I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the church, wanting to harness the energy of faithful progressives toward public action. My thoughts have not always been comforting.
Mussolini found it very convenient to use the power and prestige of the church, Roman Catholic in his case, to further his authoritarian agenda. So did Hitler – we will be reading excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Lent as one model of faithful resistance to the church’s temptation towards social control and economic power. So did the Afrikaners in South Africa, and slave owners in the United States, and many other examples throughout history. The Christian right and President Trump seem to be working well together these days.
And yet, the church is the Body of Christ! St. Mark’s is a progressive congregation of people committed to greater inclusion, justice, and peace – values we find in Scriptures, in Jesus’ life, and in our own experiences of God’s love.
What unites us isn’t a common political agenda, although many of us think similarly about politics, but our search for God. I saw that when The Diocese of New York Social Concerns Committee met this week. Many congregations, across the “conservative/liberal, rich/poor, urban/suburban” spectrums are seeking ways to add their voices to the struggle for inclusion and against authoritarianism not because of the “agenda of the religious left” or a “Democratic platform” but because they are being faithful to what they know of God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.
As I seek to understand when and where the church goes wrong, I see one dynamic in my life as well as church history. The closer I stay to God in prayer and mindful action, the more vulnerable I feel in many ways, but the more resilient I actually become. This is the wisdom across religious traditions – the Buddhist devotion to compassion, Gandhi, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King and the civil rights veterans.
The constant return to the Source of Life and Love and Justice helps people be more faithful and ultimately more enduring because their actions are not in reaction to a person or program or institution but in response to God’s invitation. And when God’s invitation seems muted or absent, the inner work of self-examination and the joining with others in worship and discernment becomes even more compelling.
I’d often rather be able to force my agenda on others, but I think it’s that use of force and coercion that ultimately leads the church away from Jesus and into marriages of convenience or a thirst for power or brutal rigidity.
I often come back to Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Let’s encourage each other to renew our minds, deepen our faith, and strengthen our bodies to do the work God is giving us to do.