Friday, May 13, 2016

Women Deacons? Who Cares? or, Christianity's Original Sin

Julian Guthrie’s book The Grace of Everyday Saints describes a San Francisco Catholic congregation forced from their historic building by esoteric church bureaucracy. Angry, heartbroken congregants organized themselves to resist the closure. They met in a Russian Orthodox Church’s basement, made alliances with (and sought forgiveness from) gay rights organizations, and became fixtures in SanFran’s busy activist community. Forced from their church, they arguably became more Christian than ever.

I couldn’t help remembering Guthrie’s description of St. Brigid’s congregants when news broke this week, that Pope Francis would commence a commission to study admitting women into the Roman Catholic deaconate. Not that he’d start ordaining women; that he’d ruminate letting them become deacons. Sure, that will mean occasional women’s voices from the Catholic pulpit, and something’s more than nothing. Many Catholics are celebrating this hypothetical future possible slight change.

But this makes me wonder: is the church itself the heart of the problem? Generations after women began to vote, hold office, start businesses, and own property, Christianity’s largest church might consider letting them preach, part-time, unpaid. This joins a litany of opportunities Christianity had to oppose systemic oppression, and failed. Sadly, this private Christian must conclude, while Christianity teems with potential for individual gravitas, Church itself embodies the problem.

Whenever anybody cites Christianity’s history of bad decisions, somebody else posits a counter-argument. Yes, the church supported wars, often unjust wars, from the Crusades to Vietnam, but Christians from Tertullian to Dr. King opposed wars. Yes, the church justified first slavery, then segregation, but abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, and modern dissidents have drawn inspiration from their faith. Christianity has straddled both sides of most debates from ancient to modern times.

Notice, however: while the church, a bureaucratic institution, repeatedly supports movements that draw lines between individuals and peoples, the opposition comes from individuals and parachurch organizations. Reformers cite individuals, like William Wilberforce and Daniel Berrigan. The status quo has organizations, and whenever it cites individuals, it’s generally organizational leaders, like popes and bishops. All power, even religious power, tends to support oppression and division, while vibrant individuals oppose them.

Historically, Christianity appealed to early Romans because it offered powerful personal dignity. Women flocked to Christianity because it gave their lives meaning beyond their ability to bear children (see the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla). Men, like Martin of Tours, converted partly because it gave them purpose beyond military service. In both cases, these actions were powerfully counter-cultural, elevating human worth above its utility to reigning secular powers.

But institutional churches, like bureaucracies everywhere, are primarily self-serving. They exist to preserve themselves, and thus not only resist to social movement, they often mimic the secular authorities they were instituted to oppose. When women, Blacks, the poor, or whomever, lack secular power, they mostly lack religious power too. This bolsters my belief, that when church and state become entwined, it isn’t the state that’s changed by the interaction.

This isn’t a uniquely Catholic problem. Lutherans today extol Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom before Hitler’s machine, but turn mumble-mouthed when reminded that German Lutheranism allied itself with Hitler, letting him reorganize their structure. The largest Black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded because early Wesleyan Methodists refused to ordain, and in some congregations even commune, Blacks. As for the Anglican Communion, I commend to your attention Prince Charles.

Reverend Jim Wallis has called racism America's Original Sin, a term not original to him. But we might say Christianity’s Original Sin is its tendency to draw lines between people. With its longstanding institutional desire to be liked, and to get along with secular authorities, Christianity has embraced a willingness to separate women from men, Black from white, poor from rich, foreign from native-born nationalist.

Sadly, it’s impossible to create divisions between groups without establishing a dominance hierarchy. Just as “Separate But Equal” in American law created second-class access to public resources, saying women have different, but equally important, contributions to the Body of Christ inevitably pushes women into inferior standing. Of course, no individual can do everything. But precluding anybody from any position by gender creates intractable second-tier standing.

Private Christians have a long history resisting injustice. The Church, sadly, has a long history of perpetuating injustice, even in many cases creating or expanding it. Saying change comes eventually, and urging oppressed groups to remain patient, isn’t good enough. Injustice is happening now, and the Church is justifying it. Commissioning a study is a sop. Christians must challenge their church to uphold Christianity’s standards.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Kevin. Wonderful post. Some denominations are better than others. Unitarian Universalism is about the most inclusive denomination I know.