Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Priesthood or Discipleship? Where does authority truly lie?

One of the news items this week had me thinking, once again, about the programmed failure of organized religion to be equitable to all people. The pastor at small Roman Catholic parish in San Francisco has declared that girls will no longer be allowed to serve at the altar. The reason given is that serving at the altar is the first step toward becoming a priest, and since women can’t become priests, that role must naturally be reserved for boys. The Archbishop of the local Diocese allowed this decision to stand.

[Before I continue, I want to be clear that I am not a Roman Catholic, but belong to a Protestant denomination. I am a practicing Christian, but I constantly question doctrines and practices, believing that many of them are completely in error and beside the point.]

To my understanding, the person of Jesus showed himself to be a radical against the actions of the Temple priesthood. If you really read the canonical gospels, you see that Jesus conveys, in his actions and words, the notion that such hierarchical “management” schemes really only serve to allow a small group of people to control a large group of people (and money), and that the taking of such authority mostly leads toward a sense of entitlement and corruption among the “management class,” not toward justice or service or the addressing of need. More importantly, Jesus sees that the apathy of those who are not in power (all those who are disempowered or outcast) leads them to emulate bad behaviors or actions exhibited by those in control.

Said differently, many average people create and maintain a corrupt status quo by following the example of those in authority. When Jesus spoke to people, he was not interested in hearing about complaints or excuses. He seemed interested in the “what are you going to do about it?” part of any discussion. Whenever he was asked to do something or say something, to judge or to decide, to a great extent, he more often than not eschewed arbiter roles, preferring that people engage in their own problem solving, rather than allowing “the system” to offer the last word. As we know only too well from experience, when we leave anything “to the system,” the results tend to be unsatisfactory.

This is why I think Jesus was not pointing to a new kind of priesthood, but rather advocating for a discipleship of personal engagement and responsibility—even activism. Outcasts were assigned their status on whose authority? If the only authority and judge is a deity, then how can any temporal court make such a determination? Will healing and recovery take place? Will social justice be served? Or is this just a way of dismissing all who are deemed unsavory? These are the sorts of discussions Jesus attempted with his disciples. I rather think he expected such discussions to lead to affirmative action within his community. When affirmative action was not forthcoming, he would resort to “healing” people. He encouraged self-healing and renewed personal esteem.

When Jesus left the scene, things returned to more of the same old same old, all of which hinged (and still does to this day) on “authority.” Who had the authority and who didn’t? Was this to be a dynastic succession or a hierarchical elect? Yes, yes, the disciples were told… Peter and Paul… Stephen… James… someone was left in charge... but what actually happened? Why does “the Church” work in a way that is so different from what Jesus did and said while he was alive?

All we know is what has come down to us: the priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek.” However it was that this came about, whose ever bright idea it was, this is the foundation on which the Christian religion was built. And it is, I believe, in error. The error was made and exists primarily in order to establish and maintain an authority to control people, as well as to lend credence to all those people who have claimed such authority. This method of organization does not reflect what Jesus was teaching, and I am convinced Jesus would think much of what goes on today, under his authority and in his name, is sacrilegious.

If you think about it for a minute, you see that our entire frame of reference around what can be known is built on all that has been known before. College students are asked to express original thoughts, but only if they hang on some previous authority (hence, the need for footnote after footnote, reference after reference, and a pile of book titles). This is how we “prove” our knowledge and our thinking: we read what is out there and then we bring forth our own notions about it, but we must cite authority in order to make our claim.

This may be part of what happened to the early Christian community. Unfortunately, the original message got lost in a power struggle. How this happened, we will never know for certain, but what is clearer to see is that hierarchical power is involved, resulting in control over the masses. Constantine’s adoption of Christianity was purely in order to gain authority, control, money and conformity from a growing group of people. You could even say assurance of complicity was part of the bargain.

A more appropriate way to view the message of Jesus is through the window of the 20th century Platonist philosopher, Iris Murdoch. Her book title “The Sovereignty of Good” is a kind of summation of what we should have ended up with. What might that look like? Sabbath meetings in which all were welcome, and all who came were fed; studies of Torah and how it could be applied to current community issues; presiders would be different each week, so all could experience and learn benign leadership; discussion of people and their needs, including ideas about how those could be addressed, who would volunteer to help, what could be given now. That is how I would characterize the Work of the People, the Sovereignty of Good.

Instead, what we see from the Roman tradition that has come down to us is an intercessory leadership. A priest is there to order or lend authority and to be an intermediary between an individual and God. In that role, the priest has the power to make rules, to demand obedience, oaths, confession and contrition, and to exact payment for wrongs done. Note: I am being simplistic in this to the purpose of illustrating how far away this is what Jesus presented.

Jesus told people to do the right thing, even if that meant going against a law or an authority figure. Doing the right thing, he suggested from within his understanding of Torah, is what God would want at all times. Doing the right thing is a happier way, a moral way, a peaceful way, the way of righteousness.

I further put it to you that one of the things Jesus did was overthrow the notion that a priesthood was required to lead people to righteousness. Priesthood demands obedience; discipleship requires personal will and action. Those who adhere only to obedience are liable to abdicate their personal responsibility and their will. I am sure that is not what Jesus meant for his followers; certainly, the gospel texts do not convey that message to me. I am convinced, for example, that the passage “render under Caesar what is Caesar’s; render unto God what is God’s” is a direct call to honor the best practices set out in Torah—merely following temporal laws alone is not sufficient to fulfill the commandment, “love thy neighbor.“

To honor Caesar, you must follow temporal laws; to honor God, you must have the will to be responsible, to honor and support all people in all ways, every day.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews declared Jesus to be a priest "after the order of Melchizedek." The person of Melchizedek figures very abruptly in, then disappears altogether (!) from Genesis; but for a mention in one Psalm. The reference from Genesis in the letter to the Hebrews is used to lend authority to the notion of Jesus as High Priest. The name Melchizedek means Righteous King, and he comes from Salem, which means Peace--clearly, this is highly metaphorical passage, intended to lend authority to people in the situation described in Genesis: a shift in dynastic leadership polity from the sons of Aaron to the sons of Abraham.

By contrast, Jesus calls us each to be responsible for our actions, and all responsible to one another—that each person's service to another is a sacrifice and a blessing that results in equity and peace. Neither gender, nor station in life, has anything to do with service or social responsibility, righteousness or godly love. These are all things self-governed, and will-propelled, by love, not ordered by a priest. That is discipleship.

It is too bad “the Church” lost that memo… It is working so hard at the wrong sort of corporate compliance.

Of course, I went through all of this just so I could make the observation that it certainly is most backward and unproductive, if not also decidedly unJesus-like to deny girls the opportunity to serve in fellowship. If the call was to serve, then all should.

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