September 30, 2012           David Timbs (Melbourne)          David's previous articles  


The Gospel and Opportunity Cost

It is well documented that there has been an age old problem when religion is blended into the mix of politics, wealth and economic power. The problem is exacerbated when religion is seen to validate the acquisition of wealth as a sign of divine blessing and approval.

Television in particular provides a powerful medium for the Evangelical Christian movements and the prosperity Gospel they preach so enthusiastically. The invariable favoured euphemism of the preachers is ‘blessing’. The Televangelists constantly employ the techniques of selective, a-contextual proof texting, especially from the Hebrew Scriptures in elevating prosperity to the status of a quasi-sacrament. Within their peculiar rationale is the implied divine imperative to make an offering, to ‘gift’ the church. Almost invariably the suggested ‘gift’ is ten per cent of income – the tithe. Moralising, guilt and apocalyptic threats are common mechanisms employed by the pastors to extract the ‘blessing dollar.’

In effect, however, the tithe becomes a tax free donation to the organisation whose pastors finance their lifestyles through trust funds and other loopholes. Corruption is endemic and systemic in the leadership of these fundamentalist communities.

This kind of behaviour is not the sole preserve of the evangelical Protestant preachers. It has become commonplace even in the marketing practice of Catholic organisations tasked with establishing planned giving programmes in dioceses and parishes. The spiel is uncannily similar.

There is a history to all of this.  The story of the uneasy relationship between money and the religious establishment goes back a long way in Judeo-Christian history and that history offers valuable lessons.

The suspect Galileans: Ritual Purity and the Temple

The Galilean common rustic people of the first century CE, known to the Temple Scribes as the ‘am ha-’aretz (the ignorant peasant class), were subjected to constant ridicule and  criticism. A major reason for this relentless scrutiny is to be found in the attitudes of superiority and paternalism of the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy and even in the scrupulous piousness of the Pharisees. These attitudes were firmly rooted in what John Ralson Saul describes as the Structures of Contempt. The very same dismissive attitude the Jewish elites had towards the Gentile outsiders was inverted and savagely re-directed at those of their own people who compromised Jewish principles. The Galileans were self-selecting for that kind of treatment. (Mk 7: 1-23)

The Galileans were pilloried for their ambivalence towards their Jerusalem leaders and to the priests who served at the National Shrine. They were simply not diligent enough either in observing Halakhah (Ritual Purity laws) or in paying their tithes to the Temple (terumoth). Jesus and his disciples were subjected to the close scrutiny of the toll-collectors,

“When they came to Capernaum , the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, Does not your teacher pay the tax? He said, Yes. And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons, or from others? And when he said, From others, Jesus said to him, Then the sons are free. However, not to give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself. (Mt 17: 24-27)

For the ‘am ha-’aretz, the Temple enjoyed a profound symbolic value. It was revered and respected for what it was: a powerful reminder of the abiding presence of God among the people and a guarantee of blessings from a benevolent God.

The pilgrimages of the Galileans were greatly anticipated and entered into with great joy. The story of Jesus’ pre-Passover entry into Jerusalem illustrates this sense of heightened popular euphoria. According to the Pharisees, even the ‘am ha-‘aretz could be cleansed of their habitual impurities by fulfilling the obligations of the pilgrimage to the Temple .

But for the Galileans, the Temple was treated with respect Jerusalem itself and its inhabitants were not. The city’s attraction remained but they felt, at the same time, repelled by it. They, Jesus included, considered the high priesthood compromised along with its related institutions. Both were held in deep suspicion. This kind of estimation was very clearly reciprocated. Even the devout and respected of Israel mocked them, O Galilee , O Galilee , you hate the Torah. Your end will be to be besieged, declaimed Pharisaic scribe Johanan ben Zakkai, probably during the ministry of Jesus.

The Temple of the Heart

Even after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Galileans continued to treasure its memory and as a principal symbol of the Divine Presence. They were forced, however, to do something with that memory and the suggestions from Jewish teachers were not few in coming. Johanan ben Zakkai and his companions promoted the idea of a spiritual Temple , one of the heart, just as the Essenes of the Dead Sea had done for decades before. 

The Pharisee taught that the former obligations of Temple worship could now be fulfilled by a stricter and more conscientious observance of the Torah and the rules of ritual purity. Both constituted boundary markers separating Jew from Gentile, believer from the heathen. When the outward structures of difference and exclusion ( Temple ) were no more, the Jews replaced them with new lines of social differentiation, demarcation and defined identity. It is abundantly clear that these socio-religious symbols of exclusion were increasingly and decisively rejected by most in the Jesus Movement as it welcomed and absorbed larger and larger numbers of the despised unclean Gentiles.

The German Catholic PR debacle

The German Episcopal Conference has recently issued a statement on the status of those people who have taken formal legal action to separate themselves for Church life and practice in all its dimensions. This process does not entail simply not attending Mass or forgoing the Sacramental life of the Church. It is a conscious, public, civil and economic act as well as a religious option to redirect a portion of taxable income away from, in this case, the Catholic Church.  Some call this automatic self-excommunication. Others might describe it as a kind of socio-religious correction and a sign of collective adulthood. Whatever, it is not neutral by any standard.

Church moral authority has long risked being seen to be compromised by making deals with the State to ensure some vestiges of a former protected, privileged position. The paradox now facing the Church is that much of its official rhetoric is directed at attacking that very State for its secularist and morally relativist values. In pursuing this crusade it has, perhaps unwittingly, painted itself into a corner and is now increasingly perceived to be just as abhorrent as that which it hates. It has lost its edge as a counter-culture body and as an ethically alternative society.

Critics would argue that if it is to regain its credibility and moral authority, the Church must act decisively by standing back from and not being compromised by its own hubris and convenient collusion with the political status quo. It must choose between being the servant of Christ or a public servant of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The spokesman for the German Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg has voiced the concern of the Church over what has amounted to a mass defection of Church members. He noted that, “it is painful for the Church” and that “many Catholics are unaware of the consequences.” These include, essentially, a deliberate separation from ecclesial life in all its dimensions. Zollitsch, however, stressed the commitment of the Church to keep the door open even after so many have walked away, “The Catholic Church is committed to seeking out every lost person.”

One might wonder if the German hierarchy have ever pondered deeply enough the counter-logic of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. In that story, Jesus paints a picture of God who is economically reckless, the spendthrift, who doesn’t count the cost, in risking everything in the quest for the one that has become separated and alienated from the flock.

The deeper question which goes begging is, who in reality has lost its way, the people who have disengaged or the Institution? If the quoted figures for defections from dioceses in very Catholic Bavaria – 70% in 2010 – are an indication, the Church in Germany is in very deep trouble indeed. Might it be, paradoxically, that sometime in the future those deemed to be  disengaged and alienated  will go out in search of the lost Church. That would be an amazing grace.

Lessons not learned

The European Catholic Church is probably reaping the whirlwind of popular cynicism, disenchantment, suspicion and distrust after a thousand years of enjoying a pampered, protected and presumptuous existence which has led to institutional stagnation and collective entropy. No wonder people are walking away, many in deep disgust. Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?

With some prophetic vision, the Catholic Church is Germany might have done well to disengage itself from its position as a ‘Statutory Corporation’ and ‘restructured’ itself in accordance with the image of the pilgrim people of God. German/western European tax system: collecting a nominated church tax in effect renders ministers of religion, state public servants. This is certainly not a good look from people outside that system. Lack of any kind of discretion or differentiation on the part of the tax payer, too, is a problem. Church authorities in the present situation are perceived to be using the system as a kind of blunt instrument to enforce compliance and participation however honourable or otherwise the intentions may be.

While the New Evangelisation in Germany now appears to have scuttled itself and the Year of Faith promises even less belief, maybe there will be in the future the possibility for productive reassessment of the opportunity cost of this disaster. Maybe there will emerge a more Christ-like leadership with a renewed commitment to the truth and integrity of his Gospel.

A concluding thought or two

Maybe too this is a maturing moment for the laity of the Catholic Church in Germany and elsewhere. A positive in all of this is, perhaps, a mass, popular recognition of the integrity of ecclesial life and practice. It could be that many people have now recognised the hypocrisy and hubris of mindlessly treating the Sacraments, especially those of Initiation, as simply sociological rites of passage with no intrinsic spiritual worth or demanding ongoing commitment. They may also believe that in the very act of giving up their voice as insiders, they have found an even more powerful voice from the margins.

The Bishops have made it perfectly clear that their alienated people have to understand the consequences of their choice. It seems they have. Maybe this, above all else, is the strongest message being sent to the German hierarchy because those who are choosing to quit are entirely conscious of and cognisant with the implications of what they have chosen.  

A Catholic News Service report on the statement of the German Episcopal Conference can be found [Here]

An expanded version can be found in Jonathan Luxmoore’s article in NCR [Here]

For a news report on a Court ruling in favour of the German Bishops, click[Here]

A  July 07, 2011 Cathnews article on The Church is a Family not a Corporation, click [Here]

David Timbs writes from Melbourne , Victoria , Australia .

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