Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"What kind of people worship here?"

It should be noted at the outset that Reinhold Niebuhr would likely agree with James Madison.  But Niebuhr would also note that Madison is letting the people in the pews off far too lightly.  An institution, after all, be it ecclesiastical or corporate, is guided by those who comprise it far more than it is guided by the people who think they operate it:

What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient allies.
-- James Madison, Memorial And Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785.

The other night on Lawrence O'Donnell's show Martin Bashir played a by now familiar clip of a Baptist preacher spewing hatred for gays.  Anthea Butler, a woman I hold in fairly high regard from her appearances on MSNBC, also argued that the people were being led by their pastor to this hatred.  She called the congregation "docile" and "very comfortable" with listening to such speech.  It's a nice world, if you can live in it; but it isn't reality.

Would that it were, in fact; would that it were so simple as to simply mislead people on what scripture says, or what Jesus taught.  Would that the only problem was a handful of ignorant and hate-filled clergy, making convenient allies with rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty.  But only a person who has spent little time in a church, and no time in a pulpit, could imagine it were so.

Congregations are not sheep, and pastors and priests are not shepherds.  Woe be unto the seminary graduate who imagines the people in the pews are simply waiting for their divine guidance to see the light and to learn to love and not hate, to accept and not reject.

It's interesting to read the comments at Charles Pierce's blog, where I got the Madison quote.  Someone raised the issue of Dr. Martin Luther King and other religious leaders as a counterpoint to Madison, and others almost immediately noted Madison was speaking of institutions, not individuals.  On that cleavage we always find our salvation, because we can praise the sainted memory of Dr. King and ignore the fact he lived and died an ordained clergy, and all of his work was done in the context of churches and through institutions, most of them religious or with roots in religious institutions.  We love the simple dualism of "love the sinner, hate the sin," as if sin were something always outside of us, and we were all loving and reasonable and kind, and the fault always lay with someone else. Our body is bad, but our soul is good, so our intentions are interrupted by our carnal prisons, but who can blame us?   How soon do we forget that Dr. King's famous letter from Birmingham was addressed to the clergy there, and the last quarter of it is taken up with the failings of white churches to join the struggle for justice that Dr. King and the black churches who supported him are engaged in.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
"What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"  No preacher preaches apart from his congregation.  No pastor serves an idea alone; she serves the people who call her to their pulpit.  Does this mean they should reinforce the hate?  No; but they don't create it, either.  The pastor cannot create a hatred that isn't already there, isn't already looking for confirmation and affirmation and conviction.  What kind of people worship here?  Observe their pastor, and you will know.

What kind of influence have ecclesiastical establishments had on society?  The kind the society wants them to have.  If you preach the gospel of Jesus, if you teach that Jesus came to bring sight to the blind and freedom to the prisoner and food to the hungry, very few people will join with you.  If you preach the gospel of abundance against the theology of scarcity, very few people will be interested in what you say.  I've yet to see a church buy air time or ads in a shopping mall to proclaim their discipleship, or their concern for the least and lowest, or their acceptance of prostitutes and tax collectors.  Their ads proclaim community of like people, or the gospel of prosperity, or comfort for your predilections.  No church advertises that it will challenge you and shake you loose from your comfortable mooring and set you out on a sea of uncertainty where your only hope is your trust in God.  I'm hard pressed to read any of the parables of Jesus as anything but challenges to not only the status quo, but to what you, the individual, thinks is true.  The prodigal son is rewarded for his profligacy, and his father defies all the conventions of any well-ordered society in doing so.  Yet who would disagree with what the father does?  The woman who loses one coin, then spends all night and precious fuel looking for something that would be revealed at sunrise; and when she finds it, she awakes the house to throw a party and spend the coin and many times its value, celebrating her find.  The merchant who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great price; and now what?  The shepherd who leaves 99 sheep defenseless, to find one sheep that is lost.  The church tells us these parables are about the kingdom of heaven, But how is the kingdom of heaven like that?

If you preach a kingdom where the first are last, the last first; the rich are sent away empty, the poor are welcomed in, the hungry are fed, and the fed sent off without food, and it all ruled over by the ultimate force of weakness, which displays ultimately the weakness of force, you'll soon have no followers at all.  Those who arrive first will want to remain first; those who arrive last will want their priorities acknowledged.  The rich won't like being told they should go away empty; the poor will wonder then they will get filled.   You won't find any among them who will docilely listen to what you are saying.  You won't find any among them who won't want to establish a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority.  You won't find any among them who won't want to erect a political tyranny.  Mary's Magnificat is lovely poetry, but don't go trying to put it into practice; not if you want to establish and pastor a congregation.  There is no one who doesn't imagine their throne deserves to remain stable, that their vision of a just society isn't benevolent and fair.  There is no social group that doesn't imagine its tyranny is not tyranny at all.

Having said that, let me say this:  without the church extending through two millenia, I couldn't say anything about what I think the gospels say.  Without the church preserving these texts and these ideas, and espousing them and adding to them and taking away from them, for over 2000 years, I couldn't have been educated in seminary to even have these ideas.  Without the people of the church, the clouds of witness, the communion of the saints, I couldn't have the hope I do in the midst of all these despairing observations, because I would have nothing to hope on, and no knowledge or understanding of the hope I do have.  Without the church, I wouldn't even be a clanging gong or a ringing cymbal; nor would I know those metaphors.  Without the church, life as I know it now would be unimaginable.  George Bailey got to see the world without him, something he could not otherwise imagine.  A world wholly without the Church?  I cannot imagine that, either; nor do I want to.  Without the church, I would not be who I am; and flawed and broken and useless as that is, this life would be less than nothing, I would be less than nothing, if the church had never existed.

As for the world, without the church we wouldn't have Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, universities, the Big Bang Theory, get the idea.

And how is the kingdom of heaven like that?

So what do we conclude?  Do we hammer the church?  Yes, with the largest and heaviest hammer you can find.  And if it fall, let it go down.  But be honest about what you are swinging at, and why.  Is the church the leadership, or the people?  Can it be both and a little bit of neither?  Ideally it should be, but it never is.  Does the church influence society?  No more than society influences the church.  Is it a gathering place for those seeking power?  What group of two or more people isn't?  What is the church, is one question.  What should the church be?  Aye, there's the rub. 


  1. Is this the difference between prophesying and pastoring? And the reason that prophets aren't often honored.

    The most valuable thing that organized religion has done is that it has, at times, to some extent, countered the almost irresistible urge to be selfish and self-centered with all of the attendant evils those include. It isn't always successful but its spotty success has a huge effect in decreasing the depravity of human life and human societies. All of the things you mention, all of civil rights and equality is entirely dependent on the practice of treating other people as if they are more than physical objects. Considering the Satanic forces of corporate culture, of consumerist culture, of materialism being thrown against the effort to convince people that other people are endowed with rights that are inalienable, those who make the effort are doing something enormously important. But even the lowest level of pastoral instruction will, inevitably contain some required prophetic content and disappointment comes with that territory.

    I had a related exchange on these ideas with Brooklyn Girl the other day.

  2. Windhorse9:43 PM

    In the United States, [Niebuhr] continued, "The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry....

    Does Niebuhr have a prescription for confrontong this particularly American practice of people playing power-politics in the pews? Besides unwisely confronting church members head on? Or does even attempting to alter their behavior fall under the fruitless category of trying to "manage history"?

  3. A prescription? No. A lifetime's effort and a small shelf of books on the subject?


    And what do we remember him for most? The Serenity Prayer.

  4. From anthony's link:

    Brooklyn Girl

    The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s were largely an expression of religious convictions of the participants.

    Bullshit. That may have been true of some of the leaders, but certainly not of the participants.

    Wow. Some really serious revisionist history going on there. I suppose King's followers who practiced his nonviolent resistance were all atheists?

    Good grief.....