Humanity has an image problem. We often claim it’s a cultural thing, but I’m pretty sure if we look throughout history we’ll see the same thing.
Here it is: we care more about how we appear to others than what we actually do.
This isn’t necessarily about physical appearance, although that’s also true. We only post the best pictures on social media, and even then we might use editing tools to make it look even better. But I’m talking about something even deeper.
Perception is more important to us than actual value.
There’s reason behind this, as perception has actual value as currency. If we look at some of the recent revelations about methods Donald Trump used in the 1980s and ‘90s to inflate the appearances of his wealth, we see that simply by creating a mirage of extreme wealth, he opened opportunities for larger funding sources that led to more extreme wealth (although even how extreme it is now is a question we can’t answer since he refuses to provide any level of evidence for his claims).
It’s the entire premise behind the Wizard of Oz: “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Only notice the awe-inspiring image you see before you.
Most of the time, it seems harmless. With social media, we showcase the best photos we have available, even if it took 50 tries to get them. We want people to see a certain image. That’s not really harmless; it actually reflects deeper needs that we’re not properly satisfying. But that’s a separate conversation.
My issue is that this idea has played a huge role in the Church throughout history, literally costing thousands of lives (probably millions) and destroying many more. Even recently, the sex scandals within the Catholic church have showcased the damage done when leaders care more about covering up wrong-doing so others don’t find out than responding to it.
But Catholicism has no monopoly on this issue. It’s alive and well throughout the Body of Christ. In most cases, the examples are not nearly as extreme and devastating (and thank God for that), but in some they are, just on a smaller scale. And even those that aren’t as extreme on a worldly scale are just as devastating when viewed through a spiritual lens.
John describes human nature perfectly in his Gospel: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:20-21).
I’m not talking about one specific scandal or issue in the church right now, because there are too many to point to. We’ve all seen headlines over the years of some of the most famous ministers’ deeds coming to light, revealing to the world that they were deeply flawed human beings violating the trust their congregation placed in them. The issue at its heart isn’t that the leaders were flawed human beings – we all are – it’s that we’ve created a culture of opacity within the Body of Christ that leads to faith leaders being placed on pedestals as idols and an unwillingness to admit and accept when mistakes are made. We’re placing our faith in fallible humans.
Similarly, we jump on any critique of an issue within the church. Rather than wrestling with the core of the critique to see if it is legitimate – a hugely important step as we hear complaints from people all the time that may or may not reflect actual problems in the Church – we cling to a statistic that might suggest it’s not as big an issue as someone claims.
We get defensive by saying it’s faulty logic to lump entire groups together, and instead of tackling serious issues within the church, we go on the attack to try to minimize the issue and say either it’s not that big of a deal or it’s not that pervasive. So to apply that to the example I used earlier in this post: what percentage of Catholic priests have committed sexual abuse? We don’t know, but I imagine that percentage to be quite small. However, since it’s likely a small percentage, should we be so misguided as to claim there is not a systemic issue in place that allowed for such abuses to be carried out and the abusers be protected by church leadership?
Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians that we are all part of the Body of Christ (12:12-31). In verse 26, he writes that “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Similarly, think of your own body. If you have a head cold, isn’t your entire body suffering? Or if you break your arm, although that is a small percentage of your total body, it inflicts pain that must be addressed by the entire body. Most such injuries require full body readjustments to deal with the symptom, as one broken toe might be tiny but can lead to an entirely different way of walking that impacts legs, back, and neck, which in turn recalibrates every other part.
There is a long tradition of “protecting” the Gospel by keeping quiet about issues within the church. How arrogant is that? The Gospel is the all-powerful message of a God who defines love by God’s very nature. God doesn’t need us to protect anything. When we suggest otherwise, we’re either intentionally or subconsciously inflating our own importance to the success of God’s love in the world. And since it always comes as a response to some wrong-doing within the body, it is always about self-preservation and more harmful in the long run.
We as Christians have a long history of criticizing the culture around us, even including other Christians that fall outside our denominational sect. We have a much less extensive history of self-reflection to acknowledge our shortcomings and see where we are failing, despite the fact that we claim to recognize as a core tenet of our faith that we are all deeply flawed humans that will have shortcomings and stumbles in life.
As always, I look to the example of Jesus in this topic. He spoke love and promise into the lives of all the “others” the church people (primarily the Pharisees in the Gospel accounts) refused to engage with. He never hesitated to step into the lives of people who were essentially considered less than human by the Pharisees (the diseased, poor, women, “sinners”), and those exact Pharisees criticized Him for it.
Jesus did not operate under a mindset of “we must protect the church from image problems, so let’s keep everything quiet.” Essentially every one of His critical comments while He walked the earth was directed at the Pharisees. He saw their approach to faith as hypocritical and lacking, and He saw no reason to keep quiet about that fact.
Yet today we cling to the human focus on surface over substance, and it is destroying the Body of Christ. Not only do we have deep issues with prioritizing political gain (which Jesus completely eschewed in favor of a more powerful Kingdom of God), but we have even deeper issues with self-reflection to allow ourselves to acknowledge and respond to these problems. We care more about the perception than the actual value.
This is not a surprising problem; it’s a very human one. But until we recognize our call in Christ to overcome such human challenges through a focus on the power of an eternal love, we will continue to operate as mere humans professing a saving power that we’re not actually using. It might make for a beautiful Instagram post. But the truth will come out eventually, and lives will be destroyed in the process.