Being Non-Political

July 21, 2018

To begin with: A very brief comment about today’s local holiday. Akin to our USA Fourth of July. The Belgian National Day is a public holiday celebrated on 21 July each year. In 1830, Belgium gained political independence and regained cultural independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Up until then, the Belgian area was known as the Southern Netherlands and had been governed by other countries including Spain and France.

Now on to politics but with this advisory: after Helsinki and post-Helsinki developments I will avoid touching directly on DJT.

An acquaintance, who regularly follows my posts, asked me if I would please avoid commenting about politics in the coming months. He hoped I would because in his words “theologians should stay out of politics.”

Well theologians reflect on our faith experiences and the signs of the times. Frankly one cannot really be non-political; and one can and must be politically critical as well as religiously critical.

The signs of the times beckon to all of us. My old friend, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, observed not so long ago: “There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something.”

Today I would like to say something about religion and nationalism. What agitated me this week, aside from an Helsinki headache, was the announcement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a new Israeli Basic Law which proclaims: “The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” So there we have it. Israel is now the Jewish State. Part of the contemporary religion/nationalism trend.

When I was in Moscow for a conference a year ago, a Russian professor friend reminded me that Mother Russia is Russian Orthodox. With some delight he stressed that even President Putin is strongly Orthodox and he and Moscow’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill are mutually supportive. Kirill has backed the expansion of Russian power into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. He is strongly anti-gay; and even has often stressed that “Orthodoxy must defend itself” and fight against the “heresy” of human rights, which “contradicted the Bible.” Hmm

Contemporary Poland is a curious example. There Catholic nationalism is the religion of the far right government. During the former Soviet-backed Communist rule in Poland, the church was a symbol of intellectual freedom and served as a force of resistance against the oppressive regime. Today it is part of the oppressive regime. Rafał Pankowski, co-founder of the anti-racist Never Again Association and professor at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw said that nationalists benefit from the status of religion in Poland, where 94 percent of citizens say they belong to the church. They strongly support a Polish national agenda that is anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic.

Contemporary Catholic Poland reminds me of Catholic Spain under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco.

But now just two more contemporary examples of religion and nationalism….

In Turkey fifteen years into his rule, President Erdoğan has gradually turned his country away from the secular tradition of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern state in 1923. Today he promotes extreme Islamic religion in public life, clamps down on opponents and the media, and moves ever more firmly away from democratic norms. Unhealthy religion and unhealthy nationalism.

Finally a brief comment about contemporary India. (At my university we have a lot of students from India.)

The Bharatiya Janata Party, currently in power, is a right-wing, nationalist group, allied with the position that India should be only a Hindu nation. Anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents are on the rise. All for one national religion….

Religion and nationalism always make a volatile mix. I have always thought separation of church and state should be considered a pro-Christian virtue. Perhaps however, one needs to be more alert these days to an underlying problem of nationalism.

Patriotism can be strong and positively humane. Nationalism too often raises red flags.

In 1945, the same year he wrote Animal Farm, George Orwell emphasized the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” Nationalism, Orwell argued, is the belief that one’s own nation should dominate others. It “is inseparable from the desire for power.” A nationalist, Orwell argued, “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige … his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” Patriotism, by contrast, involves “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one has no wish to force on other people.”

Orwell’s explanation of patriotism is brief. But his implication is that while nationalism is about the

relationship between one’s country and other countries, patriotism is about the relationship between

one’s country and oneself. It derives from the Latin pater, meaning “father.” Just as devotion to family

requires placing its well-being above one’s own, devotion to country—patriotism—extends that principle to the nation as a whole.

Take care.


Women and Authority in Early Christianity

14 July 2018

My reflection this week end is about a book I strongly recommend to all readers, and especially to men in ecclesiastical leadership and hierarchical positions: CRISPINA AND HER SISTERS: WOMEN AND AUTHORITY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY by Sister Christine Schenk, CSJ (Fortress Press)

Thanks to Christine Schenk and many other researchers and historical theologians, we have come to a much better understanding of the place and role of women in early Christianity. They were central figures and their stories and lives have been obscured too long by male scriptural scholars and theologians with paternalistic (and often misogynist) barrel vision.

As Laure Brink noted in her recent (July 11, 2018) review in the National Catholic Reporter, “Schenk’s research and writing took three years to accomplish. She explored visual imagery found on burial artifacts of prominent late third- and fourth-century Christian women….Schenk analyzed 2,119 images and descriptors of sarcophagi (stone coffins) and fragments from the third to fifth centuries.” This is no small thing. Women played a very significant institutional role in early Christianity.

Christine Schenk’s observations about her book are very much to the point. Her goal is “allowing men, and especially women, to retrieve the memory of influential women whose witness has for too long been invisible or distorted in Christian memory” with the “hope that drawing attention to these ancient images of early Christian women in iconic authority portrayals may help us reset our preconceived mental models.”

Schenk begins with the socio-cultural context of women in early Christianity (chapter one) and clearly notes that the rapid growth of Christianity was due in no small measure to the ministry and patronage of women who welcomed early Christian missionaries, both male and female, into the complex social network of Greco-Roman households. She then moves on (chapter two) to examine women’s exercise of authority in the first-century Christian churches as reflected in Paul’s letters, Acts, and other early Christian writings. Paul, for example, has an impressive list: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister. Peter Lampe, theologian and Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Heidelberg, deduces that women may have been more active than men in the first-century Christian community in Rome.

Chapter three provides a broad overview of methods used by art historians to analyze early Christian art as well as the interpretive challenges of relating it to the history of early Christian women. Then (chapter four) one has an analysis of the earliest frescos depicting Christian women found at the catacombs of Priscilla. We then embark on a study of late ancient Roman funerary practices (chapter five): a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the late Roman Empire.

In chapter six, Christine Schenk zeroes in on the underlying assumption of her book: that late third- through fifth-century Christian portrait funerary art is an important source of information about early Christian women as persons who exercised religious authority and influence. Chapter seven examines the implications of female iconography.

Chapter eight is titled “Women and Authority in the Fourth Century: Integrating the Literary Evidence.” This concluding chapter explores what can be known from the literary sources about the Christian women who lived during this dramatically transformative time in church and empire.

History educates, confirms, inspires, and motivates…… And this is a very fine historical study.

I conclude with a bit of serendipity. This morning, my wife and I participated in a Belgian, Roman Catholic funeral for the wife of a friend. It was an impressive and memorable service. The presider, dressed in white, speaking and singing in a wonderfully warm and reassuring way was a woman. I couldn’t help thinking, with a gentle knowing smile, about Crispina, her sisters, and author Sister Christine Schenk.


Conservative Dialogue

Saturday 7 July 2018

Not so long ago I had a reunion with an old college friend, who knew my parents quite well. Slapping me on the back, as some old boys like to do, he reprimanded me and asked how it was possible that I became such an “old liberal” when my parents were so “ultra-conservative.” I told him I thought such labels applied to neither my parents nor me. I said drop the labels and talk about the issues, please.

Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” can be very confusing and distorting these days when so much of our language seems increasingly disconnected from reality. My parents valued accuracy, truthfulness, and critical thinking. I as well. In many ways they were traditionalists. I as well, because all genuine theological research and reflection is anchored in tradition, biblical exegesis, and contemporary faith experience. Tradition is not only important but essential.

Tradition gets interpreted, and that is where the discussion/dialogue should start.

An article in today’s International New York Times caught my attention because the author is Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and writer, well-know for his “traditionalist conservative” views. Scruton first came to my attention when I read his 2017 book Conservatism: Ideas in Profile.

Roger Scruton’s New York Times article was titled: “What Trump doesn’t get about conservatism” and I — the “old liberal” — found myself resonating with much of his viewpoint.

Some excerpts:

“I have devoted a substantial part of my intellectual life to defining and defending conservatism, as a social philosophy and a political program,” Scruton writes. “Each time I think I have hit the nail on the head, the nail slips to one side and the hammer blow falls on my fingers…..

In the current president “…. we encounter a politician who uses social media to bypass the realm of ideas entirely, addressing the sentiments of his followers without a filter of educated argument and with only a marginal interest in what anyone with a mind might have said…..

“Institutions, traditions, and allegiances survive by adapting, not by remaining forever in the condition in which a political leader might inherit them. Conservative thinkers have in general understood this. And the principle of adaptability applies not only to law but also to the economy on which all citizens depend…..

“Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage, and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.

“About such things it is fair to say that Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion. And perhaps the principal reason for doubting Mr. Trump’s conservative credentials is that being a creation of social media, he has lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.”

My point this week end is not so much to critique the current president — worth doing of course — but to stress the importance of evidence-based dialogue. “Conservative” dialogue. “Liberal” dialogue. “Traditionalist” dialogue.

Dialogue with everyone without slipping into the barrel vision of contemporary labels

Ultimately, as history demonstrates, the only alternative to dialogue is war.


Fourth of July Another Voice

July 4, 2018

Yes I am back. A couple weeks ago, while traveling in Eastern Europe, I decided to resume my Another Voice reflections this summer on the Fourth of July.

No fireworks. Just a few observations.

In an uniquely historic way, the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence was truly and is truly another voice in the struggle for human rights and respecting everyone’s human dignity.

The Declaration was a courageous critique of authoritarian and abusive political power. Jefferson’s words, endorsed by representatives of the original colonies, were solidly anchored in REALITY, REASON, and the self-evident TRUTH that that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

A clear voice for humanity. A clear voice for compassion and collaboration, rather than denigration and deception. A clear voice for immigrant respect and fellowship, rather than family separation and incarceration. Good material for a socio-political examination of conscience.

There were a lot of immigrants in those first thirteen states: they were British, Dutch, French, German, and Irish. (Not to forget of course Native Americans and African slaves!) They were Protestant and Catholic, as well as Jewish and Muslim. Xenophobia and bigotry are un-American. The authentic American voice proclaims mutual understanding and support for American multiculturalism and a great abundance of ethnic and racial variety: the pluribus of e pluribus unum.

We are not perfect but capable of doing better and being better. Acknowledging popular and political shortcomings and constructive change are key elements as well in our U.S. American experience: we can and have humbly acknowledged our own wrongdoing. We try to repair and move ahead…..

Yes I am proud to be an American and celebrate that with my U.S. friends this Fourth of July.

And I close with an adaptation of a statement painted on a coat:

“I do care. Don’t U?”


Historical Theologian


Power over people is not a virtue; and history shows again and again that in religion and in civil society absolute power corrupts absolutely.