Ongoing lessons from Congress for the church
Posted On January 4, 2023
As a long-time student of politics and theology/faith/religion/etc, I have been watching the recent events of the US House of Representatives and their attempts to elect a Speaker of the House as well as the the ripple effect from it. And I’ve been thinking about the lessons that the church can learn from this, if any.
Here’s what I’ve got so far.
- Leadership is messy. But you probably already knew that. And here’s another obvious observation that becomes even more obvious in light of recent events – it’s even messier when the stakes are higher and the margins are slimmer. That’s because each person gets to assert their limited power more and more. If you don’t think that applies in a church, think again. Lot’s of church operate on an assumption of consensus, which means that they want everyone to be in agreement. This gives a lot of power to the folks who, if they want to, can throw their weight around and demand certain things, or cause problems if they so choose, depending on how messy a situation, or on weak the leadership situation is. But this isn’t specific to church of course – this is any human organization really. It’s just humanity that we’re talking about and how humans operate when they gather together to make decisions, involve power dynamics, and are in community.
- Compromise vs. “Purity” – this is the fight on full display within the GOP conference. This is what it’s all about folks. The Trump loyalists faction in the GOP who are holding out on Rep. McCarthy want a Speaker of the House who is their version of a firebrand uncompromising “conservative.” Someone who will stick it to the liberals type of leader. They are rejecting the so-called establishment Republicans who are willing to compromise and work with Democrats in order to pass legislation in order to govern. The question within the majority party is which guiding principle will they follow – the all or nothing approach of purity, winner takes all approach, the ends justify the means, or compromise, legislate, govern, you get some and we get some? This very much has application in the church because we have these same folks in our churches. There are very real consequences for your church for each approach. You’ll attract different types of folks, and you’ll repulse other folks based on your approach. And even beyond that, there are ripple effects. How open to innovation and new ideas is a purity-style church? What are the limits and boundaries of acceptable behavior in a compromise-style church? These are serious questions that need to be dealt with among others.
- Anxiety – OOOO – this is the unnamed, but ever present guest. It’s all around. It’s there in the story about the reality that we haven’t had this situation in 100 years. It’s there in the story about the donors who are squirmy about there not being a Speaker on the first ballot. It’s there in the story about adjourning early for the day. Anxiety in the uncertainty. Hmmm. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years it’s that humans have this deep need and desire to be in control. And they will do everything in their power to get it or at least have the appearance of control. And they will burn down the house if it makes them look like they are in control. Anxiety sets in when there is a lack of control. This definitely applies to our churches. Boy do we struggle with control. Which is ironic considering our whole theology is based on the notion that we are not in control, we have never been in control, and we will not be in control. That’s what we claim anyway. Yet in practice, we often set that aside and grasp at control all the time because we are addicted to control. Sin is a tough one, isn’t it? And control is very alluring. Letting go gives us anxiety, unease. Just look at how the church has handled the pandemic over the last couple of years – some churches handled the anxiety pretty good considering, while others crashed and burned. Some moved forward and others clinged to nostalgia – essentially unable or unwilling or too traumatized to let go of an imaginary or idealized past that soothed calmed the anxiety. How long will the Speaker race go on – depends on who is willing to be comfortable with anxiety the longest. What happens in your church – depends on who is willing to be comfortable with anxiety.
- How it all is talked about – this one is a bit more fuzzy. It’s about people watching. I think it’s fascinating to watch how people react to things. To watch how people respond to situations. For instance, it’s kind of funny to see some of the Representatives take a picture of themselves with popcorn quoting themselves saying “just getting some popcorn to watch the festivities.” They recognize that the situation is out of their control, so the best thing they can do is sit back and watch it unfold. Not much else to do. There’s the stories of other Representatives who are engaged in conversations and deal making – trying as they might to end the stalemate. There’s the stories of Representatives who are making statements essentially saying that they will not heed or give in. I’m always curious to see how long that lasts. Statements all. What are the long term ramifications? What happens in the future? Will these Representatives act the same way in a similar situation under different circumstance if the situation is reversed? Do their ethics change based on the situation? Is there consistency? Lots of questions. And yes, this relates to the church as well. How do we handle situations? Do our ethics change based on the situation, or are we consistent? Do we say one thing and then do something else? Do we have a price at which we bend or break? How much of our faith is the foundation of our actions? Are we the type that sits and watches, tries to cut deals, makes bold statements? Does it depend on the situation? Lots of questions. Who are we in the church? Why?
I lean so much on N.T. Wright for a lot of my information, so bear with me as I do that again with my comment.
Like anyone else, I have to use my imagination (hopefully an “informed” imagination) when considering the earliest church – especially congregations established by St. Paul and perhaps a few of his contemporaries. A Jewish faith reworked to include gentiles, many congregations made up mostly or entirely of such gentiles. No doubt there were many proselytes and God-fearers who made that jump, meaning even in a foreign congregation of Jesus-followers, there likely was a fair bit of knowledge of Jewish law, faith, customs and the like – a general appreciation for the God of the Jews in more cerebral ways than perhaps we tend to give them credit.
Yet, like any “outsiders,” no matter how much study and devotion, there would be a sense that outsiders were not the best authorities on all things Hebrew/Jewish. And anyway, there’s no reason to believe that there weren’t at least a few Christian churches in various places that had very little understanding/contact with the Hebrews God of old, but they had this newfound faith in Jesus!
All you need is love (so say the Beatles), and there is a sense of truth to that but perhaps more complexity than it readily admits. And the best I can do is acknowledge such complexities; I am NOT the guy to sort it out.
On the other side of this coin though, allow me to suggest why any of this is relevant (I hope).
The early, fledgling church turns out to be a force to be reckoned with in this world. This treasure is given us in earthenware, exceptionally humble, but somehow there is a POWER there that goes easily missed – even by those of us in the church.
The fastest growing religion in the first century was the imperial cult. A form of Christian Nationalism – except not Christian and not National, but otherwise a good name for it. It was a civil religion, exceptionally popular venerating Rome and the Emperor particularly. A major celebration of the ruling emperor as savior of the world, even its engineer, its protector and provider.
And, amazingly enough, the most potent expressions of this faith weren’t found in Rome, but in Asia Minor – a conquered world, a world away from Rome. In fact, if there is a real complaint about the Constantinianization of the church, it surely is that when the church became “imperial,” or sanctioned at least, it began taking on this disease.
This faith found power in power, worshiped power, loved power, and orgied in power. It made a god of the emperor who then could do no wrong, whose might made right, and these “faithful” folx would get all worked up in their fervor with parades, colors, decor, tattoos, slogans, parties, celebrations, festivals, holidays, and all manner of get-to-gethers.
It must have been a rush. The world before Rome had indeed been chaotic and in pain. There was still pain, of course, but it was ordered and getting more ordered. There was a hope and a trust that given enough time, the whole world would come into line, markets would flow freely, and the blessings of abundance would overwhelm every dark corner of the globe.
Rome had the prima facie case! It was hard to see through this mess. And, honestly, when a conquered people like those of Asia Minor give this kind of devotion to your way of life, it just cements your view all the more.
Yet somehow, those lowly Christians did see through it.
What did they see? What was the attraction of a crucified Jew from Nazareth? There wasn’t a big Christmas holiday singing Hark the Herald Angels or Silent Night. They didn’t hold a parade or spruce up the mall… not for this crucified Jewboy… this peasant.
And the bulk of the pew warmers where not in fact warming pews, but were slaves, peasants, women and children, needy people, lepers, blind, and otherwise overly overlooked by the compassionate empire. There were a few rich among them, but those folx PUT IT ALL ON THE LINE with this small, fledgling movement of power undetectable by any of the normal measures.
This group of people with poor understanding of God, of themselves, and certainly of POWER somehow found trust in God, in Jesus, in one another that made everything else as nothing to them. They didn’t get any political leverage; they tried to live peaceably as much as possible and not draw too much attention to themselves. They didn’t run around claiming their rights, whether that be slave, free, male, female, or taxes. That not to say St. Paul couldn’t pull his citizens/membership card on occasion, but notice he only pulls that card AFTER he has suffered the beating – NOT TO AVOID IT.
These were people who were forced to carry that Roman load the first mile, who smiled silently as they went, and who started laughing and singing when they reached that milestone and kept lumping the empire’s load another just to out-kindness this savior of the world who imposed this on them.
THAT, I think, is the moment a Roman soldier found himself stunned with a POWER he could not understand and probably FEARed it! If this POWER didn’t win such a Roman soldier over, it surely scared the crap out of them, because YOU CAN’T BEAT A POWER LIKE THIS.
Let us BE God’s church today. Let us devote ourselves to HIM LIKE that.
I worship in a MAGA part of the world where the civil religion and the Christian Nationalism is infecting the church at every turn. Even in the quarters that don’t openly spout this crap, we nonetheless vote for it, sympathize with it, purchase the swag, and give it a pass just like we’ve been doing with greed for years and generations.
I am stunned by it. Dunno really how to react or what to do. I been blogging on this stuff for years, but that isn’t turning the tide. And really, I am not so sure that I ain’t infected with this crap more than I care to admit. IT SURELY IS HARD to see in myself, but I certainly do feel gaslighted. Not sure what is real at the moment.
Guess I will spend some time in prayer for a start.
I will entertain your advice and prayers and any of those reading here who will engage me