Church, Flagellate Thyself

Rob Saler, a better and more successful man than I who has gone on to write books that are actually reviewed (he and I both graduated from LSTC, and we chat sometimes), posted this to his Facebook page, about the joy some Episcopalians take in their decline and the memory of their power, and it’s worth reading:

First was the rector and staff’s resistance to facing programatic weaknesses head-on. Real improvement is hard, and it frequently involves breaking some eggs. Episcopalians are often more comfortable spending their way toward a solution than asking for human action. If ushers are unfriendly and annoying, rare is the rector who will speak to and, if necessary, dismiss them; much better instead to install new and more “welcoming” signage. It is easier to talk about buildings and grounds than about human behavior.

More insidious, however, was the bizarre combination of glee and dolefulness with which the conversation of the handicapped ramps unfolded. Many of the staff were unyielding in their belief that merely by existing, this parish was somehow, in some way, profoundly alienating to unseen seekers. The longer the conversation went on, the less it had to do with the needs of disabled visitors; what the staff were really engaged in was the ostensibly canonical ritual of corporate self-reproach and self-censure. The litany of Christendom’s sins was rehearsed, the correct responses were made, and the inevitable conclusion reached: We are oppressing those who never darken our door.

What an extraordinary conceit.

The Episcopal Church in the present day seems to want to do two things: (1) insist that it has given up its hegemonic past and now welcomes all people, and (2) function as if it must incorporate all people in a hegemonic way. These two impulses do not hang together easily, and they produce in what should be our fine old church an astonishing schizophrenia. We not only welcome all, we insist that all must be present, as if the Episcopal Church is the only game in town.

At some point on this blog, and I am not sure where, I noted that progressives and liberals long ago decided the only reason people were on margins — not living and working and loving in the respectable, bourgeois center — was they were forced to be there. Pushed out. Excluded. No one would live on the margins of their own accord, and no human behaviors or identities should ever be marginal.

So, the only reason people don’t show up for Episcopal, or Lutheran, services is that we have not welcomed them. We have excluded them. Otherwise, they would be here. They would be just like us.

As Non Angeli notes in this blog, this is not only nonsense, it is conceit. It fails to consider: what if they aren’t just like us? There are plenty of reasons that, to borrow an example from real life (from the congregation I interviewed with in late April), Latino Pentecostals would not be or want to be United Methodists. A lot has to do with culture, language, comfort, tradition, community, and that may or may not have anything to do with the welcome they have received. Not everyone is called to be Methodist, or Episcopalian, or Lutheran, or pentecostal.

(I see some beauty in pentecostal worship, and gifts pentecostals bring to the Body of Christ, but I cannot be pentecostal. It’s just not in me. I will never be a pentecostal.)

But the Liberal church still wants to be empire without actually being empire. It cannot envision equality without sameness. Many years ago, the ELCA — concerned at how white it was — set itself a target for the percentage of people of color in the confession. It was a silly move, and unlikely to be achieved short of the annexation of a largely non-white church. I find myself wondering if ELCA leaders and pastors asked themselves — why would people who are not like us want to worship with us? And it may little or nothing to do with them. The ELCA does have a problem — my experience at seminary showed me, and the rise of the #decolonizelutheranism movement demonstrates, that pastors and parishioners and congregations of color have a very difficult time in the ELCA, in part because the confession is torn between its liberal ideals and the reality that many of its congregations share in America’s heritage of white supremacy. But that problem is as much a matter of class — a suffocating bourgeois piety that has no ability to forgive sinners — as it is race.

The truth is, there are many reasons people do not want to be ELCA Lutherans that have absolutely nothing to do Lutherans failing to be welcoming or inclusive. It’s not necessarily about us. Even if we say we get the gospel right, in the end, people make choices for reasons that honestly have nothing to do with us.

Maybe some folks live on a margin because that’s where they feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. Because that’s where they know they belong. Margins should be safe, and not abolished.

Liberalism and progressivism, however, in its many forms, cannot abide marginality. And it cannot abide separateness either. All must belong to the one true community. Eventually, the progressive reaches for the cudgel. To force others if it can.

And if it can’t, to scourge itself.

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2 thoughts on “Church, Flagellate Thyself

  1. In my own experience, the low percentage of POC in the ELCA has much to do with church culture — which tends to reflect ethnic and racial culture. Being a welcoming congregation helps bridge the gap a little… but East Indian Pentecostals are not going to attend ELCA Lutheran services on a regular basis. And ELCA congregations would be silly to expect them to. But they might worship in the same building, work on projects together, fellowship, and love, support and pray for one another. My question is this: Do all Christians have to intermingle in the same worship service in order for Sundays not to be the most segregated day of the week? I believe the answer is no.

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