Muhammad: Cars, Burkas, Lechery, Pedophilia, and Gold-Digging

Women in Islam

(This is the fourth in a series on Islam as liberation theology and on Muhammad as a prophet for our times. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad, prophet for our times: London, Perennial Books, 2006.)

Have you noticed how champions of women’s liberation come out of the woodwork and suddenly materialize in the unlikeliest of places to justify wars against Muslims? After all, they argue, Sharia Law won’t even let women drive automobiles. How shocking! This contravenes (rich) women’s unalienable right to drive cars the same as men! Let’s go to war to liberate women!

And then there are those awful burkas and veils imposed by Islam. How cruel! Women should be allowed to wear mini-skirts and bikinis if they want. They should be allowed to coif themselves according to the West’s latest fashions, and to show their faces in public. Hell, if they want to be pole dancers, that’s their right! Those not recognizing it are worthy of death!

As we all know, such arguments have actually been used to mobilize support for wars in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. And they’ve often been advanced by Republicans who like Rush Limbaugh, otherwise despise Women’s Liberation movements, and ridicule feminists as Femi-Nazis. But if it means killing Muslims, GOP Tea Partiers are happy to display pink ribbons. Whatever. Or as a Great Man once put it, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . Bomb, bomb Iran

These are the same people, by the way, who downplay the seriousness of rape. They blame it on men’s “understandably” uncontrollable impulses in the presence of women “provocatively” attired. After all women’s bodies are so programmed that pregnancy hardly ever results from rape. Or as another Great Man once said, “When rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.”

Can you spell “hypocrisy?”

Actually, according to Karen Armstrong, burkas, driving prohibitions, and veils have little to do with the Holy Qur’an and the spirit of the prophet Muhammad. Armstrong argues that he was a champion of women far ahead of his time. In general, women recognized in Muhammad a prophet on their side. In the face of cultural prohibitions, he allowed his wives to express their opinions freely and even to confront and disagree with him in front of others.

Muhammad also advocated complete equality of the sexes, with men and women sharing the same duties and responsibilities. Women were no longer to be treated as property bequeathed from one male to another. They could inherit estates, initiate divorce suits, and hang on to their dowries even following dissolution of marriage. As a result of such revolutionary teachings, women located themselves prominently among the prophet’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers.

Still, however, the western enemies of Islam insist on vilifying Muhammad as a lecher, pedophile, and gold digger. But these accusations turn out to be invidious calumnies. They stem from a failure to appreciate Arab culture 1400 years ago. It was an ethos that encouraged polygamy, just as had been the case among Israel’s patriarchs like Abraham and kings like David and Solomon.

In particular, Arab custom recommended the incorporation of vulnerable widows into the harems of those who could afford them, in order to protect the women from starvation and abuse. Additionally, treaties between tribes and nations were customarily sealed by marriage – again just as they had been in the culture of ancient Israel as described in the Hebrew Testament.

Acting in accord with such norms, Muhammad eventually assembled his own harem which came to include “child brides.” These were often part of the treaties just referenced. In such cases, cohabitation was postponed until the bride’s coming of age.

As for “gold-digging,” this accusation stems from Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija, a distant relative who as a widow inherited a fortune from her first husband. She was a shrewd trader and employed a twenty-five year old Muhammad as one of her traveling merchants. This eventually led to a proposal of marriage on the part of the older woman. Muhammad accepted.

However, far from providing evidence of gold-digging on the prophet’s part, the history of the subsequent union offers ample proof of sincere love and respect between Muhammad and Khadija. She became his principal confidant as his revelations began to unfold. She encouraged him when they ceased for over two years. Following Khadija’s death, Muhammad continually upset his other wives by regularly singing her praises in their presence.

No, like other calumnies uttered against Muhammad and Islam, the ones about his repression of women contradict a reality that runs in quite the opposite direction.

It was men whose patriarchal instincts caused them to resist Muhammad’s leadership in this field. It was men who following Muhammad’s death interpreted one of the Qur’an’s surahs as requiring women to be segregated and veiled in public.

The surah in question (Number 33) was spoken by Muhammad during the reception following one of his late marriages. There some of his enemies acted passive-aggressively by overstaying their welcome, speaking disrespectfully to Muhammad’s wives, and generally preventing the newly weds from retiring for the night.

In response, after admonishing his guests about good manners, Muhammad gave Surah 33 the following expression:

“And as for the Prophet’s wives, whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen; this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.”

It was not until three generations after the prophet’s death that those controversial words were used to justify the veiling and segregation of Muslim women in general, as though they applied to all of them and not just to Muhammad’s wives.

Still even those late interpretations are understandable in the light of threats to Muslim culture, including those of our own day. As Karen Armstrong puts it,

“In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab (veiling) has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah (community) from the threat of the West (170).” (Parenthetical translations my addition)

In other words, Muslims are not blind. They see clearly the disrespect, abuse, and violence to which western women are routinely subjected. Evidently, it’s their judgment that such repression and negativity can best be avoided by eschewing mini-skirts, bikinis, fashionable hairdos, pole dancing, and even driving.

As another Great Man has said, “Who are we to judge?”

Who Ended the Syrian Crisis, Putin or Pope Francis? Reflections on Saturday’s Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square

Peace Vigil

The sudden success of the “Putin Plan” to end the chemical weapons crisis in Syria has occasioned a crisis of faith for me. But even more so has the “Francis Plan” addressing the same crisis and executed last Saturday in St. Peter’s Square. The pope’s plan involved Christians and others of good will fasting and praying to end the impending Syrian catastrophe. I wonder whose plan did most to resolve the crisis. Together their apparent effectiveness makes me wonder about miracles and the power of prayer.

Of course, everyone knows about Putin’s plan to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to U.N. monitors for purposes of the weapons’ destruction. Its acceptance by Syria and even by war hawks in the United States has caused Putin’s image as a diplomat and peacemaker to skyrocket. That coupled with his defiance of President Obama in the Edward Snowden case, has raised beyond measure his international standing as a defender of human rights. (Meanwhile the Christian “leader of the free world” has shrunk to the size of a shallow militarist who must be restrained by atheists and former communists now occupying the higher ground.)

However, from a faith perspective, I’m thinking that the plan of Pope Bergoglio may have been even more influential than Putin’s. At the very least, the pope’s contribution to solving the Syrian crisis suggests that there might be more to the man than first met the eye. After all, in the case of Syria, the pope went beyond simply wringing his hands over the irrationality and counter-productivity of Obama’s rash proposals. (That’s what other popes have occasionally done in cases of other wars of aggression by other U.S. presidents.)

Instead, Francis called people out into the streets. He hosted and led what amounted to a 5 ½ hour anti-war demonstration in St. Peter’s Square. Without ever mentioning Obama’s name or referring specifically to the United States, he asked people of good will throughout the world to similarly demonstrate wherever they might be. By the tens of thousands they responded in St. Peter’s Square. By the millions they responded across the planet.

I know about the Rome demonstration, because I was there. My wife, Peggy and I just happened to be in the Eternal City last Saturday. We took the occasion to join with thousands and thousands of other believers for that evening-long prayer vigil led by Francis I. Our overwhelming numbers filled the huge historic square in an inspiring demonstration of deep and sincere faith.

We prayed that the United States would come to its senses and realize (as Pope Francis put it) that violence only begets violence, and war only begets war. There is no other way to peace, he reminded us, than by forgiveness, reconciliation, and a dialog that respectfully includes all stakeholders. That means the al-Assad government, its opponents, al-Qaeda, Iran, and (representing the rest of the world) the United Nations. (Let’s face it: apart from its membership in the U.N., the United States is not a real stakeholder in this conflict so distant from its shores.)

So there we stood for hours praying the rosary together, listening to readings from Holy Scripture and the writings of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. We recited litanies, sang familiar hymns, listened to those words from the pope, and passed long minutes of quiet meditation and personal prayer. (It was amazing to experience so many people being so quiet for so long.) Preceding Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a harpist played, and choirs chanted. On huge TV screens, we saw the pope’s eyes tightly closed in prayer. We saw cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, praying for peace. The vigil lasted from 7:15 p.m. till midnight.

It was entirely inspiring and uplifting.

And it apparently had its effect. I awoke Monday morning to find that President Putin had upstaged the Obama administration with (of all things!) a diplomatic proposal to replace the Obama policy of bombing as a first resort.

Imagine that: a “leader” from a country emerging from nearly a century of communism and official atheism making a peace proposal completely in tune with the pope’s wishes and what we were praying for in St. Peter’s Square. And this in the face of the bellicose threats of a Christian presiding over a country where the majority claims to follow Jesus of Nazareth!

Was it some kind of miracle? Had our prayers been answered?

(To be continued in Monday’s post)

Move Over, Pope FrancIs, and Bring on FrancEs I!! (Fathers’ Day Sunday Homily)

Anointing

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:2 SM 12:7-10, 13; Ps. 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7:36-8:3. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061613.cfm

Today is Father’s Day. So, happy Father’s Day to all of us who merit the title “father.”

However, I must observe that despite the male focus which our culture gives this June 16th, today’s readings end up being quite critical of men and patriarchy. They reveal the misogyny of western culture and of the Christian tradition right from the beginning. Unwittingly, they also make a strong case for female leadership in the church even to the point of suggesting female leadership for the entire enterprise. Sorry, dads!

Start with the first reading. There Nathan condemns the great father-figure, David for his own male chauvinism and for his disregard of all the gifts the prophet says he himself gave David in God’s name.

Nathan recalls that as prophet he himself anointed David king over both Israel and Judah. Nathan rescued David from his rival, Saul. The prophet gave him the Lord’s dwelling and a harem to live with David in his palace. All these including David’s many wives, Nathan says, were gifts from God. (So much for Yahweh’s “traditional family values” allegedly favoring domestic arrangements with one father and one mother.)

And what was David’s response to all the favors conferred by Nathan? Adultery and murder. He used his power as king to steal the wife of one of his generals, Uriah the Hittite. Then in effect, he “rendered” Uriah to the Ammonites to have him killed, while preserving his own “deniability” for the crime. But neither Yahweh nor Nathan was fooled.

Of course, the woman’s in question was the famous Bathsheba who eventually gave birth to King Solomon, who ended up succeeding David as King of Israel instead of David’s eldest son, Adonijah.

In fact the section of 2nd Samuel in which this episode is found is referred to as “the succession narratives,” because it answers the question “why is it that Solomon is sitting on the throne instead of David’s eldest living son, Adonijah?”

Solomon is on the throne, the story says, because of David’s theft of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah, and the curse of Nathan which resulted: “The sword will never depart from your house.” That is, all of David’s sons, but Solomon were condemned to die violent deaths. According to this tradition, God’s sole “blessing” for the eventually penitent king is limited to the boon that he himself will not be killed. Father-rule – the patriarchy – does not come out well in this first reading.

Neither is today’s gospel selection kind to patriarchy. Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system But in this case, the “host” proves to be an inhospitable man in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Jesus as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one.

This is extraordinary, since the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Jesus the Christ. And it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in the reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Jesus’ time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Jesus, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Jesus’ contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Jesus’ company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Jesus tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Jesus’ company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community knew: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Jesus were his financial supporters of Jesus and “the twelve.”

But Luke doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Jesus. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Jesus or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Jesus as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas describes says:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?'”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and us patriarchs so fond of “Father’s Day. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s readings help us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Mover over, Francis; bring on Pope FrancEs I!

Atheists Saved? The Pope & Billy Graham Say “Yes!”

Not long ago Pope Francis shocked many by saying that atheists can be saved.

However, in doing so, he was catching up with . . . Billy Graham!

Yes, in 1997 on Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” telecast, the famous evangelist said people of all religions and of none can be saved, even if they’ve never heard of Jesus or deny his divinity.

Watch and listen to his words for yourself.

Has Billy Graham lost his faith, as some critics charge? Or have he and the pope finally come around to acknowledging the Greatness of the divine and its unwillingness to be limited by denominations, theology, and even by denials of the very existence of what human beings have called “God”?

What is your reaction to Graham’s words – and to Francis I echoing him?

Second Thoughts about Pope Bergoglio: A Liberation Pope or Just More Blah, Blah?

Bergoglio-foot-washing

I’m still trying to figure out the new pope, Francis I. Initially, I was very skeptical and even negative about his election. After all he was carrying all that baggage from Argentina’s “dirty war.” And some incidents there made me see Francis as just another right-winger in the tradition of his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Tongue partly planted in cheek, I called for his resignation.

Gradually however, I’ve come to question my rush to judgment. True, the new pope faltered with early missteps regarding women. He seemed to reiterate Benedict XVI’s admonition to U.S. women religious to focus more on the issues of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, rather than on social justice for the poor and electoral politics. He even warned a group of sisters against becoming “spinsters” or “old maids” (depending on the translation) rather than fruitful celibates.

But then he went to that women’s prison on Holy Thursday and drew fire from conservatives for including women among those whose feet he washed that day. I concluded that the jury is still out concerning Francis and women. Like most of us males, he clearly has room to grow.

As I wait for the jury’s verdict, two recent incidents have led me towards a more positive evaluation in the court of my own mind. To begin with, Leonardo Boff, a leading liberation theologian who had been silenced by the Ratzinger-Wojtyla team, surprised me by his own positive assessment. He even identified the new pope as a “field” liberation theologian as opposed to a “desk” theologian. Despite his reservations in the past about liberation theology, Bergoglio, Boff said, was truly committed to the poor. Boff was hopeful that the Argentinian might change the direction of the Vatican policy of suspicion and rejection over the last 30 years towards the “preferential option for the poor” so central in the thought of activists committed to the welfare of the world’s poor majority.

Then a couple of weeks ago, a second occurrence made me think Boff might have a point. The pontiff made some surprisingly critical remarks about capitalism and ethics to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican.

Here are some excerpts. They are worth quoting at length:

“. . . We must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. . . The financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in . . . the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight . . the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture.

This tendency is . . . being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules . . . The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. . . I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

. . . There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. . . Money has to serve, not to rule! The Pope . . . has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. . . .

The common good should not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programs. . . . In this way, a new political and economic mindset would arise that would help to transform the absolute dichotomy between the economic and social spheres into a healthy symbiosis. . . .Are you surprised by those words? Here the pope is saying that:

1. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is completely unacceptable.
2. It is caused by unfettered markets which reduce people to consumers subordinate to material production.
3. Free markets are heartless, inhumane and idolatrous.
4. Remedying that problem necessitates government interference in the marketplace.
5. . . . based on an ethics of solidarity taking its lead from the poor and prioritizing human welfare and the common good over untargeted economic growth.
6. Solidarity ethics find their origin in God who calls all humans to liberation from slaveries and idolatries of all kinds.
7. So governments must overcome their reluctance to correct the wealth-concentrating tendencies of free markets,
8. . . . and the attitude which sees ethical and theological concerns as counter-productive when they
prioritize the needs of the poor over the profits of financiers and the moneyed classes.
9. Avoidance of these responsibilities makes governments complicit with the crimes of robbery from the poor who (rather than the rich) are the true owners of the resources of God’s creation.
10. Economics and social justice should not be understood as standing in opposition to one another, but as mutually nourishing.

I find the pope’s words encouraging and quite promising. True, most popes (even J.P.II and Ratzinger) made isolated statements in tune with the comments just quoted. And taken as a body, the social teachings of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to Vatican II’s “Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) are progressive enough though they remain the church’s “best kept secret.”

Yet, the words I’ve quoted come from a new pope who (as Boff notes) has demonstrated his concern for the poor in practical ways, and has embodied a preference for simple living, And that might be sufficient reason for hope the pope’s words will define his papacy rather than simply being more papal “blah, blah.”

The jury’s still out.

Meet Declan Coyle, a Real Liberation Theologian (Sunday Homily)

Declan

My Easter homily two weeks ago evoked a wonderful response from one of my former priest-colleagues from the Society of St. Columban – the missionary community of priests I belonged to before I left in 1976. The colleague is Declan Coyle (pictured above).

Declan, it turns out, is a wonderful and witty writer. In a future blog I’ll share his moving piece on his son, Alexander who has Mowat Wilson Syndrome. It’s a truly inspiring essay on the meaning of living in the present moment.

When I asked for permission to share his Easter thoughts, here’s how Declan responded.

Of course Mike you can share it with you audience.

I soldiered (how easily the old militaristic verb crops up, “Who has a blade for a splendid cause … our horses are red to the hocks with the blood of the heathen”) with the Columbans for 27 years from seminary to moving on to marry Annette, an Australian in 1990.

I studied Liberation Theology in St Paul’s Ottawa after ordination, and then I asked the Superior General for five years in a slum in Latin America or Asia. After nine years of post-high school academic study I felt I was not fit to teach in Boston. But I knew that if I got some years in a slum where the slum dwellers who had survived and graduated from the University of Life taught me some life lessons, and I got these in my blood and my guts and my bones and my being, then I could teach Liberation Theology with passion and enthusiasm.

I got five years in the Philippines and six in Taiwan.

I got married to Annette, my wife in 1990. We have three children, Genevieve (19), Fionn (16) and little Alexander who is eight. He is a very special child. He has Mowat Wilson Syndrome. It was only discovered in 1997 and he was the first child in Ireland to be diagnosed with it. I’ll attach a reflection I wrote recently about him. He’s the epitome of the idea that he’s not a human being having the odd spiritual experience, he’s a spiritual being having a human experience.

The last 90 days I was in the Philippines I buried 65 children under two years old … all who died from hunger or hunger related diseases. In the slums we lived Jesus’ Synagogue Speech and Matthew 25 and life to the full and joy overflowing.

From where I’ve lived my so called Christian life, you’ve got your hand on the heart and the soul of the gospel and what the carpenter poet of Galilee was all about. I’m still baffled as to why John Paul II didn’t jump on a plane and go out and finish that Mass that stopped when Romero was shot. Would that not have been a symbolic gesture to lift the hearts of the poor and baffle Reagan?

Every blessing in your great work. You are real good news for the poor. You are real liberation for those oppressed by the historical accretions of the empire and real new sight for those of us who have been blind to the real meaning of the gospels for our world today. You remind me of the great prophet Micah whose words you live: To act justly, to love tenderly with kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

All the lovely things of the Holy Spirit on this Easter Week.

Declan

And now Declan Coyle’s Easter Reflection:

Years ago here at home our eldest two children Genevieve and Fionn were playing hide and seek all over the house. All I could hear all day was, “ready or not, here I come!”

That evening Genevieve asked me how did Jesus rise from the dead. I told her that on Easter Sunday morning the soldiers were outside the tomb, cooking their Easter eggs in a pot on the fire. Then suddenly from the tomb came this thunderous voice, “Ready or not here I come!” Then the rock rolled away and out came Jesus.

The two soldiers fainted with the fright.

The following week, the teacher asked the children to explain how the resurrection happened. Genevieve told her how. The teacher was not impressed.

I asked Genevieve which story she preferred. She said yours Daddy. In one fell swoop, she turned me into the fifth evangelist – a storyteller with a myth, a story, a lie that tells the truth. She understood hermeneutics.

In our recent discussions I told her that if ever she is tempted to go literal, she’ll lose the meaning. Always go symbolic. If you go literal, then you’re wondering at Christmas was Jesus born in a stable, or a cave or was it a kindergarten for the Essenes?

Literal is a dead end. But when you go symbolic you realize that the Christmas story simply means that great power comes in humble packages.

Keep up the great work Mike.

And send your material to Pope Francis.

Happy Easter. Declan

Anniversary of St. Oscar Romero’s Assassination: Imagine if He Had Been Elected Pope!

A lot has been written in these pages about liberation theology. I’ve defined it as “Reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those committed to the liberation of the world’s poor and oppressed.” I’ve called it the most important theological development in 1700 years and perhaps the most important intellectual development since the publication of the Communist Manifesto. (See my blog posts by clicking the “liberation theology” button just under the masthead of this blog site.)

Well, today is the feast day of liberation theology’s patron saint, Oscar Romero. On this day, March 24th in 1980, St. Oscar was gunned down by the U.S. – supported military of El Salvador. He was shot while celebrating the Eucharist in a convent chapel.

His killing was part of what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was fought by the U.S.-Vatican axis against the Catholic Church in Central America. That church had committed the unpardonable sin of taking seriously the call of the Second Vatican Council to live out what the Council called Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” Such doctrinal consistency was unacceptable to the U.S. government and to the pope of Rome.

St. Oscar had been a conservative priest who was appointed archbishop of San Salvador by Pope John Paul II precisely because of Romero’s conservative leanings in both politics and theology. In a country heavily influenced by liberation theology, he could be counted on to continue the Catholic Church’s war against that movement, as well as its support for the Salvadoran oligarchy, the butchery of its military, and the U.S. policy that sponsored it all.

That particular troika brought about in 1977 the killing of Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest and close friend of St. Oscar. Their friendship had flourished even though Grande was an advocate of liberation theology.

Following Grande’s assassination, Romero underwent a profound conversion. He passed from being the enemy of liberation theology like John Paul II, his lieutenant Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI), and Jorge Bergoglio (the future Francis I) to being its ardent promoter like Grande himself.

As U.S.-sponsored “White Hand” assassination squads did their bloody work throughout El Salvador, St. Oscar denounced the bloodbath in no uncertain terms. Each Sunday his sermons were broadcast throughout the country denouncing the military and reading the unending lists of people tortured, garroted, executed, burned, buried alive, drowned, smothered, shot and raped the previous week.

That is, while Bergoglio was giving at least “silent consent” to those same crimes by the military in Argentina, and while John Paul II worked hand in glove with Ronald Reagan against liberation theology, Romero fulfilled the role of courageous prophet in El Salvador.

For his troubles, St. Oscar received threats daily from the White Hand. He could see that his own days were numbered. “Yes, they will kill a bishop,” he had said, “but may my blood may be the seed of freedom for the Salvadoran people.” Those words and others spoken by the sainted archbishop are centralized in the song featured at the top of today’s blog post. (See the sponsoring website: TheMartyrsProject.com/)

True to his premonitions, on this day 33 years ago, he was shot at the altar.

But what if he had survived? What if (impossibly) he had been created Cardinal? What if he had been elected pope? How different then the church would be. How different the world.

Conversions are possible. St. Oscar changed profoundly.

Can something similar happen for Francis I?

St. Oscar, pray for us!

Pray for Francis I!

Thug Pope?

Cia Argentina

Last Friday I published a blog calling for the resignation of the newly elected Pope. Of course, I had no expectation that the pope would resign. We can even hope that as Francis I, Jorge Bergoglio will undergo or has undergone a conversion since the days when his silence gave consent to the brutal military regime of Jorge Videla during Argentina’s infamous “Dirty War.”

Nonetheless Bergoglio’s election forces us to face up to the role of religion under imperialism. The ascendancy of Francis I trains focus on the way both the fundamentalist Catholic Church and its Protestant counterparts habitually lie comfortably in bed with the forces of politico-economic exploitation, war, kidnapping, torture, and murder. As bed fellows they share the guilt of their thug partners.

Put otherwise, religious fundamentalism can easily be seen as the most conservative force in the world. Exhibit #1 is Roman Catholicism. The vast majority of its leaders have always lain supine not merely for Constantine, but for a whole host of dictators who followed including Hitler and with Mussolini. On the whole, Protestant fundamentalists have been no better. To reiterate: fundamentalist religionists are the problem, not just their embodiment in an unrepentant Francis I. If their partners are thugs, where does that leave them?

You see, the pope’s defenders are wrong when they say that archbishop Bergoglio was merely another Argentinian cowed by the military and lacking in the heroic courage of a few bishops and many liberation theology priests during Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83). At the hierarchical level, I’m thinking of heroes whose faith moved them to defy the military governments the U.S. established throughout Latin America from the early 1960s till the fall of the Soviet Union.

I’m thinking of Brazil’s Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Dom Helder Camara, or Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga — or of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, or of Mexico’s Samuel Ruiz. All of them recognized that their status provided them with a literal “bully pulpit” for denouncing the oppression of their impoverished flocks which did not enjoy the relative invulnerability their own ecclesiastical status provided for themselves.

Put simply, Bergoglio didn’t have the courage of those men.

Granted, you can’t fault someone for not being a hero. However lacking heroism was not Bergoglio’s problem as his apologists imply. Even if he was merely silent, he lacked the moral responsibility absolutely required for the Christ-like fulfillment of his office. After all, muted and/or compliant churchmen represent an essential ideological cog in the system of oppression. Since the time of Constantine, they have been used to persuade ordinary Christians that God endorses the policies of their oppressors however brutal.

The hell of it is that many priests and preachers, especially at lower levels, are completely unaware of their role in the system. They think of themselves as good pastors, patriotic citizens, supporters of a brave military, and opponents of Godless Communism. This may have been the case even with archbishop Bergoglio. He may simply have been an unconscious, naive pawn. Nonetheless, he was part of the gang, and so are all religious leaders who end up underwriting oppression.

Like Bergoglio, they should know better because Jesus had to deal with the alliance between religion and colonialism too. The priests, scribes, and Sadducees of his day were an essential part of the Roman system of exploitation. In fact, it’s common to refer to the Temple’s “con-dominium” with Rome. The priests and scribes on the one hand along with the emperor and Pilate on the other, all ruled together. To attack one was to attack the other. And Jesus attacked them both.

Opposing imperialism goes beyond simply firing one’s chauffer or taking the bus to work. It goes beyond saying we’re on the side of the poor. (Even Rick Santorum says that!) Instead popes and bishops have to understand critique and oppose the structures that cause and sustain oppression – economic and political systems along with laws, customs, and institutions like those of church, government, and the military. All of those structures transcend the short reigns of popes, presidents and generals. Those occupants of office come and go, but the systems and laws they serve and enforce remain.

The sainted archbishop of Recife in Brazil, Dom Helder Camara understood that. He once said, “When I feed the poor, they called me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Let’s hope that Pope Francis will not only ask that latter question – the why of poverty and hunger. Let’s hope he will answer it strongly and unmistakably. The poor have no food because keeping them hungry is in the interests of the economic and political system that runs the world – international capitalism.

At the moment, hasty hagiographers are saying that Francis I’s concern for the poor makes him a saint. My prayer is that they will soon be calling him a communist. The alternative appellation is “thug.”