Complicity, Comity, and Social Peace

Mary Magdala Community

Thoughts on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, December 31, 2017

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

This Sunday is a not quite this and a not yet that kind of day.  Today is after Christmas but not yet New Year’s Day.  It’s New Year’s Eve but we gather in the morning.  With this ripple in time in mind I thought we would pray for peace.

For me too much that has happened in 2017 has a déjà vu touch to it.  I feel like I have seen this movie before.  Remember the Cold War when our country was engaged in a war of words defaming Communism and threatening nuclear war?  Remember the era of Jim Crow laws when tests were given to African American voters for the sole purpose of preventing them from voting?  Remember Stonewall and so many happenings of brutality and rank discrimination against gays, Jews, Immigrants, women, Native Americans, and on, and on, and on?

Yes, 2017 has too much déjà vu about it.

Remember when the Catholic Church was held up as the “perfect society”?  All those misguided followers of a corrupted teaching from St. Thomas Aquinas and various neo-platonists who balked at change (what’s perfect cannot change) stood in the way of St. John XXIII’s open windows in 1963.  Their successors continue today.  Their patron saint is the Mother Superior, played exquisitely by Melissa Leo, in the film “Novitiate.”  This film is set in the time of the second Vatican Council inside of a cloistered community of nuns led by a change averse Reverend Mother.  At one point there is a conversation that reveals the conflict between Reverend Mother and the Mistress of Postulants (the young women preparing to enter the Novitiate).  Mother Superior says the Vatican Council intends to change the church.  She declares with complete assurance and exactitude, “I believe the Church is perfect just as it is.”

Danger lies ahead – as our memories jar us in the déjà vu of the present.

My memory reminds me of these historical certainties.  And my experience tells me they are all distortions of rational social reality.  That’s why I thought it would be helpful to consider peace this morning.

Not the peace, mind you, that is the antidote to violence and war – as welcome as that would most certainly be.  But the peace that is at the foundation of a diversely structured social reality.  What is social peace and how is it achieved?  I’d like to offer a word that may shine light on the challenge of achieving social peace.  The word is complicity – as in, what kinds of complicity must happen in order for social peace to be threatened, if not destroyed?

Here’s an example of of just such a threat and destruction.  It comes from Ireland – from the West to be more precise, and Tuam, County Galway to be exact.

In the October 29 edition of the New York Times the editors published an entire section – not just a pullout,  but an 8 page separate section – devoted to what I would say happens when religious and political institutions are complicit with each other and ultimately destroy social peace.

“The Lost Children of Tuam” (pronounced CHOOM) tells the horrifying story of the mistreatment, and in some cases the creating of conditions that led to the death, of children of unwed mothers.  This occurred in one Tuam institution (and in at least 7 others all over the country) at the hands of the Irish Government and an order of nuns called the Sisters of Bon Secours.  (My French dictionary says this means:  Sisters of Good Assistance, or Good Help.)

The story is too unrelenting and, frankly, too long to relate here.  (You can go to for the story.)  In sum, over the almost 40 years that these institutions existed – not just in Tuam – a total of 796 children died with no record of their passing other than an entry in a ledger book.  The treatment was unspeakable.  One could argue this is complicity of the Catholic Church, with this self-assured certainty of its perfection, with government policies that were founded on the strategy of punishment as rehabilitation.  Even Canon Law of those days required that each baptized person was entitled to the funeral rites of the Catholic Church and to be buried in consecrated ground.  These 796 children (at least) were wrapped in threadbare blankets and unceremoniously buried in underground septic tanks and worse.  This complicity destroyed social peace in Ireland once these institutions, politicians, bishops, and other “religious” personnel were exposed.

Yes, complicity destroys the social fabric that links any society together.  And only exposure and the light of truth has the best chance to restore that fabric to peace.

Are there lessons here for us?  I think so, and here’s why I think so.

In a recent article, also in the New York Times, a fascinating, though perhaps not surprising occurrence has happened in the field of Social Science Surveys in this country.  Surveyors find that significant and growing numbers of Evangelical Christians hold more strongly to their political positions  than to their theological beliefs.  For example, taking one’s gun to church means more than any sermon on the scripture of the day.  Or criminalizing abortion trumps belief in Jesus who became victim for us.  Atonement is out, prevention of contraception is in!

Now, let’s think about this.  The article points out that Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, Sr. wouldn’t take a political stand without first setting down its justification with a few Bible quotes, at least.  Their sons, Franklin and Jerry, Jr. have no scriptural justification.  They give political speeches after being introduced as a Reverend.  The complicity between this politically based so-called Evangelicalism and its mistitled religious based politics has clearly shown its danger to social peace,

How does social peace happen?

First, by allowing religion and politics, theology and society’s governing principles, to maintain their separation from each other.  In the past what existed, in the least, was the institutional wall of separation between church and state.  Now, it looks like churches will be able to endorse political candidates while maintaining their tax-free status.  Preachers who withhold money and voters from politicians over single-issue politics become complicit noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Second, social peace, as today’s second reading from the Book of Acts (9:31) shows, happens when community lives out the presence of comity, the presence of Jesus, when growth in the Spirit overcomes narrow-mindedness.  Over and over we hear of social peace in the past when religious minorities lived in harmony with political majorities.  For example, Coptic Christians in Egypt lived in relative harmony with the majority Islam population for centuries.  In the week before the start of Christmas this year this ancient religious minority saw 8-10 of their members murdered in yet another senseless slaughter.

Third, social peace abides in an atmosphere and a practice of self-scrutiny, by a person or an organization that promotes honesty, humility, and transparency.

And finally, social peace thrives, as today’s reading from the Gospel of John reminds us (John 13:34-35), when we pay attention to Jesus’ commandment that we love another.

Now that’s a movie I have not seen often enough.

  A Prayer

Praise and Glory to you, Holy One,

in this season of celebrating your gifts –

especially the birth of your son, Jesus.

We are a people who forget and lose sight.

We wander in the darkness of easy promises,

misguided complicity, and corrupted wealth.

The flow of your abiding presence in our hearts and lives

raises our hope to overcome these limits.

The stream of your loving presence in our world

strengthens our resolve to share your truth of New Life.

We offer our family prayer through Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.              Amen.     (JR)

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