Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth hall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.Matthew 18: 18-20
Apologetics aside, what does Jesus mean when he says “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”? The phrase was apparently a familiar one in Jesus’ tradition and it alludes to the authority of the Sanhedrin to authoritatively interpret Jewish Law. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, however, it seems to suggest that the will of heaven is able to be discerned on earth when believers come together in truth and in love, willing to confront another when mistaken in a truth that is born of love for them and their destiny.
As I watched the news this morning while having breakfast, I heard a story of a man, now in his sixties, who had allegedly been abused as a boy by his parish priest. There were pictures of him as a smiling and lively young child, and then, as he related his experience of abuse, there was palpably present the pain of a broken heart and spirit. A wrenching and grisly truth has been for some time and is currently confronting the Roman Church, a truth that so far has not been fully faced. It is not the truth that there are evil and unwell human persons that are part of it, even of its clerical structure. We all understand that nothing that is human is alien to any human institution. Rather, it is the truth behind why this institution that repeats to itself the words of Jesus in yesterday’s gospel, (“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”) could not only allow such horrors to occur but then, in the manner of any criminal enterprise, cover them up. It is not surprising that there should be individual criminal and sinful behavior in any human grouping. This is why Jesus lays out in today’s gospel what the community is to do in the face of evil and error when it manifests among its members. Yet, given the response over the years of the institution to the corruption within it, we must ask if there is not something within the structure itself, perhaps even in the roots of its assumed identity, that creates a culture of abuse.
Authority over others is always fraught with danger. Jesus repeatedly counsels in the gospels that in the kingdom he longs to establish authority is not to be exercised as it is by the powerful of this world. The reason for this is because Jesus is not naive. He understands that when we have power over another, it is very difficult for us not to abuse that power. There is great gratification in possessing influence and power over others. This unconscious drive in us, when reinforced with theological rationalizations, is potentially an explosive combination. In the news story I saw this morning, the man alleging the abuse said that his father trained him from as early as he could remember to see the priest as the closest thing to God and to always obey him. It would take an extremely well-developed personality not to relish such reverence and to experience in it a license to be above the norms.
As young religious, we were trained to recognize the voice of God in our superiors and to obey without questioning. Leaving aside a truth of this which could well help to provide a way to deeper union with God for the well-developed human personality, in large part such teaching created a potentially abusive environment. One is not infused with greater wisdom by being appointed to an office. There is no “ontological change” by virtue of ordination. The struggles of being human remain the same for all of us. This is no problem in Jesus’ view of authority as service. To be in authority, for him, is to be the servant of all. In the gospel view, one given authority must act only in service to others, thus inhibiting our tendencies to the abuse of power. But in the structures of Christendom, borrowed from the structures of secular monarchy, the power of the authority is to be unquestioned and exercised arbitrarily.
Over time the fear of sexuality and the misogyny and homophobia that such fear evokes begin to influence and even direct the manifestations of the unconscious power dynamics. Absent the human fulfillment of intimacy and true friendship, respect and power become the prime sources of self-identity. If it is the superior or the bishop who is most esteemed, recognized and powerful, then, of course, these are the positions for which one is to strive. If one is not in such positions, then one’s sense of self-worth and identity must come from his or her power over others. For this to be maintained, the other members of the Church must remain obedient and reverent children. Much conversation in religious and clerical circles reflects the view of “the sheep” as less wise and even significant than the pastors.
This is not at all the whole story, of course. For the Church does not belong to the office holders. In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of the potency of his followers. “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” When in prayerful presence and dialogue, any two agree on something for which they are to pray together, that is discern together what is truly to be prayed for, then God will grant it. That is, they will have come to know God’s way and will for the world in that regard. This is the power of the Spirit that is given to all. It is not to be controlled and regulated by the select few.
On the night before he died, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Memphis. There he said that he could remember “when Negroes were just going around . . . scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled.” One is reminded of the words of the gospel: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:17) In the gospel Jesus is telling people that their problem with John the Baptist and himself is that they both refuse to conform to what others are telling them they must be. In 1968, Martin Luther King declares that the day of the African American having only the identity that the powers that be give them is over. “We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world. . . We are saying, we are saying that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”
Abuse is inevitable when some believe it is their prerogative to dominate others. As a public school boy, I remember being amazed when going to Sunday school and the Sister on the first day berating and threatening us for being trouble. We were children and we hadn’t done anything wrong yet, except not go to Catholic school. In the larger scheme of things, this is somewhat trivial. And yet, it is not altogether unrelated to that which is not trivial. To be “in the right” is to have “rights” over others that they lack. From a position of power to demean others of a different group or tribe is abuse. And, much more subtly, to fail to encourage and to serve the full unfolding of another’s call for the sake of our own project, however lofty, is abuse. As I look back on this childhood incident, I wonder what kind of self-depreciation and so fear of others did that young Sister live with on a daily basis.
Pope Francis is seeding in the consciousness of the Church a gospel vision of the Church that can make new life possible as that which has become deformed crumbles. With the same force that can result in the abuse of human beings, some are using every means at their disposal to hold together that which upheld and supported their power and sense of significance. In faith in God and the words of Jesus, that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17), we hope for a new birth and perhaps form for the Church. We know not if that can come about without the total discrediting and destruction of what has been. Does the work of God’s Spirit remain evident within the structures that we have come to call the Church, or is it to manifest most clearly in what we have come to call the secular world? Although we have no idea about all this, we can continue to have faith that “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
I can remember [Applause], I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [Laughter, applause] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [Applause] We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world. (Yeah) [Applause] And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. (Yeah) We are saying [Applause], we are saying that we are God’s children. (Yeah) [Applause] And if we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address Delivered to Bishop Charles Mason Temple,” April 3, 1968
Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.