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What Church Folk Could Learn From The Mob

Them And Us

They take an oath. There is a symbolic shedding of blood with a gun and sword on the table. We repent—make a vow to turn away from sin. Our shedding of blood is vicarious, carried out two millennia past. They’re very secretive, with serious consequences for sharing confidential information with anyone outside of their family. We are very secretive, with “members only” business meetings, deacons posted at the sanctuary entrances, outsiders forbidden to enter—which is not biblical. The mob takes care of widows and orphans, they honor those who’ve sacrificed themselves for the good of the family, especially those who took a long prison bid rather than rat on their friends. We frequently abandon and neglect widows—even former “first” ladies—the moment the funeral is over. In my experience, it is the rarest of rarities to receive a phone call from my pastor—just a health and welfare check. I was thinking of you today, wanted to see how you’re doing. I’ve counseled pastors, again and again, to work their phone lists. Hit a few families every week until you reach the end of the list then start over. Just a check-in call. Don’t *only* call your members when you need something from them or when you’re upset with them. It’s Pavlovian: that teaches members to associate a pastor’s call with negativity. As a pastor, you are there to serve *them,* not the other way around.

To be a wiseguy, you have to be a member. Every so often, they open their ranks to membership (“open the books”) and admit new members (“straighten you out”). Not every Mafioso is a wiseguy. Most are connected guys, which is different. Connected guys can earn a living and certainly work for wiseguys, but a connected guy is not necessarily under the protection of the family; he’s more or less a freelancer. A wiseguy, on the other hand, cannot be harmed without the consent of the family boss. This is precisely the same logic we bring to the church in an unbiblical membership system and false militaristic hierarchy and pecking order taken not from the bible but from Catholicism. Some benefits are less available or outright denied unless and until someone becomes a “member” of our church. They might be coming to the church for years but, since they are not a “member,” they are asked to leave our secret business meetings and are barred from full participation in other areas. There is absolutely no scriptural foundation for this practice.

Wiseguys are deeply committed to and supportive of one another, at least until they turn on each other as frequently occurs. Church Folk tend to be deeply committed to and supportive of their specific clique within the church; their circle of friends or their particular choir or small group. Church Folk kill each other with gossip; turning confidential information shared in love into weapons used to destroy each other when our relationships go south, as frequently occurs.

Wiseguys have an internal code of conduct, or at least claim to. They handle matters both personal and business related themselves, through a counsel involved in a “sit down.” They don’t sue each other in court. They don’t involve the police. Violating the honor code is cause for severe fines, punishment, or even death (getting “clipped”). You don’t screw around with another wiseguy’s wife or girlfriend (“goomah”). You conduct your illicit business affairs honorably, with due tributes paid to those who made your score possible and, of course, kicked up to the captains (“Cappo Regimes”) and the bosses.

Christians are supposed to conduct themselves in a similar fashion, handling matters both personal and business-related among ourselves. We’re supposed to patronize one another’s businesses and keep the money within the family. Technically speaking, we shouldn’t even keep the money but keep only what we need and put the rest into a community pot to support those less fortunate. We’re not supposed to keep score of who’s been helped more than who. It all belongs to God, anyway. Biblically, we should not own our own homes or cars but exist in a communal fashion (Acts 2), selling everything and sharing the money as we individually have need. We should build these massive apartment villages, complete with fleets of cars that anyone can reserve to drive as needed. Instead, we exhaust ourselves pursuing the American Dream, which is not biblical, while being pressed upon to constantly write checks to the church for the building and the pastor.

Family Is Everything: We can't sustain relationships. We can't keep our mouth shut.

Our Empty Core

Christians aren’t supposed to sue one another. We’re supposed to gather a council of elders to arbitrate disputes and resolve differences. We should not be taking our troubles to the police. Like the Nation of Islam, Christin Brothers should posse up to investigate and resolve conflicts, protect our sisters and their children. We do none of that. We screw around with one another’s wives, we resent tithing—even those of us flush with cash tithe only minimally.

The core of our existence should be God’s word, wherein we discover not only truth but honor. Honor is not preached about a lot; honor and integrity. Integrity is about denying self (selfish acts or desires, self-gratification) in the service of a principal or ideal. We claim to espouse a set of knowable principals, but, like Carmela Soprano, we routinely compromise those ideals. Why? Because we’re getting something out of that compromise, something that gratifies self, which is a lot like heroin addiction. Self-gratification is a very tough habit to break, which is why so many of us move through life with the burden of hidden or secret behavior. As Christians, we should be men and women of integrity. Like Carmela’s therapist, we should turn down blood money and not turn a blind eye to those things that challenge our integrity. We should have a code, a personal standard of conduct, that governs our lives. Not the false code of religion or idolatrous Masons/Elks Club secret pacts, but the genuine conviction only true spirituality accrues. I will not lie. Not only will I not sleep with that man’s wife, I will not allow myself to be alone with that man’s wife, even for a second, even for the most benign reasons. Why? Because I accept the fact that I am flesh and blood, and that flesh can be tempted and overwhelmed despite my convictions. Therefore, part of my code is to armor the weak areas of my humanity and not place myself in situations where I can be tempted to fall into sin. Not sinning is a good thing, but we must move beyond not sinning to *anticipating* sin and *accepting* that we are not a strong or as super-church as we pretend to be. We are weak, broken vessels, saved from ourselves only by God’s grace and empowered by His Holy Spirit to live lives of worth and integrity. Part of that walk is to treat our own humanity, what we call “the flesh,” like alcoholism. Alcoholics accept the fact they will be alcoholics for life; they can be tempted and overwhelmed by specific types of circumstances. Far too many of us treat our Christian walk as if we’ve plateaued somewhere in perfection, but our humanity, our flesh, is still with us and will always be with us and will always tempt us.

I once told a pastor with whom I was disappointed that we pastors would be like the Mafia: a close-knit intimate circle of trust where we hold one another’s secrets and hold one another accountable. I should know you have my back and you should know I have yours, regardless of the successes and failures within our individual ministries and lives. To some degree, I’m sure that does exist, though not always in a positive or even Christian context. Similarly, I’ve told a closeted gay pastor that he should start a confidential support group for gay believers—especially those still in the closet. I believe all of churches should have such a ministry because this is a larger demographic than we want to believe it is; a huge populace of people struggling with their identity and faith. A gay support group in your church should not and actually must not be affirming of homosexuality; neither should it be condemning of the individuals involved. This is the model of Jesus Christ, who loved the human being despite her circumstances [John 8:1-11], choosing to deal with the humanity distinct from the behavior. These groups should not exist to force LGBT persons to be straight, nor should they exist to force a church family deeply mired in our long history of homophobia to accept homosexuality. These groups should exist to love on *people,* to provide a safe place for *people,* regardless of who they are or who they love, to worship and to know God in an environment where their unique identity and struggle is openly acknowledged.

My gay pastor friend told me neither the pastor-Mafia circle nor the LGBT support ministry could work in our tradition, both for the same reason: we have no honor, no code. Like Alcoholics anonymous, both groups would rely on absolute secrecy and mutual trust. Church Folk run their mouth. Church Folk fall out with one another and start posting confidential and embarrassing secrets to Facebook. He said no closeted gay person would risk coming to one of those sessions because the confidentiality would only last as long as the often volatile Church Folk relationships. Similarly, pastors confessing their faults to one another is a huge risk to run, especially considering many if not most of our pastors’ number one priority is their weekly paycheck. That’s the main thing most of these guys are concerned about because far too many of our pastors treat their pastorate as a kind of ersatz retirement. It’s an easy gig, if you only meet the bare contractual minimums the job calls for. I know a lot of pastors who are terrified of losing their pastorate because they haven’t worked a real job in decades and now they’re too old and been out of the job market too long to start over. They’ll do anything to hang onto their pastor gig, which means they are absolutely useless to God because too many of them are run around by their own congregations—censoring their sermons and not preaching or teaching anything that might upset the congregants who pay their salary.

This behavior, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with God. It is also the main reason why there simply is not trust. We have no code, no honor. Honor means you will keep your word, keep your mouth shut, in season as well as out of it. Honor means keeping your word even when nobody else is keeping theirs. Honor means holding sacrosanct the confidence, the secrets, of your members, friends, and pastors. Even when they disappoint you. Even when they fall out with you. You do not have the right to lash out, or to punk out and post nonsense to Facebook. This is what it means to be a Christian. This area is our greatest deficit: honor. It’s not taught. It’s not preached about. It is not valued. The minute we fall out with one another, we instantly begin behaving like little children. And not little boys but little girls. Little bitches. Yesterday we were catching vapors and falling out and hollering in tongues. Today we’re little bitches. I’d never, ever, tell a black pastor or black Church Folk anything I didn’t want to read in the newspaper. I’d never trust any one of them with anything more private than that. What we could learn from the Mob is to close the circle; to separate ourselves from people and behaviors that exist outside of our code. To resolve our own conflicts within the family and to love and support one another.

Working It Out: Keeping it in the Family: the sit-down.

Knock Knock

Most of us find the media's glamorization of what is clearly dysfunctional anti-social behavior titillating and seductive. Having spent real time downwind of a few honest to gosh goodfellas, I can tell you here's really not a lot of glamour there, just very hard work burdened by suspicion and paranoia. Like our own dysfunctional behavior, theirs is a product of tribalism: it's what they know, it beats driving a bus. Like our distortion of Christianity, their traditions seem normal and make perfect sense to them. The talking heads on TV suggest the old school code of honor has been deeply degraded, so the militaristic and cultural artifacts of mob life may no longer be as strictly adhered to as they once were. I wish ours were being adhered to even marginally. The notion that un-Christlike behavior might earn you a visit from Tony Two Shoes—that we actually have a code and hold one another accountable to it—might alert some of us to the shame and disgrace we heap upon Someone Who suffered and shed blood for us. That ought to be enough to remind us who we are and what price was paid to make that possible.

Instead, far too many of us simply cruise through life throwing out Jesus' name as it suits us—and thus implying integrity, patience, peace, resolve, and, yes, honor—while actually demonstrating none of those qualities. In the Mob, that would get you clipped. We are fortunate beyond all reason that God's grace doesn't work that way.

Christopher J. Priest
26 January 2014