Our Lack Of Imagination
One of the most far-reaching pages of the history of the church is the 20-year long controversy between St Augustine of Hippo and a sect known under the name of Donatism which took place in North Africa in the 4th and 5th century. Crucial confessional tenets on the nature of baptism, priesthood and the church that shape our practices to this day were honed during this controversy. Donatists believed that the only solution to scandals and failings in the Church is the creation of a community of pure or uncontaminated people – an attempt which might have been well-intentioned at the beginning but led them to increasingly hypocritical claims of moral superiority over other Christians and to the denial of their own inconsistencies and patent internal strives. St Augustine opposed them by highlighting the Gospel truth that the no good can ever be completely disentangled from evil in our lives and that failings and sinfulness in the Church are unavoidable and should be endured with patience.
The thing that struck me most when I first studied this controversy was Augustine’s unremitting commitment to dialogue with a counterpart which was intellectually flawed and often dishonest, and constantly fabricated fake historical evidence to support claims about the purity of its bishops’ pedigree – a counterpart which was very skilful at manipulating mobs and stoking resentment and violence by taking advantage of simmering racial and social resentments – a counterpart which did not hesitate to resort to physical violence when verbal bullying had not been enough to deter its opponents. If we are unedified by the fractiousness and disputes in our churches today, we can consider ourselves fortunate that at least nobody is beaten to death in our synodal meetings – as it happened to some catholic bishops at the hands of the Donatists.
Augustine poured a disproportionate amount of energy in writings and public debates in the hope of winning the Donatists over through persuasion, fact checking, and appeal to their conscience – all in vain. In the end, especially because of the social unrest that Donatism was stoking, Catholic bishops supported the imperial intervention that first stifled the sect financially and then outlawed it in the year 411. It was a bittersweet victory for Catholics. By resigning themselves to resort to coercion in matters of faith they compromised the principle of religious freedom for the following fourteen hundred years, and paved the way to the so-called “secular arm” - that is the Church’s alleged right to invoke the legal authority of the civil power to punish offenders in matters belonging to ecclesial jurisdiction. Later Inquisitors justified their infamous practices misquoting sentences of anti-Donatist Augustinian writings.
All this tragic history is somehow foreshadowed in the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees in the final chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Through the parable of the landowner and his vineyard, Jesus exposes the refusal of the Pharisees to welcome the unexpected ways in which God acts in history. This parable is part of a series of increasingly fierce clashes between Jesus and the religious authorities of his time which eventually led to the plot to dispose of him with the help of the secular arm, the Roman authority.
Jesus is perfectly aware of the murderous intentions of his interlocutors, of their inexorable refusal to put their prejudices into question and engage in a genuinely open-minded debate. But he does not give up and resorts to all sort of arguments and even extreme gestures (like overthrowing the tables of the money changers in the temple) to break through their defences. Among other tactics, he appeals to images that could not but resonate deeply with these thorough connoisseurs of Scriptures.
Indeed, they could not miss the poignant echo between Jesus’ words and the Lord’s sentence in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. “And now - says the Lord in Isaiah- inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5.3f). Jesus appeals to the conscience of the Pharisees in a similar way: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?".
Typically, however, they think that the parable must refer to others than themselves and indulge in moral outrage: “They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Mt 21.40).
They could understand that the behaviour described by Jesus in the parable was cruel in the extreme and that it deserved an exemplary punishment. But they were so cloaked in their self-righteousness that they had become unable to welcome any criticism of their behaviours or their views.
Jesus was not just trying to win an argument.
He wanted to open the eyes of his interlocutors to their refusal of the Messiah, help them to get over their pretence of perfect piety and moral integrity – as one of them, none other than the Apostle Paul himself, boasted when, talking about himself, he declared: I am “as to the law, a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3.5f). Just as with the Donatists and the puritans of all times, Pharisees were mistaking holiness with moral perfection. Since, however, perfection is humanly impossible, they had learnt to be selective about their perception of themselves, confine integrity to subjective standards, and pretend to be blameless by blaming others.
Pharisaism and Donatism are permanent temptations for all of us. They can be detected in the sad phenomenon of echo-chambers which has become pervasive in our use of social media and shapes most of our contemporary public and especially political discourse: on Twitter, on Facebook, in the choice of the our newspapers or of news outlets, we confine ourselves to an environment where we only encounter information or opinions that reflect our own. We are quick to press the send button, dismiss or demonize opposing viewpoints, revel in our righteousness and moral indignation.
We are right to be worried about the extreme polarisation of our political discourse, both in society and in the church, but we are blind to our daily contribution to it through the ways in which we indulge in our apparently innocent selective approach to reality. We should never underestimate the danger represented by our tendency to perceive only that which validates our world view and to welcome only that which strengthens the image we want to give of ourselves.
In the end our main problem is a depressing lack of imagination.
This is Jesus’s main criticism of his opponents, subtly conveyed through a quotation from the Book of Psalms which he knew these “doctors of the law’, these “experts in the knowledge of Scripture” would immediately recognize: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Psalm 118.22).
Anyone familiar with the “Lord’s doing” in Scripture knows that he has a predilection for what most of us are tempted to dismiss, for “the stone that the builders reject”. Builders are right to discard unsuitable materials that might threaten the stability of their constructions – it is normal that we should ignore views that we consider wrong or damaging, and prioritize interactions with the people we agree with or in whose company we feel more comfortable. And yet we should remember that with our God, salvation, solutions, change will always come when we expect it less and where we thought there was no potential for novelty, change or improvement. After all, we believe in a God who creates out of nothing, open pathways in the oceans, demolishes fortifications and throws mountains into the sea in answer to our prayer.
Before we reject any stone too quickly let us pause for a moment and give the Lord -and others- a chance to surprise us. And then, hopefully, have reasons to proclaim in our turn: “This was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes”.