Just finished reading an article in The New York Times about people disillusioned about the Church of Scientology. Their complaints are fairly common to those who grow disaffected with their faith communities (although, being Scientologists, their complaints refer to some of the more wild practices of that particular “church”), and so that wasn’t what really interested me.
Rather, I was struck by those complaints that referred to Scientologists mission to “clear the planet” of negative influences. It’s reminiscent of my earlier post where I defined social justice as “participating in God’s work to restore the world by rooting out evil.” Sound familiar? Yeah, it is. The similarities make me uncomfortable.
In truth, my understanding of justice makes me uncomfortable–and not just because, if taken seriously, I would be forced to follow the radical call of Christianity. No, it makes me uncomfortable because it sounds dangerously close to advocating some sort of Utopian fantasy, a fantasy I reject outright in all its forms.
I reject Utopianism mainly because it’s represents, by definition, the impossible dream of creating a sinless society. But I also reject it since most Utopian projects usually end in totalitarianism (e.g. Che Guevara, the Soviet Union, Maoism, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, etc.). Indeed, in listening to the Scientologists complaints of abuse by the “churches” whose supposed mission was to “clear the planet of negativity,” I couldn’t help but think that another Utopian project is ending in totalitarianism.
But it also makes me wonder: How does the church administer true justice without engaging another doomed Utopian project?
The priest at my church recently gave a sermon stating that we should always view the church “in truth,” with all its warts and scars and ugliness; that is, we should avoid over-idealizing the church. He was pointing to the fact that the church does not execute its mission in perfection. Rather, it completes its mission through imperfection, since the church, by privileging the weak, infirm, and vulnerable, cannot root out evil with business-like precision.
I thought this was an important observation, and I thought it was distinctly Christian. The Christian faith, in distinction from other faiths, resolves the problem of evil and utopian wish-dreams through a counter-intuitive and quite mysterious solution: the death of Jesus Christ on a cross.
The cross represents many things, but in this case I’ve always thought the cross demonstrates that the solutions to the problems in our midst are often resolved through counter-intuitive remedies often defined by suffering, self-sacrifice, and the service of our faculties and skills to others. As the author Gregory Hill says, “There are achievements that carry failure on their back.” Just as the apparent failure of the messiah to inaugurate the Kingdom of God was turned to a glorious (but mysterious) victory, the apparent deficiencies in the church can be turned to a lasting triumph.
I can actually see this mysterious reality in my particular church. We’re not exactly the most well-managed or efficient organization, which often leads to a frustrating waste of resources or misguided programs. We’re driven by volunteers, and so we’ll never achieve a business-like precision in the things we do (but we are working on it!). However, the people in the church demonstrate a remarkable love for each other despite the fact that we often fail each other through miscommunication, mismanagement, or lack of follow-through.
I think the primary element that separates Christian justice from other forms of justice is forgiveness. Forgiveness, of course, was the reason for the cross–by his death Christ forgave us while we were still sinners. Likewise, in a healthy church, we strive to forgive the abuse we dish out to each other as we go about our service to each other and the community. Working with others in cooperative projects can often lead to bruised egos or raw shoulders that were rubbed the wrong way by the people who are supposed to be providing us with God’s love. These things can’t be helped. But we can learn to forgive, using the ultimate act of forgiveness through the death of Jesus as our guide.
The primary way we can properly “root out evil” and properly communicate God’s love is through the act of forgiveness, to those inside the church and to those outside the church. Our faith can avoid totalitarian abuses by embracing one of the greatest signs of God’s love: the forgiveness of the Christ who died for us while we were still sinners.