"If we assume that we're going to change the world, then we'd better begin by changing ourselves."
This is the overarching message I walked away with from the KAIROS*: The Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice conference at Union Theological Seminary last Friday. I didn't have the chance to make it to every session but the sessions I did attend left me with a lot to think about. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University, framed it all for me. She said - almost as an aside - that yes, religion does possess the ability to be a great agent for change in the world, but how can we [the religious] talk about change if we're not willing to acknowledge the evil religion is doing in the world? This is what the church needs: honesty. It needs to lift up the good it is doing in the world as well as the evil. We can't just praise the good and shush the bad. That's how the bad becomes the rule instead of the exception.
The Gospel says, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3) This goes further than simply lambasting the religious Luddite who has successfully anchored their prejudice to the Bible, and, in their misguided faith, prays to a god of their own design to shape the world in a way that suits them and no one else. To simply scapegoat these people is too easy and doesn't begin to answer Dr. West's critique. The truth of the matter is that the religious bigots and zealots and terrorist and backwards preachers are not the greatest threat to the world. Certainly, terrorist present and constant danger to all those who surround them but like all threats, they can and eventually will be quelled.
No, the most pernicious threat to the church, and consequently society, is the one we refuse to see and will not discuss. It sits in near silence in every row and every pew. It whispers complacency in our ears and convinces us that Jesus, that social radical, somehow wants us to care more about our personal salvation than our neighbors. It tells us that prosperity is God's ultimate design, that He cares more about our pastors driving BMWs than He does about the swollen bellies of the poor. This near silent terror is popular American theology. It tells us to distance ourselves from the negative rather than facing it head on. It says that if we close our eyes it will somehow magically (Divinely?) go away.
The truth of the matter is that church has become the mire through which society has to trudge. The church envisions itself as a beacon on a hill, which, in many regards it has become, but more as a symbol of warning rather than a symbol of hope. Ironically, it has become a voice of change in the community by acting as the perfect representation of everything that is wrong with society. The Methodist Church continues in their ridiculous march against history by putting their gay and lesbian clergy on trial for "Preaching While Gay". These men and women want nothing more than to show just how loving Christ and the church can be, and for that they are punished. Nice job.
Of course there are examples of the church doing well in society. It's unfair to say that there aren't. Nadia Bolz-Weber is an excellent example of this. She meets her parishioners where they are instead of where she expects them to be. Pope Francis is still turning heads by simply following the Gospel. We see amazing responses by church all over the country when it comes to disaster relief and churches - when they're not kicking out atheists out of their serving lines - continue to feed, clothe and shelter the poor and dispossessed.
If the church wants to start making the news again for its humanity rather than its bigotry, it would do well to start focusing on meeting society where it is, assessing what the greatest needs are, and actually serving those needs. It's what the world desperately needs and is something that the church can provide if and only if it begins ministering to the desperate need within itself.