I wonder if the dam is breaking.
I invited you all last week to join me in a dialogue to get to the heart of our Presbyterian identity and the language we use to communicate it to the world. Using “The Great Ends of the Church” to aid in this I expected that last week would just serve as an innocuous introduction. The real meat of this dialogue series would start with my reflections on the first great end—“The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”
I was wrong!
The response was immediate and swift. From readers who are both inside and outside of the Church, as well as some who admit to being on the very edge of the Church, one theme stood out above all others—the Great Ends of the Church reveal a certain Christian arrogance, an assumption of religious superiority, and an obvious “us vs. them” mentality.
I had assumed that I would, with your help, run through these six great ends incisively looking for the values at their core. Then we would explore more accessible language to the everyday 21st century American. What I didn’t expect was a nearly unanimous gut level reaction that essentially said, “Get rid of the arrogance and maybe these six great ends are salvageable.”
One reader reported that she is absolutely committed to truth-telling in this time, but she is not hopeful that the church will survive its own self-inflicted wounds. Another reader provided an objective analysis as she wondered if where we are at is the result of the church being less an outgrowth of the movement of Jesus and more a reflection of the expansionistic imperialistic Roman empire. Another reader acknowledged that he felt that not all of these great ends could or should go forward into the future.
It is not difficult to see the source of these reactions. The great ends use language of “proclaiming, maintaining, and preserving.” There is an implied assumption that we have been given a treasure that others don’t have. The language of being “a chosen people” is woven into the DNA of our great ends. With Presbyterians representing about 1 of every 285 people in America it is not difficult to see why a group that thinks they have THE gospel truth for all humanity seems just a wee bit arrogant.
What was interesting about this week was this sense that a great convergence was happening. It is what makes me wonder if a cultural and ideological dam is breaking. While this invitation to a blog series revealed a visceral distaste for the Christian arrogance of our great ends we were also honoring Indigenous People’s Day in what we formerly celebrated as Columbus Day. We went from honoring a colonizer to honoring those who suffered at the hands of colonizing.
At the same time, I received a call from an executive in another denomination over concerns that our two denominations might be exposed for abusive practices in the establishment of missionary boarding schools. He said that it was just a matter of time before stories of “well-meaning” Christians are come to light for eradicating whole cultures in favor of a Christian identity.
And, all of this is happening while we are wrestling with our participation in the structural racism of our society. I could not help but notice that a white Christian nationalist could take all six of our great ends and make a case for their particular brand of religiously based terrorism. While I do not think very many Presbyterians would identity as white Christian nationalists, the ideology of white Christian nationalism has its roots in language very much like “The Great Ends of the Church.”
Is a cultural and ideological dam breaking? Has our particular brand of Presbyterianism run its course? Are our great ends salvageable? Is there too much Christian arrogance and us vs. them thinking to carry them into a future of global interdependence? Can a religion based on offering salvation to all people survive in a world not all that concerned about our particular brand of salvation?
I have to admit that I write all of this with some fear and trepidation. In the back of my mind I can hear a voice saying, “Brian, as a church executive shouldn’t you be holding up and reinforcing the core values and assumptions of our tradition?” But, I have a louder and even deeper voice that is telling me that if we can’t answer these questions, the church as we know it will disappear into the annals of history. As I write I think of the lyrics to one of our old hymns, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right…” There it is again.
Readers this past week chimed in together, “Enough with the Christian arrogance!”
What do you think?
Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough?
This is a dialogue.
Let me have it!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades