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1000 years of mission baggage

by on October 1, 2012

Sorry – this is a bit naughty, but I couldn’t resist.

Why don’t people feel keen to hear from us about Jesus? We’ve made it hard for them, over the past ten centuries or so.

Christian history is full of beautiful stories of God’s people being a blessing to their communities. But they’re not the ones that stand out. What stands out is the institution of ‘The Church’, that massive organisation that ran Europe for so many centuries.

The problem can be summarised like this: whenever the church of Jesus got a sniff of political power, it turned into The Church. It corrupted from a local-based community of humble believers seeking to live together and love their neighbour – and morphed into a centralised, bureaucratic political machine which exerted power with a high hand and little conscience, in order to achieve its ends. The Church showed itself willing to use coercion pretty much whenever it had the power to do so. It became an authority, with a well-developed punitive mechanism for those who would not knuckle under. While the church was called to welcome sinners, The Church specialised in judgement, helping establish a well-defined social structure of the ‘righteous’, the ordinary and the outcasts. The Church felt itself authorised to dictate the terms of ordinary people’s lives, and to act as moral police,  condemning and applying sanction against those who opposed its will. The Church ostracised, The Church humiliated, The Church fined, The Church imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Very often The Church allied itself with the powerful and privileged, against the interests of the poor and oppressed. The Church was a willing participant in the expansionist aggression of the empire-building powers of Europe. Rather than stand against their violent and de-humanising practices, The Church went along for the ride, effectively stamping its imprimatur on the whole enterprise. In Australia it never spoke a word as the indigenous societies were robbed of their land, under the lie of ‘terra nullius’ – unoccupied territory.

Now in the West, The Church has mostly disappeared. Only the RC Church still looks like The Church, but even there the real power is mostly gone.

Thankfully our churches have headed back in the direction of being churches, rather than local representatives of The Church. We are less and less playing the part of ‘Authority’, trying to enforce our policies or condemn the lives of others. The churches look a fair bit less arrogant now than they did a century ago.

TROUBLE IS, people are not stupid. They can see that we’ve only given up our old coercive ways as we’ve lost the power to coerce. They can put two and two together. We don’t do it anymore, but on the other hand, we don’t have the option to do it anyway. Our voice in society has become less threatening and (a little) more gracious, but only as it has become smaller! That voice is now so weak that any attempt to sound commanding would be ridiculous. So we don’t get a lot of credit for our gentler approach.

To the world, it must look very much as though we’ve just fallen on hard times, rather than actually having a change of heart. Have we really learned to stop biting, or have we just grown old and lost our teeth? At the moment we are safe enough, but there’s a thousand years or more of history suggests we would jump at the chance to bite again, if it came our way. If we could get people to pay attention again, if we could get influence, wouldn’t we become The Church once again? That’s how it must look, anyhow.

And in fact, even now when we do get a brief moment of air time in the public arena, what do we do with it? We say ‘No to gay marriage’ or ‘No to divorce’ or whatever, depending on the decade. It must look to the watching world as though we haven’t kicked the habit: we still have weak, impotent dreams of controlling the lives of others.

And sadly, many complain that in our churches a watered-down version of coercion flourishes still: guilt.  No longer able to impose outward sanctions, we use guilt as a kind of internal policing tool. We still attempt to exert leverage on the behaviour of our people, dishing out (divine) disapproval in the place of fines or fires.  At least, that’s how people feel it. We have met so many people around Canterbury who are still carrying that guilt, who bear psychological scars from earlier church involvement. We may not have the power of the sword any more, but we still seem to have a talent for making people bleed.

In these ways we make it look like, though our teeth may be pulled, we haven’t really got over our dreams of power. We miss being The Church.

And so our neighbours sense the danger that we represent, that the disease may still be running in our veins. They fear what will happen if we gain influence once again.

Christian history has many beautiful moments in it, moments for us to be proud of. But ordinary Australians don’t know about those moments. They know about The Established Church. And I reckon this makes it very difficult for people today to give us a hearing, let alone to put themselves in the position of becoming learners under our teaching.

THE SHORT VERSION IS, we have quite a bit to live down, don’t we? What would it take to persuade people that we’ve changed; that they can trust us now; that we might really help them get free, rather than just enslave them in new ways? A millenium or more of baggage is a lot to let go of.

I’d like this to be constructive, so can I finish by suggesting a positive, practical step on that path to recovery? ASK YOURSELF: Can I become as interested in my neighbours’ agendas (‘who they are’) as I am in my own agenda for them (‘who I’d like them to become’)? Why not try it and see? 🙂

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