Too Much Christ, Not Enough Jesus

Recently, a friend (also a former priest) allowed me to read a master’s dissertation he wrote while in Rome 40 years ago. As a 34-year-old Kiltegan missionary with experience in Africa, my friend (now in his early 70s) was exploring the meaning of the term “conversion.” It was a query, I suspect, sparked by his personal struggle with questions raised by his own discomfort with missionary work aimed at converting “pagan” Africans to Christianity.

Reading my friend’s dissertation recalled my own similar struggles as a member of the Catholic missionary group, the Society of St. Columban. Like the Kiltegans, the Columbans emerged from Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. My group’s original work was converting Chinese rather than Africans. As I was completing my graduate studies in Rome, I too had my own doubts about the Columbans’ project.

So, for me reading my friend’s work was a trip down memory lane. His thesis addressed the work of theologians I remember admiring during the late 1960s.

I’m talking about the revered thinkers Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and a lesser-known Jesuit theologian, William Lynch. I recall so well puzzling over their dense prose as it tried to make sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Who was Jesus, they asked, and what was his relationship to the “modern world?” As I said, my friend’s question to them was about their understanding of the term “conversion?”

Lonergan’s, Rahner’s, and Lynch’s answers to such questions revealed their developed world perspectives. Lonergan was a Canadian; Rahner a German; Lynch, an American. All three were heavily influenced by existentialist and Heideggerian philosophy that at the time contrasted so refreshingly with the Thomistic approach of pre-conciliar theology that heavily relied on Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastic philosophy. 

However, I (and theologians in general, including, I presume, my friend) have long since moved beyond the impenetrable, abstract, thought of the three theologians in question. Influenced by Jesus scholarship and by liberation theology, the reflections of today’s scholars are much more biblically and historically grounded – much more reliant on concrete social analysis than on existential speculation.

Let me try to show what I mean.

Lonergan, Rahner & Lynch

Without venturing too far into the deeper weeds of their relevant speculations, here’s how Lonergan, Rahner and Lynch approach the question of conversion:

  • Lonergan: Conversion is acceptance of truth rather than the world’s falsehoods. Its end point is awakening from an uncomprehending slumber. Its heightened consciousness yields a changed attitude towards the problem of evil, which is ultimately theological before the world’s otherwise incomprehensible tragedies. Conversion emerges from one’s unique experience of God which is analogous to falling in love. It is not rational; it is not dependent on argument. Conversion simply happens as a gift from God to one inexplicably grasped by the reality of Christ crucified, dead, and risen.
  • Rahner: Conversion is the owning of one’s human nature which is absolute openness (potentia obedientialis) to ultimate reality (aka “God”). Conversion is the process of becoming receptive to what the world discloses about itself against the backdrop of the Ground of Being.  That receptivity is modeled in the person of Jesus the Christ.  
  • Lynch: Conversion represents a radically changed way of experiencing the world. The world of the convert revolves around a different center than it does for the unconverted. He or she perceives and embraces the fact that all of creation is driven by eros – by the basic life-force that informs everything that is. For Lynch, Jesus understood that fact and because of living its truth, represents the ultimate version of humanity. He reveals to human beings who they are.

All these insights are profound and helpful to academics seeking a deeper understanding of the term conversion. And, as I earlier indicated, I once found them to represent the apex of theological reflection. I agreed, that (1) human beings are basically asleep to life’s deeper dimensions, (2) conversion entails awakening and (3) finally embracing a shared human nature as fundamental openness to Ultimate Reality that some call “God.” (3) Accepting that reality involves perceiving the Life Force (eros) that informs and unites all of creation. (4) Such perception gives the lives of the converted a new center not shared by “the world,” but (5) embodied instead in the person of Jesus the Christ crucified, dead, and resurrected.

That’s what I once believed. But that was before I encountered Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology. It was before (precisely as a Global South advocate) I took seriously the imperative to change the world rather than explain it to intellectuals.

Jesus Scholarship & Liberation Theology

Jesus-scholarship and liberation theology agree that conversion involves awakening to a reality other than that generally accepted by “the wisdom of the world.” But it understands awakening as development of class consciousness. Theological awakening moves the center of reflection from imperial locations such as Rome, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. to the peripheries of neo-colonies and the slums of Sao Paulo, Managua, and Mexico City.  

For liberation theologians, reality is not fundamentally theological or philosophical, but historical, economic, political, and social. It has been created by phenomena that Raul Peck says summarize the last 500 years of western history. Three words, he tells us, encapsulate it all – civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. Those terms and the bloodstained reality they represent rather than abstract theological speculation, summarize the real problem of evil. That problem is concrete, material, and historical, not primarily theological. It is not mysterious, philosophical, or even theological.

Accordingly, liberation theology’s reflections start with the real world of endemic poverty, climate change, and threat of nuclear war. Closer to home, they begin in biblical circles where poor slum dwellers ask why there’s no electricity or plumbing – why their children are threatened by gang members and drug dealers. Only as a second step does theological reflection enter the picture. In reading the Gospels, the poor (not developed world theologians) discover the fact that Jesus and his community faced problems similar to their own. In the process, they find new relevance in the narratives of Jesus’ words and deeds.

This leads to a third step in liberation theology’s “hermeneutical circle” – planning to address community problems and to the identification and assignment of specific tasks to members of the reflection group in question. Will we demonstrate in front of city hall? Who will contact the mayor? What about community policing?

Answering and acting on questions like those represent the third step in liberation theology’s circle of interpretation. They are a form of reinsertion into community life. That reengagement then begins the circle’s dynamic all over again.

In summary then, liberation theology begins with social analysis that defines the context of those who (regardless of their attitudes towards theology) would not merely understand the world but are intent on transforming it in the direction of social justice. That by the way is the purpose of liberation theology itself – highlighting the specifically biblical stories whose power can change the world. Accordingly, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the standpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed who are committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

And this is where Jesus enters the reflective process in ways that traditional theologians (even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch) end up avoiding. For liberation theologians, Jesus is not merely crucified, dead, and risen. He also had a life (traditional theology’s “excluded middle”) including actual words and deeds before the eventuation of those culminating events.

In other words, Jesus is not primarily the transcendent Universal Christ. He is an historical figure who (as William Lynch correctly has it) relocates the center of the world and history. However, as just seen, he moves that center from the privileged terrain of Rome or the United States to their imperialized provinces and colonies. For liberation theology, kings and emperors are not the center of history, but people like the construction worker from Nazareth. That’s the astounding revelation of Jesus. It turns one’s understanding of the world upside-down.

Put still otherwise, (according to biblical stories whether considered historical or fictional) Jesus represents God’s unlooked-for incarnation in the earth’s wretched. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, an infant refugee from infanticide, an asylum seeker in Egypt, an excommunicate from his religious tribe, a friend of drunks and street walkers, and a victim of torture and capital punishment precisely for opposing Rome’s colonial control of Palestine.

Conclusion   

Yes, I remember admiring the likes of Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch. But they no longer speak to me. Their abstract words, tortured existential questions, and impenetrable grammar obscure the salvific reality so easily accessible and fascinating in the character of Jesus belonging to the Gospel stories – and to those impoverished and oppressed by what bell hooks calls the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately, however, the world and its theologians have always been reluctant to recognize that figure for what he was. The change he requires is too drastic. It would mean taking sides with the wretched of the earth.

Instead, theologians even like Lonergan, Rahner, and Lynch have preferred to focus on Christ crucified, dead and resurrected without the biblical narrative of the construction worker’s words and deeds that stand 180 degrees opposite truths taken for granted in the world’s imperial centers.

But it is precisely that down-to-earth Jesus that our world today needs more than an abstract Universal Christ. Conversion to that despised and rejected messiah means rejecting identification with empire’s pretensions and goals. It means taking to the streets with the  Sunrise and Black Lives Matter movements. It means running the risk of sharing with Jesus his own fate as a victim of arrest, torture, and even capital punishment.

That’s what Jesus meant by urging his followers to take up the cross and follow him.  

Time Travel to 1910: A Letter to My Granddaughter

On Saturday, Peggy and I returned from our week on Bustin’s Island in Maine. It was a marvelous time spent not only together, but with our daughter, Maggie, and two of her five children — Markandeya (6 yrs.) and Sebastian (2 yrs.). [Her other three children (Eva 12 yrs., Oscar 10 yrs., and Orlando 8 yrs.) are all away at summer camps.] A dear friend from Berea, Joan Moore, also visited for three days. By way of a report on our collective experience, what follows is a letter to my granddaughter, Eva, who (as I started to say) is spending the last of six weeks at her summer camp (Fernwood) also in Maine.

August 1, 2001

My dearest Eva Maria,

Thanks so much for your two recent letters. It was such a nice surprise to return from Maine to find them waiting for me here — along with the beautiful pin you made for me with our favorite colors, yellow and green. As you suggested, I’ll wear that on my walking duds.

I’m so glad you’re doing the reading you mentioned from Howard Zinn and An Indigenous People’s History. Your comments make me think you’d very much like a four-part film series I’ve just watched (twice!). It’s called “Exterminate All the Brutes.” It’s by Raul Peck (a Haitian born director). He’s the narrator of the series as well. He too loves Zinn and the author of An Indigenous People’s History.

Peck says that all of history can be summarized in three words: civilization (i.e., white supremacy), colonialism, and extermination. The film details the evils of the Native American holocaust and of enslavement of Africans. Grandma Gaga started watching it with me. However, she left after about ten minutes saying that she thought the story and graphics were too violent. So, maybe it’s inappropriate for your viewing at this stage of your life. We can talk about that.

Last night, Gaga and I returned from our week on Bustin’s Island near Freeport, Maine (the home of LL Bean). It was a wonderful experience. It was like going back more than 100 years in a time machine. No cars, internet, plumbing or running water. We fetched our water supply from a town pump, used the outhouse, and boiled all our water including what we used for rinsing dishes. The whole experience was an exercise in simple living. We loved it.

What I liked most about Bustin’s Island was the community of people there. It was formed mainly of families that have been going there each summer for generations. Lots of young people about your age and somewhat older. They were all so enthusiastic about the privilege of living there. I’m sure you’d love it too.

Your mom, Markandeya, and Sebastian shared our experience. Markandeya was especially enthusiastic. Sebastian was fun too. I spent a good amount of time pulling him around in a wagon that belonged to the cottage. Marku loved pumping water and pulling the wagon loaded with more than 100 pounds (including two five-gallon water containers and his brother). Gaga joined the Monopoly enthusiasts. Others of us played Hearts and a bit of Yahtzee. Markandeya’s a fierce Monopoly competitor. (I know you know that quite well!).

Joan Moore, a friend of ours from Berea also spent three days with us. She was a very easy presence – very willing to do her part cleaning, playing with the kids, and generally offering a helping hand. She’s a friend of your grandma Momo’s too and will visit her this week. On her way home, Joan says she may stop off in Westport for a visit. Both Gaga and I love Joan.

Weather at Bustin’s was mixed. But it was never hot. As a matter of fact, at night it was often a bit too cold. Our house was located right on Casco Bay that offered wonderful moments for quiet contemplation.

One morning your great uncle and great aunt, Jerry and Liz (whose summer cottage was nearby on Birch Island), came over and took us by boat to their place. They love it there too. Their house had running water and an indoor composting toilet. I enjoyed talking with both of them.

On the way to Birch Island, we passed some of the Calendar Islands (there are 365 of them) with names like “Sow and Pigs,” “Upper Goose, Lower Goose, and Their Three Goslins.” We passed eagles’ nests that sat like huge card tables on top of giant pine trees. One island that evoked interest from my hermit’s heart was called Moshier. It had only a single house on it. I can imagine living there quite happily.

Your mother and I also had some time together – just one-on-one. We talked over our relationship and other such matters. We both promised to continue the conversation now that we’re back in Westport.

One of these nights all of us here are going to watch the film “NomadLand” on your folks’ outdoor screen. It won this year’s Academy Award as the best film of the year. It’s about people who have left the “rat race” of American life and have returned to simple living of the kind that we experienced last week in Maine. Only, the film’s characters are living on the road in campers, mobile homes, and trailers. I find that stuff fascinating. (Although your mom has hastened to tell me quite emphatically, “Don’t get any ideas, Dad. You are NOT going to end up living that way.”)  

I know your regimen at Fernwood doesn’t allow you to watch “Democracy Now” each day as you’re accustomed to do. And maybe that’s for the best. I mean, the reports on the pandemic, on suppression of voting rights (especially for black people), and on the U.S. support of wars everywhere all border on depressing. Nonetheless, when you get back here, I know you’ll take pains to catch up. I’ll help you with that on our walks together.  

Of course, Eva, I’m very much looking forward to your return (next Saturday!). It goes without saying that I’ve missed you a great deal. I’m looking forward to your account of this summer’s experience at camp. I’m sure you learned a lot and made many new friends. I’m proud of your rock-climbing achievements. As I always tell you, you’re a much better athlete than you give yourself credit for.

So, until Saturday, let me assure you that you’re never far from my thoughts and (yes!) my prayers. I love you so much and am very, very proud of you – especially for your making the best of Fernwood.

Love,

Baba

White Supremacy’s Origin & Mission: “Exterminate All the (non-white) Brutes”

I just finished watching Raoul Peck’s four-part documentary “Exterminate All the Brutes.” It documented the process and effects of European colonialism in the Americas, Africa, and South Asia.

Peck is a Haitian-born film maker who directed the award-winning film “I Am Not Your Negro.”  Time Magazine called his latest effort perhaps “the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television.”

Peck himself describes the documentary’s topic as nothing less than the deep origins of the ideology of white supremacy. He says his film is intended to “counter the type of lies, the type of propaganda, the type of abuse, that we have been subject to all of these years.”

Whitewashed History

The perpetrators of such falsehoods are not merely right-wingers like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. They’re the worst, since they actively advocate whitewashed “Patriotic History” lest white civilization be exposed as basically avaricious, racist, and genocidal.

However, unwitting culprits also include would-be progressives who find it understandably difficult to face up to unquestionable historical fact.

Over the last week or so, the latter were exemplified for me in the reactions of two very smart and well-intentioned friends responding to the topic at hand. One of them felt compelled to leave half-way through the first episode of “Exterminate. . .” He commented as he left the room, “This is just too violent for me. It’s all too gratuitously graphic.”

The second reaction had come a week or so earlier in another context. In my blog, I had lamented the magnitude of what David E. Stannard has called The American Holocaust. It wiped out more than 100 million Native Americans in a single century.

In response, my second friend countered that the deaths were overwhelmingly due to diseases the Europeans introduced. Hence the deaths were mostly inadvertent and unintentional. The colonizers, said my friend, preferred to have the indigenous alive in order to enslave them.

While I could sympathize with my first friend’s feelings, I couldn’t agree with his conclusions and reactions. Peck’s film shows that nothing depicted on screen (or even portrayable there) could possibly equal the actual violence of the historical events the documentary so compellingly recounts. There was nothing gratuitous about it. No matter the blood and gore, it remained inevitably understated.

As for the “inadvertent” slaughter of Native Americans. . . That’s emphatically not the story that Peck tells. Nor is it supported by what we know about the nearly endless list of American Indian wars, and historical events such as the Indian Removal Act, and the “Trail of Tears,” along with the declarations of famous Indian fighters like Andrew Jackson and George Custer.

Peck’s Argument

But Peck’s argument goes far beyond Indian wars and Stannard’s American Holocaust. It recapitulates the whole of European history.

According to Peck, three words summarize that saga. They are civilization, colonization, and extermination. That’s where the film’s title comes from. For Peck, the project of the civilizers and the colonizers is clear. It was to exterminate all the brutes – meaning all the non-whites who inhabited the resource-rich territories lusted after by comparatively resource-poor Europeans.

The natives were considered brutes by Catholic theology, by notions of “progress” and eugenics fostered by Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and by the macabre success of mass-produced guns and canons in crushing the poorly armed pre-industrial opponents of the colonizers. That gory achievement enabled Europeans to complete their circle of theological inference with confident invocations of divinely approved “manifest destiny.”

In rebuttal, Peck reviews more than 1000 years of Europe’s false and misleading ideology and narrative. The West’s official story routinely overlooks the continuity between the mayhem entailed in the continent’s religious wars on the one hand and its denial of the holocaust of New World Native Americans on the other. Europe’s official narrative also conveniently disregards connections between the Jewish holocaust and ruling class support (especially by the U.S.) for genocidal dictators across the planet, particularly in the Global South.

Bottom-Up History

“Exterminate All the Brutes” is unique in that it tells the irrepressible story of western civilization from the bottom-up. It tells us that today’s society emerged pari pasu with the development of capitalism in the 10th and 11th centuries. From its beginning, the new system’s accumulation of riches depended on the looting, murder and exile of Jews and Muslims during the Christian Crusades.

Then, with the Spanish Inquisition, the ideological concept of race became enshrined into law by distinguishing between pureblood Christians contrasted with those same Jews and Moors who could be dispossessed with impunity.

The resulting accumulation of wealth facilitated the financing of Europe’s expeditions eastward and eventually into the New World. There it became possible for Europeans to plant their flags and claim ownership of huge swaths of land regardless of who happened to be living there. Such imperial ideology also justified the enslavement of millions of African tribals. All of it was ratified by continental monarchs and by papal authority.

Next came the West’s idea of progress. Spurred by Enlightenment thought, by Darwin’s evolutionary insights and by emerging eugenics, Europeans came to justify wars against “primitive” peoples by the theory that they were genetically inferior to whites and as such were predestined to disappear from the face of the earth anyhow. Killing and/or enslaving them merely abetted and advanced an entirely natural process.

Conclusion

Yes, by his own account, Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All the Brutes” provides a condensed matrix of histories usually kept intellectually disparate – the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African tribals, and the extermination story of Jews under Hitler. The matrix shows connections between religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, and the development of weapons of mass destruction all contributing to the planet’s seemingly endemic problems of hunger, poverty, war, wealth disparities — and the ideology of white supremacy.

Concluding with a searching analysis of the Jewish Holocaust, the matrix shows that the Holocaust was no historical aberration contradicting the west’s emphasis on Enlightenment, democracy, humanism and universalism. Instead, the Holocaust was all part of the older “wheel of genocide” that goes back to the emergence of capitalism, and to the Crusades, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, Indian Removal, and to more contemporary Regime Change wars.

As for its call to action, Peck’s documentary concludes with a summons to a national dialog on race and white supremacy. The conversation would start with the recognition of the genocide of Native Americans, followed by admission that western accumulation of vast wealth was made possible by the enslavement of Africans. It would then face the fact that after the Revolutionary War, a major purpose of the U.S. military and of police became the murder of Indians, the regulation of slaves, and the control of their freed descendants.

All of this must be faced fearlessly before healing can begin. As Peck puts it, “It is not knowledge we lack. We already know enough. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know.”