Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Is It You, You Troubler of Israel?
Last month the Maryknoll order, no doubt under strong pressure from the Vatican, issued a final warning to one of its members ordering him to “publicly recant and retract [his] stand on the issue of women’s ordination.” Failure to comply will result in his expulsion from the Order where Father Roy Bourgeois has served as a priest for almost four decades, as well as likely excommunication from the church and laicization. Father Bourgeois’ “sin” is his support for ordination of women both as a matter of theological principle and personal conscience, and out of concern for the growing pastoral challenges in the United States over the dire shortage of priests. That this harsh discipline was meted out by the Maryknolls, long known for their commitment to peace and justice, makes the news doubly depressing.
Ecclesial disobedience, like civil disobedience, invites institutional retaliation. So quite frankly it comes as no surprise that Father Bourgeois faces punitive consequences for a stance described as “obstinate disobedience to your Superiors” and “diffusion of teachings opposed to the definitive teaching of John Paul II.” No matter how absurd the theological argument against women’s ordination may be, churches have a right to believe what they want to believe and to punish those who fail to submit to the rules of the game. The Roman Catholic Church holds no corner on this market. What I find appalling in the letter to Father Bourgeois is the accusation that he has caused “grave scandal to the people of God, the Church, especially in the United States, and scandal given to many of the Maryknoll priests and Brothers.” Scandal?
Let’s talk about scandals and the church. Not the lurid personal scandals that voyeuristically fascinate many, but the real scandals that represent behavior so antithetical to the Gospel that the witness of the church is called into question. Martin Luther encouraged the violent crushing of the Peasant’s Revolt threatening the social stability that was sustaining his reforms. Lutheran and Reformed Christians engaged in protracted persecution of Anabaptists. UCC forebears in New England burned alleged witches (To his credit, Congregationalist Chief Judge Samuel Sewell publicly repented and begged forgiveness for his actions in the sanctuary of Old South Church in Boston a few years later). The church provided centuries of theological undergirding for anti-Jewish prejudice and violence culminating in the Holocaust. Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts for daring to challenge the supremacy of the male Puritan Divines. Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian pastors in the antebellum south distorted the Bible to employ it as a defense of slave holding. Countless denominations shroud anti-gay bigotry to this day in the cloak of flawed though cherished theological principle.
Scandal? Let’s consider how most Christians in the United States either actively supported or meekly consented to the War on Terror, a campaign conceived in cynicism and lies resulting in death and horrible injury to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Let’s consider the relative silence of the church in the face of a US Congress and President who have consented to an economic program dismissing the anguish of millions of unemployed not to mention the millions more who are no longer counted because they have given up. Or let’s ask why Christians in our government authorized torture in Iraq and Afghanistan and why other Christians now shield them from any accountability behind the banner of various forms of executive privilege. Let’s look at congresspersons and senators who attend prayer breakfasts but sustain a tax system tilted obscenely toward the rich, a system that even Warren Buffet, one of its most wealthy beneficiaries, calls corrupt. Let’s ask why those who reaped millions in profits from the sale of toxic mortgage instruments that have thrown millions into foreclosure are, for the most part, receiving bonuses today instead of prison sentences, and why politicians who endlessly intone “God bless America” seem unwilling to intervene.
Yes, there are scandals aplenty, but as usual, the church, Catholic and otherwise, is looking for them in all the wrong places. Roy Bourgeois, by the way, has spent the last twenty years attempting to end the training of foreign military at Fort Benning, Georgia, many of whom have returned home to perpetrate systemic violence against their own citizens on behalf of right wing dictatorships. His School of the Americas Watch has attracted a committed band of supporters, but not, as far as I know, those in Rome who will now rule on his excommunication. Far better to protect the church from the scandal of an informed and courageous conscience than protecting the vulnerable around the world from state sanctioned assassination.
One of the most compelling scenes in the Hebrew Bible is the moment when King Ahab confronts the Prophet Elijah in the midst of drought and famine that was the divine judgment on royal and priestly corruption. “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Ahab asks Elijah. “I have not troubled Israel,” said Elijah, “but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals,” (1 Kings 18.17-18). Prophets routinely scandalize the corrupt perpetuators of the status quo whether they are in Rome or Washington or elsewhere. They scandalize us because they force us to confront the ultimate scandal of injustice and violence in which we are often so deeply complicit. They trouble us and earn the name troublemaker. Over the centuries we have erected an elaborate apparatus for silencing them in church and society with arrogant self-justification and unassailable, even unaccountable process. That’s what we do to those who trouble us. And that is where the true scandal lies.
John H. Thomas