“Game of Thrones”: Belated Theological Reflections

I’m probably the last person in “America” to finally watch the fantastically popular video series “Game of Thrones” which concluded in 2019. But that’s what I’ve done over the last month. In a very belated effort (initially at least) to see what all the fuss was about, I watched all 73 episodes.

Like most others, I was hooked from the get-go.

However, because of my peculiar theological background, the whole thing moved my octogenarian self far beyond any superficial desire for cultural literacy. It turned my thought squarely to what many still call “God.”

I mean the behavior of those playing the violent, sadistic game of musical thrones greatly resembled that of the God I and most others in the “Christian” west were taught to believe in. That’s because the dominant understandings of God as king, judge, condemner, and punisher were solidified precisely during the period depicted in the HBO series.

Let me show you what I mean by first briefly recalling what viewers saw on “Game of Thrones,” and then adding what the series revealed about medieval ideas of God. Finally, allow me to describe the alternative suggested by the insights of modern science – of quantum physics in particular.   

My hope in doing this is to bring back from the dead a version of the divine that I at least find more worthy of belief, and helpful (if not necessary) to the project of saving the planet. The resurrected belief also holds promise of redeeming the rest of us from our age-old habit of unquestioning acquiescence while our “betters” repeat with impunity the atrocities depicted on HBO.

Game of Thrones

But first some reminders of what most of us witnessed in the series. It treated us all to kings, lords, and ladies beheading, castrating, and inflicting other forms of torture including skinning victims alive.

Then there were the endless swordfights and battlefield massacres – the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of armed men (and a few women) including spectacular giants, armored soldiers, terrifying ghosts, assaulting castles of various descriptions – wildly setting fires, swinging long knives, daggers, hammers, spears, and scythes, or launching flaming cannonballs, and shooting hundreds of arrows in deadly unison. Fire breathing dragons joined the mayhem to devastating effect.

Significantly, it was all, well, “biblical” in scope and carnage.  

Even closer to the topic at hand, viewers witnessed supposed spiritual masters, witches, and military hierarchs supporting compulsory celibacy, slavery, shaming of women, and a sometimes-prudish morality also enforced by torture and death, along with solitary confinement to dungeons where prisoners were starved, and subjected to insistent commands to “confess.”

And the reactions of both palace officials and commoners to all of it? Apart from the Wildlings or Free Peoples, the universal response was blind obedience. Everybody but the Wildlings accorded to the royal classes absolute power even if orders given were foolish, cruel, selfish, suicidal, sadistic, genocidal, lustful, or completely demeaning. Everything was justified for the sake of “the realm.” Child sacrifice? “Yes, your grace, as you wish.”   

Thrones and God

My point here is that all those medieval practices shaped western ideas of God who ends up being seen primarily as a potentate just like the ones in “Game of Thrones” – or in the Bible. As such he (sic) emerged for western believers primarily as a king, a legislator, judge, condemner, and punisher. God ended up being a torturer too. According to resultant doctrine, he was prepared to commit to an eternal lake of fire (hell) unconfessed sinners who (for Catholics at least) ate meat on Friday, did anything sexual outside of marriage, or even missed Mass on Sunday.

Not only that but, according to the extremely influential Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the principal delights of those lucky enough to “get to heaven” would be their witnessing the torments of those tortured in hell. They’d take great pleasure in observing the agony of others.

To that point, here’s what Aquinas said: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to perfectly see the sufferings of the damned …” [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article]

It’s no wonder then that so many Christians accept torture on the one hand, but on the other have left aside unacceptable theological convictions straight out of Kings’ Landing, Winterfell, and the Seven Kingdoms depicted in “Game of Thrones.”

Problem is that the removal of such beliefs has confined us to a meaningless world in terms of life’s transcendent dimensions. And it apparently has done little to make us less obedient subjects of the realm.   

A Quantum Alternative

Despite everything however, at least according to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans retain belief in some sort of Higher Power, though not always in the God of the Bible. But if “God” is neither that deity described by the bloodier passages in the sacred scripture, nor the eternal torturer celebrated by Thomas Aquinas, what is left to believe in?

It’s here that quantum physics might offer some help. I mean, even those only marginally acquainted with the subject know that contemporary physicists see everything in the universe not as ultimately solid objects, but as packages of light waves – of energy.

Such understanding suggests not only that in a very real sense all of us form a single substance united with each other and with everything that exists – with animals, plants, minerals, soil, air, and water. All of it expresses the same energy, including that of consciousness. In some sense then, everything is united and aware. All reality is one.

Scientific insights like those suggest a Ground of Being who might be described simply as the sum of all the energy in the universe and in the universe of universes of which our solar system is an infinitesimal part. That unfathomable quantum would include, of course, the energy of consciousness. It might even be addressed personally as a Thou. It finds incarnation in each of our apparently solid bodies.

Such realizations have salutary consequences. That is, if we are one with each other, with the natural world, and ultimately with the one we used to call “God,” then wars, borders, and us-and-them thinking of any type should find no place among any but the psychopathically insane.

Moreover, the wisdom of one of the world’s great prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, who instructed us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes evident. Our neighbor is everyone. And everyone is our Self. There is no real distinction, no real separation among us. Loving one’s neighbor makes sense because one’s neighbor is in fact oneself.


I suppose what I’m saying is that my binge watching of “Game of Thrones” helped me better understand firstly where our ideas of a sadistic god come from. Secondly, it made clear why so many of us have abandoned belief in that God. We can’t any longer accept a deity who acts as cruelly and arbitrarily as King Robert, Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsey Bolton, or Daenerys. 

Thirdly, and even more importantly, such rejection yields practical conclusions that might save us from the insanities of our contemporary political powers whose slaughters, genocides, ecocides – their omnicides – massively eclipse anything depicted in “Game of Thrones.” I’m thinking of modern weapons of war even well below civilization-ending nuclear weapons. So many of them make the fire breathing dragons and “Game of Thrones” massacres look like children’s pets.

And finally, all of this suggests resistance on the part of citizens like us. I mean, when you think about it, we’re not much different from those commoner subjects of the kings and royalty depicted in “Game of Thrones.” “Nuclear war, Mr. President? As you wish, your grace.”

I mean, most of us stand quite ready to turn off our rationality and consciousness and proceed to sacrifice our children and ourselves at the whim of those whose words and actions reveal them to be psychopathic and quite stupid.

It’s time we realize our “kings’” lunatic nature and deny them any authority whatsoever.  The revolution against the medieval mindset of “Game of Thrones” is still incomplete.      

“The Walking Dead” R Us (Sunday Homily)


Have you been following the cable TV series “The Walking Dead?” It’s already in its fifth season, and at one point at least, it was the most-watched dramatic telecast series in basic cable history. I see the show as connected with today’s readings about widows, dead children, and how to bring the dead back to life.

In the TV series, sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, awakens from a coma to find a changed world. The apocalypse has happened. Normal life has broken down completely, and the world is dominated by zombies. They are flesh-eaters or “biters.”

So Grimes becomes a “walker” (i.e. a survivor as opposed to a zombie) as he sets out to find his family. Along the way he encounters many other like himself. Those encounters and the flight from the zombies, whose bite is infectious, constitute the premise of each show’s episode.

Many reviewers have attributed the popularity of “The Walking Dead” to its reflection of life in our 21st century. They see our own world largely populated by people who if not walking dead themselves, are at least asleep on their feet.

And it’s worse than that. Today’s walking dead, they say, actually live off the flesh of others. That’s because what we call “life” depends on economic and military systems that cause the hunger-related deaths of people in far off countries as well as the destruction of Mother Earth.

That is, we’re dependent on those who supply us with cheap food, housing and clothes, while the commodities’ producers themselves are paid insufficiently to keep body and soul together. The result is that 21,000 children under five die each day from diarrhea and other absolutely preventable causes. In a sense, according to these critics, when we eat cheap food, we are actually eating those children.

And yet, most of us are totally unaware. As zombies we don’t think about the children whose lives we devour. Our vacant eyes see only the superficial – as though dollar signs had taken the place of our eye-balls. We’re taught to value only what those dollar signs see and measure. Dollar signs can’t penetrate below surface appearances. They isolate us from fellow-felling.

We are the walking dead. Think about that the next time you watch the series.

Can the Walking Dead process be reversed? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that it can if we follow the examples of Elijah, Paul and Jesus.

Elijah, you recall, was the great prophet of Israel who lived during the 9th Century BCE. In today’s reading from the First Book of Kings, Elijah has found refuge in the home of a widow. The widow’s child, who is young enough to be sitting in her lap, dies from unexplained causes – probably associated with hunger.

The widow immediately blames the prophet. She evidently thought that giving refuge to a “man of God” would protect her from misfortune. She complains, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God.”

Apparently stung by the widow’s complaint, Elijah uses a strange ritual to restore life to her child. Three times he stretches himself on top of her little son while praying, “Let breath return to this child.” Suddenly the widow’s son starts breathing again, and Elijah restores him to his mother.

What was the meaning of his ritual? Was Elijah somehow identifying with the dead toddler? Was he doing something like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?

Hold those questions.

We encounter another widow and her son in today’s reading from Luke. It has Jesus meeting a funeral procession. The crowd is accompanying a widow who has lost her only son. Unlike the case confronted by Elijah, this son is older – Jesus calls him “young man.”

And Luke takes time to mention that the crowd following the coffin was large. Might it have been one of those “demonstration funerals,” we’re used to seeing in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan? I mean where victims of occupation armies use the occasion to express anti-imperial rage. Remember, Jesus’ Palestine was occupied by Rome. And Nain (where this miracle took place) was in the Galilee, a hotbed of anti-Roman insurgency.

I raise the question because in revolutionary settings like Jesus’, occupation forces (like the ones created by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan) routinely identify young men of military age as legitimate targets for the occupiers. The foreign troops kill such men in what our government calls “signature strikes.” I mean this particular widow’s son might well have been killed by Rome. In that hypothesis, Jesus’ restoration of life to the fallen insurgent would have had great political import in terms of Jesus’ relation to the resistance.

In any case, Jesus’ act certainly had important social meaning in the context of Israel’s patriarchy. The mother after all is a widow. And in her male-dominated society, she’s left entirely without means of support. No wonder she is crying.

Jesus is touched by the woman’s tears. Luke says he was filled with compassion for the widow. “Do not weep,” he says. And he touches the coffin. Then Jesus addresses the corpse, “Young man, I tell you arise.” Immediately, Luke tells us, the young man sat up and “began to speak.”

What do you suppose were his first words? Maybe he shouted the Aramaic equivalent of “Viva la revolucion!” or “God is Great!” We’re only told what the people in the funeral procession said, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst. God has visited his people!”

Paul recalls his own visit from God in today’s second reading. And in Paul’s case, there is no doubt that his visit was associated with rejection of empire. Paul had worked for Rome, he reminds his readers. Or more accurately, he worked for the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that cooperated hand in glove with Palestine’s occupiers.

The Sanhedrin had used Paul to hunt down Jesus’ followers. The court wanted them dead for the same reason they and Palestine’s occupiers had wanted Jesus dead – because both they and Jesus were seen as part of the Jewish resistance to Rome. So Paul was hunting down his fellow-Jews and turning them over to the Sanhedrin. In other words, Paul was a widow-maker. He was a killer of the sons belonging to the widows he made.

Then came Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus. He had a vision and heard Jesus’ voice asking, “Why are you persecuting me?” Those words told him that Jesus and the widows Paul was making, as well as the widows’ sons he was killing, were identical. There was a Jesus-presence in all of them, Paul realized.

What do these readings mean for us today?

I’m suggesting that they yield principles for us as we seek escape from the zombie consciousness that prevents us from seeing our own cannibalism and widow-making as walking dead shuffling through those aisles in Kroger and Wal-Mart.

Do we wish to return to the land of the living? Elijah says, identify with those 21 thousand children our eating habits devour each day. Stretch yourselves over their dead bodies, the prophet suggests. Breathe life back into them. Identify with the children is the Elijah principle.

Do we want to walk the path of Jesus rather than the one dictated by our culture? Let compassion be your guide, Jesus suggests. Compassion for widows and orphans was Jesus’ guiding principle as it was for all the great biblical prophets.

And that includes compassion for our widowed Mother Earth. The patriarchy has abandoned her. She has been left to fend for herself and she watches her offspring die. I mean, species after species is disappearing at the hands of the same economic and military systems that kill those 21,000 toddlers each day. Our widowed Mother Earth needs our compassion too. Jesus’ example calls us to action impelled by that sentiment.

And what action might that be?

Paul’s conversion supplies an answer this morning. Stop cooperating with empire, it tells us. Eat lower on the food chain. Stop shopping in the big boxes. Resist the wars empire depends on to keep those boxes filled. Stop honoring the military and encouraging sons and daughters to “sacrifice” themselves on behalf of the corporations that require war and widow-making to retain and increase market shares.

In summary, today’s readings call us away from business as usual. They tell us that we don’t have to be zombies. They ask us all to leave behind our lives of lethargy and sleep. The readings invite us to imitate Elijah and his identification with a dead child. They ask us to be like Jesus in his compassion for a suffering single mom. Paul tells us to dis-identify with empire. The readings urge us to become “Walkers” on the Jesus path of compassion.

Will the Next Pope Continue the War on Liberation Theology?

jesus on cross

With the resignation of Benedict XVI and the papal conclave in process, friends have asked me to say something about it all. My thought is simple. The success of any new papacy and the prospect of the Catholic Church rebounding from its worst crisis since the Reformation hinges on one thing more than any other: the attitude of the new pope and of church leadership in general to liberation theology.

Let me be clear on what I’m talking about. I understand liberation theology as “reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those committed to the emancipation of the poor and oppressed.” The commitment in question brings to light social implications of the Judeo-Christian tradition – for creating a world with room for everyone, beginning with the poor – that remain opaque for those without such commitment.

Liberation theology in the sense just defined represents the most important theological development of the last nearly 1700 years. More than that, it is arguably the most important intellectual development of the last 150 years – dating back to the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

Popes and presidents have implicitly recognized that importance and power over the last 40 years and more. In fact that reaction has given form to the Roman Catholic Church itself under the last two popes. More than anything else liberation theology has also influenced U.S. politics for the last 30 years. It has literally shaped our world. Liberation theology is the reason behind the current spate of unending wars against the poor people of the world.

When I express such judgment to friends, they remain dubious and unbelieving. Their response not only reflects tone-deafness to the power of religious mythology, it also illustrates how short our memories are. We have trouble recalling what Chomsky calls the “first religious war of the 21st century” – less than forty years ago. That war was fought not against Islam, but against the Catholic Church in Latin America, precisely because of its adoption of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.”

In Latin America, the Reagan administration and its successors correctly perceived the grassroots social power of liberation theology. In Central America they saw a threat to control of its “backyard.” So U.S. officials allied themselves with a conservative Polish pope in the Vatican, with reactionary Evangelicals in the United States to strangle the revolutions of the poor who found great hope in powerful liberationist interpretations of their religious traditions which had been traditionally used to keep them in their places.

The threat of liberation theology was perceived well before Reagan. Already in 1969, the Rockefeller Report had identified liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States. By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability. In between, in 1979 the first Santa Fe Document advised the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by liberation theology. The administration heeded the advice, and responded both militarily and ideologically.

Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology issued in that religious war Chomsky referenced. It was perceived as necessary because in 1969, the Conference of Latin American Bishops had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position.

To combat that commitment, the U.S. sponsored blood baths throughout Latin America. Many of us are well acquainted with the best-known martyrs: Camilo Torres, Archbishop Romero, the Salvadoran team of liberation theologians killed at San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, and with the U.S. women religious murdered years earlier in that same country. And then the unending list of martyrs in this war against the Catholic Church – 200,000 in Guatemala, more than 100,000 in Nicaragua, 90,000 in El Salvador, and literally untold killings and disappearances in Honduras. In every case, the carnage was a response to social movements inspired by liberation theology. Again, as Chomsky points out, official U.S. military documents show that liberation theology was a major target of those wars. In fact within those same official documents, the Army boasts specifically about defeating liberation theology.

As for Reagan’s ideological response to liberation theology . . . . On his accession to power, CIA Psy-ops began funding conservative alternatives to liberation theology in Latin America and in the U.S. So did business concerns that saw the leftward drift of Latin America as a threat to their presence there. Domino’s Pizza and Coors Brewery were prominent among the cases in point.

As a result, evangelicals throughout the region grew rapidly in number, and the recipients of those funds in the United States increasingly identified with Republicans, the “hand that fed them.” So the television programs of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others were beamed into every poor barrio, población, and favela. Right wing churches sprang up everywhere feeding and expanding an already robust evangelical presence in areas once completely dominated by the Catholic Church. The message was always the same – a depoliticized version of Christianity whose central commitment involved accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and rejecting communism including the type allegedly represented by the theology of liberation.

All of this points up the extreme importance of LT. In effect liberation theology was not only responsible for spiritual and political awakening throughout Latin America, it was also indirectly responsible for the rise of the religious right in the United States, and ultimately for the Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, we currently have in the White House the first U.S. president directly influenced by liberation theology. For 20 years, Barack Obama was part of the congregation of Jeremiah Wright – identified by James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, as the latter’s foremost contemporary embodiment.
This is why it is possible to identify liberation theology not only as the most important theological development of the last 1700 years, but as the West’s most important ideological development in the past 50 – perhaps the past 150 – years.

As for liberation theology’s contemporary importance, today’s religious right and the Tea Party would probably not exist today were it not for liberation theology. And the 2008 debate about liberation theology (i.e. about Jeremiah Wright) nearly derailed Obama’s run for the presidency. That is, liberation theology has been far more influential than most are willing to recognize. In a sense, it has shaped U.S.-Latin American relations for a half-century. It has changed the face of Protestantism in the United States.

Reagan’s ideological strategy against liberation theology also changed the Catholic Church. As indicated earlier, it involved allying himself with a conservative anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II, who proved to be an inveterate enemy of liberation theology. The apparent agreement between the two was that John Paul would be silent about the war against Latin American Catholics, if Reagan would help him in the pope’s campaign against communism in Poland. Over his reign of over 20 years, John Paul was to gradually replace Latin America’s pro-liberation theology bishops with conservative pre-Vatican II types. He did this throughout the world – mostly in direct response to liberation theology.

Even more virulently set against liberation theology was John Paul’s lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, whom the pope appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition). In that capacity, Ratzinger penned an official warning about liberation theology in 1985. Basically, it rejected the movement because of its association with Marxist analysis of third world poverty. Of course, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in the papacy. He’s the recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI. So the onslaught against liberation theology continues with no end in sight.

Sadly, Reagan’s two-front strategy worked. Revolutionary gains in El Salvador, Guatemala, and most prominently, in Nicaragua were halted and reversed. Militarily, the “Guatemala Solution” was the template. It entailed using military and paramilitary death squads to kill everyone remotely connected with guerrilla movements. According to the Reagan strategy, that included priests, nuns, lay catechists and ministers of the word influenced by liberation theology. The theological strategy worked as well. The slogan promulgated by the Salvadoran military said it all, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

But despite the carnage, and despite the claims of victory by the U.S. military, liberation theology remains alive and well in grass-roots movements for solidarity. And in general, social movements inspired by liberation theology bore fruit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They continue to bear fruit today. More specifically, one can credibly say that apart from the theology of liberation it’s impossible to explicate Allende’s rise to power in 1973 or the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, or the power the FMLN in El Salvador had and continues to enjoy today. The Zapatista movement in Mexico is also intimately connected with liberation theology. Even more, without reference to liberation theology, it’s impossible to fully understand the rise of new left governments throughout Latin America. All of them are indebted to liberation theology and its power to motivate the grassroots.

That same power to motivate is evident in the ongoing “Arab spring.” There the power derives from the liberation currents undeniably present in Islam. In fact, as Gandhi saw in changing the face of India, similar currents are found in Hinduism. All of this indicates that liberation theology has at its roots elements found at the center of all the religions of the world. In this light, the world-wide offensive against Islam represents the latest phase of the now Thirty Years War against liberation theology under wherever form it may appear.

To be on the right side of history and to move the world towards God’s Kingdom, any new pope must call off the war against liberation theology and embrace it fully in word and action. Imagine how the world would change if he did!