It has been co-opted not only by the corporations, but also by any other political “identity” issue that threatened to set the Christian church outside the cultural winds that blow through the streets of the towns and cities, the farms and the factories, the banks and the court, and especially the legislatures. “Fitting in” as a guiding principle is a clear sign of co-dependence, and a lack of character/spine that defines so many individuals and organizations. It is not a sign of a serious commitment to living out the ‘gospel’.
Bowing to cultural pressures, can and does take a variety of forms, faces and co-dependencies. Money, and the capacity to induce and vacuum those cheques from the vaults of the rich into the collection plates is a trap into which too many church leaders have fallen, as they valued their personal career aggrandizement over the proposition of giving voice to the voiceless, regardless of the political, fiscal and social risk. And this debasement, or even denigration, of the principles of Christianity is evident not only in the prosperity gospel that equates faith with wealth but also in the literalist, fundamentalist conservative political wing of the right..
Co-opting by corporations is evident in the corporate structures of the mainline churches, where power and authority are housed at the ‘top’; it is evident in the kind of ‘discipline’ expected and required of those “prostrating” themselves as a symbol of their agreeing to “abide” by the rulings of their supreme commanders, of the human kind. It is also the primary measuring criterion to determine the “success” of a local church and the clergy in charge, by those in head office. It is the same criteria General Motors uses to evaluate its dealerships and its executives, and promotes or demotes its executives and dealers as their bottom line “dictates”.
Asking whether the people in the pews are conscious that they are “growing spiritually” through their exposure to the homilies, the studies, the worship liturgies, the reflections, prayers, and conversations about spiritual issues with others, including, but not restricted to their conversations with the clergy, is apparently a step too far.
After all, such a question is so “subjective” in both its intent, and in the responses it might generate and subjectivity has been willfully and surgically removed from the ecclesial organization. Are they afraid such a question would impose too heavy and too ambiguous a standard for them to attempt to meet? Are they afraid, that having failed to do their own spiritual “work” through a rigorous discipline, they would have trouble asking their clergy to commit to such a process, given the already heavy and pervasive goal of paying the bills.
Well, it says here that churches that are little more than warm-milk pablum of bromides, about God’s unfailing love, unrestricted forgiveness to those who repent (as Leonard Cohen chants, “I did not know what they meant, when they said ‘repent’), and especially God’s provision of an entry ticket to heaven to those who have died, while conducting a funeral….have little to justify their continuing existence. No matter how such themes are lifted through melody and rock groups, or through massive choirs, or through homiletic rhetoric that soars like Cicero, they are still bromides, analogous to the chest-nut hymns like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” in full ‘military dress’.
The Christian faith, at least from the perspective of this scribe, is so challenging to the corporate ethos, structure, profit motive, and so revolutionary as to hold open the viable option of social policy that would move all governments away from arms, sycophancy to the rich and a “muddle-on” time warp that means taking centuries to get clean water to First Nations is acceptable. The Christian faith is also determined to seek the fullest expression of the truth, no matter the situation, always with a compassionate, and an ethical and process of remediation, reconciliation and healing, even in the worst of circumstances. And the challenges of such a high bar are ones very few church leaders are willing to present as guiding “lights” for their ‘flock’ lest they actually embrace the “vision”.
Imagine how the hierarchy would respond when it began to receive phone calls that the gospel was actually being practiced to the degree that each person engaged was able to offer.
At least that is the rationale for many of the current “closed” signs on the doors of some historic and formerly “blessed” as sanctuaries buildings; there was no money to keep the doors open, the furnaces firing, the choirs singing, the education programs “educating” the young, and clergy offering too often religious bromides that made people feel warm and fuzzy, confident and secure in their reservation for an afterlife in heaven.
If the church is not an opposing and thereby balancing weight to the secular profit-driven, narcissistic, “me” attitude of “getting all I can however I can” and also offering the courage and the resolution to formally and informally stand up to, confront and even protest the establishment and its insatiable appetite for status, power and control, then it has little justification for its continuing existence. If it is not going:
· to stand against the fracking chemicals of sucking natural gas from the water table,
· to stand against the income gap that grows exponentially every year, to stand against the arguments for increased military power and its deployment with impunity,
· to stand against racism, sexism, ageism and ethnic cleansing no matter the geography, or the political force that engages in these inhumanities
· to embrace the most penetrating approaches to hunger, poverty, disease, and blockages to access to quality education and health care
to with the lifers in their pursuit of justice and rehabilitation
· to embrace, rescue and fight to dry up the flow of the refugees no matter the source of their plight
· to fight for the human right to access to clean air, water, soil
· to demonstrate the self-sabotage that is contained in each and every act of the abuse of power and the healing that comes from vulnerable truths no matter how painful……
then there is little hope for its continuing survival.
Of course, critics will jump on that list as “politicizing” the church, turning it into an ideology. Yet, while there are clear over-laps with political policy, the central concept of agape and storge for all, regardless of income, education, political ideology, ethnicity, is at the heart of the theology of the gospel. And the courage needed to begin to move in the direction of making such ideals come true, not only on an individual basis, evidence of which abounds, but on a planetary basis.
It seems that the planet faces a range of threats to human existence, all of which, whether taken individually or together, have no regard for money, power, race, ethnicity, geography, gender, or age. They effectively render us all equal to a degree that is arguably new in human history. Ironically, however, we are also witnessing widening income/power gaps that depict a degree of insouciance irresponsibility that is threatening the very fabric of our institutional decision-making processes.
The church has found the poor distasteful; the homeless even more so; the poorly dressed, poorly spoken, poorly educated, and especially the people who are not “normal” in every sense of that word (leaving all physical and emotional, psychological and even sexual iterations outside the inner circles, not only of institutional power, but also of mere acceptance. If is as if the clergy, who may have a deep commitment to social justice, food banks, homeless shelters, half-way houses, can engage in those activities so long as there is no “shame” brought upon the congregation. And shame, in these cases, amounts to social embrrassment, a whisper campaign about potential “gayness” or waywardness or an upper class withdrawal of funds and participation in church committees.
All of the least desireable attributes of a high class social club including gatekeeping on steroids, social investigation of anyone and everyone, as if their pedigree and their social-economic status had to “measure up” in order to attain full acceptance, snide whispers behind backs and walls, in order to defame anyone considered different in any way…..and of course, a keen observation of the kind of contribution being made to the coffers….these all qualify, to a greater or lesser degree in every church with which I have been associated
And then there is the question of the “executive decision-making group—including its composition, the linkages between and among members, the fawning and flirting for attention of those seeking appointment, the “symptom-bearer’ dynamic, by which one person (could be clergy or laity) is targeted as the one who most fits the collection of traits despised by the culture of the group. S/he is attacked in many manners, for many mis-steps, most of which s/he has no prior knowledge of their toxicity. Among the “leaders” one will find the most self-righteous, the most abrasive, the most condescending, the most co-dependent, and the most ambitious for control. And if and when a clergy risks appointing a dedicated spiritual pilgrim who embodies the spirit of truth, compassion, forgiveness and empathy, the “insiders” who fully believed that they should have received the appointment, will attack both the appointee and the clergy who made the nomination.
It would be called “office politics” when it took place in a corporate setting. It would be called simply, “the way politics is played, in the political arena; it would be seen as normal and predictable in a college or university where professional jealousy abounds, if not reigns. And in a church, it is referred, in the professional literature to “church conflict” and sometimes theological colleges and seminaries even dare to mention it in their curriculum, but likely only in passing. And everyone knows that whether it is a question of the “spirituality” of the clergy, the rising and falling of the dollars in the coffers, the rising and falling of church education attendees, the collapse of the choir, or the musical style of the organist or accompanist, the “failure to attract young people with children” (a favourite lament in many churches)….there is too frequently and for far too long, a simmering, or boiling conflict about to threaten the “peace and tranquillity” that is supposed to be the primary operating trait of the pastoral community.
Some theologians argue that there is no separation between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, and a strong case can be made in support of that view. However, to give voice, energy, and passion to the conflicts, without actually becoming aware of the deeper, symbolic and psychic significance and meaning of why individuals find others abhorrent, why those who view God as King have so much intolerance for those who consider God a pastor or teacher, a mentor or fellow pilgrim is to provide extension for the kind of petty grievances that rear their heads on a daily/hourly/minute-by-minute basis.
Untrained in the complexity of conflict, including both its psychological and spiritual implications and roots, many clergy are outside both their comfort zone and the zone of their professional competence when they face an uprising. There is no magic superhuman reconciler, a prescient healer to “calm the waters” of the raging sea. And turning to prayer to the God/Healer/Teacher/Mentor/Shaman is too often a reflexive act of such superficiality as to be more of a diversion, a distraction and a momentary quiet in the storm, without a light of reconciliation and healing at the end of the dark tunnel.
For their part, having likely attended some kind of early church “education” many adults in pews are in touch with a few names, and stories from both old and new testaments, without having a sense of who to put the pieces together, in their own lives, let alone the lives of their children whose friends may or may not have a church affiliation. Rules, commandments, parables, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection, Christmas and Easter….these are some of the words many may have heard, somewhere in their distant past, without spending either time or energy in seeking some of the implications of these theological concepts. And, attending a ritual liturgy, weekly, or perhaps even more frequently, may be highly comforting, and “centering” without helping to ask tough questions about how “my presence is impacting my world and the people in it.”
And, while serious discussion about the relative merits of different points of view on spiritual/ecclesial/epistemological/soteriological/questions and their import is clearly valid, the church often fails to provide a framework for such discussions. Exploration of new science, in the light of theological tenets and premises, could be so scary as to frighten off both clergy and laity.
Hunkering down to the minimalist “identity”/“wedge” issues of personality politics is a clear sign that we have lost our shared ideals, and a shared vision that embraces the least among us….a vision that, purportedly attends all world faith communities worthy of the name and pursuit. In many small towns, law enforcement is relegated to the petty crimes of local “losers” (as they are called on the street”) while the ‘big issues’ escape their purview and their resources. A parallel seems to have emerged in many legislatures where racism, especially focusing on either or both Jews and Muslims has become the stereotypical response to what is perceived as threats from “outside” as the border of our minds/towns/states/provinces/nations have contracted through a withering of hope, courage, community, and collaboration. The blight of sexism is also sucking the oxygen from what’s left after trump and his gang have sucked their monumental portion.
If we have been reduced to a slogan like, “If you see something, say something!” then our focus has been reduced to mere safety and security at the street level. Meanwhile, on the top floors of our skyscrapers, the powerful continue to make decisions about stock options, bonuses, career aggrandizement and legacy planning….hardly the stuff of a social conscience, or an operative faith. Oh, there are a plethora of examples of token “ethical” initiatives that are designed to soften the profit-obsession of their originators. And this kind of tokenism, like the many that have operated inside the church sanctuaries for decades, serves as a kind of mascara on what are really personal extrinsic ambitions, and organizational growth metrics both linked like a two-headed monster.
Human capacity to envision a better world, however, seems to have taken a different turn, summarized in Cohen’s “You say you want it darker,” a prophetic insight if ever there was one.