Rebuilding the People’s Church


(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.


Our prayers at work

Did anybody else notice that secretary of state John Kerry’s “slip of the tongue” suggestion that Syria give up its chemical weapons took place on the Monday after Pope Francis’ prayer vigil for peace? After a week of negotiations, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement on Saturday to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Suddenly, we have gone from gearing up for an escalation to potentially capping the scope of the conflict in Syria.


Mary, Queen of Peace

I don’t believe that it was a coincidence. Led by the pope, millions of people asked for the intercession of Mary, Queen of Peace, and there appeared to be an answer. Any believer in the power of prayer would acknowledge the likelihood that Kerry did not accidentally think of a solution on his own. He has a lot of people praying for him to make the right decisions, and

Though this agreement is good news, let’s not be naive. It still has to be implemented. The Obama administration still has military action on the table. The war in Syria still rages on. Other conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Palestine and the Philippines, still plague God’s people.

We need to keep praying.

Six months of Pope Francis has shown that the Catholic Church is truly led by a man of God. This was a palpable reminder. Let us continue to follow his lead in praying for a resolution to this conflict and all wars around the world.

On the occasion of Syria: Timeline of a peacenik

I am a senior in high school. I am eating mozzarella sticks in the cafeteria. A fellow student sits down across from me. He wants to talk about an anti-war poem he found in our English textbook. He is a pacifist.

I stonewall him. I do not like this fellow student because he is scruffy. He smokes. He takes art classes. He is an atheist. He sleeps with his girlfriend. I identify all this with weakness. Therefore pacifism is weakness, and so I am not a pacifist, Q.E.D.

I am a college freshman and it is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center disappears, and the world metamorphoses, on a cloudless sapphire Tuesday morning. I walk across my silent, mostly deserted university campus to Latin class. I wince when a military jet roars over my head. It is the only thing interrupting the no-fly zone above the Chicago lakefront.

It is September 14, 2001, the feast of the Holy Cross. I attend Mass celebrated by a Jesuit. He says governments have a right to defend their people from threats like Al Qaeda. But individual Christians should aspire to be as defenseless as Jesus was, even to the point of crucifixion.

Complexity hacks its way into my thinking. Suddenly I can break patriotism and Christianity apart. I can analyze and compare them. I can pit God against Caesar and not assume they work together. Yet my new talent lies dormant for a while.

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Embarking on a New Journey of Consciousness

Mayan CalendarAs the year 2012 concluded, much noise and media attention was paid to a curiosity found within the Mayan calendar.

The ancient Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization in which all aspects of conventional society revolved around the study of astrology. Their calendar was based entirely on predictions and insights that could be gained by studying the stars and planetary movements that take place in our galaxy. This system was so meticulously accurate that modern-day scientists have been able to chart and identify astronomical events that have occurred in coordination with projections detailed in the calendar.

A sudden panic took hold of many, across the globe, when a discovery was made. The calendar, which chronicled time from hundreds of thousands of years ago to our own present day in age, seemed to inexplicably end on December 21, 2012. Given the calendar’s weighty reputation for being precise in its astronomical forecasts, many around the world began to fear that this date would bring about the end of our planet.

Although such a response may have seemed rational, something else must be taken into consideration.

In the Mayan paradigm, time was viewed not as being simply a linear progression, but rather, cyclical in nature. Their calendar was arranged by various “ages” or periods, in which the gods had attempted to enact harmony and order within the human race and throughout the world.

The most recent age on the calendar which we had been living out was initiated in 3114 BCE. The beginning of this age marked a movement of humanity out of the Neolithic period (where a sparse existence of hunter-gathering had been the norm for our homo sapien ancestors) towards the advent of civilization — when an era was inaugurated in which our species pursued advanced techniques of agricultural development, the establishment of cities and metropolitan complexes, and where a greater sense of collaboration and discovery was sought amongst the entire human race.

The end of this temporal cycle on December 21, 2012 was to commemorate a dual reality. First, it would mark a rare celestial event that only occurs once every 26,000 years. Driven by the gravitational pull of the earth’s axis, the sun crossed a point in the Milky Way galaxy which is known as the galactic equator (For a much more thorough and accurate explanation of this phenomenon than I could ever hope to give here please consider consulting a respected astronomical/scientific source for pertinent information). Secondly, to the Maya, this cosmic rarity marked the end of the current mode of consciousness. In short, the end of the calendar on this date proclaims not an end of our world, but a new beginning, a renewed opportunity of transformation, joy, and light for all humanity.

When all of the successes and triumphs of the past centuries are analyzed in this spirit, it could be legitimately argued that the human race is progressing towards a point of definitive enlightenment on its evolutionary journey.

Although they have not been eradicated by any means, racial disparities that once divided societies are gradually crumbling in the face of a heightened sense of exposure and empirical awareness.

Even though gender inequality is still a very real problem worldwide (the infamous case of a woman’s recent gang-rape in India underscores this), women have burst through the glass ceilings of nearly all of societies highest echelons — a woman leads the most prosperous economic power in Europe, one of America’s most beloved television personalities and entrepreneurs has attained a position as one of the world’s most successful and recognizable faces, and there are rampant rumors that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will take one more chance at breaking the ultimate glass ceiling of being the first female occupant of the White House.

My own state, along with others throughout the nation, as well as an increasing number of countries throughout the world, continues to affirm that legally, nothing distinguishes the love and commitment that two persons of the same-sex share with one another from couples who are of the opposite gender. In recent years, the United Nations has passed resolutions declaring LGBT persons as a discernible minority within society who are deserving of certain rights that guarantee their protection in light of this reality; in addition to guarding these individuals from extrajudicial executions seeking to target them outside of the scope of the law because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A final heartening observation is that human beings throughout the world are now more connected than ever before. In a matter of seconds, information can be disseminated or exchanges conducted through a plethora of technological and social media tools — the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, and smart phones are all instruments that facilitate today’s highly charged atmosphere of interaction.

Despite these monumental breakthroughs in human achievement, a moral deficit remains in terms of how far we as a species must progress in order to eradicate numerous conditions and circumstances that unfortunately exist in all areas of the world.

For example, our church is a spiritual entity that offers a tremendous amount of good to global society. Countless emissaries of the Catholic Church — whether they be members of religious orders, social workers, or lay faithful — work to live out the promises of the Gospel in the lives of the least among us. Charities, immigration centers, and hospitals are just a few of the indispensable humanitarian services that people of within the church have courageously provided for centuries.  Yet, as an institution centered around the all-male hierarchy of bishops, headed by the pope, Catholicism has failed to read the signs of the times that so desperately need to be addressed in the twenty-first century. The inherent equal dignity of women is denied when the Vatican refuses to entertain the possibility of ordaining women, hiding behind archaic arguments that attempt to present the gender of Jesus of Nazareth as a defense for theological chauvinism. The humanity of LGBT persons is scorned when the Roman Magisterium classifies their orientation as a “disorder” and financially supports efforts to keep in place measures that condone legally sanctioned discrimination in the areas of marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. As recently as last month, Pope Benedict XVI responded to the latest initiatives to recognize civil marriages between gay couples by stating that, “…policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.” If various agents within the Catholic Church consciously endorse sentiments that marginalize and subjugate women and LGBT persons within their own spiritual frame of reference, doesn’t this mean that they are in league — albeit indirectly — with forces throughout the world that are constantly acting to suppress these groups?

Poverty, income inequality, widespread famine and disease continue to plague our world. In a gross display of irony, these afflictions often are more pronounced in countries that are wealthy and economically developed. Nations such as our own, China, and especially India would be found in this category. While they possess the resources and the means to reduce this phenomenon, lip-service is all that is ever paid to this problem. An emphasis on the goodwill of charities and churches to reduce the effects of poverty is usually highlighted, while no meaningful solutions are compiled to confront the systemic and social causes that perpetuate its grip on humanity.

The benefits of technological innovations to human society were mentioned above. However, these advances have become so hi-tech and personalized that they ultimately might be having a more detrimental effect on us than we could ever realize. iPhones and the social networking tools that go along with them are wonderfully convenient. Yet, one can become so tethered to the comfort and ease of speaking to a person behind a screen that this type of interaction with another becomes normal. Focusing all visual and mental stimulations solely on a virtual plane, as opposed to a physical one, could desensitize many of us to the wonder and vibrancy of making a human connection. In a sense, it seems that our culture has moved in this direction. To say hello to a stranger on the street is viewed as abnormal. Stepping out of our own comfort zones in hope of empathizing with another’s life experience is a lost art form. This radical form of individualism on steroids is having a highly corrosive effect on our society as a whole. The truth may be that today’s world is the most interconnected network of persons that has ever existed on our planet, but it could also be a fact that on a personal basis, human being-to-human being, our species has reached the most isolated point in its evolutionary journey of self-discovery.

Recent days have shown us that a pervasive disregard for human life is now the status quo of everyday life. What else motivated the heinous shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or Tuscon, Arizona? The list of locations, dates, and names of the individuals who lost their lives in such horrific tragedies extends back years into America’s psyche. The ‘powers-that-be’ in Washington who have allowed inertia to prevail in the wake of these senseless acts are just as responsible for them as those who initiated them. These same powers are also complicit in multiple conflicts throughout the world in which no just resolution is in sight. President Barack Obama has made vast improvement upon many of the issues with which the United States was confronted when he took office. However, he continues to exercise enormous harm in one alarming area. Barack Obama has continued the Bush administration’s practice of drone strikes to eliminate individuals the United States government views as “threats to national security.” Such suspects are targeted without the parameters of due process and international law. How can the leader of the free world hope to achieve success on the avenues of peace in the Middle East, or elsewhere, when he can simply sign off on the termination of an unquestioned subject’s life with the stroke of a pen?

Such instances are a collective failure of humanity to live up to the fullest extent of its, divinely intended, potential. However, there is no need for these statistics to continue. Each one of us has the capacity to put a stop to these stains on the universal human conscience. We can foster a new mode of being, simply by using our thoughts, words, or actions on behalf of the virtues of positivity, inclusion, and temperance.

The ancient Mayans felt that the attitude with which humanity confronted each new cosmic era would determine its fate for the near future. If we choose to enter this new era of positive consciousness, accepting the profound reality it embodies, we may expect peace and tranquility to be ours to enjoy in the future. Yet, if we ignore the inner shift in consciousness that the end of the calendar signals, cataclysmic events of negativity and discord will continue to be the new normal that the world awakens to each day.

Will we remain static, in the very depths of our human capabilities, lodged in the state of the “old self,” as the apostle Paul would characterize it. Or will we realize our divine calling, and rise to the fullness of our inherent potential? Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians would later depict as the “New Adam” through the eyes of faith, saw as His mission the task of bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming release to those in bondage, recovering sight for the blind, and liberating those who are oppressed in any way (Luke 4:18). Each, and every member of the human race has been anointed for this same path of reconciliation and transformation. The choice is ours for the taking.

Memorial Day: “Both saved and sinner”

On Memorial Day, Dad and I always drive the five minutes to the local war memorial. It’s on a leafy boulevard a couple of blocks away from where Dad grew up.

We stand under a catalpa tree, bowing for the prayer and listening to the speeches. Depending on the confidence and advanced age of the speakers, we may or may not hear most of what they say. We watch while the veterans, fewer and fewer each year as they process through their eighties and nineties, lay a wreath near the electric bulb serving as an eternal flame.

I know I must go to the ceremony. I know I must also feel awkward about it. I have learned to live with that.

Both sides of my family served in World War II and I grew up immersed in that legacy. Anthony, my maternal grandmother’s brother, fought in the Red Army of the Soviet Union and died. My maternal grandfather was in the Polish army when Hitler invaded. He went to Germany a prisoner, hoeing vegetables and picking fruit for years until the Americans freed him.

On Dad’s side, Uncle Eddie went into the U.S. Army, Aunt Alma into the WACs, and Grandpa and Uncle Harold into the Navy. All were listed on a huge wooden plaque in their Lutheran church, along with everyone else in the congregation who went to war. It’s still there and I like looking at it.

Grandpa rose to aviation machinist 3rd class and served in the Pacific Theater. Once, while refueling a plane, he was abruptly engulfed in flames. His chest bore a giant scar for the rest of his life.

After the war Grandpa promptly joined the local VFW and American Legion. Uncle Eddie was for a time the VFW commander. Grandpa lived long enough to receive a certificate from the Legion celebrating fifty years of membership. We display Grandpa’s flag, provided for his funeral in 1996, in the living room.

Military service seemed of one piece with all that made my family dignified and honorable. Back stateside, they served in the church when asked, volunteered for the fire department, got elected to the school board, and were steelworkers and carpenters. It all apparently ran together, connected by a straight line from their enlistments onward.

I was much older when I learned another side of war, one of gamesmanship and manipulation. I learned that claims of weapons of mass destruction, wielded like a cudgel to get us into Iraq in 2003, were false. I learned we had bases where we trained Latin American troops to work for dictators, to keep their own people down. For three Novembers I went to Fort Benning, which houses the since-renamed School of the Americas, to protest this injustice.

I learned that “just war” or not, everyone who returns leaves dead friends behind, as did my buddy who went to Iraq. And I learned that you return with scars seen and unseen, also like my buddy, who gets headaches.

Meanwhile I probed another side of the Christian tradition, one that would never have placed a giant wooden plaque in a church. The early followers of Jesus took his injunction to “put down your sword” literally. According to the Canons attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome, Christians could not become soldiers by choice and were never to kill, even under orders. If they did, they were barred from the sacraments.

In the fourth century, Christianity became the Roman religion. Church and military grew more congenial toward each other. But even then, the future bishop St. Martin of Tours resigned from the army, saying: “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

“In theological terms, war is sin,” writes Father William P. Mahedy, a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, in his book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets. “This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier’s war were right or wrong. The point is that war as a human enterprise is a matter of sin. It is a form of hatred for one’s fellow human beings. It produces alienation from others and nihilism, and it ultimately represents a turning away from God.”

I take every bit of this with stone-cold seriousness. But I have no illusion that there was some other way to stop Hitler. And I respect soldiers for being mission-oriented, self-sacrificing, and equipped with finely-tuned B.S. detectors.

My Catholicism accustoms me to ambiguity, to a church that is simul justus et peccator, both saved and sinner. I accept the ambiguity of war and peace. I will keep going to Memorial Day observances. I also expect to protest at the SOA again relatively soon.