What is a current question pre-occupying churches during this time of a pandemic? Our answer may vary depending on context(s), on the ground realities, and maybe what you are looking for from the response of churches. Very recently, my attention was drawn to a blog post by a colleague who identified what he termed a very pertinent question asked by one of his church leadership: ‘how is the church being missed today by the community around us’?
Now, this may an open and honest question about how a community perceives its presence and engagement with a local church community or its relevance in that community? Reponses may range from: missed very much – little – immaterial – and with online presence (for those who have such a luxury) making some think twice about relevance of church building that eats up so much money, energy and debates around funds for keeping the edifice a sight a beauty or for local mission. For others (at least in the UK) it may be about the huge loss of income from rental to the building and space(s)?
While not wishing to dispute the relevance of the question, I find myself reflecting on what the question may also be revealing of the mind of Church leadership, rather than what the Spirit may be asking of all of us during this time of a pandemic (while noting that this is not the only pandemic around). If Paul and others are correct that the Divine (you may wish to say God) does not live in ‘shrines made of human hands’, the question may not be such a pertinent and urgent one. Or perhaps it is an organisational question: the kind we quickly flip into in an ‘unprecedented’ situation. I also make this deduction, as over years many have somehow equated the movement of the Divine (God’s Spirit) and God’s working as being primarily (if not only) through churches. This belief is then regulated and protected with a whole heap of disenfranchising rules that have literally created an endemic ‘housing problem’ for the Divine. God in Christ has become a stranger in what ought to be God’s oikos (house).
And, I have not even touch on the idolatrous part of such thinking that informs such God-talk (theology) and practice. Churches may or may not be missed. Yet, the unchecked and maverick Spirit that took hold of the people of the way, following Jesus (a)rising up from crucifixion, is there in the thick of all those lives being sacrificed on the altars of economic and various forms of expediency. Social or physical distancing may be necessary for our safety. But an underlying fact must not be missed: it is also the case that the temple (economy) feeds upon and needs our well-being, given that all parts of our lives have been overwhelmingly commodified. Just reflect on how quickly into this pandemic ‘cost’ took a central and primary part in the discourse around the pandemic.
But back to ‘social distancing’. For many, social-distancing (not of their own doing) has been their everyday reality just because of who they are, what they look like, and their postcode. While I am referring to ethnic minorities, migrants, and many poor working-class people in the UK, it is the case across the globe. The pandemic is undressing the scandalous endemic disparities in society between and within nations. Who are the people most vulnerable, are dying, and why? That I would suggest should be a pertinent and an urgent question for churches. So, while lock-down may be eased with many coming out of the imposed isolation and pundits are theorising around a so-called ‘new normal’: the reality is that for many of the above no amount of ‘words’ to describe the so-called ‘new-normal’ may bring any change to their lives of penury, all sorts of marginalisation, hate, and continuing crucifixions. Many years ago, and in a different context but in responding to the ongoing crucifixions, the late Philip Potter called for a ‘sustaining spirituality for the long haul’. Such a call remains the case.
Perhaps, we may wish to revisit and re-read the story of the Good Samaritan and reflect on questions or ask questions that we have never thought of about the story of all sorts of distancing imposed by religion, cultures and traditions, ideal for systems not so ‘invisible hand’ to maintain. In the story there are the one who steps-out to risk breaking the rules and the taboos coming to the help of someone in dire need. There are those who are visibly shown as keeping their distance away from the one in desperate need. Then there are the not so invisible culprits – the robbers and the systemic thief. While the former takes by brutal force with no regard for life (and may claim to be a product of the system); the latter includes those responsible to ensure that the road was safe for every traveller, as well as the crafters of rules so rigid that its believers cannot even be moved by compassion to respond to the dire/urgent need of another human being.
But back to the question that started this reflection. The communities in which churches are located will keep their distance from us and what we are about, if our focus is primarily about our own organisational agenda like repairing finances, restoring events, and the preservation of doctrines and teachings that continue to marginalise and exclude. The ‘new normal’ of the way of Jesus is that of full life for all. The habit of any ‘normal’ of this new is that it will challenge every attempt at normativity. God in Christ will continue to seek home in the hearts and lives of those pushed on the margins, to the extent of distancing from the very body that may pretend to be speaking on God’s behalf’. This I have no doubt about.
@caribleaper May 18, 2020