On Joining John the Baptist in Rebellion against the Religious Establishment – and the Republican Party

dangerous

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12

“The meaning of the Incarnation is this: In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets. And preparing for that is the meaning of Advent.” (Jim Wallis. “Advent in 2016: Not Normal, Not Now, Not to Come.”)

__________

Three years ago I published a review of James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God. It continues to get clicks – perhaps more than anything I’ve published on my blog.  I think that’s because so many of us find ourselves searching for a richer, more relevant church experience that connects with the extraordinarily dangerous times we’re living in. They have in fact been shaped by “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.”

Woman of God is the story of Brigid Fitzgerald, a medical doctor who though female, becomes a priest and candidate for the papacy.

Brigid and her husband (also a dissident priest) decide to form their own Catholic parish. They do so because of the studied irrelevance of the Catholic Church to pressing problems of the real world. The two call their congregation the “Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Church.” They insist on remaining Catholics not allowing their opponents to drum them out of the church as just another break-away Protestant sect.

The JMJ Church spreads rapidly, largely because it connects Jesus’ Gospel with issues of peace and social justice. And though vilified by her local bishop and physically threatened by right wing Catholics, Brigid eventually becomes widely celebrated and is summoned to Rome not for condemnation, but papal approval.

I couldn’t help thinking of Woman of God as I read today’s liturgy of the word this Second Sunday of Advent. Like the JMJ Church, the first two readings along with the responsorial psalm emphasize the connection between faith and social justice.

Then in today’s Gospel, the prophet, John the Baptist, like Brigid Fitzgerald, initiates an alternative community of faith far from the temple in the desert wilderness. John’s credibility leads “all Jerusalem and Judea” to see him as a prophet. In fact, (as John Dominic Crossan has pointed out) John becomes for the Jewish grassroots their de facto alternative “High Priest.”

To see what I mean, consider that first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It directly links faith with justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. In Isaiah’s day (like our own) they were typically ignored. By way of contrast, Isaiah’s concept of justice consists precisely in judging the poor and oppressed fairly and not according to anti-poor prejudice – in Isaiah’s words, not by “appearance or hearsay.”  (A clearer statement against contemporary police and/or government profiling can hardly be imagined.)

Not only that, but according to the prophet, treating the poor justly is the key to peace between humans and with nature. Centralizing their needs rather than those of the rich produces a utopian wonderland where all of us live in complete harmony with nature and with other human beings. In Isaiah’s poetic reality, lions, lambs, and calves play together. Leopards and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes experience no threat from each other. (This is the prophetic vision of the relationship between humans and nature – not exploitation and destruction, but harmony and mutual respect.)

Most surprising of all, even believers (Jews) and non-believers (gentiles) are at peace. Today’s excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seconds this point. He tells his correspondents to “welcome one another” – including gentiles – i.e. those the Jewish community normally considered enemies. (That would be like telling us today to welcome Muslims as brothers and sisters whom God loves as much as any of us.)

Today’s responsorial psalm reinforces the idea of peace flowing from justice meted out to the “least.” As Psalm 72 was sung, we all responded, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And again, the justice in question has the poor as its object. The psalmist praises a God and a government (king) who “rescue the poor and afflicted when they cry out” – who “save the lives of the poor.”

In his own time, the lack of the justice celebrated in today’s first three readings infuriates Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. His disgust forces him out of the temple and into the desert. It has him excoriating the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers.”

Unmistakably clothed as a prophet – in garments that absolutely repudiate the “sacred garb” of his effete opponents – John lambasts the Scribal Establishment which had normalized relationships with the brutal occupation forces of Rome. As opposition high priest, John promises a religious renewal that will lead to a new Exodus – this time from the power of Rome and its religious collaborators.

I hope you can see as I do the parallels between the context of John’s preaching and our own. We live in a culture where those in charge contravene our faith by openly slandering the poor and marginalized celebrated in today’s readings as especially dear to God.

I mean, following the elections of 2016, all the levers of power (the presidency, the Supreme Court, the House and Senate) found themselves in the hands of billionaires and their friends – the 1% that the Occupy Movement identified so accurately eight years ago. Ironically that richest 1% has succeeded in scapegoating the country’s poorest 1% (immigrants) as a major cause of our country’s problems. Moreover, they equally vilify other poor and marginalized people: the impoverished in general, brown and black-skinned people, women, the LGBTQ community, environmentalists, protestors and anyone who exposes the crimes of the billionaire class.

As a result, we entered a period of unprecedented national darkness that still promises to rival that of Germany, 1933-1945. Until the mid-term elections of last year, virtually everything was controlled by the single organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world.”

More dangerous than the Nazis? Yes, Chomsky insists. Hitler did not have the power to destroy the planet by nuclear war. Hitler ruled Germany before climate change threatened innumerable species, Mother Earth herself, and continued human existence. And yet the entire Republican Party denies that the problem even exists! Yes, it is the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

And despite all of that, there’s not a peep about it from the pulpit. People keep going to Mass as though the most important upcoming event is the arrival of St. Nicholas at the parish potluck – or the Christmas bazaar.

So, what should we do in the face of such disconnect?

How about following the example of John the Baptist, Brigid Fitzgerald and her husband?

This would entail:

  • Admitting that present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of anti-poor climate change deniers.
  • Publicly moving out of our local church building.
  • Perhaps, opening a store front JMJ Catholic church on the Main Street Jim Wallis referred to in his article referenced above.
  • Empowering faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.

Objectors will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections John the Baptist might reply:

  • “I had no official authority to start my desert community of resistance and reform. In fact, I was identified by the authorities as an enemy of the state. Eventually they cut off my head. So don’t expect approval.”
  • Reform from within? “I gave up on that early on. So did my cousin, Jesus. Both of us operated outside the temple system which we criticized harshly.”
  • Division in our faith communities? “That didn’t bother me either. Can you get much more divisive or polarizing than calling religious leaders a ‘brood of vipers’?”
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? “The spiritual masters in my Essene community convinced me that prayer and meditation are essential elements undergirding prophetic action. However, pietism is useless unless it leads to the kind of witness I gave and risk I took on the banks of the Jordan.”
  • Too old? “Again, my Essene mysticism would not permit me to identify with the physical as if I were primarily a body with a soul. The truth is that we are first of all ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Hell, the elders criticized me for being too young to oppose them. I was barely 30 when they killed me.”

As Jim Wallis has intimated, the specter of John the Baptist should haunt us this second Sunday of Advent and drive our faith communities onto Main Street. These unprecedented times call for radical response outside the sacred precincts and independent of the sleepwalkers awaiting the arrival of St. Nicholas.

Billionaires Threaten a Hostile Takeover of the Catholic Church

Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 17:5-8; PS 1: 1-5; I COR 15: 12, 16-20; LK 6: 17, 20-21;

There’s a plot going on to neutralize Pope Francis. Even worse, it’s about neutralizing Jesus and his “preferential option for the poor” that has dominated our liturgical readings for the past several weeks.

This week’s readings are no exception. In fact, in today’s Gospel selection, that option for the poor receives its starkest expression so far. There, Luke the evangelist has Jesus say clearly that the poor are the object of God’s special favor, while the rich are not. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks frankly: “You poor are blessed.” He tells the rich just as clearly, “you are cursed.” And he does so for no other apparent reason than that the objects of Jesus’ blessing and cursing are poor and rich respectively.

Before I get to that, let me say a word about the plot I just mentioned.

What I’m talking about was reported in January’s Sojourner’s Magazine – the progressive Christian Evangelical monthly published by Jim Wallis. It all appeared there in a piece authored by Tom Roberts, the executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. The article was entitled “How Right-Wing Billionaires Are Attempting a Hostile Takeover of the Catholic Church.”

There, Roberts described an aggressive project to establish what I would call an ecclesiastical “shadow administration” bent on usurping the authority of the church’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The undertaking is “financed by the Koch brothers, by Domino Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, and a slew of other billionaires linked to the Knights of Columbus and conservative Catholic Cardinals – all of whom enjoy favor with Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and the Trump administration.

Seeking to replicate the rise of the Evangelical right in the 1980s, the group advocates a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel described by Roberts as “a hybrid of traditional pieties wrapped in American-style excess and positioned most conspicuously in service of free-market capitalism.” It is “. . . ‘in your face Catholicism’ . . . often expressed amid multi-course meals followed by wine and cigar receptions, private cocktail parties for the especially privileged, traditional Catholic devotionals, Mass said in Latin for those so inclined, ‘patriotic rosary’ sessions that include readings from George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and the occasional break for a round of golf.”

Doctrinally, the goal is to bury more deeply than ever what many have called “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church,” viz. its progressive social teachings. Since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, those teachings have repeatedly criticized the abuses of both capitalism and socialism while advocating workers’ rights, labor unions, fair wages, social security, and (especially with Pope Francis) care for the earth in the face of human-caused climate chaos.

The billionaire cabal in question finds especially offensive not just Francis’ emphasis on social justice themes, but the 1983 pastoral by the USCCB questioning the morality of modern warfare and of nuclear weapons. They resent above all the bishops’ 1986 letter entitled “Economic Justice for All” which disagreed specifically with the economic policies of the group’s great hero, Ronald Reagan.

In place of such teachings, the billionaires in question think that the Catholic social narrative should focus exclusively on sexual issues: abortion, contraception, gay rights, and the rights of divorced and remarried people within the Catholic Church. They want the church to be more celebratory of individualism, entrepreneurship, and of free market fixes for society’s problems. Their goal is to shrink government in general and diminish its services to the poor and marginalized in particular.

Doesn’t that sound completely like the Republican agenda?

And with the Catholic Church currently weakened and reeling from its sex-abuse scandals, the billionaire conspirators are convinced that the time is completely ripe for their hostile takeover.

But could anything be further from the teachings of Jesus which a few weeks ago, our Gospel reading summarized as “good news to the poor?”

There, Jesus announced his program with the following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

This was a proclamation of a new order (what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God”) directed towards improving the lot of the poor, the imprisoned, the ill and oppressed. It was the proclamation of the Jewish “Jubilee Year,” where debts would be forgiven, slaves freed, and wealth redistributed.

Now in today’s Gospel reading, the Master expresses the same sentiment, only this time in even a more in-your-face manner. Here, it’s worth quoting the words Luke attributes to Jesus.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man . . .
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

Shocking words – all of them, don’t you agree? They are part of the great reversal in the new order proclaimed by Jesus. There, the values of the world will be turned on their heads. The poor will be in charge. They will have food to eat. Laughter will replace their tears.

But the rich will experience great misery (woe).  That’s because they have been led astray by false prophets like those cardinals participating in the billionaire hostile takeover of the Catholic Church. Those fake prophets console the super-rich with honeyed words about their specialness

But according to Luke’s Jesus, the rich may be enjoying those multi-course meals, private cocktail parties, cigar receptions and rounds of golf now. But when the Kingdom’s new order comes, they will find themselves hungry. They may be laughing now, but then they will weep and cry. Their false prophets may praise them now but come the new order, the wealthy will be cursed as the most wretched of men.

Obviously, Jesus’ teaching contradicts our culture’s worship of the rich. We think of the rich as heroic entrepreneurs. Jesus sees them as worthless wretches. We see the poor as losers. Jesus sees them as objects of God’s special favor.

In other words, Jesus turns our thinking upside down. As Marianne Williamson puts it: Jesus’ truth (God’s truth) is 180 degrees opposed to what our culture values and teaches.

That realization should be Christians’ fundamental guide in reading the news and thinking about world events. It should be the confident guide of our activist efforts.

Everything is the opposite of what our culture claims!

On Joining John the Baptist in Rebellion against the Religious Establishment – and Trumpism (Sunday Homily)

dangerous

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12

“The meaning of the Incarnation is this: In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets. And preparing for that is the meaning of Advent.” (Jim Wallis. “Advent in 2016: Not Normal, Not Now, Not to Come.”)

__________

A few days ago I published a review of James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God. It’s the story of Brigid Fitzgerald, a medical doctor who though female, becomes a priest and candidate for the papacy.

Brigid and her husband (also a dissident priest) decide to form their own Catholic parish. They do so because of the studied irrelevance of the Catholic Church to pressing problems of the real world. The two call their congregation the “Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Church.” They insist on remaining Catholics not allowing their opponents to drum them out of the church as just another break-away Protestant sect.

The JMJ Church spreads rapidly, largely because it connects Jesus’ Gospel with issues of peace and social justice. And though vilified by her local bishop and physically threatened by right wing Catholics, Brigid eventually becomes widely celebrated and is summoned to Rome not for condemnation, but papal approval.

I couldn’t help thinking of Woman of God as I read today’s liturgy of the word this Second Sunday of Advent. Like the JMJ Church, the first two readings along with the responsorial psalm emphasize the connection between faith and social justice.

Then in today’s Gospel, the prophet, John the Baptist, like Brigid Fitzgerald, initiates an alternative community of faith far from the temple in the desert wilderness. John’s credibility leads “all Jerusalem and Judea” to see him as a prophet. In fact, (as John Dominic Crossan has pointed out) John becomes for the Jewish grassroots their de facto alternative “High Priest.”

To see what I mean, consider that first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It directly links faith with justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. In Isaiah’s day (like our own) they were typically ignored. By way of contrast, Isaiah’s concept of justice consists precisely in judging the poor and oppressed fairly and not according to anti-poor prejudice – in Isaiah’s words, not by “appearance or hearsay.”  (A clearer statement against contemporary police and/or government profiling can hardly be imagined.)

Not only that, but according to the prophet, treating the poor justly is the key to peace between humans and with nature. Centralizing their needs rather than those of the rich produces a utopian wonderland where all of us live in complete harmony with nature and with other human beings. In Isaiah’s poetic reality, lions, lambs, and calves play together. Leopards and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes experience no threat from each other. (This is the prophetic vision of the relationship between humans and nature – not exploitation and destruction, but harmony and mutual respect.)

Most surprising of all, even believers (Jews) and non-believers (gentiles) are at peace. Today’s excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seconds this point. He tells his correspondents to “welcome one another” – including gentiles – i.e. those the Jewish community normally considered enemies. (That would be like telling us today to welcome Muslims as brothers and sisters whom God loves as much as any of us.)

Today’s responsorial psalm reinforces the idea of peace flowing from justice meted out to the “least.” As Psalm 72 was sung, we all responded, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And again, the justice in question has the poor as its object. The psalmist praises a God and a government (king) who “rescue the poor and afflicted when they cry out” – who “save the lives of the poor.”

In his own time, the lack of the justice celebrated in today’s first three readings infuriates Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. His disgust forces him out of the temple and into the desert. It has him excoriating the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers.”

Unmistakably clothed as a prophet – in garments that absolutely repudiate the “sacred garb” of his effete opponents – John lambasts the Scribal Establishment which had normalized relationships with the brutal occupation forces of Rome. As opposition high priest, John promises a religious renewal that will lead to a new Exodus – this time from the power of Rome and its religious collaborators.

I hope you can see as I do the parallels between the context of John’s preaching and our own. We live in a culture where those in charge contravene our faith by openly slandering the poor and marginalized celebrated in today’s readings as especially dear to God. I mean since November 8th, all the levers of power (the presidency, the Supreme Court, the House and Senate) find themselves in the hands of billionaires and their friends – the 1% that the Occupy Movement identified so accurately five years ago. Ironically that richest 1% has succeeded in scapegoating the country’s poorest 1% (immigrants) as a major cause of our country’s problems. Moreover, they equally vilify other poor and marginalized people: the impoverished in general, brown and black-skinned people, women, the LGBTQ community, environmentalists, protestors and anyone who exposes the crimes of the billionaire class.

As a result, we are about to enter a period of unprecedented national darkness that promises to rival that of Germany, 1933-1945. For at least the next four years our country will be controlled by an organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world.”

More dangerous than the Nazis? Yes, Chomsky insists. Hitler did not have the power to destroy the planet by nuclear war. Hitler ruled Germany before climate change threatened innumerable species, Mother Earth herself, and continued human existence. And yet the entire Republican Party denies that the problem even exists! Yes, it is the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

And despite all of that, there’s not a peep about it from the pulpit. People keep going to Mass as though the most important upcoming event is the arrival of St. Nicholas at the parish potluck – or the Christmas bazaar.

So what should we do in the face of such disconnect?

How about following the example of John the Baptist, Brigid Fitzgerald and her husband?

This would entail:

  • Admitting that present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of anti-poor climate change deniers.
  • Publicly moving out of our local church building.
  • Perhaps, opening a store front JMJ Catholic church on the Main Street Jim Wallis referred to in his article referenced above.
  • Inviting former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publishing the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meeting in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empowering faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gathering in the storefront on Wednesday evenings for prayer and to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.
  • Using those premises as a sanctuary for the bottom 1% threatened by ICE and police.

Objectors will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections John the Baptist might reply:

  • “I had no official authority to start my desert community of resistance and reform. In fact, I was identified by the authorities as an enemy of the state. Eventually they cut off my head. So don’t expect approval.”
  • Reform from within? “I gave up on that early on. So did my cousin, Jesus. Both of us operated outside the temple system which we criticized harshly.”
  • Division in our faith communities? “That didn’t bother me either. Can you get much more divisive or polarizing than calling religious leaders a ‘brood of vipers’?”
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? “The spiritual masters in my Essene community convinced me that prayer and meditation are essential elements undergirding prophetic action. However, pietism is useless unless it leads to the kind of witness I gave and risk I took on the banks of the Jordan.”
  • Too old? “Again, my Essene mysticism would not permit me to identify with the physical as if I were primarily a body with a soul. The truth is that we are first of all ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Hell, the elders criticized me for being too young to oppose them. I was barely 30 when they killed me.”

Again, as Jim Wallis has intimated, the specter of John the Baptist should haunt us this second Sunday of Advent, and drive our faith communities onto Main Street. These unprecedented times call for radical response outside the sacred precincts and independent of the sleepwalkers awaiting the arrival of St. Nicholas.