Can the Church Reconcile with its Own Victims? (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2

From this point forward, this paper follows a fairly radical ethical line – one based on Mat 16:25-26,

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (NRSV)

The church has based much of its behavior, since becoming an institution, on maintaining its status, solvency, relevance and political clout in the world. That behavior, as stated above, has included the historical marginalization or oppression of significant groups, many of who are still found within its doors. When this conduct is measured against what is perhaps the most significant Christian ethic, the “greatest commandment” of Mat 22:37-39[1], it fails miserably. The antidote for this ethos is none other than to embrace the message of the greatest commandment even if it leads to the church’s own material demise. The life of the church is founded on the concept of being the light of Christ to the world and, however divine the calling may be, is a temporal and, therefore, quite possibly a temporary presence in society. To maintain its existence at the expense of any of its neighbors, which includes any part of God’s creation inside or outside its walls, is to seek life over its mission.

When Martin Luther wrote, “This is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents.  Heaven… is the palace where the whole and righteous live,”[2] he did not intend that the church be a beacon of the ills of the world. The church is to be in constant search of healing – for itself, its constituents and the world at large. This requires the church to set aside its desire for eternal life, and seek to act here and now for the benefit of all people, especially the most vulnerable. If the church’s own life is based on inequitable advantage and shows no evidence of the Reign of God, who long-term would tolerate the church’s preaching on the same subject? The church may, in fact, deserve the eventual death it could suffer as fewer and fewer people seek to find solace within its bounds. Perhaps, it is time for the church to ask a simple question to justify any decision it makes or action it takes – what does this mean for the most vulnerable amongst us?

Institutional dynamics being what they are, behavioral change may be best accomplished on the local level, with an eye towards beginning a grassroots process. The wheels of institutions turn slowly, belying the urgency of beginning processes of reconciliation. There are inherent problems, however, with beginning at the lower level of organizational structure. Consider the difference between performing a 180-degree turn of an ocean liner capable of carrying twelve hundred people and doing the same with one hundred smaller boats carrying twelve people each. All ships have a smaller turning radius when slowed down, but an ocean liner brought to almost a dead stop still takes hundreds of yards to complete the maneuver. Smaller vessels can be turned at faster speed and in far less distance than the larger ones. However, the prospect of turning a hundred such vessels without collisions and mass confusion would be daunting in the least. Is this not also true for the church?

The institutionalized church is a behemoth entity with the coordination of a young Doberman puppy. The limbs are seemingly non-conversant with the body, which seems irrevocably disconnected from the brain. This image of the church universal may be somewhat disparaging, but is nonetheless relatively accurate. Different Christian denominations, while supposedly collectively forming the body of Christ and fulfilling the “calling” of Christ in the world, have amazingly disparate views of their ministry and mission. With regard to gender issues particularly, some protestant denominations may be more easily turned than the Roman Catholic Church, but none, even the smallest, are easily maneuvered through an about face.

Especially considering the tendency for institutions to protect the status quo, the beginning process of behavioral change will need to involve the local church as a sphere of influence, and progress outward into the concentric spheres of influence that local churches may have. Acknowledging the danger of collisions in the process, the uses of networking and ecumenism will be examined to see if chaos can be minimized. It is important to note that this paper does not rely on the false assumption that no church has made the effort to combat sexism, racism or other forms of bias, or sought to reconcile with the historic subjects of the church’s dominance. The study of the efforts of individual churches thus far is beyond the scope and time allotted for this paper, and may be a distinct shortcoming. Additionally, there is certainly more than one way to accomplish reconciliation. There has been a growing body of literature, over the past few decades especially, about various aspects of church behavior and misbehavior, but the majority that address the issues are written from a perspective of church growth and/or discipleship – from the point of view of protecting the church’s position and influence. Those who make arguments from an ethical viewpoint include John Cobb, who wrote:

But in the past fifty years, Christianity has been blamed, with some justification, for the Holocaust, for participating in colonial oppression, for arrogance in dealing with other communities of faith, for ecological destruction, for cruelty to animals, for oppression of women, for repression of the body and its sexuality, for suppressing the voices of minority groups and thus participating in their oppression, for the persecution of gays and Lesbians, and many other crimes.  Often Christian scholars have led in these criticisms. The oldline churches have been placed on the defensive morally as well as intellectually.[3]

The possibilities for reconciliation exist on two basic fronts, but I contend that it is most incumbent on the church to correct its behavior going forward, while simultaneously but subordinately determining what it can do about the past. Too often, a symbolic act of reconciliation is offered without a change in current conduct, leaving the effort at reconciliation to be perceived as gratuitous and self-serving. From the point of view of injured parties, the value of the symbolic act comes from its significance as an act of repentance and, therefore, change.[4] The danger of misinterpretation or lack of trust may be reduced considerably if the behavioral change precedes the reconciliatory efforts with regard to the past. It is easily conceivable that there may even need to be a history of right conduct before an act of contrition may be believable and acceptable. 

On the local level, this process begins with the pastor, and requires that he or she perform a self-examination that includes an honest determination of how he or she benefits from their status in the dominant culture. The ethos of the early church, standing in contrast to dominant culture as opposed to being in concert with it, needs to be assumed and exemplified by the pastor. An awareness of a wider concept of economy that includes all social, as well as material, transactions is demanded. Theologically this includes understanding in a different light the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17, 3:22) that humans came to illegitimately possess. Humans have assumed the right to determine value in terms of usefulness or profit, usually by comparison with themselves, despite that judgment being purely the purview of God. This determination of value or worth – seeking social profit through bias or prejudice – is part and parcel of gaining advantage through social transactions in concert with the inherent power, afforded by the dominant culture, to institutionalize or normalize the prejudice. Evil is perpetrated when these biases are manifest in speech or action through the assumption that they are either justifiable or, worse yet, profitable. Good overcomes this evil when, and only when, bias and advantage are removed from the arena of church.

If bias was a clearly delineated construct absent its myriad subtleties, its demise might be definable – something that occurs when a particular event or mile-marker is reached. It is, however, a complicated and devious conglomerate hidden within the memories and lessons of one’s life, as well as those of one’s community or church. Bias is the potential evil that dwells within everyone. Reconciliation on one level, therefore, is a journey on which each must embark – an endless journey of self-discovery and repentance. Miroslav Volf in Exclusion & Embrace describes reconciliation as a process that includes forgiveness and repentance, self-donation or making space for the other, and healing of memory.[5] Of the first two, only the willingness of one party is required for initiation into the reconciliation process, either by expressing the readiness to consider forgiving or repenting. Volf refers to this as a willingness to embrace, the step necessary before throwing arms wide open in invitation.

The pastor’s willingness to embrace will be demonstrated by an earnest exploration into cultural power, privilege and domination. Tools, such as the Power Flower, a generic graphic tool available on the Internet[6] with which groups examine their individual and collective social location, are readily available. Networking with the pastors of ethnic or poor churches, female or GLBT ministers, as well as others representing dominant culture would be a useful process in the pastor’s education, but may also prove indispensable to the later journey of the church as a whole. Specific programs or tools are beyond the capacity of this paper, but many are available with which to delve into the history of the church’s participation in marginalization, the relationships between political hegemony and church, the effects on marginalized groups and the extent to which these groups still suffer from continued diminution.  

A bold, and perhaps improvable, conclusion is that exploration of the many forms of oppression that exist may force the first step of recovery from dependence on privilege – the initial denial that serves to shield our psyche from the realization of complicity. When faced with so many manifestations of acculturated bias – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, classism and heterosexism, to name but a few – it becomes apparent that each of us can no longer claim innocence. Denial shields us from inescapable guilt. The hope is that denial gives way to the realization of the way in which dominance and injustice are maintained by the institutional church. Repentance, the logical consequence of guilt, keeps guilt from being just a noble but useless reaction. The pastor would need to remember throughout the process that this is not simply a personal quest. It is rather quite public, and is aimed at uncovering the cultural complicity of the church on the broad spectrum, as well as his or her local church’s participation by continuing to propagate the myths and mistakes of dominant culture.

While it is incumbent on the pastor to enter into the process first, he or she cannot delay starting the congregation’s journey until his or hers is complete, since that time may never come. It is, instead, a personal pilgrimage to be shared with the flock. Pilgrimage, by its nature, requires a return – it is a round-trip.[7] The personal work, while admirable, is self-centered unless it is communicated to the congregation at intervals along the way. This kind of self-exposing honesty is a gift of the pastor to the churchgoers – an open armed invitation for the members of the congregation to set out on their own pilgrimage, only to return to share with, and embrace, others. Knowing that in the average church some gentleness would need to be a component of an intervention, an endeavor that is only effective when performed with love for the recipient anyway, sin needs to be recast in the image of bias. Salvation, then, can be understood as reconciliation – the long and very intentional process of actively overcoming individual and collective dependence on advantage in all of our social and economic transactions. In the form of sermons, this process will doubtless mean setting aside the Common Lectionary for a time, unless the readings lend themselves to the subject. Language in liturgy becomes an extremely important aspect. Since it is how we communicate, language can serve to illustrate the pastor’s pilgrimage. Addressing the idolatry of male, white, wealthy and heterosexual dominance in prayer, hymn and scripture by using a variety of images for God, social agency and righteousness will, at least, pique the curiosity of the congregation. Above all else, the new language would need to go beyond “political correctness” by grounding the changes and corrections theologically.

Besides sermons, what would this move towards reconciliation look like in the church? Involving decisions and actions of the church as a whole, each and every transaction – social or material – must be measured against its effects on the most vulnerable of its neighbors, be they local or global. The culture of the church would need to be changed to include social responsibility for even the most mundane acts like buying fair trade coffee for fellowship time. Exploration of the integration of economics, politics and theology would need to occur at each organizational meeting. Selecting officers or elders based on spiritual maturity, as opposed to worldly gifts, will further reduce the use of business ethics and approaches in church life. “Getting more for less” as a motivation in transactions has to be replaced with concepts such as mutually equitable or beneficial transactions. Introducing the concept of “worshipful work” with respect to any activity performed as a church, and hopefully eventually apart from the church, can reframe social interactions in terms of the “Good News” of Christian endeavor, since all interaction happens within and between aspects of God’s creation. This would hopefully develop, over considerable time, into a church functioning within the realm of right relations. Theologically, there is a distinct element of discipleship that accompanies these conceptual changes that can give all participants renewed meaning in their faith.

Educational opportunities for the congregation become paramount. Bible studies delving into the most misused or misunderstood passages, directed discussions and table talks can be used to work further with the congregation. In addressing bias in terms of race or class, unless the pastor is blessed with a multicultural church, it would behoove the pastor to initiate cross-cultural and ecumenical dialogue with the other ministers in his or her network. It may take a considerable amount of time and effort to establish a trusting relationship with the pastor and congregation of an ‘other’ church, but once established discussions could begin in which the members of the church representing the dominant culture primarily listen at first. Unless significant effort has been expended from the pulpit and other internal publications before attempting this, the results could prove to be miserable. Even after preparation, a negative result is quite possible. Various other possibilities exist, but the main point is that they are the results of very intentionally addressing the issues of power and social location at the local church level.

Networking can also serve to establish working relationships with other churches in mission or service areas, and in study groups or even worship services. Again, theological reflection is critical to the process, and prayer at intervals of non-worship experiences is invaluable. Through networking the ethos of the church can begin to be seen in the concentric spheres of influence in which the church participates. By teaching others to openly discuss, and exemplifying different conduct, the pastor can encourage “evangelism” of a different sort. Eventually, again over a considerable time, this may affect even larger structures within the church’s denomination, city or area. Additionally, the visibly changed behavior of the church and its members may preclude the necessity of other acts of contrition or reparation, as well as increase the likelihood that any apologies and other reparations tendered would be perceived as genuine.

This path will likely be painful – it will result in disparagement or worse from some, notably those who make a conscious decision to continue accumulating advantage over others and those who get stuck in the stage of denial. This, of course, reflects the foolishness of Christian faith – the absurdity of daring to proclaim the Gospel to a materialistic world. When examined, however, in terms of gain and risk, the potential profits will far outweigh the perils. The joy of completing the first full embrace and realizing that faith is not simply an empty worship experience, if it in fact occurs, could be monumental in the life of the church and its role in the larger society. Embellishing Volf’s metaphor of embrace, it would mean that an invitation has been issued, arms opened, arms folded around another, arms reopened in order to appreciate the other’s distinctiveness[8] and, finally, to be left standing eye to eye with someone recognized as a sibling – another of God’s children of exactly equal worth in God’s eyes. Through self-donation to the equal benefit of others, the reward would be self-esteem based not on diminishing someone else in order to feel elevated, but on the realization of being loved, and loving, as yet one more of God’s precious children.

And what of the church? Can the church be brought to the realization of its own complicity in the outrage of poverty and dehumanization? The church seems to be vacillating between outright denial and timid acknowledgment. Its concentration on numbers – the adoption of business practices and ethics to “grow” and prosper – decries an understanding of the interplay of accumulation and domination – of fear of death and being the cause of it. The church can be, and occasionally is, an agent in the world, but only after so many times seeing to its own security and kowtowing to the dominant culture. Sometimes the church seems to think that the messages of scriptures, such as Lev 19:16[9] and Mat 16:26, apply only to its parishioners. For what profit will it be for the church to gain its security, only to give up its very life and meaning in the Gospels? And for what is it willing to give up its life? Seemingly not for the “Good News” of love of neighbor as self. The pilgrimages of the pastor and the congregations must include incursions into the very belly of the church hierarchical structures, not in order to produce shiny new pamphlets and special Sunday observances, but to encourage corporate concern and affirmation for the economically and socially impoverished in its very being and in every transaction. Just as the “great Commission” of Mat 28:19-20, is given in response to the disciples, some of who doubted (Mat 28:17), embodies the imperative to disciple both within and outside of the church[10], the “evangelism” of the changed local church needs to be partly directed to the larger ecclesiastical bodies.

The pilgrimage, undertaken by those with the courage to do so, will include embracing fully the message of the Gospel, working past the denial of complicity in the ills of a selfish world, and embracing the dehumanizing circumstances of the majority of God’s children on earth. It has to begin with the agency of one before it can blossom into a pilgrimage of many. But that agency has come, and is still present – the One has already had the courage and remains with us until the end of days. Is it not time for the rest of us to dare tread the path of foolishness?


[1] [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (NRSV)

[2] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans ed. and trans. by Wilhelm Pauck, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 130.

[3] Cobb, ibid.

[4] Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, (Boston: Beacon Press), 1998, 95.

[5] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, 100.

[6] One such public domain example can be found at <http://www.zhaba.cz/materials/misc/powflow.html&gt;.

[7] Laurent A. Parks Daloz, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Daloz Parks, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World,  (Boston: Beacon Press), 1996, 38.

[8] Volf, 140-145.

[9] “… and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.” Lev 19:16 (NRSV)

[10] The first word of 28:19, poreuthentej, is not an imperative meaning “Go!”, but rather a participle meaning “as you go”. The first imperative is mathteusate  meaning “Disciple!”. The sense, especially following the reference to the disciples who still doubted despite seeing the truth of Christ risen, is that this imperative applies to discipling all ethnh  (people or gentiles) both within and outside the gathering.

2 Responses to “Can the Church Reconcile with its Own Victims? (Part 3)”

  1. February 9, 2009 at 12:25 AM

    There seems to be a movement of the Holy Spirit to mold and shape the Bride along the lines about which you write. The church has damaged many. May it truly repent and bring healing. Thanks for this article and the preceding Shalom.

    • 2 Rev Andy Little
      February 9, 2009 at 6:46 AM

      I agree, Willis. There is a movement – I wish it looked more like a lava flow than a dripping faucet, but that’s my need talking. I think, in some ways, it is a benefit that church looks and acts like culture – it makes it recognizable and less alien. When church does repent and move towards embracing, it could also look that much more powerful to the observer who just might be tempted to investigate further. By the way, I love your blog – I hope that’s not a death knell. Peace, my brother.

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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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