If That’s Religion, Good Riddance!

Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.

That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.

Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.

The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.

I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.

Let me explain.

Religion’s Sudden Decline

Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.

What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.

That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.

All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.

For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:

  • Large families
  • That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
  • That they stay at home and care for their offspring
  • That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality

However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.

And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.

Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)

However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.

To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.

The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.  

Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.

Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.

Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.  

In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.

Liberation Theology

All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.

In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.

Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.

Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.

Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.

More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.

For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.

In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.

In the first place, the prophets opposed the creation of royalty at all (1 Samuel 8). In the second place, their social criticism advocated the interests of those widows, orphans and strangers (https://www.openbible.info/topics/widows_and_orphans). In the third place, they suffered the predictable consequences experienced by all (then and since) who speak truth to the patriarchy. They were ostracized, exiled, imprisoned, assassinated or formally executed https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Killing-Prophets

Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.

All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.

And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).      

Conclusion

Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?

More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?

For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:

  • First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
  • Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
  • And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.

David and Solomon’s Crime Family Was No Better than Trump’s

Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16; Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 38

In terms of teaching theology and elucidating the Bible, I’m happy for our nation’s experience of Donald Trump. Otherwise, not so much.

The reason for my contentment is Mr. Trump’s blatant exploitation of religion and his ability to persuade so many people of faith that he is a man of God. Think of his now infamous Bible posing in front of DC’s St. John’s Church after having police clear the area of Black Lives Matter protesters.  

The event clearly illustrated a perennial religious dynamic that is essential for critical thinkers to understand. I’m referring to what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “battle of the gods.”

The Battle of the Gods

The combat in question pits the God of the rich against the God of the poor. Specific to our readings on this fourth Sunday of Advent, it sets the God of Moses against the God of King David’s crime family. Yes, his crime family.

To begin with, the God of the poor set free a motley group of slaves from Egypt and instituted Moses’ order that favored them rather than their Egyptian slavers. Its “preferential option” prioritized the interests of widows, orphans, and resident non-Hebrews living in Israel. Covenant law eventually forgave the debts of impoverished Hebrews every fifty years. In the process, it disadvantaged landlords and bankers. It made no provision for reestablishing the royal class that had made the lives of slaves so miserable in Egyptian captivity.

Then about a thousand years before the birth of Yeshua, all of that changed. Israel’s upper classes decided to reinstitute an order reminiscent of Egypt. It had the rich lording power over the poor, taxing them heavily, instituting forced labor, and sending Israel’s young men to fight and die in gratuitous wars of conquest as conscripts in a standing army.

Saul was Israel’s first king. He was succeeded by King David and then by his son, Solomon. Both father and son were ruthless womanizers committed to increasing their own wealth and power at the expense of the poor. Theirs was truly a crime family masquerading as God’s beloved appointees.

Family dysfunctions included internecine murders and wars, incestuous rape (2nd Samuel 13) and lasting vendettas. David’s deathbed will and testament was worthy of any Mafia don (I Kings 2: 2-12). However, to achieve the power for which they thirsted, both David and Solomon had to convince their subjects that they were indeed men of God.

That called for fabricated visions and assurances from the divine. Both David and Solomon assisted by their court prophets and scribes enthusiastically obliged. And so, David made sure it was recorded that he was a man “after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Meanwhile, Solomon’s own court historians portrayed him as the wisest man who ever lived (I Kings 3: 11-15).

Central to the ruse was a reframing of Moses’ Sinai Covenant to favor the newly emergent royalty and their hangers-on rather than the poor. That’s what we find in this Sunday’s first reading from 2nd Samuel. There, David and his court prophet, Nathan, conspire to change the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant from the poor and oppressed to the royals. In this way, the covenant becomes not a divine promise to protect widows and orphans, but to assure a lasting dynasty for David’s crime family. Put otherwise, the Covenant of Moses was replaced by the Covenant of David.

The great prophets of Judah and Israel rebelled against such palace distortions of faith.

Some tried to work within the new system holding kings’ feet to the fire, reminding them of their obligations towards the weak and vulnerable. Others gave up on the royals and called them out for their self-serving cruelty and corruption.

The great prophets celebrated during this advent season, John the Baptist and his disciple Yeshua of Nazareth, fell into the latter category. They had no use for the royals, the temple priests, their lawyers and apologists. They reserved special abhorrence for their country’s Roman occupiers.

Evidently, Yeshua inherited all of that from his mother, Miryam. She and her husband, Yosef, gave all of their children revolutionary names (Matthew 13: 55-56). Yeshua was named after the great liberator Joshua. The evangelist called “Luke” recorded Miryam as singing a fierce revolutionary song calling for the dethronement of the rich and mighty everywhere (Luke 1: 46-55).

All of that is reflected in today’s readings. What follows are my “translations.” You can find them here to see if I got them right.

Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent   

2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16: The wily King David conspired with his court prophet, Nathan to persuade their people that God was on his side. The strategy was to build a magnificent temple (actually about the size of a middling parish church today) and then to claim a well-publicized “vision.” There, according to Nathan’s testimony, David’s battlefield accomplishments would be celebrated by God himself. But even more importantly, his country’s constitution (called “The Covenant”) would be subtly changed from centering on the welfare of widows, orphans, and immigrants, to assuring that David’s crime family would stay in power forever. 

Psalms 89: 2-5, 27, 29: The arrangement was then celebrated in song (Psalm 89) praising the goodness of God for establishing David’s throne “for all generations.”

Romans 16: 25-27: Paul’s allegiance, however, was not to any earthly king, but to what Yeshua proclaimed as the Kingdom of God. It embraced the welfare of “all nations.” Following Yeshua, Paul’s understanding re-established the pre-Davidic Covenant (favoring those widows, orphans, and immigrants) which David’s Covenant (in its hijacked form) had attempted to replace.

Luke 1: 38: Vaguely following the example of David, Luke’s early church made up a visionary tale about Yeshua’s very conception. There, the angel Gabriel secures Mary’s permission to have the Holy Spirit impregnate her. The resulting child will be great, the angel said, and (like David) initiate a kingdom to which “there will be no end.” However, Yeshua’s New Covenant would once again centralize not the royal class, but Yahweh’s beloved widows, orphans, and immigrants. As Mary would say beginning eight verses later (LK 1: 46-55), it would “take down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble.” So much for palace crime family conspiracies.

Conclusion

So, portraying the Trumps, or Bushes, or Clintons or Kennedys or Obamas as “crime families” is not at all far-fetched or somehow unchristian. On the contrary, insofar as any of them neglect the poor – the widows, orphans, immigrants, asylum seekers, or victims of their wars – they are just that. They’re like the criminal family of David and Solomon.

Yes, they go to church, invoke God’s blessings on America at the end of every formal speech, and even attend “prayer breakfasts.” But like David and Solomon (and most of the kings portrayed in the Bible), they are really in bed with the rich and powerful, with the bankers and corporate heads, and with compliant pastors, priests and court prophet equivalents. At best, they are completely disinterested in the spiritual descendants of Egypt’s slaves. At worst, they are actual enemies of workers, widows, orphans, immigrants as well as of those who side with the unemployed, houseless, and those without medical care.

In summary, this fourth Sunday of Advent provides a stark reminder to critical thinking people of faith. It tells us not to be seduced by Bible-waving presidents or by pastors who endorse them and their God of the rich.

Neither Yeshua whose birthday we are about to celebrate nor his cousin John nor his revolutionary mother had anything to do with that God. Before him, they were all complete atheists. So should we be.

Their God was the God of Moses, not of David. Their God was precisely the one rejected by the rich and the powerful – the One who Miryam said “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble,” who “fills the hungry with good things, while the rich he sends empty away” (Luke 1: 53). 

It’s Time To Post Luke’s Beatitudes in Front of the White House (Sunday Homily)

davidic-covenant

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Second in the Extraordinary Time of Donald Trump) ZEP 2:3, 3:12-15; PS 146:6-7, 8-10; ICOR 1: 25-31; MT 5: 1-12A.

So we’re a Christian nation, right? At least that’s what right wingers would have us believe, despite the presence of millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists – and atheists – among us.

Well, if we’re so Christian, here’s an idea for you. How about posting the Beatitudes in front of U.S. courthouses instead of the Ten Commandments? How about posting them on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House? Doesn’t that seem more appropriate? I mean the Beatitudes come from the specifically Christian Testament. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, come from the Jewish Testament.

I predict that will never happen. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts, there’d be a hue and cry (on the part of Christians, mind you) that would prevent the move. And do you know why? Because the Beatitudes centralized in today’s liturgy of the word are too radical and un-American for the “Christian” right. They make sweeping judgments about classes. They indicate that the rich (evidently no matter how they got their money) are at odds with God’s plan, while the poor (regardless of why they’re poor) are his favorites.

No, I’m not so much talking about the version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew which were read in today’s Gospel excerpt. In Matthew, Jesus’ words are already softened. Instead, my reference is to Luke’s probably earlier version that expresses harsher judgments.

Here’s the way, Luke phrases Jesus’ words in Chapter 6 of his Gospel:

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . .

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Do you see what I mean? Luke’s version doesn’t spiritualize poverty the way Matthew does. Matthew changes Jesus’ second-person statement about poverty (“Blessed are you who are poor”) to a third-person generalized and spiritualized “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Similarly, Luke’s “Blessed are you who are hungry now” becomes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” in Matthew.  In this way physical hunger is turned into something spiritual or psychological. Obviously, Matthew’s community was not as poor as Luke’s – or as the people Jesus habitually addressed.

In fact, the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is so valuable exactly because – unlike most of ancient literature – it represents the lore of poor people about their relationship with God.

Granted, that tradition became the object of class struggle about 1000 years before Jesus’ time, with the contested emergence of a royal class.

That is, starting with King Saul, the royalty of Judah and Israel tried mightily to turn a poor people’s faith into an ideology supporting the country’s elite. More particularly, under King David, palace oligarchs distorted the divine promise to slaves escaped from Egypt. That promise had been “I will be your God and you will be my people.” David turned it into a promise of a permanent dynasty for himself and his descendants. In other words, the country’s royalty transformed the Mosaic Covenant into a Davidic Covenant serving the elite rather than the poor.

However, the people’s prophets resisted them at every step. We find examples of that in all of today’s readings. For instance, in our first selection, the seventh century (BCE) prophet, Zephaniah, addresses the world’s (not simply Israel’s) poor. With his country’s aristocrats and priests in mind, he denounces their lies and “deceitful tongues” and urges them to treat the “humble and lowly” with justice as was prescribed by Moses.

Then with the responsorial Psalm 146 (probably written in the late sixth century) we all found ourselves chanting the words Matthew attributes to Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of God is theirs.” The “Kingdom of God,” of course, is shorthand for what the world would be like if God were king instead of those corrupt royal classes. The psalmist says that change would bring justice for the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, physically handicapped, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien. All of these were specific beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant.

Today’s third reading from I Corinthians promises a Great Reversal. There Paul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) identifies Jesus’ earliest followers as those who “count for nothing” in the eyes of the world. (Do you see the return to the Mosaic Covenant?)  Jesus followers are riffraff. Paul identifies them as unwise, foolish, and weak. They are lowly and despised. Yet in reality, Paul assures his audience, the despised will finally be proven wise and holy. Ominously for their betters, Paul promises that those who count for nothing will reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

Jesus, of course, appears in Zephaniah’s and Paul’s prophetic tradition as defender of the poor and the Mosaic Covenant. Matthew makes that point unmistakably by changing the location of Luke’s parallel discourse. In Luke, Jesus announces the Beatitudes “on a level place” (LK 6:17). Matthew puts Jesus “on a mount” for the same sermon. His point is that Jesus is the New Moses who also received the Old Covenant on a mount (Sinai). Put otherwise: the so-called Beatitudes represent the New Law of God.

That’s why it makes more sense to place the Beatitudes on a plaque in front of our courthouses, on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House.

But as I said, don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine Donald Trump and his super-wealthy cabinet members (and their constituents) having to read Luke’s words every day?

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

No, in its essence, the Judeo-Christian tradition belongs precisely to poor people. It belongs to those whom the Trump administration (and perhaps Americans in general) think “count for nothing.” As Paul intimates, those are the very ones who will rise up and reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

That message is no more welcome today than it was 2000 years ago.