Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reflections on "The Suicide of the Liberal Church" by Chris Hedges, truthdig.com, January 24, 2016


There are many, including Chris Hedges, who are pointing to the self-sabotage of the liberal Christian church, having failed to advocate for the poor, the imprisoned, the racially oppressed and the un-and under-employed in a world bowing sycophantly to the corporate/government/military/techno monster, the idol of choice of the contemporary culture in North America, probably Europe and other ‘developed’ countries as well.

As a matter of practical ministry, there is little doubt that the oppressed have not and will not find an advocate, except perhaps as a token to assuage both organizational and individual clergy guilt, within the liberal churches; and that includes most of the mainline protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Describing the failure of the organizations, and by inference the leadership of those churches, as well as the laity, addresses only one aspect of the issue, albeit a very important one, the failure to incarnate the challenge of the gospel as companions, advocates and mentors of the poor, the imprisoned, the impoverished and the alienated and the ostracized. Preferring the company of those who write the cheques, and those who live in the big houses and drive the luxury cars, and vacation in the most costly resorts, these churches have not only driven out those who formerly challenged this “corporatism” wrapped in ecclesial robes, and sprinkled with holy water. They have, more importantly, robbed themselves of the spiritual pilgrimage that can only accompany a full recognition and acceptance and embrace of vulnerability, the kind exhibited by the Jew left for dead in the ditch in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Whether or not one goes so far as to ‘sell everything and give it all to the poor’ or whether one empties one’s heart/mind/spirit of all the fears, anxieties and the hubris that are encased in one’s unique mask, that protective visage that purports to ‘put a good and proper face’ forward to meet the world, if one is to accept fully the challenge of discipleship, of wearing and bearing the identity of a Christian, there are many roads that have to be surrendered. And one of the first roads to be rejected is the road that worships the same goals and the same processes to achieve those goals that are espoused, embraced and almost sacralised by the corporate world, for-profit. The military/industrial/pharmaceutical/technological “complex” is driving the definition of human, personal and organizational success. Embedded in this complex of strategies and tactics are numerous givens, most of which are never mentioned in seminary. Let’s list a few: first a hierarchical, pyramidal structure in the military mode, too often without recourse or appeal to an objective review panel to resolve major and minor conflict. Second, there is the question of shareholders at the top of the pyramid, those in authority at ‘head office’ whose primary, if not sole, preoccupation is filling the coffers and the pews. Consequently, there is also built in a hierarchy of donors, elevating the most prolific donors to a status that often outranks the supervising clergy, including the bishops and archbishops. Third, in order to fulfil the mandate of filling the coffers and filling the pews, there must be a marketing plan, euphemistically dubbed the ‘plan of ministry’. Which target demographic is missing from the pews, (often the young, especially those with children whose bodies are necessary to fill the mandate for an education program)? What programs are needed in order to attract that demographic? What talents exist in the staff that could be deployed in order to mount such programs? And while some human interaction of a somewhat profound and “agape” nature can and often does occur in the course of the planning to meet these ‘corporate’ targets, too often the success of the task is measured, once again, in that proverbial method: the numbers. If ten new families arrive in the course of a calendar year, the church (and the clergy) can report to head office that ‘the church is growing’. Of course, if a congregation has to mount a second weekly service, to accommodate overflow crowds, then such a ministry is considered exceptional, whether or not there is any attention being paid to the spiritual growth of  the clergy, the lay leaders and the individual members of the congregation. In fact, very often such matters are considered irrelevant, especially by those “in charge” those very people who are themselves driven to achieve a form of extrinsic success, that too often began with the winning of medals, trophies and championships in their youth. These “type A” characters, considered leaders in the corporate culture, are also “control freaks” and this need for control too often expresses itself in the angst and the furor that arise when a poor family shows up unannounced, one that is less than ‘respectably’ dressed, one whose children are making noise in the sanctuary, even running around after the service (I have had to restrain a female Warden from scolding an six-year-old following a church service, because she was running excitedly to meet the other members of her family!) Of course, it is almost completely unlikely that a ‘regular’ member of the congregation will have invited such a family. The risk of such an invitation is to invoke the contempt and the patronizing derision of the rest of the congregation, even if there is a veneer of polite ‘welcome’ extended upon the entry into the sanctuary by such a family.

When the regional leadership of a congregation offers a “charge” to the annual meeting of the clergy and laity, setting forth the goals for the upcoming year in terms that merely mimic those of a large corporation, like General Motors, “a ten-percent rise in numbers in the pews accompanied by a fifteen percent rise in the revenue of the region,” then everyone within earshot knows unequivocally that the church has fallen head-over-heels into the trap of corporate thinking, acting, visioning and possibly even believing. (Those churches that dispense a theology commonly known as “prosperity religion” by which they believe and teach that God wants us all to be rich, and attending services where this is preached, taught and believed will go even farther along the corporate/marketing/rich continuum!) And so obsessively occupied with the details of administration of a complex “corporate” organization, even one that sets aside time for its staff members to pray and to reflect, and even to go on retreat occasionally, are the leaders that their lives cannot fully consider the gospel’s deep and profound meaning, and so they naturally and tragically slip into the kind of military discipline, based fundamentally on their authority, and failing dramatically to engage in reconciliation, mediation, and the normal strategies of conflict resolution, even those espoused and deployed in those very corporations like universities, hospitals, and the education system.

Ethics does require that those in leadership, those in authority, exercise that authority in a manner that demands, expects and deserves the respect of its buck privates. And in the church, that includes a commitment to one’s own spiritual growth and development, with a formal spiritual director, whose role is minimally to challenge the individual to acknowledge those aspects of their private lives that impede, obstruct, and even sabotage their existence and the journey of their families and colleagues. Yet, too often, it is the extrinsic attitude and behaviour that is the focus of the religious authorities, for the primary purpose of protecting the reputation of the corporation, the church. Like any company that produces listeria in its salads, and has to recall the product, the church is compelled to respond in similar ways, to smudges on its reputation, although those smudges could and ought to lead to a renewed awareness of the role the church itself played in the generation of the specific smudge. Of course, like the corporation, however, keeping silent for as long as possible, and forever if that is feasible (of course, it is not!) is the preferred modus operandi. And this, from an organization whose primary purpose is to heal broken men and women, through the power and the forgiveness of the Cross and the Resurrection that is the essence of the gospel’s import!

Hypocrisy, of course, is a cliché target for all churches, from the outside. And as one clergy put it to me and others, in another life, “Church is the best place for hypocrites: at least here they might have to acknowledge their hypocrisy.” That works fairly effectively on the individual level; it is the organizational level that cries out for attention. How can or should the church acknowledge its hypocrisy, as a model to the millions of mothers and fathers who are hypocritically exercising judgement over the children, without having to face the reality of their unhealthy interventions. The church has the opportunity, (and it says here) the obligation to demonstrate a level of ethical behaviour that includes the most serious and the most transparent and the most responsible research into its motives, its methods, its transgressions, both individually and collectively, (and the collective escapes scrutiny almost universally and forever). And that behaviour, attitude and commitment to full disclosure, even of the most painful wounds, can stand as a beacon of both light and hope to all those whose lives might, could, or actually do cross paths with the church, as an organization.

And that means that individuals who seek leadership roles have the discipline, the support and the resources to identify their own spiritual growth edges, manifest the pain of such acknowledgement to the spiritual directors in their lives, but also, if in less specific form, to their congregants and their clergy colleagues. There is a theory and a practice, especially among Episcopal churches, Anglican and Roman Catholic, that one’s spirituality is a private matter between the individual and God. No one else is privy to the intricacies and the exigencies of that part of one’s life. And there is some value in that theory and practice. However, the degree of absolute privacy that covers the individual pain of too many lives is unhealthy for the repressed individuals and for the church itself. There must be sacred space, wrapped in complete confidentiality and secrecy among those in a small group of pilgrims, who individually and collectively have aspired to dedicate their spiritual journeys to the most rigorous examination, the most profound and honest reflection on the roots of all the angst and the pain in their lives, and the journey of acknowledgement and release of those most dark moments. And there is no “market strategy” for such community exercises, and no insistence expected on the revenue that can or must accompany such participation. And the participation has to include the clergy, if the process is to have any long-term impact on the lives of the people within the ‘church’ community. And there are many requirements of such a ‘change’ in the manner in which the liberal churches operate. Some of the requirements of the organization have been mentioned. Now it is time to take a look at the changes in an individual life that prepares one for such an adventure in spiritual growth.

The late Rev. Dr. Romney Moseley, wrote a book entitled, “Becoming a Self before God,” that expresses the process to which I refer. It is a way of being in the world, and being is the operative word. As another cliché has it, “We are human BEINGS not human DOINGS!” And the process of becoming a self, a fully authentic human, fully open and fully seeking, and thereby fully vulnerable to the inner voice, some call it the voice of God, in our lives, is not and must not be compared with a piano student who diligently practices his scales and arpeggios. It is even more challenging than that learning curve, in that it requires increasing time and space in complete quiet, and increasing time in reading and reflecting on both one’s reading and the experiences of one’s life. Silence is so foreign to millions of people, both inside and outside all religious communities, that to accept the limits and the freedom that can come only from silence is a task for which many are unprepared and even unwilling to enter. (Personal note: Following a weekend retreat of silence broken only by brief conversations with a spiritual director, I heard these words from him: “I am very glad your retreat was only three days; if I were to subject you to an eight day retreat, it would kill you!” He was very familiar with my loquacious side, as was I, and not familiar with a more reflective and meditative and silent capacity that has taken decades, and the intervention of an extremely supportive life partner to develop.)

 In order to prepare to enter disciplined periods of silence, one has to be prepared to step back from the frenzy of making a living, from the frenzy of fitting in, from the frenzy of climbing the ladder of success that stretches out before all the classrooms and all the students starting their marathon to their career mountaintop, crowned with the kind of income and status, the home and the cars, the vacation retreats and the trips to exotic islands. One has to accept that, while this stereotypical path is overcrowded with millions of aspirants, even obsessed competitors (and the importance of competition is embedded in the avalanche of advertising and propaganda that washes over every child and adult within reach of television, computer and smart phone screens) there is a profound, deep and inexorable emptiness, hollowness and desperate depression waiting for those who actually achieve the capitalist dream. Of course, the slogans echo in defence of the corporate/capitalist/religious ideology, shouting the most important value of a human life is the degree of empathy, compassion and support one offers to others. Nevertheless, these slogans are too often and predictably followed by some token offering, in some dramatic and unique circumstance, a once in a lifetime event. Even churches can and do engage in welcoming refugees, once in their history. Sometimes they also hold fundraisers for a homeless family whose home just burned to the ground. But these are not the norm; they are the exception. And the drum-beat of dollars and numbers of derrieres in the pews continues to plague the ‘vision’ of too many bishops imposing those ‘standards’ on too many clergy. Reductionisms of what the church “needs” to survive, defined by the same terms that define the probability of success of General Motors, are precisely the reasons for the demise, self-imposed, of the very communities whose very existence was originally based on the service to those in most need.

However, in order to execute such a mission, one has to enter into the discipline that accompanies such a mission. And from a career inside the liberal churches, one of the most striking aspects of my experience in how little spiritual work has even been undertaken by those in leadership positions, especially in the executive, bishop, archdeacon, canon positions. Those men and women have risen in almost identical ways to the career ascents of those in corporate corner offices. They pleased their superiors; they even repressed their own truths in order to ‘fit in’ to the requirements of the corporate church.

There is a deep division between the extrinsic aspect of one’s life and the intrinsic aspects of one’s life; similarly, there is a large difference between the extrinsic aspects of one’s religion, and one’s theology, and the intrinsic aspects of one’s theology. Carl Jung reminds us that for the first forty-five years of our lives we are engaged in an extensive process of building a career, growing a family, taking on the responsibilities of a mortgage and a home, as well as integrating into the community in which we live. And in the second half of our lives, we are, generally, and for some more deeply than others, more engaged in learning about those things that previously caused us so much pain we were unable to confront them without breaking down, so we packed them away for later reference, And the second half of our lives is the time to start the process of unpacking. And while that process may require the participation of a trained professional psychotherapist, for many it needs only the space and the time and the human support of people we trust, who, also, are willing to risk sharing their own unpacking of their own shadows. And it is the intrinsic that both collides and intersects with the spiritual, that we are most interested in here, as part of the reflection on the suicide of the liberal church.

Or course, to engage with others in the process of unpacking those most deep and profoundly painful aspects of our earlier lives, is no “walk in the park”. It is rather a scary proposition, even without actually engaging, for most. And yet, are we not called, generally, to face our fears, and to acknowledge our shortcomings, and our betrayals both as recipient and committer, and to become fully aware of and fully excised of all those ‘demons’ that have haunted our inner lives for decades. We are, rather encourage, almost even required to deny those pains that are most uncomfortable, up to and including the actual deaths of those dear to us. We are not only a death-denying culture; we are also a pain and vulnerability and embarrassment-denying culture. So quick are we to spit out our denials and defences that we go to medical practitioners only when we cannot stand the pain, and after all the topical (and very often secret) remedies have failed; as a result we put extreme pressure on all health care systems expecting them to fix us ‘in extremis’. Similarly, with respect to our mental and emotional (and spiritual) health (how can they be separated? They can’t!). We exist in a cocoon of denial, to our own and our families, and even our colleagues’ alienation. We attempt to live in our own silo, in spite of the addiction to the current spate of techno-devices that superficially and impermanently link us to one another.

Schools and universities and colleges are ill-equipped to offer much more than “extrinsic” counselling, if both genders would even present in the offices of counselling professionals. (One psychiatrist reports that of the college students who make appointments to see him and talk with him, over 70% are female, although the college population is approximately 50-50 male to female.) Families, too, are ill-equipped to intervene into the private lives of their children, especially during and following adolescence,  when the seriousness of emotional problems tend to rise. Employers, too, are ill-equipped to provide safe space for legitimate venting of emotional turmoil, even if and when such turmoil is triggered by the behaviour of the corporate employer, either organizationally or personally, or both.

Self-help books and creams, and pills and potions abound, including a substantial and growing dependence on pain suppressants, like alcohol, both prescription and non-prescription drugs. And of course, the opportunists in both legitimate and illegitimate arenas, are more than willing to profit from our dependence, based as it is on our denial of responsibility.

What then exists in our culture that has the structural foundation and the prescriptive direction to provide the conditions for emotional and spiritual healing for people of all economic strata, not only the poor, but also those who are well off, including those in positions of leadership who are potentially the most vulnerable, (having obsessively pursued their professional identity, too often in denial of the real psyches, and for reasons many of them do not fully comprehend, or wish to uncover).

The church, in its most pure incarnation, has the potential to serve both individuals and organizations in the legitimate and harrowing process of uncovering identity, authentic identity, as a path toward full and reciprocal relationships, as a path toward a more full realization of one’s inner voice and the dreams that seek its expression, and as a path toward a more robust and creative and innovative (based on a renewed sense of courage and authenticity) culture of interdependence, and not co-dependence. A culture based on truthful disclosure,  even when, and especially when, such disclosure is most painful and embarrassing. If we were all to embrace the potential of our own individual spiritual lives, imagine the energy now bottled up, drugged up, smoked up and unavailable that would and could be released.

And that release would not be for the purpose of pursuing the “profit” for each of us, but rather for the purpose of pursuing the prophet that is in each of us.

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