Vinoth Ramachandra

Converting the Church

Posted on: October 25, 2018

In his epochal commentary on the biblical Epistle to the Romans in 1919, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reminded his readers that “It was the Church, and not the world, that crucified Christ.”

These are words that we need to recall constantly. Authoritarian governments have sprung up all the world in recent years, many of them supported by people calling themselves “Bible-believing Christians.” Even as I write, such folk in Brazil are preparing to vote into the Presidency a former army officer who is brazenly racist, misogynistic, contemptuous of the poor and defensive of the military dictatorship in Brazil’s dark era of repression.

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That such an ecclesiastical conversion is possible is shown by the case of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first half of the twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing the discourse of human rights, and its fear of communism led it to support fascism in Europe and Latin America. All that changed with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the widespread influence of liberation theologies. Today it is the Roman Catholic Church that is spearheading resistance to dictatorships and human rights abuses in many parts of the world, much to the shame of their non-Catholic Christian brethren. So we should not lose hope.

Earlier this month, nearly four decades after his death, the former El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared a “saint” by Pope Francis. Romero was killed by members of a death squad while performing mass at the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Romero was an outspoken champion of the poor in his country. The day before his death, he publicly denounced the violence carried out by the country’s armed forces against civilian populations during a mass at the National Cathedral. His death sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. It made many sceptics more open to what the Church had to say. Today, when mass consumerism and social conformity has stifled dissent and counter-cultural resistance, the Church (for all its inner contradictions and tensions) quietly and courageously follows Jesus in caring for the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.

On this Blog I have often drawn attention to the global class of the “super-rich”, the miniscule fraction of the world’s population who own all the wealth and so influence governmental policies. Last year, a former British journalist Richard Reeves, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., argued in his book Dream Hoarders, that in the U.S it is the top 20% who are the real American villains: a large group of well-heeled pickpockets with huge bonuses on top of high salaries, tax breaks on mortgage interests and college savings funds, who engage in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.

The book shows how this upper-middle class, while not having seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires, are able to dominate the country’s top colleges, insulate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods with excellent private schools and public services, and enjoy the best health care. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that- an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, sending them to the top universities, providing them with social connections that make a difference when entering the labour force, helping with internships, paying for college tuition and home-buying. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder- such as reduction in wealth and inheritance taxes, exclusionary zoning, or legacy admissions to colleges.

I believe this is happening all over the world. It may be the top 20% in the West and Japan, a smaller proportion elsewhere, but it’s really the upper middle-class (to whom many of us belong) who are limiting opportunity for everyone else.

This is not a political divide: it’s a social chasm. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins political elections; no party has the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.

Will the gubernatorial elections in the US next month make any real difference? The upper middle-class Democrats dislike Trump but they are happy to sit out his presidency as they are doing quite well financially under him.

The Rev Martin Luther King famously observed that it was as a cruel jest to tell a man to lift himself up with his bootlaces when he didn’t have any boots.

11 Responses to "Converting the Church"

Thanks Vinoth for challenging us to march with the “bootless”, which will take such courage.

Spot on. Great to see you writing again, Vinoth.

Thanks for sharing your reflections again Vinoth. I consider this a good sign of coming to terms with your bereavement. We miss Karin. But I am sure Karin would like to read your articles too. Just want to give you my personal response on one thing. You mentioned the Catholics are now spearheading the resistance to dictatorship and abuse of human rights, this maybe the case in some parts of the world.  But in the case if China where I come from, situation seems otherwise. The recent agreement signed by the Holy See and the Chinese Communist government has been a huge disappointment to suffering Church in China. They consider the Pope or the Catholic Church has betrayed them  I do not disagree in many parts of the world, the Catholic Church maybe seen as the beacon of hope for the oppressed, but in this part of the world, at least recent events have lead us to believe otherwise Please refer to a letter recently published on the New Year Times by a very respected cardinal Joseph Zen from HK: 

Opinion | The Pope Doesn’t Understand China | | | | | |


| | | | Opinion | The Pope Doesn’t Understand China Francis’s natural optimism about Communists is being encouraged by cynics around him who know better. | |



Blessings Gideon Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

Thanks for this, Gideon. I have altered my wording to “many parts of the world” from “all over the world”. The problem with the RC Church is that it is too hierarchical- priests and even Bishops cannot oppose the Archbishop or Cardinal if there is one. So even in my country while there are many priests and Bishops who are challenging nepotism, nationalism, etc, the Cardinal (who was appointed by the previous Pope) is hand-in-glove with the most corrupt and despotic politicians. This has stifled the voice of the church.

Thank you Vinoth for the article, it challenges us to think and gives us courage and equips us to act. Very glad you are writing again.

Dr Vinoth, it was a nice to finally meet you. You might be interested in a book called Giants by Prof. Peter Phillips of Sonoma U in the States. He documents 17 interlocked groups of capital that control $41.1 trillion or 60% of world trade and are heavily interested in Fortune 500 companies, that include firstly themselves, and weapons manufacturers, private military contractors, think tanks and global policy forums like the G30, Public Relations & Propaganda firms, MSM etc., etc. However, wasn’t it the Temple and not the Church that crucified Christ? Or is that a particularly Catholic doctrine I am not aware of?

Feisal, thank you for your comment and the book recommendation.

In the Bible, “the Church” is not a building but a covenanted community- a people called by God to witness to his character and liberating acts. In the time of Christ the Church is synonymous with the ancient Israelite nation- whose leaders rejected the very One who had called them and whom they professed to worship. Barth’s ironic comment is a way of reminding the Church of today that Christ is often betrayed by the very people who claim to worship him.

It was really sad to see the support that the “evangelical” church gave to Bolsonaro here in Brazil. A horrible thing. But it was also horrible to see pastors defending the PT (of Lula, Dilma, Haddad and others) as if it were “the party that defends the poor, oppressed and democracy.” Because, as you yourself pointed out in your text: “It does not seem to matter who wins political elections; in the party you have the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.”

There is a consensus, for many here in Brazil (except for the PT itself) that a sincere, honest, detailed and transforming self-criticism is necessary – an exercise that Pope Francis did when he assumed the papacy and that he should have taught the PT when he did references to the presidential elections here in Brazil in his homilies last month.

About the “Evangelical” Church, I believe that voices have been lacking that make the Christian message resonate in its entirety: Whether in politics, economics, culture, sexuality, science and others. (Thanks for being one of those voices. God keep giving you wisdom for this!) If on the one hand, we have those who point to economic idolatry, they do not know how to point out political idolatry and are silent before the progressive and liberalizing wave in culture (what some call cultural Marxism). On the other, we have many that “know ” Denounce these last two, but they shut up for economic idolatry. And these two sides don’t know how to talk to each other. May God send more “dialogue persons” to his work!
(This comment was made with help of translations tools)

“…A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ..”

I’d like to meet the Pastor with this much self-awareness. A canny observation once again. The comments are also very information. I am surprised to read Pablo’s comments about evangelicals in Brazil being positive towards the PT. That sounds somewhat refreshing. This is in no way to excuse when the PT has also partaken in the inherent corruption of the Brazilian system. At the same time, the good that was done shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s to hold them to account and call them to a higher standard.

I also think we should avoid blanket statements about ‘no party having the political will to challenge the UMC way of life’. Although this might apply in some contexts, it’s not the case everywhere. The situation is more promising than that. In the UK for example we’ve seen a clear distinction evolve between the two main parties since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader in 2015. The new movements that have grown and the existing ones that have been buoyed since then is quite encouraging and exciting (albeit Brexit has been an unnecessary and time-consuming distraction). There are Left movements across the world challenging neoliberal orthodoxy. We’ve even seen a more radical wing of the US democrats challenge the complicity of the mainstream of that party; Sanders and AOC being the most president. Since this piece was written obviously the Green New Deal has gained traction. The uphill struggle is to keep the electorate informed and counter the narratives promulgated by the MSM and the establishment.

It would also be good if more Christians voices joining these movements along the lines that Pablo mentioned; challenging socio-economic issues without compromising on other ethical issues and being swept up in every cultural shift.

Also in regards to Liberation Theory, I was thinking about that lately having done some research into a chapter in history of which I was broadly ignorant.

I think Pope Francis embodies the spirit of LT (if not the more militant elements) more than his predecessor John Paul who was wary to say the least. It wasn’t uniformly embraced. I think this should have been stipulated in the article as otherwise it overlooks the resistance from within the RC church to this movement at the time.

* prominent, not president

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October 2018
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