In my declining years, I’m leading a charmed life. Here Peggy and I are living in Westport, CT, just down the street from our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and five of our grandchildren.
Here’s a picture of our house where we moved just three years ago:
Our grandsons, Oscar (10), Orlando (8), Markandeya (6), and Sebastian (2) usually stay overnight on Fridays and we have breakfast together Saturday mornings. All of them (except little Sebastian) love baseball, so Peggy and I spend a lot of time cheering them on in their Little League games.
About three nights a week, Peggy and I also have dinner at our daughter’s beautiful home. And with the advent of warmer spring nights, we’ve been eating outdoors, where we share not only Maggie’s gourmet meals, but the day’s “roses and thorns,” i.e. all of us taking turns telling about the highpoint and low point of our days.
When my turn comes, my “rose” is often an account of my morning walk with my granddaughter, Eva (12), who is the reigning “Ms. President” of Westport. [That’s right, Eva recently ran (albeit unopposed) for our town’s Ms. President and was elected based on her compelling presentation of a platform promoting planet-saving vegetarianism.]
In any case and for years, Eva has often joined me for my daily four-mile fast walks (which are getting slower all the time). This often happens on weekends, but sometimes we end up walking together to her school about two and a half miles distant. About half-way through our routine, we invariably stop for coffee at Starbucks and spend about 30 minutes just talking there on the shore of the Saugatuck River that runs through Westport’s heart. Our conversations are uniformly wonderful.
We often discuss what we’ve seen and heard lately on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman‘s Monday through Friday news program which Eva watches faithfully every day. (I’ve told Eva that if she continues her practice, she’ll end up knowing more about the world than most of her teachers at her Pierrepont School which she absolutely loves.)
Both Eva and I are admirers of Malcolm X. So, we’ve watched and discussed Spike Lee’s film together (along with “Fahrenheit 451,” “Soul,” and “My Octopus Teacher”). We’ve also read Malcolm’s autobiography, and we’ve talked about Les Payne‘s latest biography about our hero, The Dead Are Arising (which I’m sure Eva will read on her own when she gets a bit older). I can imagine her producing some kind of research paper on Malcolm in high school or college. Anyhow, we often talk about X; Eva is intensely interested — as she is about almost everything.
And our conversations are so much fun.
For instance, just this morning, we had maybe our best exchange yet. In her history class at Pierrepont, Eva’s studying the Illiad and Odyssey. While Eva loves the tale, she was mildly complaining that her teacher takes the classic too seriously — i.e. she leads discussions as though Homer’s work were something more than what Eva recognizes as historical fiction.
“You know, Baba,” she confided to me, “I think they’ve misplaced Homer in the history section of our library; it really belongs in the fiction aisle. I mean, all this stuff about Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War doesn’t make sense. How does anyone know that her abduction started the whole thing?”
“That’s a brilliant question,” I said. “You should ask your teacher.
“But you know,” I said, ” that’s probably true of all of the books in your school’s library. I mean they all should probably be classified as fiction. That’s what historians and other authors do; they write accounts that reflect their own biases. And that goes for the Bible too.” (I voiced that last part, because Eva considers herself an atheist, so I wanted to be even-handed about fields of study — she knows I’m especially interested in questions of faith and biblical interpretation.)
“But don’t be too quick to dismiss fiction,” I added. “Fiction is often more revealing of truth than history or scientific theory. It’s like my friend, Guy Patrick, used to observe about the Bible. . . ‘All of it is true,’ he’d say, ‘and some of it even happened.’ Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels are true, even though they didn’t happen. You might say the same about the poems of Emily Dickinson.”
And Eva could see all of that. Despite her atheism, she even agreed that the biblical stories of creation might be truer (i.e. more revealing of human meaning) than Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Stifling a theatrical yawn, she said “Darwin might be factually true, but it’s more boring, I agree.”
Can you see what I mean about a charmed life — and about my charming granddaughter?
Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48
On April 4th, 1967, Martin Luther King famously called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” That was in his “Beyond Vietnam: a Time to Break Silence.” Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, it was perhaps his greatest, most courageous speech. King’s words are worth reading again.
Despite the fact that U.S. soldiers had killed more than two million Vietnamese, (and would kill another million before the war’s end), King was excoriated as a traitor. Even the African-American community quickly distanced itself from their champion because of his strong words.
To this day, King’s speech is largely ignored as the daring truth-teller has been successfully transformed into a harmless dreamer – an achievement beyond the wildest dreams of the prophet’s arch-enemy, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover who considered King a communist.
One wonders what Rev. King would say about the U.S. today. For despite what the mainstream media tells us about ISIS, the U.S. remains exactly what Dr. King called it. It’s still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – even more so. By comparison, ISIS is a pacifist organization.
Face it: absent the United States, the world would surely be a much better place. Even President Obama identified the rise of ISIS (our contemporary bete noire) as the direct result of the unlawful and mendacious invasion of Iraq in 2003. That act of supreme aggression (in the U.N.’s terms) is alone responsible for the deaths of well more than one million people.
And this is not even to mention the fact that our country is fighting poor people throughout the world – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and who knows where else? “Americans” claim the right to assassinate without trial anyone anywhere – even U.S. citizens – simply on suspicion of falling into the amorphous category of “terrorist.”
Can you imagine the terror any of us would experience if enemy drones constantly hovered overhead poised to strike family members or friends because some “pilot” six thousand miles away might judge one of our weddings to be a terrorist gathering? Can you imagine picking up the severed heads and scorched bodies of little children and their mothers for purposes of identification following such terrorist attacks? This is the reality of our day. Again by comparison ISIS beheadings are completely overshadowed.
I bring all of this up because of the Risen Lord’s insistence on peace in today’s gospel reading. As in last week‘s episode about Doubting Thomas, the Risen Christ’s first words to his disciples breathless from their meeting with him on the Road to Emmaus are “Peace be with you.”
Last week in their own homilies about that greeting, I’m sure that pastors everywhere throughout our Great Country were quick to point out that the peace of Christ is not merely absence of war; it is about the interior peace that passes understanding.
Their observation was, of course, correct. However, reality in the belly of the beast – the world’s greatest purveyor of violence – suggests that such comfort is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a terrorist nation. Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that the peace of the risen Christ is not merely about peace of mind and spirit; IT IS ABOUT ABSENCE OF WAR.
So instead of comforting us, Jesus’ words of greeting should cut us to the heart. They should remind us of our obligation in faith to own our identity as the Peace Church Jesus’ words suggest. More specifically, as Christian tax payers (having performed the annual IRS ritual last week) we should be organizing a nation-wide tax resistance effort that refuses to pay the 40% of IRS levies that go to the military. While it is absolutely heroic for individuals to refuse, there is safety and strength in numbers.
So an ecumenical movement to transform Christian churches into a unified peace movement of tax resistance should start today. All of us need to write letters to Pope Francis begging him to call his constituency to tax resistance – to call the UN and the U.S. Congress to stop the aggression.
Once again: there can be no interior peace for terrorists. And Dr. King was right: Americans remain the world’s greatest terrorists. We are traitors to the Risen Christ!
Focusing on a utopian interior peace while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.
I came across two very disturbing pieces this morning (one written, the other a video) about faith in a time of chaos. The written article was an editorial in The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) by the paper’s former editor, Tom Roberts. It elaborated on a theme I dealt with here a number of months ago about a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church” by wealthy hedge funders, bankers, and business leaders.
According to Roberts, the wealthy’s buyout of the church is moving forward at an alarmingly rapid and efficient pace. And this to such an extent that the rich are on the brink of becoming the church’s “new magisterium.”
That is, their money and the media megaphones it buys are enabling them to override even the voice of Pope Francis and the teachings of the official magisterium about social justice and the gospel’s “preferential option for the poor.”
In place of those doctrines, the Magisterium of Money is centralizing issues that nowhere appear in the biblical tradition, viz., abortion, homophobia, free market economics, voter suppression, and Trumpian politics. It’s convincing Catholics that those unbiblical matters represent the heart of Catholic moral concern.
The second disturbing piece that crossed my desk this morning was frighteningly related to the first. It too unwittingly affirmed the superiority of the viewpoint of the wealthy over that of the poor championed by the church’s social teaching.
The affirmation took the form of a video invitation to join a course by Caroline Myss, described as “one of our greatest modern mystics.” Her course is called “The Mystical Truths Behind Radical Change.” The course’s trailer explained an image that is central to this particular mystic’s understanding of the spiritual life.
The human condition, Dr. Myss explained, can best be understood in terms of a stationary structure like the Empire State Building. Like those constructions, we’re all outwardly fixed and immobile in our settings. Internally, however, movement abounds. Elevators move us upward, even to penthouses high above the dirt, smells, and squalor that constitute the reality of those living on comparatively low rent ground floors.
For instance, from the top of the Empire State Building vistas of extraordinary beauty unfold. Squalor, noise, and disagreeable odors disappear. They’re replaced by antiseptic panoramic visions revealing the city’s order and splendor. Central Park, the Hudson River, clouds and even birds suddenly materialize. At night, the danger of Batman’s Gotham is replaced by a brightly lit, enchanted fairy kingdom called Manhattan.
According to Myss, her image represents the task of the spiritual life. It’s like taking an elevator to the top floor of our more modest (10 floor) stationary buildings. Spiritual development is about attaining a level of consciousness inaccessible from the ground floor.
I have no doubt about Dr. Myss’ good will and mystical acuity. And, at a certain level, I get her point about the need for “higher consciousness.” My fear, however, is that her image as well as her understanding of the spiritual life feeds into and supports the project of the Magisterium of Money. It implicitly contradicts Catholic Church social teachings and their preferential option for the poor.
Those teachings are based on the fundamental revelation (in a poor first century construction worker) that mystical awareness is developed primarily on the ground floor, among the street walkers, gang bangers, and garbage collectors. What some call “God” is found precisely in the ones invisible from the 10th floor, and even more so from urban penthouses. I’m talking about people like Jesus himself – harassed by the police and who end up in jail, in the torture chamber, and on death row.
In other words and according to the official Catholic magisterium, the spiritual life and “higher consciousness” is found precisely by descending from penthouses and fairy kingdoms to the stink, dirt and noise that cry out for the radical change Dr. Myss advocates and that the Magisterium of Money completely ignores.
Ironically (and as the Jesus event clearly teaches) “higher consciousness” remains inaccessible from the spiritual equivalent of penthouse perches and corner offices on Wall Street.
Readings for 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 5:12-16; Ps. 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Rev. 1: 9-11A, 12-13, 17-19; Jn. 20: 19-31.
The picture painted in today’s gospel story should be familiar to all of us. I say that not only because we have heard it again and again, but because it’s our story. It’s about a man in denial, the original doubting Thomas. Thomas’ nickname was “the twin.”
Whatever that meant originally, Thomas is undoubtedly our fraternal double in that he depicts our condition as would-be followers of Yeshua. Like Thomas we live in practical denial concerning the reality of Yeshua’s resurrection – about the possibility of a radically transformed life. Recall our twin’s story. Pray that it can be ours as well.
The disciples are there in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Yeshua the night before he died. And they are all afraid. John says they are afraid of “the Jews.” However it seems they fear death more than anything else. They dread it because they are convinced that death spells the end of everything they hold dear – their ego-selves, families, friends, culture, and their small pleasures. Besides that, they are afraid of the pain that will accompany arrest – the isolation cells, the beatings, torture, the unending pain, and the final blow that will bring it all to a close. Surely they were questioning their stupidity in following that failed radical from Galilee.
So they lock the doors, huddle together and turn in on themselves.
Nevertheless, the very fears of the disciples and recent experience make them rehearse the events of their past few days. They recall the details: how Yeshua so bravely faced up to death and refused to divulge their names even after undergoing “the third degree” – beatings followed by the dreaded thorn crown, and finally by crucifixion. All the while, he remained silent refusing to name the names his Roman interrogators were looking for. He died protecting his friends. Yeshua was brave and loyal.
His students are overwhelmingly grateful for such a Teacher. . . .
Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst. Locks and fears were powerless to keep him out. They all see him. They speak with him. He addresses their fears directly. “Peace be with you,” he repeats three times. Yeshua eats with them just as he had the previous week. Suddenly his friends realize that death was not the end for the Teacher. He makes them understand that it is not the end for them either – nor for anyone else who risks life and limb for the kingdom of God. No doubt everyone present is overwhelmed with relief and intense joy.
“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.
Later on, Thomas arrives – our fraternal double in unfaith. His absence remains unexplained. Something had evidently called him away when the others evoked Jesus’ presence by their prayer, recollections, and sharing of bread and wine. Like us he hasn’t met the risen Lord.
“Jesus is alive,” they tell the Twin. “He’s alive in the realm of God. He took us all with him to that space for just a moment, and it was wonderful. Too bad you missed it, Thomas. None of the rules of this world apply where Yeshua took us. It was just like it was before he died. Don’t you remember? Yeshua brought us to a realm full of life and joy. Fear no longer seems as reasonable as it once did. He was here with us!”
However, Thomas remains unmoved. Like so many of us, he’s is a literalist, a downer. He’s an empiricist looking for the certainty of physical proof. Thomas is also a fatalist; he evidently believes that what you see is what you get. And for him there has been no indication that life can be any different from what his senses have always told him. Life is tragic. Death is stronger than life; it ends everything. And that means that Yeshua is gone forever. Who could be so naïve as to deny that?
Our twin in unfaith protests, “In the absence of physical proof to the contrary, I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith that another life is possible. And make no mistake: Yeshua’s enemies haven’t yet completed their bloody work. They’re after us too.”
Can’t you see Thomas glancing nervously behind him? “Are you sure those doors are locked?”
Then lightning strikes again. Yeshua suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. Locks and bolts, fear and terror – death itself – again prove powerless before him.
Yeshua is smiling. “Thomas, I missed you,” he says. “Look at my wounds. It’s me!”
Thomas’ face is bright red. Everyone’s looking at him. “My God, it is you,” he blurts out. “I’m so sorry I doubted.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Yeshua assures. “You’re only human, and I know what that’s like, believe me. I too knew overwhelming doubt. Faith is hard. On death row, my senses told me that my Abba had abandoned me too. I almost gave up hope. It’s like I’m your twin.
“But then I decided to surrender. And I’m happy I did. My heart goes out to you, Thomas. My heart goes out to all doubters. I’ve been there.
“However, it’s those who can commit themselves to God’s promised future in the absence of physical proof that truly amaze and delight me. Imagine trusting life’s goodness and an unseen future with room for everyone when all the evidence tells you you’re wrong! Imagine trusting my word that much, when I almost caved in myself? That’s what I really admire!
“My prayer for you, Thomas, and for everyone else is that you’ll someday experience the joy that kind of faith brings.
Working for God’s Kingdom – for fullness of life for everyone – even in the face of contrary evidence – that’s what faith is all about. May it be yours.”
Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.
Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?
I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.
Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.
That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.
But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?
In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.
The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.
In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?
Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.
Even in John’s gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).
All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?
Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.
However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?
But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.
And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”
Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.
Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).
In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).
Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.
We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.
I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.
My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.
The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.
Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.
Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.
Fr. Rohr and Me
I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.
Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.
Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.
Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.
Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).
Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.
Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.
The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.
Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.
Rohr, Jesus and Rome
Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.
All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.
Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:
Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
[Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).
The Historical Jesus
My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”
Take those points already reviewed:
For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.
Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:
Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.” They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.
Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ
Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.
Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.
Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.
By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.
To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.
Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.
None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is. Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.
As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.
As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.
Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.
That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.
In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.
Something else is needed.
We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.
And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:
Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
Readings for Palm Sunday: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22: 17-24; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14: 15-47
Today is Palm Sunday. For Christians, it begins “Holy Week” which recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), his Last Supper (Holy Thursday), his torture and execution (Good Friday), and his resurrection from the dead as the culmination of a long history that began with the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Holy Saturday).
As just noted, the saga begins today by recalling what the Christian Testament remembers as the day when Jesus was greeted by chanting throngs as he entered the city seated on a donkey while the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna.” They spread their cloaks before the animal that bore him to the temple precincts where he famously evicted money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals.
The event is full of political significance for those of us whose government has proudly inherited the mantle of the Roman Empire. That’s because the supposed events of Palm Sunday were probably part of a much larger general demonstration of faithful Jews including Jesus against the oppression that is part and parcel of all imperial systems including our own. As such, today’s narrative calls us to resistance of U.S. Empire as Rome’s contemporary successor.
To understand what I mean, consider (1) the significance of the Jerusalem demonstration itself and the role that palms played in its unfolding, (2) the demonstration’s chant “Hosanna, Son of David” and (3) the meaning of all this for our own lives.
Jerusalem Direct Action
For starters, think about what actually happened in Jerusalem during that first Demonstration of Palms.
Note at the outset that if the event wasn’t a whole-cloth invention of the early church, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem as a universally acclaimed figure. That’s because the gospels make it clear that all during his “public life,” Jesus confined his activities of healing and speaking to small villages where his audiences were poor illiterate peasants.
Given their small numbers, poverty and the expenses of travel and lodging, their massive presence in Jerusalem would have been highly unlikely. This meant that Jesus’ profile would have remained exceedingly low in larger cities and nearly non-existent in his nation’s capital city, Jerusalem. He would have been largely unknown there.
Again, if the event happened at all, it is more likely that the part Jesus and his disciples played in it was marginal and supportive of a larger parade and demonstration supported by well-organized revolutionaries such as Judah’s Zealot cadres whose raison d’etre was the expulsion of the occupying forces from Rome.
This also means that the demonstration’s climax with its “cleansing of the temple” would probably have represented a much larger assault on the sacred precincts where only large numbers of protestors would have stood any hope of impact rather than an individual construction worker supported by 12 fishermen.
(Remember, the residence of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, was actually attached to the temple itself. So were the barracks of Jerusalem’s occupying force. The annex was called the Fortress Antonia. During the Passover holidays, everyone there would have been on high alert rendering any small demonstration – and probably any large one — virtually impossible. If the temple itself were not crawling with Roman soldiers, they would have been surveilling the whole scene.)
But even if (before that) Jesus were welcomed by the frantic crowds as depicted in the gospels, the event would have been precisely intended to be seen by the Romans as highly political and perhaps even decisive in defeating their hated occupation and bringing on in its place what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God.
(Jesus’ high hopes surrounding the incidents of this final week in his life are suggested by the words Mark records at the Last Supper in today’s gospel reading: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” In other words, Jesus evidently thought that the events of this first “holy week” would signify a political turning point for Jews in their struggle against Rome. Their uprising would finally bring in God’s kingdom.)
In any case and whatever its historical merits, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is presented as anti-imperial. The waving of palms, the chanting of the crowd, and Jesus’ mount all tell us that. In Jesus’ time, the waving palms on patriotic occasions (like Passover) was like waving a national or revolutionary flag. That had been the case ever since the successful rebellion led by the Jewish revolutionary Maccabee family against the Seleucid tyranny of Antiochus IV Epiphanes 150 years earlier.
So, crowds greeting Jesus with palms raised high while chanting “Hosanna, Son of David” (save us!) would have meant “Hail to the Son of David, who will lead us to regain our freedom from the Romans, the way the Maccabees led the revolution against the Seleucid tyrant!” Jesus’ choice of a traditionally royal donkey as his mount would only have underscored that message. Only kings rode donkeys in processions.
All of this means that the story of “Palm Sunday” as presented in today’s reading depicts an overt threat to the imperial system of Rome supported by Jerusalem’s Temple establishment.
So, what’s my point in emphasizing the political dimensions of Palm Sunday? Simply put, it’s to call attention to the fact that followers of Jesus must be anti-imperial too.
That’s because imperialism as such runs contrary to the Hebrew covenant that protected the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans and resident non-Jews from the depredations of local elites and outside military powers.
And that’s what empire represents in every case. It’s a system of robbery by which militarily powerful nations victimize the less powerful for purposes of resource transfer from the poor to the already wealthy.
Such upward redistribution of wealth runs absolutely contrary to the profound social reform promised in Jesus’ notion of the Kingdom of God. There, everything would be reversed downward. The first would be last; the last would be first (Matthew 20:16). The hungry would be fed and the rich would suffer famine (Luke 1: 53). The rich would become poor and the poor would be rich. The joyful would be saddened and those in tears would laugh (Luke 6: 24-25).
Contradicting those grassroots aspirations is the very purpose of U.S. empire today with its endless wars, nuclear arms, bloated Pentagon budgets, and glorification of the military. All of that is about supporting the status quo and preventing Jesus’ Great Reversal.
That’s why American armed forces maintain more than 800 military bases throughout the world. All of them are engines of stability in a world of huge inequalities. (Btw, do you know how many foreign bases China maintains? One!!) Maintaining stability in a world crying out for change is why the U.S. is currently fighting seven wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Niger – and who knows where else) with no end in sight. (Today’s designated enemy, China, is fond of pointing out that it hasn’t dropped a single bomb on foreign soil for 40 years.)
Recently, a conservative church friend of mine told me that his primary identity is as a follower of Jesus. I found that wonderfully inspiring.
On second thought however, I wondered which Jesus he was referring to. Was it to the revolutionary Jesus of Palm Sunday? Or did his Jesus support U.S. empire? Did he promise individualized prosperity as the result of following him? Was his Jesus politically involved? Or did he simply ignore politics in favor of internal peace and a promised heaven after death?
The questions are crucial. There are so many Jesuses of faith. And, of course, we’re all free to choose our favorite. By the same token however, we have to explain how an “other-worldly” Jesus would have appealed to his impoverished audiences like those depicted in today’s gospel. My guess is that an other-worldly guru would have had zero appeal to them.
Why would such a Jesus have been seen as threatening to Rome? Again, he would not have been.
Yes, there are many Jesuses of faith. However, there was only one historical Jesus. And it seems logical to me that the historical Jesus must be the criterion for judging which Jesus of faith we accept — if any.
Today’s recollection of the parade down Jerusalem’s main street, with crowds waving revolutionary symbols, and its assault on the sacred temple precincts (including Roman barracks) remind us that the historical Jesus stood against empire. Like every good Jew of his time, Jesus not only hoped for empire’s overthrow, but worked to that end with its promised Great Reversal.
No wonder Jesus was so popular with his poor and oppressed neighbors. No wonder Rome executed him as an insurgent. No wonder that particular Jesus seems so foreign to us who now live in the belly of empire’s beast. No wonder he remains so despicable to our religious and political mainstream.
Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.
However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.
Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)
Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”
As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.
However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):
Jesus is not God
Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.
The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.
The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.
So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.
[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]
With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:
Was he simply a man, a prophet?
Was he simply a god?
Was he a man who became a god?
Was he a god pretending to be a man?
In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.
But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.
[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]
In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.
God Is Jesus
And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.
And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.
As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.
According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .
The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”
Jesus is the Christ
All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah. Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.
As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.
Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”
So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.
I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.
It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.
In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.
It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.
With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.
And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.
Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.
Over the past week, three approaches to the widespread availability of anti-Covid-19 vaccinations have crossed my desk. One was the comical music video (above) celebrating a supposed post-vaccine normalcy including a return to restaurants, movies, gatherings with family members, friends, grandchildren and mask-less interaction with the world at large. I couldn’t help smiling and laughing at my own relieved celebration of freedom’s prospect after more than a year of quarantine restrictions.
The second approach however was more sobering. It was an essay by Ernesto Burgio published in the Wall Street Journal’s Science and Technology International Magazine. Its basic message was “Not so fast; the human race is not nearly out of the woods.”
The third slant on the expected end of our current crisis returned me to the world of comedy and entertainment – to Bill Maher of all people and his recent riff on China’s competition with the United States (see below). He called it “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China – We Lost.” Without saying so, Maher’s thesis implied that China’s system of governance holds much more promise of dealing with Burgio’s dire warnings than does our own.
Finally, and speaking specifically as a theologian, the three pieces just referenced caused me to jump to a fourth level, a spiritual one. The leap had me concluding that nothing less than a China-inspired change in the West’s guiding spiritual mythology will save us from destruction.
Let me explain.
The 1st Anthropocene Pandemic
In his Wall Street Journal piece, Burgio pointed out that scientists have been predicting something like SARS-CoV2 pandemic for the last 20 years. In fact, Covid is merely the most dramatic manifestation of a long-expected more general biological crisis resulting from a two-century long “War on Nature” – from what Pope Francis has called a systemic attack on humankind’s “Common Home.”
In recent memory, pandemic precursors have already surfaced as outbreaks of:
Covid-19 and those predecessors along with the pandemics to follow are the consequence of climate change, deforestation, and the creation of mega-cities that pack humans together in circumstances redolent of our related mistreatment livestock on factory farms. The upshots of it all were prepared by related culturally induced comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes exacerbated by unhealthy diets dominated by sugars, salt, oils, and chemical preservatives.
According to Burgio and in view of such systemic causal links, it is senseless to seek salvation primarily in pharmaceutical remedies (including vaccines). What’s demanded instead is systemic reform of the post-modern lifestyle including rejection of fossil fuels, adoption of environmentally friendly diets (with drastically reduced meat consumption), and careful restoration of animal habitats and ecosystems.
The problem is, such radical lifestyle reforms are virtually impossible for capitalist cultures like the one found in the United States, the most powerful causal engine of environmental destruction. Especially here, where private enterprise is king, there is simply no central authority powerful or effective enough to institute the rapid comprehensive changes required to head off future pandemics, much less to save the planet. Indeed, half the American population cannot bring itself to even recognize that the pandemic is real, that human activity causes climate change, or that we’ve indeed transitioned into a new (Anthropocene) geological age.
And that brings me to Bill Maher’s observations suggesting that any hope that the human race might have lies with China.
The Chinese Promise
The title of Maher’s piece says it all: “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China; We Lost.” That’s because (in Maher’s words) unlike us, when Chinese authorities see a problem, they fix it. For example, and specifically relevant to Covid-19, when the pandemic hit, they threw up a quarantine center with 4000 rooms in 10 days. They made robots to check children’s temperatures and got them back in school almost immediately. As a result, China has returned to something close to normal. It will be the world’s only major economy to register significant growth during this extraordinary year.
In fact, Maher’s rant echoes what Burgio himself pointed out in his essay when he said:
“. . . it is an indisputable fact that Asian countries, first of all China, but also South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore have been able to stop the pandemic in the bud. It is also clear, to refute those who say that only authoritarian governments have been able to stop the pandemic by limiting civil liberties in a coercive and sometimes violent way, that Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland have done the same and have had very few deaths and minimal economic costs. All these countries have implemented precise strategies to contain the chains of infection, tracking and monitoring systems, organized quarantine areas and departments specifically dedicated to medium-severe and critical cases, implementing the gold standard in the management of pandemics: focusing on and strengthening primary health care.”
So, if it wasn’t because of the “authoritarian” character of its government, how explain China’s flexibility not only in dealing with Covid-19, but with its short-order elimination of extreme poverty, its rapid development of infrastructure, and its uniquely effective “foreign aid” as demonstrated in its Belt and Road Initiative?
Answering that question brings me to the earlier-mentioned realm of theology and spirituality. The answer is that China’s “Civilization State” (and eastern culture in general) is more effectively spiritual than anything found in western “Nation States.”
The fact is that Chinese culture deeply influenced by Marxism recognizes more clearly than do westerners the truth of Burgio’s starting point – his approving reference to Pope Francis’ recent encyclicals (Laudato Si’, and Fratelli Tutti) with their defense of the earth as humankind’s “Common Home.”
Instead, the West’s individualism and emphasis on competition prevents it from embracing anything resembling Francis’ appeal to the common good. This has been especially so since its endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
Regrettably, Thatcher’s point is supported by the fundamental Judeo-Christian myth of creation. As interpreted by Augustine, it spins the tale of our first parents’ “original sin” that corrupted all humans and all of creation as well.
If we’ve been told from birth that we’re all corrupt and that nature itself has been vitiated, why would we be surprised to see one another as enemies with whom cooperation (vs. competition) is impossible? Why would we be surprised that we harbor rapacious attitudes towards Mother Nature herself or that we easily excuse governmental depravity?
Obviously, China (along with most eastern cultures) does not believe any of that. As a result, in the name of the common good and with support from the vast majority of its people, it can turn on a dime when faced with problems like the Covid-19 pandemic. As Maher says, “When the Chinese see a problem, they fix it.”
By contrast, our culture with its crippling spirituality and adversarial conception of democracy finds itself gridlocked into a syndrome of discord and immobilizing cross-purposes.
As Burgio says, Covid-19 is not a mere bump in the road. Instead, it represents a “syndemic” – an entire set of health-related problems involving myriad interacting afflictions that cannot be cured by hospital-centric health systems whose ultimate response is technological and pharmaceutical.
Ultimately, the response must be spiritual and civilizational. We must face the fact that normalcy is gone. “Vaccine Day” happy talk won’t save us. Nor will attempts to defeat, stifle, control or replace China as the world’s emerging leader not only economically, but spiritually as well. Only fundamental change along the lines of China’s flexibility and efficiency inspired by notions of common good and common home can save us now.