Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"How Should We Then LIve?"

Well, the new hot topic in ecclesiology (at least on the web) is the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Richard Mellon Scaife funded outfit:

...founded to address the greatest threats to religion and democracy. At the time, in 1981, communism was arguably great threat and sadly many churches sided with the communists. Today same-sex marriage, also supported by many churches, represents a profound threat to religion and democracy—specifically to religious freedom—in America for precisely the reason Maggie Gallagher states: the debate is framed as a civil rights issue. If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior will be viewed as a civil rights violation—even if that opposition is for religious reasons.
That's their statement, by the way. They also describe themselves as "Reforming the Church's Social and Political Witness." Which direction that reform should take is illustrated by stuff like this:

Che Guevara's bloodstained prisons still survive in Fidel Castro's Cuba, filled with yet another generation of dissidents and human rights activists. Not that you would learn this fact from reading the resolution on Cuba offered by the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns of the Episcopal Church Executive Council.
Now, my first reaction to this is to wonder why the good people at Street Prophets and State of Belief aren't simply quoting from the IRD's website, rather than trying to develop what honestly sound like conspiracy theories. Renee in Ohio actually does us all a service providing transcripts of the State of Belief show on this topic, but once again, it is all so exasperatingly general and trickle down in approach:

John Dorhauer: As a local church pastor for 16 years, I was aware of churches in the surrounding area who were experiencing extreme levels of conflict over what became known as the "wedge issues" of the day. Twenty years ago it was the ordaination of women, a few years after that it was abortion, and now it's homosexuality. And I discovered over time that churches within the United Church of Christ were willing to disaffiliate over these issues.

It took me a while to sort of lose that narrow perspective of experiencing that in the local church and realize the same thing was happening on a national basis, not just across the United Church of Christ, but across mainline Protestant Christianity. And it was, for me, the work of Andrew Weaver that first helped me to make those connections.

Gaddy: Dr. Weaver, how did you come to a conclusion about it?

Weaver: I began to do research after I read a book United Methodists at Risk, which was published by a prominent bishop in the United Methodist Church, Dale White, and others. Basically they were saying that outside money from Richard Mellon Scaife and political operatives like Adolf Coors were funneling money into an attack on churches. This has no precedent in American church history. At that time I had a research department with a couple of PhDs and research assistants, so I got all the material and read for six months, and became absolutely convinced that this was the case. And after that I felt called to speak out like Paul Revere, and ring the bell of alarm. There is no doubt whatsoever, Welton, that this is a systematic effort to undermine mainline churches, who still have transparent democratic processes in them that become an area for the culture wars.
The exasperating thing about this for me, as a pastor, is knowing that while there are certainly "outside forces" working on local churches, the truly more influential ones are corporate interests (expressed through advertising) and "successful preachers", i.e., the ones who preach the "gospel of wealth" (like, yes, Joel Osteen). A pastor's usual problems come, in other words, not from some evil cabal, but from the deviousness of the human heart. I don't mean that the good pastors who spoke on State of Belief were naive or credulous; but anytime we start attributing fundamental problems to "outside forces" rather than much more human causes, we are already blundering into "Da Vinci Code" and "Illuminati" territory (Dan Brown's protagonist, for those who don't know, in an earlier novel was caught in a struggle between the Catholic church and the Illuminati, something invented, actually, for the parody "Church of the Sub-Genius," but which has taken on a life of its own. Ironies abound).

As I say, it's hard to look at the IRD's website and not wonder: "what the...?" It seems to be a kind of Media Matters for the churches, but since when did the churches wield half the influence that the New York Times, or even Hannity and Colmes, does? And, of course, there's a noteable silence in the complaints of the IRD about the statements for Pat Robertson or James Dobson or Jerry Falwell. The slant, and the purpose, are obvious. That said, there is still the question: what do we do?

There is always a critical, as in essential, nature to Tolstoy's famous question, and it impacts us no more directly than it does when we are considering how to live within, or respond to, what seem to be major forces shaping our lives. "Think globally, act locally," is the accepted response. Except Wendell Berry shreds that one; we cannot serve two masters, is essentially his argument. We are incapable of thinking globally, he responds; it is simply too large a space, with too many unforeseen or foreseeable consequences, and we cannot imagine beyond the limits of our own knowledge. No, thinking globally, he argues, is a kind of lazy arrogance that allows us to uncritically do what we want to do, while imagining we are reaping cosmic benefits in the world. It puts us, in other words, at the center of the universe. Which, I would maintain, is precisely the error of the people who established and are running IRD; and that is also precisely the appeal IRD makes to church members.

Selfishness is the Original Sin. Understand that, and many other things begin to make sense. Selfishness, the inability and unwillingness to consider a world beyond the boundaries of your own self, a world that is not shaped by you and responds to your every psychic need and upholds and reaffirms your every psychic wish, is the sin upon which all other sin rests. I have seen churches founder too often because church members could not see the bigger picture, could not imagine beyond their own needs. But do you get them to see that larger picture by insisting on larger action, or general activity rather than a specific response? No. Almost never. You have to approach them individually. You have to take it person by person.

And you have to meet them as a person. Not as a representative of the enemy, a dupe of the IRD, a tool of the right-wing political machine. You have to take them as they are, and try to reshape them, if you can, if they are willing and if God is working through you. It is work of the utmost humility, and it cannot be done by calls to arms or rallying to plans of action or even by identifying a greater "outside" enemy. My arms, in the words of the great poem, may be too short to box with God; well, they are too short to box with Satan, either. I cannot fight the IRD, and I cannot fight it in the proxy of an angry church member. I have to identify people for who they are, not for what I think they believe, or how I think they are being used.

I once was touring a German pastor, a young woman of my generation, through my church. She was here for an exchange between our historically connected churches (part of the UCC is the old German Evangelical and Reformed Church). She noted the American flag in the sanctuary and admitted, given her nation's history, how troubling that was. I agreed with her, but her chaperone and driver for the trip, a man of my father's generation, vigorously defended that flag in that place. I would rather remove it, and never saluted it or acknowledged it in any way, especially as I refused to "pledge allegiance" to anything except God in a place dedicated to God's worship (the pledge was recited, as a matter of course, on Scout Sunday, when the flag was processed in, much as the priests process with the cross in the Episcopal church I now attend). Was he a dupe of the IRC? Would he have been, had I removed that flag, and insisted its use, especially in a procession before worship, was a clear sign of the secular religion of America? I suppose I could make that argument, but it's a bootless one.

Another story, closer to the concerns of the IRD: the UCC ordains gays and lesbians as ministers, and has done so for years. Or rather, it permits their ordination, but under UCC polity, such persons cannot demand ordination (that is done by Associations, who are autonomous), nor can it force a church to accept such a person as their pastor (congregations are also autonomous). As a representative of the Association at one time, I worked with a church where some members were upset about this fact. The opponents were vociferous, bitter, angry, almost vile. They were also between pastors, so I had no idea how this would end, but I suspected the church might leave the denomination.

Today, with a new pastor and a few years later, that church is "Open and Affirming," a UCC designation which means they have voted, as a church, to publicly and affirmatively accept gays and lesbians as members of their worshipping body. Had that pastor not treated those people in his congregation as people, that never would have happened.

I've seen church officials treat pastors as groups ignorant of wider issues, rather than as colleagues with issues that deserve as much consideration and respect as the larger public issue which seems so simple when taken in the abstract, and becomes so "messy" when applied "on the ground," among the people. So much of ministry is simply "acompanamiento," as Oscar Romero said. The people in the pews are assailed by a multitude of small issues: rapid changes in society; in social mores; the disintegration of neighborhoods, of families, the scattering of children across the nation; the aging of society (most mainline churches are dominated by "old grey heads" in the pews, especially in the smaller churches, which are still the bulk of the membership of Protestant denominations); the spiritual assault on individuals of the demands of the market, the corporation, all the pleasures and terrors and destruction and promise of industrialization, played out in individual lives. These are just a few of the issues that impact people, and they impact congregations far more directly than the rantings of IRD.

Should church leaders be concerned about IRD? Yes, absolutely; we don't need one more fox in the henhouse. But should we imagine that our primary fight, and our primary purpose, is to defend ourselves against them? No more than George W. Bush should imagine that America exists only to be in a ceaseless global war with "terrorism."

No comments:

Post a Comment