Noam Chomsky & Plato’s Allegory: It’s All Fake News (5th in a series on critical thinking)

Plato TV

Last week I reviewed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in an attempt to show that problems of “alternative fact” and “fake news” have been with us a long time.

In their book, Necessary Illusions, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in effect, connect Plato’s parable to contemporary controversy about truth in reporting. The authors do so by explaining what they call the Propaganda Model of information dissemination through ethnocentric political discourse, education, and especially the mainstream media.

For Chomsky and Herman, such information sources create for us an unreal shadow world that fails to take into account the realities of the world’s unseen majority whose lives are shaped by U.S. domination. Besides explaining that theory, the authors offer a way of testing its veracity. This week let me explain the propaganda model and its predictions. Next week I’ll show how to test both.

To begin with, the propaganda model holds that the mainstream media function as vehicles of propaganda intended to “manufacture consent” on the part of our culture’s majority – often described within the cave as “special interests.” The majority includes workers, labor unions, the indigenous, family farmers, women, youth, the elderly, the handicapped, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, etc. The MSM and those they represent seek to secure the latter’s consent for policies favoring what is termed “the national interest.” This, according to propagandists, is the province of corporations, financial institutions and other business elites. Such interests in turn are served not only by the media, but by elected officials, educational institutions, churches, and so on. These latter often represent resistant grassroots movements as threats, since such movements actually seek greater influence on national life.

To control such tendencies, the media in the United States defines the limits of national debate within boundaries set by a two party system of wealthy government officials, by unquestioned patriotism, support for the free market, vilification of designated enemies (e.g. ISIS, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea . . .) and support for official friends (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain . . .). Support for such “client states” ignores their objectionable actions that often parallel and even surpass similar acts committed by designated enemies.

None of this means that “liberal” criticism is excluded from the national media. On the contrary, such criticism of either government officials (like Donald Trump) or the corporate elite is common. However, the media never allow serious criticism of either the free enterprise system as such, nor of the American system of government.

Testing this model involves comparing its predictions with specific stories as reported, for instance, in the New York Times often referred to as the nation’s “paper of record.” The predictions include the following:

  • More articles will be devoted to the “atrocities” of designated enemies than to similar actions by the U.S. or its clients.
  • Less space (column inches) will be similarly allocated for reporting the alleged crimes of the U.S. or its clients.
  • In either case, story sources will tend to be American government officials and intellectuals (university professors, think tank experts, conservative churchmen) friendly to U.S. policy.
  • The reporting of “enemy” crimes will devote comparatively little space to the “official explanations” of the governments in question.
  • It will depend more heavily U.S. government spokespersons, on opposition groups within the offending countries concerned and on grassroots accounts.
  • The crimes and “atrocities” of designated enemies will be explained in terms of a corrupt and unworkable system.
  • On questionable evidence or with none at all, the crimes and atrocities of “designated enemies” will be attributed to the highest levels of government.
  • Meanwhile the crimes of the U.S. or its client states will be denied, rationalized or otherwise excused.
  • Incontrovertible proof (a “smoking gun”) will be demanded to prove the “crimes” of the U.S. or its friends.
  • If admitted, these crimes and atrocities will be explained as exceptional deviations by corrupt individuals (at the lowest level possible).
  • The ultimate conclusion drawn from the discovery of crimes along with any resulting trials and convictions will be that the “system works.”

This bias will be revealed not only in the ways noted above, but by differences in language (words, phrases, allusions) employed in writing the articles in question.

Again, next week I’ll show how Chomsky and Herman suggest testing this model and its predictions.

“Magic Glasses:” The Marginalized Know Better (Pt. 3 in a series on critical thinking)

magic glasses March

These past two weeks (see here and here), I’ve been addressing the question of critical thinking in a post-fact age of “fake news.”

So far, my argument has invited readers to recognize a hierarchy of truths, viz. that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. Most academics are reluctant to recognize that hierarchy. As thorough post-moderns, hey advocate what Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness.” It holds that every perspective is as good as any other.

By rejecting such insanity, the task of critical education becomes helping people move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to (at least) acquaintance with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

And it’s here that I find the concept of “magic glasses” (which will figure in the title of my book) relevant to the task at hand. Baba Dick Gregory uses the phrase to refer to the perspective conferred by movement from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. According to Gregory, such advance is like donning special eyewear that enables one to perceive what is invisible or absurd to those without them.

Magic glasses, the Baba warns, are both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that eyesight through magic glasses is fuller, and more evolved – more worthy of human beings. The curse is that those without the glasses will consider their wearers insane or worse. The hell of it is that glassless folk cannot be persuaded unless their independent growth cycle enables them to do so.

So, Gregory points out, the magic glasses come with three inviolable rules: (1) once you put them on, you may never take them off, (2) afterwards, you can never see things as your tribe says they’re supposed to be, but only as they truly are, and (3) you can never force anyone else to wear them.

My own experience confirms Gregory’s insight. It suggests that our lives’ journeys, our lived experiences, achieving critical distance from families and cultures, along with our encounters with great teachers, can all help us gain higher levels of consciousness better able to grasp more evolved levels of critical thinking.

In my own case, exposure to critical thought as explained, practiced and stimulated outside the U.S. during my graduate studies in Rome and across Europe helped me gain distance from U.S.-fostered ethnocentrism.

But so did what I learned in former European colonies like Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, and India. Thinkers and activists there gradually raised my critical awareness that the Global South’s “alternative facts” about economics and history underpin any critical thought worthy of the name. I was actually privileged to meet directly with people like  Paulo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Maria Lopez Vigil, Dom Helder Camara, Miguel D’Escoto, bell hooks, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, and Enrique Dussel, and Rubem Alvez.

All of them taught me that the Global South and impoverished perspective tends to be fuller than its developed world counterpart.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never considered the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, they can remain mere abstractions. None of us knows what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

Even in practical spheres of daily living, the marginalized and poor know more. They typically can grow their own food, repair their machines, take care of animals, and just “make do” and survive in ways that would soon become apparent to all of us if the electricity stopped working for a few days.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

For me, benefitting from the perspective of the world’s conscientized majority, and reading their philosophers, theologians, activists, and social analysts has turned my own perspective upside-down. It has changed my understanding of history, economics, politics – and especially of theology and God-talk.

Such upside-down vision will be the heart of my book on critical thinking. It has suggested the following truth criteria: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect Challenge, (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect Violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

Over the next weeks, I’ll try and develop each of those “rules for critical thinking.” But before I get there, I want to tell you more about “fake news” and my own journey.

(Next week: Plato’s Fake World)

There Really Are Alternative Facts (2nd in a Series on Critical Thinking)

wilbers-stages

Clearly our culture and the world have entered uncharted territory with the announcement from multiple sources that we’ve entered a post-fact world of fake news. Nowadays, it seems, one person’s truth is another’s propaganda. In such a world, critical thinking is either essential or irrelevant.

I hold for the former.

I believe that truth is relevant, that facts exist, and that the facts of some are truer than those of others. At the same time, however, I recognize that my own understanding of “fact” has changed drastically over the course of my life. What I once fervently embraced as truth, I no longer accept. Something similar, I think, is true for all of us. As Paul of Tarsus put it in his letter to Christians in Corinth 2000 years ago: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (ICOR 13:11)

Paul’s insight holds for western culture as well, including the scientific community. It readily admits that facts change. For instance, scientists once universally accepted as absolute fact that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo changed all of that.

And that brings me to what I wrote last week about those essential elements of critical thinking: world-centrism, evidence, comprehensiveness, and commitment.

As for world-centrism, the argument here begins by noting that truth is largely relative. Our perception of it often depends on our stage of personal development – on the degree of evolution we’ve attained. What’s true for children (think Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) is not true for adults. This by no means invalidates what children think. Their insights are often more acute than grownups’.

On the other hand, however, there are hierarchies of truth. While honoring children’s perceptions, adults cannot generally operate on the basis of what youngsters believe about the world. Neither do all (even very sincere) adults enjoy the same credibility. Some of them are more mature than others – more highly evolved at least in their chosen fields. Einstein, for instance, enjoyed high credibility in the field of physics. He also played the violin. However, his credibility in the field of music didn’t begin to approach that of Jascha Heifetz. It’s the same with other endeavors. Expertise matters.

Recognizing such relativity makes us realize that we do actually inhabit a world of “alternative facts.” But not all fact-claims have the same value. To separate true from less true and truth from falsehood, we must exercise extreme care. Recognizing the previously mentioned truth-hierarchies associated with universal stages of personal development is part of that process.

Philosopher Ken Wilber identifies four major stages of personal development or evolution. The perceptions of higher stages are superior to their lower-stage counterparts. Children, Wilber notes, tend to be egocentric. As such, their world and judgments tend to revolve around themselves, their feelings, needs and naïve beliefs.

In early adolescence or sooner, their scope of concern begins to widen towards group identification or ethnocentrism. They identify with their family, church, school, town, teams, and country. Relative to nation, the attitude here can be as narrow as “My country, right or wrong.” Many people never move beyond ethnocentrism. And in practice, their tribal superiority complex often leads to what Wilber calls “dominator hierarchies,” where control extends beyond the abstract realm of “truth” and “facts” to the politics of imperialism, war, and even slavery.

Those who move beyond ethnocentrism advance to the next evolutionary stage, world-centrism. Here allegiance shifts from my tribe and country to the world and human race. At this stage it becomes possible to criticize even habitually one’s tribe and country from the viewpoint of outsiders, “foreigners,” and independently verifiable data. Dominator hierarchies become less acceptable.

A final (as far as we can tell) stage of development is cosmic-centrism or what Wilber terms “integral thinking.” The cosmic-centric thinker is a mystic, who realizes the unity of all reality, animate and inanimate. (S)he holds that separation between human beings and their environment is only apparent. As many of them put it, “There is really only one of us here.”

The crucial point to note in this context, is that each of these developmental stages has its set of “alternative facts.”

Take the question of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience. According to many observers, Mr. Trump has largely been fixated at the stage of egocentrism (with, no doubt, ethnocentrism rising). Accordingly, he evidently thinks that because of his exceptionality, brilliance, and importance, his crowd must have been larger than that of President Obama, because the latter isn’t nearly as important or smart as Mr. Trump. At Trump’s stage of development, his perception constitutes a fact, pure and simple. Those who disagree are disseminating fake news.

For their parts, the dissenters – reporters, for instance – are usually ethnocentric. In the United States, they typically report from an “American” point of view. They regard Mr. Trump’s statements about crowd size as lies, since his assertions do not agree with readily available independent data information. As previously noted, the D.C. police, for instance, say that Mr. Obama’s crowd was four times larger than Mr. Trump’s. Moreover, ethnocentric reporters regard Mr. Trump’s lies as particularly egregious, because the falsehoods bring discredit and shame on the United States, which they consider the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.

Those with world-centric consciousness subscribe to yet another set of alternative facts. While agreeing that independent data is important for “fact checking,” they emphatically disagree with the premise that the United States is exceptional in its greatness or virtue. Simply put, it is not the greatest country in the world. Instead, for many (especially in the Global South with its history of U.S.-supported regime changes, wars, and dictatorships), fact-checked data show that the United States is the cause of most of the world’s problems. In the words of world-centric Martin Luther King, it is the planet’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” That recognition shapes and relativizes every other judgment of fact.

Cosmic-centered thinkers profoundly disagree with the so-called “facts” of all three previous stages of development. Nonetheless, they recognize that all human beings – and they themselves – must pass through the stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism before arriving at cosmic-centrism. That is, though most humans do not surpass ethnocentrism, no stage can be skipped. One cannot become world-centric without having previously been ethnocentric. One cannot adopt a cosmic-centered viewpoint, without first having traversed the world-centric stage. So, instead of anger, those with cosmic consciousness experience great compassion, for instance, towards Donald Trump and his critics both patriotic and more cosmopolitan.

Nonetheless, mystics approaching “facts” from their particular altitude insist that antecedent stages of awareness, though true in ways appropriate for those phases, are at best incomplete. All of them are incapable of discerning the Universe’s single most important truth that renders all else highly misleading. And that’s the fact is that all consciousness of separation is itself an illusion. Hence the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience is completely irrelevant. But so are questions about “the greatest country in the world.” No country is greater than any other. In the end, the only truth is God and divine love. Nationalist separation, fear, war, hatred, and associated attitudes are all false. They remain without factual support.

What I’m saying here is that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. In that light, the ultimate task of critical thinking is to help practitioners move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to at least acquaint them with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

In the terms just explained, what stage of evolutionary development are you?  Where do you think most of your friends are located?

(Next week: Why the world’s impoverished know more than Americans)

Biblical Study Helps Me Develop Critical Consciousness (Personal Reflections Pt. XII)

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Biblical Criticism

Here are the first dozen of the twenty-four conclusions I’ve drawn after my years of biblical study. As the cartoon above indicates, what I gained from Eamonn O’Doherty at St. Columban’s  Major Seminary in Milton, MA was an introduction to the historical/critical approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It provided a foundation that was deepened and developed by the scholars I mentioned in my last posting.in this series.

The historical/critical approach acts as a corrective to misreadings that emerge from the naive literary/confessional approach that had previously been mine. I learned that the latter is too open to ideological manipulation at the hands of the dominant culture anxious to secure divine support for a status quo favoring the rich and powerful ruling classes..

Accordingly, those more conventional approaches must be treated, I realized, with “ideological suspicion” which methodically doubts the veracity of conventional interpretations.

Such doubt made me suspect of any interpretation issuing from the United States and Europe. There analysis tended to remain largely apolitical and by that very fact ended up supporting the socio-economic status quo.

That was not the case in the underdeveloped world. (I use that term deliberately. Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, I found, have been deliberately under-developed –robbed of their resources by over-developed nations.)

Scholars in the Global South saw clearly and articulated connections between the biblical texts and imperial exploitation. The texts of both the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart are unique in the ancient world in that they were largely produced by victims of imperialism at the hands of Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. To ignore that fact and to interpret them apolitically is to impoverish them and rob them of their critical power vis-a-vis contemporary imperialist situations.

I’m sure such remarks make it clear how the biblical studies I’ve pursued have sensitized me to the dark realities of empires and the intolerable situations they have produced in the past and continue to produce in the present.

In any case, the twelve conclusions I share here unveil my gradual progression towards critical consciousness engendered by biblical studies. As you’ll see, they inexorably become less general and more sharply political. Judge for yourself:

  1. For the Christian Bible reading is extremely important. In some sense, the Bible is the word of God. However its many separate texts were produced by very human authors concerned with addressing highly politicized situations.
  1. But living is more important still. After all, even in the Bible itself, life and history constitute the primary vehicle of God’s revelation. In fact, it was out of reflection on these basic elements that the sacred texts themselves arose.  In other words, the main purpose of the Bible is not preservation or study of tradition for its own sake, but to help believers make faith-full sense out of the lives they are actually living.
  1. Therefore, as important as it is, Bible reading for the believer is a secondary activity, carried on “after the sun goes down.” It illumines life’s primary activity and vocation, living itself.

Continue reading Biblical Study Helps Me Develop Critical Consciousness (Personal Reflections Pt. XII)

Go Ahead: Blame My Crazy Thinking on Poetry! (Personal Reflections, Pt. VIII)

Golden Treasury

I skipped this “personal reflections” blog entry last week, because of a delightful visit by our four grandchildren over their spring break from Montessori School. So I was out scootering on Berea’s campus, eating ice cream, making breakfast pancakes, playing “Candyland,” and generally horsing around  for a week with Eva (age 7), Oscar (5), Orlando (3), and Markandeya (1 ½).  It was all great fun – unforgettable moments to treasure now and anticipate in the future.

It was all much more rewarding even than fashioning a blog entry, which I also love to do – though not nearly as much as being “Baba” for those four.

In the meantime, I heard from friends who could relate personally to what I had written about my best college professor, Fr. James Griffin. More than one former classmate had similar reminiscences of “Tiffer” (as we used to call him). Others with different backgrounds recalled professors like him who were  demanding, uncompromising , and (above all) eye-opening about literature, images, metaphors, similes, that (in the Tiff’s words) “capture, contain, and communicate” the reality they symbolize.

Many of us were also blessed with teachers of rhetoric who demanded short sentences confined as much as possible to subject-verb-object constraints (SVO! SVO!).

Such exchanges with friends made me realize that I could blame Fr. Griffin for the “Hamilton” fiasco I recounted at the beginning of this series.

Remember that Fr. Griffin had us wearing out our paperback Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. We had to read and reread those metaphysical poets, keeping track of the images they used and finding new meaning in those word-pictures each time. Similarly we combed through Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and others. We learned to interact with their characters and talk about their thoughts, actions and motives as though those fictional women, children, and men were agents of flesh and blood. (I remember falling in love with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Nancy in Oliver Twist.)

Such readings had us constantly looking below the surface for hidden meanings and feeling triumphant and increasingly confident when we discovered them.

And there’s the “Hamilton” connection. My response to the play wasn’t the first time my children objected to my diving below the surface to reach some “outlandish” conclusion. For instance, I remember us arguing about my take on Tom Hanks’ “Captain Philips.” I saw it as a typical self-congratulatory “cavalry to the rescue” story that demeans indigenous people while exalting the U.S. military. (You can read my review here.)

Such “readings” of literature – and life – are guided by questions like these:

  • What’s really being said here?
  • What’s not being said?
  • What’s apparent?
  • What’s not?
  • Whose class interests are being served here – the oppressors’ or that of the oppressed?
  • What’s the ideology behind this presentation?
  • Does it support the status quo or subvert it?
  • How does this relate to history as told by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or by Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, or by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or of Monica Sjoo’s The Great Cosmic Mother?
  • What can I learn from this about my own life?

That’s the sort of thing I began to learn from Fr. Griffin during my freshman and sophomore years at our seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. Later on, people called it “critical thinking.”  And (to be truthful), the approach sunk in only gradually over the years. I mean it’s not like I suddenly became a critical thinker as a college freshman or sophomore. On the contrary, I was mostly reluctant to challenge received wisdom. Remember I was trying to be an obedient model seminarian who followed all the rules.

(Next week: Learning to Read Even the Bible with Critical Perspective)

Pope Francis Beatifies Oscar Romero: No More Bullsh*t!

bullshit

I’ve been agonizing about this little talk I’m to make tomorrow evening at the beatification celebration of Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Everybody will be there: parish members, guests from other churches (Protestant and Catholic), former pastors, and John Stowe, our brand new bishop.

So I’ve been boring my friends (and readers of this blog) with draft after draft. To begin with, my worries have centered on the writing concerns I’ve inflicted on my students over the years. You know, the ones about having a sharp thesis, a clear preview of the points to be made, good follow-through on those points, and a strong conclusion.

More than that, however, I’ve fretted about possibly offending my audience. I mean, if I really articulated what I think must be said about Oscar Romero, many listeners might just turn me off. “Too political,” they’d say, “inappropriate,” “polarizing,” “ranting.” I’ve been warned against all those things. (In any case, I’ve been told by a prominent member of my church that “90% of the people are offended by what you write in the Lexington Herald-Leader every month!”)

Yes, I’m worried.

But then I thought of Dan McGinn, a mentor of mine during my doctoral studies in Rome. Like me, he was (but Dan still is) a priest in the Society of St. Columban. He was always refreshingly outspoken and unfailingly called things by their names.

Dan was fond of saying that if he ever “made bishop,” he’d put a special motto on his coat of arms. [Every bishop has a coat of arms with his motto at the bottom. For instance, the motto of the new bishop (John Stowe) heading our diocese of Lexington, Kentucky is “Annunciamus verbum vitae” (We proclaim the word of life.)] Well, Dan said that if ever made bishop, the motto under his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”

Bottom line is: I’ve decided to follow Dan’s implicit advice and throw caution to the winds. I no longer know exactly how my talk will come out. But I intend to say something like the following:

Oscar Romero

Good evening.

I’ve been asked by the parish Peace and Social Justice Committee and by the Lenten “Joy of the Gospel” Study Group to say a few words reminding us of why we are here.

Of course, we’re here to celebrate the beatification of Blessed Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador. But why should we care?

We should care, I think, because Romero’s beatification personifies and embodies Pope Francis’ basic call in “The Joy of the Gospel.” There the pope summons the entire church to reform, to be converted, to repent, and be transformed. Nothing can remain as it has been, the pope says. The church must become relevant to the problems of poverty, inequality, and war that afflict our world.

So I suggest that the pope’s decision to beatify Oscar Romero dramatizes the pontiff’s exhortation.

But which side should we take in a politically polarized world? Which side are we on?

The side of the poor, the pope says. And by that he doesn’t mean greater generosity in making up our Christmas baskets or giving an extra dollar in Sunday’s second collection. He means doing what Oscar Romero did – what Jesus of Nazareth did.  He means identifying with the poor, their ways of seeing the world. He means refusing to support our culture’s favorite way of dealing with them – treating them with “tough love,” depriving them of life’s basics, waiting for wealth to “trickle down,” and when push comes to shove, killing them (whether that’s in Ferguson, Baltimore, Bagdad or Palestine).

In other words, Oscar Romero provides a case study of the kind of conversion and relevance the Holy Father urges us to embrace.

Like most of us – I speak for myself – Oscar Romero started out uncritical and unquestioningly patriotic. Until he was 60 he supported a system that had 1% of El Salvador’s population controlling 90% of its wealth. He sided with his county’s police and military which were at war with its own people to keep things that way.

He bought the line that those opposing the system were communists. So while his country was on fire, his sermons addressed the usual banalities: the afterlife, heaven, hell, and individual salvation.

The United States supported El Salvador’s government too. All during the 1980s, it gave its military more than one million dollars a day to fund what was called “the El Salvador option” for defeating the country’s insurgency. It was a “death squad” solution which killed everyone who might be connected with the insurgency – teachers, union organizers, social workers, priests and nuns. The slogan of the military’s “White Hand” death squad was, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

That slogan took on new meaning for Archbishop Romero when his good friend, the Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, was martyred by the White Hand. Grande was killed because El Salvador’s government saw how he lived among and served peasants and slum dwellers sympathetic to the insurgents. So they considered him a terrorist.

In reality, Father Grande was entirely motivated by the Gospel. He had come to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor. That was the essence of Jesus’ message, he said – good news for the poor. In the gospels, Grande found, Jesus not only saw the world from the viewpoint of the poor, he identified with them becoming one of them. He shared the values and characteristics of the poor that El Salvador’s rich despised.

For instance, Jesus’ skin was black or brown, not white like the elite of El Salvador. Jesus was dirt poor. He was conceived out-of-wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He belonged to the working class. His hands were calloused; his clothes were sweat-stained. Jesus liked fiestas and was accused of being a drunkard, possessed by the devil, and friend of sex workers. He was harassed constantly by the police and died a victim of torture and capital punishment, because the occupation forces of Rome considered him a terrorist.

That was the Jesus Rutilio Grande worshipped and preached – a Jesus completely like the people he served.

And so the “White Hand” or “The Secret Anti-Communist Army” (or one of those death squads) killed him – along with 75,000 other El Salvadorans. (Imagine the impact of those deaths in a country of just 6 million people!)

Grande’s death profoundly changed Oscar Romero. He said, “When I saw Rutilio lying there dead, I knew I had to follow his path.” And he did.

Archbishop Romero began speaking out against the government, army and police. He saw that the soldiers fighting against peasants and poor people weren’t heroes, but misled and brainwashed victims. Just before his death, he fairly shouted at them in a final homily: “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God. Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters? . . . I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”

Those words sealed San Romero’s fate. The next evening while celebrating Mass for nuns in a hospital chapel, a sniper got him too. He became the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Beckett at the beginning of the 12th century.

That’s the Romero story. It’s the story of a churchman converted late in life to centralizing peace and social justice concerns. And that’s the “Joy of the Gospel” connection. In that Apostolic Exhortation, the pope calls us to a similar centralization. The beatification of Oscar Romero reinforces that message.

To understand all of that, you have to grasp one shocking fact: Oscar Romero was killed by Catholics. And when he was murdered, there were fireworks and celebrations in the neighborhoods of El Salvador’s elite. These people were friends of the Vatican.

As a result, Pope Francis’ predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) were not anxious to canonize the archbishop. He was too polarizing, they thought. He too clearly took the side of the poor in their struggle with the rich. They even wondered if he had been duped by the communists.

And besides, how could Romero be classified as a martyr? After all, martyrs, by definition are defenders of the “true faith” against non-believers. But (again) Romero was killed by Catholics and hated by people who went to Mass each Sunday and believed all the right things about abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce.

So John Paul II and Benedict XVI blocked Romero’s canonization and put the process on hold.

Francis has removed the block. Do you see what that implies?

It implies that “the true faith” is Romero’s faith. Its hallmark is identification with the poor in their struggle for justice — not those other narrow “moral” concerns. The true faith addresses issues like the justice of our economic system, wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and an economy based on war. It addresses climate change as a moral problem. All of these are themes central to “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Can you imagine what would happen to our state if the diocese of Lexington followed Romero’s example and became famous and distinguished as “that little peacemaking diocese in Central Kentucky” that everyone’s talking about?

Can you imagine what would happen in Berea if St. Clare’s worked closely with Union Church and cooperated to become as outspoken as Oscar Romero about issues of economic justice, racial and gender equality, war and peace?

Can you imagine what would happen in the world if 1.2 billion Catholics adopted Archbishop Romero’s spirit? What if Catholics on principle decided to absolutely reject war as a solution to the world’s problems and adopt economic justice instead? What if (in effect) we decided to drop books, hospitals, and schools on our perceived enemies instead of bombs and drone “hell fire”?

This evening, as you listen to the words of Oscar Romero during our celebration, please keep those questions in mind. They are vital to our faith.

What I’m saying is that all of us should care about Oscar Romero. He remains relevant to us; he challenges us today.

Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus Himself call us to radical change – to take sides. In effect, Oscar Romero’s beatification raises that old question: “Which side are you on?”

What’s your answer?

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.

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