Christmas Is Blasphemy: Put Mithra Back in Xmas

Now that we’re in the Christmas season, I thought it might be time to reprint some Xmas reflections from the past. Here’s one that, though obviously dated, still applies. I published it first in 2016.

Last year at this time, two very different religious leaders – one considered left of center, the other a fundamentalist preacher – converged in agreement about the meaninglessness of Christmas. They both concurred: except as a secular winter festival, Christmas is religiously meaningless.

On the left, Pope Francis called the Christian world’s upcoming Christmas celebration a “charade.” He said there’d be parties, gift exchanges, and family gatherings in the name of celebrating Jesus’ birth, but it would all be absurd pretense.

That’s what charade means: an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.

And the pope was right. Starting around Thanksgiving, so-called Christians pretend to honor “the Prince of Peace” – the one who took no one’s life, but sacrificed his own rather than take up arms — who was himself a political refugee – conceived out-of-wedlock – brown-skinned, poor, and living under imperial occupation – the one who would be a victim of torture and capital punishment – who was all the things that good Christian supporters of Donald Trump and of the U.S. War on Terror hate and despise.

That’s right. our culture despises Jesus and all he really stands for.

And that’s where the fundamentalist preacher comes in.  He agrees with the pope – well kind of.

About the same time Pope Francis was talking charade, Rev. Joshua Feuerstein, denounced Starbucks for hating Jesus. The good reverend was outraged by the coffee giant’s holiday cups which display no specific reference to Jesus. That’s a sign, Feuerstein said, that Starbucks agrees with the movement to remove Christ from Christmas. Starbucks hates Jesus. So let’s boycott Starbucks!

On the one hand, could anything be more absurd? The world is burning. Our way of life is destroying God’s creation. Our country is waging war against the poor everywhere – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia . . . We supply weapons to all sides in the endless war our “leaders” have declared. And our man was worried about Starbucks’ drinking cup! He denounced Starbucks for simply recognizing what is: Jesus has long since been removed from Christmas.

On the other hand, there was wisdom in Rev. Feuerstein’s accusations. And it’s not just Starbucks that “hates Jesus;” it’s our entire culture – including our churches. In that sense, Feuerstein agrees with Francis. However, hating Jesus has nothing to do with coffee cups. As I said, it means despising those Jesus identified with in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) – the poor immigrant refugee from our endless bombing campaigns, the hungry street person, the homeless beggar, the imprisoned desperado, the coatless person we pass on our way into Starbucks.

So what to do to avoid making this Christmas an empty charade?

We can start by recognizing that Christmas is a winter festival and nothing more. Every culture has them. They are times for ice sculptures, bright lights, reunions with family, for feasting, drinking, parties and exchanges of gifts. All of that distracts us from the oncoming season’s dark and cold – and from our destruction of God’s planet.

That’s the way it was in ancient Rome too. Rome had its Saturnalia. In fact, December 25th was the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra, who was a favorite with Roman legionnaires. In that sense, Mithra’s birthday was a military holiday – a celebration of empire and its wars. Our militarized culture should be at home with that.

So let’s end the charade. Have fun.  Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s what winter festivals are about. But forget the blasphemy of associating Jesus with any of it. Raise your Starbuck’s cup and toast a happy feast of Mithra!

The First Sunday of Advent: Pope Francis’ Covid-19 Reflection

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 63: 16B-17, 19B; 64: 2-7; Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37

Last week, Pope Francis wrote a beautiful Covid-19 reflection in the New York Times (NYT).

He recalled how the pandemic’s unsung heroes reminded him of his own brush with death when he was just 21 years old.  At that tender age, he was hospitalized with a pulmonary infection that ultimately cost him part of a lung.

At the height of his crisis, two nuns working as nurses in his Argentine hospital ignored doctors’ prescriptions and doubled the dosage of penicillin and streptomycin in one case and increased his pain killers on the other. Their courage in doing so, the Pope is convinced, saved his life.

Generous, courageous souls like the two religious sisters who helped him then have reemerged, Francis noted, during the pandemic. They’re the “saints next door.” They’ve saved innumerable lives as nurses, doctors, caregivers. They’re the essential workers who in many countries have regularly been applauded at doorsteps and windows with genuine gratitude and awe.

The selflessness of such heroes has sometimes cost them their lives. But many among those champions sacrificed freely knowing as Francis put it, that “it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call.” They represent the antibodies to an infection among us far more dangerous than Covid 19 – the virus of indifference.

Writing pointedly in the premiere U.S. newspaper, Francis identified that more dangerous virus with governments that have not put the well-being of their people first. Instead, they have “shrugged off the painful evidence of mounting deaths.” They’ve pandered to groups opposing travel restrictions, social distancing and facemasks as if such measures constitute “some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!” Francis said that worship of that kind of liberty has become for many a kind of ideology obstructing all understandings of common good.

In Francis’ view, such selfish shortsightedness shows that Covid-19 is merely one of the pandemics currently afflicting our planet. Hunger, violence and climate change are others. All of them lack perspective and generosity.

Responding effectively means attuning our sensibilities to the pain of others who have been deprived of life’s basic needs – work, food, housing and human dignity. Responding means recognizing that we’re never saved alone; we are bound by human solidarity and reciprocity.

Reading the pope’s words, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels between them and our readings for the first Sunday of Advent. Together, they call us to reverse course – to wake up from our collective stupor to the presence of what some call God in the neighbors, heroes and martyrs whom Francis’ words identify so poignantly.

What follow are my “translations” of the readings in question. Please check the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.      

 Isaiah 63: 16B-17, 19B; 64: 2-7

 We have lost our way;
 We’ve hardened our hearts;
 We no longer even know
 What faithfulness means.
 We feel somehow unclean,
 Polluted and aimless.
 Yet, we long to see more deeply
 To reality’s very heart
 As never before.
 Reunion with You, Divine Mother
 Is what we ultimately crave –
 To be refashioned
 As if we were clay
 In your lovely hands.
 
 Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19

 So, please show us your face.
 Save us from ourselves.
 Strengthen us.
 Bring us home.
 Demonstrate again
 Your care for us
 As a shepherd guarding her flock,
 As a gardener tending her vine.

 I Corinthians 1: 3-9

 Oh, wait
 You’ve already done that
 Haven’t you?
 You’ve answered our prayer
 In Yeshua, the Christ.
 His loving kindness
 And revolutionary teachings
 Bring clarity, insight
 And serene understanding.
 They restore
 Meaning to our communal lives.
 
 Mark 13: 33-37

 Above all
 (Like the Buddha)
 Yeshua commanded us
 To wake up
 To see
 What sleepers miss:
 Constant divine manifestations
 At our very doorstep
 When we expect
 Them least
 Morning, noon and night. 

What Amy Coney Barrett Missed in Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti”

The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.

The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.

Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.

Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism

Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.

This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.     

However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).

Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.

Pope Francis’ Catholicism

All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).

Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.

With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)

Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:

  • The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
  • Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
  • Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
  • Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
  • Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
  • Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
  • Violence:  Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
  • Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
  • War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
  • Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
  • Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).

Conclusion    

The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.  

Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”

Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.

Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.  

“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Three Unspeakable Descriptors of California’s Omni-Fire

FIRE

California is on fire. Its 17 unprecedented conflagrations are predicted to rage out-of-control till at least the end of this month.

Despite such disaster, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of the catastrophe. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is a person, “Pope Francis.”

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change.” The term hardly crosses the lips of commentators covering the wild fires across an area larger than the sprawling city of L.A.

That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.) So, you don’t hear much these days connecting wild fires and climate change.

And that brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s.

Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial is not jobs, but money. It’s greed that drives corporations such as Exxon to accept destruction of the planet over appropriate response to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name is unmentionable in connection with California’s omni-fire. In fact, more than three years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.)

Yet, Francis’ dire warnings in Laudato Si’ (LS) remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic” leaders like Paul Ryan.

Worse still, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet, the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to not only to wild fires, but to the record temperatures, droughts and increasingly violent hurricanes now happening in real time. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain . . . The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only . . . be reduced by our decisive action here and now”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175). That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Their rationale? Such submission threatens profits.

But realities much more important than unspeakable profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith and morality.

In fact, the California fires and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

The California omni-fires demonstrate that truth.

The question is: why aren’t people of faith listening? Why are we not electing public servants who will simply recognize and respond appropriately to the disasters unfolding before our very eyes?

Only God Can Save Us from Nature’s 2025 Deadline: Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change

Last batter

I recently came across a powerful but profoundly misleading video about climate change. In the name of progressiveness, compassion and love, it waves a white flag before anthropogenic climate change and invites its viewers to blissfully coast through to their inevitable evolutionary demise.

The film’s resigned surrender contrasts sharply with the more hopeful, clear-eyed vision of Pope Francis and the faith-inspired program he suggests in his all-but-ignored eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The stark difference between the two approaches illustrates the impotence of the secularized left before the world’s most pressing problems. It also shows the potential power of Francis’ faith perspective, which progressives ignore at their own (and the planet’s) peril.

First of all, consider the film in question. The eight-minute piece is called “Edge of Extinction.” It was produced and narrated by Guy McPherson, an evolutionary biologist whose webpage slogan is “Nature bats last. Passionately pursue a life of excellence.”

McPherson’s thesis is that “humanity is behaving exactly in accordance with its evolved genetic imperatives to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.”

In other words, humanity is like other animal species. Its evolutionary short-sightedness has it rushing headlong towards its own inevitable extinction whose ultimate cause is “industrial civilization, the most violent set of living arrangements ever devised.”

According to McPherson, this preordained inevitability means that we should all set aside anger and bitterness about human-caused climate change, replacing such unproductive emotions with “compassion and tolerance” presumably for climate change deniers. This, in turn, will confer peace of mind and a resultant “general happiness” as we glide towards extinction which, Mr. McPherson says will occur in 2025.

None of this is to say that it will be easy, the film continues. We’ll witness the cataclysmic death of 7.5 million people. We’ll run out of food, water, and fuel. The soil will become completely unproductive. The world’s abandoned nuclear facilities will melt down catastrophically. Hospitals will be shuttered; disease will run rampant. There will be no first responders to rescue us. Many will commit suicide. Others will be murdered by the last remnants of the privileged still hanging on to their dwindling resources in their sweltering radiated bunkers.

Is that pessimistic enough for you?

It needn’t be for three reasons: First of all, “humanity” has not actually made the decision in question. Secondly, as signaled by Pope Francis, there are clear alternatives. Third, while climate change deniers might deserve our compassion, they emphatically do not merit tolerance.

To begin with, “humanity” has certainly not decided “to survive, thrive and multiply today, regardless of the consequences tomorrow.” In fact, only a sliver of the human race has done so; the rest are in complete resistance.

The sliver in question is a small part of the planet’s richest 1% most of whom happen to live in the United States whose population comprises only 5% of the world’s inhabitants. To put a finer point on it: the criminals in question have coalesced in the United States and in the Republican Party, identified by Noam Chomsky as the most dangerous organization in the history of the world. Republicans can be removed from office. (Remember that next November!)

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has other ideas as signaled in the nascent reforms of the Paris Climate Accord endorsed by nearly everyone in the world excluding the Republican leadership. Moreover, polls show that 61% of Americans—including 43 percent of Republicans—say climate change is a problem the government needs to tackle.

Secondly, there are simple, common-sense alternatives to the looming catastrophe. They have been outlined most compellingly by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (LS). They include on the one hand, acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” as well as reducing the use of air conditioning (LS 55, 212).

On the other hand, Francis says that dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129). These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate transnational corporate activity (38).

According to Laudato Si’, changing paradigms additionally includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175). (BTW, the U.S. already submits to international legislative authorities such as, for instance, the World Trade Organization which has the power of overturning United States law.)

So, all of this is doable. And, as Francis insists, the Judeo-Christian tradition about stewardship and care for God’s creation can be invoked to persuade the 83% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian to save the planet.

Ironically, Republicans have effectively invoked the biblical tradition to support their ecocide. Few on the left have followed Pope Francis in the opposite direction. Progressive church leaders need to make climate change the absolute center of their ministries. 2025 is fast approaching.

Finally, like other criminals, Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in the Congress certainly deserve our compassion. Perhaps, they’ve been corrupted by gilded childhoods, limited experience of the life’s hardships, and by an overriding love of money, profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

But no matter how sorry we might feel for them, we must recognize that they are criminals. This sliver of 1% have taken it upon themselves to condemn all of us, our children and grandchildren to the fate so accurately described in “The Edge of Extinction.”

We cannot allow them to do that. Citizens’ arrests are in order, not to mention non-violent revolution – stimulated by recognition of shared humanity and even faith.

That’s the path Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ suggests.

Pedophilia in the Church & U.S. Military = the Same Syndrome: Young People Should Abandon the Army Just as They’ve Abandoned the Church

vignette-bacha-bazi

Sex scandal and pedophilia were in the news again last week. And this time it deeply involved more than the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.  No, it struck even closer to home than that for all Americans regardless of their religious affiliation. It involved an institution even more revered than Rome, Hollywood, or any Christian denomination.  I’m talking about the U.S. Military.

Yes, we all know about Pope Francis’ faux pas last week when he appeared to embody the ecclesiastical “old boys” syndrome by defending Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop who apparently had shielded a notorious pedophile priest from legal prosecution. The pope’s snippy defense of his prelatic friend, smacked of the cover-ups of child abuse that have come to light in the church over the last 30 years. According to the syndrome, Catholic bishops throughout the world have moved pedophilic priests from one parish to another, where the sociopaths typically continued preying on unsuspecting altar boys and confessional penitents.

Such procedure and its accompanying hypocrisy are prominent among the reasons young people and others have abandoned the church altogether.

A similar procedure involving the U.S. military should persuade young people to despise and reject military service.

I’m referring to an article published in the New York Times last week about a pedophilic practice in the Afghan military known as “bacha bazi” or boy play. It involves the widespread abuse and rape of underage boys by U.S.-trained Afghan Army personnel.

And how does this involve the U.S. military? Its leaders have adopted virtually the same policy that Catholic prelates have used over the years. They’ve turned a blind eye to the scandal and in doing so have allowed it to continue.

You see, there’s such a thing as the Leahy Law on the books. It legislates that when a recipient of U.S. aid commits gross human rights abuses, all aid to the offender must be cut off. Yet, to block application of Leahy, the U.S. and its military arm have invoked another law. It states that in the specific case of the Afghan War, no other U.S. laws apply.

Is that cynical enough for you? Does it remind you of the practice that has brought such opprobrium on the Catholic Church?  Imagine the corruption of two supposedly highly moral organizations (the Catholic Church and the U.S. military) that go out of their ways to protect pedophiles and prevent enforcement of laws that would penalize child abuse! Yet, that is exactly what two of our most trusted institutions have allowed to happen.

Add this black eye for the military to the “Me Too” scandal of sexual abuse of women enlistees in various service branches, and you end up with an outfit whose sexual corruption absolutely dwarfs that of the Catholic Church. Fully 40% of female military personnel claim they have been sexually assaulted by their peers. Eighty percent say they have been sexually harassed. If military women must endure such abuse at the hands of their colleagues, can you imagine how the abusers treat “enemy” women?

It’s time to face the facts. The U.S. military is at least as sexually corrupt as the Catholic Church. It’s time for our decent young people to vote with their feet just as they have with the church.

None of them with any shred of conscience should enlist.

(Sunday Homily) Hurricane Harvey and Its Three Unspeakable Descriptors

Pope-Francis Harvey

As everyone knows, hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, last week. Apart from its obvious devastation, initial reports said Harvey had caused at least 12 deaths across an area that is home to more than 6 million people.

What most don’t know is that on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, India and Nepal people are currently experiencing 100 times the initially reported Houston death toll. There torrential rains have killed more than 1200 people and wreaked havoc in the lives of up to 40 million South Asians living in those countries. One third of Bangladesh is currently under water.

At the same time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently published a warning that the parts of Asia just referenced (as well as Pakistan) will soon become uninhabitable for its 1.5 billion residents because of rising temperatures. Incessant heat waves will soon make it impossible for peasant farmers to work their fields. The predictable result will be famine and unimaginable loss of life.

Despite such climate events and dire warnings, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of these disasters. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is especially relevant to a Sunday homily like this. It is a person’s name. The name is “Pope Francis.” In fact, I’ll wager that this Sunday you’ll not hear him or his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) mentioned in connection with Hurricane Harvey even in most Catholic Churches. And that sad fact (despite Pope Francis’ brave efforts) simply underlines the irrelevance to which the church has been reduced.

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change,” “global warming,” or “climate chaos.” Even during non-stop TV coverage of Harvey, the terms hardly crossed the lips of commentators. That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.)

In fact, far from admitting its criminal and willful ignorance, the Republican-controlled presidency and congress are moving in the exact opposite direction of that required to address super-hurricanes (like Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey), as well as torrential flooding, disintegrating icebergs, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures. Setting itself in opposition to the entire world, our country has withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, and is doubling down on the production and use of the dirtiest fuels at human disposal (including coal) .

Additionally, hardly a day goes by without our president threatening nuclear war. As Jonathan Schell pointed out even before most of us were aware of climate change, that event would also have devastating effect on the earth’s atmosphere aggravating the climate syndrome already so well under way.

So you don’t hear much these days about climate chaos and the devastating effects of climate change denial. The reason? That brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s. Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial isn’t jobs, but capital accumulation. That is, corporations like Rex Tillerson’s Exxon are willing to destroy the planet, rather than respond appropriately to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the deception and hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name along with climate change and profit, is unmentionable in connection with Harvey. Yet, more than two years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.) Still, his dire warnings remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic leaders” such as Paul Ryan and his Republican cohorts. Even worse, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says,

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Such submission threatens jobs profits. But realities much more important than jobs profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith. It is a matter of basic decency and common sense.

In fact, Hurricane Harvey and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis has said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

Last week’s events in Texas demonstrate that truth. Mother Nature is angry, and She’s coming after us.

Are we listening?

Catholic Action vs. Trumpism: An Invitation to an Alternative Weekly Mass[1]

lords-supper

As indicated in earlier postings (here and here), the ascension of Donald Trump and his group of billionaire confidants to national leadership calls people of faith in general and Catholics in particular to adopt extraordinary and vigorous responses to the grave threat their ascent signifies.

This posting represents one such response. Its call is especially urgent in the light of the fact that the Trump administration and Republicans in general embody what Noam Chomsky has termed “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.” Their unanimous climate-change denial accords them the title. In fact, they not only deny the human causality of climate chaos, they plan to proceed full speed ahead with the practices (oil and gas drilling and fracking) that our planet’s finest minds identify as its causes. The Republicans (with the Democrats not far behind) are leading us all like lemmings to the precipice of planetary destruction and the end of human life as we know it.

This is no exaggeration.  As Pope Francis has written so eloquently:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be           leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.” (Laudato Si’ 161).

It is clear that despite Francis’ strong words, “decisive action” in the face of Trumpism’s climate-change denial and other destructive policies has no chance of issuing from the diocesan Catholic Church nor from our local Catholic community in Berea. So the invitation here is to Catholics and other people of faith to create an alternative (or, if you will, a complementary) community of faith to celebrate a house-church Mass each week. Its liturgy will be characterized by sharp awareness of the unique political context we are now entering. Each will be followed by discussions planning direct action against Trumpism in all of its forms.[2]

The Mass will be simple and prayerful. It will take place on Saturday evenings in a home (Peggy’s and mine to begin with). Together we will sing some inspiring songs, reflect on the week’s liturgical readings in the light of the Church’s rich social justice tradition, and break bread eucharistically before sharing a pot-luck supper. Each meeting will incorporate planning for specific acts of resistance.

The first convening of this alternative community will take place on Saturday, January 21st, the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration which is scheduled for January 20th. Here are the details:

Berea’s Weekly Alternative Home-Church Mass

Place: 404 Jackson St.

Time: 5:00-7:00

The Mass:

  • Welcome (5:00)
  • Singing, opening prayers, & Liturgy of the Word (5:00-5:45)
  • Eucharist (around the dining room table) & Pot Luck (5:45-6:45)
  • Planning the week’s direct action (6:45-7:00)
  • 7:00 (promptly): Dismissal

Beginnings, no doubt, will be small and modest. But we should not be discouraged. Ideas about how to proceed more inspiringly will surely develop as all group members share their suggestions.

[1] Starting next Tuesday, I will start a 4-part series here explaining the history and theology behind home liturgies including an explanation of current theologies of the Eucharist and “Real Presence.”

[2] For those who remember: The faith community envisioned here might be thought of as a more spiritually-focused Berea Inter-Faith Task Force for Peace.

On Re-appropriating My Priesthood

 

Ordination[1]

I’m so appalled at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the threats it poses to everyone and everything I care about:  the environment and climate chaos, avoidance of nuclear war, victims of torture and false imprisonment, Muslims, drone attacks, wealth disparities, women’s reproductive rights, people of color, the LGBT community, our public school system, the right to privacy, human rights in general, labor unions – my children and my grandchildren.

In fact, as I’ve written recently, a Trump presidency portends the dawning of a Fourth Reich, where the victims of incineration will be not only Jews, but all of us, as the White House teems with climate change deniers whose policies threaten all species and the continuity of human life itself.

So the question is, what can we do about it? What talent does each of us have to respond to Trumpism? As parents and grandparents, teachers, writers, counsellors, school board officials, musicians, public speakers, church members, and public citizens, what does each of us have to offer these unprecedentedly dangerous times.

My own answer is my priesthood.

Only gradually and reluctantly have I come to that conclusion. After all, 40 years ago I exited the Catholic priesthood, got married and raised a family of three outstanding children. I remained active in my local church. And as a professor at Berea College and associate of Costa Rica’s Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), I continued my role as a theologian with a doctoral degree from Rome’s Academia Alfonsiana. For years I taught in a Latin American Studies Program that took students to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In those capacities, I wrote books and articles and offered courses connected with liberation theology.  However, I resigned myself to my role as lay person – a member of the church’s “loyal opposition.”

And the opposition was absolutely called for. Over the years I’ve found myself dismayed as two consecutive regressive popes (John Paul II and Benedict XV) waged a vicious campaign against liberation theology and systematically removed from the hierarchy and Catholic seminaries progressives and theologians like me. The result over the two generations has been the production of a largely reactionary Catholic clergy who long for the good old days before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

So as a lay person, I’ve often found myself sitting passively in my pew while rebelling internally against the reintroduction into the Catholic liturgy Latinisms and even Latin itself. I’ve listened uncomfortably to well-intentioned priests offer ill-prepared pious platitudes in their homilies rather than reflections connected with the historical Jesus and his relationship to the problems that householders like me face in our private and public lives. And, to speak truly, I was blaming them unfairly. After all, how could they possibly offer what their retrenched seminary training prevented them from receiving?

Still, it struck me as ironic that hundreds of people in my parish come together for about 2 hours each Sunday to reflect on their most dearly held (Gospel) values, but come away having barely tapped into the unlimited power for changing their personal lives and the world itself that those values supply. What a waste, I thought – not only for the parishioners directly involved, but for the world.

Then came a breath of fresh air reminiscent of Pope John XXIII’s famous “opening of windows” more than 50 years ago. Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis – a man intent on recovering the spirit of Vatican II. Deeply influenced by the liberation theology his predecessors had warred against, he published “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.) and then his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (L.S.). Both publications were bolstered by unprecedentedly honest and refreshing public statements. (Who can forget his question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”)  Francis not only called the church to profound reform; he called the world itself to a “bold cultural revolution.”

As for church reform, Francis called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the Church to embark on a “new path” (J.G. 1, 25) on which things cannot be left as they presently are (25). He called for new ways of relating to God, for new narratives and new paradigms (74). He wanted new customs, ways of doing things, new times, schedules, and language (27) — with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159).

Despite (lamentably) continuing to exclude women from the priesthood, the pope ordered the church to expand their roles in church life.  He recognized women as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

Clearly, then, the pope was speaking (as he said) not primarily to pastors and bishops, but to everyone (33). Decisions about change, he said, should be guided by the principle of decentralization (16, 32). They should be made at the parish level, because parishes are more flexible than Rome or the local chancery, and more sensitive to the specific needs of local people (28). The inventiveness of local communities should not be restrained, he said, but limited only by the openness and creativity of the pastor and local community (28). Such decisions should be respected by local bishops (31).

As for connecting the gospel with world issues, Pope Francis identified the struggle for social justice as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). He saw “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (192, 213). He also completely rejected war as incapable of combatting violence caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Pope Francis rejected unfettered markets and the “trickle down” ideologies as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

In Laudato Si’ the pope issued an urgent call to the Church and the world to address issues connected with human-caused climate chaos.  In this the entire encyclical (see my book, Understanding Laudato Si’: a Discussion Guide) might be seen as a complete rejection of Trumpism and of the entire Republican Party’s denial of that problem.

So, once again: what to do about it?

Experience shows that the anti-Vatican II clergy resistant to Pope Francis remains incapable of responding either to the latter’s Apostolic Exhortation (J.G.) or to his eco-encyclical (L.S.). Much less has it demonstrated a willingness to address the issues of political-economy, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, war, torture, etc.  raised by the emergence of Trumpism. (Once again, it is wrong to blame the clergy for this. Their training has made effective response impossible.)

So I’ve decided to do something about it myself. I’ve decided to reactivate my priesthood.

Honestly, I have to admit that the process of doing so began about 5 years ago following my retirement after 40 years of teaching at Berea College. It was then that I set goals for myself. One of them was an ill-formed, vague resolve to “reclaim my priesthood.”

As a preliminary step, I started a blog. Its center piece was the publication of a “Sunday Homily” each week. The reflections tried to connect world events, personal, and family problems with each Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Eventually, my homilies were picked up by OpEdNews – a completely secular progressive news source run by a Jewish editor. Over the years, I’ve published more than 200 such homilies covering Catholic lectionary readings for all three liturgical cycles. The result has been the creation of a kind of cyber community of readers that averages 1600 views of each reflection every week.

Now, in view of the crisis of Trumpism, I’ve decided that my contribution to resistance will be to translate that cyber community into a real-time assembly of faith. It will actually attempt do something to implement Pope Francis’ summons to church reform, and address in particular issues connected with climate chaos.

What I’m proposing is not a Protestant or even an ecumenical gathering. Rather my call is to an alternative Catholic “parish” in my town. Of course, this is not unusual; most towns of any size have more than one Catholic parish. Though specifically Catholic, all people will be welcome – Catholics, Protestants, atheists . . . In particular, “drop-outs” from our local community of faith are encouraged to join.

I imagine the gathering will be very simple – nothing of a show or performance. Rather, people will gather in my home (to begin with). We’ll sing or chant for a while, read the week’s liturgical selections, and share reflections. Afterwards we’ll gather at the dining room table for a brief Eucharistic breaking of bread followed immediately by a pot-luck meal. The week’s meeting will conclude with a planning session outlining activities for the coming week to resist the inroads of Trumpism.

All of this reminds me of the activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church” in the 1930s when Lutherans and others decided they had to do something to resist Hitler’s fascism. What I’m proposing here is an analogue, where people of faith call on their tradition to confront fascism’s re-emergence.

I’m convinced that only resistance fortified by deep faith can effectively combat that reincarnation. And even if only two or three join me in this proposal, I’m determined to go through with it. After all Jesus did say: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20).