For a couple of years now my pastor (Carter Via) at our newly-adopted non-denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church (THCC) has tried to find an opening for me to speak about liberation theology during one of our Sunday services. But Covid-19 as well as Peggy’s and my three months in Florida this winter made it difficult to arrange.
However, now that most of us are vaccinated, we’re back to in-person Sunday worship services. So, my opportunity to speak came over the Memorial Day weekend. The holiday made it possible for many members of my family to attend.
To illustrate liberation theology’s approach to the Bible, I selected for my remarks the strange story of The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac that appears in the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20. It was read beautifully by our co-pastor (Jennifer McCleery).
Carter had asked me not only to explain liberation theology, but my personal journey towards accepting its approach to the following of Jesus.
What follows is the church service. If you watch the entire thing, it may give you an idea of why Peggy and I find ourselves drawn to this particular church community. Otherwise, of course, you can simply move the cursor to the point where my remarks begin (around the 22 minute mark). Find the link immediately below. Scroll down to the second video viewer.
I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.
My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.
The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.
Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.
Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.
Fr. Rohr and Me
I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.
Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.
Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.
Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.
Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).
Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.
Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.
The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.
Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.
Rohr, Jesus and Rome
Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.
All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.
Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:
Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
[Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).
The Historical Jesus
My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”
Take those points already reviewed:
For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.
Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:
Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.” They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.
Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ
Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.
Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.
Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.
By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.
To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.
Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.
None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is. Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.
As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.
As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.
Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.
That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.
In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.
Something else is needed.
We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.
And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:
Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.
However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.
Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)
Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”
As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.
However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):
Jesus is not God
Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.
The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.
The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.
So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.
[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]
With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:
Was he simply a man, a prophet?
Was he simply a god?
Was he a man who became a god?
Was he a god pretending to be a man?
In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.
But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.
[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]
In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.
God Is Jesus
And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.
And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.
As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.
According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .
The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”
Jesus is the Christ
All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah. Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.
As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.
Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”
So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.
I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.
It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.
In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.
It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.
With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.
And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.
Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.
[This is a second reflection on a pair of Zoom experiences I had last Monday. I reported the first here – some comments I made at a meeting of the Y’s Men of Westport. What I said and my insistence on saying it had me wondering about my role in the world during this third stage of my life. How much should I say? To what extent should I just shut up?
Today, I’m reporting on a Zoom meeting later that same day. It had me co-leading a Lenten discussion at our new church in Westport, CT. It was our third pre-Easter session devoted to examining controversial topics connected with our faith. Two weeks earlier, we had discussed miracles, their nature and possibility. A week later, the topic was healing. The topic last Monday was the question of “Jesus for the poor.”
With the pastor’s consent, here’s the way I approached it.]
The question of Jesus and poverty is fundamentally a religious question. And religion, of course, is a language. It marries words and concepts to a fundamentally ineffable (beyond words) experience that is open to all people. When that experience occurs in China, it comes out as Buddhism or Confucianism; when it happens in India, it’s expressed as Hinduism; when it happens in Arabia, it takes the form of Islam.
When the religious impulse finds words among the world’s poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective lives, it is expressed as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, I mean that: the biblical tradition (virtually alone among the world’s great literature) thematically reflects the religious consciousness of awakened and impoverished victims of imperialism.
More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition found its origin among slaves in pharaonic Egypt. Those slaves formed a people (called Hebrews or “rebels”) who retained their worship of a God favoring ex-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident foreigners throughout their history of domination by empires of various sorts – under Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.
The Tradition’s Foundational Story
That fact becomes clear when we consider the basic biblical story. According to virtually all mainstream scripture scholars, that narrative begins not with Adam and Eve in the garden, but with the liberation of a motley group of slaves of various ethnic identities. The story told to give them a sense of national unity runs as follows:
Jesus the Christ
Here it is important to note that Jesus appeared precisely in the prophetic tradition. His message represented a defense of the poor. This is abundantly clear from the program he articulated in Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel:
Jesus’ program represented a reversal of the world’s values. Everything in God’s kingdom would be turned upside-down. According to Luke’s “Beatitudes,” the poor would be blessed, so would the hungry and thirsty along with those suffering persecutions. Meanwhile the rich would be condemned. “Woe to you rich,” Jesus is remembered as saying, “you’ve had your reward.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will soon be weeping.” In other words, Jesus’ understanding of God’s future entailed a complete reversal of the world’s social arrangement. As he put it, “The first would be last and the last would be first” (MT 20:16).
What’s more, the early Christian community’s interpretation of Jesus’ message underlined the entire tradition’s “preferential option for the poor.” In the first Christians’ efforts to follow the Master, they actually sold what they had and gave it to the poor. That way of life is reflected in three important passages from the Acts of the Apostles:
With all of that in mind, you can see why the Christian message was so popular with slaves, the poor, with social outcasts. You can see how it inspired revolts as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. You can also understand why Rome became alarmed and famously ended up sponsoring all those persecutions which iconically fed so many Christians to lions and other beasts in the Colosseum. However, it was all to no avail – as Christianity continued to spread like wildfire.
So, at the beginning of the 4th century of our era, the emperor Constantine decided to co-op Christianity. But to do so, the new religion’s basic narrative had to be changed. It became Romanized and was effectively transformed into a Roman mystery cult.
Mystery cults worshipped gods like Mithra (whose feast day btw was Dec. 25th), Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother God. Their stories had the god descend from heaven, die, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven from which s/he offered life everlasting to believers who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.
In Christian form, the narrative supporting such belief was best expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. Drawing on stories in the book of Genesis and on statements found in Pauline writings, this is the story with which Augustine shaped and captivated Christian belief for the next 1500 years:
Notice here how the story abstracts not only from the histories of Judea and Israel, but from Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God and its Great Reversal in the here and now. Instead, everything is mythologized.
And that brings us to our discussion questions:
What are your questions about the information in these slides?
What surprised you about that information?
What (if anything) do you find questionable or unacceptable about it?
What are the implications of this approach to the bible and Jesus for your own faith?
What are the implications of this approach for the Talmadge Hill Community Church?
My 1st & 2nd Mistakes
Of course, anyone reading what I’ve just presented can see that my first mistake was speaking too long and presenting too many new ideas for a 90-minute discussion. (My face is still bright red.)
My second mistake was even worse.
The slides I just presented had been shared beforehand with our group of about 20. And one member had done his homework. After expressing appreciation for my work, he went on to list in detail his points of disagreement. He began with his belief that the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition was indeed found in Genesis, not Exodus. He went on to say that my presentation overlooked the crucial fact that Jesus is divine, the very Son of God, and that his words about poverty were meant to be taken in a spiritual rather than in a material sense.
In response, I should have kept silent. And if I chose to respond, I should have said, “I really appreciate your taking the time to express so well and clearly the most important points of the Augustinian story. What you’ve done sets us up perfectly for comparing the two basic biblical stories we’ve just reviewed. Does anyone else in the group have similar or different thoughts from the ones just expressed?”
That’s what I should have said.
However, instead (and forgetting all I’ve learned from 40 years of teaching this stuff) I attempted to respond point-by-point to the issues my friend had so well summarized.
Mine was such a bad decision that at one point, the pastor had to cut me off to give other people a chance. (As I said, my face is still a vivid crimson.)
I didn’t sleep well Monday night. I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I ever learn?” I even thought, “I’m getting too old to do this sort of thing. I think my days of teaching, public speaking, and playing leadership roles in church might be over. I’ve got to learn to say less and to stop trying to convince others about what I’ve learned over all my years of studying and dialoguing with Global South scholars. It’s all counterproductive.”
The next morning, however, things appeared a bit less dire. I received telephone calls of encouragement from the co-leading pastor and some others. Emails tried to console me. (But all of that almost made matters worse. It made me think, “They’re just trying to make me feel good. It must have been more awful than I thought.”)
The problem is that I still feel so passionate about rescuing the Jesus tradition from the irrelevance of its domestication by Augustine and subsequent theologians.
In a world of globalized poverty and exploitation, the life, words and teachings of the historical Jesus are too powerful to keep silent about. I’m just going to learn from this sobering, uncomfortable lesson and move on.
This is about something much bigger than my mistakes as a teacher.
Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.
That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.
Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.
The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.
I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.
Let me explain.
Religion’s Sudden Decline
Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.
What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.
That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.
All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.
For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:
That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
That they stay at home and care for their offspring
That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality
However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.
And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.
Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)
However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.
To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.
The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.
Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.
Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.
Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.
In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.
All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.
In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.
Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.
Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.
Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.
More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.
For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.
In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.
Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.
All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.
And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?
More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?
For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:
First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.
Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).
Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.
Mike Pence’s small god
Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.
In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”
He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”
Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”
Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.
Yeshua’s Big God
The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.
(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)
Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:
Lived his entire life in poverty.
Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).
Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial. . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.
Subsequently and besides:
Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.
Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.
Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.
So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.
It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.
That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.
Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Great Holocaust caused several Jewish attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
Basically, the offending remarks identified Germany’s wealthy Jewish 1% as providing Hitler’s fascism with pretext for his genocide of the other 99%. (I’ve summarized what was actually said here.) The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.
Rob’s recommendation reminded me of a sobering experience I had years ago in Mexico. It put me in the position of the OEN provocateur. It also caused me to reflect on the role of self-criticism that is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of critical thinking in general.
My Report from Israel
The experience I’m referring to came when I was invited to give a “Report from Israel” after a three-week study tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt sponsored by Berea College, where I taught in the Philosophy and Religion Department for 40 years. The invitation came from the Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) congregation of San Miguel de Allende.
My report was heavily influenced not only by our time spent in the Palestinian community, but by a separate visit my wife, Peggy, and I made to the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for liberation theology in Jerusalem. Scholars there connected the Palestinians’ situation with colonialism. They pointed out that ever-expanding Jewish settlements stood in blatant contravention of UN Resolution 242. It was a continuation of the European colonial system that had supposedly been abolished following World War II. In Israel-Palestine, Jewish occupation represented the familiar European settler pattern repeated throughout the former colonies. It had (Zionist) settlers from Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and elsewhere arriving unexpectedly in lands belonging for millennia to poor unsuspecting Palestinian peasants, and then confiscating their homes, fields and resources.
With all of that fresh on my mind, the thesis of my U.U. presentation was clear and unambiguous. “The real terrorists in Israel,” I said, “are the Zionists who run the country.” I didn’t consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. The Sabeel Center and Noam Chomsky had been making it for years.
What I didn’t realize was that almost everyone in my audience was Jewish. (I didn’t even know about San Miguel’s large Jewish population – mostly “snowbirds” from New York City.) Nonetheless, my remarks that Sunday stimulated an engrossing extended discussion. Everyone was respectful, and the enthusiastic conversation even spilled over beyond the allotted time.
The trouble started after the head of San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice (CGJ) where Peggy and I were working at the time invited me to publish my talk as an article in San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atención.
I’ll never forget what followed; it was very similar to what occurred during Rob’s OEN Zoom call. All hell broke loose:
A barrage of angry letters flooded the Atención pages for the next two weeks and more.
As a result, Atención threatened to cancel the column space set aside for the CGJ each week.
San Miguel’s Bibliotheca (library) talked about ending the CGJ’s access to meeting rooms there.
My article was removed from Atención’s archives.
Someone from the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) phoned my provost at Berea College reporting me for my inflammatory article, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.
The CGJ’s leadership was forced to do some back-pedaling distancing itself from me and my remarks.
They lit candles of reconciliation at a subsequent U.U. meeting begging forgiveness from the community and absolution for that mad man from Berea.
The guiding assumption in all of this was that my argument was patently false.
In other words, an article that should have stimulated critical thinking and discussion (with CGJ activists leading the way as a voice for Palestine’s voiceless) was met instead with denial, dismissal, and apology.
Of course, I know that criticizing Zionists for their treatment of Palestinians is quite different from the holocaust denial that some on the OEN call perceived a few weeks ago.
It is also probably futile for members of the goyim like me to comment on the topic. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so, because:
My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers.
They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.
Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding a new religion. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.
In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. (Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are.) Additionally, what separates Zionists from other contemporary neo-colonizers is their claimed religious identity. So, to ignore the role of religion here overlooks the proverbial elephant in the room.
Recognizing the elephant gives license to say that what really happened in the Zoom conversation and in reaction to my remarks in San Miguel mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus and their contemporaries. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):
Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words
Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish 1% while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority. Pointing that out is simply telling the truth.
Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to a still wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.
All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.
The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, as both a Roman Catholic and a U.S. citizen, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany and against contemporary Zionists. I feel resentment at the very mention of such truths.
Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of parochial consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for the dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.
As Paulo Freire puts it in The Politics of Education, all critical thinking begins with self-criticism.
Grandchildren are wonderful. And so are Christmas pageants.
Last Sunday, just minutes before the curtain went up on our church’s annual play, one of the shepherds (my seven-year-old grandson Orlando) approached me with an urgent question seemingly from out of the blue. “What’s the evidence (he used that word) that Jesus ever lived? How do we know,” he asked, “that he existed at all? Huh? Huh? Where’s the evidence?”
Caught off guard, I replied, “Well, that’s complicated. I suppose we have as much evidence as for any figures from the ancient past. How do we know, for instance, that Julius Caesar ever existed?”
With that, Orlando ran off to tend the sheep.
But of course, my answer – except for the first part about complications – was completely inadequate. It revealed how we elders have dodged sharp questions from our children and grandchildren long enough. We’ve not been honest with them in answering burning queries concerning the very meaning of life and the nature of the sources we claim to be inspired. As a result, we’ve driven them away into a world that is consequently (as Caitlin Johnstone has so delicately put it) completely F**ked. That is, we’ve filled their minds with fictions that pretend to explain the world but that won’t finally hold water.
Let’s face it: we don’t have nearly the evidence for Jesus’ existence that we have for Caesar’s. And there’s good reason for that hard reality – reason that cuts to the very heart of so many questions about figures from yesteryear and even about our contemporaries. It’s the reason we need “people’s histories” like Howard Zinn’s.
Fact is, we never know much about poor people from any historical period (including our own). And Jesus left no direct record. He wrote nothing. Possibly he was illiterate.
Moreover, the record-keepers of Jesus time (and the Romans were exquisite about records – that and building roads and killing people) just weren’t interested in the nobodies they ruled, especially in marginal provinces like Israel – and especially from towns like Nazareth, a true nowheresville.
Yes, the Romans kept records about their puppet kings and temple collaborators. But even those flunkies weren’t interested in the others, much less about the innumerable insurgents they routinely offered for execution with the special process Rome reserved for terrorists – crucifixion.
Despite the impression we get from the Christian Gospels (which were written long after the fact) the whole world wasn’t watching Jesus’ trial and execution, much less his birth. No, there probably wasn’t any trial at all. And Jesus’ body was likely thrown into a common grave after it was consumed by buzzards and dogs.
So, actually, my response to Orlando’s question (if he were capable of understanding it) should have been: “If you’re asking about the birth of Jesus and the story you’re about to perform on stage . . . No, we don’t have any evidence that it happened in the way you’ll portray it.
“In fact, the story you’re enacting probably didn’t take place at all. Most likely, there were no angels or shepherds, magi or guiding star.
“I say that because only Luke and Matthew tell stories like that. They’re not found in Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) nor in John, the last one of the four. This means that Mark and John either didn’t know of what scholars call “the infancy narratives” (including the virgin birth) or they didn’t think the tales important enough to include. And if the Christmas stories actually occurred, neither of those possibilities is very likely.
“You see, the infancy narratives are what scholars call Midrashim or Aggadah — interpretative parables based on ancient Jewish texts like Isaiah 7:14, which reads: ‘a virgin (actually a young girl) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The stories are invented to make a theological point – in this case, that from the beginning Jesus embodied a special manifestation of Israel’s God, Yahweh.”
Personally, I remember when I was first introduced to Midrashim and Aggadah – when I was much older than my seven-year-old grandson. That was something like 55 years ago, when at about 24 years of age, I was beginning my seminary study of ancient biblical texts. I still remember my shock at learning that the story of the Wisemen was Midrashic fiction. What? No magi? No star? No gold, frankincense and myrrh? My mind quickly raced ahead. What then about Jesus’ resurrection? Could that be Midrash too? I was deeply threatened and devastated.
And it took me a long time to come to terms with the faith-implications I saw so clearly then. However, that was the beginning of my ability to think critically even about the most threatening questions I could imagine. There is nothing, I concluded, that cannot be asked. Truth is truth; we can’t be afraid of it, no matter where it leads. God (however we might imagine him or her or It) cannot be contradicted by truth. (But all that’s another story.)
Of course, Orlando wouldn’t be able to understand any of this. And at this point, he doesn’t care. Instead, he’s just learned about historical “evidence” and is testing out that idea. But some day, he may be interested – as most readers are at this point. He’ll wake up some day (as I did much later in life) with adult questions. But because our churches and elders who know better, treat adults as children, he’ll end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
But what is the baby we’re talking about? It’s the point-of-faith conveyed in all the infancy narratives. It’s that “God” or History or Life Itself is for everyone – not just for the analogues of Rome and its Temple mannequins.
No, God is present in unwed teenage mothers. God appears in babies born in smelly rat-infested hovels. God’s there in immigrants and refugees fleeing genocidal tyrants like Herod. God is present on death row – in tortured insurgents and victims of capital punishment. And some of them (like Jesus himself, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day and Malcolm) are more alive and influential today than ever they were when they walked the earth. Resurrection is real.
The Jesus stories convey all these things. Yes, all those supporting stories – including the infancy narratives – are true.
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.
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)
Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6
Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.
Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”
Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.
And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.
As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)
And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.
Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.
And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.
Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.
Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.
Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.
But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)