The Law and the Prophets: Why Reform is so Hard
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son.
The verse, from yesterday’s Old Testament reading (Ex. 2:1-2) is about as innocuous as they come. But don’t be deceived, the child about to be born is no ordinary figure, nor does he have an ordinary pedigree. He is a child of the institution, of the tribe, Levi, set apart to maintain the identity and distinctiveness of the people through their rites and ceremonies. This is Moses the law giver, it is also Moses the institutional gate keeper, the one the Talmud looks back to. He represents one of the two main scriptural traditions. The other is the prophet, the outsider. It is the Christian tradition that Jesus embraced both.
Moses is not simply the quintessential insider, he is the insider. He is there to set the rules, rules upon which the very salvation of people is said to depend. This is of course the big pile in the middle of the road that Saint Paul was to stumble over. Rules are not an end in themselves, they exist to protect, defend, and promote the values and virtues that are understood to give meaning to existence. When an institution continues, but has forgotten the reason for its existence, at best, it is an empty shell, at worst it becomes a pariah. This happened to Israel many times in its history, it has happened over the centuries to the Church, most notoriously in the Crusades. In contemporary times it has been revealed in the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. In the secular world it happens to all institutions that neglect constant appraisal and reform as tragically seen recently to financial institutions.
Enter the prophets, the outsiders. The prophets are the uncomfortable burr in the saddle of the institution, the ones who always want to draw the community back to its roots, to the values and virtues for which they were brought into existence, to speak of truth that is plain sight but has not been recognised or acted on. In the Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan famously quipped that “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one”. Well, history shows the lot of a prophet is not a happy one either. On more than one occasion I have been told to ‘stay with my prayers’ by the political elite who find social commentary unhelpful. The prophets were ignored, derided, scorned, thrown down wells and made to pay a very heavy price for their seeming audacity. They spoke because they could do no other. Today, secular outsiders are found in various guises, often whistle blowers, whom the relevant institution cannot tolerate and will do everything it can to discredit and destroy.
For the final couple of hundred years before the birth of Christ there was no discernible prophetic voice, the institution was able to continue its merry way, becoming more insular as year succeeded to year. In the years following the birth death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians were the outsiders, served by outsider leaders. Following Constantine, the Church became the insider institution with insider leaders, in partnership with secular powers.
Now, fast forward a couple of thousand years to 2020 AD in both Church and State. The same tension between law and prophet, insider and outsider, status quo and reform, is alive and well.
For 50+ year I have served as an insider with the heart of an outsider. There is enormous pressure to keep the trappings of institutional life alive and well. Budgets need to be met, buildings maintained, reputations protected and if necessary enhanced. With the limited resources available, priority is given to the employment of other insiders, those who will keep Parishes going and institutional life intact. Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and Popes are all insiders who, to a greater or lesser degree, resist the outsider voice, the voice of reform. Paradoxically, all insiders would be more effective if they thought as outsiders, and the transformative powers of outsiders is always more effective if a foothold on the inside can be established.
There is currently a clamouring in the Roman Catholic Church for significant reform, led by a bevy of very able lay people. This clamour is being resisted by the insiders who do not want there to be any diminution of their accustomed power and status. Even Pope Francis, a Pope with an outsider’s heart, has found his position grafts onto him an insider’s mind. Worse, there are already rumblings from the powerful curia elite that Pope Francis’ successor will need to be far more of an insider.
From climate change to refugees, indigenous voice to social security networks, the voice of clerical insiders has been muted for too long, presumably out of fear of offending someone in power and therefore risking damage to the institution they represent. I understand many Anglican Bishops refuse to make a public stand on climate change and environmental responsibility because they feel they are ‘treading on egg-shells’. No, they are not. The science is clear, as is the direction we must follow. Most Church leaders these days glory in giving bread to the poor, but shy away from asking why the poor are poor. It was Hélder Câmara, the South American Roman Catholic Archbishop who said: “when I give bread to the poor I am called a saint, when I ask why the poor are poor, they call me a communist.”.
Post Covid 19 there will be a push to bring things ‘back to normal’, but things won’t so easily go back to ‘normal’. New forms of Church have begun to emerge. Margaret and I have been running a house Church because of Covid since March, first on zoom and for some months now in our home. Some participants have not been attenders at a conventional Church for decades. Folk are finding a level of intimacy and nurture that they had forgotten, or not previously known. This is a verandah like experience, not outside, but not inside either. Because of the number, we must spread them over three weeks. I hasten to add this has been with the blessing and encouragement of our local Parish priest. The shape of ‘Church’ over the next half decade is going to be vastly different, and by no means weaker. In a way Covid has crashed through to the inside and made long awaited and needed reform more likely.
In the secular world the law givers, the priestly cast in the form of politicians, are looked upon with suspicion by those they exist to serve, because political life is mostly about finding a way to stay in power, even if the reason for being there has long since been forgotten.
Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is fond of speaking of the Canberra bubble as if it is something he tries to avoid, to live outside. He seems never to fully grasp that he and his colleagues are that bubble. It has never been more obvious than in the vexed arena of energy and climate policy. Pretty well the whole of the rest of Australia has moved on, from farmers, to energy suppliers, investors and insurers, trade unions and business owners. But no, politicians still insist on this issue being their nadir, their stake in the ground in protection of cashed up self-interest upon which they appear to remain so dependent.
Insiders (priests and lawgivers) resent outsiders (prophets). Without outsiders, life stagnates and becomes sterile. For most of the course of history insiders, law givers, priests, have prevailed. Occasionally there are moments when the prophetic voice becomes too strong to be ignored and reform takes place. May this be such a time. Amen, and all the people said: Amen!