December 12, 2006

Trouble in Tanzania

Word has come from the Church of Tanzania that communion is “severely impaired” with the Episcopal Church, and there will be no further dealings with anyone who is “homosexual” or who has approved of just about anything having to do with “homosexuality.” In addition to the condemnation and the declaration of impaired communion, the Church of Tanzania joins the Church of Uganda in stating that it will no longer accept financial or material support from The Episcopal Church or its tainted coffers.

Frankly, I don’t know what theological justification there can be for refusing financial help from those deemed unclean. Certainly Israel was instructed to take as much as they could from the Egyptians when they set off on their Exodus (3:22). And I don’t recall the pericope about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:35) ending,

And when the man recovered from his wounds, and hearing that the one who had helped him was a Samaritan, he cursed the day of his birth, saying, “Woe is me that I should be helped by an unclean sinner.” And entreating the host to cast the coins he had received onto the dungheap, for they were unclean as coming from unclean hands, he wrote letters to his friends in a far country, earnestly desiring that they should send him money that he might pay the host all that he owed.
Nor did Jesus refuse the help of the Samaritan woman, though he had better water for her than she for him (John 4:7). So the idea that money from TEC should by no means be allowed to taint Tanzanian hands seems to be a novel idea based on notions of ritual purity; which would explain a great deal.

Now, if this refusal of funds merely meant one less perk for the bishops who passed this legislation, that is, if it really concerned them directly, I would say, fine. But the money these bishops are refusing isn’t meant for them — it is for ministries to the hungry, the poor, the widows and orphans — of which there are hundreds of thousands in Tanzania. The bishops are holding a metaphorical gun to the heads of these suffering hostages, and threatening to pull the trigger unless The Episcopal Church repents and recants. Do you think that image overwrought? We are talking here literally of life and death for many of these innocents. And while going on a hunger strike oneself to force others to an act of conscience is one thing, to make others undertake a starvation strike seems altogether immoral. I don’t know what ethical system these bishops were instructed in, but in my book (you know, the one with an Old and a New part) the primary duty of those who would serve God is to serve the suffering, not to demand adherence to a purity code.

Of course, this is only the latest chapter in the continuing saga of those who think of themselves as holy versus those who do the things Jesus actually commanded his disciples to do. Let me explore one of the earlier chapters with you, and how Jesus dealt with one who thought he knew where holiness was to be found — and not found.

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In the present debates the story of “The Woman Taken In Adultery” has come up more than once. This episode from our Lord’s ministry, appearing only in some versions of the Gospel of John, and occasionally in Luke, is cited by “liberals” for its notes of tolerance and suspension of judgment and by “conservatives” for its call for reformation of life. As with much of Scripture its one-size message apparently fits all.

There is another gospel episode, however, that I find much more apposite to our present case, called “The Anointing in Bethany.” John (12:1-8) places the scene in the hospitable and somewhat irregular household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, while Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) place it in the home of Simon the leper. All three evangelists highlight the extravagant offering of perfume, the diversion of resources that might have served the poor, and Jesus’ response that serving him in this instance takes precedence. (In these cases the Tanzanian and Ugandan fund-refusers might — by a squint-eyed misunderstanding of Jesus — have some remote justification for letting the poor be “always with them” while they serve Jesus directly. Point is, Jesus has now told us, in his absence, to serve him in the poor. Sorry, bishops.)

Luke (7:36-50), however, with his characteristic urge to highlight issues of salvation and redemption, places the scene in the enemy camp, in the home of Simon the Pharisee, whose concern is not with perfume or the poor, but with the woman, or rather, with the sort of woman he knows her to be, not an individual person so much as a member of a despised class of people.

The Pharisee no doubt thinks that he has escaped the snares of sin by his careful observance of the rules. There is no hint that it ever occurs to his purified conscience, “If this man were a prophet he would not accept my invitation to dinner, for he would know what sort of man I am.” No, the Pharisee is prudent; he is temperate. Like his confrère who compared himself favorably to the tax collector, the great gulf between his upright life and this fallen woman’s lifestyle is obvious to him. “Yes,” he might say, “we are all sinners; but some are clearly more sinful than others.”

And Jesus appears at first to ratify this assessment: he offers the analogy of debt forgiveness, forgiveness to one who owed much and to one who owed little. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, with what the Pharisee could well take as a flattering assessment, a pat on the head for his correct answer to the moral drama unfolding at his dinner table.

Instead Jesus presses home the significance of the answer: the Pharisee has judged himself, correctly this time, and Jesus goes on to compare and contrast Simon’s parsimonious welcome with the woman’s lavish and costly service.

The Pharisee welcomes Jesus to the table, but keeps him at arms’ length and sits in judgment — and in error. For Jesus not only knows what sort of woman it is who is ministering to him, but knows it better than the Pharisee possibly can, better than the Pharisee knows himself. The Pharisee cannot fathom why Jesus would allow a sinner to be a minister to him, or at least such a sinner. Of his own trifling sins he cares but little, for he is sure of his own righteousness. But this woman! That is another matter altogether. And so he sits in double judgement, of the woman and her Lord.

She, on the other hand, isn’t worried about her sins, which indeed are many. Nor is there a mention of repentance concerning her tears — unusual for Luke! Rather these are responsive tears of love flowing from faith and hope, from the knowledge of forgiveness, the theology of virtue encompassed and expressed in a woman thought by the Pharisee incapable of goodness, a woman who incarnates and enacts the liturgical sacrament of baptism with her confession of faith, the washing of her tears, and anointing her Lord with fragrant ointment, sealed with the kiss of peace.

So we are presented with two models for our own encounter with Christ, with Christian ministry, with service to the body of Christ which is the church. All who serve the Lord are sinners, all who serve the Lord are forgiven. Some will prefer to spend their time worrying about other people’s sins and how the church can tolerate them. They will seek to obstruct their service, thinking all the while that they protect God’s body from the touch of unclean hands. Others will get on with the works of faith, of hope, and of love. Is there any question at all which Christ would rather have us do?

— Tobias Haller BSG


14 comments:

Tobias said...

On another blog someone has suggested that the issue with TEC money isn't some sort of "taint" but the sense in which these funds represent a bribe or coercion for support.

It is probably true that the issue is not "taint" per se; but to suggest bribery or coercion begs the question of bribery towards what? I mean, we work with Methodists and Presbyterians in the WCC and NCC and other traditions even further removed from our own on joint relief efforts, and never suggest that these other religious bodies need to approve of TEC's internal policies or practices.

If the Tanzanians and Ugandans are "being bought" then one should ask if we were getting what we paid for! The funds from TEC have never had such "strings" attached, in a quid pro quo for support of internal decisions of TEC. Ironic that this accusation of "chicken dinners" and bribes at Lambeth 1998 has now somehow been turned on its head! Relief money to help the poor and suffering is really a bribe to bishops!

The only real "string" in all of this is "communion" -- binding us together: that is, UTO and ERD work through the ecclesial structures of the Anglican Communion, and require the approval of the diocesan bishop (for the grant, not the grantor!) to make an international grant. By severing (or "impairing") communion these bishops are cutting off the lifeline -- to others. An objectively immoral act in itself, and hardly likely to help us carry out any movement towards a future covenant, or listening process.

Anonymous said...

I think they are doing this not because of "taint" but primarily because it is the clearest, most concrete, and strongest way of saying, "we are no longer in relationship." It is just a symbol. I can also see the appearance of bribery argument. It may be irrational, but that is a charge that has been floating around and they might want to forcefully refute it.

My guess is that before they made the decision they factored in that they won't be really losing any American money (or not as much as if might seem). It will now just be coming from Anglican Relief and Development, and the conservative radicals with deep pockets who will be eager now to send the funds they are redirecting from TEC there. Sadly, it is just another sign of the effort to realign the Communion.

R said...

"My guess is that before they made the decision they factored in that they won't be really losing any American money. . ."

Forgive me, J.J., but that is just a guess.

What I find most disturbing is that the bishops, even if only in principle, are betting their righteousness in this matter at the risk of those who have the least say over their own lives (those living in abject poverty). I find that appalling in light of the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

TEC can continue to support the poor in Tanzania and Uganda, spending whatever it sees fit to spend. The Bishop has simply said, don't send it to me and make me your agent in distributing the money. No one is deprived of anything if TEC chooses to aid "the poor" in Tanzania, Uganda or anywhere else. This is a "red herring" argument.

Tobias said...

Dear Anonymous Red Herring,
I think you are missing the point of the argument if you think it is a Red Herring: most of the funds that go from TEC to Tanzania can only go there through the Bishops' offices. I suppose UTO and ERD could change their rules to allow for direct grants to secular programs -- but what about the church-run and church-operated programs that can't be funded without the church knowing?

Anonymous said...

If the idea is to help the poor and not control the recipient, support a work of the RC or Presbyterian church. Are the poor involved in Anglican church sponsored programs so unique that only they are deserving of being helped by ERD or UTO? The argument is truly a red herring.

Tobias said...

Dear Anonymous,

Perhaps a real life example will help you understand why this is not a red herring. I am peronsally involved in a particular program that works through Anglican parishes in Tanzania. Yes, I could certainly send funds to other church's projects or to non-church projects. But the specific program in question will suffer unless some way can be found on their end for the Anglican Tanzanian bishops to allow the funds to come through. We are not talking about vague or generic programs here, with interchangable "poor," but specific programs for specific people, some having been in operation for years, and which will now suffer a major loss of funding because of the actions of some of the Tanzanian bishops. This is very far from a red herring: it involves specific individuals no longer receiving aid that some bishops are choosing to obstruct. I hope you understand the difference between random philanthropy and church-to-church programs. It may be all the same to you, but it won't be to the children deprived by this refusal.

obadiahslope said...

At this point it becomes moot about who is to blame. Is it the Tanzanian bishops who do not want to be in relationship with TEC, or is it Tobias who seems to insist that this particular program can only be funded church to church?
Perhaps it is both.
(If there are rules they can surely be changed. Get a local catholic church to send the money. Or donate anonymously as our Lord would suggest we do).

Tobias said...

Obadiahslope,

Unless you live in a very strange moral world, those who are the proximate cause of an action have the primary responsibility for it. The actions of TEC in no way "forced" those in ACT to take the action they did -- this was their free choice, and will be held responsible for it by a higher authority than you or I. I don't see it as a matter of blame, but of responsibility.

And I am not "insisting" that the program in question only be funded as it has been. I merely observe that a functioning program has been disrupted by the ACT action. In fact, we are working very hard to find a way around this impasse -- working here and with friends in Tanzania. If that can be done anonymously -- to allow the ACT bishops allow money through under the table while appearing to maintain their righteous indignation -- well, it wouldn't be the first time. All I care about is seeing the ministry accomplished, and I resent the roadblock these Bishops have placed in the path.

You don't seem to understand that this program is about more than money -- it is about parish-to-parish linkage, and people giving out of the goodness of their hearts for the benefit of other people. Hard as it might be for you to understand, we "liberals" do not measure everything by the almighty dollar -- American, Nigerian, or Australian.

Meanwhile, how do you defend the action of the ACT bishops? Is this gospel behavior? What text can you cite from our Lord on that one, Obadiah?

obadiahslope said...

Tobias,
all of us from Tanzania, Australia or wherever will answer to a higher authority in our due time. Let's agree on that.
I can understand that you are concerned about a disruption to program your parish (I assume it is yours) is linked to. I hope that your hard work to find an alternative path works.
"You don't seem to understand that this program is about more than money -- it is about parish-to-parish linkage, and people giving out of the goodness of their hearts for the benefit of other people. "
Your program always be about people giving out of the goodness of their hearts for the benefit of other people.
Sadly it will not be about parish to parish linkage unless the communion between TEC and ACT is restored.
And to talk about the causes of that would be to get into matters that you are probably as weary as I in discussing.
If I were the Tanzanians I would have let the matter of giving programs rest until the other communion matters were addressed. I guess some would have accused them of hypocisy in taking TEC money if they took that course.
I would have born that accusation - but I can understand why they decided not too.
As to whether you are a liberal or not, I don't know that I have ever tried to find one word to descibe your theology which seems to me to be nuamced and generous. And even If I had concluded your were "liberal" I assure you that I would not think that meant you measured things by dollars. I am sure there are plenty of "liberals" who give liberally and live lives more sacrificial than mine.

R said...

Tobias,

Prayers for you, your community, and your friends in Tanzania as you find a grace-filled way to respond to this situation and meet God's call to help those in need.

Tobias said...

Thank you, R., for your prayers, and Obadiah for your response. You also noted,

If I were the Tanzanians I would have let the matter of giving programs rest until the other communion matters were addressed. I guess some would have accused them of hypocisy in taking TEC money if they took that course.
I would have born that accusation - but I can understand why they decided not too.


And I think we are in agreement on this. I was trying to express why, in spite of understanding why they might do such a thing, I believe the action to be deeply wrong.

That noted, I am happy to report, and will put up a separate posting when I've the chance, that the Bishop with whom we have been working spoke against the action of the ACT - HOB, and he feels it does not "speak for the church" and he will continue to support the cooperative work we have undertaken. This is good news all round, I think. Thank God one bishop puts the Gospel above the purity code.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

very nicely said all round.

Is there any question at all which Christ would rather have us do?

sadly, there apparently is. :(

Grandmère Mimi said...

Tobias, what is a good working definition of "ecclesiastical dispensationalism"? I have Googled with not much success. Portions of your essay are over my head - not your fault, simply because I don't know enough - but I could proceed with more understanding with a definition of that phrase.