Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of renewal – of getting back to basics – to asking questions about what we really believe and what God we truly worship. Today’s liturgy of the word helps us to do both. Deuteronomy 26 directs us to the authentic faith of Jesus – in the God who liberates the enslaved. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel calls us to worship that God rather than devil – the evil one that our culture and church (!) have been worshipping for centuries – ever since they first embraced imperialism in the 4th century C.E. Let me explain.
Start with that reading from Deuteronomy 26. It’s a key text if we want to understand the God in whom Jesus placed his faith. Jesus, remember, was a Jew, not a Christian. And Deuteronomy 26 provides us with the creedal statement that the Jewish Jesus accepted as did all Jews of his time. I mean, for them, Deuteronomy 26 functioned much like our Nicene Creed does for us each Sunday. It was a reminder of their basic belief. As such, it can be summarized in the passage’s seven points:
- Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean (a Syrian).
2. “Abraham” (i.e. his descendents) went down into Egypt.
3. There we became a great people.
4. But the Egyptians enslaved us.
5. We cried out to our God, Yahweh, who raised up the rebel prophet, Moses.
6. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert, and to this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
7. This land is our gift from Yahweh; Thanks be to God!
That’s it! That was the faith that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, inherited from his ancestors. It was a tribal faith centered on the ownership of a God-given piece of land (Palestine) which (despite its dryness and desert character) the descendents of Jacob saw as rich and productive (flowing with milk and honey).
Notice that this Jewish faith had nothing to do with an afterlife, heaven or hell. (In fact, belief in the afterlife was a very late development among the Jews; it didn’t emerge even for debate until about 200 years before Jesus’ birth.) Instead, as among all hunter-gatherers, herds people and agriculturalists, Jewish faith was centered on land. Obviously then, it had little tolerance for colonial military forces like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans all of whom at various times occupied Palestine. Colonialism and foreign occupation contradicted Jewish faith in a fundamental way. It was intolerable.
That was true for Jesus too. As a prophet, his fundamental proclamation was not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.
In God’s Kingdom, everything would be reversed and guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).
The creedal account of Deuteronomy 26 sets the stage for today’s gospel narrative about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. (And it’s here that the devil-worship connected with empire enters the picture. Listen closely.) In a context of Roman occupation, Luke’s account raises the question of whom to worship. The choice he presents is stark: one can worship the devil the author of empire or Yahweh, the opponent of imperial power of all types.
That clear choice becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because the devil has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
But Jesus responds,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.
Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? These were the questions.
However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!
Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”
No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift which leave people like the liberated daughters and sons of Abraham free to live in control of their own God-given piece of earth. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.
All of this has implications for us as would-be followers of Jesus and as citizens of a country whose “leaders” (supported by their “Christian” counterparts) increasingly embrace empire as the inevitable and fitting destiny of the United States.
In fact, in 2003, then vice-president, Dick Cheney sent out a Christmas card on which was inscribed the words, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Cheney’s implication was that the United States is God’s new chosen people. Empire as practiced by the United States represents God’s will.
Instead, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us the opposite. Empires arise only with the devil’s aid.
Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?
While I was deciding all of that, my request for a year of discernment brought me to Kentucky and the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) where I mentored young volunteers from all over the States. The job entailed living with the legendary activist priest Monsignor Ralph Beiting. It exposed me not only to his direct influence, but to Appalachia, one of the poorest areas in the U.S. There my education about my own country continued.
After a year with CAP, my exit-decision was made. I resigned from the priesthood and took a job as a cutter in a Dayton, Ohio factory that made protective clothing for fire fighters. Meanwhile I sent out resumes in search of a job in post-secondary teaching, which I felt was my real vocation.
Several months later I landed a job teaching at Berea College in Kentucky. And there (to tell the truth) my own education took a quantum leap. Berea College, it turned out, was a school with a radical history. It had been founded by abolitionists before the Civil War. It was Christian but non-denominational. Berea was committed to racial equality and social justice. I became one of its first Catholic professors.
My first year at Berea found me teaching a required freshman course called “Issues and Values.” I scrambled to learn our curriculum: black history, women’s liberation, Appalachian culture (so resistant to the mainstream), world religions, and the dawning environmental crisis. There in the 1970s we were reading and teaching the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, and books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First. Those books were extremely prescient. They accurately predicted the climate chaos and resulting social unrest we are experiencing today. I find those books even more relevant to the contemporary world than they were then.
More importantly for my development, I took on at Berea another required course. This one was for sophomores – “Religious and Historical Perspectives,” a two-semester offering in the history of ideas. It was a Great Books course dealing almost exclusively in primary sources. It took students from biblical times through the Greeks and Romans, the medieval period, renaissance, reformation, scientific revolution, enlightenment, industrial revolution, and ended up with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. Students (and I!) were reading directly authors like Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Luther, Galileo, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Faculty development had our interdisciplinary team of professors doing summer seminars over several years. Together we took month-long courses from specialists in the scientific revolution, Dante, Darwin, Marx and apocalyptic literature. At that point in my life it all seemed like a capstone course in my own process. Much more however was to come.
More importantly still, at Berea I met my beautiful bride. Ten years younger than me, Peggy also arrived at Berea in 1974. Two years later we were married. I was 36 then.
The two of us were strongly influenced by the environmental movement. We imagined ourselves as real “back to nature” couple. For $8000, we bought an unfinished house in an Appalachian holler, finished it with our own hands and started raising a family. Eventually we had three children, Maggie (’79), Brendan (’82), and Patrick (‘86). As citified outsiders, we lived in that holler learning lots from our Appalachian neighbors (all of them kin to one another). Our neighbor next-door taught me about things that had to that point escaped my education: roofing, car repair, plumbing, and about soldering pipes periodically ruptured by freezing winter temperatures. I watched him and his wife build a home next to ours. They made it completely from lumber salvaged from another house they had helped tear down in Berea. For all their problems, Lee and Lola were smarter than many of us over-educated college professors.
This week (Just in time for Lent) the Lexington Catholic diocese published a study guide for Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ outspoken encyclical on the problems resulting from climate change. The guide called Discovering Laudato Si: A Small Group Study Guide.
Following two introductions – one to the social teachings of the church, the other to the booklet itself – Discovering Laudato Si’ consists of eight two-page chapters and a “Final Reflection.” In each “chapter,” one page is devoted to excerpts from the pope’s encyclical. The second page lays out three or four questions related to the chapter’s selections.
That plan is indeed helpful for small group discussions in the parish settings for which it is intended. It means participants can avoid homework. They can actually read an assigned chapter during the relevant meeting itself.
That seems, perhaps, a positive contribution.
The booklet’s liabilities however overwhelm that modest asset. That’s because Discovering Laudato Si’ does exactly what Pope Francis refused to do in his authoritative letter to the entire church. The diocesan guide bends over backward attempting not to offend.
In his encyclical, the pope might well have said “The topic of climate change is controversial. Some see it as caused by humans and threatening to the very existence of the human race. Others say that climate variability is cyclical and natural, and can be remedied by human technology. Of course, such matters are too complex for non-experts and even for the Church to decide. So while the experts are resolving that “big picture,” let’s be practical. Let’s all take a deep breath, slow down, and avoid environmental crusades. Let’s determine the ‘small tasks’ that little people can do to mitigate the environmental damage our lifestyles may be causing. Let’s reduce, reuse, and recycle. You see, environmental crusading might offend those with opposite opinions. And remember, Christians must be nice. On these matters, the faithful should ‘bend to the pastor’s direction’.”
The pope avoided all of that. But it’s the actual argument the diocesan discussion guide makes!
True: it lets the pope’s encyclical speak for itself on the first page of each chapter. But the question page often subtly retracts what the pope’s overall document says. For instance, the questions at the end of Chapter One create a false equivalency between the 97% of scientists who recognize that climate change is caused by humans, and the 3% who deny human causality. “This debate will not be resolved anytime soon,” the study guide sagely observes!
The pope however did nothing of the kind. He was not concerned with possible offense to the 3%. Instead, he called for “a bold cultural revolution” (114). He denounced capitalism-as-we-know-it (190). He called for “radical change” (171). He identified climate deniers as “obstructionists” (14) He demanded “reparations” (wealth redistribution) for global south countries wounded by the climate crimes committed by their rich colonizers (30, 51, 52). He suggested a form of world governance (53, 173-‘75}
All of these are “big picture” items that the diocesan guide recommends we leave to the experts. In fact they are the very stuff of elections, political campaigns – and wars. For that reason, Francis’ document has evoked the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and the entire Republican establishment.
Limbaugh said, “Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’ . . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”
Why did the pope avoid the milk toast approach of the Lexington diocese? It’s because he knows that we’re on a train that is speeding 200 mph down a track and headed for a precipice just a mile away.
In the face of such impending calamity telling people of faith to take our time, be “deliberate,” avoid “rash actions,” “ecological crusades,” and “headlong rush into the fray,” is misleading in a real and tragic sense of the word.
Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 6:1-2a, 3-8; Ps. 138: 1-5, 7-8; I Cor. 15: 1-11; Lk. 5: 1-11.
Have you ever seen Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues?” A few years ago that series of dramatic readings was presented at Berea College where I taught for 40 years. The readings were as provocative as the play’s title. All of them reflect the unique experience of being woman that most of us Christian males find so difficult to understand, especially after so many years of brain-washing at the hands of predominantly male clergies.
I bring that up because today’s liturgy of the word is so obviously male-centered in a very misleading way. The readings of the day suggest that God is male and that Jesus’ and Paul’s closest collaborators were exclusively men. And that in turn explains why Christian pastors of so many denominations participate so enthusiastically in what has been called a 21st century “War on Women.” It explains why the Catholic Church is so afraid of women priests.
Significantly, Ensler refers to that particular male prejudice in the prologue to her Vagina Monologues text. There she quotes Gloria Steinem who recalls:
“In the sixties, while I was doing research in the Library of Congress, I found a little known treatise about the history of religious architecture which blithely stated a thesis, as it were known by everybody, to the effect that the traditional shape of most patriarchal buildings of worship imitates the female body. Thus, there is an external entrance and another internal one, the labia majora and the labia minora; there is a vaginal central nave, which leads to the altar; there are two curved ovarian structures on either side; and finally, in the sacred center is the altar or uterus, where the great miracle takes place: men give birth.
“Though this comparison was new for me, it opened my eyes with a shock. Of course, I thought. The central ceremony of the patriarchal religions is nothing else but the ceremony in which men take control of the “yoni” power of creation by giving birth symbolically. It is no wonder that male religious leaders state so often that we human beings are born in sin … because we are born from female tummies. Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be “reborn” through men. It is no wonder that priests and pastors decked out in long vestments sprinkle our heads with a fluid that mimics the waters of birth. It is no wonder that they give us new names and promise us we will be reborn in eternal life. It is no wonder that the male priesthood attempts to keep women far removed from the altar, just as we are kept far removed from control of our own powers of reproduction. Whether symbolic or real, everything is aimed at controlling the power that resides in the female body.”
Talk about provocative! Here Ms. Steinem is claiming that creative power is focused chiefly in the female body, though men obviously have an ancillary role in the begetting of life. Because their role is so obviously secondary, a primary patriarchal purpose in organized religion, Ms. Steinem says, is for men to alienate or steal the vastly superior womanly power of life and to control it – against women themselves.
Patriarchal religion accomplishes its task by dressing men up like women. It has them sprinkling their congregations with the waters of birth introducing them to “eternal life.” This form of life is held to be more important than physical life, and male pastors claim to control it to the exclusion of women. The prerequisite for women’s access to life eternal is that they adopt the rules of the exclusively male priesthood especially those connected with female powers of reproduction centered in the woman’s body whose architecture the male priestly domain of church actually mimics.
Ms. Steinem’s analysis suggests why someone even like our beloved Pope Francis seems skittish about women priests.
After all, female priests might inspire women to recognize their inherent superiority over men in terms of centrality to the life processes (both physical and spiritual) that the patriarchy struggles so mightily to control. If women were allowed the leadership that their biology suggests, what would become of the male-centered church – of the male-centered world?
Today’s liturgy of the word tries to keep us from asking such questions. It begins with a description of God in highly masculine terms centered in the macho realm of palace and court. God is depicted as “king.” He (sic!) is “Lord.” He inspires fear and awe. He dwells in a smoke-filled room surrounded by all the trappings of power and might. Like the prophet Isaiah, those who appear before him feel small and ashamed of the very words that come from their lips.
This, of course, is the image of God we’ve been offered from the cradle. (Can you imagine how different we’d feel personally, ecclesiastically, nationally and internationally if the familiar image of God were a mother nursing her child? Would you feel any different towards such a Mother God? – Remember, it’s all just symbolism. And the image of God that’s come to dominate arises from one of the most patriarchal traditions in the history of the world.)
The male-centeredness of today’s readings continues in the selection from Paul’s first letter to Christians living in Corinth. It’s a key passage because Paul is trying to establish his identity as an “apostle,” even though he never met Jesus personally. Paul bases his claim on the fact that Jesus appeared to him just as he did to the other apostles. So he says “Remember what I preached to you:” Christ died for our sins. He was buried and raised on the third day. He appeared to the 12, then to 500 “brothers” at once, then to all of the apostles, and finally to Paul himself.
There is so much interesting in this summary of Paul’s preaching. What, for instance, happened to Jesus’ words and deeds? Paul’s gospel begins with Jesus’ death! What about Jesus’ life which revealed the character of God as compassionate and “womb like?” (See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, chapter 3.)
However, even more to the point is Paul’s omission of the fact that according to ALL of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in the canonical gospels, Jesus’ first appearances were to women, not to men!! (Remember Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18?) Using Paul’s logic, doesn’t that establish the primacy of women in the church – and in the priesthood? The Paul of First Corinthians doesn’t want to go near that question. And neither do most church officials.
And then we have today’s gospel selection from Luke. It’s the call of the first apostles. According to Luke, Peter, James, and John are the first to follow Jesus. That leaves us with the usual impression that Jesus called only men.
Omitted from our vision is the fact that according to Luke himself (8:3) there were “many women” taking an active part in the Jesus Movement. Besides Jesus’ mother Mary, we know the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, several other Marys, Suzanne, Salome, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Joanna. . And the roles of these women weren’t confined to preparing food and washing clothes.
In the first Christian communities, men and women met and worshiped together. Both men and women preached the message of Jesus with the same authority, and both men and women presided at the celebration in remembrance of their crucified Master. Like the men, the women had representation and decision-making power in the communities as priests and bishops.
That was even true of the communities of Paul. Paul himself taught that “In Christ there is no male or female” (Galatians 3,28). With this claim he legitimized the active participation of women in the first Christian communities. Also, he makes emphatic mention of many women in his letters and lavishly praises their work. For example, he mentions by name the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16,1), Junia (Romans 16,7), Prisca, Julia, Evodia and Sintece, all of whom he called his “collaborators” (Philippians 4,2). He also mentions Claudia, Trifena, Trifosa, Prisca, Lyida, Tiatira and Nympha of Laodicea. Of the 28 persons to whom Paul accords special praise in his letters to the early churches, 10 are women!
All of that changed in the 4th century, when Christianity lost its soul and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then Christianity adopted for good the courtly vision today’s first reading affirmed: macho-kings, courts, palaces, smoke-filled rooms, men dressed like women, denigration of women’s bodies, men trying desperately to affirm their superiority against all the evidence – of biology, life’s processes, Jesus’ own example, and women’s traditional roles as nourishers, healers and spiritual counselors.
Let’s talk about how women might take back those roles both in church and in politics. How do we help transform people as closed as today’s church patriarchs – or as open as Pope Francis? How do we facilitate changes in our bishops and priests? How do we let go of our own acquiescence to the misogyny of our church and culture?
The craziness my children see in me isn’t simply knee-jerk. It was a long time in coming and accompanied by a lot of internal resistance.
In fact, I’m the product of an extremely conservative upbringing. True: I come from a working class family where my dad (a truck driver) was a member of the Teamsters Union. And my parents both claimed to be “Independents” who voted for “the man not for the party.” However, deep in their hearts, they were, I believe, Republicans. Nonetheless, politics wasn’t a big concern in our family. As a result, I grew up without clear ideas about differences between Democrats and Republicans.
And then my formal education took over. It occurred entirely within the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most reactionary forces in the world. That meant Catholic grammar school from K thru 8, then 12 years of seminary training, followed by 5 years of graduate school in Rome, where I received a doctorate in moral theology in 1972. All that time I don’t remember a single teacher who wasn’t either a nun (for the first 9 years) or priest (for the rest). The intense 26 years of indoctrination didn’t end till I was 32.
The process was entirely apolitical even though virulently anti-communist. Throughout high school and the first years of college, we weren’t allowed to read newspapers or watch television. Luckily we had Christmas and summer vacations at home, where I lived with my family and worked with ordinary people (for me at a Sinclair gas station and later with the grounds-keeping crew on a golf course). I was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement and of anti-war protestors. Throughout our years of training, missionary members of my order, the Society of St. Columban returned from China, Burma, the Philippines, and Korea with tales of communist atrocities. Communism, we were told, was the world’s worst evil. (I remember the day Joseph McCarthy died. One of my seminary professors told me, “A great man died today.”
No wonder I ended up being a Republican myself. I cast my first vote for Barry Goldwater.
In the seminary I wasn’t a great student until my freshman year in college. I tried hard. But I remained pretty much a high “B” student. I did well in languages – especially Latin, which was extremely important in those days, but also in Greek and French.
Outside of class, I was obedient and pious, so I always ended up being the equivalent of “the head boy,” which we called “Class Senior,” and eventually “Senior of the House.” Till college (and long afterwards) my real interests were basketball, baseball, running, ice hockey, and (to some extent) football. If it hadn’t been for sports, I don’t think I would have survived the seminary.
Then as a freshman in college I met Fr. Jim Griffin, the most important teacher in my life. He finally awakened my inner student in a serious way. Father Griffin was tough: unmerciful in his criticism of our writing, and unsympathetic about excuses of any kind. He was a worldly, Renaissance man who loved poetry, classical music – and golf. Father Griffin enkindled in me a love for the kind of music I had always resisted, for art, drama and for poetry which till then I thought of as somehow unmanly. Most significantly he exposed me to what is now called “critical thinking” and to the art of literary criticism. (The latter joined with exposure to modern scripture scholarship subsequently gave me courage to trust my own analysis of biblical texts.) I am forever indebted to Jimmy G. who died about 15 years ago. I remember him every day in my prayers.
That was the other important element of my education – I mean exposure to modern scripture scholarship. Here I must mention my second most important teacher, Eamonn O’Doherty. Over our four years of State-side post-grad theological studies (for which we received no additional degree) Eamonn helped us understand text criticism and form criticism. To this day that orientation remains the firm foundation of what I’ve learned since from the Jesus Seminar and liberation theologians (more about that later).
As for politics, a turning point came for me in Rome where I finally escaped the seminary hothouse. My real education began there as I was exposed to new thought and ways of looking at the world I had never considered before. It was all so new to me after all those years cooped-up in the seminary. During two summers I traveled on my Vespa through Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland. I also studied German for two sessions at the University of Vienna. In 1970 and ’71, I spent two one-month periods in Ireland, where I was a delegate at the “Chapter” of my order which was rewriting its constitution. Two of my summers I returned to the U.S. and worked as a priest in St. Augustine’s parish in Culver City CA. From the day I arrived in Rome, I began seeing the world in an entirely new perspective.
In “the Holy City,” it didn’t take me long to discover that the dozen or so young priests I was living with (from Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand) at Corso Trieste 57 were much more advanced than I was in their understanding of the world – and of theology. I remember feeling embarrassed about that and determining to catch up. I became a voracious reader.
That was 1967, right after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council which had ended two years earlier. The city, the church and its theological universities were still electric with the new ideas the Council represented. Everything was up for grabs. Everyone was calling the unquestionable into question: the church, the priesthood, mandatory celibacy. My student colleagues (mostly priests at the Atheneum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana) were generally quite critical of the United States. They came from all over the world – Europe, Africa, Latin America, Australia, the Middle East . . . I was playing basketball for a minor league affiliate of the Roman pro team (Stella Azzurra) — scrimmaging the pros, interacting with my Italian teammates, fans, and officials. It was all so very exciting. I found myself reading all the important books, rethinking everything, and debating my friends endlessly.
It was the sixties! Back home the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were in full swing. Even from Rome I felt the influence of the Democratic Convention in 1968, the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Jane Fonda’s visit to Vietnam. . . . Martin King was shot, then George Wallace, and Bobby Kennedy. “What kind of country do you come from?” my friends asked. “What’s wrong with America?” Like other Americans, I was wondering that myself.
There is so much to tell. But I’ll cut to the chase. . .
A year or so before leaving Rome, I had already nearly decided to leave the priesthood. But before doing so, I requested from my sponsoring missionary group, the Society of St. Columban, a year of discernment. I had changed so much that I was suddenly perceived as too radical. I was no longer pious obedient Mike. So my superiors decided not to assign me to seminary teaching as they had originally planned. Instead, they wanted me to take up missionary work in the Philippines. However since that would involve even more (language) schooling, I asked to be given a more immediately pastoral assignment. After all, at 32 years of age and six years into my priesthood, I still didn’t really know what it meant to work full-time as a pastor.
My request was granted. I was assigned to work with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) in Kentucky.
(Part Three: next Tuesday)
Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 1: 4-5, 17-19; Ps. 71: 1-6, 15-17; I Cor. 12: 31-13; Lk. 4: 21-30
I remember when my ideas about prophecy changed – when I really began to understand the term’s implications. I was a graduate student in Rome – already a priest – and completing my doctoral studies at the Academia Alfonsiana on the Via Merulana there in the “Holy City.” I was taking a class in I’ve forgotten what. But my professor (a German Redemptorist as I recall) got my attention during one of his lectures by referring to Karl Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.” That was in 1970 at the height of the Cold War, and I had been reading Marx and about the then-flourishing Marxist-Christian dialog. I realized that my professor was right.
Marx of course was a Jew like Jesus, and Jeremiah who are centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Like them, Marx was totally absorbed by questions of social justice for the poor and exploited. He was pretty much penniless, like most prophets, and spent his time thinking, writing, speaking, and organizing workers against exploitive employers. He was also highly critical of organized religion and its idols.
Marx’s insight (shared with the biblical prophets) was to realize that both Judaism and Christianity worshipped idols more often than the God of Israel. And by that he meant “gods” who not only justified an oppressive status quo, but who anesthetized the workers and unemployed to the fact that they were indeed oppressed by the capitalist system. Marx called such idols “the gods of heaven.”
We’re all familiar with what he meant. These idols are worshipped each Sunday – usually from 11:00 to 12:00 in what a theologian friend of mine used to call the “be kind to God hour.” You can encounter the “gods of heaven” any day at any hour on Cable television’s Channel 3 or in most Catholic Churches any Sunday morning. “God” there is concerned with correct worship, with bows, genuflections, and with correct terms such as “consubstantial,” “chalice,” “with thy spirit,” “under my roof” and so on. The stories or mythology upholding such idols have to do with “Jesus as your personal savior,” with “going to heaven,” and with avoiding hell.
Marx was also critical of what he called the “gods of earth.” They’re what people worship all those days and hours when they’re not in church. They include Capitalism, “America,” Nationalism, National Defense, Homeland Security, the Military, Money, and Profit. The issues of this God focus on sexuality: contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. This God is a War God – always on the side of “America.” He’s celebrated in songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Proud to Be an American.” He is the protector of “religious freedom” understood as privileging Christianity over other faiths while preserving tax exemptions worth billions each year. He blesses the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” concerned as it is with protecting such benefits.
Marx’s prophetic work made him extremely popular with working classes. It was not uncommon for a worker to request that he be buried with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” placed on his chest.
At the same time, Marx was vilified as the devil himself by factory owners, businessmen, bankers, and the professors and politicians representing their interests. Defenseless against such “education,” most of us have accepted such defamation of this last of the great Jewish prophets.
You see, that’s the trouble with prophets like Marx, Jesus and Jeremiah. They have to take on the “powers and principalities” of their cultures. They must swim against the torrential stream of public opinion.
In today’s first reading, Jeremiah is informed of his lot. But he must “man-up,” he’s told. He must steel himself to confront the “whole land,” along with kings and princes, priests and people. All of these, he’s warned, will fight against him. Nevertheless, God will make of Jeremiah a ‘fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass.”
I suppose God followed through on those promises. But that didn’t prevent Jeremiah from being imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead.
Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. He was vilified, demonized (literally!) and defamed.
That process begins for Jesus in today’s selection from Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel. As we saw last week, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth and criticizes his neighbors’ narrow nationalism. In today’s episode his neighbors try to kill him. Later on, of course, Jesus goes more public. Like Jeremiah, he takes on his nation’s priests and scribes, princes and king. Ultimately his words and deeds threaten the Roman Empire itself which classifies him as a terrorist. Together those powers and principalities (national and international) not only defame Jesus the way Jeremiah and Marx were defamed; they actually kill him just as so many prophets have been killed from John the Baptist and Paul to Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
All of them – Jesus, Jeremiah, Gandhi, King, Paul and Marx – followed the same “prophetic script” whose inevitable directive prescribes that no prophet is accepted in her or his native place. It’s easy to see why. It’s because their “native place” bears the brunt of their prophetic words.
Meanwhile, it’s easier for outsiders to recognize prophets. The “outsiders” who concerned Jesus were the uneducated, poor, and unclean. However, even those seem to turn against him this morning. It’s unlikely that there were any rich or powerful resident in Nazareth – a place scripture scholar Ched Myers describes as “Nowheresville.”
Few of us are rich and powerful. Yet we’ve been schooled by those entities to reject prophets who speak in our name and defend our interests – those belonging to our “native land” to use the words of this morning’s gospel. It’s as though we’re looking at reality in that “darkened mirror” Paul wrote about in today’s excerpt from his letter to Corinth. The darkened mirror not only turns things backward, but it’s smudged with the fingerprints and dirt of ignorant and/or perverse propagandists.
The trouble – the trouble with prophets – is that most of us have bought into all that anti-prophet propaganda. So we hate Karl Marx without realizing that he’s on our side and speaks for us. We honor the Martin Luther King who has been reduced to a “dreamer,” but not the MLK who described the United States as the most violent and destructive country in the world. We don’t remember the King who was slandered as a communist and encouraged to commit suicide by the FBI and the COINTELPRO program.
We’re willing to stand by while Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange is persecuted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States. We presume that Chelsea Manning is guilty of treason because our government, (despite its record of lies and heinous crimes) says so. We wonder what all the fuss is about Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden.
These are the prophets of our time who, like Jesus, do not find a sympathetic hearing in their native place. It might be time to embrace them as our own and see what difference that makes in the way we look at the world and our country. The examples of Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul — and the hopes of the world’s poor and victims of U.S. wars — beg us to do so.
My blog has gotten me into lots of trouble lately with people I care about – family members, former students, and academic colleagues. So I feel I owe them an explanation of where I’m coming from. It’s complicated. It has taken me a long time to get from normalcy to what my son-in-law terms “your father’s crazy theories.”
But before I get to that, here’s the trouble I’m in.
My recent review of the Broadway musical, “Hamilton” ticked off my children – all three of them. They love the play. Now they’re not too sure about me!
You see, I wrote off “Hamilton” as a reverse minstrel show. Black and brown equivalents of Stepin Fetchit and Bojangles, I said, simply endorse the “official story” of American history. They prostitute their revolutionary rap music to celebrate their own people’s white oppressors like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and James Madison. All the while the actors ignore their own bitter backstory of slavery and “Indian” extermination. The audience leaves the theater royally entertained but with their prejudices not only intact but reinforced.
My children didn’t like that. Two of them unsubscribed from my blog. I’m too extreme, they said. “You’re always so anti-American. You’re as knee-jerk on the left as Rush Limbaugh is on the right. I’m tired of reading your “commie crap.”
A former student and a university colleague implied the same thing when they responded to another post, “In Defense of ISIS” (Scroll down this blog to January 19, 2015).
There I had tried to say that ISIS is much more than a group of pathological killers. They have longstanding historical grievances that go back 1400 years. Those grievances were aggravated over the last 80 years as Arabia was balkanized in a major act of “divide and rule” by England, France, the United States and others. Moreover, ISIS does more than terrorize those under its sway, I said. It also wins hearts and minds by providing a wide array of social services.
The colleague said I romanticized a brutal military force that controls by terror and gives aid only to those who agree with its viewpoint. (Which sounded to me a lot like the United States!)
And what about ISIS’ public executions and all those beheadings? That was the objection of my former student. In one of those executions, she pointed out, a 20 year old son executed his own 35 year-old mother for apostasy. He did so in front of a crowd of hundreds apparently approving of his act. Tell me that’s not pathological, she demanded. (For my answer, scroll down to January 23, 2015).
And then there’s a close relative of mine who stopped talking to me when I pointed out that Muslim refugees shouldn’t be profiled or looked on with suspicion. They’re here, I said, because we’ve bombed their homes! We’ve done that in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. If we want to keep them out, we should stop the bombing.
But, she asked, if we leave, what would happen in Syria?
We have no dog in that fight, I replied. We should simply stop the bombing and leave the Arabian Peninsula to fend for itself. The only reason we’re there is for the oil.
At that point my dear relative hung up on me.
You see what I mean? I’m in deep trouble with everyone.
So let me explain myself. I want the series of articles I have in mind to show that my “crazy theories” didn’t just fall out of the sky. They’re based on life experience that has taken me all over the world, on what I’ve learned during my 40+ years of teaching and research, and on trying to think about all of that in a disciplined way. Be forewarned: my thinking centralizes a personal faith shaped by my allegiance to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and prophetic atheism.
(More next Tuesday)