A Spirituality for Climate Change Activists: Al Fritsch’s New Book, “Resonance”

Al Fritsch

Climate chaos activists and theoreticians are missing the boat, because they overlook their problem’s profound spiritual dimensions. The omission is not trivial, because at heart climate change represents the most pressing spiritual problem of both our age and, no doubt, in the history of the world.

This is the basic thesis of Resonance: Promoting Harmony when Confronting Climate Change.  by Rev. Al Fritsch.

The book points out that indeed many are familiar with the scientific dimensions of climate change. The science has been trumpeted for years by virtually the entire community of climate scholars. Similarly, the problem’s moral dimensions should also be evident in a world where giant corporations make billions by producing planet-destroying fossil fuels while at the same time sponsoring well-funded campaigns to deny that human-caused climate chaos even exists.

Nevertheless, the spiritual dimensions of climate chaos remain soft-pedaled – including by climate change activists. This is true even within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the brave efforts of its own Pope Francis who tried to underline connections between faith and climate change more than two years ago, with the publication of his monumental eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

In making such observations, Father Fritsch knows what he’s talking about. Like Pope Francis, he is a scientist himself. Dr. Fritsch owns a PhD in chemistry. He is also a life-long activist – a colleague of Ralph Nader in the founding of Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. Later on, in his native Kentucky, Fritsch extended his D.C. work to the foundation and direction of Appalachian Science in the Public Interest and most recently of Earth Healing, Inc. (For years, my family and I have benefitted from the daily, down-to-earth practical recommendations Fr. Fritsch’s organizations have publicized in their Appalachia Simple Lifestyle Calendar.)

Most importantly, however, Al Fritsch is a Jesuit priest. His Ignatian spirituality has made him a mystic whose faith in the underlying unity of all creation finds evidence on every page of his inspiring book. Mystics, of course, are convinced that (1) there is a spark of the divine in every human being, (2) that spark can be realized – i.e. made real by expression in daily action, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) every great religious tradition embodies means and methods to facilitate such activation (e.g. meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, repetition of mantras, training the sense, slowing down, one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed others), and (5) once the realization of the divine spark within dawns, the realizer finds that same presence in every other human being and in all of creation.

Even the most casual reader of Fr. Fritsch’s masterpiece cannot avoid perceiving his internalization of such convictions. In fact, they are all embodied in the very title of his book.

“Resonance” is about the harmony present in everything that exists – a synchronizing force caused by a shared divine presence in micro-organisms, plants, animals, human beings, the earth itself, our galaxy and the entire universe.

In the first part of his book, Fr. Fritsch displays his grasp of the scientific and social dimensions of creation’s universal harmony. There resonance is evident, he argues, not only at the physical levels of time and space, but below them in creation’s chemical and biological dimensions.

Socially, such harmony is also found in human communication, and in artistic creations, especially in music. Resonance then reaches its human apex in love, compassion, and in the type of human collaboration that enhances civilization. Entire chapters are devoted to each of these topics making Resonance a kind of reference work that can be delved into where interest and personal or research needs demand.

However, it is the second part of Resonance that makes its most important contribution. For it specifically addresses the spiritual dimension whose omission, Fritsch argues, deprives climate change activists of the enthusiasm necessary for continued hope-filled struggle in the face of odds stacked against their efforts by the previously noted forces of corporate greed and deception.

“Enthusiasm,” Fr. Fritsch reminds us, is related to his essentially mystical outlook. Etymologically, the word means “in God.” It refers to the energy derived from awareness that (as St. Paul puts it) we all live and move and have our being in a profoundly divine reality (ACTS 17:28). Without that awareness enhanced by daily prayer and meditation and frequent communal celebration of life (e.g. in the Eucharist) weariness, despair, and burnout easily replace the energetic action necessary for the long-haul struggle required of those aspiring to effectively defend the earth.

Accordingly, chapters in the second half of Resonance address specifically mystical resonance as exemplified in Jesus the Christ. For many, Christ’s Spirit, Fr. Fritsch emphasizes, promises to awaken that earlier-referenced consciousness of the divinity resident at the heart of everything that exists. That consciousness in turn awakens compassion for the suffering earth and its vulnerable and wounded inhabitants.

But Fr. Fritsch’s call to spiritual awakening is by no means confined to those sharing the Christian faith or any faith at all. With homage to Karl Rahner, the author recognizes “Anonymous Christians” who can recognize the harmony of creation exposed in Part One of Resonance. Despite their lack of formal faith, they too need the spiritual centering of meditation practice that need not be Christ-centered or religious. To repeat: without such grounding, they run the risk of despair and burnout.

Resonance is a welcome complement to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Activists, teachers, and discussion groups will find it an inspiration and source of practical energy fueling their efforts to save the planet for their grandchildren and generations to come.

James Patterson’s “Woman of God”: Its Call to Reform the Catholic Church from Below

woman-of-god-image

James Patterson surprised me recently by publishing a book about the Catholic Church and faith. Usually, of course, Paterson deals with the world and adventures of ex-F.B.I. agent Alex Cross. There Patterson’s fiction revolves around spies, the C.I.A., terrorists, murder and general mayhem.

So I was intrigued when I came across Woman of God. I was even more surprised to find it addressing the problem of reform in the Catholic Church. In fact, the book might be seen as a parable – if we understand parable as a fictional story inviting its audience to conversion and action. The action in question is transformation of the Catholic Church independent of established church authority.

Woman of God traces the life of Brigid Fitzgerald, a not particularly religious physician, whose first assignment takes her to Africa’s Sudan. There horrendous experiences with grinding poverty, terrorist attacks, battlefield operations and dying children drive her to rediscover her long-abandoned faith.

The book is filled with prayers and mystical reflections about the unity of creation and of humankind. It also details Brigid’s series of romantic relationships and marriages that all end tragically. As a result, I sometimes thought I was reading one of those Christian romances where each and every plot turn is cloyingly related to God, faith and prayer.

But Patterson somehow pulls this one off.

With her faith deepening with every chapter, Brigid’s second marriage joins her with a progressive Catholic priest. Together they start the Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Catholic Church. It offers an alternative to the local parish, but stubbornly continues to identify as Catholic, even over the objections and threats of the local bishop. Eventually, Brigid herself becomes a priest – ordained by a dissident prelate.

Gradually JMJ becomes a movement that spreads across the United States. So does Brigid’s fame as a married female cleric. Accordingly, she receives threats from conservative Catholics and accolades from almost everyone else. A final seal of approval comes from the pope himself, when Brigid (and her daughter) are summoned to Rome to meet the Holy Father. When he eventually dies, there is even speculation that Brigid herself might be chosen pope.

The connections between Woman of God and bottom-up reform of the Catholic Church are obvious – especially in the light of prospects that threaten the very continuity of human life on our planet. As parable, the book calls committed Catholics to actually do something by way of resistance that calls upon the Church’s long (a neglected) social justice tradition. it’s time, the story suggests, to start a JMJ church of our own.  Committed Catholics must become the change Pope Francis called for in his landmark Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Chris Hedges’ recent article on the state of our country intimates something similar. We’re living in circumstances that parallel events in 1933 Germany, he says. As Hedges argues, all of our institutions – government, military, police, media outlets, schools and universities, churches and synagogues – have been too long silent. We’ve simply gone along with their own gradual corruption. When it’s all over, we’ll stand there scratching our heads and wondering how we could have let it all happen.

Regarding the role of churches, Hedges predicts we will ask:

“Where were the great moral and religious truth tellers? Why did they use the language of identity politics as a substitute for the language of social justice? Why did they refuse to condemn as heretics those on the Christian right, which fused the symbols of the state with those of the Christian religion? Why did they collaborate with the evil of corporate capitalism? Why did they retreat into churches and synagogues, establishing exclusive social clubs, rather than fight the injustice outside their doors? Why did they abandon the poor? Why did they replace prophetic demands for justice with cloying political correctness and personal piety?”

Chris Hedges suggests that only a deeply engaged spirituality focusing on social justice can save Catholics from repeating the “go-along-to-get-along” mistakes they committed under Nazism. We need the U.S. equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church. We need a JMJ community that will make its business resistance of all forms of Trumpism in the name of Jesus’ God.

Recall what Bonhoeffer, Pastor Niemoller, Karl Barth and others did when Adolf Hitler came to power. They saw their churches silent at best, and at their worst actually cooperating with Hitler by giving him their blessings. So they started their “Confessing Church.” Originally the movement concentrated on ecclesiastical threats from Hitler. Later however those foci broadened to embrace persecuted Jews. In the face of concentration camp atrocities, its members ended up asking

“Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain. (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9)

Catholics should make the Confessing Church’s question our own as Nazism has morphed into the contemporary Alt-right. In the face of its current unprecedented threat, corresponding action is required that works every day for the defeat of the neo-fascism Trumpism represents. And the Catholic Church with its unparalleled social teaching (recently expanded by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’) offers us the guidance we need to shape the responses of a present-day Confessing Church.

Following the parabolic example of Brigid Fitzgerald and her JMJ Church, here’s what we might do:

  • Admit that in most cases, present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of the Neo-Fascist Alt-Right.
  • Recognize the power of the Catholic tradition as expressed by Pope Francis as he addresses climate change, environmental destruction, income inequalities, racism, xenophobia, and interminable wars.
  • Publicly move out of our local church building.
  • Open store front JMJ Catholic churches with names such as “St. Francis’ Catholic Church of Resistance.”
  • Invite former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publish the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meet in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empower faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gather in the storefront on Wednesday evenings to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.

Certainly there will come objections from sincere Catholics. They will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections Brigid Fitzgerald might reply:

  • As baptized Catholics, we have all the authority we need. Given the unprecedented threats we face, none of us can wait for top-down leadership to address them adequately. (This was the conclusion of the Confessing Church.)
  • Reform from within? Remember: some of us are operating in churches where announcements deemed “too political” are forbidden. Some parishes don’t even have Peace and Social Justice Committees.
  • Division in our churches? The divisions that already exists are precisely the problem. Papering over such fissures actually prevents even naming the problem of Trumpism.
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? The times will not allow us the luxury of such pietism in the face of a threat that is truly planetary.
  • Too old? Christian faith will not allow us to identify with the physical as if we were primarily bodies with souls. Our spirits are ageless. The truth is that we are primarily ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Moreover, the JMJ movement promises to invite energetic college students (and others) to join us as leaders in our community.

This is not time for those with experience to step back and relax. Like Brigid Fitzgerald our experiences have caused us to mature. They have made us wise. That wisdom tells us that time is running out – for us personally, for our children and grandchildren, and for the planet itself. These unprecedented times call for radical response.

Thank you, James Patterson for your parable and its summons to Catholics. It remains for us to respond.

Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”

I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.

The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.

All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.

But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.

That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.

In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.

Fidel on Communism & Christianity

Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).

  • “There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
  • “I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
  • “. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
  • “. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
  • (Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).

Fidel on Liberation Theology

  • “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
  • “I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
  • “It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
  • “We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
  • “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).

Fidel on Cuban Democracy

  • (Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
  • “It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
  • “An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
  • “In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
  • “Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
  • “All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
  • “In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
  • “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).

Conclusion

But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?

I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.

Here’s what Cliff said:

  • The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
  • More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
  • Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
  • Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
  • Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
  • Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
  • So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
  • And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.

My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.

Domesticating Laudato Si’: Our Milk Toast Diocesan Study Guide

Science-vs-BS

This week (Just in time for Lent) the Lexington Catholic diocese published a study guide for Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ outspoken encyclical on the problems resulting from climate change. The guide called Discovering Laudato Si: A Small Group Study Guide.

Following two introductions – one to the social teachings of the church, the other to the booklet itself – Discovering Laudato Si’ consists of eight two-page chapters and a “Final Reflection.”  In each “chapter,” one page is devoted to excerpts from the pope’s encyclical. The second page lays out three or four questions related to the chapter’s selections.

That plan is indeed helpful for small group discussions in the parish settings for which it is intended. It means participants can avoid homework. They can actually read an assigned chapter during the relevant meeting itself.

That seems, perhaps, a positive contribution.

The booklet’s liabilities however overwhelm that modest asset. That’s because Discovering Laudato Si’ does exactly what Pope Francis refused to do in his authoritative letter to the entire church. The diocesan guide bends over backward attempting not to offend.

In his encyclical, the pope might well have said “The topic of climate change is controversial. Some see it as caused by humans and threatening to the very existence of the human race. Others say that climate variability is cyclical and natural, and can be remedied by human technology. Of course, such matters are too complex for non-experts and even for the Church to decide. So while the experts are resolving that “big picture,” let’s be practical. Let’s all take a deep breath, slow down, and avoid environmental crusades. Let’s determine the ‘small tasks’ that little people can do to mitigate the environmental damage our lifestyles may be causing. Let’s reduce, reuse, and recycle. You see, environmental crusading might offend those with opposite opinions. And remember, Christians must be nice. On these matters, the faithful should ‘bend to the pastor’s direction’.”

The pope avoided all of that. But it’s the actual argument the diocesan discussion guide makes!

True: it lets the pope’s encyclical speak for itself on the first page of each chapter. But the question page often subtly retracts what the pope’s overall document says. For instance, the questions at the end of Chapter One create a false equivalency between the 97% of scientists who recognize that climate change is caused by humans, and the 3% who deny human causality. “This debate will not be resolved anytime soon,” the study guide sagely observes!

The pope however did nothing of the kind. He was not concerned with possible offense to the 3%. Instead, he called for “a bold cultural revolution” (114). He denounced capitalism-as-we-know-it (190). He called for “radical change” (171). He identified climate deniers as “obstructionists” (14) He demanded “reparations” (wealth redistribution) for global south countries wounded by the climate crimes committed by their rich colonizers (30, 51, 52). He suggested a form of world governance (53, 173-‘75}

All of these are “big picture” items that the diocesan guide recommends we leave to the experts. In fact they are the very stuff of elections, political campaigns – and wars. For that reason, Francis’ document has evoked the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and the entire Republican establishment.

Limbaugh said, “Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’ . . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”

Why did the pope avoid the milk toast approach of the Lexington diocese?  It’s because he knows that we’re on a train that is speeding 200 mph down a track and headed for a precipice just a mile away.

In the face of such impending calamity telling people of faith to take our time, be “deliberate,” avoid “rash actions,” “ecological crusades,” and “headlong rush into the fray,” is misleading in a real and tragic sense of the word.

My Secret Thirteen Years in Prison

Silver Creek

Recently my wife, Peggy, and I listened with rapt attention to a CD recording of the John Grisham novel, The Racketeer.  The 2012 Doubleday publication was a page turner from the very start. It caused us to miss a turn on the highway on our way to our Michigan lake house.

The Racketeer is the story of an African-American attorney, Malcolm Bannister, unjustly disbarred and jailed for an alleged and complicated money laundering scheme. It’s about his escape from a federal prison near Frostburg Maryland by means of an equally complicated and fascinating scheme of his own.

Such an interesting novel deserves a separate review. My point here however is different. It’s autobiographical and theological. It’s about the reflections on my own life and on God that The Racketeer stimulated.

You see, Malcolm Bannister’s life in his prison reminded me of my own time served in a similar institution under an infinitely worse warden. It caused me to remember my own escape and the way I finally told the warden off.

From the age of 14 to 27, my life featured the same restrictions as Bannister’s. There was the same dull prison food, interactions with a self-absorbed overseer and redeeming friendships with fellow prisoners. Only, since I was so young, life in prison meant minimal contact with women – nothing at all romantic, much less sexual. The warden had this weird attitude towards sex.  He didn’t care for it at all, and didn’t want us to either.

Like my own, Malcolm Bannister’s prison was minimum security. It had no walls or razor wire. There were no gun towers or barred prison cells. Inmates lived large dormitories or in single rooms with a cot, desk, chair and window. Everyone wore the same uniform. But prisoners were free to roam about the paths winding across the institution’s wooded acres. Escape would be easy, but few “walked off,” because capture would bring reassignment to a real hell-hole. That was my experience too.

The similarities between Bannister’s warden, Robert Earl Wade, and my own were uncanny. As mentioned, both were self-absorbed. But mine was far crueller – the most sadistic person I’ve ever met.

Offending the warden in my prison wouldn’t merely bring reprimands, punitive labor assignments or restrictions on free time. Ultimately, it would result in real torture that was almost unspeakable. We quaked in the warden’s presence. And, no more than children ourselves (at least at the beginning), we had to mouth his praises unceasingly. He was to be our first thought on waking in the morning, and the last before retiring at night.

The warden thought he was God; and so did we. He had ways of knowing everything. We were convinced he could read our minds. And just in case he couldn’t, we were forced to declare forbidden thoughts and deeds to him once a week. (That’s where the warden’s sexual hang-ups played a central part. Yes, we were required to fess up to entertaining sexual thoughts.) As a result, we prisoners were entirely self-regulated in an extremely repressive way.

Almost nothing we did (apart from the prison’s compulsory athletic events) displayed the freedom and spontaneity of the children we were and the young men we became.  For those not athletically inclined, even the requisite “play” was torturous, I’m sure.

As for me (apart from the sports), what saved it all were friendships with fellow internees. That was Bannister’s experience in Frostburg as well. The inmates I lived with were uniformly smart and unusually witty. As a result, they lightened the sameness of our daily life with unrelenting humor – mostly of the inside gallows variety.

Finally, I had enough. I did the forbidden thing. I just walked off. But before leaving, I told the warden what I thought of him.  Who did he think he was . . . God? “You’re not God,” I told him. “You have nothing to do with God. You’re just a projection of a system of absolute control that keeps young people from growing up. It keeps us all children! And once those you have ‘schooled’ in your prison are released, they inflict your hang-ups on others. That’s a big reason our world is in such a mess.”

_____

Of course, the system I’ve been describing is the one that trained priests for the Roman Catholic Church. It’s the seminary I experienced from my early teens till ordination at the age of 27. And its warden (the one we thought was God) is a fraud. Unfortunately, he’s still at work in the world – still torturing people.

No, I don’t regret the time I spent in the seminary. Moreover, I’m sure others would see life on the inside much more positively than I’m expressing here. Sometimes I do too. After all, life there gave me discipline and some valuable academic training – absolutely free through my doctoral studies. Without those gifts, my subsequent life as a professor of Peace and Social Justice Studies would have been impossible. For all of that, I’m eternally grateful. Who wouldn’t be?

And I haven’t lost faith. It’s just that my idea of God has changed radically.  No more Prison Warden. Only the Supreme Self in whom we live and move and have our being. Only the God of love. Only the God embodied in his prophet, Yeshua. Yeshua’s God breaks down separation walls of all types. That’s the one who liberated me from prison.

I just wouldn’t want to experience that jail time again. It was the dullest, most restrictive and spiritually wounding period of my life – formative years that (apart from the goodness of my fellow inmates) were little different from Malcolm Bannister’s prison camp. (The picture at the top of this post shows the high school seminary I attended in Silver Creek, New York from 1954 through 1958.)

Those dark years [and (ironically) the academic legacy they gave me] have always stimulated my resolve to help others escape from the confines erected by the false idea of God-as-prison-warden.

That’s been the thrust of my life as a college teacher. It’s what I’m attempting to do on this blog site.

School-Is-Prison-63787456510

 

Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)

Islamic World

I remember as I was finishing my teaching career of 36 years at Berea College in Kentucky that I experienced a spectacular failure regarding Islam.

In the light of the then-recent events of 9/11/01, I had moved that all students be required to study Islam either in a separate required course or as part of an already existing course (on writing or Western Civilization). After a brief discussion, my proposal was put to a vote. It received two (!) “Yeas” and about 148 “Nays” from a faculty of 150. “Next order of business . . . “

Despite going down in flames like that, I still think my proposal was a good one. That’s because ignorance of Islam lies close to the heart of our country’s highly questionable (not to say bogus) “War on Terror.”

Even more importantly, as a liberation theologian, I see “Islamists” as part of world-wide movement of poor people to use their religious traditions as a force for freedom rather than control and slavery. In fact, I consider this movement as the most important intellectual and social development since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Grasping that fact and the true nature of Islam should be Job #1 for teachers and peace advocates.

Perhaps, like the Berea faculty, you find that assertion difficult to buy. And why shouldn’t you? Even in its Christian form, “liberation theology” has been misrepresented and distorted beyond recognition. Why shouldn’t we expect even more of the same for its Islamic counterpart?

So let me explain. Begin with the context of my proposal.

Once again, it came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On all sides Islam was being vilified as foreign, primitive, terrorist, and anti-female. U.S. military personnel regularly desecrated the Koran.

And their leaders like Lt. Gen. Wm. G. Boykin, were asserting the superiority of “our God” over “their God.” Republicans who otherwise ridiculed feminists as “femi-nazis” suddenly became champions of women’s liberation as they attacked Islam for preventing women from driving cars and wearing mini-skirts.

All of that made me suspicious. I knew a little about Islam from my poor attempts at teaching an introductory course part of whose intent was introducing freshman students to “world religions.” We had read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. If nothing else, Smith taught me that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are sister faiths. There is no distinction between “their God” and “our God.” All three were “religions of the book.” At the very least, all recognized Jesus as a great prophet.

I had also taught Malcolm’s Autobiography. His embrace of Islam had called my attention to the attraction of Islam for poor people as an alternative to enslaving interpretations of Christianity. Malcolm’s passion for the Nation of Islam easily connected with my own for liberation theology – i.e. with the reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the perspective of those committed to the welfare and destiny of the world’s poor.

I remembered that somewhere in the literature of liberation theology, I had read that Islam was today’s most prominent example of a ”religion of the poor and oppressed.” As such Islam was influencing far greater numbers of the world’s poor than had Christianity’s liberation theology which was largely defeated by the U.S. military in what Noam Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” That religious conflict had pitted the U.S. government against the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Understanding Islam as today’s foremost expression of the liberating power of faith made the 1979 uprising in Iran a movement inspired by “liberation theology.” It did the same thing for other movements for liberation throughout the Asia and Africa. With all their triumphs and distortions, they too were movements against colonialism and its neo-colonial aftermath. In the name of God, they all stood against the exploitation and oppression of the East by the West.

That’s true, of course, for our contemporary “Arab Spring.” After all, did you think all those students and others protesting in Tahrir Square had suddenly left behind their devotion to Islam? What do you think motivated them? Had they suddenly become secularists? More obviously, what moved the “Islamic Brotherhood” to oppose the U.S. puppet Mubarak? Or why do you think the Egyptians elected the Brotherhood to lead their country?

Obviously, the motivation was largely found in Islam and in the realization that their faith as exemplified in the life and writing of the prophet Muhammad champions the Arab world’s poor in their struggle against the rich who have hijacked both Christianity in the West and Islam in the East.

It’s that liberationist understanding of Islam that the West must distort and vilify just as it did Christian liberation theology when it threatened to radically alter the political landscape of Latin America from the Medellin Conference of 1968 to the assassination of El Salvador’s most prominent liberation theologians in 1989.

It’s time to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. (That after all was the thrust of my proposal that evening on the faculty floor.) Reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time can help. In fact, Armstrong’s book would be required reading in the course I proposed. Without ever mentioning liberation theology, it reveals Muhammad as the champion of the poor and oppressed that Christianity’s liberation theology shows Jesus to have been.

(More about this in next Monday’s post.)

Move Over, Pope FrancIs, and Bring on FrancEs I!! (Fathers’ Day Sunday Homily)

Anointing

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:2 SM 12:7-10, 13; Ps. 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7:36-8:3. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061613.cfm

Today is Father’s Day. So, happy Father’s Day to all of us who merit the title “father.”

However, I must observe that despite the male focus which our culture gives this June 16th, today’s readings end up being quite critical of men and patriarchy. They reveal the misogyny of western culture and of the Christian tradition right from the beginning. Unwittingly, they also make a strong case for female leadership in the church even to the point of suggesting female leadership for the entire enterprise. Sorry, dads!

Start with the first reading. There Nathan condemns the great father-figure, David for his own male chauvinism and for his disregard of all the gifts the prophet says he himself gave David in God’s name.

Nathan recalls that as prophet he himself anointed David king over both Israel and Judah. Nathan rescued David from his rival, Saul. The prophet gave him the Lord’s dwelling and a harem to live with David in his palace. All these including David’s many wives, Nathan says, were gifts from God. (So much for Yahweh’s “traditional family values” allegedly favoring domestic arrangements with one father and one mother.)

And what was David’s response to all the favors conferred by Nathan? Adultery and murder. He used his power as king to steal the wife of one of his generals, Uriah the Hittite. Then in effect, he “rendered” Uriah to the Ammonites to have him killed, while preserving his own “deniability” for the crime. But neither Yahweh nor Nathan was fooled.

Of course, the woman’s in question was the famous Bathsheba who eventually gave birth to King Solomon, who ended up succeeding David as King of Israel instead of David’s eldest son, Adonijah.

In fact the section of 2nd Samuel in which this episode is found is referred to as “the succession narratives,” because it answers the question “why is it that Solomon is sitting on the throne instead of David’s eldest living son, Adonijah?”

Solomon is on the throne, the story says, because of David’s theft of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah, and the curse of Nathan which resulted: “The sword will never depart from your house.” That is, all of David’s sons, but Solomon were condemned to die violent deaths. According to this tradition, God’s sole “blessing” for the eventually penitent king is limited to the boon that he himself will not be killed. Father-rule – the patriarchy – does not come out well in this first reading.

Neither is today’s gospel selection kind to patriarchy. Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system But in this case, the “host” proves to be an inhospitable man in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Jesus as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one.

This is extraordinary, since the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Jesus the Christ. And it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in the reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Jesus’ time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Jesus, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Jesus’ contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Jesus’ company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Jesus tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Jesus’ company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community knew: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Jesus were his financial supporters of Jesus and “the twelve.”

But Luke doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Jesus. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Jesus or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Jesus as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas describes says:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?'”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and us patriarchs so fond of “Father’s Day. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s readings help us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Mover over, Francis; bring on Pope FrancEs I!