Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Reader Writes: Do Churches Always Cement and Enhance Their Social Standing by Allying with Power?

In response to my latest posting, Adam Fisher asks a question which, in my view, touches on some valuable points that deserve further notice.  Adam asks,

Just as a point of interest for those of us who are less well educated, has there EVER been an institutionalized spiritual persuasion that did NOT seek to cement and enhance its social standing by allying itself with whatever power base might assure its safety and growth? Is there even one that is not, in on sense, as inbred as backwoods West Virginia is sometimes accused of being?

And here's my thinking in response to Adam's question, for what it's worth.  As I  look at the stances religious bodies take to the culture around them, I'm inclined to use H. Richard Niebuhr's typologies from his classic work Christ and Culture (1951).  It seems to me that, by sorting churches (Niebuhr focuses on Christian churches, though I think his analysis can be broadened to include other kinds of religious groups) according to their stance in response to the culture in which they're embedded, Niebuhr opens a significant door which allows us to see that not every church relates to a particular culture in precisely the same way.

Churches that have solidly institutionalized themselves within a culture are likely to adopt a Christ above culture or a Christ of culture stance.  When they follow the first paradigm, they imagine themselves as powerful entities not much different from the powerful state or powerful corporations, albeit alternative to it.  Churches which adopt this stance see themselves as endowed with a right to dictate to culture even as they implicitly enculturate themselves within a given culture by setting up structures that rival the structures of the secular state.  The Catholic church post-Constantine seems to me to fit this typology.

There are also churches that adopt a Christ of culture stance, in which they find it difficult to see much distinction between their core beliefs and those of the culture itself.  I think there's a certain inevitability about these first two typologies developing in churches that have settled down in history, made themselves comfortable within history, and cozied up to the culture in which they are embedded, with its various structures of power.

I suspect this inevitability is part of what the Catholic modernist theologian Alfred Loisy was getting at, if in a wry way, when he famously observed that Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, and (and or but?: Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue) what resulted was the church.  Loisy was pointing to the inevitable tendency of an institution that begins with the vision of a charismatic founder to institutionalize itself and settle down in history.

Yet Loisy and a score of Catholic theologians following in his footsteps throughout the 20th century also recognized that hovering always behind the institutional church--or, to change the metaphor, built right into its foundations--was Jesus's proclamation of the reign of God.  And that proclamation acts as a constant eschatological proviso, to use language drawn from latter 20th-century political theologians like Johann Baptist Metz, which reminds the church that it never completely embodies Jesus's vision of  the reign of God.  And that Jesus's vision of the reign of God stands over against and in constant critique of the church, its tendency to settle down in history and cozy up to the powers that be, and its propensity to generate structures that belie the vision of Jesus for the reign of God even as they keep that vision alive and proclaim it to new generations.

And so built into the very foundations of the powerful, "successful" churches that cozy up to culture is a constant backwards tug that forces a church--if it's to be faithful to its originating vision--to keep looking back.  To keep looking back to Jesus and the gospels, and the originating impulse that is the raison d'être of the church . . . .

And there will always, inevitably also be within the powerful and "successful" churches that have made their peace with culture, or that want to rival it in power-mongering as they claim to stand above it,  individuals and groups that keep pointing back to the originating vision of the church and the charismatic founder and charismatic impulse from which the church flows.  These groups are, I tend to think, groups that adopt a Christ vs. culture stance within religious bodies whose primary stance towards culture is one of comfortable enculturation.

There are also--there always have been within Christian history--churches that owe their very existence to the Christ vs. culture dynamic.  There have always been churches that have grown up precisely to counter the tendency of the powerful enculturated churches within their culture to collapse the gospel message to culture.  The Anabaptist movements in Reformation Europe strike me as examples of churches that arose out of the desire of some groups of Christians to find a third way between the way of both the Catholic and the Lutheran/Reformed churches, both of which, in the view of the founders of the Anabaptist churches, found that these powerful churches made too many accommodations to the state and to the surrounding culture, especially when it came to the witness to peace that these churches saw as a constituting factor of the Christian church, from its gospel foundations.

The Quakers have tended, in many cultures, to act in a Christ vs. culture way, as well, refusing to accommodate themselves to structures of power within the culture at large, pushing against those structures, offering alternative witness.  The Christ vs. culture movements within the large, historic, powerful mainline churches have often made common cause with groups like the Quakers or Mennonites precisely because all of these groups--whether they represent churches whose primary impulse is a Christ vs. culture impulse or whether they are countervailing Christ vs. culture movements within mainline churches--want to lift up some aspect of the gospel that, in their view, is constitutive of the church if it listens closely to Jesus's proclamation of the reign of God, but is overlooked or suppressed by the mainline churches.  Constitutive, but being ignored by the powerful, culturally embedded churches at any given point in history . . . . 

In the past, Christians with a Christ vs. culture stance advocated for the rights of slaves at a moment in Christian history in which such advocacy was well-nigh unthinkable, since the vast majority of churchgoers took it for granted that a practice that had been culturally acceptable for centuries, which was blessed by the church and which cited scripture as its justification, could not possibly be morally wrong.  Christ vs. culture churches and movements within the mainline churches paid a very high price for pushing against the practice of slavery when the abolitionist movement began.

As I say to Adam in my response to him at yesterday's posting, my thinking about these matters will always and ineluctably be framed by my experience growing up in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle.  During my formative years, I saw the majority of the "white" churches around me not merely going along unthinkingly with the dominant culture of racial segregation.  I saw them actively defending that culture and punishing and expelling members who pulled against this behavior.

I don't think my memory about what took place in my formative years is faulty, since I'm now finding much that I remember from those years vividly confirmed as I read Timothy B. Tyson's masterful account of the Civil Rights struggle in Oxford, North Carolina, Blood Done Sign My Name.  What Tyson writes about Oxford in the Civil Rights years could well have been written, mutatis mutandis, about my little town, El Dorado, in south Arkansas in the same period.

But then there were the black churches.  And many of those churches actively resisted segregation and worked to abolish it.  They gave powerful countercultural witness during the 1950s and 1960s.  And they significantly reshaped American culture as a result.

As they gave that powerful witness, and as at least some members of mainline churches marched and agitated in solidarity with African-American believers to tear down walls of racial segregation, many powerful political leaders and the leaders of mainline churches called for moderation.  For "dialogue."  For "pragmatic" recognition that things change slowly rather than for immediate social change to accord justice long-deferred to an oppressed minority.

I grew up amidst oodles and kaboodles of Christian centrists who sought to convince themselves that they could successfully manage the changes taking place around them, if only they continued to hold the reigns of power in their hands.  We centrist white Christians who did not intend or want to yield power to people of color absolutely convinced ourselves that we were on the good side, the right side--that we'd do the good and right thing, given half a chance.  Given the chance to keep managing the conversation . . . .

We intended nothing of the sort, of course: we did not intend to see justice accorded to people of color.  We did not intend to admit our complicity in creating and maintaining--for centuries--a society in which power was radically maldistributed on the basis of skin color.  We intended to do everything possible to lob bombs into the mechanisms of a massive process of social change antithetical to our self-interest, while proclaiming ourselves as good guys and moderates.

What Tyson writes about this, as the son of a white Methodist minister growing up right in the middle of the battles within his father's church, rings many bells for me, too.  His memory of what the centrism of that period amounted to is very similar to my memory.

My impatience with Catholic centrists today has much to do with these formative experiences in the Civil Rights period of the 1950s and 1960s.  In my view, the players and cultural battles have shifted a bit, but the dynamics of resistance remain the same.  They remain wearily predictable.

The new battle lines are drawn now around issues of gender and sexual orientation.  The response of many powerful enculturated churches to the movement to extend human rights to women and LGBT persons is not different in kind or degree from the response I saw white churches give to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  

Just as in that period, there are also powerful groups of centrists who are well-ensconced in the power structures of the mainline churches, and who love to talk the talk of justice and compassion--but without ever walking the walk.  But also just as in the Civil Rights period, there are coalitions of people of faith and people of good will who are not part of any faith movement, all of whom recognize the imperative need to build a more just and humane society which accords long-deferred rights to women and LGBT human beings.

When these movements are movements within powerful enculturated mainline churches, they are often punished or expelled.  Centrists within those churches stand on the sidelines as the punishing and expelling takes place, or, to be more accurate, they take part in the punishing and expelling even as they cluck their tongues about excessive use of power by church authorities.  Throwing rocks while hiding their hands, as my African-Americans friends say . . . . 

The players and cultural battles have shifted from the period in which I grew up, but the dynamics remain much the same.  And this is not surprising, Timothy Tyson reminds his readers, because many of those within the mainline churches now actively resisting full inclusion of LGBT members and resisting women's rights are the very same Christians who, a generation ago, fought bitterly against racial integration.  They are the children and grandchildren of those who resisted the eradication of legal racial segregation a half century ago.

One final p.s.: one of the shortcomings of Christ vs. culture movements, it seems to me, is that they do tend, to use Adam's word, to become inbred.  They tend to go the sectarian route and to make themselves extrinsic to the concerns of the world around them by living in cultural bubbles.

One of the gifts that the mainline churches can offer the Christ vs. culture churches or movements is the wisdom these churches have accumulated via their long, complex histories and wealth of institutional structures.  At its best, the encounter between the powerful enculturated churches and Christ vs. culture churches or movements has the potential to be a fruitful give and take, in which the latter groups call the enculturated churches back to their charismatic origins, and in which the former groups can help the countercultural movements avoid the tendency to turn inward, to live entirely unto themselves, to become enclaves of purist like-minded believers with little effective influence on the world around them.

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