And tragically, the lives of service which many individuals in the church heroically give in many corners of the world are eclipsed by a tide of scandal affecting a minority. Those who serve so unselfishly must sometimes wonder if God has forgotten them.
This article attempts to vindicate such people by arguing that their church of service is crucial to the survival of humanity, and that current problems affecting the church's visible superstructure are simply part of a process of irreversible change. We are being asked to re-learn the fundamental truths of our faith so that we can understand them at a deeper level of meaning. We are being asked also to study the world coming into being, so that we can realise the role of the church within it. For the church is intended for the whole of humanity, not as a power structure serving the interests of those who control it, but as a community serving those who serve it, and serving also those who need it most - the exploited and the dispossessed of the global human family.
In the modern period that challenge has come from: the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s,; the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s; the 'Enlightenment' of the 1700s; the liberalism and nationalism of the 1800s; the liberalism, socialism and communism of the past century.
The effect of these challenges has been profound. Most important, they seemed to justify the organisation of the church as a fortress controlled by an officer elite - the ordained clergy, trained for leadership, knowledge and authority as well as ministry. They seemed to justify also the tendency to condemn the modern world as hostile to God, and to see the survival of the church as an end in itself. Thus the church became essentially a clerical institution, in which control and initiative rested virtually exclusively in the hands of ordained males. This 'model' of church is still seen by many today - outside and inside the clergy - as ordained by God, despite a serious shortfall in the evidence for this.
At any rate, this fortress church survived these waves of assault by the modernist world only to fall victim in the late twentieth century to internal problems of authority. Essentially the clericalism of the fortress church has proved itself counter-productive in an era of liberal thought and liberal sexual behaviour. The church seems weaker now that it is no longer under direct assault than it did in any of the earlier centuries of challenge. Focussed still upon a spirituality of the next world rather than upon the goals of modernity it is losing out to the appeal of modernity - self- fulfillment in this (the only guaranteed) existence. Operating too as a closed clerical system it is increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the secular media. By now (1996) it seems to have lost the moral high ground from which in previous eras it attacked the immorality of modern secularism. It has never seemed weaker.
Where does it go from here? The answer must lie in rediscovery of its own roots, in the development of a different model of church, and in the discovery of a different notion of what it is to be Christian in the modern world. First, however, it must study the world as it presently exists. It can never recapture any relevance otherwise.
By this I mean that the secular systems of belief which have successively driven the process of political change over the past three centuries have completed their due terms of existence. In particular, extreme nationalism (or fascism) and Marxism stand bankrupt. Big ideas, it seems, can create great tyrannies.
It is easy enough to understand what happens here. For Marx, economic injustice was by far the greatest evil, so the world must be rebuilt around the idea of common ownership. A global communist society would be the culmination of history, so history and justice were on the same side.
Inevitably this big idea justified the seizure of political power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, and justified the retention of that power by whatever means might prove necessary. Since there were many who opposed this seizure of power, murder on a vast scale became necessary. Eventually, under Stalin, the ideology itself served only to justify totalitarianism - it ceased to be the moral bedrock of communist leadership. Power had been acquired, but had then corrupted those who acquired it. Eventually the dead husk of communist ideology collapsed in the late 1980s.
Nationalist extremism should have been finally buried much earlier. Fuelling revolutionary movements from Ireland to China in the early 1900s, it found its Stalin in Adolf Hitler. His aggression led to the greatest war in history and then, in union with a dogma of racial superiority, to Auschwitz. This should finally have discredited it, but the collapse of communism in the late 1980s created a power vacuum in various parts of eastern Europe, and horrific nationalist conflict followed. Some of this continues as I write.
However, despite the survival of remnants of nationalism and communism, these ideologies no longer have the power to convulse the globe, or to shape global history. The relationship of political power to economic power has fixed the attention of governments throughout the world upon economic development. The economic ideology of free-market capitalism rules almost everywhere.
However, this ideology too has failed to deliver a perfect world. Based upon the primacy of competition as an economic force it exploits or abandons those who can't compete, whether in the undeveloped world or in the heartlands of capitalism. Its ideology, consumerism, corrupts the consumers and marginalises the poor. In the centres of many of its greatest cities an underclass of the educationally and economically disadvantaged is wracked by drugs and violence. The wealthy must increasingly live in compounds patrolled by security guards, much as medieval lords lived in fortresses.
So, all secular ideologies have failed to build a perfect world, while some have created hell on earth. There is a distinct perception that political utopias don't work, that politicians make commitments they cannot fulfil, that many are also corrupt. It is in this sense that we live in a post-ideological world.
It follows that western civilisation now lacks a clear sense of direction. Before the collapse of Stalinist communism it was clear this was a tyranny which had to be resisted, so this justified (for many) the heavy emphasis of western governments upon armaments, and upon the industries needed to maintain and update them. The collapse of communism by the early 1990s removed the rationale for this policy. It is still unclear what will take the place of communism in eastern Europe, but it seems unlikely there will be the resurrection of a global power there to replace the USSR. Thus, the future of the world in geo-political terms is unclear. There are no great concepts inspiring secular politics, unless we give free-market capitalism that status. It is not clear where history is going just now, if it is indeed going anywhere in particular. This is one context in which the church needs to re-examine its identity and role in the world.
Second, this is a selfish world.
The extraordinary scientific and technical achievements of the past five centuries have given us the capability to abolish want, to make sure that not a single human anywhere need starve to death. Instead, a minority of the species is threatened with premature death due to over-consumption, while thousands daily die elsewhere of starvation. Why is this?
The answer lies, paradoxically, in the spirit of the age. Our technical and economic progress is based upon a selfish ethic. This ethic is the principle of self-fulfilment.
There is good reason to encourage an individualistic ethic from a technical and economic point of view. The human mind, properly focused, can solve almost any problem, given time. The mechanical marvels of the period since 1780 - from the steam engine to the tractor - resulted from individual concentration and insight. The entrepreneurs who financed these endeavours were similarly acting from an individualistic point of view, aiming at making a vast profit from a successful gamble. The main instruments of capitalism, for example the joint stock enterprise, are based upon the primacy of the individual, his right to invest his capital profitably.
Similarly, the greatest artistic and literary achievements of the modern world are derived almost exclusively from individual insight. The novel is the best example of this. From Robinson Crusoe to Portrait of the Artist, the novel focuses upon the drama of the individual life. Imaginatively, each person has become an island - Joyce is the archetypal loner who lambasts the culture from which he originated, while drawing from it the inspiration for his work.
However, we pay an enormous price for these achievements: a vast loneliness. When each of us is our own God the planet becomes a competitive battle zone of individual egos. The 'successful' minority get to become James Bond or win the lottery, far more retire into their own fantasy world with the help of cocaine or alcohol. Either way, the idea of community perishes, and the individual is in dire peril. Taught that success consists of individual achievement we are each trapped within our ambition, judging ourselves accordingly. And when we watch mass starvation on TV, self-loathing is inevitable. More and more often we find ourselves guilty, but lack the means of redemption.
So the problem of world hunger, and the problem of the individual in a selfish world, both stem from the same root - the primacy we give to individual success. The only possible solution is an ethic, even an ethos, in which we give primacy to service of others. We must redefine success as service, and then plan together how to serve mankind.
This is precisely what Christ advised almost two millenia ago.
There is a sense too in which we may see the second coming as a necessary vindication of the murdered Christ, as God getting even at last. This God is a God who loves, but also a God who chastises, who will use his power destructively against his many enemies.
However, there is another way of interpreting the crucifixion - as the greatest lesson ever taught on the nature of human and divine power, a lesson from which we are supposed to learn because of its relevance now and forever.
Consider Christ's last meal, and the lesson to the apostles, especially Peter, of the washing of the feet. We know that Jesus was especially troubled at the time - as became evident later at Gethsemane. How could he focus upon this simple ritual at such a time, and think it important enough to labour over? The reason is that the washing of the feet and the carrying of the cross were the same lesson. In both cases Christ was assuming the status of the least valued member of the human race in that Roman mediterranean world - the slave.
Just seventy years before the Christian era, thousands of slaves who rose in rebellion with the gladiator Spartacus had been put to death by crucifixion. This was the most ignoble way for anyone to die, and Christ accepted this death - at the hands of the same imperial power. Moreover, he taught, those who would lead the christian community after his death must be prepared to do the same. In other words, power for the christian must be expressed as service. A God who dies as a slave does so in love and solidarity with all those brutalised members of the Roman empire, and of all empires to come.
Power is service. How come? For Pilate, power was the right to sentence Christ to death, and to have that sentence carried out. But what Pilate could not understand was that Christ would neither submit to that power nor challenge it: he was a king, yes, but his kingdom was not of that world, of Pilate's world, the greatest power on earth at that time. Reluctantly, because he could not see Christ as a serious threat to Rome, Pilate sentenced him to death. This clearly unjust death in the end bankrupted Rome's moral authority.
Pilate's puzzlement was to be shared by many other Romans in the centuries that followed. What they could not understand was not so much that Christians denied the divinity of the Roman emperor, but that they would also pray for the same Emperor at the point of death. They appealed to a higher power than the emperor, and died for that higher power, but begged forgiveness for Rome. Their moral integrity was therefore superior to the power which took their lives, so that eventually Rome fell to Christ.
If Christ is to be vindicated only by his second coming, why delay it? Why not simply summon the powers of heaven and sweep Rome aside for daring to lay hands on the living God? Because that would have confirmed that Christ's power, God's power, lay in arms and armies, rather than in the Word, truth itself. It seems that for our God, truth is more important than destructive power - he will stake his life on this.
What is this truth? "I am the way, the truth and the life!" Christ replies. The truth is, strangely, that God does not want to resort to power, to dominion over man. It is his purpose to do battle on behalf of the slaves, by dying with them. For God is indeed love, and freedom, and service. He loves to serve! He does not want to rule. He wants all men to be free of tyranny, including the tyranny of big ideas. He believes in the freedom, not the subjection, of mankind.
Aren't all empires built upon the contrary principle: that power consists in subjection, that for some men, or an entire social class, or an ideology to be powerful, most humans must be subordinated to that power? A God who sides with the subject, without violence, is a puzzle indeed, and a challenge to history.
Consider our own times in Ireland and elsewhere. Our country was part of the world's most far-flung empire until the period of partition, and residual hatred of this empire still fuels violence here. For those involved in this violence the most important reality is the unjust authority that a foreign state still exercises in part of Ireland. However, for most people in Ireland now, the power that threatens them most is less that of Great Britain than of the PIRA itself, and of other paramilitary forces influenced by what the PIRA does. Man becomes the thing he hates, in this case an armed tyranny. Many in the PIRA will see the total abandonment of their campaign as an acceptance of defeat. Instead it is the only salvation on offer, and the only Christian and patriotic thing to do.
Consider also the moral crisis in western civilisation, to do with the value we give to the individual's right to self-fulfilment. This becomes self-indulgence, an inability to accept those responsibilities which must always be attached to rights. Personal relationships are too carelessly fractured. The right of every child to a happy and stable home is threatened.
Christ took responsibility when his life depended upon him doing the reverse, when all of his companions had ducked out. Taking responsibility and expressing that in service to others is the only ethic that can save our future. Freedom, properly defined, is the freedom to serve, and is always possible. Followers of Christ are always free because, for love of Christ, they too redefine freedom as service. And those in the church who already serve are making a far more important statement about Christ than they often realise. It is not going too far to say that they are almost the only authority the church has left.
Isn't this always so? Don't we for example draw inspiration, truth, from great lives rather than from great institutions? Aren't the practical carers more authoritative in their lives than the bishops? Isn't a humane teacher a more effective teacher of christianity than someone who simply intellectualises the faith? Isn't a Mother Theresa worth a whole library of encyclicals on poverty or the dignity of man?
And isn't this why we have no Christ book? No final verbal answer to all sorts of questions about the faith? Christ's great book is his life, and his death, and his resurrection. At the end of the day, if you do not have integrity, nothing that you write has any importance. On the other hand, lives of integrity will be the inspiration for the best books ever written. They are the only definitive statements.
As for the truth, it is more under threat from clerical power structures and lack of integrity than from dissenting theologians. However, the church might be full of dissenting theologians without taking on board the commitment to which Christ calls us in fellowship, the commitment to serve. Insofar as we squabble for the sake of squabbling we are the disciples before the crucifixion, debating their own pecking order. There are more important things to do. There is a world, and ourselves, to save.
In particular we need to serve those everywhere who are exploited and oppressed. We must study the economics of justice and argue for global and national policies which allow for shifts in the pattern of wealth. We must become also again the educators of the poor everywhere, as education is now an essential component of economic survival. We must as a priority undertake a global assault upon the unspeakable; the exploitation of children.
So, what the world needs today is what the church can become, in union with all men of goodwill - a community wholly bent upon service. The world, almost freed from oppressive ideologies, is looking for direction, idealism, unselfishness. Our God has all of these to offer. We celebrate them daily when we meticulously re- enact the eucharistic meal on the eve of the crucifixion. This is why the mass is always the same - it celebrates the most astonishing event in the history of mankind - the redefinition, by God, of power as service, of slavery as freedom.
-- Sean O'Conaill