Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jesus and the Church: To Forget the Church Is to Forget Jesus?

At National Catholic Reporter this past week, Joe Ferullo takes Andrew Sullivan's recent Newsweek article entitled "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus" and juxtaposes it next to a response to Sullivan that University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting recently published in the New York Times.  As Ferullo notes, Gutting's response concludes, ". . . [T]o forget the church is to forget Jesus."

I find Ferullo's juxtaposition of Sullivan's title--"Forget the church, follow Jesus"--with Gutting's conclusion--"To forget the church is to forget Jesus"--helpful.  I've read both Sullivan's and Gutting's articles, and in what follows, I don't want precisely to engage either of them, but to reflect (succinctly, I hope, given the vastness of the topic) on the fork in the road to which the two theses, when they're placed side by side, points us.  I want to point my reflections very directly to the fork in the road that confronts many Catholics right now, when we're confronted with the two theses, and the choice Jesus or the church?

There's certainly truth to Gutting's conclusion.  The gospels were, after all, formulated within the context of the church.  They were written as theological reflections on the life, ministry, and, above all, death and resurrection of Jesus, framed to address the context of particular communities of memory that grew up following the paschal events to keep alive and transmit the memory of Jesus.

It was the church that composed the gospels, and the church which decided that some among many gospels seeking to capture and transmit the memory of Jesus to the world were canonical.  The church exists--it was called into being by the Spirit for this purpose--to keep alive and transmit the foundational memory of Jesus generation after generation.  And as Gutting rightly  notes, we would not have access to this memory, or the rich resources provided by the ongoing reflection on that memory within the Christian communal context, without the church.

But.  But what Gutting's conclusion, "To forget the church is to forget Jesus," is in danger of overlooking, it seems to me, is that while the church was called by the Spirit into being in order to keep alive and transmit the memory of Jesus to the world and to successive generations of Christians, the church is also perfectly capable--it's more than capable--of obscuring the memory of Jesus that it transmits.  The church is capable of obscuring, obliterating, and moving quite directly against the testimony of the gospels that enshrine the memory of Jesus in the most foundational way possible for the church itself.

The church is capable of becoming a countersign to the gospels that, for many people both within and outside the Christian community seeking vital contact with the memory of Jesus, makes it impossible to access the memory of Jesus that the church itself transmits.  The church is capable of becoming a countersign to the gospels that makes it impossible for people to access in a vital and transformative way the memory of Jesus that the church transmits to people through the gospels.  The gospels, the memory of Jesus, after all contain important foundational elements, foundational witness, that, throughout the course of Christian history, stands against the church and brings the church under constant critique.

And over the course of Christian history, the very church that transmits the memory of Jesus to the world and to generations of believers has persistently sought to obliterate those foundational elements of witness that bring the church under constant critique.  And to silence those within the Christian community who lift those foundational elements of witness out of the gospels and ask the church to face them all over again.

Foundational elements of witness: Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and not the church.  While the church may well have come into being to enshrine the memory of Jesus in history and to keep his proclamation of the reign of God alive, the church is not coterminous with the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed.  The reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus stands at the end of history as a constant critique of the proclamation and practice of the church, so that the church can never, at any point in history, settle into history and imagine that it has perfectly realized the reign of God as Jesus envisioned and proclaimed it.

As theologian Johann Baptist Metz and other theologians of the liberation and political theology movements, movements the last two papacies have done everything in their power to destroy, remind us, the church lives constantly under an eschatological proviso which reminds the church that it has never adequately fulfilled Jesus's vision of the reign of God.  And as Metz also insists, the memory of Jesus that the church transmits is a dangerous memory for the church itself.

The memory of Jesus is a dangerous memory because it is a memory that reminds the church that the last will be first in the reign of God.  The dangerous memory of Jesus reminds the church that, for followers of Jesus, power resides quite specifically in the renunciation of power and in the commitment to serve the least among us.  The dangerous memory of Jesus reminds us that whoever would be a leader within the Christian community must put herself or himself at the service of all, and must renounce the desire to lord it over and control others.

The dangerous memory of Jesus reminds the church that the lust for wealth and for the illusion of power that wealth provides is a constant and corrupting lust within the Christian community--and corrupting, in particular, for those who hold leadership positions within the Christian community, who will constantly be tempted to understand power and its use in terms dictated not by the gospels and by Jesus's vision of the reign of God, but by the world.

These foundational dangerous memories and the eschatological proviso which constantly remind the church that it is not and will never be the reign of God, but that it must live constantly towards the reign of God and must constantly be susceptible to self-reformation according to the norms of the reign of God: these assure that the memory of Jesus, as transmitted throughout history by the church, is always an exceedingly mixed bag.  Not everything that the church hands on in the context of its ministry of transmitting the memory of Jesus to the world and to the Christian community is a valid or helpful enshrinement of the memory of Jesus rooted in the gospels.  Everything the church transmits within its calling to transmit the memory of Jesus to subsequent generations of Christians must constantly be sifted, critiqued, placed in critical tension with the gospels and what they have to say about the reign of God.

And there are points within the history of Christian communities in which the behavior and decisions of the leaders of those communities have historically become such strong countersigns to the gospels--to the memory of Jesus transmitted by the churches--that believers have no choice except to distance themselves from those leaders and from the communities they lead, precisely in order to hold onto the dangerous, redemptive, gospel-grounded memory of Jesus.

In my view, the Catholic church is living through such a moment in its present history.  For growing numbers of Catholics--and I am among those--the behavior of the current leaders of the Catholic community has become an outright skandalon, a stumbling block that prevents us/me from encountering, in any vital and transformative way, the Jesus whose memory the Catholic community itself has transmitted to me.*

In the past week alone, American Catholics have been confronted with the following well-orchestrated events and announcements, designed by Catholic leaders colluding with their super-rich handlers to coincide with each other in a shock-and-awe tableau related to the 2012 elections:

1. A surprise announcement that American religious women are to be subjected to a humiliating, unnecessary "reformation," while the pastoral leaders of the church have never demanded reformation of themselves--have never demanded reformation of themselves, even as we can see in shocking and lurid detail in events like the current trial in Philadelphia how desperately the reformation of the Catholic church, at the highest levels of institutional power, is mandated.

2.  Almost simultaneously with the announcement of the humiliating and unnecessary "reformation" of American religious women, an announcement comes down from the Vatican that the misogynistic, homophobic, and obscenely anti-semitic Society of St. Pius X is about to be welcomed with open arms back into the Catholic fold, an announcement now producing a flood of obscene anti-semitic commentary at Catholic blog sites matched by its filthiness only by the similar racist diatribes that many Catholics have been making at Catholic blog sites in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin (and the election of Barack Obama).

3. At the very same time these announcements were being made, and as a reminder of what wealth and the ties to those who own wealth and enjoy power can accomplish, a further announcement was made that the leader of the U.S. bishops, Timothy Dolan, is one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world--and to add insult to injury, and to remind us how vacuous and downright insincere the media usually are when dealing with the Catholic hierarchy (and the super-rich handlers of the current hierarchy), Time asks us to imagine His Eminence "as a warm prelate who leads his flock more by charm than fiat."

4. And Time asks us to imagine His Eminence as a warm and charming leader of his flock within days after the USCCB, of which Dolan is the leader, issues yet another war-mongering statement about the Obama administration, and calls on Catholics to engage in overt political action against the Obama administration through rallies this summer.

To my mind, one thing connects all of these disparate announcements and events: this is wealth and power, and the collusion of the current Catholic hierarchy with the super-rich, who are desperate (as is the hierarchy itself) to see a Republican placed in the White House in the 2012 elections.  American religious women are being punished because they have dared to offer to the media and the Catholic community an alternative voice, alternative (and authentic) Catholic moral witness, about the issue of health care.

The bishops and Vatican will have none of this, and that witness runs against their plans and the plans of the wealthy elite to whom the current leaders of the Catholic church have sold themselves, to assure that a more controllable political regime takes power in Washington in the fall.  Much of what the leaders of the Catholic church are currently thinking and doing, even at the level of the global Catholic church, is determined by the desperate desire of the super-rich to prevent the re-election of the current American president in 2012.  Which is to say: much that the leaders of the Catholic church are doing and saying at present is determined by the wishes of the super-rich, for whom Catholic leaders have become puppets.

As a result, for many of us who continue to remember what Jesus proclaimed about the reign of God--with which no particular political regime, no particular church, no particular political leader or church leader is coextensive--there is no choice except to place ourselves at a decisive distance from the current leaders of our church and from our church itself, within which the current leaders of the church and those allied to them do not intend to provide a place for us.  And we have no choice except to place critical distance between ourselves and those who continue to act as apologists for Catholic leaders who are betraying the gospels, and who--contra what their dishonest apologists want to tell us--do not have the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable in the forefront of their minds as they wheel and deal and try to make and break political leaders.

But who listen exclusively to the rich who exploit the poor.  The rich who always throughout history exploit the poor, as Jesus himself reminds us over and over again in the gospels . . . .   Jesus, whom the leaders of the church cannot and will not ever own, even when they preside over the community of faith that transmits the dangerous memory of Jesus to us, but whom the present leaders of the Catholic church profess to own in a unilateral way that is increasingly scandalous--an obstacle to faith--to many of us who have been nurtured in faith by the Catholic community from which we now distance ourselves in order to keep our vital and redemptive connection to Jesus and his memory intact.

*Sorry: the autocorrect feature had corrected the word skandalon in this sentence to "standalone."  I had seen it trying to do that once, and have prevented the correction, but the absurd "correction" still came through in the posting, and I've only now spotted and changed it back--I hope for good now!

The graphic is an illustration used by St. Bartholomew's Episcopal church in New York City to advertise its "Saving Jesus from the Church" course.

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