A reflection the readings for Easter 5B: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8 by Janine Goodwin
These are readings full of joyous certainties and calls to deep spiritual unity, and they stir up all kinds of memories of a life spent largely in churches. Some of those memories are happy; some involve sorrow and anger, emotions that I was taught to find dangerous in my family and in some (not all) of the churches I have known. Since I have read and written many pieces in praise of what the church can be at its best, I decided to face the dangerous memories. I found myself full of questions: Why do so many churches hold the unspoken belief that unity means no one ever disagrees? Why do so many faith groups act as though it is more dangerous to face problems and prejudices than it is to ignore them? What keeps so many churches from being loving communities, from working toward the unity described in these scriptures? Of course no community of faith can be perfect, but many churches have substantial blind spots and some churches are very far from being communities of love—and it often seems that the farther they are, the less they can admit it.
As a teenager, I sought out groups that seemed to have the joyous spontaneity and certainty described in the reading from Acts. After an initial welcome, I found myself part of the fellowship only as long as I didn't ask inconvenient questions or hold theological and political opinions that differed from those of the group leaders. This was most quickly and obviously true of these groups that would often be labeled as fringe or fanatical, but it can happen in more mainstream groups as well. In many churches then and since, I have seen readings like the epistle and gospel used to promote a unity that was theoretical, oppressive, or based on denial.
The unity was theoretical when the actual fellowship of the church extended only to those with whom the existing church members felt comfortable. Some of them gave money to people and groups of people who would not have been welcome in the pews. Putting together hygiene kits for a homeless shelter is a good thing; sitting in a pew or a sermon discussion with a homeless person can be quite disturbing. If a group is to have the unity imagined in these readings, it has to be brave enough to change when a new person comes in and the balance changes, because in community, each person has an effect on all the others. Each member, and the group as a whole, has to look within and find out why they do or don't want to welcome this person. Each new sense of discomfort may show up a new blind spot, and sometimes the subtlest prejudices are the hardest to see. I once attended church in which people studied their internalized racism earnestly, did a great deal of good for various causes, helped the homeless at their doors with genuine goodwill and thoughtfulness, and sneered about "white trash" at coffee hour. When someone in an evangelism meeting said "We want more people like us," I asked what that meant and started talking about class—including my own, which was several notches lower than that of most of the congregation. I was greeted with incomprehension: there were other churches for those people, and they had never guessed that I was one because I was smart and well-spoken. It took me awhile to realize I'd been complimented on how well I was passing for middle-class. It was easy for them to admit that it would be hard to accept "twenty truck drivers" into the congregation. It seemed impossible for them to imagine that the truck drivers might take part in their liturgy or have something to teach them about faith. I piped down because I was starting to get anxious about the quality of my passing and besides, I was still having trouble sitting next to homeless people; it now seems to me that our squeamish moments should not have been allowed to cancel each other out. Maybe we could have faced them together.
Unity is oppressive when it is used to silence the less powerful so that the more powerful are free to do whatever they choose. The work of Marie Marshall Fortune documents how hard it is for churches to face the phenomenon of a leader who is abusing members and how firmly ingrained is the pattern of either blaming and slandering the victim or of telling the abused to forgive immediately, forget just as quickly, and shut up while the abuser either continues unhindered or moves on to another unsuspecting group. People who were abused by a more powerful person are told to be Christlike, ignoring the fact that Jesus, God incarnate, chose to live among us and take the consequences as an adult: the courage of a powerful adult can lead to a chosen sacrifice, but telling a less powerful person to accept any kind of violence for the sake of the group is not Christlike. The Gospel narratives do not describe the human sacrifice of a helpless child or a battered woman for the sake of a group's illusion of peace. Jesus did not approve of those who offended against little ones or who stoned women.
Sexual and domestic abuse, however, are not the only abuses of power in the church. Much damage is done in parishes where a few people or even one person, lay or ordained, exert destructive control over the whole congregation. The control can be overt or covert, bullying or manipulative, financial or emotional. The real focus of the church can be "the way things used to be" or "the nice people we want to think we are" rather than the unnerving person of Jesus. Newcomers are quietly warned not to speak out on certain topics or to disagree with certain people. Those who don't heed the warnings find themselves pushed to the margins; their ideas are ignored, their gifts are unwanted, and they end up leaving. Dictatorial priests and "clergy-killer" parishes, the extremes of clericalism and anti-clericalism, are the opposite ends of this unhealthy spectrum; the parish full of backbiting, infighting, and unacknowledged power struggles stands at the center. Far too often in such churches the deepest taboo is not destroying the possibility of unity in covert ways, but ceasing to pretend that unity exists. A person who breaks out of denial and speaks up about the actual problems of the church is seen as a greater threat than anyone who perpetuates the problems or the denial. In such a situation, faithful people seem to believe they should walk on eggshells for the good of the group. But if a group of people is to believe itself to be branches of one Christ, if they believe that perfect love casts out fear, they must be able free to speak the truth to one another in fearless love, even when that truth is painful and unpopular and very hard to hear. If "those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters," covert hostility and manipulation have no place. Otherwise, the church family becomes a dysfunctional family and stops being a vehicle of God's grace.
I can say these things aloud and in public because I am not a priest and have no congregation. I have heard priests say things like this to me in private as they struggled to work for healing in parishes where they felt they could not speak the truth without splitting the parish or losing their jobs and perhaps not finding parish work again. I have heard responsible and devout laity speak of these problems shortly before they left a church or gave up on churches entirely. I have heard bishops lament splits in congregations and clergy-parish relationships that broke down. I have heard young people say bluntly that they aren't interested in churches because they've seen too much hypocrisy, too much covering up and shutting down and pretending everything's fine while a rich brew of hostility simmers on the back burner. Since I have this freedom to speak, I ask the readers of this blog, clergy and laity, to ask yourselves: what do you mean when you say, "since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another"? Does that love have room for difficult truth and honest disagreement? Is there something that keeps your church from being united in love? Dare you speak of it? If not, why not?