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!”