Christian, church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Education, organization, organizational theory, pastoral theology, politics, René Girard, secular, social relations, social science, social theory, sociality, Theology
I preached yesterday on the Sunday Gospel lectionary text, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. The passage concerns Jesus’ sending of the seventy-two into the various towns into which he intended to go. While seeming to give them power to heal and exorcise, Jesus in fact sends them in total, vulnerable weakness, completely dependent on the mercy of the hospitality of the towns as they preach, ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ At these towns (especially as Gerhard Lohfink has so perceptively pointed out), the seventy-two start in each town what comes to be known as the ekklesia, a healed and exorcised people assembled in the name of Jesus, gatherings that eventually became known as ‘the church.’ Because these gatherings bear witness to the fraudulent mode of existence prescribed by Satan that is premised on the taking of one’s own sovereignty in the knowledge of good and evil, the church’s formation in weakness, vulnerability, humility, and charity is itself an exorcism of Satan from the world. This ‘crisis’ of the powers, as theologian Karl Barth would have it, is in turn confirmed by the death of Jesus at the hands of the powers and in his vindication when he rises from the dead and offers his risen life in the sacraments to the church for the life of the world.
After I preached, a very perceptive leader in the congregation asked: why is it that most organizations in which I work, including churches, are plagued with power struggles? Not only was he affirming my exegesis, but he was also resonating with the experiences of ministry failure that I shared, in which I had illegitimately taken power in some ministry contexts, resulting in a series of debacles for my life and work. These (dy)catastrophes took place within Chinese Canadian evangelical churches, similar contexts from which my brother in Christ had also emerged. In other words, though he is older than me, we share similar backgrounds.
I answered along the lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, original sin, and how contemporary churches may have forgotten our ontological constitution by charitable communion. But I did not feel that my spur-of-the-moment answer was very satisfying, so I’d like to write a more sustained answer in the hope of being able to spur more conversation. This is largely because I feel that we may have been talking past each other, for my initial response was: ‘This question gets very close to the heart of what we call original sin.’ The Christian brother who had asked this question furrowed his brow; as it seemed to me, he was wondering whether this answer were a cop-out. I’m sure that my later connection to Bonhoeffer may have also gotten lost in translation.
And thus, because I was very dissatisfied with my own answer, here’s another try:
The answer to this question really does get to the heart of what we call original sin. The trouble is, especially within the Chinese evangelical churches from which we emerge, the question of original sin is indeed a bit of a cop-out. For some strange reason that is worth further theological and historical reflection, we often read original sin in a similar way as American Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. For Niebuhr, a good look at what’s called our theological anthropology, that is, the way we exist before God as human beings, is also constituted by original sin. This means that we have to know that we are deeply flawed and that we can’t help our flaws. This conviction led Niebuhr to argue that in Christian ethics, we should only seek proximate justice, that is, that you can’t ever expect to be perfect or to have a perfect organization. So don’t try. Instead of being idealistic, we should instead be realistic, showing people grace when we see their flaws and expecting that every organization will just have to be imperfect. This, in a nutshell, is a view of Christian ethics that Niebuhr called Christian realism.
This in turn is why this brother in Christ furrowed his brow. As soon as I brought up original sin, he was thinking that I was completely copping out of his question. You’re an idealist, he heard. Be more realistic. We all have original sin. Get real.
The trouble is, Niebuhr is not my starting point for understanding original sin.
Instead, my take-off point for ‘original sin’ is heavily influenced by the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of course, there are lots of traps by simply invoking the name ‘Bonhoeffer.’ For one thing, most of my evangelical brothers and sisters only know Bonhoeffer because he joined a plot to kill Hitler, got caught, and then was martyred way too young in life.
It’s nice that this is what Bonhoeffer is known for, but that says nothing about Bonhoeffer’s theology. Of course, lots of people have various takes on Bonhoeffer’s theology. For the evangelicals who have read Bonhoeffer, most enjoy his book Discipleship, which calls people to cast off ‘cheap grace’ in favour of a ‘costly grace’ that calls Christians to radical practices in Jesus Christ, and his short work Life Together, which makes a strong case for Christian community. In turn, most liberal theologians are fascinated by Bonhoeffer’s tantalizing description of ‘religionless Christianity’ in Letters and Papers from Prison, where Bonhoeffer hints that because Christ should be thought of as ‘the Man for Others,’ the church also exists for the sake of ‘others,’ which in turn means that the church should cast off its ritualistic trappings and actually engage the world in service. In this vein, liberal theologian Harvey Cox most famously argued that the church should be ‘the vanguard of secularization’ in his book The Secular City.
As theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas points out, both of these readings miss the point that Bonhoeffer’s major theological statement came from his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio: a theological study of the sociology of the church. Bonhoeffer was attempting to deal with three things in this dissertation: social theory, sociology, and a sociology of the church. What he argues is that the sanctorum communio–the communion of saints–is a mode of social relations in which people are called out of their secular social relations which are focused on themselves and into the I-and-Thou of real human interaction. As Bonhoeffer contends, the church thus becomes quite literally Christ in the world, especially if Christ is understood as the one who perfectly lived his life for the ‘other’ in radically humble service. Bonhoeffer later develops these points in Creation and Fall, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison where he argues that this self-giving service and love for the other becomes distorted whenever we try to appropriate for ourselves the knowledge of good and evil. This is sin because it re-orients us from the way that we were made–for a sociality based on love and service toward the other–toward a distorted mode of social relations, a sociality where we try to control and dominate the other based on our ideological vision of what is good and evil.
That’s what I mean by original sin, and it has devastating consequences for social relations, especially within organizations. But unlike Niebuhr’s reading of original sin, this is not the way that it’s supposed to be at an existential level. This appropriation of power is actually a distortion of our real ontological reality. As theologian James Alison puts it in his treatment of original sin, The Joy of Being Wrong, it’s really a mistake to think that there’s something ontological about sin. Instead, it’s really a distortion of how social relations should be conceived, but it’s such a serious distortion that it requires a conversion to be able to see social relations rightly. Alison draws from another theorist, René Girard, to make his point. Girard says that if you observe the myths and stories we tell ourselves and the rituals that we practice, they are often about what he calls mimetic rivalry, that is, they presuppose that our desire as human beings is always shaped by the other, wanting always what we see other people wanting. This cycle of envy breeds tension in our social relations, until we have to release that tension by scapegoating someone arbitrarily. This is often called an original murder that is at the heart of most civilizational founding myths: someone kills someone else, releasing social tension, and a whole society is founded in honour of that murder and ritualized in religious myths and liturgies. In Girard’s book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard argues that the Christian Gospel story exposes this whole cycle of mimetic rivalry when Jesus is scapegoated and then resurrected, throwing the whole system into crisis and marking societies influenced by Christianity by a concern for victims and scapegoats instead of premising social creation on scapegoating and victimizing someone. Jesus is thus a point of conversion: he draws us into true social relations founded on care for victims and away from the original sin of scapegoating our rivals.
What this all means is that if we see organizational infighting and rivalry, we are looking at original sin, not in the sense that we have sin but can’t escape it as a mark of our existential being, but in the sense that we are still living within the one distorted mode of social relations that we know and have not yet been converted. Unfortunately, the sorry state of many organizations that my brother in Christ pointed out is in fact due to this sort of theology becoming a sort of minority report in churches and Christian organizations. Instead of looking at the level of this sort of theological anthropology and then practicing prayer as a way of living within Christ’s mode of social relations, many churches and organizations that I’ve encountered are much more interested in importing secular organizational theory, leadership solutions, and ways to form community without critically interrogating what existential mode of social relations on which those theories are based. This was the stuff that I was given when I was in ministry–how to be a good leader, how to build a great growing church, how to use your members’ talents and spiritual gifts to build up the church, how to organize the church so that the machine runs efficiently, etc. I wonder how much of this stuff is in turn premised on what Bonhoeffer and Girard would call original sin.
In turn, I think this is precisely why theological education is an absolute necessity for contemporary church leaders. On the surface, the stuff on leadership and organizational theory looks great and appears so easily importable into the church. But if my brother in Christ is right in his observations, he has seen many churches and organizations crumble as a result. This is because most people within churches and organizations are simply incapable of evaluating theological sociology and anthropology. They have no idea that there are different modes of social relations and that the Christian church is really premised on a radically alternative sense of what social relations are. In turn, this might mean that seminaries need to be training pastors and church leaders to read the social sciences as theology, to be able to understand social relations theologically, and this in turn might train their discernment into how the congregations that they pastor should be ordered. Moreover, this calls for a great deal more spiritual formation in Christian practice, where prayer needs to be re-oriented from asking God to give us power to get our agendas done toward coming into the I-and-Thou of Christian social relations where we exist in self-giving service toward God, neighbour, and enemy.
So there’s a more drawn out answer. I hope that helps, and I hope to engage in further conversation on this very perceptive observation.