As a recent revert, I’ve managed to avoid thinking much about it.
My heart has been gratefully focused upon the warmth, the charity, and the peace that has come from being back home.
Intrigue. Hidden, and not so hidden, agendas. Vanity. Accusations and counter-accusations. Deceptions and denials. Fear and loathing.
No, this is not what I wanted to think about. Not at all.
But, alas, the Church – like the rest of us – is not exempt from earthly messiness, from political skullduggery, from accusation. It even seems, at times, to go out of its way to foster the craziness.
Closer to home, two recent Patheos blog posts (found here and here) have made me realize that the political and spiritual tensions and conflicts are real, that they are pervasive, and that they are corrosive.
What’s going on here? And is there something that we can learn from this?
Yes there is.
Father Robert Barron has, once again, helped me to better understand the Church, and to put all of what I’m watching into some kind of sensible context. His recent DVD series, Priest, Prophet, King, defines the problem and points to a solution.
Please note: credit for everything that follows, except for any misunderstanding on my part, belongs completely to Father Barron.
French philosopher and theorist Rene Girard long-ago developed an applicable organizing principle – a dynamic – that he believed governs much of our dysfunctional society. The “scapegoating mechanism” helps us to understand how human conflicts, tensions, and emotions often play out – obviously not in a good way, as the name itself implies. Hitler’s Germany is an all too obvious and hideous example.
A deep sense of community, of commonality, develops whenever individuals, or groups of individuals, are pitted one against the other. We have an ingrained longing to become part of a larger group, perhaps for protection, and to separate ourselves from “the other.” As a consequence, we tend to organize around like-minded people.
Later, we will attempt to remove – or at least dominate and control – any one or any other group that is perceived as different or inferior. We do this in order to release the tensions and eliminate the conflicts that necessarily arise between us. We often form “weird communities,” bound together by a common blaming of our adversaries.
We become, in short, a community of accusers.
Biblically speaking, one name often given to the evil force in the world (ha-santanis) is “the accuser.” Satan himself is the accuser, and this is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. That’s the real battle in which we are continually engaged. And it’s the enemy against which Jesus Himself stands.
Father Barron expertly illustrates this on-going struggle through the passage found in John, Chapter 8 – a favorite of Girard’s, as well as one of my own. Here we find not only a battle between competing groups, but between competing kingdoms:
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? ”They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”
Notice, first, the need to find common ground, and then accuse and place blame. Then notice the need of the community of accusers to seek refuge within a religious sanction.
But notice, too, how Jesus stands apart. He doesn’t engage the mob. He doesn’t entertain the gossip. He does not, in any way, cooperate with the community of accusers. Not in the least.
He, in fact, reverses and dissipates the momentum through silence, wisdom, and love.
Here, in short, are two kingdoms, and they are in direct conflict. One, a false kingdom of this world, of Satan, of a commonality of blame and “accusational energy.” The other, is one of forgiveness, compassion, and non-violent love. It’s a re-ordering, and a re-prioritizing of the world. This earthly community of accusers finally meets its spiritual match. As a result, the stones are dropped, the crowd leaves.
But note that Christ must first break up and disperse the old, disordered, and phony community. He does so with love and forgiveness. Of course, those very traits and actions point to His larger, incarnational mission throughout Scripture.
Then as the Gospels progress, Jesus later Himself becomes the object of worldly accusation, of earthly blame. Every aspect of society – the entire community – joins together against Him. From the Sanhedrin, to the Roman people, to the Roman government – everyone. Together, they form another community of accusers.
Jesus stands before them as the ultimate scapegoat, the ultimate accused.
But as Father Barron reminds us, because Christ is later raised from the dead, God makes it abundantly clear that He stands not with the accusers but with the non-violent, the forgiving, the compassionate, and the loving.
This, then, is the new Kingdom ushered in by Christ. It is a Kingdom which, ironically, is announced by Pilate himself when he orders that the “King of the Jews” sign be nailed above the cross.
The new Kingdom uproots and replaces the old. And it re-orders the world. We just need to take notice.
With all that in mind, here are my two final observations about current Church politics, as well as a brief prayer:
1) To those of us who may be watching what’s been happening in Rome with anguish, fear, anger, and accusation, be reminded of Jesus’ own words (Mt. 16:18):
“And upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
It’s time to ask ourselves: do we truly believe this?
If we don’t, then our faith, our works, our prayers, mean nothing at all, and all hope is lost. But if we do, we needn’t ever despair. Allow the Holy Spirit do its work. Trust it. And pray.
The Church may be messy, but it will always prevail.
2) To those of us who stand always ready to accuse others – especially fellow Catholics – over their actual or perceived failures and short-comings, let the stones fall from our hands so that they can come together in prayer. Let us no longer engage as a community of accusers, but as a community of love.
And trust that God knows “the other” as well as He knows us. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that a rather frightening thought!
Others have their work to do, but we have our own.
So here’s my simple prayer:
“Father, may I always be kept so busy cleansing my own heart and mind that I never have time to notice whether others are washing theirs. Amen.”