Where Jesus Meets Clerical Power
As you may know, I’m deeply suspicious of power, whether that power is exercised by princes, politicians, or priests. I’m very adamant about having clearly defined limits on power and an intelligible system of checks and balances. I think it especially prudent to keep a watchful eye on those who claim to speak in God’s name, whether they serve the church or the state. Trust in authorities ain’t my thing. Nor are arguments from authority. I’m therefore sympathetic to Andrew Sullivan’s hope for an apolitical Christianity. However, as I’ve argued at my other dig, I think he goes too far.
Jesus calls humanity to renounce worldly power and seek the kingdom which is not of this world, but in so doing, he implicitly calls for the exercise of worldly power: the power to speak, to record, to translate, and–where power really comes into play–to interpret. Whether or not you believe Jesus actually founded a church, the transmission of his core message requires something like it. In this sense, there can be no Jesus without a church, because it is only through a network of religious authorities and their communications to a community of believers that one can come to Jesus and follow him.
It couldn’t have been otherwise. Someone would have had to record what Jesus said (or attribute words to him). Someone would have had to compile the records into a text. Someone would have had to translate the text into other languages. Someone would have had to preserve the text, protect it. Someone would have had to interpret its meaning so as to maintain the sense of Jesus’s words. Bring all these someones together and you have a network of religious authorities. You have clerical power. Way I see it: the core message of Jesus initiates a church whether or not Jesus himself formally instituted one. At the end of the day, it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to sweep away the church and its power to find the real Jesus. Clerical power has made discovering Jesus possible.
Sullivan seeks a faith as far removed from power (and violence and coercion) as humanly possible. I get this desire. I really do. However, I propose that instead of seeking an apolitical faith, Christians and others should strive to exercise religious power virtuously. Power corrupts, but it also makes possible the encounter with a God who reveals.