27 November 2016: The First Sunday of Advent
Regardless where we are on planet Earth these days, we are witnessing a major shift in human history. Perhaps we no longer have either the language or the imagination to deeply describe and interpret what’s happening. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to inflated rhetoric and public relations packaging of people and events that we have lost our perspective on the human drama that is reshaping our lives. People are fearful and anxious about losing their identity: national identities, religious identities, sex and gender identities, racial and ethnic identities.
A person’s identity was once based on a common language, a common religious tradition, and ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Today, in a world of tremendous human migrations across all the ancient boarders and cyber communications networks that share not just information but human hopes and frustrations, identities are changing, whether people are comfortable or not about the new realities. Perhaps our identity is based on something far deeper? Maybe we need a new perspective on identity?
Some fearful people are working hard to reassert their old, often prejudicial, identities. In the United States, and across Europe, we see the last gasps of white male supremacy in all its ugliness, hatred, and violence. In the United States, we see as well a level of socio-cultural polarization that is higher than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” if you are from the South).
In my Roman Catholic religious tradition, Pope Francis has just named seventeen new cardinals and warned about a “virus of polarization and animosity” that has seeped into the church. Symbolically and significantly, four semi-retired cardinals (Carlo Caffarra, former archbishop of Bologna; the American, Raymond Burke, former head of the Vatican supreme high court; Walter Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner, former Archbishop of Cologne) have now publicly questioned the pope’s most recent teachings on family life. They fear Francis has now strayed from orthodoxy and is creating disturbing confusion in the church.
Confusion in the church? Well it is there of course. I am not certain Francis created it….As I survey the results of the most recent presidential election, I see reports that millions of Catholics — like Cardinal Raymond Burke — helped elect a candidate who has shown contempt for values at the heart of our Christian morality: compassion, forgiveness, humility, and fidelity. His campaign rhetoric ran completely contrary to core values stressed in Catholic social teaching: solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, the common good, stewardship of the planet, and the dignity of every person. The president-elect has demonstrated a constant denigration of society’s so-called “losers.” In the Gospels, however, we see Jesus of Nazareth going out of his way to help just such marginalized people.
In this November’s presidential election, Roman Catholics made up 23% of the electorate; and 52% of them voted for Donald Trump. Catholic confusion indeed. Ironically, some of the strongest Catholic denunciations of candidate Trump came from ultra-conservative U.S. Catholics, like George Weigel and Robert P. George, who found Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” Did any American Catholic bishop have the courage to publicly speak out, like the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who denounced Trump as a “walking affront to the Gospels”?
I suggest we need a new perspective about contemporary life and we need to change our conversation. Seeing people in the old categories just don’t work anymore: liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat, traditional Catholic vs Vatican II Catholic, and of course Protestant evangelical vs progressive Christian.
In the United States, Millennials now outnumber the baby-boomers. They, like all of us, have their shortcomings; but I enjoy my teaching and collaboration with Millennials. In so many ways, they are the future taking shape right now: the most ethnically and racially diverse generation yet. They are also more open to change than older generations. They support LGBT people and their concerns. They are electronically tuned-in and interconnected. Unlike fear-struck racial and ethnic supremacists, they experience socio-cultural change as part of our contemporary reality and not a threat to their identity. They are much more concerned about the human values of truthfulness, integrity, honesty, respect for the other, and human outreach based on dialogue, compassion, and personal encounter.
A couple days ago, I had my last university seminar session for this semester. Our theme has been “Religion, Fundamentalism, and Socio-cultural Change.” The twenty participants in my class are bright and energetic young men and women: our future leaders. While answering a question about the presidential election, I mentioned that just over 50% of American Catholics voted for Trump. I chucked and said “so is the U.S. Catholic glass half empty or half full?” A young lady raised her hand. “Professor,” she said, “I think the Catholic glass is cracked and needs some major rebuilding.” Millennial wisdom.
With a new perspective on reality, we change the conversation. My primary concerns today are not whether a person is conservative or liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, or (it is not my style!) a nineteenth century Catholic like Cardinal Burke.
The conversation I would have with Christian religious leaders and “Christian” political leaders today is this: To what degree do the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth reverberate in your hearts? That is what our conversation should be about. To what degree does the Gospel guide your decision making: celebrating divine love to the extent that people genuinely care for others, support, and yes even forgive one another. This conversation undercuts racism, the denigration of “losers,” the unhealthy lifestyles of self-centered and self-seeking bullies, xenophobia, homophobia, and all human phobias. Genuine Christianity celebrates the life of the Holy Spirit to the extent that a healthy and healing spirit pervades the individual and collective lives of people who try to genuinely follow the way of Jesus.
If the life and message of Jesus do not animate and guide their lives, people who proudly wear the Christian label, whether “conservative” or “progressive,” are meaningless propagandists and phonies.
Today we light the first Advent candle, remembering the Prophet Isaiah’s words:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2