For many, many years now, I have been contemplating on the following question: What is the heart of Christianity? I first started to think about this when I read Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” and I started to ask: What is the heart of Christianity? Every time I start thinking down this path, I wander around and around, trying on different parts and aspects, using different philosophies, reading another theologian, but at the end of the day, I always come back to the same answer. The heart of Christianity is trust. We usually call it “faith,” but what we really mean is trust. Trust in God, in Jesus, in the abiding presence we call the Spirit, in the institution we call the Church, and in each other.
This is a difficult season for a people built on trust. Beginning in the 1960’s and accelerating as we have come to the present day, people’s trust in institutions, including the Church, has been eroded, and I would say rightly so. While there are a thousand examples, this week has brought to light one of the worst betrayals an institution can perpetrate on its people. On 10 November 2020, the Vatican released a 461 page report on the Vatican’s decades long cover up of the abusive behaviors of Theodor McCarrick, former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington DC. In this report, McCarrick’s sexual abuse of minors and adults, seminarians, lay persons, and priests, and the abuses of his office to cover it up are evil. McCarrick is an abuser and has earned every punishment civil and ecclesiastical law can provide.
However, the report also reveals that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI knew about, covered up, and lied about McCarrick’s crimes. To me, this is equal to McCarrick’s crimes. There will always be bad actors, unfaithful stewards, and even criminals in our institutions. That should not be news to anyone. There have always been people who will try to take any advantage they can. Institutions rewarding these people with promotions, more trust, and more responsibility is not acceptable. What is worse, when such revered figures as John Paul II covers up these crimes, and is then canonized by the church, the institution condones these crimes. This is one example from the Roman Catholic Church, but there are myriads of examples from all kinds of institutions, from churches to governments, following the same pattern of behavior. Even the simple, blithe indifference of our most trusted institutions to our desire for their reform is like poison to our relationship with it. Each time these scenarios play out, our trust in the institutions which are there to serve and protect us is eroded.
If the erosion of our trust in institutions was contained to their realms it would be bad enough, but I just saw a report from 2018 done by the Pew Research Center showing that our trust in each other is also being eroded. In 2018, 60% of 18-29 year old respondents agreed with the statement that “Most people can’t be trusted.” Before us older folks get on our high horse though, 52% of respondents aged 30-49 and 43% of people aged 50-64 agreed. For respondents 65+, only 29% agreed with the statement, but that is still almost 1 out of every 3 people not trusting their neighbor. Erosion of trust in each other and institutions, which are built on our trust in each other, is breaking a social bond that holds us together.
This is where the heart of Christianity comes in. If the heart of our religion is trust, then we must resist this trend of increasing distrust. I don’t mean an unthinking, uncritical trust in people and institutions who have wounded us. By no means. What I am suggesting is becoming the trustworthy people and institutions. We, as a people built on trust, must be a the light and the salt. We must shine a light when we find those who would take advantage of the weak, the helpless, the needy, and the stranger. We must dismantle systems that break the back of the poor, abuse children, murder the innocent. Most importantly, we must, as individuals and collectively as a church, own up to our failures, admit them, ask for forgiveness, and amend our lives and our institutions.
The heart of Christianity is trust. We must be trustworthy. As we look to the beginning of Advent and a new ecclesiastical year in just a few short weeks, and as we struggle with the apocalyptic texts of this time of year, let us ask ourselves how we will answer God’s call to transform our lives and our world into the New Jerusalem, the coming reign of God? How will we grow the hope that is our feast? How will we build a new world on trust?