Abortion Obsessed Catholic Bishops Betray Pope Francis – and Jesus

It seems the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can’t stop embarrassing itself.

No, I’m not referring this time to its incompetent mishandling and scandalous coverups of priest pedophiles. (By rights, those disgraces should themselves deprive the Conference of ALL claims to speak authoritatively on ANY matter having to do with sex.)

 instead, I’m talking about the latest manifestation of the USCCB’s obsession with abortion.

As if we needed a reminder, its fixation with the matter came under harsh spotlight on June 18th when an overwhelming majority of the Bishops’ Conference decided to proceed with drafting a document whose bottom line would have them refusing communion to Joe Biden (and by extension to other pro-choice Catholic politicians).

The whole affair made evident first of all that the bishops are pronouncing on an issue far beyond their ken. Secondly, their action flies in the face of position adopted by Pope Francis himself. Thirdly, it aligns the bishops with the most extreme faction of the Republican Party. And finally, it is quite unbiblical and contradicts the teachings of Jesus and his expression of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.

For thinking Catholics, all four points should be quite embarrassing. For others, it’s just one more reason to write off the Church as completely irrelevant.   

Unsubstantiated Obsession with Abortion

The evident purpose of the Conference’s strategy is to advance repeal of Roe v Wade as if it were morally self-evident that (as they say) “abortion is murder.”

Of course, no such self-evidence exists. This is because the question of abortion’s morality turns on the issue of when specifically personal human life begins. And NO ONE knows for sure the answer to that question. Even the seminal Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought that personal life (“ensoulment”) for males began 40 days after conception and for females 80 days after conception. The church operated on that assumption for centuries.

Moreover, other religions variously identify the beginnings of personal life with the moment of quickening (usually 17-20 weeks after conception), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or even (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the child to distinguish it from the animals. 

In view of such variation, to impose a single religion’s answer to the crucial question about the beginning of personal life disrespects those of other faiths and of no faith at all. It is therefore to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

(And, by the way, the USCCB’s extreme position that specifically personal life begins when sperm fertilizes egg contradicts the “practice” of Nature itself. It ignores the fact that literally countless such fertilizations end in spontaneous abortions – suggesting that Nature itself (God?)  is unconcerned with the issue.)

A Rejection of Pope Francis

The Catholic Bishops’ ham-handed power play also flies in the face of gentle advice from Pope Francis. Instead of confrontation and effective excommunication, the Pope urged “extensive and serene dialogue.”

The Conference position also contrasted sharply with Francis’ allies like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. Both urged adoption of the pope’s approach, which McElroy described as speaking to Mr. Biden “in his humanity” and as “a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.” McElroy recommended encouragement of “our new President: by entering into a relationship of dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness.”

However, USCCB disagreement with Francis goes much further. It is not simply an internecine squabble about arcane Catholic issues. Identifying abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the bishops’ conference highlights disagreement at the highest level of the Catholic Church about the essence of the faith. For Francis, the Church’s preeminent priority is social justice and a radical concern for “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.”  His pro-life commitments extend far beyond abortion to climate justice, elimination of capital punishment, renunciation of war, and welcoming of immigrants.

Of course, all such concerns are rejected by Republican extremists with whom the USCCB ends up aligning itself.

Alignment with Extremists

Such alignment was noted recently by Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne pointed to a relevant Pew Research survey of last spring. It showed that even 44% of Republican Catholics agree with the 67% of American Catholics in general that Biden should be allowed to receive communion.

This means that in adopting their position on weaponizing communion, the U.S. bishops are identifying themselves with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party which, of course, has also made abortion a key culture wars issue.

This alignment means supporting election of Republicans whose climate change denial ends up favoring omnicide while claiming to prioritize unborn human life.

Moreover, Dionne correctly observes that the bishops’ position is an outlier in the Catholic world itself. Almost nowhere else is the abortion issue given the preeminence claimed by the USCCB. Its position would be unthinkable in most of Europe and Latin America.

Unbiblical Obsession with Abortion

Even though women have always practiced abortion, the Bible shows no concern for the issue; it is mentioned nowhere in its pages. Therefore, to make it the church’s “preeminent priority” over those articulated by the pope is questionable at the very least.

Moreover, seeking to remedy the practice of abortion by imposition of law flies in the face of the habitual antinomian postures of both Jesus and St. Paul. Neither was friendly towards legal statutes and their enforcers. Jesus routinely disobeyed Judaism’s most sacred (Sabbath) law. He famously asserted his indisputably humanist position that “The sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

For his part, Paul was so liberal in his interpretation of Jewish Testament law that he set it aside entirely – including dietary restrictions and even circumcision. It was futile, he said, to seek salvation in law – even in God’s law (e.g., Romans 7: 13-24).

By adopting such positions, both Jesus and Paul seemed to recognize that complicated issues of personal morality cannot be effectively imposed by law, force, or sanctions. Thus, the two most prominent foci of Christian Testament texts implicitly acknowledged the truism that human laws generally favor those who made them, viz., the wealthy and powerful – usually elderly males (and in our case, specifically white old men). Meanwhile, they militate against the interests of those without power or wealth and (in the case of abortion) seem to represent one more way of controlling women.

This is especially vexing for women, since the planet’s female citizens have had virtually no determining input regarding the content of laws that govern their reproductive processes.

The bottom line here is that law has no salvific power for friends of women or followers of Jesus.

Conclusion

Does any of this mean that church leaders should abandon the abortion issue? Not really.

It does however mean that leadership should recognize the fact that Roe v. Wade represents a reasonable resolution of the abortion question in a pluralistic society. It is an imperfect but even-handed compromise in a culture divided on fundamental questions concerning the beginnings of personal human life. It is reasonable that during the first trimester of pregnancy, the pregnant woman may herself decide about the termination of her pregnancy without legal consultation; that during the second trimester the state may regulate abortion to protect the health of its pregnant citizens, and that during the final three months of pregnancy, the state (in recognition of its obligation to protect the unborn) can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

Meanwhile, the bishops and others seeking to lessen the number of abortions should use their influence to foster a welcoming atmosphere for all children. This would entail supporting measures that (among others) provide otherwise reluctant parents with:

  • The good example of Catholic practice
  • Preemptive sex education
  • Extensive prenatal care
  • Postpartum parental leave
  • Affordable childcare
  • Adequately paid jobs
  • Dignified housing
  • Safe abortion facilities

Only by adopting such pro-life positions can the USCCB hope to overcome the embarrassment that its patriarchal, legalistic and unbiblical alignment with the Republican Party has brought upon it and upon all Roman Catholics.

Easter Reflection: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Resurrection

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti supplies the details.

The Biblical Roots of Our Pandemic Response: The Chinese Alternative

Over the past week, three approaches to the widespread availability of anti-Covid-19 vaccinations have crossed my desk. One was the comical music video (above) celebrating a supposed post-vaccine normalcy including a return to restaurants, movies, gatherings with family members, friends, grandchildren and mask-less interaction with the world at large. I couldn’t help smiling and laughing at my own relieved celebration of freedom’s prospect after more than a year of quarantine restrictions.

The second approach however was more sobering. It was an essay by Ernesto Burgio published in the Wall Street Journal’s Science and Technology International Magazine. Its basic message was “Not so fast; the human race is not nearly out of the woods.”

The third slant on the expected end of our current crisis returned me to the world of comedy and entertainment – to Bill Maher of all people and his recent riff on China’s competition with the United States (see below). He called it “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China – We Lost.” Without saying so, Maher’s thesis implied that China’s system of governance holds much more promise of dealing with Burgio’s dire warnings than does our own.

Finally, and speaking specifically as a theologian, the three pieces just referenced caused me to jump to a fourth level, a spiritual one. The leap had me concluding that nothing less than a China-inspired change in the West’s guiding spiritual mythology will save us from destruction.

Let me explain.

The 1st Anthropocene Pandemic

In his Wall Street Journal piece, Burgio pointed out that scientists have been predicting something like SARS-CoV2 pandemic for the last 20 years.  In fact, Covid is merely the most dramatic manifestation of a long-expected more general biological crisis resulting from a two-century long “War on Nature” – from what Pope Francis has called a systemic attack on humankind’s “Common Home.”

In recent memory, pandemic precursors have already surfaced as outbreaks of:

  • Ebola
  • Nipah
  • Hendra
  • Marburg
  • Flu-Orthomyxoviruses
  • Bat-Coronaviruses
  • SARS 1
  • H1N1
  • HIV AIDS

Covid-19 and those predecessors along with the pandemics to follow are the consequence of climate change, deforestation, and the creation of mega-cities that pack humans together in circumstances redolent of our related mistreatment livestock on factory farms.  The upshots of it all were prepared by related culturally induced comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes exacerbated by unhealthy diets dominated by sugars, salt, oils, and chemical preservatives.

According to Burgio and in view of such systemic causal links, it is senseless to seek salvation primarily in pharmaceutical remedies (including vaccines). What’s demanded instead is systemic reform of the post-modern lifestyle including rejection of fossil fuels, adoption of environmentally friendly diets (with drastically reduced meat consumption), and careful restoration of animal habitats and ecosystems.

The problem is, such radical lifestyle reforms are virtually impossible for capitalist cultures like the one found in the United States, the most powerful causal engine of environmental destruction. Especially here, where private enterprise is king, there is simply no central authority powerful or effective enough to institute the rapid comprehensive changes required to head off future pandemics, much less to save the planet. Indeed, half the American population cannot bring itself to even recognize that the pandemic is real, that human activity causes climate change, or that we’ve indeed transitioned into a new (Anthropocene) geological age.

And that brings me to Bill Maher’s observations suggesting that any hope that the human race might have lies with China.

The Chinese Promise

The title of Maher’s piece says it all: “We’re Not ‘Losing’ to China; We Lost.” That’s because (in Maher’s words) unlike us, when Chinese authorities see a problem, they fix it. For example, and specifically relevant to Covid-19, when the pandemic hit, they threw up a quarantine center with 4000 rooms in 10 days. They made robots to check children’s temperatures and got them back in school almost immediately. As a result, China has returned to something close to normal. It will be the world’s only major economy to register significant growth during this extraordinary year.

In fact, Maher’s rant echoes what Burgio himself pointed out in his essay when he said:

“. . . it is an indisputable fact that Asian countries, first of all China, but also South Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore have been able to stop the pandemic in the bud. It is also clear, to refute those who say that only authoritarian governments have been able to stop the pandemic by limiting civil liberties in a coercive and sometimes violent way, that Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland have done the same and have had very few deaths and minimal economic costs. All these countries have implemented precise strategies to contain the chains of infection, tracking and monitoring systems, organized quarantine areas and departments specifically dedicated to medium-severe and critical cases, implementing the gold standard in the management of pandemics: focusing on and strengthening primary health care.”

So, if it wasn’t because of the “authoritarian” character of its government, how explain China’s flexibility not only in dealing with Covid-19, but with its short-order elimination of extreme poverty, its rapid development of infrastructure, and its uniquely effective “foreign aid” as demonstrated in its Belt and Road Initiative?

Answering that question brings me to the earlier-mentioned realm of theology and spirituality. The answer is that China’s “Civilization State” (and eastern culture in general) is more effectively spiritual than anything found in western “Nation States.”

Spiritual Resources

The fact is that Chinese culture deeply influenced by Marxism recognizes more clearly than do westerners the truth of Burgio’s starting point – his approving reference to Pope Francis’ recent encyclicals (Laudato Si’, and Fratelli Tutti) with their defense of the earth as humankind’s “Common Home.”

Instead, the West’s individualism and emphasis on competition prevents it from embracing anything resembling Francis’ appeal to the common good. This has been especially so since its endorsement of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”

Regrettably, Thatcher’s point is supported by the fundamental Judeo-Christian myth of creation. As interpreted by Augustine, it spins the tale of our first parents’ “original sin” that corrupted all humans and all of creation as well.

If we’ve been told from birth that we’re all corrupt and that nature itself has been vitiated, why would we be surprised to see one another as enemies with whom cooperation (vs. competition) is impossible? Why would we be surprised that we harbor rapacious attitudes towards Mother Nature herself or that we easily excuse governmental depravity?

Obviously, China (along with most eastern cultures) does not believe any of that. As a result, in the name of the common good and with support from the vast majority of its people, it can turn on a dime when faced with problems like the Covid-19 pandemic. As Maher says, “When the Chinese see a problem, they fix it.”

By contrast, our culture with its crippling spirituality and adversarial conception of democracy finds itself gridlocked into a syndrome of discord and immobilizing cross-purposes.

Conclusion

As Burgio says, Covid-19 is not a mere bump in the road. Instead, it represents a “syndemic” – an entire set of health-related problems involving myriad interacting afflictions that cannot be cured by hospital-centric health systems whose ultimate response is technological and pharmaceutical.

Ultimately, the response must be spiritual and civilizational. We must face the fact that normalcy is gone. “Vaccine Day” happy talk won’t save us. Nor will attempts to defeat, stifle, control or replace China as the world’s emerging leader not only economically, but spiritually as well. Only fundamental change along the lines of China’s flexibility and efficiency inspired by notions of common good and common home can save us now.

Controlling History’s Narrative: Who Speaks for God Today?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95: 1-9; I Corinthians; 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

Today’s readings once again raise the central biblical question of prophets and prophecy.

We should read them carefully remembering that prophets are not fortune tellers focused on the future. They were and today remain social critics focused on present injustices committed against the original beneficiaries of Life’s covenant with Moses – the poor and oppressed (widows, orphans, and resident aliens). Insofar as they predict the future, the prophets’ threat is usually that neglect of the poor will lead to national tragedy.

 Yeshua the Christ, of course, appeared in the prophetic tradition which is always confused by the fact that the Great Mother’s spokespersons are inevitably contradicted by their fake counterparts. This Sunday’s readings highlight that point.

 Prophets Then

I was reminded of all this last week during a Zoom “Talk Back” responding to our pastor’s Sunday sermon on the fictional story of the prophet Jonah. That tale was centralized a week ago in the liturgy of the word. Towards the end, the pastor herself asked the question, “Who today is speaking the harsh truth that the Book of Jonah expressed?”

(As we saw last week the little Jonah parable (only 48 verses) is about a reluctant prophet who eventually has to face the fact that those imagining themselves to be the People of God (Israel) were quite the opposite. Meanwhile those whom Israel viewed as their corrupt enemies (Assyrians) were more responsive to God’s word.

In my own response to our pastor’s question, I observed “That would be like our hearing during the Cold War that Russians (communists) were more on God’s side than Americans. Today, it would be like being told the same thing about the Chinese or Muslims, or (worse still) al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Yes, that’s the way the Book of Jonah would have been heard in the middle of the 8th century BCE – as the Assyrian hordes massed on Israel’s borders ready to descend on “God’s People.” Eventually, they’d come (as Lord Byron would put it) “like the wolf on the fold.” They’d destroy the Northern Kingdom and take large masses of its people off to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh – as slaves. The book of Jonah dares to identify Assyrians as godly.

Imagine if some prophetic preacher today actually echoed Jonah saying, “You American exceptionalists believe that you’re especially pleasing to God. The exact opposite is true. In fact, your designated ‘enemies,’ Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, and those you imagine as terrorists are actually God’s favorites.”

How hard would that be for Americans to hear?

Prophets Now

But (to answer our pastor’s question directly) there actually have been and are religious prophets among us who have said such things and who are saying them today. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Dorothy Day, and even Pope Francis. Here’s what they’ve said in the name of God:

  • Malcolm X: “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
  • Martin Luther King: The United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
  • Jeremiah Wright: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. . . The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America“. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America. . . as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme”
  • William Barber II: “. . . I, too, am an atheist. . . if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either.” 
  • Liz Theoharis: “Jesus led a poor people’s campaign.”
  • Dorothy Day: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
  • Pope Francis: “This system is by now intolerable: Farmers find it intolerable; laborers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; people find it intolerable.”

Those are not voices most of us are accustomed to hearing as representative of a Christian message that has been completely dominated by right-wingers who have effectively silenced the political voice of the one Christians pretend to recognize as the greatest of all prophets. They silence Yeshua’s authentic voice by focusing exclusively on the fiction of American Exceptionalism and on personal “salvation.”   

The Prophet Yeshua

Instead, the very life of Yeshua the Christ was highly political from start to finish. He literally embodied God’s prioritization of the needs of the poor while specifically condemning the rich and powerful of his day. That’s why he had to be assassinated at a very young age — same as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton. . .

Think of it this way: Isn’t it true that Christian belief holds that Yeshua was the fullest revelation of God? If so, isn’t it therefore significant that the revelation site supposedly chosen by God was a poor man from the working class? Isn’t it theologically meaningful that he was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother (LK 1:34), was houseless at birth (LK 2:7), experienced immigrant status as an asylum seeker (MT 2: 13-15), traveled with a band of young people who had no visible means of support, was thought insane by his mother and close relatives (MK 3:21), was identified as a terrorist by the most powerful nation then on earth, and finished a victim of its torture and capital punishment?

I’d say that believers should find all of that extremely revealing.  

Moreover, the highly political Yeshua is reported to have made radical statements about wealth and poverty, e.g.:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-22)
  • “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
  • “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (Luke 6:24).
  • “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
  • “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
  • “If you want to be whole, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

Still more, his followers took their teacher literally as they practiced a kind of primitive communism:

  • “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2: 44-47).
  • Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 2: 32).

All of that identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, of Amos who defended the poor and criticized the rich, of Karl Marx, the last of the great Jewish prophets, and of the contemporary troublemakers listed above.

Today’s Readings

Keep all of that in mind as you review today’s liturgy of the word which centralizes the question, “Who are the true prophets among us?” What follows are my “translations.” You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

 
 Deuteronomy 18: 15-20:
 More than 500 years
 After the Great Prophet’s Death
 Moses was remembered
 As predicting the advent
 Of another Great One
 For a people deathly afraid
 Of hearing God’s voice directly.
 Problem was:
 There’d be false prophets too
 Claiming to speak 
 In the name of Yahweh,
 But actually representing 
 False gods
 Whom, if listened to
 Would bring to believers
 Severe punishment. 
 (Hmm.
 Where does that leave us?)
  
 Psalm 95: 1-9
 It leaves us confused
 And in danger
 Of letting our own self-interest
 Harden our hearts
 To the authentic voice
 Of our loving Mother-Father God
 Our firm refuge
 Benefactor and guide.
 Her wonderful handiwork
 In creation itself
 Reveals more
 Than any prophet’s words.
 So, believe and embrace
 What you see
 With your own eyes.
 
 I Corinthians 7: 32-35
 The case of St. Paul
 Illustrates our confusion
 About what to believe – 
 What our eyes tell us
 Or the words 
 Of an anxious 
 Celibate prophet
 Like Paul
 Who’s been interpreted 
 To say that
 Eros is somehow “improper”
 And a huge “distraction”
 For anyone serious
 About what’s truly important.
 (For, doesn’t Life Itself teach
 That Eros is
 A primary source
 Of God’s revelation
 About the nature of Life
 And Love?)
  
 Mark 1: 21-28
 Jesus, on the other hand
 Had no such reservations.
 His followers believed
 Him to be the Great Prophet
 Predicted by Moses.
 He taught astonishing truths
 With authority and certainty
 Unlike the temple scribes
 (And the doubt-filled Paul).
 He terrified unclean spirits
 While delighting
 The (married) women and men
 Who hung on his every word.  

Conclusion

The disparity between the nationalistic and exclusively personal understandings of the prophet Yeshua on the one hand and the highly political nature of his life and discourse on the other is extremely important to confront.

That’s because (as Caitlin Johnstone has recently reminded us) those who control cultural narratives control the world. And no narrative is more important to history’s control than the religious one we’ve just considered. That’s because religious faith addresses life’s most fundamental questions – the ones so thrillingly addressed by the prophets we’ve considered here: about the nature of life; our relations with one another, human connections with the environment, about foreigners, power, love, money, and justice.

I’ll even venture to say that religious story supplies the popular “philosophy” of most people in the world. It organizes their experiences. 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 tragically to surrender an essential tool of social justice to its enemies. On the other hand, exposing the radical social justice character of the Judeo-Christian narrative while challenging its domestication by false prophets represents an essential element of any attempts to shape the world by controlling its narrative.

Even completely secular social justice warriors should take note.

Christmas Is Blasphemy: Put Mithra Back in Xmas

Now that we’re in the Christmas season, I thought it might be time to reprint some Xmas reflections from the past. Here’s one that, though obviously dated, still applies. I published it first in 2016.

Last year at this time, two very different religious leaders – one considered left of center, the other a fundamentalist preacher – converged in agreement about the meaninglessness of Christmas. They both concurred: except as a secular winter festival, Christmas is religiously meaningless.

On the left, Pope Francis called the Christian world’s upcoming Christmas celebration a “charade.” He said there’d be parties, gift exchanges, and family gatherings in the name of celebrating Jesus’ birth, but it would all be absurd pretense.

That’s what charade means: an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.

And the pope was right. Starting around Thanksgiving, so-called Christians pretend to honor “the Prince of Peace” – the one who took no one’s life, but sacrificed his own rather than take up arms — who was himself a political refugee – conceived out-of-wedlock – brown-skinned, poor, and living under imperial occupation – the one who would be a victim of torture and capital punishment – who was all the things that good Christian supporters of Donald Trump and of the U.S. War on Terror hate and despise.

That’s right. our culture despises Jesus and all he really stands for.

And that’s where the fundamentalist preacher comes in.  He agrees with the pope – well kind of.

About the same time Pope Francis was talking charade, Rev. Joshua Feuerstein, denounced Starbucks for hating Jesus. The good reverend was outraged by the coffee giant’s holiday cups which display no specific reference to Jesus. That’s a sign, Feuerstein said, that Starbucks agrees with the movement to remove Christ from Christmas. Starbucks hates Jesus. So let’s boycott Starbucks!

On the one hand, could anything be more absurd? The world is burning. Our way of life is destroying God’s creation. Our country is waging war against the poor everywhere – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia . . . We supply weapons to all sides in the endless war our “leaders” have declared. And our man was worried about Starbucks’ drinking cup! He denounced Starbucks for simply recognizing what is: Jesus has long since been removed from Christmas.

On the other hand, there was wisdom in Rev. Feuerstein’s accusations. And it’s not just Starbucks that “hates Jesus;” it’s our entire culture – including our churches. In that sense, Feuerstein agrees with Francis. However, hating Jesus has nothing to do with coffee cups. As I said, it means despising those Jesus identified with in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) – the poor immigrant refugee from our endless bombing campaigns, the hungry street person, the homeless beggar, the imprisoned desperado, the coatless person we pass on our way into Starbucks.

So what to do to avoid making this Christmas an empty charade?

We can start by recognizing that Christmas is a winter festival and nothing more. Every culture has them. They are times for ice sculptures, bright lights, reunions with family, for feasting, drinking, parties and exchanges of gifts. All of that distracts us from the oncoming season’s dark and cold – and from our destruction of God’s planet.

That’s the way it was in ancient Rome too. Rome had its Saturnalia. In fact, December 25th was the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra, who was a favorite with Roman legionnaires. In that sense, Mithra’s birthday was a military holiday – a celebration of empire and its wars. Our militarized culture should be at home with that.

So let’s end the charade. Have fun.  Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s what winter festivals are about. But forget the blasphemy of associating Jesus with any of it. Raise your Starbuck’s cup and toast a happy feast of Mithra!

The First Sunday of Advent: Pope Francis’ Covid-19 Reflection

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 63: 16B-17, 19B; 64: 2-7; Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37

Last week, Pope Francis wrote a beautiful Covid-19 reflection in the New York Times (NYT).

He recalled how the pandemic’s unsung heroes reminded him of his own brush with death when he was just 21 years old.  At that tender age, he was hospitalized with a pulmonary infection that ultimately cost him part of a lung.

At the height of his crisis, two nuns working as nurses in his Argentine hospital ignored doctors’ prescriptions and doubled the dosage of penicillin and streptomycin in one case and increased his pain killers on the other. Their courage in doing so, the Pope is convinced, saved his life.

Generous, courageous souls like the two religious sisters who helped him then have reemerged, Francis noted, during the pandemic. They’re the “saints next door.” They’ve saved innumerable lives as nurses, doctors, caregivers. They’re the essential workers who in many countries have regularly been applauded at doorsteps and windows with genuine gratitude and awe.

The selflessness of such heroes has sometimes cost them their lives. But many among those champions sacrificed freely knowing as Francis put it, that “it is better to live a shorter life serving others than a longer one resisting that call.” They represent the antibodies to an infection among us far more dangerous than Covid 19 – the virus of indifference.

Writing pointedly in the premiere U.S. newspaper, Francis identified that more dangerous virus with governments that have not put the well-being of their people first. Instead, they have “shrugged off the painful evidence of mounting deaths.” They’ve pandered to groups opposing travel restrictions, social distancing and facemasks as if such measures constitute “some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!” Francis said that worship of that kind of liberty has become for many a kind of ideology obstructing all understandings of common good.

In Francis’ view, such selfish shortsightedness shows that Covid-19 is merely one of the pandemics currently afflicting our planet. Hunger, violence and climate change are others. All of them lack perspective and generosity.

Responding effectively means attuning our sensibilities to the pain of others who have been deprived of life’s basic needs – work, food, housing and human dignity. Responding means recognizing that we’re never saved alone; we are bound by human solidarity and reciprocity.

Reading the pope’s words, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels between them and our readings for the first Sunday of Advent. Together, they call us to reverse course – to wake up from our collective stupor to the presence of what some call God in the neighbors, heroes and martyrs whom Francis’ words identify so poignantly.

What follow are my “translations” of the readings in question. Please check the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.      

 Isaiah 63: 16B-17, 19B; 64: 2-7

 We have lost our way;
 We’ve hardened our hearts;
 We no longer even know
 What faithfulness means.
 We feel somehow unclean,
 Polluted and aimless.
 Yet, we long to see more deeply
 To reality’s very heart
 As never before.
 Reunion with You, Divine Mother
 Is what we ultimately crave –
 To be refashioned
 As if we were clay
 In your lovely hands.
 
 Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19

 So, please show us your face.
 Save us from ourselves.
 Strengthen us.
 Bring us home.
 Demonstrate again
 Your care for us
 As a shepherd guarding her flock,
 As a gardener tending her vine.

 I Corinthians 1: 3-9

 Oh, wait
 You’ve already done that
 Haven’t you?
 You’ve answered our prayer
 In Yeshua, the Christ.
 His loving kindness
 And revolutionary teachings
 Bring clarity, insight
 And serene understanding.
 They restore
 Meaning to our communal lives.
 
 Mark 13: 33-37

 Above all
 (Like the Buddha)
 Yeshua commanded us
 To wake up
 To see
 What sleepers miss:
 Constant divine manifestations
 At our very doorstep
 When we expect
 Them least
 Morning, noon and night. 

What Amy Coney Barrett Missed in Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti”

The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.

The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.

Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.

Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism

Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.

This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.     

However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).

Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.

Pope Francis’ Catholicism

All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).

Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.

With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)

Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:

  • The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
  • Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
  • Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
  • Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
  • Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
  • Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
  • Violence:  Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
  • Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
  • War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
  • Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
  • Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).

Conclusion    

The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.  

Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”

Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.

Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.  

Five Reasons Why Christians Should Feel Uncomfortable Voting for Trump in 2020

Last Sunday (July 19th), the far-right Christian Post published an article by John Wesley Reid entitled “5 Reasons why Christians should feel comfortable voting for Trump in 2020.”  Two days later, the same publication reported an international survey implicitly lamenting the fact that “most Americans don’t believe they need God to be good.”

In this time of Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings across the country and across the world, the two articles take on particular importance. Together, they not only highlight stark differences between right and left-wing understandings of Christianity. They also point up differences between the faiths of white evangelicals and their black counterparts in the street.

Additionally, both articles’ identification of Christianity exclusively with far right Caucasian politics goes a long way towards explaining the disconnect between morality and belief in a God. The explanation is found in the Christian right’s severely limited understanding of God, of goodness, and of the connection between morality and politics in this polarizing era of Donald Trump.

In tandem, the two articles also invite readers to be more thoughtful about their faith (or lack of same) and the ballot they’ll cast come November 3rd.   

God & Goodness

Begin with the survey. According to Pew Researchers, 54% of Americans hold that you don’t need God to be good.  Meanwhile 44% (a large majority of them on the ideological right) hold the opposite opinion. Only 24% on the ideological left believe God and morality are necessarily connected. (Left respondents in the survey typically had more years of formal education.)  

The Reid article shed light both on the identity of the sidelined God and on survey respondents’ likely understanding of “goodness” closely connected with that supposed deity. As will become clear below, Reid’s God is primarily concerned with specifically Christian welfare and with unborn life. Goodness is overwhelmingly connected with what the author referenced as “non-carnality.” Consequently, Christian political concern focuses on matters of specifically Christian liberty, on sexuality and reproduction – especially on abortion (which btw is not even mentioned in the Bible as a moral concern).  

Such limited understanding reflects the huge gap between white evangelicals and their black counterparts – for instance, the ones demonstrating against police brutality in our city streets. Their actions, of course, cannot be adequately explained without reference to the religiously based history of the Civil Rights Movement.  

In the light of that history, BLM demonstrators have inherited an understanding of God biblically founded on God’s very first revelation, viz. in the liberation of slaves from captivity in Egypt. It is linked besides to concern for widows, orphans and resident immigrants and refugees frequently reiterated in both the Jewish and Christian Testaments. In other words, goodness for black evangelicals is inseparably connected with social justice. Meanwhile, Reid’s article suggests ignorance of, and even hostility towards such linkage.

Morality & Voting for Trump

Setting all of that aside, Reid admits that he had doubts about Trump in 2016. But now, he says, those reservations have completely disappeared. Instead, he recommends that all Christians should confidently vote for 45’s reelection in November. He advances 5 reasons for doing so:

  1. You’re not voting for Donald Trump; you’re voting for the Trump Administration.
  2. You’re not voting simply for a person; you’re voting for an agenda.
  3. Policy outweighs character because policy outlasts character.
  4. If for no other reason than abortion, vote for Donald Trump.
  5. Voting for Trump is a tangible way of keeping Biden out.

Closely read, those reasons indicate that the author is still holding his nose. They all end up distancing themselves from a morally challenged candidate while cozying up to supposed paragons of Christian virtue such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to Trump’s agenda favoring “religious liberty,” “life of the unborn,” and resistance to volatile attacks on America (standard dog whistle for African Americans).

More specifically, Reid’s 5 reasons claim that:

  1. Trump may be carnally questionable, but people like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo are “committed non-carnal Christ-followers.”
  2. Doubts about the president’s moral character should be “trumped” by his agenda which the author finds favoring “religious liberty,” “life of the unborn,” and resistance to those explosive attacks on America.
  3. Sure, Trump’s character is highly debatable. However, appointments of “constitutional originalists” to the judiciary are more important. So are “our children’s futures,” religious liberty, the lives of the unborn, and the economic advancement of low-income communities.
  4. Christians can conscientiously identify as single-issue voters, because the abortion issue is powerful enough to overwhelm all other policy considerations.
  5. Joe Biden is no Donald Trump.

Voting against Trump

But what if being Christian is far more complicated and challenging than Reid lets on? What if black evangelicals and others are correct in holding it’s more than avoiding “carnality” even in the sense of Trump’s legendarily deviant sexuality (now involving expressed support for his friend, accused child rapist and sex trafficker, Ghislaine Maxwell)? Such complexity might lead Christians to decline voting for Mr. Trump for at least the following 5 specific reasons roughly mirroring Reid’s own:

  1. The type of Christianity advocated by Mr. Reid is just that – a type of Christianity, viz. the white evangelical sort. However, there are other types of Christians – those black evangelicals, for instance. And then there are Catholics who embrace the official teaching of their Church, viz. the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis. Their pro-life positions go far beyond the single issue of abortion to include radical environmentalism, war resistance, rejection of capital punishment, advocacy of living wages, fair housing, and healthcare as a human right. All of these, they profess, are pro-life matters.
  2. Religious liberty as understood in the Constitution is not limited to Christians of any stripe. It extends to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists and others whose pro-life concerns prioritize the already born – e.g. at the border, in Trump’s baby jails, under incessant U.S.-supported bombing in places like Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, on death row, and elsewhere.
  3. Donald Trump and virtually every member of the Republican Party are joined at the hip. There is absolutely no separation between policies advocated and implemented by Donald Trump and the rest of his administration – none. As for the morality of Mike Pompeo, he has specifically joked and bragged about endorsing policies of lying, cheating and stealing –all (unlike abortion) specifically prohibited not only in the Bible, but in all religious traditions. In other words, Trump’s inner circle is no more virtuous than he.   
  4. Above all, “our children’s futures” which are of such apparent concern to Mr. Reid, are intimately connected with and existentially threatened by climate change which the entire Republican Party proudly denies.
  5. Joe Biden is no Donald Trump.

Conclusion

There are good reasons for Americans and better educated people around the world to consider belief in God as inessential to morality. The God of The Post’s John Reid and his fellow believers, for instance, is so small in moral stature and very limited in his concern compared with the God of the Bible. Reid’s God is not only unbiblical, he is also basically white, ethnocentric and specifically American. That strains the credulity of even moderately educated people whose general knowledge recognizes the goodness found in non-Christians and in so many atheists. No wonder such thinkers reject a god as tiny as Reid’s.

Meanwhile, the biblical God, at least as embodied in Jesus’ prophetic tradition, literally identifies with human beings like those specifically despised by the candidate Reid would have his type of Christians embrace. Remember, Jesus himself was born out of wedlock to a teenage mother; he was an immigrant in Egypt in his early years; he was working class, poor, and a member of a people imperialized by the first century equivalent of the United States.

Besides that, Jesus’ “Good News” was specifically addressed to the poor (LK 4:18). He ended up being a victim of torture and capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire. All of that is foreign to Reid’s unbiblical notion of God.

And finally, it seems that the Jewish Jesus of the Christian Testament could well sympathize with those who feel alienated from their religious communities of origin. After all, he was expelled from his hometown synagogue (Luke 4: 14-30) and thought to be possessed by the devil himself (John 10:20).   

That Jesus, it seems safe to say, would be appalled by Donald Trump.

The Biblical Call to Woke, Politically Correct Identity Politics

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14; Romans 8: 9-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

Whatever the world believes and does, choose to believe and do the opposite. That’s because the Truth that some call “God” is found 180 degrees opposite to what the world claims as true. That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.

So, take heart if as a follower of the Christ, they accuse you of advocating identity politics, deride you as a social justice warrior, woke, politically correct, a conspiracy theorist, or a whatabouter. Leaving aside their distorted meanings, all of those categories should actually be embraced by critical persons of faith who take this Sunday’s readings to heart.  

In today’s key selection, Paul refers to accusations like the above as “flesh,” because they insistently judge according to external appearances and directly contradict the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Such judgments routinely gas light activists demonstrating for social justice across the world. For instance, followers of Rush Limbaugh tell awakened Black Lives Matter demonstrators to go back to sleep. They admonish “conspiracy theorists” to simply accept White House narratives. They ridicule “social justice warriors” as pathetic Don Quixotes impotently jousting at windmills. And they say progressives, “snowflakes” should be embarrassed about their annoying “political correctness” and whataboutism.       

However, today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah calls for political strategy that penetrates below such superficiality at every turn. In the process, he longs for political leaders whose laser vision will reject the outer manifestations that tell us that things are fine the way they are. For instance, his ideal ruler will refuse military display and instead sponsor programs of national disarmament. That, of course, flies in the face of “American” cultural ideals of bluster, toughness, and aggression.

Finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that adopting contrary unfleshly values will result in easy, restful and unburdened existence for everyone.

Flesh Merchants

Before we get to those separate readings, begin by contrasting the wisdom of the world’s flesh merchants with the general vision recommended (as we’ll see below) in today’s selections. Think about the dominant culture’s superficial dismissal of social justice warriors, the “woke,” of everything that smacks of political correctness, or conspiracy theories or whataboutism. Those caught up in fleshly appearances want progressives to feel guilty about the critical thinking implied in each of those categories understood in the light of faith.

  • The Struggle for Social Justice: Our era’s flesh merchants generally ridicule what they call “social justice warriors” as naïve bleeding hearts. However, the truth is that the struggle for social justice lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It all began with the liberation of slaves from Egypt. The Hebrew Covenant prioritized the needs of widows, orphans and immigrants. It instituted permanent land reform measures and periodic wealth redistribution. Jesus advocated replacement of Rome’s empire with what he called the Kingdom of God – a world where God’s truth and love replaced Caesar’s looting, lies and oppression. All the great followers of Jesus were social justice warriors. Think Bartolome de las Casas, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and today’s William Barber.
  • Wokeness: Following in the footsteps of such prophets, all of us are called to permanent spiritual insomnia. In fact, Buddhism is entirely based on the concept. It teaches that the whole purpose of life is to wake up from the slumber that is endemic to dominant cultures everywhere. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” had a similar message. Any follower of the Judeo-Christian tradition is called to wake up.
  • Identity Politics: Notwithstanding its Buddhist and classical derivations, the term “woke” comes from the African American community. That origin reminds us that any struggle for social justice must begin with heightened awareness and affirmation of specific identity as an oppressed people. That’s why James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, jarringly insists that God is black. He’s referring to a divine preference for the unfairly “burdened” (as today’s Gospel selection puts it) in any age. It’s what lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ repeated allusions to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It’s with the impoverished that followers of Moses and Jesus are called to unambiguously identify spiritually and politically. 
  • Political Correctness: This is perhaps the most distorted and denigrated of the concepts considered here. Originally, it was a self-critical tool used by political activists to make sure that their speech and action were consistent with their principles. More recently however, the term has been appropriated and trivialized by opponents of social justice to refer to any infringement of a dominant group’s supposed right to speak and act without considering the consequences for members of a subordinate class. Obviously, such “freedom” is out of step with the just-referenced preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, all would-be followers of Jesus the Christ are called to bring their speech and actions into correct alignment with their faith.    
  • Conspiracy Theory: Like political correctness, the original concept of conspiracy theory had no insulting overtones. In fact, conspiracy is a legal category referring to two or more people planning to commit a crime. Lawyers and prosecutors theorize about conspiracies all the time. And, of course, Jesus’ assassination resulted from a conspiracy between Jerusalem’s temple priests and the Roman imperial state. That fact alone should make his followers especially sensitive to conspiratorial plots. (BTW, one prominent conspiracy theory holds that following the Kennedy assassination, the CIA appropriated a negative understanding of the term conspiracy theorists precisely to discredit critics of the highly questionable Warren Report – and subsequently of every other CIA operation.) Bottom line here: no one familiar with history, much less Christianity, should be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists. Such allegations are meant to inhibit critical thinking.   
  • Whataboutism: The Wikipedia Dictionary defines whataboutism as any attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Actually, in our U.S. context, it’s most often a refusal to take seriously right-wing accusations against designated enemies such as Russia, China, or Venezuela for crimes routinely committed by the United States itself. It recognizes that “America” has no ground to stand on in its accusations of election-interference, persecution of Muslims, or corruption in high office. That’s because our country’s officials routinely engage in such activities themselves and embody unsurpassed corruption at every level. It’s all in the spirit of Jesus’ words, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Like Jesus, whatabouters are concerned with hypocrisy.

Today’s Readings

With all of this in mind, here are my “translations” of the readings that inspire today’s reflection. Please read them for yourselves here to see if I’ve got them right. I take them all as issuing a call to depart entirely from the dominant culture’s way of thinking and acting in the areas just designated.

Zechariah 9: 9-10: The world leader we’re all waiting for won’t come driving a Sherman Tank, Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  Rather, she’ll arrive on a bicycle. Moreover, she’ll achieve peace by eliminating the entire military-industrial complex. No more war for this non-violent champion! 

Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14: When she comes, we’ll all join in grateful thanksgiving to our Great Cosmic Mother. We’ll praise her for her grace, patience, goodness, kindness and compassion. We’ll finally realize that might is found precisely in what the world considers weakness – in the fallen and heavily burdened. 

Romans 8: 9-13: On that happy day, everyone on earth will understand their spiritual unity with everyone else regardless of externals – “flesh” including its color. We’ll see that at core, all of us share the loving Spirit that animated Jesus the compassionate Christ. Fullness of life, he taught, lies in a direction 180 degrees away from the fleshy exterior reality to which the world so insistently limits our attention.   

Matthew 11: 25-30: Yes, the worldly wise and learned tell us that “reality” is defined by what we can see and feel and that might makes right. However, the unpretentious nobodies of the world who follow Jesus know much more. In their humility, disarmed non-violence, and refusal to compete, they share the very mind of God. They’ve discovered the secret of an easy, restful and unburdened existence.

Conclusion

I suppose what I’ve been seeing in today’s biblical readings are implications that call into question our culture’s superficiality – something Paul called “flesh.” I hear the readings warning us against the dominant culture and its rejection of much deeper (spiritual) values firmly founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’m talking about commitment to social justice, and the identity politics that sides with the poor and oppressed. I’m referring to awakening from cultural slumber and the adoption of woke ways of thinking and acting that are politically correct in terms of coherence between theory and action. My reference is also to judicious suspicion of official stories mouthed by “leaders” who have repeatedly lied to us – even in the face of their accusations about conspiracy theories. All of this, I’m saying, entails complete rejection of hypocrisy hiding behind deflecting complaints of whataboutism.

I at least feel great relief to recognize culturally imposed guilt tripping for what it is. I’m happy to embrace my efforts to be an awakened politically correct social justice warrior identified with the poor and oppressed and alert to conspiracies by the rich and powerful.

All of these are proud labels embodied in countless heroes most of us profess to admire – people like Moses, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin King, Dorothy Day, William Barber, and Jesus himself. We’re in very good company.        

In Memoriam Rev. John Rausch (1945-2020)

Peggy and I were shocked Sunday night when we received the stunning news that Fr. John Rausch, a very dear friend of ours, had died suddenly earlier in the day. John was a Glenmary priest whom we had known for years. He was 75 years old.

At one point, John lived in a log cabin below our property in Berea, Kentucky. So, we often found ourselves having supper with him there or up at our place. John was a gourmet cook. And part of having meals with him always involved watching his kitchen wizardry while imbibing Manhattans and catching up on news – personal, local, national, and international. Everything was always interspersed with jokes and laughter.

That’s the kind of man John was. He was a citizen of the world, an economist, environmentalist, prolific author, raconteur, and social justice warrior. But above all, John was a great priest and an even better human being full of joy, love, hope, fun, and optimism.

Yes, it was as a priest that John excelled. Everyone who knew him, especially in the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, would agree to that. Ordained in 1972 [just seven years after the closure Vatican II (1962-’65)] John never wavered in his embrace of the Church’s change of direction represented by the Council’s reforms.

According to the spirit of Vatican II, the Church was to open its windows to the world, to adopt a servant’s position, and to recognize Jesus’ preferential option for the poor.  John loved that. He was especially fervent in endorsing Pope Francis’ extension of the option for the poor to include defense of the natural environment as explained in the pope’s eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. (To get a sense of John’s concept of priesthood and care for the earth, watch this al-Jazeera interview that appeared on cable TV five years ago.)

His progressive theology delighted John’s audiences who accepted the fact that Vatican II remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, as two successive reactionary popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) subtly attempted to reverse conciliar reforms, and as the restorationist priests and bishops they cultivated tried mightily to turn back the clock, John’s insistence on the new orthodoxy was entirely refreshing.

I remember greatly admiring the shape of John’s homilies that (in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium) were always well-prepared and followed the same pattern:

  1. He’d begin with two or three seemingly unrelated vignettes involving ordinary people with names and usually living in impoverished Appalachian contexts.
  2. For the moment, he’d leave those word-pictures hanging in the air. (We were left wondering: “What does all that have to do with today’s readings?”)
  3. Then, on their own terms, John would explain the day’s liturgical readings inevitably related to the vignettes, since Jesus always addressed his teachings to the poor like those in John’s little stories.
  4. Finally, John would relieve his audience’s anxiety about connections by perfectly bringing the vignettes and the readings together – always ending with a pointed challenge to everyone present.

The result was invariably riveting, thought-provoking and inspiring. It was always a special day whenever Fr. John Rausch celebrated Mass in our church in Berea, Kentucky.

Nevertheless, John’s social justice orientation often did not resonate with those Catholics out-of-step with official church teaching. These often included the already mentioned restorationist priests and bishops who harkened back to the good old days before the 1960s. Restorationist parishioners sometimes reported Fr. Rausch to church authorities as “too political.”

But Fr. Rausch’s defense was impregnable. He was always able to appeal to what he called “the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.” That was the way he described the radical social encyclicals of popes from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) through Pius XII’s Quadragesima Anno (1931), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015).

John was fond of pointing out that all of those documents plus a host of others were consistently critical of capitalism. They favored the demands of working classes, including living wages, the right to form labor unions, and to go out on strike. Other documents were critical of arms races, nuclear weapons, and modern warfare in general. “You can’t get more political than that!” John would say with his broad smile.

All that perseverance on John’s part finally paid off when his local very conservative bishop was at length replaced by a Franciscan friar whom I’ve described elsewhere as “channeling Pope Francis.” I’m referring to John Stowe whose brown-robe heritage had evidently shielded him from the counter-reforms of the two reactionary popes previously mentioned.

When Bishop Stowe assumed office, he evidently recognized John as a kindred spirit. He respected his knowledge of Appalachia and his desire to connect Church social teachings with that context.  So, the new bishop asked John to take him on an introductory tour of the area. John was delighted to oblige. He gave Bishop Stowe the tour John himself had annually led for years. It included coal mines, the Red River Gorge, local businesses, co-ops, social service agencies, local churches, and much more. John became Bishop Stowe’s go-to man on issues involving those represented by the experience.

But none of that – not John’s firm grounding in church social teaching, not his success as a liturgist and homilist, not his acclaimed workshops on economics and social justice, not his long list of publications, nor his advisory position with Bishop Stowe – went to John’s head.

He never took himself that seriously. He was always quick with the self-deprecating joke or story.

In fact, he loved to tell the one about his short-lived movie career. (I’m not kidding.)  It included what he described as his “bedroom scene” with actress Ashley Judd. It occurred in the film, “Big Stone Gap.” I don’t remember how, but in some way, the film’s director needed a priest for a scene where Ms. Judd was so deathly ill that they needed to summon a member of the clergy. John was somehow handy. So, he fulfilled the cameo role playing himself at the bedside of Ashley Judd. (See for yourself here. You’ll find John credited as playing himself.) Right now, I find myself grinning as I recall John’s telling the tale. It always got a big laugh.

Other recollections of John Rausch include the facts that:

  • For a time, he directed the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
  • He also worked with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) introducing seminarians to the Appalachian context and its unique culture.
  • He published frequently in Catholic magazines and authored many editorials in the Lexington Herald-Leader. John’s regular syndicated columns reached more than a million people across the country. 
  • He had a strong hand in the authorship of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “At Home in the Web of Life.”
  • He led annual pilgrimages to what he called “the holy land” of Appalachia as well as similar experiences exploring the culture and history of the Cherokee Nation.
  • He was working on his autobiography when he died. (I was so looking forward to reading it!)

More Personally:

  • He graciously read, advised, and encouraged me on my own book about Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
  • I have fond memories of one Sunday afternoon when he invited me to a meeting in his living room with other local writers. We were to read a favorite selection from something each of us was working on.
  • John often came to my social justice related classes at Berea College to speak to students about Appalachia its problems, heroines and heroes. (Of course, to my mind, John ranked prominently among them.)
  • He gave a memorable presentation along those lines in the last class I taught in 2014. John was a splendid engaging teacher.

Peggy and I are still reeling from the unexpected news of this wonderful human being’s death. For the last day we’ve been sharing memories of John that are full of admiration, reverence, sadness – and smiles. It’s all a reminder of our own mortality and of the blessing of a quick, even sudden demise.

Along those lines, one strange thought that, for some reason, keeps recurring to me is that John’s passing (along with that of another dear friend last month) somehow gives me (and John’s other friends) permission to die.

I don’t know what to make of that. It might simply be that the two men in question (like Jesus himself) have gone before us and shown the way leading to a new fuller form of life. Somehow, that very fact makes the prospect of leaving easier. Don’t ask me to explain why or how.

Thank you, John.