Thursday, March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo Dies

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her. May she and all of the faithful departed rest in peace.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.


John Paul II Recieves Annointing of the Sick

CNN does not report that the Holy Father is dying, but he has been given the sacrament commonly refered to as Last Rites after contracting a fever.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tending to Wayward Shepherds

This Newsweek article highlights a lay group that has formed a ministry outreach to accused priests. While groups like SNAP have been critical, I think it is important to remember that priests have a right to due process, and even the guilty are human persons loved by Christ.

I support efforts of the laity to hold bishops accountable, prevent sex abuse, and bring healing to survivors of abuse. Yet, I also support efforts to bring healing to perpetrators and protect the innocent from false accusations. It is not either/or, but is instead both/and.


Use the Rod, Spoil the Child

In this article from Sojourners, Evangelical Christian, David Batstone, suggests that the use of corporal punishment on children is as barbaric as stoning an adulteress.

My wife and I agree, and we will not use corporal punishment on our daughter or other children as they grow older.

I have taught pre-K, fifth graders, seventh graders, and high school, and due to legal concerns, was unable to use corporal punishment. I found that there are other effective ways to enforce discipline.

In seminary, the most kind and most holy of my classmates were those whose parents never used corporal punishment.

On the other hand, when I worked in prison ministry, there was not a single prisoner in my experience who wasn't beaten by a parent or guardian. Those who were beaten most severely were often the most violent offenders.

It is simply a myth that children cannot learn self-discipline through other means than corporal punishment.

It may take some creativity and consultation with books and experts to come up with other effective ways to teach children to act rightly, but corporal punishment is simply not the most effective way, and can do harm.


Remembering Romero

This short editorial from Commonweal highlights the significance of the life of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero who was martyred 25 years ago.

His last words at his final Mass were recorded: "This holy Mass, this Eucharist, is an act of faith," he said. "We know that at this moment the wheaten host is changed into the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the world's redemption, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our Christ, not for self, but to teach justice and peace to our people." And then he prayed, "So let us join together intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer..." That's when the shot rang out.


In Honor of the Resurrection

I wrote this almost two years ago, and in honor of the Easter season, I am re-posting my own reflection on the Catechism's teachings regarding the resurrection.


No Easy Answers

Joe Feuerherd of National Catholic Reporter delves into the Schiavo case and the death penalty.

He quotes Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC as stating that Church teaching is both clear and complex.

This is an important point that is often missed. We often seek easy answers - meaning not easy to live, but easy to understand.

Unfortunately, truth is often complex and difficult to understand, requiring fine nuance and distinctions and hard critical thinking.

Yet, the teachings are clear upon deep reflection, even if it requires some work to understand it.


Monday, March 28, 2005

Breaking News!

Jerusalem - Women report empty tomb. Religious officials claim it is a hoax. Mary Magdalene is quoted saying that the risen Christ said to her "Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."


Sumatran Quake Raises fear of Tsunami

Pray for the people of South East Asia.


Sumatran Quake Raises fear of Tsunami

Pray for the people of South East Asia.


Quake in Sumatra Raises Tsunami Fear

Pray for the people of South-East Asia...


Bishops Take Strong Stance Against Death Penalty

This news is a week old, but I was busy last week with the meditations on the meaning of the cross.


Interesting Fact

According to the author of Ending Poverty as We Know It, William Quigley, on page 10 of the most recent issue of The Catholic Peace Voice published by Pax Christi, the U.S. military budget in 2004 cost American taxpayers $12,000 per second.

Conversely, in the same piece, Quigley points out that, on average, Americans gave 15 cents per day in government assistance to poor countries.

Think about it.


In the Name of Freedom,...

Sister Joan Chittister asks whether we losing our freedoms in the name of freedom,...


What Bootstraps?

The lead Commonweal editorial asks whether it is true that people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.


Terri Received Last Rites and Communion

Let us continue to pray for Terri Schiavo.


Cardinal Ratzinger's Somber View of the Church

In his meditation on the Way of the Cross for Good Friday, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the Church as a sinking ship.

With all due respect to the Cardinal, I trust that the power of the Risen One who promised to be with us until the end of time is still active in our midst. Christ is risen. Alleluia!


In Honor of Sister Dorothy Stang

The lead NCR editorial honors this U.S. religious woman who was recently martyred in Brazil due to her work on behalf of environmentalism and advocacy for the poor. Though it is not mentioned in the editorial, she died reading the Bible to her killers.


John Allen's Word From Rome

Allen covers false rumors of the Holy Father's death and the significance of Vatican intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.


The Pontiff in Winter

Luke Timothy Joyhnson reviews John Cornwell's new critical biography of John Paul II for Commoneweal.


Welcome to New Catholics

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people were baptized, confirmed and/or received into full communion with the Catholic Church this last weekend.

Welcome to all the new members of the body of Christ. God has begun a wonderful work within you, and he is trustworthy to bring his work to completion.

Today begins a slightly more difficult part of your journey in faith. Over the last several months, you have been supported by the community in prayer, instruction, and community formation. The support is still there, but less felt and less intense.

Enter into deep prayer today that you may encounter the power of the Risen One we celebrated this weekend. Make your relationship with Christ personal so that it may grow and you may grow in faith, hope and love.

The grace you received is not in vain. This life changing transformative power will take you out yourself. The journey has not ended, but only just begun. God bless you in your continued pilgrimage.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

Alleluia! He is Risen!


Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Kerygma

Part Seven of Seven on the Cross

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

In the center of all of the Eucharistic prayers of the Church, just after the bread and wine are consecrated to become for us the living presence of Christ, we proclaim the central mystery of our faith:

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This part of the Mass is referred to as the kerygma, which simply means "proclamation". The kerygma is the central proclamation of faith - our earliest and most basic creed.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The Apostles creed, the Creed of Nicea, our belief in Word and Sacrament and all our rituals, moral laws, Counciliar decrees, and everything we do and say related to faith is centered on the kerygma.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

We are winding up our week long meditation on the cross as we prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Easter Vigil.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This entire week is directed not to Good Friday, but to Easter Sunday.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

I complete my meditations on the cross with a point made in the first meditation: without the resurrection, the cross is a meaningless absurdity.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The kerygma looks in three directions. It looks back in time to the absurdity of the cross:

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the kerygma to save those who have faith (1 Cor 1:21).

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

"And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith (1 Cor 15:14).

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Much of our meditation this week has taken us on a journey exploring the utter foolishness of the cross,...,the senselessness of human suffering,...,the misinterpretations of the cross by those who seek pain for themselves and others in a masochistic fashion,..., God's presence with us in suffering,..., even his sorrow that we suffer,....

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Volumes could be written on the cross. Volumes have been written, and we have only begun to scratch the surface. The Christian faith is so simple a child can grasp the kerygma, and so deep that the greatest genius can never fully comprehend it,....

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Yet, what has happened in the past is not the totality of the Christian kerygma. At the center of the kerygma is the present tense. Christ is risen.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Christ is not simply a preacher who lived a long time ago and established a set of rules and rituals by which our lives are planned and controlled. Christ is a living and personal power whom we encounter today.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The risen one is encountered as a glorified body, a presence beyond description who is at once corporal, and beyond physical limitations of time and space.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

He comes bearing the wounds of his cross, and we can place our hands in his hands, his feet and his side when we enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

In the Eucharist, we are united with him here and now. We bring our crosses to him, knowing that he has conquered all sin, suffering and death.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The absurdities of our own lives are transformed by the paschal mystery.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The meaningless of our own sufferings are transformed by the paschal mystery.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Our own sins are covered in his blood in the paschal mystery.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

His own sorrow for our suffering is revealed in the paschal mystery.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

His vindication over our suffering is revealed in the paschal mystery.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

And the future promise is revealed in our encounter with his risen presence.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The one we experience in Word and Sacrament and in each other cannot be put to death again. Death has no power over him. Where, O death is your sting!

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

A man - a human being - has risen from the dead in a new state beyond our imagining. What happened in this man can happen in us!

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

No matter what we will face tomorrow, we know the outcome.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This power revealed in the resurrection can only be the very power of God. Even if he never said it in his earthly flesh, we know this power we encounter in our lives is divine!

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that all who believe in him may have eternal life.

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.


Friday, March 25, 2005

God's Apology

Part Six of Seven on the Cross

Today is Good Friday, and the Passion narrative for the Good Friday Service will come from John's Gospel. Jesus' final words are "It is finished".

The original Greek carries a connotation of a debt paid in full. On this day, we will hear preachers around the world speak of how Jesus lived the perfect life in our place and took our sins to the cross to pay the debt owed for the evil we do in this life.

In order to unpack Jesus' final words further, we could go to the beginning of the Biblical narrative to understand this finished work that pays the debt in full.

In the beginning of the narrative, God created woman and man in his image and likeness. Humanity was the absolute height of God's creation, and he sat back to rest and enjoy what he had made when he finished making us.

But then, God decided that while his children were just a few days old, and ignorant of good and evil, he would allow them to be put to a test with life and death consequences, with the future of all humanity hanging in the balance.

When the height of his creation failed this test, this God who thought of himself as perfect now repented of his creation. So he sent a mighty deluge to wipe out humanity. But not being able to make up his mind, God decided to let one man live named Noah.

Perfect God was still upset with the imperfection of his creation, so he thought maybe that he should demand Abraham to offer a sacrifice. He asked Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac. Once again, God changed his mind, but not until after Abraham had already tied up Isaac and put quite a scare into him. Thinking that maybe this type of sacrifice might be drastic, God decided he would settle for the foreskin of the male penis from that day forward.

The all powerful and all knowing God, despite his perfection, couldn't seem to gain control of his imperfect creation. He decided that there were just too many human beings for him to pay attention to all of them, so he focused his attention on the children of Abraham.

As we hear it told, the first thing God decided to do with the children of Abraham was to send them into slavery for four hundred years. When he finally heard their cry for deliverance, he lead them into the desert to die of starvation, plague and snake bites. Before killing them all himself, he commanded Moses to have the elders of the community execute a certain number in mass: twenty four thousand in all! (c.f. Num 25:1-5)

According to the Scriptures, the next thing God did was to tell Joshua to go into a foreign country and slaughter all the people who live there, including the women and children. Joshua and his troops weren't entirely successful, so God had to raise up various judges later to continue the killing. But he kept tiring of offering his help, so he did things like abandon Samson because Samson had his hair cut. We're not entirely sure why God had such a preference for long-haired men.

The people he created still seemed a bit unruly, so God decided to raise up a king. As the Bible tells the story, he chose a psychotic named Saul at first. That wasn't working too well, so he selected a murdering adulterer after that. This seemed to work a bit better, and he let David's polygamous son take the throne next.

But then, the whole king idea wasn't working out either, so according to the narrative, God decided to give up on the project. He allowed the children of Abraham to be lead into exile and slavery once again.

At this point, the people banded together and looked to prophets and began to compile a literature we would come to know as the Old Testament. The people cried out to God for mercy. They asked this God to have compassion. Despite all that God had done, they prayed and hoped for a day when God would give liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed. They wanted good news in their poverty. They longed for the day when God would let the blind see, the lame walk, and lepers would become clean. They became anxious for the day when even the dead would rise!

The written expression of the people's hope came to be desired so strongly that humanity has come to see this hope as inspired by a higher power than ourselves.

God seemed moved by the people's hope. In Jesus, this hope began to be realized.

Perhaps, rather than taking our own sins to the cross, the Biblical God went to the cross to show us the depth of his own sorrow for the pain and suffering he has allowed in the world. The debt is now paid in full.


Thursday, March 24, 2005

God is With Us!

Part Five of Seven on the Cross

"Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us." (Mt 1:23)
Why do bad things happen to good people?

The existence of evil is probably the strongest argument against the existence of the God of Christianity. Why would a good and all powerful all knowing God create, permit, or allow suffering in the world?

In his book The Case For Faith, popular Christian author, Lee Strobel, deals almost exclusively with this subject. Strobel claims he was a one time atheist who worked as a journalist and developed the skepticism of his trade. In this book, he starts with an interview of a former Protestant evangelists who worked with Billy Graham several decades ago. The man's name is Charles Templeton. Templeton has become an agnostic, and at the beginning of Strobel's book, he is in the first stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Templeton describes his journey from apparent faith to agnosticism for Strobel, and most of the rest of the book is written as an answer to Templeton's questions. Agnostics may criticize Strobel's methodology. He stacks the deck by interviewing only one serious agnostic, and then interviews eight different believers to answer the question of why a good God permits suffering. While the agnostic has a valid philosophical point, the book is a still worthwhile, and I highly recommend it to any believer experiencing doubt during a time of trial.

Methodological critiques aside, I wish to start this meditation in the same place Strobel starts his book. Templeton describes to Strobel the exact moment he began to consciously doubt his Christian faith after his initial "born again" experience. He states that he was looking at a photograph in Life magazine:
"It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa," he explained. "They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, 'Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?"
"How could a loving God do this to that woman?" he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. "Who runs the rain? I don't; you don't. He does - or that's what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it is not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony - when all that was needed was rain?" (p.14 of The Case for Faith)
The agnostic reasons, if God had the power to send the rain, but chose not to send it, he is not good. If he wanted to send rain, but could not, he is not all powerful. Thus, the existence of suffering and evil is proof that an all good and all powerful God does not exist.

For the purpose of today's meditation, I only wish to focus on the first interview in Strobel's book with a believer. The first interview presented in response to Strobel was with Peter Kreeft. Many of my readers are familiar with the works of Kreeft already. Kreeft is a Catholic philosopher who has written a number of popular apologetic works. What I will present is merely a high level summary of the discussion. Strobel's journalistic style is far more lively and captures the excitement of a real discussion.

Strobel poses Templeton's challenge to Kreeft and asks how he would respond. Kreeft points out right from the start that Templeton's argument is philosophically wrong because it implies the existence of a good God. He elaborates that Templeton's sense of outrage at the apparent injustice of the suffering of the woman implies that there is a supreme good by which we can judge the scenario as evil. Since the supreme good is the definition of God, God must exist in order for us to judge that this situation is truly tragic.

Of course, such a solution is highly intellectualized, and comes across to most people as a play with words. As logical as the string of propositions may sound, we are left somewhat unsatisfied. Kreeft acknowledges this, and responds that the fundamental problem is that we are judging the event as a human being, and lack a God's eye perspective on the situation.

Kreeft creates an analogy of a bear caught in a trap. Along comes a hunter who decides out of compassion to free the bear from the trap. Because the hunter is far more intelligent than the bear, the hunter can anticipate that the bear will react in fear if he approaches it. So the hunter decides to shoot the bear with drugs that will cause the bear to sleep. From the bear's perspective, his fears are only confirmed. The hunter appears to be maliciously attacking him. The analogy is extended even further with more detail, but the point remains that the bear is completely unable to understand that the hunter is inflicting more and more pain on the bear in order to ultimately free the bear from his painful dilemma.

Getting a little more real and down to earth, Kreeft also brings in analogies of parents with children. When teaching a child to walk, we let her or him fall. We don't do their homework for them if we want them to learn to think critically for themselves.

Perhaps Christ used parental images of God so often precisely because he saw that this image can most adequately convey the notion of trusting a person who does not wish you harm, but may allow short term pains for your benefit. The Gospels invite us to see all suffering in an eternal perspective and look beyond the immediate moment.

Kreeft argues that when we are faced with suffering, a person of faith is not being irrational, but is acting on a belief that somehow short term suffering has long term benefits that only an all knowing God can fully understand. At one point in the interview, he alludes to a saying by a Saint Teresa (which one is not specified): "In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel."

Kreeft makes an astonishing claim that faith is "prejudiced". He argues by analogy that if the police came to his house and told him his own wife was guilty of a gruesome murder, he would not believe them, no matter what evidence they presented. He knows his wife better than the police could possibly know her. His faith in his wife is not purely irrational or without evidence, but his faith in his wife would completely ignore the evidence of the police in such a way that the police would call it an irrational faith.

This is how faith in God works for those who believe. Faith is not simply knowledge. We do not have faith that two plus two equals four or that the sun will rise. We have faith in persons. The person who believes in God through suffering is not simply denying reality. Rather, such a person has reason to believe in God that enables them believe even when the evidence sometimes seems contrary to their belief.

Where the unbeliever asks "Why is there so much suffering in the world?", the believer might counter, "Why is there also so much good in the world?" Faith in God is "prejudiced", but not wholly irrational.

As a further argument, Kreeft suggests that many people find that their faith is strengthened in suffering. Indeed, there is an old saying that there are no atheists in fox-holes, and study after study shows that nine out of ten people believe in God despite all evidence to the contrary. What interests Kreeft in such studies is that the strongest faith is often found among those with the most suffering.

The agnostic may counter that this is more a wish than a reality. When suffering, we wish it would end, and our pain is made more bearable by hoping a good God will come along and save us. However, such a faith is just a childish illusion, like Santa Clause. Furthermore, Kreeft's answer still doesn't explain why a good God permits any suffering whatsoever.

Kreeft points out an argument I have used when trying to explain why I think hell must remain a real possibility. A world without any pain and suffering, and an eternity where we can never choose between good and evil and never even know of evil is a world without freedom. In some sense, the mystery of suffering is tied to the mystery of freedom, and without freedom, there is not love. Yet, freedom means the possibility of sin exists, and in some way, suffering is bound up with the mystery of sin. Kreeft invites anyone who doubts this to simply try the imaginative exercise of creating a detailed world in their own mind that would be free of pain and suffering, and decide if their own creation is truly better than reality as we know it.

This is an abstract exercise, and a very abstract argument. While I understand Kreeft's point, and have made the same sort of argument myself in essays on my homepage, not everyone can except the argument at face value. Strobel tries to pin Kreeft down to the concrete. He wants to get past the abstracts of such philosophical wrangling. So Strobel asks Kreeft to consider the woman in the Life magazine photograph, and the following dialogue takes place:
"If she were here right now," I said to Kreeft, "what would you say to her?"
Kreeft didn't hesitate. "Nothing," he said simply.
I blinked in disbelief. "Nothing?"
"Not at first, anyway," he said. "I'd let her talk to me....,the first thing we need to do with this woman is to listen to her. To be aware of her. To see her pain. To feel her pain. We live in a relative bubble of comfort, and we look at pain as an observer, as a philosophical puzzle or theological problem. That's the wrong way to look at pain. The thing to do with pain is to enter it, be one with her, and then you learn something from it." (p. 48-49)
Pain and suffering are not an abstract exercise. We can and should certainly try to mitigate natural risks that cause suffering. Knowing that sin has consequences, avoiding evil is a good way to avoid unnecessary suffering. When confronted with any kind of suffering, we can and should do everything in our power that is not sinful to alleviate suffering. After all of our best efforts, the reality of suffering remains, and abstract philosophical reasoning means far less than compassion - being present to and one with the suffering. When we are suffering, if the suffering cannot be removed, we want someone to be with us.

For some readers who have followed along so far, what I am about to say will seem too abstract - a dodge to the problem of evil. Others will burst into tears at the total concrete and perfect beauty of the reality and truth of what I am saying.

On the cross, God is with you in your suffering!


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Way of the Cross

Part Four of Seven

When I first wrote this reflection a year ago, I had just served a half day of jury duty and was let out early because the trials settled before going to us. I won't have to serve again for another two years.

During the jury orientation, we were shown a film presentation featuring Ed Bradley and Leslie Stall of Sixty Minutes on the importance of the jury to our justice system. The film opened with an image of a trial taking place in the middle ages where a man was tied up with ropes and thrown in the water. The voice of the narrator was describing that historically, trial outcomes were determined by methods such as trial by ordeal.

One form of trial by ordeal was to stick the defendant's hand in boiling water. If it healed in three days, he or she was innocent. If it took longer, she or he was guilty.

Another form of trial by ordeal is what we were watching in the action of the film. The defendant was tied up tightly and thrown into a body of water. If the person floated, the person was presumed guilty because of the demonic power allowing him or her to float. If the person sank, the person was presumed innocent.

Obviously, in such a system, nobody would want a criminal charge brought against you. The innocent suffer injustice in such systems.

A judge came to us during orientation and stated that our troops in Iraq are fighting for what we are doing. She stated that the jury system is a cornerstone of democracy that prevents dictators and tyrants like Saddam Hussein and other bullies from taking over.

One of my favorite shows on television is The Practice. I liked it better a few years ago, and the somewhat idealized version of the lives of defense attorneys fascinates me. I confess that I have a bias towards defense attorneys. I sometimes wonder if I should not have studied law instead of theology, or maybe I should still go to law school someday. Were I a lawyer, I would love to be a public defendant (though it doesn't pay much).

In Sunday's meditation, we looked at the absurdity of the cross, and speculated that Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted to despair by Satan's assault on his faith. Jesus may have been tempted to believe that his suffering was meaningless and that death was being thrust upon him before his earthly mission was complete. His cry "Let this cup pass" was a real human desire to live and to avoid suffering. Jesus had no more and no less faith in his own resurrection than is humanly possible, and Satan used the weakness of human nature to try to push Jesus into a lack of trust of the Father. Satan sought to use suffering to bully Jesus into despair by having Jesus executed by the state with religious approval.

Christ kept faith until his last breath that the Father would vindicate him. While Jesus may have known that persecution and even martyrdom were immanent, he probably did not wish to die, nor see his death as central to his mission. While he clearly believed and taught that the resurrection of the dead will happen, he may not have known that his resurrection would occur so soon, and whatever he knew, he knew with human certainty.

Rather than marching to the cross with a sense of mission, he was willing to lay down his life for his cause if necessary, hoping it would not come to that. His cause was to initiate the reign of God, which is a humanistic cause whereby the blind will see, the lame will walk, prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have good news proclaimed to them. If his cause could be achieved without death (and it could have been had Satan not been able to use us as his instruments) Jesus would not have sought to die. Jesus was not suicidal, and he did not live to die!

An interesting theological question asked through the ages that the Church has never developed an authoritative doctrine to address is whether God would have become incarnate if we had not sinned. I believe that it was Augustine who argued that he would have, since to say otherwise is to imply that we force God to do things he doesn't otherwise want to do. I believe that the incarnation event reveals God's love for humanity, and he loved us before, during, and after the Fall. The incarnation would have occurred without the Fall, but the cross is the result of the Fall.

On Monday, we looked at how the meaninglessness and absurdity of the cross was transformed by Saint Paul as he reflected on the events in light of his experience of the Risen Christ. Paul struggled to understand how and why an innocent man bore a curse. He concluded that a righteous man bore the curse of the unrighteous and developed a theology of atonement that went beyond what the historical Jesus probably taught.

Paul conveyed the same loving image of God through his theology of atonement that Jesus sought to convey in his proclamation of the reign of God. Paul likely saw the need for blood sacrifice as appeasing a strict law of justice as interpreted by the power of Satan, the Accuser. The blood of Jesus allowed the just judge, our Father in heaven, to have Satan's case thrown out of court. When we stand before the judge at final judgment, we know he is sympathetic, and we have the Holy Spirit as our advocate, and what Christ has done has demolished Satan's case. Satan is a finger pointing bully trying to drive us to despair by condemning all humanity through rightly exposing all our faults.

Yesterday, we meditated further on Jesus' humanity and how the cross serves as a sign of contradiction that reveals our own sinfulness. We examined how the words and deeds of Jesus were life-giving and fill the deepest desires of humanity in concrete ways: healing of sickness, expulsion of demons, forgiveness of sins and a message of liberation that has political and cultural consequences even if not directly central to the message. We saw that the power that lead to Jesus' death is the human failing expressed in our desire to control other people.

When we try to control others, we join forces with Satan, acting as a bully. Sometimes, this desire to control can come out in a form of spiritual bullying, whereby we use religious teachings to badger others. We become like the Accuser in self-righteous finger pointing, judgmentalism, and a legalism that aims at tearing others down rather than building others up or guiding our own inner transformation.

In earlier meditations this week, we have suggested that the sayings in the Gospel referring to picking up our cross and rejecting family and sacrificing ourselves may not have been the precise words of Jesus. While there may have been some intuition on Jesus' part that death was immanent, the Gospel writers may have been paraphrasing Jesus' actual words in light of the crucifixion and resurrection event to meet the needs of the community of faith under persecution. What has not been said clearly up to now is that I believe these writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit whether they are conveying the actual words of Christ or not.

Whether Jesus actually said that we need to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses or not, the sayings of the Gospel are true. Like Jesus, when we give of ourselves to build up and empower others, we will face the cross. This is an inevitability. If we love other people, we will be hurt.

While I acknowledge that verses admonishing us to pick up our cross are divinely inspired, I am concerned many times with how I see these verses used in Christian circles. We seem to be heavily tempted to use these verses to justify spiritual bullying, self-righteous finger pointing, and driving others to despair. The verses are often directed more at certain groups of people in the Church than others. We are all called to love, and in loving, we all will be hurt equally.

The Gospel has political and cultural consequences. It may sound strange to suggest that a command to love until it hurts can have political consequences.

Yesterday, I provided examples from two polar camps within the Church. The conservative American Republican who is Catholic can see political implications of the Gospel in the issue of abortion. Love for the unborn child and the desire to defend the dignity of human life has a political consequence. The more liberal camp that may embrace liberation theology can see how the simple act of teaching the poor and oppressed to read can become a dangerous political act in an oppressive political system.

There are times love impels us to confront demonic powers in the world. There are systems and institutions that dehumanize and degrade people. Slavery was a dehumanizing institution. Wars of aggression and state sponsored genocide are obviously evil. Laws restricting religious freedom are wrong. Corporate greed can ruin thousands of lives and the environment. Those who stand up to these institutions will bear a cross.

Love impels us to care for others, to seek to empower others, to do good for others, to listen to others in humility and seek to understand their point of view, to forgive others - to lose control of others and seek mutual relationship instead. This process is often painful but has rewards as well - the resurrection experienced in this life and the next for those with faith.

When we in the Church speak to each other about carrying the cross, I am sometimes concerned at the way the image is used. There are those who speak of carrying our cross in a such a way that a non-Christian would become convinced that being Christian is to be miserable all the time. This cannot be the case. If this were true, the Gospel would not be Gospel - good news!

We do not pick up our cross through acts of self imposed asceticism.

As good as occasional and moderate fasting may be, Jesus did not make fasting central to his teaching. Indeed, he was asked why his disciples don't fast when the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist did fast (Mk 2:18).

As good as celibacy may be for those who are called to it and can live it in a healthy and life-giving way, Jesus demanded it of nobody, and Paul said it comes from the evil one to demand it of someone (1 Tim 4:3).

Our cross is not something imposed on the self. Jesus did not commit suicide. He was brutally murdered. An act of asceticism or self-discipline is not a cross at all. A self-imposed penance is an act of the will to control our pain, and Jesus gave up control when faced with a cross that was thrust upon him against his wishes. The cross comes to us as an injustice, and it is thrust upon us from without because we love and because we stand up for justice.

The pain sometimes involved in turning away from sin can be a cross, but there is a resurrection in turning to righteousness. A man cheating on his wife knows the misery of living a dual life, and the pain he causes his spouse. As painful as breaking the adulterous affair and being honest with his wife may be, continuing the affair is a worse pain. But seldom is the image of the cross used in this precise manner in the New Testament. More often, the cross is to be carried by doing what is right, rather than turning from what is wrong.

There are examples of people who picked up the cross in more modern times. Martin Luther King Jr. carried a cross. Gandhi carried a cross. All the martyrs of the Church who have ever lived have carried a cross that earned actual physical pain.

When we stand up for others, Satan will send in his troops and try to drive us to despair.

To love until it hurts is what it means to pick up the cross. Picking up the cross and exercising self denial is always what happens when we do good for others. All Christians know this, but we don't even tend to think about it much while we do it in everyday life. A mother makes some sacrifices to stay home with a sick child. She does this because she loves her child, and it is the right thing to do. Her sacrifices are a participation in the cross. As the child grows and matures, the mother will know the pain of separation when the child seeks independence. This too is a participation in the cross. On simple day to day things, we know that love means sacrifice, and the point is not to hurt oneself, but to help another.

When we love another, we open ourselves to being hurt by the other or by what happens to the other. This is our cross, and this is what we are called to carry in big moments and small moments.

I don't want to under-emphasize the small moments we pick up our cross. Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, once said that marriage is the sacrament that saves the most people. He even speculated that it is through marriage that non-Catholics are saved. In the day to day sacrifices we make to enjoy a happy marriage, we are carrying our cross.

Jesus was remembered by the New Testament authors as sharply rebuking religious leaders who "lay up heavy burdens on others, but do not lift a finger to help them carry it." Jesus sharply rebuked those who ignore the weighty matters of the law such as love and justice, and "strain at gnats while letting camels go by." (cf ch 23 of Mt's Gospel)

For Jesus, it appears that the entire law and prophets can be summed up in the great commandments of loving God with our whole hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, Jesus seems to imply that these two commandments are so intertwined that we express our love of God through our love of neighbor. Thus, he also taught the entire law and prophets could be summed up in the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you.

I am very leary of telling someone else that they need to bear some cross unless the pain I am asking them to endure benefits others in tangible ways, the way Christ's actions benefited others in tangible ways.

Religion, theology and spirituality are often made too abstract. A religion that proclaims God incarnate and crucified and encountered in the physicality of simple bread and wine, water and oil and touch....such a religion is a celebration of the concrete historical reality of the present world. Everything Jesus said and did gave immediate joy in concrete ways to those around him. Even the next life will be a resurrection of the body, so we need to learn to do physical good for one another.

In conflict situations, such as a conflict between justice and mercy, or a conflict between authority and those without authority, or a conflict between scripture, tradition, and/or reason it seems that Jesus always gives a "preferential option for the poor". He always takes the side of the marginalized or the weaker party. With all that has been said this week about the cross, I am expressing how clearly it seems to me that in the cross, God has revealed he is not usually on the side of power and authority. He is more often on the side of criminals and outcasts.

If Satan is a prosecuting attorney and a bully, we need to have the mindset of defense attorneys or trial lawyers who fight for the little guy. By doing so, we become like the Paraclete, and we share in the mind and mission of Jesus.

If we cannot point to concrete harm to another person done by another's actions, I don't think we can rightly call those actions sin. If we are doing good for others or joining others to fight for real justice, and we encounter opposition, disappointment and challenge, we are bearing the cross.

In the development of Sacred Tradition, it appears to me that the Holy Spirit has constantly guided the Church to only define infallibly through extraordinary magisterium those things that are life-giving and fulfilling to the human person. The Sacred Tradition of the Church continues Jesus' radical humanism.

For example, the doctrine of the incarnation says that humanity is the absolute center of God's attention and love. God became human, rather than an angel, or a monkey or a dolphin. One can argue that by joining creation, all creation is sanctified, and I would accept this as a legitimate development of thought. Nevertheless, the incarnation starts with affirming human dignity. This was one of the earliest infallible definitions of the Church, and much of the Trinitarian debates of the first six centuries centered on making the full humanity of the incarnate God clear.

Indeed, when one looks at the challenges to the doctrine, there were far more serious and deadly challenges from those who de-emphasized Christ's humanity than those who made mistakes on his divinity. Those who made mistakes on the humanity of Christ often did horrendous things to other human beings or to themselves. The Arians were pretty nice people.

Take relatively recent doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. These came historically at a time when the question of the role of women in the Church is only beginning to be asked in a serious way in modern times. These doctrines also affirm the power of grace and the goodness of the human body - particularly the female human body.

Furthermore, there are areas where the Church acted in ways that did not affirm human dignity, and we very clearly came out later and admitted mistakes were made, apologized and set out to correct ourselves. Slavery is a prime example.

Think of some of the key issues being debated in the Church today. These issues have not yet been ruled on with an infallible definition by extraordinary magisterium, though the ordinary magisterium has been quite clear so far.

People talk about women's ordination. Here we have women who want to do good for people. They want to serve the Church in what all Catholics would consider a great way - the provision of the sacraments. There is absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that the Church needs more good priests. Even many opponents of women's ordination do not question the sincerity of these women's desire, nor their ability to do very fine ministry.

Let's apply the golden rule. It seems obvious to me that it is an injustice if someone other than a bishop, such as the state, told me that I am not permitted to do good deeds for the service of God and the Church in a capacity for which I have the talent during a time there is a need for my service. If it is immoral for someone other than a bishop to do this, why is it moral for a bishop to do it?

But instead of the golden rule, the opponents of women's ordination seem to want to appeal to crazy theological schemes that are not rooted in anything the Jesus of history actually seems to have taught.

The argument is made that Jesus did not ordain women. This is highly questionable since he first revealed his resurrection to Mary Magdalene, and the New Testament makes explicit mention of women such as Junia and Phoebe holding ordained positions in the post resurrection Church. The only way to call these women non-ordained is to resort to the notion that Jesus ordained no-one (and there are liberals who prefer this argument to saying women were ordained).

Furthermore, even if Jesus did ordain men exclusively and the early Church did not ordain women, are we bound by this? Is this what Jesus actually taught - that structures, customs and disciplines will never change until he comes again?

With absolute certainty we can say that Jesus never ordained a non-Jew. According to the New Testament, Jesus never drove a car. Jesus never had to answer a question about abortion or contraception. Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. Jesus never did a lot of things, and we are not bound by exact imitation of every detail of his earthly life.

Jesus started a movement of people who believed with him that God loves us all equally, and that God wants our deepest desires met. If a woman wants to be a priest, and she has the talent to serve the Church well as a priests, that is all we need to know.

It appears to us liberals that it is spiritual bullying to deny her desire! It is potentially a sin!

The pain women who seek ordination feel is a cross.

Look at the issue of married priesthood. If a priest says he wishes to be married and to continue as a priest, he is told that he needs to accept the cross of celibacy. This is absurd. Marriage is good. It is so good that it is a sacrament. The Jesus of the Gospels would never deny a desire to do something good to anyone. Even if he truly said there will be Eunuchs for the sake of the reign of God, he never imposed it on his disciples. Peter was married, and he was our first Pope. We know from Paul that Peter took his wife with him on mission and had a human right to do so (1 Cor 9:5)!

Jesus did not impose punishment on himself, and he did not encourage his followers to impose punishments on themselves. The cross was thrust on Jesus as an injustice because he stood up for little people against those who had power.

Ministerial priesthood is a calling from God. Marriage is a calling from God. God has called certain people to both vocations, and we know this with absolute certainty because Jesus, himself, chose the married man, Peter. To deny a man called to marriage the right to actually marry is not what Jesus would do. And to deny a married priesthood is not what Jesus did!

Look at the way The Catechism speaks of homosexuality in paragraph 2358: "These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."

The condition is described as a cross, and it is for many people. I don't think anyone would freely chose to be permanently homosexual if it were left to choice in a homophobic society. Liberals would say that homosexuals that chose to stand up against every form of discrimination will encounter the cross as they are opposed. Liberals see a goal at the end of the cross that gives meaning to life for the homosexual person. The battles you fight for equity today will benefit those in your condition tomorrow.

Conservatives admonish the homosexual to pick up the cross by living in perfectly chaste celibacy, even if the homosexual feels no calling to celibacy. This is a life-long commitment to repression and suppression with no apparent benefit. While some homosexual people may have a genuine calling to celibacy that is life-giving and freeing for them, there are many others who find perfectly chaste celibacy akin to spiritual suicide.

I'm sensitive to the argument of this latter group because I found that while I was in seminary for six years, trying to live chaste celibacy was leading me to depression. I kept hoping that the feeling would go away or subside, and that I would experience the joy some of my classmates experienced. I eventually discerned that God placed the calling to marriage in my heart. I am heterosexual, and when I chose to marry, I have never felt the same depression since. It's not entirely about sex either. My wife and I have not been able to have sex as frequently as many married couples for medical reasons.

However, I find married life fulfilling due to the intimacy of sharing my life with another person. As Christians, we are called to love. There are pains and challenges in loving my wife rightly, but there is resurrection and joy as well. This is the critical difference. I believe that in doing good until it hurts, we also experience joy and find encouragement from those we help, and those who join our struggle. This is what it should mean to be Church - to share our crosses together.

What is wrong with a homosexual person seeking to share his or her life with another, and why is it wrong for such committed love to occasionally find sexual expression?

The Church is utterly failing to make clear how two adult homosexuals seeking to publicly express a loving commitment to one another are hurting each other or anyone else. I do not see how they are violating the golden rule, and those who get into a huff over gay civil unions seem to be treating others in a manner they would not want to be treated. How can happily married heterosexuals say that marrying the person you love is not important to you? Don't you feel you have a right to marry the person of your choice?

To say a homosexual person is free to marry any person of the opposite gender she or he wishes misses the point. They do not want to marry the opposite gender anymore than heterosexuals want to marry the same gender. If a heterosexual were forced to marry a person of the same gender, we would feel a human right was violated.

The best arguments anyone can come up with are that these two people may be harming themselves since they are going to hell. How can anyone be certain of this? Isn't this making an a priori assumption about something that is impossible for any human being to know with any degree of certitude?

There are those who insist that this couple is somehow threatening heterosexual marriage.

This last position strikes me as absurd. The only heterosexual marriages such a couple would threaten are those people who are truly gay, and entered a heterosexual marriage to hide their sexuality from themselves and others.

Gay marriages are not going to tempt a single heterosexual person to enter a gay marriage. Gay marriages are not going dissuade a single heterosexual person from entering into heterosexual marriage if they feel called to it. Gay marriages are not going to be a catalyst for any heterosexual couple deciding to divorce.

Again, if we apply the golden rule, it is obvious that none of us would like it one bit if we felt called to marriage, found our partner, and then were told it cannot be done because it never has been done that way in the past, and a few verses of ancient texts taken out of context say so.

In my mind, the very desire of someone to comb through the Bible and find proof-texts to try to use against homosexuals is itself a form of spiritual bullying. Why do people even bother to put so much effort into such things?

The same thing goes with whoever first combed through the entire Bible to come up with the sin of Onan and try to apply it to the contraception issue in an isogetic fashion.

We saw this in yesterday's meditation on the cross how the cross reveals sin. Religious bullies will gather around anyone who says that religion is not tool for keeping social order. They will listen intently to such a person trying to trap the person in their own words. There was always a group of pious people gathered around Jesus trying to trip him up.

There are readers of my blog trying to do just that. I can't judge hearts, but I am speaking of the actions. There are those who jump at every opportunity to find fault with what I write, and if they can't find one, they will resort to ad hominem attacks. Truth be told, some of them might even wish they knew where I live. There are those who wish I would quit the Church and go join the Protestants. There are those who may want me excommunicated. I once received an email from a person defining himself as a traditionalist and a member of the SSPX who stated that I would burn in hell, and that the inquisitions should be restored to deal with people like me.

I may be wrong on a whole bunch of things, but on this, I feel certain: Christ came to gather the lost sheep. He came for the sick, not for the healthy. According to 1 Tim 2:4, God desires the salvation of all people. To be a Christian is to have an attitude that would always prefer to include rather than exclude. His attitude would always give the benefit of doubt to an opponent, and seek to forgive and preserve the relationship.

It seems to me that anyone who seeks to see others driven out of the Church or silenced when they aren't hurting anyone is not really getting the full meaning of the cross. I pray one day we all will "get it". We are to be a people of compassion who want everyone to feel included, and who demonstrate this in our actions.

Sometimes the way of the cross involves standing up to religious authority that is treating people unequally or immorally.

At times, love will lead us to have the attitude of one condemned unjustly, to enter into solidarity with those who live such a reality, and to get fired up against the injustice. We must love others till we feel hurt by it.

This is the way of the cross.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Sign of Contradiction

Part Three of Seven on the Cross

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself [Mary] a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)
On Sunday, we meditated on the absurdity of the cross, particularly for Jesus in his humanity. We speculated that the last temptation of Christ was to despair that his Father had abandoned him before his mission of restoring the new Israel and ushering in the reign of God was completed. We speculated that Satan was trying to drive Jesus into despair by confronting him with what appeared to be senseless suffering and death before his time. Yet, Jesus trusted that he would be vindicated even to his last breath, despite no more certainty of resurrection than is humanly possible, and despite the apparent absurdity of his situation.

Yesterday, we meditated on how Paul transformed the meaning of the absurdity of the cross into a theology of atonement. After his encounter with the Risen One, Paul remained confused about how and why a righteous man could bear a curse. He came to the conclusion that the best explanation is that the righteous man bore a curse for the unrighteous.

We then speculated that it is Satan who desires blood sacrifice, and the legalistic interpretation of atonement is meant to silence the Accuser rather than to please God. God does not desire human blood! Though this atonement theology was not likely explicitly taught by Jesus, Paul's theology conveyed the same merciful love of God that Jesus sought to convey.

Today, I wish to meditate on how the cross reveals sin. Our prior meditations feed this one.

In his humanity, Jesus did not go to the cross with a pre-conceived notion that offering his own life paid a ransom for the sin of all humanity. Rather, when he prayed that "This cup may pass", he expressed a real human desire to live, and held out some hope that the same divine power that had worked so many signs through him would now vindicate him as he stood the test imposed by the power of darkness.

Simply put, for Jesus, the Gospel is that God is good and God's sovereign reign is breaking into our reality through Jesus' own words and deeds. There is a deep and dynamic humanism in the message of Jesus. Unlike John the Baptist and some of the prophets of doom before him, Jesus breaks on the scene proclaiming forgiveness and glad tidings. The first "homily" or "sermon" Jesus preaches according to Luke is as follows:
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)
In Mark's Gospel, which may be earlier, the first words Jesus preaches are:
"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)
Jesus comes to preach "gospel" - good news!

In modern times, the notion of "repentance" tends to have an ascetic connotation, but in the Greek, the concept is simply to change directions - to convert or change.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus immediately begins to work miracles or signs that the time of fulfillment is at hand through him. Before chapter 1 ends, he will exorcise a demon, cure Simon's mother-in-law, cure a leper, and begin to gather large crowds seeking cures and solace. In chapter 2, Mark will narrate that Jesus' healings demonstrate his power to declare sins forgiven. In other words, the change Jesus speaks of is not self denial - but real fulfillment of all life-giving and healthy human desires among the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and despairing.
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matt 7:7-8)
Jesus' moral lessons are sometimes demanding, but at the center of every moral lesson is an obvious connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor. Our love for God is expressed by the way we treat others. According to the Gospels, Jesus preached that the entire law and prophets can be summed up in the two great commandments and the golden rule:
"Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12 and Lk 6:31)
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matt 22:37-40)
If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 Jn 4:20)
In the Gospel narratives, Jesus calls his burden light, and says that he came that we might have life abundantly.

Yet, Jesus is critical of a certain group of people, and they are the only people he ever addresses with sharp rebuke. Those whom Jesus treats harshly are religiously pious people who "lays up heavy burdens on others" and who "strain at gnats while letting camels go by" (see the entire chapter 23 of Matt). Jesus teaches us not to judge, lest we might be judged. He warns that the standard by which we judge others will be measured against us.

About mid-way through each Gospel, the teaching of Jesus continues to proclaim the love and mercy of God, but also takes a darker tone.

The narrators tell us that pious laymen known as Pharisees, and other religious leaders such as the Herodians, who hold the seat of Moses, are plotting against him. They are constantly trying to trap him in some heresy or blasphemy. As their assault grows more intense, the story tellers relate that Jesus begins to predict his passion, and he begins to advise his disciples that they will need to pick up their cross, cut family ties, and face persecution and insult if they are to be his followers.

While I do not think that the Jesus of history taught any clear doctrine of vicarious suffering and atonement, and I do not think he saw his own impending death as the purpose and culmination of his mission, I do think he likely had an intuition that he was headed toward being made a martyr. Martyrs die for a cause they perceive as greater than themselves.

I don't recall where I heard this quote, but I once heard it said that life is not worth living until you find something worth dying for.

Some scholars suggest that some of the language of picking up our cross or turning our backs on our families were post-resurrection interpolations by the early Church to give encouragement to persecuted faithful after the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecutions under Nero. Others argue that some of the words are so jolting that they must go back to the historical Jesus, or they would not have found their way into the Gospel. If Jesus truly said things like "pick up your cross" and if he truly asked us to turn our backs on our families, I believe he was calling us to make sacrifices for higher goods - and promising us greater happiness in this life for doing so.

Afterall, he did not simply say, "Lose your life". Rather, he said "lose your life in order to find it". He did not simply invite his disciples to give up family. Rather, he promised that if they gave up family, God would grant them a hundred times more siblings. There is a clear sense that Jesus is starting a movement and that the movement will carry out his mission to the ends of the earth. That mission is worth dying for.

What was the cause for which Jesus was willing to be martyred? What did he see his mission to be? As a human being, what was Jesus fighting for?

In last Sunday's Gospel, the accusations made against Jesus before Pilate were that he opposed the tax to Caesar and stirred up the people with notions that he was a king. Through his enemies, we know that there was a political dimension to what Jesus was doing, whether he intended it or not.

Jesus attracted tax collectors. One of them even gave up collecting taxes and joined his inner circle of the Twelve. Yet, Jesus never clearly told anyone not to pay taxes. Indeed, he is remembered by the community of faith saying that we should render to Caesar what is Caesar's. Some of the tax collectors appeared to stop collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman state, and whether Jesus directly intended it or not, he was cutting off revenue to the state.

Jesus gathered large crowds and associated with the poor and lowly, telling them God loved them, and they are blessed. Jesus did speak of the reign of God breaking into this world through his words and deeds, and anyone who rejoiced to hear the good news found favor with Christ. He may not have proclaimed himself a king, but as he rode triumphally into Jerusalem, those in authority took notice.

Jesus actions had political, cultural and spiritual consequences. And all he was doing at every moment was trying to do good for others.

The only people Jesus criticized were those who attributed his power to exorcise and heal to Satan, or those who tried to trip him up by constantly seeking a slip of the tongue, and so forth.

The cause of Jesus appears to be to affirm human dignity against those who are judgmental and against anyone who might deny human dignity.

Jesus died for the sake of humanism!

Jesus did not die for secular humanism. Rather, he died for a humanism that is rooted in the faith that God the Father loves all people equally, and God the Father wishes good things for all his children. In the words and deeds of Jesus, bad things happen because Satan still has control of the world - not in some abstract sense of the hearts of sinners, but in the concrete sh*t that happens to us that causes us suffering. Suffering is a sign of demonic activity in the world, and all that causes real and abiding joy is a sign of the reign of God breaking through.

In order to grasp what is occurring in the Gospel, it may be helpful to look at events that have taken place in our own life-times. I recall a Jesuit priest trying to explain the concept of liberation theology to me. He explained that in certain areas of Latin America, the wealthy land owners were so bent on keeping control of the poor that they would kill anyone who taught a peasant to read. For the Jesuit, liberation theology is realizing that when we do good and avoid evil, it has political consequences, even when we do not consciously intend those consequences. The theology of liberation simply is the way believers speak of this reality. When we share the joy of reading, it has political consequences. Suffering and evil will fight against joy, liberation and goodness.

Even a conservative Republican Catholic in America can grasp this through the issue of abortion. The Gospel has political consequences. When we stand up for the voiceless, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the public sinner, the weak, and the sick, the very act of doing so will have physical and political consequences.

The rich and powerful, and those in religious authority, and all who keep "order" in society, and those who are self-righteously judgmental are tempted by the greatest sin, and the crucifixion of Jesus reveals this sin. There are people in the world who will kill a man who never did wrong and who did nothing but good in order to keep control of the masses, whom they deem "sinners" incapable of guiding themselves.

If you watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the scene of the scourging of Jesus hopefully sickened you a bit. In the scene, Roman soldiers giggle gleefully as the blood of Christ splatters on their face. Some critics of the film believe it is too violent in scenes like this. I do not think it is violent enough.

I am five foot six inches tall and 138 pounds at the age of 39. One can imagine how small I was as a child. Furthermore, I was not gifted with extraordinary athletic ability. I was not a faster runner than the other kids, and my eye-hand coordination may have been below average for a boy my age. I was a victim of being bullied just about everyday from first through eighth grade.

What do I mean by being a victim of being bullied? Could I be more specific?

Once, I was pushed to the ground by a larger kid who then sat on my back and pushed my face in the grass yelling that I could not get up until I ate the grass. Another time, I had a pocket-knife held to my throat by one boy, while another continually punched me in the stomach. I had rocks thrown at me. People punched me for no apparent reason.

I became shy and introverted, and avoided getting near any boy on the play-ground for fear that I would be beat up. I would wonder around the outer edge of the playground avoiding boys because they might bully me, and avoiding the girls lest the boys have further reason to call me a sissy. I may have been the only kid in my class who hated recess. I saw in the images of Gibson's movie exactly what I saw on the playground.

I'm not claiming some sort of innocent victim status either. As many psychologist might predict, I turned right around and did to others what was done to me. I was the oldest in a large family, and I came home and do to my younger siblings exactly what was done to me. And I enjoyed the feeling of power it gave me!

So I understand bullying from both points of view, as victim and perpetrator.

What we often overlook in the spiritualizing of the crucifixion by a focus on atonement theology of Jesus dying for us is that if Jesus died for us, we killed him. We stand as that soldier each time we participate in sin. And behind that soldier, giving him the authority and power to act out his sadistic tendencies is everyone who seeks to control others.

As I've grown older, I still pray for the grade school bullies. Christ commands us to pray for our enemies. I live hundreds of miles for any of them these days, and I have no idea how most of them turned out as adults. Looking at my own experience of being and becoming a bully, I ask myself if it is possible that perhaps the bullies at school were themselves victims of some sort of bullying. Maybe an older sibling or neighbor bullied them. Maybe their parents were abusive. Yet, ultimately, the bullying starts with someone, and maybe bullying is part of the fallen nature of a race effected by original sin.

Most of us know some forms of evil intuitively. Most Christians believe the actions of Hitler were evil. We Americans hear the stories of Saddam Hussein's mass graves and torture chambers, and we call that evil.

At the crucifixion, there were people acting with the same gruesome evil, and Gibson's film captures this.

And what we see in the way the entire events unfolded in first century Palestine is that Jesus was executed by proper state authority trying to keep legitimate order in a troubled region, and he was handed over for crucifixion by religious leaders and pious laymen, who believed him guilty of crimes against the state and blasphemy and heresy!

At the grossest level - it's most evil and despicable level - bullying is an act of power over another in the physical realm. A larger kid punches, kicks, pushes and beats the pulp out of a smaller kid for no apparent reason other than to prove he can. A man who rapes a woman or a child, or beats his spouse is a bully. The Roman soldiers who beat the tar out of Jesus were bullies.

The bully seeks to exercise power over another by using force to provoke emotions the bully controls. The bully is thrilled that she or he can make another feel fear, powerlessness, pain, sadness, and so forth. The control of another person is the sin embraced by the bully.

But there are those who bully by proxy, and who only resort to physical force when all else fails. When we try to provoke fear and a sense of powerlessness in others in the intellectual, emotional or spiritual realm, we are acting as bullies. All who use the power of the state and the power of religious authority or religious teaching to control others are bullies.

Religion and spirituality are given to us to effect our own inner conversion, not to maintain the status quo, nor to maintain social order, nor mitigate the threat of another person against me if the other got what they truly desire.

Bullies eventually wind up very lonely and sad people, because when we control everyone, we are not intimate with anyone. The bully will eventually be lead into presumption and despair, and even blasphemy of the Spirit.

God invites us to love others. Love conquers loneliness by taking us out of our ourselves. Love leads to greater happiness. Love is relational, and seeks mutual interdependence, mutual respect, forgiveness and commitment to one another. Love conquers the bullying tendency, and requires humility to see the other as your equal. Love sees ourselves in others and approaches the other with an open mind and open heart and a commitment to do good to the other and to stay in relationship with the other, no matter how difficult. Love is not simply a feeling. It is an action that eventually leads to a feeling of joy that will face death for the cause of humanity!

We are to love our enemies. If we are to be like Jesus, we will even love those whom we deem most undeserving. We are to love Saddam Hussein and Slobodon Milosevich. We are to love pedophile priests and murderers. We are to love homosexual activists and pro-abortionists. We are to love liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and all people.

And in making moral decisions, unless we can point to how another is hurting someone else, we need to beware that when we admonish another in charity we are not really acting as spiritual bullies, rather than witnesses to the Gospel. According to Jesus, the entire law and prophets is rooted in the golden rule. If your admonishment of another cannot point to the harm she or he causes another, the fault is likely your own tendency to spiritual bullying.

The sign of contradiction is that even those who appear most righteous are often the most wrong.


Monday, March 21, 2005

Is God the Father Blood Thirsty?

Part Two of Seven on the Cross

In yesterday's meditation on the meaning of the cross, I dwelled on the crucifixion from the point of view of Jesus' humanity, and I speculated on his possible temptations and psychological state in his last hours. I suggested that the theology of vicarious or substitutionary atonement was not part of the theology of the historical Jesus, and that the cross itself may have tempted Jesus to despair.

I suspect this speculation may shock some readers. There are those who read the Gospels in a nearly fundamentalist fashion and assume that Jesus marched to the cross with complete foreknowledge of his death and its meaning and the inevitability of his resurrection. We are taught to believe that Jesus approached the cross with a sense of mission, willfully offering himself as a sacrificial victim for the sake of us sinners.

As heroic as this interpretation of the events may sound, the absurdity of this position is made apparent by looking at the crucifixion through the eyes of an atheist or agnostic. What kind of God is it who would demand a human sacrifice? Such a God is hardly worthy of our worship.

Did God the Father demand a human sacrifice in order to atone for our sins?

I went to a Protestant site called Bible Gateway that permits word searches. The actual word "atonement" appears in the NIV translation of the New Testament only 4 times: Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17 and 9:5, and in reference to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Acts 27:9. In the American Standard Version, which is supposedly as close as we can get to a literal word for word literal translation of the Greek, the word "atonement" does not appear in the entire New Testament.

I do not have a searchable software for the Catholic New American Bible, but the point is that the notion of atonement is not emphasized even in Protestant Bibles the way it is emphasized in popular preaching today sometimes.

The word "expiation" is also not used in the NIV. Neither is the word "impute" or "imputed". Going by memory alone, I only recall the word "expiation" in the Catholic New American Bible in 1 John 2:2.

Even the word "redeem" and its variants only find 8 occurrences in the NIV. The word "propitiation" is not found in the NIV at all.

I am not saying these concepts are absent in Scripture. However, they are not as heavily emphasized as many of us are lead to believe by popular preaching in both Protestant and Catholic churches.

The fundamentalist camp will hold that God is perfectly just, and his justice demands that blood be paid for blood. Sin brought death into the world in the Book of Genesis, and even the slightest disobedience to God is an affirmation of the choice of Adam. To sin, even venially, is to affirm the entrance of death into the created realm, and makes all of us guilty of murder. Only human blood can atone for the cost of the human blood we shed by participation in sin. All of this seems pretty clearly spelled out in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans (particularly 3:25 and chapter 5), even if the word "atonement" is not specifically used.

I believe that we need to unpack this a bit if we are to make sense of atonement.

First, I think we need to realize that the Gospels and other New Testament literature are not "objective" historical accounts in the sense modern people mean the term. Even a casual perusal of the New Testament literature would reveal that there are differences in the way each author narrates the story of Jesus. For example, the Lord's prayer is different in Matthew's Gospel than in Luke's. The words of institution of the Eucharist are different in each narration. Rather than having the actual words of Jesus, what we have in the New Testament are paraphrases.

In the past, the differences in the narratives tended to be ignored by theologians and Biblical scholars. Often, the fathers and doctors of the Church tried to harmonize the accounts. Many speculated that maybe Jesus did some things more than once, so that two different accounts of the same event could be said to be true at different times. Beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing into present times, Biblical scholars began to recognize that a better approach was to realize that each individual author is crafting his particular paraphrase a certain way to make a certain point.

In our own day, we know that when we read the opinion columns in the newspaper, we are getting an interpretation of events, rather than an objective account of events. There are real events informing an opinion column, and each columnist is telling the truth as she or he sees it. Yet, the opinion column is not unbiased, nor completely "factual" in the style of front page newspaper account.

What modern Biblical scholarship has come to realize is that in ancient times, almost all history, news, and biography was narrated in a style more akin to opinion columns than to the hard news on the front page. The Biblical authors not only reported their raw unbiased perception of the facts, but their interpretation of the facts was woven into the telling of the story. Even the earliest church fathers recognized this, and their exegesis often was more similar to modern exegesis than the later exegesis of the middle ages or the exegesis of modern fundamentalists.

Thus, as we try to discern the meaning of the crucifixion event twenty centuries after the fact, we need to be careful to distinguish between the events that may be the history behind the text, and the interpretation of the events that may be the author's individual theological interpretation of those same events.

Rather than telling us the history and the biography of Jesus in an objective fashion, the New Testament tells us the truth about Jesus as interpreted by each individual author. We believe in faith that each author is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit in his crafting of the narrative. However, this does not mean that an interpretation of meaning in the event is exactly what Jesus said or did or thought during his earthly ministry. The New Testament even gives evidence to a development of thought after the resurrection!

The word "Trinity" is not found in the entire Bible, and yet the Church holds that the doctrine of the Trinity is an infallibly defined and central article of faith that is implied in Scripture. It took several centuries for this doctrine to develop into its current linguistic expression. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception took nineteen centuries to develop into an infallible definition. Catholics believe that doctrine develops in clarity over time, and we call this development Sacred Tradition.

In a similar manner, the formation of the New Testament itself is simply the earliest written phases of Sacred Tradition. There is a progression in understanding and clarifying who Jesus was and what he meant to his disciples from the earliest writings by Mark and Paul to the latest writings of John and some of the later epistles.

For example, Mark's Gospel, which was likely the first Gospel written, by itself does not strongly emphasize the divinity of Christ in any clear and cogent fashion. At best, the divinity of Christ is implied loosely in a small number of phrases and titles. By the time we get to the later writing of John's Gospel, the author is nearly hitting us over the head with the notion that Christ is divine. Perhaps the author of John felt Mark simply wasn't clear enough, and that may have been how he experienced the Holy Spirit inspiring him to write more than what Mark had already written.

What this reveals is a development of thought in very early Christian tradition after the crucifixion and resurrection event that placed more and more emphasis and clarity on who the Church believes Jesus to be.

Paul is one of the earliest writers in the New Testament, and depending on when we date the Gospel of Mark, he may be the earliest. One of the characteristics of Paul is that we have very little biographical information about Jesus in his letters. He seldom, if ever, quotes Jesus. Paul's concerns are immediate problems he faces in the Church, and his theology is very cosmic, rather than grounded in particulars.

Paul's theology is also not fully developed, and receives clarification in later New Testament writing, and later Church tradition. Thus, the author of 2 Peter says that Paul is sometimes hard to understand, and can be distorted (2 Pet 3:16).

We believe that Paul is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, and his letters comprise a portion of what we have come to believe is the Word of God. As such, his writing is "true". However, we need to be careful to read Paul with some nuance, and within the context of the whole of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Let me switch gears here for a moment and then come back to Paul.

I recall that when I was in the seminary learning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a particular line of Scripture seemed to leap off the page and struck me like a ton of bricks. The passage comes from Revelations 12:10:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night.
The word for "the accuser" in Hebrew is "Satan", and it is found in the Old Testament in Zec 3:1 and 1 Chron 21:1. Satan's role in the Bible is that of tester and accuser. He tempts us, and then points the finger of accusation against us if we fall to the temptation. Paul was likely familiar with this view of Satan.

I believe that understanding Satan's role in Scripture is critical to understanding what Paul likely meant when he says that a righteous man died on behalf of the unrighteous.

Perhaps, it is not God the Father who sought blood sacrifice to satisfy justice, but Satan!

In Galatians 3:13, Paul writes:
Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree"
Paul was a Pharisee well versed in the law and zealous in living it (see Phil 3:5). Many Scripture scholars suggest that during the period that Paul persecuted Christians, he honestly believed that Jesus could not be the Messiah because the law (possibly Dt 21:23) says everyone who hangs on a tree is cursed by God!

When Paul underwent his conversion, he likely struggled to rebut his own prior rhetoric against the early Church. If formerly he believed that the law proved Jesus was cursed, after his encounter with the Risen One, he now had to explain how Jesus could be hung on a tree and not be personally cursed.

Not from the preaching of Jesus directly, but from his own internal conflict, Paul came to speculate that if a righteous man bore a curse, he bore it on behalf of the unrighteous. This became the centerpiece of Pauline theology that is most clearly expressed in the Letter to the Romans. Paul then reinterpreted much of the Old Testament in light of this insight to bolster his position.

Even in its most developed form, Paul never really says that God the Father is a bloodthirsty tyrant who seeks blood sacrifices to win his favor. The problem Paul was addressing in his theology of atonement was not really how justice is satisfied for the sinner, nor even what pleases God the Father. Rather, the problem he set out to solve is why a righteous man bore the injustice of an undeserved curse. The solution he arrived at was that Jesus had died for him, and for all who acknowledge themselves as sinners. This seminal notion continues to be fleshed out in Sacred Tradition.

But who really desires blood sacrifice as an atonement for sin?

Jesus likely never preached such a concept himself. There is little to no trace of such a theology in the Gospel traditions that try to narrate the words and deeds of Jesus as remembered by the early community of faith. Indeed, Jesus never portrays his Daddy (Abba) as such a harsh figure, even when he uses the metaphor of judge.

For Jesus, it appears that the Father is against human suffering. His Father will grant any request, and the reign of his Father will usher in an age where the blind see, the lame walk, and the oppressed are set free. His Father forgives all who seek forgiveness, without asking anything in return. Suffering may be inflicted for correction of fault, but not merely to exact justice. Jesus' God always lets mercy triumph over justice.

And isn't this the way most Christian fathers experience actually being a father? Even when we punish a child, our concern is not to exact justice or revenge. If two of our children are fighting, we do not strike one because she or he struck the other. Rather, we seek the fighting to stop. If we strike a child at all, it is only to correct the behavior. If a child would correct her or his behavior on his or her own without punishment, what father would still seek retribution?

Am I saying, therefore, that Paul was simply wrong?

Of course not. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all of us can somehow ultimately relate to the message that we are sinners and that an innocent man bore the penalty earned by our sins. However, I would suggest that in the context of the rest of Scripture that we come to see just who it is that ultimately desires blood sacrifice. It is not God the Father who sought the blood of an innocent son. Rather, it is Satan!

We've probably all heard an Evangelical Protestant paint an image of our final judgment before a perfectly just judge, and the image is often extended in such a way that the judge imposed a penalty or fine upon us. Then the image is extended to say Jesus walks in and pays the fine for us. But we're left with a bit of fear of the judge.

As helpful as the image is to some people, I would say the Bible actually portrays a more sophisticated image that addresses the atheist or agnostic concern about a blood thirsty God.

The way the image plays out in the Bible is actually that when we face the judge, we stand before a judge who is our father, and who loves us the way any father loves a child. It is true that because he is a perfect judge, he is also bound to uphold the law. As we stand before our father, our defense attorney (paraclete) is the Holy Spirit.

It is Satan who is the prosecuting attorney demanding blood sacrifice as the penalty for the sins of the human race - and he wants it imposed on all humanity. Satan has a powerful case, and a just God cannot ignore Satan's righteous argument, no matter how painful the outcome. Remember that Satan is an angel very like God, and the justice of Satan appears to be right. But God the Father is not a completely unbiased judge at heart, and God wants Satan to lose this case against his own children.

The Father is desiring a way to get the case thrown out of court. Because Satan accidentally killed an innocent man (our brother, Jesus), the Holy Spirit has a strong argument before a favorable judge to have the entire case against humanity thrown out of court!

Such an interpretation of the atonement also clarifies the depth of loss felt by God the Father when the Gospel of John says: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his sole begotten son." God did not seek anyone's blood, but in his justice, he needed to silence Satan.

While Paul's imagery may not be literally rooted in the explicit teaching of Jesus, the interpretation Paul gives the event of the crucifixion conveys the same love of God the Father that Jesus sought to convey. The imagery is cosmic and abstract compared to the concrete parables of Jesus, and the actual historical event of idealistic preacher being senselessly crucified.

The meaning Paul draws from the event was not something inherently obvious in the history behind the texts of the New Testament. At the same time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul communicated the same love of God Jesus wished to convey.

Furthermore, Christians believe that Paul conveyed the same love God wished to convey in the events of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. In Jesus, God has joined himself completely to the human condition, even to the point of suffering with us. In the resurrection, God has conquered death and the power of sin that leads to death. In this sense, Paul's interpretation is God's word to us, and all who can relate to the imagery in faith are being saved by it.

Yet, the interpretation of these events in such cosmic imagery is one person's interpretation - and not necessarily the primary interpretation that Jesus may have given the events himself. Even the other New Testament authors offer us variant interpretations.

Furthermore, Paul's own interpretation underwent development in the New Testament era, and continued to develop even into the fourth century when Augustine developed the concept of original sin. Tomorrow, I will write a bit more on how the cross reveals our sinfulness.

What I am emphasizing is two things. First, the interpretation of the cross as atonement is one of many possible valid interpretations of the event of the cross. Second, the interpretation of the cross as atonement is a doctrine that is under development in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul's word is the first word in a discussion taking place in history, but not the final word. We can take from Paul what is meaningful and good, and continue to clarify that we do not believe God the Father is a bloodthirsty tyrant needing human blood to satisfy his sense of justice.