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)

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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.  

 

 

Sister Giant: The Higher Consciousness Community Meets Liberation Theology

giant-pic

It had to happen. I mean you can’t establish dictators and despots throughout the world and not have it eventually come home. And it has in Donald Trump. His election has brought the spirits of U.S. darlings Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, and Duvalier to our shores. We should all be terrified.

By the same token, you can’t inflict such despotism on people of faith without their eventually discovering in their traditions a God who stands on the side of the poor and oppressed rather than with their wealthy oppressors. That happened with the emergence of liberation theology over the last 50 years among Christians in Chile, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. In 1979 it happened in Iran with the first Islamic revolution that has since spread across the Middle East. (I’ve written about that here, here, here, and here.)

And now it’s happening in the United States. Of course, awareness of the connection between Christian faith and release from oppression dawned most prominently with the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then during the ‘70s and ‘80s Catholics joined in as they observed (often first-hand as I did) U.S oppression throughout Latin America. During the ‘90s and the first decade of the current century, I could even see it emerging among the white U.S. Evangelical students I taught during their term abroad in Central America. As a result, I increasingly witnessed them reading and referencing non-fundamentalists and liberationists like Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and others.

And now with the arrival of Trump, a highly political form of liberation theology has hit the “Higher Consciousness Community.” I’m referring to followers of Marianne Williamson, Neale Donald Walsch, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, Abraham Hicks, and other teachers of the “spiritual, but not religious” seekers proliferating throughout the United States and the world.

Just last week, I personally witnessed unmistakable signs of the latter awakening in Washington, DC during the best three-day conference I’ve experienced in more than 40 years of attending such events. It was Marianne Williamson’s Sister Giant Conference. And judging by the standing ovations nearly all the speakers received from the 2000 attendees, they had similar experiences. (There were also 4000 live-streamers listening and watching.)

As you might judge from the conference title, Sister Giant attendees were mostly women.

Many of them, two weeks earlier, had attended the DC Women’s March. And it was evident that their enthusiasm from that event carried over.

Both the march and the conference empowered women, who at Sister Giant were urged to own their power by speakers like Bernie Sanders, Karenna Gore (Daughter of Al Gore), Jean Houston, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Dennis Kucinich, William J. Barbour, Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), and Zephyr Teachout. Each of them recognized women as the de facto leaders of the anti-Trump Movement.

Many other speakers presented as well including stand-up comic, John Fugelsang who actually told liberation theology jokes. For instance, he pointed out that the Vatican is ahead of the White House on science. Referring to the Bible’s Adam’s Rib Story, he observed that “The very first woman transitioned to a woman from a man.”

Meanwhile conference-organizer, Marianne Williamson, supplied her own transitions and highlighted points made. Between speakers, she kept us all focused with her insightful reflections on relevant passages in A Course on Miracles, and spontaneous, unself-conscious prayers like those found in her book Illuminata. She was wonderful. (And unbelievably, she will be coming to speak here in Berea at the end of March.)

From all of this, randomly organized thoughts worth sharing here include:

  • This country (the U.S.A.) was never meant to work for people like me.
  • The U.S. government has lost all legitimacy.
  • Our economic system (capitalism) contradicts Jesus’ teaching and universal religious values in general; it is based on greed, competition, inequality, racism, violence, and environmental destruction.
  • Donald Trump has shown everyone that he is absolutely unqualified for office.
  • In fact, most people in the Sister Giant audience were better qualified than D.T.
  • The world was not born fair; we have to make it that way.
  • Large groups of desperate people do desperate things.
  • No serious religious path gives anyone a pass allowing them to ignore the suffering of other sentient beings.
  • If Jesus finds injustice intolerable, so must his would-be followers.
  • Native Americans (e.g. at Standing Rock) talk to God, not about God.
  • Neutrality always serves the oppressor, never the victim.
  • In view of Donald Trump’s election, it might be time to make America Great Britain again!
  • The main axis of social change is vertical rather than horizontal.
  • American Muslims are the canaries in our coal mine.
  • You are either a feminist or a masochist.
  • It’s time for a Pro-Democracy Movement in the United States.
  • My calendar and my checkbook proclaim infallibly what my values are.
  • America needs a new bottom line (not a measure of efficiency and power, but of how loving and generous we are as we stand responsibly before the grandeur of the universe.)
  • We must begin planning for the day when we have to take to the streets — net neutrality and Social Security will be the issues.

Such liberationist thoughts only palely reflect the richness of thoughts shared at the Sister Giant conference. But I hope they give you some idea of what’s needed to exorcise the despotic spirits of Pinochet, Somoza, Marcos, Duvalier – and of Donald Trump.

Our 1984 Experience with Paulo Freire (Personal Reflection XIV)

freire-neutral

This 14th “Personal Reflections” blog continues my modest project of explaining myself to my three adult children who are often puzzled by my criticisms of the United States in these blogs and elsewhere. Half- jokingly (I think) they often ask, “Why do you hate America, Dad?”

Of course, I don’t hate the country of my birth. Quite the opposite. But my patriotism and loyalty take quite different directions from those fostered by the mainstream media and the otherwise fine educations our children received at Wellesley (Maggie), Lafayette (Brendan), and Davidson (Patrick). In contrast to those sources, and for reasons connected with faith, my own thinking aspires to view the world from the perspective of the world’s impoverished majority (both nationally and in the Global South) rather than from that of privileged classes within the United States.

Along with liberation theologians, Paulo Freire has played a major role in shaping me that way. Freire’s the great Brazilian educator who (among other books) wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness. His influence on liberation theology is immeasurable.

Peggy and I got to know Paulo quite well beginning in 1982 when we participated in his two-week seminar at Boston College. Then during my first sabbatical from Berea College (1983-’84) Peggy worked with him for six months at his center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Every week, she joined a team of young Brazilians conducting one of Paulo’s literacy programs in Sao Paulo’s impoverished favelas. It was all part of her research on Freire for her Ed.D (Philosophy of Education doctorate) at the University of Kentucky. In 1986 the American Education Research Association gave Peggy’s work the year’s “Outstanding Dissertation Award for Conceptual Research.” She later published an article based on her work in the Harvard Educational Review.

I remember spending our sixth wedding anniversary in Freire’s apartment in Sao Paulo where we had a memorable supper with him and his wife, Elsa. Afterwards Paulo read aloud from the latest chapter in Peggy’s evolving dissertation. I recall his pausing after reading a lengthy quotation from one of his works and remarking, “Right now I am loving these words.”

I’m convinced that the Rivage-Seul’s were given the gift of tongues for our Brazil experience. During the first semester of my sabbatical (at the end of 1983) and in preparation for our trip to Brazil, I had studied Portuguese at the University of Colorado in Boulder. [I had been given a fellowship there (at the Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy) to research the relationship between freedom and justice. It was to prepare me to head Berea’s newly established Freshman Seminar whose readings were organized around that theme.] In any case, my Latin, French, and Italian helped me learn Portuguese. Peggy’s college French major (at Central Michigan University) helped her as well. Then in Anapolis, Brazil with the help of a tutor, we spent our first two months studying intensively. And it somehow worked. We ended up quite able to carry on in the language.

Brazil at this time was still run by its generals. That was the result of a 1964 coup sponsored by the CIA. The father of my Portuguese teacher at CU was one of those generals. So she arranged for our first few nights in the country to be spent at the Clube Militar as guests of the oppressors and fierce enemies of liberation theology in Brazil which was a hotbed of the discipline. (More about that later.) Staying at the Clube was very creepy for us.

But back to Paulo Freire . . . . After our return to the United States we had a warm reunion with him at the Highlander Center where he was working on a text with the Center’s founder, the great activist, Myles Horton. Horton’s work had directly influenced Martin Luther King. In fact, in the ‘60s, the F.B.I. had published photos of MLK at what they called the “Communist” Center (Highlander). It was part of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to portray King as a Red. Paulo’s and Myles’ text was eventually published as We Make the Road by Walking.

As I said, Freire’s method of teaching and learning was central to the methodology of liberation theology, which had increasingly seized my attention since I first encountered it in 1969.

One of Freire’s key concepts (shared with liberation theology) is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”  Basically it says that the poor and oppressed know more about the world (and about the Bible) than the rich and comfortable. That idea constitutes a key basis for my own analysis of the world.

(I’ll explain that more fully next week.)

Biblical Study Helps Me Develop Critical Consciousness (Personal Reflections Pt. XII)

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Biblical Criticism

Here are the first dozen of the twenty-four conclusions I’ve drawn after my years of biblical study. As the cartoon above indicates, what I gained from Eamonn O’Doherty at St. Columban’s  Major Seminary in Milton, MA was an introduction to the historical/critical approach to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It provided a foundation that was deepened and developed by the scholars I mentioned in my last posting.in this series.

The historical/critical approach acts as a corrective to misreadings that emerge from the naive literary/confessional approach that had previously been mine. I learned that the latter is too open to ideological manipulation at the hands of the dominant culture anxious to secure divine support for a status quo favoring the rich and powerful ruling classes..

Accordingly, those more conventional approaches must be treated, I realized, with “ideological suspicion” which methodically doubts the veracity of conventional interpretations.

Such doubt made me suspect of any interpretation issuing from the United States and Europe. There analysis tended to remain largely apolitical and by that very fact ended up supporting the socio-economic status quo.

That was not the case in the underdeveloped world. (I use that term deliberately. Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, I found, have been deliberately under-developed –robbed of their resources by over-developed nations.)

Scholars in the Global South saw clearly and articulated connections between the biblical texts and imperial exploitation. The texts of both the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart are unique in the ancient world in that they were largely produced by victims of imperialism at the hands of Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. To ignore that fact and to interpret them apolitically is to impoverish them and rob them of their critical power vis-a-vis contemporary imperialist situations.

I’m sure such remarks make it clear how the biblical studies I’ve pursued have sensitized me to the dark realities of empires and the intolerable situations they have produced in the past and continue to produce in the present.

In any case, the twelve conclusions I share here unveil my gradual progression towards critical consciousness engendered by biblical studies. As you’ll see, they inexorably become less general and more sharply political. Judge for yourself:

  1. For the Christian Bible reading is extremely important. In some sense, the Bible is the word of God. However its many separate texts were produced by very human authors concerned with addressing highly politicized situations.
  1. But living is more important still. After all, even in the Bible itself, life and history constitute the primary vehicle of God’s revelation. In fact, it was out of reflection on these basic elements that the sacred texts themselves arose.  In other words, the main purpose of the Bible is not preservation or study of tradition for its own sake, but to help believers make faith-full sense out of the lives they are actually living.
  1. Therefore, as important as it is, Bible reading for the believer is a secondary activity, carried on “after the sun goes down.” It illumines life’s primary activity and vocation, living itself.

Continue reading Biblical Study Helps Me Develop Critical Consciousness (Personal Reflections Pt. XII)

Biblical Studies Awaken Me to Political & Economic Realities (Personal Reflections XI)

Barth

Last week I was reflecting on the importance of Bible courses that were central to the training I received at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, MA. I was praising my most influential teacher there, Father Eamonn O’Doherty, who introduced us to modern scripture scholarship.

Now I see that what I learned from Eamonn went far beyond the Bible. It was more about process — about thinking for myself even In the face of the strongest authority imaginable — that of God himself. It was about making connections in economic and political terms between the world of the Bible and the world of today.

The kind of historical and analytic thinking to which Eamonn exposed me eventually spilled over into other areas of my life — to personal moral decisions, and to politics. Gradually, I reasoned that if I could question what I had understood to be the authority of God about the Bible, then why not raise questions about the Ten Commandments or what I had been taught concerning the goodness of my country. Perhaps my reading of American History was as erroneous as what I had understood about the Bible.

What I mean is that from my earliest schooling, the Sisters of St. Joseph had taught me that the Bible was the very Word of God. As such it was unquestionable. To even entertain doubts about its truth was sinful.

And though the good sisters taught me how to read, it never crossed their minds (in the 1940s and early ’50s) that the Bible could be read in any other way but literally.

.After all, Pope Pius XII (1939-’58) had then only recently granted permission to Catholic scholars to follow the example of their Protestant counterparts in applying the tools of critical analysis to sacred scripture. This meant approaching the Bible as an historical document — as ancient literature. It meant recognizing the host of literary forms it contained, It meant acknowledging that none of its contents is history in the modern sense of the term, and that it all found analogue in the sacred texts of other religions.

The pope did all of that in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).

By the time my formal biblical studies began (1963) Catholic scholars had used the pope’s injunction to catch up. More than that, by ’63, the Second Vatican Council (’62-’65) had already been in session for more than a year. Its reflections and changes all stemmed from re-readings of biblical texts in the light of the scholarship I’m referencing. And the resulting changes were profound touching understandings of church, priesthood, and the relationships of Catholics to the contemporary world.

In the 1960s that world was In turmoil; it was experiencing the birth pangs of a dawning new consciousness.  It was the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The missile crisis in Cuba (1962) nearly brought nuclear holocaust. President Kennedy was assassinated (1963) The Gulf of Tonkin (1964) plunged the U.S. more deeply into the Vietnam War.

.My first reaction to those “worldly” events was to dig in my heels. I was critical of war protestors.

I thought Dr. King had overstepped his competence when he criticized the War and U.S. colonialism (1967).I was more sympathetic to the government and police than to those calling for fundamental social change on behalf of African Americans, the colonized, the peace movement, feminists, Native Americans, prisoners, and the LGBTQ communities.

But after initial resistance, I couldn’t deny what I was learning about the Bible. And (as I was saying) that proved to be the thin end of the wedge for changes in other spheres. The evidence driving me to change my mind about the Bible was overwhelming. It had too much explanatory value.

So did the political and economic analysis behind what the biblical scholars I encountered over the years had to say about the connections between the ancient texts they explained and the underdeveloped world in which the majority of humankind lives. They are the ones responsible for awakening me to undeniable political and economic realities. I met them in Rome, and my travels throughout Europe, and in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, India, the Holy Land, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

I’m referring most prominently to Frei Gorgulho, Ana Flora Anderson, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, Elsa Tamez, Pablo Richard, Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Ignacio, Ched Myers, Norman Gottwald, Resa Aslan, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Elaine Pagels, and a host of liberation theologians.

All of them helped shape (and continue to do so) my historical, political and economic understanding of the world. It was a long process. I summarize it in the two dozen points (which I’ll list here over the next two weeks). Readers will note how the points gradually become more political and related to empire, structural violence, resistance, and the struggle for justice. That gradualness reflects my own growth in consciousness over the last 50 years.

My point here (as I struggle to explain the origin of my crazy Ideas to my children) is that it’s all grounded In faith.

[Next week: My Understanding of the Bible (and of the world) in 12 of 24 points]

(Palm Sunday Homily) Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way

Trump & Jesus

 Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the presidential candidate who owns casinos and strip clubs, and who has been married three times.

His pre-candidacy positions on social issues conflict with those Evangelicals have considered sacrosanct in the recent past. As Michael Moore points out, Trump has been pro-choice, pro-gun control, and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. He’s been in favor of gay marriage, raising the minimum wage, and single payer health care. Trump has been pro-union (at least in the private sphere), and has proposed a one-time 14% tax on the accumulated wealth of the super-rich in order to retire the U.S. national debt (i.e. to enrich the banksters).

In the foreign policy sphere, Mr. Trump advocates torture beyond water boarding. His desire to “make America great again” leads him to propose intensified wars in the Middle East, building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border, filling Guantanamo with even more prisoners, and evicting Muslims from the United States.

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a candidate? On the one hand, his personal life and long-standing positions on the “social issues” conflict with what such believers have deemed undebatable in the past. And on the other hand, Trump’s foreign policies conflict with the teachings and example of Jesus himself.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth, but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the positions of virtually all the candidates for president this election year. They’re all imperialists. All of them (except Bernie Sanders) are friends of the one-percent. They all want to increase military spending which now costs taxpayers about a billion dollars a day.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he is arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Roman soldiers).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe-house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of Pilate as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 80 years ago. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.