02 May 2013

Religion addiction, part two

Last May, I wrote a blog post that referred to religion addiction, lightly, in passing. I mentioned just one manifestation, basking "in the warm glow of righteous feelings." Addictive religion has a number of other ways of hooking us, too. Ironically and tragically, perhaps the greater our capacity for self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater good, the more vulnerable we might be to satisfy that hunger through religious devotion. How do we know when this becomes an addiction? Alcoholics Anonymous step number one gives us a good clue: our lives become unmanageable.

Maybe that "greater good" is a leader, a parent-figure or chieftain, one who does our thinking for us. The German side of my family experienced a whole country coming under the magnetic sway of such a chieftain eighty years ago. (We're in the second day of our May Day holidays here; it was May 2, 1933, when Hitler liquidated all trade unions.) As I note the relentless parade of 70th, 75th, and 80th anniversaries relating to that era of insanity, it's hard to overestimate the danger of that kind of total devotion.

What about the leaders who trade on such devotion? Aren't they also experiencing something very addictive? Today I was talking with a journalist friend, and we were reflecting on a particular set of national leaders. Each of them, he said, played a historic role, but then needed to get off the stage ... and wouldn't. We also considered how each of them increasingly refused to listen to criticism. Sounds to me like a life become unmanageable.

Can this happen to a church leader? George Fox tells of priests of his time insisting on their privileges, flying into furies over being contradicted (or even over his stepping accidentally into a garden!). Even now, the church world is full of titles including such blatant oddities as "very reverend" ... "most reverend" ... "eminence" ... "all holiness" .... "the most general of general secretaries" ... (one of these is a fake). In today's ecumenical/interfaith world, we're supposed to say these titles with a straight face, and in fact some basic courtesy is not an unreasonable expectation--after all, most of these very reverend eminences have stopped calling us Quakers heretics, at least to our faces.

(Though I do remember being introduced to a former priest of the Orthodox Church here in Elektrostal by a friend of mine, a poet. Upon shaking my hand, the priest said to my friend, "I see you've brought me another heretic." But there was a twinkle in his eye.)

My point isn't the specific honorifics. It's the addictive quality of being privileged, honored, flattered, day in day out as a matter of routine. In one church culture, it might be jewel-encrusted tradition, in another it might be flashy celebrity-hood, barely distinguishable from secular showmanship. And it can also involve access to goodies, exotic travel, cozy get-togethers with other princes and princesses of the church, so to speak, and on a grimmer level, the ability to influence--or even control--the careers and lives of those serving you (that is, those whom you should be serving). There are other, even worse, ways that a church leader can abuse people who, at least at first, just want to trust that this person will bring them closer to God. And all this has even happened among Friends.

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Matthew 12:22-32, NIV

No wonder George Fox and other early Friends insisted to the point of rudeness that a true leader brings us to God and leaves us there.
Now when the Lord God and His Son Jesus Christ sent me forth into the world, to preach His everlasting gospel and kingdom, I [George Fox] was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any.
In short,
I directed them from darkness to the light, and to the grace of God, that would teach them, and bring them salvation; to the spirit of God in their inward parts, which would be a free teacher unto them.
Here he is, a certified powerful leader directing people, not to himself and his self-gratification, but to their own free teacher! I can't exaggerate how grateful I am to be in a tradition that so fiercely resists addiction ... and how frustrated I am that we're not doing a better job of proclaiming this anti-oppressive way to the world.

Jesus taught us, in three of the Gospels, that we can be forgiven for almost anything, even for blaspheming against him. But there's one sin that can't be forgiven--the sin against the Holy Spirit. In the context (Matthew 12:22-32, for example), it's pretty clear what he's referring to: crediting Jesus's miraculous intervention to the power of Satan. But what about the mirror image of that sin? Aren't we likely playing with fire when we claim the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit for our own inventions, ceremonies, oratory, and stagecraft by which religion addiction is fed?

Is this too strong? Maybe so. But we're commissioned to keep God's promises to poor and oppressed people inside and outside the church; to the victimized, militarized, jailed, poisoned; and something seems to keep getting in the way.

Friday PS: (Re-reading above...) Wow, what mood was I in? The truth is, I'd never want to undermine someone's relationship with their faith community based on the honorifics, ceremonies, and furniture of their tradition. It's all about relationships, and if their relationships sustain faith and discipleship, it's wonderful!

But I've seen too much cult-like behavior among Christians, and too much top-down behavior, and too much abandonment of the church by young people, to pretend that there's not some urgency to the question of integrity in leadership--or, to put it more positively, the question of mutual accountability between empowered leadership and empowered membership.

And when it's that quality--trustworthy spiritual power--that people need, let's hope we're there with a welcoming hand, to lead them to their "free teacher" and sit down as equals beside them.

Urgent: U.S. voters, please oppose the "Strategic Partner Act of 2013" if this article is at all accurate about the one-sided visa regime with Israel that would ensue.

Another urgent message in its own way: Melanie Springer Mock's "Message to Graduates (and Maybe Myself)" along with a great comment by Kathy Heininge.

Reedwood Friends and others in Portland, Oregon, may remember Sarrah Lynne Havens, who served the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship community at Reed College. During my time on the Reedwood staff she served as one of the homeless shelter volunteers. To my delight, I just found out she also has a Web site for her art.

In my Post #500, Signe Wilkinson talks about Quaker Web pages. Now Josh Brown adds a very accessible systematic review of dozens of yearly meeting sites. One thing that Signe addresses very directly in her talk is the ease with which the site reader can figure out what the community represented by the Web site actually believes.

Quaker church planting and "The Hope of Multiplication." The article is being discussed in the Facebook Quaker Church-Planters group. A related conference is starting in six days at Barclay College.

"Power and purpose are whiskey / I do nothing but the work of God." Dedicated to Lord Acton.

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