U.S. Empire, Haiti, and the Tragic Suppression of Liberation Theology

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53 

Today, Christians throughout the western world celebrate the end of the Easter season with their commemoration of what their mythology calls “the Ascension of Jesus.” The midrash tells the story of Yeshua’s bodily removal from the earth and passage into the World of Light.

The readings for this Sunday are noteworthy because they reveal to the attentive eye a conflict that afflicts the Christian community to this day. It pits those who understand Yeshua as summoning his followers to actively resist empire in favor of a this-worldly Kingdom of God over against those who reduce the Master and his teaching to the other worldly irrelevance rejected by our children.  In contemporary terms, it pits liberation theology against its more domesticated counterpart.

As such, today’s readings connect firmly with the struggle for justice throughout the Global South and particularly in Haiti.

Let me explain.

Haiti & Liberation Theology

I reference Haiti in particular because just last week the history of that long-troubled island was brought to our nation’s attention by a shocking series of articles in The New York Times. The series is called “The Ransom.”

Its articles detail how ever since Haiti’s black population successfully rebelled against the slave system imposed by France at the beginning of the 19th century, both France and the United States have been mercilessly punishing Haitians with unimaginable cruelty.

France even went so far as to force Haiti (under threat of invasion) to pay reparations to former French slaveholders for their lost “property.” Over more than 200 years, the reparations in question systematically devastated the Hattian economy. They’ve condemned the island’s inhabitants to more than two centuries of extreme, grinding poverty.

For Americans, the U.S. role in the tragedy is especially revealing. It uncovers a pattern of American imperialism that has caused similar devastation throughout the Global South. I’m speaking of regime change, alliances with local elites, and habitual support for dictators and generals with their harsh repression including practices of torture, disappearances, death squads, rigged elections, and lootings of national treasuries. That’s what the U.S. has always been about in the Global South.

If you don’t think so, just go to Wikipedia’s entry on “U.S. Regime Change Policies.” There you’ll find an astonishingly long list of such imperialistic interventions. In Haiti, interference like that saw the U.S. actually occupying the country from 1915 to 1934.

The exploitation at the hands of our country and France in turn gave rise to a decades long demand for reparations on the part of the island’s non-elite who didn’t get a democratically elected president until 1991. It was then that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, took office. As a liberation theologian, he promptly owned his faith’s prophetic tradition and gave voice to his country’s poor and their demands for reparations.

As documented by the Times series, the response of the United States was familiarly predictable. It involved the removal of Aristide from office in a coup that restored the rule of the island’s elite enforced by the brutal Tonton Macoute goon squads.

This is the way (despite the example of Yeshua himself) that those espousing their hero’s anti-imperialism have been treated throughout the history of the church. The Jewish prophets were killed one after another. Jesus himself was the victim of torture and a form of capital punishment (crucifixion) that the Romans reserved for insurgents. Most of his inner circle were martyred. And, of course, the persecution of Christians at the hands of Roman imperialists and their Colosseum lions is legendary.

Meanwhile, believers favoring an other-worldly understanding of their faith were embraced and rewarded (as they are today) by imperial powers.

Today’s Readings  

I bring all of that up in an Ascension Day homily because today’s readings highlight the conflict just noted between followers of Yeshua of Nazareth who, like Fr. Aristide, see him as the defender of the poor and oppressed on the one hand and those who insist on kicking that poor Galilean construction worker upstairs on the other.

The former see Jesus as a messiah intent on replacing empire’s oppression with what he called “the Kingdom of God.”  There the world’s order will be reversed. The rich are accursed. This tradition records Yeshua saying– “Woe to you rich, for you have already received your reward”/ “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God”)./ “If you will be a follower of mine sell what you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.”  Meanwhile, the poor will “have the earth for their possession.”

Those who espouse the competing understanding of the Yeshua tradition (like most believers in the United States) find poverty, hunger, imperialism and its wars irrelevant. For them it’s all about life after death – being “saved” and avoiding eternal punishment in hell. For them, far from being the enemy of humankind, empire is somehow divinely ordained. 

All of that is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word mixes each view with its alternative.

According to the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover, Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead, he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So, the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Pseudo Paul (probably not Paul himself)  tells his readers in Ephesus, that Yeshua is enthroned at the father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when writers pretending to be Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So, they gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the morality spiritual seekers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Conclusion

Empire has never liked prophets. Like its Roman counterpart, the U.S. version hates Jesus.

That’s why it vilified and couped Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. That’s why it killed those six liberation theologians in El Salvador. That’s why it raped and murdered those three nuns and their lay associate also in El Salvador. That’s why it joined with two anti-liberation theology popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) to crush liberation theology and the priests, nuns, catechists, activists, teachers, social workers, and union leaders influenced by liberation theology wherever it dared to raise its ugly (to them) head. The popes in question stood by silent as America and its allies killed as many liberationists as they could.

And all those reactionary forces have apparently succeeded – just as the Roman Empire and its biblical predecessors enjoyed apparent success in stamping out the prophetic tradition of the authentic Judeo-Christian tradition.

And by the way, that success in turn is why so many of our children have left behind an increasingly irrelevant version of Christianity that has no connection with a world shaped by the cruelty recounted in the NYT series.

To get a fuller picture of what I mean, please read “The Ransom” for yourself or at least view the “Democracy Now” segment at the head of this blog entry.

And please consider this homily a call to rethink your assessment of Yeshua and his Jewish prophetic tradition. It is more relevant and necessary than ever before for combatting the evils of imperialism.

Chapter 34: “Pope John Paul III Encyclical on Sex”

This is the final chapter of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. (For previous chapters, just scroll down.)

This concluding chapter takes the form of a papal encyclical by the fictitious pope, John Paul III. Though some younger readers might still object to its contents as excessively traditional, the encyclical represents the type of publication I wish popes were capable of authoring. Because of its importance, I’m including the full written text in this posting along with the recorded version above. Here’s what Pope John Paul III wrote:

Chapter Thirty-Eight

To the Young People of the World: An Encyclical About Sex

It is altogether fitting that this – in all probability the final encyclical of my papacy – should be addressed, with great fatherly affection, to the young people of the world.  As a man of advanced years, I write with an immense sense of urgency and affection. My hope is that what I share with you will help you avoid the errors and destructive behavior which has become the hallmark of the modern world. 

Recent tragic experiences among my brother priests have unexpectedly forced upon me new personal insights about the topic of this encyclical. They prompt me to rethink my own life, and my teaching on human sexuality.  My wish is to communicate those thoughts and teachings in a series of direct and honest pastoral counsels, which I list below.  These counsels will be straight from my heart, informed by my own experience, and expressed without obscurity or equivocation.  Their practicality has a twofold intention: first, to offer direct guidance to you, my dearest sons and daughters, and, secondly, to create a context of freedom for those who will soon gather for the Third Vatican Council.  As part of their agenda, I want the council fathers and mothers to explore freely in the light of scripture and tradition, the points which I will express here all-too-briefly.

To begin with, let me extend my deepest compassion to every one of you.  You are challenged, as the members of my generation never were, by the enticements and deceptions of a modern consumer culture. It inundates you with words and images, songs and mass media advertising which glorify the commodification of life itself.  Indeed, the most precious of human relationships – love between women and men – has been transformed simply into one more product, to be bought and sold at the lowest price possible.  Nothing could be further from the Creator’s intention.

To deal with the overwhelming temptations and confusions which inevitably result from such commercialization, it is imperative that each of you becomes clear about the place sex has, will have, and should have in you own life.  This is a matter for serious reflection, reading and conversation (especially with your parents, or someone else you may trust).

Your own conclusions about the place of sex in your life will depend on what you think life itself is for.  This is not easy to determine.  TV, magazines, movies, popular songs, novels, and your less thoughtful friends will tell us one thing.  The thoughtful people of history (Jesus, St. Francis, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and the insightful holy women and men of other religious traditions) will tell you something else. So, to begin with, you must decide where and with whom you stand. That will determine all else.

If you are like most people in the world we have inherited, you will agree that life is for “having fun” and enjoying pleasure, for making money, accumulating possessions, achieving fame, and avoiding pain.  With this orientation, sex is just one more source of personal pleasure – perhaps the greatest source. So, the important thing is to obtain as much of it as you can for yourself, and, if possible, for your partners.  One’s sexual conquests are proofs of personal worth, aliveness, status, femininity, and manhood.  One should never pass up a potential sexual conquest or say “no” to sexual pleasure.  This approach is especially seductive for us males.  It leads us to approach women as “creatures for us.”  They are sexual objects.  As such, they are fair game for exploitation, voyeuristic gaze, jokes and derision.

The other approach (of the people I called “thoughtful”) begins from an entirely different place.  It says that human beings are more than their bodies, more than sophisticated animals.  In fact, it says, we are principally spiritual beings.  The thoughtful people I’m referring to make four important claims about the purpose of life.  They say: (1) within each one of us resides a spark of the divine, the presence of God’s Spirit, our real Self, (2) we can come to an awareness of this fact and live from that divine place with love, patience, kindness, humility, simplicity, generosity and pure intention, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) once we realize our own unity with the divine, we will recognize that same spark in every other human being and in all of creation, treating them accordingly.  These were the convictions of Jesus, the Christ. Males who adopt this approach will see women as persons like themselves with hopes, ambitions, talents, and vulnerabilities.  Women will be seen as delightful companions and men’s equals – entirely worthy of honor, respect, support, love and (when appropriate) protection.

This more thoughtful approach to the meaning of life has led me to summarize its observations and to make recommendations.  My observations include the following:

√ Sex is the second most powerful physical drive human beings possess. After self-preservation comes propagation of the species.

√ As such a powerful force, undisciplined sex has severely damaged the lives of an extraordinary number of otherwise mature and apparently successful people, along with the lives of their families and loved ones. You have only to read the daily newspaper to see this.  Reports of rapes, incestuous relationships, unwanted pregnancies, marital infidelities, abortions, acquisition of STDs, and/or involvement with prostitution and addiction to pornography show that undisciplined sex can be ruinous. Above all, the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by some of our own priests illustrates this point.  All of these instances show how necessary it is to be in charge of ourselves in this area of life – as well as in others that are potentially addictive (food and drink, drugs, work, money, personal ambition…).

√ Obsession with sex passively (guilt or fear) or actively (compulsive thoughts or actions) is harmful.

√ It is important to deal with sexuality in an open, honest, rational, and prayerful way.  If not, it will come back to haunt you.  Either reckon with it as a young person or reckon with it later.  The longer one postpones coming to terms with sex, the more likely it is that the postponement will result in crooked or compulsive (that is unfree) sexual expression.  By “reckoning with” sex and “coming to terms” with it, I mean thinking about it, evaluating it and deciding about its place in your life.

√ Members of the opposite sex are extremely attractive to most of us.  This is entirely wonderful and a precious gift from God.  However, it is very easy to objectify those for whom we experience sexual attraction – to treat them as “things,” rather than as persons of equal value, and comparable hopes, anxieties, and destinies.  This is especially noteworthy for men relative to women, because the male-dominated culture of the West objectifies women for commercial purposes in sex-related ways.  I urge you to reject that mindset and practice.

√ As for those who find members of the same sex attractive sexually, I can say very little.  However, I do trust Scripture scholars who have found that the Bible has very little, if anything, to say on the topic.  It is certain that the Bible does not at all address problems of “sexual orientation,” which is an entirely modern concept.  I also trust those who claim same-sex attraction when they testify that they have no more chosen their sexual orientation than have heterosexuals.  My heart goes out to such individuals because they are so misunderstood and persecuted in the West.  I confess as well that the church bears much responsibility for their suffering.  Of course, within homosexual orientation, the same guidelines for personal relationships apply as are relevant to heterosexuals. (See below.)

√ Sexual thoughts, use of pornography, and self-stimulation are not matters of sin requiring punishment. However, they can represent self-centeredness, loss of personal control, poisoning of the mind, and objectification of persons. Such diversions from life’s true purpose can easily become addictive, time-consuming, costly, and unhealthy.

√ Once one becomes sexually active, it is extremely difficult not to have sex a part of subsequent relationships.

√ The more partners one has, the easier it is to treat those involved as sex objects, to deceive and exploit them. We must never forget that apart from their spiritual impact, all sexual relationships establish undeniable chemical bonds between those who engage in them. Thoughtless multiple sexual relationships can desensitize one to those bonds and cause heartbreak and pain. 

√ Sexual involvement early in a relationship prevents men and women from getting to know one another personally, intellectually, and spiritually. That is, the sexual dimension of a man/woman relationship is easy. However, it should be the last element in a much more complicated and difficult progression of “knowing” that goes from (1) meeting to (2) knowledge of the person’s history and background, and to (3) knowledge of the person’s thoughts and values, to (4) knowledge of the person’s spirit and spiritual orientation. 

     √ Sexual intercourse finds its proper place only within the context of stable, permanent commitments. However, it is extremely easy to deceive oneself about such pledges. Mere self-seeking can too easily masquerade as “love” or “commitment.” Almost inevitably such deception leads to heartbreak and deep personal wounds. This shows the wisdom of our tradition when it confines full sexual expression to the marriage context.

     √ Postponing sexual gratification and involvement with other people is possible. Demonstrating this possibility (despite the reigning culture’s denial) is one of the great services provided by those who have received the vocation to the celibate life.  They demonstrate for all to see that one does not really “need” to be sexually active to lead a happy and meaningful life.

√ Postponement of sexual involvement is highly desirable.  Sex complicates life and relationships very much.  (Think of your friends who are already sexually involved.)  Young people do not need such complications while they are still in school attempting to make the most of their studies and athletic potential. Personally, I am very happy that I was free of that while I was finishing my studies and excelling in sports. I did not miss anything and gained a great deal.

     √ Saying “no” to early sexual involvement is a greater sign of maturity and strength than saying “yes.”

     √ It is important to develop in oneself the ability to say “no” to sexual gratification. Eventually one’s marriage and family may depend on it.

            √ Child molestation (along with rape and incest) is abhorrent. Those who engage in such activity urgently require exposure and treatment. This applies to the members of the clergy who have sinned grievously in this area.

             √ Abortion remains a concern extremely close to my heart. At this juncture in my life, it is important to reaffirm the church’s concern for human life, and life in general, in all its manifestations and stages. However, too often in the past, the church has transformed abortion into an  issue centralizing female responsibility. Instead, it must be seen as society’s problem. It is therefore entirely objectionable for the faithful to be protective of human life within the womb, and not to maintain the same concern after pregnancies have been brought to term. It is wrong for Christians to insist that abortion be outlawed, without at the simultaneously supporting public programs providing healthcare, housing, education, childcare, and a living wage. In other words, Christians are responsible for creating a welcoming atmosphere for all children.

More particularly, for too long, men (and churchmen with no direct experience of women’s sexuality) have tried to instruct and regulate women on this topic. However, despite such uninformed pronouncements, women have for eons dealt with it using their unique knowledge and wisdom. Accordingly, abortion has always been part of women’s special insight, practice, and lore.

Since abortion is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, we are thrown back on such feminine wisdom and practice based as it is on biology and logic in order to reach conclusions about abortion’s morality.

Intuitively at least, women’s biology tells them that spontaneous abortions are nature’s way – the way their female bodies work. They recognize that about ten to twenty percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (i.e., before the 20th week of gestation) – not to mention pregnancies that are unknown.

Logically, that spontaneous phenomenon reveals something about the divine plan of creation. It suggests that before at least the 20th week of pregnancy, the fetus cannot be considered a human person.  

And even subsequently, there is no reason to think that the Divine’s infinite wisdom and power cannot reincarnate any aborted soul in another body when the time is right according to the mother’s judgment.

The bottom line here is that men (especially celibate men) have little to say on this topic., Women must have the final word.  

RECOMMENDATIONS

     √ Be careful, my dear friends, about the thoughts, images, song lyrics, and other influences you allow into your minds. Our holy tradition teaches that the thoughts we think, the images we put into our minds (sexual, violent, consumptive. . .) shape who we are.  Being careful about what we allow into our minds is simply part of taking responsibility for our own selves and destinies.  Repeated thoughts lead to actions; repeated actions create habits; habits shape character; character determines destiny.

     √ Form as many friendships as possible without complicating them with sex. Sex gets in the way of the real knowledge (personal, intellectual, and spiritual) I described earlier in this letter.

     √ Socialize “defensively.” That is, avoid situations which will lead to the premature involvements, commitments and expectations that go along with sex. Meet your companion’s parents.  Go out in groups.  Plan your outings.  Keep busy during the time together (movies, concerts, lectures, sports events . . .)  Return home on time.  Say goodbye on the doorstep, not in a car or remote location. 

     √ Realize that sexual involvement is a process, which progresses in stages – holding hands, kissing, touching, touching intimately (another name for foreplay) and intercourse.  Once started, it is progressively more difficult to stop and turn back.

     √ If despite what I have written here, you decide to have sexual intercourse, never do so without protection.  I say this for your own benefit.  Literally, it is a question of life and death.

CONCLUSION

   My dearest sons and daughters, there is much more to be said about all I’ve addressed in this letter.  What I’ve shared here is, I think, common sense.  It is also reflective of Christian perspective in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Perhaps that tradition does not have for you the same value that it continues to have for me.  In the end, you must decide whether you want to subscribe to it or not – whether you want to accept what it offers as “wisdom” or not.  Personally, I have done so.  That doesn’t mean that I have not made mistakes in my life. Like you and everyone else, I have committed many errors.  However, I do recognize the tradition’s wisdom and am struggling to stay on the path it describes.

            My hope is that sharing like this has some meaning for you.  Please consider it carefully.  At the very least, recognize it for what it is – the Holy Father’s poor attempt to give some guidance to the sons and daughters he cares so deeply about.

With heartfelt affection and love,

            John Paul III, Pope

Chapter 32: Conclusion “Damiana Sets the Pope Straight”

Please excuse me for forgetting to attach the audio file to yesterday’s posting.

Anyway, here’s what I thought I was publishing yesterday. This is the concluding chapter of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. But wait, there’ll be another chapter and epilogue.

For previous chapters, just scroll down.

Chapter Seventeen: “Damiana and the Pope”

John Paul II had an “intense” friendship with a married woman for over 30 years

This is Chapter 17 of my novel The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel: a novel about Cuba, Prostitution and the Catholic Church. For previous chapters, just scroll down.