The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Greatest Treason: The Implication of Christ

This is not a sermon. I am speaking not in my official capacity as a deacon, but solely for myself, from my heart, because I believe that the Gospel teaches that Jesus stands with the oppressed, the victimized, the disenfranchised--and yes, with the repentant, too. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a charter for abuse, nor can it, without wholesale distortion, be twisted to justify the abuse of minors or the harassment of women or of men by the powerful. And, in the last week, I've had a bellyful of watching just that twisting take place.

Rod Dreher has an important and, I think true, as far as it goes, take on religious defenses of Roy Moore's candidacy, either instrumentally (such as Gov. Kay Ivey's brushing aside her concerns about the accusations made against him, on the ground that "I believe in the Republican Party, what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices”), or by theologically justifying or mitigating the acts of which Moore stands accused.

Citing and generously quoting Bethany Mandel's op-ed in the New York Times, Dreher draws his conclusion:
Roy Moore is not a pastor, but he has made his Evangelical Christianity so much a part of his public persona that he is rightly regarded as a religious leader. He has held himself out as the embodiment of a man of faith, one whose religious principles are the most important thing to him. He has raised his voice repeatedly in judgment of those who, in his view, violate God’s law. Now there is credible evidence that he sexually abused underage teenage girls in his 30s. There is no proof yet, but the evidence is credible. You can be quite sure that the world of unbelievers is watching how conservative Christians react to this news. And you can be certain that the adolescent and young adult children of Evangelicals — especially Alabama Evangelicals — are watching their parents, their pastors, and the adult community in which they were raised, to see how they react to all this.

This is a time of testing for Evangelical men and women in Alabama (and elsewhere). As you may recall, I heard from a small group of Evangelical pastors in Nashville that they were dealing with young believers in their late teens and early twenties — college students, basically — who were having profound crises of faith because of their parents’ and home churches’ enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. At the time, I told the pastors that I didn’t understand why their elders’ support of a politician would cause a crisis of faith. Those pastors told me pretty much what Bethany Mandel wrote here: “The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life….” That is, those young Nashville Evangelicals had been so formed by the faith as practiced in their families and church communities that they were having a very hard time separating belief from the means through which they had come to believe.
You may ask why I, as a non-Evangelical--indeed, a liberal Anglo-Catholic--am writing about this test for a community very different than my own. Dreher is right that this behavior, like that Bethany Mandel was subjected to, like that of the Roman Catholic Church in the sex abuse crisis, will cost people their faith. Some will be unchurched, while remaining believers, some will find other spiritual homes, and others will become agnostics or atheists. But the harm goes beyond this.

The thing is, all of this behavior becomes the model of what Christianity is to the non-Christian, and that's not unfair. We are what we do. Charles Gore and his "Holy Party" called Christianity first and foremost "the Way," and we can't paper over hypocrisy with prayer, or by distorting the Gospel.

We are what we do. Faith without works is dead, after all, and while we're all flawed and are going to screw it up, sometimes right royally, we can't react to our failures by calling them successes. I'm no Barthian, but I think we have to accept that Barthian insight into human sinfulness and divine forgiveness requires us to accept when we fall short, seek forgiveness, and, where possible, to make amends, not to use our cleverness at self-deception to say that, no, what we did wrong was quite all right, indeed, the only correct thing to do.

And all of us, whether liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox--whatever--are going to be tempted to such cognitive dissonance either for ourselves or for those we admire. But this fraught situation becomes especially toxic where politics come into play, because power--secular power, and spiritual power, provide ample opportunities for abuse.

As I've written before, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral has long been a foundational text for me, especially the lines given Becket in rejecting the blandishments of the Fourth Tempter:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Now, credit where due; Eliot, like Anouilh, assumed the fundamental righteousness of Becket's cause in his dispute with Henry II. I do not. (Free earlier draft here.) Indeed, the Becket case, and John Henry Newman's theological justification of suppression of the truth through persecution, are given as archetypes of these temptations by me for just that reason in Command and Coercion.

Let's focus on the words of the Third and the Fourth Tempters, for a moment. The Third Tempter argues that Becket should bring his spiritual authority to form a political coalition with secular, political actors,the barons, and overthrow the King :
For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
The Fourth Tempter takes it a step further, commending Becket for rejecting the purely political, instead advocating for ecclesiastical dominance of the secular state:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
He adds, "When king is dead, there's another king. And one more king is another reign," and then pictures all the kings in succession, attending at Thomas's shrine, adding, "Think of the miracles, by God's grace/And think of your enemies in another place."

In each case, Becket is offered power--secular power by the Third Tempter, the power to bring his enemies forever for his own personal glory down by the Fourth--in exchange for abusing the spiritual office entrusted to him, ironically enough by the King with whom he is at war.

The Governor, like the Third Tempter, argues that morals be damned, the greater good requires her party prevail--even if a little cooperation with evil has to be accepted to get there. In all conscience, that's bad enough, to put it quite mildly. But watching clergy and other religious leaders contort the Gospels to justify sexual predation is even more appalling. Because if you take Christianity at all seriously, it is is a Way, not a Why, a following of a man who, we are told, was the heir to the throne of David, but so resolutely stood for the outcast, the poor, the women who were so often ignored, and preached that they, and not those religious authorities who made logic-chopping distinctions to justify their seemingly righteous exclusion of those others, were blessed. This is, in truth, the greatest treason: to abuse spiritual authority for gain.

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