Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me!"

I am so going to orthodox hell some day. Scribbled this down in haste over the weekend. It's less a proper essay or consideration of issues than a bit of wool-gathering. So it is offered as it was written, not as it was reconsidered (which it hasn't been, yet.)

Without rules we have no hope—but that principle applies to government, not churches.

What is the rule of the church? From what does it derive its authority? The Word of God? Or the consent of the people?

Do not dismiss consent too lightly. God offers covenant; God does not demand obedience simply by being God. That is the perversion of God by humanity. God does not tell Abraham: “I will show you a new land, or you can go to hell.” God does not tell anyone in the Hebrew scriptures to go to hell. Nor does Jesus. Nor does Paul. Hell is not the alternative to God. Hell is the alternative to accepting the power of certain persons. Hell is always brokered by humanity, the stick held out with the carrot not by God, but by humans: humans who want control, humans who want compliance. Humans, seeking consent from other humans.

Elizabeth I knew all about compliance, control, the carrot and the stick. So the Anglican Church was offered as a compromise: the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church; the theology of the Reformers. A compromise, because even queens know that rule depends on the consent of the governed. If we do not agree to abide by the rules, the rules are meaningless. But if we don’t act as if the rules apply even when someone, anyone, else refuses to abide by them, the rules are meaningless. The rules, finally, are the only thing that stand between us and chaos, between society and anarchy. In that much, at least, Hobbes was right. Cut down all the rules, as Thomas More said in Robert Bolt’s play, and soon there is nothing left between you and the Devil.

But here’s the tricky thing about rules: you can only cut them down for you. You can’t cut them down for me. You may remove all the rules, imprison me, torture me, kill me, eradicate every trace of me, my friends, my family, my culture. When you are done, the Devil will still come only after you. Because I am gone? No. Because the rules still apply to me. So long as I abide by the rules, the rules keep the Devil from me. And you are not the Devil. You are never that powerful. The rules protect me, but the lack of rules let the Devil defeat you.

And who is the Devil? Not Satan. Not a personification of evil, or an evil power, or even a metaphor. The Devil is quite real (deny its existence at your peril). The Devil is Power.

Power seeks its own ends, and uses those who would wield it as their means. Power is the Devil that turns on you when all the laws are cut down like trees, because power is the one that whispered in your ear and showed you the axe and urged you to wield it, all the better to be free, to do good, to be in control, destroy evil, establish the kingdom, defend the church, claim the trademark, call it what you will. Power told you to do it, convinced you that you were in control, that all you were doing was for good, that you in the end would be the most powerful.

And when all the trees are down and your power is at last unopposed and free, Power seeks its own end, its freedom. And Power turns on you. Turns on you because there is no reason not to. Because you are just a means to an end. Because Power is ever and always only an end in itself. And that is why Power is the Devil.

So you can you defeat power except to accept the power of powerlessness? This is the power of the consent of the governed. Giving up power, they lay no claim to power, do not seek to use it as a means, do not give it reign to become its own end. Power is thwarted only when it is not used. If all who are governed agree to what is done, there is no power. If none resist, there is no power; because there is no power without resistance. This is the model of the baslieia tou theou. This is the model of the Body of Christ.

But you will say, what of war? Surely the governed consent to war? But war is precisely the thwarting of the consent of the governed. Did the people of Iraq consent to our governance of them, governance imposed by invasion? (under international law our invasion and toppling of their government made us the governors of the country, and the government. Now our President, at least, acts as if he has a moral duty to stay and pacify the country.) And the results are entirely predictable. Any exertion of power over another is an exertion against consent; and it fails. Jesus never demands: “Follow me or go to hell.” Jesus only offers: “Follow me.” Or puts even less of a burden on us (how many people does Jesus encounter but never call to discipleship?), and only offers a blessing: “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus eschews all exertions of power, and acquiesces to the consent of the governed, even, as Paul says, to death: death on a cross. And thereby points out that we must acquiesce, too. This is the beginning of Christian humility.

Back, at last, to the Anglican Communion. Do Anglicans the world over gather as a church in response to the preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church, the rules of the Canadian church, the bylaws of the African church? Do they come to worship with the Windsor Report on their hearts, or resolution B033 on their lips? Is what joins them together the pronouncements of Bishop Akinola, Archibishop Williams, Presiding Bishop-Elect Schori?

No. Of course not. They come together in the work of the people (leitourgia) expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. They consent to the confessions of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. Interpretation of scripture is left to individual conscience. What is important to the Body is reached by consent. The only question for the Communion is: how far must consent extend? Whose consent must be sought?

If it is the consent only of the governed, then it is only the consent of those who are governed by the decision. If there is a question of who is permitted to be in relationship with me, as a bishop or otherwise member of the church, that is a decision for that body. But the rejection, is also the responsibility of that body. It may be the authority for the church comes from the Word of God. But it is the consent of the governed that determines what that authority says, and how it is complied with.

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