End of Unity

THE END OF CHRISTIAN UNITY

Notes from www.billbrucewords.com

January 28, 2018

Trinity UC Kitchener

Texts: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-29

A century ago, our imperial colonialist slogan for this United Church of Canada was Ut Omnes Unum Sint, ‘that all may become one’, quoting the gospel of John and Jesus’ prayer for our unity.  Of course, we interpreted this to mean that manifestly, everybody would join us, even the Catholics.  Rome had a similar plan, that we Protestants should all just be forgiven and ‘come home’.

Since then, the World Council of Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the World Methodist Council have tempered goals of organic unity in favour of bilateral recognitions on ministry and sacraments, multilateral convergence on faith and order, and church action together in service.  What isthe end, the purpose and goal of unity, if not imperial unanimity?

Remember the Tom Hanks movie of a Fedex manager shipwrecked with Wilson the basketball for company?  Imagine out-takes left on the cutting room floor. Rescued after years, he shows off artifacts of his survival: the first shelter where he found sanctuary and prayed for help.  There is now a bigger shrine on higher ground, as he outgrew his first safe place, and left behind those early terrors to celebrate his hope.  The rescuer asks about a third structure, halfway along the path.  “That’s the church I’d never be caught dead going to”.

On this last Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we all got bookmarks inviting us to go to other churches in downtown Kitchener, eight within a couple of blocks of our newly rented space and former owned one.  We don’t ‘church-shop’ to prove which is better, just to know how each is different. My preferred statement of belonging is from Stealers’ Wheel,

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you!

God forbid we get smug, and look down on other churches.  We did not progress beyond our roots, or rise above our superstitions, as we hitched our wagon to a modern scientific rational worldview and social welfare state.  We do well to revisit the passion of our wider religious movement, and things they know intimately which we have forgotten about a living Holy Spirit!

Our ‘mainline downtown church’ subculture comes as much from position of privilege and power as it does theological sophistication or spiritual discipline.  

Nobody has yet ‘charged the pulpit’ in my first four months at Trinity.  First Vancouver, 35 years ago, Queen St 30 ago and Parkdale King St 25 ago, or a decade ago on Roncesvalles, all in Toronto, it was common!  Outpatients, street people, routinely talked back to a preacher, or claimed my mike. Not at Trinity!

Similarly, few of us here admit to active struggles with addiction or criminal behaviours in our lives.  We might feel like our children seem ‘possessed’ when they are sleep deprived, acting out, or attribute teens’ moods to hormones.  Some will even risk dismissing women as ‘over-reacting’ or ‘hysterical’, despite the ‘#metoo’ movement and headlines.  We hope never to offer opinions against popular culture, lest we be taken for early dementia victims.

Few people here will claim pietistic teetotal abstinence from alcohol or chaste sexuality, least we appear to be religious extremists.  Yet I miss many of our co-religionists, alienated through our last 30 years of progressive positions on sexuality, and wince at our dismissiveness of traditional pieties affecting the way others eat kosher or halal meat, or none at all.  Our liberality can often verge on pride and licentiousness, along with intolerance of others criminalized sins.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” is a thick book published last year by Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford, both a primatologist and a neurologist.  He builds a layered analysis of the interaction of our ambitious claims for biochemical ‘brain science’ and the range of environmental, evolutionary, cultural and anthropological factors in behaviour, ending with chapters called “Metaphors We Kill By”, “Biology and the Criminal Justice System”, and “’Oh, Why Not’ Free Will” and “War and Peace”.

I keep struggling with the challenge of Sapolsky’s “Behave” because it’s a gift from a classmate who graduated with me 40 years ago, as grist for the mill in our now long-standing conversations.  He, the successful criminal prosecutor, defence lawyer, law professor, and securities commission litigator, is a lapsed Catholic.  I am less smart, less successful, a marginal religious voice, but keep grinding the same axes with him, since ‘nature vs nurture’.

I acknowledge few if any at Trinity believe in possession or exorcism.  However, Paul, writing to Corinth, and the writer of Mark, with their initial readers, did. They emphasize and prioritize tales of Jesus doing exorcism and miraculous healing, admitting that he taught, but little of what he taught.  

That’s hard for us to hear. Our religious subculture in the past century has been relentlessly rational, enlightened, and scientific. We would “explain” this stuff, or more often avoid and ignore it in favour of “Sermon on the Mount” teachings. Clinebell’s basic text on pastoral counseling from the 1970’s reports a hospital chaplain writing in a patient’s medical chart: “patient has delusion she can talk with God in prayer, and asks for supernatural healing – suggest psych consult.”

My own preferred reading of possession and exorcism has come from the political liberation theology of the last century. Fanon wrote a book called The Wretched of the Earth about Algeria under French colonial domination, and argued that anger, resentment, repression and suppression of the “natives” resulted in mental illness. The poor and marginalized can be driven mad by their experience. They can transgress boundaries, and the dominant culture can try to restore them with prisons and psychiatric treatment. Foucault pursued the ways we construe madness in political institutions and practices. It’s all true.

Nevertheless, in our narrow privileged subculture of suburban middling classes and middling ages, we support and participate in the medical, educational and justice institutions and practices that build order. Our empathy and compassion for street people and out-patients is easily strained.  Few of us in this congregation believe in possession and exorcism. But others do, and we might offer the respect of hearing their accounts of meaning in those terms.  It is better to be kind than to be right, in visiting an Alzheimer’s sufferer.


Paul takes at face value the claims of his legalist, charismatic, and gnostic opponents in the church at Corinth. Mark’s opening account of Jesus, with its emphasis on action, exorcism and healing, only quotes Jesus saying ‘follow me’, ‘come out of him’, and ‘let’s go to the next town.’ But we see the impact upon others, and we are led to consider our own “reader response” as biblical interpreters now put it, to the cognitive dissonance provoked by the text.

The language of mental health, psychiatry, dementia, is familiar to many or perhaps every household here, and we encourage compliance with legal norms, and prescribed medications. That stuff helps and it works. Yet, when I listen and attempt empathy with others’ experiences and expressions of their many dis-orientations, and of en-culturation – possession talk can make sense, if I suspend my metaphysical assumptions and just walk alongside and listen.

Nicole Duran, from a subculture very much like ours, wrote an essay called “Other People’s Demons: Reading Mark’s Demons in the Unbelieving West”:

In my white American, educated, and Protestant context, we do not believe in demons. Certainly, there are people in the West, particularly in the United States, who do believe in demons. But to believe in demons in the United States is to be marginalized by the dominant culture. To say from within the dominant American culture that you or someone you know is possessed by demons is to risk being institutionalized. For my own segment of American culture, there few beliefs more anathema than the belief in demon possession.

White Americans like to see boundaries between groups disappear, but individuals should be firmly bounded. Individuals should be self-contained and not permeable to other subject…. The sense that every individual stand apart, literally, and can and must control his or her own fate, with the help of reason and hard work, is an essential tenet of Western culture. A possessed person is out of control and could not be expected to exert such control; therefore a possessed person simply does not exist…

Francis of Assisi may not have said “proclaim the gospel – if necessary, use words” but he did say “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”  The end of Christian unity, like its beginning, may not be unanimity or hegemony of one institution.   We might do better to seek enough humility to claim our place in a movement beyond reason, and as my old office poster from the Mennonite Central Committee put it: ‘Modest Proposal for Peace: Let Christians Agree to Stop Killing Each Other’  

Tertullian’s Apologies, about 200CE in North Africa, put it this way in c.39, “Vide”, inuiunt, “ut invicem se diligent” – ipsi enim invicem oderunt – “et ut pro alteruto mori sint parati”; ipsi enim ad occidendum alterutrum parariores erunt.  “Look”, they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “how they live one another” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).

Come on – let’s make nice, and make friends, eh?