Friday, July 28, 2006

John Allen's 'All Things Catholic'

The main focus is on the crisis in Lebanon and ESCR in the EU.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Justice and Mercy

Over the past couple of days, I've been trying to think about how articulate something without getting too complex, and I can't figure out how to say it simply.

Justice and mercy are two sides of the virtue of love.

That's as simple as I can put it.

As frequent readers know, I sometimes adopt the language or rhetorical techniques of the Bible wielding religious right, and can come across as threatening hell-fire and brimstone to those who support the war in Iraq, Israeli attacks on civilians, tax cuts to the wealthy while poverty is on the rise, hatred and discrimination against gays, racism, destruction of the environment, the death penalty, and so forth.

And given that I am also a believer in a consistent ethic of life, no matter how I might seem to tone down the rhetoric on abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, a passionate defense of the sanctity of human life comes through that seems indistinguishable from the religious right.

More than one reader has commented over the years that I am just like the religious right - and I have generally accepted the criticism as valid.

While I do not like "us v. them" rhetoric, believe in being a humble listener to other points of view, and I believe the Gospel is "good news" that must be deliverable without threats, I also appeal to justice rather frequently and forcefully.

I am thinking about justice over the past couple of days, and how it seems almost intuitively obvious to me these days what it is and how it works and how it is reconciled with God's mercy.

Jesus spoke of God as our Father, and encouraged us to see ourselves as children of God with the heart of children.

I think a good father with more than one child can begin to imagine what justice really is - and so can a mother, or anyone with a little imagination.

Let's say little Johnny, about 4 years old, is bullying his younger sister, Susie by pulling her pigtails. A good parent is going to intervene to stop the bullying. The intervention may take a number of forms.

We might try to distract Johnny: "Go play outside". We may simply say "Stop picking on your sister." We might physically lift Johnny off the ground and carry him to his bedroom and tell him to stay there until he learns to behave himself. Some parents might even go so far as to just give Johnny a good swat on the rear.

(As a side note, I oppose corporal punishment).

A very bad parent might hit Johnny with a metal rod, or burn little Johnny with a cigarette, or lock him for hours in a closet. The punishment doesn't fit the crime.

We have laws against this sort of thing. It is generally accepted that this type of behavior is not aimed so much at correction as revealing a sadistic tendency in the parent.

God is not a sadist.

A bad parent might also ignore Johnny too - which is unfair and ultimately unloving to Susie, and even to Johnny in the sense that he is not developing his full potential without learning some self discipline.

God's justice is an expression of God's love. If God is a loving parent, it is simply not possible that God sits idly by doing nothing when one of his children does injustice to another.

Ok so far, I assume. Let's fast forward a few years....

Let's say Johnny is about 11 now and Susie a year younger. And let's say Johnny called Susie an ugly pig.

In the grand scheme of things, this is sort of a venial sin.

A parent may intervene, saying, "Be nice to your sister." or the parent may vindicate Susie, "Don't listen to your brother. You look very pretty in your new dress." or we may remind Susie that sticks and stones might break her bones, but names will never hurt her, or we may be stiffer with little Johnny if the name calling is part of a pattern of behavior, etc....

If a parent thinks Susie can handle herself, because the "sin" is "venial", the parent might choose not to intervene at all. Maybe the parent listens from another room as Susie responds, "What you say is what you are."

So, what I am getting at is that God's love demands that God intervene when we treat each other unjustly. Yet, God's intervention can take many forms and for "smaller" infractions, God may let us work things out ourselves.

Again, I assume most readers are OK so far.

What if 11 year old little Johnny calls 10 year old little Susie a fat pig, and Susie unexpectedly pulls a knife out of the kitchen drawers and attempts to stab little Johnny in the stomach?

Johnny's actions was wrong. He committed an injustice - a sin. He started the conflict.

Yet, Susie's reaction lacks proportion, and a good parent is going to intervene on Johnny's behalf - possibly to save him from deadly wound or serious injury.

I am trying to get at the fact that the ends do not justify the means, and just because we are wronged does not give us the right to do evil to another.

Any anger the parent may have felt at little Johnny in overhearing him call Susie a pig would vanish the instant she whips out the knife.

This doesn't mean that the parent would stop loving Susie.

It doesn't mean that the parent does not acknowledge that Johnny was wrong to call Susie a fat pig.

But no parent worthy of the title would sit idly by and let Susie stab her brother with a knife in retaliation for being called a name.

Let's make the analogy a bit more complex - even dark - and extend it further....

What if the parent becomes so concerned about Susie's reaction of pulling a knife on Johnny that the parent's intervention involves consulting a mental health professional, and through counseling, it is discovered that little Johnny raped little Susie a few months earlier?

Such things are difficult for many people to imagine - and sadly, too easy for others to imagine.

God is a loving parent always ready to forgive.

I do not believe that the perfect parent would cease loving either little Johnny the 4 year old bully who grew into an 11 year old rapist, or cute little Susie who suffered so greatly at Johnny's expense that she is now prone to violence and murder.

Of course, we may ask how a perfect parent wound up with kids like this.

But God has wound up with kids like this. The evidence is all around us and in our own hearts.

God's justice demands intervention. The intervention he takes may not always be "punishment", and it may not address every single "sin", but God intervenes to vindicate and protect victims of injustice. God has to, or God is not a good God.

Yet, God's intervention is merciful and fair to the oppressor - aimed primarily at correction. God does not punish us out of hatred or vengeance or the demand of an abstract principle.

God intervenes to correct us when we do wrong and to protect the innocent.

The intervention is not aimed at hurting the perpetrator of injustice, but at trying to get the children to "get along" - to even love one another - to be the perfect family like some 1950's cheesy TV show.

Ultimately, none of us are innocent, and in that sense, we all feel the "wrath of God" at some point in our lives.

And what person has not felt the wrath of a loving parent at some point in his or her life? What parent has not experienced anger at his or her children?

But my point is that the love of a perfect parent - a parent better than any of us could be - never grows angry to the point of seeking to destroy the child or cut the child off completely.

Even if the child ran away from our Father in heaven, the Bible tells us God will seek the prodigal son - searching the horizon waiting for his return - leaving the 99 sheep to go after the lost sheep.

God is love, and everything God does will some day be revealed to us as a perfect expression of love. Even what does not seem to fit in my analogies will be more clear in the next life. We dimly see now what will later be brought to light.

I only have one daughter, and maybe my ability to imagine raising more than one child is assisted by being the oldest of nine children with some pretty good parents overall. They weren't perfect, but they did better than many.

I have only one daughter, and she is only 21 months old, but for these 21 months, there is not a day that goes by when I am not utterly swept off my feet by this little wonder.

I cannot explain how much I love this little girl. It scares me at times the hold she has on my heart.

What could she possibly do that would make me stop loving her?

I imagine there is nothing that would make me stop loving her.

There is much I imagine that she could do when she grows older that could frighten me, hurt me, anger me, sadden me, disappoint me, or just break my heart.

I imagine I will need to correct her at times in life.

But I can't imagine that I sill stop loving her. She has me far too enthralled.

If someone tried to harm my daughter, despite all my preaching of non-violence, I do not deny that my rage - a rage rooted in love - would be such that I would want to rip the person apart.

Our Father in heaven feels that way about all of us - putting God in quite a bind when we hurt one another.

I know there are some really bad parents out there, and maybe some of my readers had really bad parents or absent parents making my analogies a little hard to grasp entirely.

Justice is often portrayed as a blind-folded lady holding a scale. The notion is that justice shows no partiality - is blind - and always aims at balance.

Justice could be viewed on a quasi-naturalistic plane as an attempt of the universe to seek balance and restore harmony.

There is a sense in which I believe this notion of justice with nuance and caveat. God cannot sit idly by when we hurt one another. God must intervene. If he created a blind law, it remains an expression of his personal love.

Perhaps God has chosen to intervene by designing the universe such that there is a sort of law of karma that works blindly like Newtonian physics: cause and effect.

The Apostle says, "As you sow, so will you reap". Sin has consequences.

An all knowing and all powerful God who is also a loving God could certainly have designed the universe this way so that direct divine intervention would not be necessary - or so that the law of justice, itself, embedded in the universe would be the divine means of intervening perfectly.

This is a very Biblical way of viewing justice: that justice is both an expression of God's personal love, while simultaneously functioning something like an impersonal physical law that, at times, even seems to bind God.

So, after all that I have written so far, I am only making one point, and I have more to say.

This first point is that justice seen as an intervention to right wrongs, restore balance and harmony, exercised with objectivity that seems blind, and almost operates like a law of physics seem to me consistent with the notion of a personal loving God who is merciful.

Justice is inescapable. It will happen, or God is not God.

Sin has consequences that cannot be avoided.

In Catholic theology, we even speak of a state of purgatory where the temporal consequences of sin are experienced by those who are already saved in the next life.

It even seems that the law of justice is consistent by hints and shadows with experience. People living in extreme sin tend to "bottom out" and we have a saying that crime doesn't pay.

And yet, if we can think of justice as a law - a law like physics - can we speak the same way of grace?

I once heard a Protestant Evangelical say that the law of grace is compared to the law of justice in the manner that we might compare the law of aerodynamics to the law of gravity.

The laws of aerodynamics allow several tons of steel to seemingly defy the law of gravity when an airplane soars through the sky.

Of course, gravity is still operative on the airplane. If it were not, the passengers would float out of their seats. The plane could not land.

So it is with justice and mercy.

The law of mercy or the law of grace is not an exception to the law of justice. Sin has consequences. A loving God cannot fail to intervene on behalf of victims of injustice. Sin cannot be rewarded. We will reap as we sow.

Yet, as we saw in our analogy of the perfect parent, God does not cease loving even the worst sinner, and if justice leads to correction such that his children live once again in harmony, the sinner is no longer "punished".

The ultimate aim of the Father is that we would sit at table together joyfully enjoying each other's company.

What good father hasn't fantasized of the grand family reunion with his great grandchildren present and all his children united in love?

Yet, parents intervene for their children, even on behalf of one against the other at times - not out of preferential love, but out of passionate love for all the children.

We even saw that a parent's interventions sometimes do not take the form of punishment per se. A parent may distract or warn or allow children to work things out themselves if the matter is not too serious.

Maybe mercy is often God intervening by a different means than the most negative consequence - and maybe the consequence of sin is sometimes simply a truly contrite heart seeking the grace to change.

Yet, where the matter is serious, God must intervene, either directly, or indirectly through the design of his creation.

There is a sense in which human beings can act as agents of God's corrective justice.

If a homicidal maniac is apprehended by the police, convicted of a crime, and sent to prison, human agency operated as the means by which the universe restored balance.

Yet, in the teachings of Jesus Christ, we are invited to refrain from seeing ourselves as agents of God's justice.

Indeed, we are warned that anger - or the spirit of vengeance - makes us liable to judgment ourselves.

What the Gospel points out is that God will intervene if we face injustice, and we need to have faith in the goodness of God, who loves each one of us passionately.

We can leave correction of the sinner to God, alone, trusting that our Father in heaven will take care of the weak and innocent.

We may, on occasion, be called to prophetically admonish sinners in charitable and merciful fraternal rebuke by offering reason with gentleness and respect, avoiding rash judgment and confronting the other one-on-one before escalating the issue to higher authority for non-violent resolution.

The prophets are often those siblings who heard Dad call out from upstairs, "Don't make me come down there."

Yet, the true prophet understands that Dad would not need to come down if we children would act in our own self interest and love one another.

As Christians, our primary duty is not to be enforcers of justice understood as retribution.

As disciples of Jesus - as his brothers or sisters - what we are called to become is agents of God's mercy - agents of the law of grace.

The law of grace does not truly contradict justice, but works with justice in ways that seem to defy justice understood too narrowly.

The promise of the New Testament is that we can actually change sinners into saints by turning the other cheek, blessing them, doing good to them, and praying for them.

Saint Paul explicitly tells us we can conquer evil by doing good to our persecutors.

If we compare the law of grace to the law of aerodynamics, there is a supernatural power in charity that can overcome evil.

And God provides the Holy Spirit within to help us do what is difficult for us to comprehend.

The cross shows us that willingly suffering the injustice of our siblings has a vicarious effect of satisfying justice, while stirring repentance in the heart of sinners.

Ultimately, Jesus paid the debt for all sin. Yet, Saint Paul spoke of filling up what is lacking in the cross. The merits of the cross become applied here and now through the grace inspired works of saints.

We are never under a moral obligation to "enforce justice" understood as retribution. God will enforce justice, no matter what we do.

What we are obligated to do is "enforce grace".

And there is a promise that comes with this new responsibility. God's justice demands that good is rewarded. God's justice demands that our own mercy towards others is requited with mercy. Charity cancels a multitude of sins!

When we who are children of God act mercifully to one another, God must be merciful to us, because the Father cannot be less merciful than the child.

When we are charitable to each other, God cannot be less charitable to us. Good works are multiplied and become like grain that runneth over.

Bad things happen to good people. If this were not the case, we could not speak of injustice at all. The existence of evil may be the only religious truth that is empirically acknowledged by everyone, even the atheist.

If we do evil, persisting in evil, and growing in the gravity of our evil, evil will befall us. God must intervene. We will reap as we sow. The universe will seek balance. Cries for the "vengeance of God" will come from the earth itself.

God's love will compel God to act to correct you.

As your evil grows and escalates, God's intervention will escalate in kind - and you cannot ultimately win against God.

If we escalate our own evil in response to evil, all that happens is that the whole family is more disrupted than it already was - and you may lose your soul in the process.

If we meet evil with good, the family may find healing more quickly - and God the Father will ultimately correct the sinner. The cycle of sin can end with each one of us.

There really is not a single action that demands an eternal punishment.

In an eternal perspective of immortal beings, we may one day see even such acts as murder and pedophilia and rape as being on par with pulling Susie's hair - wrong, and a sign of potential growth in evil - but not the worse thing that could ever happen.

Christ says we should fear the one who kills the soul more than the one who kills the body.

Getting consumed with the spirit of hate or apathy or vengeance or desire for retribution is what kills the soul.

Christ says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only unpardonable sin, and theologians through the centuries, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox have acknowledged that this is not a one time act - but an ongoing and stubborn rejection of grace.

Blasphemy of the Spirit is the failure to love: to love God and to love the neighbor, and even to love the self.

Suffering has at least two causes.

Those who persist in evil will have evil befall them. What goes around comes around. The chickens will come home to roost. You cannot escape karma.

Those who are victims of injustice also suffer at the hands of those who choose evil. If this were not true, we could not call the acts of the evildoer "evil".

From these two causes of sin, we derive that in some mysterious way, all suffering is rooted in the mystery of sin - and here, we speak on the cosmic scale that acknowledges a condition Christians call "original sin".

Natural disasters are not the direct result of the personal sins of those effected.

Christ made this clear in reference to a tower that fell in Siloam. He stated the people who died in this event were no more sinners than anyone else.

Yet, suffering and death came to the world because of the mystery of sin. In some way, the mystery of suffering and the mystery of sin are interrelated mysteries.

On the cross, God is with us in the mystery fo suffering. Through the resurrection, God promises that suffering will end and love will triumph over death.

When a child is born in dire poverty, the child did not sin. Maybe the parents did not sin. But if people are suffering, sin somehow is the cause of the condition.

Poverty is a result of sin, and Christians have a special moral obligation as enforcers of grace to care for the poorest of our siblings - to right the injustice of inequity.

Notions like graduated progressive taxation to redistribute wealth do not punish the rich.

Rather, they address the inequity and injustice to the poor for simply being born disadvantaged.

Love demands justice - not as retribution - but as intervention on behalf of those whom life circumstances or other people treat unfairly.

If the rich feel slighted by high taxes on excess wealth, they are failing to grasp the demands of justice and love.

Failure to meet the demands of justice - to give each person his or her due - can lead to war when the poor rise up to claim what belonged to them under the universal destination of goods intended by our heavenly Father.

If you want peace, work for justice - not as an enforcer of vengeance or retribution - but as an enforcer of merciful love and grace in the human family - creating balance and harmony in the human family.

Imagine a painter has created the perfect work of art, and a patron throws mud at it. The painting is no longer perfect, but it was not the artist's fault. It matters little whether a lot of mud was thrown, or a small smudge in the center.

God created a perfect universe that was harmoniously balanced. Sin entered the world and disturbed the perfect balance.

Even a small sin effects all of creation.

God's law of justice built into the fabric of the universe will cause the universe to seek balance, but the damage was done by the very entry of any sin whatsoever into the universe.

When we choose to do evil, we ourselves act as the mud-slinger. The smallest "venial sin" disturbs the harmony of God's universe.

Yet, creation is more than a painting. Creation has its pinnacle in the human person - made in the divine image - a free being with a rational soul capable of personal relationships and of loving as God loves.

While no sin is small when we apprehend that the smallest sin mars the perfection of God's design, no sin is so great that our heavenly Father ceases to love us as persons - even if we should rape our sisters or stab our brothers.

God would sacrifice the painting for the person.

But God must intervene when mud-slingers are throwing mud at each other - not out of a selfish desire on his part to protect his work of art - but out of love for the person who is the work of art.

The only "unpardonable sin" is the failure to love - to love God and to love one another.

Sin is discerned by the golden rule: are other people treated as you would want to be treated.

And we love God not in order to gain his love, but because he managed to somehow reveal to us that he loved us first.

This is truly a revealed truth that is not discerned solely through natural reason, which is why all analogies are imperfect.

At some point in the life of a true Christian, Jesus' description of the Father begins to sink in and we realize that by clinging to sin, we are raping our sisters, killing our brothers, and seeing ourselves less as children who are objects of the Father's passionate love, and more as objects made by a watchmaker.

This is the danger of deism - the belief in a distant god who created the universe a long time ago but is not active in it.

It is also the danger of pantheism, which sees the world as a god, but does not see the world as loved by God.

It is the danger of polytheism which sees many gods, all of whom act with less than perfect love.

When we buy into any of these ideologies that make God "impersonal", we can treat the human person as less than a sibling made in the divine image and loved as a good parent loves a child.

There are feminists and victims of paternal child abuse who will rightly critique the limits of the metaphor of God as Father.

With all world religions, Christianity does acknowledge that God is beyond comprehension. God can be conceived as Mother with much the same effect as conceiving God as Father.

In either case, when we say God is "Father" or "Mother" we mean this in an infinitely more perfect way than any mother or father we have ever experienced on earth - even the best of them.

God can also be imaged as spouse - and the Bible used this metaphor quite frequently.

I am not hung up on the precise metaphors and I am not close-minded to the legitimate critique of all analogies and metaphors.

Ultimately, analogies and metaphors always fall short of the reality they attempt to convey.

But what the metaphors convey that is true in my mind, is that God is an active God who intervenes - who must "enforce justice" if God is to be said to be a good and loving God at all, which all Biblical faith affirms - including Judaism.

Islam uses a different holy texts and different metaphors, but I think I am on safe grounds in saying that a good Muslim can conceive of Allah as a loving being who can be imaged in some imperfect way by the metaphor of good parents.

And all of this leads me to what has me writing this long winded post - the crisis in the middle east!

I have stated repeatedly that Israel will suffer for the injustice it is committing against Palestinians and the people of Lebanon.

In my mind, Israel is a bit like Susie in our analogy.

She is the younger sister in the Arab world, and maybe big brother never asked that she be born, and feels somehow slighted by our Father in heaven that she exists at all.

First, the Arabs yanked her hair, and maybe they went so far as to rape her (acts of terrorism), and most recently called her a fat pig.

Yet, while Israel may have every right to feel like stabbing her older brother with a knife from the kitchen drawer, our Father in heaven cannot and will not allow her to do that without intervening.

This is not to say that if it is true that the Arabs raped their little sister, God will not intervene in Israel's behalf too. God will. Those who commit acts of terrorism will fail in their ultimate objectives.

And neither side has to convert to Trinitarianism to grasp the point made by Jesus and his earliest disciples that we do not need to act as agents of God's wrath: God can handle correction himself.

What is needed is mercy and love if this family is ever going to heal.

Let's say that Dad appears to be absent (a pretty common existential experience). If I am Susie's and Johnny's older brother, what am I called to do in the precise instance that Susie pulls a knife on Johnny?

We are certainly NOT called to help hold Johnny's arms while she stabs him, even if she had a legitimate grievance - and even if Johnny wrongs us personally in some way.

Maybe Johnny has a mental disorder.

Dad's heart of compassion sees what we siblings grow too impatient with in our lack of maturity and the suffering of our own temporary wounds.

What Dad would want us to do as the older brother while he is absent is not hold Johnny's arms so Susie can stab him, but to stop Susie and leave Johnny's prior misbehavior (the rape) for Dad to solve.

Solving familial strife of this magnitude is not going to be quick and easy. True Christians are not naive optimist. They are hopeful realists or cynical optimist.

The Christian knows that loving our family back to wholeness and health means picking up a cross.

We bear that cross strengthened by the free gift of grace and a hope in the resurrection. Signs of our hope are discernible even in a messed up world.

Yes. If we are talking about such serious affronts as family dealing with sibling rape and attempted fratricide, the healing process is going to be long, slow, painful, and may seem impossible.

But to people of faith, all things are possible to God our Father.

If the human energy spent on developing nuclear weapons were spent on international development, would there be any cause for war?

Dad wants the Israelis and the Arabs to stop killing one another. He wants an immediate cease-fire and he wants the children to get the help they need to heal as individuals and to heal together as a family.

It was never his intention that things get this heated.

Dad never wanted the Americans to drop bombs on our brothers and sisters in Iraq.

Yes, he was intervening to correct our brother, Saddam Hussein, and he may not fault us for desiring regime change, or wanting to help make it happen.

What Dad faults us Americans for is failing to see that it is wrong to KILL our siblings when trying to protect the innocent - and it is particularly egregious that we killed innocents to get the guilty.

That's like Susie throwing a grenade at Johnny that takes older brother's life and baby Jane as collateral damage.

Now Dad has to do something that will correct Americans from doing this again - whether indirectly through a law of karma, or through direct intervention, and maybe by an intervention that is not as punitive as Al Queda would hope.

God is merciful and understands the good intentions of many American people - but he also understands better than we the good intentions of Arabs and he loves our siblings in the middle east as much as us.

He must correct our misbehavior lest we grow more immature.

America's unrighteousness cannot be rewarded and encouraged by our Dad in heaven.

If we can conceive of the human race as one family with one God as a loving parent, what becomes obvious is what Saint Paul taught and what has affirmed in Roman Catholic tradition for 2,000 years: the ends never justify the means.

You cannot do evil so that good may come of it.

What we are called to is not to right the wrongs of others. That's Dad's job.

What we are called to is to love others no matter what they have done - or even might do in the future - and no matter how hard they make it to love them.



Washington State Court Upholds Gay Marriage ban

The court basically punted to the legislature, after the legislature seems to have already deliberately punted to the court.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Evangelicals Rally for Israel

Five thousand Evangelical Christians rallied in Washington on behalf of Israel, including such prominent names as Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, and John Hagee.

According to NCR, some Evangelical Protestant Christians have expressed that they will not turn the other cheek when it comes to what they describe as the "Islamo Fascism" of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

I don't care what these people call themselves. It is unchristian to denounce the teaching of the Lord God and Savior who did not merely suggest as a general principle, but commanded that his disciples turn the other cheek.

I have some pro-Israeli sympathies, strongly oppose terrorism, believe the Jews are God's chosen people, and support Israel's right to use proportionate defensive military force directed at military targets as a last resort defense of innocent lives against aggression underway.

But to imply that it is somehow rooted in Christianity that Israel cannot moderate its attack on Lebanon, or that Israel cannot pursue a non-violent and merciful diplomatic approach, or that Israel cannot forfeit occupied land as a condition for peace, or that we cannot support a two state solution fair to the Palestinian people, or that Israel cannot be criticized and sanctioned when employing unjust means of warfare or human rights violations - that is simply unchristian and probably not even good Judaism.

Admittedly, only some of the issues I outlined above are explicitly mentioned in the article - enough to justify my outrage. I draw the rest from listening to Evangelical Christian radio.

And even if we take Biblical prophecy in the future telling sense some Evangelicals do, I see nothing in scripture indicating we are to attempt to force God's hands into bringing about the end times by doing evil ourselves.

We may never do evil even in an attempt to try to bring about good. The end time will come when God plans it, no matter what we do.

Our calling as Christians is to plead for the grace to act rightly until the end times, and admit when we are wrong, begging for mercy with trust that God is forgiving as we repent.

Shame, shame, shame on these pastors for misleading their flocks.


Monday, July 24, 2006

My Thoughts on the Middle East Crisis

I've been praying for the middle east for days, but hesitate to express my own thoughts.

Israel has a right to defend itself against unjust agression underway that threatens the life of its citizenry, even by employing legitimate military defense.

The Palestinians have a right to defend themselves against unjust aggression underway that threatens the life of the Palestinian people in the region, even by employing legitimate military defense.

Israel has a right to national sovereignty within defined borders.

The Palestinians have a right to national sovereignty within defined borders.

All human beings have a right to a home.

In exercising the right to self defense, it is always and everywhere immoral to deliberately kill non-combatants, or to knowingly employ any means of warfare whatsoever that has a probability of killing non-combatants.

Even if one views tax-payers and other civilians supporting a war effort as a sort of combatant, as some would argue, children are always not combatants.

Any means of warfare that has a probaility of killing children as collateral damage is intrinsically immoral.

Terrorism as a tactic of warfare is evil, and a person who blows him or herself up in area where children may be present is commiting a grave sin that God will not leave unpunished, whether in this life, or the next.

Bombing areas heavily populated by civilians, even in response to an attack, is exactly and precisely an act of terrorism in every way, and is intrinsically immoral.

The United States is just as guilty of terrorism too - in Iraq and other places.

It is always and everywhere possible that two sides in a war are both wrong. The immorality of one side does not equate the righteousness of the other.

God has built the universe such that justice will ultimately triumph. The law of karma does exist. We sow what we reap. If you do wrong, it will come back to you in some mysterious manner.

Both Israel and the Palestinians are guilty of grave crimes against humanity and justice will triumph someday, even if that means both sides suffering grave loss.

Peace built on harmonious loving relationships between diverse people is always and everwhere a possibility. A mutually satisfying win-win negotiation can always be found.

Violence is never a good long range solution to discord in human relationships.

Up to this point, while I may sound too much the idealist to many, I doubt I am saying anything too controversial expect to the most hard-line pro-Israeli or anti-Israel factions.

Now let me go out on a theological limb with a view that is not necessarily that of the Church, though it is implicit in some recent teaching on Judaism and some Biblical principles.

I cannot prove anything I am going to say. It is sort of "blind faith".

God will allow justice to triumph in such a way as to remain true to his special and loving covenant with the Jewish people, which will remain in force until the end of time.

The Jews are the chosen people, and it is simply not smart for a believer in any tradition of Abraham to wage war with them. Even when Jews act immorally, non-violent resitance is the wiser course.

It is doubly dumb to wage unjust wars with them or to use unjust means in a war with them that otherwise has just cause.

God does hear the prayers of devout Muslims, but God will never break his covenant with the house of Israel.

Christians in the middle east have committed atrocities too, against both Jews and Muslims, and must repent.

Christians have a moral obligation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and to work to support the peace process.


The Radical Politics of Father Karol Wojtyla

Father Karol Wojtyla, better known to the world as Pope John Paul II, left behind 511 of type written notes used for lectures he presented in 1953 and 1954 on Catholic social ethics.

NCR reports that the notes indicate the 30 something priest was vehemently oppossed to Western free market capitalism and expressed some strong Marxist sympathies.

Here are few quotations from the notes from the NCR article:

The church is aware that the bourgeois mentality and capitalism as a whole, with its materialist spirit, acutely contradict the Gospel,....

From the church's standpoint, it is a question of ensuring, by way of various economic-structural forms, just participation by all members of society, and especially people of work, in possessing sufficient amounts of assets and participating at least to some extent in productive goods,....

In line with patristic traditions and the centuries-old practice of monastic life, the church itself acknowledges the ideal of communism. But it believes, given the current state of human nature, that the general implementation of this ideal -- while protecting the human person's complete freedom -- faces insurmountable difficulties.

Class struggle should gain strength in proportion to the resistance it faces from economically privileged classes, so the systemic social situation will mature under this pressure to the appropriate forms and transitions,....

Guided by a just evaluation of historical events, the church should view the cause of revolution with an awareness of the ethical evil in factors of the economic and social regime, and in the political system, that generates the need for a radical reaction. It can be accepted that the majority of people who took part in revolutions -- even bloody ones -- were acting on the basis of internal convictions, and thus in accordance with conscience.


Friday, July 21, 2006


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bush Finally Does Something I Support

It's been a long while since I liked anything President Bush has done. His veto on increased spending for embryonic stem cell research is something I can applaud.

I am a believer in a consistent ethic of life that would seek to protect the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.

Thus, I am oppossed to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, capitol punishment, and unjust or unnecessary war (which may be all war).

I do support increased spending for adult stem cell research and other ethical research that aims to cure chronic illness or provide better palliative care.

I support any and all poverty reduction methods that would or could reduce the demand for abortion or help to prevent violent crime.

I am also supportive of gun control as a method of crime prevention or prevention of accidental deaths by guns.

I support any and all international relief and development efforts that may help to prevent war or terrorism.

I support environmental protection efforts that aim to ultimately save lives.

I am not tied solely to restrictions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research in the manner of many conservatives.

Therefore, combined with many other traditionally "liberal" causes such as environmentalism or opposition to the death penalty, I find much common ground with liberals on these issues.

At the same time, while restriction are not the only means of preventing the destruction of human life, they remain a means I support due to the gravity of what is at stake.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Uncharted Waters

This is an excellent article on Catholic and Jewish relations by Philip Cunningham in the recent edition of Commonweal.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Exodus of Executives at Fannie Mae due to Accounting Scandal

Forty four of fifty five exaective positions have changed hands in light of a $10.6 billion scandal with no end in sight.


Joan Chittister's Column Open to Comments

NCR seems to be copying the blogger craze for interactive media. Joan Chittister's latest column has a combox option, and she responded to at least one commentor.


John Allen's 'All Things Catholic'

The global perspective of this week's article is well worth examination.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Unifying Power of Hate

Orthodox Jewish rabbis, Muslim clerics and conservative Christian leaders of the city of Jersusalem are united together to stop a gay WorldPride march, which all three groups believe will desecrate the holy city.

It seems to me to be very sad that these people cannot unite in seeing human bloodshed as a greater desecration of the holy city than homosexuality.


Ethics in Government

NCR offers of pointed critique of the ethics of the Bush Adminstration.


Courage: Absence of Fear Under Pressure?

Walter Burghardt offers a wonderful meditation on courage in the Christian life from the perspective of an aging priest losing his physical senses.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Was Jesus Rich?

Monday I made a post where I stated it was thought provoking and even a little challenging to my faith to consider that Jesus may have been born and lived as a wealthy noble of the line of David who made a genuine bid for the throne of David, leading to his crucifixion.

I was prompted to consider this possibility by the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which underlies Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

For me, the idea of a rich and aristocratic Jesus is far more troubling than a married Jesus.

Yesterday, I typed Is there evidence that Jesus was a wealthy noble or aristocrat? into google, and you can see the results.

I found no articles supporting the theory that Jesus was rich so far, but I certainly haven't looked at all 87,100 results.

In a few links I chose, the counter argument seems to be tacitly assumed.

In many articles about the Jesus of history, it seems tacitly assumed that if he were a rich and well known noble making a genuine bid for the throne of Israel, there would be more extra-biblical witness to his attempt.

When I say this is "tacitly assumed", I mean the question of Jesus' wealth is never directly raised.

Rather, an atheist posits that Jesus never existed because there is no extra biblical verification of his existence.

The Christian responds that the reason for this is that in his own day, Jesus was a "marginal Jew" - an outsider who would not make the front page of first century news.

Speaking of a "marginal Jew", I tried to find something short online by John P. Meier, because I like his massive work entitled A Marginal Jew.

I am missing Volume I in my personal library (Volume II and III do not have the answers to my questions Â? I checked).

I ran across this article which defends the quest for a historical Jesus, but does not deal directly with the question of Jesus' social class.

The article that appeared second from the top of my google search did highlight some problems with interpreting the New Testament data in a contemporary post-enlightenment or post-modern and feminist informed egalitarian way.

The author of this article is not a fundamentalist, or a conservative.

The author is not trying to say Jesus was not radically inclusive. Indeed, he explicitly argues that Jesus was radically inclusive.

The author argues that while Jesus may have relativized social position, he did not do anything that obliterate distinctions in social status, rank or position.

It's a worthwhile article: Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian. A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory Biblical Theology Bulletin: 6/22/2005 by John H. Elliot

For now, I will put the question of Jesus' personal assets on hold.

After recently reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, preceded by Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, preceded by a book on the Berrigan brothers, I decided to read some good old time religion "orthodoxy" this week.

I am re-reading The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, by Saint Bonaventure - a biography of one my favorite canonized saints written by a canonized saint, Franciscan Friar, and doctor of the Church more admired by Pope Benedict than Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The life of Francis may continue to feed my imagination with images of the poor Christ that could turn out to be historically inaccurate, but my spirit needs this sort of reading right now.

P.S. - For the heck of it, I compared the genealogy of Christ in Matthew (1:2-16 ) and Luke (3:23-38 ).

Who was the paternal grandfather of Jesus?

Matthew says Joseph's father was Jacob. Luke says Joseph's father was Heli.

That's not all. Luke says the father of Amminadab was Admin son of Arni son or Hezron, while Matthew says Amminadab's father was Ram, son of Hezron. Ruth 4:18-22 agrees with Matthew.

Who was the father of Shealtiel, father of Zerubbabel? Matthew says it was Jechonial, while Luke says it was Neri.

Why am I making this post script?

There are those who think it a denial that the New Testament is the word of God to say that some or all of the authors of the New Testament present information that is not factual for some other divinely inspired reason.

Obviously, since Luke and Matthew are in direct conflict on several points in these genealogies, we have to assume that the authors of the New Testament sometimes are not presenting "the facts" as we understand such things today.

Either they made mistakes (which would seem to militate against seeing their writing as the word of God), or they deliberately chose to present information to make theological points without conscious regard for sticking to factual accuracy (which would seem acceptable, if God inspired them to do so).

Enough. I'm going back to the Life of Francis now.


On a Light Note...

Grace Sherwood was convicted of witchcraft in 1706 and served seven years in jail.

Her trial involved having her thumbs tied to her feet and being thrown in water. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was guilty.

Sherwood floated.

The Govenor of Virginia, Timothy Kaine, pardoned her after 300 years, recognizing that the trial was an injustice and the charges an unconstitutional violation of women's rights.

The pardon was granted due to the persistence of Belinda Nash, who claims a desire for the truth was her motivation in pursuing the matter.



Monday, July 10, 2006

Something to Think About....

Many American Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or some other Christian affiliation, think of Jesus as an economically poor itinerant preacher and son of a carpenter born in a stable in an outpost of the Roman Empire.

Some Christians even wear T-shirts or sport bumper stickers saying that our boss is a poor carpenter.

We draw incredible meaning from the notion that when God became incarnate, he did so in the humblest of conditions.

"...,though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2: 6-8)
I grew up in a Franciscan parish, and when I went to seminary, I entered priestly formation, I did so as a Franciscan. I still attend a Franciscan parish.

The image of a poor Christ that dominated the imagination of Saint Francis of Assisi while he lived in caves has dominated my mind and heart for my entire life.

Thus, I tend to be sympathetic to many of the Bible scholars in a quest for the historical Jesus who paint a portrait of a "marginal Jew" or a wandering "eschatological prophet" and "liberator of the poor" who preached an inclusive and egalitarian message of non-violence that, while not overtly political, nevertheless, had political implications by breaking down the barriers of class and religious hierarchy.

I recall being shocked to learn during formation that Saint Francis' notion that Jesus was truly economically poor was initially considered highly suspect by nearly the entire hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church of his day - including Pope Innocent III.

Francis and the Franciscans were accused of heresy in some quarters, precisely on the issue of claiming Jesus was poor.

I recall thinking to myself, "How did the bishops miss something so obvious?"

Indeed, once Cardinal Hugolino, a Franciscan supporter, became pope and declared the Franciscan way of life to be an imitation of Christ, the term "infallibility" was invented by a Franciscan trying to ensure that no future pope would take it back!

I'm not saying that papal primacy and a seminal understanding of infallibility did not exist prior to this. I am merely saying that the precise term "infallibility" was invented by a Franciscan trying to nail down once and for all that Jesus was poor.

Of course, no defenders of papal infallibility today would consider the poverty of Jesus to be a solemnly defined doctrine. However, the poverty of Jesus remains widely taken for granted among most Catholics I know.

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that most readers share the assumption that Jesus was poor.

Last week, I posted my initial review of the book upon which The Da Vinci Code forms its basic story-line: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG).

I finally finished the book last night. I stand even more firm on my contention that the authors are guilty of very poor methodology in their reading of history.

It is not that they do not come up a plausible hypothesis of sorts.

Rather, their main hypothesis is built on several other dubious hypothesis, each of which, by itself could be plausible, but may not be probable.

Methodologically, they do not attempt to falsify each of these points building up to their final grand claim, and they wind up with an elaborately built house of cards IMHO.

This critique aside, there are some thought provoking claims worthy of some further examination. I do not mean to say that any of their claims are ultimately correct.

Rather, I mean to say that they present enough of a case to challenge some taken for granted assumptions so that we might be inspired to explore and weigh the evidence on the point in question before casually dismissing the point altogether.

The poverty of Jesus is one such point.

Regarding their treatment of the New Testament texts, the authors of HBHG are superficial and one sided in their reading of the available scholarship.

They often take the most marginal opinions of a particular scholar and treat it as a widely accepted point - if they bother appealing to scholarly opinion at all, rather than their own idiosyncratic reading of some of the texts or early traditions.

With this caveat stated on my part, the general hypothesis of the authors of HBHG is that Jesus was NOT a poor and itinerant preacher born in a stable as the son of a poor or even middle class carpenter.

He was not a "marginal Jew" or "eschatological prophet" on the edges of society who preached non-violence in an apolitical manner that only implicitly challenged the political status quo or Roman hegemony.

Rather, the hypothesis of the authors of HBHG is that Jesus was truly born in the line of David from the house of Judah, as the author of the Gospel of Matthew claims, and that he came from aristocratic stock that was widely known to his contemporaries.

Their theory is that Jesus was making a genuine bid as the Messiah, understood in the Jewish sense as a restored King of a unified kingdom.

They argue that the political ramifications of Jesus as a legitimate Messiah were downplayed in the gospels written about a generation after the events in order to make him more appealing to a Roman audience.

If this assumption were accepted, it explains a great deal.

For example, if we take the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod as having any sort of historical basis behind the texts, Herod would have more cause to fear a legitimate hereditary claim to the throne than a nameless peasant child alluded to by various soothsayers.

In all of the crucifixion accounts, Pilate has "Jesus the Nazarene (or Nazarite?) King of the Jews" placed on the cross, indicating not merely an attempt to mock Jesus, but an attempt to possibly mock widespread belief about Jesus.

The triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate every Palm Sunday would make a certain sense if Jesus were widely acknowledged in first century Jewish imagination as a legitimate claimant to the throne of David.

Fishermen and tax collectors abandoning everything to follow a man also associating with zealots and essene like religious fanatics (the disciples of John) would make sense if Jesus were already known to have a legitimate claim to being the Messiah.

The fact that Jesus is crucified by Roman authority in the first place is also indicative of the point.

Pilate is known in history to be a cruel tyrant, but crucifixion was nevertheless generally reserved for genuine sedition, even by such an oppressive overlord.

Further, if the sadducees and pharisees only sought to kill Jesus for blasphemy, the Romans allowed them to do so by stoning, and we see hints the Jews could have done so in the gospels.

Why was Jesus crucified under Roman law rather than stoned under Jewish law if he was not suspected by the Roman procurator of sedition against Rome?

In their theory, the authors of HBHG posit that Jesus may have mounted a popular movement to restore himself to the Davidic throne through a genuine and heartfelt appeal to the poor and oppressed.

Yet, he, himself, was not poor, nor apolitical.

Further, his claim to the throne was legitimate and widely recognized as such!

This would also justify the gospel claims that Jesus had thousands of followers hanging on his every word.

It would explain why Peter had a sword in the garden of Gesthemeni, and though the authors of HBHG do not raise the point, it would also explain why about 600 soldiers were sent to arrest Jesus according to John's account.

Perhaps Jesus did plan on a basically non-violent overthrow of Roman power, according to the authors of HBHG.

Perhaps he also fashioned himself as "priestly king" with supernatural abilities that would gain some popular support.

Yet, his aim was political, worldly, and widely accepted by zealots, essenes, at least some of the aristocracy, and maybe some of the pharisees and much of the peasantry.

His opposition would have been from the Romans, the Herodians and the Sadducees connected to the Herodian court, and not likely many of the pharisees except perhaps in the immediate vicinity of the court of Herod.

The authors of HBHG, as many readers may already know through the debate on The Da Vinci Code, go on to argue that Mary Magdalene was an aristocratic woman of the tribe of Benjamin, which is the house that produced king Saul.

Thus, a marriage between Jesus of the house of Judah and Mary of the house of Benjamin would have created perhaps the most solid claim to the throne in Jewish history.

This would explain why the title "Messiah" became so associated with Jesus as to become thought of as his name!

If born of aristocratic stock, it might even explain Jesus' human experience of his sense of calling.

The authors of HBHG also go on to suggest that Jesus and Mary colluded with the Essenes to fake his crucifixion and resurrection as part of a plot to legitimize Jesus' claim to the throne.

I don't really want to tackle the issue of a fake crucifixion in this post.

My main interest today is a rich and aristocratic Jesus!

The authors suggest that the aristocratic connections of Jesus and Mary were such that they were even able to pull off deceiving and bribing Pontius Pilate into assisting with aspects of the plot he otherwise would have squashed if he understood the plan fully.

Using their inside connections to Pilate, Joseph of Arimethea or another Jewish aristocrat with friends in high places bribed Pilate to allow a crucifixion Pilate wanted anyway on private property belonging to Joseph of Arimethea.

Joseph or Pilate or both may have enlisted the sadducees to stir up some religious opposition to Jesus.

Pilate allowed Joseph to keep the body unaware that Jesus was not really dead.

This explains Pilate's surprise that Jesus should have died so quickly, and it also explains why Pilate would make the unusual move of handing the body over to Joseph in the first place.

Pilate was bribed by a very wealthy aristocrat who was well connected to the procurator, and had no idea what Joseph was up to.

Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimethea then tapped the Essenes, known for their messianic longings and their healing arts, to help in faking a resurrection to Peter and the other disciples.

The zealotry of the Essenes for the restoration of Israel may have helped them overcome any qualms about this being a deception. The ends justify the means.

There are some obvious weaknesses and holes in the theory of HBHG, especially surrounding this fake crucifixion scenario.

I don't really want to deal with this point in this post. I do not believe the crucifixion was a hoax, but the subject is not my interest right now.

There are also some challenges to the idea of a married Jesus that the authors ignore.

At the same time, they would be correct that if Jesus were making a claim to the throne of David in a worldly sense, he would almost certainly have to have been married or willing to marry to someone.

The odds that the Jewish people would accept a political "Messiah" as a celibate but literal king would seem almost astronomical.

Indeed, perhaps the strongest case for Jesus' possible marriage lies precisely in the fact that the disciples unquestionably thought of Jesus' mission in worldly terms even according to the orthodox reading of the canonical gospels.

And therein does lie what is most thought provoking in their hypothesis: Jesus did come to be called "the Messiah" or "the Christ" to such an extent that many people today mistake the title for his name!

Was this because everyone who knew him in his earthly life knew him to be true king of Israel by birth?

You see, I have tended to think the Christ of faith gained hold in the imagination of the diciples post-resurrection: based on something rooted in the Jesus of history or the real Jesus - but NOT necessarily an explicit claim to messiahship or any widespread acknowledgment of his messiahship during his earthly sojourn.

What if the opposite is true?

What if Jesus as Messiah was widely accepted as the Messiah in his own day until something happened to him (either crucifixion, or just the fading glory of a man who's vision never really succeeded)?

There is the problem that no documentation exist outside the New Testament to support the theory - though the authors of HBHG suggest new evidence may one day emerge.

There has been something nagging at me when I hear the gospels proclaimed at Mass since the day I married. That "something" is the Gospel writers' use of wedding imagery in the mouth of Jesus.

The imagery is not simply allusions to daily married life, but allusions to the ritual celebration of marriage in the context of a banquet.

The imagery is always an extravagant affair that is not part of my own experience of weddings I have been to in my life-time.

Nor does this imagery ever allude to a wedding feast as celebrated by a village of peasants, such as my wife's native country in East Africa, where the entire village pitches in to make the wedding a true feast.

Rather, the imagery Jesus uses according to the gospels is the image of royalty - or rich persons - with servants and slaves who cater the affair in large halls with an abundance of food and drink and dancing, where people are expected to dress appropriately, and so forth.

The imagery is hardly the imagery one would expect of a poor itinerant trying to draw examples from the day-to-day life of shepherds and farmers working the land to convey a message of egalitarian values.

My own wedding was a big wedding, with close to 400 people invited.

This was inevitable, since I am the oldest of nine children, and my wife is second of eight. Furthermore, my mom was oldest of ten, and my dad the oldest of six.

Just inviting our relatives pushed the number of invitees to over two hundred, and we wanted close friends, co-workers, neighbors, and associates in our various parish activities to participate as well.

Once you invite one friend, you also have to invite another, lest feelings get hurt. Truth be told, we could have easily invited a thousand people, but we had to draw some lines somewhere - due to finances.

Aside from hurt feelings of the uninvited, we simply wanted to share our joy with the world, but couldn't.

Furthermore, my wife and I each shared a quasi-religious or spiritual motivation of wanting our own wedding to bring to life the wedding imagery of the Bible.

We were a bit naive about what that really entails, and learned that money prohibits a literal representation of what is described in the Bible.

I think we achieved our goal somewhat.

Several quests at our wedding have shared with us that it was one of the most fun and meaningful weddings they ever attended. Some single friends have copied aspects of our wedding when they later married.

We paid for our wedding ourselves, without much direct financial help from family or others.

That said, many friends made it possible by pitching in their talent instead of their treasure, and we are grateful for their support.

Perhaps part of what made the wedding so much fun to so many others is their active participation as MC, DJ, bartender, ushers, decorators, and so forth.

A few financial donations were also gratefully accepted, but added up to less than five percent of the overall cost.

We found all sorts of ingenious ways to cut the cost.

It was an expensive affair that took three years to pay off - and would have taken longer had our property not appreciated in value in a fortuitous way in the immediate three years of our marriage.

Had our property not appreciated enough to refinance the debt away, we would be struggling today more than we do.

My wife and I are not rich, and we do not come from wealthy families.

Had we come from wealthy families, our parents likely would have paid for the entire affair, and maybe some of the cost cutting measures we took may not have been taken.

(i.e. - unbeknownst to our guest, Boston Market provided the food at a third of the cost of the closest "catering" outfit quote, and for anyone considering a wedding on limited means, Boston Market, did a fantastic job).

My wife and I are not rich and we do not come from wealthy families, but we are not poor either, and we do not come from destitution. We are firmly "middle class".

Was there a "middle class" of any size in first century Israel?

Everything I have read indicates that while a middle class may have existed, it was small and uninfluencial. For the most part, people were either wealthy aristocrats or peasants.

I have heard arguments that Jesus was basically part of the small middle class in the past, and I could accept that.

But rich? Aristocratic?

Jesus is frequently eating and drinking at banquets and dinner parties in the gospels, and he uses wedding imagery with great frequency. Much of the time, the wedding imagery he uses is a royal banquet - the wedding of a king, for example.

Jesus associates with rich people.

To name three, we have Lazarus (and his sisters, Mary and Martha), Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimethea.

He also dines with pharisees and has expensive oil poured over his head (perhaps a royal anointing by a devotee, as the authors of HBHG suggest).

The way Jesus uses wedding imagery has bothered me since the wedding of my wife and I precisely because our own wedding, while a great success, was very difficult to pull off on limited means, and still fell somewhat short in some ways of what is described so often in the New Testament.

In the Gospels, this wedding imagery is taken for granted as part of the common experience of those hearing the proclamation, and the imagery is of far more lavish weddings than ours, even when one accounts for the differences of 2,000 years.

In short, what Jesus is describing compared to my own wedding is more akin to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di a few decades back!

How realistic is that for a peasant audience?

The whole world, including peasants, likes to look on and watch a royal wedding, as we did with "Chuck and Di".

Yet, we cannot really relate to their lives, and they cannot really relate to ours, no matter how popular Di was for seeming to really care about regular people.

Was Jesus an aristocrat who happened to have the charisma to make regular people feel he cared?

He spoke of weddings that the people could not really experience.

Did the peasants of Jesus' day - shepherds and those who might be literally born in a stable - have the means for such extravagant affairs? Was it part of their lived experience? Could they relate to such imagery?

Only as a sort of symbol or dream, like the modern british royal weddings, can regular folks relate this sort of thing.

Consider the wedding feast at Cana.

The authors of HBHG suggest that this was Jesus own wedding because it would be odd for the servants to take orders from a guest, and for a guest to suddenly become responsible for catering the affair.

On the flip side, they argue that with Jesus' friends all present, as well as his mother, who sees it as his responsibility to provide wine for the guest, it must have been Jesus' own wedding.

This theory is a bit of a stretch IMHO. Yet, there is an interesting point that nagged at me since my wedding day about this account.

If the wedding feast at Cana does have any sort of historical basis, and we assume the wedding was not Jesus' wedding, what did the bride and groom think when Jesus shows up with so many uninvited friends to a catered affair where servants are obviously employed?

My wife and I would have "freaked out" if uninvited guests showed up in large numbers at our wedding eating all the food and drinking all of our wine and beer.

Perhaps it could be argued that this is precisely why his mother felt Jesus was responsible for providing more wine: Jesus brought all these uninvited guest who ruined the wedding for everyone else by drinking all of the wine.

If we read the account that way, it clearly is not Jesus' own wedding.

Yet, the wedding itself is a catered affair with servants present: It does not seem to be a wedding hosted by village peasants where, in egalitarian fashion, everyone pitches in to make the feast a joyous affair.

And if Jesus and his entourage were invited or welcomed at the last minute to a catered affair with servants, this bride and groom were most probably people of some means.

In short, it lends support to the idea that Jesus was not a poor person with no connections to wealth or power.

His very presence at this affair with his mother and disciples at an early point in his ministry or mission shows he was either a person of means himself, or well connected to people of means even before he went public.

Faced with ways of imagining Christ that I have never considered before, I tend to want to do two things.

One is to weigh the historical arguments of scholars to make a judgment of what is most probable. I have yet to do this in this case. I have some homework to do now.

The second thing, however, is to ask myself if there is any challenge to faith if what I never imagines turned out to be true.

For example, the first time an African American suggested to me that Jesus may have been a person of color with some negroid features, I thought to myself that I would have no reason to loose faith that he is God incarnate if this turned out to be true.

Further, since I always imagined Christ as poor, I thought it may even be consistent with the meaning of his life to imagine him as bearing a physical resemblance to those who are more commonly oppressed or poor today - frequently blacks.

I figured that I have seen images of him with brown hair and brown eyes, and blond hair and blue eyes, and even asian features. Why not black images?

Thus, the only outstanding question is whether there is any historical evidence for or against a black Jesus, and I conclude that there is almost no evidence at all in any direction what Jesus looked like.

Thus, we can imagine he had any physical characteristics that make the gospel make sense to an audience today.

If a predominantly African-American church wants to put up an image of Jesus as a black man, I think they have as much basis for doing so as an anglo parish putting up an image of a blond haired and blue-eyed Jesus.

However, when I ask myself the same two questions about a rich Jesus of aristocratic stock angling for the throne of Israel, we're in a bit deeper waters.

The inner tension I feel in considering this seriously is probably more comparable to the struggle some people have with imagining the possibility of a homosexually oriented Jesus (which I think is possible, though many readers do not).

For me, a rich Jesus is shocking, and undermines some of my cherished assumptions about him.

Indeed, this is the more shocking claim in HBHG than Jesus being married - though it is less shocking than a fake crucifixion (though I've heard that theory before).

Frankly, until last night, I simply never considered the real possibility that Jesus may have been wealthy and of aristocratic stock.

I am sure I ran across an allusion to an argument for it here or there in my reading, perhaps even in sources I highly respect, but it simply did not register or I just never took it seriously and stopped to think whether my image of a poor Jesus is even supported by the texts.

Indeed, I simply thought my view that Jesus was poor was plainly obvious in the New Testament until I saw how the admitted agnostic authors of HBHG draw an entirely different conclusion from their reading of the texts.

Would it undermine my faith that Jesus is God incarnate or the risen savior if Jesus were rich?

I don't think it would, but it would entirely turn my view of what his life means to me personally upside down if it turns out that the evidence leads one inexorably or intrinsically to the conclusion that he was wealthy and intended to seize a worldly throne.

What am I saying?

What I am saying is that while it is not a challenge to the core of faith to consider the possibility that Jesus was rich and aristocratic, it is a challenge to faith as I have lived and practiced it to consider a wealthy and aristocratic Christ.

Indeed, it is a more serious "threat" to my understanding of the faith than a married Jesus or a gay Jesus.

I'm going to have to explore this further.



Friday, July 07, 2006

John Allen's 'All Things Catholic'

Allen's column is renamed but still substantially the same reporting so far.


The Latest From Joan Chittister

This is not one of her best. She almost seems to imply that the case against the invasion of Iraq lies in our inconvenience at airports. I know that's not what she means, but the essay is still not her best.


Catholics and Polls

I may have covered this topic in the past, and it is not entirely exciting.

I post this because I have seen a couple references either in my comments or on other Catholic blogs recently.

There seems to be some concern in Catholic cyberspace that there is widespread doubt and disbelief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist among American Catholics.

A few weeks back, a comment was made here by a frequent reader expressing concern that polls show a widespread lack of belief in real presence ranging in the 70 percent mark.

Earlier this week, I ran across Disputations claiming that polls seem to indicate 70 percent of Catholics believe the Eucharist is "just a symbol".

To be fair to Disputations, he admits to doubts that the poll is accurate, and states there must be a problem with the methodology if it yielded that result.

Also, on his final point to make sure we explain what the Church teaches and/or why we personally believe in real presence in the Eucharist, I have no quarrel.

It's more the sense of alarm I want to address.

Disputations seemed to derive the information that such a poll exists from Fr. Greg who does not site his source.

I think there are a few points to be made here.

First, those who express this concern state that their concern is justified by polls that I have yet to see them link. What poll shows this result?

On the flip side, I will provide you a link HERE that shows that 84 percent of Catholics believe that belief in Jesus' resurrection is very important to them, tied with helping the poor as the number one concern.

Coming in next place, 74 percent of Catholics say that "the sacraments, such as the Eucharist" are very important to them.

The link also shows that 77 percent of Catholics answered "no" to the question of whether one can be a good Catholic without believeing that Jesus physically rose from the dead.

More to the point, 64 percent answered "no" to the question of whether one could be a good Catholic without believing that in the Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.

So, to sum up my first point, the polls simply do not indicate that 70 percent of Catholics do not believe in real presence (or resurrection).

Quite the opposite, the polls show that around seventy percent DO believe these things!

I have a second point that deals with the fact that the minority positions on the questions are still "large minorities" - or larger than many devout Catholics want.

The second point is that Disputations is still correct that there are problems with the wording of these surveys.

When the survey I linked was first published, I stirred up a firestorm here on this blog because I stated that while I consider it absolutely essential to Roman Catholic faith and identity to accept that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, I believe it is technically incorrect and potentially misleading to say he rose "physically" from the dead.

My point is not to rehash the debate that ensued over this technical hairsplitting over Saint Paul's language to describe the mystery that probably goes over some people's heads. It's an abstract point I don't wish to pursue any further today.

The wider point is that the precise words in a survey can lead to surprising results, and we cannot automatically assume that there are 16 percent of Catholics in the pews who would outright deny the bodily resurrection of Christ even if they indicated that belief in the "physical" resurrection is not necessary.

At least some of that 16 percent may have been hairsplitting like me, based on Pauline language.

The point I am making here is that even the late Father Raymond Brown who served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission explitly and publically shied away from using the word "physical" to describe resurrection, precisely because Paul denies this exact word (physikos in Greek).

Certainly, most respondents to these polls are not Biblical scholars and I do not mean to say that those who answered the poll affirmatively are in heresy. I only mean to say that there may be other reasons than a denial of faith for providing an unexpected response to these types of polls.

Another subgroup of that 16 percent may see the resurrection as essential, but insist on a spiritual understanding of it that is neither "bodily" nor "physical". That is not the faith of the Church, but it is certainly more faith than the atheist.

Another subgroup may actually deny the resurrection or merely deny its doctrinal importance or its importance to their own spiritual lives, or, as Disputations points out, they may be simply ignorant (the most charitable explanation).

My point is that we can widdle down the large minority that seems to deny faith to a very small minority if we simply had a better survey.

In a like manner, the wording of the question on the Eucharist is somewhat troubling to me, because of a point my seminary teacher hammered into my head.

She (a nun) hammered the theme that we do not say "Body of Jesus" when we distribute communion. We say, "Body of Christ", and we say that for a precise theological reason.

The reason is that while the resurrected Jesus is truly and substantially present under the signs of bread and wine, what we receive is what the Church (even the CCC) calls "the whole Christ" - the entire Church - Jesus and every baptized Christian who ever lived, lives now, or will live.

I don't doubt that some of the 36 percent of the responders to the survey who thought one could be a good Catholic without believeing the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus were ignorant of or denying real presence.

Yet, some may have been troubled by the wording of the question, the way I am due a precise point hammered for 15 weeks in a 3 credit graduate level Catholic seminary course on Eucharist.

In alluding to Disputations site, I also placed the words "just a symbol" in quotations.

There was a reason I did this. There is a difference between saying the Eucharist is a symbol, and saying the Eucharist is "just" a symbol.

The Eucharist is a symbol. To deny this is to deny the obvious.

But to say "just a symbol" implies a restrictive definition of symbol that might imply a denial of reality.

My body is a symbol of my whole personhood. To say my body is "just a symbol" seems somehow reductionist.

But to say a reality is a symbol is expansive - saying that reality is layered with meaning - which is what we mean when we say the Eucharist is a symbol.

It would not surprise if a large number of Catholics did respond affirmatively to a question asking if the Eucharist is a symbol.

It would surprise me if a large number stated there is no real presence or the Eucharist is "just", "merely" or "only" a symbol.

If it is possible that some of the unexpected results of these surveys can be explained by hairsplitting over the wording of a survey, is it also possible that those who answered as expected do not believe what the Church teaches?


It is highly possible that someone answering "yes" to a question about the physical resurrection of Jesus believes Jesus was a zombie, which is not what the Church teaches. This may be a tiny, tiny minority, but it is possible.

It is also possible that some other misunderstanding led to the "expected" answer.

There is a third point about these polls that I wish to raise. The poll I linked is part of a larger 2005 poll you can visit at NCR.

Some of the types of questions asked in these surveys try to determine what is most important to Catholics. There is nothing wrong with the desire to ascertain this sort of thing.

Yet, how does one really rank some of these things in a truly meaningful way. If I say that the Eucharist is more important to me than the Church's teaching on abortion, does that imply in any way, shape or form that I am not passionately pro-life?

If I rank care for the poor very high, even above marian dogma, does that mean that marian dogma is unimportant to me or to Catholics in general?

I would personally rank belief in purgatory very low on any list of what is important to Catholic faith.

That said, I pray for the deceased every day and say a few indulgences for myself to boot. Just because I don't see purgatory as important does not mean that I don't believe in it or translate that belief into action.

And there is probably actual and real dissent that can be measured in polls - when a large majority responds in contradiction to what the pope and bishops are saying, as is the case with contraception.

Growing dissent over time is probably worth examination too when it becomes large enough to pass the fifty percent mark.

One final point on polls: the best of them have a margin for error.

I am not an expert on statistics, but from what I do know, it really is not possible to be more than 99 percent certain within a two percent margin of error for any random representative sample of any results with the very best surveys - and most surveys have a four or five percent confidence interval at around a 95 percent confidence level.

Thus, the way to read these results in my mind is not to fret anxiously about the precise percentages and grow alarmed at large minorities of unexpected answers.

Rather, the polls indicate what is widely "in the air".

When more than two thirds of Catholics answer the same way, as they do on resurrection and real presence, I'd say that what is "in the air" is a strong belief in resurrection and real presence in the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Breathe a sigh of relief and leave it at that, instead of fretting anxiously about the minority of unexpected responses.

Read as an indication of what is "in the air" rather than some sort of absolute indication of objective truth, polls are not so alarming.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Wild Goose Chase

Back on November 4, 2003, I wrote a piece criticizing certain ideas expressed on an ABC Prime Time Special hosted by Elizabeth Vargus entitled "Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci".

The focus of my argument, which you can read HERE was that the ancient sources - including gnostic sources - do not provide a shred of evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and there is sufficient evidence to the contrary in early sources to question any claim Jesus was married.

I read Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code a little less than a year later. On August 31, 2004, I posted my review HERE.

I stated that I enjoyed the novel as a work of fiction, but still found the theories expressed preposterous.

I have not yet seen the movie, and I admit that I would like to see it. I imagine that it would be great fun, since the novel was a fun read, even if based on ridiculous notions - much like a James Bond film.

I decided that prior to seeing the movie, I wanted to examine some of the so-called evidence for Brown's theories a little closer.

Thus, when I heard that Brown was sued by the author's of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG from here on) for plagiarizing their ideas that were supposedly presented in a more historically sound book, I wanted to look at their work - especially since Brown openly admits that he relied largely on their work.

I happened to see a copy of HBHG in the supermarket while I was food shopping, and decided to go ahead an pick it up.

I don't even know where to begin with this book.

I do not believe the authors are being "dishonest". They seem to admit that they are going out on a limb.

The authors continually state a hypothesis to explain a piece of historical datum that they admit they cannot prove but believe is plausible.

Being the sort of guy who likes to speculate (as frequent readers know), I am willing to grant them this hypothesis.

The trouble is that they then build another highly admitted speculative hypothesis on another piece of datum that could only be interpreted this way if the first hypothesis were true.

Then they add a third dubious hypothesis on the other two that could only be valid if the first two are true, and another and another and then tie all of this speculation together into one gigantic whole - and the whole thing is a house of cards.

If you pull the first hypothesis out, the whole thing tumbles.

And that is exactly what happened to them, though I'll say more on this in a minute.

What annoys me the most is that the authors openly admit that as they form a speculative hypothesis, they then look for evidence that the hypothesis is true. And sure enough, they find something that seems to fit the pattern they anticipated.

Haven't these guys read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason?

Don't they know that if you only look for evidence of your pre-conceived notions, that is exactly what you will find? If you seek a pattern, one will emerge even in objective chaos.

Bush found all the evidence he wanted that Iraq had WMD's - because he refused to even consider alternative points of view, and refused to attempt to falsify his sometimes wild speculations.

Don't the authors of HBHG know the scientific method? - which involves always, always, always trying to falsify your hypothesis before proclaiming it is probably true - precisely because you could not disprove it despite your best efforts to do just that!

Indeed, my beef with some of the Vatican's arguments on women's ordination is that the claims made can be falsified, while the speculation that there were once women priests is difficult to falsify with more than a question of what ever happened to them if they did exist?

Falsification simply means looking for the counter-argument or contrary evidence before someone else presents it.

It means also considering an alternate hypothesis. The authors of HBHG often use phraseology such as "what else could this mean than...", or "we could reach no other conclusion than...."

Yet, as I reader, I am saying to myself at these points, "Why didn't you consider this,..., or that....?"

I am only half way through the book, and I do intend to finish it, but I got fed up with this method that I did a quick google on some key points.

What a wild goose chase!

First, as I already stated, the whole method of building speculative hypothesis on top of speculative hypothesis on top of more speculative hypothesis with no attempts to falsify any of it formed a house of cards that is easily toppled - just as occurred.

You can easily find articles online today by typing "Priory of Sion" into a google search that show that where HBHG begins is with an elaborate fraud that has since been exposed.

Granted, the information that is available to wikipedia was not available to the authors of HBHG, but the current existence of the Priory of Sion is based on fraudulent documents that the authors did not know for sure was a fraud is the first of a long set of speculation and presumptions of plausibility that leads to some far out conclusions.

A little skepticism from the start could have avoided some gross errors, even if the errors were not malicious in intent.

I found the online wickipedia has an article exposing the fraud of the so-called The Priory of Sion, and it is surprising people like Dan Brown still cling to the theory based on some of this stuff.

Don't misunderstand me. Because the authors of HBHG are likely well intentioned enough if sloppy and overly credulous, they do highlight some interesting historical factoids that are likely accurate. And, as I already stated, I am not entirely against speculation. It is a matter of knowing when to reign it in and stop going further and further out on that imaginative limb.

Wanting to try to weed out some of the wheat from the chaff in this book, I also checked out wikipedia's pieces on the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Jacobites, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, as well as esotericism, esoteric Christianity, hermeticism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Carthari, skull and crossbones, and even The New World Order Conspiracy and, for the heck of it, Neoconservativism and Opus Dei.

I did not limit myself to wikipedia. I went to sites like this so-called official site of The Priory of Sion, which admits of the fraud involved in HBHG's opening hypothesis.

I also went to the official site of Opus Dei, for the heck of it.

And because HBHG makes the claim I considered astonishing at the moment I read it that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was a Freemason, I googled that and discovered that even some of Lefebvre's followers have heard the charge made on different grounds. See Lefebvre a Freemason??, which lead me to review wikipedia's article on Lefebvre.

Now please do not take this post the wrong way.

Like the authors of HBHG, I do find it intriguing that there is so much information available about secretive societies involved in esoteric teachings that seem interrelated for what seems to be at least 1,000 years.

And if organizations like the mafia or even the CIA can exist, I see no reason to doubt that there could be organized groups of conspirators who have maintained a sort of nebulous institutional continuity through the centuries.

What I am having trouble with is not the high level notion that a secret society trying to influence world events might exist, and that such a group may even have a definitive belief about Jesus radically different than my own.

What I am having trouble with is not speculating at a high level that such a group may exist.

What I am having trouble with is believing that we can name all of the key players and that the Vatican secretly knows who they are and fears them because of some great secret they possess with incontrovertible proof of some sort.

I mean, let's face it. Even if someone produced a body of a first century man who was claimed to be Jesus, would the atheist accept that the man is, in fact, Jesus?

Could any document be produced, even hypothetically, that would be considered "incontrovertible proof" of anything at all about Jesus?

The authors of HBHG admit this point in the opening chapters, and I am still reading to try to determine whether and when they are going to get something more solid than this wild speculative ride - what seems a wild goose chase so far.

My point is that anyone familiar with historical methods knows that there is no such thing as incontrovertible proof about any historical event you did not personally witness (and even that may be suspect).

People seriously debate whether Shakespear actually wrote the works attributed to him - and Christian apologist are often quick to point out that the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus is stronger than the existence of many historical figures such as Socrates or Julius Caesar.

In other words, if a secret society does exist that claims a blood line to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, there are a few important points that need to be made about that society.

First, just because such a society might exist and might be old does not mean that they are right.

They can be crack-pots just as surely as the atheist considers the Pope and the Catholic Church a bunch of crack-pots despite the admitted antiquity of Catholic faith.

Second, if such a society exist, I find it incredible to believe that they would have anywhere near the power being attributed to them.

The mafia may be pretty darn powerful, but they are not omnipotent, and a J. Edgar Hoover could do a decent job disrupting them.

Third, I find it difficult to believe in all conspiracy theories of any sort that the agreement, consensus, consistency and cohesion described of the conspiratorial group could be sustained for any period of time.

I mean, even the mafia winds up killing its own - often more than outsiders. Even the Church has its divisions. The state is divided in political parties and so forth.

Look around you at your family and friends or the people you work with. Do you see the sort of coordinated effort attributed to secret societies as a human possibility?

Fourth, is it really conceivable that all the various esoteric and secret societies in Europe originate and are controled by the same source?

To me, that's a bit like suggesting that Russian organized crime and the Italian Mafia are descendants from and still run by a single biological family.

Finally, no matter what you think of the four points I just made, if you are going to make authoritive sounding historical arguments for anything whatsover about anything whatsoever, knowing how all history is debated, please, please, please make the effort to present arguments for the minutiae that are not easily shot down.

Try to falisfy your own claims before going public with them, and limit the speculation to as few admitted hypothesis as possible without stacking them on top of one another.