In religious circles, Sede Vacante means “the chair is empty.” Usually, it refers to the Roman Catholic Church after a Pope has died and before a new Pope has been elected by Conclave.
However, it also refers to splinter Catholic Churches that consider themselves Catholic but do not recognize the authority of the current Pope (sedevacantists). To these groups, the “chair is empty” and while they recognize the historical authority of the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition, they don’t recognize its current leadership.
An absence of leadership or a rejection of authority leads to Sede Vacante. When chairs are empty, those who look to the chairs for authority are often lost until they’ve found a new authority to follow, leading to crises of faith of both the individual and the institution they once regarded.
The Chairs are Empty
There are tons of empty chairs right now. In boardrooms and offices. In pews and public transit. At teacher’s desks and wooden pulpits. So many chairs are now empty in this COVID-19 season we are in in church and society.
But “chairs” can also be metaphorical as society wrestles with a loss of authority in so many areas.
- The empty chair of the Church, which is supposed to stand for the vulnerable and the outcast, has many loud voice against public health restrictions on in-person worship. Thousands of churches continue to worship in-person, rejecting public health and subjecting millions to super-spreader worship services, choir rehearsals, and weddings that don’t harm the guests but kill their families and friends.
- The empty chair of the police, which most communities of color experience already, as police brutality and systemic racism is laid bare in the police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many to count, but all whose names we should now say and know.
- The empty chair of mega corporations, who we trust with our entire social media lives on lockdown, who sell our private data and allow white supremacy and election falsehoods to spread unchecked.
- The empty chair of public health as COVID deniers and Mask opposers wage war on science (the natural extension of their war on vaccines and evolution) as well as government ineptitude from the top-down.
- The empty chairs of schools as the nation doesn’t call schools essential or have a plan for reopening, that the “top educator” in the land instead seems to see students as pawns and funds for moving money away from the poor and underprivileged. Without leadership, millions of children will be Left Behind.
- The empty chair of the U.S. Senate, whose hypocrisy and abject refusal to govern other than to fill the empty judge benches with unqualified and radicalized lifetime appointments, has led to the crumbling of the judicial and legislative branch’s efficacy and prestige.
- Most of all, the empty chair of the Presidency, of a Denier-In-Chief who, for unrealized political gain, has cravenly pitted himself against the public health sought by (most) governors and mayors. Who refuses to step down from his chair, and is rallying 48% of the country behind this self-aggrandizement that will erode our trust in Truth and Facts for a generation to come.
There are many others (add them in the comments!), but suffice to say: There is a crisis of authority in this country, and most of those crises are earned by the intentional failures of those in authority. However, in no previous era has the institutions themselves been so damaged and irredeemable while their broken husks continue to cause injustice, harm, and erosion of everything we hold dear.
What are we to do?
The Danger of the Interim Authority
When we are in between authorities, we wait for a new one. The Roman Catholic Church waits patiently for white smoke, indicating a new Pope has been elected. But for the rest of us, when we grow tired of waiting, we fall victim to trusting lesser authorities: authorities who play on your fears rather than better authorities that build on your hopes. The craven master manipulators of human emotion and psyches rather than appealing to our better angels, the divine spark within us.
These are the megachurch preachers who claim they can heal COVID-19. These are the television personalities who tell you to not trust the other media, only them. These are the backup, distant second, discredited scientists and government workers who are suddenly catapulted to the airwaves and hallways of power because of their abject loyalty to the Denier-in-Chief. And this is your uncle who told you crazy stuff all the time, and yet now, he seems to have more of the family (and a Facebook following) that listens. Ugh!
Without institutions and centralizing authorities that have credibility, we devolve into our echo chambers. But as the movie “V for Vendetta” reminds us, if we want to know who caused all of this, we have only to look in a mirror.
We Did this
Researcher Bill Bishop in his 2008 Book “The Big Sort” examined the way how our diverse country has become more polarized in the past four decades. He studied the number of landslide counties: counties that went over 70% for a particular candidate in the presidential elections. Since the 1970s, the number of those counties increased 300%. That’s a lot of like-voting people living in the same place. The question then was why did so many Republicans move to Cooke County, Texas, and so many Democrats to King County, Seattle in the past 40 years?
What the researcher was surprised to find was regardless of how much influence top-down gerrymandering or dark money in politics might have made for these landslide regions, the primary force for this change was bottom-up: choice of people like us. We moved to be in neighborhoods with people like us, who had the same Jed Bartlett 2020 bumper stickers we did.
We often choose the feedback loop of hearing our own thoughts of what is right or wrong reflected in our choice of watching Fox News or MSNBC, reading the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker, reading daily bible reflections by Bishop Spong or Al Mohler, or listening to NPR or Talk Radio.
And now by divesting from the broadly-held authorities for years, investing our money, time, and attention only in our circles, only to those psychological manipulations, we cannot see “the other side” as having any authority whatsoever. We’ve all become sede vacante: every chair is empty except the leaders of our echo chambers who self-select who else will be in the seat tomorrow.
Filling the Chairs
To get this country and church and your own family back on track, there’s three main components, and no, they don’t have to be consistent:
- Country: The party that has become so radicalized and played to an increasingly echo-chamber base, and eroded all these institutions, must be removed from temptation (power). For a generation. It is only perpetual success and predictions gone halfway right that keep fueling this minority of society. Remove them from power by the vote (we have two months in Georgia to flip the Senate) and by the policy, or else see your own be lost. They are a minority: they only won due to redistricting and gerrymandering those landslide counties into artificial strength. If we don’t push back now, we lose truth and authority for a generation. Like the Prime Minister said in Love Actually “since bullies only respond to strength, I am prepared to be much stronger.” How we must operate on K Street is very different than how we must operate on Main Street.
- Church: Churches that deny COVID and science, and give no authority to women, minorities, or LGBTQ+ persons, operate on fear and addiction to these lesser authorities, even as they appeal to the Bible through sheer eisegesis or cherry-picked tradition. They are found as close to you as down the street, and as far away as the television preachers. But their real influence is in taking over entire media pools and genres and driving the progressive and reality perspectives away. So…stand your ground. Don’t cede the mission field of social media, letters to the editor, relationships with media people, the Bible study leader with the red hat. Say what you believe, and listen to other perspectives. Restart your blog after five months :-). You have a truth in your life and perspective: put yourself out there, and use those channels to center those marginalized voices to name their truth too.
- Families and Individuals: It’s time to build up trust in yourself again. Quarantine means you have to isolate yourself, and so that means we need to learn to trust ourselves. What would it look like to trust our instincts again when it comes to discerning fake news from real news? To become wise and responsive to the Spirit moving in your life? And when you become that local authority, you can choose to introduce people to the authorities you look up to, because they see the goodness in you and that’s a refreshing turn from the rest of the world. And imagine if everyone on every street did that, and turned the world on a dime away from lesser authorities and back to the ones who affirm the divinity in us.
How else should we resist this erosion of truth, this denial of authority, and this rejection of the Gospel that calls for people to love God with their heart, mind, soul, and strength? Leave it in the comments.
Instead of sitting in seats, people are taking to the streets, looking for authorities to hold accountable or to give allegiance to. This crumbling of authority will only accelerate in the coming months and years, and I don’t want my three daughters to grow up in a world that has become so disillusioned they cannot function together, walking around in perpetual shock and entertainment-numbed inaction.
My hope is that by removing the bullies, turning red seas purple, and by becoming well-adjusted and well-read (the biggest fear of the sedevacantists), we can restore authority where it can be salvaged, and replace it where it can’t, centering those outside the majority culture that we have broken ourselves.
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