Lent 2020 begins next week on Wednesday, February 26th. The word “lent” comes from the Old English word word “lencten” meaning “spring season,” when all around us signs of spring and new life appear, on our journey to Easter. We can be optimistic and hopeful.
For Lent this year, I plan to write a few weekly reflections, offering contemporary perspectives (basically optimistic) from an older historical theologian…
When I think of contemporary perspectives, I have two things in mind: (1) new ways of looking at older Christian realities, understandings, and belief statements; and (2) a focus on Christian life that shifts away from “churchianity,” with with its rigid focus on fidelity to doctrines and rules.
Churchianity is rooted in obedience and power over people. Christianity is rooted in love, compassion, and service. The central focus of genuine Christianity must be a living and lived-out relationship with God and with one’s neighbor. Doctrines and rules come later, but are of secondary importance.
Right now, I have the following thematic elements in my head, which I hope to expand on during the weeks of Lent: Youth — Jesus and His Young Disciples; The Gospels: About Faith Not About Presenting a Life of Jesus; A Contemporary Perspective on One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic — a Church Much Bigger Than the Roman Catholic Church; The Evangelical Vision — Four Gospels Four Christian Theologies; Contemporary Insights About Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death; and Resurrection Greater than Resuscitation.
There may be some adjustments along the way. I am not planning on long essays. The reflections will be brief and to the point. The focus will be a kind of meditative retreat on the road to Easter.
I may quote from books and articles I have read as well….. I do hope I can offer some reflections that are worth reading as well as stimulating and helpful. We are all confronted with much too much blah blah these days….Especially as we begin the nine month gestation period of presidential election rhetoric….
And so today, I conclude with a brief reflection about WISDOM from the Hebrew Scriptures:
God brought me forth as the first of God’s works, before God’s deeds of old.
I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
When there were no watery depths, I was given birth.
When there were no springs overflowing with water,
Before the mountains were settled in place,
Before the hills, I was given birth.
Before God made the world or its fields
Or any of the dust of earth.
I was there when God set the heavens in place.
When God marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
When God established the clouds above
And fixed securely the fountains of the deep.
When God gave the sea its boundary
So the waters would not overstep God’s command.
When God marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly at God’s side.
I was filled with delight day after day.
Rejoicing always in God’s presence,
Rejoicing in God’s whole world.
Delighting in humankind.
Warmest regards. May we live and rejoice in WISDOM.
Today a brief but, I hope, a helpful perspective on safe and unsafe leaders. I call it performance appraisal guidelines for evaluating leaders in religious, professional, and political life. The basic ideas are from the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, New Jersey.
Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.
1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.
4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.
8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
9. The group/leader is always right.
10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
Ten warning signs regarding followers of an unsafe group/leader.
1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.
2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.
3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.
4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.
5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.
6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.
7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.
8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.
9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.
10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.
Ten signs of a safe group/leader.
1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.
2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.
3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.
4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.
5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.
6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.
7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.
8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.
9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.
10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
Our contemporary challenge: reflect on these characteristics and then Observe, Judge, and Act.
In view of last week’s post, and this week’s political and religious developments, some reflections again about the need for prophets.
Prophets exhort, invite dialogue, and call for and promote change. They cannot, however, angrily promote a kind of nasty polarization in which people who disagree become vicious enemies. They can be outspoken, direct, and challenging. They cannot be hard-nosed warriors who denigrate, disable, and destroy their opponents. Prophets do not have an “enemies list.” Prophets speak out and bring change. Their primary values must always be compassion, truthfulness, and respect. Yes it takes strength, courage, thoughtfulness, AND humility to be a prophet.
Prophets and prophetic movements are much-needed agents of social change. We also need to support them. Being a prophet on one’s own, especially in the era of Twitter and Facebook is very difficult. Prophetic team-work is much better…. It is not easy to combat tweeting bullies and their ignorant followers, who thrive on distorted information.
One must also be alert to the prophetic occupational hazard: that prophets lapse and become arrogant, distorted, and deviant warriors —- just as distorted as the people and movements criticized by the prophet. Friends can be particularly helpful here….They can see closely what’s happening. Prophets must speak out, but they need to listen as well. And they need to maintain self-respect and respect for others.
We need prophets in religion and of course in politics. We need prophets especially today when the two get mixed up and the religion becomes a populist political cult which is “Christian” in name only.
Just to confirm: I am not anti-Catholic, nor am I anti-bishop. I am very proud, in fact, of some of my former students who are now competent, compassionate, and pastoral bishops. As a Catholic, however, I am amazed and disappointed how many lay Catholics and bishops have become strong supporters of the current White House resident, because he is “anti-abortion.” Is he really “anti-abortion”? Or is he good at political campaign rhetoric? He is certainly not “pro-life” in his policies and behavior.
Strange times for sure. The pastor of a Catholic church in Queens, New York recently encouraged his anti-Trump parishioners to just take a flying leap off the nearest building. “Show your hate for Trump,” he said. “Do it for social justice. #JumpAgainstTrump.” Tom Roberts, the Executive Editor of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote last week: “The selling of the church’s moral authority is complete. When someone so morally bankrupt and demonstrably anti-life as Trump, a misogynist who brags about assaulting women and whose primary interaction with others is to demean and degrade, can command the obeisance of the nation’s Catholic leaders, the moral tank has been emptied.”
Perhaps we need ongoing education and formation centers for training prophets. We need effective change agents. If I were pastor of a parish, I would make that my priority for a 2020 Lenten activity.
Yes I mentioned several months ago that there are five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents. Today I summarize:
1. Prophets have a clear vision: – Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents. They are absolutely no help in combating the know-it-all big dictators.
2. Prophets are patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. Many people get frustrated that change does not 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. Prophets ask tough questions – Effective change agents ask questions to help people think.They inform and combat the real fake news. The don’t just tell people what to do.
4. Prophets are knowledgeable and lead by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. 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.
5. Prophets have strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change.
My concluding observation for this week: I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our religious and political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..
United States Senate Chaplain Barry Black in his opening prayer for the impeachment trial session on January 31, 2020, addressed God, saying “Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct. Lord, help them to remember that they can’t ignore you and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow.”
Just about one year before he was executed by the Nazis, the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), wrote and sent several reflections from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909 – 2000). “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” Bonhoeffer felt that perhaps the time had come for a “religionless Christianity,” because so much institutional religion seemed so alien to the Gospel.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been re-reading a lot of Bonhoeffer. Now he has been much on my mind, because of recent WWII commemorations like those for the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945) and this week’s Auschwitz concentration camps liberation (27 January 1945). My Bonhoeffer re-reading has bern stimulated as well by my own theological concerns and questioning today. Perhaps I am also feeling my age? When Bonhoeffer was arrested for resistance against the Nazi regime and confined to the spine-chilling Tegel Prison in April 1943, I was just a one month old baby in a warm family environment in Southwest Michigan, USA.
During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend in 1944. “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human person as Jesus was a human person….I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith….By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God….That, I think, is faith. And that is how one becomes a human and a Christian.”
We don’t know how Bonhoeffer would have developed these ideas. I wish he could have lived longer. He was executed by hanging in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 9 April 1945. Ironically that was just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp. And a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.
History does not repeat itself, but some historic mistakes are often ignored and repeated again. We can indeed learn a few lessons from the Bonhoeffer era as we witness abuses of power and the betrayals of leadership in our own days — inside and outside of the church.
Bonhoeffer was greatly alarmed that so many Christian church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) openly supported Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). I think he was even more alarmed that so many Christian men and women tacitly supported the inhumane Nazi regime through their own silence and inaction. Silence and inaction.
Hitler was baptized as a Catholic but was not at all a Christian believer. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity,” a movement which actually rejected most traditional Christian doctrines. His involvement in “Positive Christianity” was driven by opportunism and a pragmatic recognition of the political importance of the Christian churches. It was promoted as well by Nazi Party condemnation of criticism from a “lying press” during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In Hitler’s “Positive Christianity” and his exaggerated self-pride, Hitler and his Nazi zealots saw the Führer as the herald of a new revelation. He proclaimed Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against “the power and pretensions of the corrupt Pharisees.”
Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945), Reich Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, wrote in April 1941, in his diary, that although Hitler was a strong opponent of the Vatican and Christianity, “…he forbids me to leave the church, for tactical reasons.” In his memoirs, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (1905 – 1981) wrote that Hitler “…conceived of the church as an instrument that could be useful to him.”
Tactical Christianity. The corruption of Christian moral authority. Still a challenge today.
PS In 1997, Bonhoeffer’s former student, friend, and confidant, Eberhard Bethge wrote: “Are we mature members of our society, states, corporations, and churches?… Unavoidably, we either corrupt or renew the Christian claim and faith. Even in the nuclear, ecological, and feminist age, no one eludes the demands of citizenship with which Bonhoeffer struggled.”
According to the Pew Forum, white evangelical Protestants are the dominant religious force in today’s Republican Party and about 99% oppose impeaching and removing Donald Trump from the presidency.
Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States. In 2019, 65% of polled American adults identified themselves as Christian. This is down from 85% in 1990. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing membership losses. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. However, looking only at Americans who identify as Protestants – rather than at the public as a whole – the share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009.
Evangelical Protestantism, coming from the Latin word for “gospel” evangelium, stresses salvation by grace, the importance of the “born again” experience, and the authority of the Bible, understood literally, as God’s revelation to humanity.
Evangelicalism has played an important role in shaping American religion and culture. The First Great Awakening of the early 18th century marked the rise of evangelical religion in colonial America. Prominent in that movement were animated preachers like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century brought what historian Martin Marty called the “Evangelical Empire.” Evangelicals then dominated US cultural institutions, including schools, and universities.
By the end of the 19th century, however, the old evangelical consensus that had united American Protestantism no longer existed. Protestant churches became divided over new intellectual and theological ideas, especially Darwinian evolution and biblical historical criticism. The same change occurred in the Catholic Church. Those who rejected these “Modernist” ideas became known as fundamentalists.
Fundamentalists defended the doctrine of literal biblical inerrancy and separated themselves from Mainline Protestant churches, which had developed a more open-minded understanding of science and biblical interpretation.
After World War II, a new generation of conservative Protestants began calling themselves “evangelicals.” The popular evangelist, Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), was at the forefront in using this term. A number of evangelical institutions were established, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today magazine, and educational institutions, such as the multi denominational Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California.
Reacting to the counterculture of the 1960s, many evangelicals became politically active and involved in what became known as the Christian right. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute banning abortion, effectively legalizing abortion across the United States. Throughout the 1970s, certainly in part as a response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Christian right became a major force in the Republican party and in American politics. Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders began to urge conservative Christians to actively involve themselves in the US political process. In response to the rise of the Christian right, the 1980 Republican Party platform took on a number of socio-ethical positions. In addition to the restoration of school prayer, the Christian right began to stress conservative positions on intelligent design, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, euthanasia, contraception, sex education, abortion, and pornography.
(Here I add very brief personal observation: In my own friendly and respectful conversations with conservative evangelicals I stress our shared belief in the person and message of Jesus Christ; and then move on to the many ways in which our human understanding has developed over the years. When it comes to politics, I readily admit that my parents were very active Republicans. My Dad held various Republican political offices in Michigan. Most in my family I suspect are Republican. Yes I am a registered Democrat. The genius of the American experience has been that we all, regardless of political party affiliation, respectfully work together for the common good.)
In the United States today, the Christian right has become a coalition of conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics. Father Frank Pavone, for example, a Roman Catholic who is national director of Priests for Life, responded on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, to the current president’s call for prayers about his impeachment: “President Trump just asked for prayers!” he said on his Twitter account. “Let’s storm heaven against the evil that surrounds him. I pray he will have the courage to continue to fight for the Lives of the unborn!”
Before the end of 2016 there was little in Donald Trump’s life to suggest that, as president, he would be hailed as God’s appointee on earth. Over the three years since Trump took office, however, he has surrounded himself with a fundamentalist Christian cabinet and established an extremely beneficial relationship with white evangelical supporters. It is an strange alliance between “Christians” who theoretically adhere to biblical teachings about right and wrong and yet strongly support a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, is a notorious liar, and whom many observers see as a very cruel and demeaning human being. Influential evangelical Christians ignore the president’s moral shortcomings by portraying him as a flawed vessel for God’s will and contemporary work.
Rank-and-file evangelicals have also embraced the imperfect vessel concept. Rick Perry, the evangelical and Former United States Secretary of Energy, repeated the theory of an imperfect biblical figure for Fox News this past November. “God has used imperfect people all through history,” he said. “King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect,” Perry told Fox News, in an interview which was theoretically about Trump’s impeachment, that Donald Trump was the “chosen one” who was “sent by God” to lead the country.
There are some evangelicals, of course, who still resonate with authentic Gospel values. On December 19, 2019, an editorial, by Mark Galli, in the evangelical publication Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office. “The President of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral. The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
President Trump, who began rallying his evangelical supporters right after that editorial was published, called Christianity Today a “far left magazine” and reminded his religious supporters that “no President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.” Franklin Graham, the son of Christianity Today’s founder Billy Graham, also criticized the Christianity Today editorial, stating “My father knew Donald Trump, he believed in Donald Trump, and he voted for Donald Trump. He believed that Donald J. Trump was the man for this hour in history for our nation.” Unfortunately one cannot interview Billy Graham about any of this….
An examination of conscience is a review of a person’s values, words, and actions for the purpose of evaluating that person’s conformity with Christian belief and morality. Evangelical Christians, and those conservative Catholics who have joined them, need to do some very serious reflection and self-examination. An examination of conscience. Right now I fear they have become “Christian” in name only…
During the first semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, I taught an introductory course about the four Gospels. The class participants were a group of thoughtful and inquisitive retired men and women. It was a delight to be with them. (I have just been invited to teach it again next autumn to a larger group of Dutch-speaking participants.) The course had a double focus: (1) understanding the various Christian communities back then and how each Gospel interpreted and applied the message of Jesus to their life situations; and (2) asking how the message of the Gospels speaks to us today in our concrete life situations. The course was a good experience for me as well – enabling me to review my own understanding and appreciation for Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. A kind of spiritual exercise and rejuvenation….something all historical theologians need, regardless of their age and background.
This year — with so much polarization, hatred, and fear — the image of Jesus in the Gospel of John speaks to me in a special way.
Contemporary scholars suggest that the final composition of the Gospel of John dates between 90 and 110 CE. An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the “Beloved Disciple” evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final editing of the text came 10 to 20 years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. The location was most likely Ephesus.
We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, or the Apostle John, or James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.
The Johannine Gospel differs from the Synoptics in style, content, and perspective. It omits, for instance, a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. What stands out in the Johannine Last Supper is the washing of feet and Jesus’ exhortation “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15)
The Johannine community understood well the complexity and problems of religious polarization. In the 90s of the first century a “parting of the ways” between Jewish and Christian believers occurred. Early Christians no longer went to synagogue for the basic reason that more and more Christians were Gentile converts and the distinction between Jewish and Christian belief had become clearer. John 9.29 describes how “the Jewish people had agreed that if anyone confessed Jesus as the Christ or messiah they were to be excluded from the synagogue.”
What deeply attracts me in the Johannine Gospel is the message that Jesus is the Wisdom of God and a man of courage, hope, and confidence. Today, in our social interactions, there is such a great need for wisdom, courage, hope, and confidence.
I see texts that speak loudly and clearly to our contemporary life situation. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15) committed to love one another. We need one another: the community of faith. The branches cannot survive without the vine; but the vine cannot survive without the branches. The primary presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus promises that his Spirit will be with us. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15) The Spirit will not abandon us. Yes we live in frightening times, but there is no reason for debilitating fear.
In the Synoptics the stress was on Divinity taking on humanity. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on Divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being. A powerful revelation.
Yes indeed….Some of the old images of God no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. Nor should we abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Source of our courage, hope, and confidence. Something for serious contemplation…. Something for shared faith stories…. Something for Lenten reflection…. (Lent begins this year on February 26th.)
With its hopeful focus, the Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)
The final Johannine chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus here is strong and confident. We saw that actually in Jesus’ garden experience after the Last Supper. Roman soldiers and temple police come to seize him. “Jesus, knowing full well what was about to happen, went out to the garden entrance to meet them. Stepping forward, he asked, ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. He replied, ‘I am he.’” (John 18:4-5)
May we all find courage, hope, and confidence in the Spirit of Christ. We have not been abandoned. A few weeks ago, I stressed the importance of prophetic witness. I stress that again today. Our witness is not just to speak, but to act: to be courageously active supporters of one another, offering hope for people today, and confidence that love is stronger than hatred; and that honesty is more effective than political deception and falsehood.
(I usually post a reflection on Friday. Due to current developments, I post this a couple days earlier.)
In January 2003, I was invited to meet with a group of about twenty US Army and Air Force chaplains at a US base in Germany. I often met with them for what were called “days of recollection.” This time the presentation and discussion were about the “Just War Theory” and what was already being seen as an impending US invasion of Iraq. (That happened of course in March 2003.) As I explained the main points of the traditional understanding of a just war, one young chaplain became very restless. Rather emotionally he called out to me: “If I understand what you are saying, it would be immoral for the US to launch a war in Iraq.” Very calmly I said: “Yes. I think it would be immoral and unjustified.” I looked around the room. Just about every chaplain there was shaking his head in agreement. The young chaplain then said, with great restlessness, that he could not be a part of such an invasion and didn’t know what to do. Then an older chaplain, whom I have always greatly respected, said: “Young man pull yourself together. I was a chaplain in Vietnam. I understand just and unjust wars. Your responsibility is not to implement government policy per se but to travel with your soldiers and be with them in their own difficult journeys.”
Now, with President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, those just war reflections jump back at me, with fears of a major military escalation. What is morally legitimate and responsible international behavior these days?
As I explained to the chaplains back in 2003, the traditional just war theory defines four conditions that must be met in order for a war to be just:
1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
2) All other means of putting an end to the initial problem must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
3) There must be serious prospects of success.
4) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The first consideration, I would suggest, is not whether an act of war is just but whether or not it is wise. I remember the remark of the American writer, Issac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” A January 3rd editorial in the New York Times, titled “The Game Has Changed,” expressed it this way: “The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but the killing is a big leap in an uncertain direction.”
My second consideration would be that the traditional four-points just war theory totally ignores our contemporary situation. With today’s atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction can there ever be a “Just war”?
Today, we need to explore and implement other ways of resolving international conflicts. We need to reinforce and collaborate with international organizations like the United Nations. We need to see that the function of the military is not to make war but to maintain peace.
I resonate with the January 3, 2020 statement by Johnny Zokovitch, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA:
“The decision by the Trump Administration to assassinate Iran’s General Soleimani on Iraqi soil, reportedly by drone strike, has only succeeded in escalating tensions in the Middle East and put in jeopardy the lives of innocent men, women and children who will bear the brunt of back-and-forth retaliation between the US and Iran. This is another in a long string of failures by this administration to pursue diplomacy and act with prudence in addressing the complicated problems of the region, many of which have been exacerbated by or are the direct result of decades of bad decisions undertaken by the US in the Middle East.”
Yes. We are moving into a new decade……We must “beat swords into plowshares” and pursue peace. This is not just pious rhetoric. It is now our practical life or death reality. I think 2020 will be chaotic, unpredictable, and enormously consequential.
Over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I was fortunate to be able to enjoy the company of family and good friends as well as to re-read some of my favorite authors. Among them, Aldous Huxley (1894 –1963) the philosopher and writer. He was born in England but spent the last twenty-six years of his life in the United States. Many people remember him for his science-fiction novel Brave New World, in which he describes a futuristic society, called the World State, that revolves around technology and efficiency. In this society, emotions and individuality are programmed out of children at a young age; and there are no lasting relationships.
My favorite Huxley quotation is “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
Huxley’s observation is my starting point for 2020.
I hope in 2020 that I can help people seek and discover the truth. I hope other people can help ME discover the truth, that is so often hidden or totally distorted in news reports, in political rhetoric, in pious religious platitudes, and of course, in social media. Today I better understand Huxley’s fear that truth can be drowned in a sea of rhetorical irrelevance. (Perhaps he was thinking about political campaign rhetoric as well? We will certainly have a lot of that in 2020.)
Ignorance may not be bliss but it helps the ignorant feel good and surrender themselves to authoritarian leaders who gradually take control of their faithful followers, by negatively labelling and denigrating those “dangerous people” who are anchored in historical observation and critical reflection. We used to think that a written sentence had a level of verifiability to it. It was true or not true. Or at least one could have a meaningful discussion about its truth. Today, within popular political and religious movements, we see climate-change deniers who value only a climate of “alternative facts.” For them, verified information is “fake news.”
I find social media, like Facebook and Twitter, increasingly problematic. Yes of course one can find truth statements there; but they are too often intertwined with bizarre fabrications or gross distortions of the truth. When they get repeated again and again or are “shared,” the phony becomes accepted truth. Twitter for example makes it easy to pick a passage out of context, denigrate the author, and broadcast the erroneous phrase or sentence to the tweeter’s sympathetic audience. Such tweets too often become a form of hate speech, fomenting racial prejudice and violence.
It won’t happen of course, but I often wish people would document their assertions and quotations. I will try to do that and be careful to not just repost an attractive observation without checking it out. It is called critical observation and critical thinking. Critical observation and critical thinking give leaders credibility. We don’t need and we don’t deserve leaders whose only talent is making loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue.
Our big challenge in 2020 will be selecting and promoting leaders who have credibility and sending the others to the sidelines. Certainly far from center stage….
Effective change occurs when people with credibility not only speak knowledgeably but actually make changes happen. Nice words are not enough. We need to support, defend, and encourage them. We need to defend and support young change agents like Greta Thunberg.
We need to build communities of trust with truth-speakers. We need to courageously denounce the purveyors of false information and absolute lies. And….we need to practice civility and respectful dialogue with those who have a different perspective. Not always easy. The aim is not to convert but to learn how to live together. No one has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers.
Safe travels as we journey into 2020…….I think it will be quite a ride.
My very best wishes for Christmas 2019, and the soon-to-arrive New Year 2020, which will bring new adventures, new hopes, and new opportunities for all of us.
The message of Christmas is our New Year’s challenge: to believe and to act on our beliefs. We believe that truth is stronger than fake political rhetoric and falsehood. Being a bully is destructive and demeaning. We are all our neighbors’ brothers and sisters, even when community harmony is difficult to achieve and maintain. Our human climate is threatened. The survival of humanity — everyone’s human dignity and worth are at risk. Yes our ongoing challenge this Christmas and in 2020.
Once again, I send my Christmas and New Year’s greetings with a reprint of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.
My fascination with the U.S./British poet began some years ago, when I was a junior in high school. The poem was Ash Wednesday, written by T.S. Eliot shortly after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Here Eliot focused on his own spiritual journey. I was becoming aware of my own spiritual journey back then….Eliot once commented that he had a “Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” (I thought well I am the product of a “mixed marriage.” I have a solidly Catholic education and formation, my father’s critical mind, and his Protestant DNA.) In college I was fortunate to meet Eliot’s friend, Robert Sencourt, who gave a lecture about Eliot and his poetry. He also gave more insights into Eliot the believer.
I owe the inspiration for my blog to lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams once remarked, “Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.”
In a tired and chilly world, may we all find and share new and life-giving perspectives…..
The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Thank you for traveling with me this year. Thank you for your friendship and support. I hope to return in early January after taking time for holiday celebrations with my wife, family, and friends.
Last week, one of my suggestions was that we encourage people to share their faith stories. A few days after that blog appeared, one of my readers sent me a very personal email about his own faith journey. With his permission, I share a few lines:
“I spent August driving a Land Cruiser the 900 miles from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, Tanzania over dirt roads. My priest friend and I stayed in villages along the way praying, singing, eating, staying with, and talking to the poor. Mud huts with thatched roofs. A five star hotel meant that your five gallon bucket at the head of your bed was full so you could shower, wash your cloths and flush the toilet. Tanzanians are the most beautiful, happy, peaceful and loving people on the planet….For a month I lived in the presence of God, receiving the sacrament almost every day….
“I have returned to my (home) city, one of the wealthiest in the United States….Now that I am back in my cozy setting, I am having trouble acclimating. I have not gone to mass since August. I have no desire to be with the people of my rich parish most of whom voted for Trump. These are not my people. To support a church that does not care for its nuns, covers up sexual abuse, and to have to listen to inane sermons based on a 19th century ethos, has no appeal for me…..
“I had an epiphany several days ago: how could I be so close to the church in Tanzania and so far from her here in the States? In Tanzania I was with the true church, the loving people of God, the mystical body of Christ. What I have here is a hierarchy that is more concerned with power and prestige at the expense of the message of Jesus. The priests in Tanzania do not wait for their day off so they can go golfing with the good old boy’s club, as they are too busy feeding the souls and bodies of their flocks.”
My correspondent described a church which is a community of believers. His email reminded me of an observation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so appropriate for this time of the year: “As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
The awareness of Divine presence goes to the heart of Christian community. The early Christians were animated by that awareness, before a kind of self-protective religious rigidity began to set in. Perhaps we need to re-visit the originality of the early followers of the Way of Jesus.
Most English translations of the New Testament use the word “church” to translate the Greek word “ecclesia” which generally meant a “community called together” a “convocation.” It would be far better and more correct for us to use the word “community” rather than “church” to capture the life-style of these early Christians: e.g. the “community” in Corinth, the “community” in Ephesus, etc. There was no uniform or monolithic reality in their community life. Jesus did not establish a church. He gave no institutional blueprint for the organizational style of his followers. The early Christian communities had great freedom. They had no set ritual forms for the sacraments. The communities were charismatic and creative. Men and women, who headed households, presided at celebrations of Eucharist. In the second century, Tertullian, the early Christian author from Carthage, wrote about the early Christian communities: “See how these Christians love one another.”
As the early communities grew and Christianity spread far and wide, a need developed for a kind of quality control process to make certain that the communities had qualified and well trained leaders. Ordination was introduced as a way of selecting and designating qualified community leaders. It was NOT understood as conferring special sacramental power for “confecting the Eucharist.” And we know that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. He probably had no inkling or understanding of ordination.
The early Christian communities selected, as well, overseers, who visited communities to see how they were doing and to provide guidance where needed. In Greek they were called “episcopoi.” Our English word “episcopal” comes from that. The better translations of the male minister “episcopos” or the female minister “episcopa” are “overseer” and “supervisor.” Quite often however the words get translated into English as “bishop.” I would like to think of “bishops” as user-friendly supportive overseers….
After the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, called by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity was well on its way to becoming a highly organized religious institution. The church-now-institution demanded that the faithful accept and profess official doctrines, like the Nicene Creed. Curiously, the Council of Nicaea said nothing about spirituality.
Religious institutions have their value; but they are a MEDIUM not the MESSAGE. They exist to be of service and not to be served.
In 380 CE, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian groups not accepting Nicaea were deemed heretical. They lost their legal status; and they had their properties confiscated by the Roman State. The official church took over Roman governmental structures (like dioceses) and Roman imperial court pageantry and rituals, especially by the papacy. Bishops became, as well, regional civil judges. Liturgy and sacraments became more standardized. Christians gradually began to seek and exert power over people. Women were edged to the sidelines. A clerical culture, with varying degrees of ingrained prejudice against women, began to take center stage. (Unfortunately, self-serving clericalism then and now undermines the credibility and ministry of zealous and wonderfully pastoral ordained ministers. Contemporary morale among Catholic ordained ministers (priests) is now very low. A very sad situation.)
Richard Rohr describes well the shift from spirited community to rigid institution: “I believe there is a deep dilemma and contradiction at the heart of institutional Christianity. Maybe it is even a necessary one. All I know is that it can only be resolved by authentic inner experience, prayer, mysticism, or dare I call it, spirituality. I am convinced that religion, in its common cultural and external forms, largely protects the ego, especially the group ego, instead of transforming it. If people do not go beyond first level metaphors, rituals, and comprehension, most religions seem to end up with a God who is often angry, petulant, needy, jealous, and who will love us only if we are ‘worthy’ and belonging to the correct group. We end up with the impossible scenario of a God who is small, and often less loving than the best people we know!”
Historically, every Christian reformation – and there have been several — has tried to regain the spirit and creative life and ministry of the early Christian communities.
That indeed is our reformation challenge today.
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