Dissenters: we need them

Dissent is a confusing and at times emotively negative word.  This is especially so for people who are irrevocably wedded to the status quo or who fear  any form of change whatsoever. They call someone a dissenter and marginalize them, refusing to hear any defence. They call them at best ‘grumpy’, ‘divisive’, and ‘bitter’.

This is most unfortunate.

The fact is that there can be no constructive change at all, even in the Church, unless there is some form of dissent. A reasonable degree of diversity and dissent is essential for any organisation, including our Church, if we are to have a future. People who invented motorcars were dissenters. Cars were at first considered to be dangerous and troublesome disturbers of the peace. Imagine what would have happened if they had been effectively marginalized from society. We would today still be riding horses!

By ‘dissent’ I mean simply the proposing of alternatives – and a system that is not continuously examining alternatives is not likely to evolve creatively. Open organizations encourage people who propose alternative ways of doing things because they know that organizations age and produce deadwood. New ideas and ways of doing things may guarantee that life and vitality will continue. They are the seedlings out of which the future is born. However, seedlings are very fragile. They can be smothered long before they have had a chance to develop and become vigorous plants.

So also with proposals for alternative ways of thinking and acting.

Organizations, the Church included, are built to administer, maintain and protect from harm that which already exists. In contrast, creative or dissenting people are designed to give birth to that which has never been in existence before. The alternatives they propose are seen as chaotic, something to be vigorously avoided by those taking comfort in the predictable and safe ways of tradition.

We surely need dissenters in the Church today – people who can invent new ways to respond to the pastoral needs of our age. Old methods are simply not working. Bl John Paul II wisely declared that ‘Conformity means death… A loyal opposition is a necessity…What would one say of the practice of silencing those who do not share the same views?’ We need, he said, evangelizers who initiate ‘new and bold endeavours.’

Confronted with the possibility of anxieties that new ways can evoke, people usually act to reaffirm an organization’s identity, structures, and boundaries. Pressure is placed on individuals to conform. If they do not, the sanctions escalate. It is then that witch-hunts flourish. Inventive dissenters are ignored, condemned simply because they question the status quo.

The Old Testament prophets were truly dissenters. And they suffered for this. King Ahab condemned Elijah as “you troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17). Likewise, the prophet Amos, faced banishment for pointing out pastoral defects of the Israelites. He was labelled a “conspirator.” Amos had been reported to the king for naming reality: “the country cannot tolerate his speeches” (Amos 7: 10-17). Jeremiah was branded with the word “treason” (Jer 38:4) for daring to challenge the status quo. Of poor Hosea the people cry: “The prophet is a fool. This man of the spirit is crazy” (Hos 9:7). Israelites wanted the prophets to collude in their refusal to apply values of justice and compassion to the society of their time: “To the seers they say, ‘See nothing! To the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us; tells us flattering things; have illusory visions.’” (Isa 30: 10-11).

Yet the prophets do not fail God. They are driven to find ways to bring the covenant’s values alive in the world in which they lived.

We desperately  need contemporary prophets in the Church, loyal dissenters, who creatively show that the Gospel can come alive in our rapidly changing world. Like their predecessors they will not be discouraged by efforts to marginalize them and be branded with pejorative names.

Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, an anthropologist, is the author of Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership and Violence, Society and the Church: A Cultural Approach.

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