Among other things, perhaps this is true:
God and goodness are just matters for which individuals decline to take responsibility.
If this is true, the ramifications are enormous and frequently painful.
What brought this to mind was an article passed along yesterday in email -- a link to the National Catholic Reporter's story about retired Australian Roman Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson and an address he gave in Chicago. Robinson's topic was the sexual abuse scandal within his church and the "culture of obsessive secrecy" that allowed it to flourish. I do hope that Robinson owns and wears a sturdy flak jacket.
I will admit up front that the topic of abuse of children -- past, present or future, in any context -- is one that can set my hair on fire. And further that the abuse of institutional power ... well, I'm an old leftie, as prone to whining as anyone else. But I also think that Robinson's powerful message to the Catholic hierarchy -- tear down the walls, 'fess up and get right with God -- is worth heeding in wider ways.
In the specific instance -- abuse within the Catholic church -- one of the most infuriating things is a line of exculpatory reasoning that seems to go like this: Because God handed down a rule book of which we, the church, approve (The Ten Commandments), there is no need for us to shoulder very personal guidelines -- guidelines for each and every church or other organization under our aegis. Let God do the heavy lifting -- we are committed to doing something good ... that is all you need to know and that is all we need to tell you.
This transference of responsibility to some higher, greater, gooder amorphous entity is used to absolve individual clerics, individual churches, individual Vaticans of any heinous behavior: God'll take care of it; we are doing good and to attack us is to attack that goodness. Let's not throw the baby of goodness out with the scuzzy bathwater.
Naturally, the Vatican and its minions are not alone in employing this tactic or line of thinking. I don't know of a spiritual persuasion that doesn't A. point to some higher good and B. lay out some ethical guidelines. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism ... same stuff, different day... each has its bright lights and its rules for walking into that light.
But the issue arises: Having institutionalized -- mentally or literally -- this world of goodness, participants start to believe their own press releases. "We are good people," the press releases read, but the emphasis and congratualations shifts from "people" to "good" and that much-beloved "goodness" needs not only to be nourished and praised, it needs to be defended at all costs.
Men and women around the world are the ones who have repeatedly paid those costs ... the same men and women who made the "good" institution viable in the first place. Sexual abuse may be abhorrent in God's eyes, but the good church fathers have refused, like other organization men before them, to open their own, to exercise the very tenets in which the "good" institution is grounded. Shifting the responsibility to a benevolent goodness ... well, it's as infuriating as it is common.
The format of power extends worlds other than the spiritual -- think banking industry, think politics, think industry ... "we are good people nourishing the good" and we really don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so there should be forgiveness for our various transgressions. Think ... think ... think...
Of the bathroom mirror.
How many press releases have been written in that mirror? The press releases draw us all forward, but how many of the press releases are written as an excuse, as a means of sidestepping responsibility: "I am a good person, nourishing the good," but the emphasis shifts to "good" to "God" and turns a blind eye to the "person" in "good person." And the excuse goes further: "It's all part of being human," which, of course it is. But another part of being human is to assume the very personal responsibility for being human. What does that mean? How much of what I say it means is true ... and how much is simply press release? If I fail to correct my mistakes under a banner of "goodness," what sort of human being do I become? I think it's OK to be an asshole, but I think it is better to own it than evade it.
Sometimes I think that every church and temple and other spiritually-inclined center should be required to hand out a sheet to its adherents. On it would be written the very specific measures in place that will address the times when institutional -- which is to say, personal -- asshole-dom rears its head. "Everyone makes mistakes" is not enough by itself any more than "God is good" or "the unconditional realm is beyond asshole-dom" is enough.
It is heinous to abuse and manipulate little children. Why should it be any less heinous when we manipulate and abuse ourselves?
I am a good person. We are good people. Never mind the "good" -- find out who, in fact, this person or these people are. Then there is some chance for honest goodness to grow.