Are You a Victim of the Church System?
Last week a friend reminded me of Frank Serpico. He said some of the things he addresses remind him of what I’m doing. So I watched the movie “Serpico” again.
Indeed! Serpico saw the whole police system as corrupt. He wasn’t as interested in this or that crooked cop because they were just pawns in the greater dilemma. To punish one crooked cop was the department’s way of scapegoating the problem so that the entire corrupt system could continue unchecked. Serpico felt the constant enormous pressure to play the game along with the other cops on the take because he was the only one who wasn’t taking money. He said he felt like the bad guy.
Serpico’s girlfriend in the movie shares a story about a village with a very wise king. Someone poisons the well and all the people drink and go insane. The king is the only sane one left, but the villagers think he’s the insane one and plot to kill him. So out of mercy and to save his life he drinks from the well and goes insane as well. The villagers rejoice that the king finally came to his senses and spare his life.
Then today I read a Mother Jones interview of Francisco Cantú’s new book coming out on February 6, The Line Becomes a River, where he shares his experiences as a border patrol officer between the USA and Mexico. He joined in order to be a good officer and to genuinely help people. His mother warns him that he won’t be able to change the system. She fears the system is too powerful and will ultimately change him. She said to him, “You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, with absorbing its poison.” He now knows what she meant and says, “For many agents, this job takes a mental and spiritual toll that may not be recognized for years.”
All this reminds me of the church. I too went into the ministry, along with other young men and women, with lofty goals of reforming the church. But, I’ll have to admit, it was a very demoralizing experience. I tried to be good and not get caught up in the machinery of the church system, but at times it couldn’t be helped. At times I only recognized later that I had been implicated and that its poison had seeped in just by me being in it.
Eventually, under the mentorship of people like Eugene Peterson, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Wendell Berry, I decided I would simply focus on my own little flock wherever I was and forget about the system. But still, the gravitational pull of any human communal endeavor, even down to the local church level, is towards the systemic dehumanization of its members. It was a constant and wearying battle to perpetually resist this seemingly inevitable pull.
It gives me empathy for those pastors, priests, imams, ministers, rabbis, etc., who are doing their best to serve people within the system. It gives me empathy for the members within the system as well. I understand why some succumb to the pressures of the system and become its agents, why some continually fight it and become its adversaries, why some are removed because they won’t cooperate, and why some leave because they can no longer endure the emotional, spiritual, and eventually physical toll it takes upon their lives.
I left the ministry in 2010. I’m glad I did when I did. Now, I’m happy to help people any way I can… one-on-one or through my online community or through the stuff I create and put out there for anyone to see and hopefully benefit from.
This is what makes sense to me.
(Are you a pastor or ex-pastor, a member or ex-member? Do you need someone to talk to about this? Email me and we can set up a time for a free call.)