I typically avoid reading the comments to online news articles because it seems to me that the majority of responses are extreme, offensive (often ignorant) reactions against the article. Thus, unless I'm feeling particularly masochistic, I generally stay away from the comments. But I did look at the most recent one in response to a Des Moines Register column that reported reactions and official statements from various religious leaders regarding the Iowa Supreme Court's decision to strike down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
While I never expect anything profound in the comments, what I found in this one hit me particularly deep: "[W]hat was hated about [Jesus's] message was the love and acceptance it brought. The Church Establishment wants its authority, not for people to join together in love."
Before continuing, let me clarify "Church Establishment." When I speak of the Church in this post, I do not mean to suggest that there are not churches whose mission can be encapsulated in the idea of joining together in love. Indeed, we know that there are. I am thinking rather of the Church Establishment as the institutional church. Even here, the structures of the church function positively and justly in many ways. But we also know that institutions are by nature conservative, slow to change themselves. Authority is found in what can be stated and known concretely. Institutions rarely value fluidity and radical transformation. It is in this way that I consider the above statement to address a stark reality of the Church as an established institution, perhaps better suited for the maintenance of power and authority than for radical love and community.
As we journey through Holy Week, we are reminded of the expression of human power through violent repression of radical love and welcome. The Establishment wants its authority, not for people to join together in love. But love cannot be defeated, not even through death. Resurrection is the promise that new life, new hope, new ways of being in the world are the direction toward which we are called; it is the perfection for which we strive.
The early communities of Jesus followers were diverse and often very radical. They re-imagined their tradition in fantastically creative ways. They, including Jesus and Paul, interpreted their scriptures freely. They pushed traditional social, ethnic, and religious boundaries. We know that at least some communities practiced a new kind of radical equality. They were committed to living out Resurrection and opening it up for as many as wanted to join in a spirit of love.
These predecessors of the early Church did not set out to establish their own authority, but they challenged the norms, rooted in the authority of radical welcome, equality, and possibility that they understood Jesus to have taught. In contrast, the Church today seems largely reactionary and extraordinarily slow to change.
It has been state Supreme Courts, charged with upholding ideals of equality, that have paved the way for just and equal definitions of marriage, even when the public has not been ready. Indeed, this is the function of the justice system -- to uphold justice when the people will not necessarily do so on their own. And faced with new ways of thinking and being in the world, the people, over time, have generally expanded their understanding and acceptance of the range of human possibility on various issues.
What used to be the Church leading the way, welcoming in and advocating with and for the marginalized, could be yet again today. But sadly, the Church Establishment wants its authority, not for people to join together in love. I suspect that in the face of its own decline in public significance, the Church, by and large, is struggling to make itself relevant and doing so by looking back upon what has been authoritative.
Yet, the Church Establishment often fails to look back upon what perpetually looks forward: Resurrection.
Holy Week reminds us of the establishment's reaction against what was radical and transformative, what pressed forward. May we remember as we face the tensions, too often violent, that arise when courageous people push onward, that our faith indeed presses us on toward Resurrection. And may the Church become what it has always been called to be: not an enforcer of strict doctrines but a realization of Resurrected life in the world, a body that calls all to join together in love.