About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and paralegal in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to "Hyrsteria: A Zine of Social Difference" by Tanya Garcia and Valeria Molinari Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

Why Madonna’s Super Bowl Performance Could Initiate a Much-Needed Conversation

Feelings are pointless, don’t ever let anyone see you cry, and make sure to master the art of sports to the best of your ability. This sums up the standard American definition of what constitutes a man. For my whole life, I’ve been aware that nearly all of the facets of my personality ran counter to such a manifesto. These noticeable differences have always made me conspicuously unique, compared to the other men whose company I’ve shared at different junctures of my life thus far. Until a few years ago, this reality was not seen as positive but rather something negative and derogatory that was viewed with scorn, sincere confusion, and outright contempt from some. Currently, my life is worlds away from such a precarious and cloudy atmosphere. But this does not erase the living nightmare that so many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers – and even some adults – endure on a daily basis just for being themselves, not being conscious of the possibility that things can and will get better.

A significant degree of the problem is most likely cultural. The question must be asked: why is there only one mold that is exalted in America as the legitimate way of being a man?

When Madonna was announced as the scheduled performer for the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl the response from most male football fans was one of annoyance and, in some cases, sheer outrage at the selection. What would warrant a reaction like this? In recent years Janet Jackson, Shania Twain, and Britney Spears have all debuted at the year’s most awaited sports arena. None of these other female artists were met with such hostility or indifference when it was made public that they would be the entertainment for the Super Bowl of each respective year.

From personal experience, it is obvious that most men appeared to think that Madonna was too old or not sexually appealing enough to garner a sufficient volume of excitement to make the performance one to remember. To some, this may be a legitimate grievance about this year’s halftime show. But another dynamic is at play. The fact is, even though former artists may indeed fall into this category, it’s harder to find any other artist that screams gay icon more than Madonna – except maybe Lady Gaga… Where Mother Monster probably would have had more relevance because of her youth, comprehensive popularity, and global appeal, Madonna may be viewed by the average, male, football fan as simply being a gay, old, pastime that has no pertinence to his life whatsoever. Why should any straight man be forced to subsist in such an overwhelmingly uncomfortable environment?

If being gay and being a real man weren’t considered mutually exclusive would this even be a problem?

The organizers of this year’s Super Bowl have made it apparent that the theme of homosexuality will subliminally pervade the course of the game. A commercial will be broadcast to specifically combat the bullying of LGBT persons in an athletic context. Heterosexual men may not consider this topic one that would impact their lives directly. But this is precisely part of the dilemma that exists within our culture as Americans. Walls have been erected where they need not exist. The seismic gap between the heterosexual and the homosexual realms of experience can and must be bridged.

From my own vantage point, I have to admit that during high school, I vividly remember zoning out completely whenever the time arrived to participate in my daily gym classes. Unless it was to ogle a guy who I found attractive, I really never paid attention or cared much about the logistical strategies of the games that were being played. I even feel a bit guilty about it in hindsight. Nearly every day, I nonchalantly flaunted the fact that these activities held no importance for me. Daily, I could predictably be found strolling along the field as my classmates actively took part in whatever game was being played, or, if forced to participate, I would do the bare minimum that was required for me to be considered a player. The apathy I had was undoubtedly formed by the fact that I did not grow up in an athletic household. Because of this, I never had the desire to pursue any meaningful directions in the realm of sports. Thus, any potential athletic ability I could have possessed had never been developed, and when forced to participate in sports activities, I simply viewed the endeavor as a chore that had to be carried out laboriously.

Because my personality never really contained the brawn that is required to be successful in sports, I simply saw the whole enterprise of athletics as something that I could never relate to. Viewing the world through different eyes, it has become clear that such an approach is profoundly simplistic. Being raised in a certain environment does not give one cause to belittle or dismiss the experiences that others may find meaningful and endearing in life. If anything, stepping outside of one’s comfort zones and learning to view the world as others do will only serve to enrich one’s own personal psyche and sense of being. All humans profit immensely by expanding our horizons beyond the limits of our own backyards.

Adopting such a perspective means that someday I should really sit down, and take the time to learn, analyze, and take part in the athletic pursuits that most men around the world find genuinely entertaining and gain true fulfillment from. Perhaps all gay men who’ve never been naturally athletic could derive something from understanding the mental calculations and determination that goes into strategically organizing the course of a given game?

It should be a given that as the legislative and social push for gay equality necessitates that those who are prejudiced or bigoted leave their immediate spheres of influence to become acquainted with new perspectives, so should LGBT persons not simply demand to be civilly accommodated, but truly explore and investigate how they can take part in and learn from the world in which they have been born.

By the same token, many heterosexual men, particularly those involved in the athletic arena, could do a lot more to better understand the emotions and activities that give meaning to the lives of gay men. Cultural barriers must be eradicated so that certain activities, settings, or even people aren’t just viewed as “gay”, but rather as unique, offering something special to society that is not encountered routinely. A wonderful way for such an enlightenment to take hold across all of American society would be if athletes who happened to be gay were given the freedom by the media and their fans to be open and unashamed about their fundamental identities. How is it that professional athletes are allowed to physically jostle, tackle, and even grab certain parts of each other’s bodies to express their enthusiasm for the game, but if it was discovered that they were attracted to persons of the same-sex and in a committed relationship with such a partner, this would completely obliterate the sense of irreproachable masculinity that is accorded to them by their fans?

Dialogue always ensues by way of a two-way street. Even though it may be awkward for many, choosing none other than the Queen of Pop to perform at this year’s Super Bowl could be the perfect way to begin the process of having such a meaningful discussion throughout the nation.

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Applying the Principle of Conversion to the Universal Church

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'” -Mark 1:14-15

Earlier this week, as Christians throughout the world concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity it is highly coincidental that last Sunday’s Gospel would highlight the themes of conversion and repentance. If anything else in the world should serve as evidence of the reality of sin, it would be hard to find a better example than the divisions and hostilities that have severed, and visibly divided, the mystical Body of Christ – which is the Church.

Pure arrogance coupled with a temporal desire for power and domination, drove fallible men to inflict these wounds upon the universal Church. The overreaching prerogatives that the Roman papacy adopted for itself gradually created a wedge between the Christian communities of the East and West which would eventually lead to the Great Schism – thereby creating the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as they exist today.

A distinct church would be destined to spring up that would carry on forever the spirit of the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, whose ultimate desire was not to sever his own ties with the Catholic Church, but rather to influence its leaders to put an end to unbiblical practices; such as the selling of indulgences that promised those who purchased them eternal salvation or reprieved sentences in Purgatory.

The Anglican Communion has its roots in King Henry VIII’s dissatisfaction with the amount of power and sway the Bishop of Rome was allowed to have over his personal life. This would eventually drive him to eradicate ecclesiastical ties with Rome and establish the Church of England, which over the centuries has proven to be an inestimable contribution to the global People of God through its theology, collegiality, and even artistically, considering the many beautiful choral works of music that have been composed within the Anglican tradition. Although the events which led to its creation may seem political and trivial, the Church of England serves as a perpetual testament to the premise that our lives as humans are our own, and that no matter how much we may respect the spiritual authority of the prelates of our respective denominations, all of us must follow the dictates of our own consciences and refuse to allow popes, bishops, or pastors to carry out the faculty of cognitive rationalization on our behalf.

Since the Reformation, countless other Protestant denominations, each with legitimate grievances against the status quo or their own unique theological perspective, have been formed to serve as living testimonies and communities dedicated to the service of the Risen Christ. Unfortunately, Christendom today seems to be more divided now than ever before. A common celebration of the Eucharist is not even possible amongst numerous churches because the theological/ideological chasms are seen as being too great. Even more deplorable are the internal occasions of corruption and abuse (most notably the rampant phenomenon of the sexual violation of children within Catholicism) that continue to threaten Christianity’s credibility for the world at large.

How can Christians overcome such obstacles – internal and external – so that a more poignant and effective manifestation of Christ’s Body might be projected to the world?

The prescription of conversion and repentance given in Mark’s Gospel appears to be an apt remedy. However, applying such a formula is deeper than simply asking certain people to convert and plead for forgiveness of their transgressions. In his book The Heart of Christianity, renowned biblical scholar Marcus Borg examines how these themes were authentically understood in the Jewish culture of the time which shaped and cultivated the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

When Jesus uses the word “repent” in the Gospels, most Christians immediately are filled with illusions of personal guilt and think of seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. While this is a correct interpretation of the word it does not embody the fullness that it originally possessed in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Jewish context, to repent means to return from a state of spiritual exile and ambiguity to a focused, committed relationship with God. In the New Testament, where the Gospels were written in Greek, a further depth of linguistic meaning is conveyed when this word is employed. To “go beyond the mind that you have acquired” is an additional flavor that is detected in the Greek composition of the word.  Therefore, a truly biblical understanding of the word “repent” means not just seeking God’s forgiveness but heartfully returning to God and adopting a new way of seeing to bring lasting and genuine fulfillment to one’s life.

If such an effort was done on a collective level by members of the Body of Christ throughout the world, particularly those in positions of ecclesiastical leadership, imagine the results that could be reaped. Within Catholicism, instead of simply window dressing a response to the clerical abuse crisis, why not craft standards that would have “real teeth” (as the Pope is fond of saying about other matters) in terms of preventing further outbreaks of such heinous acts – committed by those to whom the world’s most vulnerable members have been entrusted in confidence. Enacting a zero tolerance policy worldwide for any member of the clergy who is confronted with allegations of misconduct would prove to the world that the institutional church in Rome is truly committed to the welfare of innocent children rather than the upkeep of its colloquial facade in public opinion. Moreover, a powerful message could be conveyed by making it mandatory for bishops to relinquish their offices who were discovered to have either turned a blind eye to instances of abuse in their dioceses, or who shuttled perpetrators of such vile acts from parish to parish. Doing so would not preserve the status quo, but would instead definitively chart a sincere path into the future.

It goes without saying that such an approach would also engender re-evaluating the question of clerical celibacy (which has always been acknowledged to be a human creation) to allow members of the priesthood to marry as well as broaching the necessity of including the voices and input of women among the church’s leadership positions.

The same principle could be applied to the Anglican Communion as it continues to be divided geographically by the subject of homosexuality. Essentially, when the prospect of Christian unity is examined, nothing can ever conceivably be accomplished before various Christian bodies look within themselves and see what wrinkles, stains, or wounds are preventing them from moving toward full communion with other churches. Even if all Christian churches throughout the world fully tackled the issues which were inhibiting their communities from being credible witnesses to the Gospel of Christ, external, theological divisions would undoubtedly remain.

Even if this is the case, hope remains. During a service which took place to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at my parish here in Baltimore, a Methodist pastor shared some thoughts of John Wesley’s that would prove enlightening and encouraging when attempting to make a greater cohesion of all Christians a reality instead of a longed-for hope:

“But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.”

Perhaps no one else’s words would prove more inspiring on this matter than those of Jesus of Nazareth, the humble Galilean peasant Whose passion for living and for spreading the Reign of God would give rise to countless bodies and institutions that would forever bear His name:

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” -Mark 3: 25-27

Time will only tell how much longer those who call themselves followers of Jesus continue to consent to allow themselves to be spiritually tied, gagged, and held captive by the corruption and arrogance that continues to divide rather than unite the flock of Christ in a spirit of love, peace, and justice.

 

 

 

Hodie Christus Natus Est: Heralding the Dawn of a New Beginning

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” -Luke 1:78-79

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us. As the universal Church ponders the mystery of the Incarnation it is highly appropriate to reflect about what this central focal point of our faith really means. During the past year, my own theological views have undergone considerable revision. Thanks to the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the renowned Fr. Hans Küng I have been exposed to a new understanding of God and a radically new approach to the Christian life.

The richest kernel of wisdom that has been received from these theologians is being able to understand that not all accounts in the Bible can be taken as being historically or scientifically infallible – even those that have been perceived as being foundational to Christianity. To the early Church, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a new and definitive beginning for the human race – as God was communicated in a unique way, for all, in the person of Christ. Conveying this sentiment was accomplished, as most religions of the time did, through mythical tales that employed certain symbols to establish and underline the truth that was being emphasized.

For most Christians, to consider the accounts contained in the Gospels that detail the birth of Jesus as fictional is indeed a revolutionary concept. In the opinions of many it is tantamount to heresy. However, as Scripture is analyzed, it is plain to see that the fantastic birth narratives chronicled in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels never formed the core of the Christian tradition. The first reference to the birth of Christ in the New Testament comes from one of the apostle Paul’s epistles, written around the middle of the first century C.E. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul details of how, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Writing at a time before any of the canonical Gospels had been composed, one of the greatest pillars of the early Church appears to be ignorant of any knowledge of angelic throngs, wise men from the East, mobile stars, or miraculous conceptions that accompanied the birth of Jesus. Paul describes it matter-of-factly, simply stating that He was “born of a woman.” No supernatural phenomena characterized the event. If they had, wouldn’t they have proven worthy of mention?

The oldest of the four Gospels (that of Mark – written twenty years after Paul’s epistles) never mentions the birth of Jesus but begins immediately with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (which were largely based on the material found in Mark) were written at least five to fifteen years after the composition of Mark. The annunciation and birth narratives of Jesus that Christians have become so accustomed to are unique to these two Gospels. Even John’s Gospel, which highlights and emphasizes the divinity of Christ more than any other, fails to mention any incident of a miraculous birth – only stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” -John 1:1,14

If the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke can be considered an independent development within the early Christian tradition, and not a foundational one, how did they come about and what do they mean for the life of the Church today?

First, it must be understood that the concept of a virgin birth need not be as fundamental as it has been for the past two millenia of Christian history. The origins of this belief are usually based on a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promises that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). For centuries, this verse was seen as substantiating the idea that the exact manner and circumstances of the coming of the Messiah had been foretold long ago in Sacred Scripture. However, when the question of translation is examined another picture is painted. The version of Isaiah that the author of Matthew’s Gospel used was a Greek rendering of the original Hebrew text. In Greek, the word “parthenos” does indeed describe a virgin in the sexual sense. But in Hebrew, the word used concerning the woman is “almah” which does not mean a virgin, but rather a “young woman”, married or unmarried. Thus, the assertion that the virgin birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament is completely unfounded.

This tradition probably arose to emphasize God as being the source of the unique and irrevocable call that impelled all that Jesus of Nazareth said and did throughout His life. Portraying Jesus as not being born as the result of human conception placed His very existence not within the fallible limits of frail human beings, but rather among the infinite possibilities of the Divine. As the Gospel of Luke phrased it, a new “Dawn from on high” had broken upon the horizon of human history, that would leave it forever and irreparably changed.

As the early Christian community reflected on this mystery, more and more attention would come to be focused on the biological state of Mary’s virginity rather than what that virginity ultimately represented theologically. Analogies were constructed between the Old and New Testaments that compared Eve’s role in humanity’s fall from grace with Mary’s chosen status as the spotless vessel to bear the One to redeem mankind. From that point on, Mary, the mother of Jesus would ever be attached to the word Virgin. This quality, more than any other, would be what distinguished Mary in Christian theology. Not her courage or the maternal dedication of her faith, but the fact alone that she never took part in sexual intercourse with a man. Seeing sexual expression as a necessary evil that was inaugurated after the dreaded Fall in the Garden of Eden , early Christian theologians frowned upon viewing anything positive about the topic. The virginity of Mary was the perfect way to depict the unrealistic ideal towards which all faithful Christians should aspire – celibacy. Such actions would continue to erect a tradition of theologically denigrating human sexuality. Even worse, such a trend would deny women any positive role models to emulate, aside from those who had chosen the path of clerically endorsed celibacy. If Mary was never a virgin, how enriching or useful is such a doctrine for the women of the twenty-first century?

Another staple of the traditional Christmas story is that, spurred on by a census issued by Caesar Augustus, the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travelled over one-hundred miles from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem is the subject of countless sentimental carols, but has anyone ever given any thought to whether it was actually the real birthplace of Jesus?

In terms of historical accuracy, there are no records of any such census being taken in Judea by the Roman Empire that would have forced families to travel back to the towns of their ancestors in order to be accounted for. The Romans kept meticulous records of such undertakings, and an event as unique as this would surely have been found in the annals of some chronological ledger that kept track of the activities of the Empire in its various provinces. Josephus, nor any other contemporary historian ever makes mention of the account. Logistically speaking, such a census would be a civic nightmare! Why order the population of a given region to scatter to numerous different sites to be counted when they all could gather at one central location?

Bethlehem was the legendary King David’s hometown. Making a connection between such a renowned figure in Israel’s history would remove beyond all doubt the legitimacy of Jesus as the Messiah that had been promised generations ago. And what would conveniently place the Holy Family within the City of David? A census. Thus, it must be admitted that the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph, that has characterized part of the charm and timeless appeal of the Christmas story to countless generations of Christians, is most likely not history, but rather, poetic license taken to substantiate the early Christian community’s view that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah. This promised Anointed One had to possess some connection to the legacy of Israel’s most illustrious hero, therefore the fictional census of Luke’s Gospel serves to establish this bond.

If one wishes to consult the guidance of history, it is safe to say that Nazareth was probably the birthplace of Jesus.

In the same way, there can be no historical reference found that documents the slaughter of the innocents under the order of King Herod that is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Just as the author of Luke’s Gospel had a subliminal method behind the creation of his narrative of the birth of Jesus so did the composer of Matthew’s Gospel. The author of Matthew was writing to a largely Jewish audience, so it was imperative to enumerate connections between Old Testament themes and the life of Jesus in his Gospel. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new and definitive fulfillment of Moses – one of the Torah’s most prominent figures. So think, where else in Scripture does a tyrannical king order the slaughter of a small cluster of innocent children? In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story is told of how the Pharaoh of Egypt orders the annihilation of all male Hebrew children under the age of two for fear of an uprising that would topple his reign. The mother of Moses places him in a basket and sets him afloat upon the Nile River. The boy finds his way to the palace of the Pharaoh where he is taken and raised by the king’s daughter. When one puts the two stories side by side, it is obvious that they are almost identical in scope – particularly considering how Jesus avoids detection by the forces of Herod.

If none of these accounts can be taken as factually accurate what does this say about the Christmas story we have all learned as children?

The real question to consider is: what do the traditional Christmas accounts we have all been taught tell us about God?

Christianity has always held that God descended the heights of heaven, and took on flesh, to save mankind from its sinfulness. God was an external being that was completely Other, reigning from another far-off realm of consciousness, Who needed to be placated by humanity’s compliance and subservience.

But what if God is not a being, but rather a Reality, a Force, a Presence that is at the heart of all that pervades the earth and the universe?

If so, then God never had to come down from heaven. The reality of God was never detached from this plane of existence. Realizing this precious truth, we can see what the birth of Jesus really signals – hope is never far away because God can be discovered in the deepest expression of our own humanity. During Midnight Mass, when we kneel to honor the consummation of the Incarnation during the recitation of the Creed, we should do so not in austere humility – taken aghast at the prospect of God deeming humans worthy of enjoying His presence – but rather in sheer joy, adoration, and gratitude at the thought that God can be discovered so intimately within each one of us, and through our actions. This is what the Incarnation is fundamentally about: that the very essence and nature of the Divine was communicated to the world in the life of a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This same Reality, can be discovered within every human person, and in all living things, if we only become aware and appreciative of the grace of the presence of God.

Even if the Christmas stories that mythologically tried to convey this sentiment are not factually true, this does not deprive them of their meaning. Through these intricate and stimulating parables we see that the reality of God is not only destined for the learned or the opulent, but can be cherished and found among the most meager of circumstances – in the company of shepherds or the stark simplicity of a manger. Even if Mary was not a virgin, how much more profound an insight would it be that the Divine can be communicated in all of life’s endeavors, especially during sexual intercourse between two people who are genuinely in love.

All of these points are what the authors of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tried to emphasize, that the Divine can be located within the human sphere of reference, and that Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity. This new beginning for the world that was offered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is sorely needed amidst the challanges, sadness, and uncertanties of today’s world. Whether it be the bleak state of the globe’s economic affairs, war and violence that continue to plague numerous lands, or poverty and injustice that are made manifest even in our own nation, the planet Earth is much in need of a cosmic reboot to revitalize its fortunes. Yet, for anyone who has committed themselves to the cause of Christ, it is possible to bring such hope alive for countless souls. Doing so means not by assenting to doctrinal or dogmatic rubrics, but rather by living out and making evident the message of the One who Christians acclaim as the “Light of the World.”

I extend wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who happen upon this posting! As food for reflection, it seemed appropriate to leave the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose writings have been dominantly instrumental in reshaping my views of Scripture and its meaning for our lives:

“God is not a heavenly judge. God is a life force expanding inside humanity until that humanity becomes barrier-free. This was the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. It was a new God definition that shifted our old view of an external force into something found at the center of life. The being of this God calls us to be; the life of this God calls us to live; the love of this God calls us to love. Jesus lived the life of God. That is why we proclaim that in His life the Source of life was seen. In His love the Source of love was seen. In His courage, which enabled Him to be fully human, the Ground of All Being was seen. That is the experience that the word ‘Incarnation’ was created to communicate. It is not a doctrine to be believed so much as it is a presence to be experienced.” 

Language’s Inability to Express the Experience of the Divine

This week, the Catholic Church in the United States has undergone the biggest liturgical transition since the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Despite the fact that the current translations have been in use for half a century, at the behest of the Vatican, all translations of liturgical texts from now on must match their official Latin rubrics as closely as possible (Liturgiam authenticam). A committee of theologians and scholars representing all of the English-speaking episcopal conferences of the Catholic world (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy or “ICEL“) labored for nearly a decade to compose new translations of the Mass that meet the Vatican’s new norms for all liturgical documents. On a nationwide basis, the various bishops conferences tweaked and honed these translations to what they saw as best suiting the needs of the faithful in their own jurisdictions. The American bishops have been completing this process for the past several years and have now reached its conclusion. On the First Sunday of Advent a completely revised translation of the Mass was introduced in America, following suit with other English-speaking countries that have already implemented the new texts earlier this year. This news has never been without controversy, considering that the new Latin-friendly texts may not be as compatible to English-speaking ears.

As so many Catholics have been left to ponder the ramifications of these mandatory changes, it seems appropriate to ask: why are the revisions being forced upon Catholics in the first place, what message is being conveyed by their imposition, and in the long run – how will they ultimately affect the church in the English-speaking world?

History shows us that Jesus of Nazareth never delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount in Latin, but rather in Aramaic – the language spoken by the Jews who lived in first century Palestine. In the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the Eucharist was celebrated in Hebrew and later in Greek. Contrary to popular belief, Latin was not always the dominant language used throughout the Roman empire.  Greek (in a particular dialect known as “Koine”) was spoken throughout the Roman world as the common denominator that united all social classes. It was in this collective tongue that the liturgy of the Eucharist was to develop. Even today, parts of the Mass such as the Kyrie and the very word, “Eucharist”, (which means “thanksgiving”) have been preserved from the ancient Greek compositions that formed the liturgies of the early Church.

Only in the early fourth century was Latin imposed upon the Western church as the universal language to be employed in the liturgy. Even when this occurred a lengthy transitional period was necessary for all of the faithful to grasp such a drastic linguistic switch. Eventually, as the centuries drew on, the laity would no longer understand Latin, but it would remain the official language of the Mass celebrated by the clergy. It was only during the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s that this barrier of comprehension would be eradicated from the liturgy, finally allowing all Catholics to actively participate after having been passive observers for nearly a millenia.

When confronting the situation that is before us today it must be stated simply that the primary motivations behind these efforts are not, at their heart, spiritual, but rather ideological/political.

During the Second Vatican Council, a renewed emphasis was placed on identifying the Church not just as an organism composed of the pope, bishops, and other members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but instead as the People of God. Casting aside a pyramidal, strictly hierarchical definition of the Body of Christ, the Church was now understood as a community of faith. The black and white distinctions between clergy and laity were understood anew, now seeing all individuals who had been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ as sharing in His prophetic, royal, and priestly mission of salvation to the world. The priesthood of all the baptized did not eliminate the unique role of those who had been called to give ultimate service to God through the ordained priesthood, but rather levelled the spiritual playing field so that all Christians – whether clerical or lay – could support each other equally as members of the universal Church.

As individual bishops conferences around the world were gradually given the permission to translate the order of the Mass into their own respective languages, so the English-speaking bishops of the world decided to incorporate this renewed communal understanding of the Church into their respective liturgical translations. From the incomprehensible language of Latin, English-speaking Catholics the globe over would now be made familiar with the Eucharistic Prayer in their own tongue, “Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks. In You we live and move and have our being; Each day You show us a Father’s love; Your Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, gives us on earth the hope of unending joy. Your gift of the Spirit, Who raised Jesus from the dead, is the foretaste and promise of the paschal feast of heaven…”

The newly revised texts that have been introduced may adhere more closely to the original Latin that remains the official language of the church. When it comes to the most frequent exchange that occurs during the Eucharistic liturgy there is indeed an obvious mistranslation. As the priest addresses the congregation with the words, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation has voiced in response for the past thirty years, “and also with you.” In Latin, the original response is “et cum spiritu tuo” (and with your spirit). This refers to the unique “spirit” of ordination that has been conferred upon the presiding priest in the sacrament of Holy Orders. In most languages this meaning has been preserved. In French the response is “et avec votre esprit”, in German “Und mit deinem Geiste”, in Spanish “Y con tu espíritu” and so on. This is a legitimate concern that deserved mention.

Yet, more is at work than merely an honest attempt to render linguistics concisely.

The new texts are certainly more lofty and formal than the clear, simple, and straightforward prayers introduced after the Second Vatican Council. As a former Episcopalian, I’m accustomed to and can somewhat appreciate rather old, classical English phrases decorating the liturgy. However, for many Catholics, who have used the previous texts for the past thirty years, such a patrician flavor employed during weekly worship gatherings will definitely be an acquired taste.

But it is not even the loftiness of the language that leaves such a bad taste in people’s mouths concerning this translation. In a more profound sense, a drastically different theological picture is painted in the words of these texts compared with those that were introduced following Vatican II.

In the Penitential Rite, where the faithful acknowledge their misdeeds and the ways in which they have failed to imitate the love of God and ask God for forgiveness a startling contrast is made clear. In the texts that many have known for so long the congregation prays, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words in what I have done and what I have failed to do…” The revised text has been modified to say, “I have greatly sinned, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…” The tone of all the prayers has transitioned from one of an intimate, loving relationship to one of uncertainty, supplication, and vertical distance. Take for instance the prayer over the gifts for the Second Sunday of Advent. The version of the old missal reads, “Lord, we are nothing without You. As You sustain us with Your mercy, receive our prayers and offerings. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” The revised text implores, “Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings, and since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy. Through Christ our Lord.”

In a veiled manner, the human condition is not celebrated in these prayers, but rather maligned and denigrated as a lost cause, inherently evil and worthless. Of course, to an extent, all of humanity is limited by our failings and the ways in which we shy away from opportunities that lead us to growth, grace, and enlightenment. In a collective sense, humanity has, and always will miss the mark because we are imperfect, finite creatures.

But dwelling and embellishing the reality of sin beyond what is necessary erects a theology not of love, peace and reconciliation but of vengeance, judgment, and fear.

This is why – subconsciously – these new translations may actually constitute a grave step backward to another time, where a more dismal and archaic method of interpreting the human psyche was utilized. As a result of such a worldview, members of the ordained priesthood are therefore seen as divine heroes and saviors who can atone for the sins of humanity by offering the sacrifice of the Mass. Invisibly, the altar rail that separated clergy from laity is erected once more.

James Carroll, a former priest, columnist for the Boston Globe, and author, offered a reflection on the words of the Nicene Creed in his most recent book Practicing Catholic. As the Catholic Church in the United States adjusts to using the word “consubstantial” on a routine basis and hearing the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper referred to as a “chalice” it may prove useful to consider his thoughts on the subject:

At Mass , we Catholics recite the Nicene Creed, a summary of belief that dates to the fourth century. it is a litany of language that can now seem outmoded but that still enters the believing mind with power: “God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God.” In the unencumbered way these words fall on the contemporary ear, we can sense what the Catholic Church has become in my lifetime – a people that has reclaimed its lyrical expression, even if at the expense of rigid orthodoxy. I have never heard anyone ask what “Light of Light” means, but neither have I heard anyone object to saying the phrase. Indeed, it fairly rolls of the tongues of the Sunday throng…Because religion is centrally concerned with the God Who is wholly Other, and is therefore necessarily cloaked in mystery, the imprecision of the poetic language of the Nicene Creed is its great advantage…The words draw attention to themselves in their very archaism, as if to acknowledge that the Transcendent One is beyond contemporary expression. Everything we say of God – including “God” – is in some way untrue. Why? Because we say it.  To put God into language is to take the fish out of water.

If the new “poetic” format of the revised liturgy can help us acknowledge the unfathomable nature of the divine Source of all, which transcends human comprehension, this may indeed be a blessing. If instead these new phrases are the beginnings of a journey back to another time the People of God has serious cause for concern and suspicion. The words of Christ, the simple peasant, ultimately remind us by what standard the faith we confess will be measured: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Why I did not attend World Youth Day

 “No one sows a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.” -Mark 2:21-22

At this same time three years ago I can remember eagerly following the events of World Youth Day, which was taking place in Sydney, Australia. I was unable to attend in person, but I remained glued to the television, taking in all of the exciting festivities that were occurring during that week-long celebration of faith.

Since 2005, when the event was held in Cologne, Germany (and I began to feel intensely drawn to Catholicism), I had fostered the desire to attend a celebration of World Youth Day at some date in the future. Witnessing so many young people who were excited, driven, and vibrant about their faith in Christ was wonderfully inspiring to me. Throughout my life my faith has always been an abiding mainstay. Yet, even if America technically remains a Christian nation, most people of my generation either practice their faith nominally or are indifferent towards it.

As I grew in my understandings of the world around me, I came to view this reality less from a judgmental standpoint and more from one of discouragement. I knew what a great source of empowerment and joy my own faith was, and it saddened me to know that other people my age didn’t really seem interested in cultivating such an aspect in their lives. From what I saw, the people who were in my age category at my parish did not participate in the life of the church voluntarily – because they enjoyed and felt fulfilled by it – but rather, because they had been prodded into these activities by their parents or other family members. Consequently, I never really felt that I could share the intensity I had for my Catholic faith with most other people my age without seeming odd or unusual.

This is why the entire premise behind World Youth Day resonated so profoundly with me. The opportunity to travel to another country and to gather in fellowship with other Catholics who shared my love of the church and ardent faith in Jesus Christ I knew would be a powerful respite that would spur me to remain steadfast and confident in sharing the light of the Gospel with others. Also, the chance to meet other like-minded Catholics with whom I could forge new friendships was an uplifting prospect.

To coincide with 2008’s World Youth Day, the Vatican attempted to tap into the buzz that had surrounded social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace and created their own networking tool called Xt3, which was designed to connect pilgrims before or after they had attended World Youth Day in Sydney. I eagerly signed on to this effort, anxious to meet other Catholics from around the world who shared the same vivacity about their faith that I did.

For awhile I stayed connected to this initiative and saw it as a way of getting more closely involved with those who might be attending World Youth Day in the future. But I began to notice something startling. At this point in my life, I was just beginning to define my identity in terms of my sexuality as well as my political beliefs. As I began sharing this process of exploration with those whom I had befriended online I noticed that many people did not have a very open-minded attitude when presented with these topics. Eventually, certain people began to take it upon themselves to denounce me as a heretic, warning me that I was consigning myself to eternal damnation for holding such opinions.

As I gradually moved to a new position of enlightenment and stability in my faith I began to see this online forum as less and less relevant to my personal growth and edification. I’m happy to say that I have maintained contact with several people whom I met through this website who have continued to remained supportive of me since I came out and learned to see my faith in a new, more objective light. But as a whole, the website no longer serves any substantive purpose in my life. Sadly, the very same conclusion can be reached concerning World Youth Day today.

How productive is this gathering if those who participate are not allowed to bring all of the experiences, perspectives, and unique insights that form the foundations of what it means to be a youth in todays’ world? Would this not be the avenue par excellence to enter into dialogue on a variety of topics that the church’s youth could offer a refreshing and compelling take on? For example, why not establish opportunities during the course of the festivities where designated sessions of conversation might be able to take place concerning such issues?

The institutional church would like to give the impression that this is precisely what occurs during World Youth Day. However, the question and answer sessions that usually take place over the course of the week are usually very contrived with the questions being screened and picked beforehand. As far as the responses from those who conduct these venues go, they are always exhortations to follow the Catechism and ecclesiastical doctrines to the most minute letter of the law.

In a sense, all of this could be viewed as a subtle form of brainwashing. Perhaps this is why, when I began to expound and become confident in new ideas, others on Xt3 were so quick to respond in a discouraging and condescending manner. If the youth of today’s church aren’t allowed to embrace an adult approach to their faith how can the universal Church ever grow and make a meaningful impact on society if it is composed of children relying on their eccelsiastical parents for the answers to life’s questions?

Despite such inertia, a glimmer of hope can be found. Our fellow 20/30 members Nicole Sotelo and Emily Jendzejec attended last month’s most recent celebration of World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain as official ambassadors of Call to Action, spreading the message of reform and renewal throughout their stay. One day, they took the opportunity to promote the dignity of LGBT youth within the church by offering rainbow ribbons to passersby in an effort to build solidarity for this cause. Although Pope Benedict, nor any of the prelates gathered there would have never even contemplated such a gesture, many pilgrims responded positively, pinning the rainbow ribbons to their shirts. A young Spanish priest even commended Nicole and Emily for their presence at World Youth Day – a remarkable sign indeed!

Instead of being theological versions of ideological political conventions it would be wonderful if future World Youth Days could truly be seen as venues to approach the challanges and questions the church faces with the joy, hope and objectivity that the experience of youth can bring.  In this way, the words of the late, Blessed John XXIII would be brought to abundant fruition, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

Is being ‘unorthodox’ sinful or could it be the way forward?

For the past few weeks I’ve been engrossed in reading a find that I fortuitously happened upon at my school’s library – Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. As I’ve explored and contemplated on its subject matter I’ve realized that the Gospel of Judas was not only a subversive and compelling narrative at the time of its composition but also has much wisdom to impart to Christians of the twenty-first century.

Today, the Gospel of Judas can be grouped into a category of early Christians works that have come to be referred to as “Gnostic.” In Greek “gnosis” translates as knowledge, and the various Christian communities who would now be classified as Gnostic saw salvation as being accomplished through delving into one’s soul and becoming enlightened spiritually. Gnostic Christians continued to view Jesus of Nazareth as the prime revelator of what the Reign of God in this world would be like. Yet, instead of believing in a physical resurrection of the body after death, Gnostics were convicted that the corporal body would deteriorate while the soul would remain alive forever with God.

In the Gospel of Judas (which was authored during the mid-second century C.E.) a theological agenda is presented rather than a historical analysis of the man Judas Iscariot. Although it would never make it into the canonical New Testament, it shared in common with the four Gospels the fact that its author was probably not the apostle whose name the work bore but rather a particular person or community invoking that disciple’s memory and authority in order to give credence to their words.

Its plot centers around the conviction that instead of the twelve apostles – who Jesus is traditionally depicted as choosing and commissioning to spread the Gospel – it is Judas alone who genuinely comprehended the meaning behind the words and example that Christ left as a testimony to mankind. Throughout the narrative, Jesus is shown to mock, dismiss, and even laugh at the twelve apostles in comparison to the fidelity of his chosen protegé, Judas. At one point, “the twelve” (as they are referred to with ignorance and condescension throughout the work) come before Jesus and describe to Him a horrific nightmare which they all experienced. They detail to Him of how they all were beholders of a contingent of priests arrayed before an altar in sacrifice. Next, the apostles relay to Jesus how they witness the priests proceed to sacrifice their own wives and children upon this altar and continue to carry out other sinful acts of debauchery. The response of Jesus to their account is a chilling one, He flatly states:

You are the ones you saw receiving sacrifices at the altar…And the domestic animals you saw being brought for sacrifice are the multitude you are leading astray upon that altar.” -Judas 5:1,4

By the end of the Gospel, Jesus initiates His own demise by imploring Judas to hand Him over to be killed. Thus, the act that for a millenia has been depicted as the height of hypocrisy and betrayal is here painted as a final act of trust and discipleship. The ensuing passion account that makes up a key part of the four canonical Gospels is notably absent in the Gospel of Judas, nor is there a direct portrayal of the Resurrection of Jesus. This implies that the death of Jesus was the ultimate gateway that freed His Spirit from the prison of His body and allowed Him to return to God. Thus, in keeping with Gnostic theology, the Resurrection is a spiritual not a physical reality – Jesus passing from one stage of life, to the next.

The question begs to be answered: what do these intriguing themes and images mean?

It must be remembered that the time in which the Gospel of Judas was composed was an uncertain and tumultuous one for the early Church. During the second century C.E. the Roman empire carried out relentless persecutions against those who identified themselves as followers of Christ. Tragically, scores lost their lives for the sake of their devotion to the Good News. Many leaders of the Church, principally St. Irenaeus of Lyons, encouraged Christians to remain faithful to the end, indicating that God was pleased by the death of dedicated and brave individuals just as He was satisfied and desired the passion and death of Jesus upon the cross.

Modern scholarship now shows that this was not the only theological view that prevailed among Christians of the day. The Gospel of Judas is tangible proof of this fact. Instead of being of one “uniform faith” as the Catholic and Orthodox churches have maintained for centuries, the early Church was rather an intensely diverse and heterogenous organism. In fact, it could be said to more closely resemble how Christianity is expressed today – through numerous denominations and theological points of view – than with the monolithic, imperial institution it would later morph into during the Middle Ages. The Christian communities of the ancient world encompassed numerous and unique groups, usually, each with their own respective interpretation of the Gospel. Also, at this time there was no formalized canon that defined what Christians had to read, so the traditional four Gospels we know today that expound on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were just four among numerous other reflections that attempted to put into words just what the life of this extraordinary man meant for the rest of humanity.

Whomever it was that authored the Gospel of Judas vehemently disagreed with the approach to the subject of martyrdom that St. Irenaeus and other leaders of the Church were taking – namely, that if the opportunity to offer one’s life for the sake of the Gospel was presented, they should take it, or risk eternal damnation. It made them ask the question: what kind of God would delight and desire in the death of those who loved Him? Moreover, a God that required the sacrifice of His own Son to placate His wrath and restore harmony to the universe seemed very much motivated by vengeance and hedonism rather than mercy and peace.

This violent approach to the exercise of one’s faith was blatantly evoked in the Gospel of Judas when the twelve apostles regaled the horrors of their dream to Jesus only to learn from His lips that it was themselves that they had witnessed committing such atrocious acts.

When the Gospel of Judas was written there was no universally defined ecclesiastical hierarchy as there is today in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and other Christian bodies. But the glimpses of such an establishment would begin to appear during the second half of the second century C.E. It was then that various leaders of the Church, who began to be styled as ‘bishops’, would invoke apostolic authority over whole jurisdictions and communities as ‘successors of the apostles’ claiming that Jesus had instituted the group of twelve apostles so that following His death and Resurrection, his Church on earth would always be guided and secured in the truth by the successors of His original first followers. Obviously, the authors of the Gospel of Judas held this opinion in grave contempt.

However, this theological trend would become the norm in the coming decades and in 325 C.E. Emperor Constantine would convene the Council of Nicaea (in modern day Turkey) to declare Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Yet, all the bishops that he invited to the Council were all leaders of wealthy and powerful churches throughout the Mediterranean. It was these bishops who would agree upon the terms laid out in what we know today as the Nicene Creed. Now that this was the officially endorsed version of the Christian faith that was to be practiced throughout the empire any other expressions of Christianity that deviated from the conditions enumerated in the Creed were condemned as “heresy” and nearly all of their churches, writings and communities were destroyed by those who were now in power who saw themselves as being the orthodox (adhering to ‘right belief’). In one of the most unjust and sad cases, it can be seen here that history is truly written by the victors.

It was only by chance that the Gospel of Judas was discovered, after countless centuries of dormancy, hidden in a jar, scrawled on fragmenting pieces of papyri in the sands of the Egyptian desert.

Now, a voice has been restored to a paradigm that history thought had been extinguished. Can Christians today, and all people of goodwill, continue to be edified and enlightened by the wisdom of its words?

The fundamental premise expressed in the Gospel of Judas has more poignancy today, than ever before.

Considering who won the theological dispute, the notion of sacrifice still has a profoundly central focal point throughout all of Christianity. The defiled, sinful nature of mankind is still used as the ultimate explanation to describe why Jesus of Nazareth was put to death on the cross. Now, within Catholicism – especially in the English-speaking world – with the advent of new, imposed translations of the Mass, it will be the sacrifice of Christ, above all else, that stands out as the overarching theme during the celebration of the Eucharist. It is not as if this theme should be relegated to the sidelines, as Christians throughout the centuries have seen the Eucharist as, mystically, uniting all the faithful to the final act of love that Christ performed through His death on the cross. But forgetting about the concept of the Eucharist as an intimate meal – as the Last Supper was – and a joyful act of worship that the entire Christian community participates in (not simply those who have been ordained) fails to live up to the legacy that the Second Vatican Council bequeathed to the entire universal Church.

Even today, it seems that the self-proclaimed ‘successors of the apostles’ continue to forcefully advocate for martyrdom among today’s Christians or risk being consigned to the realm of eternal hellfire. Instead of progressing and reflecting with society about the diversity and inherent worth of all humanity, many leaders of the Church continue to exhort lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons to sacrifice themselves on the altar of orthodoxy by stating equivocally that celibacy is the only path to holiness in this life they can hope to enjoy. Although not a physical act of martyrdom, it is indeed one of the mind, of the psyche, and ultimately of the soul.

Again, the Church must ask itself, “What kind of God is this?”

It may have been fate that allowed the Gospel of Judas to be discovered for the edification of the whole People of God throughout the world. Perhaps a persona that for centuries has represented betrayal, deceit, and hatred can be rehabilitated to offer the human race what Jesus of Nazareth originally intended to impress upon all those whom He met? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Are the Limit’s of God’s Mercy Conditional? Has Osama bin Laden Been Forgiven?

No one who lived through it will ever be able to forget the stark terror or the all-encompassing uncertainty that pervaded the scope of that horrible day. Although I was only eleven years old at the time I can remember September 11th, 2001 clearly, as if it were yesterday – as I’m sure countless other Americans do with pertinent imminence. During my religion class a spontaneous interruption was made by another faculty member at my school. Moments later, the religion teacher paused the class and revealed to us that the World Trade Center in New York had been damaged from a “bomb.” At this point, misinformation seemed to be rampant, and for the first half of the day this is what was reported and circulated throughout our school instead of the actual details regarding the two hijacked planes that flew into the towers.

Later on – as news came of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington – more and more people became intensely alarmed, as the scope of this tragedy had moved increasingly closer to our own lives. As I watched the horrific pictures that streamed across the television screen that night I remember pondering, and wondering – who, or why would someone be behind such an atrocious action? As the whole nation and the world would learn that the mastermind behind these attacks was Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, I was filled with even more fear and insecurity at the notion that a person across the seas was filled with so much hatred and contempt for our way of life as Americans that they consciously plotted and wished about our very annihilation.

Overnight, the way in which we perceived ourselves in relation to the world had changed. Most Americans probably grasped this unsettling reality as those images of terror from New York, Washington D.C., and rural Pennsylvania would be broadcast unceasingly for the upcoming days and weeks following that tragic September morning.

However, to me, the response to these heinous attacks against the United States by other Americans was equally as stunning as the actions that were perpetrated by the terrorists a world away. The very next day in my sixth grade classes, as all of my teachers tried to eloquently and objectively proclaim what had happened and why to all of us, one declaration was issued forth from my fellow classmates. “Nuke ’em!” Of course, this proposition mostly came from the mouths of all the boys in my class and might usually be perceived as the natural way in which a teenage boy, or any man for that matter, might react to such news. Yet, as the day went on it seemed that this call for retaliation was the shared view of most of my classmates – boys and girls – at the school.

The same feelings would materialize throughout the nation and coalesce into an outright call for war. Less than a month later, President George W. Bush launched a U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of eradicating al-Qaeda and finding, killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. Only earlier this month was this core objective of that mission accomplished, ten years later.

Yet, the death of Osama bin Laden has reawakened probing questions about the real character of the values and underlying spirit that composes the makeup of the United States of America. As the death of the leader of al-Qaeda was announced it was met with jubilation and celebrations of vindication, even outside the doors of the White House. Understandably, this event brought a prevailing, and perhaps final, sense of reassurance to those whose lives were personally affected by September 11th as a result of having to endure the painful deaths of loved ones. To feel closure if one was so intimately involved with such a horrible tragedy would only be natural. Even for those who did not lose family members, friends or associates – simply as an American, to know that the mastermind behind the attacks no longer walked the earth, it would be understandable to perhaps breathe a subliminal sigh of relief.

But from the crowds that were celebrating outside of the White House the night the news was made public, to the ensuing atmosphere of exultation and joy that would characterize the nation’s response in its wake – it could be seen that a mere sense of closure and reassurance was not the reason a majority of Americans chose to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden.

In a statement issued on his website, Baptist minister and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee stated,

 “It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead. It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden.”

The same sentiment would be echoed throughout the country as t-shirts and countless assortments of memorabilia would be created celebrating the premise that Osama bin Laden was now, indeed, in Hell. A CNN survey conducted shortly after the news of bin Laden’s death broke showed that 6 in 10 Americans believed or knew for certain that he had been consigned by God to eternal damnation.

If anyone has been evil in the history of mankind it was certainly this man. But is responding to the death of an evil human being with jubilation justifiable? In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States candy was passed out to children on the streets in towns throughout the Gaza strip in the Palestinian territories. The terrorist assault on America was portrayed as a righteous strike against a nation of “infidels” by Islamic fundamentalists. Thus a laudable event to be extolled.

How is the way many Americans responded to bin Laden’s demise any different?

It seems that in this context religion has been used to justify the self-righteousness of some and to contribute to the inflation of one’s holy ego through the assurance of the condemnation of others. While the image of God as a wrathful adjudicator might comfort some who seek recompense or closure of some sort, ultimately it only serves to stoke the insecurities and prejudices of those who need someone or something to reject and look upon with disdain. Usually, to make themselves feel better, even in the spiritual scheme of things. Yet, when the question of divine judgment is invoked, the only answer Scripture seems to offer is, “‘Vengeance is mine’, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19).

Jesus lays out an even starker picture, saying clearly that, “Your Father in heaven makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). If such a fundamental impartiality is divine in origin how can any human possess the knowledge of who has been gifted eternal salvation and who has merited everlasting damnation?

The question goes even further still, if God desires that “all men be saved” and that “none should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9) how can we be sure that any soul would be consigned for an eternity bereft of the love of God? This particular question is one that has been covered with great intensity in recent months throughout the theological field, but for convenience sake should serve as the topic of another post!

The Psalms speak of God’s mercy as being “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). If Christians have been called by Jesus of Nazareth to imitate God in all that we say and do, wouldn’t exercising such a profound expression of mercy and forgiveness be the primary way to start?

In Catholic theology, it has been greatly consoling to have recourse to the practice of prayer for the dead. Many great religions and spiritual traditions of the world have utilized this custom. It moves us all to understand that despite how much we may not have in common with a certain individual, nonetheless, we remain connected to them as a human being – made in the image of the living God. The Catholic tradition sees this prayerful act as aiding a soul that has passed beyond the confines of this life in the process of becoming pure and refined of all sinfulness, as complete union and beatitude with the divine Source of all is accomplished. A central facet of this deed is understanding that as humans we can never entirely know the fate of an individual who has departed this earth. Thus, we simply pray, in the hope that – through our own small collective spiritual efforts – we might help the departed in becoming purified of their faults and failings as mortal humans to glimpse the eternal Light of Love Eternal.

Thus, I do not rejoice in the death of Osama bin Laden – rather I pray for the repose of his soul in the hope that he might be purified of the ignorance, hatred, and unconscionable actions with which he filled his life. A nation that revels in the demise of one man but does not work and pray for the illumination and liberation of a future generation is not the America I was brought up to believe in. Nor should anyone else.