Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Used God Salesmen

I have met a number of clergy representing a range of faiths as I pursue the cause of reducing the violence in our world. It has been a wonderful experience. The clergy I have talked with are great listeners, they are concerned about people, they have great depth of experience, and they are refreshingly candid about what they and their congregants are able and willing to do.

I should not be surprised. These are people who, I am sure, went into their line of work because of their feelings for people and their desire to be helpful, and they prepared for their work through study and mentoring.

But the public's opinion of clergy is not at a particularly high point. There have been clergy financial and sex scandals, and clergy who have sought to elevate themselves by appropriating their religions for political advantage. And then there are the clergy whose outlandish and offensive pronouncements degrade the image of clergy.

Just yesterday, one nationally recognized preacher said that the tornadoes that just injured and killed people across a wide expanse of the U.S. wouldn't have happened if people had prayed more. There may be a valid theological basis for his view, but it was phrased in such an insensitive way that many people will think he was saying that God sent tornadoes to punish people whose religious practices were insufficient. That is exactly the way the statements were reported in the news. This blaming of the victims for their own suffering will not be well received by people who heard on the news that one of the victims was a year-old baby. Was the child not praying enough?

Over the years, lawyers, insurance salesmen, used car salesmen, and others have all had to contend with poor public perception. It isn't fair to the majority of honest practitioners in these professions, but there isn't much they can do about it. There will always be bad apples whose misdeeds will spoil the reputations of others. Some people will try to avoid having to use a lawyer or buy a used car or insurance, out of fear of being victimized by unscrupulous practitioners, but most people will just try to find the good ones to deal with.

Probably a lot of people will react the same way and try to avoid unsavory clergy. But some people will decide not to have anything to do with clergy at all, because the reputation of their calling has deteriorated. There is plenty of evidence that a lot of people have already taken this step, including declining membership and attendance at many churches. There are many reasons participation in religious institutions has gone down, but whatever the reason, to the extent that it results in people having less contact with clergy, people stand to lose something precious. I don't mean to suggest that everyone needs to subscribe to a religion, but I can't think of any other institution in our society which provides comparable spiritual guidance.

Clergy are keenly aware that their popularity is not what it once was, and yet I haven't noticed them trying to defend their own reputations. I think it is because they just aren't oriented that way. Their concern is for the welfare of others, and their respect for other people's religious beliefs makes them extremely reluctant to criticize even the most outrageous of their colleagues. It could also be that they are embarrassed by what some of their fellow clergy have been doing and they just don't want to talk about it.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, that so many clergy simply go about their work without protesting the damage to their profession is that they are people of faith. They believe that if they do what is expected of them, things will turn out all right. It may seem like a naïve outlook in this harsh world, but it is an outlook that reflects well the teachings that they are trying to impart.

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