Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pentecost: Divine Polyculture vs. Imperial Monoculture

By Ched Myers

Note: This commentary was first published May 21, 2015 at Radical Discipleship, and is part of an ongoing series of Ched Myer’s brief comments on the Revised Common Lectionary during Year B, 2015.

How is it that we heard, each of us, in our own native tongue? (Acts 2:8)

Since the dawn of colonization, the Americas have been defined by the struggle between dominant culture ideologies of conformity imposed by those in power, and grassroots cultural diversity among those on the margins. This tension between fantasies of racial supremacy and realities of racial diversity remains one of the supreme challenges facing the U.S., and thus our churches, today. The future of North American society depends upon our ability to live peaceably and justly with human diversity — and the same can be said of the human experiment as a whole. The question is whether we can, in church and in society, forge models of coexistence-with-congruence rather than unity-by-uniformity.

This question is as ancient as our scriptures. In particular, two related texts, one from each Testament, articulate key issues of cultural heterogeneity, social health and human freedom. One is the divine deconstruction of imperial homogeneity represented by the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The other is the multicultural insurrection against Roman imperial monoculture on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

In the former tale—one the oldest in the Bible—the divine “council” that created human beings (Gen 1:26) and that had to expel them from the Garden (3:22) intervenes against the centripetal, homogenizing project of Babel: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (11:7). This is the closing warning tale in the overall narrative arc of Genesis 1-11, concluding that the way to resist social and political forces of centralization is to reassert the Creator’s original intention that human communities be “scattered abroad over the face of the earth” (1:28; 9:1). The divine antidote is a re-dispersion of peoples (11:8), symbolized here by both linguistic/cultural variety and geographic diffusion.

This “scattering” is portrayed in Genesis not as the tragic result of God’s judgment, as is usually preached in our churches, but rather as an act of centrifugal liberation from urban monoculture and superconcentration. This is archetypal movement from center to margins finds further articulation in two foundational stories in Torah: that of Abram (Gen 11:31-12:5) and Exodus.

The ancient Hebrews, repeatedly displaced or colonized by urban civilization, seem to have developed a paleo-psychic impulse toward such centrifugality, summarized in the Psalmist’s later reiteration of Babel’s lesson: “Truly, I would flee far off; I would lodge in the wilderness… Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city” (Psalm 55:7ff). Israel’s survival was predicated upon resistance to successive empires through a stubborn maintenance of its own cultural, linguistic and religious distinctiveness and nonconformity. Centuries later, Jewish Christians surrounded by the dominating architecture and homogenizing social forces of the Roman Empire renewed this ancient tradition of resistance, as narrated in Luke’s story of the birth of the Christian church that we celebrate at Pentecost.

Acts 2 narrates the inauguration of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit—though what sort of practices the Spirit empowered has been a divisive issue among Christians ever since. Today ecclesial debates about what it means to be “Spirit-filled” usually focus on individual charismatic gifts, rather on the church as an alternative social model. But in Luke’s narrative, the Spirit ignited a multilingual eruption at the heart of cosmopolitan Jerusalem and in the face of Roman social control, in the long tradition of Jewish centrifugal challenges to centripetal empire.

In this multilingual insurgency Luke is affirming the diverse cultural contexts in which the new Christian movement would soon take flesh as the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world. But the echoes of the ancient Babel tale are unmistakable: “And at this sound the multitude came together and were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in their own language” (Acts 2:6; Gk sungcheō is the same root word used in the Septuagint text of Gen 11:7,9). This is not, as it is usually misconstrued, a reversal of the alleged “curse” of Babel. Rather, Pentecost re-iterates that tale’s polemic, and the divinely-sanctioned strategy to deconstruct pathological imperial homogeneity by reclaiming cultural diversity. The gift of tongues communicates across linguistic differences without suppressing or eradicating those differences. That is what distinguishes true gospel mission from cross-and-sword conquest in the service of empire that has characterized Christendom all too often. Unity through the Spirit does not mean monoculture, but the celebration of human variety.

The local cultures around the world that are carried by today’s immigrant poor have been eroded by centuries of colonialism, and are in danger of being extinguished by the onslaught of global capitalism’s drive for commodified homogeneity. The church must reassert the Genesis wisdom of a “scattered” human family by nurturing diversity, and must reaffirm the Pentecostal vocation of native-language empowerment. For in the great narrative of the Bible, God’s intervention is always subversive of the centralizing project of empire, and always on the side of the excluded and outcast, the refugee and immigrant. The Spirit has busted up business-as-usual many times since Babel and Jerusalem, and she is waiting to do the same in our own time—if our tongues would but dare to loosen.

Note: This is an edited excerpt from Chapter One of Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (Orbis, 2012). See also the longer reflection here. These themes will be discussed in Radical Discipleship's next webinar on June 16, 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Transgender and Catholic

By Nick Stevens

Note: This commentary was first published by The New York Times.

Transgender and Catholic. These two words often aren’t used in the same sentence (at least in a positive way), but these words best describe who I am.

Yes, I'm a Roman Catholic in an increasingly secular world. But I'm also a Catholic in a transgender community who has often experienced religion as a mask for bigotry or even violence.

So when I came out as a transgender male at my small Catholic college in St. Louis I feared my peers would not respond well. Whether it was reactions of hesitation or outright exclusion, I knew things would change.

And things did change. But for the better.

My Catholic peers not only tolerated, but embraced me.

Even my grandmother, who is a traditional Catholic, gave me her blessing. In her words and actions, she communicated to me the fundamental truths of our faith: that God made us to be who we are, and if we aren't being true to ourselves, then we aren't being true to God.

Her acceptance was a testament to God’s unfailing love, and it allowed me to be true to myself.

I now work with a Catholic non-profit that promotes the social mission of the Church in public life. My co-workers affirm, respect, and support my gender identity. I also live in an intentional Catholic community committed to the values of social justice, simple living, and peace.

Those who believe the Church will never include LGBT people are blind to a Church that already does. Catholics who include and embrace the LGBT community aren’t acting contrary to the faith, but in accordance with the faith’s highest values.

My Catholic faith provides the moral foundation of my life. It’s taught me the value of radical inclusivity, particularly towards those who are discriminated against because of where they came from, how they identify, or who they love.

I've witnessed for myself the home that the Catholic Church can provide to the LGBT community. So it pains me to see headline after headline of transgender people who have been victims of violence, particularly in the name of religion.

And I won't stop working towards a Church that welcomes all and excludes none.

Why? Because this is my faith. And this the faith of the Church.

See also the previous PCV post:
Sub Secretum

Monday, May 18, 2015

Twin Cities Catholics Respond to Pope Francis' Invitation and Speak Out on Sexual Issues

By Mary Ellen Jordan

NOTE: This commentary was first published May 18, 2015 at MinnPost.

Every Catholic knows that the Catholic Church’s stance on sexuality comes across to many people as basically negative — a series of no's and prohibitions. The traditional stringency of Catholic sexual ethics has ostracized many Catholics and pained many more.

The Council of the Baptized, a 21-member panel of Catholics chartered in January 2012 as part of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (a group that is not officially recognized by the Archdiocese), is giving voice to the conscience concerns of a growing community of Twin Cities Catholics. The disconnect between the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and people’s lived experiences has prompted its members to issue a position paper titled “Toward a Healthy Christian Theology of Sexuality.” The position paper is being distributed widely throughout the Twin Cities.

The position paper is timely. Pope Francis, believing in a more compassionate Catholic Church, has called for an international conversation on sexuality and the family in preparation for the Synod of Bishops on the Family to be held in Rome, in October 2015. These local Catholics are responding to the pope’s invitation to the faithful worldwide to contribute their lived experience to this conversation. “Toward a Healthy Christian Theology of Sexuality” centers on the important issues of artificial contraception, homosexuality, and cohabitation, divorce and remarriage. The position paper summarizes Church teaching on these topics, and then outlines opposition from theologians, health organizations and world opinion. It points out promising new directions that are already appearing.

Large and small groups are discussing “Toward a Healthy Christian Theology of Sexuality" in living rooms and around kitchen tables. Participants are telling stories about how their experiences, and those of their family members and friends, have brought them into conflict with official Church teachings on sexuality. These often heartfelt stories, written anonymously in very short paragraphs, will be sent to Archbishop John Nienstedt and to all the American bishops who will be attending the Synod on the Family.

Mary Beth Stein and I, the major writers of the paper, will appear on The Mary Hanson Show tonight (Monday, May 18) at 9:30 on TPT MN (check your local listings for channel). Both of us are faithful Catholics who love the Church. We understand that Church teachings develop over time in the light of new understanding and information. One of the most important points we make in the interview is that Church teachings are reformable. We acknowledge that change is often hard, and sometimes it is slow in coming, but that the Catholic tradition is a living tradition. We agree with theologian Paul Lakeland that “incompleteness is an inescapable facet of history,” and “what is not open to change is already dead.”

We mention instances where the Church has responded to new information and reformed many of its teachings. For instance, the rise of the capitalist economy led the Church to stop its condemnation of the charging of interest (usury). When scientific evidence became overwhelming, the Church formally, if belatedly, recognized Galileo’s contribution to an understanding of our sun-centered solar system. We point out that despite the ongoing controversy over evolution, Catholic theologians have begun to mine rich insights into the human condition from Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“Toward a Healthy Theology of Sexuality” is available as a free PDF file here. Catholics who would like to host a Listening Session on the position paper can learn more by checking the Council of the Baptized website.

Mary Ellen Jordan is a retired educator, having taught at St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

LGBTQ+ Catholic Youth Summit to Proceed Despite Chancery's Misstep

By Michael Bayly

Sadly for some, this post could appropriately be titled: How to ensure our youth join the documented exodus of Catholics from the church.

Why? Well, let me explain by first noting that the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition is a student-run initiative that describes itself as "a group of individual students from Catholic schools in Minnesota, and Catholic identified individuals who attend public or non-Catholic private schools, who are interested in advancing LGBTQ+ equity in their schools and local communities."

The inspiring mission of this student-led coalition is to "create genuine, open conversation about LGBTQ+ issues at Catholic schools for faculty, staff, administrators, and students in Minnesota, and a safer, more equitable Catholic school environment for all students, particularly LGBTQ+ identified students."

Members of the coalition come from four of the eleven Twin Cities metro-area Catholic high schools: Benilde-St. Margaret's, Holy Family, Academy of Holy Angels, and Totino Grace.

Creating safe spaces

This Saturday, May 16, 2015, the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition, with support from OutFront MN and the Justice Office of the Sister's of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates – St. Paul Province, is hosting an event that's being billed as the "first annual LGBTQ+ Catholic student summit."

Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people of faith is the main goal of the summit, one that the coalition describes as "a day of conversation, learning, and action to improve the climate for LGBTQ+ individuals in Catholic environments, and the lives of LGBTQ+ Catholics in LGBTQ+ ones."

The day will begin with Mass, followed by a keynote address by Kristen Ostendorf, who, in 2013, was fired from her position of English/religion teacher at Totino-Grace Catholic High School after she came out to colleagues as gay and "happily in a relationship." (Ostendorf now teaches English at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul.) The summit's afternoon session will be devoted to a series of student-led workshops on creating safe spaces in Catholic schools, the experience of being LGBT and Catholic, and how to talk to people of faith about LGBT issues. The coalition and its partners expect more than 200 Catholic students from around the state to attend Saturday's summit.

The chancery responds

The young people who comprise the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition are quite impressive, wouldn't you say? I mean, they and their efforts are "signs and wonders" of the good news of Jesus, of God's transforming love breaking through into the world via the actions of people mindful and responsive to this love both in the depths of their being and in all aspects of creation. These young people are clearly embodying the gospel values of concern for the marginalized, compassion, inclusion, and justice. Also, their efforts to facilitate respectful dialogue reflect the leadership style of Pope Francis. Given all of this, one would think that these students and their efforts would be supported by the clerical leadership of the archdiocese. Not so.

You see, Saturday's LGBTQ+ Catholic Youth Summit was originally scheduled to take place at Christ the King Catholic Church in Minneapolis. However, earlier this week the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition posted the following message on its Facebook page:

The LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition regrets to announce that on orders from the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Christ the King Catholic Church is no longer able to host the LGBTQ+ Catholic Youth Summit.

Fortunately, Edina Community Lutheran Church (4113 W 54th St, Edina) has graciously agreed to host the event this Saturday, May 16.

While we are deeply disappointed that we are no longer able to host this event at a Catholic parish, the decision from the chancery clearly demonstrates the need for this event and the conversations we will be having on Saturday at the summit.

Now more than ever it’s important to come together as a community in solidarity! Can’t wait to see you all there.

In a statement to The Column, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt said he “intervened” in the decision of Christ the King to host the event because the forum is being “led by a speaker who has publicly dissented from Church teaching. . . . We are concerned that the content of the proposed presentation will contradict Church teaching, leaving those in attendance, especially young people, confused about the truth of the teaching long after the May 16th presentation.”

Another egregious misstep

Of course, this type of action from the chancery is not new; in relation to LGBT issues, it dates back to October 2007 and the banning of 82-year-old “cradle Catholic” Robert Curoe and his lesbian daughter, Carol, from speaking at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church about their book, Are There Closets in Heaven? A Catholic Father and Lesbian Daughter Share Their Story. (For my thoughts at the time on this action by the chancery, click here.) Indeed, when it comes to questioning voices and differing opinions around issues of sexuality and church reform, the general response of the chancery under Archbishop Nienstedt (who, it should be noted, remains under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct with adult men) has been to censor, denounce, and ban. In the context of our shared journey as Catholics, such actions are egregious missteps on the part of our clerical leadership.

One can only speculate on the impact that the chancery's banning of the summit from official Catholic property will have on the young members of the LGBTQ+ Catholic Student Coalition. Their Facebook statement puts a positive spin on things, but I'm sure that many of the young people involved are nevertheless feeling hurt and rejected by the message that's been sent by the chancery's directive.

This is significant, not to mention relevant to the alternative title to this post: How to ensure our youth join the documented exodus of Catholics from the church. For as Jane C. Timm notes in her MSNBC article of last year:

One third of young people who left organized religion did so because of anti-gay teachings or treatment within their churches, according to a new study.

While not surprising—it’s no secret that younger Americans are more accepting of gay people—it puts a number on the cost anti-gay policies can have on organizations.

A full 31% of young people (ages 18 to 33) who left organized religion said “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of gay people was a “somewhat important” or “very important” factor in their departure, as surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute.

A strong majority (58%) of Americans also said religious groups are “alienating” young people by “being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” A full 70% of young people said the same.

In response to the chancery's latest misstep, the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform is encouraging the members of its lay network to "write to Archbishop Nienstedt and tell him what you think of his decision to order Christ the King parish to cancel a GLBTQ youth event."

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt
226 Summit Avenue
St. Paul MN 55102

Phone: (651) 291-4400
Email: archbishop@archspm.org

For more information about the LGBTQ+ Catholic Youth Summit, including how to register, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
Students Organize Youth Summit to Be Held This Weekend – Grace Gyolai (Knight Errant, May 14, 2015).
First Annual LGBT Catholic Student Summit to Be Held Saturday – Andy Birkey (TheColu.mn, May 12, 2015).
America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow – Pew Research Center (May 12, 2015).
Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian – Nate Cohn (New York Times, May 12, 2015).
Study finds Significant Decline in Minnesotans Identifying Themselves as Catholic – Joe Kimball (MinnPost, May 12, 2015).
How the Church Can Get Millennials Back – Christopher J. Hale (Time, May 14, 2015).

NOTE: This commentary was first published on Michael's blog, The Wild Reed. For related Wild Reed posts, see:
Choosing to Stay
GSAs and the Catholic High School Setting
Dave Navarro to LGBT Youth: "We Need Your Voice"
The Two Editorials that Benilde-St. Margaret's Catholic High School Doesn't Want You to Read
How Times Have Changed
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis – Part 3: Archdiocese Defends CPCSM's Efforts on Behalf of Gay Students
CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis – Part 4: More on the Archdiocese's Efforts to Defend the Addressing of Gay Issues in Catholic High Schools

Friday, May 8, 2015

What is This Furor About Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty in the U.S. is under dire threat! The sky is falling!

Catholic bakers will have to make wedding cakes for same-sex marriages!

Here are some situations that are not in issue:

• People having to marry other people they don’t want to marry—not an issue

• People having to like, speak to, look at, or invite to their house same-sex married couples—not an issue

• Religions having to marry same-sex couples—not an issue

• Religions having to curb their speech in private or in the public sphere—not an issue

• Religious individuals having to curb their speech in private or in the public sphere—ditto

What is at issue?

Is the state justified in requiring you as a person doing business in public to serve all customers? Generally business people want customers, but if you do not want to serve a particular person, should the state be able to tell you that you must? You don’t have to serve everyone. Let’s say they are underage. They don’t have on a shirt or shoes. They are inebriated, disorderly, or dangerous. No service required.

But as a member of the public, benefiting from public protection and laws and from the trust of the community, can you turn away anyone you want? Over the years, we as our own law-makers have said we want to protect certain groups of people whose lives are made difficult by business people refusing service for no other reason than that the business person doesn’t like them. They have an “animus” for some reason. In the case of skin color that “animus” was making life difficult for a significant number of people. As a matter of public policy, we don’t want to stand by and let that happen.

Now we face this question: What if the customer is not complying with the laws and beliefs of your religion? Is that a good reason to refuse service, like no shirt or shoes, or is it an “animus”? Does the customer’s not believing as you do deprive you of religious liberty? You are Muslim, and a woman comes in to your store without a head covering. Is your religious liberty violated if the law requires you to sell her groceries? A traveler with a shopping bag from the liquor store hails your cab. Should you be allowed to pass him by? You are a Catholic, and a same-sex couple comes in to buy groceries. Can you refuse to sell them groceries? How about a wedding cake?

Is it a violation of your religious freedom for the state to require you to serve people who believe differently from you? Is selling goods and services a religious practice? And even if it is, do we as a matter of public policy want to allow business people to make life difficult for others because of religious differences? Does it foster peace and the common good to have religious strife in a pluralistic society?

What do you think of all this?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

San Francisco Archbishop’s Sex-Obsessed Message is Missing Mark

By Brian Cahill

Note: This op-ed was first published April 21, 2015 by The San Francisco Chronicle.

The controversy surrounding the failed leadership of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and the resulting outcry for his dismissal is not about questioning the teaching role of the archbishop. It’s not about resistance to Catholic doctrine being taught in Catholic high schools. And it’s not about unchangeable doctrine. We’re not talking about the Trinity or the Resurrection or other unchangeable teachings. We’re talking about church teaching regarding sexuality, a set of teachings in serious need of updating — just as church teaching was updated when church leaders figured out the Earth wasn’t flat, and slavery was evil, and women were not inferior to men (although some bishops are still struggling with that one).

This controversy is about the pastoral insensitivity of a spiritual leader who is creating fear and uncertainty among parents, teachers and students, including those students who are out or who are questioning their sexuality. This is about an archbishop who does not know how to effectively promulgate Catholic identity in the real world in which our church exists.

It’s good for the spiritual leader of our local church to emphasize Catholic teaching in our schools, especially in the secular society in which our children are coming of age. But how a bishop promotes Catholic identity is what is crucial, and that is the issue here. The question is: How does a Catholic organization — a school that does not limit its hiring or its services to Catholics — manage the tension between what our church teaches about sexuality and how it is expected to carry out its mission in the pluralistic society in which it lives and operates? The answer: very carefully.

Cordileone is a far cry from our new pope, who is not changing church doctrine but who has moved the entire world with his compassion and his inclusiveness. There’s a man who knows how to teach. There’s a man with moral authority.

Instead, we have Cordileone, who is trying to force his sex-obsessed version of Catholic identity in Catholic schools.

Instead of a Pope Francis teaching moment, we have a lost teaching opportunity — to not only teach about the real message of the Gospel of Jesus, the message of love and justice, but also to assist parents and teachers to inculcate a solid sense of morality and personal responsibility, to point out the destructiveness of casual sex, of relationships not based on maturity, commitment and caring, and to highlight the power and grace of both the non-physical and physical intimacy of marriage.

Cordileone’s approach is driving away young Catholics, is an abuse of employment rights and is substantially decreasing the influence of the Catholic Church as a voice for a values-driven approach to sexuality, let alone a voice for social and economic justice. That’s why people are upset.

That’s why 80 percent of the teachers in these schools publicly oppose the archbishop’s approach; that’s why thousands have signed the petitions taped to the cathedral doors by the parent leaders of Teach Acceptance. That’s why the signers of the paid ad in The Chronicle are calling for the archbishop’s removal.

The archbishop’s advisers say the signers do not represent the Catholic community here. But how would his advisers know that? They’ve barely unpacked their suitcases. The signers of the paid ad, the parents, teachers and students, and a growing number of concerned Catholics are not going away. What is going away rapidly is the moral authority and credibility of the archbishop of San Francisco.

Brian Cahill is the retired executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities.

Image: Michael Macor/The Chronicle.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Jesus' Radical Politics

By Brandon Ambrosino

In his kingdom, enemies are loved, the marginalized prioritized,
and wealth inequality exposed for the sham it is.

Note: This op-ed was first published April 1, 2015 by The Boston Globe.

Two thousand years have sanitized Easter for most people. Jesus is alive, we sing each spring, and now let’s get on with lilies and chocolates and bunnies and think about what his resurrection means for us — namely, that we get to go to heaven when we die, and perhaps more important, a lot of other people don’t.

A more careful look at the Gospels, however, might offer a much less sentimental, much more startling picture of the original Easter message, which was decidedly not, “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for the next world.” Rather, the true lesson was: “Jesus is alive, and here’s what that means for this one.”

The central claim of Easter — and indeed, of Christianity — has always been that the rejected, tortured, crucified, dead, and then resurrected Jesus is somehow Lord of the entire earth. If that doesn’t sound particularly scandalous today, imagine you’re hearing it for the first time while living in the Roman Empire. As many New Testament scholars argue, hearing “Jesus is Lord” in the first century might sound suspiciously like a bold rejection of the standard Roman creed at the time: “Caesar is Lord.” (There is a lot of discussion about this, but even a quick glance of the Gospels and Acts shows that the texts contain instances of anti-imperial rhetoric.)

What’s radical about Easter, then, is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means — specifically, what it meant for Rome, and, by implication, what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home. Black lives matter here, as do queer lives and the lives of undocumented aliens within our borders — “Remember the stranger in your midst” is a common refrain in this kingdom.

Of course, speaking about Jesus in such a political way is not without its dangers. Many with political agendas are guilty of branding their particular ideologies with the name of Jesus, both on the right and left. But there’s no denying that, at least in recent US history, conservatives have been ready to marry God and government. As a result, Christianity has come to be associated less with policies aimed at helping the poor — and more with those that often serve to keep them down. The tragic irony, of course, is that, as the Gospel of Luke teaches, Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated with the announcement that the Spirit of the Lord compels him to preach good news to the poor.

Though the name of God is sometimes invoked to justify war and greed and the oppression of already marginalized persons, the broken body of Jesus seems rather like a prophetic protest against those values. Philosopher John Caputo discusses this irony in his 2007 book, “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” — a play on the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” that many conservatives have plastered onto their cars, T-shirts, bracelets, etc.

The gospels, Caputo writes, invite us to imagine a new way of life where the poetics of Jesus’ kingdom are transformed into political structures:

“What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like if there were a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top-down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where ta me onta [lit. “the nothings”] enjoy pride of place and a special privilege?”

Caputo then asks this frightening question: “Would [this politics] not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus?”

One look at current events across the globe today, and Caputo’s imaginings may be easily dismissed. How can Americans simply turn the other cheek to our warring enemies? How can anyone expect the government to make sure each child is looked after? And working to eliminate poverty? Wasn’t Jesus talking about spiritual poverty? That’s a private matter, not a public one. Those kinds of policies just aren’t practical in 2015.

Of course they aren’t. They weren’t practical in Jesus’ day, either. That’s one of the reasons Jesus was killed. He was, to use Caputo’s word, mad. How else do you explain his teachings? Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to them who use you. Do not retaliate. Look after your neighbor. The meek will inherit the earth.

But the madness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man, as Paul reminds us, just like God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And it’s the kingdom of this God — who, contrary to what anyone expected, is weak, mad, and disruptive — that Jesus is both announcing and installing.

“If I, with the finger of God, cast out demons among you, then the Kingdom of God has come near to you,” says Jesus, and his Jewish hearers might have understood the scandalous reference. Scandalous because in this brief line, Jesus seems to be identifying himself with the same God who heard the cry of oppressed Israel and took it upon himself to liberate them from Egypt. As the Book of Exodus recounts, when Pharaoh refuses Moses’ request to let the Hebrews go, a battle of miracles quickly ensues. Though Pharaoh’s magicians try to imitate the wonders that Moses ascribes to God, they don’t succeed. “This is the finger of God,” they explain to Pharaoh, which creates wonders, which liberates God’s people from the empires that enslave them. The finger of God, they reluctantly acknowledge, is mightier than the strongest arm of any world leader.

In reinterpreting this passage around his life and ministry, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into what he thought of himself (who but God alone works wonders by the finger of God?) as well as into what he thought about his kingdom: that, though it’s ultimate fulfillment will be in the future, look around you — it’s already here. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains, for Jesus, God’s kingdom “wasn’t just an aspiration; it was an accomplishment.” Jesus was convinced that his life and preaching and miracles were bringing about the kingdom his followers had longed for.

Only, Jesus’ kingdom of peace and love looked much different than the one that Jews at the time hoped the Messiah would establish. One of Jesus’ more cryptic sayings is found in Matthew’s Gospel. After a strange discussion of kingdom, Jesus compares his audience to children sitting in the marketplace singing to each other, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” Jesus, he hears them say, you are not the Messiah we expected. To which he responds: I will not dance when you tell me to dance. I will not cry when you tell me to cry. I will not be the Messiah you tell me to be. I am here to show you a different sort of dance, a different way; follow me, and build my father’s kingdom, which looks very different than the ones you cling to.

This is the prophetic memory of Jesus that rushes toward us today. What would Jesus do if he showed up today, say, in Washington, D.C.? Would he turn a blind eye to racial injustices in Ferguson and elsewhere? Would he lobby to ensure that entire swaths of our population continue to feel as if they don’t belong in their cities, in their religious congregations, in their local bakeries? Would he, interested as he is in the physical bodies of all he encounters, enact policies that bar people from the health care they desperately need?

At the same time, can we really be sure that Jesus would protest with Wall Street Occupiers, railing against the one percent? This is the same Jesus who, as Luke recounts, tells his followers that if just one of their sheep wanders away from the fold, they are to leave the 99 and go after the one percent. And can we be equally sure that this Jesus, who has no patience for greed, would spend all of his energy condemning the wealthy? This is the same Jesus, after all, who is rumored to be the friend of tax collectors.

This is why it won’t do merely to begin with a political ideology and brand it with Jesus’ memory. The memory of Jesus is disruptive to all kingdoms, to all earthly powers, without respect to any specific political affiliation or agenda.

What we can imagine that Jesus would probably do — indeed what he definitely did do, is to suddenly, without warning, announce that his new kingdom is breaking in upon all of us, has broken in upon us, and that this kingdom is almost the exact reversal of what any of us thought kingdoms were supposed to be. This new king will not tolerate oppression and systemic poverty, nor he will excuse violence directed at those in power. He has no patience for any dirges or dances. He is here about his father’s business.

THE BELLS of Easter Sunday, comforting though they may be, are actually a call to war, albeit a nonviolent kind of war; a call to rise up, to act up, to announce to the powers and principalities that rule our nations that their power has an expiration date, that their rule is a sham, that their kingdom has been undone by the one who undoes death.

The rebuttal here has always been: Open your eyes. This kingdom you’re talking about — where the last are first, where the outsiders are preferred — is not here. There is war. There is evil. There is death and rape and racism and unemployment and sex trafficking. There is a brutally agonizing world here and now, and to pretend otherwise is either naive or morally bankrupt.

But Easter doesn’t deny these things. After all, even the resurrected body of Jesus contains crucifixion scars, which are Jesus’ eternal reminder that he was murdered by the very people he came to save. What Easter teaches is this: Even in the midst of the kingdom you’re living in, it’s possible to actually pledge loyalty to a different one. By feeding the hungry, forgiving your enemies, and providing shelter for the homeless, you can actually choose to live in the kingdom Jesus established.

Hope, then, is not a spiritual thing, or a reflective exercise; it’s decidedly physical. If you believe Jesus was raised from the dead, the obligation that Jesus puts upon you is to meet people’s physical needs. “Do not abandon yourselves to despair,” said Pope John Paul II. “We are the Easter people, and alleluia is our song.”

This alleluia is both a praise and protest. The world is made new, alleluia, and all lives matter. Creation is transformed, alleluia, and therefore let us embrace the strangers in our midst. The tomb is empty, alleluia, now let us work to heal the hurt of all those who have been discriminated against, made to feel like second-class citizens. In God’s kingdom, after all, there is only one class of citizen, because all have inherited the same birthright from their heavenly father.

Two thousand years later, the promise of Easter has not lost its power. The risen Jesus, then as now, invites us to live in this world as if it is somehow a different world.

Because, alleluia, it is.

Brandon Ambrosino covers culture and religion for Vox.com.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pope Francis Has a Woman Problem

By Jennifer Labbadia
Deputy Director of Development at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good

Note: This commentary was first published March 31, 2015 by The Huffington Post.

Two years into Francis' revolutionary papacy, and it's clear: the Catholic Church still has a significant woman problem, and it isn't getting much better. Shortly after his election, Francis called for a new theology of women, saying that "it is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church." To date, the church hasn't gotten the memo.

So in the context of Women's History Month, how can the church step up its game?

First the church must acknowledge where it's gone wrong. Women today face a myriad of systemic injustices, which manifest themselves into unfortunate everyday realities. They endure domestic violence, sex trafficking, the gender wage gap, lack of access to education and widespread poverty among many others.

Why hasn't the church spoken more forcefully against these structural sins? Instead, the Church too often limits "women's issues" to sexual ethics, most notably contraception and abortion.

There is no better example than last month's Vatican Conference on Women.

At the four day conference, after discussing gender stereotypes ad nauseum, the Vatican shifted gears to the number one issue facing women globally: the morality of plastic surgery.

At a time where the sexual exploitation of women is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, where women's access to education remains limited, and where there is a scandalous pay gap between men and women globally, the Catholic Church needs to focus on gender inequality, not the morality of plastic surgery.

Amid this bleak picture, there are signs of hope.

Under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Church is rediscovering the radical discipleship of women throughout its history. And now it can begin to examine new ways to promote gender equality both in the Church and in society. Pope Francis has said that we need a new theology of women, but perhaps more than that we need to recognize more fully the contribution women make every day in this church, a contribution that goes far beyond sexual ethics and femininity.

Kerry Robinson is one such example. A prominent lay woman in the United States, she uses her intellect, business acumen and fundraising capabilities to help create a better managed missionary church.

Robinson isn't alone. Religious women have been fulfilling Francis' call for a missionary church for decades. Sister Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur, exemplifies this spirit. She spent much of her life courageously fighting for the rights of poor farmers in the Amazon and sought to protect the forest's rich natural resources from loggers and ranchers. Her prophetic leadership wasn't without cost -- she was martyred in 2005.

These two examples aren't exceptions. Catholic women everywhere are on the front lines and in the trenches, serving the excluded, defending the poor and spreading the joy of the gospel. If these women give it all up in service of the church, they too should be a part of its decision-making authority.

As my colleague Christopher Hale rightly notes, this is the way it was in the beginning:

After Jesus' death, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to remove his body. On the way there, she encountered a gardener. The gardener revealed himself to be the risen Christ. As Mary ran to tell the other disciples the good news, she held within her the very reason of the church: to share God's saving love in Jesus. In that moment, some argue that she was the church.
The gardener knew what Pope Francis and the church must learn: when you want to get a tough job done, give it to a woman.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Current Culture War and the Way Toward Reform: Integral Consciousness

Following are two excerpts from Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution (2007) by Steve McIntosh.

There is in the developed world an increasingly bitter clash of worldviews wherein these stages are battling for control of the laws and mores of their societies. This cultural struggle is found not simply between liberals and conservatives; in the developed world, we actually face a three-way conflict between the values of traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism. Or perhaps more accurately, we are faced with a tug of war between traditionalism and postmodernism for the soul of the modernist majority. But however we characterize the culture war, we can see that the stakes are high. Because progressive development is sorely needed, and because the cost of the culture war is developmental stagnation, we need to find the peace of greater agreement in order to make meaningful progress. With integral consciousness we can see how the values of each worldview stage are both part of the solution and part of the problem—each stage embodies both dignities and disasters. Traditional consciousness identifies the need to reduce lawless violence and evil in the world, yet it creates oppression. Modernist consciousness identifies opportunities for development and discovery, yet it creates gross inequalities. And postmodern consciousness identifies the need to honor and include everyone, yet it also creates blindness to comparative excellence. Because each of these worldviews is very much alive and well within the developed world today, not only are they each continuing to produce their particular kind of progress, each of them is also continuing to act out their particular kind of pathology. And this is where the cultural battle is joined.

– pp. 74-75

When it comes to practicing the integral worldview, we have to remember that we are called to actually create this new level of consciousness ourselves. Those of us who can discern the emergence of this new stage of civilization here at its beginnings have the privilege of receiving the creative impulse of the first wave of integral values.

The truths of integral philosophy can be used to produce cultural evolution on many fronts. Wherever we find the culture war—in the workplace, in our schools, and even in our own families—we can skillfully work to raise consciousness by showing how different values apply to different life conditions. As we begin to see how just about every human problem is a problem of consciousness, we can then see how best to raise consciousness by distinguishing between the healthy and pathological values of a given stage, and by translating the values of one stage into terms that can be better appreciated by other stages. Think about all the ways that we can help keep well-meaning postmodern consciousness from literally dissolving the crucial structures of traditional and modernist values upon which our further evolution depends. And conversely, think about all the ways we can communicate the evolutionary necessity of postmodern values to traditionalists and modernists by showing how our civilization’s actual survival largely depends on the success of postmodernism.

– pp. 90-91