Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Church of Peter and the Church of John

At the Synod of Whitby in 664 a Northumbrian king name Oswiu decided in favor of the practices of the Roman Church over the Celtic Church.  The matters under discussion, the style of the monastic tonsure and the date of Easter, may seem trivial, but much more was at stake.  Phillip Newell argues that Oswiu chose the "Church of Peter" over the "Church of John."   The Apostle John known for his mysticism and intimate relationship with his Lord was the patron of the Celtic Church.  Peter known for his primacy and his keys was the patron of the Roman Church.   Oswiu's decision was the beginning of a steady decline for the Celtic Church. 

The history of Christianity could be describd as a struggle between these two churches.  Whitby did not bring the Church of John to an end.  It endured within the Church of Peter--but at its margins. The Church of John was the church of the Celts.  It was represented by the monastic community on the Island of Iona and its missionary foundations throughout Europe.  The Church of Peter was the church in Rome.  It was represented by the Pope and his various ecclesiastics attempting to bring order out of what they saw as chaos.  The heart of the Celtic Church was the monastic community.  In Ireland and Scotland these were more like villages than monasteries as we know them.  Abbots, not bishops were their leaders.  The core of the Roman Church was the Cathedral and the bishop supported by his clergy and officials.  The differences between the Church of Peter and the Church of John may be illustrated by the following:

Church of John                        Church of Peter

Mysticism                                Doctrine
Relationship                            Hierarchy
Family                                     Army
Community                             Corporation
Knowledge                              Technique
Vision                                      Purpose
Jesus                                        God
Love                                        Duty
Stillness                                   Motion
Sacraments                              Proclamation
Mystery                                   Clarity
Waiting                                   Working
Acceptance                             Striving
Compassion                            Accountability
Communal Discernment         Personal
Fellowship                               Leadership
Spontaneity                             Organization
Right Brain                              Left Brain

These two "churches" are also found in the Evangelical community.  The so-called Emerging Church shares characteristics with the Church of John.  The various mega-churches share characteristics with the Church of Peter.  The charismatic community is more like the Church of John and the Neo-Calvinists more attracted to the Church of Peter.  Denominations by definition contain elements of the Church of Peter, but can and do draw upon the Church of John.  Denominational leaders often find themselves attacked by the devotees of both communties!  When the Church of Peter and the Church of John cease listening to each other and cover each other with scorn something essential to living out of the gospel is lost.  So what attracts you?  Are you of the Church of John or the Church of Peter?  Why?

Friday, February 19, 2010

A New Civil War?

"National politics, always a rough game, has developed into something meaner, more personal--a blood fued.  The primary agenda is now to score points, and to damage the other party whenever possible. . . .The end result is that the United States--like California and several other large states--is becoming ungovernable."

William Falk

Earlier this week I read these words from William Falk in The Week.  They have haunted me ever since.  I fear that Falk is right.  We are so fiercely divided, so angry, so polarized that I doubt even the wisest could rule effectively.  We can be brought together as a people termporarily by an external threat, but even the goodwill and almost universal support President George Bush received after the 9/11 attacks quickly evaporated.  I doubt that today President Obama would receive the same level of support were there to be a second equivalent attack. 

If all this is true, if we are so polarized and paranoid they we cannot be led, why is this so?  We have always had our differences over the role of government.  Some Americans have always seen the government as overly intrusive.  Some Americans have always expected the government to intervene and provide a level playing field.  All Americans have expected government to protect the citizenry from violence and chaos at home and abroad, although they may differ over how it is to be done.  All Americans have an opinion about the role of government and personal responsibility. It is very American, then, to fight over the government's involvement in something as primary as access to health care.  So what makes the conflcits of the last decade seem so different?

I would suggest that the linking of conservative political agendas (e.g. limited government, strong national defense and laissez-faire economics) with critical and controversial moral issues (abortion, homosexuality) in the 1980s meant that on the right issues of political philosophy became part of a moral crusade.  The same thing happened on the left.  "A woman's right to choose" also became a non-negotiable moral and political crusade.  Opposition to the war in Iraq was expressed with the kind moral fervor normally associated with religious faith.  And, in fact, many of the people protesting the war were people of faith--as were the people protesting abortion and gay marraige.   What were once matters of politics subject to compromise are now matters of religious and moral conviction.

The only comparable time in American history, I believe, were the decades leading up to the American Civil War.  On the political side the North and the South were wrangling over a very old issue in the young republic--states' rights.  If this problem had existed in isolation it would have perhaps be solvable through legislated compromise.  But the presenting issue for the supporters and opponents of expanded states' rights was slavery.  I do not mean to make a simplistic identification of the "sides" listed above with the "pro-slavery" or "abolitionist" positions.  I am rather with this analogy raising a troubling question: is the United States in danger of a second civil war?

Before the civil war it became impossible to find a way to compromise over the issue of slavery.  For both North and South it was a political and moral issue of the greatest importance.  Southerners feared any compromise would mean an end to their "way of life."  Northerners feared further expansion of what they considered a noxious institution.  The extremists on either side of the issue scorned any idea that a compromise solution could be found.  It took a violent and bloody civil war to resolve the issue.  I would argue that their failure to find ways to talk about the moral complexities of slavery and pursue non-violent solutions contributed to the endurance and viciousness of racism.  The north in effect won the war and lost the peace.  We are still haunted, nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, not only by the legacy of slavery, but by our inability to address it in the first place in a peaceful and competent manner.

Abortion and homosexuality are not issues that lend themselves to measured conversations and compromise.  What is morally reprehensible to one side is actually a moral good to the other.  The left sees opposition to homosexualty as the moral equivalent of racism.  The right sees abortion as the moral equivalent of murder.  There is not much room for compromise or conversation between those two.  In fact, some in each camp fear that even entering into a conversation implies the possibilty of an unacceptable moral compromise.  These are issues that will not go away.  Does this mean that if we find no way to address these issues and one another, we are doomed to fight?  What role could the church have in fostering such conversations?  Or are we too timid, too unsure of ourselves to even bring them up?  I will try to say more about this in a subsequent blog.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bush, Obama and Scapegoating

The cultural critic Rene Girard argued that human society became possible when "primitive" humanity discovered the value of scapegoats.  Girard argued that the desires of human beings for limited objects resulted in violence.  Not everyone could have the same desirable things or individuals. He further suggested that desire was created by imitation.  We learned what is desireable by obseving the desires of another.  Introduce a new toy into a room of two year olds playing quietly.  When one approaches the toy and begins to play with it, the others will suddenly notice and also want to play with it.  Toddler violence ensues.  Everyone cannot play with the toy.  Girard argues that primitive societies discovered that the wars could stop if a scapegoat could be found--someone who could be blamed for the violence; someone upon whom the whole group could inflict their rage and fear.  This was the beginning of sacrifice and it diverted the violence from the community members themsevles to the "other", the scapegoat.  As long as the sacrificial system worked, peace was possible.  A "sacrificial crisis" occured when the old enemy was no longer effective in diverting the anger.  Once again the community was subject to the war of all against all.  Once again it needed to find a scapegoat.

I would suggest that the United States is currently in a "sacrifical crisis."  There are some political scientists that believe that a Democracy lacks coherence without an enemy.  For the better part of the 20th century the enemy of the United States was Communism.  Our rage and fear were particularly directed to Soviet Russia.  Our political differences were muted because of our common disdain for Russia and its various client states.  Additionally, the evil of Russia convinced us of our own goodness--at least in comparison.  But the latter part of the 20th century produced a sacrificial crisis.  First the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis suggested we were not as good as we thought we were.  The old unity began to show cracks.  With the fall of communism in Russia and elsewhere the old enemy dissolved.  Radical Islam has made a bid to replace communism.  But Islam is a religon and not localized in a particular state.  But a larger problem hinders radical Islam from being an effective scapegoat.  We are increasingly aware that  we cannot blame Islam per se or all Muslims for violence against the United States.  Many Muslims offer counter examples to the hate of a few.  Radical Islam makes an imperfect scapegoat, an ambiguous scapegoat.

In this context we have turned on ourselves.  We have always had divisions in our politics and at times those divisions have been vicious.  One needs only to think of the Civil War.  But over the last few decades a new and ugly political discourse has emerged.  Lacking an appropriate scapegoat we have turned on each other.  Beginning especially with the Presidency of Bill Clinton and continuing with the Presidencies of George Bush and Barak Obama we have vilified the Presidents of the United States, effectively directing our violence against them.  We have made them scapegoats.  This is not to say that these Presidents were innocent of wrongdoing or error.  None of them is beyond criticism.  But I would argue that the viciousness, the cruelty of the attacks on them far exceeded what was necessary to critique their policies.   Bush was called a facist.  Obama is called a socialist--and worse.  For the left Bush was evil and could do nothing right.  For the right Obama is evil and can do nothing right.  All the rage and bile born of rational and irrational fears were and are poured over them.

Scapegoating was unveiled as an evil by the cross. However effective it was at tamping down the violence of a society it required victims.  The Bible demonstrates that scapegoating victimized innocent people or at least people who were not so guitly as to deserve sacrifice.  Jesus died as the final scapegoat, the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.  As Christians we no longer need to scapegoat, because we have been shown the love of God.  We do not need to resort to rivalry and violence because we have been shown love.  Christians should not be involved in the scapegoating of Bush, Obama or anyone else.  Irrational hatred is a moral evil.  Our opponents should be treated with respect and love, not mocked, excoriated, and disdained.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Money and Maddness

First Timothy 6:10 famously declares that "the love of money is the root off all kinds of evil."  In Mark 10 Jesus confronts a rich man who wants to "inherit eternal life."  When Jesus recommended he sell all he had, give the money to the poor and accrue treasure in heaven, he went away grieving "because he had many possessions."  The posession of money seems to produce a kind of madness.  Otherwise prudent, grounded people seem to lose their moral compasses when their financial well being is at stake.  There is more than one story of the owners of slave ships who were troubled by the ghastly activity of buy and selling human beings.  But the profit was so enormous that they quieted their consciences and sailed for Africa year after year.  Slave owners in the south were frequently God-fearing people, but they were making so much money that they crushed moral resistance to slavery whenever it arose within themselve or others.  Their love of money produced moral madness.

Money, of course, represents security for many people.  It represents freedom, pleasure, and independence.  It represents the respect and even awe of others.  In the United States a person with money is considered a superior being.  To be weatlthy is to have "made it", to be in on the secret of success.  Years ago Bill Clinton knew what he was saying when he declared "It's the economy stupid."  Threaten anything, but don't threaten our bank accounts.  What makes this strange is that although the banking high-fliers and weathly financiers took unconscionable risks, Americans don't seems to be all that angry with them.  With a few execptions we are not clamoring for stronger controls on greed and avarice.  I think we aren't all that angry because we are living with the illusion that someday we will be as rich as they are and we wouldn't want anyone taking "our" money away.  We may scorn the Bernie Madoffs of the world, but when someone comes along offering unreasonable rates of return we want to be able to invest.  There is a part of us that doesn't want any limits on greed and avarice even if it nealry brings down the financial system.  This is also a kind of madness.

I wonder if any number of perplexing American attitudes are explained by our love of money.  Univerisal health care seems to me an obvious good.  It could even be considered a pro-life issue.  Why wouldn't Americans want to see the children of the working poor provided with good health care?  I am not convinced what we are getting out of Washington so far will reduce medical costs and provide appropriate coverage for Americans without healthcare.  I am not arguing for the current legislation.  But I do think heathcare for everyone is a good thing.  I am quite willing to pay higher taxes to make that happen.  In saying this I am not making a claim for sainthood.  I suffer from greed and avarice like everyone else.  But I do wonder if our objections to universal healthcare have less to to with government intervention, "socialism", and the like and more to do with our desire to hold onto our money, our security and our pleasures? 

We can obvioulsy be generous and compassionate people.  Americans have given freely to disaster relief--most recently in Haiti.  But such giving is on our own terms and for people who live at a distance.  In the end such giving does not unduly threaten our financial well-being.  I must say that Jesus' words to the rich man haunt me.  They haunt me becuase by the standards of the wider world I am a rich man.  Most Americans are.  By what standard will I be judged.  By what standard will you be judged?  For a Christian to pay no attention to this is madness.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Paul Johnson, the distinquished British author recently published a short biography of Winston Churchill.  Johnson is an admiring but not fawning biographer.  He makes it clear that Churchill was a man of enormous talents and singificant flaws.  He enjoyed breathtaking successes and soul-shattering failures.  He ascended to great power at a relative young age, sunk to the depths in late middle age, only to rise to unparalleled heights in his old age,  He was a man of enormouse appetites, prodigious talents, and phenomenal energy.  According to Johnson he spent fifty-five years in the house of commons, thirty-one years as a minister, and nine years as prime minister.  He was a major figure in the First World War and a "dominant one in the second."  But his political accomplishments, as enduring as the are, were not his only accomplishments.  During his lifetime he published 10 million words and won the Nobel Prize for literature.  H also painted over five hundren canvases "more than most profesisonal painters." The list goes on and on.  Politically he was complex.  At one time or another he was a member of both the Liberals and Conservatives in Great Britain.  He was concerned deeply about the plight of ordinary Englishmen.  But he insisted on social order.  He was a paternalistic emperialist.  He wanted to keep the colonies in the empire and argued this could only be done by treating them well.  He wanted to avoid war, but fought ruthlessly when it was ineivtable.  Johnson has no doubt he would have used the atomic bomb on Germany had it become available.  He battled hard against his political opponents, but didn't hold grudges or seek revenge when in power. He was a traditionalist and an egalitarian.  He is nearly as famous as President Abraham Lincoln for his bon mots.  He had little use for organized religion.  Parliament was his religion and the House of Commons his church.  His life towered over the 20th century and still cast its shadow to this day.  Johnson's book concludes with moral lesson from Churchill's life.  They are well worth pondering.  The book is breif and elegantly written. I recommend it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The More Things Change

I have been reading E. Brooks Holifield's excellent work God's Ambasssadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.  Holifield's study demonstrates that our contemporary church conflicts and trends are not all that new--in fact many of them are as old as the very beginnings of the Christian ministry in the United States.  Some complaints are perennial: the new, young pastors are not as spiritual, educated, gifted, etc. as the old.  Clergy have too much power (from parisonhers).  Parishoners have too much power (from clergy).  The church is in spiritual and moral decline.  Pastors are not adequatly paid.  And so on.  But some issues troubling the American church a hundred or even three hundred years ago have a very contemporary ring to them.  Consider the following.

"A number of clergy fell into trouble with their cogregations in the 1720s when they tried to change worship by having their congregations sing by note and in harmony." (p. 87)

Revivalist Geroge Whitefield brought a theatrical form of preachnig that "to his opponents . . .seemed little more than 'harangues' . . . and brought 'downright Disgrace on the sacred Function of the Ministry.' To his many imitators Whitefield brough a welcome relief to 'the learned and elaborate Discourse of clergy whose sermons now appeared as 'without life or Power'." (p. 92)

"Populists contended that the educated clergy could not reach the common people. . .'The illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire' while the clerical gentlement 'were still lighhing their matches.' (p. 125).

Even mega-church pastors are nothing new.  Nor are surefire techniques for success and church growth.  Few American preachers were as famous and popular as the 19th century's Henry Ward Beecher.  He attracted thousands to his Brooklyn parish.  He could be said to be the father of the personality driven church and ministry.  His sermons were full of humor, stories, and personal refelctions.  He also provided a dubious model for his many successors in the messy sex scandal that clouded the latter years of his ministry.  He was not alone in offering new approaches to ministerial success.  His contemporary Charles Grandison Finney was convinced that one could produce a revival by following the right technique.  His methods are studied and followed to this day. 

Prominent throughout the book is the struggle between the pastor as evangelist and the pastor as shepherd.  Throughout the history of the American church these roles have often been in conflict.  The conflict continues to this day.  To what extent should the pastor reach out to the "lost" and to what extent should the pastor care for the "flock"?  Holifield cites another ongoing conlfict.  In the late 19th and early 20th century the pastor as "executive" rose to prominence.  Large and complex urban churches required competent administrative leadership.  Executive ability became more important that theological learning or even personal piety.  The "business model"  for ministry was as hotly debated in the late 19th century as it is today.

This suggests that what we think are new challenge to the nature of ministry are not really new at all.  It also suggests that we could learn from the squabbles and struggles of the past.  Holifield seems to suggest that something is lost when one side of the various debates is emphasized to the exclusion of the other.  That is no less true today than it was in 1720 or 1920.  I highy recommend God's Ambassadors.