Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
“Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for Knox folks to ask for their spiritual or religious questions to be addressed in a sermon.
How Do We Come to Terms with the Bloody Hands of the Church?
“How do we come to terms with the fact that the Christian church as an institution has hurt and even killed so many people? How can we keep supporting an institution like that?”
The writer of this question had been reading the book Sapiens in which Yuval Noah Harari noted that despite Christianity’s oft-repeated memories of Roman persecutions, like throwing Christians to lions, in actual fact history demonstrates that Christians have killed many, many more people than the Romans martyred of ours.
Even when we have been aware of some of this history, we have found ways to distance ourselves from it:
“I didn’t do that; I wasn’t even there” is common;
Witch burning, crusades, bloody wars between denominations are centuries ago, nothing to do with us, right?;
Well, except for the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland that still threaten to flare up again, but that’s over in Europe, right?;
So we Canadians can distance ourselves, right?;
It’s not like violence is ever directed towards religious minorities over here, right?
But then there are the Residential Schools. Our own church was part of a deadly system which kept some of those schools going until the 1990s. It’s tempting to keep trying to distance ourselves: “My congregation didn’t know! Someone in Toronto made those decisions”.
Narrowing the circle to distance ourselves doesn’t really work because it is fundamentally dishonest. What we really want to say is: “I’m a good person! I would never do those things! You can’t paint me with that horrible brush!”
But that’s the issue, isn’t it? As long as we are part of an institution that has done bad things, we have to acknowledge those bad things and sort out why we still support this flawed institution.
Since the 1970s, I remember “religion” being denounced as a source of conflict, often violence, for so long that some think that humans should abandon all religion as a destructive force.
The people who have stuck with their faiths have argued that approach is too extreme: “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.
Still, more and more people are abandoning organized religion. There is a whole adult generation alive today that surveys demonstrate simply don’t trust institutions of any sort: church, government, police, schools. They might be willing to participate in some activities, but they are very reluctant to officially join. They are not necessarily hostile, rather they are skeptical.
We should be trying to address that skepticism with honesty about our own struggles. The church is a human organization and subject to human failings.
Two readings today address situations in the bible where there is obvious corruption in the religious institution. In our 1 Samuel reading the sons of the high priest are cynically abusing their priestly authority. Not only are they stealing the tastiest bits of the offerings for themselves [understand: they were guaranteed a portion already but God was supposed to get the best bits], they were also forcing some of the attractive women who came to make sacrifices to have sex with them. This not only broke many of the laws of Moses but also resembled the practices of Canaanite fertility cults, like Ba’al worship.
The solution in that story was that God would curse them: they would lose their positions and even their lives. Samuel’s main job was to denounce them, to make public their abuse of power and position, to remind everyone that what the priests were doing was against what their beliefs represented.
Jesus did his own version of publicly denouncing religious corruption. The money-changers and sacrifice sellers he displaced had paid the priests for their booth spots in the temple. Obviously it made it hard to worship in an atmosphere that felt like a street market, but the temple’s restoration project had been huge and thirty years later the mortgage still had to be serviced. If you came in and made a donation an official promoter would announce in a loud voice just how much you had donated as a way of encouraging generosity.
That’s why Jesus taught us to be private about our generosity: the process had become a source of shame and abuse in the religious institution of his day.
Neither Jesus nor Samuel advocated giving up on their religion. Their focus was on cleaning things up, on reminding people of the difference between the baby and the bathwater.
That is the core message: God has given us something good here, with values that are worth supporting, with principles that can transform the world in really positive ways. Let’s not let corruption spoil it for everyone. Let’s reclaim the good and save it from the bad.
The author of Sapiens is not actually taking an anti-religious position. He makes the point that some of the greatest advances of human society happen when people have to struggle with the gap between their principles and their history.
In other words: it is in times like our own, when we look at religious violence and the history of residential schools and the other appalling things that happen when people sell out their principles for power and position; it is in times when we confront these issues that we have the chance to make real progress.
Yes, we are becoming witness to shocking things that make us feel sick as the truth is revealed. If we can get past the temptation to pretend we’re not involved perhaps our revulsion can give us motivation to make sure that things improve.
Yes, institutions carry inherent risks. People can rise to positions of power and then abuse them, if we let them. But institutions can also carry the testimony of time, the faith stories of generations of people who have learned some hard lessons over history and who have passed on their wisdom to us.
Institutions will change. The priests of Samuel’s day were killed and eventually replaced. The temple of Jesus’ day and its administration was destroyed forty years later. It is still in ruins 2000 years later and both Judaism and Christianity had to adapt to life without it.
I cannot predict whether the Christian church in Canada will still exist in 40 years. I suspect that will depend on the choices we make now. Today, when someone asks if I would call myself a Christian I say “yes” and then I talk about what “Christian” means, so that I don’t get identified with those people who preach intolerance and hatred in the name of God. We can no longer assume that anyone knows what we stand for. Our reputation has been badly damaged and we have to put in the work necessary to regain the respect we have squandered.
I believe that the principles and teachings of Jesus are worth saving and sharing. They point us towards the love of God and neighbour. As long as we can bring our institutions back to those principles, so the structure never again crushes the people it is supposed to serve, then it is worth the effort it takes to acknowledge our flaws and bloody history and take the lessons of our past and the principles passed down to us from Jesus to create a future that will benefit everyone. If people can see that we are trying to make things right, to make things better, then maybe, just maybe they will consider joining us on the journey. Amen.