Liberation Theology and the Imperialization of Christianity (Fourth in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

If it’s true (as claimed here last week) that both Jesus and Paul proclaimed God’s Kingdom in such stark contrast to imperial Rome, how is it that by the fourth century Christianity found itself allied with Rome? Historical analysis makes it clear that the alliance was the result of the imperialization of Christianity rather than of the Christianization of empire.

To begin with, there are many indications that Jesus resisted empire specifically. Much has been written about this. However, the simplest illustration of Jesus’ opposition is in the famous story of his temptations in the desert. The story is familiar. With variations, it is contained in all four of the canonical gospels. Jesus has just been baptized by John. In Luke’s version, a voice has told him that he is somehow the “Son of God.” He goes out to the desert to discover what that might mean; he’s on a vision quest. He prays and fasts for 40 days. Afterwards come the visions of devils, angels, and of his own life’s possibilities. Satan tests him. In Matthew’s account, the culminating temptation is unmistakably imperial. It occurs on a high mountain. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth – an empire much vaster than Rome’s. The tempter says, “All of this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me.” Jesus refuses. He says, “Be gone, Satan! It is written, the Lord God only shall you adore; him only shall you serve.” In other words, Jesus rejects empire in no uncertain terms. The story at the beginning of the accounts of Jesus words and deeds establishes him as anti-imperial.

That opposition to empire is extremely important to understanding what became of Christianity over 1500 years ago, when its leading faction decided to climb into bed with empire. In terms of Matthew’s temptation narrative, orthodox Christianity began worshipping Satan at that point, since in his account Satan worship was the prerequisite to reception of his “gift” of empire.

More specifically, in the 4th century, circumstances made it necessary for the emperor Constantine and his successors to repeat Satan’s temptation – this time to a cooperative faction within the leadership of the Christian church. That faction was asked to allow Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. In return church authorities would exercise a kind of co-dominion with Rome. All they had to do was accept empire, give it religious legitimacy – become the state religion. Jesus had said “no” to a similar temptation. Fourth century church leadership said “yes.” In doing so, they effectively said “yes” to Satan worship – the necessary precondition of accepting empire. They also abandoned the Jesus of history and his this-worldly message. In the process, they reduced Jesus to a mythological figure and Christianity to a Roman mystery cult. Here’s how. . . .  

Like all oppressors, Constantine realized that religion represented an incomparable tool for controlling people. If an emperor can convince people that in obeying him they are obeying God, the emperor has won the day. In fact it is the job of any state religion to make people believe that God’s interests and the state’s interests are the same.

What Constantine saw in the 4th century was that Rome’s state religion was losing power. Christianity was spreading rapidly. And it was politically dangerous.  The message of Jesus was particularly attractive to the lower classes. It affirmed their dignity in the clearest of terms. Often the message incited slaves and others to rebel rather than obey. Rome’s knee-jerk response had been repression and persecution. But byConstantine’s day,Rome’s repression had proved ineffective. Despite Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions for decade upon decade, the Jesus Movement was more popular than ever.

Constantine decided that if he couldn’t beat the Christians, he had to join them – or more accurately, co-opt them. And he evidently decided to do so by robbing Christianity of its revolutionary potential. He would do so, he determined, by converting the faith of Jesus into a typical Roman “mystery cult,” a form of religion that was extremely popular in 4th century Rome. Mystery cults were “salvation religions” that worshipped gods with names like Isis, Osiris, and Mithras. Mithras was particularly popular. He was the Sun God, whose feast day and birth happened to be celebrated on December 25th.  Typically the “story” celebrated in mystery cults was of a god who descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, died, rose from the dead, ascended back to heaven, and from there offered worshippers “eternal life,” in return for joining the cults. There the god’s body was eaten under the form of bread, and the god’s blood was drunk under the form of wine. The unity thus achieved assured “salvation” after death. 

To convert Christianity into a mystery cult, Constantine (who wasn’t even a Christian at the time) convoked a church council – the Council of Nicaea in 325. There the question of the day became who was Jesus of Nazareth. Was he just a human being? Was he just a God and not a human being at all? Was he some combination of God and man? Did he have to eat? Did he have to defecate or urinate? Those were the questions. For Constantine’s purposes, the more divine and otherworldly Jesus was the better. That would make him less a threat to the emperor’s very this-worldly dominion.

The result of all the deliberations was codified in the Nicene Creed: 

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things   visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

In terms of understanding the imperialization of Christianity, it is important to notice here how the Creed jumps from the conception and birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection. It leaves out entirely any reference to what Jesus said and did. For all practical purposes it ignores the historical Jesus described earlier in this series. It pays attention only to a God who comes down from heaven, dies, rises, ascends back to heaven and offers eternal life to those who believe. It’s a nearly perfect reflection of “mystery cult” belief. The revolutionary potential of Jesus’ words and actions relative to justice, wealth and poverty is lost. Not only that, but subsequent to Nicaea, anyone connecting Jesus to a struggle for justice, sharing, and communal life is classified as heretical. That is, mystery cult becomes “orthodoxy.” Meanwhile, Jesus’ own proclamation of a this-worldly “reign of God” in opposition to the “reign of Caesar” becomes heresy. The same is true of Paul’s understanding of “the wisdom of God” in making the poor and despised his chosen people. In that sense, the post-Constantine, post-Nicaea church was founded not only against Paul, but against Jesus himself. Christians in league with empire have been worshipping Satan ever since.

Next week: Liberation Theology and the Left in Latin America

Pentecost and Vatican II: “A Readers’ Theater”

For this week’s homily, imagine your local pastor using his sermon time to lead the following “readers’ theater.”

Readings for Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b; Romans 8:22-27; John 5:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pastor:  Here we are almost half way through 2012. The Mayans told us that this would be a year of profound change in planetary consciousness. The astrologers tell us the Age of Aquarius is actually dawning now – Jupiter aligning with Mars and all that. Yet if you read the daily newspapers we seem to be in anti-2012 mode, don’t we? Anger and harsh words, war and conflict dominate from Afghanistan and Iraq to Chicago and Camp David. Can this really be the dawning of a new age of “Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust?”

Fittingly in our rather darkened context Pentecost calls us to open ourselves to a radically new and hopeful consciousness. And the calendar has poised us to do just that in an unprecedented way. I say that because precisely this year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. I want to suggest this morning that by observing that anniversary properly, we in our very own parish could  invite Jesus’ Holy Spirit to visit us here – to make Pentecost among us as never before. Observing the anniversary of Vatican II in the spirit of Pentecost could truly transform us all.  

Hold that thought.   

Before returning to it, let’s try to get the flavor of the first Christian Pentecost.  To help us with that, I’ve asked six people from our community to perform a little “readers’ theater” with me. Readers, please come forward. (A group of six emerges from the congregation, and stands scripts in hand in a semi-circle before the community. The group includes men and women of all age groups.)

Pastor: Recall the picture Luke paints this morning in the first reading. . . . Jesus’ disciples have been gathered in their Upper Room safe-house since they realized on what we call “Ascension Thursday” that Jesus was gone for good. They’re a group of Jewish men and women with a strong sense of being God’s Chosen People. They’re not Christians at all. They’re Jews who think they’ve found the messiah in Jesus. For them, the Jews are God’s chosen; no one else is. And yet as they share remembrances of Jesus in that Upper Room, they find their narrow religious consciousness challenged by recollections of the Master. Imagine their conversation:

Reader One: I’m feeling really abandoned. I mean, what are we going to do now that the Master has left us for good?

Reader Two: What do you suppose he wanted us to do when he told us to return here and wait for the Spirit?

Reader Three: I don’t know. But let’s see what happens. Jesus has never let us down. He’s never been wrong.

Reader Four: We still have our memories of him, don’t we? I think those could guide us.

Reader Five: No trouble there. Jesus seems to be all we’re talking about these days. (Laughing) Remember when he talked with that Samaritan woman?  We were all so shocked. Speaking alone with a woman – and a Samaritan on top of that!

Reader Six:  Yes, he didn’t seem to have much trouble crossing boundaries or scandalizing us, did he? Women, men, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the poor who loved him so much – even Roman soldiers and members of the Sanhedrin; he engaged them all.

Reader One: And he cured Samaritan lepers too.

Reader Two: Somehow, he seemed partial to Samaritans, didn’t he?”

Reader Three: Yes, and, you know, he fed those 4000 non-Jews across the Lake just as he did the 5000 on our side. That confused me. How could he do that? It was like he was saying that they mattered as much as we do. To me it seemed like a slap in the face.

Reader Four:  And that gentile woman from Syro-Phonecia? She bested Jesus in debate. I still laugh about it. Here he was virtually calling her a dog, and she disarms him completely by saying, “Yes, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

Reader Five: That was the only time I ever saw him outwitted. And he loved it! He couldn’t stop laughing either. And she wasn’t even a Jew, was she? Do you think she taught Jesus something about God’s love for gentiles?

Reader Six: And what about that Roman soldier, remember him? Didn’t Jesus say the centurion showed more faith than any of us?

Reader One: What was he talking about? That centurion was our oppressor. How could a man like that have faith?

Reader Two: It was like he was showing us that there shouldn’t be any barriers between people – like all peoples, not just the Jewish community, are God’s people.

Pastor: Story after story like those must have been shared. And then someone said:

Reader Three: You know, I’ve been thinking . . . Jesus wasn’t the first of our prophets to show openness to everyone – not just to Jews. Didn’t the Prophet Joel say something about a future when God’s spirit would be poured out on everyone without exception?

Reader Four: Yes, he did.  I’ve committed those lines to memory. Joel said:

 I will pour out my Spirit78on all kinds of people.79

Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

Your elderly will have revelatory dreams;80

Your young men will see prophetic visions.

 Even on male and female servants

I will pour out my Spirit in those days

And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord

Will be saved.

Reader Five: What if Jesus was the fulfillment of Joel’s vision – no division between “kinds of people,” none between parents and children, young and old, men and women, servants and free? Maybe when we were with the Master we were living out Joel’s dream.

Reader Six: That’s a good point – a really good point. I don’t know about you, but I need some space to think about what’s just been said. (All agree.) Let’s all take some time for silent prayer.

Pastor: So the community in that Upper Room prayed – though they didn’t know exactly what for. They opened themselves to what they remembered about Jesus – to Jesus’ Spirit. After a long time in prayer someone said:

Reader One: Somehow, I’m feeling different now – like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.

Reader Two: And I as well. My fear seems gone. It’s like a violent wind has blown through my mind, and everything has become clear.

Reader Three: My heart feels like it’s on fire.

Reader Four: And the rest of you are simply glowing – is that fire I see over your heads. (Everyone laughs)

Reader Five: You know, we may finally have learned what Jesus was trying to teach us. Everyone is God’s chosen, especially the poor and people like Jesus himself – the illegitimate, the immigrants, the outlaws, tortured and executed.

Reader Six: That’s incredible. It’s time for us to share this Good News the way the Master did. I think we’ve received Jesus’ Spirit.

Pastor: So all the disciples went out in the street.  Peter made a speech and told everyone what they had experienced. He used that text from the prophet Joel. Surprisingly, everyone understood as if language barriers didn’t exist. It all seemed so simple now and made so much sense to everyone. . . . (Pause)

Thank you, readers. (The readers return to their places. When everyone is settled, the pastor continues.)

Pastor: What a beautiful vision of church and reconciliation. So worth celebrating on a day like today, on Pentecost Sunday. 

But, you know, the vision was lost in the matter of a generation or two. It was. Soon the Pentecost story would be interpreted to mean “Yes anyone can receive the Spirit of Jesus, but to receive it you have to be baptized. To be saved you must call upon God’s name in Christian terms.” All other approaches to God were seen as invalid. Within three centuries, soon after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, those refusing baptism would be put to the sword. Subsequently, the return of the old narrow way of thinking – this time Christian — led to pogroms against Jews, Crusades against Muslims, to the Holy Inquisition, burning of witches, to the holocaust of Native Americans, and to cold and hot wars against “godless” communists.

The time is coming, Jesus warns in today’s Gospel, when killers will do their bloody work in God’s name – in Jesus’ name. That, in fact, happened historically. The Dark Ages were long and bleak. The partisan violence and wars surrounding the Reformation period seemed unending.

But then came the Second Vatican Council. As I said earlier, it began 50 years ago on October 11th 1962, and ended in 1965. So this is its Silver Anniversary. As initiated by John XXIII and implemented by Pope Paul VI, Vatican II sought to recapture the spirit of the first Pentecost as described in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles this morning. Vatican II broadened Catholics’ narrow ideas about God. It recognized freedom of conscience as a human God-given right. The Council was “ecumenical” meaning that it no longer saw Protestants as enemies, but as sisters and brothers. Vatican II recognized that Jews and Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are all “calling on the name of the Lord” and so can be saved even though we hardly know or can pronounce their names for God. The Second Vatican Council was monumental. Its significance was cosmic.  

However, once again sadly, the church of the 21st century risks losing the Pentecost experience in a matter of just two generations. There’s a return of a narrow understanding of Christianity that contradicts Vatican II. And at times one can even get the feeling that the narrowness is coming from the church’s highest offices. Often church leaders give the impression that Vatican II, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church, is now somehow heretical. So we must backtrack on liturgical reforms. We must insist on the privileged position of Christianity in relation to other faiths, and of Catholicism in relation to Protestant denominations.   

Our parish council has decided not to allow our church to be swept along with that reactionary response. More positively, we want to seize the opportunity that the Silver Anniversary of the Council presents. That’s what I meant at the beginning saying that we want to “make Pentecost” here as never before. So we’ve chosen today’s feast to announce a three-year renewal program that we hope will revitalize our parish. The program will begin with an old-time tent revival on our front lawn next October 11th.  Our Parish Council’s President will give the details in a brief presentation immediately after Mass.

All of this is geared towards making 2012 that special year the Mayans promised. We want this fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II to bring the “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust” promised not by the Age of Aquarius, but by the New Order Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God.

Join me then in opening ourselves to the Spirit who, Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “prays through us.” Allow the Spirit to pray through you now.

 Come Holy Spirit. Fill our hearts as you filled the hearts of the disciples on that first Pentecost. Renew our parish. May God’s kingdom come.

 (The pastor sits. While everyone prays, “The Age of Aquarius” plays in the background.)

This is What The End of Empire Looks Like: Part One — The Demise of the Catholic Church

As a former Roman Catholic priest, liberation theologian, and emeritus professor of Peace and Social Justice from Berea College in Kentucky, I find myself smiling a lot lately. That’s because my daily prayers are at last being answered.  Evidence is pouring in on every side that the world I grew up in is crumbling at its very foundations. And good riddance! The Catholic Church, the most important institution of my youth and early adulthood, and one of the most politically conservative forces on the planet, finds itself in irreversible crisis and decline. The world economy shaped by the free trade doctrine of the “Washington Consensus,” has reached and exceeded the limits of corporate globalization. And most importantly, U.S. Empire lately acknowledged and embraced as such by Washington and the U.S. media, is coming apart at the seams. All of this is caused or accelerated by the ICT (information communications technology) revolution that has changed the world especially over the last fifteen years. Again, this is just what I’ve been praying for. Wikileak’s Julian Assange embodies it all.

This week let’s explore the demise of the Catholic Church.

The Defunct Church

Since all critique begins with religion, take the Catholic Church for starters (please!). It hasn’t been the same since Vatican II. Following the Council’s closure in 1965, cornerstones of its organizational structure have simply disappeared. The ranks of its priesthood have been decimated. Seminaries have been downsized and virtually emptied. The sisterhood which staffed Catholic schools has all but vanished. In my day, every good Catholic boy and girl at least briefly considered entering the “religious life.” Talk to your children about becoming a priest or nun these days, and most will laugh in your face.

And with the marginalization of Catholic schools and the disappearance of sisters in the classroom, Catholic piety and morality has changed profoundly as well.  For instance, time was when Catholics like me would line up for confession on Saturdays once a week or once a month. The less pious were obliged to confess at least once a year “under pain of mortal sin.”  No more. Catholics have voted with their feet. That balloting shows they no longer believe in confession. In the real world (as opposed to the de rigueur confessional sequences in innumerable movies) few indeed darken the confessional’s door. After doing so weekly from the age of 7 to 30, I myself don’t even remember the last time I did. It must have been 25 or 30 years ago.  

Another example: before the Council, it was a mortal sin to “miss Mass” on Sunday or holy day of obligation, like the just-past Ascension Thursday. Presumably, there are millions of people in hell right now because they didn’t attend Mass on those days as legislated.  However, if they’re like the pastor of my church, priests today don’t even bother to remind the faithful that the “holy day” obligation exists at all; much less that ignoring it means an eternity of suffering in the after-life. The clergy has learned that few out there are any longer persuaded. So priests have just stopped talking about it.

And why not? Hell, even the pope has cast doubt on eternal punishment. In a series of Lenten reflections shortly before his own death, Pope John Paul II observed that “heaven” and “hell” are not places like those pictured in Dante’s Paradiso and Inferno. Instead, he said, they refer to spiritual or psychological states of being in this world. Then, immediately reverting to the spatial model, he went on to say that we can’t even be sure that anyone actually inhabits hell. (That, of course, prompts the question about the difference between a hell with no one in it and no hell at all.) In other words even if only unconsciously, Catholics including the pope have rejected the traditional afterlife as nonsense.

And then there’s the matter of sex, the perennial obsession of the Catholic Church – and most other denominations. Of course given the pedophilia crisis, good sense would dictate utter silence about sex on the part of church “leaders.” Nonetheless, they garrulously insist on pronouncing on this topic at every opportunity. But here’s another area where hardly anyone’s listening.  I mean, look at any relevant survey. Catholics in apparently good conscience resort to abortion and divorce just as frequently as their “non-Catholic” counterparts. And (Be honest!) despite your own posturing and parental sermons, have your kids even pretended they were “saving themselves for marriage?” Probably not.  Even “good Catholics” are making up their own minds here. The availability of cheap and effective contraception has changed everything for almost everyone. Catholics are no exception.

Make no mistake about it. Vatican II is not entirely to blame or praise for all of this. A new awareness of the world fomented by computer technology and especially by its dispersed, bottom-up iterations over the last 15 years has played a pivotal role.  I’m talking about personal computers, file sharing, wireless, Wi-Fi, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter.  They have made us all more aware than ever what others think and do even in cultures far distant from our own. And if we remain in doubt, Wikipedia can answer our questions instantaneously. So, when an independent commission published its lengthy and devastating report about widespread pedophilia among Ireland’s Catholic clergy, people were reading it first-hand within hours. Within that same time frame, comment and analysis flew across the web.  Letters, phone calls, and e-mails of protest were flooding the Vatican. No doubt thousands made resolutions to leave the church or never to put another penny in the collection plate.     

All of this made undeniably clear the extent to which the church has failed to adapt to profoundly new circumstances. “Lapsed Catholics” and others long ago achieved that clarity. And their numbers have grown proportionately. Indeed “former Catholics” have become our country’s second largest denomination. Don’t be fooled: this is a major cultural shift that affects not just the Catholic Church but Christianity and religion in general. According to scholars of evolutionary Christianity, it’s even bigger than the Reformation, and more akin to the change that occurred when Judaism morphed into Christianity in the first century of our era. Here the center of belief is not tradition as it was for Catholics. Nor is it the Bible as it has been for Protestants since the 16th century.  Instead the basis of altered faith (or lack of it) is evidence provided by experience, by more widespread education, and by the newly available means of information and communication. You can’t change those things without profoundly changing consciousness.

The question is, will the laity and/or the (very) few enlightened clergy that remain care enough to take the reins of power and decision-making into their own hands to reform the church – beginning at the local level. Or is the church truly on an irreversible descent into total irrelevance?

Liberation Theology and Critical Thinking (Third in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

With Jesus and Paul having been identified as liberationists, it is now possible to connect them (and their liberation theology) with critical thinking. This entails clarifying the methodology of liberation theology.

For protagonists of LT, theology itself – even direct recollection of Jesus’ words and deeds and the writings of Paul as summarized here over the last two weeks –  is not primary. To be sure, one’s commitment to God might be fundamental for many. However LT begins by recognizing that living a dignified human life represents the truly primary task of human beings. It’s what the human project is about. That is, life is about living not theologizing. And at the end of a day of trying to make ends meet, there remains precious little time for theological reflection. 

Put otherwise, living a dignified human life in today’s world is by no means easy especially for the third world poor who are LT’s main protagonists. Recall the statistics cited earlier about the shockingly uneven resource distribution that characterizes the world of corporate globalization. Those numbers suggest that many forces including economic, social, political and specifically religious structures and ideologies make dignified human life (with the freedom from cold, hunger, disease, and  ignorance implied) nearly impossible for the world’s majority. So theological reflection is not even a second step towards making sense of one’s life. For activists (and protagonists of liberation theology, remember, are committed activists) the second step is social analysis – i.e. attempting to understand the forces (including religion) that make life so hard and unfair.

But even here the term “social analysis” might be misleading. It conjures the unlikely image of peasants exchanging insights about Marx’s labor theory of value or critiques of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Instead among the third world poor, social analysis takes the form of neighbors discussing their daily lives and, e.g. the obstacles preventing municipal authorities from supplying water or electricity to their slum community. Here the practice resembles Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire’s model of popular education. That model assumes that local communities however poor normally have within them the intellectual and moral resources necessary to understand and effectively address their own problems. When this is not the case, such communities can seek help from outside “experts.”

However, following Freire’s model, it doesn’t take long even for those completely lacking formal education to link their immediate problems with “structures” including abstractions such as “capitalism,” “free trade,” “neo-colonialism” and ideological manipulations of patriotism and religion. Nonetheless emphasis is usually on practical immediate responses to problems at hand. 

Theological reflection is a third step (after daily experience and social analysis) in the “hermeneutical circle” of liberation theology. It is what some people of faith do “at the end of the day,” to help them make sense of their experience of life. For communities with a liberationist understanding of the Christian tradition, this reflection often takes place in “biblical circles,” where neighbors meet to reflect on their attempts to follow Jesus of Nazareth. One can get a flavor of such gatherings from Ernesto Cardenal’s Gospel in Solentiname, which records verbatims of such gatherings in Cardenal’s lay monastic community in Solentiname, Nicaragua prior to the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. Participants discuss readings from the Gospels and connect them directly to their lives. It is at this point that the earlier referenced similarities between the situations of Jesus and his followers in first century colonial Palestine and those of the poor of the 21st century third world are identified, discussed, and scrutinized for the practical and moral guidance they might offer.

A fourth step in LT’s process of critical thinking is planning a course of transformative action or praxis. Participants in the “biblical circle” identify small (and sometimes large) tasks they promise to perform before the circle’s next meeting. Each understands that s/he will have to report to the group on his or her success or failure to complete the assumed task. Without this step (however small) the circle remains a discussion group and not a Christ-like agent for change.

Finally, comes the step of “reinsertion” or return to daily life with its work, burdens, responsibilities, sorrows and joys. But in a sense, everything and everyone has changed following completion of the first four steps in LT’s critical cycle. This is true, since the critical process has served to explain or at least shed light on the factors fundamentally responsible for day-to-day issues such as low wages, high prices, family strife, alcoholism, police brutality, etc.  It is especially true since each participant in the circle has pledged to actually do something specific to make a difference.  

It is LT’s emphasis on understanding systems as well as on transformative action that makes its understanding of critical thinking continuous with the roots of critical thought found in Paul of Tarsus as the founder of critical thinking in the C.E. West.

In fact, systemic critique and insistence on transformative action is what has distinguished the great critical thinkers who might be considered Paul’s offspring – Marx, Freud, and even Nietzsche (though the latter considered himself Paul’s arch-enemy, precisely because of Paul’s paradigm shift favoring those the world considers “weak” and “despised”). The distinguishing characteristic of great critical thinkers is their refusal to accept the parameters of thought defined by “the given” as the categorical limits of perception imposed thereby. Instead, they’ve insisted on subjecting “what is” to judgments inspired by “what is not.”  In Paul’s case (and in Jesus’ too) the kingdom of God represents “what is not.” It stands in judgment over everything that is. In other words, the utopian “Kingdom of God” proclaimed by Jesus, and the “Wisdom of God” invoked by Paul become instruments for exercising “the critique of mythical reason” that has been so absent from the discourse  of the U.S. left

                Mythical reasoning compares a vision of the future like that encapsulated in the Kingdom of God image (“what is not”) with analysis of critical reasoning’s starting point, the actual situation defining the context under analysis (“what is”). A metaphor like the kingdom of God (or for that matter like the “communism” of Marx and Engels) represents a “myth” describing an ideal state impossible to attain. Such utopian image does not represent an actual goal, any more than the North Star represents the destination of navigators. Instead, precisely as an image of the impossible, it represents and indispensable point of reference for uncovering the possible. Without such image, without such utopian or mythic critique, one remains mired in the status quo without hope of escaping the given order’s categorical limits of perception.             

 Next Week: The Imperialization of Christianity

Seventh Sunday of Easter: Jesus Is Not God


Acts: 15-17, 20a-26

1 John 4:11-16

John 17: 11b-19

                Do you remember when your faith was simple and childlike? I do. I was a student at St. Viator’s Catholic School on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I was learning my catechism. I was an altar boy. And I was in love with Sr. Rose Anthony, my fourth grade teacher. She was young and pretty, and we were her first class. And I felt sorry for her, because our class was mean and often reduced her to tears. (But I digress already . . .)

                In any case, as a fourth grader (and even before) I remember mastering that first question in the Baltimore Catechism: Who is God? That’s the question raised by the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Who is God? According to today’s readings, the answer is surprisingly simple. God is love. What God’s love means is revealed in Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus’ example, and to avoid that of Judas.

                That’s the thrust of today’s readings.

                But let me get back to Sr. Rose Anthony. Weren’t we all smart at the age of 9? The good sister convinced me that I knew who God was and everything else the Catechism taught us. Its answer to the question “Who is God?” was: “God is the Supreme Being who made all things.”  That satisfied me. And I believed it with all my heart. It was proven true by the miracles of Jesus which were self-evidently factual. They were “proof” that Jesus was God and that our claims about him were correct. What couldn’t be explained was “mystery” – to be accepted “on faith.” No problem.

                Now it’s very different – at least for many of us, isn’t it? Problem is, we’ve all grown up. And it often seems that everything about our faith has been turned upside-down. They call this the post-modern world. Scientific awareness is a fact of life. We know about evolution, the superego, class struggle, and relativity. Modern scripture scholarship has made us conscious of the fact that the early church transformed the historical Jesus of Nazareth into a “Christ” of faith who would be nearly unrecognizable to his contemporaries. Besides that, we are all strongly influenced by what scholars call the “principle of analogy” whether we’ve heard it or not. It holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. With that principle at work miracles have changed from a proof of claims about Jesus to proof’s opposite. They are cause for skepticism and disbelief. Jesus walked on water? Yeah, right. 

             So we’re skeptical before accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. And we’re skeptical about miracles and anything “supernatural.” However, most of all we’re skeptical about that invisible man up in the sky watching us constantly and before whom we’ll appear after death to give an accounting of our stewardship. That’s the image most of us have of that “Supreme Being” we learned about in the fourth grade whether our source was Sr. Rose Anthony or Billy Graham. 
               Does that mean we’ve become atheists? Not necessarily.  It does mean however that the God of “Theism” – the belief in a God “up there” in a separate world is no longer tenable for many of us.  And neither is the Jesus up in the sky who transmigrated there liturgically on Ascension Thursday..

               But that God “up there” and that Jesus “up in the sky” is not what we find in today’s readings. The author of the Epistle of John writes not of a Supreme Being. Instead he says that God is love, and the ones who abide in love, abide in God and God in them. What John is describing Is not the God of Theism, but the God of “Panentheism.” No, I didn’t misspeak there. I didn’t mean to say “Pantheism;” I said “Panentheism.”  Pantheism is the belief that everything is somehow “God.” “Panentheism” is the belief that what we call “God” is everywhere and in every creature. God is the one (as St. Paul said) in whom we live and move and have our being. God is the source of life in which I am immersed like a sponge in the sea. That’s the God we find in today’s second reading. God is an energy, a relationship – the most wonderful we have experienced.  God is love.

                But then again, John’s definition might not help us much. The word love, as our culture uses the term, is probably even more debased than the word “God.”  Love is another word for infatuation and the feelings that accompany “love at first sight.”  Often the word simply refers to sex. But of course, none of that is what John is referring to in his letter. Jesus acknowledges that in today’s Gospel. He says that love as he understands it is actually hated rather than admired by the world – and so are those who practice it. The world has no place for the love that Jesus counsels nor for the people who truly follow Jesus’ model of love.

                Why would that be? It’s because the love embodied in Jesus threatens normality.  Jesus lived a life totally at the service of others, of the poor, the sick, the ostracized, and the despised. And the center of his message, God’s Kingdom, had to do with radical social change that would create a world with room for everyone. Our culture doesn’t want change. It’s content with the way things are. It doesn’t even want to admit that poor people exist, though they constitute the world’s majority. When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate even refer to the poor? No, it’s all about the “middle class” and the “one percent.”

                Jesus had no trouble speaking about the poor. It’s an honored biblical category. Jesus himself was poor. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, he calls the poor “blessed.” He says “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  He curses the rich. “Woe to you rich,” he says, “You have had your reward!”

                Commitment to the poor, commitment to God’s Kingdom made the Romans and Jesus’ own people hate him. It made the Romans, it made his own people kill his followers. In the case of Jesus and the early church, embodying love as understood and exemplified in Jesus led to torture and death row.

                The fact is our culture hates people on death row. It hates the people our government tortures. Its discomfort with the poor also borders on hatred. Let’s face it: our culture likes neither the kind of people Jesus came from nor the kind of person he was. It does not like people who, following Jesus, want radical social change.

                 So in the end it’s easier to say “Jesus is God,” than to say “God is Jesus.” We can deal with Supreme Beings who are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all those other “omnis” we traditionally ascribe to God. We don’t want to deal with, be challenged by, and be changed by a poor prophet who harshly criticizes what our culture holds dearest – pleasure, profit, prestige and power. We don’t want to struggle with what Jesus might have meant about leaving all we possess, giving it to the poor and following him to the cross.

                  No, it’s much easier to be like Judas who is recalled in this morning’s first reading. There the apostles select Mathias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve. Poor Judas! In today’s readings, he assumes his familiar role as the embodiment of the world’s values. Those who put these liturgical readings together probably wanted to contrast Judas’ greed with the generosity we are called to by Jesus’ example. Be like Jesus. Spurn the “bottom line” concern of “the world.” Don’t love money the way Judas did.  (I’m not sure that’s fair to Judas. We can return to that question another day. For now, let’s just take things at face value.) Yes, the readings invite us to contrast Jesus’ way with the way of Judas.

                  So where does that leave us on this Seventh Sunday of Easter? We are called to re-conceptualize God and our relationship to God.  The God of theism belongs to the past – to our spiritual childhood. Embrace Panentheism our readings suggest. God is in us; and we are in God. God is in everything and everything is in God. Our vocation is to make God’s presence visible in the world. Each of us represents a point in history and in this cosmos where the incredible Energy of Love that burst forth 17 billion years ago in the Big Bang manifests itself today. The example of Jesus, his commitment to God’s Kingdom, and to the poor, oppressed, despised, ostracized, tortured and executed makes evident what Love means. Do we share that commitment? Are we following Jesus’ example?

                  God is love, and the one who abides in love, abides in God, and God in that lover. What could be simpler? What could be more challenging?

U.S. Drone Policy Would Have Targeted Jesus Himself

  Last week the Obama administration admitted publicly for the first time what the entire world has long known. Through its spokesperson, John Brennan and then personally, the President disclosed that the United States has been using remotely controlled drone technology to carry out targeted extra-judicial executions in various countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Such capital sentences were, the President assured, careful, deliberate, responsible, and in full accord with the law.

                Apart from questions international lawyers have about that latter claim, and despite the President’s assurances, the criteria for targeting foreign nationals – and now U.S. citizens – remain extremely loose. Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin and others have shown that their application inevitably results in the killing of civilians. In fact, hundreds of such instances of “collateral damage” have been recorded in Pakistan alone. Faulty intelligence, misidentifications of targets and failure to understand local cultures are among the reasons for such slaughter of innocents by remote control.

                According to Benjamin in her book, Drone Warfare, the criteria for drone attacks on suspected terrorists are basically two. The targeted are first of all known leaders and members of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Those falling under a second criterion fit a profile of suspicious activity such as keeping company with known terrorists, lending them support, or carrying weapons in a suspicious manner.

                These, of course, are the same rules of engagement empires have always supplied their death squads to justify their murders of insurgents and the rebels-against-occupation whom empires routinely label “terrorists.” As a matter of fact, they were the same ones used by the Roman Empire two thousand years ago to justify the assassination of Jesus of Nazareth. In Rome’s eyes, he not only associated with insurgents and terrorists, Jesus was directly guilty of stirring up the people and of threatening institutions including the Jewish Temple system and the Roman Empire itself. His incendiary statements and messianic claims also made him a prime target for elimination.

If there were drone technology in Jesus’ day, a first-century equivalent of Wikileaks might well have published the following memo from Pontius Pilate to Caesar Augustus about the well-known insurgent and terrorist, Jesus of Nazareth. (Biblical references have been anachronistically added to document sources for the memo’s accusations):     

Your Majesty Exalted Son of God:

You have advised that we here at the Jerusalem Praetorium should identify targets for Rome’s careful, deliberate, responsible, and entirely legal drone operations. I write to inform you of one such target. This one goes by the name “Yeshua ben Miryam,” though his nom de guerre is “Son of Man” (more about that below). The memo which follows is of unusual length, I concede. However its detail is a measure of my desire to assure you that the evidence against ben Miryam is so overwhelming that no mistake is possible in my designating him for elimination. In fact, of all the terrorist subjects recently reported by this office, this one most clearly fulfills the protocols for our very precise remotely controlled operations. This Yeshua is not only a terrorist himself, he runs a gang of terrorists, and is armed and dangerous.

To begin with, Yeshua (aka the Master) comes from the town of Nazareth in the Galilee. As you know from our country’s experience about 20 years ago with the Jewish rebellion in Sephoris (just 5 miles from Nazareth) this has always been a hotbed of insurgents against our entirely peaceful purposes. You remember too that our policy in Sephoris was to presume that everyone in the area was somehow involved in the insurrection. That justified our death squads and scorched-earth policy. Somehow, this Yeshua escaped. I mean he should have been killed then, because no doubt he was some kind of message- runner (all the child-soldiers in his age cohort did that).

In any case, they say that his mother, Miryam, was some kind of insurgent poet. One of her pieces of cheap doggerel identifies a “mighty” jihadist God “who put down the powerful from their seat,” and who “fills the hungry with good things, while the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk.1:46-55). What I’m saying is that this character Yeshua was fed insurgent doctrine with his mother’s milk, if you will.

Besides, they report that this Yeshua of Nazareth has taken on your title “Son of God” (Mk.l:1). He apparently adopted this imperial pretension after he took over the “Baptizer Gang” run by that nationalist cult leader called John Baptizer. (Remember, he was a highly suspect character finally arrested and executed by our man in Galilee, Herod.)

Since then, our subject has not only been called “Son of God,” he’s been speaking everywhere about establishing an alternative to the Roman Empire. He calls it the “Kingdom of God.” When questioned about his intentions, he speaks vaguely in code (they call it “parables”) – an evasive technique commonly used, as you well know, by insurgents everywhere. “Kingdom of God” seems to refer to what our Palestinian Province would be like if Yeshua’s God rather than you, our august Emperor, were king. In any case, story has it that following a ritual baptism by John, this Yeshua had a vision informing him that he, not you august Caesar, is God’s son (Mk.1:9-11). Here we clearly have a rival who must be eliminated.

And if his friends are killed in the process, don’t worry; they’re all terrorists as well. The name of one, Simon the Zealot, says it all (Mt.10:4). He’s obviously a member of the Zealot insurgency that played such a destructive role against us in Sephoris and elsewhere. As for the others (there are 12 in the gang), it’s difficult to identify them, because they all carry noms de guerre. Two of them are called “Sons of Thunder” (Mk.3:17). Another is “Rocky” (Mt.16:18). Still another is probably a Sicarius (one of those knife fighters responsible for assassinations of Roman soldiers). His code name is Iscariot — note the “sicarius” reference (Jn.6:71).

As I indicated earlier, ben Miryam’s own nom de guerre is “Son of Man” (e.g. Mk8:27-38).  Our temple informants tell us that this name bears high significance in the Jewish resistance. Apparently, it comes from some “Book of Daniel” these people hold as “sacred.” In that book, the Son of Man is a Jewish hero responsible for the destruction of imperial enemies, past, present, and future. Needless to say, anyone assuming that title is a sworn enemy of Rome and its most peaceful benevolent order.

Yeshua’s own hatred for Rome and vendetta against us is unmistakable. At one point he openly identified our young servicemen as demons. He is said to have used magical powers to symbolically drown them in the sea. But first he drove them into a herd of pigs, the filthiest animals these Jews can imagine (Mk.5:1-20). Not only was that insulting to our heroic young servicemen, they say it reminded many of Yeshua’s compatriots of the first such drowning in their legendary history. Apparently, that was when Egyptian “legions” were drowned in the sea more than a thousand years ago. Once again, all of this was unambiguous code for Yeshua’s intention to overthrow our empire.  

Not only that, he has promised to bring down to rubble the Jews’ Temple in Jerusalem (Mk.13). How he’d achieve this is unclear. True, his men are armed – reason enough to eliminate them (Lk.22:36-38). It must be that he is part of the insurgency planning vengeful attack on those they see as collaborators among the Jewish clergy, especially the high priesthood. And a central target of their retribution is the temple. In fact, recently Yeshua took part in (and probably led) a demonstration there aimed at the merchants who make their living selling religious items (Mk.11:15-19). He and his violent demonstrators used whips against the peaceful temple entrepreneurs, overturned stalls and tables – no doubt a preview of the more extensive destruction this violent man has promised. And don’t mistake the depth of his violence. He makes no pretensions to be a man of peace. I have it on the best authority that he has said “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Mt.10:34-36).

As you can see, august Emperor and Son of God, Yeshua ben Miryam unmistakably meets both of our cautious criteria for the use of our new drone technology. If not a member of the Zealot insurgency, he has close associates in the organization, and is probably an important adviser of theirs. His connection with the Sicarius assassins has already been noted. On top of this, he travels with an armed gang, and has targeted both our troops and temple property for destruction. More than that, his “Son of Man” and “Son of God” pretentions have designated the very empire itself for annihilation. (It must be that he hates our freedom.)

My advice is to stop him now before he can do further damage. Do not worry that any of the information contained in this memo might be inaccurate. It has been supplied by Jewish “holy men” whose Commandments forbid “false witness” of any type. They have been working with us for years, and can be trusted implicitly.

Paul of Tarsus: Christianity’s First Liberation Theologian

 (This is the 2nd in a series on liberation theology)

                It is very difficult for 21st century Christians to understand Paul of Tarsus. This is because (as Evangelical theologian, Brian McLaren puts it) we read Paul backwards – just as we understand Jesus backwards. By that McLaren means we usually begin our understanding with someone like Billy Graham (or with Benedict XVI for Catholics). From there we progress to John Calvin (or Vatican II), to Martin Luther (or the Council of Trent), to Thomas Aquinas, to Augustine, to Paul and then to Jesus. That progression yields a perception of Paul who was misogynist and homophobic, who supported slavery, who taught obedience to all governmental authority, and who was concerned the priority of faith over works the way Luther was. In other words, understanding Paul backwards projects back onto him controversies and consciousness that emerged decades, centuries and even millennia after his death.

                There is another way to understand Paul (and Jesus) however. And that is the way employed by liberation theology. This “other” way begins understanding with Adam, progresses on to Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally Paul. This Paul is interpreted in the light of Jesus and not vice-versa. He knows nothing of the controversies that will distort his message over the centuries to come. Instead, we find in the man from Tarsus a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul is above all Jewish, and a working man besides. Paul is an intellectual, world-traveler, Jewish mystic, radical thinker, and martyr at the hands of empire. His overriding concern is spreading Good News about Jesus and his message which centralized the welfare of the poor and oppressed.

As everyone knows, Paul’s letters represent the earliest entries we find in the Christian Testament. Written beginning around the year 50, they pre-date the gospels by 20 years or more. They are the documents closest in time to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This makes it very significant that Paul’s letters (especially Romans and I Corinthians) reflect a clear liberation theology perspective whose defining character is a preferential option for the poor.

To perceive this reflection, it is helpful to consider Paul’s life’s circumstances in relation to Jesus. Such consideration reveals both continuities and discontinuities. To begin with, like Jesus, Paul belonged to the working class. He was a tent-maker. He was also, like Jesus, a Jewish mystic. This means he was aware that divine revelation did not belong to a single people, but was available to everyone by virtue of a common human experience.  Even more, Paul recognized a Divine Spark, i.e. a divine presence within every human being. He called it the Spirit of God. Both recognitions (of the commonality of revelation and of the Divine Spark) made Paul a universalist who saw that in God’s order national and class distinctions were meaningless. Finally, Paul, like Jesus, finished as a victim of capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire, though he was not executed by crucifixion, which suggests that unlike Jesus, he was not considered an insurgent or terrorist.

In addition to the similarities, Paul’s life circumstances also made him unlike Jesus in several important ways. For one, Paul was formally schooled as a Jewish rabbi, so he had more formal education than Jesus; Paul was an intellectual. Unlike Jesus too, Paul was a world traveler, and may even have been a Roman citizen. This not only helps account for Paul’s daring universalism, but for his opportunities and willingness to engage Roman philosophers on their own turf – geographically and intellectually.

Such considerations shed a bright light on Paul’s theology. There in key arguments he did not typically begin from a place of divine revelation, but from experience from which he drew rational conclusions. This made him like the Greco-Roman philosophers he was so interested in engaging.  Like the Stoics among them, he recognized the earlier referenced Divine Spark within each person. Paul, however, differed from the Stoics (and the Christian Gnostics who came later) in that he did not interpret the Divine Spark or logos as the presence of a changeless Spirit continuous with an eternal natural order. Nor did recognition of a divine indwelling spirit confirm the Stoic view that saw Rome’s political order as divinely established with the Emperor embodying the fullest expression of the divine “Word.”  

Rather, for Paul, the divine spark was identical with the Spirit of God, which Paul saw the same as what he termed the wisdom of God. That wisdom selected the poor and despised as God’s chosen people. This selection made Paul’s critical truth criterion vastly different from his Greco-Roman debate adversaries. For whereas the Greek’s criterion of truth was “what is” – the given natural and political orders – Paul’s fundamental criterion of “the judgment of God,” and “the Wisdom of God” prioritized the needs of the poor, humiliated, rejected, and despised. As liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert puts it, Paul’s argumentation was structured not by what is, but by what is not, i.e. by those “the wisdom of the world” excludes from consideration, viz. the poor just referenced. Seeing them as God’s chosen calls entirely into question discourse that the given world takes as normal.

To reiterate, all of this is difficult to perceive, since the liberation theology thrust of Paul’s thinking has been obscured by post-fourth century imperialized interpretations to be described in a later posting. (This also happened with the gospel accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus.) Thus on the one hand, Paul is commonly understood as pro-imperial, anti-feminist, and pro-slavery – as though the heart of Paul’s teaching were cultural rather than focusing on the counter-cultural “Wisdom of God.” Emphasis on Paul’s apparent sexism and his pragmatic approach to slavery ignores the apostle’s specific and substantive teachings about the invalidity of distinctions regarding nationality, gender, and social status. Interpretations of Romans 13 as endorsement of empire similarly ignore the center of his teaching about law and his contrast of the wisdom of the world vs. the Wisdom of God. If all authority comes from God as Romans 13 claims, then only those authorities whose legislation expresses the Wisdom of God (and its preferential option for the poor) must be obeyed.  

What Paul’s radicality means is that far from being the real founder of the Christian church (as is often alleged) Paul professed a theology that was quite foreign to his successors. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the church was not founded by Paul, but against him. His teachings were far too radical for the digestive tracts of church leaders in the Constantinian institution that emerged in the 4th century. At that point, it became necessary to domesticate and tame Paul’s radicality and to make him like the rest of the church, a faithful servant of the status quo with its imperial oppression, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and eventual internecine squabbles about faith and works.

Until the emergence of modern scripture scholarship and interpretations like liberation theology’s we hadn’t heard from the real Paul of Tarsus since the first century.

Next Friday:  Jesus, Paul, Liberation Theology and Critical Thinking