The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

witches

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)

 

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7 thoughts on “The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

    • Hi Michael.

      Good clear post on your part, but I have a few questions about your premise since it is new to me:

      First, I think it is safe to assume that you are right in saying the Sunday and Friday morning crowds were not the same “crowds” – at least not in their entirety. But it seems awfully strange to me to assume that none of the “whole crowd of disciples” (luke 19) would have shown up four days later.

      Second, can’t one can logically assume that during a holiday in which the most popular preacher in the country has been taken illegally under cover of darkness and spent the night being shuttled between high priest’s homes and, in the morning, between Pilate and Herod, that the effect would not have been that of front page news in a small city? Many of Jesus’ followers would certainly have been in the crowd of Matthew 27.

      Third, somehow no one in that crowd came to Jesus’ defense before Pilate. Again it seems an odd stretch to me to conclude that no one in the swollen group of Jesus’ followers at the gate was at the public decision to execute Jesus’ five days later. But if they were absent, wouldn’t that also be an indication that the crowds were so disenchanted with Jesus that they didn’t even bother to show up?

      I am not trying to be feisty, but your argument is new to me. Help me understand why one would conclude logically that none of the first crowd was in the second? Or that none of those expecting Jesus’ political messiah-ship became disenchanted and fell into mob-think? Mob-mentality is a powerful beast.

      Thanks!

  1. I loathe the hypocrisy of the phrase “speak truth to power”, particularly within the church. It is so baldly obvious that the church is viewed by these same people as a locus of power for implementing their political aims.

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