Humanity doesn’t change much over time. That should be comforting and disturbing at the same time.
I’m leading a study on the Augsburg Confession. The Augsburg Confession is one of the foundational documents for Lutherans. It dates back to the early 1530’s. It covers a variety of subjects. There are themes that run through it. That’s the part that I want to focus on.
Throughout the document, the signers of the document talk about the abuses that the Catholic Church of their day were doing. In many cases, these abuses could just as easily be written for today, just with a different target.
A theme that runs through the document is the abuse that the Church was engaged in – what I call transactional theology, or a holy quid pro quo. This is the idea that God has something of value to offer you, but in order to receive it, you must offer something in return. And in this case, it wasn’t just what God had to offer, but really, what the Church had to offer on God’s behalf. And for the most part, what the Church wanted in return was money.
This led to many abuses. It created an abusive system actually. Abusive systems abuse people, create abusers, and victims of abuse. Abusive systems conduct their abuse through means of culture, policies, and expectations. These are neutral things that be used for good or evil purposes.
And when an institution is involved, we can add one more element – efforts made to protect the institution at all costs create more abuse. This was true for the Catholic Church in the 1500’s. As we have learned in recent years, a different abusive system emerged for the Church in the 20th century. The same occurred for the Boy Scouts in the past – they are paying the price now for a past abusive system. And there have been plenty of Protestant church denominations which have had similar abuses. Government at every level has fallen prey to abusive systems throughout our history. The Grant and Harding administrations were two of the most corrupt administrations we have endured. Businesses have done this too. Enron and Deutsche Bank come to mind. Abuses around money have been a long standing tradition of humanity. Abuse and abusive systems are the sin that keeps going strong for humans.
Let me be clear though – Institutions, themselves are not abusive. It is the people who do the abuse and the ones who defend and protect the abusers that are the problem. It is the systems that people create in institutions that are the problem. This is why some institutions can and have recovered after abuse had been outed – the systems and people in charge of those systems were removed and good people and systems were put in place.
Abusive systems show up at various points in history in a variety of places – religion for sure. Abusive systems have been prevalent in government and politics too. These systems show up in education, business, sports, the military, and so much more. Abuse and abusive systems are often related to power and money. Power and money are key ingredients in abusive systems. Scripture tells us plenty of stories about evil systems tied to money and power. Paul encounters this everywhere he goes spreading the Gospel of Jesus. It’s what causes him to be beaten and jailed so many times.
If you want to identify an abusive system – look to see what is being defended and protected. Abusive systems do what they can to maintain the status quo – to keep the power and the money where they are: in the hands of the powerful.
The story of the Passion of Jesus is a prime example of this. Jesus was up against a couple of abusive systems – the temple and the empire. The temple and the empire worked together. The leadership of the temple and the leadership of the empire both benefited financially and with power over people. Both were abusive of people and exploited people. And both did what they had to in order to maintain the status quo. In the case of Jesus, it means killing him off, so that the status quo would continue.
Abusive systems refuse to see the Imago Dei – the Image of God – in the other. Abusive systems refuse to move towards Shalom – wholeness of creation. Abusive systems refuse to live into the Beatitudes. Abusive systems refuse to embrace peace. Abusive systems refuse to rest or observe Sabbath. Abusive systems refuse to love God, one’s neighbor, or one’s enemies. Abusive systems refuse to do justice and instead thrive on injustice in the most inhuman and exploitive ways possible. Abusive systems are the antithesis of what it means to follow Jesus. They are evil.
And they are as old as creation itself. But that doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in the air and give into them. No, we refuse to participate in abusive systems to the best of our abilities. We refuse to adopt the values of abusive systems. We refuse to protect abusive systems. We refuse to accommodate abusive systems. We look forward with hope for the day when abusive systems die so that different systems can take their place – Kingdom systems. God’s systems. Holy systems.