Why the Church? (Sunday Homily)

Sisters

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

After binge-watching The Keepers last weekend, it’s difficult for me not to connect Ascension Sunday with the church as depicted there. Apart from the fascination stemming from the horrific events portrayed, the docuseries depicts a Catholic Church that has all but disappeared.

Before the 1970s, priests and women religious were plentiful. At my parish, St. Viator, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, our Viatorian priests all living together in the rectory were Fathers Fitzpatrick, Ranahan, Ryan, Burke, and Devereux – along with Brother Kelzer. In addition, women religious dominated our school. Every year a different Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught me there. To this day, I remember them daily in my prayers: Sisters Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Cyril, Rita Marie, and Irma. My mind can still see them at daily Mass where their community filled three long pews. It seemed like there were about 20 of them.

Then came Vatican II (1962-’65), and that was the end of that. With the great reforms, everything was called into question: the nature of the church itself, the priesthood, the communal religious life. Priests and nuns left their “consecrated lives” in droves.

Observation of today’s “feast day,” the Ascension of Jesus, was part of it all. Time was when Jesus’ Ascension was celebrated on Thursday as a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires’ wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)

Zimbabwe

So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica,  where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa. 

Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?

That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.

However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.

Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?

Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.

When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.

The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all.  Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York.  The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms.  Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel.  The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture.  At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.

It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any   counter-revolution.

Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.

Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.

Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.

Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare.  It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America.  Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery.  At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring.  With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.

Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World.  The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day.  The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them.  As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income.  At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in.  Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so.  It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired.  We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”

This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?

All Catholics Should See “The Keepers”: It Will Scare the Hell Out of You (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 8: 5-8; 14-17; PS 66: 1-7; 16, 26; I PT 3: 15-18; JN 14: 15-21

I’m presently in Michigan working hard on a book I’m writing about critical thinking.

Meanwhile, my wife, Peggy, is off in Cuba teaching a class of Berea College students there. So I’ve had lots of time to invest in my project. And I’ve nearly finished another draft.

This weekend, my sister, Mary, has come to our cottage in Canadian Lakes for a very welcome visit. Unfortunately, however, the weather has been cold and rainy. So we spent some time watching a startling Netflix series. It’s called “The Keepers.” It’s a shocking account of an unsolved 1969 murder of a young Catholic nun in Baltimore.

Sister Cathy Cesnik, disappeared shortly after confronting authorities about widespread sexual abuse at the prestigious Keough High School, where she taught English. Two priests there used the confessional to identify young females who would be vulnerable to their sexual depredations. Eventually they ended up sharing their victims with school outsiders including police officials. The priests had become pimps who threatened their victims and their families with death if they revealed their abuse.

The young women were so traumatized that the priests’ threats kept them silent for years.

Finally, however, some of Sr. Cathy’s former students decided to investigate her murder.  One thing led to another, and eventually more than 50 women came forward with their shocking tales which brought to light not only cover-ups by the Baltimore archdiocese, but that implicated the Baltimore Police Department as well.

The story with its cynical use of religion to exploit innocent children led to long conversations with my sister about our Catholic backgrounds, about our own experiences in Catholic schools, about confession, and church teachings in general. We found ourselves sympathizing with those (including close friends and relatives) who have left the church as irredeemably corrupt. No wonder, we agreed, that “former Catholics” represent the second largest religious “denomination” in the country (with 22.8 million), behind members of the official Catholic Church at 68.1 million.

Yet, as human beings, those people (all of us) retain a spiritual hunger. So many former Catholics (and others) identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Today’s liturgy of the word gives us an idea of what that identification might mean. They call us to realize the fact that the Spirit of Christ resides in everyone – and in all of creation. It’s not dependent on going to church, being a Catholic or even a Christian. Rather, it depends on simply opening our eyes and on waking up to the Spirit’s presence everywhere, despite the self-induced sleep and blindness of “the world” – and, I would add, despite the corruption of hypocritical churches.

And where does the Spirit reside? The answer is surprising. The Spirit of Christ is closer to us than our jugular vein. John the Evangelist has Jesus say as much in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to the description again for the first time.

Jesus says:

  1. I am in the Father.
  2. You are in me.
  3. I am in you.

Could anyone be clearer about it? We are all temples. Our bodies, not buildings are the churches that matter. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching about confession, ritual, priests, doctrine. It’s simply about opening our eyes and embracing the truth that God’s Spirit is like the very air we breathe. It’s like Paul will later say in his Areopagus speech about the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:28): Everyone lives and moves and has being in God’s Spirit.

Recognizing that and acting accordingly is what spirituality (vs. religion) is about. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, such recognition will have us keeping his commandments: to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor as ourselves. And, of course, loving our neighbors as our self does not mean loving them as much as we love ourselves. It means loving them because they are our self – the Self that is one with God. Put more simply: All of us are one. That’s the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

Later on in Acts 17:28, Paul elaborates. He explains to Greek seekers in the Areopagus that their altar to the “Unknown God” represents an unconscious recognition of the God of Israel.

But that recognition can happen only if we become holy in the sense indicated in today’s first reading. There Philip (and later Peter and John) invoked Christ’s Spirit on Samaritans – the traditional enemies of Jews. Significantly, the apostles do so while laying hands on the Samaritans’ heads. Their action symbolically brings together the left and right sides of the brains of those they touch. The ritual shows that experiencing the Spirit calls not just for logic, but for intuition as well. The Spirit is the one who makes us whole, not simply right or left-brain dominant. “Holiness” means wholeness in that sense – integrating what we know logically and by intuition.

That’s what spirituality means!

I’m writing this at 3:00 Sunday morning. The Keepers is still haunting me and keeping me awake. I’m feeling disturbed, even angry, about the Church’s distortion of faith, God and the Spirit of Christ explained so simply in today’s readings.

Please excuse me for any lack of coherence here.  Blame it on the late hour. But don’t miss watching the film.

My Experience in Cuba (13th in a series on critical thinking)

Cuba

My first trip to Cuba took place in 1997. Berea College sent me there as a delegate with The Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a Cuban specialist from our college spent a month on the island teaching a January Short Term course for Berea students. It focused on “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” Years later, I attended a two-week Conference of Radical Philosophers in Havana. Then there were those trips I earlier referenced with students from the Latin American Studies Program I taught with in Costa Rica. My wife and I also co-taught a summer semester course in Cuba three years ago – just before President Obama began lifting travel restrictions for Americans.

To repeat, those experiences gave me the chance to examine a culture and system of political economy attempting mightily to implement Marx’s critical theory. The efforts have continued for more than 50 years, even in the face of fierce and often terroristic opposition from the most powerful country in the world, located not 90 miles from Cuba’s shores.  Despite those impediments, and since 1959 Cuba has largely succeeded in providing for itself what human beings care most about.

(And here, I’m sorry to say, my time on the island has made evident the real “fake news” and analysis into which Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 50 years. For I am about to present a series of “alternative facts” that illustrate the need for critical thinking beyond the Propaganda Model Noam Chomsky exposed in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions.)

So what do human beings really care about? Most would probably say that they care about their health and that of their families. Education would also be important. They want safety in the streets. They even desire some years of retirement toward the end of their lives. Most also care about the well-being of the planet they’d like to leave to their grandchildren.

In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – my trips to Cuba show that Marx’s critical theory has guided Cuba to provide a way of life that far outstrips even the United States. That’s right. Consider the following:

* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.

* Health care and medicine are free.

* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels!)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is virtually non-existent.

But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.

Of course, there’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.

And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as:

* Health insurance
* Medicines
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs

The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Global South countries.

None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.

To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba is embracing reforms that include:

* A reduction of the government bureaucracy.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy (see below).
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a Cuban friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax.”
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.

And don’t think that after the implementation of Obama’s new strategy for overthrowing Cuba’s government, that the island is about to descend to the levels of other countries in the former colonial world. Yes, the island has opened itself to capitalist investment, but it’s been doing that with European countries at least since 1989. But the opening is taking place on Cuba’s own terms – tightly controlled by government regulation. At the same time, Cuba is vastly expanding its already strong cooperative sector, while reducing its state-run monopolies. Fostering cooperatives means that workers collectively own the enterprises that employ them. They receive the same kind of aid from the Cuban government as that extended to capitalist enterprises in the United States and elsewhere in the Neo-liberal world. In Cuba, the aid takes the form, for instance, of tax breaks, subsidies, holidays for workers, vacations, etc. The idea is to have co-ops enter into competition not only with other cooperatives, but with private sector concerns on a level playing field.

The hoped-for response from workers isn’t hard to imagine. All of us prefer being our own bosses and controlling our own workdays, rather than taking orders from Starbucks in Seattle.

As I write, my wife, Peggy is in Cuba for three weeks with another class of Berea College students. It will be interesting to hear her report when she returns.

(Next week: Zimbabwe)

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Free Food for Single Moms; Mansions for the Homeless

Ryan

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 6: 1-7; PS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; I PT 2: 4-9; JN 14: 1-12.

With last week’s passage of Trumpcare in the House of Representatives, one wonders what a “devout Catholic” like Paul Ryan is thinking. After all, Mr. Ryan’s health plan removes coverage from 24 million Americans while offering huge tax cuts to our country’s wealthiest. What God does he worship? What concept of Jesus’ Way does he have?

The question is pertinent because today’s liturgy of the word presents Jesus as identifying himself and his “Way” with knowledge of a God who would never support the House Speaker’s plan. Jesus says “I and the Father are one. Whoever has seen me has seen the father.”

Perhaps Mr. Ryan interprets that to mean that Jesus is God.

He shouldn’t. I mean, saying that Jesus is God presumes that we all know who God is. Actually, we don’t.

Oh, we can speculate. And theologians and philosophers throughout the world have done so interminably. Think of the Greeks and their descriptions of God as a supreme being who is all-knowing, omnipotent, and perfect. Such thinking leads to a concept of Jesus that is totally abstract and removed from life as we live it from day to day. That God is removed not only from the problems of healthcare, but from those of hunger and homelessness addressed in today’s readings.

Those selections do not say that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus. It’s not that in seeing God one understands Jesus. It is that in seeing Jesus, one understands God. Jesus says, “He who sees me, sees the Father.”

The distinction is important. It literally brings us (and God) down to earth. It means that Jesus embodies God – inserts God into a human physique that we all can see and touch and be touched by.

If we take that revelation seriously, our gaze is directed away from abstract philosophical concepts that enable us to ignore life and the needs of the poor. We’re directed away from “heaven,” away from churches, synagogues, and mosques. Our focus instead becomes a God found on the street where Jesus lived among the imperialized, and the despised – the decidedly imperfect. In Jesus, we find God revealed in the offspring of an unwed teenage mother, among the homeless and immigrants (as Jesus was in Egypt), among Jesus’ friends, the prostitutes and untouchables, and on death row with the tortured and victims of capital punishment. That’s the God revealed in the person of Jesus.

Following the way and truth of that Jesus leads to the fullness of life the Master promises in today’s gospel reading. That fullness involved provision of food and shelter here and now. In fact, that’s been a recurrent theme in our liturgies of the word since Easter Sunday. Take, for instance, today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It shows us a faith community focused on providing food for single moms and their children. The first Christians worship a God who (as today’s responsorial puts it) is merciful before all else. That God, like Jesus, is trustworthy, kind, and committed to justice.

So we sang our response, “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” In doing so, our thoughts should have been directed towards the corporal works of mercy which the church has hallowed through the ages. Do you remember them?  Feed the hungry, they tell us; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; visit the sick and imprisoned, bury the dead, and shelter the homeless.

In fact, providing shelter – homes for the homeless – was so central for early Christians that it became a fundamental metaphor for the human relationship to God. (Remember those descriptions of early church life in ACTS 2:35 and 4:34, where homes and all property were shared in the primitive church.) So, today’s reading from First Peter describes the early community as a single house whose cornerstone is Jesus himself. Then in today’s gospel, John refers to Jesus’ Father as the one who provides a vast dwelling with many luxurious apartments. You can imagine how such images spoke to impoverished early Christians who would have been out on the street without the sharing of homes that was so important to early church life.

So don’t be fooled by the upside-down version of Christianity that allows politicians and those they trick to turn Jesus and his Way into some abstract after-life doctrine – that allows Jesus’ followers to turn their backs on the sick. That’s the comfortable ersatz faith that believes that Jesus is God. He is not.

Rather, God is Jesus. God is the one reflected in the lives and needs of the poor, the ill, and despised. With Jesus, the emphasis is on this world – on eating together, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, on elimination of poverty, and sharing all things in common. That was Jesus authentic Way – the one followed so faithfully by the early church focused on God’s mercy and the merciful acts it inspires. It should be our Way as well.

It is definitely not Paul Ryan’s way. Don’t allow him to claim that it is.

Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

(Sunday Homily) My Granddaughter’s First Communion: What Then Must We Do?

Eva

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: ACTs 2: 14A, 36-41; PS 23 1-6; I PT 2: 20-25; JN 10: 1-10.

I’m here for the weekend in Westport, CT, at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s beautiful home. The occasion is the First Holy Communion of our 8-year-old granddaughter, Eva Kathryn, whom we all adore. I couldn’t be happier for her.

The event, along with the readings in today’s liturgy of the word, are causing me to remember my own first communion. I’m recalling how my faith has developed since that momentous occasion. It’s making me reflect both on the beauty of childhood faith, and on the challenge of its adult version. If the human race is to survive, I realize, that adult version must prevail.

The difference between early faith and later developments is underscored in today’s readings. They call us as adults to abandon childish understandings of God, to grow up and work for non-violence in a world threatened by the deceit, murder, and general destruction of “a corrupt generation.”

Do you remember your First Holy Communion? I remember mine quite vividly, even though it happened about 70 years ago. I can still picture all of us third-graders at St. Viator’s school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, lining up for procession to the church across the parish campus. The girls, of course were in white dresses with traditional sheer veils. We boys were wearing dark blue “Eton Suits” with short pants. The water fountains in the school hallway where our procession formed were covered with white sheets to prevent any of us from drinking. In those days before Vatican II, even that would have broken our fast and disqualified us from participating in the event we had prepared for so intensely.

I so looked forward to receiving Jesus into my heart. Didn’t you? I firmly believed (as Eva, no doubt, does) that Jesus was actually contained in that snow white wafer. He would enter my mouth and reside in my body until the “appearances of bread” dissolved. Later I would frequently “visit” Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I became a “Knight of the Altar” and on occasions like the feast of Corpus Christi, would spend an hour in adoration before the parish’s golden, bejeweled monstrance. As I knelt there, I firmly believed that I was looking right at Jesus as I stared at the white Host encased in the glass “pyx.” One day, during my assigned “holy hour,” I had something like a mystical experience. I felt a special unity with Jesus residing there. I don’t know how to describe it. But I was, for a few moments, transported by a sense of oneness with God. Obviously, I never forgot it. I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that too.

I wish all of that for Eva Kathryn. My heart went out to her this morning as she spoke of her upcoming First Confession. In some ways, I wish her beautiful faith would never change. But, of course, that’s like wishing she would never grow up. Her faith will inevitably change. Doubts will come. And if she’s like most, she’ll probably eventually throw her faith in Jesus’ “Real Presence” into the same waste basket with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. It’s all part of growing up.

Too bad. And I don’t mean it’s too bad that Eva’s childhood understanding will someday prove inadequate to the challenges of adult life. As I said, that’s inevitable and good. What I mean is: it’s too bad that she’ll predictably probably stop growing in her understanding of the Christian faith she’s trying to learn about in her Sunday School classes, just as she’s trying so hard to learn her multiplication tables in Montessori school.

I mean, isn’t it shocking that the faith dimension of life – arguably the most important, since deals with life’s meaning –  turns out to be the only one where our 8-year-old understanding is supposed never to change?

That would be like letting Eva say: “I’m satisfied with addition and subtraction; don’t tell me about multiplication or division. And I never want to hear the words ‘algebra,’ ‘trigonometry,’ ‘calculus” or ‘computer science’ even mentioned. That would be shocking and unforgivably childish in itself.

Even more importantly, it would describe exactly what’s wrong with our world. There we’ve been carefully schooled not to think about life’s meaning, especially as it touches questions of social justice, economics, politics, war, peace, and adult spirituality. That’s meant ignoring the world’s most powerful teachers: the ancient priestesses of the Great Mother God, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day . . .

The Donald Trumps of the world (and there are a lot of them) are quite content with our ignorance. They’re happy with our refusal to grow up – with our retaining childish understandings of life – especially if growing up would cause us mobilize for social change. They somehow realize that the Jesus story and others I’ve mentioned have revolutionary power. It scares the hell out of them.

Today’s readings remind us of all that. They summon us to answer the question addressed to Peter and his ten colleagues in today’s opening selection from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s what Tolstoy asked in 1888, “What then must we do?” Peter’s answer was the same as Tolstoy’s: “Repent! In the name of the crucified Jesus, save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”

Those words are profound, but so familiar that their challenge can easily be overlooked. They mean: change your consciousness – the way you think; the way you look at the world. Reject everything “this corrupt generation” tells you. Instead, follow the example of Jesus whom, by the way, you’ve just crucified as a terrorist. Reject imperial authority. It’s not Jesus’ Way. (None of that is a stretch. Peter’s reference to “crucifixion” is central. It reminds us that the cross was the method of execution reserved for rebels against imperial Rome.)

To repeat: all of that is pivotal to this day’s readings. However, in the light of Eva’s first communion, there’s a lot more about the way faith changes and develops in adults.

Listen again to Peter’s description of Jesus in the opening reading from Acts. He says, “God has made Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” When you think of it, that’s a pretty elementary understanding of Jesus. It clearly distinguishes God on the one hand and Jesus on the other. God elevates Jesus’ status from a crucified rebel to “Lord” and “Christ,” but only (according to this formulation) after Jesus’ execution. Again, that’s a very primitive “Christology,” probably the earliest we have. Scholars say it was formulated around the year 35 and retained in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which was written much later – probably about the year 70. Here Jesus is a human being later elevated in status.

Contrast that with John’s Christology reflected in today’s gospel selection, written 30 or 40 years later. By that time (as we learn from the prologue to John’s gospel), Jesus has been fully identified as present from the beginning of time with God the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” That seems to mean that by the time John wrote, believers were making no distinction between God himself and Jesus. Quite a change.

There’s still more to unpack here. In today’s reading, John has Jesus identifying with “the Good Shepherd” whom the author of the familiar Psalm 23 (today’s responsorial) had much earlier identified with Israel’s God, Yahweh. Think of the psalmist’s description. God is the original ecologist providing everyone with verdant pastures and clear waters. He gives everyone rest, refreshment, long life, abundant tables and cups overflowing with rich wines. God and (by John’s extension, Jesus) ends poverty (want); he provides shelter for all; he is good and kind. Those words are nothing short of revolutionary. Think of the world we’d create if the planet’s 2.5 billion Christians accepted that Jesus as our Lord and Savior!

Then in today’s second reading from First Peter, the author gets more specific. He identifies Jesus as a champion of justice (“He handed himself over to the one who judges justly”). Jesus (in contrast with John’s “false Christs” and our political “shepherds” today) is truthful. He doesn’t insult or threaten anyone.

And finally, in today’s third reading Jesus identifies himself specifically as non-violent. The false Christs, like the childish ersatz versions the world finds so comfortable, are warlike. In Jesus’ words, they are liars and thieves who slaughter and destroy. On the other hand, the Christ of adult faith is non-violent; he gives abundant life, rather than taking it away.

My prayer is that Eva Kathryn will one day discover that Jesus and accept him into her heart. That she and her post-millennial class of first-communicants will eventually do so, may be our world’s only hope.