When things have gotten badly out of hand, humor is sometimes a relief. Carl Grant is a comedian who, in one of his routines, tells a story about Lester Maddox, Governor of Georgia circa 1970. Commenting on prison riots in his state, Maddox is supposed to have said, “I don’t think that we’re gonna see much improvement in this situation until we start gettin’ a better grade of prisoner.” After a pause for timing, Carl adds, “Here’s a man who’s gotten right to the heart of the problem. Of course! We’ve been letting a lot of riff-raff into our jails.”
One might agree that this story, possibly not apocryphal, shows how the right order of things can be subverted by the problem of human character. To say that we have this problem in our churches is sounding less and less outrageous, and it doesn’t seem we’ll see much improvement until we start getting a better grade of sinner.
The liturgical innovations, cultural accommodations, and recent scandals in the church could provide comedians with material to compete with that available from politicians. Unfortunately, it’s not funny and it’s not really new material. John the Baptist must have elicited derisive laughter when he called the clerics of his day a bunch of snakes. Bear with me for a moment in this line of reasoning. People who claim moral authority in the community are too often discovered and exposed in vices that make the sins of the laity pale by comparison. Humor is a defense of sorts, but the doctrinal accommodation and innovation that is laughable now can become venerable tradition with the passing of time. The Archbishop of Canterbury is inducted into the Welsh order of Druids and conservatives are amused, but an elementary knowledge of the syncretism evident in Christmas and Easter might give one pause. It’s hard to say whose indignation is more ironic, that of the accommodators and innovators in the church or that of those who oppose them.
The renunciate communities of the third and fourth centuries, in their contempt for the flesh, opposed a growing worldliness in the church. Flagellants and Stylites interpolated Neo-Platonism into the Judeo-Christian tradition to a degree that can be measured by Augustine’s Confessions, wherein we find his conviction that becoming a Christian, were he to do it properly, would require putting away his mistress. Despite the fact that this woman had been the venerable saint’s companion for years and born him a son, marrying her was out of the question, because, by this time, celibacy had become the norm for observant professional Christians. Spiritual athleticism led to communities of religious for whom chastity was the ideal. It led to a celibate priesthood. The scandals of the past decade should force, at least, a re-examination of the now traditional norm.
In American church history there have always been those who insist that priestly celibacy creates a dissonance with the Pauline injunction that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. This has long been a staple of Christians in the Campbellite tradition who, in their zeal for the faith once delivered to the apostles, disregard both history and tradition. Campbellite Churches of Christ idealize congregational autonomy–as in the synagogues of the Pauline era and, emphatically, not as in the formerly pagan basilicas of the Roman Empire. These Christians used to be prone to quoting Jesus in his now problematic instruction that his followers not refer to their guru as father. How shocking it is when it comes to light that religious orders professing celibacy have been the habitat of those engaged in sexual excesses that bring out pagans with pitchforks, and that a denomination of the church in the tradition of Alexander Campbell, professing local autonomy, provided Jim Jones sufficient latitude to perpetrate mass suicide.
Late night comedians will find humor even in these things. The line between cynical humor and irony is perhaps a matter of serious intent. Jesus seems to have been capable of both humor and irony. Was making a laughing stock of the clerics of his time what made him into a magnet for controversy? Interesting in this regard is that he attacked both the liberals and the conservatives. Then the Pharisees were the traditionalists and Sadducees the accommodators. Now any paraphrase of irony in the sayings of Jesus would have to find a way to lampoon the moralistic a-moralism that is now politically correct, especially as it is evident in the church.
In view of the historical and contemporary outrages perpetrated by the church, what rankles isn’t so much what the church teaches as the authority it claims for its doctrines and moral pronouncements. It would seem that the metaphor of the offending eye is Jesus engaging in the bitterest irony with regard to moralism, whether religious or postmodern. Do I have to draw a picture?
“You have heard it said by pro-lifers and by anti-war activists that you must not kill, but I say to you, whoever exacerbates ideological divisions to sell books and get speaking engagements is guilty of murder. Whether you think you have the truth or that there is no truth, you are wrong. If you would be perfect, pluck out the eye that follows a swaying skirt. Cut off the hand that pumps gas into your SUV. It’s better that you go into judgment maimed than suffer the punishment of those who impale ordinary people on the horns of a dilemma the resolution of which seems obvious to you.”
A further irony in all this is that not engaging in this kind of irony might have kept Jesus and the prophets from becoming martyrs.