Rebuilding the People’s Church

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(Image via Christians for Socialism)

I recently completed a research project on the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As a Roman Catholic student at a Disciples of Christ seminary, I am interested in the historical relationship between these two communions and the broader complexities of ecumenism and dialogue across lines of difference. This research interest led me to remarks by World Council of Churches ecumenist Aram I, who serves as the Catholicos of Cicilia and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Aram spoke in 2005 to representatives of the Joint Working Group (JWG) dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. In this dialogue, he offered a challenge to ecumenical workers, urging them to make their work relevant to the Church universal:

“How many churches, clergy or theologians are aware of the work of the JWG? Its work is confined to a limited circle of ecumenists. To address this situation, the work of the JWG must be related to the life of the church on the local level, and must be appropriated by the churches through a process of ecumenical education. Reaching the local churches: I consider this a major task before the ecumenical movement for the years to come.”

 Aram’s call for a relevant ecumenism that speaks to the needs of the local church reminded me of another challenging call to the Church by Sheila Briggs. At the 2000 gathering of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Briggs challenged dominant views of ordination:

“Sheila Briggs, an African American Catholic religious studies scholar, stated that ordination is by its very nature an elitist practice, one that by definition excludes women (and men) who are not highly educated. She asked, ‘when will the poor begin to celebrate the Eucharist?’

Like Sheila Briggs, Roman Catholic labor leader Dolores Huerta challenged the elitism of Roman Catholic power structures in negotiations with the Catholic Conference of California. When César Chavez asked for a priest to support striking farmworkers, corporate interests convinced bishops to take the priest away.

“Dolores Huerta lead a group of farm worker women into Bishop Manning’s office in Fresno and asked, ‘Why did you take our priest away from the farm workers? We’re not going to leave until we get an answer.’ Bishop Manning said ‘I’m going to go now and pray.’ Two hours later, he came back and said ‘I’ve been praying to the Holy Spirit.’ Dolores and the women said ‘We are the Holy Spirit incarnate. We are the poor!’ He thought about it and agreed.”

The words of Huerta, Briggs, and Aram challenge people like myself who are invested in the world of academic theology. They shake our ivory towers, reminding us that God’s transformative reign of global flourishing, peace, and justice will not be brought about by academic elites. The good news cannot be proclaimed on high from comfortable seats of abstract theological discourse. Our theological debates are meaningless if they have nothing to say to the poor and exploited, to lay members of the local church, and to those whose voices and priestly callings are repressed by the Church because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

How can we debate the two natures of Christ without resisting the exploitation of nature itself? How can we examine the intricacies of the Eucharistic meal without working with those who have no food to eat? How can we wonder about the details of God’s embodiment in the Incarnation without demolishing the material oppressions that the United States’ racist warmongering, policing, and deportations inflict on the bodies of people of color at home and around the world? How can we inquire about the metaphysics of Jesus’ healing while our neighbors die because they cannot afford healthcare? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, how can we see Christ in the chalice, but not in the beggar at the church door?

If we believe Dolores Huerta’s words, that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the lives of the poor, oppressed, and exploited, then we must change the voices we value:

  • Instead of uncritically praising Pope Francis, we must turn to the survivors of clergy sex abuse he has harmed, the women whose priestly calls he has denied, and queer and trans people who have suffered under the church’s oppression.
  • Instead of centering popular Catholic voices who have the backing of hierarchs and celebrities, we must turn to academic thinkers, church workers, and revolutionaries who have faced excommunication and marginalization for questioning the racialized, gendered, and economic power imbalances of our Church.
  • Instead of believing that the Good News can only flow from respectable institutions of Catholic higher education, we must turn to those workers whose union rights have been denied by Catholic colleges and universities. We must turn to those whose neighborhoods have been gentrified by Catholic schools, and to those who suffer under the boot of US imperialism while Catholic colleges allow military training on their campuses.
  • Instead of presidential candidates, priests, and popes, we must turn to the witness of workers and the laity, knowing that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

We must revive the call of liberation theologians, re-building a “theology from below” that forms the foundations of a “People’s Church.” When it comes to war and the environment, we must stop thinking like Catholic hierarchs and start thinking like Catholic Workers.

When we dare to dream of a liberating future for all of humanity, we must turn to the witness of the People of God enacted through groups like Christians for Socialism, the Movement for Black Lives, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead of dancing around controversial issues in the Church, we must fully affirm the lives, loves, reproductive freedom, and priestly callings of women and LGBTQIA+ people.

It is time to break free of institutions that stifle, and to enact God’s live-giving presence against oppression and exploitation in our local and global communities.

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“How God loves us through our bad theology”: A guest post

14051_10206246260419240_3924350429838097717_nCults are on my mind lately. For one thing, I’ve developed an addiction to the new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy about an Indiana woman who escapes a doomsday cult and remakes her life in New York City. Much wackiness ensues.

But also, and more seriously, one of my college friends recently shared a reflection on Facebook. Theresa related how she was “raised with antiquated theology in a pre-Vatican II cult,” and the term “cult” was no exaggeration. I thought her analysis of that experience, and what it means to her today, was remarkable.

Therefore, I am doing something unusual. I am hosting a guest post, and the guest post is Theresa’s reflection. I share it below, and use Theresa’s real name, with her express permission. Continue reading

Cookie Monster and the limits of the theological enterprise

Via BoingBoing.net.

Via BoingBoing.net.

In my Facebook feed this week, I found something that warms my brought-up-on-Sesame-Street heart: “Cookie Monster ponders the mysteries of the universe.”

“Are you ready for some mind-altering, existential truth?” writes Boing Boing’s Maggie Tokuda-Hall. “Then by all means, behold: Cookie Monster. Not afraid to ask the difficult questions, his inquiring mind is like a tour guide for the hungry.”

Cookie Monster, lost in deep thought, wanders the corridors of the Guggenheim in New York. He gazes through the windows. He contemplates Van Gogh’s Starry Night. He meditates on a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. At each station, he turns to the camera and utters an insight:

“Onion rings are vegetable donuts.”

“Your stomach thinks all potatoes are mashed.”

“Lobsters are mermaids to scorpions.”

“Lasagna is just spaghetti-flavored cake!”  Continue reading

Called by name

Via RogerEbert.com.

Via RogerEbert.com.

I keep up with pop culture in the same way that my parents keep up with communications technology. (That is to say, they own two rotary phones.) So last week was the first time I watched Gran Torino, a 2008 film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grumpy, foul-mouthed, bigoted widower in his seventies. He is a Korean War veteran. He loves his guns, his ability to fix anything, and his 1972 Gran Torino. He built it himself at the Detroit Ford factory where he worked for decades. Kowalski is one of the last holdouts in an old Polish-American neighborhood now settled by Asian immigrants, particularly Hmong.

Thao, a young man from the Hmong family next door, is shy, bookish, and passive. He is easy prey for relatives trying to conscript him into a local gang. Thao’s initiation is to steal Kowalski’s Gran Torino. He fails miserably and is almost shot dead by Kowalski.  Continue reading

Studying theology, doing theology

St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian. Carlo Crivelli, 15th cent. Via Wikipedia.

St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian. Carlo Crivelli, 15th cent. Via Wikipedia.

Jorge Juan Rodriguez V, a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has a Dec. 24 article at Religion Dispatches entitled: “‘This is What Theology Looks Like’: Disrupting a Crucifying System.”

Rodriguez writes about the wave of national protest that has erupted following the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Protesters seek to “disrupt a system which perpetually declares black and brown lives less than human—a system that thrives on Wall Street, in congress, in institutions of higher education, and even in churches.”

Marchers chant phrases like “Black lives matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Faith leaders who have joined them often chant: “This is what theology looks like.” Rodriguez observes: “From Ferguson to New York City this phrase has been invoked.”  Continue reading

The birthday of the church

pentec10Jerry Kellman is a plain, soft-spoken man in his sixties. He has been, and done, many things. Born in New York, he retains some of the accent, but he moved to Chicago many moons ago. Born Jewish, he converted to Catholicism, also many moons ago.

Kellman is a professional community organizer. He learned his trade at a school run by Saul Alinsky. He then mentored other community organizers, including Barack Obama. Kellman is also a professional lay minister. He earned his M.Div. from my alma mater, Loyola University Chicago.

On Pentecost weekend, Kellman talked at my parish. He said Pentecost is one of those days you know is important, but you don’t necessarily feel is important. It’s not Christmas or Easter.

One reason we’re told it’s important is because it’s “the birthday of the church.” But why give Pentecost the credit for that? From the scriptures and the historical record, we know that “Jesus communities” were in place during Jesus’ lifetime. Continue reading