“I don’t care if you’re 100 people, or 50, or 10. If there’s just one of you going against these mother f_ _ kers, it’s enough. Together we can warm their asses up!”
Those were the words of 70 year old grandmother, Pam Africa. I heard her speak last weekend at the annual meeting of the Left Forum – an organization of progressive thought leaders and activists. The meeting took place at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (CUNY). Its theme was “Rage, Rebellion, and Revolution: Organizing Our Power.”
Ms. Africa was talking about the necessity of organizing and taking to the streets in order to confront U.S. political, social and economic institutions she said were based on theft, murder, and perjury. The entire system, she added, has lost its legitimacy having become increasingly unresponsive to human need, and ever more violent in repressing those demanding their rights.
Pam Africa’s long experience gave her words credibility. She is the former Minister of Confrontation of the Move Organization, the Philadelphia African-American liberation community whose homes were bombed by Philadelphia Police Force back in 1985. Since that time, as the coordinator of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, she has been working for the release of Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners.
That was the theme of the panel discussion where Pam Africa was speaking – political prisoners. It was the most inspiring of the events I attended, having chosen 6 of them from the more than 400 panels, workshops, and events that filled the Left Forum’s Events Directory.
There were 10 participants in the Political Prisoner presentation. About half of them were African American. Seven were women. Only 3 appeared younger than sixty. All but 1 had spent time in prison. And each and every one of them had dedicated their lives to the struggle for social justice. They’ve done so in the face of a Prison-Industrial Complex that reaps a fortune from the increasingly privatized criminal justice system currently incarcerating 2.3 million Americans – more prisoners per capita than any country in the world. The annual cost of doing so ranges from $24,000 to $47,000 per inmate.
Think of what could be done with that money, we were urged. What if it were it invested in housing, education, or mental healthcare rather than in prisons-for-profit? Instead, those human warehouses have become a repressive government’s de facto programs for the homeless, poorly educated and mentally ill. Prison activist Anne Lamb described political prisoners there as “the most humble people you ever want to meet.”
How do so many prisoners end up behind bars? Most of their cases do not go to trial, we were told. Instead plea bargains are struck. An arrestee is typically given the choice to plead guilty to one of a whole list of charges to avoid spending 15 rather than 5 years in prison. On the other hand, those who choose to go to trial get the book thrown at them. They end up doing 20 rather than 5 years and are held up as examples to potential plea bargainers. “You don’t want to end up like him, do you?” is the threat. The whole system saves (i.e. earns) the for-profit system millions.
Witnessing the intensity, commitment and sharp focus of participants in Pam Africa’s panel raised existential questions for me.
“What am I doing with my life?” I scrawled in my notebook. “Playing golf??” I mean, I’m in my life’s final stage. And there is still work to do – especially around nuclear disarmament, climate change, and prison reform. As Pope Francis has pointed out, all of those issues are inter-related. Everything is! And the sad fact is that I’m largely avoiding the task.
Meanwhile, Pam Africa and the other panel discussants are out there in the streets. Once again, I’m not.
For me, the most logical response to the experience I’ve been describing here is to get involved in the Bard Prison Project. It’s a program for securing college degrees for prison inmates. Two years ago, Berea College (my former employer) was invited to join. I was asked to take part. I and other invitees did some preliminary work. Since then I haven’t heard anything.
It’s time to pursue that possibility.
As one of last weekend’s panelists put it, “We need to stand on the neck of the system and make it cough up justice.”
Currently, Peggy and I are in Westport CT visiting our grandchildren. The occasion is “Grandparents’ Day” in their Montessori School a week from Friday (May 27th). Maggie (our daughter) has asked me to say a few words as part of the morning’s program. Here’s what I plan to share:
The Role of Grandparents in Montessori Education
Isn’t Grandparents’ Day great? I’m so happy to be here – as I’m sure we all are – to celebrate our grandchildren. Today I’m here to glory in four of my own: Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya. They’re following in the footsteps of their mother (my daughter) Maggie, who attended Montessori school in Boulder Colorado so many years ago.
This school is such a gift! Recently, I heard our 7 year old granddaughter, Eva, discussing her Montessori experience with one of her friends who attends a normal public school. Her friend was saying how she’s so bored and just doesn’t like it. Eva said, “O, I love school. Everything we do there is a game. It’s fun.”
We grandparents admired that spirit and reality as we sat in on our grandchildren’s classes today – didn’t we? We were edified as we observed those we love so much:
- Practicing democracy in the workplace. (They call all of their activities “work.”)
- Determining their own learning processes. (They move from one work site to another as they’re led by interest.)
- Thinking for themselves.
- Settling conflicts without violence.
- Taking care of their environment.
The irony is that on the one hand, we applaud all of that as self-evidently admirable. We implicitly agree that it’s the ideal way the world should work. Isn’t that true?
And yet on the other hand, during our long lives, we’ve settled for a world:
- Where our work lives have often been determined by (shall we say) less than enlightened bosses.
- Who would rather we thought like them – for eight hours a day or more.
- Where our work itself is drudgery rather than interesting.
- Where international conflicts are addressed by bombings and war.
- And where we are systematically destroying our habitat.
Where did we go wrong?
The question brings me back to this gathering. We are a Council of Elders. If this were a Native American gathering (or if we were in a culture that truly respected its seniors) our assembly would be considered especially holy.
Though we don’t live in a culture like that, our gathering today represents an occasion for facing ourselves, calling on our accumulated wisdom and asking: How will we prevent our grandchildren from contradicting everything they’re learning in this school and ending up like us – often unhappy in our work and inheriting a planet that Pope Francis (an 80 year old senior himself) said is becoming a huge “garbage dump?”
Our tools for accomplishing that pedagogical task are our own example, our wise counsel, our wallets and the organizations we support, the ballot box, and (for some of us) direct action in the streets. I’m sure you can think of others.
I suppose my ironic conclusion is that today our grandchildren are somehow teaching us. They’re reminding us of the way the world should be.
My suggestion here is that we use those tools I mentioned to prevent them from forgetting what they’re teaching today – from making the same mistakes our generation has made. Using especially our wise counsel and what we’ve learned from our long lives, we can save our grandchildren from lives of drudgery. We can help them save the planet.
Maria Montessori was right about education and following our instincts. We all have a “rage to know,” a rage to learn, a desire to live in harmony with nature. After all:
- Birds fly.
- Fishes swim.
- Children learn.
Yes, all of that is true. But it’s also true that GRANDPARENTS TEACH. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills and Nash: It’s up to us to “Teach Our Grandchildren Well.” Whatever our age may be, we’re not done yet. Our task is incomplete. We still have contributions to make.
Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 5: 2-11; PS 104: 1, 24, 29-31, 34; 1COR 12: 3B-7, 12-13; JN 20: 19-23.
So who do you think is more outspoken, Donald Trump or Pope Francis? Which one should followers of Jesus listen to?
That question was sharpened a few weeks ago, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” Francis added, “Vote, don’t vote, I won’t meddle. But I simply say, if he says those things, this man is not a Christian.”
The pope’s comment came at the end of Francis’ six-day trip to Mexico. There he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. The pope’s analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.
Francis’ comments drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges outrageous and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government.
While Francis’ words were surprising and the response predictable, both provide occasion for a Pentecost reflection on what it means to be a baptized and confirmed Christian in a world awash with refugees from U.S. bombings and the effects of neo-liberal overconsumption.
That’s because the emphasis in today’s readings is precisely on internationalism. The Kingdom of God, the readings tell us, has no borders. It is open to everyone regardless of nationality, race, occupation or gender. Moreover, the Kingdom of God is a matter of this world – of the Body of Christ. It is not about some disembodied reality up in the sky.
That twofold message starts with today’s opening reading from the Acts of the Apostles with all those strange identity references that readers usually stumble over. Jews, we are told who were present on that first Pentecost were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.”
Then in today’s second reading, Paul goes even further. God’s Kingdom, he says, isn’t just for Jews. In fact in God’s eyes national distinctions, economic status, and gender identity have been erased for those who accept the Gift of God’s Spirit. Paul writes: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” Elsewhere (Galatians 3:28) he puts it even more directly: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s message was a consistent theme in the life of Jesus. He healed and forgave, loved and taught Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, street walkers, lepers, tax collectors, and even on occasion members of the Roman occupying forces.
Notice too Paul’s words about “body” insert the reception of Jesus’ Spirit into the earthly realm of real life and politics. True, Paul speaks of “spiritual gifts,” but he even more emphatically insists that those gifts must be “manifest” in “service” meant to “benefit” others. We are members of Christ’s “Body,” Paul tells us. That is, we are all somehow living “in Christ” – in God, we might say. The question is, do we recognize that reality or not?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us more specifically where in the world we encounter his embodied spirit. It happens first of all in the community of peacemakers. Jesus’ first words after his resurrection are about peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. Then he immediately shows his pierced hands and side to his friends. In doing so he seems to remind his followers that he will forever be found in the victims of war and imperialism. That includes refugees from imperialist wars and excess consumption as well as in victims of torture and capital punishment like Jesus himself.
Is such understanding of Pentecost too political? Donald Trump might think so. Pope Francis does not. Francis himself has pointed out that Aristotle was correct in saying that human beings are political animals. So to be branded “political” is to have one’s humanity recognized. The pope said he is proud to be branded political.
So would-be followers of Jesus are presented with a choice on this particular Pentecost. Are we to follow Pope Francis or Donald Trump? The choice is ours.
More accurately, do we recognize that we are living not “in America,” but “in Christ?” Do we recognize (as John Oxenham put it more than 100 years ago) that
1 In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
2 In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
3 Join hands, disciples of the faith,
whate’er your race may be.
All children of the living God
are surely kin to me.
These last three weeks I’ve been trying to show how critical reading of biblical texts is connected to critical reading of every other text — including that of my own life. In all cases, “ideological suspicion” Is central.
It alerts readers to the fact that vested Interests tend to distort analysis — but mostly in conservative ways Intent on supporting the status quo. That’s the way as well with most extra-biblical texts like the mainstream media, best-sellers and school text books.
By way of contrast, readings issuing from the viewpoints of the socially-conscious dispossessed tend towards subversion of the status quo. That’s significant for Bible reading because (as I was saying last week) the Bible largely represents the memory of poor and oppressed communities. As such, books within the biblical cannon are nearly unique in history whose records normally preserve the memories of the rich and famous.
So with that in mind, here are twelve more conclusions I’ve drawn about the Bible. Notice the connections to politics and the very complex question of violence so pertinent in a world characterized by a permanent war against terrorism. Again, I present this second list of 12 conclusions to expose the way biblical studies have influenced my political leanings and the ideas that seem so strange to my adult children. .
- The experience of the socially activist poor and oppressed leads them to discover a liberating God in the Bible. He habitually overturns political, economic and social structures oppressive of people like themselves.
- In other words, the God of the Bible is not a neutral God. The biblical God is a class-biased God who has made a “preferential option for the poor.” Similarly, Jesus is class-biased, not averse to making sweeping statements about “the poor” and “the rich” as groups without specific reference to individuals within those groups.
- Neither is the Bible a neutral text. In fact, there are no neutral texts at all. Any text, biblical or otherwise, either supports the status quo or it attempts to subvert it. A text which does not subvert supports. There is no third position. By and large (though not universally) the biblical texts predominantly produced in situations of persecution, attempt to subvert the order of the world; they support God’s order often described in terms of “the reign of God.” Once again, it is an order which as the antithesis of the world’s present order favoring the rich and powerful, favors instead the poor and oppressed.
- Similarly, there is no neutral exegesis of the sacred texts. Every reading is done by a person of a particular gender, race, nationality, and creed, with a particular personal history, and located in a given historical era. Inevitably such readers possess more or less definite political commitments, and have predetermined understandings of the world. Each of these elements as well as others inevitably bias his or her exegesis of the text. Each interpretation facilitates some insights but excludes others. With this in mind, it is revealing to note that almost invariably respected mainstream exegesis has been done by rather comfortable white males of European background. This means that the vast majority of believers, women, people of color, the poor, the illiterate, as well as Christians of the Third World have been left voiceless. All of these have been forced to accept as normative well-off European, white, male biblical interpretations. And once again, these interpretations almost universally have supported maintenance of white male euro-centric privilege.
- Today our Third World brothers and sisters are asking us to open ourselves to the levels of meaning they are discovering. They do not claim these are the only possible meanings; for clearly there are others. Neither do they hold that those who make diametrically opposed interpretations are insincere; for such a claim would obviously be false. They do, however, observe that these latter interpretations are extremely partial, for normally such readings take no note of their contradictory alternatives produced for example by unlearned people in the Third World. Meanwhile, the exegesis of the poor and oppressed is normally more comprehensive, for it is well aware of the mainstream interpretation and usually spends a good deal of its time contesting such understandings as ideological.
- Meanings uncovered in this way lead to judgments about the structures of poverty and oppression experienced in the world, and to action towards changing those structures. Here the emphasis is on judgment of sinful structures rather than on sinful human beings. For although personal sin is a painful reality, it is not up to Christians to judge how others stand in God’s eyes. Nevertheless, God’s word can shed light on the human institutions which victimize both oppressed and oppressors by facilitating and often appearing to necessitate injustice. An example of such an institution is international capitalism particularly as it impacts the Global South. Institutions of this kind must be eliminated by Christian action in the world.
- Unfortunately, those who profit from the world’s sinful structures do not usually allow them to be changed willingly; instead their more frequent response to movements for change is one of extreme violence often directed towards the most vulnerable, children, the elderly, women, the sick.
- As a last resort, defense of these “least of the brethren” may demand that Christians take up arms and give their lives on behalf of the otherwise defenseless. Here other Christians, especially those outside the violent and threatening context in question must exercise extreme caution in judging such actions as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. This is especially true if those tempted to judgements of this type are among those whose taxes and/or silence enable their own government to sponsor the violence which prompts assumption of arms in defense of the otherwise helpless.
21. Likewise criticism of Christians who take up arms in defense of “the least of the brethren” must be restrained since the Gospel is by no means clear consistent in its judgment about such action. In fact, historically speaking, most Christians who read the Bible in good faith have found that it does not require non-violent resistance. A close reading of the biblical texts, and an examination of church history seems to reveal that highly contextualized considerations rather than some unchangeable principle of non-violent resistance have dictated the responses of Christians in situations of persecution.
- In addition, it must be admitted that not all violence is the same. There is a real difference between (a) the violence of the unprovoked attacker (This is clearly against Gospel teaching); (b) the violence of one defending himself or herself against unprovoked attack (This is less evidently against Christian belief); and (c) the violence employed in similar circumstances by one risking his or her own life in defense of the lives of the otherwise defenseless such as children or the elderly (Arguably this may represent a positive response to the Gospel). To neglect such distinctions is to obscure questions of violence and non-violence.
- For these reasons, advocates of non-violence for others must humbly examine their consciences to see if their advocacy is not unwittingly supporting the interests of those oppressing the defenseless. Here it must be noted that most robbers and perpetrators of other forms of violence are quite enthusiastic supporters of “peace” which takes the form of non-violent response on the parts of their victims. It should also be observed that in this case those upon whom the strategy of non-violence is so enthusiastically urged are the least able to defend themselves. In fact, historically speaking, the poor and working classes of the world who for the most part are the victims of oppression, stand virtually without means of self-protection, having no armies of their own. They are the only ones to whom both state and church authority have forbidden violence as a legitimate means of defending their loved ones from their oppressors of the propertied classes who have huge armies and defense budgets at their disposal.
- Perhaps in view of all this, the most that some North American Christians can say is that they themselves are hearing a vocation to non-violent resistance, and that Christians in other very different situations are being called to determine how best to defend the “least of the brethren.” in their own contexts. No doubt some Christians there will choose to arm themselves on behalf of their families, friends and fellow citizens. Others will choose non-violent resistance. Still others will choose a combination of the two approaches. A great deal will depend on the context in question. Christians living in the U.S.A. must overcome the affliction of tolerating violence in service to U.S. corporate interests while condemning the violence of those who resist such oppression. “I would assert that people who have not actively opposed the violence of the powerful against the poor, at some cost to themselves,” writes Philip Berryman, “have no moral authority to question the violence used by the poor.” (Jack Nelson Pallmeyer. The Politics of Compassion.” Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books 1986, 87.)
Realizations like the ones I’ve noted here — all of them faith-based have inclined me to:
- Understand world events in ways that privilege the viewpoints of the world’s poor.
- Side with them in their conflicts with the rich and powerful.
- Acquaint myself with the reasons for what the privileged habitually describe as the unprovoked “violence” of those they habitually oppress.
- See that the violence of the rich and powerful dwarfs that of the poor they exploit.
- Perceive that since World War II all of the U.S. wars have actually been fought against the world’s poor and oppressed to keep them in that condition.
Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53
This is Ascension Sunday. For us Catholics, it used to be “Ascension Thursday.” It was 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 (1962-1965) 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 (Christianity) 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?
I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available). The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!
Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.
All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.
Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.
During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.
Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about. In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.
On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).
I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!
I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.
He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.
Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky. (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.
Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it. “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.
One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.
I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”
I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.
In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers. The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).
I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk. I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book. I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.
Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!” That’s his message to us today!
Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.
Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29.
Last week, David Swanson, the author of War is a Lie shared an interview with the great Jesuit peace activist, John Dear. The latter had just returned from Rome where he participated in a conference convoked by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson. Cardinal Turkson authored first versions of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on the environment. He is often mentioned as a possible future pope.
Father John (who doesn’t like to be called “Father Dear”) reported the conference as “unprecedented.” That’s because activists, theoreticians, and scholars of Peace Studies ended by recommending (in a document over the signature of Cardinal Turkson) that Pope Francis publish another encyclical – this one repudiating the Church’s centuries-long endorsement of Just War Theory.
That theory, of course, lays out principles for judging whether or not a given armed conflict might be justified.
The Turkson document repudiated the idea that modern warfare might ever be justified. This is not only because of the terrible destruction caused by modern weaponry, but because, in fact, 90% of casualties of today’s wars end up being innocent civilians. For those reasons, the conference in Rome recommended that Pope Francis not only repudiate war itself, but discourage Catholics from participating in modern military forces.
Imagine what would happen if Pope Francis were to accept those recommendations – especially on top of his denunciations of capitalism-as-we-know-it, his firm embrace of environmentalism, and his statements about homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”). Catholic radicals would love it, liberals would be inspired. Conservatives who often identify faith and the military would be shocked and scandalized.
Where would you come down?
Think about that question in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “radical,” “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. How would Jesus be classified? What about Paul? What would they say about entirely rejecting the idea of just wars?
Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a clue. It presents us first of all with an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and radicals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barnabas lead the radical-to-liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.
Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”
On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?
The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”
Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.
According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a Jewish prophet. (It was Jesus’ prophetic radicalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.
At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!
It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting was filled with “dissension and debate.”
What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, they could be ignored. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been less conservative. The Holy Spirit was leading them in the opposite direction.
The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How radical is that!?
I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of radical change in matters of faith. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning.
In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.
What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?
And what about just war? Are John Dear and Cardinal Turkson right about its absolute unacceptability to followers of Jesus? Could Jesus ever endorse atomic bombs, drone strikes, cluster bombs, or any of today’s wars that end up claiming mostly civilian victims?
If we fear to say “No” to any of those questions, we should keep Jesus’ words in mind: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”
The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to Christian radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.
And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in our world racked by war, inspire Francis to write another encyclical. Let him surprise and shock us one more time. Wake us up as a community of faith! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council.
We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!”