Can the Church Reconcile with it’s Own Victims? (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Reform movements have been associated with the church since its earliest days, generally when it was considered too focused on earthly or material matters. John Chrysostom, in the late fourth century, wrote of the political intrigue, power struggles and scandalous excesses being enjoyed by priests and laity of the church.  He restructured the finances of the church in Constantinople, selling many of the acquired luxuries of the clergy to feed and cloth the poor,[1] thereby enraging many of the priests. One thousand years later, the Brethren of the Common Life, an order started by Gerard Groote, railed against many of the same problems, including the secularization of the church.[2]  Between these two examples and their respective timeframes, history tells of myriad other reform movements that sought to correct very similar patterns of behavior, resulting in a list of dissidents within which almost all Protestant denominations can find their roots – Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Wesley to name but a few.

Synchronous with the political development of the church in history was the development of theology. Indeed, the aforementioned reform movements were as much about theological reform as political reform. The church had, in its earliest times, a meaning of “the worshipping assembly called forth by God,”[3] suggesting that the church is God’s creation, brought into being as God has called people “out of darkness into his [sic] marvelous light,” (1 Pet 2:9). While the New Testament does not explicitly define a doctrine of church it does provide several significant images for the church – “the people of God,” “the body of Christ” and “fellowship” or “community.”[4]  These metaphors paint the church as supernatural, but also as temporal, imperfect and varied. Some commonalities existed within these churches, however – faith in Jesus as Messiah, baptism and Eucharist, disciplined preaching or instruction, high regard for communal love, and the expectation of the coming Reign of God.

Augustine established a formal theology of the church, ecclesiology, in his fourth century writings. Sixteenth century reformers regarded this ecclesiology as inadequate, and they especially questioned the church’s role as the essential intermediary between God and humanity. John B. Cobb describes a reformed church movement willing to re-examine itself and its tenets.

“To be a Christian [no longer] required a leap away from thought and knowledge.  Indeed, it required of us a quest for truth and for righteousness that lead us continually into self-reformation.”[5]

The Reformers recognized a disconnection between the “true” church and the temporal church – a discrepancy between the church as it is, and the church as a divine institution ought to be. 

The Reformation, unfortunately, did not extend to a reversal of erroneously developed attitudes with regard to colonialism, domination and race. Over the next few centuries, protestant European powers competed with Catholic to subjugate the indigenous populations of the continents of North and South America, Africa, Australia, South-East Asia, the Middle-East and the Indian subcontinent. In the process, cultures of Aboriginal, Native American, Asian and African peoples were systematically destroyed by genocide, forced relocation, enslavement, education and abuse of children for the purpose of Christianization, and the overarching imposition of poverty. Resources were usurped and decades and even centuries of domination ensued to the advantage of European nations and churches. Missionaries, if not outright accompanying the military and corporate perpetrators, sometimes performed as pseudo-explorers in the quest for more resources from which to plunder, all the while subjugating and assimilating the darker flocks into the fold as less than children of God.[6]

In 1867, Presbyterian minister and professor, R.L. Dabney defended slavery and workplace exploitation of the poor as “the useful and righteous remedy [for] the ignorance and vice in the labouring classes.”[7] To dismantle these institutions would have presented hardships for the righteous people of the South. These “righteous” only included the landed gentry, of course. Dabney widely quoted Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish scholar, author and parliamentarian, who published Nigger Question [sic] in 1853. He railed against the abolition of slavery as a traditional economic system in the British West Indies, blaming Britain’s lost income from sugar plantations on the emancipation of slaves some 15 years earlier. Carlyle also proclaimed a belief that blacks were created by God to serve whites. He proposed that ridding the West Indies of slavery, without replacing it with some other form of forced labour, was like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” As despicable as these writings may be, they truly show the extent to which racial oppression and servitude are economic issues – even for the church.

Advantage, power and privilege have, unfortunately, been the obvious motivations for many actions of the religious hierarchies of most Christian churches. This indictment does not necessarily flow down to the average members of such churches, as the role of decision-making, mission work and influence on governmental policy has consistently and increasingly flowed upward to those in positions of denominational authority. Many, if not most, of these members are not consciously aware of the privilege and advantage that issue from their social location – to them and their church. To date, the truly multicultural church – one that is not predominantly white, black nor Hispanic – is still the exception. Racial segregation as a pattern is, perhaps, nowhere better observed than in modern American churches.

Heretofore, the church has participated as an enabler or perpetuator of thoughts, actions and beliefs that serve to continue the alienation of many members of society – at times unwittingly and at other times purposefully.[8]  Always it has resulted from the errant interpretation of scripture from a position of privilege anchored fully in dominant culture and empowered by what is commonly called tradition. This remains true even today. Despite the various civil rights efforts over the decades, people of color and women, to mention but two specific categories of people marginalized by society, experience impoverishment, exclusion and diminution in society and in church. With this heritage, 21st century Christians face a paradox: participation in the economic and political realities of our time while simultaneously challenging them as counter to our values because they perpetuate oppression and domination.

 To be continued:

[1] Justo Gonzalez, Story of Christianity Vol.  I, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984), 196.

[2] William Gilbert, “The Northern Renaissance and the Background of the Reformation”-Chapter 9,  A History of the Renaissance, Kansas University ‘Carrie’ website, posthumous electronic publication.  <http://www.ku.edu/carrie/texts/carrie_books/gilbert/09.html > accessed December 2, 2004.

[3] John Bowden and Alan Richardson, Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 108.

[4] Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961).  The New Testament does not give a formal definition of the church, but it presents a profusion of images or analogies.  These can seem to be contradictory, and one or a small number of these analogies has become defined as central and normative.  Minear’s thesis is that no one image or cluster of images should be made dominant and normative.

[5] John B. Cobb Jr., Do Old-Line Churches Have a Future?, paper presented at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, October 1998, < http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=292&gt;, accessed December 4, 2004.

[6] Gonzalez, V2. 306.

[7] Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, (1867; reprint, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications), 1977, 13

[8] T. Richard Snyder, Once You Were No People – The Church and the Transformation of Society,  (Bloomington, IN: Meyer-Stone Books), 1988.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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