(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Anti-Imperial Parables: How to Resist (State) Terrorism

ISIS & Jesus

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire.

No, it’s much more relevant than that. It’s actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. It summons all of us to withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East.

More specifically, today’s gospel reading, on the one hand, calls those living in the belly of the beast to stop approving of our imperialist overlords who currently sow their weeds of destruction throughout the Middle East. This means actively opposing their wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

On the other hand, the three parables attributed to Jesus also suggest a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. The parables address them precisely as victims of imperialism and hence the closest analogue to what the Bible calls “the people of God.”

I mean: in today’s world, the situation of Muslims closely tracks that of Jesus’ audience in first century Palestine.  As such, all three of today’s readings call followers of Mohammed [who recognize Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

To get my meaning, begin by considering our liturgy’s first selection from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom. It is particularly relevant to “Americans,” identified by Dr. King as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” The reading says explicitly that God’s power is not expressed in violence but in leniency to all.

That theme is repeated in today’s responsorial psalm with equal relevance to USians. There God is described as belonging to all nations.

Similarly, in the second reading, St. Paul insists that the divine Spirit dwells within all humans regardless of nationality. It is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.

From this, Jewish wisdom insists that believers must in turn be kind, lenient and forgiving to all – even (Jesus says elsewhere) to their worst enemies. This is directly pertinent for the U.S. described by Noam Chomsky as the one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist countries in the world. Those who claim to follow Christ (as 83% of Americans do) must be as pacifist as their Master.

The second theme of today’s liturgy is less easy for an outsider to comment upon. It implicitly addresses the victims of American aggression – most prominently the Muslim community and whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist with violence.

I mean that Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause which included land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

How then respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ response? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves – like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than simple Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military, and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or God?

What do you think?

Aging Miraculously: Life’s too Short to Give Up on Faith & Activism!

Aging

I’m currently enrolled in an extremely thoughtful on-line course about aging led by the great spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson. The course is called “Aging Miraculously.”

As I approach my 77th birthday, Marianne is stimulating me to rethink this Third Act of my life. Her course is making me less willing to “retire” from it all as one mistakenly identified with this rapidly changing body. I’m more anxious to “re-fire” the spirit I truly am – the Self that never ages. I’m realizing that the time I have left on earth is far too short for me to surrender to the life of an elderly spectator.

Such awareness was reinforced last night during a conversation with five dear friends of mine. The youngest pair among us were in their mid-60s; the rest of us were in our late 70s and early 80s. (Even writing those words frightens me!)

In any case, there we were reviewing the ills of the world:

  • Trump
  • The gradual disappearance of democracy
  • Its replacement with plutocracy and authoritarianism
  • Class warfare: the unending wars of the world’s richest (the U.S. the E.U., Israel, Saudi Arabia) against the planet’s most impoverished (e.g. in Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. . .)
  • Terrorism

The question of faith came up and its power to change all of that.

Now, mind you, all of us in the conversation identified ourselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Nevertheless, my friends (none of them taking Marianne’s course) seemed convinced that faith has no power to alter the problems we were busy rehearsing.

Selfish human nature reigns supreme, one friend insisted. It’s unredeemable. So nothing can ever really change – except for the worse. What we do in church is meaningless as far as engagement with the world is concerned. No one really understands any of it anyway. But that’s the best we can do. It’s naïve and a waste of time and energy to think otherwise. We must settle for the mediocre.

And, in any case, we’re all old! So all that’s left for us is to finish out the few years we have left with our low expectations intact – just enjoying the moment and (cocktails in hand) being happy. Our work is over. God expects no more from us. The world’s problems are no longer ours. They belong to our children. And good luck to them with that!

With Marianne’s instruction in mind, I wanted to shout: “Stop, stop! Cancel! I don’t want to hear that! Precisely because I’m a community elder, I have no time left for such small-time thinking and pessimism.

“In fact, it’s all an insult to God. We’re talking about faith here. – about the power of God and of God’s Word to change the world and its consciousness that condemns us, our children, our grandchildren, and the very planet to destruction. Don’t you see that despite the faith we claim, we’re denying that power? We’re arrogantly claiming that we and the world’s thinking and technology somehow have more clout than God himself – that the Almighty stands impotent before the likes of The Donald, Mad Dog Mattis, our computers, robots – and desperate fears!

“I refuse to believe that. Please stop! Cancel!

“And besides: the power of faith to change the world has been undeniably demonstrated. It’s just that as successfully propagandized, relatively comfortable white “Americans” we’ve bought into the “official story” as narrated on Fox News.  It wants us to believe that it’s all hopeless.

“We’ve fallen into their trap!

“However, the fact is that the world has already been changed dramatically by faith-in-action. And for more than 60 years, it’s scared the hell out of the fearful little people at the top. Since the Civil Rights Movement (beginning with Brown in 1954), they’ve been desperate to cram that genie of faith-inspired human liberation back into its bottle. But it simply won’t fit.

“Since Vatican II (1962-’65) and the emergence of liberation theology at Medellin (1968), backward church authorities (like Paul II and Benedict XVI) have been doing the same thing – with the same result. The genie is loose forever. Thank God.

“I’m referring to the undeniable fact that the Civil Rights Movement and liberation theology have changed the world. Without them, you can’t explain Black Lives Matter or the pink tide that has swept Latin America in the past 20 years. You can’t explain the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez, Standing Rock in the Dakotas, the revival of the women’s liberation movement, or LGBTQ activism.

“Without recognizing the power of faith to change the world, you can’t explain movements for independence in Palestine and throughout the Islamic world. Face it: what’s happening there is intimately involved with faith!

“And it is precisely those movements that have given birth to a counter-revolution waged by the fearful little people who pretend to lead us. Don’t be misled: the right wing co-optation of faith has not arisen spontaneously from selfish human nature. Instead, it was part of the well-funded Nixon Southern Strategy to distort Christian faith to counter a growing black power that faith itself had inspired among African Americans everywhere. All of that eventually resulted in the Tea Party and the control of the GOP by Christian conservatives.

“Moreover, fostering and bankrolling evangelicals throughout Latin America (and here at home) was part of Reagan’s response to liberation theology. Already in 1969, Nelson Rockefeller had identified it as a danger to national security. Similarly, the rise of ISIS and Islamic fundamentalism has been nourished by counter-revolutionary forces in Saudi Arabia and the United States. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski who originally assured fighters in Afghanistan that their resistance to Russia had Allah on their side.

“As community elders, we should know all of that. We’ve lived through it. We are products of the hope-filled ‘60s. More importantly, the Catholics among us are products of Vatican II and liberation theology and of the unlimited horizons of faith those movements opened. As a result, we have experience, knowledge, and (hopefully) wisdom unavailable to our children, grandchildren, and to the young in general.

“Keeping those memories and hopes alive represent our specific contributions to saving the world. But time is running out.  To retire now without passionately sharing what we’ve learned is not just irresponsible. It deprives us of the joy that comes from fulfilling our very life’s purpose.

“What’s left of this particular incarnation is too short for wasting it on despair and surrender. It’s too short to live as though we are primarily aged bodies rather than the ever-youthful, experienced, informed, and wise Selves that God has created.

“It’s time to get on with Act Three and to finish the performance with a flourish and deep bow.”

Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

My Experience in Nicaragua (11th in a Series on Critical Thinking)

Ortega

Nicaragua taught me so much about the world and critical thinking. All during the 1980s it was the center of news reports every day. President Reagan was obsessed with the country and its president, Daniel Ortega (pictured above). Reagan continually referred to the Sandinista government there as a “Marxist, Leninist, repressive totalitarian regime.” However, he neglected to apply his lofty standards to what preceded it, viz. the Somoza dynasty of three dictators who governed the country brutally with the full support of the United States.

Reagan’s obsession took the form of support for an equally brutal counter-revolutionary force of terrorists called “the Contras” – whose base was the exiled National Guard of the Somoza regime. Reagan famously referred to those killers and drug runners as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

My experience in Brazil along with careful reading of the press and some history had convinced me that the Reagan administration was disseminating what a Great Man would later term “fake news.”  But I wanted to find out for myself.

So in 1985 I found myself in Managua for six weeks. My specific purpose in going was twofold. The first was fact-finding; I wanted to experience life in a revolutionary situation. I also needed to learn Spanish, which was increasingly necessary for my work in liberation theology. That was my second aim. Languages, by the way, are nearly universally recognized as powerful aids to critical thinking. They expand awareness of other cultures, different points of view and ways of expression.

Along those lines, one of the strengths of my training for the priesthood had been language study. In high school it began with Latin my freshman year. Then came French and Greek. All of those studies continued through my sophomore year in college. Next, of course, I had to learn Italian for my years in Rome. Just before that I needed a semester of Hebrew to qualify for theological studies there; so I took a summer course at Harvard. Once in Rome, it became apparent that German would be essential for my doctoral thesis on Jurgen Moltmann and his Theology of Hope. That led to two summers’ study at the University of Vienna. Then I needed Portuguese for my sabbatical in Brazil. And finally, in ’85 it was Spanish in Managua.

For two summers, I studied at Casa Nicaraguense de Español. It had students living with Nicaraguan families, leaving for Spanish class every morning and then studying the Revolution every afternoon. We visited prisons, farming co-ops, and offices of both the Sandinistas and their political opponents. We attended political rallies and demonstrations. The experience was difficult, but invaluable in terms of expanding my horizons and acquainting me with revolutionary thought and practice. Over the next 20 years I would return to the country a dozen or more times. In 1990 I would do so as an Official Observer of the election that defeated the Sandinistas, replacing them with a U.S.-supported party. I edited a book on the topic.

On that first visit, however, I was amazed by the range of books available in Managua that I would never have otherwise encountered. They covered all aspects of Marxism, socialism, history, education, liberation theology – and critical thinking. It was a treasure trove for me. Reading those books acquainted me with a line of thinking “forbidden” to most Americans.

As I said, this first experience in Central America made an extremely important contribution to my political education. It brought me into further contact with the living conditions of working-class people on the receiving end of extremely destructive US Third World policy. The contrast between what I observed in Nicaragua and what our government said about the country was astounding. It pointed to the fundamentally dishonest character of our national leadership. In addition, those books I mentioned underscored the one-sided bias of our mainstream press, scholarship and teaching.

What I learned from all this, along with the other experiences I’ve outlined here so far, has made me terribly suspicious of our government. Revelations connected with the Iran-Contra scandal heightened the suspicion exponentially. I saw clearly that the lies told about the Sandinistas were only the latest in a long string of misleading stories, cover-ups, and paper-overs foisted upon the North American public. Contra-gate, Vietnam and Watergate were the rule, not the exception. Sad to say, they represent the way our government does business.

In the end, I concluded that the burden of proof will always rest with our officials, rather than with our country’s designated Third enemies, including those currently identified as “terrorists.”

(Next Week: Costa Rica and Franz Hinkelammert)

My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

My Journey towards World-Centric Consciousness Continues (9th in a series on critical thinking)

Berea College

 (In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)

After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.

Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.

Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.

All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.

I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.

Brazil

My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.

My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there.  I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.

As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.

(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

helpwanted

A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.