The Church As A Knife   Leave a comment

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Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

In Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), a man going through his father’s possessions finds a small bejeweled crucifix; upon closer inspection, he discovers that the cross is actually the casing of a pocketknife. “What an idea!” the man exclaims, presumably in horror at the juxtaposition of faith and violence.

I recently watched the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church. The story of what they found is well-known: an intricate system built around sheltering priests—and more importantly, the institution of the Church itself—from public scandal. Bishops, clergy, laypeople, the criminal justice system, and even the parents of abused children all conspired to keep silent while great evil was going on. The Globe’s senior editors even come to acknowledge that they had the facts of the story years earlier, but shied away from challenging the Church. A whole city—and a whole world—was complicit in the hurt inflicted on the vulnerable.

It’s not hard to see the harm the Church Universal has done over the centuries: slavery, racism, genocide, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, countless wars, and other corporate sins have all been explicitly or tacitly condoned by The Church, justified by texts from the Bible.

It’s easy and tempting for those of us in The Episcopal Church and other denominations that tend to be progressive in policy and steeped in social justice to wash our hands of those sins and say, “not my church, not my Jesus.” But while the latter may be true, the former is not.

One of the authorized forms of the Confession of Sin in the Holy Eucharist in The Episcopal Church begins:

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
(Enriching Our Worship 1, pg 56)

I believe that “the evil done on our behalf” includes not only sins our nation and society do in our name, but sins Christians do in the name of Jesus, whether or not we personally or denominationally endorse them. We have a responsibility to act as a counterpoint to those sins. To, as the Baptizer says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” To bring a loving, credible God to those whom the Church has instead shown an unwelcoming and unwelcome God.

And we have a responsibility to examine and confront the prejudices we harbor in our own hearts but would like to deny or disown. My own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and capacity for violence are all obstacles in my service to Jesus and my fellow human beings.

My heart has been breaking daily since the election last November, as every day in the transition and inauguration of our authoritarian new government brings more news of rights stripped, protective regulations eliminated, and preposterous fictions presented as truths. This administration values money and power over God’s creation, industry and military over programs that help people.

But worse, there is an increasing devaluation of human life—or at least certain human lives: people in poverty, people with chronic illness or disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, non-Christians, LGBTQ+ people, women. These are all human beings made in God’s image and beloved of God, and our nation’s current government does not care about them. In our name, the United States Government has denied their belovedness, their human dignity.

But what about the Church? What are we, as followers of Jesus Christ, doing about it?

I can point to dozens, even hundreds of Episcopalian and other Christian friends, along with Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics who are marching, organizing, calling legislators, and other great resistance work. Preachers, writers, and speakers who proclaim a gospel of resistance from their (real or virtual) pulpits. Servants who are ministering directly to people in those vulnerable, uncared-for groups. Churches that are declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and others in danger.

But I also see bishops, clergy, and lay leaders who won’t speak up, won’t do enough. Who say: “The Church should preach the Gospel, not engage in social justice” (as if the two weren’t inextricably linked). Who feel an obligation to make milquetoast statements about race, but can’t bring themselves to say “Black Lives Matter” (or if they do, quickly follow it with “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”). Who feel an obligation to acknowledge the Pulse nightclub shooting, but don’t acknowledge that it was specifically an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. Who refrain from making a statement about the election or the administration for fear of upsetting conservative voters in their pews. Who preach a false idol of “unity” that is not true unity, and serves no one but the powerful.

Perhaps they fear losing the pledge checks of wealthy parishioners; perhaps they fear losing their own earthly power. But in these conformist statements, these faith leaders not only fail in their prophetic duty to lead their people to greater discipleship, they fail in their pastoral duty to the vulnerable, marginalized people in their care.

And if we follow their lead, we become complicit in those sins.

Many of us in The Episcopal Church pride ourselves on our inclusivity: officially, all baptized persons—of any ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation—are welcome to all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage. We pointedly proclaim our slogan, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and declare “you” to mean “all of you.”

But does it mean anything to our gay and lesbian neighbors? To our black or brown neighbors? To the impoverished families on our doorsteps? Does it mean anything to the women whose ordinations we defer while approving those of their male peers? To the women we ordain but under-employ and underpay? To the transgender people we say we welcome, but keep at arms’ length by using incorrect pronouns and binary gender language? Our policy statements are little good if they are only theoretical.

One of my Gregorian Brothers, Brother Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG, lives and ministers to the Queer community in San Francisco’s Castro district, a ministry of presence and love to young people living on the streets, drag queens performing in gay bars, and everyone else in that community. Every day Brother K meets people who have either never heard of The Episcopal Church at all, or have no idea that TEC or any other Christian denomination would welcome them. All they know of Christianity is the religion that told them they were inherently disordered, that made their families reject them. Why would they bother to notice or believe “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” on a church sign? Even in a diocese that has been ordaining LGBTQ+ persons and blessing same-sex partnerships for four decades, the Church can fail the people outside its walls.

I attend a mixed (mostly European-American and African-American) parish in Denver full of committed, long-time racial justice activists. And yet in recent conversations on race, we white parishioners have learned that our black siblings have experienced racism from us. Even where we think we have overcome our prejudices, we have far to go.

When—either through our actions or our silence—we let the sins of the Nation and the Church go unchallenged, we are complicit in the injury caused by those sins. If Christians are not preaching—by word and deed—the God of love and the belovedness of every human being, the Church becomes nothing more than a knife disguised as a cross.

Now is the time to remember our love for God and our Neighbor. Now is the time to stand up and say in no uncertain terms, “All people are made in God’s image, and we will not stand by while any of our siblings are cast aside!”

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