Bishop Spong and The Church
A Question about The Prophetic/Justice Imperative contrasted to the Motives of the Institutional Church; The Love of God vs. Love of the Neighbor
Dr. Wallace from Pennsylvania writes:
“Our diocese has a linked relationship with one of the dioceses in southern Sudan. Terrible conditions. Our bishop and his wife visited the area (Kajo Keji) for three weeks several months ago. Our diocese has responded generously to pleas for food and other assistance. As it often happens, once caring people become personally exposed to conditions of millions upon millions in the developing world and have an opportunity to compare and contrast, the result – certainly by most Christians I have known – is a strong motivation to respond. In Swaziland in January, I guided our rector through a nine-day tour of conditions and the AIDS situation in Swaziland – same response. My bias as a Christian has been for many years that many faith groups place a significant emphasis and focus on the importance of belief as compared with the importance of behavior.
I recall a number of passages in the New Testament that cite Christ’s focus on loving God and our neighbors. From my personal perspective, love of a neighbor and all of its critical interpretations receives much less focus and emphasis in the Church than love of God. What usually occurs after a meaningful experience with poverty, loss of hope and inequity, there is a brief flash of sympathy, often action of some sort – some of which is indeed useful. But sooner or later there seems to be a return for our church leaders to fall back on what appears to me to be some fuzzy interpretations that occurred many centuries ago and would never stand active interpretation.
So, as I challenge church leaders, clergy and congregations, my question relates to how I can encourage them to review one of the essential mandates from Christ – his clear and emphatic emphasis on our responsibilities toward our fellow human beings.”
Dear Dr. Wallace,
You touch the ultimate question that always hampers the Christian Church. I am not sure Christianity would have survived for 2000 years had it not been institutionalized. I am not sure if it will survive the next 100 years because it is institutionalized.
Every institution places its ultimate weight on preserving its own life. That is why the Church emphasizes loving God over loving one’s neighbor. Loving God can be expressed through worship and liturgy, building stone monuments and in filling them with music as well as mystery. These are the emotions that build great cathedrals, vest clergy elaborately, decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, create chorales and oratorios, all of which shroud God in mystery and wonder and draw people, who are always seeking relationship with the holy, into the Church’s orbit engaging them in worship. This serves the Church’s need for power that has always been its highest priority.
The push for justice on the other hand might be at the center of the Gospel but it also attacks the balance of power in the society. Since the rich always exploit the poor, to give the poor power, dignity and humanity makes them less pliable, less cooperative. Prejudices also cover human insecurities and so they always receive religious sanctions. The Bible portrays God justifying the hatred of the Hebrews for their overlords, the Egyptians. Otherwise, the story of the divine plagues aimed at the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus makes no sense.
White people cover their fear and insecurity against people of color by subjugating them as either slaves (later segregation and dehumanizing prejudice) or as vassal states to a colonial empire. Males cover their masculine sense of inadequacy by treating women as second-class citizens. Heterosexuals reveal their sexual insecurity by oppressing homosexual persons. It is interesting to me to see how throughout history we blessed our prejudices with sanctified quotations from Holy Scriptures as if to say God shares our prejudices with us.
The great biblical tradition says that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are not two separate actions but two sides of the same action. It was the prophet Amos who bore witness to the fact that divine worship is nothing but human justice being offered to God and human justice is nothing but divine worship being lived out. It was the First Epistle of John that warned us that one cannot love God without loving one’s neighbor and to suggest otherwise is to be “a liar.” It was Jesus himself to whom the words are attributed that his purpose is to bring life and to bring it abundantly. To be a disciple of Jesus means a dedication to being a life giver, a life enhancer to all people at all times and under all circumstances. Finally, in the parable of the Judgment in Matthew 25, the entire basis of salvation is said to be not the way one believes, that is to creeds, doctrines and dogma but whether or not one serves the Christ who is to be seen in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned and the sick.
The task of people like you, Ned, is to call institutional Christianity daily to accept its vocation to follow its Lord by giving its life in the service of others. But lest you be disillusioned, you need always to be aware that the people who will hear the call of Christ and the call that you have so often heard and to which you have given yourself so courageously will always be a minority,
a saving remnant within the body of believers. However, that witness is essential to the life and health of the whole body. It is a fact that the great reformers of Christian history were generally regarded as troublemakers in their own generation. Only history applauds the prophet. The vast majority of those who share your generation, Ned, will be forgotten in a generation or two. But your work will be enshrined in the memory of the people you have served so deeply that it will finally enter the mythology of their culture. That is no insignificant contribution.