Monday, April 14, 2008

The Good of the Group

I read Barbara Cawthorne Crafton’s daily emails almost every day. She has a wonderful way of putting things into perspective. Today’s post came as I was doing some spring cleaning and am finding the help of friend important.


Here is a mystery. Several mysteries, actually.

1. Organizing your own closet is a chore. Helping someone else organize hers is fun.

2. It's hard to go to the gym alone, but fun to go with someone else.

3. Centering prayer, an enterprise conducted entirely in silence, is nonetheless easier done in a group.

4. Many people who can't carry a tune in a bucket on their own sing very well in church.

You know of similar mysteries besides these four, I'm sure. It is a fact: people will happily do in groups what you couldn't pay them to do alone, and they will do it better and more efficiently. Afterwards, they will say it was fun.

I guess many of us just like to be on teams, to be part of something larger than ourselves. We like to put forth a mighty effort, focusing on it together, and to feel the might of its spirit when we do so. We multiply ourselves when we work with others, and we savor the power of that.

This is so true of most people that it has created major moral problems, more than once. Rheinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society is about just this: the moral power of the individual to transcend himself for the sake of the whole becomes demonic when the values of the whole are demonic. Neibuhr adduced the figure of "the good German" to illustrate this: a patriot who follows orders and loves his country, carried, by the very fact of his devotion, into a perverse moral universe in which it becomes an act of righteousness to kill innocent people. We wonder, often, how so many ordinary people could have participated in the horror of the Holocaust. How did they get so unmoored from their own sense of good and evil? The question makes us uneasy; our moral sense may be a lot more community-relative than we like to think it is. It's not just ourselves that we must transcend. Sometimes we must transcend our whole world.

Our unease is well-founded. We see the Good German everywhere. He is not always German -- he never has been. He is in the terrible lightheartedness of the snapshots taken at Abu Ghraib. There he is, in a white hood with only his eyes showing, at a Klan meeting. She reads her Bible earnestly, and it proves to her that her gay brother is an abomination -- he must be, because she honors the Bible and it says so, right there in black and white, and her church says so, too, and so she must not go to visit him in the hospital, now that he is ill, because that's his punishment.

An institution quickly adopts its own survival as its highest good. They function on the basis of their own interest. And they reward the individuals who will adopt their highest good as their own, who are willing to sacrifice their own good to it. They read the moral law in such a way as to support that highest good, and turn holy texts to that task as well. Thus, many church pulpits rang with defenses of chattel slavery before our Civil War, and did so on biblical grounds. Thus, there were clergy in Rwanda who participated in the genocide themselves. Thus, many Americans are willing to countenance and to cause devastating climate change in the service of a questionable short-term economic analysis.

We do what we think is right. But we need always to question ourselves, to ask ourselves where we get our moral convictions. Where did they come from? And who is really served by them? Love of country, of tradition, love of church, of family, of scripture, love of any group, can never be an excuse for refusing to think. If I am to sacrifice myself for something, let me at least know for sure that it really merits my devotion.

Comment: Over the past 20 years or so the Episcopal Church has become a place where it is not safe for clerics to express their own opinions. No longer can the rector speak clearly what he/she believes for fear it will contradict the powers that be. I am not speaking specifically of bishops, but the “group think” of a small portion of the clergy who serve at the behest of bishops. Once, the Episcopal clergy were exceptionally independent, well-educated and self-differentiated people who understood their place in the community as the “parson”, the person who could speak the public conscience for a community. That position has been lost.

The dioceses that have threatened to leave the Episcopal Church over the past 8 years are those dioceses where loyalty to the person of bishop has created such a rarified atmosphere that one’s centering in Christ could not be sustained. As the bishops, who listened to their chosen few, began to develop their view of the Church they never got a full understanding of what the Church in their area was or what it could be. These bishops listened to like minds and saw the Church as something that was not real. We need but watch as the Diocese of San Joachin begins to reassemble itself after the deposition of John-David Schofield. The reports out of that diocese remind us that there are always going to be those who think for themselves in the Church. This does not mean that they are always going to stand against the bishops or the loyal klatch. But when there is a vacuum of leadership, there will be those who will step up to the plate. But what the cost has been in those dioceses!

For the good of the Church, it is incumbent on all Christians to speak their mind. For the good of the Church, it cannot be merely a small coterie of clergy who speak the mind of the people in a diocese. For the good of the Church, clergy and lay voices must be heard to help the Church regain and sustain its moral compass. We must all think for ourselves and speak for ourselves if the Church of Jesus Christ is going to be able to claim the kind of loyalty for which we are going to lay down our lives.

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