Subsidiarity and Saddleback

My frustration was showing a couple of weeks ago in a post titled: “Responsibility is differentiated, mutual and complementary, not exclusive, binary and competitive.”

That post consisted almost entirely of the sentence “Responsibility is differentiated, mutual and complementary; responsibility is not exclusive, binary and competitive,” repeated 10 times with each repetition linking to a different longer and deeper discussion of subsidiarity, “sphere sovereignty” or some other framework explaining and exploring the nature of moral responsibility as unavoidably differentiated, mutual and complementary.

My frustration was compounded shortly thereafter by a parade of posters visiting here from Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, most repeating some variation of their pastor’s belief that moral responsibility is exclusive and binary — an either/or, competitive framework rather than a multi-layered, mutual framework of supporting, cooperative and complementary roles.

The members of that congregation believe — rightly! — that “the church” is responsible to meet the needs of the needy, to empower the powerless and to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the least of these.

Unfortunately, due to an ethical and biblical confusion that seems pervasive in that congregation, they therefore conclude that this means that only “the church” bears any such responsibility, and that it is somehow improper or wrong for other actors and agencies, especially governments, to regard themselves as also responsible.

That’s reprehensible theology and, if they really believed a word of it, would reflect an appalling biblical ignorance or illiteracy.

But fortunately they don’t fully believe what they’re saying.

There’s plenty of evidence that they don’t really believe this. I’m sure, for example, that this congregation’s commendable outreach efforts in pursuit of what it claims to believe is its exclusive responsibility includes providing assistance to some families in which a grandmother is raising her grandchildren due to the absence, for whatever reason (death, addiction, incarceration), of their parents.

I’m certain that when the folks from Saddleback encounter such families, they do not seek to seize these children from their grandmothers, or to rebuke those grandmothers for providing such care. That would be consistent with what they claim to believe — that the church is exclusively responsible for those orphans and that this grandmother is thus unjustly usurping the proper responsibility of the church.

But for all their claims of disbelieving in Big Grandmother, they don’t usually act in the lunatic manner that their purported framework of exclusive, binary, competitive responsibility would require.

Despite their vocal denunciations of it, in other words, at some more instinctive level, they appreciate the inescapable nature of subsidiarity. In some unarticulated, only vaguely understood way, they  partially recognize the reality that moral responsibility is always, unavoidably, mutual, differentiated and complementary.

Part of what keeps them from understanding this more clearly, I think, is a murky ecclesiology that makes it difficult for them to explain to me or to themselves what they mean by “the church” when they claim that “the church” is solely and exclusively responsible to care for the poor. Do they mean “the church” as an institution? Or by “the church” do they mean those individuals who belong to that institution, acting individually?

I suspect that if we had been able to discuss that question at greater length than their drive-by declarations in my comment section had allowed, they would have been open to the idea that “the church” could mean both of those things.

That would have been a small but positive step toward getting past the dangerous mistake of viewing responsibility as exclusive. Once it is established and accepted that a Christian bears such responsibility both in their capacity as an individual and in their capacity as a member of the institutional church, then we have opened the door to a fuller, more human understanding of responsibility. Once the possibility of such a both/and is recognized we no longer need to be trapped by an inability to imagine or to understand anything other than either/or. That can open the door to finally understanding more clearly that moral responsibility is always mutual and complementary, and to understanding the foolish destructiveness of trying to think of it as a binary, exclusive, zero-sum competition.

This possibility of both/and is also something that they already know to be true. And because they know it to be true, at least dimly on some level, their actions are never wholly in accord with their professed belief in the inhuman nonsense of exclusive responsibility.

Every church member knows that no church member is only that or exclusively that. Every member of Saddleback Church is also many, many other things as well: a parent, a sibling, a cousin, a neighbor, a friend, a resident, a worker, a fan, a consumer, a user, a producer, a supporter, a contributor, a customer, a client, a traveler, a bystander, a passer-by, a stranger, a citizen.

I don’t think that our friends from Saddleback would really want to argue that they bear a responsibility to assist the poor and the weak exclusively in their capacity as members of the church. Yes, they may say that is what they believe — that such responsibility bears on them as church members but not as citizens (or parents, or workers, or customers, etc.). And they may say that it would be improper and wrong for them to attempt to assist the poor and the needy in any other capacity — and that it would somehow be especially evil to attempt to give any thought to the poor and the needy in their capacity as citizens.

But none of them lives like that.

No one could live like that because life itself is — inescapably and unavoidably — differentiated, mutual and complementary. Trying to compartmentalize one’s life to accord with their purported belief in exclusive, binary categories of responsibility would be impossible.

At the very least, I suspect, our friends from Saddleback would concede that when acting in all their other capacities apart from their role as “the church,” they ought not to be making things worse for the poor and the needy that their “the church” has a responsibility to help.

Let’s consider some examples of the sort of thing I mean:

Mr. Smith spends his Saturdays volunteering with a church program that assists poor families who have fallen prey to predatory lenders. Monday through Friday, however, Mr. Smith manages an inner-city check-cashing outlet that hooks those same poor families on roll-over pay-day loans with an APR of more than 2000 percent.

Mr. Jones meets in the evening with a church group that writes letters to lawmakers, advocating for stronger laws against sexual trafficking. When he’s not in church, Mr. Jones can be found managing the brothel in the back of a strip club, where young women from the developing world are kept as virtual slaves.

Mr. Johnson faithfully volunteers one day every week, week in and week out, with the church’s job bank program, helping people gain the financial independence that comes from earning a reliable and adequate paycheck. Mr. Johnson earns his own paycheck as a political pundit, advocating for budget austerity measures and massive reductions in the economy’s aggregate demand to ensure that unemployment remains far above its natural level for years to come.

Those are all extreme examples, and particularly loathsome and sinful examples at that. But the monstrously irresponsible and counterproductive behavior of Messrs. Smith, Jones and Johnson differs only in degree and not in kind from the exclusive notion of responsibility being promoted by our confused friends from Saddleback — and from many, many other places as well.

Note that the extreme compartmentalization of these three hypothetical hypocrites is not just permissible according to the purported belief of our friends. According to what they claim to believe, such extreme compartmentalization and hypocrisy is mandatory for members of “the church.”

For anyone who believes that “caring for the poor is the responsibility of the church and not the responsibility of citizens” such compartmentalization is as obligatory as it is monstrous.

And thus,  not being monsters, most of the people who claim to believe such inhuman nonsense do not behave consistently with their impossible, un-biblical, un-democratic claims. They don’t condemn grandmothers or responsible lenders for “usurping” the role of “the church.” They don’t condemn church members for failing to be pimps or predators in their lives outside of church.

In short, they’re not fully able to sustain the bewilderingly strange lie that responsibility is exclusive, binary and competitive. The world they live in won’t allow them to do so. They may decry subsidiarity as socialism, deeply confused about what both of those words mean, but they can never truly escape the inescapable network of mutuality.

Because that sentence that out of frustration I repeated 10 times — and have repeated here in whole or in part many more times — isn’t just a normative statement. It’s also a descriptive statement. It describes reality — and just because our friends claim to deny reality doesn’t mean they aren’t stuck living in it along with everybody else.

Responsibility is differentiated, mutual and complementary; responsibility is not exclusive, binary and competitive.

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