Since I am trying to raise issues most churches appear reluctant to touch, I should explain my motive. It’s not that I think I’m smarter than them or that I hold a grudge against the church. I believe the church has done an extraordinary job of carrying out the great commission to take the gospel worldwide.
Only I’m troubled by the performance of the church as a whole, and of most individual churches, on another task they have the authority and range of influence to tackle, and which the Bible assigns them.
I mean the task of peacemaking.
What I see is a church most often aligned with a culture that seeks its own, largely regardless of the cost to others.
Recently Zoe and I watched the film Divergent. My verdict: well written, well acted, and remarkably similar in theme to “The Grand Inquisitor”, a story included in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
You can find the story in several formats at Project Gutenberg. It’s not an easy read, and since I’ve read it often, I’ll offer a brief guide.
Ivan Karamazov, a skeptic, challenges his saintly brother Alyosha with a tale in which Christ visits Spain during the height of the Inquisition. He performs a few miracles and is arrested.
The Grand Inquisitor sentences Christ to be burned. His crime: condemning people to misery by considering them to be wiser and braver than all but a few actually are.
The Inquisitor argues that humanity wants no part of the freedom Christ offers. Rather, people want bread (freedom from privation); authority (freedom from responsibility); and miracles so blatant they will unify us all (freedom from alienation).
The Inquisitor maintains that Christ’s gift of intellectual and spiritual freedom — which he bestowed upon us when he resisted the temptations offered by the dread and wise spirit in the wilderness — only delivered people into terrifying confusion.
Dostoyevsky was a devoted Christian, yet in his novels, he didn’t play favorites. When assuming the role of a character of any stripe, he advocated for that character. So while the deeper theme of Ivan’s story justifies Christ, its surface argument reveals disturbing truth about humanity.
Ivan is correct in his assertion that few of us prefer to think independently. And no matter our protests to the contrary, most of us are less concerned with goodness than with our own wellbeing. Consequently, if we churchgoers only learn in the abstract to follow the message of Christ, we are in danger of entrapment by those who, like the Grand Inquisitor, have accepted the devil’s bargain.
When the church fails to teach us how to effectively aid and defend the oppressed or impoverished or how to bring our communities and our world closer to peace, many of us turn for answers to those who profit at the expense of the oppressed or impoverished or by promoting and waging war.
When a partner and I owned a used bookstore, a regular customer, a state assemblyman, attended the same church I did. At first, I recommended books from our Christian section. He showed no interest and only chose books about politics and advice about making friends and influencing people.
My point is, if the church (perhaps for sound reasons) won’t teach us how reason from the abstractions it preaches, it leaves many of us vulnerable to being hoodwinked by marketers, swindlers of every persuasion, and politicians and their allies with agendas that overrule integrity.
Who then can teach us to reason and act in accord with the message of Christ and the freedom he gave us?
Maybe storytellers? Artists? Writers.
So let’s get busy.