The Impact of Wikileaks on Imperial Conspiracies (Third & Final Installment on the Demise of U.S. Empire)

Having examined the demise of the Catholic Church and of economies based on Jurassic Age fuel deposits, we turn now to the role of information communication technologies (ICT) in exposing government conspiracies and by doing so helping to bring down U.S. Empire. The topic here is Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

Assange and his Wikileaks colleagues are conspiracy theorists and proud of it.  For them (as for lawyers everywhere), “conspiracy” describes the secret planning of two or more people to commit a crime and/ or bring harm to a third party. Conspiracy is a legal category. By its definition, Assange contends, multinational corporations and their mainly U.S. political enablers have been and are conspirators worldwide. They are criminals who in the name of justice must be brought to heel.

The undeniable evidence of conspiracy is there for all to see.  The vetoing of planet-saving climate change agreements by itself constitutes a crime whose predictable consequences dwarf by orders of magnitude even the Nazi Holocaust. But then there are the other less monumental, but still heinous felonies: the overthrow of foreign governments, the use of torture in general and water-boarding in particular, widespread extra-judicial killings, preemptive wars forbidden by international law,  Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay,  a vast U.S. secret prison system, international renditions, the repudiation of habeas corpus, unconstitutional spying on U.S. citizens, death squads, the use of drones in countries with which the United States is not at war, the  “unintentional” but predictable killing of innocent civilians, the imprisonment (in horrific conditions) of disproportionate numbers of black people on U.S. soil, and much, much more. All of these are indications of conspiracy and national criminal activity on the part of the United States, a rogue state if ever there was one. Imperialism itself represents a criminal conspiracy – the control of one nation by another for the benefit of the controllers.

On the basis of such evidence, Assange and his group have taken it upon themselves to do what the empire’s journalists are afraid to do – to publish the unvarnished and undeniable truth about the crimes of empire. Their method is to publicize the secret internal communications on which any criminal conspiracy depends.  Their sources are whistleblowers who for various reasons desire anonymously to “out” conspiratorial activity in question. The means for doing so are, once again, the informational technologies developed over the last 15 years.  Simply put, Wikileaks provides a highly encrypted website depository to insure source anonymity and take full advantage of distributed digital media power which lies essentially in the hands of the people instead of being centrally controlled by the elite.

How does it work? Assange explains it this way: understand for starters how the U.S. itself describes the conspiratorial network at the heart of the War on Terrorism. The conspirators are widely dispersed across many countries. As a result, they depend on secret communications to coordinate their activities. Picture a wooden board with nails driven in at randomly chosen points. That represents a world map with conspirators unpredictably located across its surface. Now take a thread and wind it around the nails connecting one to the other. The thread represents the lines of secret communication necessary for any conspiracy to succeed. It’s the task of counter-terrorism (counter-conspiracy) to cut those threads.

That’s what Assange aspires to do relative to the international conspiracy represented by secret U.S. and E.U. policy. He wants to make it impossible for that form of secret, terrorist conspiratorial communications to take place. In other words, he’s trying to bring empire to its knees. 

No wonder the U.S. government is panicking. Media personalities have called for classifying Wikileaks as an international terrorist organization. Senators have called for Assange’s   arrest. Some have even suggested his assassination. But understand this: Wikileaks is no more subject to U.S. law than it is to Chinese, Korean or Iranian law. Julian Assange is an Australian. Wikileaks is headquartered in Sweden whose very constitution protects freedom of the press by absolutely protecting journalists from forcibly divulging the sources of their information. Moreover, U.S. officials applauded Wikileaks when it revealed state secrets of its competitors. Hillary Clinton did so in the name of freedom of information.  It is unlikely then that Washington would have supported efforts to extradite Assange or his associates for trial before Chinese, Korean, or Iranian courts on charges of illegally divulging state secrets. Contradicting such posturing by demanding Assange’s extradition to the United States is making Washington (once again!) the laughingstock of the world.

Assange couldn’t be happier. All of this is part of the plan – to rescue the traditional role of journalism from its distortion by outlets such as Fox News. Assange notes the irony: Fox can disseminate what everyone knows are outright lies and be protected under invocations of press freedom. It can allege that President Obama is a communist, a Muslim, not American. It can ridicule climate change as a liberal plot to undermine capitalism. No one in authority advocates shutting Fox down for spreading such disinformation. But let whistleblowers expose the undeniable truth about their criminal employers, and “important people” suddenly find their voices and begin calling for arrest and worse. 

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Wikileaks’ disclosures will achieve their utterly radical intended goals. Minimally, they will surely make diplomats, politicians, the CIA, FBI, as well as the business concerns that fund those agents and institutions, more circumspect in their secret communications. In other words, the disclosures have made the business of imperial conspiracy vastly more difficult.

Additionally, Wikileaks has already powerfully impacted the news industry. Not only have its revelations provided a welcome and unimpeachable counterpoint to media misinformation and cooption by the very authorities the media should be scrutinizing. Wikileaks disclosures have become as well the focus of bloggers and the new internet news sources.  It has forced mainstream media to deal with issues they would not otherwise have addressed. Without Assange and his colleagues, many of the front page stories of the last year would never have seen the light of day.  We would not have been sure, for instance, that the U.S. was really behind those assassinations in Yemen. Finally, it will be interesting to see what happens when the torture-related photos and films that President Obama decided to withhold finally hit the fan. Equally fascinating will be responses to future releases of internal communications from within leading financial institutions and multinational corporations. All such information releases threaten the corporatist conspiracies Wikileaks is targeting. In summary, Wikileaks promises to change the news industry, and clearly threatens empire.

Series Conclusion

                It’s easy to become discouraged or depressed by a world falling apart. However the point here has been that the death of the Church, the disintegration of the world economy, and the decline and imminent fall of the “American” Empire by no means constitute entirely bad news. On the contrary, they are all to be welcomed as part of an evolutionary process that finds the new ICT and promising distributed forms of energy at its center. If the process is allowed to reach its promised conclusion before the threatened foreclosure of the human prospect by criminally unaddressed climate change, the process suggests a healthier, saner planet controlled more by people than by corporations and their political servants.  Towards that end, dispersed, distributed popular power in information and energy is at least weakening and at most threatening to bring to their knees the pillars of the world as we know it. The church has already been mortally wounded by it.  The world’s economy will be profoundly and forever changed by it. Governmental and corporate conspiracies will be crippled and possibly ruined by it.

This is what answers to the prayers of progressives and radicals looks like.

Liberation Theology and the Left in Latin America (Fifth in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

 Unlike its counterpart in the United States, the left in Latin America has not lost its sense of mythological reason – i.e. ability to connect the profound truths of ancient myth and story with contemporary problems. Instead, LT has fostered among the third world poor the understanding of Jesus and Paul described earlier in this series. That is, over the last 45 years, LT has used the insights of the poor themselves coupled with those derived from the scripture scholarship of the last century and a half to nurture social activists and social movements, and to sow the seeds of profound social change. 

That’s exactly what happened beginning in the 1960s, especially following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the meeting of Latin America’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ in Medellin, Colombia in 1968.

The Second Vatican Council was a precursor of liberation theology. Largely inspired by the loss of the working classes in Europe to communism and socialism, Vatican II attempted to connect with the European left to regain lost terrain. So the church re-presented itself as the servant rather than the opponent of the world. It owned publicly as its official teaching the “best kept secret of the Catholic Church,” viz. its progressive social teachings that first took shape with the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum in 1891. Those teachings endorsed labor unions, higher wages for workers, and government social programs on behalf of the working classes. 

The impact of Vatican II was immediate. Catholics everywhere representing the largest Christian denomination in the world, at last felt free to join in common cause with communists and socialists. The resulting praxis cannot be disassociated with the social revolutions that followed in Europe and in the United States throughout the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The near toppling of the French government in 1968 cannot be disassociated from Vatican II and the Catholics it inspired to join students, labor unionists, atheists, socialists and communists marching, demonstrating and rebelling in the name of social justice. Similarly, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement in the United States cannot be explained without taking account of the Catholics who swelled their ranks as a direct result of Vatican II. The same can be said for the women’s liberation movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the prisoners’ rights movement and others. None of them can be fully explained without prominent reference to the Second Vatican Council and the resulting appropriation of religious mythology by the activist left.

In fact, the civil rights movement itself expressed a kind of black liberation theology – a politicized theology in the black evangelical community. Without the black churches the achievements of the civil rights movement would never have happened. Even Malcolm X who rejected Christianity realized that any social movement that refused to connect with the spiritual is doomed to failure.  He used the teachings of Islam to mobilize African-Americans the same way Martin Luther King Jr. used the Christian tradition as understood in the African-American community.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, the earlier referenced Medellin meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), sought to apply the teachings of Vatican II to their region. They shifted even further to the left than the Catholic Church in general. In fact, they adopted a liberation theology understanding of the Gospel. They reaffirmed that understanding at Cancun, Mexico in 1973 and at Puebla five years later. In all three cases, they appropriated the LT term, “preferential option for the poor.” That is, they agreed that God’s chosen people are the poor and oppressed, and that the church’s primary mission is to serve the poor in the interests of their liberation – politically and economically as well as spiritually.

More to the point, what had happened with Vatican II and even more so with liberation theology is that for the first time, the left had confronted the right with an extremely powerful alternative mythology to counteract the mythology of what Marx referred to as “the gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth.” Those gods were responsible for keeping Latin America’s poor not only impoverished, but (in Marx’s terms) humiliated, subjugated, abandoned and despised.

The gods of heaven challenged by liberation theology are familiar enough. They can be met at any hour of the day or night on the religious programming so prominent on radio and television. The myths belonging to the gods of heaven rationalize poverty in terms of God’s will. The poor are especially dear to God, of course. But what pleases God is not their struggle for liberation, but patience in this life for the sake of reward in the life to come. 

As for Marx’s “gods of earth,” they are most prominently money, capital, law and market. Traditional prophetic language would refer to them as “idols.” In this 21st century, they are absolute in their power. Ironically, despite their “scientific” and “secular” pretensions, they are no less religious than their heavenly counterparts. For example, there’s something quite revealing about the chairman of Goldman Sachs using theological terms to describe the firm’s mission. “We’re doing God’s work,” he said recently. In Popper’s terms, the dogmas of these gods of earth are entirely un-falsifiable and hence “religious” not scientific in nature.

In other words, the rumors of the dawn of a secular age are vastly exaggerated. Hopefully secularization will be achieved by our children or grandchildren; it has largely eluded our generation. In any case, the myths underpinning the gods of earth include the myth of progress, that of the “Invisible Hand,” the “trickle-down” myth,  as well as the one summarized in Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra, “There is no alternative” (to corporate globalization).  These gods of earth are unquenchably blood thirsty and demand those 30,000 child sacrifices each day. They demand as well a $2 billion per day U.S. war budget against the infidels who would resist the empire that serves the gods of earth. Those infidels, by the way, are invariably the Third World poor.

Next Friday: The First Religious War of the 21st Century

Trinity Sunday: beyond the gibberish

Readings: Psalm 33: 4-6, 9, 18-20, 22; Deuteronomy 4: 32-34; 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28: 16-20

What a difference a week makes!  Last week, Pentecost Sunday, everything seemed so easy. The disciples received Jesus’ Spirit in the Upper Room. Peter spoke to the crowds in Jerusalem. He proclaimed at the top of his voice that God’s Spirit belongs to everyone. Barriers of gender, language, culture, class, and religion were irrelevant.

What good news and how simple! You and I are vessels of the Holy Spirit; we can channel Jesus’ Spirit any time we choose. We are the way God appears in the world. Treat yourself as God; treat others as God and “be saved” – not in some afterlife, but here and now. Everyone understood Peter’s message whether they spoke Hebrew or not. It was the message of Jesus.

But alas, this week seems to reverse all that simplicity. It’s “Trinity Sunday.” And what can you say about that?  The doctrine is so complex: The Father, Son, and Spirit are One God, but three persons. Jesus is one divine person with two natures (one divine, one human). Through the “hypostatic union,” Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Dick Vitale would say “Headache City!”

To repeat, no one understands it. And do you know why? Because it really doesn’t make sense – at least to us in the 21st century.  To be charitable, it may have meant something to a very few people in the 4th century. But it sounds like gibberish to us – and probably always has to most people. So do the “clarifications” offered by church councils and theologians. For instance, this is how the Second Council of Constantinople (in the 6th century) shed light on the way Jesus fit into the Holy Trinity:

. . . the union of the two natures in Christ is achieved “according to the hypostasis” (kathypostasin) of the divine Word, or “by synthesis” (kata synthesin), so that from the moment of the incarnation there was in Jesus Christ a single hypostasis/person (subject, autos), of both the divine nature and the human nature, which remains whole and distinct from the divine in the “synthesis” or “composition”.

Aren’t you happy they cleared up the confusion? What we find in a statement like that are theologians who take themselves too seriously. Even worse, they are people who have lost sensitivity to the language of faith which is always the language of metaphor. The fact is, every statement about God is metaphor. “Person” is metaphor; “Father” is metaphor; so are “Son,” “Spirit,” and “Word of God.”  All of that constitutes beautifully imaginative language trying to express the various ways human beings experience the One who is Transcendent and completely beyond the power of words to describe.

Jesus understood metaphor and he kept things simple. More than anything else, he called himself the “Son of Man.” “Son of Man” simply means “human being.” Jesus thought of himself as a human being. You can hardly get more basic than that. By calling himself the “Son of Man” again and again, Jesus emphasized that he is the same as we are. What’s true of him is true of us. “Son of Man” was an expression of solidarity with us.   

If that’s the fact, “Son of Man” makes Jesus’ other title “Son of God” terrifically important for us. I mean besides referring to himself as “the human one,” Jesus apparently also referred to himself as the “Son of God.” So if Jesus is the exemplary “human being” (like us, as Paul said, in all things but sin) and if he’s also the “Son of God,” that seems to mean that all of us are sons and daughters of God just as he was.

It was as if Jesus said: (1) I am a human being like you in every way; (2) You are a human being like me in every way; (3) I am the son of God; (4) Draw your own conclusions. . . . Or better yet, Jesus drew the conclusion for us: Every human being is a son or daughter of God just as I, the human one, am.

But all of that almost sounds blasphemous, doesn’t it? Jesus is God. You are God. I am God. Evidently, theologians from the 2nd century on saw blasphemy there too. So they went into denial and constructed an incomprehensible doctrine of the Holy Trinity to explain how Jesus could be uniquely God who prayed to his Father who is God and sent his Spirit who is also God – all without there being three Gods. Trinity gibberish is the result.

And yet . . .  and yet, there is something “three” about our experience of God – about our experience of life – something that shouldn’t be lost. Think about it. Our initial experience of life is three. There is our father, our mother, and us. That’s our first experience of trinity – and of God.

Besides that, all of reality just in terms of language is described in terms of three. Our verbs are conjugated as 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd – I (or we), you, and it (or they).  Anything we talk about is addressed either as 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. And that includes God. We can talk about God in the 3rd person as St. Paul does when he says “God is love.” Or we can address God in the 2nd person, as we do in prayer, “O God, please help me.” Or we can speak of God in the 1st person as they say Jesus did when he said, “I and the Father are one.”

The fact is that Christians are very good at 3rd person language about God. We talk about God in the 3rd person all the time in homilies like this one. We’re also quite at home using 2nd person references. We do that when we pray, when we address God as “thou” or “You.”  But Christianity’s not very good at 1st person references. We have a hard time – even after Pentecost – acknowledging the divine within us and speaking as Jesus did about our unity with “the Father.”

That’s where we can learn from other faiths. Hindus, for instance, excel at recognizing the divine within each human being.

I remember when I was studying for my doctorate in theology in Rome forty some years ago. I was in a seminar at an international theologate. Aspiring theologians from all over the world sat around that seminar table at the Anselmianum, one of my alma maters in “the holy city.” We were discussing the Trinity and Jesus’ identity as God’s unique Son. One of my colleagues, a priest from Kerala State in India, raised a question that made a profound impact on me. He said, “How are we in India to express Jesus’ supposed uniqueness as the God-Human Being?  In our culture, everyone is believed to be a God-Human Being?” Obviously, I’ve never forgotten that question. It made me wonder: If you translated Hindu concept for concept so it could be understood in the West, would it come out Christianity. And vice-versa.

But even apart from that, the young priest-theologian’s question made me realize how rich Hinduism is in its grasp of what Christians profess to believe. God is present within each of us and in everything we encounter. We can and should act accordingly.

I’d even go so far as to say that Hindu belief in 300 million Gods – yes, 300 million – is more understandable and helpful than the Christian doctrine that there are three persons in one God. The meaning of the Hindu belief is that there are about a million manifestations of God for each day of the year – 300 million for 365 days. It means that if we were really attuned to God, we’d see God’s presence everywhere in every moment of every day.

That sounds a lot like the message of Pentecost; we are temples of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

That’s the real message of Trinity Sunday as well.

This Is What the End of Empire Looks Like: The Role of the New Economy

This is the second in a Monday series on the decline of U.S. hegemony.

Last Monday I began this series by connecting the demise of the Catholic Church with that of U.S. Empire. This week’s posting turns to economy. Just as changes in the way people store, access, and communicate information has affected religion, so has it affected the market.

Though that observation may appear axiomatic, even business people have been slow to grasp its implications. For example, the music industry didn’t see file sharing coming; whole companies went under as a result. Encyclopedia Britannica was similarly blindsided by Wikipedia. Newspapers didn’t understand the enormous importance of the blogosphere; consequently, they’re failing at unprecedented rates. Skype threatens huge telephone companies. The computer gives free access to the sports events, movies, and programming cable companies are still trying to peddle.  Colleges and Universities continue to invest in huge unsustainable physical plants even as online courses steal their students. (And why not: distance learning, as J.W. Smith points out, enables students to sit at the feet of the world’s best professors for a fraction of the cost required to maintain those buildings soon to become white elephants.)  

But it doesn’t stop there – not nearly. In The  Empathic Civilization Jeremy Rifkin  argues that a dispersed, decentralized digital revolution together with dispersed, decentralized energy provision equals an entirely new economic era – a third industrial revolution as he calls it. The first industrial revolution, of course, connected the information revolution spawned by the printing press with coal and steam power. Huge factories, the high speed printing necessary for their organization, the eventual emergence of worldwide proletariat, and a previously unimaginable scale of production resulted. 

The second industrial revolution united energy provided by oil with intensified product and information exchange facilitated by telephone, radio, television, cinema, automobile and air travel. Oil was at the heart of it all. An entire civilization was built on Jurassic Age deposits which eventually became the basis of food production, and the manufacture of buildings, clothing, and virtually every product one might care to name. If it wasn’t made from a fossil fuel base, it was packaged and delivered by it. The second industrial revolution gave birth to the consumer society and corporate globalization.

The third industrial revolution is currently emerging from a combination of new information technology coupled with new forms of energy production. The new form of energy production is necessitated by the phenomenon of “Peak Oil Per Capita” as well as by the “carbon-entropy bill” resulting from a global economy relying on oil to support the productive cycle that has emerged over the last 200 years.

Peak oil per capita is different, Rifkin reminds us, from “Peak Oil,” which is controversial. Peak oil per capita is not. It refers to the maximum amount of oil equitably distributed to every human being on earth. It reached its zenith in 1979. Since then though more oil has been discovered, population growth has outrun those discoveries. As a result, less and less oil has been available per capita ever since. Moreover, the relatively recent industrial aspirations of China and India (representing fully 1/3 of humankind) have further lowered the per capita availability of non-renewable Jurassic Age resources. On a per capita scale, we will never have more oil than we do now.

As Rifkin explains, the results of such pressures were seen In July of 2008, when petroleum reached the level of $147 per barrel.  Worldwide economic chaos resulted. Prices of everything skyrocketed. There were food riots in 40 countries. In Rifkin’s terms, that was an economic earthquake. The financial meltdown which occurred 60 days later was the after-shock from which the world has still not recovered. In other words, $147 dollars per barrel seems to be the wall beyond which the current form of corporate globalization cannot pass. We’ve reached “peak globalization.”

And that’s not all. Besides the diminished per capital availability of oil, there’s the “carbon-entropy bill” that must be paid for 200 years’ profligate consumption of fossil fuels. “Carbon-entropy” refers to the negative feedback loop associated with burning oil and gas.   Here’s where global warming comes in. 

However, even those politicians who are not in climate change denial cannot bring themselves to address the problem that threatens the very extinction of human life as we know it.  Rifkin speculates that outdated Enlightenment concepts of human nature formulated by Locke, Smith, Bentham, Darwin, and Freud prevent them from doing so.  Enlightenment and late 19th century thinkers imbedded the mistaken notions that humans are basically individualistic, competitive, utilitarian, materialistic and pleasure-driven. Rifkin suggests instead that humans are instead “empathic.” (But that’s another story.) The point here is that business cannot continue as usual without inevitable economic chaos and threatening the extinction of the human species. The problem is not abstract; we’re talking about a threat our grandchildren will experience as immediate within their lifetimes.

What can be done about it all? Rifkin answers: copy the Europeans. They’ve taken his warnings seriously and have decided to exploit the confluence of the new distributed informational technology and new distributed energy sources to begin shaping an entirely new post-carbon economy. More specifically, they’re betting that the currently available combination of distributed technology and distributed energy can supply 20% of the E.U.’s energy needs by 2020. That’s the goal the E.U. has actually adopted. 

By way of definition, Rifkin contrasts “distributed energy sources” with their “elite” counterparts. Elite energy sources are those found exclusively in “privileged” parts of the world like the Mid-East. They are necessarily centralized, call for long lines of transportation, and must be protected by enormous military expenditures. Distributed technologies are those available to everyone everywhere on earth. They are supplied by the sun, wind, and the earth’s molten core. They include energy available from ocean tides and biomass supplied by so-called “waste products.”

But aren’t these sources precisely too dispersed – not concentrated enough – to satisfy the energy needs of a third industrial revolution worthy of the name? Not so – at least not when coupled with a technology that mimics the model provided by the information revolution that has taken those quantum leaps over the last 15 years. There we’ve found that individual PCs distributed among two billion users are vastly more powerful and adaptable than centralized mainframes. In the digital world 1 + 1 comes out to far more than 2.

The same is true, Rifkin suggests, in the world of distributed energy. If every building in Europe or the United States is turned into a power plant taking advantage of the wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources around it, those mini- power plants end up generating much more than the sum of their individual contributions. The energy can then be stored in hydrogen depots and transmitted to an “inter-grid” modeled on the internet. From there it can be shared freely across continents just as information is currently shared among two billion internet users. Put otherwise, when many small energy producers pool their production a multiplier effect kicks in that far surpasses the capabilities of the single individual.

“Impossible,” you say? Again, Rifkin responds “not so.” In fact, it’s already being done. There are currently office complexes in Spain that produce more energy than they use. To repeat, Europeans have bought into this concept and intend to derive 20% of their energy from its implementation less than 10 years from now.

Think of what all of this means for the topic at hand – the collapse of the corporately globalized economy now unfolding before our eyes. The combination of new informational technologies and new energy sources will affect every facet of life now touched by fossil fuel consumption – i.e. every facet of life, period. It will change the way we eat, travel, house and clothe ourselves. It will affect our cost of living and how and where we work and live. It promises to drastically reduce the size of military budgets that so deplete national treasuries – that is, if the transition can be made before the effects of global climate change take their fatal toll. And that in turn is largely dependent on thwarting the short term planning of the corporatists and their (largely U.S.) political enablers whose criminal strategies of denial and misinformation threaten the very survival of the human race.

This is where Julian Assange and Wikileaks come in. They will be the focus of next week’s posting.

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?