Who is the Church?

This is a hard time to be a Christian, and a harder time to be a Catholic. Within the Christian tradition, institutional churches are all, to various degree, dealing with a schism between conservatives and progressives. The Catholic Church most dramatically, but many others more quietly, are being tormented by sexual abuse crises that have exposed leaders at all levels as rapists, molesters, and complicit enablers. As younger generations flee institutional membership of all kinds, there are as many “nones” – people of no religious tradition or credal faith – as there are of any strand of believers.

Let me suggest that this is the inexcusable but perhaps inevitable fruit of promoting a vision of God based on power instead of a vision of God based on love. At the root of many of the crises above is what in Catholic circles is labeled clericalism. It exists unnamed in lower church traditions, though – the unchecked power of religious leaders, particularly institutional leaders like pastors and bishops. The model of power-first brings in those who crave power and brings out the worst of those who may have entered ministry with the best of intentions. And like almost all institutions, the culture of self-protection has overcome the original vision and mission that brought it into being.

In a podcast on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, “Deliver Us,” the host spoke with an ecclesiologist who made a point that wasn’t entirely unfurled. He said that in the history of the Church, reform had seldom successfully taken the form of a direct assault on the powers that be; what succeeded in reforming the Church was popular movements of laity who, rather than attack the institutional powers, offered a living witness to a more fundamental embrace of living the Gospel. What wasn’t said directly was this: what beats power is not power; what beats power is love.

The Franciscan and Jesuit traditions are both telling examples. Both were founded by young men who initially sought fame, glory and power as warriors, but came to realize that allegiance to God called for a different approach: a radical obedience to follow the Spirit wherever She led. Francis’ radical movement, especially in its poverty, is a movement of love. Ignatius’ Jesuits may be seen as more cerebral, even calculating, but their approach is to adapt the Gospel of love to have the most impact in the world. What is a more loving motto, really, than to be “a man for others?”

Our sense of justice resists this approach. It feels like surrender to say “don’t focus on toppling the Tower of Babel; build a better model of loving community instead.” But the reality is that in small and unnoticed ways, those who pursue the Gospel of love radically have always been the animating force of the Christian tradition. We don’t notice those who live Matthew 25, in large part because they seldom become the pastor, the bishop, the preacher at the front of the room. But they have always been there, and our best response to the evils and injustices wrought by a power-centric view of God is to join the ranks of those who would rather feed the poor than rule them.

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There is a separate element to the alleged undoing of the Church today that is so commonplace and accepted (unlike the abuse crisis and clericalism) that we often don’t notice it. It is the eliding of Christianity and Christendom. While it may be complete folly to suggest that our faith would have been better had we remained in the shadows of persecution rather than becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and the unofficial religion of the Western World, Christianity has suffered from trying to live a paradox. We were founded on a rejected stone, a crucified messiah, an embrace of the untouchable. We grew through an unfathomable path – a Jewish sect embraced more by Gentiles than Jews. Our God is love, not power, and points to eternity, not this world.

And yet now, and for the last 16 or 17 centuries, we are also the power, if not overtly and officially, then subtly and culturally. While we Americans celebrate a First Amendment’s freedom of religion, we are perhaps more prone than any other Christian country to forget the otherness of our faith. Even as our founding was by and for persecuted, outcast Christians, we have come to create a uniquely American Christianity that is idolatrous at its core. We believe that to be most American is to be Christian and to be Christian is most American. We are the Rome at the heart of modern Christendom.

In the process, we have made our country our God. Actually, O love, we displace you with a lot of things: with country, with politics, with prosperity and profit, with achievement. And the consistency with which I see my fellow citizens put move who God is to fit their national, political, and economic allegiances, it makes me wish we were underdogs again, as we were in that upper room. The number of professed Christians continues to shrink, and I know I should mourn that loss. But I can’t help but wonder if the members we’ve lost were seed planted on the path; if the people who don’t show up in the pews on Sunday reflect an unveiling of the farce that a religion of love worshiping a God who picks losers could be anything but a small, poor church for the poor. It is painful, but if our journey of diminishment leaves us with only the people who really ache for your love, it may perhaps create an opening for a witness powerful enough to actually spread the Gospel rather than spread the brand.

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