Sojourner Truth

Celebrating Women’s History Month, I offer a reflection this weekend about a wonderfully courageous African American woman: Sojourner Truth. She was strong, six feet tall, a former slave, and a powerful evangelist, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist.

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797. Her parents were slaves owned by the New York slave owner, Colonel Hardenbergh, in Swartekill, New York. One of twelve children, she lived a torturous life as a slave. She was owned by several masters throughout New York State. Around age nine, Belle was sold at a slave auction for $100 along with a flock of sheep. Her new owner, a John Neely, was a cruel and violent slave master who beat her daily, because she didn’t speak English. She was sold two more times by age 13. She ultimately ended up at the West Park, New York home of John Dumont and his second wife Elizabeth. Considerable tension existed between Belle and Dumont’s wife, who regularly harassed her. Elizabeth’s husband, John, raped her.

While working for the Dumonts, Belle fell in love, around age 18, with a slave named Robert who was a slave on a nearby farm. The couple was not allowed to marry, however, since they had separate owners. Robert’s owner, Charles Catton, Jr., a landscape painter, forbade their relationship. He did not want his slaves to have children with people owned by someone else, because he would then not own the children. One day Robert sneaked over to see Belle. When Catton and his son found him, they savagely beat him. After that day, Belle never saw Robert again. The experience haunted Belle for the rest of her life

Belle the slave was then forced to marry another slave owned by the Dumonts. His name was Thomas. Belle eventually bore five children: James, her firstborn, who died in childhood; Diana (1815), the result of a rape by John Dumont; Peter (1821); Elizabeth (1825); and Sophia (ca. 1826). In 1826 Belle escaped to freedom with her infant daughter, Sophia. She said years later: “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” They found refuge in New Paltz, New York, where she and her daughter were taken in by Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen.

When her former slave owner, John Dumont came to re-claim his “property Belle,” the Van Wagenens offered to buy Belle’s services from him for $20 until the New York Anti-Slavery Law emancipating all slaves took effect in 1827. Dumont agreed. After the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed, however, he illegally sold Belle’s five-year-old son Peter. When Belle learned that her son had been sold by John Dumont to an owner in Alabama, she took the issue to court. In 1828, with assistance from the Van Wagenens and after months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been abused by his new owners. Belle became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.

It was during her stay with Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen that Belle – Isabella Baumfree – had a profound religious experience and became a devout Methodist Christian. On Pentecost Sunday, 1843, she changed her name to “Sojourner Truth.” She believed she was called by God to travel around the nation –to Sojourn– and to preach the Truth of his word. Thus, she believed God gave her the name, “Sojourner Truth.” She told her friends: “The Spirit calls me. I must go.”

At what she believed was God’s urging, Sojourner preached about abolitionism and equal rights for all. In 1844, Sojourner Truth joined a Massachusetts abolitionist organization called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. There she met Frederick Douglas and other leading abolitionists and effectively launched her career as an equal rights activist. In 1850 she spoke at the very first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1851, Sojourner Truth spoke out powerfully about equal rights for black women at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. Reporters published various transcripts of that speech, which was later (but incorrectly) called: “Ain’t I A Woman?” She met with the leading women’s rights activists of her day: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

In 1853, Sojourner spoke at a suffragist “mob convention” at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. It was officially a Women’s Rights Convention but called a “mob convention” due to the numerous disruptions by protesters.There she also met Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1856, Sojourner Truth traveled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to speak to a group called the “Friends of Human Progress.” Antislavery movements at that time had begun early in Michigan and Ohio.

In Battle Creek she also joined the nucleus of the Michigan abolitionists, the Progressive Friends, some of whom she had already met at national conventions. From 1857 to 1867 Sojourner Truth lived in the village of Harmonia, Michigan, a Spiritualist utopia, close to Battle Creek. Harmonia was established by Quaker pioneers who had converted to Spiritualism, a religious movement that believed the spirits of the dead communicated with the living. The only remnant of Harmonia today is its cemetery atop a hill in a remote part of today’s Battle Creek Fort Custer Industrial Park.

Like another famous escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth had helped recruit black soldiers for the Union army during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). She worked in Washington, D.C., for the National Freedman’s Relief Association and rallied people to donate food, clothes and other supplies to help black refugees. She worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. While in Washington, she courageously put her disdain for segregation on display by riding on whites-only streetcars. Her activism for the abolitionist movement gained the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to the White House in October 1864 and showed her a Bible given to him by African Americans in Baltimore.

In 1870, Sojourner Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government for former enslaved people, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. In 1872, she settled permanently in Battle Creek, Michigan (my former hometown) where two of her daughters lived. She became active in Grant’s presidential re-election campaign. She even tried to vote on Election Day, but was turned away at the polling place.

In the last years of her life, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters. She died early in the morning on November 26, 1883, at her Battle Creek home on College St. (We never knew this at the time, but my wife and I had our first home on College Street.) On November 28, 1883, her funeral was held at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church officiated by its pastor, the Reverend Reed Stuart. Some of the prominent citizens of Battle Creek acted as pall-bearers. Nearly one thousand people attended the service. She was buried in the city’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Frederick Douglass, the African American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and statesman, offered a eulogy for her in Washington, D.C. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

A bronze bust of Sojourner Truth, by the Canadian sculptor Artis Lane, was unveiled on April 28, 2009 in Emancipation Hall in the US Capitol Visitor Center. It shows her in a cap and shawl similar to the way in which she was so often photographed. The bronze bust was the first sculpture of an African-American woman to be on display in the Capitol. First Lady Michelle Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Hilary Clinton, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee were among those who offered remarks at the unveiling.

One of my favorite Sojourner quotations is: “Religion without humanity is very poor human stuff.” I remember her gravesite at Oak Hill Cemetery, and another Sojourner quotation: “I am not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Over the years I have often read her famous 1851 address, “Ain’t I a Woman?” supposedly delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

In fact, however, I have very recently discovered that the popular version of her speech is an inaccurate version, written by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage and published in 1863, thus 12 years after the Ohio speech. Frances Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical Southern black slave accent, rather than in Sojourner’s distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Sojourner Truth was born and raised in New York, and she spoke only upper New York State low-Dutch until she was nine years old.

People said that Frances Gage’s actions were well intended and did serve the suffrage and women’s rights movement at the time. Nevertheless, her actions were unethical and a major misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity.

The most authentic version of Sojourner Truth’s, Women’s Convention speech in Akron, Ohio was first published in 1851 by Sojourner Truth’s good friend the Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle and was titled, “On Woman’s Rights” and not “Ain’t I a Woman.”

And here it is:

On Woman’s Rights

May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?

I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we cant take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they wont be so much trouble.

I cant read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.

The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept – and Lazarus came forth.

And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard.



With great appreciation and still full of wonder about the amazing Sojourner Truth….

A Very Real Challenge

Despite the fact that The Other Guy is no longer in the White House, his far right supporters in QAnon are, like the Corona virus, mutating and finding new ways to carry on and infect people.

Yes, some QAnon followers say they now feel they were conned by The Other Guy’s “four-year-old hoax;” but most other followers have recommitted themselves to QAnon, validating their continued involvement and encouraging each-other with slogans like “Trust the Plan” or “Hold the Line.” 

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said this week that domestic terrorism has been metastasizing around the country for a long time, and will not go away anytime soon. The FBI has called QAnon just such a domestic terror threat. Nevertheless, there are now Christian conservatives falling for QAnon’s unhinged conspiracies; and QAnon is even being used by some charismatic Christians as a way to interpret the Bible. 

During services this past July, the Rock Urban Church in Grandville, Michigan played a discredited video that supports QAnon conspiracy theories. There’s also a movement, led by the Indiana-based Omega Kingdom Ministry, to merge QAnon and Christianity, with texts from both the Bible and Q, being read at church services. QAnon uses the language of Dominionism, a political ideology advocating conservative Christian nationalism governed by a far right understanding of biblical law. Adherents believe the same “deep state” that controls the country has also infiltrated traditional churches. This all fits in with  QAnon’s apocalyptic desire to destroy the society “controlled” by the “deep state” and replace it with the QAnon-Christian Kingdom of God on Earth. 

Details emerging from investigations into hundreds of January 2021 Capitol rioters have cast an unsettling light on the toxic roles played by fringe religious belief and QAnon conspiracy theories. A fellow from Kentucky, charged by the FBI as the first person to enter the Capitol through a broken window,  saw himself fighting a holy war on behalf of his former president and wore a T-shirt quoting Ephesians 6:11: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”

While Twitter and Facebook have moved aggressively to block conspiracy theories and distortions, tens of thousands of new far-right subscribers have now joined some of the more prominent QAnon channels and stand-alone websites. Many feel as firm as ever in their beliefs about a “deep state” darker reality behind what’s happening in today’s United States.

According to a new survey, more than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants still believe the QAnon conspiracy theory. The survey, which was conducted in late January 2021 by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, reported 29% of Republicans and 27% of white evangelicals believe the QAnon conspiracy theory is accurate. QAnon has infiltrated other faith groups as well, with 15% of white mainline Protestants, 18% of white Catholics, 12%  of non-Christians, 11% of Hispanic Catholics, and 7% of black Protestants saying they believe and support it.

So what is going on here? Why do so many people still believe the now widely debunked allegations of QAnon about a “deep state” cabal of Democrats who are Satan-worshipping pedophiles operating an international child-sex-trafficking ring from their positions of power. Bringing QAnon people back to a space where they operate with truth and facts is going to be difficult but is critically important. Extremist movements develop or rely on fabricated conspiracy theories to capture the imagination of followers and motivate adherents to action. 

Widespread support for conspiracy theories, of course, is not just a symptom of our contemporary mass media society. For some people the fear that evil forces conspire to hurt good people is deeply rooted in their psyche. In earlier times, witch hunts, for example, were based on a belief that young women gathered in forests to conspire with the devil. Don’t forget the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials between February 1692 and May 1693, one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria. People were taught to fear witches but not to fear those who hanged or tortured them. Back then an overwhelming majority of people accused and convicted of witchcraft were women (about 78%).  For today’s QAnon conspiracy theory advocates, some of the really evil people are Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and their supporters.

QAnon began in October 2017, when an anonymous user put several posts on the “4chan” website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet. The user “Q Clearance Patriot,” known to followers as “Q,” purported to be a high-level military intelligence official who leaves clues about a secret and coming epic battle of good versus evil with an eventual apocalyptic new age. Current social media and opinion polls indicate there are at least hundreds of thousands of people who believe in at least some of the bizarre theories offered up by QAnon.

I guess it comes as no surprise that The Former White House Guy’s most ardent and dangerous supporters, include groups such as QAnon, the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, 3 Percenters, and America Firsters, who cloak  themselves in Biblical language to justify their actions.

While QAnon is a serpentine conspiracy theory with no apparent foundation in reality, the theory has been increasingly linked to real-world violence like the devastating wildfire in Southern California. The Camp fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,900 homes, was the latest focus of conspiracy theories spread by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who speculated that the blaze was started by a Jewish space laser beam. A QAnon supporter, Greene, was elected to the US Congress in November 2020. Most recently, however, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives voted on February 4, 2021 to remove Greene from her education and budget committee assignments in the chamber. The day before, Greene had received a standing ovation from her House Republican supporters in a closed-door meeting. 

We really need to help people distinguish fact from fiction. This will be our increasingly important challenge. It starts at home and in primary and secondary education: helping people develop critical thinking skills. Debunking conspiracy theories when and where they appear is helpful, but it cannot be just the media or political leadership that provides this information. We have to understand the psychological triggers and motivations for this kind of thinking. The truth is that conspiracy theories will always thrive when people feel like they are not in control of their lives, and when anxious tensions exist in a highly polarized society. Phony populist movements like QAnon exploit people’s anxieties. We need to work together, helping people in difficult life situations. Let’s encourage bridge-building and truth-sharing and compassionate concern for the other, regardless of sex, gender, race, or nationality. Extremism flourishes in societies with obvious and growing inequality. Warm hearts help to open cold and closed minds.

Combating QAnon today is a major Christian challenge. It is dangerous and dishonest. It is antisemitic. It is also deceptively anti-Christian. 


Exploration and Theological Imagination

A friendly reader reacted to my “mindsets” post of last week saying: “Ok, but I have always understood that some church teachings are carved in stone and unchanging. How can age old doctrines change?” I replied that I understand the observation but would still suggest that all doctrinal statements are time-bound, because language and understandings are time-bound. All doctrinal statements, I suggested, are provisional until a better expression comes along.

In a quick reply to that, the reader asked: “If that is really  the case,  how do we come to new doctrinal statements?” That gave me the focus for this week’s post.

Theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Good theology helps us understand and live our faith. Truly helpful theological understandings can end up as official teachings (doctrines) when institutional leadership judges them useful guidelines for Christian life and belief.

A few years ago, a Jesuit professor of religious studies, Paul G. Crowley, S.J., at Santa Clara University, suggested some ways for students to observe and listen to human experiences when formulating theological understandings. I never met Paul Crowley but resonated with him and his suggestions. They apply of course to all of us because, regardless our age, we are all students. Sad to say, I learned very recently that Professor Crowley passed away in August 2020, after a long battle with cancer. 

Here then are four of Paul Crowley’s suggestions for theological reflection and my brief followups.

1. Let theological knowledge emerge from the study of what is non-theological.

Other forms of knowledge and human experience, like literature, music, and art are crucial to the formation of our theological imagination. Sounds and symbols touch people deeply. They help us connect to the deeper dimensions of our life experiences. Music, for instance, can open us to the infinite, linking body and spirit in powerful ways. 

Do you have some favorite “mystical music”? My wife and I would put the piano and cello composition, Spiegel im Spiegel, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, on the top of our mystical music list.

How do we interpret our life journeys? Alonzo,  an Indiana school teacher and my paternal grandfather, died in the 1919 flu epidemic. Mary Ellen, his wife, had to raise, on her own, my dad and his four brothers. She did that remarkably well. Reflecting on her own, not always easy life, my grandmother once told me, when I was a teenager, that Jesus was her “traveling companion.” Today, John Alonzo, her last living grandson, would say he very much resonates with Grandma’s theology.

At times, old creedal doctrines, like the fourth century Nicene Creed, can seem so rigidly esoteric. It may have had an important place back then; but stressing today, for example, that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” seems a strange kind of theological language when compared to the Fourth Gospel where Jesus says so simply and profoundly: “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30

2. Let theological insights spring from inter-religious dialogue.

By focusing on questions of human meaning, identity, and purpose in other religions, we can better understand the contexts in which belief arises and takes shape. We really should experience and explore the ways in which the human experience has been portrayed and celebrated in other religious cultures, art, and drama. 

I remember the unfortunate controversy at the Catholic bishops 2019 Amazon Synod in Rome. Between October 6 and October 27, 2019, bishops and representatives from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Suriname gathered with Pope Francis in Rome.The focus was on the indigenous peoples of the Pan-Amazon region and their cultural and religious traditions. During the synod several statues, which Pope Francis confirmed were of the fertility goddess Pachamama, were featured in discussions and ceremonies. Unfortunately, a few days after the synod a group of 100 Catholics accused Pope Francis of indulging in “sacrilegious and superstitious acts” and an angry ultra-right Catholic activist later stole the statues from their display in a church near the Vatican and threw them into the Tiber. (They were later recovered.) Respecting other cultures does not always come easy for static rigid Christians. That, however, is no reason to give up.

An understanding of Christian belief through a study of the texts, rituals, ethics, and teachings of other religious traditions can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s own religious tradition. The emergence of comparative inter-religion theology has been  a very promising development in recent years. Comparing, for example, a Gospel text with a Buddhist or Hindu sutra or a passage from the Gita, can greatly stimulate theological thinking. God’s revelation is hardly limited to just the Hebrew-Christian tradition.

Peter C. Phan is a Vietnamese-born American Catholic theologian. I remember his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, meeting in New Orleans in June 2002. He began with a Hindu prayer, asking God to “Draw near us in friendship…”, and later observed: “If today we recognize that we can and should benefit from the worship and prayer of other religions for our own spiritual growth, then our way of doing theology, in response to this sign of our present times, must be different from that of our forebears…..”

3. Let the lived experience of  impoverished and marginalized men, women and children be our touchstone for theological learning.

Firsthand and humble learning from exposure to the difficult and painful lives of the poor, the marginalized, and suffering people can lead to a transformation of hearts and an opening of minds. They need compassionate care,  service with no strings attached, and unquestioned support. And for all men, women, and children there must be a theology of hope. A transformation of hearts and minds can also open our eyes to the Sacred here and now. Recall the response of Jesus to the righteous questioners in Matthew 25:37-40: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” A credible theology explores and promotes the significance of this text for today’s believers. 

4. Let the God-mystery stand as the horizon for all learning.

I would suggest that a contemplative attitude is absolutely essential for approaching the God-mystery. I remember chatting with the Franciscan spiritual master, Richard Rohr, who reminded me that without a contemplative mind, we are offering the world no broad seeing, no real alternative consciousness, and no new kind of humanity. “Jesus,” Richard said “was the first clear mystic in the West. We just were not prepared for his way of knowing and loving.” An enlightened contemporary theology of God must spring from the contemplative experience. In all of our busyness, we need to take time to turn off the phone, stop doing, and start reflecting. We have been well-trained in DOING. We need remedial training in BEING.

Concluding remarks: Religions are generally defined by belief and practice. “Orthodoxy” – a word one often hears in certain church circles — is about correct beliefs and fidelity to official teaching. “Orthopraxy” – a word one rarely hears  in church —  is about correct conduct..

Most church leaders are very strict about orthodoxy and insist on people adhering to official doctrines. In fact, however, those leaders are often putting the cart before the horse.

Genuine Christianity is first of all about correct Christian behavior (orthopraxy). Here the example of the historic Jesus is so clear. In all he did, Jesus was the compassionate minister. He reminded his followers that the Law (orthodoxy) was created to serve people but that people were not created to serve the Law. His primary focus was attending to the immediate needs of people, with love and compassion. And he says to us: “Go and do likewise.”


P.S. If there is a topic you would like me to explore, please write to me at:


The first weekend in Lent 2021.

My wife and I are avid readers, whether books in hand or on Kindle. I like Ken Follett’s historical fiction; but this past week I read a new book I had wanted to read for some time: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb. 

Abraham “Avi” Loeb, a Professor of Science at Harvard University is a researcher in astrophysics and cosmology. Extraterrestrial deals with the outer space evidence he and colleagues collected over eleven days starting on October 19, 2017. They observed what they believe was the first known interstellar visitor to Earth: evidence of an intelligent civilization not of this Earth. I won’t go into all the book details right now, but his book started me thinking about new ideas and mindsets. 

I started thinking about poor old Galileo who struggled, and suffered, with his open exploratory mindset. In his 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry  Messenger”), Galileo declared his agreement with the heliocentric understanding of the solar system. Heliocentrism ran directly counter to the teachings — the mindset — of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy. Due to advanced age and ill health he was not tortured but spent the rest of his life, nearly a decade, under house arrest.

Today astrophysicists, of course, not only affirm heliocentrism but confirm that our Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. They report as well that the universe is still rapidly expanding.

I remember April 12, 1961, when the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey around the Earth in outer space and reported “I see no God up here.” Gagarin was reacting to his perception of an earlier mindset. Certainly our understanding of the universe and of the anthropomorphic God had already changed. We had moved far beyond the Hebrew and early Christian image of God seated on a throne up above the clouds. 

When Yuri Gagarin made his historic journey in 1961, I was making my rather ordinary journey from high school to college. When I recalled this recently with  a classmate from back then, he asked what I thought the church and the world would be like sixty years from today. That provoked more thoughts about mindsets.

I am an historian not a predictor of the future. Sixty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own sixty years, seventeen years ago. I do see some significant societal trends, however.

The big issue that is tearing us apart today is our highly polarized society. I don’t like the words “conservative” and “liberal” nor the devision into “traditional” and “progressive.” One side of our polarized society has people with, what I prefer to call, a “static rigid” mindset. The other side has an “exploratory” mindset.

Being a theologian, I see the static rigid believers as people who consider change a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They are locked in the world view of an earlier age. They have age-old answers for every age-old question, even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. They are incapable of understanding contemporary Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth, development, and understanding. This explains of course their frustration and problems with contemporary sexuality and gender issues.

Exploratory mindset believers, on the other hand, experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended discovery journey. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries, as Galileo of old observed with his telescope or perhaps as Avi Loeb considers with perceived signs of extraterrestrial life. New developments and discoveries, like Covid-19 or climate change (as I watch news reports about the devastating winter storm in Texas), can of course bring anxiety, fear, and misery. Throughout it all, nevertheless, we can eventually make progress. Life is stronger than death. Perspectives change and we mature. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..

Overcoming polarization requires concerted action on both sides. Neither side is justified in denigrating and demeaning the other. Our goal must be constructive and respectful dialog. I know the situation very well, because I once had a very static and rigid Catholic mindset. 

In 1965 my bishop – very rigid and dogmatic — sent me as a seminarian to study at the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven). After my first month of classes, I was rather upset and thought a few Louvain professors were much too freewheeling in their theology. I expressed my concerns to a likable professor. He reacted very calmly and said “we need to discuss this.” With a few other students, we began monthly seminars with him to discuss “contemporary theology”…. The professor, Albert Houssiau, is now 96 years old. I greatly respect him and appreciate his influence on my life. (A few years ago, when I met him again during a university dinner, he sketched, on the back of the menu, the profile I often use on Another Voice. 😊) Gradually Houssiau had opened my eyes and my mind. I found him a genuine believer and I trusted him. He helped me realize that asking questions is healthy and that everything we believe deserves critical examination, research, and reflection. I became a more open-minded person with a different “mindset.” My Dad, who died in 1996, loved to tell people, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Jack was never the same after Louvain.”

Yes, constructive dialogue is essential; but right now I foresee polarized clashing and loss of institutional credibility contributing to a further dissolution of large institutional churches. I foresee more and more splintering into smaller independent faith communities (churches); but I also foresee more faith communities interested in collaboration and open dialogue: open to women; open to gay, bi, and trans; and open to new historical and biblical discoveries. I foresee more faith communities without hierarchical distinctions between ordained and non-ordained: communities that simply acknowledge, as did the early Christians, a variety of roles and responsibilities, shared by men and women, within Christian communities.

I foresee faith communities with a clear and accurate historical and biblical understanding that simply eliminates a number of inter-church and intra-church problems. Some key examples would be: that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone; that women did preside at early Christian celebrations of Eucharist; that Jesus did not institute seven sacraments; that Jesus did not establish an institutional church; that Jesus said absolutely nothing about birth control or homosexuality; that ordination does not confer any kind of sacred power; that ordination is about ensuring competent and trustworthy ministers; that there were men and women who were apostles; that the Body of Christ is much larger than the Catholic Church; and that Peter the Apostle was never a bishop of Rome.

I hope to see prophetic church communities that challenge ignorance, hatred, misogyny, and racist behavior. 

Because of people leaving the large institutional churches, there may very well be major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church. It would be unable to maintain its real estate, institutions, and services. In the Catholic Church, for instance, there could be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I would not say I rejoice in this; but could simply acknowledge it as a fact of life.

Nevertheless, all in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. I enjoy being an exploratory believer. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit. Certainly, I foresee a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.

Regardless what happens sixty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own lives, ministry, and witness.

And a final observation: We can and should ask if Avi Loeb and his colleagues really did witness an extraterrestrial “spaceship” operated by intelligent life from outer space. Personally, I think this could be very exciting. I am not fearful. Our faith is our strength and the greatest wisdom in view of such awesome possibilities. I wonder, actually, how intelligent beings from another planet would understand God, Jesus Christ, and the Trinity. I wonder how they would understand values like compassion and mutual respect and collaboration.

Contemporary astrophysicists stress that there are billions of galaxies in the universe, containing even billions more stars. With an exploratory mindset, I resonate with Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the Glory of God.”



 A bit longer reflection this weekend, by necessity. 

Writing about abortion I fear is opening a Pandora’s Box. Nevertheless, I really feel I need to offer some reflections about this very heated moral issue. I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought. I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992  that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

According to the Associated Press, for the leaders of the two largest US Christian denominations  — the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — the major concern about the Joseph Biden administration is its support for abortion rights. Many US Catholic bishops and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of course, have been very critical of President Biden.

When writing about abortion, I would like to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

I would begin with a clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary US anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and ignore poverty, healthcare, crime, equality, nuclear weapons buildup, and the environment. Such behavior is not pro-life and some bishops in the U.S., like  Bishop John Stowe,  Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky and Bishop Robert McElroy, Diocese of San Diego, have made this very clear. 

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes convenient rhetorical shorthand for avoiding  the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues. 

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his 1983 “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. Bernardin was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977.  I still resonate completely with his “Seamless Garment” perspective. Unfortunately it was later criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion.

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%. 

US attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 US Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to the Pew Forum, as of 2019, public support for legal abortion remains high. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. In terms of religious affiliation, about three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 83% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. It leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the US abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate. 

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person. (The famous 1971 article, for example,  “A Defense of Abortion” by the American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thompson, argued that even if the embryo or a fetus is a person, the woman does not have an obligation to carry it in her uterus.)

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and  40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females. Aquinas and his contemporaries knew nothing about the female contribution to procreation. (Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten.)

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church. As recently as 1974, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged that the issue of “ensoulment” was still an open question.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture  of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed,  I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the morality of voting for candidates who favor the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes.

In Gaudium et Spes we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. … As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good. This means that conscience is accountable to God.”

I remember, with a bit of a chuckle, the observation of the Anglo-Catholic saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his  “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” a book written in 1875:  “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Newman’s observation reminded me of  the 1969 commentary on  Gaudium et Spes, by then theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who stated unequivocally: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” 

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.


The American Way of Religion

Two realities that still stand out for me, when I think about the violent invasion of the US Capitol on January 6th ,  are the aggressive Christian nationalism and the hateful antisemitism of the demonstrators. When I mentioned this to an American friend, he commented “ok but we are and always have been a Christian country and should remain that way.” I had no desire to get into an argument with my friend but I started thinking about contemporary religious identity and the religious history of the United States..

Contrary to what my friend believes, religion in the United States is quite diverse. And it always has been. Many of the “Founding Fathers” – and mothers – were not Christians. Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were Deists. English deism had an important influence on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the principles of religious freedom asserted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Some debate whether or not George Washington was a Deist. In any event he was not antisemitic. In August 1790, prior to visiting them with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, President Washington wrote his brief but famous  “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island.” Therein he stressed: that religious toleration should give way to religious liberty: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” [Back then the word “demean” meant “conduct oneself in a particular way.” JAD]

Historically, a variety of religious faiths have flourished in what became the United States. Religions pluralism and diversity began with the various native beliefs in pre-colonial times.

In colonial times, Anglicans, Quakers, and other mainline Protestants arrived from Northwestern Europe. (My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quakers from Cheshire, England.) In the mid to late 19th and 20th century, an unprecedented number of Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian immigrants arrived in the United States. There were of course Catholics present in small numbers early in the history of the United States, both in Maryland and in the former French and Spanish colonies that were eventually absorbed into the US. Jewish people have been present since the 17th century; and the Muslim presence in what is now the United States began with the arrival of African slaves. About 10% of African slaves transported to what is now the United States were Muslim.

Since the 1990s, the number of US Christians has decreased, while Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions have spread, mainly due to immigration. In the decade starting in 2010, Protestantism ceased being the majority religion due primarily to an increase of Americans professing no religious affiliation.

So today the USA religious landscape looks about like this: 65% of the total adult population is Christian with 43% identifying as Protestants, 20% as Catholics, and 2% as Mormons. People with no formal religious identity account for 26% of the total population. Judaism is the second-largest religion in the US, practiced by 2% of the population, followed by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, each with 1% of the population.

Some summary observations about the American way of religion: The United States is not a Christian country. It is a religiously pluralistic country. Freedom of religion means freedom for all Americans. Inter-religious respect and dialogue means respect and dialogue for all Americans. The US Federal Government was the world’s first national government without state-endorsed religion, and the framers of the US Constitution rejected any religious test for office.

Religious ignorance and collective delusions are not new. The American way of religion offers a number of challenges for today and for tomorrow. Better education for sure. Perhaps the biggest challenge is really believing in “one nation, under God, with liberty, and justice for all.”


US Catholics a Divided House

Catholics now make up about 20% of the US population – down from close to 24% in 2007 – but the American Catholic Church is still larger than any other single religious institution in the United States. Catholics in recent years, however, have faced a number of significant challenges: an ongoing decline in membership, a shortage of priests, major financial problems, and continuing revelations of clerical sexual abuse. The US Catholic Church has experienced a greater net membership loss than any other US religious group.

Like contemporary US society, American Catholics, are also highly — and often heatedly —  polarized. Edison Research exit polls estimate that 52% of all Catholic voters went for Biden this past November, and 47% for Trump. The Edison exit polls in 2016 showed a 46% Catholic vote for Clinton, and 50% for Trump.

US Catholic bishops, with just a few exceptions, have been strongly supportive of Donald Trump, and critical of Democrats and now President Joseph Biden. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who gave the invocation at his inauguration, has been a strong supporter of his “great friend” former president Donald Trump. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St. Louis and a former Vatican official, is probably the de facto leader of the Church’s conservative wing. He calls Democrats the “party of death.” This past autumn, when interviewed on the conservative Catholic show “The World Over,” he described the then presidential candidate Joseph Biden, as involved in a “grave, immoral evil that is the source of scandal.” The former archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput (the first archbishop of Philadelphia since 1921, by the way, to not have been made a cardinal), said, in December 2020, that President-elect Joe Biden should be banned from receiving communion because of his support for abortion rights and same-sex relationships. On its website the Catholic far right Church Militant called President Biden “Phony Baloney.” The strongest Catholic words about President Biden have come from Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of the Catholic anti-abortion group Priests for Life and an advisory board member of Catholics for Trump. In an angry tweet, later deleted, he denounced “this goddamn loser Biden and his morally corrupt, America-hating, God hating Democrat party.”

I guess it was really no surprise then that even before President Biden’s inaugural  ceremony had finished, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — issued an extensive statement criticizing Biden for policies “that would advance moral evils,” especially “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”  Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, immediately pushed back on Twitter, calling the statement by Archbishop Gomez “ill-considered,” because it was drafted without input from the conference’s administrative committee. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, told Catholic News Service: “What I don’t understand are people who use very harsh words and want to cut off all communication with the president…”  A senior Vatican official (as reported in America Magazine) called Archbishop Gomez’s statement “most unfortunate” and feared it could “create even greater divisions within the church in the United States.” I find it significant to note that the day BEFORE President Biden’s inauguration both Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Tobin had put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make NO STATEMENT, as did the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. 

On  January 21st, the American journalist, Michael Sean Winters, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, characterized the new Catholic president and the US Catholic divided house this way: “Biden did more in 24 hours to remind the American people that the Catholic Church can be a force for good in our country than the bishops’ conference has done in 10 years. His memorial service for COVID-19 victims was more pastoral than their repugnant statement. Biden’s inaugural address was a better articulation of Catholic ideas about governance than any recent document from the conference. He cited Augustine to help unite our brutally divided country. They turn to citations that exacerbate the divide. Biden has allowed himself to be enriched by the faith of others, Catholic and non-Catholic. Gomez seems stuck in his Opus Dei playbook.”

Since the late 1970s, in fact, conservative US Catholics and evangelicals have been allies in the “culture war” that has shaped US partisan politics. This has been due in no small part to the conservative “reform of the reform” of the Second Vatican Council undertaken by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the bishops they appointed to make it happen.

Yes. Today the US Catholic Church is a divided house and it is time for institutional reformation. A good project for Lent 2021 that begins on February 17th.  A change in mentality is certainly needed: one that’s more open and inviting, less restrictive, and less confrontational. We need better educated leaders, who have undergone a kind of pastoral renewal with updated historical and theological perspectives.

Ongoing theological education and formation has been a big part of my life. With men and women in ministry or preparing for ministry. Even with bishops. I remember a session – now a few years ago – with a small group of US bishops, whom I knew as friends. They were complaining to me that they felt “out of touch” with their clergy and lay people. After a few minutes the group fell silent. I looked at them and calmly and simply said “Gentlemen, with all due respect, you don’t have much credibility anymore. Your knowledge of church history is minimal. Your biblical perspective and understanding resonate more with the early 1950s, as does your understanding of human sexuality and gender.” No one became angry. No got up and walked out of the room. We had a very sincere and respectful discussion. A  number of those men later went on continuing ed. sabbaticals. Others began to seek out, to read, and to listen to well-respected theologians. It can happen.

We all need renewed perspectives. Progressives as well as conservatives. In the process we need to listen to each other with humility, respect, inquisitive minds, and compassionate understanding. No one has all the answers. All theologies – even the ones I like —  are provisional until a better explanation is found. We are all teachers and we are all learners. We are all believers…..We do need each other. A divided “Body of Christ” is neither life-giving nor Christian.

Sooner or later divided houses collapse, but they take a lot of innocent victims with them.


Translation Perspectives: Jesus and Early Christians

Starting this week, we can pursue new perspectives in a great many ways. Whether it is about Covid-19, social action, or religious and political polarization, I hope there will be new perspectives anchored in honesty, fairness, and human compassion for all.

Another Voice begins our “new perspective days” with some translation perspectives on Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian believers.

English and other languages have always intrigued me. In high school and college, Latin and Greek were my favorite “foreign” languages. Since then I have added facility with a few more languages; and in my spare time (retired people have more spare time), I do a lot of translation work.

When it comes to Sacred Scripture, especially the New Testament, I have come to realize that some translations present a perspective somewhat out of sync with what the biblical authors really said. This week, therefore, my focus is on New Testament translations using the words “Jew” and “Jews.” These translations invite reflection, especially when we see antisemitism on the rise across the United States and in Europe. 

By the time of the Roman Empire, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, the Greek word Hebraioi referred to those whom today we call “Jews,” but, really should be more correctly translated as “Hebrews,” since strictly speaking there were no “Jews” back then. It would be similar to someone writing about William Bradford and the 1620 Mayflower Pilgrims and calling them “US citizens.”

Contrary to what some Christians understand, the leaders of the first Christian community in Jerusalem were called Hebraioi: “Hebrews.” In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (265 – 339 CE), historian and later bishop, tells us that the Christian community at Jerusalem, “consisted of faithful Hebrews.” The New Testament “Epistle to the Hebrews,” once incorrectly attributed to Paul the Apostle, was probably written for these Hebrew Christians. The author is really unknown.

Today we are gradually correcting biblical translations that have contributed to antisemitism. It is a slow process. The New Testament is not antisemitic. Jesus was a Hebrew. His Hebrew name was Yeshua, which is a derivative from the Hebrew verb meaning “to rescue” or “to deliver.” His early disciples were Hebrews. We also have a much better historical realization that the structure of first century Hebrew synagogues directly shaped the structure of first century Hebrew Christian communities. A “president,” “deacons,” a “precentor” (song or prayer leader), and “teachers” were found in both the synagogues and in the Christian communities. James, the brother of Jesus, was the president of the early Christian community at Jerusalem. 

Studies of the Hebrew nature of early Christianity have brought many new insights and better understandings of the first-century Christian scriptures. A good example, whose complete meaning is missed in most English translations, is the story in Matthew 9:20–21. “Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’” (New International Version NIV) The Greek word kráspedon translated here as the “edge of his cloak” means edge but more precisely the embroidered border of a garment, especially with conspicuously large tassels. The woman was, most likely, reaching for the tassels on Jesus’ Hebrew prayer shawl. This gives a very different perspective on the historical Jesus: Yeshua called rabbi.

Neither Jesus nor his disciples ever renounced their Hebrew faith. They did not attempt to start a new religion. Christianity is an organic development from Hebrew roots, what today we call “Judaism.” Unfortunately the Greek and Latin biblical words for “Hebrews” and for “Judeans” have too often been incorrectly translated as “Jews.” In the Bible, we find Hebrews, Israelites, and Judeans; but NEVER “Jews.” The word “Jew” did not enter the English language until the twelfth century CE.  

In the 2001 third edition of Bauer’s Lexicon, one of the most highly respected dictionaries of Biblical Greek, one reads that the preferred English translations for the Greek words Ioudaios and Ioudaioi are not “Jew” and “Jews” but “Judean” and “Judeans.” Reviewing academic publications over the last ten to fifteen years, one sees increasingly the terms “Judean” and “Judeans,” rather than “Jew” and “Jews.” If the term “Judean” is used instead of “Jew” in translations, especially in the Gospel of John, it dislodges some of the old  antisemitism problem.

But we still have the important question: How did antisemitism get started?

As the church moved westwards and away from its Hebrew roots, the Roman church leaders, with barrel vision, created theologies which virtually did away with all that was Hebrew. New ideas began to spring up as early as 160–220 CE in the Roman African communities represented by Tertullian (c 155 – 240?), the early Christian author from Carthage, who argued that the non-Hebrew Christians had been chosen by God to replace the Hebrews, because they were more worthy and more honorable than the Hebrews. Antisemitism was also spearheaded by popular speakers like John Chrysostom  (349–400 CE) the “golden-mouthed” early Church “Father” who became Archbishop of Constantinople in 397 CE. In his prejudiced ignorance, he stressed that because the Hebrews rejected Christ, the Christian God in human flesh, they therefore deserved to be killed and were “fit for slaughter.” 

Antisemitism, with ecclesiastical approval, took off very quickly in the Middle Ages. Violent mobs accompanying the First Crusade, and particularly the People’s Crusade of 1096, attacked Jewish communities in Germany, France, and England, and put many Jewish people to death. Expulsion of Jewish people from cities became increasingly common in the 13th to 15th centuries. Ecclesia and Synagoga, a pair of contrasting images, began to decorate the facades of churches and appear in stained glass windows: Ecclesia is a woman depicting the Christian Church triumphant, wearing a crown, holding a cross in one hand and a chalice in the other, and looking confidently forward. Synagoga, representing people of the Hebrew tradition, is a blindfolded and unhappy  looking woman, carrying a broken staff, and crushed tablets of the Law.

Antisemitism is not just hateful and discriminatory. It is irresponsibly ignorant about Jesus and early Christianity: our spiritual roots. May we proceed in this new year, with new perspectives and renewed commitment to our Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The new dawn blooms as we free it 

for there is always light 

if only we are brave enough to see it

if only we are brave enough to be it”

– Amanda Gorman (January 20, 2021 – Washington DC)


A Disease More Deadly Than Covid-19

A bit early this week due to current and evolving events….My theological observation about last week’s terrorism in Washington DC….

As we so painfully saw, thousands of Trump-inspired demonstrators  broke into and vandalized the US Capitol on Wednesday January 6th. They came from across the country, including several hundred from my home state Michigan. Angry people at war with both truth and democracy.

The wild demonstrators had various affiliations — QAnon, Proud Boys, elected officials, everyday Americans — but they were united by one allegiance to their cult leader and his post truth environment. Many carried  “Christian” symbols and banners proclaiming “Jesus is my savior, Trump my president.”  They think they are saving the world from Satan. They carried crosses and flags announcing “Jesus 2020.” Constantine (272 – 337 CE),  the world’s first authoritarian “Christian” monarch, would have been very proud of them. He marched and fought along the Tiber in 312 CE with the Chi Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, painted on the soldiers’ shields.

Last week, the merging of Trump and Jesus was a common theme. Right-wing Catholics proclaimed their support as well. Church Militant (Ecclesia Militans) called the terrorists’ ransacking of the Capitol “an act of American patriots.” The Catholic anti-abortion LifeSite proclaimed “What I saw was a lot of people who love God and love their country.”

What I saw last week and see in this week’s news updates is a bunch of Right wing “Christians” with a neo-medieval vision incompatible with constitutional democracy. They may be on the far Right but their vision of Christ and Christianity is far wrong.

The mobsters who pillaged the US seat of government followed orders from their authoritarian leader. They beat the police with pipes. “Hang Mike Pence!” they chanted as they pressed inside. Outside, a makeshift gallows stood, ready for Biden’s execution complete with wooden steps and the noose. Guns and pipe bombs were stashed in the vicinity.

Trump exhorted his supporters “to fight.” “We will never give up, we will never concede,” he shouted, delighting the crowd and calling Democratic election victories the product of what he called “explosions of bullshit.” Trump’s faithful followers used Christian rhetoric and symbols but behaved like anti-Christian barbarians.

Very early in the Trump presidency the authoritarian cult danger signs were there:

  • Opposing critical thinking and calling it fake and leftist thinking.
  • Isolating critical authoritarian followers and penalizing them for being disloyal to his administration.
  • Emphasizing values like dishonesty and the denigration of other people: values so fundamentally contrary to the example and teaching of Jesus.
  • Fabricating thousands of falsehoods and calling them statements of truth and reality.
  • Using family members to strongly support his cultic leadership with unquestioned loyalty and devotion.
  • Using Christianity and church leadership to support his home-grown fascist cause, while remaining a non-church-going-agnostic.
  • Gladly accepting the religious devotion of authoritarian followers who proclaimed him chosen and sent by God.

Authoritarian leaders in public office find religion a wonderful convenience. It enables them to lord it over other people; and it allows them to punish their “enemies” guilt-free, since that punishment, they can proclaim, is what God wants. It enables them to bully people and denigrate them: women, gays, non-whites, foreigners, and miscellaneous “losers.” Values like love, mercy, and compassion disappear. The key value is faithfulness and obedience to the authoritarian leader.

There are classic historical examples: The atheist and anti-clerical Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) needed backing by the Vatican to promote his National Fascist Party. He therefore married in the Catholic church and had his children baptized. In his first parliamentary speech in 1921, he announced that “the only universal values that radiate from Rome are those of the Vatican.” —- Spain’s Generalissimo Franco (1892 – 1975) became a cruel and murderous dictator; but most Spanish Catholic bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. The Catholic Church portrayed the Spanish Civil War as a holy one against “godless communists” and called for Catholics in other countries to support Franco’s Nationalists. Although Franco himself was known for not being very devout, he portrayed himself as a fervent Catholic and used religion as a means to increase his power and  popularity. He used the Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey (Warriors of Christ the King) to implement his culture of torture and executions. —- And of course we know the story of Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). Hitler ceased being a Catholic when a teenager. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity” which rejected most traditional Christian doctrines especially the divinity of Jesus. He described Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against the corrupt Pharisees. Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945) Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda and one of his closest and most devoted associates, wrote in April 1941 that although Hitler was “a fierce opponent” of the Vatican and Christianity, “he forbids me to leave the church. For tactical reasons.”

These authoritarian dictators used Christianity just like Donald Trump, a “good friend” of New York’s Cardinal Dolan, has used conservative Christians, who conveniently looked the other way when it came to his immoral behavior. Their argument: he was publicly anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, supported religious liberty, and (to keep Dolan happy) supportive of Catholic schools. 

A great number of US “Christians” still believe Donald J. Trump has been “anointed by God.” Remember that day in early June 2020 when, Bible in hand, the President posed for photos in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. It was a moment of political theater only made possible by spraying  protesters with tear gas. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Budde, stressed that Trump had used the Bible at St. John’s “as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position.” God bless Bishop Budde.

Ideally, religion maintains and gives meaning to our lives. It proclaims values about how we should live and how we should relate to one another. It can unite us and give us hope and courage for tomorrow. All the great religious traditions call for honesty, justice, respect, and compassion. When grossly distorted, however, religion can also be a source of violent division, destruction, and death.

Promoting a healthy Christian way of life, my friends, may very well be our biggest Christian challenge in 2021. With each other we need to reflect and examine our beliefs and behavior. And we need to call our religious leaders to repent and reform. As the Jesuit Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America,  observed: “This is the time for Christian leaders to admit their part in the violence at the Capitol. When you cast elections as ‘good versus evil,’ vilify candidates and say that voting for one candidate is a ‘mortal sin,’ you encourage people to think that today’s actions are moral.”

America is not broken. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The destination is not a white, Christian America but a society with liberty and justice FOR ALL. Leadership counts. Character counts. Authentic Christianity makes it happen. 


A New Journey

January 6, 2021  :  Epiphany

With courage, hope, and creative energy we begin our flight into the New Year. 

For many years, my special area of research and teaching has been religion and values in American society. That area of observation and research is never dull, as we see in this week’s current events. I have no doubts that Covid-19 will be conquered and controlled. The more dangerous virus, however, is hateful and violent socio-political polarization; and this deadly virus will be much more difficult to conquer and control. It will indeed take a lot of courage, reinforced by shared hope, and much shared reflection and action.

Over the holidays I have had a chance to review some of my “religion and values” notes, in preparation for a book that should appear in the new year. I once again read a document written by the Appalachian Catholic Bishops in 1975, titled “This Land is Home to Me.” Their words were so appropriate back then. And…they ring so true today. 

Here are a few lines that have inspired me over the years:

“Although the Catholic tradition fully acknowledges the legitimacy of self-defense and force as the final recourse against injustice, we must beware of the temptation of a too easy violence — of a bitterness which can poison that for which we struggle, or which still worse, can provoke from forces of injustice an even more brutal and repressive institutional violence whose first victim is always the poor….

“We wish to thank the many Spirit-filled and dedicated people…who all along have been struggling in hidden or dramatic ways, for justice and unity among people. We thank the youth who have not given up hope, and who continue to believe in freshness in human experience. We thank parents, whose lives have been such that our youth have reason to hope. We thank the elderly, who despite great hardship, continue to survive with spirit and grace, and whose quiet wisdom inspires us all….We believe in the voice of Yahweh among us….

“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, and where in a wilderness of idolatrous destruction the great voice of God still cries out for life.”


The prophetic challenge of “This Land is Home to Me” speaks to all of us today and especially to the institutional church and its leadership.

My very best wishes for 2021. May we be hopeful, collaborative, and creative as we travel into this New Year.



Today’s  photo of a great bald eagle in flight was taken by John Zuk, a friend from Battle Creek, Michigan. I use it with John’s permission. It captured for me the vision of courageously flying into the new year. John’s photo also reminded me of lines from “On Eagles’Wings” by Fr. Michael Joncas, liturgist, and composer: 

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in his shadow for life, Say to the Lord, ‘My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!’ And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings…”