Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is a Christian Institution Possible?

The UCC is trying to defend itself:

The Rev. John H. Thomas, the denomination's president, has sharply criticized the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious watchdog and advocacy group, for supporting groups within mainline denominations that would further a conservative theological and political perspective. And the church has undertaken new advertising and e-mail campaigns to combat more conservative forces.
And it has allies:

Others have joined the United Church of Christ in speaking out. Recently, the Rev. Michael Livingston, the new president of the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A., told a meeting of representatives of the group's member churches, "Mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches have been pounded into irrelevancy by the media machine of a false religion; a political philosophy masquerading as gospel; an economic principle wrapped in religious rhetoric and painted red, white and blue."
But it brings me back to the question: is this what church is for?

Although some mainline Christians feel energized by the new toughness, others worry that such an approach could threaten the very pluralism that the mainline churches have come to stand for and the gospel of love that so many preach.

"I think this is a dangerous place to be," said Mr. Sharen of Yale. "You stand to lose the integrity of 'turn the other cheek.' "
This is the paradox of powerlessness. Thomas Merton collected The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, and specifically explained their retreat into the deserts in the 4th century as a means of salvation, of grabbing on to whatever piece of floating jetsam they could find in the shipwreck of civilzation they found themselves in. Rather than preserve the institution, in other words, Merton praises them for preserving the idea, the spirituality, of Christianity.

Thomas Cahill makes much the same argument in How the Irish Saved Civilization. Unconcerned with establishing a centralized institution, the Irish monks (and the Celtic church, according to many scholars) focussed on serving the ideal of Christianity, by serving individuals receptive to that ideal. Patrick was subject to more severe critique than John Thomas will ever know. The story that accompanies his famous "Breastplate" (and the reason it bears that title, as well as "The Deer's Cry") is because his life, and those of his disciples, was threatened by the Druids, and reciting that prayer they passed (so the story goes) before their enemies as a harmless doe and her fawns. Not, one should note, as a she-bear and her cubs, or something else equally menacing.

Merton's stories of the Desert Fathers never include one about a monk defending his cell or even his property. In one story similar to others, a monk returns to his cell to find thieves taking away what little he owns, and he runs after them to offer his Bible as well, reasoning they need it more than he does.

This is the paradox of powerlessness. Are we, as Christians, ever authorized to employ power to protect our Christian institutions? Is that why our institutions exist, because they need our protection? Do we call them into existence, or does God? There has been a very lively debate on this subject at Street Prophets, because both pastor dan and Chuck Currie are UCC members. So, in part, I suppose I am responding to that discussion, as well. Much as I am sympathetic to a desire to respond to enemies, I'm still inclined to wonder: as a Christian, when is my enemy not my enemy, such that I don't need to turn the other cheek, or walk the extra mile?

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