(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis’ Suggests a Woman Pope!

Woman Pope

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: EX 17:3-7; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 5: 1-3, 5-8; JN 4: 5-42.  (Parenthetical numbers in today’s homily refer to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.)

Three years ago, I published a homily inspired by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). I noted that what the pope said about women there was surprising and hopeful. In fact, I said, it suggested that women should run the church from top to bottom!

I still hold that opinion, even though The Joy of the Gospel and the pope’s even more important eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, have virtually passed into oblivion. Neither is referenced much by the Church’s mostly backward-looking clergy educated under the reactionary pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They would rather talk about abortion and gay marriage.

My observations of three years ago remain relevant to today’s gospel reading – the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The narrative says a lot about Jesus and his “preferential option” for women. It also exemplifies once again how the women in Jesus’ life were more perceptive and courageous leaders than the rather dull, timorous men with whom he surrounded himself.

Pope Francis, if not exactly on the same page as Jesus, remains only a few paragraphs behind. He might even lag a sentence or two behind his own reasoning processes.

Before I explain, recall today’s gospel episode.

There, Jesus finds himself in Samaria among “those people” the Jews hated. Since the reasons for the hatred were located in Israel’s distant past, many Jews probably remained foggy about the exact reasons for their anti-Samaritanism. No matter: they had no doubts that Samaritans were despicable. [Just to remind you: Samaritans were the ones in Israel’s Northern Kingdom who seven centuries earlier had intermarried with Assyrian occupiers. Like “collaborators” everywhere, Samaritans were considered unpatriotic traitors. Religiously they were seen as enemies of God – apostates who had accommodated their religious beliefs to those of foreign occupation forces. (Grudges connected with foreign occupation and religion die hard.)]

In any case, in today’s gospel we have the counter-cultural Jesus once again on the social margins transgressing his people’s most cherished taboos. It’s not bad enough that he is in Samaria at all. He’s there conversing alone with a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that! (What kind of self-respecting rabbi would do either?) And besides, it’s a loose woman who’s his partner in conversation. She has a shady past that continues to darken her life. She’s been married five times and is currently living with a man without benefit of wedlock.

Yet the compassionate Jesus eschews moralism and instead of scolding chooses this marginal woman to reveal his identity in ways more direct than to his male disciples. With no word of reproach, he tells her clearly, “I am the Messiah, the source of ‘living water’ that quenches thirst forever.” After her literalist failures to grasp Jesus’ spiritual imagery, the woman finally “gets it.” She calls her neighbors and shares the good news: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

In sharing her good news, the Samaritan woman not only illustrates the privileged position of women in early Christian traditions (like the Gospel of John), she epitomizes as well the corresponding “missionary” role that Pope Francis centralizes in the Apostolic Exhortation that my friends and I have been discussing during Lent. There we find that, following Jesus, Pope Francis expresses a “preferential option” for women. He even suggests that women should be in charge before male priests and bishops.

I know; I know . . . You’re probably thinking, “But aren’t women the weak point of the pope’s ‘Exhortation?’”

True: that’s what everyone said immediately following its publication in 2013. Commentators said that Francis simply endorsed the position of his two conservative predecessors and excluded women from the priesthood. That said it all, they declared. It’s right there in black and white: the exclusively male priesthood is not open to discussion (104).

But there was more – lots more.

That is, while Francis’ rather wishful (and, of course, impossible) thinking clearly says “the reservation of the priesthood to males . . . is not a question open to discussion” (104), his prohibition actually downgrades the priesthood and bishops in the process, while raising to unprecedented heights the position of women precisely as women.

The pope’s reasoning runs like this:

  1. Why should women consider the priesthood so important? After all, it’s just one ecclesiastical function among others. That function is simply to “administer the sacrament of the Eucharist.” Apart from that, the priest has no real power or special dignity (104).
  2. Real Christian power and dignity come from baptism, not from ordination – or in the pope’s words: “The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all.” These words pull priests off their traditional pedestals and return them to the rank and file of “the People of God” along with other servants of their peers.
  3. Even more, according to the pope, women enjoy a dignity above bishops simply in virtue of their gender. The pope sets the stage for this conclusion by stating, “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops” (104).
  4. Moreover, Mary “is the icon of womanhood” itself (285). That is, by looking at her, we see the idealized position that women should occupy – above both priests and bishops.
  5. According to Francis, this realization opens the door to women assuming unprecedentedly powerful positions in the church.
  6. He writes, “. . . we need to create still broader opportunities for more incisive female presence in the church (103). So he urges “pastors and theologians . . . to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (104).

As one of those theologians the pope references, I suggest that his words in other parts of his Exhortation direct us to put women in charge of the church as a whole – including the papacy itself. After all:

  • “The church is a mother, and . . . she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child” (139). (Why then expect men to preach like a woman?)
  • The faith of the church is like Mary’s womb (285). (This means that faith nourishes Christians in a uniquely feminine way.)
  • “. . . (E)very Christian is . . . a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister . . .” (285). (“Every Christian!” Is it possible to issue a clearer invitation to men – including the hierarchy – to recognize their own feminine qualities so essential to Christian identity? And who can better exemplify and evoke those qualities than women leaders?)
  • The “female genius” (with its “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets”) equips women more than men to be the out-going missionaries the pope’s Exhortation centralizes (103).
  • And since “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (15), it seems that women “more than men” are uniquely equipped to embody the essence of what the church should be doing in the world.

My conclusion from all of this is simple. Regarding women, Pope Francis is far more radical than most realize (perhaps including himself). In fact, Francis’ “preferential option for women” actually mirrors Jesus’ choice expressed so fully in today’s gospel. There Jesus chooses a woman as an apostle (“one sent”) and preacher. Her simple words referencing her own uniquely feminine experience (“everything I’ve ever done”) persuade her village neighbors to meet Jesus and spend time with him. They then draw their own conclusions. They say, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves . . .”

All of this indicates that truly following the rabbi from Nazareth means thinking for ourselves and moving even beyond the pope’s perception of his words’ implications. Those words imply that the church and its mission are more feminine than masculine. They suggest that if only men (because of their physical resemblance to Jesus) can perform the newly demoted function of priest, then women’s physical resemblance to Mary uniquely qualifies them for offices “more important than the bishops.”

In the church hierarchy, what’s above a bishop? A cardinal, of course. And the pope is always drawn from the College of Cardinals. Hmm . . . .

Move over, Francis, make way for Pope FrancEs THE FIRST!

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Fake News in a Fake World (4th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Plato's Cave

One might easily argue that fake news antedates our modern world altogether. Back in the 4rd century BCE, Plato of Athens described something like it in his “Allegory of the Cave,” which has always played a central part in my own teaching.

In the context of critical thinking, it is pertinent to recall its details, and to compare them with a more contemporary version of Plato’s tale suggested by Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions. Recall that in effect, Chomsky argues that most of what we read in the mainstream media flirts, at the very least, with fake news.

Here’s the way I’ve told the story to my students.

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato says that those trapped in ethnocentrism are like prisoners confined from birth to a cave. Within its confines, they live within a shadow world.

That’s because the prisoners pass their entire lives chained alongside one another, unable to move or even turn their heads to see companions seated alongside them similarly constricted. Instead, everyone confined to the cave faces the cavern’s back wall. Upon that surface, what the prisoners take for themselves and life itself are imaged before them in the form of shadows.

The shadows appear because behind the prisoners’ backs a fire is burning. It acts like a movie camera in a dark theater, causing the shadows of those before it to be projected on the cave’s blank wall. So the prisoners see themselves and those beside them only in specter form. They think the sentences they themselves utter are coming from those relatively distant dark figures. In other words, the prisoners are completely alienated from their true selves.

But there’s more.

Behind the prisoner’s back, and between them and the fire there stretches what Plato calls a parapet. It’s a long elevated pathway that runs the width of the cave. Shielded by the parapet’s wall, men walk unseen, each carrying a statue overhead. There are statues of everything you might think of: flowers, trees, animals, buildings, gods and goddesses … As they pass before the fire, the statues, but not their bearers, appear as shadows on the cave’s wall.

The prisoners watching the parade, imagine that life is unfolding before them, even though, in reality, their perception is artificial to say the least.

Still however, the “wise ones” among the cave’s prisoners become adept at identifying and naming the shadows and at predicting the order of their appearance. Such “teachers” are held in high esteem, though their reality, like the others, is limited to shadows of objects made of stone and wood.

Then one day everything changes. One of the prisoners (we’re not told how) has his chains struck. Slowly, and with great discomfort, he manages to stand. In the fire’s light, he observes the actual bodies of those chained alongside him. He turns and though the fire’s light stabs his eyes, his vision gradually adjusts allowing him to see the blaze and the parapet running before it. He sees the statues for what they are and eventually even the ones carrying them.

“And what’s that beyond the fire?” he asks himself. Why, it’s a pathway leading who knows where. The freed prisoner decides to follow the path. Stumbling and falling, he’s swallowed up in the darkness of the cave’s elongated entrance tunnel. Finally, however, things brighten as he approaches the cave’s entrance.

Then all at once, he’s there. He emerges into the real world, blinded by the terrible brightness of the sun. His eyes adjust and the panorama before him is stunning. For the first time, he sees real flowers, real trees, animals, birds, buildings, and people walking freely about. Finally, he’s able to look fleetingly at the source enabling such wonderful visions, the sun itself. He has entered the real world and is free at last.

But then he remembers his fellow prisoners left behind in the dark cave. He pities their bereft condition, and resolves to set them free.

Back to the cave he goes, this time feeling the cavern’s darkness more oppressive than before.

He stumbles back to the fire and presents himself before the prisoners with his good news.

“This is not reality!” he exclaims. “There’s a whole world outside this cave more wonderful than anything you can imagine. I have only to strike your chains, so you might leave here and enjoy an unimaginably fuller life. Let me set you free!”

Plato asks, how do you suppose the prisoners will receive the escapee’s message? Will they welcome him and follow his lead to freedom?

Far from it, Plato replies. On the contrary, if they could, they would rise up and kill him for disturbing their comfortable tranquility.

Such is the fate of all great teachers, Plato observes. It’s what happened to his beloved Socrates whom the citizens of Athens executed for “corrupting the youth.” Socrates’ crime was teaching the young to think critically. Plato’s allegory describes the journey of critical thinking – from acceptance of shadow-reality through facing the hard truth of having been tricked, to a thrilling sense of liberation followed in many cases by rejection and hostility from friends, relatives, and strangers content with being duped.

Plato’s message seems to be that we are all prisoners by choice. We’re locked in our cultural cave whose world vision is so profoundly distorted that it deprives us of life itself. In fact, we love the chains that bind us. And that love has created a drab, stultifying reality. Our chains’ links are forged from fear of the unknown – of life itself – and of our own freedom and power. We’re afraid of what might happen to us if we embrace life without illusion. We’re wedded to our comfort with what we’ve always known. From that perspective, liberation strikes us as threatening and insane. Nonetheless, our prison cell’s door stands open before us. We have only to replace fear with courage, love of life, and willingness to change. The reward is new vision – another way of looking at things, and fullness of life itself.

(Next week: Plato Updated: Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions)

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.

Last Week’s Debate: We All Should Be Embarrassed by These Two “Amazing” Frauds

liars-frauds

When you think about it, the whole campaign and debate system is rather embarrassing, isn’t it? The process forces grown adults to stand before 100 million people to brag about themselves, quarrel like children, and tell obvious lies while ignoring the nation’s real problems. Meanwhile, those willing to address those concerns are excluded from the debate stage with their solutions unheard.

Is this really the best we can do?

For instance, in Monday’s exchange between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we had two rather out-of-touch, super-rich white people spending ninety minutes talking over each other and telling us how exemplary they are not only personally, but especially at solving the problems of non-whites. For this we should vote for one rather than the other.

Their other reasons?  The proposed policies of each are a bit less racist than their opponent’s. Each claims to be better at killing impoverished people in the Middle East and Africa. And, by the way, they’re superior at making their sponsors even richer, so that a more or less tiny portion of Wall Street’s wealth might trickle down to the rest of us – some day.

Take Mr. Trump (Please!). He brags about how “amazing” he is. He’s a billionaire, he claims. That (and nothing else) makes him . . . “amazing.” And this, even though his wealth was accumulated by frequent business interactions with mafia dons, by discriminating against people of color, stiffing contractors and workers, off-shoring American jobs, avoiding payment of taxes, and by regularly declaring bankruptcy.

Mr. Trump belittles women, African Americans, immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims. He promises to break constitutional and international law by torturing terrorist suspects, by killing their families, expanding Guantanamo, excluding war refugees created by U.S. foreign policy, and by racial and religious profiling involving unconstitutional “Stop and Frisk” policing and intense surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods. He also pledges to build a wall along a border that separates a country whose land was stolen from Mexico in 1848. Moreover, he says he’ll continue trickle down economic policies of tax reductions for the rich that despite the historical record, will produce results that will be (you guessed it) “amazing.”

On the other hand, we have in Hillary Clinton a woman who reached Monday’s podium by highly questionable means centralizing fraud, disenfranchisement of independent voters, incomplete vote counts, and violation of rules governing the Democratic National Committee. (We’re supposed to forget all of that.)

Moreover, she thinks her husband did a “pretty good job” as president when he betrayed his working class base by ramming through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the worst trade deal in American history. (Mr. Trump is right about that.) With his wife’s approval, that president oversaw passage of an Omnibus Crime Bill which Ms. Clinton saw as a necessary measure against black “Super Predators” who (like dogs) must be “brought to heel.” In reality however, the Crime Bill proved responsible for the imprisonment of record numbers of African Americans and Hispanics mostly guilty of victimless crimes. The Clintons also ended “welfare as we know it.” In the process, their “reforms” further impoverished the poor now desperate for non-existent work in the jobless economy exacerbated by NAFTA.

As the senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq War that directly resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. As Secretary of State, she pushed for regime change in Libya and created a failed state where relative prosperity had existed before. Same in Syria. She unconditionally supports Israel in its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and approves record-level arms sales to Saudi Arabia –  the Butcher of Yemen (the poorest country in the Middle East) and the hidden hand behind ISIS itself. Clinton favors a no-fly zone in Syria and is evidently willing to risk the nuclear war with Russia that well might result.

In short, under a Clinton presidency, the U.S. will continue to modernize its nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and to implement a foreign policy based on imperialism, full spectrum military dominance, and permanent war.

That’s business as usual. And that’s why Mrs. Clinton might lose this election. At least crazy Donald represents change for people whose daily experience tells them that business as usual isn’t working for them.

Are Trump and Clinton the best we can do? God help us!

In the meantime, the voices of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein are quite forgotten and inaudible. If you recall, their campaigns are not based on braggadocios trumpeting of their “amazing” accomplishments. Instead, they propose actual policy changes aimed at directly improving the lives of working people like you and me. They actually talk about:

  • Climate change
  • A job-creating Green New Deal
  • Mass transportation
  • Medicare for all
  • A bail-out for indebted college students (analogous to the $1.3 trillion Wall Street bail-out in 2008).
  • Free post-secondary education for everyone.
  • Abandoning U.S. policies of imperialism, dominance and regime-change.
  • Reducing (not increasing) military spending.
  • Nuclear disarmament
  • Tax increases for the rich and for corporations
  • Community policing and law enforcement oversight along with demilitarization of police forces
  • A Truth and Reconciliation Process aimed at healing unaddressed divisions between whites and African-Americans.

So, what to do in this embarrassing situation? Here’s what I think. Unfortunately, we must recognize that:

  1. Perhaps Ms. Clinton might be slightly more rational than Mr. Trump.
  2. As a damage-control measure (and especially in view of up-coming Supreme Court vacancies), we must vote for her in locations where our truly ridiculous, anti-democratic, winner-take-all electoral system (skewed by the Electoral College) makes one’s vote actually mean something.
  3. We must work like hell during the next four years at identifying and promoting a candidate who in 2020 will defeat self-serving corporate braggarts and frauds like Trump and Clinton.

Dives & Lazarus: a liberation theology catechism (Sunday Homily)

Lazarus

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; ITM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’sGustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s book, A Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating. The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keepthe commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

Colin Kaepernick’s the Real Hero, Not Desperate U.S. Soldiers

kaepernick

Can you imagine yourself as a twenty-something – a black person sitting in the San Diego Chargers football stadium – with 70,000 angry mostly white people booing you and you alone? Can you imagine how that would feel – or what it would do to your psyche and to your feeling of being oppressed – not to mention your performance on the field?

Well, that’s the position the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick was in last Thursday night. Every time he touched the ball (virtually each of his plays, since he’s the 49ers’ quarterback) he was booed mercilessly by a hostile overwhelmingly white crowd. Many of them obviously took the opportunity to scapegoat Kaepernick for their anger towards the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM).

That’s because in the spirit of BLM, this 28 year-old bi-racial athlete has used the pre-game singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest the numerous killings of unarmed black men and women by police officers over the past few years. He refuses to stand. He’s sitting it out.

As Kaepernick himself put it: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Ignoring those reasons, the quarterback’s critics have somehow turned his protest into his alleged attack on the honor the military who have given their lives “defending our freedom.” So when Thursday’s Chargers-49ers contest coincided with San Diego’s 28th annual Salute to the Military, the pre-game ceremony took on added meaning. It featured a special flag ceremony that only heightened Kaepernick’s “unpatriotic” stance – and the reaction against it.

Specifically, before the game a huge flag was spread across the playing field, its borders held aloft by service men and women in Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force uniforms. It was then that the National Anthem was sung. While everyone else stood with caps doffed and right hands over hearts, Kaepernick took a knee. He knelt while the others stood. Afterwards the boos rained down – on him and him alone.

For me, the boos called attention not simply to many white people’s opposition to BLM, but to our unthinking, unconditional support for capitalism and the U.S. military in general. The fact is that those soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots on that San Diego football field are not in any way defending our freedom. Instead they are victims of nationalistic propaganda and of a failed economic system.

Think about it: since 9/11 and well before (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama), U.S. military personnel have been simply brain-washed agents of U.S corporations defending the “right” of modern robber barons to steal resources, markets and cheap labor. General Smedley Butler said as much long ago. “War is a racket,” he charged.

The fact is that despite their good intentions, the military agents on that San Diego field do not deserve celebration any more than Hitler’s servicemen did.

Daniel Geery says it would be more fitting to celebrate conscientious objectors, deserters, and members of Iraq Vets against the War. It would be better to cheer young people who choose to actually do something productive with their lives. As he has identified them, they “serve us as nurses, doctors, teachers, construction workers, garbage men, laborers, cooks, waiters and waitresses, writers, inventors, organic farmers, architects, scientists, engineers, computer programmers, landscapers, and all those who choose to actually do something with their lives. . . Far better to be a prostitute, even, than to be a military person. You are at least hiring out to bring pleasure to others, not misery and destruction.”

Problem is, the “capitalist” economy is unable to provide enough of such jobs. So it funnels a desperate under-educated surplus workforce into the military whose commercials promise that there they can “Be all that you can be.” And the commercials are right. Under capitalism many simply can’t be more than killers for corporations. For them there is no alternative other than subscribing the neo-Cartesian principle, “I kill therefore I am.”

So subconsciously realizing capitalism’s failure to provide adequate jobs, but unable to face that music, propagandized fans express their anger by booing a scapegoat – a worker like themselves instead of the system’s managers.

Nonetheless, Kaepernick remains steadfast in his brave witness. He said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

We should keep those words (and Colin Kaepernick’s example) in mind the next time we’re asked to stand for the National Anthem. Can we be as insightful and courageous?

The Role of Grandparents in Montessori Education

Montessori Quote

Currently, Peggy and I are in Westport CT visiting our grandchildren. The occasion is “Grandparents’ Day” in their Montessori School a week from Friday (May 27th). Maggie (our daughter) has asked me to say a few words as part of the morning’s program. Here’s what I plan to share:

The Role of Grandparents in Montessori Education

Isn’t Grandparents’ Day great?  I’m so happy to be here – as I’m sure we all are – to celebrate our grandchildren. Today I’m here to glory in four of my own:  Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya. They’re following in the footsteps of their mother (my daughter) Maggie, who attended Montessori school in Boulder Colorado so many years ago.

This school is such a gift! Recently, I heard our 7 year old granddaughter, Eva, discussing her Montessori experience with one of her friends who attends a normal public school.  Her friend was saying how she’s so bored and just doesn’t like it. Eva said, “O, I love school. Everything we do there is a game. It’s fun.”

We grandparents admired that spirit and reality as we sat in on our grandchildren’s classes today – didn’t we?  We were edified as we observed those we love so much:

  • Practicing democracy in the workplace. (They call all of their activities “work.”)
  • Determining their own learning processes. (They move from one work site to another as they’re led by interest.)
  • Thinking for themselves.
  • Settling conflicts without violence.
  • Taking care of their environment.

The irony is that on the one hand, we applaud all of that as self-evidently admirable. We implicitly agree that it’s the ideal way the world should work. Isn’t that true?

And yet on the other hand, during our long lives, we’ve settled for a world:

  • Where our work lives have often been determined by (shall we say) less than enlightened bosses.
  • Who would rather we thought like them – for eight hours a day or more.
  • Where our work itself is drudgery rather than interesting.
  • Where international conflicts are addressed by bombings and war.
  • And where we are systematically destroying our habitat.

Where did we go wrong?

The question brings me back to this gathering. We are a Council of Elders. If this were a Native American gathering (or if we were in a culture that truly respected its seniors) our assembly would be considered especially holy.

Though we don’t live in a culture like that, our gathering today represents an occasion for facing ourselves, calling on our accumulated wisdom and asking: How will we prevent our grandchildren from contradicting everything they’re learning in this school and ending up like us – often unhappy in our work and inheriting a planet that Pope Francis (an 80 year old senior himself) said is becoming a huge “garbage dump?”

Our tools for accomplishing that pedagogical task are our own example, our wise counsel, our wallets and the organizations we support, the ballot box, and (for some of us) direct action in the streets. I’m sure you can think of others.

I suppose my ironic conclusion is that today our grandchildren are somehow teaching us. They’re reminding us of the way the world should be.

My suggestion here is that we use those tools I mentioned to prevent them from forgetting what they’re teaching today – from making the same mistakes our generation has made. Using especially our wise counsel and what we’ve learned from our long lives, we can save our grandchildren from lives of drudgery. We can help them save the planet.

Maria Montessori was right about education and following our instincts. We all have a “rage to know,” a rage to learn, a desire to live in harmony with nature. After all:

  • Birds fly.
  • Fishes swim.
  • Children learn.

Yes, all of that is true. But it’s also true that GRANDPARENTS TEACH. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills and Nash: It’s up to us to “Teach Our Grandchildren Well.” Whatever our age may be, we’re not done yet.  Our task is incomplete. We still have contributions to make.