The Institutional Church in America

Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. (Haggai 1:6)

You’ll notice I entitled this article, “The Institutional Church in America,” rather than “Christianity in America, as there is a world of difference between “churchgoers” and “Christians”; between “the religious” and “the spiritual.” Of course, there is some degree of overlap between the two, but it is my perception that that degree of overlap does not go anywhere near to approaching 100%.

The institutional Church and its enmeshment with Americanism, patriotism, jingoism, militarism, and capitalism can not be underestimated, as can be seen when an atheist and/or socialist has no chance of becoming a viable presidential candidate; when candidates for political office must be seen going to church. Their spiritual lives are irrelevant, as can be seen when Ronald and Nancy Reagan allegedly consulted psychics to determine assorted decisions, but they had to be seen attending church to be considered “Christians.”

To add insult to injury, most of the institutional Church not only doesn’t speak to crucial spiritually involved human rights issues of the day, but usually acts as an apologist for the power elite that frames the arguments and parameters of our perceptions of those crucial issues that are thereby serving to diminish the civil rights and civil liberties of most people in society, particularly those in the lower and middle classes.

As Christians, we are not to side with the “elites” but with the “rebels” who seek to make this a better world, a world, to use St. Augustine’s words, that should be “a colony of heaven.” And disciples of Christ are to be those rebels who seek to institutionalize godly virtues, and fulfill Jesus’ two great Commandments to all who would be His disciples: the love of God and the love of one’s fellow human beings.

In his superb book, “Death of the Liberal Class,” Chris Hedges speaks to this inherent conflict between the elites and the rebels: “The elites and their courtiers in the liberal class always condemn the rebel as impractical. They dismiss the stance of the rebel as counterproductive. They chastise the rebel for being angry. The elites and their apologists call for calm, reason, and patience. They use the hypocritical language of compromise, generosity, and understanding to argue that we must accept and work with the systems of power. The rebel, however, is beholden to a moral commitment that makes it impossible to compromise…The rebel is not concerned with self-promotion or public opinion. The rebel knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage—anger at the way things are and the courage to change them. The rebel knows that virtue is not rewarded. The act of rebellion justifies itself.” (p. 215)

And disciples of Christ are to be rebels against the demonic and all forces that pit the elites against the have-nots! And the elites who fervently seek after power, prestige, and wealth are often those very people who attain and maintain those goals by use of assorted nefarious, if not demonic, forces.

Moreover, the elites frame the perceptions of most people so that “…the prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is mad, for the multitude of thine iniquity, and the great hatred.” (Hosea 9:7b) And the hatred, the contempt, the sinfully laissez faire attitude of so many toward the poor, the sick, and the needy in our society is both palpably obvious and palpably obscene.

And where is the Church in America amidst all this unrighteousness? It is all too often the major apologist for all of this unrighteousness, or else it remains silent amidst this unrighteousness!

How is the institutional Church in America addressing our military intervention in all too many countries; our precipitous economic decline; the duplicity of most politicians; the dumbing down of higher education; the multi-millions of dollars that are spent buying people’s votes; the political rhetoric that seeks to deny medical care to others; its being in the vanguard of discriminating against our Gay brothers and sisters? The answer is that it is often in cahoots with the power elite by being its apologist either through its rhetoric, its silence, or through its insipid rhetoric that shows its pathetic irrelevance.

Most of the institutional Church does not speak to the needs of people, especially the have-nots in society! When was the last time we heard from the institutional Church that there must be universal health care for people; we must not engage in so many of the wars in which we are currently engaged; we must build shelters for homeless people; we must put the needs of American workers before the desire to export jobs to other countries; we must embrace God’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children?

The institutional Church is both dangerous and pathetically irrelevant! Notice its absence by Hedges from the list of disciplines and institutions that can be instrumental in helping to hold back the destructive tide emanating from the power elite: “We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. As those who retained their identity during slavery or the long night of twentieth-century fascism and communism discovered, resistance will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance. Music, theater, art, poetry, journalism, literature, dance, and the humanities, including the study of philosophy and history, will be the bulwarks that separate those who remain human from those who become savages.” (p. 196)

As it currently exists, the structures and functions of most of the institutional Church consigns it either to alignment with the enemies of the desires of God’s heart or to complete irrelevance!

A version of this article originally appeared in my column titled “Christianity and Society” in the Sacramento Valley Mirror.