Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mourning in Exile

It should have occurred to me earlier, that I've seen this movie before. I've even had a bit part in it, a time or two.

Institutions in crisis react just like individuals: they panic. And the zeitgeist tends to influence institutions large and small. No man is an island, according to John Donne, and neither are institutions: what panics a nation, panics a congregation. What comforts a people, comforts a Church as well.

Since before I entered seminary, which is almost 13 years gone now, I have seen the signs of panic in the church. I thought at first it was the church I was in (the UCC). I see now it is almost a pandemic, that it affects all the churches, and everywhere there is turmoil. If there is not open warfare, there are rumors of war, and everyone, from the pews to the highest church official, are pointing to signs and portents to divine what is to come.

And they are all reacting in blind panic.

Perhaps it is because of pedophilia among the priests; perhaps it is because a homosexual is now among the bishops; perhaps it is because the church hierarchy is far more "liberal," both politically and socially, than the congregations they are supposed to arise from. Or perhaps these are merely symptoms, and the underlying dis-ease has yet to be diagnosed.

But for almost 15 years now, since before I entered seminary, I have seen the institution ravenously and madly devouring its own: its pastors. I hardly know of a pastor any more who hasn't lost a church, been forced from a church, been accused of improprieties and subjected to vicious "private" smear campaigns (phone calls, e-mails, letters, gossip) by "good" church members, or, in the most extreme cases, "investigated" by church judicatories, almost always and almost inevitably with an eye not toward justice (which, as any lawyer knows, is a very slippery and very difficult goal to ever attain, and not just because the defendant is guilty, or always presumed so), but toward purging the corporate body. In a blind panic, more and more churches, seen from the inside, are acting to "purify" themselves and to respond to the terror and the fear that not possible nuclear annihilation or even another 9/11 bring; but the fear of homosexuality, of scripture that is not literally true, of a God for whom scientific explanations don't apply, and the concept that just perhaps, science doesn't have a claim on absolute truth after all. But that last concept doesn't dethrone science, either, doesn't set it aside to be replaced by a more comforting quasi-theological model. And worse yet, we find ourselves in an era when not everyone is "Christian," not even in our own country.

We are, in short, in the era already underway when Søren Kierkegaard wrote more than 150 years ago: this is the end of Christendom. And the churches and their people are terrified by the prospect.

How else to explain the rise in complaints against pastors and priests, and the loss of authority? From the outside that loss may look like a good thing, but I don't mean the loss of power, the fall of the tyrant. Good riddance to that, even when it was wielded by the hardworking and essentially benevolent "Herr Pastor" of my own church's tradition. I mean the complete loss of authority coupled with an increase in responsibility, the horrific condition of being liable for all that happens in your parish, and having absolutely no authority over your work or life. I mean pastors accused on the flimsiest of grounds by anonymous (even to them) persons who suffer no consequence anymore for their actions, because now it is "all about me," and if it damns the church and makes the heavens fall, so be it. I mean the situations I have seen time and again, when the issues all boil down to "he said/she said," and the pastor is guilty until proven innocent, and there is no due process that will be or can be followed because, after all, this is "serious," this is "crisis," we are at "war!"

And you see how it bends around and connects to what the nation is going through, right now.

I have seen "Star Chamber proceedings." Before seminary, I represented my pastor in a church disciplinary proceeding, although "represent" deserves to be in quotes, because I was banned from the actual hearing room on the days witnesses were heard from. I was not allowed to question them, or to present evidence or even an argument on my client's behalf. Why? Because the lawyer for the Conference presented me with language from the Manual on Ministry, the guiding handbook for such proceedings, which stated pastors were not allowed counsel in the hearings.

What he didn't tell me was that language was draft language, and it had been rejected by the General Synod, and never made a part of the Manual on Ministry. But that omission made his job, and his client's job, a lot easier; and it made mine impossible. That's what I mean by "no due process." That's what I mean by "Star Chamber proceedings."

That was not the first time I'd seen power wielded in a church to obtain a desired outcome, and it hasn't been the last. Power prefers secrecy, the better to gain its ends. I know of pastors presented with the results of "secret" investigations, and forced to wait while the allegations, first investigated secretly for months, are now investigated again, while rumors swirl about what he did and whether he is innocent (let's be honest, we all presume the accused to be guilty), and all without even knowing who has made the accuasations.

Why not accuse, when you know there is no price to be paid?

And now we have a President who says "Trust me," and a Vice President who says this is only restoring the proper powers to the Executive, and everything is okay. Now we have an Administration which insists it must conduct the people's business in secret, the better to protect the people from the insecurities of the world.

But secrecy only serves one end: to preserve power, and power never lies with the one who thinks they wield it. Power always seeks its own ends, and ruthlessly destroys everything that obstructs that end, if it is allowed to. Think "Macbeth." Think "Othello."

Think "King Lear," or "Antigone."

We've seen this movie. We know how it comes out. But right now it is something in the air.

Perhaps this is a legacy of the "Cold War," when we really faced an enemy who could end life as we know it on this planet, who could wipe us off the face of the earth with the touch of a button, and not 3000 people at a time, but whole cities at a time, and in a rush of war and violence from which no one on the planet would recover. Perhaps this is the inevitable sour grapes and bitter fruit of that harvest of evil, one we all toiled away at assiduously for a generation after the "good" war.

Perhaps this is the real legacy of the "Greatest Generation:" a generation of panic, from the smallest church to the halls of Congress.

Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of seeking salvation in all the wrong places. And even the people who preach and teach and preserve the message of salvation, are guilty of it.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Isarel, that mourns in lowly exile here....

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