Bridges, Not Walls: The Wounded Body

“Build bridges, not walls,” said Pope Francis last year when he came to my neighborhood (Ciudad Juarez/ El Paso). He is right, and indeed prophetic. The next few posts will cover aspects of his theme.

As it recedes into the mist of history, the Second Millennium in hindsight may be remembered for the problems it created that need to be fixed. It gave us the Crusades, gun powder and its many offspring, global pollution, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few. There were positives as well, but it leaves new generations with much to repair.

For the Church, the legacy is one of division. Previous centuries had seen divisions, but those of the Second Millennium have proven persistent, prevalent and pandemic. Disputes among patriarchates previously had been patched up, but the one in the Eleventh Century has proven durable, now almost a thousand years old in itself. In the West, uneasy times and eruptions followed until “the big one” blew the Church apart in the Sixteenth Century. As we “celebrate” 500 years since 1517, far more time and effort has been expended in polemics and further divisions than in “healing the breaches.” Whole alliances of nations have fought lengthy, bloody wars against others in the name of particular branches of Christianity. The East, battered by Islam, Turk and Hun, managed greater internal cohesion, but still produced some splits, most of them with us today.

Finally, in the past century, the tide turned and at least people mostly stopped killing each other as an expression of inter-church relations. Some concrete baby steps have happened towards reversing the divisions. Yet we still live in a world of radical Christian separation.

There is, however, only “one catholic and apostolic church.” There is only one way to become part of it, through baptism. Jesus makes it quite clear we are to be one (see John 17), so completely that our oneness is the same unity that the Trinity shares, a perfect, seamless togetherness. Both Jesus and St. Paul use the analogy of the physical body, as mentioned in previous posts, and a body is not a gathering of parts, but a single unit made up of various components. We are the Church, which is the Body of Christ, since the Church is all of us together with Christ. If we are divided, we are disobeying the mandate of Jesus to be seamlessly one, making wounds and amputations in the Body of Christ.

In summary, we are living in grievous sin. This is contrary to the will of God. It does not absolve us to simply point out that we are right and others need only convert to our brand. It is time to get serious about how tragic the situation is. A wounded Body is painful and dysfunctional, often ineffective.

Because many, perhaps most, people think of “church” in institutional terms, they have a view of ecumenical activity as similar to when nations make peace treaties or organizations merge. But the institutional, organizational structures are only operational tools to help the Body function. We ourselves are the Body, with Christ as the head. Our absorption into the Body is at baptism. The process of theosis begins with the new birth rising out of the baptismal waters. It is impeded, but not halted, by our sin. Since this is the actual fact of our spiritual condition, what sort of community ought we to have?

For those whose ecclesiology is primarily institutional, the answer has been in the corporate merger, or at least extensive cooperation, of the denominations. If this is combined with unity of Spirit and oneness in the Faith, it is indeed a positive step. The reverse process is certainly ugly. Two examples of the latter are, first, the Anglican Continuum where groups who were and are in complete doctrinal agreement split over, if we are honest, ego and power issues, and, second, the Eastern Orthodox in North America, where, again, doctrinal unity reigns but ego, petty jurisdictional and ethnic concerns suffice to divide. Yet institutional merger at the expense of creedal cohesion and sacramental Spirit is an outward shell empty of life. The Nicene Creed, for example, has been the basic statement of the Body since early centuries. To “adjust” it to suit contrary opinions is to wound the Body. Such efforts often end badly, with a declining institution worried about financial health and organizational survival more than Word and Sacrament. It also must be noted that the early church (and the contemporary Eastern Church) introduces the Creed with the proclamation “Let us love one another, that we may with one mind, confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). Doctrine without love is not Christian. Jesus commands us above all to love God and mankind.

The one catholic (i.e. universal, worldwide) Church is formed by the merger of Jesus with all of us in baptism. It is therefore a sacramental organism. When you move, for whatever reason, from one congregation, or even denomination, to another, you do not “join the church,” let alone “convert,” even if some run a church as if it were a free enterprise competition among rival companies. You join the Church with your baptism into the Trinity, which is to say, into the true God. It is an indelible act by God done to you. He does it right each time, so a repetition is redundant as well as insulting to God’s ability to enable the act. Nor can it ever be removed. It is the only “joining” which matters.

When we encounter other Christians, therefore, it is not a matter of rival enterprises, nor reaching across borders similar to national frontiers. We are encountering other parts of the same Body. We can no more ignore their pain, joys, concerns, needs, than one part of your body can ignore the pain present in another part. Can we conduct our lives based on that thought?

It would clearly alter how we relate to churches of other denominations. What if the question was: what must we absolutely do entirely by ourselves? The current question usually would be closer to: what is marginal enough to our organizational identity that we could go together with that other denomination or local congregation to do something? Often it is something that is difficult or awkward to do separately. Perhaps our parish doesn’t have enough kids for Vacation Bible School, or we don’t have a facility adequate to run a thrift store. In no way am I discouraging you from doing a joint VBS or thrift store. But can you widen it out to do only those things apart where conscience or conviction compels you to say that you cannot cooperate? There are other Christians where the issues are such that I cannot worship together with them, or join in sacramental fellowship. That is the sad reality of our brokenness. But it is not the whole story.

There is much that can be done together that is not being done together, and that is wrong. And where the issues divide, two things are very important:

1) That we relentlessly confront those issues, seeking solutions rather than new polemics, and that we do the confronting together with those whom we disagree with, in honest love, and

2) That we always remember that the best weapons are love and prayer, especially important when we are encountering our fellow participants in the Body, the family of God.

Much of our problem is brand loyalty. We identify first as Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, Presbyterians or whatever and only secondarily as Christians, members of the Body. We identify organizationally rather than sacramentally. The reality is we have institutions to run and bills to pay. “Church growth” doesn’t happen by being nice to other churches, or so we think when we ignore the Spirit.

Martin Luther should be remembered with thanks for his clear proclamation of the Gospel, needed because it had gotten tangled with institutional needs and fund raising. But the unfortunate unintended consequences of that caused the severe wounding of the Body of Christ. There is nothing to celebrate in the schisms which followed. There is no room for the brand loyalty that emerged in the separate paths. It is sin, a ripping of the sacramental Body of Christ. Genuine healing of the Body is difficult and challenging. Not even trying to heal our Lord’s Body is to live in sin.

It is time to be serious about being ecumenical, and not just leave it at a few polite encounters. Tear down all the walls except the ones you absolutely must preserve. Start together building bridges over those, so that where we must separate, we do so with love and sorrow.