Christians Have Been Worshipping the Devil for Millennia: Lent calls us to change Gods

Empires[1]

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021713.cfm

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of renewal – of getting back to basics – to asking questions about what we really believe and what God we truly worship. Today’s liturgy of the word helps us to do both. Deuteronomy 26 directs us to the authentic faith of Jesus – in the God who liberates the enslaved. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel calls us to worship that God rather than devil – the evil one that our culture and church (!) have been worshipping for centuries – ever since they first embraced imperialism in the 4th century C.E. Let me explain.

Start with that reading from Deuteronomy 26. It’s a key text if we want to understand the God in whom Jesus placed his faith. Jesus, remember, was a Jew, not a Christian. And Deuteronomy 26 provides us with the creedal statement that the Jewish Jesus accepted as did all Jews of his time. I mean, for them, Deuteronomy 26 functioned much like our Nicene Creed does for us each Sunday. It was a reminder of their basic belief. As such, it can be summarized in the passage’s seven points:

1. Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean (a Syrian).
2. “Abraham” (i.e. his descendents) went down into Egypt.
3. There we became a great people.
4. But the Egyptians enslaved us.
5. We cried out to our God, Yahweh, who raised up the rebel prophet, Moses.
6. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert, and to this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
7. This land is our gift from Yahweh; Thanks be to God!

That’s it! That was the faith that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, inherited from his ancestors. It was a tribal faith centered on the ownership of a God-given piece of land (Palestine) which (despite its dryness and desert character) the descendents of Jacob saw as rich and productive (flowing with milk and honey).

Notice that this Jewish faith had nothing to do with an afterlife, heaven or hell. (In fact, belief in the afterlife was a very late development among the Jews; it didn’t emerge even for debate until about 200 years before Jesus’ birth.) Instead, as among all hunter-gatherers, herds people and agriculturalists, Jewish faith was centered on land. Obviously then, it had little tolerance for colonial military forces like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans all of whom at various times occupied Palestine. Colonialism and foreign occupation contradicted Jewish faith in a fundamental way. It was intolerable.

That was true for Jesus too. As a prophet, his fundamental proclamation was not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.

In God’s Kingdom, everything would be reversed and guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).

The creedal account of Deuteronomy 26 sets the stage for today’s gospel narrative about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. (And it’s here that the devil-worship connected with empire enters the picture. Listen closely.) In a context of Roman occupation, Luke’s account raises the question of whom to worship. The choice he presents is stark: one can worship the devil the author of empire or Yahweh, the opponent of imperial power of all types.

That clear choice becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because the devil has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

But Jesus responds,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”

Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.

Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? These were the questions.

However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!

Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift which leave people like the liberated daughters and sons of Abraham free to live in control of their own God-given piece of earth. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

All of this has implications for us as would-be followers of Jesus and as citizens of a country whose “leaders” (supported by their “Christian” counterparts) increasingly embrace empire as the inevitable and fitting destiny of the United States.

In fact, in 2003, then vice-president, Dick Cheney sent out a Christmas card on which was inscribed the words, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Cheney’s implication was that the United States is God’s new chosen people. Empire as practiced by the United States represents God’s will.

Instead, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us the opposite. Empires arise only with the devil’s aid.

Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?
(Discussion follows)

“Legitimate Rape,” Jesus and “The War against Women” (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jos. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps. 34:2-3, 16-17, 20-21; Eph. 5:21-32; Jn. 6:60-69

Last week Congressman Todd Aikin, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri caused a firestorm of criticism by using the term “legitimate rape.” The phrase arose in the context of controversy about government funding for abortions resulting from forced sex.  Mr. Aikin was trying to explain his belief that conception resulting from non-consensual sex (as opposed to “statutory rape”) is next to impossible.  In other words, pregnancy following rape indicates that the sexual relations in question were consensual not forced.  Mr. Aikin said that when “legitimate rape” occurs, the female body “shuts down” thus preventing conception.

Response to the congressman’s assertions and his use of the term “legitimate rape” was immediate.  Even the leadership of the Republican Party called for his withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race. Feminists and others identified Mr. Aikin’s remarks as yet another sign of what they’ve called a “War on Women” – a new virulent offensive against women that would deny them access not only to abortion caused by rape, but to contraception. It is a war which vilifies feminists as “Feminazis” (as Rush Limbaugh puts it). It praises rich and middle class women for staying at home with their children, but condemns poor single mothers for staying home with theirs.  The chief protagonists of the war come from the ranks of fundamentalist Christians who take literally St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading – “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

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A few months ago, the Vatican set off its own firestorm by criticizing American Catholic nuns for spending too much effort on serving the poor and on peace and social justice issues, while neglecting issues of more concern to the Vatican – abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. In response, Rome initiated what it called a process of “Doctrinal Assessment.” Echoing St. Paul and the Evangelical right, it summoned the U.S. sisters to “obedience,” i.e. unquestioning submission to the male ecclesiastical hierarchy. Catholics throughout the world wondered if the Vatican too had declared its own “War against Women.”

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A couple of weeks ago Sr. Pat Farrell, the President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) gave her long-awaited Presidential Address – the first since the Vatican harshly criticized the LCWR for what it called its “radical feminist agenda.”In her presidential remarks, Sr. Farrell observed that the world is currently experiencing a very large and comprehensive paradigm shift – i.e. a fundamental change in its framework of understanding. The world is moving, she said, from a paradigm dominated by individualism, patriarchy, and competition to one characterized by equality, collaboration, expansiveness, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love.

To get from here to there, Sr. Farrell called for contemplation and prayer, cultivation of prophetic voice, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, celebration of differences, non-violent self-criticism – and living in joyful hope.

The readings in today’s liturgy had me thinking about the events I just mentioned: about the alleged “War on Women,” the Vatican’s “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR, and Sr. Farrell’s remarks about paradigm shift.  In fact today’s readings are all about “paradigm shift.”

That first reading from the book of Joshua addresses a shift in world vision that took place for a group of slaves in Egypt about 3000 years ago. The reading is part of a very important summary of Israel’s ancient faith that appears later on in Chapter 24 (as well as in Deuteronomy 26). The summary performed the same function for the ancient Hebrews that our Nicene Creed accomplishes for us; it’s a brief account of the heart of Hebrew belief. The words were to be recited at occasions of worship. And it ran something like this:

Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great people. But the Egyptians enslaved our people. In their distress, they called out to Yahweh, who raised up a great prophet.  Moses led us out of Egypt, across the sea, and through the desert. He brought us to this land (Canaan) which is ours by the grace of God.

That’s it. Nothing more; nothing less. So much could be said about that summary. It’s about land. It reflects that faith common among all tribal Peoples about the sacredness and God-given nature of their physical place in the world. There’s nothing about heaven or hell in this creed; it’s very this-worldly. Someday we’ll have to pursue the implications of all that. But for now, I just want to point out the paradigm shift represented here.

The shift is connected with women and patriarchy. And it has both an up-side and a down-side as far as women are concerned. The up-side is that a whole new concept of a God of the poor is introduced with this story. It presents the liberating God, “Yahweh”, as overthrowing the God “Osiris” worshipped in Egypt as the God of Empire. With Yahweh, the poor finally have a champion. The God of the slave-owning rich is removed from his throne. In the “history of God,” that was a splendid achievement. But it had a down-side.

The down-side was that Yahweh was not just the God of the poor, he was also a patriarchal God – a God of war. And he replaced not only Osiris, but the Goddess Isis, the beloved mother of Horus, the Egyptian God of Light. In other words, with Yahweh an exclusively patriarchal God is adopted by the escaped Hebrew slaves. Something similar happened when the Hebrews invaded Canaan, their “promised land.” There Ashera was the much-loved female Goddess treasured by the Canaanites. Yahweh took her place.

All of this reflected a huge world-wide paradigm shift in human understandings of God. It went far beyond the Middle East and actually began about 10,000 years ago. With the rise of agriculture, and its accompanying need to defend fields, crops and stored grain, male warrior Gods like the Hebrew’s Yahweh everywhere supplanted their female counterparts who had reigned for 50,000 years.

I’m reminding you of all this because the world vision that resulted in the relatively recent shift from a female Goddess to a male, tribal, warrior God inevitably impacted Paul and the words he wrote in his letter to Ephesus which we heard this morning. It’s unavoidable that when God is thought of as a male, males begin to think of themselves as God. Listen to Paul’s words again: “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

Yes, it’s true Paul tells husbands to care for their wives. But even here the reason for doing so is quite male-centered: in loving their wives, husbands are really loving themselves. As Paul put it, “He who loves his wife loves himself.”

No doubt Jesus originally had an outlook similar to Paul’s. How could he not? He was indoctrinated into that patriarchal viewpoint just like Paul. Evidently his father and mother raised him as a good Jew with all that it entailed – including a profound machismo. So Jesus imagined God to be father – “abba” (daddy) was the charming term he used. Never once however did he refer to God as “imma” (mommy), as he well might have since nearly everyone has always agreed that God is neither male nor female.

But Jesus grew (as Luke says) in wisdom as time went on. Gradually, he underwent a personal paradigm shift. In his parables he used women as images of how God acts – mixing leaven in dough, and thoroughly sweeping her house in search of a lost coin. He imagined prostitutes entering God’s kingdom with the male priests and religious lawyers trailing far behind.  He forgave a woman caught in adultery, and shamed the men who would stone her. He had no qualms about speaking alone with a woman of questionable reputation. In fact his first resurrection appearances were to women.

Who knows, Mary Magdalene might well have been instrumental in converting Jesus from Jewish machismo to his kind of proto-feminism?  After all, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises her as the “one who knows all.” In that same Gospel, he angers the patriarchal (and jealous) Peter by often kissing Magdalene (as Thomas says) “on the mouth.”  In John’s Gospel, it is to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appears on Easter Sunday morning. (By the way, I hope everyone reading this will also read my upcoming series on Mary Magdalene – beginning on Monday.)

In any case, the Jesus who leaves machismo behind ends up embodying the virtues most often considered feminine: care, compassion, feelings, intuition, and spontaneity – the sort of things Sr. Pat Farrell was calling for in her presidential address . Such virtues enable John the Evangelist to describe Jesus as a “Spirit Person” in today’s Gospel reading.  According to John, it is Jesus’ spirit, not his male body that gives life and makes him “the holy one of God.”

I suppose what I’m saying this morning is that if the War against Women –i.e. against more than half the human race – is to stop; if both Evangelical Christians and the Catholic hierarchy are to finally embrace  Jesus as speaking “words of eternal life,” they (we) must begin seeing the world through Jesus’ converted eyes – and acting like the Jesus who was liberated from machismo and patriarchy. 

And perhaps it’s time for church leadership to begin speaking like the women they try to censor. I at least find Sister Farrell’s words about contemplation, prophetic voice, solidarity with the marginalized, celebrating differences, non-violence, and joyful hope far more inspiring than the Vatican’s insistence upon “obedience” and submission.

Sister Farrell is probably correct. It’s time for another big paradigm shift – one that again shows us the female countenance of God. I believe she (rather than her Vatican assessors) gave us a glimpse of that countenance a few weeks ago.

What do you think is preventing God’s womanly countenance from being seen ? What can we do to stop the war on women?  (Discussion follows) 

Coming Monday: “Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday series)