There is a scene in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” where the real identity of the Wizard is exposed. And it is nothing like the identity he presented to others.
It really wasn’t his fault. According to the story, the Wizard arrived in Oz quite by accident–literally dropping from the sky as the result of a balloon trip from Kansas gone awry. Still, his unusual arrival amazed the people, and apparently they gave him absolute authority over their lives and practically worshipped–and sometimes feared–him. We could say the whole situation took on a life of its own.
As strange as it sounds, I sometimes think the institution of church came from Oz–at least from the first part of the movie, that is. And that thought scares me because–let’s face it–I’m considered by at least a few people to be one of the multitude of leaders in that institution.
I’m not saying the institutional church itself is all bad. I just think that sometimes–like the story of the Wizard–things have gotten out of hand. Jesus came teaching people a way of peace, love and inclusion that was, in large part, very different from both the government and religious policies and practices of their time. Jesus did not start a church. Jesus did not start a religion. Scripture records that Jesus came so we might have abundant life.
And we’ve settled for an institution.
It wasn’t always that way. Christianity started as a small, marginalized movement. I believe it was probably when Constantine “legalized” Christian worship in 313 of the Common Era with the Edict of Milan that things began to change. Depending on which scholars you read, this move was more political than spiritual, as Constantine was working to consolidate his power. If I understand the edict correctly, however, its purpose was to legalize the practice of all religions in the Roman Empire. Still, Christianity eventually became the religion of choice in the Roman Empire–especially if you wanted to be part of the favored power structure. In Christian history, we might even say that that is when the balloonist from Kansas became the Wizard behind the curtain.
History records church leaders (the Wizard) sending thousands of people (the Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Men, and Cowardly Lions) out to earn their salvation by killing the various enemies of the church (the Wicked Witches of the West); only to be told on their return that there were more “tasks” yet to do (those who were lucky enough to make it back alive, that is). Some church leaders held the power to read and interpret scripture for everyone else; others sold sweet seats to the afterlife (or at least took money to pray souls out of Purgatory).
Some people might read this information and say, “Yeah, but that was then and this is now.” True. At the same time, some groups–including some Christian groups–still have “crusades” against ideas and people who do not measure up to their expectations and definitions of “truth.” Some still claim to know THE way to eternal happiness and peace; and yes, you can have it too. If, that is, you are part of their group and follow their doctrines and dogma. And let’s face it, some members of the Institutional Church are still sleeping with the Empire.
In my opinion, what started out as a movement with amazing potential to change the world, over time became an institution mired in struggles for power and wealth. And like the Empire (and the Wizard), it has played on people’s fears of the unknown to maintain that power and wealth.
Just like in the story of the Wizard of Oz, however, I believe the curtain is being pulled back, and people are learning a few things about the church–and themselves.
Hopefully we’re learning that behind the big, booming voices, education and pageantry are at best imperfect human beings who do not hold the keys to our final destinations. And while church folk are definitely not perfect, I believe most of us are well-meaning, loving, and caring human beings. And as there were good things happening in “the merry old land of Oz,” there are good things happening in churches all over the world, too–even with all the big, booming voices hiding behind the curtains.
People are also learning that they don’t necessarily have to attend a church, synagogue, temple, mosque or any other building to be moral, ethical people who can make positive impacts in this world. As the Wizard eventually told Dorothy and her friends, they’re learning they’ve had the power within them to face their challenges the whole time. They just had to learn that lesson.
Who knows? Maybe that is what the church should be about–encouraging and teaching people that we already have the power within us to face the challenges of life, as well as to bring peace and justice to the planet. And since people have different names for that power, we should celebrate our different understandings of that power rather than try to establish our understanding as the Truth.
Yes, people are learning that sometimes the church isn’t always as it appears from the outside. And that knowledge is painful at times, too. At the same time, I believe some of what we’re learning is potentially life-giving and freeing. Who knows? Maybe some of what we’re learning is even salvific.
If we’re willing to keep pulling back the curtains, that is.