Jesus’ Followers Back Then

March 15, 2019

These days, trying to maintain a youthful outlook as I contemplate my upcoming seventy-sixth birthday, I am gathering information about the Post-Millennials, also called Generation Z or Gen Z. They are the demographic cohort after the Millennials, and the Pew Research Center puts their birth years between 1997 and 2012. They make up about 25% of the current U.S. population. This means they are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.

The Post-Millennials make me optimistic. They have lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the Millennials. I see them as thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young men and women. They really want to create a climate conscious and more humane society.

When I told a friend last week that the Post-Millennials give me hope for the future of Christianity, he replied, with a bit of friendly sarcasm, “I guess they can tweet for Jesus and chat about him on Twitter and Facebook; but Our Blessed Lord at least had the wisdom to pick wise, older men to be his closest disciples.”

I have never doubted Jesus’ wisdom. I suggest however that my friend’s understanding of early Jesus discipleship is too narrow and sexist.

First of all the Scriptures clearly indicate that men AND women were disciples. Jewish women disciples, including Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). The whole point of the account in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary is that Mary indeed is also a disciple and shouldn’t be just relegated to the kitchen, because she is a woman. Even stronger evidence for women disciples comes from the accounts of who first witnessed the empty tomb and testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead. All four gospels report that women were the first disciples to find the tomb of Jesus empty. According to Mark and Luke, the first announcement of Jesus’ being raised from the dead was made to women. According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary the Magdalene.

When we look at the Christian Scriptures about who were considered early Christian apostles, several women are indicated as well as men. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They are mentioned six times as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. Others are Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. There was Phoebe, a leader from the Christian community at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. And of course we have Junia, whom Paul praises as a prominent apostle.

Jesus’ disciples were hardly just a bunch of OLDER men. In fact, contemporary scholarship suggests that Jesus’ disciples may have all been under 20 years old, with some as young as 15. Again, in the days of Jesus a young man, aged 15, was done with his basic training in the Torah. A young fellow who was bright enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, could find a rabbi to take him on as a student. One had to show proficiency. Many advanced young Jewish students, back then, had large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. The Apostle Paul’s case may have been like this: a bright Jewish student from Tarsus, who was sent by his wealthy parents to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.

If a Jewish son was unable or did not want to do this, he would enter the workforce by his mid-teens; and in almost every case, he would apprentice under his father in the family trade. Perhaps many of Jesus’ male disciples were apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John, working in the family fishing business. They must have been at least older than 15 but not yet 20. By age 20 most Jewish males were married and on their own.

The age factors! One very remarkable thing scholars tell us about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she would almost certainly have been 12 to 14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it.

The questions! Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 record the people of Nazareth saying of Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The traditional Catholic interpretation has been that the Scriptures here are talking either about Jesus’ cousins or children of Jesus’ father from a previous marriage. These are creative imaginative interpretations, because official Catholic teaching has maintained that Jesus’ mother was always a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” (Here I suggest some Catholic dogmaticians and hierarchs need remedial biology.)

Back to the Post-Millennials….If they knew what contemporary scholarship says about the early followers of Jesus – his disciples – I think many of our contemporary Post-Millennials would find that exciting and inviting. I mean today’s young people, estranged from religion, but who self-identify as being compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young women and men.

About Mary and about Jesus’ extended family perhaps we should simply say: (1) The New Testament writers really didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus or if they had any details at all. (2) Perhaps all one can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.

– Jack

PS A man who was a friend and very supportive of me over many years died yesterday: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He was a wonderful man, perhaps not perfect, which he realized. But I must say a very good friend. RIP

A Question of Perspective

March 8, 2019

Reflection for the First Week of Lent

We are busy people. Multitaskers. On our cellphones, iPads, and computers. Always connected it seems. After office hours and on week ends and even on holidays. The need to be connected. Our attention always drawn somewhere.

More and more people are connected 24/7. Yet, too often disconnected from what is really important? A young professor, one of my former students, said it well in an email. “I am very busy; but I often think I am not really connected to reality. I keep waiting for the big moment when I can relax and say now my life makes sense.”

I was thinking last week about the old play that, some years ago, had a big impact on me and my reflections about theology and life: Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.” Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. When he doesn’t arrive, they get a rope and even contemplate suicide. But then decide to wait yet another day. And on it goes. When the play ends, Godot has still not arrived.

There are many interpretations of what Becket was trying to say, but my interpretation, back then, was that it was about people waiting for their experience of God. I guess I was as well…..back then….but my perspective changed and my vision of reality changed. I began to understand that we have the real and the Real.

I came to realize that one cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally IN the presence of God. What’s absent so often is awareness. It’s a matter of perspective. For busy people it is a contemporary problem. In a post last week, fellow blogger Joris Heise expressed it very well: too many people today have “spiritual glaucoma.”

It is a problem of vision and awareness; and part of that problem is that organized religion is often too concerned about itself and too often skims over the surface of human realities. It tends to prefer and protect either the comfortable status quo or the supposedly wonderful past. What we now see in numerous sexual abuse reports about high-placed religious leaders is that their religion, too often, simply preserved their own power and privilege.

God is deeper than religion. Good religion, however, reveals the Sacred with depth and awareness.

There are certain basic questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their life experiences seriously: looking and seeing with greater depth and awareness. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence, and the place of God in that existence.

I read last week that toward the end of his career Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of their lives whose problem could not have been solved by contact with the “numinous” or the Absolute Center. The “numinous” for Jung, who was estranged from organized religion, meant the presence of Divinity, of the Holy, of the Sacred.

We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Contemplation.

Unfortunately, the contemplative mind, over the last five hundred years, has been put on the sidelines. We have become pragmatic and productive. With the “Enlightenment” Western Christianity almost abandoned contemplation in favor of its own form of “rational” thought: we ended up confusing information with enlightenment and confusing thinking with experiencing. People settled for quick and easy doctrinal answers instead of deep perception, which they left to poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers. Yet depth and breadth of perception should have been and should always be the primary focus for all authentic religion. How else could one possibly find God?

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Trappist monk, mystic, and social activist, felt, toward the end and of his life, that even monastic life had lost the contemplative mindset. He observed that monks just “said prayers.” Frankly, I would suggest that without the contemplative mind — honest and humble perception — religion risks becoming a dangerous enterprise. It does happen.

There are many forms of contemplation such as a reflective walk in stillness without your cellphone, quiet meditation, keeping a daily journal: contemplative writing, yoga, wandering in nature, expressing your feelings in art, or returning to regular reflective Scripture reading.

During Lent, try a practice and stay with it for some time, making it a normal part of your day. Put your phone on airplane mode. Tune in to your inner self and the depth of Reality around you.

“There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments — and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.” — Richard Rohr

Distorted Belief

1 March 2019

As we prepare for Lent 2019, some thoughts about confronting distorted belief and its implications.

The current number of USA hate groups has risen for the fourth consecutive year, pushed to a record high of 1,020 thanks to political and religious polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment, and technologies that help spread xenophobic and racist propaganda on the Internet. This expansion of American hate groups was launched during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Most hate groups are motivated by “in-group love,” a desire to positively contribute to the group to which one belongs, or by “out-group hatred,” a desire to injure an alien group.

Unfortunately, far too many contemporary hate groups claim to be Christian-inspired, following the example of people like Thomas Robb: American far-right activist, Ku Klux Klan leader, and Christian Identity pastor. Robb is national director of The Knights Party, also known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He took control of the organization after David Duke. Robb’s “Thomas Robb Ministries” website declares that “the Anglo Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian, and kindred people are THE people of the Bible.” Strange to say the least.

People like the followers of Thomas Robb place such a high priority on their distorted “Christian” view of human life that they undermine the very values found in ALL great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about their unhealthy beliefs, they do not hesitate to intervene in political and social life trying to force society to conform to their values and behaviors.

The contemporary challenge is an authentically Christian challenge: healthy Christians must courageously speak out to challenge unhealthy Christians who make a mockery of Christian Belief. This is a genuine Lenten challenge for all of us, and it demands much more than just passive piety.

Authentic Christianity builds bridges between groups. It promotes love not hatred. There are no “losers” in this vision. Distorted Christianity builds walls of prejudice and xenophobia. Distorted Christianity says only people belonging to the particular in-group have a right to freedom and a happy life. Those outside the in-group have no rights because they are basically dangerous and evil. This is, for example, the position of “white Christian supremacists,” who have bibles in one hand and guns in the other.

Distorted belief is like a virus that infects people and weakens their basic sense of trust and relatedness to the people around them. It thrives on falsehood, fear, and unchallenged suspicions. It surrenders personal responsibility to authoritarian commanders in politics and religion. It ignores people in pain. It sacrifices them for the good of the institution. It rewards the egotistical self-righteous.

Distorted belief promotes a kind of unhealthy Christianity that thrives on ignorance and demands unquestioned obedience from the ignorant. Healthy Christians are secure in their belief but realize that we grow and develop in our understandings of ethics and doctrines, as we move toward the fullness of truth. Asking questions, for healthy believers, opens new doors and enhances one’s appreciation for God and humanity: for human growth and understanding. Unhealthy Christians condemn those who question and those who advocate change and development. Their’s is a static view of human life and a rigidly literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture, which they use to condone misogyny, racial superiority, and homophobia.

The English word “Lent” comes from an Old English word meaning “spring season:” a time to move into new life and new hope. The Christian season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday March 6th, is our annual Christian check-up and renewal period. A time to examine our Christian health. We observe. We judge. We act.

What is happening in the society around us? What needs to be critiqued and changed? How do we apply the vision of Jesus in contemporary days?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons and daughters of God.

Not Afraid to Comment

February 20, 2019

This is an early post because Catholic bishops and leaders from around the world will be in Rome, February 21 to 25, for a summit on preventing sexual abuse in the church.

Someone asked me if I am afraid to comment about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. No. Not at all. Off and on I have already written about it; but I will quickly summarize my concerns, because they are part of the current third millennial reformation. I don’t want to bore my readers however with a long post……

Acknowledge the Reality: The reality is serious and world-wide. Catholic priests, bishops, and religious have sexually abused children, adolescents, women and men. Some women religious, “sisters,” have become pregnant and some have been forced by churchmen to have abortions. The primary concern of too many in church leadership has been to cover up, deny, or ignore what is happening to “protect the good name of the church.”

Accountability of bishops: Pope Francis has disciplined the 88 years old former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He is now “Mr. McCarrick.” I can think of some other bishops who should be disciplined. The organization Bishop Accountability makes a strong case for the laicization of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota; Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Agaña, Guam; Bishop Aldo di Cillo Pagotto of Paraiba, Brazil; Bishop Roger Joseph Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium; and Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Yes they should be disciplined. Frankly I have difficulties with the term “laicization.” Many still call it “a reduction to the lay state.” As a “lay” Catholic I find this derogatory, as if being lay is a lesser state in the church.

Clericalism is an old boys club problem: Catholic ordained ministers (priests) must always keep in mind that their mission is to serve others and not claim superiority over the people entrusted to their care, Pope Francis said last year in November when meeting with a group of Catholic seminarians. “Clericalism,” Francis said “is our ugliest perversion. The Lord wants you to be shepherds; shepherds of the people, not clerics of the state.” I agree of course but the problem will not be solved with just pious exhortations. There must be STRUCTURAL changes: dropping the celibacy requirement, having married Catholic ordained ministers; and having women ordained ministers and women bishops. Yes. It has to happen!

Power and authority in the church: We need a thorough examination of the understanding and exercise of power and authority in church ministry. Sexual abuse is about power over people. We need to remove structures and understandings more reminiscent of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages but incompatible with the message and witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Ordained ministers can not be understood as authoritarian power-bosses. Through compassionate service they should empower people to take responsibility for the welfare of children, men, and women in the community of faith. Jesus is the model for church authority: his ministry was about compassionate understanding, healing, forgiveness, and calling to growth.

Human sexuality: Once again I would stress that the Catholic Church needs an updated understanding and appreciation of human sexuality that must CHANGE Catholic hierarchical attitudes and behavior, Catholic “official teaching,” and Catholic education at all levels.

Homosexuality Vatican style: A new exposé on homosexuality in the Vatican is coming out very soon: In The Closet of the Vatican, by the French journalist Frédéric Martel. No doubt you have read about it. The author asserts that most of the higher-ups in the Catholic Church are gay, making the Vatican one of the world’s largest homosexual communities. That assertion needs to be critically appraised but I have no doubts that there are gays in the Vatican. Let’s be clear and honest: there is nothing wrong per se with being gay, whether in our outside the Vatican. AND to suggest, as many readers of this book will conclude, that sexual abuse is a gay problem is absolute nonsense. Such an assertion avoids the issue. Sexual abuse is an abuse of power over people. Sick people (many very “straight”) use and abuse people for their own satisfaction.

The victims of sexual abuse: Too many reports about sexual abuse still focus too much on the abusers and ignore the abused. How does on repair the damage done? How does one compensate? Here we really need to be a church which is a community of faith, characterized by understanding, compassion, support, respect, and love.

Other victims of sexual abuse: There are also other victims of the sexual abuse issue: the healthy and good ordained ministers (priests) and bishops. As a caring community of faith we need to acknowledge them and support them as well with compassion, support, respect, and love. AND we need to encourage them to be active and effective change agents in the church.

Next week something else…….. Jack

Your God, My God, and God

February 15, 2019

The most important element in the Third Millennial Reformation is something I have not yet touched on: a contemporary spirituality. As a good friend said recently: “we need a reform in the direction of contemplative consciousness/living/being: Teaching people not just prayers but an experience of prayer.” Without this, whatever we do will end up superficial.

This week-end therefore, a reflection about God, from a spiritual master whom I greatly respect: Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He posted this on his website in July 2014.

It takes a long time for us to allow God to be who God really is.

Our natural egocentricity wants to make God into who we want or need God to be. It’s the role of the prophet to keep people free for God. But at the same time it’s the responsibility of the prophet to keep God free for people. This is also the role of good theology, and why we still need good theology even though it sometimes gets heady.

If God is always mystery, then God is always on some level the unfamiliar, beyond what we’re used to, beyond our comfort zone, beyond what we can explain or understand.

In the fourth century, St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it’s not God.” Would you respect a God you could comprehend? And yet very often that’s what we want—a God who reflects our culture, our biases, our economic, political, and military systems.

The First Commandment says that we’re not supposed to make any images of God or to worship them. At first glance, we may think this deals only with handmade likenesses of God. But it mostly refers to images of God that we hold in our heads. God created human beings in God’s own image, and we’ve returned the compliment, so to speak, creating God in our image. In the end we produced what was typically a tribal God. In America, God looks like Uncle Sam or Santa Claus, or in any case a white Anglo-Saxon male, even though it states in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humankind in God’s own image; male and female God created them.” That clearly states that God cannot be strictly or merely masculine.

Normally we find it very difficult to let God be a God who is greater than our culture, our immediate needs, and our projections.

The human ego wants to keep things firmly in its grasp; and so we’ve created a God who fits into our small systems and our understanding of God. Thus, we’ve required a God who likes to play war just as much as we do, and a domineering God because we like to dominate.

We’ve almost completely forgotten and ignored what Jesus revealed about the nature of the God he knew. If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) then God is nothing like we expected. Jesus is in no sense a potentate or a patriarch, but the very opposite, one whom John the Baptist calls “a lamb of a God” (John 1:29).

Our History

February 8, 2019

I begin with an observation from the American historian, Eric Alterman. Writing this week in the New Yorker about “The Decline of Historical Thinking” he says: “Last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college.”

I am not surprised about this development because, for many Americans, historical awareness and sensitivity have long been secondary issues. Many would resonate with Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) the founder of the Ford Motor Company, the father of the assembly line and of mass-production: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today” (Chicago Tribune, 1916).

The current White House occupant, so well-known for his lies, falsehoods, and ahistorical assertions is an example of the ahistorical person gone wild. Historical ignorance, whether willful or not, distorts reality and misleads people.

Historical ignorance and ahistorcal assertions impact religious beliefs as well. That is my focus today.

As the Third Millennial Reformation continues to unfold, historical knowledge is becoming the big change agent. History clarifies, questions, and challenges.

Today I offer historical reflections about some key ecclesiastical issues: bishops as successors of the apostles, women in ministry, seven sacraments, the first pope and church structure, and sexuality and sexual abuse.

Bishops as successors of the apostles: I remember a friendly chat with an American archbishop. He attended one of my lectures in which I stressed that all who are sent out to proclaim the Gospel are truly successors of the apostles. He reprimanded me (privately) and reminded me that at the Last Supper Jesus went around the group and ordained the apostles as the first bishops. I asked him, with a chuckle, if Jesus also gave each of them a pectoral cross, ornate episcopal ring, and a pointed-hat miter. He was not amused.

Early Christian history is quite clear. Jesus did not ordain anyone. There were male and female disciples of Jesus and male and female apostles. An apostle is one sent out to proclaim the Gospel.

Women in ministry: Pope Francis, and his papal predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been emphatic: “women cannot be ordained as priests.” With all due respect, popes too need remedial and ongoing education. History in fact says judgments against women’s ordination are wrong and based on a mistaken view of history. In the early church, heads of households presided at Eucharist. We know that women as well were heads of households. We know that several women were key leaders in the early church. Fortunately today we have women historians and women scripture scholars who help us see beyond male prejudices and narrow stereotypes. And, most importantly today we have a growing number of ordained women! To assert today that women cannot be ordained is like standing in a departure hall at O’Hare Airport and saying “women can never fly.” I recommend two books about women in ministry: Crispina and Her Sisters, Women and Authority in early Christianity by

Christine Schenk, and The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West by Gary Macy.

Seven sacraments: After the sixteenth century Reformation, the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) proclaimed that the historical Jesus instituted seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick). Historically there is no foundation for this dogmatic assertion. As Joseph Martos points out in his excellent book, Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual, the New Testament makes reference to rituals such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the laying on of hands, but it never calls them sacraments. The scriptures also talk about forgiveness, about healing, and about ministry, but they speak only indirectly about rituals that may have been connected with them. Sacramental rituals were created by the Christian community, not as something one received but rather as ritual moments in the Christian life and ministry. History tells us we can and we should be freely creative in our ritual celebrations of Christ’s presence in the community. It also tells Catholics to be a bit more understanding of “Protestant sacraments.”

The first pope and church structure: I have touched on this in some detail in previous posts. History is quite clear about Peter the Apostle. He was never a bishop of Rome. It is only with a highly symbolic theological imagination that he can be described as “the first pope.” Church structure? Imperial Rome has had a great and long-lasting impact on the Roman Catholic Church. One of my friends yells at at me (an email yell) that “the church is not a democracy!” when I criticize the power-hungry and self-serving behavior of institutional church leaders. Ok. I agree. Nevertheless, it should not be an imperial and monarchical authoritarian organization either but a fellowship of believers in which compassion, collaboration, and shared decision-making prevail. There are still too many holdovers from ancient Rome in contemporary Catholic structures and behavior.

Sexuality and sexual abuse: Here history haunts us. Sexual abuse of children, young people and adult men and women has a long history. Priests and bishops have been perpetrators. Priests and bishops have known this history for a very long time and have closed their eyes, covered their ears, and closed their mouths about it. This history now haunts us and will continue to push people away from the institution. A big part of the Third Millennial Reformation has to be an enhanced understanding of human sexuality and a healthy living-out of human sexuality. There is indeed a problem with mandatory celibacy and a still unhealthy approach to sexuality within the church. Church language and teaching about sexuality has to be examined and changed. Too many innocent people have suffered because of the failure of those in authority to face up to this haunting historical issue.

Well my friends this is enough for today.

When history says: this is what happened in the past, it also asks the key question: what should be happening today?


Whose Religion and Whose Values

February 1, 2019

A brief reflection while thinking about family and friends under the polar vortex that grips the Midwest in a deep and dangerous freeze……

A few days ago one of my friends, during an adult discussion group, suggested that Muslims, as a growing religious group, are subverting and taking over the United States. I was dumbfounded by his remark and surprised that a few people in the group shook their heads in agreement. So to get some healthy data for my discussion group, I decided to check, via the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life, what is really happening religiously in the United States. There is much phony information floating around these days…..and too many people ready to believe it.

First some basic statistics and then some research observations about contemporary American (USA) values.

Statistics about USA Christians: 70.6% of the US adult population claims to be Christian. Members of the largest Christian group are Evangelical Protestants (25.4%). The second largest group are Catholics (20.8%) followed by Mainline Protestants (14.7%).

When it comes to USA non-Christians, 1.9% are Jewish, 0.9% Muslim, 0.7% Buddhist and 0.7% Hindu.

The largest, and fastest growing, non-Christian group are the Unaffiliated (the “nones”) with 22.8%.

When it comes to political ideology, 36% of adult Americans are conservative, 33% moderate, and 24% liberal. Looking at major religious groups again, 55% of Evangelical Protestants are conservative, 37% of Catholics and 37% of Mainline Protestants. Only 18% of the Unaffiliated are conservative.

When it comes to big values questions, 53% of adult Americans favor the legalization of abortion, 62% think homosexuality should be accepted, 53% favor same-sex marriage; and 57% believe the country needs stricter environmental laws and regulations.

When it comes to a belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 64% of the adult population hold that there are no clear standards and that right or wrong depends upon the situation, with 45% saying one should just use “common sense.”

As a country the USA is a fascinating mix of religious and moral values. Perhaps it always has been. In any event, what does this mean for the 2020 presidential election? We have to ask, as well, how the US religious and moral perspective will change once the millennials and post-millennials makeup most of the American adult population? Perhaps a galactic change? (See my earlier posts about millennials and post-millennials.) Nearly half of the post-millennial group belongs to a racial or ethnic minority. The clock is ticking for white Christian American.

Regardless, Muslims are not about to take over the United States……and Americans have more important things to worry about. At the very top of that list is an unprecedented socio-cultural polarization, which fears change, glorifies ignorance, promotes fear and hatred, and galvanizes hostility: and the unthinkable becomes acceptable. Somehow we seem to have lost touch what I would call the genius of the American civic and political experience: how people with great differences and coming from a variety of backgrounds could effectively collaborate in the shared pursuit of life, liberty, and human happiness.

Yes America is going through a harsh winter; but there will be a new spring again…..

– Jack

Ministry and Power

January 25, 2019

On January 3, 2019, the Boston Globe published an article by the Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills: “Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is.” Writing about clerical sexual abuse he noted “The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. “ He asks as well “How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response?”

I am not commenting about celibacy or clerical sexual abuse this week end but about ministry and power.

Wills correctly pointed out, I believe, that sexual abuse is about power over people. We know today that it has existed for a long time because institutional leaders wanted to preserve and protect their institution and their own institutional power.

For Wills, however, the problem comes down to “priesthood” which he sees as “an affront to the Gospel,” because priesthood is historically about power over people. I would like to quote from Gary Wills’ article and then offer my own reflections about ministry and power.

Wills: “There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek – and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus).

None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments. Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist.

As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence – from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.”

I resonate with Gary Wills in his biblical and historical analysis. For some Catholics, however, it becomes a very sensitive point, because they still understand “priests” as superior to Protestant “ministers.” Nevertheless, there were no Christian priests in the early church and the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Christ is present when we gather for community worship not because we have a priest but because of the assurance we read in the Gospels: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

As the Catholic Church now moves into the necessary and inescapable third millennial reformation, I hope the words “priest” and “priesthood” will gradually fade away. For a renewed vision of church, we need to change our vocabulary, because old words often come with their own particular baggage. The baggage of “priesthood” is institutional power, patriarchy, and clericalism. Yes of course I know many very fine and wonderful “priests” (and came close to being one myself). The key issue here, however, is ministry.

I prefer to speak about “ministry” and “ordained ministry.” (The only place where I still use the word “priest” is when writing about “women priests,” because I see that as a way of affirming that these Catholic women are indeed bonafide Catholic ordained ministers. The day will come, however, when we can drop the term “women priests” and recognize, acknowledge, and support women and men who are ordained ministers: married, single, gay, and straight.

Ministry is about service. It is not about power. Matthew 20 reminds us that Jesus did not come to be served but to serve…. Ordained ministers are called and appointed to be reliable Christian guides. They help us understand and live in the Spirit of Christ. Their ministerial words and actions are expressions of service: inviting conversion and building community, promoting acceptance and belonging, bringing healing and strengthening, and offering forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ministry is not about power over people. Institutional church leaders are not here to be served. They are called to serve and promote unity and collaboration. As brothers and sisters in the community of faith, we must also call them to that as well….

– Jack

All you need is………

January 18, 2019

There is so much big news exploding around us, that I offer a very brief but pointed reflection this week end……….

As it concluded its meeting in Cyprus, on 16 January, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Planning committee released a report about the 11th WCC Assembly, to be held in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2021. The theme will be: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

In its report, the planning committee described the 11th Assembly as “a place of listening to each other, building trusted relationships, discerning together the way forward, encouraging each other to work together for change, and celebrating Christ’s gift of love.

Timely to say the least. We don’t have to wait until 2021!

The gospels make it very clear that Jesus was not focused on himself. He focused his attention on others.

The word “love” is used a lot. So often that we miss the power of what it means. We forget that it is really what we are about.

My friend, Joseph Martos, observes in his excellent little book Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments:

The Greek word, agápē, is usually translated as “love” in the New Testament, but it really means care or caring. When Jesus tells his followers to love one another (John 13: 34–35), he is telling them to care about each other and to take care of one another. Even when he tells them to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 44), he is not telling them to like the people who don’t like them. Rather, he is telling his followers to care about people who don’t care about them, and to take care of them if they are in need, for doing that is the best way to get them to change hateful and suspicious attitudes.”

All you need is agápé. All we need is agápé.

Already in the second century, the early Christian author, Tertullian, observed that Christian love (agápé) attracted much pagan notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies,” he wrote is our loving kindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.’ ”

May we all find ways of listening to each other, building trusted relationships, discerning together the way forward, encouraging each other to work together for change, and celebrating Christ’s gift of love.


Looking Ahead: Change on the Horizon

January 11, 2019

For almost forty years, my major area of research has been religion and values in American (USA) society. My brain still works and my vision is clear. I try to keep up to date with professional literature and I do on-site research each year. About religion and contemporary society today I am a realist. About tomorrow I see big socio-cultural changes on the horizon and I am guardedly optimistic.

Perhaps it is my age – old men dreaming dreams – but my special interest and focus these days is more and more on the young people who are creating tomorrow.

I have written about Millennials before and have no desire to repeat that here per se. Some people are rather negative about Millennials. I am not. I find the stereotypes of Millennials as entitled, self-centered, and shallow as great distortions and misrepresentations of an entire generation of young people. All major studies about Millennials reinforce a more positive viewpoint, as does my own regular interaction with Millennials at my university.

In 2019, Millennials are expected to overtake Baby-Boomers in our US population, as Millennial numbers swell to 73 million and Boomers decline to 72 million.

Most demographers and researchers see the start of the Millennial generation in the mid-to-late 1970s until around 1996. For the Boomer generation, researchers use starting birth years from the early-to mid-1940s and ending birth years ranging from 1960 to 1964. Baby Boomers peaked at 78.8 million in 1999.

Baby-Boomers will be mostly gone in fifteen years. By midcentury, the Boomer population is projected to dwindle to 16.6 million. A very significant shift.

In their social and political views, Millennials are clearly more accepting, than older Americans, of homosexuality and more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life. Millennials are also the world’s most connected generation. Some 80 percent sleep with their cell phones next to their beds. Some three-quarters have profiles on social networking sites. Millennials are also more climate change and social justice oriented than Boomers.

A Public Religion Research Institute study also found that Millennials are considerably more racially and ethnically diverse than the general population, with less than 6 in 10 self-identifying as white. Thoughts about white Christian America? When it comes to religion, Millennials are the least overtly religious American generation in modern times and have mixed feelings about contemporary institutional Christianity.

Millennials of course are just part of the contemporary big change story. And no, I am not thinking right now about Donald Trump and his big wall changes nor about Pope Francis and his major institutional sex abuse problems. Those issues are big but something much bigger is happening with major implications for political and religious life. The post-Millennials have arrived…..

Already, we see a new post-Millennial generation of (USA) Americans taking shape and moving towards adulthood. I am very interested in their attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyle. More than the Millennials, I believe they will change the demographic fabric and socio-cultural make-up of the United States.

A new Pew Research study finds that the “post-Millennial” generation is already the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in US history. Only a bare majority of 6- to 21-year-olds (52%) are non-Hispanic whites. Most are still pursuing their K-12 education; but the oldest post-Millennials are enrolling in college at a significantly higher rate than Millennials did at a comparable age. This is greatly due to the fact that the parents of post-Millennials are more well educated than the parents of Millennials and those of previous generations. More than four-in-ten post-Millennials (43%) are living with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education. Interestingly, the high school dropout rate for the oldest post-Millennials (ages 18 to 20 in 2017) is significantly lower than that of similarly aged Millennials in 2002.

The changing patterns in educational attainment among post-Millennials are driven in part by the shifting origins of young Hispanics. Post-Millennial Hispanics are less likely than Millennial Hispanics to be immigrants. Contrary to what Mr. Trump asserts, the post-Millennial generation is being shaped by changing immigration patterns. Immigration flows into the USA peaked in 2005, when the leading edge of the post-Millennial generation was age 8 or younger. As a result, the post-Millennial generation has fewer foreign-born youth among its ranks than the Millennial generation did in 2002.

Some other demographics:

Post-Millennials are more metropolitan and more racially and ethnically diverse. One-in-four post-Millennials is Hispanic. A bare majority (52%) of post-Millennials are non-Hispanic white. The share of post-Millennials who are black (14%) is nearly identical to the share of Millennials who were black at a comparable age (15%). Black representation among the nation’s youth has changed little since the early Boomers in 1968.

Asians account for 6% of the post-Millennial generation, up slightly from the 4% of Millennials in 2002 who were Asian. The remaining 4% of post-Millennials are non-Hispanics of another racial identity, mainly youth of two or more races.

Already a majority of post-Millennials are nonwhite in urban areas and in the USA Western states.

While it’s still much too early to draw conclusions, initial signs suggest that post-Millennials are on track to become the most well-educated USA generation yet. Black post-Millennials are also outpacing the previous generations of black youth in terms of college enrollment. Post-Millennial women are also showing major strides in college enrollment. In 2017, 64% of women ages 18 to 20 who were no longer in high school were enrolled in college. That’s up from 57% of Millennials.

More than any other generation before them, post-Millennials do not stress a religious identity. They may be drawn to things “spiritual,” but they have a different starting point from previous generations, many of whom, “back then,” received a basic education in the Bible and Christianity.

Post-Millennials tend to see organized religion and the Bible as working against generally accepted anthropological understandings. Here issues of evolution and human sexuality stand out. They have far more flexible views about sexual preference and gender identity. They are far more likely to reject societal conventions when it comes to ideas of masculinity and femininity, which they see as evolving and changing. For them LGBT issues are simply facts of human life..

My concluding observations: The post-Millennial influence on our culture, values, and political system will be driven by who the post-Millennials are and who they are becoming —- more educated, and more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse. They really are – even more so than the Millennials — a transitional generation sitting between what America was and what it will become.

Post-Millennials may not solve all of the country’s ongoing challenges when it comes to climate change, poverty, and health care, or to discrimination whether it’s based on gender, race or religion; but they may very well take us one big step closer. Yes I am guardedly optimistic.