My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.
Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes? They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.
All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.
At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.
While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!
Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?
I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”
So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.
I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.
I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.
To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).
As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.
Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.
Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)
None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.
Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.
I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.
To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.
I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.
(Next week: Nicaragua!)
Readings for the 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 2:42-47; PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-29; I PT 1:3-9; JN 20:19-31
Bernie’s even more popular among Democratic voters, blacks, and Hispanics. Eighty percent of Democrats, 73 percent of registered black voters, and 68 percent of registered Hispanic voters have favorable opinions of the 75 year old politician.
All of this signals an unbelievable achievement for an economic system we’ve been taught to hate. Long before the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45), and especially since then, Americans have been subjected to unrelenting anti-socialist propaganda from every side – school, church, media, politicians . . . And following the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union no one wanted to be even remotely associated with socialism, much less with communism.
But things have changed. Fifty-three percent of millennials now have a favorable view of socialism. Sixty-nine percent would cast their ballot for a socialist in a presidential election.
Again: in the light of all that negative indoctrination, that’s incredible. Even if poll-respondents are fuzzy about their understanding of socialism, the phenomena indicate that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with socialism’s opposite, the reigning capitalist order.
All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, where the first reading reminds us that (as Mexico’s Jose Miranda says directly) socialism and even communism originated in Christianity. It doesn’t come from Marx and Engels.
In fact, Miranda goes further. He says Christianity is communism. And I think he’s right. Just look at today’s description of life among Jesus’ first followers after the experience they called his “resurrection”:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”
Luke the evangelist repeats that refrain later in his “Acts of the Apostles” when he writes:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).
There you have it. The early Christians:
* Lived communally
* Rejected private property
* Including land and houses
* Instead held everything in common
* Pooling all their resources
* And distributing them “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
* As a result, they eliminated poverty from their midst.
Did you catch the operative words: they divided their property “among all according to each one’s needs?” To repeat, those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. They have nothing to do with atheism. On the contrary, they have everything to do with faith.
They have everything to do with following Jesus who himself was a communist. He’s the one who said, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:3).
Jesus, not Marx, is the one who set concern for those in need as the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life. He said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me” (MT 25: 35-36). Everything, Jesus insists, depends on recognizing his presence in the poor and oppressed and responding accordingly.
Of course it’s often pointed out that the Christian experiment in communism was short-lived. Jesus’ followers soon backed off from their early idealism. That observation is supposed to invalidate their communistic lifestyle as impossibly utopian and therefore no longer applicable as Christians’ guiding North Star. In fact, this objection is taken as justifying the persecution of the communism the text idealizes and recommends!
But the same argument, of course, would apply to the Ten Commandments in general or to the Sermon on the Mount – or to the U.S. Constitution for that matter. In our day (and in the course of their histories) all of those statements of ideals have only sporadically been lived out in practice. Should we throw them out then? Should we persecute those espousing the Sermon on the Mount ideals or observance, for instance, of the Fourth Amendment? Few in the Christian community or in the U.S. political world would make that argument.
Others anxious to distance themselves from the communistic ideals of early Christianity would point out that the communal life adopted by Jesus’ first followers was voluntary not imposed from above. In doing so, they point to another passage in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. That’s the one involving Ananias and Saphira – a couple whose life is exacted for claiming to have sold their property while actually keeping some of it back for themselves.
Referring to their property, Peter says to Ananias, “Was it not still yours if you kept it, and once you sold it was it not yours to dispose of?” (Acts 5:4) But (again as Miranda points out) what was optional was not selling their property – Christianity’s indispensable condition. What was optional was the choice to become a disciple of Christ. Choosing the latter option required practicing communism – and that under pain of death!
As for economic systems imposed from above. . . Can you name one that isn’t?
How many of us have really chosen to live under capitalism? “None of us” is the answer. That’s because to make an informed choice, one must know the alternative. However, our families, schools, churches and civic organizations, our films and novels and news programs mostly conspire together to vilify alternatives and keep them hidden.
Besides that, our government and military have made sure that experiments in alternatives [like the one implemented in Cuba (1959) or Nicaragua (1979)] fail or are portrayed as failures – lest their “bad example” undermine capitalist claims to be the only viable system.
Even worse, our church leaders (who should know better) jump on the anti-communist band wagon and present Jesus as a champion of a system he would despise. Church people speak and act as if Luke’s passage from Acts had read:
“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others however raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”
When are we going to stop this bastardization of Christianity?
First of all, we must face it: Jesus was a communist; so were his earliest followers after his death!
What then should are would-be followers of Yeshua the Christ to do? At least this:
* Read Jose Miranda’s manifesto, Communism in the Bible.
* If we can’t bring ourselves to sell what we have, give it to the poor, and live communally, at least conspire with like-minded people to share tools, automobiles, gardens – and perhaps even jobs and homes in an effort to reduce poverty and our planetary footprints.
* “Out” the “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan and other congressional “Christians” whose budgets attempt to balance federal accounts by increasing the ranks of the poor whose poverty the communism of the early Christian community successfully eliminated.
* Pressure our government to get off Cuba’s back and allow it to experiment in prophetic ways of living that can save our planet.
I’m sure you can add to this list. Please do so below.
(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.
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.)
It’s Easter. But I can hardly bring myself to say “Happy Easter.” That’s because the world is once again rushing towards war – the antithesis of the holiday’s celebration of life. And it’s being led in that direction by a nation where 70-75% claim somehow to follow the risen Christ.
[BTW did you notice that just last Thursday Christian fundamentalists dropped (on Afghanistan tribal lands) the largest Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?]
But why the bombing in Syria? Get ready . . . It’s because of our “enemy’s” deployment of weapons of mass destruction! In Syria, it’s about chemical weapons! It’s about a leader who absolutely must be removed from office because he so resembles Adolph Hitler.
What’s his name again?
But what about the victims of their WMDs, you ask – the children poisoned?
What about the poisoned children in Flint Michigan, I might ask? We stand by silent as they’re allowed to drink water contaminated by lead. Oh, but I forgot; those are American children – and they’re mostly black. And as we all know, black lives don’t matter. They’re on their own. We obviously have greater responsibility for poisoned Syrian kids. (Imagine the unborn fetuses that were killed!) We simply must protect them all from death at the hands of the dictator du jour.
Apparently we’ve forgotten about the 500,000 children our sanctions killed in Iraq during the 1990s. That was o.k. It must have been. Madeleine Albright said so.
Apparently we’ve forgotten about the millions (!) of children in Yemen currently threatened by famine directly induced by the U.S.-Saudi coalition which has been bombing that country non-stop for more than two years. We do nothing for them except continue the mayhem.
But that’s o.k. too. After all, our leaders tell us bombing is the solution to any problem you might care to name. It’s all justified. And besides Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Poor people (especially so far away) don’t really matter either. It’s the arms manufacturers Raytheon, Motorola, Boeing, and their billionaire owners who really count. They’re our neighbors – on Wall Street.
Have you noticed; the stock market is soaring?
And, of course, the record shows that our leaders have been right – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia. Aren’t we proud of the freedom, democracy, and peace our own WMDs have brought those benighted lands?
And (once again!) the press is cheerleading it all. Check the newspapers. Look at CNN. Hardly a single editorial has criticized the rush to war. Brian Williams finds our Cruise Missiles “beautiful.”
On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?
That’s because everything I’ve just described is terribly out-of-sync with the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and death on behalf of others. Protecting himself by sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.
Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens refused to succumb to today’s war fever because of our faith in Jesus’ Way. Imagine if we called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the Mid-East’s problems.
A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference. It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter!”
[In this series, I’ve been describing my personal development as a critical thinker. I’ve been using the matrix supplied by Ken Wilber who understands human growth as advance through the stages of egocentrism to ethnocentrism and (for some) to world centrism and even cosmic centrism. Each one of these stages, I’ve been arguing, recognizes its own set of “alternative facts.”]
My ethnocentrism grew alongside the first stage in personal development described here last week as “egocentrism.” Ethnocentrism meant that I was fiercely Catholic. For me, that was my primary group identification, my tribe. At this stage, in terms of critical thinking, no other denomination, and certainly no other religion had anything to do with truth that really mattered. All Protestants were simply wrong and destined for hell. For me, that was a fact.
Such conviction stuck with me and grew after I entered St. Columban’s Minor Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo) at the age of 14. The seminary belonged to the Society of St. Columban – a missionary group founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. Its calling involved converting Chinese “pagans” who without our ministries, we all believed, would themselves be bound for hell – another fact.
At this stage, my second ethnocentric form of allegiance was to my country. I remember being confused during a “day of recollection” that our entire seminary (about 100 students) attended at a corresponding institution run by the Passionist Fathers in nearby Dunkirk, New York. That was around 1955, only 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. A rather elderly priest from the host seminary gave some kind of keynote talk. In its course, he described the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the most immoral acts in history.” I was shocked and entirely confused. Was this man a communist or what?
My suspicions were aroused by the fact that missionaries on leave from assignments in the “Far East” often regaled us with stories of the evil communists who had by then driven our men and other foreigners from China following Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution in 1949. Communist Marxists hated the Blessed Virgin, we were told. That was enough for me. Communists were evil incarnate.
Similarly, those who opposed them at home were correspondingly virtuous. One evening in 1957 during study hall, one of my most admired professors who was proctoring the session, passed by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy who died on May 2nd of that year.
In 1964, at the age of 24 I cast my first ballot for president. I voted for Barry Goldwater. That shows how ethnocentric I was. In terms of critical thinking, my proud and sincere guideline was “My country right or wrong.” My facts were those of Mr. Goldwater, the Catholic Church, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover.
World Centrism Emerges
My horizons started broadening in 1962. It was then that I began accepting “alternative facts” soon after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).
That represented the thin end of a wedge that would gradually change forever what I considered true. The Second Vatican Council seemed to call my most cherished beliefs into question. It recognized that Protestants were “Separated Brethren” rather than enemies surely destined for hell. The notion of priesthood was widened to include their notion of priesthood of the faithful. Council theologians also problematized conceptions of church as the “perfect society” as well as papal infallibility. That in turn led to conclusions about an “ecclesia semper reformanda” (i.e. a church in need of continual reformation). Mandatory celibacy was criticized as an impediment to personal growth among the clergy. Seminary curricula like the one I was following in St. Columban’s Major Seminary were disparaged for their narrowness and tendencies to indoctrinate rather than educate.
Initially I resisted all of that in the name of my faith and tradition. But my ethnocentrism was under assault.
My resistance though couldn’t last. Following ordination, I was sent to Rome to secure my doctoral degree in moral theology. So I left the seminary hot house, where I had spent my formative teen age and early adult years. Suddenly, I found myself in an international atmosphere that in every dimension was so much more sophisticated than anything I had previously experienced. Rome’s context was still electric in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. And the Council’s spirit was reflected in the courses I took at the Athenaeum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana. In their light, my secure notions of theological truth underwent continual challenge.
Gradually I found it all quite liberating.
However, on the political front, it was shocking and embarrassing. Remember, these were the late ‘60s. The anti-war movement was in full swing, along with the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. It was the era of “Troubles” in Ireland. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. My last year in Rome (1972), George Wallace was shot, and the Palestinian group, Black September, terrorized the Olympic games in Munich.
Meanwhile, I was living in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste with about 15 other young priests all pursuing graduate work. Two of us were American. The others came from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Australia. Our conversations over meals revealed to me my narrowness of perspective. All my colleagues were better informed than me. They even had a superior grasp of U.S. history.
I resolved to remedy that and gave myself a crash course in current events courtesy of Time Magazine. I even ended up winning our small community’s annual political literacy contest. However, that sort of knowledge turned out to be quite superficial.
Gradually, especially because of my theological studies, I was drifting more and more leftward. In the field of theology, I frequently challenged my colleagues about the humanity of Jesus, the faults of the church, and the whole idea of trying to convert “pagans” from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to Christianity.
None of that sat well with superiors in the Society of St. Columban. Towards the end of my stay in Rome, I was informed that plans had changed. Whereas the whole purpose of sending me to Rome had been to prepare me to teach in our major seminary, I was now considered too “dangerous” for that. I would be sent to Mindanao in the Philippines instead.
For the first time, I considered leaving the priesthood.
Politically, I became similarly alienated. It stemmed from my thought that if what I had been taught about God, the Church and even Jesus were untrue, if I could question the pope, whom I had always considered infallible, why not the U.S. government? Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. Now I strongly opposed the War in Vietnam. I became a McGovern Democrat.
My journey towards world-centrism advanced. In terms of my evolving criteria for critical thought, I could already see that leaving ethnocentrism behind would mean expecting challenge.
It is extremely interesting to compare the Trump administration’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and its apparent ignorance of similar weapons use by the U.S. and U.K. in Fallujah in March and November of 2004 under the leadership of Mad Dog Mattis, our current Secretary of Defense.
We all know about Mr. Trump’s reaction a few days ago to the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria.
In the face of denials by the Syrian government, and on evidence that remains undisclosed, the Trump crowd was determined to “punish” the al-Assad government for the heinous crime of using chemical weapons.
In his justification for “punitive measures” on April 6th, President Trump paid particular attention to the photographic evidence of chemical weapons use by the al-Assad government. Specifically, he reminded us of the child victims involved.
The pictures Mr. Trump was referring to included these:
And this one:
And this one:
But what about the U.S.-inflicted atrocities behind photos like this one?:
Or this one?:
Or this one?:
According to a study published in 2010,”Beyond Hiroshima – The Non-Reporting Of Fallujah’s Cancer Catastrophe,” those are pictures of the deaths and birth defects directly resulting from “American” use of depleted uranium and chemical weapons including white phosphorous in Fallujah in 2004.
And it’s not simply a question of birth defects.
According to the same study infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia rates in Fallujah have surpassed the rates recorded among survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Following the Fallujah offensives, the rates in question rose by 60%. Dr Mushin Sabbak of the Basra Maternity Hospital explained the rises as resulting from weapons used by the U.S. and U.K. “We have no other explanation than this,” he said.
And the problem extends far beyond Fallujah. Increased cancer rates and astronomical rises in birth defects have been recorded in Mosul, Najaf, Basra, Hawijah, Nineveh, and Baghdad. As documented by Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan, there is “an epidemic of birth defects in Iraq.” She writes,
“Sterility, repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects – some never described in any medical books – are weighing heavily on Iraqi families.”
Australian anti-war activist, Donna Mulhearn, who has travelled repeatedly to Fallujah, talking with Iraqi doctors as well as affected families, added to the list:
“babies born with parts of their skulls missing, various tumors, missing genitalia, limbs and eyes, severe brain damage, unusual rates of paralyzing spina bifida (marked by the gruesome holes found in the tiny infants’ backs), Encephalocele (a neural tube defect marked by swollen sac-like protrusions from the head), and more.”
Several highly remarkable aspects of the situation just described immediately present themselves. For one there is the almost total silence of the media about the crimes of the U.S. and U.K. Then there is the lack of outrage (or even awareness?) on the parts of President Trump and U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley.
And what about those members of Congress so concerned about damage and pain to unborn fetuses? (I mean, what we have here in effect is a massive abortion operation by the United States in an entirely illegal war which has already claimed more than a million mostly civilian casualties.)
However, what is most remarkable about the contrast between responses to Syria and Iraq is the continued surprise of “Americans” by reprisal attacks by Muslims, which continue to be identified by our media as irrational and evil “terrorist attacks.”
That is, on the one hand, the U.S. feels free to self-righteously rush to judgment and “punish” the suspected perpetrators of the Syrian attacks. But on the other, it downplays, classifies, or otherwise suppresses photographs and scientific reports testifying to its own much worse crimes. Once again, those outrages are carried out against unborn fetuses, living children, women, the elderly and male adults – the very same population cohorts that so concern our “leaders” when they are attacked by designated enemies.
The logic is inescapable. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the U.S. is outraged by the killing of innocents and feels the need to “punish” the suspected perpetrators, someone else the right to treat the United States in the same way. (We might not know of the crimes of our government and military, but the whole Arab world knows!)
So we shouldn’t be surprised by any “terrorist” attacks that mimic on a comparatively small scale the U.S. response to the killing of the “beautiful little babies” that so concern Mr. Trump.
That’s the cost of hypocrisy, double standards, wars of aggression, and the use of outlawed weapons of mass destruction. In war ghastly offensives elicit ghastly counter-offensives.
Minutes ago I learned that the U.S. has done it again. On mere allegations of WMD use, without public debate or serious investigation, it has launched a barrage of missiles – this time on Syria.
The justification? The Syrian government allegedly used poison gas that killed women and children – “Babies, beautiful innocent babies” as our president put it.
Meanwhile, the United States itself:
- Is killing women and children every day in Iraq’s Mosul, where it bombs hospitals and mosques.
- It is supporting and directly participating in a war on the Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen, There, incessant bombings over the past two years have killed 10,000 civilians.
- In Yemen 17 million people (!) including innumerable “beautiful babies” are under threat of famine directly caused by the rich United States and its super-rich ally, Saudi Arabia. No word of reversing policy. We shed not a tear.
- None of this even takes into account the 30,000 children who die each day from absolutely preventable hunger. They will be as predictably dead tomorrow as if President Trump shot them one by one in their beautiful little heads.
What does all of this mean?
It means that on principle, the United States doesn’t care about killing civilians or “beautiful babies.” Somehow, it’s the manner of killing them that is objectionable. If civilians starve to death, that’s apparently O.K. If they are slaughtered by bombing, that’s O.K. too. It’s acceptable even if women and children are killed by the banned chemical weapon, white phosphorous (as they were in Iraq’s Fallujah under Mad Dog Mattis – our current Secretary of Defense) or by banned cluster bombs which end up killing and maiming children because unexploded, brightly-colored ordnance looks like toys.
But poison gas is somehow different. Decapitation is somehow different. Barrel bombs are somehow different – even though its civilian victims are just as numerous and dead as those killed by phosphorous or cluster bombs, or by Cruise Missiles.
And where does all the bombing get us? Absolutely NOWHERE! NOTHING positive has been accomplished by these incessant acts of war committed by the country Dr. King described as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. NOTHING positive has been served by the wars-without=end waged by our Amerika identified by most of the world as the greatest threat to its peace and security.
How long can we endure the hypocrisy before we all rise up against the warmongers who pretend to lead us?
This is absolutely intolerable!
Let me put some flesh on the abstractions I’ve shared so far in this series on critical thinking. I include this autobiographical material to explain the origins of the conclusions and principles I intend to share later on. They all came to me quite gradually and despite my sometimes fierce resistance.
I also present this segment to raise questions for the reader about issues connected with the Global South and its relationship to the United States and its policies. Questions similar to your own, I’m guessing, arose for me in the course of my travels. Hopefully, the rules for critical thinking to be elaborated later on will suggest answers about colonialism, capitalism and socialism, poverty, U.S. policy itself, violence, terrorism, and war. In the contemporary world, those, after all, constitute the topics worthiest of critical thought.
The odyssey I’ll describe has taken me across five continents – from Chicago to Delhi. My journeys had me gathering wisdom from my earliest school teachers, and later from world-renowned philosophers and theologians, as well as from revolutionary fighters, community organizers, gurus, teachers of meditation, and as-yet-to-be-canonized saints. As the story unfolds, I hope you can witness my horizons expand. There is nothing like language study, travel, and challenges from outside one’s cultural cave to stimulate critical thinking. Watching my process may make you aware of your own.
Like everyone else’s, my horizons were highly constricted at first. To be perfectly honest, I did not start thinking in truly critical ways till perhaps the age of 25. Yet before then, I was extremely concerned with thinking and truth. As a candidate for the Catholic priesthood from the age of 14, I studied Catholic “apologetics” and took it all quite seriously. Apologetics meant rational, logical “defense of the faith.” Later as a philosophy major in the Catholic seminary, my whole academic orientation dealt with rational approaches to subjects such as metaphysics, cosmology, and logic itself.
Yet despite such emphasis on rationality, I was not really thinking critically. Instead, my thought processes remained limited by what philosopher, Ken Wilber and others describe as those early stages of consciousness through which every human being must pass. As previously noted, they begin with ego-centrism, pass through ethnocentrism, and finally (for some) arrive at global and possibly even cosmic-centrism.
Reflection has shown me how each stage of my own growth along those lines suggested to me one or more of the ten rules for critical thinking that I mentioned in previous postings.
I was always a very religious boy. Living on Chicago’s northwest side, my working class parents (my father was a truck driver) had sent me to St. Viator’s Catholic Grammar School from kindergarten through 8th grade. Every grade there was taught by a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I have nothing but fond memories of them. They enhanced my spiritual sensitivities. Under their tutelage, I attended Mass every day, went to confession each Saturday, and became a “Knight of the Altar” (altar boy) advancing to the rank of “Vice Supreme Grand Knight.” I prided myself in learning the associated and complex Latin prayers perfectly. I loved all of that and wanted to be like Father Burke, the young but strict disciplinarian who was in charge St. Viator’s School.
With that sort of background, it comes as no surprise that my first worries in life were about the salvation of my eternal soul. That’s the form my egocentrism took. I needed to secure heaven and avoid hell at all costs. Nothing else mattered.
So seriously did I take the task that I found myself afflicted early on with a case of scruples that recurred for me periodically till my early 20s. Scruples meant that I worried about and feared as sinful what other saner people would not – especially anything that might be associated with sex.
So I became obsessed with confessing my “sins,” lest I die in mortal sin and lose my eternal soul forever. That form of obsessive-compulsive behavior was very painful for me. But with help from various spiritual directors, I gradually gained the courage to think for myself (even about God and sin). I remember thinking: “I can’t go on like this. If I’m going to hell, I’m going to hell. But I’m trusting that God is not that fearful Being “up there” looking for the least excuse to condemn me. I’ll take my chances.”
That in itself was a step away from ego-centrism and a nascent expression of critical thinking, at least in the religious sphere. I was somehow unconsciously employing the principle, “Connect with your deepest self.”
(Next week: Ethnocentrism expands my egocentric concerns)
 It should be noted that I am about to describe my development of intellectual, spiritual, and political awareness. Wilber refers to such dimensions as “lines” of development. Other lines include physical=kinetic, psychological, artistic, emotional, etc. One might be well-developed in some of these lines, and less advanced in others. For example, a person might be quite advanced intellectually, but less so emotionally and artistically.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45
Last week, the great spiritual teacher and social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson came through Berea like a Pentecost whirlwind. The message she brought connects intimately with today’s Liturgy of the Word that centralizes the political realities of resurrection from the dead in hopeless circumstances like those we’re currently experiencing in the United States.
Marianne Williamson had been invited to Berea College by my wife, Peggy, who heads the Women and Gender Studies program there. It was a real coup. Peggy worked for months trying to make it happen. In the realm of spiritual leadership, she (Marianne and my wife too) is a rock star.
Ms. Williamson not only presented an inspiring hour and a half convocation lecture with Q&A, she did the same thing for an hour at Peggy’s “Peanut Butter & Gender” luncheon series at noon. Afterwards, Peggy and I along with Berea’s president and seven of the college’s feminist leaders shared supper with Marianne at Berea’s famous Boone Tavern. To top it all off, Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary back to Cincinnati – a two-hour trip that was filled with wonderful conversation about (as my blog site puts it, “Things that Matter”). The whole experience was for me unforgettable.
Here are a few nuggets of Marianne’s wisdom:
- In the Trump phenomenon, we’ve witnessed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has poor and middle class people identifying with and seeming to love their captors and oppressors.
- Our country and the world are in unprecedented crisis. Our Titanic is headed towards huge icebergs represented by nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical poisoning.
- In such context, citizens, not politicians, are captains of our ship. There is nothing more important than our seizing control before it’s too late. Working to do so should fill our waking hours.
- Young people, no doubt, have much to offer in helping our ship to reverse course. However, as community elders, others of us are Keepers of the Story. We remember the invaluable lessons of Malcolm, MLK, Dorothy Day, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We experienced the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. We must share that experience and the understanding it generated.
- If in doing so, you find everyone agreeing with you, you’re probably not speaking the truth.
- On the other hand, when you hear the truth spoken (even if others are rolling their eyes), it’s incumbent on you to say, “Actually I agree with her,” if that’s the case. Studies show that speaking up like that encourages others to overcome inhibitions in advancing the conversation and speaking more truthfully.
- In its attempts to speak truth, the left is making a huge mistake by not owning the power of faith. It was no accident that abolitionists and women suffragists were Quakers. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher or that Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu prophet.
- Imitate those people of faith. It’s no use waiting for the others to “come around.” The majority didn’t support abolition of slavery, women getting the vote, the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage – or the American Revolution, for that matter. Such changes were effected by relatively small groups of highly committed idealists.
- In fact, people are hungering for spiritual nourishment; and if they’re not offered authentic spirituality, they’ll accept its ersatz version.
- That’s a reality that the political right has exploited. It has substituted a Prosperity Gospel that worships capitalism and money for authentic spirituality’s advocacy of social justice.
- In the Christian context, the ersatz version has figuratively killed Jesus, who needs once again to be raised from the dead.
It’s that last point that especially connects with today’s liturgical readings – and with our current seemingly hopeless political reality. There to begin with, Ezekiel coins the concept of “raising from the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.
Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.
But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.
In her convocation address to Berea College students, Marianne Williamson embraced not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. She did so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 45 years. It’s that version, Marianne said, which has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor and all of God’s creation, not to the rich whom ersatz Christians prioritize.
Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.
In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!
So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.
To repeat, Marianne strongly implied that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is chillingly represented recently by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.
As Ms. Williamson indicated, no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.
In other words, Ryan on the one hand, and Marianne, and Jesus on the other are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, today’s Gospel reading calls him back to life. It’s as if the followers of the authentic Jesus were standing before his grave shouting ”Come Forth!”
And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews our faith.
Our faith is renewed because, as Marianne reminded us last week, we recognize in Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.
As Marianne Williamson constantly reminds her congregations, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” She reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.
So today, as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo her cry: “Jesus, come forth!” And then for the rest of our lives, let our actions make that resurrection happen in our own!