I’m not a Catholic in the sense of what most mean by that descriptor, but I am a Christian (albeit, a very poor one). I was raised in the Protestant tradition but am much closer to Eastern Orthodoxy at this point of the journey. I do, however, believe in, “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” I’m certainly catholic in that sense.
I point this out only to say I can’t comment much on the inner or institutional life of the Catholic church or world. Like anyone not living under a rock however, I am aware of the abuse scandals within the Catholic church. Like most, I am shocked and deeply sadden by all this. Regardless of one’s tradition, we should all be bothered by this, Christian or not. Our hearts go out to the victims. They must be the priority.
Before those of us outside the Catholic tradition stare too long, jaws agape, as we slowly drive by this terrible car wreck, we should not forget the failures of our own traditions. There is also the car wreck and dumpster fire of the evangelical world supporting the morally and intellectually challenged current occupant of the White House. There is also the recent reckoning of the, “me too” movement in that tradition. One could go on.
What are we to make of all this? Beyond the need for a universal repentance and structural change, it is hard to say. It is somewhat overwhelming. I’m sure we all have suggestions, ones, that probably start with someone else changing—or their tradition changing. These events made me revisit some earlier work in an area, that perhaps, may shed some light here. It has to do with the New Testament concept of, “powers.”
Marva Dawn, in her book, “Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God,” wants to re-introduce to us the, “powers and principalities” language/concept we find in Scripture.
She notes that:
“The language of ‘powers’ fell out of use during the time of the Reformation, when various apocalyptic sects made Martin Luther and John Calvin cautious about eschatology.”
“The notion of ‘the powers’ began to be recalled, however, when there was no other way to name the extremity of events in the years surrounding World Wars 1 and II.” (Pg. 4)
When we are faced with great evil in the world, with this fallen aspect, we often attribute the cause either to individual hearts, or larger societal, economic, legal, and political structures. Some would say that structures are neutral—that only human hearts are evil. Others might say, no, human hearts are good, it is the structures that influence, guide, and move humans toward evil.
The truth is probably a complex web of intertwining conduits of influence. Rather than an either/or, each can contribute negatively to the other. When considering great or institutionalized evil, we must consider both the individuals and the greater societal, cultural, and institutional structures.
The notion of “powers” speaks to the idea that these institutional structures can become so contrary to God’s character and purposes, as to become malevolent and, in a sense, alive and active. This in turn can attract and enchant those whose hearts are already open and ready to receive this movement toward evil, even if masked in good intention and supposed noble purposes.
“Unless the context further specifies, we are to take the terms for power in their most comprehensive sense, understanding them to mean both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, good and evil.” (Pg. 13)
We must understand first that these powers are created, they have no self-sufficiency, or being, and these powers can work toward the good as well, as evil. However, Dawn goes on to note:
“…the created powers tend, in this fallen world, to over-step their bounds…” (Pg. 73)
This over-stepping is seen, most significantly, when those people and structures seek power through the accumulation of resources thought to imply strength, whether economic, military, political, legal, cultic influence, or some combination thereof.
Conversely, God’s power is revealed through weakness. Thus, the Church only has any power when it is willing to give up the power offered by the world (the “powers”) and instead, relies upon the power that comes through love, forgiveness, and redemption. Only the release, the letting go, of all attempts to save ourselves through power, or the alignment with power, leads to resurrections.
The very sobering assertion by Dawn and others who have studied the “powers” is that even the church, and religion in general, can become, or at least act as, a fallen power. In her chapter entitled, “Churches Being, and Acting as, Fallen Powers,” she writes:
“…if the Church and its servants are called instead to weakness so that the power of God may tabernacle in us—then it is important for us to notice in what ways churches live as fallen powers or function out of the biblical sarx (flesh) instead of Spirit.” (Pg. 73)
We must consider the possibility that elements or portions of the institutional structures associated with Catholicism and Evangelicalism, along with individual human actors, have morphed into something resembling a, “fallen power.” I single out Catholicism and Evangelicalism only because of current or recent events. Clearly this is possible as to any religious tradition, institution, or denomination.
Perhaps such is why we are told that judgment will begin with the house of God (1 Peter 4).
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