Monday, June 26, 2006

"What you mean 'we,' white man?"

The old joke goes that the Lone Ranger and Tonto are watching a horde of Indian braves bear down on them in full battle fury. "Looks like we're in trouble, Tonto," says the Lone Ranger to his pal. "What you mean 'we,' white man?," Tonto responds.

Paul gets blamed for a lot of things: sexism, misogyny, legalist, that seem to plague Christianity. But Paul never gets blamed for starting the church. Which is odd, because it iwas Paul who first used the term "ekklesia" (the basis for our English word "ecclesiastical," or even "Ecclesiastes"). One very distinctive aspect of Jesus' life: Jesus never tried to found a "church."

There is a simple cultural reason for this, but one that gets lost in modern culture, where we distinctly understand church as distinct from state, and church as distinct from the rest of our lives. Church as an avocation, even a profession (depending on which side of of the Protestant/Catholic divide you are on, in Western Christianity), is something you do. You are a priest, or a lay person, an active church member, or an occassional one. Seldom, and without great strain and effort, do we think of church as something we are. Church is the Body of Christ. Church is the community of believers. Church is the clouds of witness, the communion of the saints. But "church" is always outside of "me." There is, in fact, no English phrase for a collective "we" that would suffice there. Church is not outside of "us." Church is outside of "me," whatever "me" reads that sentence.

Church is something we go to, attend, participate in, join, support, condemn, worry about, praise, curse, seek blessing from....but it is not "us." Not in the sense it was in Jesus' day.

But even that is misleading, because in no sense in Jesus' day did the concept of "church" exist. Jesus didn't even speak of the ekklesia. Jesus only spoke of the children of God. I don't think there's even a mention of the "children of Abraham" attributed to Jesus in the Gospels; at least not in the sense that, say, Paul would mean it. "Church" is the way we understand the working of God, today, in the world. And we still don't understand it properly.

What prompst this reflection? In part, left blogistan. The idea that YearlyKos, or any "movement" by bloggers, be it Eschaton or Firedoglake or DailyKos, is going to form a grass roots movement that will transform American political culture in some kind of new, pure, "people power" "populist" "netroots" campaign. It simply isn't going to happen. And the example of the ekklesia is why.

The complaint against Paul by people who want their Christianity purified, is that Paul co-opted the movement of Jesus of Nazareth, and domesticated it. This is not the complaint of cranks and know-nothings; this is a serious argument advanced by many New Testament scholars, and they do so neither in anger nor in sorrow, but simply in honesty. Jesus was an itinerant teacher who taught that there was no comfortable place for man on earth, except in doing the will of God. Paul planted "house churches," and taught an idea of ekklesia, a Greek word meaning people gathered together for a specific civic purpose. And there we already part company with Paul: "church" today does not gather for a specific civic purpose, because the civic square belongs to all, and we don't want Christians in any way to think they should, or deserve to, dominate it. But that concept is not new and Jeffersonian, as we imagine. It's actually old, and Roman. For Paul to describe his nascent movement of a few families following his teachings as an ekklesia, was for Paul to make a radical (and radically dangerous) political statement, much as it would be today. To use the term "ekklesia" is to claim a public, a civic, privilege for what is essentially a private group, and an intentionally private group, one you cannot enter without accepting certain teachings (at least), and baptism, and adhering to certain practices (the bulk of Paul's letters concern this issue). So even today, to mention the church is to set off alarm bells among some people, and the fact is, they aren't entirely wrong. Church is a threat to the secular community, at least inasmuch as church demands a place in the public square, but resolutely refuses to be wholly a part of the entire public entitled to that square.

But why didn't Jesus establish a church? Because Jesus didn't need to; Jesus had a ready-made community, a nation even: the nation of Israel, the children of Abraham.

This is another concept we have trouble grasping, and it isn't only because we are so accustomed to thinking of 19th century nation-states, those political entities of which the United States is the purest example. But the nation-state is without religious underpinnings, largely because the nation-state is, historically, a Johnny-come-lately, and also because it is a product of the anti-religious Enlightenment. I visited the Spanish missions of San Antonio yesterday. They are about to celebrate their 275th anniversary, and four of the five (the fifth being actually the first, the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the "Alamo") are still active parishes, with Franciscans living on the premises. What struck me in the history of these missions, all established by Franciscans, is how much the Catholic church was an arm of the Spanish government. The Franciscans paved the way for Spanish conquest by teaching the natives Spanish ways, including both Spanish ways of life as well as religion (and this is why every mission had walls and bastions: the Apache and Comanche took the European guns and horses, but not the European culture. They fought back, and recognized the missions as a source of change, of invasion, that they resented. It was a modern-day lesson in empire building: if you wish to do it, you must be willing to live in a new country, and to convert or subdue the native populace. It was interesting how much the Franciscans were willing to do both.) But what Jesus taught was never in compliance with that Rome ordered; nor were Paul's teachings. So where does this leave political movements, especially political movements that seek to act "in his name"? It leaves them trying to build an ekklesia; but not in the sense that Paul meant, and certainly not in the direction Jesus meant.

"Certainly not"? That sounds terribly judgmental, but at some point you have to lay your cards on the table and declare your hand. So this is my declaration of mine. Jesus called many disciples, but some did not choose his way; and yet, he didn't reject them. He did reject those who tried to follow him without an invitation, or at least it seems he rejected them. In Luke 9, one man offers to follow Jesus, but Jesus makes clear he has nothing to offer: "Foxes have their holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Immediately thereafter, Luke tells us, Jesus calls a new disciple, but gets this answer: "Let me first go and bury my father." Jesus doesn't say "Oh, never mind then, I'll wait." But he doesn't say "you're not worthy, " either. He makes it clear, in that case, and in the one just after, another would-be disciple who offers to follow Jesus if only he can finish plowing the field, Jesus makes it clear what must come first: God. All other considerations are secondary. Jesus was never afraid to lay those cards on the table.

But neither did he tell everyone he met to become a disciple. He didn't tell the beggars he healed, the prostitutes he forgave, the tax-collectors he ate with, to become his followers as payment for their cure, forgiveness, recognition. He didn't try to create a following; he tried to create students, to carry on the lesson, but he didn't tell people he helped that they now owed him something, or owed God something. Jesus never workd on the "I scratched your back, now you scratch mine" plan. Which is significant. He wasn't seeking to put things together. As The Last Whole Earth Catalog put it, 30 years ago: "We can't put it together. It is together." Jesus would agree. Which is why he told those two newbie disciples: "Go, and proclaim the kingdom of God." And this, he meant with his rebukes to them, is more important than anything else you can do, or will ever do.

And right after that, in Luke 10, Jesus sends out 72 disciples, and they come back rejoicing at what occurred, at what happened simply by proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And that's all they had to do, and that's all Jesus wanted them to do. And he didn't try to start a movement with them, or a group,or an ekklesia. In fact, he didn't tell them to come back for more instruction; he simply rejoiced in their happiness and told them to keep it up, that good things were coming of it already, universally good things. "I saw Satan fall, like lightning from heaven....Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but that your names are enrolled in heaven." (Luke 10:18, 20) All from saying the Kingdom of God is at hand, and caring for the people nobody cared for.

And those people were already part of a community: they were already the children of Abraham, the ones the prophets said Israel had forgotten to care for once before, and so Babylon came knocking on Jerusalem's gates. How quickly and easily we forget; and yet how simple the solution Jesus offers. And it is not the political solution some may have expected. He does not come as the Messiah who will re-establish the political throne of Israel. At this point I remember, not a Biblical passage (as I probably should), but a passage from "Jesus Christ Superstar," where Tim Rice pressed together most of the events of the Passion Week from the four Gospel sources. Passover, of course, was a huge political celebration for Israel, the cultic remembrance of the liberation of the slaves of Egypt so they could be a nation under God. In the rock opera, Simon Zealotes sings of the power Jesus could command in Jerusalem at Passover, if he only would, and Jesus replies, mournfully:

Neither you, Simon, nor the 50,000
Nor the Romans, nore the Jews,
Nor Judas nor the Twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes,
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself,
Understand what power is.
Understand what glory is.
Understand at all.
Understand at all.

And I think of left blogistan when I read another blog that considers itself a "community" that will eventually rise up and overthrow the corrupt political power structure, that will harness the power of the "netroots" and direct it as a force this time for good. Or when it warns its followers not to lose faith in the face of persecutions from David Brooks or The New Republic. In fact, it's laughable, because those are signs of doom, but not in the way the blog supporters think. Those are signs the blogs are being taken seriously; and they are signs the blogs are about to be co-opted.

Remember Paul? The modern-day take on Paul, among critics of Christianity, is that it all went wrong when Paul co-opted whatever one imagine Jesus of Nazareth started, and turned it into a church, a tamed, domesticated servant of the status quo. And certainly there is a great deal of ammunition for that view provided by the Pauline letters. Except that most of that ammunition comes from the Pseudo-Pauline letters, not the authenticated ones. That and the fact that, once again, the critics are dealing with these matters both ahistorically and anachronistically. But when the movement Paul fostered was finally taken seriously, did it transform society? Or did society transform it?

That's a larger question than can be legitimately answered here, and clearly the proper answer is not an either/or. But just as clearly, society transformed the church as much as the church transformed society. Look at the missions in San Antonio as a concrete example. And yet, the example is not an unmixed one. The missions offer masses for victims of AIDS/HIV; such persons are encouraged to contact a priest, and told they can do so anonymously. Their work is for the poor, the suffering; not the glory of the wealthy, the powerful. So one continues to affect the other, and yin and yang it goes along.

Jesus didn't need to found a church. But we do. This is the basic issue of ecclesiology: why do we need a church? And if we do, then what is church for? If it is to be another movement, another means of wielding power in the world, but this time to do good, then frankly I have no need of it. If it is to build community in the world, well...that's another trick altogether. And it's not a one-trick pony. Community is not built because people of like mind enjoy hanging around with each other. That is the fundamental weakness of Protestantism; witness it being played out, again, in the Anglican Communion. But that is also human nature; so pointing it out is not to say that community cannot, or should not, be built. Just be careful assuming you can aim it at anything.

Community is never the weapon it wishes to be. Pat Robertson is better known, richer, and has a larger audience, than Markos Moulitsas. But Pat Robertson has political clout only because Karl Rove courted it, and used it shamelessly and ruthlessly. The same is true for James Dobson and Jerry Falwell. I daresay, even this long after his heyday, that Jerry Falwell still commands a larger audience than Firedoglake, Kos, and Eschaton combined. And yet none of that prevented Karl Rove from playing him like a fiddle, or Ralph Reed from getting deeply involved in screwing over Indian tribes with Jack Abramoff. It is, in fact, in the nature of the business. Power corrupts, and absolutely no one is immune from that maxim. Not "greedy corporate masters," not pure-hearted denizens of the netroots.

If you seek community, that's one thing. If you seek power, that's another. Beware of confusing the two. Paul left us a church because we needed it: it is the preserver of tradition, of knowledge, of the historical presence of God, much as the nation of Israel was for each individual Hebrew, once upon a time. The church is the cloud of witnesses, the body of Christ, the community of believers. But what it is not, is a source of temporal or even secular power; it tried that, and learned the dangers of it (although it will undoubtedly try again and again; it is, after all, only human). There is also another thing it is not: it is not exclusive from the public square, something "purely personal" that only affects me as I live within the confines of my four walls, or stare out through the holes in my skull. It is the ekklesia, the people gathered in the public square for a not wholly public purpose. And to the extent that is a problem for the world: so be it.


  1. What of Matthew 16:18?

  2. One if 2 places in the gospels where "ekklesia" appears. The other is Matthew 18:17. Considering the late date of Matthew, and he's gospel is the only one to use the term, it's probably not an authentic saying. It's also drawn from the Septuagint, meaning it's a Greek (and Xian) word, not Hebraic. Jesus was a Hebrew (too early to call him Jewish) who spoke Aramaic, so it's highly unlikely he ever used the word "ekklesia."