As a young adult, I was a big Woody Allen fan. His films made me laugh and made me think. As a Jew, he knew a good deal of Scripture as when he spoofed Isaiah with the line, “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” His film Crimes and Misdemeanors surfaced many instances of sin and grace, and pondered the question of whether or not there was a “moral structure to the universe.” Interesting stuff. I used to show the movie to friends and would tell his jokes in sermons.
Then scandal entered the picture when he married his step daughter and other jarring accusations came to light. It was the first time someone whose work I leaned on for joy and inspiration came tumbling down in my estimation. I have to say that it hurt. It was the first of many such hurts as people to whom I looked for leadership in Church and world proved themselves unworthy of that gaze.
Maybe your church has been rocked by scandal as mine has, or maybe not. Leaders with religious authority over their flocks have done everything from criminal behavior that turns our stomachs to less grievous actions that nonetheless stand in stark contrast to the life of Christ. Surely, this is one big factor in the dwindling numbers of people in our country who identify with any church.
That is one option we have when our church leaders scandalize or fail us, to say good-bye to that church or any and all churches. We can despair of finding a home, and do our best on our own.
Even though Church has clearly not been good for all people and has done damage in our world, I am not ready to give up on it. I remain committed to the idea that standing among God’s People on Sunday mornings is a good thing and an important thing for our world. Here are some observations that help me stay a committed church person.
First, I need to face up to the truth that good and evil exist in our churches as they do anywhere else, simply because our churches are us. It is critical to make the distinction between God who alone is perfect and the rest of us flawed followers. If a pastor or other leader inspires me on a Sunday, that’s a good thing, but I should never look to him or her for salvation, and never be too shocked when I see evidence of their limited virtue.
Second, I need to take the long view. In light of the latest scandal or headline, I need to remember that I was baptized into a tradition that is filled with spiritual treasures and has carried Christ through the centuries even as He has carried us. It is a tradition that has inspired us with saints even as it has scandalized us with sinners. Those who in community heard the same Bible stories and celebrated the same sacraments were inspired by them to lead courageous and holy lives.
Third, I need to wrestle with the two ways of viewing evil articulated by Jesus. He speaks of those who would harm “little ones” as deserving a millstone wrapped around their necks before dropping them into the sea. Those are strong words from the one who told us that only the sinless should throw a stone of condemnation at anyone. Alternately, he speaks of the co-existence of good and evil like weeds that grow among the wheat, and encourages us to let them grow together until harvest when God will sort it all out. In these two passages I hear both a need to have firm boundaries on what cannot be tolerated, and an overall attitude that doesn’t expect perfection in this world while doing our best to be light amid darkness, to sow more wheat than weeds.
Fourth, I take inspiration from the English theologian Timothy Radcliffe, who said that he makes the choice to remain a faithful part of Church because Christ has chosen to remain faithful to us. In other words, who am I to give up hope and leave the community where Christ remains and continually seeks to bring us through death to life?
Lastly, I don’t think I can improve on the words of John Gehring, who this summer wrote an article that concluded, “Ordinary people who live our faith in the shadow of scandal and hypocrisy are not blind to the flaws of our church. We persist because we search and struggle together, connected in spirit and memory to all those who did the same before us, and to future generations who will take up this difficult, worthy pilgrimage after we are gone.” Whatever your faith tradition may be, I do not know your pain, and I understand if you leave or have left already. But I hope you will stay or come back, and help us all be better.