“Religion and Values”

“Religion and values” in U.S. society has been a special focus for my research, writing, and teaching for many years. I am hardly an expert; but I do have an informed historical understanding and a keen interest in socio-cultural movements and trends. And I continually ask critical questions. Those questions certainly go beyond the United States of course. Right now, however,  much  of my attention is on an authoritarian cult group that goes under the name “QAnon” or simply “Q.”

“Q” followers yearn for another Great Awakening. They believe the current U.S. president, their Messiah and savior, is waging a war against an elite group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media. Key among those evil people, they believe, are former U.S. president, Barack Obama, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Using apocalyptic religious imagery, “Q” cultists believe that through an imminent event of “biblical proportions,” a kind of domestic military action known as “The Storm,” thousands of people will be arrested, taken prisoner, and eventually executed. This will bring in a new age of utopia for faithful “Q” followers. And DJT will make it happen.

Wild fantasy? Perhaps. “QAnon” does have thousands of supporters and it is growing. It is a well organized, and a well financed authoritarian cult.

In chaotic times, authoritarian cults flourish because they offer simple answers for complex situations. They focus on feelings more than thinking. And they surrender body and soul to the all-wise and all-knowing cult leader who – often after creating chaos — promises salvation out of chaos. My reading of history confirms that, far too often, in  chaotic times, freedom, democracy and human rights are easily lost, because people begin to focus just on themselves. They loose their moral consciousness, or they simply stop thinking.

The transition from democracy to an authoritarian cult begins when the leader lies all the time and discredits truth as such. In Orwellian style, words get reversed meanings: “lies” become “truth.” “Facts” become “fake news.” That transition is complete when people are no longer able to distinguish between truth and feeling, between facts and fantasy. They begin to celebrate their own blissful ignorance.

In our turbulent socio-cultural and pandemic times, regardless what one thinks about “Q”, I thought it might be helpful to review the main characteristics of authoritarian cults:

Authoritarian cults assume religious dimensions because they are systems of belief, practices, symbols, and rituals, that propose answers for the big questions about life, meaning, and security.

Authoritarian cult leaders often proclaim goals anchored in ‘”law and order.” In fact, however, their goals are more often self-promoting personal goals: promoting their own wealth, gaining power over followers, and satisfying their personal need for adulation.

When the authoritarian cult leader wants something to be true, he (usually a “he”) simply announces that it is true. Anyone takes issue with his thinking is accused of being part of an evil plot against him.

Politically, the authoritarian cult leader works to create an autocracy: a regime in which the authoritarian leader is above the law and the leader’s words in fact become the law.

The cult leader speaks the “Truth,” while the media,“trouble-making protesters,” and intellectuals spread “fake news” and “lies.”

In an authoritarian cult group, all questioning, all doubts, and all dissent are not just discouraged but strongly punished, in one way or another.

The authoritarian cult leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel. Feelings are important.

For cult leaders and followers, “Law and Order” becomes secretive, right-wing domestic terrorism, or “vigilante justice.”

An authoritarian cult group is elitist. It claims a special exalted status for itself and for its leader. The leader is considered the Messiah, with close to limitless power.

The authoritarian leader’s special mission is to save humanity from leftist intellectuals and other dangerous people and groups.

Authoritarian cult groups have a polarized, “them” and “us” mentality. “They” are the evil and satanic enemy. Xenophobia and racism, and often misogyny and homophobia, become virtues.

The authoritarian cult leader is not accountable to any other “authorities” because the leader is the all-wise and the only real authority.

Authoritarian cult followers are stiff necked and hard of heart. Their only interest is safeguarding their own position and power. Compassion has no place in their values system. They want to be strong. For them, compassion is weak.

Cult followers, therefore, believe their exalted ends justify whatever means deemed necessary to achieve their goals: lying, violence, and killing.

Authoritarian cult leadership induces feelings of shame and guilt in wayward followers in order to influence and control them.

Subservience to the cult leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends. The cult group becomes the new family.

The most loyal cult members (the “true believers”) believe there can be no worthwhile life outside the context of the cult group. All other people are dangerous and should be eliminated.

Well, we can read and find this interesting…….. Or we can Observe, Judge, and Act.

Christianity is not a cult.

Authentic democracy is not a cult.

Take care, Jack


A very brief reflection this weekend……We already have so much to think about.

In 1975 the Catholic bishops from across 13 states issued a remarkable pastoral letter: “This Land is Home to Me.” It touched me back then and still does today. The letter was written in a free-verse poetic style.

Although the focus in 1975 was overcoming the economic hardship and political powerlessness of the people of Appalachia, it still speaks to all of us in 2020.

The concluding lines of the letter ring so true, in our days of pandemic health crises and socio-political disorder and conflict. They are a reminder of what we are really about. A reminder that living together and working together bring hope and healing.


Dear sisters and brothers,

we urge all of you

to be a part of the rebirth of utopias,

not to stop living,

to recover and defend the struggling dream.

For it is the weak things of this world

which seem like folly,

that the Spirit takes up

and makes its own.

The dream of the mountains’ struggle,

the dream of simplicity

and of justice,

like so many other repressed visions

is, we believe,

the voice of Yahweh among us.

In taking them up,

hopefully the Church

might once again

be known as

– a center of the Spirit,

– a place where poetry dares to speak,

– where the song reigns unchallenged,

– where art flourishes,

– where nature is welcome,

– where little people and little needs

come first,

– where justice speaks loudly,

– where in a wilderness of idolatrous

destruction the great voice of God still cries

out for Life.

The Nonviolent Feminist

A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women: someone who believes that women should have the same political, religious, social, and economic rights as men. It has absolutely nothing to do with putting down men in order to elevate the status of women.

Despite the strongly negative understanding of women and women’s rights in his day, the historical Jesus refused to treat women as inferior to men in any way. In his prophetic speech and action, Jesus — Yeshua — was a feminist.

Earlier it was perhaps better but, by the time of Jesus, religious attitudes and behavior toward women had drastically changed. In theory, women were held in high regard by first-century Jewish society, but in practice, this was not always true. First century Jewish culture was strongly patriarchal; and women in Palestine, suffered various forms of ingrained prejudice against them.The daily prayers of Jewish men, for example, included this refrain: “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman.”

The woman’s place was to be in the home: to bear children and to rear them. Men were not even to acknowledge and greet women in public. Some Jewish writers like the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE),  taught that women should never even leave their homes, except to go to the synagogue. Women, back then, had a very restricted position. They had little access to property or inheritance, except through a male relative. Any money a woman earned belonged to her husband. Men could legally divorce a woman for just about any reason, simply by handing her a writ of divorce. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.

In the Temple in Jerusalem, women were restricted to the outer forecourt, the “women’s court,” which was five steps below the court for men. In synagogues women were separated from the men and not permitted to read aloud. They were also not allowed to bear witness in a religious court.

All four Gospels, however, portray Jesus as boldly moving beyond the religious and cultural misogyny of his days. There are many examples, but here are three sets I like to stress:

First: Jesus spoke to women in public, which was a religious and cultural taboo.

Recall for instance when Jesus arrived at the village of Nain during the burial ceremony for the son of a widow. Breaking the socio-religious taboo, he spoke with the widow and raised her son from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17) On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, he encountered a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.

He touched her and cured her. Publicly reprimanded for curing the woman on the Sabbath by the local religious leader, Jesus called him a hypocrite and then used a surprising title for the woman. He called her a “daughter of Abraham.” (Luke 13:16) The expression “son of Abraham” was often used to describe Jewish males but women were never called “daughters of Abraham.” With this title, Jesus boldly challenged the contemporary religious prejudice against women.

In the Fourth Gospel, we see Jesus again ignoring restrictive codes of behavior on behalf of women. One day on a journey, he had to pass through the Samaritan city of Sychar. Jacob’s well was there. Worn out out by his journey, Jesus sat down by the well. It was about noon. A solitary Samaritan woman, on her way to get water, approached him. Normally women drew water only at dawn and at dusk. A woman appearing at midday, and alone, was considered improper. The woman had probably been ostracized by the “reputable” women in her town, perhaps because she had had five husbands and currently did not have one. Jesus spoke to her. A lengthy conversation ensued. The woman herself remarked on Jesus’ impropriety. “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jewish people disliked and shunned Samaritans. Remember as well that it was considered inappropriate for men to speak to women in public. Jesus, however, respected the Samaritan woman at the well and acknowledged her thirst for religious truth. He revealed TO HER his identity as the Messiah. (John 4:4–26)

Jesus also rejected the anti-woman blood taboo and refused to view such women as unclean. Women who were menstruating or had any “flow of blood” were considered ritually unclean. Anything or anyone touched by an “unclean woman” was also considered unclean. In the Gospel of Luke we find a dramatic story about such a woman. She had had had a flow of blood for 12 years. (Luke 8:43-48) Due to the constant bleeding, this woman lived in a continual state of uncleanness which brought upon her social and religious isolation. Against the taboo, she touched Jesus’ cloak. Jesus cured her and he said absolutely nothing about her ritual impurity. Surprisingly, he addressed her as “Daughter,” said her faith had saved her; and told her to go in peace. Jesus recognized the dignity of women in situations that, according to religious codes, demanded a condemnatory judgment. Think for instance about when one of the Pharisee leaders asked Jesus to eat with him. Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house for the meal. But then a “sinful woman” heard about Jesus being there, entered the house and then washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. To the amazement of his host and all at table, Jesus then said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” This account is not anti-Pharisee per se. Jesus was stressing that even religious leaders can be blind to human compassion, forgiveness, and support. (Luke 7:36-50) Recall as well the woman caught in adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. (Had they set her up?) They confronted Jesus and asked whether the punishment for someone like her should be stoning, as prescribed by Mosaic law. (They were trying to trap Jesus….) Jesus began to write on the ground

as though he did not hear them. When the woman’s accusers continued their challenge, Jesus stated that the one without sin should cast the first stone. All of the accusers then walked away, leaving only Jesus and the accused woman. Jesus then asked the woman who had now accused her. She said no one. Jesus did not condemn her. He told her to go and sin no more. (John 8:3-11) In both cases Jesus stressed that women have dignity and deserve compassionate understanding.

Second: Jesus moved beyond the sexist boundaries of his days by accepting women as his disciples.

Contrary to rabbinic practice, Jesus taught women about the Scriptures. The women with whom Jesus spoke were very likely illiterate, since the rabbis did not consider it appropriate for women to learn to read in order to study and read the Scriptures. The well-known Martha and Mary story, however, highlights Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of Mary’s desire to learn and be a disciple. She “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Luke 10:39) This was the typical position for a male disciple. To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant that that person was one of the rabbi’s disciples.

In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus is described as journeying from village to village, preaching and proclaiming the Reign of God. Male disciples were with him but also several women disciples: Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna; and others. Jesus, by calling women disciples, did something startlingly new.

Third: Jesus not only had women disciples, but the Gospels assure us that these women were prominent recipients of Jesus’ self-revelation. Directly from Jesus and not via one of the men.

Jesus, as mentioned earlier, told the Samaritan woman at the well that he was the Messiah. He told Martha, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) And….in all four Gospels, women disciples were the first witnesses to the Resurrection.


As I have noted in previous reflections, Jesus of Nazareth did not ordain anyone nor did he give any kind of blueprint for how the institutional church should be structured or organized. In his words and personal life example, however, he did clearly indicate how one should live in his Way….in his Spirit. We today, men and women, can not only learn from Jesus but find in his Way as well the encouragement and support for equality, respect, and collaboration in life and ministry. Healthy structures and organizational styles come from that foundation. Structures and organizational styles, however, are also flexible and provisional until something better comes along. They are the responsibility of creative contemporary believers. Let’s move ahead without fear or reluctance to change what needs to be changed.


About the Man from Nazareth

Over the past three weeks, in response to “Black Lives Matter,” I have seen a number of images of a black Jesus. A print of the Last Supper showing a black Jesus, for example, has been installed in St. Albans Cathedral in England. The artist, Lorna May Wadsworth, used a Jamaican-born model for the basis of her interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century work, and said she wanted “to make people question the Western myth that [Jesus Christ] had fair hair and blue eyes.”

The name “Jesus” is a Latinized version of a Greek version of the name “Yeshua.” So was “Yeshua” dark-skinned or white? Certainly not Anglo-Saxon white as so often pictured……The average Judean man of his time would have had dark brown or black hair, olive skin, brown eyes and a height of about 5 feet 5 inches. Scholars also suggest that Yeshua probably had short hair and a beard, in accordance with Jewish practices at his time.

So what else do we know about the historical Yeshua…our Jesus?

Two Jesus certitudes that stand out for me, because they are so urgently needed today, are that he was totally non-hateful and totally pro-women.

This week, I offer some historical reflections about Jesus the nonviolent peacemaker (and what happened to that understanding). Next week reflections about Jesus the feminist. The perspectives are historically correct. They still animate and challenge contemporary believers.

I hope you will stay with me on this two-part historical-theological Yeshua journey.

The Non-violent Jesus:

Jesus’ earliest followers felt called by his example to oppose violence. An historical certitude about Jesus was his strong commitment to peace and nonviolence. He preached and taught in favor of the excluded, the poor, oppressed women, the despised, and children. Note well….he did none of this by fomenting an armed rebellion.

Yeshua’s mission was not to establish a new Kingdom of Israel but to announce the Reign of God — the here and now dynamic environment of mutual care and respect, where people begin to consciously experience God’s presence. In the Reign of God people are changed because they understand that God continues to love them without limits, without end, without condition. Reality is transformed. Society is transformed. The Reign of God is not a socio-political violent rebellion. It is a call to live in peace and compassion.

Remember how Jesus chided the armed guards who came to arrest him, saying, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mark 14:48) To his followers who tried by the sword to prevent his being arrested, Jesus said, in Matthew, “Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) Further, he famously said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt 5:9) The entire Sermon on the Mount is a call to nonviolence and compassion for all people. A transformed and transforming human environment. Grace.

Jesus’ nonviolent life inspired his followers to imitate him in seeking justice in a nonviolent manner. In the first three centuries of the “Christian Era” Jesus’ followers were strongly anchored in nonviolence. That changed however when Constantine (272 – 337 CE) became Roman Emperor.

Preparing for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine said he had a vision of the cross in the sky inscribed with words promising that under its sign he would be victorious and become the sole Roman Emperor. After the battle, in which he led a victorious army wielding a sword in the shape of a cross, he legalized Christianity and the cross became synonymous with Christian might and power. Think for instance about the medieval “crusades” (murderous campaigns marked with the cross) undertaken by European Christians in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

Yes. Early historical literature does give evidence of the position of Christian pacifists. After Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity in 312 CE, however, many Christian bishops and leaders dropped the idea of nonviolence. This trend then moved to the extreme in 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the only religion of the Roman Empire; and Christians no longer objected to becoming military fighters. (Separation of church and state IS a good thing!) When the “Christian” empire was attacked by various “heathen” barbarians, Christian theologians thanks to Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE), the Bishop of Hippo, developed the “just war theory.”

As a theologian and historian, I have doubts that Constantine was truly a Christian. (He was baptized just before his death in 337) …I think Constantine was simply a shrewd political leader (like some contemporary political leaders) who knew where, when, and how to get popular support for his self-promotion campaign. His distorted Christianity was more Roman than Christian.

Today in a society so horribly disfigured by violence and hateful speech and actions, genuine followers of Jesus should focus on his core teaching in word and personal example. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for example, has urged religious leaders to challenge “inaccurate and harmful messages” that are now fueling rising racism, hate speech, and conflict as the coronavirus pandemic circles the globe. (Guterres, by the way, is a committed Christian.)

On July 7th, John Connelly, historian from the University of California, wrote in a pointed article in Commonweal about hateful political rhetoric in the United States: “The president recently labeled peaceful protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘scum’; he has called Bette Midler a ‘washed up psycho,’” …..and on and on….. “Having taught European history for three decades, I believe such words of disdain are unprecedented in the public utterances of an elected leader…..Students of history have to go far to the extremes of right and left to find language so drenched in hatred.’’

The key issue here is not just a problematic president “45” but a danger alert about all who foment violence and torment people with hateful speech and action.

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016), the political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor often stressed that “Hatred destroys the one who is hated, but it also destroys the one who hates.” Historically, political leaders who hated always dragged down their states and peoples. “Anger,” Wiesel said in an interview with Bill Moyers, “has some positive attributes to it, hate has none. Even hate of hate is dangerous.”

“Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)


Knowledge, Wisdom, Compassion

Whether the concern is the exploding pandemic or systemic and violent racism, there is an urgent need today for leadership. This is not a political party debate issue. This is a pressing socio-culture life survival issue. There is today far too much raw, unchecked power, and unbridled acting out of control.

We need to be visionary leaders. We need to stimulate and help form teams of visionary leaders. One could call them contemporary Christian apostles. Or, change agents….truly anchored in the Gospel.

We are indeed on the edge of a kind of socio-cultural chaos. Covid-19 is spreading wildly. Unemployment is expanding. Fearful and ignorant people are promoting racial violence and hatred. And many religious leaders are not helping at all but stimulating, in fact, even more violence.

Last Sunday, a Catholic priest in Carmel, Indiana, compared Black Lives Matter protesters to “maggots and parasites.” In a written message to his parishioners he denounced the civil rights movement and the destruction of monuments honoring Confederate leaders and other historic figures. The protesters he said are “wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits….. maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families.” (Fortunately on Wednesday of this week his bishop suspended him from parish ministry.)

Yes. We need to create visionary leaders anchored in Knowledge, Wisdom, and Compassionate Humanity, qualities that stimulate the movement from chaos to social health and stability. Here are my brief thoughts about leadership formation:

KNOWLEDGE: We need to communicate correct and helpful information. Credibility is essential. Facebook, Fox News,“popular understandings,” and political rhetoric are too often phony and deceptive. (When checking the accuracy of quotations I like to use snopes.com.) In difficult times, people need credible information. Be honest, if you don’t know something say so but then do your research. (When people began to disparage him, I had to do my own research about Christopher Columbus. Using reliable historical sources, I did indeed discover that Columbus was a cruel and inhumane tyrant.)

Truth is real. Whether it is about Covid-19, U.S. racial history, sex and gender, the positions and statements of presidential candidates, or Christian, Jewish, or Muslim beliefs, a healthy and stable human society is based on honest and trustworthy information. It cannot be based on adjusted information, dishonest statements, or spontaneous emotional fantasy. We need to be and to promote leaders who seek and promote truthfulness in public discourse.

WISDOM: Trustworthy leaders explain their vision and strategy for a better tomorrow. They are positive. They draw from their own life experiences. They draw from what they have learned from their own ups and downs. They also explain the life experiences of people who have had a big impact on their own life and their own life outlook. Trustworthy leaders explain why they are making the decisions they are making and performing the actions that flow from them. If they have made mistakes, they are honest about that as well…..Transparency promotes trust in uncertain times. Trustworthy leaders ask for input. Dialogue is essential. Without asking for input, one can miss out on vital information. Collaboration reduces the sense of powerlessness that promotes uncertainty. We need to belong to and to form wise leadership teams.

COMPASSIONATE HUMANITY: Trustworthy leaders are visibly engaged as compassionate humanitarians. Like the Good Samaritan. In times of uncertainty, the reliable leader is the solid rock to which people can cling. She or he gives anxious people hope, confidence, and direction. We need good words but, without good actions, they are just pious observations…..As Christians we are all fellow travelers on this human journey. The historical Jesus introduced a major paradigm shift in human understanding. He stressed in words and action that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hatred, and people more important than institutions.

Christian moral responsiveness and leadership shape our human life journey. In that journey we do indeed encounter the Divine, the Sacred, the Ground Being — Human life can often be a journey with crosses to carry but it also comes with a transformative resurrection that transforms everything.

Indeed, the Man from Nazareth provides our Vision for the Future. Our faith anchored in the way of Jesus is not naïve. It is honest, strong, and real. A positive and encouraging outlook for tomorrow….