Dirty Laundry: Anarchy, Misanthropy, Ethics and Other Fears

I have a fleet of thoughts rolling about in the ole noggin right now; I hope I can attempt to make sense of them. Many of them are personal and directly related to a particular theological struggle within my church, but I think most of them are about power.

My church is conflicted over it’s mission–are we a building or are we our missions? Where does “church” exist? G. (poor man needs a better pseudonym than that) and I were discussing such after a particularly stressful board meeting, and I posited that the older members of our church cannot delegate leadership because they do not trust the successive generations to “get it done.” In general, we do get the various “its” done, but we do it entirely differently that the “Greatest Generation” and we are therefore perceived as wrong or as suggesting that they were somehow wrong.

Not wrong–just different.

Then, another pseudonymless person sent me this link, wherein Bill T-B discusses the realities of church conversations; I think he’s right–it’s about power, not about discussion. So, let me put my cards on the table: a church that chooses a structure (no matter how beautiful it is) over human capital–and make no mistake about it, that is what this discussion comes down to–is a church that has already failed, irrespective of how many people attend each Sunday.

Speaking of which, church attendance is not limited to Sunday at 11; good, generous and worthy people show up at other times to worship in other ways and that is a Good Thing. Different is not wrong and it is certainly not divisive. It’s just different.

Were I to be able to corner the building faction of the church for a moment and rant, I might say something like the following:

Look, we aren’t making comment about you; we are simply trying to create a space for ourselves and our lives, which do not fit within the paradigm that has operated here for so long. I prefer an early worship with a focus on discussion; you prefer the traditional service at 11. That is not divisive; it’s just different. We have college students worshiping here on Wednesday nights; they may not come to church on Sunday. So what? Good for them for finding their own spiritual paths and fulfilling their own needs. What we need is not an elevator–we can have a “church” in a tent; we need to work within our community. We have a mission and that mission is about people, not wooden beams and stained glass. Why the subterfuge? Why the insistence that we do it your way? Why the assumption that if you cannot afford to give more that no one else can either? We know you can’t give any more than you do, and we aren’t asking you to. We are asking you to listen to us. We are asking you to support the mission by supporting our people. We are asking you to trust us. Trust us to be good and joyful people who do the right thing, even if it looks different.

Different isn’t wrong. Different is just different.

I was called (and it isn’t formalized yet, so perhaps this is the shotgun to the foot approach) recently to serve as an Elder in our church, and, for several reasons, I feel simultaneously called to and unworthy of the task. So, I find myself (following the pseudonymless blog sender above) wondering: Why do we need leaders? To whom do we grant authority, and what ends do we provide to that authority?

Were this an ideal world, I’d be an anarchist. I strongly believe that were we inherently responsible folks, government oversight would be irrelevant. But, while I am a self-confessed idealist, I am also a bit more realistic than open advocacy of anarchy would allow. I believe, as Craig O’Hara suggests, that “anarchists must become ‘teachers’ to others without, of course, becoming leaders” (84).*

First of all, I work for the state, and, as such, absolute advocacy of anarchy would amount to shooting myself in the foot (Houston, we have a theme). Second, I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with a government system, except for the whole human factor. Yes, I am indeed an idealist misanthrope. Third, with respect to say, my church, leadership is needed, because there are people who, whatever their reasons may be, are willing to make choices that are not Good Things and often for very Bad Reasons.

One of the first lessons one learns in AA (or any of the other 12-step programs) is that one cannot face addiction on his or her own. Now, this does provide a delightful self-perpetuity to the whole cause, but I am not so cynical as to believe that is why such remarks exist in the AA canon. As befits a person who is a professor and college administrator and therefore must speak to strangers all the time, I am extraordinarily shy. Making a phone call is a serious production for me, often involving far more time than you might care to imagine. This would include, by the way, calling church ladies about communion bread (though, if you’d ever met some of the church ladies I mean…Ah, see remarks above). Nevertheless, I try to do at least one thing every day that scares me (you’d think I would have run out by now), so I do manage to get through most calls and meetings.

For the record, I took almost 30 days into sobriety to go to AA, because of the whole stranger-anxiety thing. Also, I failed with the AA-sponsor bit. I can mentor people (and have, with some success), but asking that of someone else? When I finally got up the gumption to ask someone, she was too busy, which happens with sponsors who are worth their salt.

Sort of like major professors, now that I think about it. Grad School as the 12-step program intended to cause addictions. I rather like that analogy.

That said, I do understand the philosophy about not going-it-alone, a difficult prospect for many situations, and a nearly untenable one for sobriety (especially in the early days). My personality being how it is, I struggled with this tenet, but I do get it. See, teachers of all stripes are significant, and not necessarily because of the subject-information they impart. The best teachers are guides, not just information banks (though, reams of information are terribly cool too and often come packaged in leader-types, such as Dr. Bill Carroll, my American Lit prof at NSU, who was one of those incredible people who had clearly forgotten far more than most of us will ever hope to learn…gads he was great). Brad, over at Hardcore Zen, has wrestled with the importance of teachers in the context of religion:

In my case, I’m absolute certain that had my teacher not told me how utterly dorkified my little “spiritual awakenings” had been, and how I was hardly unusual, let alone unique, for having had such and experience, I could have easily decided that I was the latest incarnation of God. (Warner 55)

We need leaders and guides, especially when we are stuck, scared, or beginning again. With respect to sobriety, several recent events have made it clear to me that having a local guide or touchstone is a very Good Thing, and that having a teacher is also a Good Thing in all things–someone who can point out, gently one’s dork moments. So, I am a teacher-guide of literature, but what of becoming a spiritual teacher–guide (I’m struggling with the right words here–leader? Who am I to lead? Insight–sure; guidance, maybe–but I see my role within the church as one of support staff for the professional we hired–they who teach and guide me). Clearly, this is a scary time–the economy has tanked; I am hopeful about our president-elect, but I recognize that there are many who are not. So be it.

But scary times are not the times to make the easy choices; scary times are not the times to cut missions and to fail to protect people through those missions and through our choices. We must make hard choices and they need to be creative ones. They must be creative. They must be thoughtful and they must look toward a future that is not ours but that of successive generations. That creativity will demand change and demand difference–and that’s okay.

Different isn’t bad; it’s just different.

And it isn’t just my church, which is merely a microcosm, it’s the whole freaking shebang. Scary times call for creative, ethical spirit and hope for the future, not retreating into the building and hoping it will all be okay.

*Currently have students writing on anarchy; I’m very excited about their opinions on the matter. Very astute thinkers, my group.

**I’ll say it now, before you read the works cited list: yes, I am a dork.

Works Cited

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.

Warner, Brad. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Novato: New World Library, 2007.

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