that that complicity was truly ecumenical. (Laughter.) And—(laughs)—
GJELTEN: So, Bishop Curry, what’s the lesson of that? What is the lesson of that blasphemy for us today?
CURRY: You know, when we were there, one of the questions that I asked—I don’t remember who I was talking to. There a film crew with us, so I may have been saying it on—when I was being filmed; I can’t remember. But one of the questions that I asked was: Where did we go wrong, as the church? Which is to say: How did we get from the Jesus of Nazareth, who sums up the entire religious enterprise, Matthew 22—I mean, sums the whole thing up. He says the whole religious enterprise is going to be summed up in this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. I mean, he goes back to Moses and draws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and brings those two together. And he says, these two principles of love of God and love of neighbor, he says, on these two—in the Matthew version—hang all the law and the prophets, which is an extraordinary statement in and of itself. Now, how do we get from that Jesus, or the Jesus who on the cross forgives his enemies—which includes Pontius Pilate, who orders that execution, and the soldiers who tortured him—how do we get from that Jesus, that Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount—you know, the blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit, the compassionate, the merciful, those who seek justice—how do we get from that Jesus to a religion that somehow bears its name that can actually tolerate those kinds of injustice?
And so my question was, what did we do wrong? Where did we—where did the church, where did religious faith? And again, I—this is ecumenical and interfaith. Where did we go wrong? And I don’t have all the—I’m still wrestling with that, to be very honest.
Part of it, I think, has to do—and it may—and, I mean, Alex Haley comes to mind. While we were there, we were—we went to a slave camp, and—which was one of the—one of the places where they would stop and basically sell slaves at that—at that point, and leave others for dead. And anyway, we went to the slave camp, and there are enough remnants there that you can actually still see—I mean, the bowls, the eating places were carved out of the stone, so they’re still there, where people carved out kind of bowls so that people could eat out of that. But the interesting—one of the guides said the trees that are here—because you can date the age of a tree—these trees were here; they bore witness. And being in that particular place in that camp and seeing the lethal—I mean, I said at one point, I said, you know, I mean, I know about slavery, and I know my history, and I—you know, I—like I say, I’ve been black all my life, so I know the story. (Laughter.) So that part—but what I hadn’t grasped, I don’t think, even in all the reading and all of the experiences I’ve had, was the calculated, lethal logic that went into the slave trade. I hadn’t actually grasped that.
GJELTEN: It was an industry, wasn’t it? It was a business.
CURRY: It was an industry. It was as efficient as the Nazi killing machine, even to the point of covering up some of the history. I mean, there was evidence of some of the wells or some of the places where bodies—that were actually covered up when the slave trade ended and when it was finally—I mean, a deliberate cover-up. Now, you don’t do that unless you—so my question was, all these people were Christians. I mean, nominally. I mean, I—so where did we go—I mean, I bet most of them were baptized, and I happen to know a whole lot of them were baptized in the Anglican tradition.
Now, again, I’m an American Episcopalian, so we’re the product of the Revolutionary War. So we can, like, distance ourselves a little bit. (Laughter.) But not that much.
You know, and so where did we go wrong? And part of it goes back to that tree. One of the trees that we saw that they said—that the guide said was there, if you looked at it, had these—I don’t know enough about trees, but anyway, it was one of those trees where you can see some of the root system above ground, and you can see how complex it is, and then it goes down. It goes down deep, deep enough—this particular place was up in the northern part of Ghana, where you’re beginning to see some of the Sahara—I mean, some of the desert. But it goes down deep, where it finds water. Part of me suspects—this is only on a preliminary thought—that part of what has happened is, when we are disconnected in terms of our religious traditions from the deep roots of those faith and moved to the level of cultural accretions over time—disconnected from the deep roots—that’s where all sorts of craziness becomes possible, and all sorts of justification in the name of religion becomes possible, because the closer you get to the root—the closer you get for us as Christians to Jesus of Nazareth—that contradiction is so obvious, I mean, it’s unassailable. I mean, it really—and I suspect that that’s part of it.
And so people were formed at that time as Christians more as a kind of cultural Christianity than being formed as the real kind of follower of the way of Jesus, which would be contrary to that. And you’d have to embody and know full well you were contradicting.
GJELTEN: Yeah. Now, the Anglican Church in Africa was—literally stood at that time on top of slave dungeons, and yet today is a very powerful institution that represents black Africans, and the leaders of the church are all African. How has that affected—how has that legacy affected the development of the Anglican Communion in Africa? And what is the—you know, what is reflected in that legacy today?
CURRY: Well, Ghana would be a good example, but there are others around the continent, especially in former English colonies. I mean, that’s where the Anglican tradition would typically be. I mean, there’s some sense in which the Anglican Communion is the Commonwealth at prayer, which makes us in the Episcopal Church sort of the outliers, but we’re guests at the—I mean.
But what do you see is an Anglican Church, certainly in Ghana but in other places as well, that, one, is indigenous in terms of its leadership and its direction—
GJELTEN: So it became indigenous at a certain point.
CURRY: It became indigenous, right, after the colonial period.
CURRY: But it became indigenous.
GJELTEN: So only within the last 60, 70 years.
CURRY: Sixty, yeah, 70, yeah. You can do the math, but yeah.
But what you have, for example, in Ghana, Episcopal Relief and Development works with the Ghanaian Anglican Development, and they’re doing some really creative and powerful and effective, especially in the areas of empowerment of women and children, and especially around education. And again, I mean, one of the things about the church in Africa—and this is true in the Anglican Church as it would be true in the Roman Catholic, in the Lutheran churches in the—I mean, in the eastern side of Africa, and many of the other traditions—what you find is these churches, because they are indigenous for the most part, are actually—maybe not the best metaphor, but boots on the ground. And so the church networks are pretty effective networks for human service delivery because they actually are in the villages. I mean, these churches are actually there, and these local clergy and catechists. And so the Anglican Church in Ghana has community workers, works cooperatively with the health service in Ghana. And so there’s health service delivery, especially through community health workers who go from village to village, that actually is on the ground, making a difference in terms of health care.
I mean, I’ve heard now—I don’t want to misquote myself. Rebecca Blachly from our Office of Government Relations, if you cringe, I’ll know I’m wrong. (Laughter.) But I think it is the case that the Roman Catholic Church is the largest health care delivery system on the continent of Africa.
GJELTEN: The Roman Catholic Church.
CURRY: The Roman Catholic Church, yeah. You want to get health care to folk, pay attention to the Roman Catholic Church. I mean, these church networks are—they’re huge because they’re indigenous and they’re all over. And they go below the government level. And governments come and go, but they go below that level and they continue.
I mean, I used to say when I was—when I was a bishop in North Carolina, I said, remember, we’re older than IBM. (Laughter.) And the truth is, I mean, these churches, for all our failings and foibles, I mean, it’s like Old Man River, like that song, just keep rolling along. And it—and it does. I mean, the church in all of its various forms and traditions has existed through times.
I was just in a conversation last night, and we were talking about the struggles of our culture right now. And somebody at the table said, remember, the church has been through this kind of thing before, have navigated it. And so that’s true in the continent of Africa.
I’ll give you another example. I mean, one of the—I mean, there are people here who know development much better than I do, but one of the most fascinating experiences was for years I’ve been hearing about The Donkey Project. You know, there are Heifer projects, but The Donkey Project. And Episcopal Relief and Development had been involved and other development agencies had been involved for years, but it basically was how do you help women farm land. And these—you know, these bulls, I mean, navigating them for plowing the ground is tough. I mean, I couldn’t do it, but the African—the average African woman in sub-Saharan Africa, who the archbishop of Canterbury rightly says is actually who the average Anglican is in the world—
GJELTEN: Right. I remember that from his conversation here.
CURRY: Yeah, that really is true. The average Anglican is an African woman probably in her 30s. That’s the average Anglican. Not Michael Curry, not Her Majesty, an African woman in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s the average Anglican.
And, well, how do you help that average Anglican woman if she’s got a family and children, and if farming is the key, plow the ground? And so they’ve harnessed donkeys, which is—you know, I’m a city boy, so I don’t know anything about—(laughter)—I mean, about a horse or donkey. I mean, it looks—but anyway. (Laughter.) And so they harness donkeys.
And so we were there at one of the villages, and women were showing off—there was like kind of one donkey who was sort of—it was kind of like a fashionista donkey. I mean, this was the one you show, because this donkey really knew how to act and—(laughter).
GJELTEN: (Laughs.) He’s too hard.
CURRY: And then there was this other one in the field who was supposed to plow—I mean, you could do a sociology on this, but I’m going to leave it alone—(laughter)—but who was supposed to plow, and that donkey decided she wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. And so she took off and ran out into the field, and she had two babies with her, and the two babies went after her. And there were some goats who were just kind of hanging out in the neighborhood, and they said, well, we’re joining the party too. And so you had these donkeys and the two baby donkeys, and then these goats, and then you have all these villagers chasing after the—(laughter). If I had been able to film it, it would have been classic.
But what that experience showed was, how do you help people find independence, independent source of income, sustainable independence, and to build a quality of life. And as we all know—I mean, we’ve learned in development work over the years, whether it was the Millennium Development Goals or Sustainable Development Goals now, the truth is the key to impacting villages or small communities is going to be the empowerment of women and the education of children. And so, if you empower that woman and give them the economic levers as well as—they’ll take it and run with it.
We watched a cooperative—a bank cooperative. All that work, that wasn’t the Episcopal Church, that’s the Anglican Church of Ghana. The Episcopal Church is a partner, but they’re doing it. And so, whatever the colonial legacy was, they have now taken that and are now building: how do we build our countries and build the spiritual infrastructure so that people can live. And they’re doing it.
GJELTEN: You know, the stories that you’re telling really cast a different light on the story of the Anglican Communion of one year ago, which was dominated by this news of tension between the Anglican Church of the north and the Anglican Church of the south, and, you know, sort of the perception that the Anglican Church of the north was being very broad-minded and inclusive about civil rights for LGBT people and the Anglican Church of the south was somehow retrograde or not sensitive to the needs of LGBT people. You were retelling that story about the contrast between the church of the south and the church of the north.
CURRY: Yeah. You know, again, we have—I mean, the Anglican Communion, like, is a global church. I mean, it’s, what, 80 million folk. Wherever the British Empire was, we are there, for good or ill. Like I said, you got history, you got—that’s part of our history. And so the Anglican Communion is in all of those. And I used to say, when I was a bishop in—when I was in North Carolina, I said, you know, Kampala and San Francisco may be on the same planet, but they’re in different worlds. (Laughs.)
GJELTEN: Yeah. Right.
CURRY: Right? And that’s part of our global cultural reality, that we live in different worlds and contexts. And people of faith live in those contexts, and live their faith out in those particular contexts. That’s always been true. It’s more obviously true because we can see it instantaneously. You know, the tech guy having turned off my—or off—or turn my cellphone—or my smartphone into auto do that it wouldn’t conflict with the—I mean, everybody in this room probably has a smartphone on them right now—everybody in this room.
And you can find out instantaneously what’s going on in some other part of the world, just like that. Well, that fact alone is a game changer to some extent—to some extent a whole lot of things went on in different parts of the world before, but nobody knew about them. Or when you found out, it was a year later. Now it’s instantaneous communication and some of the communication’s accurate and some it’s not. And anybody can get on the internet and say anything. I mean, it’s actually true. I mean, it—and so you have that creating a complex for a global communion, where it become—where the difference becomes starker maybe than they really are, because of that. I mean, so I think that’s been some of it.
But I can tell you—and, you know, I may be an optimist—it’s all right. I’m 63. I’ve been around the barn. I know what sin is. I get it. (Laughs.) But my experience of the Anglican community globally is that there is far more—far more that unites us than that divides us.
GJELTEN: Do you feel that as sharply—do you feel that more sharply today than you did a year ago, in the aftermath of the Communion?
CURRY: A year ago?
GJELTEN: When the U.S. Episcopal Church was suspended from the Anglican Communion temporarily.
CURRY: Well, I was there. Oh, yes.
GJELTEN: Yeah, so I’m saying, do you feel that—you just said that there’s more that unites us than divides us. Do you feel that more now than you might have a year ago?
CURRY: Actually, no, I felt it then. Now, again, the differences and the differences as they are articulated get played out a little bit more, but I’ll give you an example. Even what is called a suspension, look at carefully what the primates meeting—that’s the heads of the provincial churches in the Anglican community. It’s—I don’t know how many of us there are—38? I’ve never been called a primate before in my life. (Laughter.) I’m going to leave that one alone, but anyway. (Laughter.) Anglican primates gathered—let your mind picture that—but anyway. (Laughs.) You know, so we were all at Canterbury Cathedral. And the archbishop of Canterbury had summoned or invited us. And we came together. And we were there, I guess, a week—I can’t remember—about a week.
And over the course of the week had difficult but important conversations. And we prayed together morning, midday, and evening, and deliberated together. And people were praying for that gathering. And I can tell you that by the end, while everyone wasn’t—everyone didn’t leave singing Kumbaya, we did leave with a commitment and it was phrased in—I think in the resolution, that we made a commitment that we would continue to walk together, that we are Anglicans, we are Christians in the Anglican way. I was in the room. We all made that commitment. And the outcome of that process led to what might be called certain—it wasn’t suspension—
GJELTEN: I used the wrong word.
CURRY: No, no, but it’s good you did, actually. It really is, because what happened was there were two expectations that the primates asked the Episcopal Church, at least on the primatial level. And first was that we would not, for three years, vote on matters of doctrine and polity since our decision with regard to marriage equality was a change—at least, this is how it’s perceived—a change in both doctrine, the former teachings of the church, and polity, how it governs itself. And so therefore, we could not represent the church. We shouldn’t vote for three years on that. And then secondly, that we—our representatives on ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, where you’re dealing with matters of doctrine usually—that we couldn’t represent the Anglican community. So for three years we would absent ourselves from that.
The word that was used, and I think the archbishop has used it, these were consequences. Now, if you look at those, that’s—you know, that’s—well, why I might not agree, I can live with that. And we have. The Episcopal Church has. And we stay in relationship. And the mission work goes on. And, I mean, I’ll be back in Africa in a few months. I’ll be in Asia at the end of the—I mean, but the work goes on. The relationships continue. We have accepted the consequences of our decision. We have affirmed, this is who we are in our context. But we understand that others are in a different context, and we’ll respect that. And I think it’s out of that mutual respect and difference that we’re able to cohere. And I think—and I know that that’s true for most of the primates and most of the people in the Anglican community. And I can tell you, on the ground I know it’s true. And at the primatial level it is true for the overwhelming majority of those of us who are primates.
GJELTEN: In your conversations with Anglican leaders in Africa, what do you find are the issues that are at the top of their mind? You know, is the issue—some of these social issues about gender and marriage up there, their differences with the churches of the north on that? Or the—are there issues around what it’s like to be a Christian in Africa today and the—sort of the interfaith conflict? What is on their minds?
CURRY: You know what the big—it comes out in different ways. But back in 2008—every 10 years the—or, every 10 years or so, give or take a few years—archbishop of Canterbury gathers all the bishops of the Communion at what’s called the Lambeth conference. Used to be held at Lambeth Palace, but it’s hard to get 800 people in there now. But it’s called a palace but it’s really kind of little. But—very nice, very nice. (Laughter.) But we’re actually using—we’re up at Canterbury at the university there, which is a larger—much larger space. But we were gathered there.
And each day we set aside to study something in our conversations around some particular issue. One of the days was being a bishop and engaging climate change. I can’t remember how it was phrased, but it probably was around environmental stewardship, or something like that. But climate change was the driver. And we were in these groups, in small Bible study groups, and then we’d bring it to the larger groups. It was about 40 people, 40 bishops. And we were in these groups. And we were to discuss this and share. And in the group that I was in, I remember one of the things that the facilitator said: It’s going to be important for those of us in the northern/western world to listen.
And one of the questions—there were others, but I don’t remember the others—but the one question was: How have you been—you and your dioceses and your people—been impacted by climate change? Bishop after bishop from the Pacific rim and Africa talked about changes in the climate and the effect on farming and food supplies, and the increases in levels of poverty, and the increases in conflicts between people over water and over land that really will grow crops, and that there was a shrinking.
I will never forget one of the bishops from Tanzania saying: I remember when I was a little boy I used to look at Mount Kilimanjaro. And I remember it. And it was a snow-capped peak. And now it’s barely a snow-capped peak. I mean, it was story after story after story. In the Pacific, I remember a powerful moment when one of the bishops from the Pacific rim who said—and he was talking to those of us who were American, who were obviously Americans—he said: My people saved John Kennedy in the Second World War. We saved him. And now our islands are going under the water. And America, we need you to save us now.
That’s—I mean, if you really want to know what the issues really are, that’s where it is.
GJELTEN: That’s what unites all the global south.
CURRY: Oh my God, yeah. That’s what—yeah. And you hear it consistently. Now, there are other—I mean, there are a number of other issues, but that—and we don’t get that as clearly in the U.S., and certainly in the northern hemisphere. We’re getting some awareness, much more awareness. And I think that is the human—the toll that climate change is having on human beings, the most vulnerable get it first. But it’s coming our way. And so engaging that in more serious and engaging ways, they all talk about it. It’s a constant. Indeed, interreligious issues, certainly. And on the parallel between Christianity and Islam, those tensions. And there are some good voices—I mean, people like Josiah Fearon, he used to be one of the archbishops in Nigeria but who’s how on the archbishop of Canterbury staff. He’s the head of the Anglican Communion Office now. But Josiah and others have really been involved in engaging—trying to be in some conversations.
So that’s a real—that’s a real concern. I’ll tell you something else that’s a consistent concern, that we engage gingerly and carefully, but we engage. And that really is issues and concerns about gender-based violence. And I can tell you, I was at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. And people thought that the most difficult days were when we were dealing with human sexuality. And that was—I mean, that was difficult. I mean, that was—that was nothing compared to the one day when we dealt with how a bishop can be a role in domestic violence. That was the most tension-filled and most difficult day that we had in that entire Lambeth Conference. And so they’re dealing with that. And we’re dealing with that.
And so they’re dealing with that and we’re dealing with that. And so that—you know, when you really look at the Anglican Communion and other churches and that kind of—we’re dealing with the life and death issues of the people we serve. If your congregation is hungry, you may disagree with the Episcopal Church on who we understand human sexuality, but we agree that no child is meant to starve in this world—none. I don’t care if they’re Muslim, Christian, Hindu. Doesn’t matter who they are. No child of God. And we agree on that. And so let’s move forward on what we agree on and work on that. And the other things we’ll figure them out.
You know, I mean, look, I’ve been married for—oh, God, my wife may be watching this. But—(laughter)—
GJELTEN: For a wonderful, long period of time.
CURRY: A long time. (Laughs.) Good, long period of time. And we’ve been married all these years. We don’t agree on everything. And that’s true with any marriage or any relationship. Relationships are built on commonality that’s stronger than difference. And that’s true in the church, and at our best that that will be true.
GJELTEN: OK. Now it’s your turn. OK, sir, you got your hand up first. Yeah, wait for the mic and maybe you could identify yourself. Remember, this is on the record, so don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind, but keep that in mind. (Laughter.)
Q: Yes. Bill Courtney. I’m a retired diplomat.
Looking at the apparent upsurge in nationalism in the United State and Europe and Russia, how do you see the implications for religious tolerance and religious freedom?
CURRY: The implications are concerning. Dr. King once said that in the final analysis, our true loyalties much move beyond the sectional to the ecumenical. He wasn’t talking about just religion there. That we—he also said that we should learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools. The choices are as chaos and community. Nationalism, authentic self-respect, a legitimate pride in one’s heritage, patriotic duty, those can have a positive place. Now, I mean, I love the United States. And I got issues with it. I ain’t going nowhere, right? (Laughs.) I love it, right? But I don’t love one country more than I love the human family. And for me, that comes out of being Christian. And so while we may have contextual loyalties that are appropriate, we’ve got to have a greater loyalty to the human family and to the creation that God has given us. Otherwise, it could self-destruct in an apocalypse of unenlightened self-interest.
And that’s the danger of nationalism or nativism, which is a degeneration of that, becoming the dominant paradigm for how we live our lives together. And that really is—and that’s always been a human danger, but it’s more lethal now—much more lethal now. I actually believe—you know, again, I speak as a Christian, but I know that it’s true, certainly in the Abrahamic faiths, and true in other traditions in different ways, that the deeper roots of our religious traditions tend—and I know it does in Christianity—to push us back to a concept that we all descend from the same origin.
And I’m saying that almost in nontheological language. If we have the same origin, and that that origin is a self-conscious and intentional reality—you know, we’re not an accident, I mean, it’s not just coincidence. And that if we have that same origin, which we call God, if we had the same creator, then that means that we are intrinsically related to each other and to the creation that this same creator god has made. And if that is the case—now this is my language, but I think if you push our religious traditions at their deepest levels—if that is the case, then that means at our deepest roots we are intrinsically related. Which means, Tom, you may be surprised to know this, but I’m your brother. (Laughter.)
And we are—we were created as a human family. We may be dysfunctional—which goes with the family, probably—but we may be—but that’s how we were created. That’s actually our source and origin which may be an indication of that’s the reason we’re here, to actually be God’s human family. And that our ultimate life together on this planet is not going to be found in just Michael, who is an American, or, you know, Justin Welby, who’s from Britain, or, you know, go around the world. It’s going to be found in the fact that Michael Curry and Justin Welby are children of the one God and creator of us all, and they’re brothers. Therefore, they’re meant to live on this creation as brothers—not as Cain and Abel. You all know that story. (Laughter.) But as God’s human family.
And all of our religious ethics, all of that actually stems out of—it comes out of that. I mean, that’s the reason that’s in Genesis one. And the Bible goes on from there. Anyway, that’s—so nationalism has its place, but we got to get bigger than that. We are a human family. We got to figure how to live that way.
GJELTEN: And this is a time when faith communities need to play some leadership roles.
Q: Thank you. Ellen Frost, East-West Center.
I also visited Ghana. While in Accra, I saw a billboard of a scary-looking witchdoctor, complete with claws, offering white magic or black magic, and he had a website.
CURRY: (Laughs.) Of course.
Q: Next to that was an advertisement for a megachurch, and so on. Stepping back from Ghana a bit, and looking at Africa more broadly, there are many, many religious communities, and many spiritual communities. In order to address the challenges that you mentioned, particularly climate change but also social justice and the others, I would think that Anglican communities would have to partner with other religious groups. I wonder if that happens, and if so how do they distinguish among the various groups to get things done together?
CURRY: I’m aware of partnerships that tend to happen among sort of the mainline traditions. I can’t speak with any authority on how those partnerships then move possibly to megachurch entities or to some of the Pentecostal traditions, which are growing in Africa. I don’t know how some of those relate. I know that there’s some of that going on, but it’s not—it’s probably in the early stages. My guess is the relationship between sort of—if you have mainline, if you have evangelical megachurch, and you have Pentecostal, which can be mega, but Pentecostal, I’m just sort of labeling, but if you can see that landscape. There are historic ecumenical relationships and partnerships between the various mainline. There may be embryonic relationships between mainline and Evangelical. And my sense is that hasn’t moved to the next step with Pentecostal.
My guess is it will, but it’s going to take a while. It’s not—I think probably—I think necessity will force it in terms of the needs of people and communities. I think it’s going to happen. But remember, our ecumenical movement, even in this country—and Chuck Robertson, one of my staff, is—it’s good to surround yourself with scholars because they actually—but he won’t say if I’m wrong—but about the 1920s or so, somewhere thereabouts, when the ecumenical movement really kind of gets going, that’s where you had kind of a rapprochement between the various mainline traditions. I mean, we all kind of get along fine now, and sing Kumbaya. You know, we actually do. There’s a lot of relationship. And you look at every food bank, every service agency—religious service—they’re usually ecumenical—ecumenically based.
That’s happening right now in Africa. That wasn’t happens in the United States in the 1920s. You see what I mean? So the ecumenical movement had to kind of grow. I think we’re going to see that. We’re seeing some of the early stages of that growth, beyond the mainlines, who were already having that relationship, moving into Evangelical and Pentecostal. But I think the social necessity of the people is going to drive it. But I think it’s going to happen.
GJELTEN: And you saw that in Africa?
CURRY: A little bit, yeah. Saw it in conversations. It came up in conversation.
GJELTEN: In the back there, sir.
Q: The topic today is about how to combat religious extremism.
CURRY: Oh, yes, sir.
Q: I’m Nicholas Benton. I’m with the Falls Church News-Press.
We had a case of a church in our community, a fairly prominent Episcopal Church, the Falls Church Episcopal, where the congregation voted to split off from the Episcopal Church, and align itself with an African—a Nigerian bishop and form a new Anglican Communion, which supported all the positions of this bishop, which was against the ordination of women, you know, and for this Nigeria bishop’s rather extreme positions on homosexuality, almost calling for capital punishment.
And so, in the context of that, I would also—I would ask you to comment, but also the big concern about religious freedom in the United States today, with the new administration coming in, is that there will be bills and legislation supporting so-called religious freedom, which is basically a cover for the ability of religious groups to discriminate. The right to discriminate. And you can see a certain connect between in Christianity, or alleged Christianity, the right to discriminate on the one hand and in extremist groups of other religions, where the right to discriminate is a cornerstone of their beliefs. So interested in your comments on that.
CURRY: Well, I can give you my opinion, perspective. And I say that as a caveat because, as you can probably tell, I’m not God, so I don’t have all the wisdom on this. I mean, I’m not God and I’m clear about that. (Laughter.) And you all should be relieved actually. But it’s—but I can tell you, as one follower of Jesus Christ—let me speak that way. What I know about Jesus of Nazareth is that he treated every human being that he ever met as child of God. He showed them the respect, the honor, the dignity that befits a child of God. He did that with Pontius Pilate, who ordered his execution. He did that with lepers who nobody else would touch. He did that with the poor and the rich—treated everyone equally as a child of God. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is my model for life. And I believe that everyone is a child of God equally, by virtue of our creation. Genesis one, we are created in the image of likeness of God. The image dei, in our tradition. I believe that firmly. That’s true for everybody. And I believe that that’s the root of our faith, speaking at a Christian. Other traditions will have other ways of getting at that.
And so, as we navigate, or as I navigate, like everyone else, the terrain, kind of the complex cultural terrain and political terrain that we’re in, I’ll stand there because it means that—it means that we must work to create a society and a global community where every man, woman, and child, equal and respected and honored and loved—everyone, including the people I disagree with. And that sometimes is a difficult walk to walk. My brother, I walk it because I believe it’s the right walk. And King and Gandhi and a whole bunch of folks and Jesus himself taught us that that way of love and living is going to be the way of life for us all. So that’s a personal answer.
GJELTEN: Bishop Curry, that is a personal answer. But just to follow up on the question a little bit, you have state legislatures around the country right now, you have the U.S. Congress, you have the White House wrestling with this idea that the sincerely held religious beliefs of some people need to be acknowledged and respected. How do you come down on that issue, because you have all this experience in Africa where your fellow Anglicans have very different ideas about—as you have acknowledged. How does the government deal with the fact that you’ve got such disagreement on core issues? How does the government protect the religious liberty of everyone?
CURRY: Well, the government—again, government—or, put it this way, the most important thing is the individual person. And the government must protect the rights and the dignities and the human equality of everyone. Specific legislation may come forward—we know it’s being discussed, we know that. But the protection of the dignity and worth of the individual must be sacrosanct—must be. And my religious freedom, I’m not worried about my religious freedom. Really? Let’s get real. I get up and go to church on Sunday morning. Ain’t nobody stopping me. Nobody’s about to stop me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that’s not going to get taken away.
I’ve been—I was baptized on the seventh day—or eight day, I was there but I don’t remember it. (Laughter.) But it was—and I’m here to tell you, I have never experienced the infringement of my freedom of religious expression in this country. I have been in places where that’s been infringed. And the right to assemble to worship has been the issue. And that’s not what we’re talking about. And so I would argue that the equality and dignity of the individual is the sacred cornerstone. Protection of the right to assemble and worship in my own way, of course. But that’s already protected and it’s really not in jeopardy, in fact.
Matters of commerce, matters of business, matters of how you interface with the government—religion, like any other entity in this culture, does have limits on what it can do. You cannot have a religion that takes human life. Right? Isn’t it—I think that’s true in this country. And that’s not a religious issue. That’s where the government legitimately regulates what you can do can what you can’t do. That doesn’t circumscribe the freedom of to worship. But it does prevent you from any act that takes human life. The same principle, it seems to me, applies in some of the discussion we’re having, that the sanctity of the human person takes first place.
And nothing can violate that because ultimately, for me, that sanctity of the human person—let me put it this way. Jesus said it this way, when folk were engaging him about the role of religion and human need, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And I think that’s going to be true for us now. But I hold up the sanctity of the person.
GJELTEN: Yes, sir. Here in front.
Q: Dane Smith from the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.
South Sudan, of course, is being torn apart by civil war, in which militias are engaged in widespread killing of other tribes and massive rape. I wonder—I’d be interested in your comments on how Christian leaders and lay people in South Sudan can do peacebuilding in that difficult situation.
CURRY: I know for a fact—and I can think of a couple of people, and I’m seeing them in my mind—there are people right now on the ground in villages—right now—who are working at precisely that. But they are not the dominant reality. You know that. I think in the long run—I mean, there are going to need to be some political solutions. No question about that. I understand that. But in the long run, the internal development of churches and communities, aside from the—there’s going to need to be some—I know that there are issues around oil and I understand all that. The long run will be the internal development of these churches and small communities, both spiritual and economic development, that’s going to push against some of the stuff that’s going on from the warring factions—from the various factions.
But I don’t have a quick solution, except to know that the work that you all have been doing in communities with these bishops and dioecies and small—that work—we can’t give up on South Sudan. The trick is we can’t give up, even though the odds are against us right now, because if we can develop that infrastructure from within, in the long run, that may be what’s going to hold things together long enough for the political solutions to get some stuff settled out. That’s not an immediate solution. But to be honest, we can’t give up on South Sudan. And I know it’s tough, but we’ve got to lift up these communities. I mean, there are so many—I mean, I know several friends, some of them are retired now, who have just been—these are faithful people who have been working in their communities, who have been doing everything they can. But they just keep getting buffeted. And we’ve got to keep supporting them. We’ve got to.
And it’s so easy—it’s going to be easy for us to just throw up our hands and leave them on their own. I think we’ve got to stay with them for the long run, and build from within, while the political solutions from without are worked at.
GJELTEN: You, sir.
Q: Hello. Jay Kansara from the Hindu American Foundation.
I asked a similar question to the archbishop of Canterbury on the same stage about a year ago, but I wanted to get your perspective as someone who’s ancestors probably were not of the Abrahamic faith tradition, or those ancestors you may have no recollection of or no history of. But how do—how can the Anglican—how does the Anglican Church see its role to reconcile with indigenous traditions that it may have decimated over the course of centuries of colonization, imperialism? And how does that translate into some of the conflicts that may see today in places in the world, such as India, where indigenous traditions, and particularly the Hindu tradition, may—certain sectors of that society may feel threatened by the new-age imperialism of proselytization done in the name of development or poverty alleviation, et cetera? Thank you.
CURRY: Let me—let me answer that question from another angle here, because I don’t have a lot of experience with India. So I couldn’t answer contextually, but I can—I think I can find an analogue here. The Sioux Nation at Standing Rock in Dakota, when the pipeline—is this familiar? I’m not sure everybody knows what I’m talking about. OK. (Laughter.) I’m a preacher, so I got no congregation with me on this. But has—and there’s a long road ahead—but really mounted what I think was and is one of the most creative and important nonviolence means of resistance and self-affirmation over the construction of the Dakota pipeline, which was slated to be over sacred burial grounds, as well as presenting an ecumenical—an ecumenical—an environmental danger to the reservation—the Sioux Nation reservation itself. And that—you know the story of that whole struggle.
I think I can safely say that Episcopalians, and others as well but I’m speaking as an Episcopalian right now, came together to stand with the leadership and to follow the lead of the traditional, the tribal leadership, in helping to address that situation. And we did some in partnership with our brothers and sisters, as well as other tribal communities who came to join the Sioux and to stand with them. We did not do that—and one of the things—I mean, there are staff here from my church. We were clear. We were not doing that where we were in charge. We were doing that to stand beside and walk together with the Sioux Nation, a number of whom are Episcopalian. I mean, they actually asked me, the presiding bishop, to come to help us. And so we did. But we didn’t go there to dominate. We didn’t go there to be in charge. We went there to stand beside and to try to get a just resolution of the conflict, of the situation.
That model of partnership and relationship for the greater good, I think is a model for how the Church engages—and you see, I suspect that might apply. I just don’t know enough about the context of India. But I can tell you that that was, for me, a model of how you engage. And again, we as the Episcopal Church have history. I mean, the truth is indigenous people in this country, and all of our religious traditions—there was some agreements that the Episcopalians go with the Sioux. The Methodists went with somebody else. The Presbyterians went with somebody. It was the Council of Berlin, how they carved up Africa. And the same thing happened in this country with the religious traditions and Native American communities. So we got some history. Some of it’s good and some of it’s not.
But the point is, I can’t change that past. But I can redeem it by changing the future. And that was one step—not—it didn’t solve everything. But that was one step to walk beside and help to bring a just resolution. And Episcopalians, God bless them, I mean, there are people all over the spectrum of—you know, Episcopalians come—you know, there are some red Episcopalians and blue Episcopalians. So, I mean, they come in all stripes. But I remember saying in a conversation with some folk in the church, and one of them was really concerned. And I said, you know, here’s what we’re talking about. If somebody was going to put an oil pipeline in the cemetery where your mamma is buried, would you be happy about that? No.
And did you know—and I went on and said, now, let me tell you something else. The original plan for that pipeline actually had it going just north—kind of just north, I guess, of Bismarck. And that was ruled out because the danger of the infection of the water might poison the water supply in Bismarck. OK, I get that. People in Bismarck shouldn’t get poisoned. So why would you then draw it over the Indian reservation? How come they don’t count and the people in Bismarck—they all count. They’re all children of God. And you know what? And I know this—I’m not saying—I know who this person I was talking to voted for in the last election. I know. But he got that, because it was basic human compassion and decency. And most Episcopalians, regardless of their political—when we engage in those conversations—can say, OK. This is something we understand. So that became a model, I think, for—we’re not the only ones who are doing it. Other people have done that.
GJELTEN: OK. It’s time to wrap up, but I wanted to give Katherine Marshall one quick final question before we depart.
Q: Bringing the topic back to violence and extremism, a lot of the issue is what happens at home, and between men and women. When the studies started to come out about the extent of domestic violence, it was a shock because it was much more common than anyone had realized. And I expected religious leaders to leap onto the subject. So I would love your—help me understand why this was such a controversial issue in the Anglican community?
GJELTEN: But you talked about how that was such a—
Q: You said it was the most—
GJELTEN: And the Lambeth Conference.
CURRY: Right. Oh, yeah. Well, I think—there are a couple reasons. Some of it—and again, it transcends our cultures. It impacts all of our cultures. But there are contexts where some traditional ways of living and functioning and tied up with what we would now understand as gender-based violence, but might not have been understood as that in a more traditional context. Now, the truth is, I mean, so that we as Americans don’t get on a high horse, that would have been true here in this country. I mean, this isn’t—this is a human evolution, I think. That would have been true even in this country, where beatings—or, excuse me—corporal punishment was perfectly legitimate. I mean, I got my butt spanked a lot in school. It was sort of regular. Well, some of us were regular attendants of that church, so to speak.
So we’ve kind of changed on that. But we were in a different place culturally ourselves. So for other parts of the world to be in a different place culturally, I think that’s one of the—one of the deep factors, where a traditional way of disciplining people, which we would now see as not a helpful—as potentially leading to a kind of violence—you could read—I’m probably going to get in trouble for what I’m going to say—but you can read in the Bible and find instances of what we would now call corporal punishment which we would not find acceptable today. So I think that was—it was running into some cultural realities, and people were having to navigate it.
But I can tell you, on the upside, we—Episcopal leader development and Islamic Relief have been working together for several years on an approach to engage gender-based violence, specifically in Liberia. And they’ve been working with imams and clergy, Episcopal priests, in Liberia, training them to engage domestic violence and provide safety for abuse victims and the kind of work—and it’s working. It actually is working. So I think there’s some positive ways forward, but it’s going to take a lot, because a lot of stuff is culturally embedded.
GJELTEN: Indeed. Well, this has been fascinating Bishop Curry. Thank you so much for coming and thank you for your leadership.
CURRY: Well, thank you. Thank you. God bless. (Applause.)
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