Power to the People: How the Church Taketh Away

May 2, 2019 | 6 Issue, Stories

Photo by Tim Marshall/Unsplash

By Mike Sosteric

“If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity.” ~ Albert Einstein

Another day, another dollar, another sexual abuse scandal, another Catholic official, this time a senior one, held up for public ridicule. Is it possible to get tired of this? As Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, noted in 2014, there are hundreds of thousands of victims all over the world. The numbers are horrifying—there is no other word.

Any reasonable observer would have to ask, what the heck is going on? This aged and venerable institution, this alleged global light in a sea of satanic darkness, is slowly being revealed to be little more than a den of sexual predators, protecting themselves and each other from the criminality that exposure would bring. A serious charge to be sure, but how else can you understand the Catholic church’s propensity to destroy evidence, make excuses, cover things up and reward the perpetrators with more authority in the church? These are not the actions of an institution wanting to heal. These are the actions of an institution intent on staying true to an established course.

But why?

The Catholic church is an institution charged with the spiritual salvation of humanity. Surely, sexual, psychological and physical abuse is opposed to this basic charge. We know the harm violent toxic socialization does. If our goal is the salvation of humanity, why not discourage abuse of all forms? Why not stomp out the culture in an instant? Why take actions that perpetuate the problem? Why allow such a sacrilege to persist? To the casual observer, to the faithful, to the individual who believes the church’s actions to be based on the removal of “sin,” it simply makes no sense at all.

Honestly, though, the cognitive disjuncture we may experience when we consider the ongoing peculiarity of the church’s reactions to pervasive, global abuse only lasts so long as you believe its marketing message, which is that it represents a promise of salvation here on Earth. In fact, it doesn’t.

As I argue in a paper entitled “Rock and Roll Jesus,” the church, which is controlled by a bunch of rich, mostly white men, is actually opposed to authentic spirituality. Their mission is not to nurture the human spirit, but to suppress it, control and contain it. The problem for the rich white men in control is that authentic spirituality does not lead to passive devotion in the kneeling pews of the church; it leads to dramatic healing, personal transformation, and social and political activism. It might even go so far as socialist revolution, if by that you mean the kind that Jesus advised, which is to share your possessions, redistribute society’s wealth and devote your life to the poor proletariat. “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Mathew 19:21)

Authentic spirituality does not lead to passive devotion in the kneeling pews of the church; it leads to dramatic healing, personal transformation, and social and political activism. “

Could his position be any clearer?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should give away all your possessions and go help the poor. Humans have the productive power to bring utopia to the entire planet. If we solved the problem of addiction to money and ended unjust systems of unfettered accumulation, there wouldn’t be any need. I’m also not saying you should shuck off critical and independent thought for blind faith in some suspect view. I’m just agreeing with Einstein; Western institutions of religion are not about empowering the masses and authentic spirituality. I’m just echoing what he said, which is that beyond the “subsequent additions” of the church, there is something capable of “curing all social ills.”

Although I would not count myself a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Jew, because in their big institutionalized versions, they all function to contain what is inside. Nevertheless, I must agree. There is lots of scientific evidence and it is perfectly reasonable to suggest there is something inside human beings, some power of self, human neurology or cosmic potential, capable of instantly transforming even the most callous and brutal colonizer like Bartolome de las Casas into an advocate of human rights. This is not an anecdotal thing. There are too many examples of this in the historical record to be delusion or mere random chance. It has not gone unnoticed by psychologists who say it can achieve transformational, even quantum, change. It is the kind of power that can transform a geographical region, trigger a social or political movement and threaten global revolution.

When you consider this aspect of authentic human spirituality, and when you look at Western religion’s history of colonial, inquisitorial and patriarchal horror, you can see that the church seems less about embracing the transformative power of whatever humans have buried inside and more about subverting and suppressing said power through the application of physical, emotion and sexual violence. This has certainly been my experience in the church. From the child abuse it encourages parents to commit (the supposedly Christian “spare the rod, spoil the child” line was used in my home to justify physical assault) to the deep spiritual pathology represented by a violent, patriarchal God who would damn his own children to eternal fire, my independence and power were drained away until, around the age of 10, I finally said no more of this.

The church seems less about embracing the transformative power of whatever humans have buried inside and more about subverting and suppressing said power through the application of physical, emotion and sexual violence.”

Terry Crews and many feminists before him nailed it when they said the message of sexual assault is a message of power and control. There is nothing quite so apposite to personal power than the emotional and psychological destruction that is the outcome of sexual assault. In this context, the actions of the church make perfect sense, as do the actions of rich billionaires who, after the 2019 Notre Dame fire, could instantly find billions to preserve an inanimate edifice of metal and stone, but while allowing the exploited working classes to languish and suffer.

If your goal, contrary to your marketing materials, is to undermine the human spirit and preserve systems of privilege and accumulation, what better way is there than this?

Mike Sosteric is an associate professor of sociology at Athabasca University, primarily interested in human development and the unfolding of full human potential, in particular the obstacles that undermine and the mechanisms that might facilitate development and expression of full human potential. He is also the author of Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy.