Damage Control

Religious organizations try to fix their mistakes, but should we join them again?

Spirituality took it on the chin during 2002. What's worse, some of the parties packing the biggest punches were people in organizations who typically squawk the loudest about their own piety and wave the banner of holiness most brazenly.

If you doubt that, just take a minute and let your mind thumb through the top religious news stories of the past year.

Sexual predators in the Roman Catholic hierarchy continue to run as lead stories. Right next to them are the aftershocks, the revelations of coverups and responses by the church that have clearly been business and not spiritually driven.

The Vatican has developed a curious pattern of response that seems a lot like politicians in trouble. They have first relied on denial and then, applied spin, damage control and catch phrases like, "can't we just put this behind us." It has taken this ongoing scandal to prove that there is at least one area without separation of church and state.

Recently Cardinal Bernard Law was ousted, supposedly for the way he handled priestly sex abuse incidents in the Boston area. Booting him was a political move, pure and simple. Pope John Paul II held meetings at the Vatican wherein, I'm pretty sure, Law was strapped to the rock like Abraham bound Isaac. But this time the knife actually fell as the church offered up Law as a scapegoat to a hounding media and bewildered public. When you think about it, one exiled official shouldn't come close to atoning for the many children sacrificed on the rock of the church.

Another story that made the headlines concerned a Boy Scout from Washington State. Seems that Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert faced dismissal from the organization after revealing that he didn't "believe in God." When Lambert blurted out his little revelation, the local Scouts branded him an "atheist" and put the wheels in motion to dismiss the scout instead of using the opportunity to open a dialogue that would have been valuable for everyone.

Instead of freaking out over the "A" word, why did no one in this self-proclaimed friendly, courteous, kind and reverent organization sit down with Lambert and ask him to talk about this "God" he doesn't believe in?

It wouldn't seem like too much to ask that an organization live up to its own code. That would mean a Scouting organization that allowed a little room for explorers. Young people willing to face questions, struggle with experience and wrestle with metaphors. But this is not possible for an organization that has set its ideals in concrete hiking boots.

There were other stories this past year that did equal damage to authentic spirituality. Any of the parties that allow religion to justify war have thrown a punch. So have the clergy that have encouraged that kind of rationalization or sat silently on the sidelines.

Parents who lead their children time and time again back to the care of organizations who have and continue to harm, also do damage to the holy. It is one thing to return again and again to the places and ways that abort our own souls. That's just the Pinnochio-turned-real-boy in us that still longs for the old strings. It is another to push the young and trusting down paths with vile consequences that they do not expect.

All people, children and adults, need safe places in which to do their spiritual exploring. Places that welcome the questions, the doubts, the falls and the triumphs. Places that won't abuse vulnerability and innocence; places equipped to nurture new birth until it finds its legs. Increasingly, we are not finding these places in the very organizations that espouse safety and growth as their mission. Each of us needs to start asking why.

Nearly 1,700 years ago, the Roman Emperor Constantine made it OK to be openly Christian without getting tossed to the lions. The agreement also allowed the church to begin developing a hierarchy and structure. After that, it was only a matter of time before spiritual matters took a back seat to employee handbooks, dress codes, fund raising and the current indulgences of the empowered.

Some of the wisest and the best of that day's spiritual folk recognized the dangers of a blended church and state. So they left what they were doing and ran screaming into the desert where they pursued their spiritual adventures alone or in small groups. These desert dwellers were convinced that the church was bound to become an organization more concerned with self-perpetuation, consumption and politics than with serving the spiritual growth of its members. We ought to be listening to that wisdom today. The blending of church and state is no more dangerous than the morphing of church into corporation.

In the end the story that damaged the holy most over the past year isn't news at all. It is what does the most damage every year. It is the way each of us allows our spiritual needs to be branded, packaged and sold back to us. The way we turn over what should be most important in our lives to unqualified proxies. The way we blindly and continuously follow organizations more concerned with image than substance. W.C. Fields once quipped that he wouldn't belong to any organization that would let him join. In a time when the motivation and core of every organization must be questioned and examined, those words sound a lot more like advice than they do a punch line.

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