Monday, November 26, 2018

Damning Freedom

During my doctoral studies I had a seminar with a visiting Old Testament professor from Sweden. The course in question was on the books of Proverbs. Each class, he told us, we would be assigned a passage from Proverbs to translate from Hebrew.  He would ask one of us to translate and lead a discussion on the meaning of the passage in question.  Evidently this was a bit too loose for one of my colleagues. “Will there be a final exam?”, he asked. “Most of our professors give final exams.” The professor looked a bit startled. “A final exam? Well, if you want a final exam, I can give a final exam.” The rest of us could have killed him. The professor was offering us a kind of freedom that evidently made my fellow student nervous. He needed something concrete to establish his worth as a student; something he could point to that would demonstrate his accomplishment. Translating and discussing the passage would, of course, be challenging. But an exam with a grade at the top would provide of means of assessment that was for him evidently easier to quantify and appreciate.
It is difficult to live in freedom. Like my colleague, many people insist on knowing the boundaries, following the rules, obeying the commands. They need to know where they stand, they need a grade—they need a final exam! And not only do they insist on the “final exam” for themselves, they want to impose it on the rest of the class! The professor wanted the mutual accountability of colleagues reading the text together. My fellow student wanted the exam, evidently, to help him evaluate whether he, and for that matter, the rest of us, was meeting the expectations of the teacher. The professor’s working assumption was trust and collegiality. The student’s working assumption was distrust and individuality.  Without an  external standard of judgment—the exam—we could not be trusted or fairly evaluated. Was he afraid the professor would not be fair? Was he worried someone in the class would get away with something? Did he simply need to be able to know the rules and follow them? Did freedom make him nervous? Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” But it is hard to be free.
In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov a character tells the story of the Grand inquisitor in  15th century Spain. He hears that Jesus has come to town and has him arrested and imprisoned. In the dungeon he asks Jesus why he has returned to trouble the church. It had taken the church hundreds of years to correct his mistake of offering people the gift of freedom. “They can’t handle such a gift,” the Inquisitors insists. “They are rebellious and ignorant, they need a firm hand and guidance. Why didn’t you listen to the devil?” he wonders. “He gave you good advice: offer them bread, mystery, and miracles and they will fall at your feet. Offer them freedom and they will cower in fear or act out like fools.” Jesus remains silent through all this. At the end he kisses the old man who trembles and tells his to go and not come back. 
Throughout its history the church has far too often been like my friend (who later regretted his actions!) or the Grand Inquisitor. Trusting neither the mutual accountability of a local community or the integrity and discernment of the individual it has sought to impose rules and boundaries and creeds. It has produced canon law and set regulations for pastors and churches. These rules have been meekly accepted; freedom has been abdicated. The church has been like the man in Jesus’ parable: freed from demonic possession but  fearing that freedom, it has welcomed an even worse band of demons so that its latter state is worse than its first. Years ago in a Sunday School class a wise teacher asked us to ponder who made the hardest rules to live by, God or the Devil. It was a good question and I have considered it the rest of my life. God wants us to live in freedom—and while it may be hard work, it is joyful, glorious work. The Devil wants us tangled in self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. In spite of the work required to be free, the prospects of a fear-based, rule-guided life are much harder, much bleaker. Such a life attenuates us and cripples us. It renders us forever childish, immature and incapable of stepping into the glorious freedom of the daughters and sons of God. The life bounded by “rules” and “final exams” appears to be wise and cautious. But such rules are not the work of God, the God who sets us free. Around them one rather catches a whiff of sulfur. 

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Churches Die

            In a 1988 essay, “The Work of Local Culture”, Wendell Berry argues that local cultures collapse into distrust when community members no longer know one another’s stories or trust one another’s motives. Public officials and professionals, distrusting their constituents and clients, protect themselves with expensive insurance. Country doctors “send their patients to specialists in the city, not necessarily because they believe that they are wrong in their diagnosis, but because they know they are not infallible and they must protect themselves against lawsuits, at great expense to us.” Neighbors, wary of one another and quick to sniff out perceived attempts to take advantage or overstep perceived communal boundaries, control one another with covenants and bylaws, This is when communities once formed around common stories and common loves collapse into organizations formed around rules and their enforcers. Sociologists call this a move from a gemeinschaft (communal structure) to a gesellschaft (a corporate structure).
            This has happened over and over again in the history of the church. Anarchic movements full of life and Spirit are fenced in by the purse lipped devotees of “law and order”. Constantine was not concerned about “the truth” when he brought those bishops to Nicaea, he was concerned about the unity of his empire. Various creeds and confessions were developed to protect the powerful, keep out the riff-raff and to make it clear who should be incinerated for heresy. The people in charge, whether they are kings or bishops, priests or pastors, presidents or superintendents are not fans of chaos—or what they perceive as chaos. Such people tend to like straight lines, clear boundaries, and compliant constituencies. They do not trust the outliers, the innovators, the questioners. And so they are eager to draw lines, to make rules, to make sure the outliers remain outside.
            When a “life movement” can no longer trust its pastors and lay leaders to exercise pastoral and communal discernment, when it requires “rules” to silence and conform, it is no longer a community of colleagues and friends with common stories and common hopes, but a corporation guided by an increasingly powerful hierarchy. The accountability of local community, the trust in the wisdom and compassion of pastors and lay leaders, is discarded for the exercise of regulatory powers at times brutally enforced. This high level of control is piously masked as a concern for the “truth” but is often rooted in fear—the loss of power, resources, and reputation.  This has been repeated over and over in the history of the Christian church and in a variety of denominations.  Perhaps it is inevitable for “life movements” to become organizations and communities to become corporations. But there is something terribly sad about it. 
            Some years ago I heard a speaker use an arresting image. She suggested that a fire in a home was a good thing as long as it stayed in the fireplace. If you start a fire in the middle of the living room, you can burn the house down. On the other hand, if you get so concerned about the fire that you rob it of fuel and oxygen you put the fire out and rob the house of its essential heat. It is an appealing metaphor, subject, as are all metaphors to misunderstanding and misuse. It would be easy enough, after all, for a church or denomination to insist that the fire be built only in this particular fireplace. Be that as it may, when we try to control God and channel the Spirit, life and fire tend to burst out in spite of us—because that is God’s way. But we may find ourselves freezing and angry as the Spirit warms those more attuned to the fire of God’s love.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rags to Riches or Riches to Rags?

“If you show special attention to the to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you, but say to the one who is poor, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet’, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.”
James 2: 3,4

            Recently during an interview author Gary Shteyngart suggested that in the United States it is considered a moral failing to be poor. I was struck by the obvious truth of this statement. Our national myth suggests that if we are hard-working, ambitious, and diligent we can all eventually become hedge fund managers. Miserable childhoods full of abject poverty, wretched schools, and a lack of moral and spiritual models are seen as the excuses of losers.  On the other hand Shteyngart suggested, being rich frequently absolves one’s obvious moral failings or, at least, gives one the resources, not to mention the legal team, to obscure them. This has enabled politicians to despise the poor and use their plight to demonize their desires for equal opportunity and basic fairness. Such people, we are told, only want handouts, are lazy, even dangerous. The rich are lionized for being “wealth producers” even if their “wealth” is not returned to the community for “job creation” but squirreled away in an offshore bank. These days the wealth being produced  is demonstrably heading into the stuffed coffers of the already wealthy. 
            We Americans have always been dazzled by success—especially the “rags to riches” stories—the poor boy who becomes a mogul; the poor girl who marries a prince (I use these examples advisedly). That such stories are few and far between has not caused them to lose their luster. The “self-made” man (again I use this advisedly) is still most admired.  Nearly every politician no matter how rich and privileged wants to claim this mantle, to tell their own rags to riches story. I have always thought these stories rather like “personal testimonies” I have heard. I once was a sinner (a poor person), but by the grace of God (and success on the stock market or in real estate) I was saved (I became rich). Thus the rich person who clawed his or her way to wealth through whatever dubious means burnishes their reputation with a sheen of ersatz salvation. I once was lost (poor), but now am found (rich). The interaction of these stories is all the more plausible when the poor are demonized as moral failures.
            Why have large swaths of the Evangelical world been so resistant to efforts to support and encourage the poorest in the United States—especially if this includes government intervention? I would suggest a couple of reasons: Evangelicalism claims to believe we are “saved by grace” but really believe we are at least validated by “works”. The poor person, the person who has not made a success of his or her life is demonstrably morally deficient. If they were really “saved”, if they were really “moral” and “hard-working” they would obviously be successful. Their “failure” demonstrates their moral weakness. For this reason the poor, the unsuccessful, of whatever “race”, gender, or culture can be despised or condescended to. I see this as one of Evangelicalisms long-standing theological and spiritual failures. We have always been dazzled by wealth, celebrity and “success” (witness the Evangelical fawning over “Christian” celebrities and, for that matter, the entire megachurch movement). This has put us on the road to misery. “You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing/’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17). Someone once said, it takes a lot of humiliation to find a little humility. Perhaps that is what we will finally need as a country and as a church to recover our compassion, our generosity and hope.
John E. Phelan, Jr.

Glimpsing God

Glimpsing God             Theology can, of course, be a way of explaining God, putting God into words. It has also functioned as a bludge...