A few decades ago, I heard a classmate-friend give a comparison and an example that has been clinging to me since. He had been a conscientious objector serving as a medic in Vietnam. Speaking of the intense preparations to be ready for surgeries in the battlefield environment, he described the dismay of what he called “breaking technique.” If someone nicked their surgical gloves with a knife or some other instrument, they would say, “I have broken technique.” Everyone at the table would then have to step back, take off their gloves and go through the process of washing up and preparing again, so that they might preserve hygiene and follow proper technique. The pressure not to admit that you had broken technique, he said, was intense and powerful. If you announced it, your whole team was angry and frustrated. Often, he said, they would throw instruments at the person who broke technique.
He used this illustration to describe the situation of the church in the modern world. The church has broken technique and must step back and begin the procedure of cleanup and hygiene that will allow it to proceed with its work. The pressure to resist this need is intense and almost irresistible. But the church must do it for the good of all.
I have thought about this comparison often over the years, but more than ever over the past few years. The church, and one could also say the churches, has made some deep and painful errors in the past, many of them coming to life now. Never, in my life, has there been so much distrust for the churches, their interests and their integrity. We have participated in a way of life that has obscured the connection of Jesus to our work and efforts. The simple teachings of our saviour often seem far away from the preoccupations of our institutions. In the process, the general feeling is that Christianity tolerates violence, bigotry and hatred. This is a painful and dangerous situation. It is not just that our reputation has taken a hit; it is more awful that we have interfered with people’s perceptions of Jesus.
At a time when so many need faith, we have made it seem illusive, unobtainable and undesirable—we have given the impression that Jesus is hostile to humanity.
We have hurt many people in the process: the victims of clergy abuse, Indigenous Peoples and others who are in marginalized ethnic groups or categories, as well as women and those who are members of sexual minorities—to name just a few. It is clear that we must begin again. Certainly, it is a call to treat “the other” better, but it is also a thoroughgoing call to repentance. This is not just a call to try harder. It is, I think, a call to trust more deeply, listen to the gospel more simply and carefully, and to turn to Jesus with a child-like trust and with admittance of a child-like need.
I expect to get some pushback on this, though I hope not. It is a time to step back from the table of our normal pursuits and to discuss how we will return to the simple purity of our beginnings in the gospel. There is nothing more urgent.