Faith Is a Subversive Activity: Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Sunday’s Readings:  Is. 49: 1-6; Ps. 138: 1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk. 1:57-66, 80

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The liturgy this morning focuses on vocation, prophecy, and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin. This is an important day because John’s ministry highlights faith as a subversive activity. His birthday calls us to adopt such faith in the midst of pedophile scandals, devaluation of women, official support of right-wing politics, and absence of visionary leadership on the part of those who hold the highest ecclesiastical offices.  

To grasp what I mean, begin by considering the Christianity we’ve inherited and its view of Jesus in relation to John the Baptist. Like most matters of faith, we have it backwards. Our understanding begins with Pope Benedict XVI and then runs to the Second Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Paul, and ends with Jesus. That line gives us a church-centered Jesus concerned with esoteric doctrines and above all with the sexual preoccupation that has traditionally afflicted our patriarchal church officials.

 A more biblical approach begins in the other direction. It runs from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John, and finally to Jesus. It knows nothing of what comes after Jesus with all of its distortions, misconceptions, and patriarchal abuses. The Jesus that emerges here is not at all church-centered. He is less “Christian” and more focused on the Jewish tradition which is what Jesus knew. Jesus of course, was a Jew, not Christian at all. That more biblical approach helps us see both John and Jesus as engaged with their world specifically as prophets – as possessors of a subversive charism sorely needed by our world in severe crisis and in a church that finds itself in irreversible decline.

Already in today’s second reading, we see the more domesticated understanding of John emerging in Paul whose letters represent the earliest entries we have in the Christian Testament. Paul’s vision is what most of us are familiar with. For Paul, Jesus was the Son of David. John the Baptist heralded his coming as Messiah. He groveled before Jesus at the River Jordan when Jesus came to be baptized. “I am not worthy to loosen the strap of your sandal,” he says “You should be baptizing me; I shouldn’t be baptizing you.” For Paul, John ends up being purely instrumental for Jesus.

Paul’s view finds elaboration in the four canonical Gospels. There we can get the impression of the prophet as a kind of first century Billy Graham out there in the desert. His concern with Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife makes him sound rigidly moralistic and focused on sex – just the way the Church’s teaching has been all these years.

That’s not the John who emerges if we put him in that biblical context running from Adam through Moses, and the prophets. It’s not the John who discloses himself if we consider his historical context. In that perspective John becomes Jesus’ mentor and even his rival. In a sense, he becomes the founder of a Christian movement that understood faith as synonymous with religious and political subversion.

I mean John was a prophet before anything else – a reformer of Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Luke says John grew up in the desert. And that’s where he later realizes his vocation as a sharp-tongued social critic – the essence of prophetic identity. In the desert John led a flourishing reformist sect. As Luke says, people from all over Palestine came to listen to him. His message wasn’t that of Benedict XVI or Billy Graham. Rather, it was the one Jesus took up after John’s execution by King Herod, the Roman puppet. “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  (The Kingdom of God, remember, is what the world would look like if God, not Caesar were king.)

John’s location in the desert wilderness is important for understanding the Jewish revival he was leading there. The desert was the original place of refuge for God’s people when they escaped from their first captivity in Egypt.  It was the spawning place for insurgency movements against the Romans who occupied Palestine in the first century.

Above all, the desert was not Jerusalem. It was not the temple. So Jewish religious authorities were deeply suspicious of John and hostile towards his movement. John was not one of them — not a priest or rabbi. He was an outspoken prophet operating at the margins of society. He was radically free from social obligations and expectations as defined by standard Judaism and by the Roman Empire. Literally, he was an outlaw (one living outside the law). Even his clothing and diet showed that.

Additionally, John’s criticism of Herod was seen as politically subversive.  One of Herod’s great rivals was a king called Aretas of Nabatea. Herod had divorced Aretas’ sister in order to marry the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. The people were outraged, and took that marriage issue as a cause of criticism and rebellion. Their concern was not inspired by some first century anticipation of Victorian “moral” scruples. Herod’s divorce and remarriage showed how much their supposed king had strayed from their own culture and had adopted the Roman oppressors’ ways. 

John sided with the people in their criticism. So Herod saw him as stirring up rebellion. He therefore had John arrested. Eventually, of course, he beheaded the prophet. That’s when Jesus then stepped in and took over John’s reform movement.

Jesus seems to have been completely devoted to John. In all the Gospel traditions he presents himself for baptism at John’s hands. The appearance of inferiority implied in that gesture is unmistakable. So the Gospel authors had to reverse that impression by that groveling I mentioned earlier. This was especially true since even forty years after the Baptist’s beheading, many still thought of him as the Christ. What I’m saying is that “Jesus Christianity” found a rival for itself in “Johannine Christianity”

 But despite their desire to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John, the Gospel authors find themselves compelled to recall that baptism of Jesus at John’s hands. They also record that Jesus lauded John as the greatest of all the Jewish Testament prophets. Even more significantly, they associate Jesus’ message so closely with that of John the Baptist that Jesus is repeatedly understood both by his enemies and his disciples as John redivivus (come back from the dead). Some even see in Jesus’ final cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” as a cry to John (himself as Elijah redivivus), “John, John, why have you forsaken me?”     

All of that is to say that John and Jesus are like twins inseparably joined at the hip. And what does that mean for us?

It means that Christianity (Jesus or Johannine) must be prophetic. Remember though what biblical prophets were. They were not fortune tellers concerned with predicting the future. They were social critics with two tasks. The first was to denounce serious departures from the faith of Abraham and Moses. Their second function was to announce a new future – that another way of living out the Jewish faith was possible. That way stood in sharp contrast with the understanding of Judaism embraced by their chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  

Being prophetic today suggests that we open our eyes to the similarities between the situations of John and Jesus on the one hand and our own on the other. Both prophets found themselves involved with a faith that had sold out to the Romans, and their puppets (like Herod). It was a faith that identified with keeping arcane rules and social distinctions.

For John and Jesus, that had nothing to do with the faith that had begun in the desert outside of Egypt. In their eyes, it was time to move back to the desert, away from the temple, and reclaim their faith from corrupt “leaders.”

I’m suggesting that our church today has moved as far from the Gospel of Jesus and John as had the high priests and scribes of their day moved from the tradition of Abraham and Moses.

Isn’t it time for us to move back to the origins of the prophetic traditions we celebrate this day – returning in effect to the place where it all began. For John and Jesus that was the desert – away from the temple. For us, it’s home churches and lay-led liturgies like those that characterized the primitive Christian community.

In the subversive spirit of John the Baptist, we’ve got to let the corrupt Vatican and our local bishops know that we are no longer following them, no longer supporting them.  There are many ways of doing that.

Can you think of any?  (Discussion follows)

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood

Why Is the Left So Weak and the Right So Strong? (Final posting in a series on liberation theology)

Not long ago, when I was working with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I twice ran into a question that frequently surfaces among liberals.  The question was first posed at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting after a paper by an American political scientist. It was a pre- July 4th presentation entitled, “Democracy Matters.”  A week later, the question came up following a talk by a Mexican activist on his country’s current political context. In both cases someone asked, “Why is the political left so weak and the right so strong?”

The Mexican activist sharpened the question by observing that the political left is not weak everywhere. Yes, it is feeble in the United States, he remarked. However such weakness is not true of Latin America. The left and its solidarity movements are actually waxing there. And they really have been over the last half-century at least. Recall, he reminded us, that Cuba’s revolution in 1959 ignited a “Latin American Spring” everywhere south of the U.S. border. Only the U.S. sponsored installation of military regimes throughout the region – everywhere but Mexico and Costa Rica – prevented the complete triumph of progressive forces in that part of the world. And those forces are coalescing once again today. They’re electing progressive governments across the region. It’s a mistake, he said, to universalize U.S. experience.

The activist was perceptive in his distinction. As a theologian, I would add that the difference between the Latin American left and the U.S. left is the difference between Latin America in general and the United States. And it’s all connected with religion. Like Americans north of the border, most Latin Americans claim to be Christians. However, the left in Latin America has learned to use that fact in the service of social justice and profound political change. (Here I’m referring to liberation theology.)

In the United States, that has not been the case. There, religion has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the conservative right. This is because intellectuals on the U.S. left have surrendered to the right the religious language, symbols and metaphors that actually motivate ordinary people. Put otherwise, the U.S. intelligentsia tends either to ignore religion or to treat it with disdain – as fanatical, pre-scientific and therefore not worthy of serious analysis, much less of scholarly appropriation. Such attitude, I have implied in this series, is entirely counterproductive. It can be remedied by appropriating the roots of the critical thought essential for those concerned with social justice, and indispensable for mobilizing the grassroots majority. Those roots are to be found within the Christian tradition itself as identified by liberation theologians.

Put otherwise, we on the left have allowed the divinities Marx called the “gods of heaven” to prevail. We’re victims of the (highly understandable) aversion to religion so prominent among the left’s intellectual elite. We imagine ourselves living in what even theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “a world come of age” – a highly secularized context. But as indicated earlier, the 21st century context is far from secularized, not only for the less highly educated, but for the imperial leadership responsible for the creation and defense of the given order. As a result, everyone but the left’s intellectual elite is manipulating the powerful field of myth – not just the religious right, but their political and economic counterparts as well. As a result when people in the U.S. think “Christianity,” “moral principle,” “strength of character,” they automatically identify it with the far right and its agenda. When they think “morals,” they think “abortion” and “sex” – almost never “social justice.” That’s why the left appears weak – no moral principle, no connection with God. 

The suggestion here has been that the left must engage its opponents precisely upon the field of myth and story. And liberation theology makes available even for would-be secularists a set of understandings that empower them to do so, and thus to communicate with our lost audience which overwhelmingly interprets the world in mythological, if not in theological terms. LT is critical theology. As argued earlier in this series, it represents the tap-root of critical thinking in its most comprehensive form. In a sense it is an anti-theology set against both the “gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth” beyond which it is difficult for the secular left to see.

None of this implies that entering the arena of myth is a job merely for theologians or “believers.”  Marx himself saw that. He was no believer. Yet he said famously in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “. . . the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

However in contrast to Marx’s time and thanks to liberation theology, the left’s critique doesn’t have to involve throwing the baby of the “faith of Jesus” out with the bath water of “faith in Jesus.” Again, taking cue from liberation theologians, the left doesn’t have to alienate believers by ridiculing faith or religious people. All of that has been counter-productive and fatal for those committed to social justice.

No, the left can reclaim its place in the crucial arena of mythology. It can appreciate the person of Jesus and his call for social justice without subscribing to antiquated notions of a God “up there” manipulating the world like a vast chessboard. Liberation theology finds God not “up there,” but in horizontal relationships with the poor whom Jesus reveals as the primary repository of God’s presence and preferential choice. And backed by the work of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars the left can do so with scholarly integrity.

What has been suggested here is that to be strong and to be effective in solidarity movements, all of us have to become liberation (anti-) theologians.

Stop Being a Control Freak: (Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

(Sunday’s Readings: Ez. 17: 22-24; Ps. 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; II Cor.5:6-10; Mk. 4:26-34)

It’s June now and most of us are trying to get rid of dandelions. They’re all over the place. Most of us hate them. I’ve long since given up on trying to kill them. I figure the way nature works, they’ll be gone in a month or so anyway.

What bothers me are “trees of heaven.” The hill behind my house on Jackson Street is now filled with them. Some people call them “stink trees.” I cut them down one spring, and the very next, they’re back, more than ever. They just won’t go away. They want to take over and create their own forest. As I’m cutting them down, I imagine them laughing at me. “Your chain saw can roar and smoke as much as it wants,” they seem to be saying, “It makes no difference. We’ll prevail in the end.”

Today’s Gospel reading caused me to think of dandelions and trees of heaven – and some other things as well. It really makes three points. The first is about God’s providence, the second is about those “trees of heaven,” and the third is about Jesus’ teaching method. He taught in parables which help us understand God’s providence, the processes of life, and the inevitably of the Kingdom of God and its mystery.

The first point about God’s providence brought to mind Sir Arthur Eddington. He was a physicist who did his work before the middle of the 20th century.  At the end of his life, he remarked that after all his time and effort, he knew only one thing. “Something unknown,” he said ”is doing we don’t know what.”

In parable form, Jesus says something like that in today’s Gospel. Farmers sow seeds, he says, and then some mysterious force takes over and brings them to fruition. The farmer sows the seed; nothing else is required of him, but to reap the harvest.

“Don’t worry,” is the implication. There’s no need for you to push the river; no need to control. God is in charge. After you’ve done your best, Eddington’s “Something Unknown” takes over. And the outcome is the very best possible. Inevitably, that outcome will be the Kingdom of God whether we want it to come or not.

Central to Jesus’ parable is the notion of faith as “letting go” so that God’s work might be done in God’s own time. That’s so hard for us to accept, isn’t it? Just looking around the world, watching the news, thinking about our own lives, our marriages, our children, most of us find that counsel incredible. We’re convinced we have to get to work, not waste a moment, and clean up the mess.

Yet today, Jesus implies that acting like a control freak is exactly the wrong strategy in life. It leads to unhappiness, nervous breakdowns, discouragement, and to a negativity that brings others down. Jesus was not about any of that. He was about kindling hope not giving in to stress and worry.

Jesus was able to avoid that kind of negativity because he had a guiding vision. Once again, he called it the “Kingdom of God.” That vision held, as today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed suggests that God is in charge and so it’s foolish for us to worry and fret.

But what is God up to? Jesus surprises us with his answer. (And that brings me to the second point of today’s Gospel – stink trees.) Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like a mustard tree. That’s like saying it’s like a tree of heaven or a dandelion.  

I say that because, I’m told the mustard tree really isn’t a tree at all. Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan says it’s a plant that’s more like a weed. We don’t like weeds, do we – those dandelions again? We don’t recognize them as beautiful or powerful. But they could be seen that way – and probably should be. Deep down we know they have a part in the earth’s ecology. Birds come to the mustard tree (or the tree of heaven), and make their home there, Jesus reminds us.

As for power, have you ever seen a weed move a rock? I have. I think that’s what Jesus meant (with his typical hyperbole) when he said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move.” Compared to the mustard seed, a rock of almost any size is like a mountain. Weeds are beautiful; they are part of God’s plan; weeds are powerful. Learn from them Jesus seems to be saying – inevitably, I think, with a mischievous smile.

But learn what? That what we see as small and weak, what we see as negative is all part of the plan. See beauty in what the world sees as ugly. Small is beautiful. But whether you do or not is irrelevant in terms of God’s will. It will be done in any case. You can dig up the dandelions, spray them with Roundup, or cut down those pesky trees of heaven. You can’t stop that Something Unknown from doing we don’t know what.

And that brings me to the third point of this morning’s Gospel – the power of parable. They can turn our worlds upside down. They surprise, delight, confuse, disturb, challenge, or comfort. They’re meant to make us think more deeply and to stimulate discussion. That’s the case with today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed, as well as with the Mustard Plant.

Above all, the power of parable is illustrated in the case of Jesus himself. Jesus, after all, is the best parable our tradition holds.  He was a seed sown 2000 years ago that continues to bear fruit today. But he and his message were also like a weed. He wasn’t a Cedar of Lebanon, but more like that mustard plant. Like the rest of us, Jesus lived such an extremely limited life, but he accomplished everything.  

Think about it. We believe Jesus is the very presence of God. Yet in the world’s eyes, he did absolutely nothing with more than 90 % or his life. We know nothing of what he did with his life till he was about 30. And then, history records, he did a few relatively insignificant things in an insignificant part of the world.

Not only that, what he did eventually do all ended in failure. He evidently thought the Kingdom was coming in his own lifetime. But here we are 2000 years later, and not a sign of its arrival as far as we can see.

…  As far as we can see. Our trouble is with our limited vision. We’re expecting God’s Kingdom to be the “Cedar of Lebanon” referenced by Ezekiel in the first reading. It won’t be like that, Jesus says. With a smile, he suggests, it will be something small – even something we see as undesirable, ugly or failed – even like our own lives.

Our perception forgets about the Kingdom vision that was so central to Jesus’ life. In modern terms, we might say, we only see a small part of life’s computer screen – that lower right hand corner for example. We see maybe an inch or so of a screen that’s 21 inches big. On the huge part we’re not seeing, God is up to all kinds of things we’re not aware of – that we can’t be aware of or even understand.

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what. All we have to do is our best at whatever task life has given us, and then get out of the way. That’s what Jesus seems to be telling us this morning.

What do you think? Can we accept that Good News? Can we recognize God at work in the mustard plant, in the dandelion, in the tree of heaven?

Why I Left the Priesthood: Part One

At least before all the scandals hit, I had always admitted quite freely and with a certain sense of pride that I had been a priest “in a former life.” I suppose that’s because as a Catholic born before the Second Vatican Council, some positive residuals still lurked in my mind around the ideas of priesthood and church. It’s also because I still sincerely value the training, education, spiritual focus, lasting friendships, and tradition of hospitality that I inherited from my 20 years of formal association with the Society of St. Columban (the organization of priests to which I belonged). Besides, people in the contexts where I’ve worked since then –   mostly at Berea College in Central Kentucky, or in our local St. Clare’s church (where I had also served as a priest in that “former life”) – seemed to appreciate my previous incarnation. So when they’d ask me why I left the priesthood, I used to say,

I don’t think I’ve ever left the priesthood, or even could. They always told us “once a priest, always a priest;” and I think that’s true. The priesthood isn’t something “they” confer on a person. It’s an acknowledgement of an identity, a “character” that no one and no decision by me or by “them” can remove. I, and so many of my colleagues in the seminary, had a priestly character from the beginning, and ordination simply amounted to its acknowledgement and confirmation by the church. So I still think of myself as a priest. It’s true, the sacramental dimension is missing. But apart from that, as a teacher of theology and director of a Peace and Social Justice Studies program, I’m pretty much doing the same work I did before I left the canonical priesthood. I’m still a priest.

 That’s what I used to say. I don’t any longer like that answer. Its approach to the priesthood was too exceptional, setting me and my friends apart from others in a way I’ve come to see as self-serving. None of us was at all that unique. We were pretty much ordinary, working class kids, who escaped factory work (or truck driving, or delivery routes, or the policeman’s beat) to become the first in our families to get a college education. We joined a highly exclusive club that put us on a pedestal from the beginning, and gave us an exaggerated opinion of our own importance. Before we were 30 or had done really anything at all, we were among the most honoured and important people in our communities. That sort of unmerited aura and especially the accompanying expectations eventually drove me from the priesthood as I once knew it. 

Still there was truth in my statement about priestly character. There was indeed something special about me and those who came with me through the seminary. But the specialness belonged not to me or to them uniquely. What my words unwittingly expressed was an intuition about the nature of being human. The intuition is that everyone has that priestly character I was referring to. Luther, I think, (with his dependence on Augustine) was gesturing towards something like that. Though he didn’t say it as clearly as mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross – or as Hindus or Buddhists do – he was referring to the spark of the divine (the indwelling Spirit) deep within everyone. Awareness of its presence simply dawns on certain people earlier than on others. For some, it never reaches consciousness at all. It happened to dawn on me (more or less) quite early, but not in the way it has over the past decade or so. To get there I had to do a lot of growing, sometimes painful, but often delightful.  The growth was intellectual, personal, and spiritual. Each step moved me further and further from the priesthood as I imagined it for myself and experienced it in others before ordination.

(Next Monday: Intellectual Steps away from the Priesthood)

The First Religious War of the 21st Century (Sixth in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

That liberation theology dared from 1968 on to enter the arena of religion which the right had long dominated virtually without rival astounded and infuriated the keepers of empire. Peasants throughout the subjugated world found entirely empowering the new explanations of God, Jesus and the gospels which this Friday series of blog posts has reviewed. Everywhere throughout Latin America they formed biblical circles, and those circles issued in social movements for justice.

In response, the Rockefeller Report of 1969 already identified liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States. By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability.  In between, in 1979 the first Santa Fe Document advised the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by liberation theology. The administration heeded the advice, and responded both militarily and ideologically.

Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology issued in what Noam Chomsky describes as the first religious war of the 21st century. It was the war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America whose bishops, as noted earlier, had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position. To combat that commitment, the U.S. did exactly what Rome had done in the first three centuries of our era – and for the same reason: faithfully following Jesus who called empire into question and motivated the poor to assert their rights in this world as children of the God of life.

And both the Roman response and the U.S. response to Jesus and his followers resulted in blood baths. Many of us are well acquainted with the best-known martyrs: Camilo Torres, Archbishop Romero, the Salvadoran team of liberation theologians killed at San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, the U.S. women religious murdered years earlier in that same country, and Che Guevara. (Yes, Che. His spirituality was secular, but it was no less spiritual or liberationist than any of the others.) And then the unending list of martyrs in this war against the Catholic Church – 200,000 in Guatemala, more than 100,000 in Nicaragua, 90,000 in El Salvador, and literally untold killings and disappearances in Honduras. In every case, the carnage was a response to social movements inspired by liberation theology. Again, as Chomsky points out, official U.S. military documents show that liberation theology was a major target of those wars. In fact within those same official documents, the Army boasts specifically about defeating LT.

As for Reagan’s ideological response to liberation theology . . . .  On his accession to power, CIA psyops began funding conservative alternatives to liberation theology in Latin America and in the U.S. So did business concerns that saw the leftward drift of Latin America as a threat to their presence there. Domino’s Pizza and Coors Brewery were prominent among the cases in point. As a result, evangelicals throughout the region grew rapidly in number, and the recipients of those funds in the United States increasingly identified with Republicans, the “hand that fed them.” So the television programs of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others were beamed into every poor barrio, población, and favela. Right wing churches sprang up everywhere feeding and expanding an already robust evangelical presence in areas once completely dominated by the Catholic Church. The message was always the same – a depoliticized version of Christianity whose central commitment involved accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and rejecting communism including the type allegedly represented by the theology of liberation.

All of this points up the extreme importance of LT. In effect liberation theology was not only responsible for spiritual and political awakening throughout Latin America, it was also indirectly responsible for the rise of the religious right in the United States, and ultimately for the Tea Party.  

In fact, the rise of evangelicalism as the dominant contingent in the Republican Party was the result of an offensive against a powerful U.S. form of liberation theology. According to Chip Bertlet, who has been researching right wing populism for the last 25 years and more, the energizing force behind the offensive was the political right’s project to capture and channel the angry reaction of large numbers of white Southern Christians against the Civil Rights Movement animated by a nascent form of black liberation theology closely identified with Martin Luther King. In that context, the Reagan administration’s offensive against LT (and the Civil Rights Movement) took on a particular U.S. embodiment paralleling the Latin American form just referenced. The U.S. form also involved assassinations, F.B.I. surveillance, and identification of civil rights leaders as “communists.” Since the zeitgeist following the legislative and social successes of the Civil Rights Movement made overtly anti-black campaigns impossible, the U.S. form could not simply call for a repeal civil rights legislation. It took on instead a campaign against “Big Government” seen as responsible for implementing those legislative reforms.

Just like the Latin American campaign against LT, the U.S. counterpart took off in 1979, and achieved real prominence over a brief period of 18 months. Since “Roe v. Wade” represented an instance of “Big Government’s” power, abortion was adopted as a trigger issue masking the racism just below the surface. The issue was adopted as pivotal even though prior to 1968 no protestant denomination had an official position on abortion. (See “Right Wing Populism in the U.S.A.: Understanding Social Movements of the Right in America Today,” Talk delivered at the Z Media Institute, Woods Hole, MA, June 8th, 2010. See also the PBS film “With God on our Side.”)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, we currently have in the White House the first U.S. president directly influenced by liberation theology. For 20 years, Barack Obama was part of the congregation of Jeremiah Wright – identified by James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, as the black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary embodiment. LT’s importance was illustrated in the 2008 debate about Jeremiah Wright’s influence on Candidate Obama which nearly derailed his run for the presidency. 

In other words, liberation theology has been far more influential than most are willing to recognize. In a sense, it has shaped U.S.-Latin American relations for a half-century. It has changed the face of Protestantism in the United States.

In addition, Ronald Reagan’s ideological strategy against liberation theology changed the Catholic Church. Reagan’s offensive involved allying himself with a conservative anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II, who proved to be an inveterate enemy of liberation theology. The apparent agreement between the two was that John Paul would be silent about the war against Latin American Catholics, if Reagan would help him in the pope’s campaign against communism in Poland. During his reign of over 20 years, John Paul was to gradually replace Latin America’s pro-liberation theology bishops with conservative pre-Vatican II types. He did this throughout the world – mostly in direct response to liberation theology.

Even more virulently set against liberation theology was John Paul’s lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, whom the pope appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition). In that capacity, Ratzinger penned an official warning about liberation theology in 1985. Basically, it rejected the movement because of its association with Marxist analysis of third world poverty. Of course, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in the papacy. He’s now Pope Benedict XVI. So the onslaught against liberation theology continues with no end in sight.

Sadly, Reagan’s two-front strategy worked. Revolutionary gains in El Salvador, Guatemala, and most prominently, in Nicaragua were halted and reversed. Militarily, the “Guatemala Solution” was the template. It entailed using military and paramilitary death squads to kill everyone remotely connected with guerrilla movements. According to the Reagan strategy, that included priests, nuns, lay catechists and ministers of the word influenced by liberation theology. The theological strategy worked as well. The slogan promulgated by the Salvadoran military said it all, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.” 

But despite the carnage, and despite the claims of victory by the U.S. military, liberation theology remains alive and well in grass-roots movements for solidarity. And in general, social movements inspired by liberation theology bore fruit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They continue to bear fruit today. More specifically, it is possible to say credibly that apart from the theology of liberation, it is impossible to explicate Allende’s rise to power in 1973 or the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, or the power the FMLN in El Salvador had and continues to enjoy today. The Zapatista movement in Mexico is also intimately connected with liberation theology. Even more, without reference to liberation theology, it’s impossible to fully understand the rise of new left governments throughout Latin America. All of them are indebted to liberation theology and its power to motivate the grassroots. (Evo Morales’ rise to power in Bolivia might be an exception. But even he used Andean myths of liberation to mobilize indigenous grassroots forces on his behalf).

That same power to motivate is evident in the ongoing “Arab spring.” There the power derives from the liberation currents undeniably present in Islam. In fact, as Gandhi saw in changing the face of India, similar currents are found in Hinduism. Again, it is possible to credibly assert that liberation theology has at its roots elements found at the center of all the religions of the world. In this light, the world-wide offensive against Islam represents the latest phase of the now Thirty Years War against liberation theology under wherever form it may appear.

Next Friday: Series Conclusion

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Last Supper wasn’t a magic show

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Today is the feast of The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It used to be called “Corpus Christi.” And the Gospel reading (Mark’s account of the Last Supper) brings us into familiar territory. I mean we observed Holy Thursday just two and a half months ago. And here we are centralizing yet another account of Jesus’ final meal.

Of course, the emphasis on Holy Thursday and today is supposed to be different. On Holy Thursday the Last Supper was part of the account of Jesus’ final days. On Corpus Christi the focus is on the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, what we used to call “Holy Communion.” Today the spotlight is on the “Real Presence” of Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the “elements” which retain the appearances of bread and wine.

In the past, this was the time for sermons on “transubstantiation,” and the priestly powers conferred in ordination. Corpus Christi was an occasion for processions of the Blessed Sacrament even through town squares, for its “exposition” in “monstrances,” for solemn “benedictions” and “holy hours” of adoration.  

Historically, this feast has been a specifically Catholic affair implicitly contrasting Catholic belief with Protestants who since the Reformation denied the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence.

I won’t bore you by rehearsing the differences between Catholic “transubstantiation” and Protestant “trans-signification” and “trans-finalization.” Somehow it all seems rather quaint and beside the point, doesn’t it? I mean, who cares – except perhaps for a few brief moments on Sunday mornings between nine and ten o’clock? We have so many personal problems with our children, in our jobs, in our marriages. . . . Besides, the world is in such a dark state, who has time for such theological niceties?

And don’t even talk to me about the church; it is so problematic for most of us. How could we spend time and energy on inter-denominational disputes when we find the Mass itself increasingly meaningless? Each Sunday many of us end up struggling with the question, “Why am I still coming here?” Get real!

Well, getting real and retaining hope in the face of darkness on all fronts is actually what today’s account of the Last Supper is really about. It’s not about transubstantiation of bread and wine at all. It is we who need to be “transubstantiated” as people and specifically as Catholics. The Gospel calls us to fundamental change in our faith about Eucharist.

Consider what happened at the Last Supper and then what became of it over the years. Consider what we could make of it today.

For Jesus, this final Passover meal is wrought with anxiety to say the least. Jesus and his friends have now gone underground. After a demonstration in the Temple which turned violent, they are now being hunted. There is a price of 30 shekels of silver on Jesus’ head, and he suspects one of his inner circle is about to turn him in for the reward. The “safe house” Jesus has secured for the Passover meal has been located by a secret sign and a password.

In such dark circumstances, Jesus looks at the bread he breaks, and the action reminds him that his very body is under threat. The cup of wine he passes around becomes for him his own blood that soon could be whipped, nailed, drained and speared from his veins.

But he doesn’t lose hope. In effect amidst betrayal by a close friend, a price on his head, premonitions of his own death, and threatened failure of his entire enterprise, Jesus proposes a toast to God’s Kingdom. Despite everything he remains convinced God’s reign will soon dawn. In fact, takes a vow not to drink wine again until that happens. His fast from wine is another form of his familiar prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”  In the end, Jesus asks his disciples (come what may) to share bread and wine as he has done – with one another and across ethnic and other divisions (with Jew and gentile, woman and man, rich and poor, “clean” and “unclean”), and to do this specifically in his memory.

And that’s what the early Christians did. They broke bread in memory of Jesus, his values and the way he lived. In the early church, they called this a “love feast.” And people would come together with pot luck dishes and share with everyone. Until the 5th century women would often preside at the feast – as they usually do at meals in every home on the planet. Sometimes men would preside too. (It wasn’t until the 14th century that the Eucharistic “celebrant” had to be an ordained “priest.”)

And all would be invited, rich and poor. (In fact, one of the great attractions of early Christianity was the generosity with which Christians shared their bread with the needy.) Twice in the Book of Acts Luke describes the first Christians as leading what could only be called a “communistic” ways of life.  Acts 2:44 reads:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

That’s what the early Christians made of Jesus’ injunction to “Do this in memory of me.” They truly understood what later would be termed “The Real Presence:” bread is bread; wine is wine; when they are shared Jesus truly becomes present in his Holy Spirit. Early Christians understood that Jesus’ “Real Presence” could not be separated from the way he lived – at the service of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the hungry and thirsty.

The rub however is that the Eucharist gradually turned into something else. That business about actually doing what Jesus commanded – you know “Sell what you have; give it to the poor; and come follow me” . . .  That was too much for church leaders after they sold out to Constantine’s Empire in the 4th century. They started living like kings and needed something more comfortable. 

So they transformed the Christian “love feast” into a “Mass.” And as the middle ages progressed, the Mass turned into a magic show. Before our very eyes, bread was transformed into the body of Jesus, and wine became his blood. The priest alone had the requisite magical powers. Belief in that magic act became what the Eucharist was about.

In all of this, focus shifted from transformation of those participating in the Eucharist to transformation of the bread, which eventually became a plastic-like wafer that looks nothing like the bread whose sharing so concerned Jesus.

We could change all of that beginning right now. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be the dreary “hocus pocus” it became before Vatican II and threatens to become again today under extremely conservative church leadership. Like Jesus’ last meal, the Eucharist can reassume its character as an occasion for recommitment to God’s Kingdom, even as we experience a dark night of our Catholic souls and just as human beings. If Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by his circumstances, how can we be crushed by ours?

In fact, if we open our eyes in hope, we can see many reasons to toast God’s Kingdom despite our many problems as believers. For instance, did you know that a group of Catholics and Protestants of various denominations are forming an alternative Eucharistic congregation right here in our own community? Its intention is not to replace our attendance at Mass, but to supplement it with a celebration that can provide experience of what inspired, life-connected worship can be.

Also, this fall Fr. Matthew Fox, the fiery spiritual teacher, liturgist and theologian will be speaking at Berea College.  He has already expressed a willingness to meet with our parishioners to discuss church renewal with us. Similarly, Sr. Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun and spiritual leader, will be a Berea College convocation speaker this fall.

Additionally, next November 9th to 11th, the National Catholic “Call to Action” campaign will be holding its annual meeting in Louisville – at the Galt House. We could send a delegation of 20 people or more (including our pastor) to get inspired by world-class speakers and by what other churches are doing to revive the spirit of Vatican II.  Please mark your calendars for that event.  

Besides all of that, this October 11th is the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council. There will be observances of the occasion all over the world. We could mark the anniversary right here in our own parish with a “tent revival” with invited speakers, and with teach-ins on Vatican II. We could even pool our money to provide tuition for our pastor to update his theology in some progressive theological, liturgical or pastoral program.

All of these events have the potential to “transubstantiate” us as a community – to change us to the core as a community of faith.

So things might not be as dark as we might think. There may indeed be light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been struggling through for too long.

Jesus’ own faith in and hope for God’s Kingdom is our inspiration. If he could have faith and hope in his dreary circumstances, how can we not be hopeful? If he is for us, if we sup with him, who can stand against us? Let’s get on with it!