Thursday, August 31, 2006

The truly dark side of the church

What is most ingenious about all this is not so much its destructiveness but the way it appeals to mainstream notions of fairness. Consider another of Jack Abramoff’s remarks from back in the days when he raged against PIRG. The groups, he said, should “compete in the free marketplace of ideas” just like the College Republicans did, where attracting private funding was what proved an idea to be “truly good and truly worthwhile.”

In Washington today, where each bad idea to rattle through the nation’s billionaire class seems to have a dedicated think tank to push it along, we are living out Abramoff’s dictum: that an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody’s money is behind it.

Thomas Frank

This is the basic approach being taken by conservative critics of most mainstream Protestant denominations in America: money = the truth of God. It's an old ploy, of course. Jesus complained about it. But it's still effective. If your words are true and can be trusted, if you speak for God, then the majority will support you, and they will do so with their money. It is, after all, the majority which defines justice, and justice is at the heart of the kerygma of the basiliea tou theou.

Except it is impossible to square that definition of justice with a kenotic Christ and a kenotic God. Which is the kergyma of the crucifixion, that center of the Absolute Paradox of Christianity, that central symbol of Christianity in whatever form it takes: the crucifix, the cross. Indeed, it is impossible to square "$$=God's approval" with the proclamations of the Hebrew prophets:

"Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father; he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well."--Jeremiah 22:15-16

That message is preceded by one you aren't likely to hear from the pulpit of very many mega-churches:

"Woe betide him who builds his palace on unfairness
and completes its roof-chambers with injustice,
compelling his countrmen to work without payment,
giving them no wage for their labour!"--Jeremiah 22:13

What majority would support a preacher who said that? How could a majority support a man who would do this?

"O man, take a tile and lay it in front of you. Draw a city on it, the city of Jerusalem: portray it under seige, erect towers against it, raise a seige-ramp...then take a griddle, and put it as if it were an iron wall between you and the city...

Next, lie on your left side, putting the weight of Israel's punishment against it; for as many days as you lie on that side you will be bearing their punishment. I ordain that you bear Israel's punishment for three hundred and ninety days, allowing one day for each year of their punishment. When you have completed these, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear Judah's punishment; I ordain you forty days, one day for each year....See how I tie you with ropes so that you cannot turn over from one side to the other until you complete your days of seige."--Ezekiel 4:4-8.
This is not the only time God has a prophet carry out a physical enactment of God's message. But who would listen to this prophet, either, or shower him with money?

This is the beginning of the Lord's message given by Hosea. He said, 'Go and take an unchaste woman as your wife, and with this woman have children; for like an unchaste woman this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord. So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. The Lord said to Hosea, 'Call him Jezreel, for in a little while I am going to punish the dynasty of Jehu for the blood shed in the valley of Jezreel, and bring the kingdom of Israel to an end. On that day I shall break Israel's bow in the valley of Jezreel. Gomer conceived again and bore a daughter, and the Lord said to Hosea: "Call her Lo-ruhamab, for I shall never again show love to Israel, never again forgive them."...After weaning Lo-ruhamah, Gomer conceived and bore a son, and the Lord said: "Call him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people, and I shall not be your God."--Hosea 1:2-6, 8-9.
My notes indicate the first name means "not loved," the second "not my people."

And Amos, of course, was told to go away, to leave Israel and pester Judah with his prophecies, to which Amos responded: "I was no prophet, nor was I a prophet's son; I was a herdsman and a fig-grower." And clearly, he acquired no power, no authority, no institution, by his call.

Is the church quite so stark as Frank's description of Washington? "[T]hat an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody’s money is behind it"? No, but it is the nature of the beast. The preferred source of authority is the institution, the government, the voice of the people, be that voice representative or the words of Hobbes' Leviathan. There is so much more safety in numbers and what is known than there is in faith in the living God. But that is precisely why Paul says:

So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Because that admonition begins here:

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion,

2 make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;

3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself;

4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus,

6 who, existing in the form of God, didn't consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.

8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name;

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,

11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And ends here:

For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.
It is, in other words, the kenotic God through the kenotic Christ, the self-emptying God who chose even mortality and even death in order to show the path to salvation, who is at work in the believer, emptying the believer that she may be filled. It is a very difficult calling, indeed. But if it prevailed in the church, imagine what the church would be like. It is a question of being, and of behavior. Can we be as Christ was; can we behave as Christ would have us behave?

And so we are drawn back to Archbishop William's comments, and the question of being (I'm taking this from Father Jake's post because I want to incorporate his discussion here, too):

...I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself...Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: 'You can come in, and that decision will change you.' We don't say: 'Come in and we ask no questions.' I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ. That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage...
But here, again, is the question: When is a homosexual a homosexual? When they are attracted to persons of the same sex? Or when they engage in homosexual behavior? There was a great hue and cry once about Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street. Two males living together, sleeping in the same bedroom; clearly they were "gay." Frank Rich finally pointed out that they were hand puppets, so they couldn't be gay; they lacked the genitalia necessary to complete the description. I understand that pedophilia can be described in the DSM, but the outcome of that desire is dependent on a power relationship over a child (which, by the way, is what got Warren Jeffs in trouble; not his polygamy, but arranging marriage between adults and minors. The question of polygamy, like pedophilia, has gotten drawn into these discussions; I want to make it as clear as I can that they are separate issues.), not just a predilection toward children instead of adults. I find it hard to label someone "homosexual" if they never have sex with anyone, anymore than I label lifelong celibates "heterosexual." Why does the description, without the behavior, even come up?

In part, of course, because of identity issues. We have learned to identify ourselves as sexual beings, so whether we ever engage in sex or not, we are either "hetero-" or "homo-". My daughter has a new friend in her new high school, a young boy who I am quite sure has not so much as kissed anyone he's not related to by blood (and then probably only adults). But he doesn't like sports or most "manly" pursuits, so he's convinced he's gay. Why? He likes domestic pursuits, and pay attention to fashion. But honestly, unless he finds he'd rather sleep with males, is he gay? Seems an odd designation to give him. Isn't an interest in certain cultural activities as an indicator of sexual identity a culturally driven model, not an absolute one? Are you bi-sexual if you are open to having sex with males and females, but in fact you never have sex at all? That seems a rather bizarre standard. Is it truly a matter of choice, however? Does my heart betray me, lead me into perdition, whether I act on it or not?

Well, Jesus says it does, but then we have to decide what "sin" is, don't we? Jesus allowed unclean people to touch him. He allowed his disciples to glean the wheat in the fields on the Sabbath. He ate with sinners and prostitutes and anyone who would invite him to the table. God told Peter not to declare unclean what God had made clean. When does "sin" settle down so we can get a handle on it? When does God stop doing "a new thing" and let us get comfortable with what is allowed, and what isn't, and who is acceptable, and who must change before they are fully accepted? It seems Jesus healed a lot of people without ever asking them now to change their life or asking them questions before he made them walk, or see, or hear. There are a few arguable examples of Jesus making his healing almost contingent on a right heart, but none I know of based on future behavior. Jesus never said "Be good, now, or I'll take your eyesight back!" And most of the healings are just that: healings. Many are reported without any mention of even "go, and sin no more." And what does that mean, anyway? How can one "sin no more", unless sin is not the pervasive and all-encompassing concept we seem to think it is.

Maybe sin is just behavior, then. But which behavior is sinful? Unclean friends? Unclean food? When Paul says we are to display the mind of Christ, what else is he saying but that we are to be emptied, as Christ was emptied, the better to let God work out our salvation through us? And yet that salvation is the mysterium tremendum, the great secret even we don't know, the one that makes us tremble; tremble, and fear. And maybe that's the problem for Archbishop Williams: institutions don't do fear and trembling very well. Maybe it's the ethical paradox of group loyalty that's at work, where "members of a group cannot understand and feel the needs of another group as completely and deeply as those of their own group," so "reliance on love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion to overcome group divisions and inequalities is, in Niebuhr's words, 'practically an impossibility.'

As Niebuhr says, 'They will always be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.
But that's an even sadder commentary, when it's turned on the Church.

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