Holding Power Accountable… Somehow

This isn’t really much of a surprise…

Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.

Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.

“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”

I appreciate that I am something of an outlier here, being a very religious person despite my parents’ lack of overt religion (though my mother and I talked of faith and ethics a fair amount when I was a teenager). And I won’t add much to this, except to say that some community and institutional practices always seemed to bother me. The church I did my first internship, for example, had a fair number of confirmation students (junior high schoolers) who were dropped off for obligatory religious education by parents who otherwise rarely or never attended worship. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of that was, except to impart a very limited understanding of the role of faith in life. That belief and practice play no real part, save a basic body of knowledge that help form some kind of identity.

“I am a Lutheran,” as if somehow there’s no content, no practice, no way of living greater than cultural or social belonging or expectations, to that declaration.

“Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence…” A little on this. One of the things I’ve noticed about those with power, having spent much of my life on the wrong side of such people, is the sense so many of them have that they must be judges only by what they say about themselves. That their actual deeds, they way the treat people, are actually not open for critique or judgment.

I realize this is wandering a little far afield from the original subject of this blog entry, but this is actually a big deal for me. One of the things I’ve observed most of my life is the sense that somehow power, and the powerful, are never accountable, and never should be accountable, and that power, how it is used, and who uses it, can never be held to any standard save the standard that power pronounces for itself. “Do as I tell you to do, and not as I actually do.”

This seems to be a very human desire, and I’ve experienced it among all sorts of people, religious and not. But it’s most articulated in my understanding of Law & Gospel, and particularly the uses of the Law (the teaching of God, torah), that the Lutheran confessions teach.  Since I’m no longer in any formal Lutheran church ordination process, I can admit — my biggest disagreement with Lutheran teaching is with law and gospel, and the uses of the law. I don’t think “law and gospel” as Lutherans have outlined it accurately describes what actually happens in scripture or how God really acts. (“Gift and response,” using Matthew Frost‘s words, better describes how God interacts with God’s people in scripture.) My disagreement is primarily with the civil use of the law. I don’t see much restraining of sin by anyone or anything but other sinful human beings. This understanding of “the law” is somewhere between deluded and wishful thinking and an outright lie. (This is also the root of my objection to anything that calls itself Natural Law.)

From all I’ve seen of the world, the sins of those with power, privilege, and position will always go unrestrained. In fact, half the time, such sins will be called righteousness. Because they are the sins of the people enforcing the law. They are the sword, and they can do no wrong.

But back to why this is here. This confessional approach to the law makes it the consequence for which there can never be judgment or consequence. The law, in this understanding, is never unjust, never wrongs anyone. Because anyone on its wrong side has it coming — they have sinned. In reality, however, It becomes the theological, intellectual, and moral justification for the kind of exclusion, marginalization, or brutality that claims to be lawfulness, but really is only the abuse of those who have little or no power and no recourse.

And yet, those who are wrong end of the law and the baton, on the wrong end of constant moralizing, hectoring, and abuse, we watch. And we judge. We know the different between words said and deeds done. Even if we cannot hold power, and the law, meaningfully accountable — cannot stop it from being callous and brutal.  We can always walk away.