Our society presents several problems facing the parish. Consumerism or politics tends to be the dominant lens through which we interpret our lives, including our faith. These frameworks are difficult to change because relationships and communities are hard to sustain. It takes almost all of our effort just to survive and take care of the ones closest to us.
In my previous post, I recommended 10 Practices that would, I believe, foster a Christian framework for understanding the world and a community capable of living it: vibrant liturgies, engaging homilies, strong religious education programs, personal prayer, frequent reconciliation, socializing with members of the community, building a network of families, welcoming people, visiting people, and personally inviting people to serve.
These practices might seem like they turn people in the parish toward themselves and neglect the neighbor, the stranger, and the enemy. How will a vibrant parish affect the larger society, its social isolation, fear, and exhaustion? How can a church community challenge the economic or political way of interpreting the world? We are in need of a soteriology that encompasses the broader culture, a social soteriology as David Cloutier called it.
Whereas noting practices for a parish can be fairly concrete, mapping out how these practices affect the broader society is more general. One cannot say, “if you do A, B will happen.” People and movements do not work so straightforwardly. If we look at history, physics, sociology, or economics, we see that it is not one choice or event that determines “what is going forward” but rather the accumulation of choices and events. They build upon each other, interact with one another, and thereby condition subsequent choices or events.
Obviously, this process is more complicated, but the idea is straightforward and provides a general understanding of how parishes influence societies. What follows is based on the thought of Bernard Lonergan (and elaborated on by the thoughts of Joseph Komonchak and William Loewe and synthesized by Christopher McMahon) and sketches how the gospel has and can move throughout history and society.
While sin is not a common category for history and the social science, biases are. Lonergan uses biases to speak of sin in terms of history. He groups them into three categories:
- individual biases where people prioritizes their good over against others
- group biases where a group seeks its own good in opposition to the common good
- general bias where ideology is used to thwart intelligence and responsibility
The cumulative result of these biases constrict human existence in ways that can lead to a spiritual death through thoughts and deeds that generates misery and suffering in people but also can lead to physical death where one individual, group, or ideology seeks to remove other individuals, groups, or ideologies that are a threat. Biases are difficult to overcome as they resist intelligence and responsibility. The only response seems to be to dominate others and impose one’s perspectives on others through force, thereby leading to further incoherence, less intelligent solutions, and more problematic situations.
This is the situation Jesus faced at the end of his life. His disciples abandoned him, Judas betrayed him, his enemies conducted a trial in the middle of the night where no two witnesses agreed and resulted in a death sentence, and Pilate carried out the execution on the grounds of sedition. The situation is dictated by fear and panic: disciples’ panic over their own potential loss of life, religious leaders fear of Roman reprisal, and Pilate’s worries about his precarious political control over the area. The responses seem “realistic” and “pragmatic”—flight, condemnation, and death—yet are mounting irrationality and incoherence, creating more fear and panic and judgment and death.
How then does one overcome bias? Jesus overcomes this situation with faith in and love of God. He does not respond with legions, angelic or human. A military victory would not overcome the bias but solidify its reliance on force. Jesus does not reason with anyone as bias is unintelligible. Rather, Jesus faces up to his accusers, accepts their punishment, and forgives them. The result is that the evil that is done does not lead to further evil. Injustice is not repaid with injustice, irrationality with irrationality, or bias with further bias. Jesus’ actions expose the sham of the trail and the cruelty of his oppressors.
Jesus’ death is not the end of the story for God raises him from the dead. Although this is a tenet of faith, Christians also claim it is a historical reality, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) It implies that God is active in history responding with justice and love, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but always faithfully. The resurrection brings to fulfillment the pattern set in motion through Jesus’ life and death: forgiveness overcomes sin, faith overcomes fear, and love overcomes evil.
Jesus’ death is also not the end of the story because what he did is something that others can do and, if they do imitate it, God will also bless it. Many of the people who experienced Christ were moved to act similarly. They witnessed how Jesus died and was raised and saw in the events a new way to respond. They were changed and began to model their lives on Jesus’ life. They came together as a group to support and strengthen themselves in this life and to teach others about it. They drew in others whose lives also replicated Jesus’ life: confronting sin through loving actions and thereby overcoming it. More and more people joined the group. They participated in worship, developed a Bible, professed creeds, took care of “widows and orphans”, and became disciples, clergy, saints, and martyrs.
The movement expanded through the old Roman Empire and across the globe and from then, through time, until today where it is lived out in countless ways, by countless people, in countless societies. Even if one considers just some of activities of the Catholic Church in the United States, Jesus’ historical influence can be seen in countless ways through the:
- Over 17,000 parishes across the country,
- 1.4 million students in the over 5,000 Catholic primary schools, and the over half a million students in the over 1,000 Catholic secondary schools
- Catholic Hospitals that care for 1 in 6 patients
- Global work of Catholic Relief Service
- Activities of Catholic Charities like those during Hurricane Sandy
- Unheralded direct ministries in many communities, like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and domestic abuse shelters.
While there is more that could be say, this short list indicates the cumulative affect Jesus’ life is still having on people. As I said in the beginning, I have not tried to map out the direct impact of Jesus or how a parish might accomplish A if it does B. Rather, I have noted how the actions of Jesus affects his immediate followers, how these followers replicated Jesus’ life and love, how their actions enable others to respond likewise to Jesus, and how these decisions accumulate. The more we imitate Jesus’ response to sin and suffering with love and reconciliation, the more Jesus’ love will impact society. I sincerely hope that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we celebrate this holy week animates and forms parish life such that people can live out this life of discipleship, and thereby bring greater peace, joy, hope, and love to those around them.