A response to Kagure Mugo’s “The church has more money than God”.
By Philip Burnett
I was going to call this piece “In defence of the church”, but then changed my mind as I don’t feel like entering into partisan discussions. My basic contention is that the good done by religion and “the church” far outweighs the bad, and that this is something that ought to be considered, rather than going down the hackneyed route of rather boring church bashing.
First, to clarify what I mean by the church. Literally, it signifies the whole body of Christendom, which has very wide boundaries owing to the plethora of denominations which call themselves Christian. St Matthew’s gospel (16:18) tells us that Jesus Christ established “the church” when he said to Peter, his apostle, “Tu es Petrus et super hanc Petrum aedificabo ecclesiam meum” (“On you, Peter, I build my church.”) Jesus Christ encouraged his apostles and followers to forsake the trappings of an earthly life, and to focus on the service of God through expressing love for those with who they share a common humanity. This is the mandate he also gave to “the church”. It’s like the preamble to the Constitution.
It’s important to remember that this, of course, is an ideal. Christ was probably well aware that as humans we are not capable of always living up to such lofty and ambitious mandates. It is difficult, particularly in our own time when we live in a society that encourages individual liberty, success, and materialism to such an extent that we define our identities according to what we drive, what phone we own etc. We don’t realise it but our personal greed affects others — the child toiling under slave conditions to make that Armani shirt, the pregnant mother making a part for an iPhone. That fundamental basis on which the church was founded — a respect for others based on humility and a respect for all humanity — would do a lot of good in our secular society with its emphasis on individual liberty and success.
Through the ages an awful lot of evil has been perpetrated by “the church” in the form of acts that have been in direct contravention of Christ’s mandate. It would be naïve of me not to mention these. There have been the crusades, the inquisition, wars have been waged in the name of religion, the church has actively supported human beings killing each other. There are lesser and greater evils that have existed and continue to exist.
Yes, it is wrong for pastors to manipulate their congregations and to spread false beliefs just so that they can line their pockets, or have a power trip: they ought to be flagged for this and face the consequences from society. There are matters that are Caesar’s, and matters that are God’s. We ought to remember, however, that deception is a human trait, and we are all susceptible to it. It is not “the church” that is being deceptive it is humans using “the church” and religious beliefs to manipulate their own ends. It is precisely because we are humans that we fail. And something that religion teaches us is to accept our humanity and all its failings.
That is not to say that we are all bad and must live in guilt and shame over our condition. Rather, membership of a religious organisation, such as the church, teaches us that we belong, and that we are valued — all of our being is. The church encourages good: it encourages goodness to spread. Think of a person, and I know of many, whose only sense of community is the church they attend. Their week revolves around church attendance because they know it is a time when they will be accepted as part of a group. Society is not giving to them that affirmation or sense of belonging that we humans crave. But the church is.
Personally, I feel very let down when I read of corruption in the church, whatever the denomination, especially as I know that it is tainting all the good that is being done in it. But I feel more let down when people use these instances to attack an institution of which they clearly know nothing. I’m not advocating a rosy, sun-filled image of the church: as with any human organisation there are going to be problems and these need to be highlighted and discussed. But there’s always another story that needs to be acknowledged in any discussion. And in this case it is about a lot of goodness. It’s important to remember this.
Philip Burnett was born and educated in Cape Town, and at Rhodes University. He enjoys listening to and making music, reading, and all things related to cricket.