"To be effective against complacency, tradition needs disruption, not only as something that good management anticipates and averts, but just the contrary, as something to be expected, welcomed, nurtured and allowed to unfold its potential for rebooting the system".
In our previous talk on continuity and patterns, we focused on the ostinato of tradition and singled out its key components: leadership, culture and rituals based on quality relationships, and the role played by loyalty, care, admiration, compassion and faithfulness. Tradition sustains an institution even during the unavoidable periods in which one or the other of its three main features (leadership, culture and rituals) is defective.
Some ten years ago I became good friend with a young Chinese priest who told me the story of Christianity in the South of China during the period of persecution which lasted from the 50s to the late 80s of last Century. Rituals were not allowed, Christian culture was almost entirely stifled, but bishops bravely persevered through torture and lengthy periods of imprisonment (over 30 years for most of them). As soon as the persecution relented, these bishops, broken in their bodies but more defiant than ever because of the suffering they had endured, became powerful magnets of reconstruction, were revered as living martyrs, and presided over one of the most extraordinary growth of Christianity in recent history, with hundreds of thousands of conversions, and the building of hundreds of new churches. This is what one would call an ostinato, that is a stubbornness that not even four decades of the harshest harassment imaginable was able to break.
Tradition alone, however, is not enough to explain the persistence of Christianity, especially if we consider sustainability not only quantitatively as continuation in time, but especially qualitatively as the preservation and the growth of the values, the inspiration, the spirit of an institution. Tradition, as we know, all too often breeds complacency. This is what is so powerful about Steve Jobs’ sentence we quoted in our previous talk, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”: the moment we rest on what we have achieved, we lose the appetite for growth, stop daring, and decline unfailingly ensues.
Paradoxically, this means that to be effective against complacency, tradition needs disruption, not only as something that good management anticipates and averts, but just the contrary, as something to be expected, welcomed, nurtured and allowed to unfold its potential for rebooting the system, so to speak.
This is enshrined in one of the often forgotten or undermined crucial features of Christian community, namely Paul’s claim that the Church is founded not only on the apostles (and their successors, that is on tradition), but also on the prophets (that is, as we shall see, on disruption). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Eph 2:19-20).
This parallel is already at work in the Old Testament, where tradition is embodied by kings and priests who constantly fall short of their responsibility and instead of seeing themselves as servants of God and of the people, take advantage of their position for their own advantage. Thus God raises people like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremias, Amos -just to name few- whose role does not have any institutional legitimation, receive a call directly from God, are often extremely reluctant to accept the mission entrusted to them – understandably so, since most of the time they are asked to do all sorts of extremely unpopular things, like denouncing the injustices of kings and priests, and announcing droughts, famines, military defeats, and exile. Sure, there always was a silver line in their preaching, the promise of a decisive intervention by God himself to rescue his people and give it a king and a priest who would really care for them, that is a messiah - but this was for the future, and left the prospects for the present rather bleak. And yet, already in the present, often prophets led kings, priests and the whole people of Israel to embrace repentance, greater social justice, renewal in faith and worship, and kept the flame of hope alive during the times of exile. In the end, the institution of monarchy and priesthood performed their role somehow only thanks to the interference of prophecy.
How then does prophecy play a role in the life of the Church? Is there today anything comparable to the prophets of the Old Testament? Where and how does this element of beneficial disturbance be seen at work?
On the 16th of April 1210, when the Church was at the zenith of its religious and political power, promoted crusades, and burnt heretics, one of the most formidable of medieval popes, Innocent III, reluctantly agreed to give audience to some annoyingly persistent beggars led by an impetuous young man who claimed to have received a call from God to give up all possessions, espouse absolute poverty, devote himself to preaching in the streets and exhort people to brotherly love, peace and awe of creation. Just as this ruthless pope devoted all his energy to the assertion of his absolute supremacy over every kingdom of the earth, this young man, called Francis of Assisi, pleaded for his community to be called the "Lesser Brothers" (or Friars Minor).
On the 13th of September 1376, an impressive caravan of bishops, cardinals and courtiers led by Pope Gregory IX embarked in a long journey to take the papal court back to the city of Rome after almost seventy years of exile in the city of Avignon, in the South of France. During this period, the papacy had been marred by an extraordinary level of greed and corruption and become a mere pawn in the hands of French monarchy. Rome at the time was particularly unruly and unsafe, so it was a risky decision, which the Pope eventually took owing to the influence of a 19-year old Italian girl from the city of Siena called Catherine, the 23rd daughter of a merchant from Siena, who never learnt to read and write and since her youngest age had claimed to be the recipient of visions from God. She is one of the most colourful mystics of the middle ages, often bordering on the insane – if ever anyone deserved the epithet of ‘disrupter’, Catherine should be at the top of the list. And yet, she was exactly what the church of her age needed to extricate itself from the web of political entanglement, claim its freedom, even though this meant renouncing comfort and exposure to instability, precariousness and danger.
On the 31st of May 1934, when growing number of churches in Germany where aligning themselves to the antisemitic and racist ideological principles of Nazism, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth inspired the redaction of a Declaration during the Synod that took place in the city of Wuppertal-Barmen, which, among other things, declared that the church should not be influenced by the current political convictions, and rejected its subordination to the Nazi ideology, thus energizing Christian resistance to Nazism, despite the apostasy of Church leadership, and the corruption of Christian culture.
On the 28th of August 1963, when still large number of churches were complicit in racial segregation and white privilege in the United States, the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr marched at the head of 250.000 supporters to call for an end to racism – and delivered one of the most more memorable speeches in American history, “I have a dream”.
What these episodes have in common is that at times when authorized Christian tradition was not living up to its mission and vocation, some individuals disrupted its complacency and reminded it of its core values, in exactly the same way as the prophets of the Old Testament did. And the astonishing aspect of these interventions is that after an initial rejection, each time mainstream tradition eventually understood that they were a call for renewal and, however grudgingly, did eventually comply with their demands. Anyone familiar with the history of the Church knows that these salutary disruptions happened countless times, at all times, in all denominations.
Reformers like Luther, Calvin or, more recently, the Wesley brothers for example belong to this category.
Similarly, every Eastern Orthodox Christian will acknowledge the decisive role in keeping the flame of faith alive in their communities played by the starets, that is elders who are not appointed by any authority but recognized by the faithful as being the bearers of God’s wisdom, love and consolation, and whose advice and intercession are avidly sought by bishops, priests and lay people alike.
In the 19th century, at a time when women still were largely denied autonomy and initiative, and the Churches were run by people mostly preoccupied with securing and enjoying titles and benefits, hundreds of young girls popped up out of nowhere all over Europe, went to see their bishops, and asked to set up communities of religious sisters devoted to all sort of social actions: care for the poor and the sick, education of young people in deprived areas, support of immigrant population. Only in England, at the end of the XIX century, there were 10.000 such sisters in 600 convents!
These are not exceptions. Inseparably from tradition, prophecy is the reason why Christianity still is here two thousand years after its foundation and, though waning in some areas, growing faster than ever in other parts of the globe.
And there is an important lesson for every Christian in all this, which Jesus first gave to Nicodemus in their memorable nocturnal conversation, in the III chapter of John’s gospel. Nicodemus was a pharisee and a member of the ruling council, he embodied tradition, and shared its suspicion for this arch-disruptor who suddenly had appeared from nowhere and was rattling the institution, endangering the political compromise with the Romans, questioning the teaching and the practices of the priests, spreading dangerous ideas among the crowds. Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus captures the right attitude which then as today should help us to modulate the right balance between tradition and disruption:
“Do not marvel -says Jesus- that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.28).
The secret is simple: if we want our traditions to keep their youthful vigour, we must be on the lookout for the much needed disruptors, welcome the disturbance, and relish the challenge.