To Die or Not to Die? by Robert Farrar Capon

This is an excerpt from from the recently released collection of shorts, More Theology and Less Heavy […]

Mockingbird / 1.18.18

This is an excerpt from from the recently released collection of shorts, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream: The Domestic Life of Pietro & Madeleine, by the inimitable Robert Farrar Capon. Below, the protagonists (Robert and his wife’s alter-egos) discuss church gossip and infidelity.

Madeleine hung up the phone and put her head on the kitchen counter. “People!” she groaned as she pounded the surface with her fists.

Pietro was dicing celery with a Chinese cleaver. “I have a trusty blade here in my hand,” he said. “Perhaps I could sally forth and avenge these wrongs you feel compelled to communicate to the Formica.”

“Thanks a lot,” Madeleine said, straightening up and going over to her chair. “But quite enough hatchet work has been done already. That, if you haven’t already guessed, was Belinda.”

“I gathered. What sewer gas was the original bad news bear trying to pump into the phone lines this time?”

“Well, it seems that she and Arthur are spearheading a congregational movement to get rid of their minister.”

“Aha!” Pietro exclaimed. “What has the poor Domine done? Preached heresy? Dipped his hand into the church till? Appeared drunk and disorderly in public?”

“He’s getting divorced and remarried—to the church treasurer’s present wife.”

“And Belinda, I presume, finds the reverend gentleman’s plans for his own life a bit too rich for her blood—despite the fact that, as I recall, her very own Arthur was divorced when she married him.”

“It’s all hypocrisy,” Madeleine snorted. “The old double standard. The clergy get crucified for doing what the laity find perfectly okay for themselves.”

“Except,” Pietro interrupted, “that I am sure Belinda doesn’t see it that way. I’ll bet you this pile of diced celery that she thinks Arthur’s divorce and remarriage was brave, clean and reverent, while the minister’s was nasty, brutish and far too short on lead time.”

“Exactly,” Madeleine said. “And scandalous to boot. He and the treasurer’s wife have been seen together in The Shady Nook.”

Pietro put on his best shocked-beyond-words look. “Oh, well. In that case I have to agree with Belinda. The things that restaurant tries to palm off as food! This clergyman obviously has no taste at all.”

“Will you please be serious?” Madeleine implored. “What would you have said to her?”

“Well,” Pietro answered, “I would have tried to explain to her that the largest scandal involved is not the minister’s but hers. He is, at worst, just one more sinner to whom the church is sent to proclaim Jesus’ forgiveness. She, however, is in a fair way to becoming convinced that the church is sent only to the righteous.”

“All she’d say to that,” Madeleine observed, “would be that his sin is somehow beyond the pale.”

Pietro smiled. “Then I would inquire where she got that distinction. All church services, to the best of my knowledge, contain a confession of sin in which the congregation, with one heart, mind, and mouth, proclaim that, collectively and individually, they all stink on ice. None of those confessions, however, singles out certain sins as worse than others.”

“You wouldn’t try to convince her that maybe the minister’s divorce and remarriage isn’t sinful? After all, she probably doesn’t know beans about what’s really involved.”

“That is quite correct,” Pietro said. “But to say so to Belinda is simply to fall into the trap she’s dug for herself. It’s just capitulating to her you-can’t-be-saved-unless-you-can-prove-you’re-a-good-guy argument. Her minister was a sinner before this situation, and he will no doubt be one after it. The church has to be told loud and clear that tossing out sinners is a violation of the Gospel of grace. Not to mention the fact that it’s stupid: A church that can’t manage to stay in communion with sinners makes about as much sense as a carpenter who can’t stand to handle wood.”

“I know what she’d say to that, though. She’d say that the minister and the treasurer’s wife should at least have had the decency to lie low and wait a while—to show their repentance, I suppose, and to give everybody a chance to forgive and forget.”

Pietro shook his head. “No go. If God doesn’t wait to forgive, neither should the church. The Prodigal made his confession after his father fell on his neck and kissed him. The Publican is justified on the spot, just for saying he’s no good; he isn’t told to stay away from the temple until he can come back with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket. Jesus tells us to pray that we will be forgiven as we forgive: If we insist on withholding forgiveness until we can manage to forget other people’s sins, then in effect we’re asking God to hold off forgiving us until his omniscience gets feeble-minded enough not to remember our own sins. By some estimates, that could be a long time.”

“But doesn’t God say he’ll forget our sins and remember our iniquities no more?”

“Precisely,” Pietro said. “And in Jesus on the cross he does indeed forget: He drops dead to our sinfulness—major, minor, or in between. I would suggest to Belinda that she might do well to follow his example vis-à-vis her minister.”

“What? Drop dead?”

“That would do the trick nicely,” Pietro replied. “But so would just shutting up on the whole subject—which option I would offer her as a less drastic alternative.”

“It’s sad though, isn’t it?” Madeleine mused. “I mean, why do they always single out clergy with public sins and kill them?”

“Sad is not exactly the right word. The name of the Gospel game is death and resurrection. Anyone who accepts death gets resurrection. If Belinda’s minister has a grip on the Gospel, he’ll be one hundred percent safe in Jesus, even if he ends up selling shoes from a matchbook cover ad. He will say to his congregation exactly what Jesus might have said to Caiaphas: ‘I have to thank you; even though you’ve handed me a personal inconvenience, it’s going to be a major career advancement.’”

Madeleine frowned. “That sounds like a recommendation to crucify people in the name of the Gospel.”

“No, it’s a recommendation to Belinda to work on her own dying and stop cheering for other people’s. At present, she is a member of the First Church of Caiaphas, Inc. Who knows? If she ever decides to get out of that bad news outfit, she might actually rise up and be able to breathe fresh air instead of sewer gas.”

Get your copy of More Theology and Less Heavy Cream here!