Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests

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The Catholic Church is a sinking ship. So are its orders of priests and nuns. The “reforms” presaged by the election of Pope Francis are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They’re busy work for those whom history has rendered superfluous.

Similarly, for all the good will behind them, efforts at reforming orders, congregations and societies of priests and religious are doomed from the start. Typically they endorse the hierarchy’s negligence by failing to address the substantive causes of the crises that afflict the sinking church and its semi-submerged sub-organizations.

These are the conclusions I drew after attending a joyous reunion of priests and former priests (and their wives) belonging to the Society of St. Columban. That’s the Irish-founded missionary group I joined in 1954 (when I entered the minor seminary at the age of 14) and which I left in 1976. I had been ordained in 1966 (ordination photo above — taken by my classmate, Tom Shaugnessy).

The reunion took place in Bristol, Rhode Island over a three-day period just last week (July 21st-23rd). It was great getting together with friends, colleagues, teachers, former priests and their spouses. It was wonderful to see so many of my one-time missionary friends with their beautiful wives from Ireland as well as Japan, Korea, Chile and other “fields afar” (as the title of one missionary magazine used to put it). Several men’s spouses were former nuns. I can only imagine the wonderful love stories each of those couples might tell.

As with all reunions, there were the usual reminiscences from years long past. We made wisecracks about how all of us have aged, and observations about how quickly time has flown. There was catching up to do about retirement, children, grandchildren, illnesses, deaths of former colleagues, and plans for our declining years – and always in a light-hearted spirit. We even went for a cruise around the Newport Harbor. Great fun!

On the final day, things turned more serious. The newly-elected Regional Director of the Columbans spoke to us about the Society of St. Columban today. After introducing himself, this comparative youngster of 51 years informed his appreciative audience of recent efforts to update the Society in the face of zero vocations over the last number of years in Ireland, the U.S., England, and Australia. The situation is aggravated by the advancing ages of the 400 or so priests who remain in the Society – so many of them over the age of 75.

In response, we were told, the Columbans have made efforts at recruiting seminarians from the “mission” territories. As a result, Columban ordinations have taken place in the Pacific Rim – in Korea, Fiji, the Philippines, and also in Latin America. The Society’s directorate has changed accordingly. With its headquarters now located in Hong Kong instead of Ireland, the current directing council is a rainbow blend of Irish, Latin American, and Philippine “superiors.” Additionally lay associates, both men and women have become more prominent in the Columban scheme of things.

Besides such developments, there have been efforts at dialog with Muslims, especially in Pakistan and the Philippines. Social justice for the poor and ecological concerns have become central themes of documents recently authored by Society “chapters” or long-range planning sessions. Above all continued emphasis on brotherly love and legendary Columban hospitality continue as hallmarks of this group about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding as the “Maynooth Mission to China” in 1918. (“Maynooth” was the name of the Irish National Seminary back then.) With China now open, Columbans are currently making efforts to reintroduce themselves into that continent-sized country thus reclaiming the Society’s original focus.

All of that seemed encouraging. Such updating demonstrates the good will, generosity and continued vitality of men and women still intent on doing good in the world and serving the God their faith envisions. Columbans remain for me the most inspiring community of its kind I’ve ever known.

However questions surfaced for me about the reforms just mentioned. And unfortunately there was little time to raise – much less probe – them during the discussion period that followed the new Regional Director’s fine presentation. For instance:

• What does it mean that Pacific Rim Catholics are more open to the priesthood and mission than Europeans and North Americans? Is faith stronger in the former colonies? Are candidates European wannabes? Or has a pre-Vatican II brand of Christianity been introduced in the Pacific Rim that avoids the crises of the celibate priesthood that emerged following that historic Council whose 50th anniversary we’re currently celebrating?
• Does the incorporation of women and laymen as associates give them equal voice and vote in Society matters? Will there soon be a woman Superior General governing the Society of St. Columban?
• What is the point of Columban-Muslim dialog? Is it conversion of the Muslim dialog partners? Is it enrichment of all conversation participants? Is it collaboration and cooperation? If so, what is the shared project?
• For that matter, what’s the point of missionary work itself? After all, Vatican II recognized the value in God’s eyes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Are missionaries still trying to convert faithful people whose culture seems so distant from a Christianity so long and fatally associated with empire and exploitation?
• What specifically are Columbans doing about ecology and care for the planet? It’s easy for organizations nowadays to claim “green” commitment, but where does the rubber meet the road? Are Columbans encouraging vegetarianism as spiritual and ecological discipline? Are they cutting back on air-conditioning? Are they mandating that their cars be hybrids or have targeted miles-per-gallon ranges? Are they mounting campaigns focused on global warming and the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Latin America and Asia?

Those are some key questions that necessarily remained un-discussed at our Columban reunion. But I did get the opportunity to pose one whose answer led me to draw the conclusions I shared at the beginning – about the Columbans, organizations like them, and the Catholic Church itself being sinking ships. I asked:

• The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, has observed that the Holy Eucharist is constitutive of the church. Without Mass, he said, there simply can be no church. Therefore it is positively sinful on the part of church leadership to deprive Catholics of Eucharist because of an artificial priest shortage caused by blind commitment to mandatory celibacy and an all-male clergy. What are the Columbans doing to lobby for fundamental change in the church to make the Eucharist more available to the communities Columbans serve?

Understandably, the Regional Director gave the expected answer – the only one possible, I think. “Of course,” he said, “where 2 or 3 Columbans get together those questions are always discussed. However, we’re such a small and relatively insignificant organization, we have so little clout. So, no, we haven’t discussed petitions or protests on those matters.”

In other words, the sin of mandatory celibacy for priests, the sin of an all-male clergy will continue until the Vatican repents. But even Francis I is not about to don sack cloth and ashes in that regard.

That institutional obstinacy was underlined for me in the Mass that concluded our magnificent reunion. Two male priests stood before a congregation of “priests forever” – the latter adopting subservient positions in the pews instead of concelebrating. No woman had any role in the Mass. Additionally, the recently mandated pre-Vatican II Latinisms reminded me that the church is actually regressing:

• “Consubstantial” (instead of “one in being”)
• “And with thy spirit” (rather than “also with you”)
• “Shed for you and for many” (not “all”)
• “It is right and just” (instead of “fitting”)
• “Come under my roof” (rather than “receive you”)

The Latinisms are not trivial. They represent subtle messages that the signature liturgical reform of Vatican II is over. In the context of the Columban reunion, they demonstrated how hemmed in good people are by decisions from above.

Talk about rearranging deck chairs . . . . I could almost hear the water bursting through the Ship’s gaping hull.

We Are Called to Atheism by Abraham and Jesus! (Sunday Homily)

drone victims

Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3, 608; Col. 2:12-14; Lk. Ll:1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfmhttp://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfm

Today’s readings about Abraham bargaining with God and about Jesus teaching his followers to pray raise some vital questions about God’s personality and existence. Abraham’s compassionate God seems to conflict with the warlike God who appears elsewhere in the Bible.

So who’s right? Should we be afraid of God? Or can we trust him? Is God warlike and punitive or kind and forgiving? If he’s our “Daddy” (that’s what “Abba” means in Jesus’ prayer: “Our Daddy who transcends everything”) does our experience show him to be abusive or loving? Today’s readings help us wrestle with those questions. In fact, they call us to a holy atheism.

But before I get to that, let me frame my thoughts.

Last week the government of Pakistan released a classified document revealing that scores of civilians had been killed in dozens of CIA drone strikes between late 2006 and 2009. That period mostly covered the final years of the Bush administration. However as we all know, such strikes have increased under the presidency of Barrack Obama.

Citing the leaked report, the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism said “Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.”

Meanwhile, the United States has consistently denied that significant numbers of civilians have been killed in drone strikes. It claims that “no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed during the entire, nine-year-long drone campaign.” Our government argues that such numbers are tolerable because the strikes protect Americans from the terrorists actually killed in the drone operations.

That’s the logic our government has adopted as it represents our country where 78-85% of the population claims to follow the one who refused to defend himself and gave his life that others might live. The logic of most American Christians says that killing innocents – even children – is acceptable if it saves American lives. Apparently, that’s the American notion of salvation: better them than us.

However that way of thinking is not what’s endorsed in today’s liturgy of the word. (And here I come back to those questions I raised earlier about God’s personality and existence.) There in Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh refuses to punish the wicked even if it means that as few as 10 innocents would lose their lives in the process.

Better-us-than-them is not the logic of Jesus who in teaching his disciples to pray tells them that God is better than us. God gives bread to anyone who asks. Yahweh acts like a loving father. He forgives sin and gives his children what they ask for. In fact, God shares his Spirit of love and forgiveness – he shares Jesus’ spirit of self-sacrifice – with anyone who requests it.

Elsewhere, Jesus says something even more shocking. Yahweh doesn’t even prefer the good over the wicked, he says. He showers his blessings (not bombs!) on everyone. Or as Jesus himself put it, God makes the sun rise on the virtuous and the criminal; his rain benefits those we consider evil as well as those we classify as good (Mt. 5:45). We should learn from that God, Jesus says, and be as perfect like him (Mt. 5:48). In fact, we should consider no one “the enemy” not even those who threaten us and kill us even as Jesus was threatened and killed (Lk. 6: 27-36).

How different is that from the way most of us think and act? How different is that from the God we’ve been taught to believe in?

Yes, you might say, but what about those other passages in the Bible where God is fierce and genocidal? After all, the Great Flood must have killed many good people and even children. And God did that, didn’t he? What about his instructions (more than once) to kill everyone without distinction. For example the Book of Joshua records: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Joshua 10:40). What about the Book of Revelation, which many Christians argue predicts God’s total destruction of the world? What about that violent, pitiless, threatening God? Is that the “Abba” of Jesus?

Good questions. They’re good because they make us face up to the fact that the Bible is ambiguous about God. No, let me put it more strongly. The Bible isn’t just ambiguous about God. It’s often plain wrong – at least If we adopt the perspective of Jesus and Abraham in today’s readings.

After all, Abraham’s God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Jesus’ God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Those Gods are not compatible. One of them must be false. Or as Jack Nelson Pallmeyer writes in his book Is Religion Killing Us? “Either God is a pathological killer or the Bible is sometimes wrong about God.”

Today’s readings show us that both Abraham and Jesus agree.

The Abraham story is about a man gradually rejecting Nelson’s Psychopath in the sky. Israel’s furthest back ancestor comes to realize that God is merciful, not punitive or cruel. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, God is kind, true, and responsive to prayer. God protects the weak and lowly and is distant from the powerful and haughty. In today’s reading from Genesis, we witness Abraham plodding slowly but surely towards that conclusion.

It’s the realization eventually adopted by Jesus: God is a kind father, not a war God. If Abraham’s God won’t tolerate killing 50 innocent people, nor 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10, Jesus’ God is gentler still. That God won’t tolerate killing anybody – not even those threatening Jesus’ own life.

All of that should be highly comforting to us. It has implications for us, politically, personally and liturgically.

Politically it means that followers of Jesus should be outraged by anyone connecting Jesus with our country’s perpetual war since 9/11, 2001. A drone program that kills the innocent with the targeted flies in the face of Abraham’s gradually-dawning insight about a merciful God. The war itself makes a complete mockery of Jesus’ total non-violence and the words of the prayer he taught us. Those supporting “America’s” “better them than us” attitude are atheists before Jesus’ God and the one depicted in the Abraham story.

Personally, what we’ve heard this morning should drive us towards an atheism of our own. It should cause us to review and renew our understandings of God. Impelled by today’s readings, we should cast as far from us as we can any inherited notions of a pathological, punishing, cruel, threatening and vindictive God. We need that holy atheism. Let’s pray for that gift together.

And that brings us to today’s liturgy. In effect, we’ve gathered around this table to hear God’s clarifying word, and symbolically act out the peaceful world that Jesus called “God’s Kingdom.” We’ve gathered around this table to break bread not only with each other, but emblematically with everyone in the world including those our culture considers enemies.

I mean if God is “Our Father,” everyone is our sister, everyone, our brother. It’s just that some couldn’t make it to our family’s table today. But they’re here in spirit; they’re present around this altar. They are Taliban and al-Qaeda; they are Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, and Somalis; they are Muslims and Jews; they include Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin. They include those children killed in U.S. drone strikes. They are you and I!

All of us are children of a loving God. Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” says that.

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

President Obama Should Have Said: “George Zimmerman Could Have Been Me!”

Obama Zimmerman

Last Friday President Obama startled Washington reporters and the world by expressing his thoughts about the Trayvon Martin verdict. That decision acquitted George Zimmerman of criminal guilt for killing an unarmed teenager in Sanford, Florida.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama spoke sentimentally of his own experience of racism, and about the dangers of Stand Your Ground laws. He cited the need to consider context in order to understand African-American rage over the Zimmerman verdict. Famously he said Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago.

In fact, the President would have spoken more honestly had he identified with George Zimmerman.
Professor Cornel West (Union Theological Seminary) suggested that in an interview on “Democracy Now.” True, he found the Zimmerman verdict disturbing not simply because Trayvon Martin’s death went unpunished, but because it revealed what has been termed a “George Zimmerman Mentality.” That mind-set shaped by racism, fear, suspicion, and vigilantism has long afflicted our country in general and whites in particular even in this supposedly post-racial era.

More specifically, West charged that Stand Your Ground laws based on States Rights are ultimately aimed at controlling the black community. I would add that they are the modern equivalent of legalized lynching. In practice, the laws permit armed whites who feel themselves threatened by dark-skinned people to shoot those they deem threats to their security. Whites standing their ground have no legal requirement to retreat from the situation even if an escape route is available. The Zimmerman mentality represents lethal violence as a preferred option rather than a last resort.

Ironically, the Stand Your Ground, shoot-first attitude happens to be a key element of Mr. Obama’s own drone program. Sharing Zimmerman’s attitude of fear and racism, its “signature strikes” have been responsible for the deaths of at least 221 totally innocent dark-skinned children who happened to be nearby when Mr. Obama chose to fire his own weapon at those merely suspected of being or associating with “terrorists.” In effect, all of those children were Trayvon Martins who would be alive today had they not been in the wrong place at the wrong time when a man with a weapon perceived a threat from a profiled target.

Such observations made me wonder what key passages in Mr. Obama’s remarks would have sounded like if they were slightly altered to substitute references to Muslims, suspected terrorists, and innocent victims of drones for his original words about Trayvon Martin and African-Americans.

With those substitutions key sections of Mr. Obama’s text would have read as follows (I have placed my additions in italics to distinguish them from the President’s actual words):
______

“The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the 221 children I have recently killed by my drone policy. . .

“First of all, you know, I — I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the families of the drone victims, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s — it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it. . .

“But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. On second thought, I would have done better to identify with George Zimmerman. Another way of saying that is that I am George Zimmerman today.

“And when you think about why, in the Muslim community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the Muslim community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away. . . .

“And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the Muslim community interprets what happened one night in _________ (Name the country – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia . . .). And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. . . .

“Now, this isn’t to say that the Muslim community is naive about the fact that Muslim young men are disproportionately involved in resistance to U.S. policy, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although Muslims do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

“We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor Muslim communities around the world is born out of a very violent past in relation to the United States, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.”
______

Now the substitutions I’ve made may strike you as awkward. But I’m sure you get my idea.

The point is that Mr. Obama has no moral ground to stand on in lamenting George Zimmerman’s violence or the ridiculous nature of Stand Your Ground Laws. Rather than identifying with Trayvon Martin, the President would have done better to note his similarities to George Zimmerman. Rather than wringing his hands over Stand Your Ground laws, the President should have recognized the identical logic that informs his own drone murders.

Mr. Obama thinks like Zimmerman; he profiles like that vigilante; he patrols the world with Zimmerman’s lethal intent. Even more to the point, the President pulls the trigger even more quickly and irresponsibly than the armed vigilante from Sanford.

President Obama is the poster child for the George Zimmerman Mentality, for Stand Your Ground and its disdain for dark skinned people.

Forget Martha; Be Like Lazy Mary and Jester Jesus (Sunday Homily)

Moreno

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/072113.cfm

What do you think you’ll regret most as you lay dying? If you’re like most, it will be that you spent too much time at your day job – too much time working and not enough time socializing and enjoying life. Study after study affirms that.

Commenting on this regret, one Hospice nurse said:

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

I’ll bet almost everyone reading this can relate to those words and would like to avoid final regrets about overwork.

Problem is: our culture sets overwork as an ideal. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our Europeans sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off less than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. Of course, most of us don’t listen to Jesus when he says things like that.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” What about that? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. (What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.)
The world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than work? What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of widespread unemployment we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

What difference would it make to us on our death beds?

What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

When the Government Turns Criminal: Edward Snowden and the Good Samaritan (Sunday Homily)

Snowden

Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT. 30: 10-14; Ps. 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 34, 36-37; Col. 1: 15-20; Lk. 10: 25-37. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071413.cfm

In his recent book about the parables of Jesus (The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus), John Dominic Crossan poses the question: What happens to your world when the “best” people act badly and only the “worst” do what is right?

That scenario seems to be playing itself out in the case of Edward Snowden.

Snowden, you recall, is the NSA contractor and CIA employee who last month disclosed a vast secret program of U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on individuals, corporations, and governments throughout the world.

The program (Prism by name) seems to violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Snowden made his disclosures three months after James Clapper, the Director of U.S. intelligence had denied its existence in testimony (under oath) before the Senate Committee overseeing the U.S. intelligence program. Snowden’s disclosures also followed hot on the heels of President Obama’s publically expressed concern that China was illegally spying on the U.S. in exactly the same way (though on a smaller scale) that the U.S. turns out to have been spying on China and its own allies.

For his troubles in exposing such lies, hypocrisy, and violations of the Constitution, Snowden himself has been designated a spy, traitor, and enemy of the United States – categories applied to its worst enemies. As a pariah in his own country, he has fled the United States and sought asylum in various countries including China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Snowden (and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International) alleges that if extradited to the U.S. he is unlikely to receive a fair trial, but instead to be tortured and indefinitely imprisoned like other whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning.

All of the countries just mentioned have histories less-than-friendly to U.S. interests, which they have each described as criminally imperialistic. Other “good” countries such as France and Germany have (under great pressure from the United States) refused Snowden asylum.

Meanwhile, James Clapper has not been charged with perjury, and President Obama has managed to deflect attention away from constitutional violations to the search for the fugitive Snowden.

In other words, the Snowden Affair presents us with a “Spy,” “Traitor,” and “Terrorist Sympathizer” obeying his conscience in his exposure of government crime. He has done the right thing. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, himself a constitutional lawyer, has been caught violating the Constitution, and the Director of Intelligence has been exposed as a perjurer. And on top of that, friendly countries often lauded by the United States as models of democracy refuse to respect International Law governing asylum seekers. Only the “bad countries” are willing to honor that law.

In this situation, the question Crossan posed earlier finds uncomfortable relevance: “What happens to your world if a story records that your “best” people act badly and only your “worst” person acts well?”

As I said, Crossan asks that question in the section of his book commenting on “The Good Samaritan” which is the focus of the gospel selection in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

The parable, of course, is very familiar. Almost all of us know it nearly by heart. Typically sermons find its point in simply calling us to be “follow the Samaritan’s example, treat everyone as your neighbor, and help those you find in trouble.”

That’s a good point, of course. But Jesus’ own intention went beyond simply providing an example of a good neighbor. More profoundly, it focused on the hypocrisy of “the good” and the virtues of designated enemies. As such, the story calls us to transcend those socially prescribed categories and look at actions rather than words of both the “good” and “bad.”

More specifically, the hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. According hero status to such a person would be unthinkable for Jesus’ listeners. After all, Samaritans were social outcasts belonging to a group of renegade Jews who (by Jesus’ time) had been separated from the Jewish community for nearly 1000 years. They had also polluted the Jewish bloodline by intermarrying with the country’s Assyrian conquerors about 700 years earlier.

Jews considered Samaritans “unclean;” they were traitors, enemy-sympathizers, heretics and even atheists. They rejected Jewish understandings of Yahweh and the Temple worship that went along with it.

And yet in the story, Jesus finds the Samaritan to be more worthy, more pleasing in God’s eyes than the priest or Levite. That’s because the Samaritan’s actions speak much louder than the word “Samaritan” would allow. He is compassionate; so Jesus approves.

In the meantime, the priest and the Levite lack compassion. Their actions condemn them.

They say that slightly more than 50% of the American people think Edward Snowden is a traitor and spy. And this despite the fact that his accusers have advanced no evidence to that effect – and despite polls that indicate a solid majority believing that the government’s surveillance program is objectionable if not clearly unconstitutional.

Today’s parable invites us to reconsider – not just Snowden, but our very understanding of the world and its categories of “good” and “evil.”

Perhaps we’re looking for the real criminals, traitors, spies, and terrorists in exactly the wrong places.

Guest Blog: Jim Cashman on Mike’s Ranting and Meiwaku

Moon-lightening

Jim Cashman (pictured above), a former colleague of mine in the Society of St. Columban, recently wrote this comment on my blog, “Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?” There I had shared how some of my relatives found my blogs too shrill and a “poor man’s, left-wing version of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity” A few months ago, Jim wrote another very well-received blog called “More Joy in the Barrio than in the Suburbs” (February 11th). Jim is Irish and left the priesthood about the time I did. He lives in Japan, and is currently visiting the land of his birth. He writes:

I repeat: I think your blogs are refreshing, informative and thought provoking. I totally support your Peace and Justice blogs. You lay reality out.

Being accused of ranting means your focus is true. I do not see politics in terms of “Left and Right;” that is all Murdoch and Co stuff. Instead it is a case of “moral and immoral.” Droning on for any reason and “Just War” arguments in the world we live in are barbarism.

By the way, Geronimo and later Howard Zinn were not too impressed with 1776! Your historical insights into the times and character of Jesus are all powerful stuff.

What I like about your approach into the minefield of religion is that you don’t preach, point, or worse still wag the finger. The wagging finger for me and many is like pointing a Glock. I spend the least time I can thinking about RC-related dogma.

Peace and Justice and the history behind the gospels in Jesus’ time support faith, based on reason. The core of religious belief associated with Jesus is that it excluded coercion.

Evangelizing is so often intrusion into human rights. This was a reason I quit the priests. (Apart from a Vision who had just landed on 4th row from the back, 2 in from the aisle.)

At 75 we are all interested in religion.

Luckily being in Japan simplifies things — like their transistor! Get on board any train, especially at morning or afternoon and one or two of the approximately 15,000,000 mothers and their children will likely join. And so often you hear maternal command: “Do this; do that,” but always with the reason why. For example “Take your feet off the seats. Don’t shout. Pick up your trash – because this is an intrusion on others.” Search “Go meiwaku” and you will get the idea.

This is the basis for what we call “religion” in the west – the Golden Rule of Jesus — and others. Most of the other Pauline type rules are optional but one always has a right to believe even what one has never attained or experienced.

But the Golden Rule like all corner stones is the easiest to understand and the only indisputable one. Breaking it results in separation from God . . . presuming there is one.

Please keep up and expand the blog Mike. It makes a big difference.

The new Reich all around us is inevitable. The dogs are in the street. This time Auschwitz will be for all left standing — multinational, multiracial, and non-denominational. It will be a ‘virtual’ prison within our own home. The few with the "moolah" and their puppets will be left to enjoy the view.

As I type I notice on TV the Cardinal of Dublin, swinging off a thurible is in a cloud of incense, leading thousands on yesterday’s Pro-Life Protest. There he thinks he’s on solid, safe ground defending the irrevocable sanctity of Life.

We humans always have a choice. We can wake-up with a spark in the mind, as you promote – or a BANG, as the door is kicked in.

Jim

Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?

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Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17-20. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/070713.cfm

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?