Challenging institutions is nothing new. Challenging religious institutions has led to some very interesting historical upheavals. I’m very curious to see how all of the challenges to institutions globally is going to play out over the lang haul. The fact that there is such wide-spread institutional angst around the globe and across all institutions indicates that something is very amiss for many.
Reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times this week, I realized I was totally clueless about how a young man’s spoken word, Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus video went viral and sparked an online conversation that is still going on. Obviously this is a very volatile topic, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the conversation in the first place.
There’s a reason people feel institutions are failing them. Here in the Unites States, we’re currently subjected to a tsunami slime Republican primary season that holds nothing sacred. Even worse, religious people and institutions are heavily invested in candidates’ Super PACS and everything, and I mean everything, is under the religious-political microscope. Churches are telling parishioners who they should vote for and what issues they should support. In many ways, the church has become one of the institutions that has lost its way.
Humanity has always had belief systems, myths, and rituals to make sense of the world around them. Organized religion emerged in early civilizations to provide stability and socio-economic structures. Pharaohs, emperors, and kings were seen as political and spiritual leaders divinely appointed to rule.
The historical Jesus was born into a Jewish family living in a region of Palestine occupied by the Roman Empire. When he began his ministry, he was still steeped in the traditions of his people and called other Jews to follow him. It didn’t take long for the religious authorities to feel threatened by him and start seeking ways to eliminate him. He challenged the institution, suggested a new way of looking at God’s message, and included people that were beyond the pale as far as the religious authorities were concerned. THe Occupy Movement, the 1 percent, and the 99 percent were all happening back then.
Eventually, he was eliminated and his band of followers were tasked with carrying on his mission. This is where the real test for survival began. Could a fledgling movement without its leader, under persecution, while trying to define itself, survive?
Sometimes I think the church of today forgets just how precarious and completely revolutionary, what we now call the early church, was. Just for starters, men and women worshiped together, as in the same space, not separated by a curtain or room! People, not previously allowed to associate with one another, were now part of of the same organization. What former customs to keep (like circumcision and dietary laws), how to care for care for widows and children who had no one else, clarifying their mission, staying out of persecution’s way, and leadership were figured out totally at the grass roots level.
Then, when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the fourth century, the makings of an institution began. Church history throughout the centuries reveals what happened when the institution became threatened: heresy trials, crusades, inquisitions, religious persecution, and other acts of challenge. It’s not all bad stuff either because Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman Catholic leadership led to the Reformation and Protestantism in the sixteenth century.
Very often socio-political challenges were also played out within religious contexts which led to the Puritans leaving Europe and settling in the American colonies. Slavery and abolition were hotly debated within churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here in the U.S. Education, social reforms, women’s rights, civil rights, to name a few, are all social issues with political and religious underpinnings. But when we hold fast to one institution over another or allow one segment of an institution dictate the beliefs and behaviors for everyone, then we’ve lost our way.
That’s exactly why it’s important to always challenge our institutions. What’s worked or what we tolerated in times past, may not be what’s best for our collective future. We must learn to listen to those with differing opinions and viewpoints. We must be willing to stay at the table long enough to find a viable solution that takes into account all parties concerned, not just the few or the powerful. And as painful as challenge and change may be, we must not lose sight of the honor and dignity due to all humanity no matter what.