What weighs on me more and more, as I get on in years and consider my faith, is the historic, never-ending, and dramatic failure of the visible church. I wonder how I can hang on to Jesus when the rap sheet of his followers is a never-ending story.
The cultural genocide of Canada’s First Nations that Canadian churches helped organize and lead, the ongoing revelations of clergy abuse especially by Roman Catholic priests and bishops—though Protestants are not guiltless in this either--and the ugly turn to Trumpism by America’s evangelicals are three current realities that weigh on me.
But historically, there is much, much more. Shall I list all the ways the church has failed? Impossible—there is too much. But consider this brief list of just ten notable historic abuses: 1) Scapegoating Jews (centuries of it, mind you, around dinner table, as well as in villages tiny and empires great). 2) Happy participation in genocides not only of Jews, but of First Nations all around the world. 3) Blessing the slave trade and slave ownership. 4) The Roman Catholic Inquisition.
5) Crusades. 6) Centuries worth of religious wars in Europe. 7) Blessing and promotion of British imperialism for pride, profit, and pink maps (or Dutch imperialism, or Nazism, or Napoleon, or medieval monarchies, or the Roman Empire after Constantine). 8) Anti-science views from Galileo to today’s defenders of creationism and deniers of climate change. 9) A focus on personal salvation in the by-and-by instead of saving the world, now. 10) From at least the time of Constantine, its adulterous affair with the status quo rather than social justice for the last, least, and most marginalized.
|Contemporary illustration of the Auto-da-fe held |
at Valladolid Spain in 1559.
Most of these tragedies are global or national. But local congregations and leaders and individual members participated in all of these failures.
I am no great exception to the rule. When I look back on my own career as a minister and denominational leader, I see many missed opportunities to do the right thing, to take a stand against the status quo, to be more prophetic, to take risks, to be more like Jesus. But I’ll pass on my personal list of ten-most-notable John Suk failures.
The thing is, how can such an ongoing avalanche of evils inspire faith? Or, perhaps better yet, how can churches (denominations and congregations, members and related non-profits, etc., etc.) have the gall to proselytize, to suggest joining (or staying) might be a good thing, in view of its record? It would be like putting our trust in Volkswagen’s mileage claims or Donald Trump’s claims he didn’t commit adultery. Why doesn’t “once bitten, twice shy” seem to apply to the church? Especially when the church has been prowling about like a carnivore for thousands of years?
There are traditional approaches to dealing with the scandal of the church. One is to argue that the only church that really matters is the invisible one, holy, Catholic church which is different than the many scattered, sorry, excuses for a church that are written up in history books and located on street corners.
But such a focus on the eschatological church (if you even believe in a second coming and all that) is like a magician’s trick, pulling something pretty and fluffy out of a hat after you first stuffed a dirty rag in. It’s sleight of hand.
This eschatological approach makes a mockery of Jesus’ teaching for the nascent church of “now,” as represented by the disciples: “A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Do we really think Jesus didn’t mean this, didn’t expect such love, here and now, from his followers? Are all of the New Testament's pleas to be perfect, or to give one another the kiss of peace, or to serve one another, or care for one another, or to love neighbours or turn the other cheek there just to mock us?
Another approach is to weigh the good against the bad, and say, “on balance, the church is great!” But, “on balance,” doesn’t cut it with me. It’s like suggesting that German engineering prowess or philosophical depth or music or strudel somehow justifies or minimizes the horror of what the Nazis did in Germany.
Others say that, "of course the church will be a failure. We’re all sinners. The church is for sinners, just as it will be besmirched and spoiled by sinners. But at least we are striving to follow Jesus, to climb the ladder of sanctification." But this is merely a poor excuse for a grade of F. "Johny tried, poor kid. He really did. That's good enough."
I love my local congregation. I love the people who go to church there. I am, to be truthful, much more frustrated by regional, national, international, institutional, hierarchal, synodical, confessional, creedal, educational manifestations of the church than I am with my local congregation.
I don’t see a way around my frustrations either. Go back to calling ourselves “The Way?” Seek a Chuxit for my congregation? Quietism? Withdrawal from the world of politics and institutions and power games and bureaucracies? If I or my congregation tried, we would just have to reinvent a lot of what we left behind if we wanted to carry on or grow or make an impact.
I don’t know. I guess blog posts don’t always have to have all the answers.
This week is Easter. I’m going to preach on Jesus’ words, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” I wonder if there is something here, in Jesus' way of choosing death that might be a way forward towards an ecclesial resurrection. Anyone remember Morris West's novel "The Shoes of the Fisherman"? It had some of that "choosing death" in it. It was hokey, too. But still.
I don’t know what that would look like here and now. I don’t know what it would mean for the people I love and who love others in my local congregation.
I don’t know. But it weighs on me more and more.