Critical Thinking & Fake News (1st in a series)

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I’m currently writing a book on critical thinking. A first draft is being reviewed by Peter Lang Publishers. Peer reviewers are giving it the once-over. In this series, I’d like to expose some of the book’s key ideas. What I share immediately below tries to set the stage for  the analysis that will follow in subsequent postings, usually on Tuesdays.

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By all accounts, we’re living in a post-fact age, where it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from falsehood. That’s why in our culture, contemporary debate rages over terms such as “post-truth,” “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fake news,” outright “bullshit,” and “propaganda.”

In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the 2016 Word of the Year (WOTY) was “post-truth.” That same year, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary identified “fake news” as its own WOTY. The trend is unmistakable – signaled as far back as 2006, when “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert, took the Oxford Dictionary honor. The Colbert term synthesized the trend’s direction. “Truthiness” was defined as “The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”

That’s what the post-truth era centralized: feelings over analysis. “Trust your gut and not your brain,” as Beppe Grillo put it while urging Italians to vote with his conservative Five Star Party against constitutional reforms.

Shortly after being elected, Donald Trump’s team took the trend a step further. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts.” She was debating “Meet the Press” host, Chuck Todd about the size of Trump’s 2017 inauguration audience.

Conway defended the position expressed by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary. He had described the crowd was the largest in inauguration history. Todd disagreed citing D.C. police estimates that it was four times smaller than the number attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Conway responded, “. . . Our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. . .” Todd answered, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt would put Todd’s point in even starker terms. Drawing on the title of his best-selling book, Frankfurt would say it’s simply “B.S.”  In On Bullshit the professor contrasts liars and bullshitters. The Liar, Frankfurt writes, cares about truth and attempts to hide it; bullshitters don’t care if what they say is true or false. Their only concern is whether or not their listeners are persuaded.

According to another philosopher, Ken Wilber, polls taken during the 2016 election cycle showed that truthiness was valued more highly by a majority of voters than researched facts. Day after day, Wilber writes, newspapers would keep count of questionable statements made by Donald Trump the previous day. Reporters would write things like, “Our fact checkers have found that Mr. Trump told 17 lies on the campaign trail yesterday.” To a lesser extent, they criticized Ms. Clinton’s statements. And yet, when asked who is more truthful, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? the polls consistently ranked Trump first. This signified, Wilber says, that poll respondents valued persuasiveness more highly than what news reporters called truth.

Truthiness, alternative facts, and bullshit have given rise to widespread concern about “fake news.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, the phrase received prominence when it was discovered that Eastern European bloggers had concocted from whole cloth wild stories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The stories were directed towards supporters of Donald Trump, and the concoctions’ only purpose was to have the tales go viral – while earning thousands of dollars for their authors. So, readers were treated to headlines such as: “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money to Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal to Leave White House, He Will Stay in Power!”

Such headlines might make one laugh. However, Noam Chomsky reminds us that “fake news” is by no means a trivial matter. However, its principal perpetrators are not Macedonian teenagers trolling for cash. They are the C.I.A., the NSA, and the White House (under any president). Their messages are communicated to the rest of us through the mainstream media (MSM) whose function is the dissemination of propaganda. In Necessary Illusions, Chomsky and Edward Herman put it this way:

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

In other words, at least according to Chomsky and Herman, fake news has long been with us. It is the official policy of the country’s ruling elites.

Now that’s the “fake news” that should really concern us. It’s just about all we get from the mainstream media in this country. And it’s been that way at least since the end of the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In that sense, Donald Trump’s continual lambasting of the press is right on target. (Next week: There Really Are Alternative Facts!)

Sunday Homily: U.S. Christians Shouldn’t Be the World’s Most Violent People (But We Are!)

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Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 3: 16-23; MT 5: 38-48.

We’re living at a time characterized by military crisis; wouldn’t you agree? I mean we’re still in Afghanistan (our country’s longest war ever). Can you tell me why? We’re also fighting in Iraq and have been doing that one way or another since at least 1990. Then there’s Syria and Yemen – not to mention droning in Libya, Somalia, and who knows where else? And on top of that there’s saber-rattling about what Russia does in its backyard, and even about “our” rights to float battleships in the South China Sea – more than 7000 miles away from our shores. We spend more on war than all the other nations of the world combined, and are in the process of modernizing our nuclear weapons arsenal that our “leaders” once pledged to abolish.

And what has it all accomplished? Can you tell me that? Well, while it may make arms manufacturers richer and happier, here’s a short list of its downsides:

  • It kills millions of people – yes more than a million in Iraq alone since 2003!
  • It threatens the very future of the human race.
  • It contributes mightily to environmental destruction,
  • And to global warming as the U.S. military remains the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world
  • As well as to the creation of an unprecedented refugee problem,
  • It appears to motivate terrorists to respond in kind.
  • All of which seems to make us less safe rather than more so.

Doesn’t that seem crazy? Why do we put up with it? I mean to spend more than a billion dollars each day on war and to have absolutely nothing positive to show for it? NOTHING! And then instead of facing that colossal failure, to pledge to do even more of the same – forever and ever?

I’m hard put to think of anything crazier. And scandalously, it’s a nation that claims to be Christian that’s doing all of that – in the name of God and even of Jesus. The Muslims would have a hard time even remotely approaching that level of religiously-motivated violence!

Say, here’s an idea: why don’t we try following the actual teachings of Jesus as found in today’s Liturgy of the Word? I didn’t say “the teachings of the Bible” in general, but the teachings of Jesus.

I mean, in today’s Gospel, the Master takes pains to distinguish between the Bible’s warlike vengeful God and its Compassionate One. Jesus specifically rejects the one and endorses the other. For Matthew that rejection and endorsement was momentous – as significant as Moses reception of the Ten Commandments from his God, Yahweh. That’s why Matthew [in contrast to Luke’s equivalent “Sermon on the Plain” (LK 6:17-49)] has Jesus deliver his “sermon” on a mountain (5:1-7:27). The evangelist is implicitly comparing Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on “the Mount.”

In any case, through a series of antitheses (“You have heard . .. but I say to you . . .”), Jesus contrasts his understanding of the Law with more traditional interpretations. The Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus’ Law commands:

  • Turning the other cheek
    • Going the extra mile
    • Generosity with adversaries
    • Open-handedness to beggars
    • Lending without charging interest
    • Love of enemies

Matthew concludes that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must also be merciful and compassionate ourselves. As today’s reading from Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Or as Jesus puts it, perfect as God is perfect.

And how perfect is that? It’s the perfection of nature where the sun shines on good and bad alike – where rain falls on all fields regardless of who owns them. It’s the perfection of the God described in this morning’s responsorial. According to the psalmist, the Divine One pardons all placing an infinite distance (“as far as east is from west”) between sinners and their guilt. God heals all ills and as a loving parent is the very source of human goodness and compassion. That’s the perfection that Jesus’ followers are called to emulate.

All of that is contrasted with what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world” in today’s excerpt from his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The world regards turning the other cheek as weakness. Going the extra mile only invites exploitation. Generosity towards legal adversaries will lose you your case in court. Open-handedness towards beggars encourages laziness. Lending without interest is simply bad business. And loving one’s enemies is a recipe for military defeat and enslavement.

Yet Paul insists. And he bases his insistence on the conviction that we encounter God in every human individual whether they be our abusers, exploiters, or legal adversaries – whether they be beggars or debtors unlikely to repay our interest-free loans.

All of those people, Paul points out are “temples of God.” God dwells in each of them just as God does in us. In the end, that’s the basis of the command we heard in the Leviticus reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Normally, our self-centered culture interprets that dictum to mean: (1) we clearly love ourselves more above all; so (2) we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

But in the light of Paul’s mystical teaching that God dwells within every human being, the command about neighbor-love takes on much deeper implication. That is, Paul the mystic teaches that our deepest Self is the very God who dwells within each of us as in the Temple. We should therefore love our neighbor (and our enemy, debtor, adversary, and those who beg and borrow from us) because God dwells within them — because they ARE ourselves. They ARE us! To bomb them, to fight wars against them is therefore suicidal.

No wonder, then, that Paul predicts the destruction of the person who fails to recognize others as temples of God and harms them. Paul means that by destroying others we ipso facto destroy ourselves, because in the end, the God-Self dwelling within us is identical with the Self present in the ones we shoot, bomb and drone. That is a very high mystical teaching. It should be the faith of those pretending to follow Jesus. It should make all of them (all of us!) pacifists.

If we owned that truth, that would be the end of wars. Imagine if the world’s 2.2 billion Christians gave up our addiction to violence and simply refused to destroy our fellow human beings because we recognized in them the indwelling presence of God. Imagine if we stopped worshipping the God Jesus rejects – the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” War God – and embraced Jesus’ compassionate and loving All-Parent.

The resources freed up would be sufficient to literally transform this world into a paradise.

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

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A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.  

 

 

The Ten Commandments: God’s and The Donald’s (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 15: 15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; I Cor 2: 6-10; MT 5: 17-37.
The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. “Keep the commandments; no one has a license to sin,” the first reading from Sirach intones. “Walk blamelessly in God’s law; observe its decrees; delight in its wonder,” sings the psalmist in today’s responsorial. And then in the Gospel reading Jesus presents himself as the defender of even the least of the commandments. Break the least, he says, and you’ll be least in God’s Kingdom.
On hearing all of this, I couldn’t but squirm on behalf of Christian Trump supporters who respect what they consider God’s Word. After all, The Donald seems to live by his own rules. And those guidelines don’t seem to have much to do with the Bible’s Ten and the delight, joy, and fulfillment today’s readings suggest infallibly result from observance of the Decalogue. Or as comedian, Bill Maher put it during the campaign season, “It’s hard to bring up the Ten Commandments when your candidate has spent most his life breaking all of them.”
On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, a sworn enemy of Christianity has formulated his own Ten Commandments. Ironically, Dawkins’ rules are more in harmony with today’s delight-full estimation of God’s Law. In fact, they seem more worthy of Christian support than the one’s Mr. Trump apparently lives by.
So just for fun, in the light of today’s readings, let’s contrast the two sets of commandments, and see what we can learn. It might be that Dawkins’ natural law commandments are more promising in terms of Nature’s delight, joy and peace than what we hear implicitly proclaimed by casino king Donald Trump and his Christian followers.

Begin with Mr. Trump. Here’s how humorist Neel Ingram compared the Bible’s Ten Commandments with what seems to be their Trumpian counterparts. (Ingram hosts a website called Chewing The Fat With God). Using Trump’s own words, Ingram writes:

Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before Me.

Commandment 1 (Trump Edition): I won the popular vote… I’m really smart. I have the best words. Best words. Believe me.

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Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself a carved image of Me.

Commandment 2 (Trump Edition): You shall not publish unflattering photos. Giant portraits are okay if they’re of Me. For Me.

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Commandment 3: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

Commandment 3 (Trump Edition): You shall not mock me, the ratings machine, Donald J. Trump, or I will declare you boring and unfunny. Bigly.

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Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Commandment 4 (Trump Edition): I proclaim a National Day of Patriotic Devotion in my honor. A great day. Best day.

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Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother.

Commandment 5 (Trump Edition): My parents… great people… truly great… great, unbelievable parents. I’m a really good father. My children really like me — love me — a lot.

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Commandment 6: You shall not murder.

Commandment 6 (Trump Edition): Murder is a terrible crime. Don’t murder. Murder’s not good. Bad!

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Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.

Commandment 7 (Trump Edition): Adultery — I don’t think it should be done. Don’t screw around unless she’s hot as sh*t and you think you’ll get away with it.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 8: You shall not steal.

Commandment 8 (Trump Edition): Don’t steal. Do a deal. My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Commandment 9 (Trump Edition): False witnesses are like fake news. Media can’t be trusted. Serious bias — big problem! Sad.

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Commandment 10: You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Commandment 10 (Trump Edition): Don’t covet. I’m really rich. When you’re really rich there’s nothing to covet. Except p*ssy. When you’re a star you can do anything. Grab them by the p*ssy. It’s amazing. Terrific.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Mr. Trump’s outrageous profanity aside, now take a look at what today’s readings have to say about God’s law. All of them (and especially Jesus’ words) suggest that “God’s Law” has nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s guiding principles. Neither is it written in stone. Instead, God’s commandments are enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That’s the line Richard Dawkins takes. Beginning with The Golden Rule, he lists his Ten Commandments in the following words:

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
    2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
    3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
    4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
    5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
    6. Always seek to be learning something new
    7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
    8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
    9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
    10. Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality which evidently so concerns D.T. and his Christian friends. But whereas The Donald emphasizes power and exploitation while his friends emphasize prohibition and suppression, Mr. Dawkins’ commandments stress the joy and freedom centralized in today’s readings. Dawkins writes:

  1. Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
    2. Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
    3. Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
    4. Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” wouldn’t you agree? They seem to make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. Their observance could bring the world together rather than tearing it apart on the basis of supposedly revealed religious dogmas.

That’s what Roman Catholic (but suspended) theologian, Hans Kung thinks. He says that such a “global ethic” is necessary to finally end the armed conflicts that characterize our age. Towards that end, Kung has articulated four principles: (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

The United Nations seconds Dr. Kung. It boils down his desired global ethic to just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

Could it be that Christians have more to learn about God’s law from an atheist than from the authoritarian so many Christians and Christian pastors evidently support?

In any case, while the latter promises eternal conflict, the former holds hope of dialog, mutual understanding, and cessation of hostilities.

The choice is ours: Trump’s self-serving law or God’s law written in our hearts.

Sister Giant: The Higher Consciousness Community Meets Liberation Theology

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It had to happen. I mean you can’t establish dictators and despots throughout the world and not have it eventually come home. And it has in Donald Trump. His election has brought the spirits of U.S. darlings Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, and Duvalier to our shores. We should all be terrified.

By the same token, you can’t inflict such despotism on people of faith without their eventually discovering in their traditions a God who stands on the side of the poor and oppressed rather than with their wealthy oppressors. That happened with the emergence of liberation theology over the last 50 years among Christians in Chile, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. In 1979 it happened in Iran with the first Islamic revolution that has since spread across the Middle East. (I’ve written about that here, here, here, and here.)

And now it’s happening in the United States. Of course, awareness of the connection between Christian faith and release from oppression dawned most prominently with the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then during the ‘70s and ‘80s Catholics joined in as they observed (often first-hand as I did) U.S oppression throughout Latin America. During the ‘90s and the first decade of the current century, I could even see it emerging among the white U.S. Evangelical students I taught during their term abroad in Central America. As a result, I increasingly witnessed them reading and referencing non-fundamentalists and liberationists like Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and others.

And now with the arrival of Trump, a highly political form of liberation theology has hit the “Higher Consciousness Community.” I’m referring to followers of Marianne Williamson, Neale Donald Walsch, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, Abraham Hicks, and other teachers of the “spiritual, but not religious” seekers proliferating throughout the United States and the world.

Just last week, I personally witnessed unmistakable signs of the latter awakening in Washington, DC during the best three-day conference I’ve experienced in more than 40 years of attending such events. It was Marianne Williamson’s Sister Giant Conference. And judging by the standing ovations nearly all the speakers received from the 2000 attendees, they had similar experiences. (There were also 4000 live-streamers listening and watching.)

As you might judge from the conference title, Sister Giant attendees were mostly women.

Many of them, two weeks earlier, had attended the DC Women’s March. And it was evident that their enthusiasm from that event carried over.

Both the march and the conference empowered women, who at Sister Giant were urged to own their power by speakers like Bernie Sanders, Karenna Gore (Daughter of Al Gore), Jean Houston, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Dennis Kucinich, William J. Barbour, Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), and Zephyr Teachout. Each of them recognized women as the de facto leaders of the anti-Trump Movement.

Many other speakers presented as well including stand-up comic, John Fugelsang who actually told liberation theology jokes. For instance, he pointed out that the Vatican is ahead of the White House on science. Referring to the Bible’s Adam’s Rib Story, he observed that “The very first woman transitioned to a woman from a man.”

Meanwhile conference-organizer, Marianne Williamson, supplied her own transitions and highlighted points made. Between speakers, she kept us all focused with her insightful reflections on relevant passages in A Course on Miracles, and spontaneous, unself-conscious prayers like those found in her book Illuminata. She was wonderful. (And unbelievably, she will be coming to speak here in Berea at the end of March.)

From all of this, randomly organized thoughts worth sharing here include:

  • This country (the U.S.A.) was never meant to work for people like me.
  • The U.S. government has lost all legitimacy.
  • Our economic system (capitalism) contradicts Jesus’ teaching and universal religious values in general; it is based on greed, competition, inequality, racism, violence, and environmental destruction.
  • Donald Trump has shown everyone that he is absolutely unqualified for office.
  • In fact, most people in the Sister Giant audience were better qualified than D.T.
  • The world was not born fair; we have to make it that way.
  • Large groups of desperate people do desperate things.
  • No serious religious path gives anyone a pass allowing them to ignore the suffering of other sentient beings.
  • If Jesus finds injustice intolerable, so must his would-be followers.
  • Native Americans (e.g. at Standing Rock) talk to God, not about God.
  • Neutrality always serves the oppressor, never the victim.
  • In view of Donald Trump’s election, it might be time to make America Great Britain again!
  • The main axis of social change is vertical rather than horizontal.
  • American Muslims are the canaries in our coal mine.
  • You are either a feminist or a masochist.
  • It’s time for a Pro-Democracy Movement in the United States.
  • My calendar and my checkbook proclaim infallibly what my values are.
  • America needs a new bottom line (not a measure of efficiency and power, but of how loving and generous we are as we stand responsibly before the grandeur of the universe.)
  • We must begin planning for the day when we have to take to the streets — net neutrality and Social Security will be the issues.

Such liberationist thoughts only palely reflect the richness of thoughts shared at the Sister Giant conference. But I hope they give you some idea of what’s needed to exorcise the despotic spirits of Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier – and of Donald Trump.

The U.S. Is Not Reagan’s “Shining City upon a Hill” (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 58: 7-10; PS 112: 4-9; I COR 2: 1-5; MT 5: 13-16.

Today’s readings are about the nature of the light emanating from a shining “City on a Hill.” Jesus introduces that imagery specifically in today’s Gospel selection. In doing so, he alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah (today’s first reading) which describe the City’s characteristics.

However most Americans don’t primarily associate the City on a Hill image with Jesus, much less with Isaiah. In fact, most cannot hear the phrase without thinking of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s mouth, “City on a Hill” became a quintessential expression of American Exceptionalism. As such Reagan’s usage exemplifies how Republicans have hijacked and distorted Christian discourse.

Reagan however didn’t coin the City’s connection to “America.” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had already done that in 1630. Standing on the deck of the flagship Arbella Winthrop told his shipmates, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Then in 1961 J.F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop’s words specifically as the new president addressed the General Court of Massachusetts. Kennedy added “. . . (W)e are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.”

After Reagan, Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, attempted to borrow some of the Reagan thunder by using his idol’s words. Bauer repeatedly used the “City on a Hill” metaphor as he attempted unsuccessfully to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Before him in 1997, Reagan’s adopted son, Michael, had already written a book about his father entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan’s Vision for America.

As for Reagan himself, here’s what he said about the image in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989:

“…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still . . .”

These words show that Reagan’s image of the “City on the Hill” is one of pride, strength, harmony, peace, open markets and free immigration – all of it specially blessed by God. Noble ideals all. . . .

Nonetheless President Reagan’s policies proved questionably coincident with his words and especially with the biblical ideals expressed in today’s readings.

Think about those ideals.

In the selection from Isaiah, the prophet says the City on the Hill shines because its inhabitants:
• Share bread with the hungry.
• Protect the oppressed and remove oppression from their midst.
• Shelter the homeless.
• Clothe the naked.
• Remove from their midst accusation and malicious speech.

The Responsorial psalm seconds all of that, adding that the hilltop city’s just citizens:
• Lend (without interest).
• Give lavishly to the poor.

In today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle himself identifies with the weak and fearful, not those who are “wise” according to the standards of the world. Paul goes on to contrast the world’s logic with what elsewhere he calls the foolishness of Jesus’ Spirit – which chose to identify with those on death row (I COR 1:23).

Finally, today’s Gospel reading has Jesus refer specifically to the “City on a hill” and the light that causes it to shine. Once again, it’s the “light” described by Isaiah – sharing bread, shelter, clothing, and money with the hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished and oppressed.

All of this has little to do with President Reagan’s version of an exceptionally blessed America. In fact, during his term in office Reagan:

• Consistently stigmatized the poor. (Reagan often told the story of a “welfare queen” in Chicago who turned out to be a figment of his speech writers’ imaginations. According to the story, she drove a Cadillac and had cheated the government of $150,000 using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Once again, all of that was a lie.)
• Halved the budget for public housing.
• Closed shelters for the mentally ill.
• In so doing, created an epidemic of homelessness virtually unknown since the Great Depression.
• Spent the entire decade of the 1980s supporting oppressive governments Central America – specifically in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
• Oversaw the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, thus opening the publicly owned radio airwaves to dominance by privately financed right wing programs whose bread and butter soon became the “false accusations” and “malicious speech” Isaiah saw as incongruous with the light Jesus subsequently saw as characterizing the City on the Hill.
• Inspired his self-proclaimed acolytes (in our own day) to introduce savage reductions in Food Stamp programs for the hungry, and elimination of unemployment benefits.

And that’s the short list of the horrors of the “Reagan Revolution.” None of it has anything to do with Jesus’ vision of a City on a Hill. Rather Reagan policies fly directly in the face of that vision.

The point is that the right wing in this country (personified in Ronald Reagan) has hypocritically identified itself as somehow “Christian” while turning that tradition squarely on its head.

Progressives are missing the boat by surrendering to that hijacking of Jesus’ meaning and message, when in reality that message supports their cause, not that of their reactionary opponents.

It’s high time for progressives to go on the offensive by recognizing and employing the power of myth and image so successfully manipulated by the religious right.

Trump’s Anti-Catholic Persecution: My Personal Response

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Last Saturday night we had our first meeting of a house church a number of us are trying to get off the ground. Ten people showed up. At least half of them admitted being there principally to humor me – because they’re such good friends. For that I remain extremely grateful.

By their very presence and participation, those good friends helped me clarify my own calling in these troubled times. They helped me realize that these are times of anti-Catholic persecution, and that the renewed oppression calls for thoughtful response. Please allow me to explain.

To begin with, at Saturday’s meeting, there was plenty of talk about Donald Trump. Everyone spoke of a sense of foreboding and depression at the events of the preceding week – the president’s first in office. There was all that xenophobia about Mexicans described as criminals and rapists – all that talk of The Wall.

One good friend described his impression of standing on a track in the face of an onrushing train with no power to stop it.

But another invoked the term metanoia – the Greek word for repentance in the sense of complete change of mind and action. He implied that as people of faith, we have to change profoundly. We need to man-up, woman-up and act like subjects rather than as powerless objects moved about by the tweets of the Bully-in-Chief. (His words made me reconsider my own immobility and resistance to change.)

Well, we finished our discussion, broke bread and shared wine around our dining room table. Afterwards, as we ate our potluck meal, we spoke of possible action during the coming week. There was talk of boycotting Trump products and services, writing letters, making phone calls, and even traveling to Standing Rock.

Following our liturgy, I felt a sense of profound gratitude for the generosity and good will my friends had shown. (They even stayed beyond the allotted time.) All the same, I worried that our suggested actions might never touch, for example, conservatives who voted for Mr. Trump or send ripples beyond our emerging little church.

I wondered what I might do personally to change that.

In the middle of that night, around 4:00 in the morning, I awoke suddenly with a possible response. It involves confronting the fact that a new government-sponsored persecution of Catholics is breaking out in our midst.

I’m not exaggerating. I mean, if I consider attacks on predominantly Muslim countries as veiled attacks on Islam, I should also consider attacks on predominantly Catholic countries as attacks on Catholicism.

Such antagonism has long and bloody precedent. In fact, all during the 1980s the United States fought what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century. On Chomsky’s analysis, it raged against the Catholic Church in Latin America whose bishops had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position. The conflict created chaos particularly in Central America, took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Latin American Catholics. Today its aftermath remains a principal cause behind the stream of refugees entering the U.S. through Mexico.

Donald Trump’s policies against refugees represents an extension of that 1980s religious war. In its current form, it vilifies and excludes Catholics as devoid of the moral standards the Church prides itself on teaching.

Think about it, Donald Trump has identified Mexicans and Central Americans (again, most of them Catholic) as morally deficient. The president said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Here Mr. Trump identifies good Mexican Catholics among us as the exception, not the rule. The vast majority, he claims, are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.

However, my own specifically Catholic experience gives the lie to his words. He’s demonizing my fellow parishioners –  people I consider my brothers and sisters in Christ. I know them by name: Amelia, Carlos, Ana, Isidro, Graciela, Ramon. . .  Criminals? Rapists? Drug dealers?

There are at least 100 such people in my Berea Kentucky church of 200 families. And that doesn’t even count the DACA students in our local Berea College. Under Trump, all of these people and their families stand accused not only by the president, but by those he emboldens to harass them. In other words, our fellow Catholics are in danger, so are their sources of income, their health and well-being.

Recently after church, I spoke with some of the endangered. They all agreed; they feel threatened and quite frightened. Moreover, they would appreciate more evident solidarity and support from Anglo parishioners who, in the case of our Berea church attend a separate Mass (at 9:00 a.m.) while Hispanics attend either a Spanish language Mass at 11:00, or both the 9:00 and 11:00 Masses.

How then might I respond to the plight of their Hispanic brothers and sisters in Christ? Here’s what I’m thinking: I might

  • Clearly identify in my own mind President Trump’s policies as anti-Catholic and specifically threatening to my fellow parishioners.
  • Lobby my senators and congressional representative to vote against Mr. Trump’s immigration policies.
  • Use the term “anti-Catholic” in my phone messages to those politicians.
  • Use similar language in writing to Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who describes himself as a “devout Catholic.”
  • Try to persuade the parish council in my local church to declare our parish a sanctuary for the refugees and immigrants among us.
  • In general, show solidarity with my fellow undocumented parishioners.
  • Begin participating in the 11:00 “Hispanic Mass” instead of the 9:00 mostly Anglo ceremony.
  • Be undeterred by my diffidence about not speaking Spanish well enough, realizing instead that my good will goes a long way towards establishing the sense of solidarity and support that our Hispanic brothers and sisters need.
  • Pair up with new friends and offer to spend time with them in conversation to help them learn English.

I suspect that actions like those, if adopted more generally, would start parish-wide conversations about Mr. Trump’s policies that affect “brothers and sisters in Christ.” They might raise the awareness of conservative parishioners – and possibly even of our church leadership. Such actions hold the promise of mobilizing many against the Trump administration’s fearful xenophobic juggernaut that, as I’ve said, is quite anti-Catholic.

I smile as Imagine what might happen across the country if Catholics responded in these ways.

Thank you, my good friends for helping me see the possibilities. Now it’s time for me to get to work.