A Contemporary Resurrection Reflection: Life is Changed

Around 33 CE, Jesus of Nazareth was executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities, with the collusion as well by certain Jewish leaders. Jesus had a way of upsetting people more committed to religion than to faith. After his death, the women (first) and the men who were his disciples experienced him very much alive. 

Jesus of Nazareth was not raised from the dead like a resuscitated corpse. After death on the cross, his followers experienced him alive in a new way: alive in God in a new form of life far beyond the restrictions of a physical body and the imaginations of the human mind.

Jesus’ resurrection introduced a major paradigm change in understanding the human condition: life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hatred, people more important than regulations, and the old regulations don’t work anymore.

Christian moral responsiveness and leadership – proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ – is a journey with God in human life and history, a journey of cross and resurrection that transforms everything. It challenges self-understanding, institutional life, and the very nature of Christian witness and ministry.

I suggest it is far better to speak of a Christian spirituality than a Christian ethic. As we stand at the resurrection and look back at the life of Jesus, we see now perhaps more clearly that Jesus did not just show kindness to the sinner, but subverted the whole division of the world into the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. 

Far too many people require the existence of the bad against whom they then secure their own goodness, living in a perpetual state of self-righteous comparison and judgment. Every day in the news, we see examples of “Christians” proclaiming their “goodness” by denigrating others as bad.

This past week Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law a sweeping bill allowing individuals to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities. Legislators from Arizona to Indiana have now conceded that the intent of their bills, on behalf of “religious liberty,” is to protect business owners from having to serve gays and lesbians.

Closer to home in the Catholic camp, Cardinal Raymond Burke has spoken out again, telling an interviewer that gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics, who are trying to live good and faithful lives, are still living in sin just like “the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people.”  

Far too often, Christians too easily and too comfortably forget what Jesus was all about.

Jesus refused to allow himself to be designated as good (Mark 10:18). He understood God to be unconcerned with our division of each other into good and bad categories, because God “makes the sun rise on the evil as on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and gives the worker, who has worked least in the fields, the same wage as the one who had worked longest (Matthew 20:1-16).

In his life and ministry, Jesus was not simply proposing a new principle of moral life, or a new form of judgment within an alternative system of goodness. Jesus was making available a far deeper way of being Good.

One could argue, perhaps, that the antidote to the moral and spiritual danger self-justification and self-righteousness would be to refuse to prescribe norms of goodness, since without norms there would be no bases for envious comparison and assessment. The problem however is that a mere rejection of norms would not transform the dynamic that underlies the human tendency towards envy, competition, and threatening others. It is precisely this tendency that is inimical to the possibility of true human fellowship, true Goodness.

What then is the deeper order of Goodness to which Jesus gives us access? Jesus opened up new possibilities for human being that are interdependent, with the possibility of participating in God’s Goodness: a Goodness beyond categorizing people as good and evil.

It is in the experience of finding ourselves in communion in a deeper way with other people, with the energy of divine life, so that we can begin to realize the extent to which we had been previously isolated. 

The healing of the self and of human community is dependent on our letting-go of the illusion of both the possibility and the necessity of self-making, by learning to accept our vulnerability and dependence on others without fear of annihilation. This, I suggest again, is the way to understand the experience of salvation for those women and men who were Jesus’ disciples. 

Jesus himself modeled freedom from any project of self-making, entrusting himself entirely to God as the source of his life and meaning. By freely allowing himself to become the victim of the system of goodness in his day, Jesus was able to unmask the mechanism by which the identity and the goodness of the group was secured by denigrating the designated other. Indeed, many people become victims of systems that reinforce the identity and goodness of one group at the expense of those who are cast out.

As Paul reminded the Galatians (3:13) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Through his own exercises of hospitality and his resurrection from the dead, Jesus enacts God’s endlessly giving life in the human world; and he invites the disciples to “follow me” in that same trusting dependence. Just as the mystical tradition has discovered it: as the self comes to know and embrace its own nothingness, it can finally authentically become itself and receive the fullness of being.

Happy Easter!

(I will be away from my desk for a few days and will return later in April.)


One Nation Under God

Kevin Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton University. In April his new book comes out: One Nation under God and his provocative thesis is: “How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Perhaps the book should be required reading for people in both parties, especially as we gear up for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In the middle of the 20th century, Kruse argues, corporate titans and evangelical activists rewrote U.S. history and created a pervasive misunderstanding that America was, is, and always will be a fundamentally Christian nation.

As Kruse argues, the belief that America is fundamentally and formally a Christian nation originated in the 1930s when businessmen enlisted religious activists in their fight against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Corporate leaders from General Motors to Hilton Hotels poured funds into conservative clergymen, and encouraged them to attack FDRs New Deal as a program of “pagan statism.” So began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity in opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. 

Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders launched a new American ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal government libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting the ideology’s appeal in conferences and PR campaigns. Generous funding came from General Motors, U.S. Steel, and DuPont; and prominent businessmen like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag, and Henry R. Luce.

Following WWII, their “freedom under God”campaign led to the election of their ally Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. 

Ironically, however, in President Eisenhower’s hands, a corporate-religious movement created in opposition to the government became instead a national campaign that fused faith and the federal government in ways never seen before. 

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower revolutionized the role of religion in American political culture; and created new American “traditions” like inaugural prayers and  National Prayer Breakfasts. In 1952, Billy Graham went to Washington and made Congress his congregation. Congress happily collaborated and added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and made “In God We Trust” the country’s first official motto. Active church membership rose to an all-time high of 69%; and for the first time, Americans began to think of their country as an officially Christian nation. (Often forgetting of course increasingly active Jewish Americans.)

Kevin Kruse is a respected historian. Books such as his are invitations for further study, reflection, and discussion.  I suspect, however, that many people will find his book, One Nation Under God, more than a bit provocative as it details an unholy alliance of money, religion, and politics that continues to define and divide contemporary Americans, now so anxious about alien theocratic movements within Islam. 


A Lenten Reflection about Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is the loss of peripheral vision resulting in a constricted circular tunnel-like field of vision. For people with tunnel vision, driving a car, crossing a road…..or speaking on behalf of a religious community…..the consequences can be fatal. For the vision-impaired as well as for the community.

When one cannot see beyond his or her restricted little circle, reality becomes unreal, truth becomes personal ideology, and virtue can become vice. Tunnel vision in church, mosque, or synagogue produces unhealthy religion.

Some tunnel-vision-church-leaders look at the community of faith and see only men. Or only married people. Or only married parents. Or only straight people. Or only those in the pews, ignoring the growing exodus of “believers-but-not-religious.” Make your own list. Expressions of belief — official “church teaching” — are then formulated with only these groups in mind.

Impaired vision leads to impaired belief, and impaired statements of belief, even when written and proclaimed in grand style. We have seen that it in U.S. political history as well, although some people bristle when I say it. In 1776 a group of men — the Founding Fathers — gathered in Philadelphia and issued our Declaration of Independence. That historic document proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” The Founding Fathers ignored, however, the dignity and rights of African Americans and Native Americans; and did not acknowledge that women could vote or be members of Congress.

Official belief and teaching — especially in the church —  is a work in progress. Never static. We study, we explore, we learn, and we re-formulate. The “we” involves non-ordained believers, theologians, and ordained leaders. An essential element in the process is being alert to the day-to-day experiences of believers: the signs of the times.

Rooted in Scripture and Tradition we ask: What does it mean to be a believer today?  What is appropriate ethical behavior today? Are my young neighbors bad Christians or bad parents if they have a child through in vitro fertilization? What institutional structures need to be adapted or simply abandoned to meet the needs of contemporary believers? Should bishops live in episcopal palaces and wear Renaissance clothing and ornaments that cost thousands of dollars? While people in their dioceses cannot make house payments? Where are our institutional blind spots today? What does it really mean to be a church of mercy? Mercy for the divorced and remarried? Mercy for the young boy or girl who cannot be altar servers because their parents are gay? Mercy for the teacher in a Catholic school who loses her job because she wrote on Facebook that she supports same-sex marriage? Can an institution move beyond its human sexuality blind spots if its leaders are still a group of older, unmarried men? How long can covertly gay bishops continue to publicly condemn other gay men as innately disordered? What do people really believe today? Why? Most Roman Catholics in the United States see no immorality in artificial contraception. They favor women priests. They respect the dignity of gay and lesbian people and have no problems with same-sex marriage. They do not resonate with the teaching of their bishops. Men and women today are looking for spiritual direction and a deeper understanding of God. Many do not find God in church. Why? What do you believe today? Why? What again is your experience of God? How would you explain that to your teenage neighbor or to the young people in your classroom?

At every place and within all groups in the church, we need to acknowledge and combat pious tunnel vision. So what is your reform agenda? What is your reform strategy? Which group in the church will you endeavor to empower? All church is local. Nonsense and ignorance have no place in the community of faith.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Four quotations from two women and two men. For reflection and discussion on this THIRD  Sunday of Lent:

“I really believe that nothing is going to change in the world until the situation of women changes… You cannot simply dismiss over half of the human race, which means dismiss their agendas, dismiss their needs, dismiss their gifts, dismiss their intelligence.”    Sr. Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun, author and speaker

“This is a challenge that cannot be put off any longer…. All institutions, including the church community, are called to guarantee the freedom of choice for women so that they might have the chance to take on social and ecclesial responsibilities, in a way that is in harmony with family life.”    Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome

“The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.”    Pope John Paul II, former Bishop of Rome

“In the last twenty years, the history of women in ancient Christianity has been almost completely revised. As women historians entered the field in record numbers, they brought with them new questions, developed new methods, and sought for evidence of women’s presence in neglected texts and exciting new findings…..After the death of Jesus, women continued to play prominent roles in the early movement. Some scholars have even suggested that the majority of Christians in the first century may have been women…..

“Paul’s letters also offer some important glimpses into the inner workings of ancient Christian churches. These groups did not own church buildings but met in homes, no doubt due in part to the fact that Christianity was not legal in the Roman world of its day and in part because of the enormous expense to such fledgling societies. Such homes were a domain in which women played key roles. It is not surprising then to see women taking leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches (Apphia in Philemon 2; Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19). This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15) and Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship. Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women’s roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the eucharist meal. (A later first century work, called the Didache, assumes that this duty fell regularly to Christian prophets.)”     Karen L. King, Harvard Divinity School

Persistent Paradigm Paralysis

In just a couple weeks we will have the second anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Bishop of Rome. The Tablet calls him the “Root and Branch Reformer,” while many hail the “Francis effect.” Certainly Pope Francis’ style and bearing are a welcomed change after decades of exaggerated Renaissance papal grandeur, so out of sync with our contemporary world. Even when we are often left wondering just exactly what his words mean in contemporary pastoral practice, Francis drops good sound bites, thanks to his former Fox News, high-level Opus Dei, PR guru.

I have nothing against Pope Francis. His style is far better than that of his last two predecessors (with all due respect to emeritus Benedictus who is still with us) but I often feel that people today focus far too much attention on the leader making grand symbolic gestures and ignore life in the local church.

The local church scene still suffers from what I call persistent paradigm paralysis (PPP) —  a religious and theological disease that gets transmitted in closed static environments where there is little fresh thought, vision becomes tunnel vision, and anxiety replaces imagination.

We saw it last month again in San Francisco……..

At the Star of the Sea school, whose pastor has already banned girls from acting as altar servers, copies of “The Examination of Conscience and Catholic Doctrine” were given to students in second through sixth grades. Part of their preparation for Lent. In that examination of conscience, little children were asked questions like, “Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication and sodomy)?” and, “Did I practice artificial birth control or was I or my spouse prematurely sterilized (tubal ligation or vasectomy)?” as well as, “Have I had or advised anyone to have an abortion?” Maybe San Francisco has unusual grade school children?

PPP flourishes wherever people are unable or unwilling to a knowledge that we grow in our understanding of Christian belief, that our human life is a pilgrimage through time, and (nostalgia aside) that the good old days were not always that great.

Persistent paradigm paralysis is really fundamentalism. It is a serious disease: a form of malignant religion that ignores human dignity and particularly denigrates contemporary women. The recently concluded Vatican Conference On “Women’s Cultures: Equality And Difference” that never progressed much beyond its rocky start is a good example. Women in our church are still officially considered lower than men and innately incapable of priestly ordination. All those Catholic women  currently exercising ordained ministry (very effectively by the way) are considered defective, invalid, and excommunicated.

PPP of course is the problem we see in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. We easily see it in them, however, but often ignore it in ourselves. Jesus says it best in the Luke’s Gospel: “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” Some people find it convenient to ignore or reject paradigm shifts because shifting paradigms threaten their own power structures and personal authority. Many years ago, when I completed my doctoral studies in theology, a bishop acquaintance told me “Guys like you scare me. You know too much.”

For Roman Catholics the biggest paradigm shifts in the past fifty years have been: (1) the shift in theological understanding from an outsider-God to an insider-God, and (2) the shift from understanding the church as an institution run by ordained men to the church as God’s people: a community of faith in which all men and women are equal members. The insider-God of course is the God who journeys with us, who is part of human history and discovery, and who is the intimate spirit animating our lives. These two paradigm shifts are connected of course and they underpin the theology of the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years after the council, some people are still locked in their antiquated fundamentalist viewpoint. This past September, in my former parish for instance, the new director of religious education announced that for guidance in sacramental preparation and formation programs he would be relying on the teachings of the (sixteenth century) Council of Trent! What a contemporary guy! What absolute nonsense!

Lots of people within the Vatican’s walls are still very uncomfortable with paradigm shifts in the church. In the days of the Francis effect their PPP anxiety may be a bit muted but it remains just as poisonous.

New Ways Ministry, a ministry of advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics, sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome two weeks ago for nearly fifty people. To their joy and great surprise they were given VIP seats for the papal Ash Wednesday liturgy and were led by Loreto Sister Jeannine Gramick, who co-founded the organization. Pope Francis, however, completely ignored them and they were introduced as simply “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loreto.” As Robert Mickens observed in Commonweal, another example of ecclesiastical “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Ironic when it is well-known that a large number of bishops inside and outside the Vatican’s walls are gay.

Today, in far too many dioceses, teachers in Catholic schools and lay ministers in parishes are being fired because they have expressed an openness to women’s ordination, have questioned official church teaching about birth control, or because they are gay or have committed the offence of expressing openness or support for gay marriage.

An antidote for persistent paradigm paralysis? Like combating HIV or EBOLA it will take concerted efforts and it will take time. There are three steps we can take right now:

(1) When it appears in our parishes or schools, denounce it as nonsense and unacceptable. Non-violent protest may be necessary.
(2) Insist on well-rounded and high-quality education in our parishes, in catechetical programs, in schools, and in adult ongoing education programs.
(3) Do a personal ongoing education check-up. What is our understanding of our tradition, our history? Is our understanding of biblical research, for example, truly up to date?


There are some very big paradigm shifts on the way. Many connected with the rise of the Millennial generation. Exciting times ahead…… Being on the inside track will be much more fun.