Tear Down the Mighty, Tear Down the Church

The Friendly Fire Collective has a diversity of perspectives on the institutional church. There are non-Christians among us who don’t find much need to talk about “the church,” but there are also a number of us who are to some degree church abolitionist, as well as others who hold a more theologically orthodox understanding of ecclesiology. Our fellowship is not bound to a church abolitionist mission but instead to an apocalyptic vision. Grounded in our love for God and people, we are convinced that another world is possible and that we’re called to cooperate with the Spirit of God in building this new world. Such a conviction is political. It leads us to make war with all oppressive forces, and will therefore lead us to combat reactionary segments of Christianity. We do not communally share a conviction that institutional Christianity must be abolished. The following article, though, begins to explore this notion, built on the analyses of Michel Foucault in both ‘Security, Territory, Population’ and ‘Discipline and Punish’.

john on patmos

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
—Mary, The Magnificat, Luke 1:51-53 (ESV)

There is a profound understanding of power in Mary’s prophetic utterance: in order for the oppressed to be liberated, those in power needed to be restrained. Those drunk on power would not yield their throne to the masses but had to be forcibly torn off, and that includes the economically powerful.

The Epistle of James expounds on this:

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
—James 5:1-5 (NRSV)

James points out that hoarding wealth, living in luxury and self-indulgence, exploiting workers—all forms of exploiting the poor—are sinful and deserving of God’s wrath. James recognized that a class war was already being waged by the wealthy, and that ushering in justice required “the day of slaughter.”

This wasn’t simply rhetoric used to convict the wealthy of their sins. As a people of Christ’s resurrection, formed into the very Body of Christ by the outpouring of the Spirit, many early Christians connected their gospel to this brutal mission. Those subjugated by oppressive powers—those poor, homeless, hungry, imprisoned—would overthrow these powers in order to build a new form of communal power from the bottom. Through this new power, a new world would be built where those long-oppressed would experience the long-declared “year of jubilee.” The masses would embody the return of Christ, and usher in a new world.

After Christ’s earthly ministry, the Church seemed to vary in understandings of power and authority, and increasingly strayed from Mary’s liberatory vision. Paul retained an egalitarian ecclesial structure that was charisma-centered rather than leader-centered, yet over time the church transformed into an authoritarian hierarchy.

That said, even though Paul had been arrested a number of times preaching a disruptive gospel, he played a role shifting the Christian understanding of imperial power. In Romans chapters 13, he recognizes the authority of those in government, seeing them as God’s servants. To Paul, Caesar was not the ultimate authority, but he still was an authority. Obedience to the government was a matter of conscience. This not only contradicts the anti-imperialist struggle of Christ’s ministry, and seemingly re-interpreting Christ’s subversive words on rendering unto Caesar, but also contradicts Epistle to the Ephesians, a Pauline text not necessarily authored by Paul, which states that our struggle is “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

The values of the Church shifted, from being principled bands of zealots combating power to separatist communalists avoiding power to, eventually, sanctified vehicles of power—an often unquestioned authority in western society and an integral force in imperialism. The Church’s gospel was radically re-oriented, with apocalypticism becoming less demanding of material transformation and ushering the year of jubilee, and instead demanding inward readiness for Christ’s return. Rather than outward, material justice, Christians were encouraged to seek inner holiness. The political struggle for a new world became an inward struggle for sanctification. As the church and empire married, loyalty to the powers of this world became an issue of piety. The security and expansion of power became providential, and disobedience to power, eventually the nation-state, became unfaithfulness to God.

As the Christian spirituality formed alongside Christendom, we see a Church that increasingly is defined by its authorities, and its practices reflect that. Even prayer becomes a way to internalize these authorities, as those in the clergy, monasteries, and even lay people daily went through the examination of conscience, a contemplative practice to re-align one’s conscience and life to moral law. Monasteries required complete obedience to the order of the community and guidance of the self-sacrificial abbot, who mercifully exercised pastoral authority on his beloved flock. By the thirteenth century, we see the practice of confession with a priest become so commonplace that Fourth Council of the Lateran mandated that all Christians that have reached the years of discretion had to confess all their sins at least once a year. Christian liturgy and practice instilled an authoritarian God—a cop—in the souls of adherents.

Michel Foucault noted that the “the Christian West has undoubtedly been . . . the most creative, the most conquering, the most arrogant, and doubtless the most bloody,” crediting how Christianity introduced a new pastoral power to civilization. This problematic understanding of power is grounded in the image of God as Shepherd, determined to lead all individuals to salvation, even if it requires “the sacrifice of one for all, and the sacrifice of all for one.” This power seeks to monitor and manipulate for the sake of guiding and leading individuals, and whole populations, to salvation. This power is spiritual, a matter of conscience and salvation, and therefore constant and omnipresent.

Pastoral power is distinct to political power, though the relationship between the two is complicated and interwoven. Originally an innovation of Christian institutions, pastoral power evolved with the formation of the nation-state, and is now employed by the state, as seen in the carceral system. Its omnipresence materialized through the Church’s binding to political power, forming how Western society disciplines and punishes. Christian advocates saw prisons as spaces of penance, giving criminals needed spiritual restoration. The threat of prison, and the lifelong consequences of criminality, causes one to internalize this pastoral power, monitoring and manipulating one’s self to live in a way that is suitable in the eyes of power.

Foucault sees pastoral power as consistent throughout the history of the Christian West, claiming that “all or a great part of the struggles that permeated not only the Christian church but the Christian world, that is to say the entire Western world from the thirteenth to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, were struggles around and concerning pastoral power.” Foucault says that “the pastorate in Christianity gave rise to a dense, complicated, and closely woven institutional network that claimed to be, and was in fact, coextensive with the entire Church, and so with Christianity, with the entire Christian community.”

It could be argued that we see this pastoral power in the words of the resurrected Jesus:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18b-20)

The Great Commission demands obedience to the teachings of Jesus, and to extend this obedience to all the world. It commands one to be pastored by Jesus, and to pastor others into Jesus. Even if Jesus was simply speaking to the religious and spiritual condition to provoke revolutionary circumstances, this pastoral-orientation is still problematic. That being said, this wouldn’t be too different from some vanguardist organizations, who seek to pastor the working class into their brand of political dogmatism.

The operation of pastoral power among the early disciples and the Church three centuries after Christ’s ministry, and of course the Church today, are notably different. Christ’s ministry built a form of pastoral power from and for the poor masses. Jesus and his disciples fellowshipped with the lumpen-esque underclass, and these individuals became leaders in his principled revolutionary movement. This power was not yet attached to the institutionalized church of empire, and formed threatening apocalyptic communities. The demand for obedience was not for the sake of partnering or aiding power, but instead for the wise and strategic overthrowing of power.

Paul, like the other apostles, took the Great Commission to heart, seeing it necessary to extend the gospel to the whole world. Though he seemed to reveal a universalist bent, recognizing the “Unnamed God” of the Athenian pagans as his God, the one true God (Acts 17), he still saw it as necessary to convince these pagans to his faith. This seemingly tolerant but condescending attitude toward pagans was further revealed in how he did not see any issues with eating food that was sacrificed to idols, outside of being a stumbling block for those with “weak consciences,” reasoning that “there is no God but one,” inferring that these offerings could bear no true spiritual significance, for the gods behind them were not real (1 Cor. 18).

We see this pastoral power solidify in the theology and structure of the Church with Pope Cornelius, who took what many saw as a compassionate stance on repentant Christians who had practiced pagan sacrifices in order for their protection. Noted theologian and eventual anti-pope Novatian and his followers took a hardline stance, equating post-conversion pagan activity as blasphemy of the Spirit, and unforgivable. Cornelius argued that these backslidden Christians could be spiritually restored through different forms of penance, according to the severity of their sin.

We see this pastoral power increasingly separate the Church from society. As the Church’s orientation shifted from mystical insurrectionists to sojourners in a fallen society, their ministries became less disruptive, hoping to meekly and peaceably convert the world to their persecuted cult. This passive posture prepared the Church to be co-opted, and therefore fully tamed, by empire, creating what radical theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer called “a counterrevolution that itself becomes what we know as Christendom,” ultimately evolving pastoral power into the insidious, violent force we now condemn.

This all-consuming pastoral power keeps society bound to the interests of the ruling class, and is essential to how Christians understand the Church. Foucault notes that the Reformation was not a radical theological break but instead a pastoral battle, and that what resulted was instead “a pastorate in two different types,” Protestant and Catholic. The Church does not need another reformation, but instead to be thoroughly exorcised of the notion of the pastorate, and the God that drenches its worship, theology, and culture. Attempts to reform the Church often actually re-interpret this pastoral power into liberatory or even anti-capitalist aesthetics without meaningful change.

The oppressive forces of Christianity cannot simply be exorcised with a more “progressive” theology, or the technical inclusion of the queer community, or people of color. No progressive measure can prevent Christian institutions from compromising with power and contributing to the colonialist project. The ecclesial structure, theology, liturgy and practices of the Church have been formed by near 2000 years of a tense, complex, but often synergistic relationship between pastoral and political powers. Even liberal churches participate in ongoing Christian colonialism, as they seek to extend their influence and political power in the world through charity and aid, grow and plant churches on stolen land, and enforce whiteness as a community and institutional norm. The Church’s purpose is to create and extend obedience to these powers. The pastorate, and pastoral power, is essential to institutional Christianity. Therefore, the Church must be abolished.

If we are to continue in fellowship, we need to be constantly on guard to not these replicate imperialist dynamics. We must reject the pastorate. We do not see our faith as something that elevates our spiritual condition over others, nor do we see it as something that could even benefit all people. For whatever reason, for better or for worse, some of us have a deep need for spiritual communion with others, and when that need is met, it strengthens our empathy and forms us into better comrades. To avoid re-establishing the Church, our faith communities ought to not seek to institutionalize but rather remain an affinity committed to the building of the Commune and doing the needed work to repent for the Church.

My community, the Friendly Fire Collective, has long used the language of being a “pastoral presence to the Left,” placing ourselves outside, even above, revolutionary movements. Concerns have been raised about how this language reveals and creates condescending and manipulative posturing, replicating the imperialist dynamics of Christianity, acting as a pastorate. We hope to instead, as a community and as individuals, orient around the revolutionary work around us, not as a guiding force, but as companions and comrades in the class war.

The struggle for the new world will not be peaceful or smooth, but instead violent and chaotic. When our reality and conditions are built on exploitation—on violence and chaos—this is unavoidable. As we heed Mary’s prophetic call to tear the mighty off their thrones, we will be haunted by the pastorate, hushing our revolutionary impulses and idolizing idealism.

We must kill this God, this cop within. We must allow empathy, love for our neighbor, to crucify piety within us. If we are to believe in a God, may this God look like Christ: a comrade in the struggle, willing to enter our messes in solidarity. This God does not lead us, condescend, or attempt to save us, but knows our conditions, understands the layers of cruelty and exploitation stacked up against us, and is determined to wage war with us into the new world.

This is Emmanuel, God with us. And such a God deserves better than the Church. May we become separate from the Church and yield to God’s Spirit of justice in the masses.

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