Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Excuse Number Thirteen

The excuses continue. Why do people neglect caring for their own soul by avoiding regular gatherings, which I call church? Here is excuse number thirteen of the fifteen I've heard over the years: "The church has done terrible things to people."

To this I say, "Yes, it has." I myself have been a vocal critic of the harm done by many religious groups. It saddens me to think about it and I see no sense in whitewashing this. In the name of religion, people have been tortured and murdered, children abused, governments toppled, buildings burned, nations ruined, people systematically robbed, scientific advancement hampered, while people with honest questions and private doubts have been ridiculed and excluded. It breaks my heart.

If this were all the church has done, then it should be wiped from existence immediately. If this were the only accomplishments of the church, the church has proved itself unholy, destructive and evil beyond redemptive hope.

Unfortunately, we humans seem to be hard wired to remember the negative, and to ignore the positive. This is why news stories only tell us about the horrific and sad news of the day. Newscasters don't mention the millions of people who weren't in a fiery crash or murdered by an angry ex-spouse.

The same psychological reasoning deploys with the horrors committed in the name of religion. There is little news value in mentioning the millions of people who routinely, and with an amazing amount of joy, give themselves away in the name of God to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. We have silenced the Good News and refuse stories of people who choose to live by the fruits of the spirit, giving of themselves in every way imaginable.

The scandals make the news--and rightly in my opinion. Evil needs to be exposed. But for every unscrupulous person in the pulpit, for every church bureaucrat who covers up evil for the sake of career advancement, for every religious thief who keeps sticky hands in the pockets of trusting people, there are millions who have heard the words of redemptive love and have set out to live faithfully, seeking peace, justice and holiness.

When we use this excuse, "The church has done terrible things to people" to separate ourselves from a worshiping community, we help perpetuate the evil. When righteous people will not gather together to form strong bonds of worship and service, then . . . evil remains unchecked.

Look at it this way: in nearly every case of religious abuse, it stems from unchecked and unaccountable power. The charismatic cult leader who draws others and then strips them of independent thinking in the name of some "higher power" is actually gaining power for him or her self. Every abuse situation involves a powerful person violating some vulnerable person, and then demanding secrecy or else destruction will rain on them or their loves ones.

Clearly, we must use discernment when entering into a worshiping community. Here are important questions: How much secrecy does the religious organization demand of its adherents? Is there a tight and often undisclosed path to the seats of power where only a few hold ultimate decision-making rights? Can the "rank and file" question decisions without fear of retribution? What kind of protection is offered the most vulnerable, particularly children and those with special needs? What accountability structures have been deployed? How open are records, particularly financial records? Keep in mind that in any organization or family, the greater the secrets, the more unhealthy and cult-like the environment. That kind of atmosphere sets the stage for abuse and evil to flourish.

The church has done insurmountable good. The world would be infinitely poorer, meaner, and unhealthier without it. But any organization with an unchecked power center will ultimately self destruct. Find an open worshiping community and offer yourself--there is joy unbounded to be experienced there.

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