Is the Church Really the Safest Place on Earth? — An Excerpt from "A Wilderness of Mirrors"
What happens when the place that should be the safest place on earth isn't?
It is a simple, tragic fact that Christ’s Church has at times been the least safest place on the planet.
“Far from being the refuge of the downtrodden, wounded, and lost,” Mark Maynell writes in A Wilderness of Mirrors, “they have easily become havens for the judgmental, controlling, and dangerous. No wonder people find it hard to trust the church.”
Yet there's hope. Because as Maynell goes on to say, it doesn't have to be this way. In the excerpt below, he describes "the God with a plan up his sleeve" to make the Church the safest place on Earth for community and evidence of God’s victory over injustices of all sorts through Jesus.
Read it, share it, then engage the full book to help your people trust again in a cynical world.
London’s Royal Academy of Arts presented a fascinating exhibition in 2013. Simply titled Australia, it assembled an unprecedented collection of artwork dating from the colony’s earliest days to the present. One image in particular haunted me — The Expulsion, a 1955 print by Margaret Preston. An Aboriginal couple faces us in the foreground, the man clearly distraught as he appeals to heaven with one arm raised high, while the woman seems more focused on the infant nursing at her breast. Behind them is a padlocked gate, and beyond the gate, we can glimpse a beautiful garden. But the print’s most chilling element is the garden’s guardian: a resplendent, sword-wielding, and golden-winged angel. He is the focal point, not the young family. And it is clear: the angel looks European.
In a brutal revision of Genesis, Preston depicts the theft of an Australian Eden. Like humanity’s divine expulsion from paradise, Aboriginals were expelled by imperialists with the gall to claim a divine mandate for their civilizing mission. For when Western imperialism brought “enlightened” Western culture to Africa, Australasia, and the Americas, it also brought the church. Preston’s image thus chimes with a story that former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu has often enjoyed telling: “When the missionaries first came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray,’ so we closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
.... People are grimly mindful of the church’s history as yet another agent of oppression, and thus are scared off. Ross Douthat, himself a Roman Catholic, acerbically described the sex abuse scandal horrors in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston as a story “perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel . . . No external enemy of the faith, no Attila or Barbarossa or Hitler, could have sown so much confusion and dismay among the faithful as Catholicism’s own bishops managed to do.”
It is a simple but tragic fact: churches of all hues and persuasions have been complicit in injustice. Far from being the refuge of the downtrodden, wounded, and lost, they have easily become havens for the judgmental, controlling, and dangerous. No wonder people find it hard to trust the church. It was never meant to be like this. And thankfully, it doesn’t have to be.
The God with a Plan up His Sleeve
Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community in France in the 1960s (a thriving Christian refuge for those with disabilities and their caregivers), is quoted as saying, “People are longing to rediscover true community. We have had enough of loneliness, independence, and competition.” Take note: he was not thinking of the physically or mentally disadvantaged; he meant the whole of Western culture.
In our pursuit of consumer convenience, we have sought to obliterate dependence on others, as if this is a bad thing. To be sure, many have found themselves driven to this mind-set by bad experiences, but not all have. It is as if we have decided not to trust because we want everything, from my café lattes to my lifestyle, “my way.” Does this not explain, in part, why the baby boomer generation struggles with the indignities of old age? All the way up to and beyond retirement, they have prized independence too highly. This is tragic, for as business philosophers Fernando Flores and Robert Solomon suggest, “A person incapable of trust is a person who is something less than fully human, less than fully socialized, less than fully a member of society.”
We are meant to be dependent on one another; it is how we are wired. Perhaps it should not be as surprising as it is to find the controversial and radical Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek advocating a community along the lines of the original Christian “community of outcasts.” “This is why I and many other leftist philosophers . . . are so interested in rereading, rehabilitating, and re-appropriating the legacy of Paul,” he said. It is therefore worth returning to Paul, not to re-appropriate so much as to reread, and if necessary, rehabilitate. What was so special about Paul’s vision for the Christian community?... Paul does not describe denominations as churches (they didn’t exist yet), nor does he describe all the various groups of believers who might live in the same city as “the church.” And he would never dream of calling a building a church. Instead, the church is primarily the gathering of all believers in heaven, now! He speaks of the church as a permanent celestial assembly gathered in the presence of God in fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose. In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul writes, “God raised us up with Christ, and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
This is what might be termed the “cosmic” or “invisible” church — and it refers to all believers who have ever lived, including those still alive. At the same time, “church” also describes local, visible expressions or outposts of the cosmic church. So Paul can write to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. If there were several congregations in a city, they were each churches — Paul never grouped them together as “the church.” Christian thought on the church (the doctrine of ecclesiology) has developed considerably since Paul, but we can never depart from his foundation. If someone has taken up Christ’s call to follow him, they are incorporated into this cosmic body and have an onus to be part of the local outpost. This is where Paul’s next surprise lies.
God has a secret weapon up his sleeve. He had apparently mandated Paul to spread the news of Christ’s boundless riches to Gentiles across the Roman world and to make known what God had kept under wraps for centuries. So what was this great secret? “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10, emphasis mine).
This may seems quite obscure on first reading, especially if one is unfamiliar with Paul’s language. In essence, he explains that God is battling evil forces (“the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”) in a war Jesus has already won. But where is the evidence of that victory? What is God’s secret weapon to let the world know it has happened? It is the church, no less! If that seems quite the miscalculation today (in light of its reputation), we easily forget how utterly ridiculous it would have sounded in Paul’s day.
A Wilderness of Mirrors
By Mark Meynell
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