Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving for Pope Francis

            The recent decades were painful ones for the church in the United States.  The Roman Catholic Church endured wave after wave of humiliating sex abuse scandals. The response of the hierarchy was frequently breathtakingly incompetent, further eroding its authority with ordinary believers.  The Protestant mainline tore itself apart with vicious public battles over human sexuality and suffered from dwindling numbers, declining influence, and disappearing financial resources.  Evangelicals were politicized, allying themselves with some of the most retrograde movements in American political history.   Younger Evangelicals, disgusted by their elders’ evident contempt for the poor, support for a murderous, unnecessary war, and their enduring political, theological and social intransigence, left in droves.   The church as a whole endured the mockery of the so-called “new atheists” who blamed religion for the varieties of human misery.   The fanaticism of a murderous few was attached to the horrified and bewildered many.  The hope of the gospel seemed to be in increasingly short supply.

            For right-wing Catholics and conservative Evangelicals the world was turned into a battleground.  Life was a constant conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, us and them and neutrality was impossible.  Hierarchies, both official and self-appointed, were ever vigilant for deviance.  Departures from the party line were exposed and ruthlessly attacked.  Official sanctions were endured by some, public humiliation by others.  A dreary paranoia afflicted both the watchers and the watched.  Gloom, rather than hope and confidence, seemed the order of the day.  Our leaders told us we were under attack.  Grim faced and stern they called us to battle an implacable foe.  And scapegoats abounded: liberals, Muslims, Democrats, feminists, homosexuals, socialists, and so on.  Some Christian leaders made sure their enemies knew how they felt about them! Among the Evangelicals, at least,  certain leaders seemed to go out of their way to find the harshest words available to demonize their opponents and then complained bitterly of their poor reputations—predictably blaming the media for their plight.

            And then something amazing happened.  Benedict XVI, that brilliant and troubled man, stepped down and the college of cardinals elected Jose Mario Bergoglio pope.  From the first moments of his papacy Pope Francis let the world know that a different spirit was now blowing through Rome and, indeed, through the entire world.  His simplicity, his humility, his generosity caught everyone off guard.  We had gotten used to the sober keepers of the sacred flame.  We had gotten used to the chiding, the warnings, the frowns, and finger wagging.  And here came a man who eschewed the papal apartments, worshipped with the housekeepers and gardeners, and made phone calls to single mothers and recuperating critics!  He seemed cheerful, at ease, confident and hopeful.   He denounced greed and indifference to the poor, suffering and desperate. He called the church away from obsession with moral, theological and political squabbles and back to the good news of the Gospel: that this world and its people are beloved of God, who redeemed it through Jesus and intends to make all things new.

`           The response has been stunning.  Almost overnight he changed the tone in Rome and, indeed, the entire Christian world.  Anyone who thinks he is going to substantially change Roman Catholic doctrine will be disappointed.  But he has shown what a genuinely caring and simple human being in a place of religious leadership can do to open doors and hearts.  He has even found a hearing among non-believers and people hostile to the church or faith of any kind.  It is clear that people have been longing for a religious figure who would demonstrate true humanity, humility and love. They have found in Pope Francis such a man.  He reminds me of that cheerful Italian peasant who loved God and people: Pope John XXIII.  Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular have always had their disagreements with Rome.  I am no fan of the rigid top-down hierarchical structure, the marginalization of women, or the elevated role of the priesthood.  But this Protestant Evangelical is thankful for Pope Francis: his concern for the poor, his love for the other, his insistence on the beauty and hopefulness of the gospel.  For the first time in a long time I feel the stirring of hope.  And for that I am thankful to Pope Francis and to God.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Can Christians Learn from the Jews?

“Christianity . . . may be entering the equivalent of its own ‘Rabbinic Era’, a age marked less by direct revelation and less hierarchically controlled channels to God.  In this scheme, the lay people of God play a more influential role in discerning God’s purposes and carrying out divine mandates.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg

            Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a pioneer in Jewish/Christian dialogue and has thought deeply about the brutally failed relationship between Christianity and Judaism.  That relationship has been undergoing a slow, cautious renaissance with many fits and starts in the aftermath of the murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis.   It became appallingly clear in the wake of the Shoah that Christian teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism had at the very least rendered millions of Christians indifferent as their neighbors disappeared and at worst encouraged and enabled their slaughter.  Greenberg suggests that a chastened and more reflective Christianity could emerge from this tragedy—an outcome that would be good for both Jews and Christians.  But this would require Christians seriously rethinking their relationship with power.

            The seduction of Christianity by the imperial power of Rome in the aftermath of Constantine’s conversion is a common enough trope these days.  Some lay the blame for everything wrong in contemporary Christianity at the feet of the servile bishops of the imperial church.  Others contend Constantine’s influence is overstated or was, in fact, a good thing.  But there is no doubt that the Christian Church in the West (and in the East, for that matter) greatly benefited from the support of emperors and kings.  The benefit was mutual.  Rulers wanted a unified state and this was enhanced by a common religion.  So emperors as diverse as Constantine and Justinian weighed in on the Christological conflicts of their days.  The goal of such interventions was one God, one Lord, and one king or Emperor ruling over one people.  For centuries, in Europe at least, this was more or less the case.

            Now, however, it has become clear that the influence of the church in the west has been in decline for the last two centuries at least.  European countries have disenfranchised their state churches or marginalized their influence.  Even in the United States the moral and spiritual influence of the church has been compromised—in spite of the quadrennial orgy of civil religion we call the presidential election.  We have, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon famously said, lost our home field advantage. Realizing this, some religious leaders have been reduced to the equivalent of toddler-like temper tantrums to get attention.  This has, to say the least, been ineffective and more than a little embarrassing. 

            Greenberg suggests Christians pay attention to what happened to the Jews.  By the time the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jews had been without real political power for more than a century.  The Torah, of course, had been and remained central to Jewish life and experience.  But the temple, its priesthood and rituals had long been a critical element of the glue that bound Jews together--whether they lived in the land itself or in the diaspora.  Following the disastrous rebellion the Jews were forced to rethink the nature of Judaism.  What did it mean to be a Jew when the temple was destroyed and the land was lost?  This was the burden of the “Rabbinic Era.”  The courage, foresight and genius of the ancient rabbis enabled the Jewish people to survive through centuries of powerlessness and oppression.  The rabbis were not priests.  They served no sacerdotal function. They were teachers and interpreters of Torah. They were men of prayer and learning, bearers an ancient and flexible tradition.  They served the community as a whole, not a church or even, for that matter, a synagogue.  Through them Jews inculcated a way of life, a culture, rooted in the very words of Moses and the prophets. 

            What have Christians done as their political and cultural power disappeared?  Roman Catholic leaders like John Paul II and Benedict the XVI marched into battle against the evil secular world and attempted by dint of their intellect, and in the case of John Paul II at least, their charisma to turn the tide.  In the United States the “religious right” has regularly and frantically denounced people and practices they deem contrary to Christian faith.  They appear incapable of recognizing the loss of political and social power and the realities of a diverse society.  And they have largely succeeded in making themselves and their views odious to a large number of American people.  The more liberal, mainline tradition dithers, unsure of its message and place in the world.  It too seems to cling to the old illusions of power and influence as the tide inexorably moves out.  Perhaps the “mega-churches” are the most obvious sign of Christian attempts to restore power and influence.  The massive complexes seem to shout, “See, we are still important!  We are still a big deal!”  All of this is the equivalent of running down the aisle of a train in the opposite direction it is travelling.

            As long as Christians were supported by the wider culture of Europe or the United States, the church was satisfied to “form” individual Christians, not a genuine community of faith and practice.  Among Evangelicals it seemed that a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was enough.  Add to that a few significant do and don’ts (mostly don’ts and mostly associated with sex) and you’re good to go.  Mission was about converting individuals and producing places of worship, not forming communities and following the commands of Jesus.  Perhaps it is time, as Greenberg suggest, for Christians to move away from “hierarchies” and orthodoxies.  Perhaps it is time to move toward the formation of a people.  Christianity has a rich tradition to draw from.  Followers of Jesus are not without resources or examples of such communal formation.  But this will require church hierarchies and pastoral leaders letting go of their power.  It will require them permitting and even encouraging some of the messy realities of life with people in community.  It will require the church giving up on the Constantinian vision of one church, one emperor, controlled from the center.  And, perhaps most important, it will require paying attention to the actual teachings of Jesus and what he expected of a people committed to representing in their communal experience the presence of the kingdom.  The rabbis provided a way forward for the Jewish people.  Can they, perhaps ironically do the same for Christian

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trayvon Martin as Scapegoat

            Rene Girard undertook one of the most generative and controversial intellectual experiments of the 20th century.  Girard observed what he called “mimetic rivalry” in both ancient myth and modern novels.  The concept is easy enough to understand.  We learn what to desire, Girard argued, by observing and imitating the desire of others.  Three toddlers are playing quietly.  An adult introduces a new toy into the room.  One of the toddlers approaches the toy.  Suddenly all three toddlers want the toy.  The rivalry between the toddlers was generated by the desire of one for the new toy.  The others, seeing its attraction and its singularity become instant rivals for its possession.  Others show us what is desirable.  When the supply of desirable objects is limited, there is conflict.  This rivalry and violence is visible at the beginning of all human culture.  Unless the problems associated with this rivalry and violence are addressed, a coherent culture cannot form.
To overcome these twin problems early societies ingeniously fixed on the solution of sacrificial violence.  An individual or group was deemed guilty of instigating the conflict and subsequently sacrificed.  This temporarily reduced the conflict as the larger group came together to eliminate the one or ones supposedly guilty of generating the original violence.  This “founding murder”, Girard argued, is at the origin of every great society.  But to be effective such sacrifices need to be repeated.  Someone needs to be blamed.  Someone needs to be sacrificed.  The society needs to find unity around an individual or group it can despise and blame for all its problems.  Girard called this figure “the scapegoat.”  He argued that it was Judaism and Christianity that began the process of exposing this mechanism.  The Old Testament gives the victims a voice.  Stories like those of Joseph, Job, and Israel itself demonstrate that the victim is not always guilty of the crimes it is charged with.  And the victim, as the Psalms demonstrate, will not always remain silent.  In his death on the cross Jesus, the quintessential scapegoat demonstrated the ugliness and violence at the heart of the scapegoat mechanism.  He became the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.
            A frightened people produce scapegoats--people who fear additional rivals for limited resources; people who want things to stay as they are; people who want to hang onto their power.  An effective scapegoat has to be someone weaker, someone more vulnerable, someone in the power of the majority.  For centuries in western Europe it was the Jews: they were accused of poisoning Christian wells, stealing Christian children, and cheating Christians in business. In times of fear outbreaks of violence against the Jews became a release valve.  Scapegoating of the Jews suffered a blow in the wake of World War II and Hitler’s ultimate act of scapegoating.  But it has never disappeared.  In the United States, various waves of immigrants served the role of scapegoats: the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, and now Asian and Hispanics.  But the most convenient, the most despised, and most abused of our scapegoats have been the African-Americans.  Enslaved and abused for centuries, they were kept uneducated, powerless, and impoverished.  And yet they were feared.  This fear only increased in the south with their liberation.  And young African-American males were among the most fears and despised.
From and post Civil War era until post World War II southern trees sprouted what Billie Holiday hauntingly called “strange fruit”.  African-Americans were hung, drowned, dragged to death behind horses, and simply beaten to death.  These were often spontaneous lynchings brought about by some real or imagined crime.  The country seemed to slumber through most of this horrendous violence until Emmet Till.  The death of this young man in 1955 at the hands of vicious racists for some supposed slight, shocked the nation.  A few years after Till’s death I was working at service station in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. I was about 10 or 11 years old.  A friend and I were washing a car in one of the bays while mechanics were working on a car in the other.  Since Till’s death, the civil rights movement had been gathering steam.  Kennedy had been elected and pressure was being bought to bear on the violent regimes of the south.  A notorious local character was bragging to the mechanics while they worked on his car.  He had recently gotten out of prison.  One of the men asked him if he had ever killed anyone.  He answered, “Well, I killed a couple of n****** once.  But that was back when it was still legal to kill n******.”  They all laughed.
It was not legal to kill anyone, black or white, in Tennessee.  But they all knew what he meant.  No jury in the South would convict a white man of the murder of a black man.  The men who murdered Emmett Till knew that.  The men who killed the little girls in Birmingham knew that.  The African American males who were beaten to death in police custody, or weighted with chains and dumped in the middle some murky lake, would never be vindicated.  Their murderers slept serenely in their beds.  These young men were scapegoats.  Their deaths unified a fearful community.  Their murders reaffirmed the values of the community and the social order that sustained it.  Of course, such things were not unique to the south.  Young black men were beaten to death in northern jails; shot to death by northern cops; unmourned by northern whites.  Young black men are still targets of opportunity for the fearful and angry.  They are still, harassed, beaten, and imprisoned in appalling numbers. 
Trayvon Martin has become the face of all these often-nameless young men.  Whatever the circumstances of his death, he was a young man minding his own business that became the victim of fear, paranoia, and the will to power.  He became a victim of our death dealing love of guns and our feeble minded inability to think of a different way of confronting our differences.  He became the latest in a long line of young African Americans to die as a Scapegoat.  But as Girard pointed out, the scapegoat mechanism has been shown for what it is.  The cross has exposed our violence, our fear, our envy and greed.  The mechanism has been fatally wounded.  We hear its failure in the voices raised against this senseless death.   Girard was worried that without the scapegoat mechanism our culture would fall once again into rivalry and violence.  Our political divisions, so intractable, so vicious, seem to support his viewpoint.  Only the power of non-violent love—the power of the cross—is able to confront our fear, our dependence on blood and violence, our scapegoating, and our will to power.  But Christians have frequently gone in for scapegoating and violence in spite of the cross of Jesus.  Girard could not be said to be sanguine about our future.  And neither am I.  I am not optimistic.  I know our adolescent love of violence; I know our infantile addiction to power, especially the power of the gun.  But I also know the redeeming power of God, the possibility of repentance and reconciliation. I am not optimistic.  But I have hope.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fights We Can No Longer Afford

            I have a good friend who is an Orthodox Rabbi.  Over the years I have learned a great deal from him and I think he has learned a thing or two from me.  The Jewish community is every bit as divided theologically as the Christian.  There are far right, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and there are far left Reform Jews.  Their disagreements are every bit as significant as those between the most fundamentalist and most liberal of Christians.  But something important happened within the Jewish community in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust.  Jewish leaders recognized that however great their differences they could not afford to repudiate any Jew.  Their losses had been too great and their future was too uncertain to reject any Jew, regardless of their religious failings (whether their failings were “fundamentalist” or “liberal”).  This does not mean that Jews have stopped disagreeing with one another.  In my experience, far from it!  But in has meant that Jews with very different views of Jewish faith and practice generally respect and support one another.  They really cannot afford to do otherwise.

            For 1500 years or so Christians in the west have enjoyed the privileges of majority.  Among other things, this has enabled us to engage in theological feuds without any real risk to our survival.  Deviance was sniffed out, denounced and, where possible, eliminated.  Ecclesiastical elites maintained their power by marginalizing critical voices.  Sometimes these critical voices ended up burned at the stake.  Sometimes they were co-opted and called saints.  In the wake of the Reformation theological conflict became a Protestant team sport.  Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists all sought the prize of theological domination of their opponents.  The Pietists in the 17th century tried to find a way to make peace, but they were mostly ignored or scorned.  Old habits die hard and the Christian church cannot shake its practices of mutual condemnation.  A conservative regime in Rome seems to have no interest in a significant rapprochement with its “separated brethren.”  The Mainline Church in the United States is shredding itself over issues of human sexuality.  Evangelicals have lemming like rushed to affiliate with conservative politics and are headed over the cliffs of irrelevance.  Each denounces the other for moral, ethical, and biblical compromise and attempts to wrest control of Jesus from the other.

            I believe this has to stop.  Future controversies over a variety of social and political issues and most notably over human sexuality bear the seeds of further alienation, division, and destruction.  I think it is time for Christians to reject their home team mentality and receive all who seek to follow Jesus, whatever their loyalties.  I am not calling for relativistic indifference.  My friend is still Orthodox and still has large differences with his more liberal colleagues.  But he does not reject their Jewishness and accepts them as brothers and sisters.  We will all continue to have differences with Christians to the right and left of us.  But as our influence and power in the society dwindles we can no longer afford to throw any Christian under the bus.  As part of a movement born out of the perhaps feeble Pietist attempt to make peace between warring factions, I refuse to participate in such theological branding.  I don’t expect the arguments to go away.  I am sure I will participate in them.  But this day I assert that the most hardboiled fundamentalist is my brother and my sister and the most wild-eyed liberal is my companion in Christ and I will not participate in the rejection of either of them.
John E. (Jay) Phelan