Saturday, August 22, 2009

Politicizing the Church

The Anglican Curmudgeon recently shared some excerpts from Peter Kreeft's book How to Win the Culture War in which Satan addresses his minions as follows:

Even if [Christians] stop hating each other, even if their hearts reunite, their heads can't. Their divisions are eternal. In fact, they are doomed to divide forever, until eventually there are as many Christian churches as there are Christians. And that's the religion where the more sincere you are, the fewer converts you make: the worship of yourself. ...

But it gets even better. The division between churches is only one of three great divisions we've fomented. A second is the division within each church between the faithful and the "dissenters." (Back when they still believed in truth, they called them "heretics." People who call moral laws "values" call heretics "dissenters.") ...

And there's a third division. We have set their two absolutes against each other: truth and love, justice and compassion. ... And we have done that by politicizing their religion into Left versus Right, or liberal versus conservative. ...

In the past, we religionized their politics, and that got us some nice mileage, like persecutions and religious wars. But our current policy of politicizing their religion is proving even more successful. We've gotten most of them to classify themselves as liberal or conservative and then use these political categories to classify their faith, instead of vice versa. They now use the world's categories to judge the Church instead of using the Church's categories to judge the world.

I see evidence of the politicization of the Episcopal Church virtually everywhere I look. It almost defines the Episcopal/Anglican blogosphere. It happens every time a group of "progressives" or a group of "traditionalists" gather to strategize how they can advance their agenda. It happens when laity, deacons, or priests dismiss the authority of a bishop simply because they disagree with his/her theological views. And it happens when we think we can resolve our problems by signing petitions or passing legislation at diocesan or national convention. Sometimes trying to resolve deeply rooted theological problems by legislative means is rather like trying to heal a broken marriage by using a Black and Decker power tool. Using the world's categories to judge (much less "fix") the Church often ends up look more like Republicans and Democrats slugging it out in Congress than Christians. Most people I know are weary of such political fights and the rhetoric that accompanies them. Little wonder, then, if we turn off those whom we are called to serve and incorporate into the Body of Christ when (however well-intentioned) we use such political means.

In a politicized Church, the Christian means for entering into conflict and addressing division sounds naïve and remains as unpopular as it is faithful to the Gospel. It is the way of the cross. The driving question along that way is not, "How can we win?" but rather, "How much are we willing to suffer?"

As I watch events continue unfolding in the Episcopal Church and around the Anglican Communion, and as I hear persons across the theological spectrum say, "We've got to do something!", I'm reminded of these words from Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418):

Jesus has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross.

Our Lord's call to pick up the cross and follow him is a standing invitation. What might be different in the Church if more of us were to accept it?


Joe Rawls said...

Merton somewhere says something to the effect that monks in a monastery are "each others' hair-shirts". The point being that ecclesial balkanization, with Christians splitting into progressively smaller groups driven by the theological version of identity politics, can only go so far until we end up as a church composed entirely of hermits who never talk to each other. At least real hermits gather for worship occasionally.

Bryan Owen said...

An interesting point from the monastic tradition, Joe. Unlike many of us who have the option of exercising a Protestant prerogative to contingent membership, hermits have to find a way to work things out with each other.

I wonder what it would be like if we understood our Baptismal Covenant vow to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers." to include a commitment to constancy and fidelity in our relationships as members of this part of the Body of Christ.

Then again, given our Church's rather dismal track record on marriage (very much in spite of what the marriage vows say in our Prayer Book), I can't say I'm surprised by our willingness to see one another as dispensable.

In our unwillingness or inability to embrace the way of the cross in Church conflict, we accommodate our Church to the political culture's willingness to see other persons with whom we disagree as either dispensable or as instrumental means to achieving our own ends.

Christopher said...

I think actually it's how are we willing to go out of ourselves to build up the other. Reduction of the cross to suffering has been misused toward certain sorts and conditions of persons that we must be very careful about prescriptivity of this sort. Sometimes, the way of the cross requires saying "no" to the other out of a stance of being justified by God's grace, a la William Stringfellow. Suffering may follow, but suffering is not the main point.

Bryan Owen said...

Of course, suffering is not the main point. But insofar as following Jesus means death to self, suffering there will be.

plsdeacon said...

It seems that we have substituted political process for theological discernment. More often than not we start with the desired outcome and then strategize and plan on how to make that outcome a reality. We for ad hoc committees to get our agenda fulfilled. This starts with one side of a debate doing this and the other side follows along just to keep up. As opposed to a "weapons race" we seem to have a committee race or organization race where the one who organizes best wins the day.

We have lost the ability (or forgotten the ability) to discern quietly what God desires for us. We have gotten too caught up in "winning" that we forget the fact that we are using political tools at all is a sign that we are all losers.

In stead of "Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" we have substituted "Resolution, Process, and Commitee."

Phil Snyder