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.

(African) American Exceptionalism: The Case for Black Supremacy

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A; PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11; MATTHEW 10: 37-42

Today’s first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Second Book of Kings sets the tone for this Sunday’s reflection. It is about a privileged woman (from biblical Shunem) who is given a new lease on life by creating a room “upstairs” for a prophetic presence and voice. Doing so brings her new life beyond anything she had dared hope for.

Her situation taken in conjunction with our day’s other readings can be understood as calling us all to clear space in our minds for recognizing our own inner prophets. Currently, that means attuning our consciousness to the oracular nature of the shouts and denunciations raised in our streets. The black voices resonating there are far more perceptive and informed – more prophetic – than anything we hear from white politicians and talking heads on TV. In effect, the tumult in the streets calls us to recognize the truth of black supremacy.

To see what I mean, let’s think about prophecy as referenced in today’s liturgy of the word. Then consider the analytical advantage native to the truly exceptional among us (our African American sisters and brothers). Finally, let’s entertain suggestions for creating suitable space in the upper reaches of our minds for black prophets who possess the power to change our nation’s collective life.

Prophetism  

The reading about the Shunamite woman comes from the part of 2nd Kings that details the words and deeds of the great prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha. For our purposes today, those details are not important.

What is important is to rethink the category of prophet. Most lump the term together with something like fortune teller. They think prophets are primarily concerned with the future.

But that’s where they’re wrong. Biblical prophets were not principally concerned with the future. They were not fortune tellers. Instead, they were understood as spokespersons for God. Though some functioned as court advisors, most were primarily defenders of the poor and oppressed – the real “chosen people” of Israel’s God throughout the Jewish Testament.

As such, prophets had their eyes firmly fixed on the present. Their task was twofold. It was first of all to denounce and secondly to announce. Prophetic denunciation targeted kings, rich landowners, bankers, the royal classes in general, and temple officials. The habitual crime of the well-off was their systemic exploitation of poor peasants and laborers, and those forced into debt peonage. In fact, if you examine the parables of Jesus, you’ll find most of them addressing the situations of such people. Yes, Jesus appeared in the prophetic tradition.

The second prophetic task was to announce a new future for the oppressed. For the prophets, another world was possible. Another God was possible. Jesus called that other world “the kingdom of God.” The phrase and its parabolic descriptions in stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan captured what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

That God was “Father” to the poor, their “Good Shepherd,” the Great Liberator of people like those Jesus himself befriended – prostitutes, beggars, insurgents, lepers, foreigners, drunkards, the hungry and thirsty, social outcasts, children, and repentant tax collectors.

Besides being a prophet, Jesus himself was a poor man – a day laborer (not a priest or rabbi) who had been an immigrant in Egypt as a child. From the beginning of his public life, he was under surveillance and investigation by the authorities. They identified him as a terrorist and subversive. He finished as a victim of state torture and capital punishment.

All of that means that (according to Christian faith) God chose the socially marginalized and rejected as the vehicle for revealing the true meaning and purpose of human life. It’s as if (according to divine epistemology) the poor are somehow more connected with Life itself.      

African American Exceptionalism

What could that mean for our actual world that’s now on fire with insurrection?  And here, let me emphasize that I’m not just referring to Minneapolis, but to the rebellions that Twin City has evoked across the country and across the planet. Does it all suggest that African Americans know more than the rest of us? Does it suggest that as a people, they’re more perceptive – more prophetic – than the rest of us?

Cuba’s great poet and historian Roberto Fernandez Retamar thought so.

I remember 20 years ago when he addressed my class (about half of them African American) when we were in Havana for a month studying “The African Diaspora in Cuba.”

In his riveting presentation, he described the descendants of African slaves as the world’s most exceptional people. They are, he said, the strongest, most beautiful and most intelligent humans on earth.

Professor Retamar reasoned as follows:

  • Slave traders in Africa began by selecting the sturdiest, best looking and smartest specimens to sell to their slaver counterparts in the New World. (It’s the way the market works.)
  • On the Middle Passage to distribution points like Cuba, up to half of those so carefully selected perished; only the strongest survived.
  • Then on auction blocks in places like Charleston and New Orleans, none but those with the best characteristics and strongest bodies were again selected by discerning slave buyers. (They examined teeth, hair and limbs as if the slave wares were horses.)
  • Only the best and brightest of those so purchased survived the harsh conditions of slavery to reproduce and have their offspring once again culled and selected.
  • The repetition of such processes for 300 years produced the super-race of people that continues to exhibit admirably courageous survival characteristics to this very day. Despite all the obstacles, they’re the authors of the unparalleled moral achievements embodied in slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, and in civil rights struggles – the most spiritually-grounded, inspiring and influential causes in the history of the world.
  • Moreover, African American achievements in the arts, especially in music including spirituals, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop rank with the highest contributions that westerners have made to world culture. The black community’s tremendous athletic achievements are second to none.

Yes, Dr. Retamar concluded, the African diaspora represents the best and brightest of the human race. They are the most beautiful, strongest and smartest of humans. Their wise and perceptive prophetic presence is based on an American experience that is truly exceptional. It has much to teach us about what blacks are especially privy to – about the nature of Life Itself and the unending struggle for justice.

Today’s Readings

With all of that in mind, please reread today’s liturgical selections. As I said, they’re about making room for prophets (like Elisha and the ones in our streets) in the upper reaches of our minds. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read the originals here to see if I got them right.

2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A: Despite obstacles of wealth and power, even the privileged can make room for prophets who speak for the poor. But to do so, the rich must carefully create space in the upper reaches of their clouded minds. “Up on the Roof,” they should cultivate quiet, rest, and space for reading and enlightenment. Such provision will free their inner prophet and yield new and unexpectedly welcome life.

PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19: So, repair to your own “upper room” every day and there discover transcendent security, strength, joy, fidelity, and commitment to God’s justice. Doing so will even confer ability to discern political leaders who exhibit such qualities.

ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11: In fact, the whole point of following Jesus the Christ is to die to the comfortable but misleading wisdom of the world and rise to God’s new life as exemplified in the poor man, Yeshua. That life is lived entirely for justice despite the world’s threats.

MATTHEW 10: 37-42: Notwithstanding such intimidations then, be open to prophetic voices. Depart from familial truisms even as taught by your parents and (ironically) as accepted by successfully indoctrinated children. Such departures represent the only way to find your True Self. But be forewarned: the state will incriminate and crucify you even for giving a cup of cold water to thirsty oppressed people. Do it anyway and learn to live with the resulting fulfillment and happiness.

Conclusion

Today, we are called to imitate the Shunamite woman who welcomed the prophet Elisha.

She prepared space for him, and provided him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp. She welcomed him to her dining room, fed him, and made him feel at home.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us to do something similar. It suggests that we use this time of COVID-19 respite to make room for our inner prophet who turns out to be black and (because of a unique experience of oppression) is especially insightful and aligned with the divine purposes of the universe.

This is the time to figuratively enter that space in our attic, to turn on its lamp, to meditate and read something like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. While we’re at it, we might watch something like “The Help,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” or “Glory.”

Today’s readings (and our very times) call us to rethink everything, turn it upside down, see it with new eyes, and perhaps recognize the truth of black supremacy.

The Unique Importance of Marianne Williamson’s Campaign (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; PS 119: 135; LK 14: 25-33

Marianne Williamson’s campaign is not dead. True, she will not be appearing on the stage of the third Democratic debate. Although she has the required number of donors, Williamson has not yet attained the necessary 2% in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Nonetheless, her campaign continues its concentration on Iowa, where she’s been working for the last several months. Her people confidently anticipate her participation in Debate # 4.

Recently, the New York Times (NYT) ran a long very positive column on Marianne. It was called “The Gospel according to Marianne Williamson.” It reminded readers of Ms. Williamson’s identity, her growing and highly enthusiastic audiences, and the persuasive power of her remarkable eloquence.  

The article assured readers that Williamson is far more than some New Age guru or the spiritual advisor of Oprah Winfrey. Jokes and criticisms aside, she has nothing to do with crystals or burning sage. Instead, she is a widely-hailed, best-selling author, spiritual teacher, counsellor, and generally wise person. For more than 40 years, she has been a student and teacher of A Course in Miracles (ACIM), a book published in 1974) which Williamson describes as “basic Christian mysticism.”

It’s that latter qualification – Williamson’s connection with Christian mysticism – that makes her continued campaign extremely relevant to this Sunday’s liturgy of the word. That’s because the theme of today’s readings contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of the world just as does ACIM. Serious consideration of that contrast illustrates the unique importance of Marianne Williamson’s candidacy at this particular juncture in the history of our nation and world.

For ACIM, the world’s wisdom is based on fear; God’s wisdom is based on love. In fact, according to A Course in Miracles, love and fear are the only two motivational forces in the entire world. That’s true in our personal relationships, but also in politics. Either we see others as enemies poised to attack us at every opportunity, and act accordingly. Or we recognize our very selves in those the world would teach us to fear, mistrust, and hate.

More specifically, the politics of fear sees Muslims, Russia, China, the Taliban, ISIS, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQQIAAPs, and poor people in general as our enemies. Meanwhile, a politics based on love recognizes that none of those the world teaches us to fear is basically hostile. Rather, when we take 100% responsibility for the problems designated enemies ostensibly represent, a path opens up to achieving peace with all concerned.

Does such conviction seem woo-woo or unrealistic to you? If it does, please be reminded first of all, that such belief is basic not only to Christian faith, but (as Williamson constantly reminds us) to all the world’s great religious traditions, including Islam. It is basic also to many secular traditions that consider themselves atheistic or agnostic.

Secondly, remember that according to Christian faith, “God” is synonymous with “love,” so that Williamson’s “Politics of Love” means the politics of God. That means (thirdly) that rejection of political love as woo-woo trivializes Christian faith and Jesus himself.

With all of that in mind, please read for yourselves this Sunday’s liturgical readings. (You’ll find them here.) To repeat, they contrast the wisdom of the world with the Wisdom of God. In any case, and for what it’s worth, here are my “translations” of their content. Their thoughtful review will help you see what I’m getting at in saying that Marianne Williamson’s “Gospel” is far deeper than revealed in the NYT article just referenced.

 WIS 9:13-18B
 
The wisdom of God
Unlike the world’s
Is sure and decisive.
For human thought processes
Focused on the body
And its shifting reality
Are necessarily confused.
Hence, we cannot judge wisely
Without assistance
From the Holy Spirit
Who consistently reveals
God’s Reality
As filled with love.
 
PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17
 
This is because
Time has no meaning
For God.
Everything but Love
Passes in an instant.
Consequently
Our prayer must be:
“Teach us
Your changeless vision
Filled with kindness
Joy and gladness.”
Only such
Synonyms for love
Give meaning
To our lives.
 
PHMN 9-10, 12-17
 
For example,
An elderly and imprisoned Paul
Long ago
Rejected the world’s wisdom
About slavery.
Seeing with the eyes of Christ
He says
Miraculously transformed
Onesimus
From slave and chattel
Into a man
A partner
A son and brother.
“Follow my example,”
The shackled one implores.
 
PS 119: 135
 
We agree:
Show us your face,
O, Lord,
In slaves
And in those behind bars.
Yes, teach us your ways.
 
LK 14: 25-33
 
But the Master warns:
“If, like me, you live
According to God’s Wisdom,
The World
Will surely crucify you
As the subversive
You must be
To qualify
As my disciple.
But be sure to
Subvert non-violently
For otherwise,
The militarized
Powers of the world
Will surely crush you.
Sabotage instead
By insistent example
That refuses
To value anything
The world treasures.”

Those are radical thoughts. They are 180 degrees opposed to the “wisdom of the world.” Yes, the very wisdom of God teaches that we have no enemies other than those our thoughts and resulting actions have created. It’s reconciliation with our designated enemies (recognizing them as embodiments of our very selves) that holds the promise of our very salvation.

No Democratic candidate other than Marianne Williamson dares call us to such radicality. It’s that change in attitude that ACIM defines as “miraculous.” Only that sort of basic transformation in consciousness can save us from the unprecedented catastrophes facing our world today.

As Ms. Williamson puts it: “It’s unreasonable to expect those who drove us into the ditch we’re in now to be the ones qualified to get us out.”

No: our present context necessitates an entirely new leadership and consciousness – a new wisdom based on love rather than fear. That’s the vision Marianne Williamson offers us this election season. And it’s not New Age woo-woo. In reality, the wisdom in question is not new at all. It’s reflected in the teachings of Jesus. It’s the wisdom of Paul. It’s the theme of today’s liturgical readings.

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

Einstein Would Grasp this Response to Terrorism: Why Don’t Christians? (Homily for Trinity Sunday)

 

Einstein

All of us were horrified last week by the London attacks. And before that it was Manchester. And then there were the recent bombings in Kabul and the killings in Iran. The problem of terrorism seems to worsen each week, doesn’t it?

And every time terror strikes, our leaders say the same thing. They assure us that they’ll finally solve the problem – but always in the same way: more bombings. So right now we’re dropping bombs on weddings, funerals, and civilian neighborhoods in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else?

The problem is: the bombings seem not to be working at all. And you know what Einstein said about doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. It’s the very definition of insanity

But there is another way. You might call it Trinitarian.

Of course, what I’m talking about is diplomacy and dialog based on shared humanity. It involves listening to the other and making accommodations. It entails compromise, and working from the premise that there’s more that unites us with al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorists than what divides us. That’s true, because we’re all human beings.

People of faith – both Christians and Muslims – should see that. Their faith perspective even tells them that we’re all children of God.

In fact, that’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word on this Trinity Sunday with its emphasis on unity in plurality.

The Trinitarian doctrine tells us that what unifies all of reality – including God – is the divine nature we all share. It makes the many – all of reality – one. In the mystical words of today’s gospel, that shared divine nature (the Holy Spirit dwelling within each of us) makes us all God’s only Son – his only daughter. That is: we though many are, in reality, one. Paul’s favorite image for that unity was the human body. It has many parts, but it’s a single entity. In a sense, there is really only one of us here.

Jesus explained what that means in practice:

  • We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (i.e. because they are us!)
  • That includes loving the least among us, because they are Jesus himself
  • For the same reason, we are to love even our enemies.

The problem is that those of us who pretend to follow Jesus confine such faith claims to the personal realm.  But that’s not what Jesus did at all. He made no distinction between the personal and political. No good Jew could!

However, you might object: how can anyone dialog with insane people like al-Qaeda and the other terrorists? (Btw: do you think the “terrorists” might be asking the same question about us?)

The answer is, of course, that Washington’s been conversing with these people for years. Remember, the U.S. created al-Qaeda in the 1980s when they were the Mujahedeen. Our leaders had no trouble talking with them then. It was at that point that Washington formed them to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

And the United States did more than dialog with them, it actually armed and funded them. It even identified their cause with the cause of Allah. In 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, gave the Mujahedeen $3 billion. He told them “Your cause is right, and God is on your side. Your fight will prevail.” He pointed to Afghanistan, “That land over there is yours. You’ll go back to it one day.”

The point is these people can once again be dialog partners. But to do so, their identity as children of God – as our brothers and sisters – must be recognized. They share a common humanity with all of us. They have legitimate grievances – not the least of which is that U.S. aggression has killed more than a million of them over the last 16 years – in countries that never attacked the United States.

What would it mean to recognize al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS as organizations composed of human beings like us?  Each of them has ideas, hopes, and dreams. They are people like us with families like ours – with grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, children, and grandchildren. What if we saw them as such? What if we recognized them as desperate people under attack, with homes they cherish every bit as much as we cherish our own? They are patriotic and as confused and angry as we might be if we were suddenly and inexplicably attacked by inscrutable people located more than 7000 miles away.

So what if, instead of continuing with their current insane unvarying response to terrorism, our mad bombers in D.C.:

  • Reduced the U.S. military budget by 50% as a gesture of good will
  • Affirmed their intention to invest the billions now used in war to rebuild the countries that have been under attack for decades – their schools, hospitals, homes and mosques.
  • In order to remove a major cause of Mid=Eastern conflict, announced their intention to immediately prioritize conversion of our economies to 100% renewable energy sources by 2025
  • Demanded that Israel obey U.N. Resolution 242 and withdraw from the occupied territories belonging to the Palestinians – thus removing, by all accounts, a major cause of Islamic terrorism
  • Summoned an international Peace conference to resolve outstanding differences between ISIS and Western alliances
  • Were required by law to finance any future wars by a special war tax to be voted on by plebiscite?

Measures like those would not only restore a token of sanity to combatting terrorism; they’d save lives and money. And they’d restore the good will the United States once enjoyed in the world.

They are the measures would-be followers of Jesus should be advancing instead of quietly going along with business as usual. Otherwise, what good is our faith? How is it Trinitarian? How does it affirm in any meaningful way, life’s fundamental unity in the face of its apparent plurality?

A Baptismal Homily: Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly, May You Be Like Markendeya, the Mystic; May We All Be

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Last Friday (July 3rd), our family had the joy of baptizing our daughter’s and son-in-law’s fourth child, Markandeya Jackson Lehnerd Reilly. I had the privilege of performing the baptism – as I have for each of Maggie and Kerry’s children:  Eva (6 years old), Oscar (4), and Orlando (3). I performed the baptism (with its readings, songs, litany, profession of faith, and rich symbols of water, oil, fire, and new clothes) just off the dock in front of our house in Canadian Lakes, Michigan.

Twenty-five people (all relatives from Peggy’s side of the family) were present. The event was part of a mini-family reunion for Peggy’s siblings and their families. We were all together for about a week celebrating the Fourth of July.

It was great fun.

Here is a brief reflection I gave after reading about Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of his cousin, John,  as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Today we celebrate the baptism of Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. He has that name because he comes to us from India, where he spent his earliest moments of in utero life.

I first came across the name, Markandeya in the writings of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran a native of the Kerala State in India – which many of us here visited not long ago.

Easwaran says that each morning, his grandmother – his spiritual teacher – would go to the temple for Morning Prayer and return with a flower. She’d put it behind her grandson’s ear and pray, “May you be like Markandeya.”

Markendeya is the legendary mystic from ancient India who achieved enlightenment at the age of 16.

Mystics, of course, are spiritual masters. They have realized that: (1) we all have within us a spark of the divine, (2) that spark can be realized (i.e. we can live from that place of divinity); (3) it’s the purpose of life to do so, and (4) once we’ve realized the divine within ourselves, we’ll see it in every other human being and in all of creation.

In any case, Markandeya was one of those mystics. His story goes like this: His parents longed for a child and prayed to God (under the name Shiva) for a son.

Their prayer was granted.

But they had a choice, they could either have a son who would be a great devotee of Shiva and live a short life, or have a less-devoted son who would live a long life. Markandeya’s parents chose the former. As a result, they were told their son would achieve enlightenment, but would die on his 16th birthday.

Markandeya, of course, became a great devotee of Shiva whose name he lisped from his very first days in his cradle. Early on he became enlightened – capable of reaching uncommon depths of meditative unity with the divine.

But then his 16th birthday came.  His parents tearfully told him of the conditions of his birth. Yama, the king of death would soon come for him. On hearing this, Markandeya sat down and entered into deep meditation.

Soon Yama came seeking his victim. But when he entered the room, Shiva rose up from within Markandeya. With one hand on the youth’s head and the other pointing his trident at Yama, he commanded, “Don’ you know that I am Mrityunjaya, the conqueror of death? You have no power over me or over those devoted to me. Markandeya will never die!  Be gone!”

Trembling like a leaf, Yama returned to the underworld.

Today we baptize Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. With baptism he enters the community of those who would follow another great mystic, Jesus the Christ. According to our faith, Jesus is our Mrityunjaya, the Great Conqueror of death. Death, we believe, has no dominion over Jesus or over us, his followers.

Jesus’ teaching included the mystical truths that, like him, we are all daughters and sons of God and that the Kingdom of God is within us. His disciple, Paul of Tarsus taught that we are all temples of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus’ Spirit lives within each of us. It is our purpose in life to be channels of the Holy Spirit and bring about the kingdom of God in this world.

Today we’re here to embrace that vocation on Markandeya’s behalf and to re-embrace it for ourselves.

So our prayer for this child today is that he might be like Jesus with whom he is identified in this baptismal ceremony.

May he be like Markandeya.

May we all be like Jesus and Markandeya.

The End of U.S. Empire Is Simply a Matter of Time: Reflections on a Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HB 1:2-3, 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; 2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14; KJ 17L 5-10. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/100613.cfm

Last month, just as the United States seemed about to launch a disastrous war against Syria, Peggy and I had the privilege of gathering in St. Peter’s Square in Rome with thousands and thousands of other believers praying for peace. We filled the huge square in an inspiring demonstration of deep faith attempting to address impending catastrophe.

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

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

It was entirely inspiring and uplifting.

But as I participated with as much faith as possible, I couldn’t help thinking: What good is all of this doing? As the reigning imperial power, the United States government and its brutal military are completely secular and tone-deaf to such demonstrations. They have absolutely no awareness of, much less respect for, the spiritual, moral, or faith dimensions of life.

Instead, from its highest levels, United States’ policy is entirely controlled by power-lust, money and by the personal, class and national interests of its so-called “leaders.” They laugh at popes and believers with their silly prayers and naïve talk of forgiveness, reconciliation, dialog, diplomacy, and beating swords into plowshares. Power and money rule their world. “God” is entirely irrelevant, except as one more tool in the arsenal – this time to persuade the people they despise to support policies driven by their selfish interests and realpolitik.

Even more fundamentally, I wondered: Is God Himself tone-deaf to demonstrations like these? “He” and the Blessed Virgin (who often seemed to overshadow God and Jesus in this intensely Catholic gathering) won’t really do anything to prevent the blood-bath that’s threatening.

Can they even do anything, I wondered? I couldn’t remember the last time they did. They didn’t answer prayers to prevent U.S. inflicted slaughter in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, or Afghanistan. They didn’t do anything about the Jewish Holocaust (at the hands of Christians no less!). Can they answer our prayers for peace? Or are they as impotent as we are?

Today’s liturgy of the word seems to address those questions. It’s about faith and what we mean by that term. More specifically, the readings call us to revise our understandings of God – from the “Man Upstairs” micromanaging the world and intervening to prevent wars like the tragedy in Syria.

Instead, the readings invite us to see God as the One who empowers us to figuratively transplant trees and relocate mountains by simply saying “Move from here to there.” On the other hand, our readings call us to be slow, patient, persevering and trustful in the face of our desires for instant solutions to imperial madness.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Habakkuk apparently believes in the Man Upstairs. Faced by imperial hubris, he openly and impatiently questions that God.

Towards the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the prophet was witnessing the rise to power of the Chaldeans (or Babylonians). Like the U.S. today, that particular empire ruled by means of a sickening and genocidal violence.

“Are you blind to their wanton destruction?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “Why don’t you do something?”

And then comes the unexpected divine response: “Don’t worry, Habakkuk; things will get a lot worse before they get better!”

What kind of response was that? God seems to be answering Habakkuk’s challenge with one of his own. Change your idea of God, s/he seems to be saying. “I’m not the Man Upstairs. My modus operandi is not to eliminate the Babylonians according to your time table. Be patient. Change your idea of God.

The reading from Habakkuk is complemented by the discussion of faith in Luke. It’s about faith too. At the beginning, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” What do you suppose they meant by that? What do we mean when from the bottom of our hearts we echo their request as so many thousands did last month in St. Peter’s?

Is it our desire – was it that of the apostles – to have fewer questions about the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the existence of God, or papal infallibility? Is it our prayer that we become more convinced that God can prevent and stop wars like the slaughter in Syria? Is that what we mean by faith – believing things about God, Jesus, or the doctrines of the church? Does faith mean believing that God will defeat the apparent omnipotence of the rich and powerful who themselves would occupy God’s throne?

Or is faith the power we achieve when, like Jesus, we realize that the divine dwells within us – that we are in effect God? That faith would lead us to act like Jesus and to share in his unshakeable commitment to God’s Kingdom of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation despite setbacks and complete failure before the might of the Romans who killed him.

Yes, that’s the kind of faith Jesus had. As Paul says today in 2nd Timothy, such faith is synonymous with courage. It is identical with the power of God as revealed in Jesus – a human being who could cure the sick, drive out evil spirits and even raise the dead.

Problem is, Jesus didn’t use that power to dismantle the Roman Empire, block its destruction of Jerusalem, or even prevent his own death by Roman decree. Despite the miraculous powers the gospels attribute to him, he seemed impotent before imperial Rome, even though like the rest of his contemporary Jews he struggled for its replacement with the Kingdom of God. To repeat: in the end, he was empire’s victim and died an apparent failure overwhelmed by realpolitik.

What does that tell us about Jesus-inspired faith? At least the following:

• Faith is not about believing doctrines or things about God and Jesus.
• Rather, it’s about commitment to the Kingdom of God – to a world ruled by love, community values, justice, and peace, despite the apparent futility of our best efforts before empire governed by power-lust, greed, and violence.
• The prayer “Increase our faith” is about deepening commitment to God’s Kingdom in terms of patience with God’s time table without reducing our efforts to thwart imperial ambitions in the here and now.
• In other words, faith is about the long haul, about God’s time, compared with which our notions of time are laughably brief and insignificant. (In God’s time, empire of Babylon, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire are mere blips on the screen of evolution and eternity.)
• We should take comfort in realizing that in the divine long haul, God’s law of karma (“We reap what we sow”) is at work to answer our prayers for peace and the defeat of empire.
• According to that law, the U.S. will ultimately reap the harvest of violence and destruction its policies so consistently disseminate.
• The world will see the humiliation of the United States for which its majority so ardently longs.
• No, for followers of Jesus, God is not impotent before U.S. violence, destruction, brutality and hypocrisy.
• It’s simply a matter of time.

God’s time. Evolutionary time. Kingdom time.

Churches, Popes, Women, and the “V” Word (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 6:1-2a, 3-8; Ps. 138: 1-5, 7-8; I Cor. 15: 1-11; Lk. 5: 1-11. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021013.cfm

Have you ever seen Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues?” A few years ago that series of dramatic readings was presented at Berea College where I taught for 37 years. The readings were as provocative as the play’s title. All of them reflect the unique experience of being woman that most of us Christian males find so difficult to understand, especially after so many years of brain-washing at the hands of predominantly male clergies.

Significantly, Ensler refers to that particular churchly indoctrination in the prologue to her text. There she quotes Gloria Steinem who recalls:

“In the sixties, while I was doing research in the Library of Congress, I found a little known treatise about the history of religious architecture which blithely stated a thesis, as it were known by everybody, to the effect that the traditional shape of most patriarchal buildings of worship imitates the female body. Thus, there is an external entrance and another internal one, the labia majora and the labia minora; there is a vaginal central nave, which leads to the altar; there are two curved ovarian structures on either side; and finally, in the sacred center is the altar or uterus, where the great miracle takes place: men give birth.

“Though this comparison was new for me, it opened my eyes with a shock. Of course, I thought. The central ceremony of the patriarchal religions is nothing else but the ceremony in which men take control of the “yoni” power of creation by giving birth symbolically. It is no wonder that male religious leaders state so often that we human beings are born in sin … because we are born from female tummies. Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be “reborn” through men. It is no wonder that priests and pastors decked out in long vestments sprinkle our heads with a fluid that mimics the waters of birth. It is no wonder that they give us new names and promise us we will be reborn in eternal life. It is no wonder that the male priesthood attempts to keep women far removed from the altar, just as we are kept far removed from control of our own powers of reproduction. Whether symbolic or real, everything is aimed at controlling the power that resides in the female body.”

Talk about provocative! Here Ms. Steinem is claiming that creative power is focused chiefly in the female body, though men obviously have an ancillary role in the begetting of life. Because their role is so obviously secondary, a primary male purpose in organized religion, Ms. Steinem says, is for men to alienate or steal the vastly superior womanly power of life and to control it – against women themselves.

Patriarchal religion accomplishes its task by dressing men up like women. It has them sprinkling their congregations with the waters of birth introducing them to “eternal life.” This form of life is held to be more important than physical life, and male pastors claim to control it to the exclusion of women. The prerequisite for women’s access to life eternal is that they adopt the rules of the exclusively male priesthood especially those connected with female powers of reproduction centered in the woman’s body whose architecture the male priestly domain of church actually mimics.

I bring all of that up because today’s liturgy of the word is so obviously male-centered in a very misleading way. Together with Ms. Steinem’s reflections, the readings of the day suggest why someone like our present Pope Benedict XVI along with Christian pastors of many denominations participate so enthusiastically in what has been called a 21st century “War on Women” and why the pope is so afraid of women priests.

Female priests might inspire women to recognize their inherent superiority over men in terms of centrality to the life processes (both physical and spiritual) that the patriarchy struggles so mightily to control. If women were allowed the leadership that their biology suggests, what would become of the male-centered church – of the male-centered world?

Today’s liturgy of the word tries to keep us from asking such questions. It begins with a description of God in highly masculine terms centered in the macho realm of palace and court. God is depicted as “king.” He (sic!) is “Lord.” He inspires fear and awe. He dwells in a smoke-filled room surrounded by all the trappings of power and might. Like the prophet Isaiah, those who appear before him feel small and ashamed of the very words that come from their lips.

This, of course, is the image of God we’ve been offered from the cradle. (Can you imagine how different we’d feel personally, ecclesiastically, nationally and internationally if the familiar image of God were a mother nursing her child? Would you feel any different towards such a Mother God? – Remember, it’s all just symbolism. And the image of God that’s come to dominate arises from one of the most patriarchal traditions in the history of the world.)

The male-centeredness of today’s readings continues in the selection from Paul’s first letter to Christians living in Corinth. It’s a key passage because Paul is trying to establish his identity as an “apostle,” even though he never met Jesus personally. Paul bases his claim on the fact that Jesus appeared to him just as he did to the other apostles. So he says “Remember what I preached to you:” Christ died for our sins. He was buried and raised on the third day. He appeared to the 12, then to 500 “brothers” at once, then to all of the apostles, and finally to Paul himself.

There is so much interesting in this summary of Paul’s preaching. What, for instance, happened to Jesus’ words and deeds? Paul’s gospel begins with Jesus’ death! What about Jesus’ life which revealed the character of God as compassionate and “womb like?” (See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, chapter 3.)

However, even more to the point is Paul’s omission of the fact that according to ALL of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in the canonical gospels, Jesus’ first appearances were to women, not to men!! (Remember Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18?) Using Paul’s logic, doesn’t that establish the primacy of women in the church – and in the priesthood? The misogynistic Paul doesn’t want to go near that question. And neither does the equally misogynistic Pope Benedict XVI.

And then we have today’s gospel selection from Luke. It’s the call of the first apostles. According to Luke, Peter, James, and John are the first to follow Jesus. That leaves us with the usual impression that Jesus called only men.

Omitted from our vision is the fact that according to Luke himself (8:3) there were “many women” taking an active part in the Jesus Movement. Besides Jesus’ mother Mary, we know the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, several other Marys, Suzanne, Salome, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Joanna. . And the roles of these women weren’t confined to preparing food and washing clothes.

In the first Christian communities, men and women met and worshiped together. Both men and women preached the message of Jesus with the same authority, and both men and women presided at the celebration in remembrance of their crucified Master. Like the men, the women had representation and decision-making power in the communities as priests and bishops.

That was even true of the communities of Paul. Paul himself taught that “In Christ there is no male or female” (Galatians 3,28). With this claim he legitimized the active participation of women in the first Christian communities. Also, he makes emphatic mention of many women in his letters and lavishly praises their work. For example, he mentions by name the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16,1), Junia (Romans 16,7), Prisca, Julia, Evodia and Sintece, all of whom he called his “collaborators” (Philippians 4,2). He also mentions Claudia, Trifena, Trifosa, Prisca, Lyida, Tiatira and Nympha of Laodicea. Of the 28 persons to whom Paul accords special praise in his letters to the early churches, 10 are women!

All of that changed in the 4th century, when Christianity lost its soul and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then Christianity adopted for good the courtly vision today’s first reading affirmed: macho-kings, courts, palaces, smoke-filled rooms, men dressed like women, denigration of women’s bodies, men trying desperately to affirm their superiority against all the evidence of biology, life’s processes, Jesus’ own example, and women’s traditional roles as nourishers, healers and spiritual counselors.

Let’s talk about how women might take back those roles both in church and in politics. How do we “get to” someone as closed as Benedict XVI? How do we get to our bishops and priests? How do we get to our own acquiescence to the misogyny of our church and culture?
(Discussion follows)

“Legitimate Rape,” Jesus and “The War against Women” (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jos. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps. 34:2-3, 16-17, 20-21; Eph. 5:21-32; Jn. 6:60-69

Last week Congressman Todd Aikin, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri caused a firestorm of criticism by using the term “legitimate rape.” The phrase arose in the context of controversy about government funding for abortions resulting from forced sex.  Mr. Aikin was trying to explain his belief that conception resulting from non-consensual sex (as opposed to “statutory rape”) is next to impossible.  In other words, pregnancy following rape indicates that the sexual relations in question were consensual not forced.  Mr. Aikin said that when “legitimate rape” occurs, the female body “shuts down” thus preventing conception.

Response to the congressman’s assertions and his use of the term “legitimate rape” was immediate.  Even the leadership of the Republican Party called for his withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race. Feminists and others identified Mr. Aikin’s remarks as yet another sign of what they’ve called a “War on Women” – a new virulent offensive against women that would deny them access not only to abortion caused by rape, but to contraception. It is a war which vilifies feminists as “Feminazis” (as Rush Limbaugh puts it). It praises rich and middle class women for staying at home with their children, but condemns poor single mothers for staying home with theirs.  The chief protagonists of the war come from the ranks of fundamentalist Christians who take literally St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading – “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

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A few months ago, the Vatican set off its own firestorm by criticizing American Catholic nuns for spending too much effort on serving the poor and on peace and social justice issues, while neglecting issues of more concern to the Vatican – abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. In response, Rome initiated what it called a process of “Doctrinal Assessment.” Echoing St. Paul and the Evangelical right, it summoned the U.S. sisters to “obedience,” i.e. unquestioning submission to the male ecclesiastical hierarchy. Catholics throughout the world wondered if the Vatican too had declared its own “War against Women.”

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A couple of weeks ago Sr. Pat Farrell, the President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) gave her long-awaited Presidential Address – the first since the Vatican harshly criticized the LCWR for what it called its “radical feminist agenda.”In her presidential remarks, Sr. Farrell observed that the world is currently experiencing a very large and comprehensive paradigm shift – i.e. a fundamental change in its framework of understanding. The world is moving, she said, from a paradigm dominated by individualism, patriarchy, and competition to one characterized by equality, collaboration, expansiveness, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love.

To get from here to there, Sr. Farrell called for contemplation and prayer, cultivation of prophetic voice, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, celebration of differences, non-violent self-criticism – and living in joyful hope.

The readings in today’s liturgy had me thinking about the events I just mentioned: about the alleged “War on Women,” the Vatican’s “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR, and Sr. Farrell’s remarks about paradigm shift.  In fact today’s readings are all about “paradigm shift.”

That first reading from the book of Joshua addresses a shift in world vision that took place for a group of slaves in Egypt about 3000 years ago. The reading is part of a very important summary of Israel’s ancient faith that appears later on in Chapter 24 (as well as in Deuteronomy 26). The summary performed the same function for the ancient Hebrews that our Nicene Creed accomplishes for us; it’s a brief account of the heart of Hebrew belief. The words were to be recited at occasions of worship. And it ran something like this:

Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great people. But the Egyptians enslaved our people. In their distress, they called out to Yahweh, who raised up a great prophet.  Moses led us out of Egypt, across the sea, and through the desert. He brought us to this land (Canaan) which is ours by the grace of God.

That’s it. Nothing more; nothing less. So much could be said about that summary. It’s about land. It reflects that faith common among all tribal Peoples about the sacredness and God-given nature of their physical place in the world. There’s nothing about heaven or hell in this creed; it’s very this-worldly. Someday we’ll have to pursue the implications of all that. But for now, I just want to point out the paradigm shift represented here.

The shift is connected with women and patriarchy. And it has both an up-side and a down-side as far as women are concerned. The up-side is that a whole new concept of a God of the poor is introduced with this story. It presents the liberating God, “Yahweh”, as overthrowing the God “Osiris” worshipped in Egypt as the God of Empire. With Yahweh, the poor finally have a champion. The God of the slave-owning rich is removed from his throne. In the “history of God,” that was a splendid achievement. But it had a down-side.

The down-side was that Yahweh was not just the God of the poor, he was also a patriarchal God – a God of war. And he replaced not only Osiris, but the Goddess Isis, the beloved mother of Horus, the Egyptian God of Light. In other words, with Yahweh an exclusively patriarchal God is adopted by the escaped Hebrew slaves. Something similar happened when the Hebrews invaded Canaan, their “promised land.” There Ashera was the much-loved female Goddess treasured by the Canaanites. Yahweh took her place.

All of this reflected a huge world-wide paradigm shift in human understandings of God. It went far beyond the Middle East and actually began about 10,000 years ago. With the rise of agriculture, and its accompanying need to defend fields, crops and stored grain, male warrior Gods like the Hebrew’s Yahweh everywhere supplanted their female counterparts who had reigned for 50,000 years.

I’m reminding you of all this because the world vision that resulted in the relatively recent shift from a female Goddess to a male, tribal, warrior God inevitably impacted Paul and the words he wrote in his letter to Ephesus which we heard this morning. It’s unavoidable that when God is thought of as a male, males begin to think of themselves as God. Listen to Paul’s words again: “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

Yes, it’s true Paul tells husbands to care for their wives. But even here the reason for doing so is quite male-centered: in loving their wives, husbands are really loving themselves. As Paul put it, “He who loves his wife loves himself.”

No doubt Jesus originally had an outlook similar to Paul’s. How could he not? He was indoctrinated into that patriarchal viewpoint just like Paul. Evidently his father and mother raised him as a good Jew with all that it entailed – including a profound machismo. So Jesus imagined God to be father – “abba” (daddy) was the charming term he used. Never once however did he refer to God as “imma” (mommy), as he well might have since nearly everyone has always agreed that God is neither male nor female.

But Jesus grew (as Luke says) in wisdom as time went on. Gradually, he underwent a personal paradigm shift. In his parables he used women as images of how God acts – mixing leaven in dough, and thoroughly sweeping her house in search of a lost coin. He imagined prostitutes entering God’s kingdom with the male priests and religious lawyers trailing far behind.  He forgave a woman caught in adultery, and shamed the men who would stone her. He had no qualms about speaking alone with a woman of questionable reputation. In fact his first resurrection appearances were to women.

Who knows, Mary Magdalene might well have been instrumental in converting Jesus from Jewish machismo to his kind of proto-feminism?  After all, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises her as the “one who knows all.” In that same Gospel, he angers the patriarchal (and jealous) Peter by often kissing Magdalene (as Thomas says) “on the mouth.”  In John’s Gospel, it is to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appears on Easter Sunday morning. (By the way, I hope everyone reading this will also read my upcoming series on Mary Magdalene – beginning on Monday.)

In any case, the Jesus who leaves machismo behind ends up embodying the virtues most often considered feminine: care, compassion, feelings, intuition, and spontaneity – the sort of things Sr. Pat Farrell was calling for in her presidential address . Such virtues enable John the Evangelist to describe Jesus as a “Spirit Person” in today’s Gospel reading.  According to John, it is Jesus’ spirit, not his male body that gives life and makes him “the holy one of God.”

I suppose what I’m saying this morning is that if the War against Women –i.e. against more than half the human race – is to stop; if both Evangelical Christians and the Catholic hierarchy are to finally embrace  Jesus as speaking “words of eternal life,” they (we) must begin seeing the world through Jesus’ converted eyes – and acting like the Jesus who was liberated from machismo and patriarchy. 

And perhaps it’s time for church leadership to begin speaking like the women they try to censor. I at least find Sister Farrell’s words about contemplation, prophetic voice, solidarity with the marginalized, celebrating differences, non-violence, and joyful hope far more inspiring than the Vatican’s insistence upon “obedience” and submission.

Sister Farrell is probably correct. It’s time for another big paradigm shift – one that again shows us the female countenance of God. I believe she (rather than her Vatican assessors) gave us a glimpse of that countenance a few weeks ago.

What do you think is preventing God’s womanly countenance from being seen ? What can we do to stop the war on women?  (Discussion follows) 

Coming Monday: “Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday series)