Knowledge, Wisdom, Compassion

Whether the concern is the exploding pandemic or systemic and violent racism, there is an urgent need today for leadership. This is not a political party debate issue. This is a pressing socio-culture life survival issue. There is today far too much raw, unchecked power, and unbridled acting out of control.

We need to be visionary leaders. We need to stimulate and help form teams of visionary leaders. One could call them contemporary Christian apostles. Or, change agents….truly anchored in the Gospel.

We are indeed on the edge of a kind of socio-cultural chaos. Covid-19 is spreading wildly. Unemployment is expanding. Fearful and ignorant people are promoting racial violence and hatred. And many religious leaders are not helping at all but stimulating, in fact, even more violence.

Last Sunday, a Catholic priest in Carmel, Indiana, compared Black Lives Matter protesters to “maggots and parasites.” In a written message to his parishioners he denounced the civil rights movement and the destruction of monuments honoring Confederate leaders and other historic figures. The protesters he said are “wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits….. maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families.” (Fortunately on Wednesday of this week his bishop suspended him from parish ministry.)

Yes. We need to create visionary leaders anchored in Knowledge, Wisdom, and Compassionate Humanity, qualities that stimulate the movement from chaos to social health and stability. Here are my brief thoughts about leadership formation:

KNOWLEDGE: We need to communicate correct and helpful information. Credibility is essential. Facebook, Fox News,“popular understandings,” and political rhetoric are too often phony and deceptive. (When checking the accuracy of quotations I like to use snopes.com.) In difficult times, people need credible information. Be honest, if you don’t know something say so but then do your research. (When people began to disparage him, I had to do my own research about Christopher Columbus. Using reliable historical sources, I did indeed discover that Columbus was a cruel and inhumane tyrant.)

Truth is real. Whether it is about Covid-19, U.S. racial history, sex and gender, the positions and statements of presidential candidates, or Christian, Jewish, or Muslim beliefs, a healthy and stable human society is based on honest and trustworthy information. It cannot be based on adjusted information, dishonest statements, or spontaneous emotional fantasy. We need to be and to promote leaders who seek and promote truthfulness in public discourse.

WISDOM: Trustworthy leaders explain their vision and strategy for a better tomorrow. They are positive. They draw from their own life experiences. They draw from what they have learned from their own ups and downs. They also explain the life experiences of people who have had a big impact on their own life and their own life outlook. Trustworthy leaders explain why they are making the decisions they are making and performing the actions that flow from them. If they have made mistakes, they are honest about that as well…..Transparency promotes trust in uncertain times. Trustworthy leaders ask for input. Dialogue is essential. Without asking for input, one can miss out on vital information. Collaboration reduces the sense of powerlessness that promotes uncertainty. We need to belong to and to form wise leadership teams.

COMPASSIONATE HUMANITY: Trustworthy leaders are visibly engaged as compassionate humanitarians. Like the Good Samaritan. In times of uncertainty, the reliable leader is the solid rock to which people can cling. She or he gives anxious people hope, confidence, and direction. We need good words but, without good actions, they are just pious observations…..As Christians we are all fellow travelers on this human journey. The historical Jesus introduced a major paradigm shift in human understanding. He stressed in words and action that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hatred, and people more important than institutions.

Christian moral responsiveness and leadership shape our human life journey. In that journey we do indeed encounter the Divine, the Sacred, the Ground Being — Human life can often be a journey with crosses to carry but it also comes with a transformative resurrection that transforms everything.

Indeed, the Man from Nazareth provides our Vision for the Future. Our faith anchored in the way of Jesus is not naïve. It is honest, strong, and real. A positive and encouraging outlook for tomorrow….

Jack

Mutual Love and Support

A very short post this weekend but one with personal historic importance. When I think about the year 2020, I can easily think and write about pestilence, thousands of people dying, unbelievable job losses, violence, protesters flooding city streets and of course the coming presidential election. However….

Today: July 26, 2020, my wife Joske and I celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Uppermost in my mind and heart. Worth celebrating and remembering.

As a friend wrote recently, “all the grace that humanity enjoys comes from human intimacy.”  With mutual love and support, life goes on ……and faith, hope, and charity flourish.

Jack

NPD : A Contemporary Moral Challenge

A couple days ago, I was thinking about an old acquaintance, whom I have known for a very long time. He had sent a personal “email update” telling me all the great things HE has been doing. He never asked how my wife or I am doing, in these Corona days, which was typical. His whole life has been an unbroken narration of “I, Myself, and Me.”

Long ago I realized that my “friend” suffers from advanced NPD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

NPD is anchored in a distorted self-image and is a psychological disorder, quite often with moral implications. It affects a small but significant part of the population, with a greater prevalence in men. Historically we have often seen it in men in leadership positions. Some of his current far-right critics accuse Pope Francis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. With all due respect, I think it was more obvious in the narcissism and grandiosity of his two immediate predecessors Benedict and John Paul — but that’s a hot potato and a discussion for another time…History is a complex affair and people are complex beings….

NPD is a personal disorder but, like the Corona virus, it affects groups and group behavior as well. Some call it tribal NPD. I call it hate group NPD.

It is rather easy to pull down controversial memorials, like those of slave-traders and Confederate generals. Mending the world that constructed them is much more difficult. The emotions of NPD people are unstable and intense. They relish displays and symbols of group prestige and power. NPD people also tend to lack compassion; and the have an exaggerated sense of superiority, and enjoy bullying and denigrating people.

Below are some of the most common life characteristics of people with a narcissistic personality disorder:

1  NPD people have an insatiable appetite for the attention of others, by claiming to be the smartest, the most popular, and the most loved. In fact they value style over substance.

2.  They exaggerate, fabricate or simply lie about achievements, talents, and importance.

3. They take advantage of others to achieve a personal goal, without regret or conscience. They value power more than policy….

4. They create facts or simply re-shape the truth to mislead, confuse, and control people. Their focus is not reality news but propaganda. Any  media coverage unfavorable to them is rejected as part of a fake news “hoax” against them. Their’s is paranoia prioritized.

5. They lack empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others. They disregard, joke about,  or demean others’ feelings.

6. They react to criticism by denigrating their critics in racist and xenophobic diatribes.Their toxic rhetoric and propaganda stimulate and support hate groups and racist movements.

7. NPD people are toxic people: proudly self-obsessed, arrogant, and tough-minded bullies.

What to do?

People with NPD need help. Psychotherapy can help some… For most, however, the disorder lasts a lifetime. Nevertheless, THEY still have moral responsibilities toward other people and within the institutions in which they operate. One cannot excuse their behavior.

People who are victimized by people with NPD, or who are alarmed by the power and negative influence of people with NPD, need to network and collaborate in curtailing their power and influence.

I first encountered a seriously ill NPD person when he was pastor of a nearby parish. Eventually the parish council, with abundant documented evidence about his erratic,  disordered, and dangerous behavior, informed the local bishop that the pastor had to go! Within a few days, a healthy “pastoral change” was made. Change is possible when conscientious and courageous people work together.

People who recognize this disorder in political and religious leaders need to  deal with the problem constructively and effectively. We can make a change….The clock is ticking.

Jack

Fear — Compassion — Collaboration

A very brief reflection this week. The pain and fear of so many people today demand a Christian response not just more pious rhetoric. A monumental social change is underway… I remember a line from the British writer and theologian, C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains….”

Fear paralyzes people and contributes to a chaotic environment; but compassion and collaboration bring security and stability. Christians, especially, should be people who do not allow fear to rule their lives. We know and we believe. Resurrection follows the way of the cross and death.

Christians can and must be prophetic people, who are clear-headed and courageous.

Coronavirus restrictions around the world have been lifted or ignored. Right now, however, this historic pandemic is not ending. It is surging. Nevertheless, it will not happen overnight; but we can and will conquer corona…..We need to be realistic and work together.

Malfunctioning democracies can be fixed. There are peaceful ways to restructure leadership and reform political policies….It we truly want to, we can overcome the extreme and destructive racial polarization in our society, provided we replace angry competition with compassion and collaboration.

Ultimately our society will get either the form we want — or the form we allow.

Christians need to fortify themselves with renewed faith and moral behavior. We need to base our actions on reality not popular fantasies.

Jesus of Nazareth, living and working in the socio-cultural context of his day, was a prophetic non-violent person. He was a threat of course to his contemporary vested interest people: authoritarian leaders for whom religion was more about self-promotion than service.

We remember: Jesus was bullied, beaten, and brutally killed.

We remember: Jesus’ victory over death.

As we confront the perplexing political, economic, and social problems of our time, we are called to practice and promote authentic Christian action. Yes of course, people who behave in a criminal and inhuman way need to be sanctioned and restrained; but crude militarism and violence alone will never resolve our contemporary national and international crises. They will only increase and promote more savage kinds of militarism. History lessons are clear about this.

With genuine Christian faith and vision, we can create a more humane society. We can help people find a deeper security that banishes the power and influence of fear. We can promote human self-worth far better than political and religious fanaticism. But we must thoroughly reject the contemporary “post-truth” way of life built on and sustained by lies, falsehoods, and deception. The crisis today is serious.

Jesus of Nazareth was a courageous and outspoken social critic who respected people and promoted their dignity and sense of self-worth. Recall the narrative about the woman about to be stoned. He honored her self-worth. He restored her own sense of self-worth. That was also the key element in his narrative about the Good Samaritan. These are not just old pious stories. They are exhortations about what should be part of our rule of life, if we really take Jesus and his way of life seriously.

Yes. This is the challenge of being a Jesus-person in our days of contemporary anxiety, fear, and impending chaos. We can and must support each other as messengers of truth, when loud voices around us shout fabricated falsehoods and spread exaggerated news stories to conveniently frighten and paralyze people.

In his inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In the Gospel of John, Rabbi Jesus, more importantly said “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

A closing prayerful thought, by poet and spiritual writer William Cleary:

“The future is full of promise, Holy Mystery,
if only because we discern your forces of
evolution at work everywhere.
Every opening daffodil, every growing child,
every glimmer of human enlightenment,
every bodily process of healing
tells us the future is not fearsome
but is full of potential.
Your face is hidden, your name unknown
still we turn to you in faith and confidence.
Creating Evolutionary Spirit,
we hear your comforting voice
in the steady music of the unfolding creation,
in harmonies and dissonances of
the world around us
into which we pour our humble efforts.
We give thanks to exist,
and to be in some way the joy of your heart.
Amen.”

Jack

New Virus Alert: Authoritarian Leaders and Followers….

Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of narcissistic authoritarian leaders. A surge of toxic misinformation online helps of course to promote their cause.

For authoritarian-minded leaders, the Corona crisis — and now the murder of George Floyd– offer convenient pretexts to silence critics and consolidate power. Yes. Authoritarianism is about power: power over people.

Over the years I have had a number of encounters — and a few conflicts — with authoritarian leaders, in ecclesiastical settings but in academia as well. What I learned, early on, is that authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era, as long as it makes them feel safe and comfortable….In fact their actions often result in chaos more than tranquility. Today we know chaos for sure…..

What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, but quite often tyrannical and often brutal. Cynical authoritarians today exploit white racism to sell their policies and advance their influence…Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name and texts of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian virus.

As the authoritarian viral infection takes over one’s system, authoritarian thinking becomes sloppy; and a ferocious dogmatism blinds people to evidence and logic. I recall the example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, all sharks are fish.”

People need to make distinctions, as they think and speak about reality. Authoritarians thrive on thoughtless generalities that inflame rather than inform.


One of the most dangerous generalities, advocated in current Washington DC rhetoric, links criticism of authoritarianism with support for the dangerously anarchist far-left movement Antifa. To use the faulty-logic example of my college professor, again, the destructive generality would be: “Antifa opposes authoritarianism. Jack’s friends opposes authoritarianism. Therefore Jack’s friends belong to Antifa.” [Another faulty logic example of course would be: “Disinfecting helps against the Corona virus. Clorox is an effective disinfectant. Therefore one should ingest Clorox to safeguard against the Corona virus.”]

Yes. We do need to think clearly. And….we do need to confront authoritarianism in leaders and followers…. It is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes our society. And right now — we need to work together to bring a wounded, divided country together. There is no justification for destructive violence from the right or from the left….Difficult as it may be, we must build bridges.

One builds bridges by constructive words and actions. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. We need to speak-out now or forever remain silent. And we cannot do it alone. Even if it appears that you are the only person who grasps what’s happening, you have to take courageous leadership to inform and organize others.

Today we need well-informed and critical-thinking observers who are willing to courageously collaborate with others, as they become effective but non-violent change agents.

Five points for effective change:

(1) We need to have a clear and accurate vision of reality. Dialogue is important here because it has to be a shared vision. We listen, we observe, and we explore together. And we build and re-build together.

(2) We need to be courageous and persistent but patient as well….Change does not happen overnight. Many people get frustrated when change doesn’t happen fast enough. The danger is that they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal.

(3) We need to demonstrate that we are about more than just nice-sounding rhetoric. Effective change agents have character and credibility. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others.

(4) We must build strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with collaborators. People will not want to grow and change if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change.

(5) And finally…..We must not allow ourselves to become and act like the authoritarians: nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful in creating broad-based change than violent campaigns. Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but hatred and denigration of other people are tokens of the anti-Christ.

Together we move forward….

Jack

Religious Discourse and Dynamics: Signs of the Times

On the Friday before Pentecost 2020, a contemporary theological reflection: What are the religious discourse and dynamics that shape our contemporary lives?

Religious people today, especially as society grows ever more divided, have very differing perspectives on belief and God. Some make God in their own image and likeness, adjusting their God-image to fit their ideological agenda. What they don’t like, God doesn’t like. Ask no questions.

For some, God is an angry judgmental God, who has sent the Coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion. A right-wing pastor in Florida even proclaimed, recently, that the spread of the Coronavirus in synagogues is God’s way of punishing the Jewish people for opposing Jesus of Nazareth. Bizarre, but antisemitism is flourishing these days….. People who shape God in their own image and likeness know what their God likes, and what their God dislikes…..

Some Catholic clergy, on the other hand, like the former Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Once known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal INQUISITION”) have launched an appeal, warning that the Corona pandemic is not a punishment from God but a sinister and evil human creation being used by world leaders so that “centuries of Christian civilization” can be “erased under the pretext of a virus” and establishing an “odious technological tyranny” in its place. Viganò and Müller stress unquestioned faith over science; and they stress fidelity to “traditional” religious doctrine.

The Viganò and Müller focus has not been on dynamic pastoral life but always on strict dogmatic rigidity. Both men belong to the traditionalist Catholic group that has condemned Pope Francis for being weak in proclaiming Catholic doctrine, thereby contributing to “the fraud of the anti-Christ.” The Viganò-Müller God-image too is that of a stern judgmental task master demanding unquestioned obedience.

We really do need to reflect on the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. Over the past several months, of course, we have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics — from bad advice and nonsense about the Corona virus to fundamentalist objections to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations.

What are the religious attitudes and religious values that shape our human actions? I see three: (1) Reward and punishment, (2) Narcissism, and (3) Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination.

(1) Reward and Punishment

Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people, here and now, for their behavior.

Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness. They remind us about Noah and the flood. Just a few years ago, remember, various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans.

For far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to appease a judgmental and vengeful God. We can thank Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) for pushing this “atonement theology.” That kind of God-image, however, is so very distant from the Loving Father, about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God. Abraham, recall, was told by God’s messenger that God did not want the human sacrifice of his son Isaac. In Isaiah chapter I, we read that God does not want sacrificial offerings, but says: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless., Plead the case of the widow.”

Actually the concept of the reward-and-punishment-God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people who are still in an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.

(2) Narcissism

In Christian history, God’s fidelity to God’s people has too often been seen in a tribal way: God was faithful just to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Many Christians even taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.

The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is not just problematic. It is pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most powerful manifestations. Today of course “white supremacy” is a key example. Annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Blacks. Mexicans. Muslims…I am thinking right now about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis…

(3) Jesus-based Acceptance
,
As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.

Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is his sense of God’s love and grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the historical Jesus and connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.

With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge……

Come Holy Spirit!

Jack

Short-Sighted Moral Vision

Christopher White, national correspondent for the online Catholic newspaper Crux, reported that President Donald Trump made a conference call, at the end of April, to an estimated 600 US Catholic leaders, among whom were: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston; Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, Chair of the USCCB committee for Catholic Education. Also among the 600 were superintendents of Catholic schools in Los Angeles and Denver, and a variety of other US Catholic leaders.

In his message to these prominent US Catholics, the President reiterated his pro-life (meaning for him ‘anti-abortion’) position and his support for Catholic schools. Clearly begging for support from Catholic leaders, President Trump repeated his warnings of dire consequences for the Catholic Church in the United States, if he would not be reelected.

On April 26, the Sunday following this presidential conference call, Cardinal Dolan, from his pulpit in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, offered friendly and great praise for Mr. Trump: “The president has seemed particularly sensitive to the religious community…..I’m in admiration of his leadership.”

Meanwhile, Father Frank Pavone, Catholic priest and National Director of Priests for Life and President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, announced that he enthusiastically supports President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection.

Pavone, one may recall, made national headlines in 2016 when he strongly endorsed Donald Trump for President. In his 2016 pro-Trump video-propaganda, he used a dead aborted baby, laying naked and bloody on an altar, as a campaign prop. Quite a sign of being a pro-life priest.

These days Pavone is a key leader in the “Catholics for Trump Coalition.” In a recent interview he stressed that while Trump is “trying to protect the right to life,” the president is acting on other issues as well in ways “completely consistent with Catholic teaching.” He went on, “He’s protecting our people by strengthening borders, not to stop immigration but to stop crime, to protect families, to protect neighborhoods,” He sounds just like a Trump speech writer….

Some may doubt me, but very honestly I am not interested in playing politics in Another Voice. If people ask, I acknowledge that I am a Democrat. Frankly, I come from an active and solidly Republican family background. (In grade school in 1951, I was an avid supporter of Dwight David Eisenhower’s Republican presidential campaign. “I Like Ike” was my theme song and I proudly wore one of his campaign buttons to prove it.)

These days I am not a political activist. I am an historical theologian. My theological DNA has been strongly shaped by both my Catholic mother and my Protestant father….My now rather long academic career, however, has been in mostly Catholic institutions.

As a Christian believer and an historical theologian, I am very critical of the current US President. I find his values and behavior morally repugnant. If he is a “Christian” I suspect that must be a personal quality in name only. I am also very critical, therefore, of Catholics who support the policies of our current chief executive. Whether bishops, priests, or lay people, I believe they have succumbed to a very distorted moral vision. I find their behavior in supporting the current chief executive disorienting, disruptive, and disconcerting. I find it difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, no compassion for the distressed, self-centered admiration, xenophobia, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women with any sense of healthy Christian virtue.

They and we urgently need some contemporary values clarification discussions and exercises.

Some fundamental questions that should be asked: What are the person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they based on? Are they humane? Are they Christian? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, are values re-education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor….one who has better moral sense and sensitivity.

Opposing abortion is not enough for a genuine Christian response to today’s human life situations. Over the years I have encountered a great number of anti-abortion demonstrators who were cruel, crude, and inhumane. Fortunately there have been, as well, Catholics – even bishops — who have demonstrated broader Christian beliefs and behavior.

In 2011, by way of example, the then Catholic bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” which advocated a consistent broad-based ethic of life. This is material for good values clarification discussions and exercises for contemporary Catholics, regardless of their political party affiliations. In that document issued almost ten years ago, we read: “Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care…”

Now THAT reflects authentically Christian values!

Jack

A New Virus….

These days in the big picture, I remain an optimist. However, I am also a realist. Populist, political, and media reactions to the Corona pandemic reveal the presence of yet another deadly virus. Out in the open. Not even hand-washing and face masks offer protection.

Officially this other deadly virus is called “Agnotology”  (from Greek roots for ignorance and speech). 

Agnotology is the planned and willful human endeavor to spread ignorance, confusion, and deceit.

It is used to sell an ideology or to win support for a socio-political cause. It is very cultic with sinister propaganda banners and symbols. Agnotology is a resuscitated old phenomenon. It has become very much an active contemporary virus. As an historian, I would not say that history repeats itself. Rather, I suggest that people do not always learn from history, until it is often just about too late. Agnotology is a key example.

Institutional leaders and populist agitators often promote ignorance and spread false information as ways to exercise power over people or to protect and promote the power of their authoritarian leaders. They gradually mutate people’s brains, weaponizing them against dissenting voices. Efforts to communicate the truth to modified-brain people, become for them acts of aggression against the one they see as the chosen one. No one can criticize the chosen one. Some, in this cult, even believe their leader was sent by God.

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, Agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  

Down the slippery slope to deadly Agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Denigrating people and launching conspiracy theories is a symptom.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continually repeated executive tweets, and only watching Fox News cloud and disfigure one’s sense of reality. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric, for example, distort and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are NOT pro-life in any way. 

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings rather than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. 

(4) Infected Agnotology people reject all personal responsibility for maintaining the common good. Feeling insecure, they blame social and economic problems on science, homosexuals, blacks, foreigners and (once again) Jews.  

(5) Clear signs of Agnotology are: when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

(6) Infected people become religious militants who reject traditional religious values and preach racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in their place. Some claim to be exemplary Christians but the spirit of Christ has no presence in their hardened hearts.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Truth. Honesty. Critical thinking. Compassion. Mutual respect. We have a lot of work to do….Challenging Agnotology..

Jack

Christianity in a Time of Sickness

Today some thoughts inspired by words from Tomas Halik professor of sociology at Charles University, Prague and university chaplain. During the Communist regime Tomas Halik was active in the “underground church,” in the former Czechoslovakia.

After this global Covid-19 experience, which may last a couple years, the world won’t be the same as it was before. We will never again return to “normal life.” At best, perhaps, there will be a new normal. As an historical theologian, I ask what kind of challenge this situation presents for Christianity, for Christian believers, and for the institutional church.

Pope Francis said the church should be a “field hospital.” Tomas Halik observed: “as a good hospital, the church must also fulfill other tasks. It has a diagnostic role to play (identifying the “signs of the times”), a preventive role (creating an “immune system” in a society in which the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife) and a convalescent role (overcoming the traumas of the past by forgiveness).”

Currently there are no services in thousands of churches on several continents. Thinking about this, while listening to the bells calling from a local church, the thought struck me: those empty churches today are truly a special sign for all who call themselves Christian.

Maybe empty church buildings symbolically expose a contemporary problem that many “Christians” are rather empty themselves. They talk of Christianity but their actions hardly reflect the Spirit and message of Christ. The daily news and social media feature these people every day. Some make a lot of noise even within the White House.

I belong to a church reform organization. For decades I have been very active in “church reform” movements. But the bells have been ringing in my head — perhaps my reform efforts and those of my reform-minded colleagues have been out of focus. Structural reforms (women in ministry, moving beyond clericalism, welcoming and affirming LGBT people, etc.) are of course very important. They mean absolutely nothing, however, unless they spring from changed hearts, changed attitudes, changed behavior…..all from renewed spirits and a clear Christian vision.

Maybe the empty churches should remind us of the empty tomb we pondered this past Easter. Recall, for example in Mark 16, the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here! See the place where they laid him. Go tell the disciples he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him….”

Now, we live in Covid-19 estrangement, fear, uncertainty, and yes, sorry to say, dangerous angry protests and demonstrations. Symbolically, but really, this is perhaps our contemporary Galilee. The message remains clear, even if people have clouded eyes and shaky nerves. We have not been abandoned by God. Jesus raised from the dead lives here and lives with us right now.

Some are already saying, as a friend said yesterday, empty and silent churches are a temporary situation, soon to be forgotten. Frankly, I don’t think so….The pandemic may indeed last into 2021; but the emptiness can last much longer.

Like my local church bells still ringing on the hour, the call now is to renew ourselves with a new Christian identity in a world which is being radically transformed before our eyes. Yes we can live with a new spirit, a new heart, a new security that is anchored in active Christian faith, hope, and care. Genuine Christianity is not about authoritarian power over people. It is not about observing, on TV or Facebook, solitary rituals carefully executed by colorfully dressed clerics. It is about people interacting (now safely) with other people. It is about human and humane behavior: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, mutual support.

Let’s not forget Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you did not take me in, I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” And they too will reply,”Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then the Lord will answer, “I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

And so with faith and hope we strive to be Christian in this time of sickness…….

Jack

Care, Compassion, and Civility

May First, 2020

Another Voice is back after a post-Easter break for a bit of R&R and taking care of the home front. How our pandemic-shaken world has changed since Easter! 

Pandemic history and folklore are something I grew up with. My paternal grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, an authentic hoosier schoolmaster, died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919. That pandemic lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920. My grandmother, Mary Elen Jarrett, and their five boys survived but Mary Ellen and most of the boys could not attend Alonzo’s funeral because they were bed-ridden and critically ill with the flu. In my childhood I found this a frightening  story.

I was very close to my grandmother because she lived about a hundred yards from our home in a small house my dad had built for her. She was often housemother, housekeeper and cook. My mother and father were very active people.

Maryellen was a courageous and strong woman, but what characterized her (and her five sons) the most were the virtues of care, compassion, and civility.

Care, compassion, and civility are what I appreciate so much from my family and helpful friends in these Covid-19 days BUT exactly the very humane virtues I miss in today’s angry demonstrators, and so many religious and political “leaders.” They talk Christ but display none of his spirit.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we can all reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Be healthy and safe!

Jack

Alonzo William and Mary Ellen on their wedding day 1902