Thursday, June 02, 2016

Suspecting the Church

There are good reason for lawyer jokes. Unethical and predatory lawyers are a real thing.

It's okay to dislike certain doctors. Some have horrible bedside manner.

There are good reasons to dislike politicians. Some politicians are incredibly crooked.

Similarly, it's good to notice, critique, and challenge the hypocrisy of the church, and clergy more specifically. Many of us deserve suspicion and challenge.

However, good hermeneuts of suspicion know that an inference from an abuse to a proper use is not valid (abusus non tollit usum). That is, don't draw hasty generalizations from weak premises.

If you meet a bad doctor, find a better one. Don't dismiss all doctors. If you're disillusioned with lawyers, let me or others introduce you to a few who regularly change the world for the better.

Dislike all politicians? Let me tell you stories about the work my grandpa did in the Iowa legislature.

As a pastor, I frequently run into people who have written off church altogether because of a specific experience or set of experiences in their past. When I hear their stories, I generally think a) they are right to be angry and disillusioned, and at the same time b) the solution to their pain is not less church but more.

I think there's a long list of things in this world the church is uniquely situated to do and be, and abandoning the church altogether won't get those things done. That list includes small things like:

  • Large-group singing in harmony while sitting in things called pews
  • Communion wafers
  • Multi-generational interaction
  • Gospel ensembles accompanied by drummers surrounded by plexiglass
  • A non-relative to visit you when you're in the hospital

If that were the whole list, I'd forgive anyone for giving up on church. But I can actually make what I think is a convincing case for the therapeutic value of church. Its not worth giving up on, and here are the reasons.

First, there's the theology. You simply cannot find any other community that has given such sustained attention to working out how to continue to articulate the apostolic community's experience that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. That's actually two reasons. 1) The church testifies to the resurrection, actual resurrection. What other discipline does that? And 2) it does so in each generation by attending to how it can keep testifying to the resurrection. That's theology, and it's kind of amazing.

Next, I believe Christianity is just about the only religion that contains seeds within it for real critique of religion. The problem with criticizing religion from outside of religion is the assumption that one could get outside of religion. But mostly you can't. So many who think they are free of religion are actually more beholden to their (largely unaware and unselfconscious) form of religiosity.

The amazing thing about Christianity (and this holds true for Judaism as well): It's sacred text is one long self-critique. There's no better resource for proving what a failure our religion is than our own Scripture. Want to know how bad our clergy are, how hypocritical we are, how lackluster our witness is? Just read the Bible.

Solidarity with the poor, honest to God neighbor-love, and the smashing of patron-client condescension: Although Christianity often bails on these, favoring like the rest of humanity worldly religions like the worship of wealth, love of relatives over neighbors, and celebration of all those who  climb to the top in order to patronize (these last become known as philanthropists), true Christianity stays at the bottom connected deeply to the poorest, open to love of neighbor, disregarding blood relations (Mark 3:33), nationality, and the like, and profoundly committed to the notion that we are all beggars in need of grace, and the one who has given grace became, in order to give, the greatest among all beggars (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Which is to say, the kind of Christianity that changes things contains within it the seeds of its own suspicion, radically undermining itself along the way, because its central figure, Christ, became poor and sin and all kinds of suspicious in order to form a community like him.

Anyone who has said, "I like your Christ, it is your Christians I do not like," has unfortunately missed out on the unlikeable Christ and may dislike Christians for the wrong reason.

Anyone who is suspicious of the church is right to be. But the right kind of suspicious church exists as the body of Christ in the world as the healing of the nations.

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