These are tough days for those who believe in the institutional church and in organized religion.
Daily our newscasts document incidents of sin, corruption, abused power, misguided fanaticism, and betrayed trust….all done in the name of religion or under its guise!
Pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests, sex and money scandals among TV evangelists, hostage takings and bombings by fundamentalist Arabs, Irish Catholics, and Hindu Sikhs, these and other lesser scandals fill the front pages. As one commentator put it, “this is the church’s Watergate!”
Many people’s faith is shaken; understandably so. Trust, once given, then betrayed, is not easily restored. Faith in organized religion is difficult at the best of times and so, given all this disillusionment, it is becoming ever easier for people to believe that they are best to go through life independent of the institutional church.
Moreover, for those who despise or ignore organized religion (cultured agnostics, religious lone rangers, anti-clerics) this is high season.
What all these scandals are doing is helping confirm their most hopeful suspicions: Religion is a hoax; organized church practice serves the interests of those who organize it; Roman Catholic celibacy is a front; everyone has an angle; in the church, as elsewhere, sex and money are what it’s ultimately all about; the institutional part of religion is what corrupts faith; pure self-sacrifice does not exist within the churches; one is best off without organized religion; Jesus founded a kingdom, humans created the churches. All these Watergate-type revelations are finally revealing the truth!
What’s to be said and done in the face of all of this?
All healing begins with a lancing of the wound. We should, despite the pain and humiliation of all of this, be grateful that the truth is being exposed. In the long run, the truth will set us free.
In the short run, the prognosis is less positive. We have to be prepared for a season, perhaps a very long one, of continued pain and embarrassment and a further erosion of trust. We have to accept this and accept it without self-pity, rationalization, half-baked justifications, or any attempts to water-down the seriousness of what is revealed in these scandals. Partly we are sick and, like a virus that has infected the body, this has to run its course and the body, in pain and fever, has to build up a new immune system. In the short run, we can only do what Lamentations advises: “Put your mouth to the dust and wait!”
Beyond that, those of us who are not directly involved in these scandals, either personally or institutionally, must resist the temptation to distance ourselves and our churches from these with the attitude: “Don’t look at me, I’m innocent, this is somebody else’s problem!”
It’s our problem, irrespective of whether or not we are innocent or guilty. All Christians, along with all other sincere believers, form one body, Christ’s body. We are all in this together, with Christ. We may not facilely link ourselves with our church’s graced moments, its saints, martyrs, and proud achievements, and then slickly distance ourselves from its dark history, its compromises, its perverseness, its pedophilia, and its sex and money scandals. To be a member of the church, to be a believer, is to be linked to all of this, grace and sin.
In this context, it is significant to point out that Christ died between two thieves. He was innocent; they weren’t. However, because his sacrifice was seen against that horizon, it was judged, by association, by those present to be as tainted as were the deaths of those he died with. People watching the crucifixion did not distinguish between who was guilty and who was innocent. They assessed what they saw en bloc. For them, all crucifixions meant the same thing.
The church is still judged in the same way. To be a church member is still to be connected, by association, with sin and sinners. Christ was the object of suspicion and misunderstanding. Every kind of accusation was leveled against him. This will be true, always, of his church.
Like him, the church will always be seen by outsiders as framed against a certain horizon…on display with scoundrels, child molesters, fakes, frauds, bad thieves and good thieves. The crucifixion of Christ is still going on and it is mixed in with the personal tragedies of honest and dishonest sinners. Christ is always pinned up among thieves.
But the church need offer no particular apologetics for this. The historical Jesus was found there. Why shouldn’t the church be found there?
As the great Protestant theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, stated already a century ago in a book entitled, Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion, the temptation is always to despise religion in its positive form, namely, in its concrete historical expression in the churches where it finds itself hopelessly and inextricably intertwined with the sin, pettiness, and foibles of ordinary human beings. Invariably the temptation is to say: “I can handle God, but I won’t be involved with all this human mess we call the church!”
To speak that line is to utter the greatest ecclesial heresy there is. To speak it is also to abandon the true Christ for an idol. Jesus walked with sinners, ate with them, was accused with them, and died with them. The church is true when it is in solidarity with him, especially in that. Lately the church has been dying a lot with sinners. It’s been an humiliating experience…but, then, so was the crucifixion!