Tarzans in the Pulpit

Here I am quoting from Eamon Duffy’s article, “Who Is the Pope?” in the New York Review of Books, Feb 19, 2015 edition, p. 11.

“In a series of interviews and speeches, [Pope] Francis has deplored clergy who “play Tarzan” – church leaders too confident of their own importance, moral strength, or superior insight. The best religious leaders in his view are those who leave “room for doubt.” The bad leader is excessively normative [as in, too many of them] because of his self-assurance.” The priest who “nullifies the decision-making” of his people is not a good priest, “he is a good dictator.” Bergoglio has even said that the very fact that someone thinks he has all the answers “is proof that God is not with him.” Those who look always “for disciplinarian solutions…long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists “have a static and inward-directed view of things,” and have turned faith into an ideology. And so the experience of failure, of reaching one’s own limits, is the truest and best school of leadership. He has declared himself drawn to “the theology of failure” and a style of authority that has learned through failure to consult others, and to “travel in patience.”

Tarzans! I like that metaphor. The complete absence of any awareness that one could be wrong. In many pulpits the model is the Apostle Paul confronting the Apostle Peter, described in Galatians 2.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.[a] 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

If Paul could pounce on Peter, surely we have some kind of permission to do the same, all, of course, in promotion of the Gospel, as we would like to think. Martin Luther redux! Of course, it doesn’t occur to us that we are neither the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther.

Surely we are to declare divine truth with boldness and in the face of much opposition. And yet the context of our proclamations is a lifestyle of humility and service that does not give the listeners any indication that we are absolutely enjoying being right and them being wrong. The words of Robert Frost capture it:

Right’s right, and the temptation to do right
When I can hurt someone by doing it
Has always been too much for me, it has.

To gain credibility is to exhibit understanding the other’s position, know why someone would be attracted to it, and give the respect of an intelligent response rather than just screaming them down. Surely this includes Luther’s response, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” But Pastors can love the drama of beating on their chest, yodeling a war whoop, and swinging on a theological vine through a theological jungle. Few can bear the weight of such heroic tactics that really do fail to impress or influence others. Most of us have to stoop to a lower position as mere mortals.

Yes, I want to be a hero. But I am in the service of The Hero. I must be careful that I don’t give the impression that we are the same person.

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