Monday, April 22, 2019

Why Hold Religious Authorities Accountable?

I really understand how people who have grown up in a faith tradition can be so formed by that tradition that it is imponderable to consider throwing over the traces and abandoning it. They stick with it despite centuries of abuse, hypocrisy, even crime. To the outsider, such loyalty might seem utterly stupid. They suppose that only the stubborn, the simple, or the fearful would be immovably lodged in such a place, bonded to institutions that they would even advise others to repudiate were others yoked to such communities. Their rationales for remaining sound to others like the excuses of abused spouses, sticking with their marriage vows, hoping that someday he'll change, or that love might at last have the effect of wooing her towards a kinder life, or just plain inertia.

It isn't, of course, just religious traditions that have such a lock on people. But they are alone among the inventions of humanity the systems most likely to give deep meaning to life, storehouses of stories that address complexities that cannot be faced by reason alone. They are repositories of myths, symbols, rites that adorn ordinary lives and punctuate days and years with celebrations. It is interesting how when people whose intellect and integrity have steered them away from any trace of religious practice will, at the time of death, naturally borrow elements of a long-discredited tradition in order to shape their mourning, if is nothing more than the adaptation of the old impulse to gather and verbalize the meaning of a dead friend's life or a lover's importance. Notice how people in purely secular environments will arrange chairs in a way that perhaps even unconsciously replicates an ancient experience of religious community.

Human beings have evolved to be storytellers. All of our literature, all of our structured games, the entirety of our art, even the debased and vulgar forms we keep inventing to pretend communication--tweeting comes to mind--are born of the desire to tell each other for good or ill, false or true, information we on some level consider worth passing on.

I am a product of a religious tradition, one might say several, in fact. And for nearly half a century I've been a religious functionary. God knows and I know how easy it is to justify wrongdoing, to excuse oneself from following rules sanctioned for all but applied only to others. It is possible but not easy to encounter people at their most vulnerable and not be tempted at least in the mind to exploit that vulnerability to feed some gnawing hunger in the pit of one's soul. But in all honesty, I have trouble seeing how day after day, week after week, season in and season out, people can perform rites and intone liturgies and propound sacred texts without somehow realizing that the point of all the cultic paraphernalia is to lead human beings to be better to ourselves and to each other than, left to our native impulses, we generally are. Leaders who betray us, charismatic tongues and compelling visions aside, lead us way past temptation and into the pitch of damnation and ought to be, must be, called out.

Often the only ones thus calling out are those who are self-sidelined from the systems, those who either disdain them by nature or have sickened to the point of leaving. I respect them for bearing their own witness to Integrity. But even they who don't identify with faith traditions or religious institutions continue to be human--frequently exemplary humans--and as humans they have the same need for meaning, the same pains to endure, the same mortality to face, the same challenge to cope as those who salve their consciences through religious rites and spiritual discipline.

An old discredited heresy in the Church is that of Donatism. Donatists held that the moral defects and flaws of clergy who betrayed their communities by surrendering their custodianship of holy tradition had the effect of invalidating any of the sacraments such clergy administered. I see the point of Donatism but don't want to be a Donatist myself. I have lived, and still do live, with the knowledge that some have looked me in the face--well not exactly in my face--and in effect have said, "You betrayed me. So I thought you were straight. And lo you are queer. And thus I declare you a hypocrite. I renounce you." I cannot deny (my dreams won't let me) that my heart is stung still by the part of me that was the superego driven Good Boy who wanted desperately to do the right thing and hoped in the process to win approval. I don't want to drop into another hole by casting stones from my own glass house. I take no joy in failing to forgive others as I have been forgiven. I am not talking about God. I am talking about me, and the thanks I owe to a community and a host of friends who have embraced me despite knowing a Frank they once didn't know so well.

I have just given you an example of how faith has formed me. It has not made me superior to anybody else on the planet. But it has made me from an early age acutely aware that telling the Truth is inseparable from honor itself. Lying, preying on the defenseless, cloaking one's misdoings in self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, and shameless exploitation of one's own status are not just sins of the flesh, if by flesh is meant ordinary bodily life. They are some of the unconscionable behaviors that destroy human community, weaken the very fibers that hold us together, and mock the human soul struggling to find meaning, if not enlightenment, in this life.

I am not about to be convinced that this is a condition that can be chalked off to what Mark Twain called "ordinary human cussedness," the excuse that "humans will be humans" just as they always have been. There is such a thing as human culpability and "ordinary cussedness" and it is pervasive. But there is also such a thing as accountability. And those to whom others entrust leadership are those of whom accountability must be required.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

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