Sunday, 14 October 2018

Óscar Romero, Che Guevara, and Spray-Painted Theology…

I want to take you on a little nostalgia trip, back to the 80s and 90s when I was part of the burgeoning punk scene in the New York/New Jersey area.

This is a track by Puerto Rican political punks Ricanstruction, a mainstay of the hardcore punk scene on the Lower East Side.

When I started dedicating myself to becoming a theologian, I remember recalling this video. It fascinated me that the young man with the rattle can had no trouble equating Óscar Romero (the martyred archbishop), Túpac Amaru (the murdered Native American leader), and Emiliano Zapata (the Mexican revolutionary), declaring in the name of them all, ‘La Lucha Sigue’… ‘The Struggle Continues’…

As I began to delve deeper into Latin American liberation theology, I was equally fascinated by murals you see dotted around Central and South America with images of both Che Guevara and Romero- devout Christian archbishop and implacable revolutionary atheist- side by side.

I think there’s a lesson for us in that graffiti and those images, a holy treatise that we need to remember, particularly on this day.

For as I write this, Archbishop Óscar Romero- martyred 24 March 1980 for his determined and increasingly vocal opposition to the government of El Salvador’s reign of terror- has been officially canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Romero has exerted such an influence and inspiration over my life, my work, and my personal spirituality that it might come as a surprise to many that I’m feeling rather subdued today.

The reason for my ambivalence is two-fold.

The first, as most regular readers will know, has to do with my enduring struggles with the Vatican power structure, which did very little to support or defend Romero in his fight for justice when he and the persecuted people of El Salvador needed it most.

Worse, that same Vatican power structure went on to variously frustrate, delay, or outright oppose the cause of Romero’s canonization for decades, maligning his memory and his character in the process.

The fact is, Romero was a saint at the moment of his death, and the people of El Salvador, as well as millions of Catholics around the world, recognized him as such. It has taken our bureaucratic, officious, autocratic hierarchy nearly thirty years to recognize what any Salvadoran campensino could have told them the day after Romero’s death.

But of course, this was heart of Latin American liberation theology’s critique- that theological reflection begins with the experience of the most poor and the most oppressed.
A corollary is when the Gospel writer has Christ say, ‘I thank you, Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants (Matt. 11:35).
There are similar echoes of this when Brazilian priest and theologian Frei Betto observed, ‘the poor invaded the Church (and) Catholic priests and bishops began to be converted to Christianity.’
My second reason is related to the first; now that Romero is ensconced in the devotional structures of the Church, I worry that his elevation might blunt the message that he gave.
The greatness of Romero, I believe, is the fact that three weeks after this bookish, conservative, status quo figure was ordained archbishop, he unexpectedly and disturbingly felt that God showed him the path he would need to take.
His good friend Fr. Rutilio Grande- who had been denouncing the government’s cruelty to the people- and two companions were murdered by the Salvadoran military, which was carrying out a sustained campaign of terror in the countryside. Romero went to the funeral and stared at both the bullet-ridden body and at the faces of the parishioners. He later recounted:

When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’

After this event, Romero was tireless in his advocacy for the people, denouncing the government’s terror, appealing to US President Carter to cut off aid to the Salvadoran government, even going so far as, on 23 March 1980, to demand obedience from the soldiers at the expense of their military commanders:

‘I’d like to make an appeal in a special way to the men in the army: Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The farmers and peasants that you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the words of the man telling you to kill, think instead of the words of God, ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the Law of God. In His Name and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much, and whose laments cry out to heaven: I implore you! I beg you! I order you! Stop the repression!’

The next day, he was dead.  

The people were drawn to Romero’s words because, in a world that made it brutally clear to them that their lives were of no value whatsoever, he constantly reminded them of their value in the eyes of God and that God is a God of justice.

The greatness of Romero is in the change of direction- at the prompting of the Spirit of God- he was willing to make… yet ironically he has been elevated to a place of example and inspiration by a Church that doesn’t change direction well at all.

If we wish to do theological reflection with integrity, it is vital that Romero’s greatness not be lost under a welter of gauzy, institutional sentimentality or rendered inoffensive, divorced from the radical context from which it sprouted.

That depends on the people of God who recognized his holiness from the beginning, not those who noticed it far, far later…

… And the key to that is in the graffiti of the video and in those murals of Romero and Che.

The poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the all those deemed ‘worthless’ by the forces of capital and power across the globe continue to cry out for justice… the cry of Romero… the cry of Jesus.

It is the duty of the Church to stand with those who cry out for justice, for justice is the heart of the Gospel…

‘The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it in full’ (John 10:10)…

This is the intersection of Romero and Che, the Christian and the revolutionary. It is impossible to evaluate the actions of Che without evaluating the actions of the Latin American Church of his social context- ossified, reactionary, anti-reform, privileged, elitist...

The Gospel of Christ- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- was, is, and ever shall be revolutionary.

If the Church fails to preach and act out this radical Gospel, the world will still cry out for it; the poor and the oppressed will still demand justice.

If the Church stops up its ears, it is surrendering its mission, and that mission will be picked up by those who will attempt it without any understanding of the love of Christ. No one- least of all the Church- should be surprised if that turns out to be a disaster...

But in that instance, I think the judgement of God rests heavier on the Church. They knew Christ, and failed to emulate him; Che didn't, and set off to do it in his own power and wisdom...

Ironically, this is why I have a deep admiration for Che and consider him an inspiration to me in the same manner as is Romero. For the Gospel to have any integrity it must be revolutionary or it will be empty… and for the revolution to have any integrity it must encompass Romero or it will be in vain.

Che said, 'If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine’;

Romero said, ‘When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises’;

Jesus said, 'Do you love me? Feed my sheep'. 

The statements are all identical to me...

… And spray painting any or all of them on a wall would be an act of devotion…

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Why Evangelicals Don't Abandon Trump (But Why They Should...)

I’ve read so many great pieces over the past year written by- and about- thoughtful Evangelical Christians grappling with the fact that President Trump- an out-and-proud narcissistic bully- has so much respect and support from their fellow Evangelicals.

Much of this writing has sincerely and honestly been trying to re-imagine Evangelicalism beyond the socio-political ditch into which these writers feel it has driven itself into, and conceive of an American Evangelicalism that is more open, inclusive, honest and, well, Christ-like.

I was raised in the Evangelical Christian subculture and worked within it for a good chunk of my adult life. While I have not identified as an Evangelical Christian for about 25 years now- finding my home in the liturgical, the contemplative, and the silent- I have a great amount of respect and affection for many of my brothers and sisters in the Evangelical community and applaud their efforts to think outside the box that previous generations of Evangelicals have constructed around them.

But outside of those voices, the vast majority of American Evangelicals (specifically white Evangelicals; Evangelicals of colour have been- not unsurprisingly- unmoved by Trumpism) appear to be standing rock-solid behind  the President, a thrice-married, utterly-irreligious, hedonistic, profane, vain, corrupt, bullying, bankrupt gambling tycoon.

This seems so incongruous to so many and has fascinated and dismayed many commentators, all of whom seem to be waiting for the moment when Evangelicals wake up in horror, realize what they’ve hitched themselves to, and turn against Trump, hastening his demise.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I think I have an insight into why.

To understand where I’m coming from, you have to imagine one of the oldest narratives in human history, found in just about every culture’s myths, epics, and sagas: the opportunity to get everything you want.

 It’s the moment in the tale when a character engaged in an epic quest is approached by a god or a magical entity who has the ability to make it possible for the character to achieve and acquire everything that character wants or needs- wealth, power, love, success, or victory.

The god or entity can absolutely deliver. All the character has to do is grasp it…

… but (and it’s always a huge, monumental, epic ‘but’) there is always one thing; one small, apparently-simple detail that the character must remember to do or not do- leave the party before  midnight; don’t ever get off the horse; don’t ever look back; don’t open the box; never say a specific phrase- or they will lose everything.

As the one small detail seems so simple and apparently irrelevant, the character inevitably agrees. But just as inevitably, they are tripped up by that one, simple thing and lose everything.

When we heard these stories as children, it all seemed so unfair. I mean, who *wouldn’t* go for the deal? Why did the god or entity include that one, stupid proviso?

What we didn’t realize was that the point of these stories was to teach us about human frailty, hubris, or simply that sometimes bad things happen to good people. We can never be in control of everything, the stories seemed to say; our lives and our destinies are never completely our own. Don’t try to shortcut your way to victory. Keep a reasonable account of yourself. Be realistic. Be humble. Be wise.

Well, the majority of the Evangelical movement in America have been engaged in a quest for decades to re-shape and re-mould America (though they would use the language of restoration). Basically, decades before Trump, they were dreaming of making America ‘great’ again, but as seen through their religious lens- holy, chaste, godly, righteous…

In 2016, they got offered the chance to win, win big, win everything. 

Their quest had many elements within it, many of which often paralleled the social and political aims of other demographic groups. But there was one issue that was almost exclusively theirs, and on that I’d argue was the central hub around which all other elements revolved :

abortion on demand.

Severely curtailing (if not outright overturning) Roe v. Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court’s landmark decision that effectively legalized a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, was and is the Holy Grail of American Evangelicalism. 

Efforts began slowly in the mid-70’s; President Carter, though an Evangelical, stood by the decision and got no serious, sustained flak for it. It was not until the Reagan-era 80’s and the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, and Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue that the American ‘pro-life’ movement slammed into high gear. 

This was the beginning of a long campaign to put real political power into the hands of Evangelical Christians by getting their issues into the Republican Party platform, and overturning Roe v. Wade was a policy linchpin.

Roe v. Wade at this point began to be given the descriptive characteristics of a holocaust, innocent, unborn children, butchered by the millions. Anyone who defended abortion was depraved, the doctor who performed one was a murderer, and any woman who had one was a monster, sacrificing an innocent life for freedom and pleasure.

Make no mistake; that was the only explanation I ever heard for why this went on, and the very cruelty of it compounded the horror. The life of the baby overrode any other explanation or circumstance. The mother was alive and the baby was dead. The horror, to the pro-lifer, was self-evident.

Abortion was Satanism at its most naked and most cruel.

Mainstream Republicans noticed what was brewing and cautiously began a courtship with this new insurgency, seeking to harness this growing and hugely dedicated new demographic- the ‘Religious Right’. However, the mainstream Republican machine didn’t embrace the Evangelicals’ moral crusade, at least not in the same way. They saw the Evangelicals as an asset, one constituency group of among many, there to be tapped as part of greater strategies. 

Republicans made many of the right noises, and did things that Evangelicals liked. But because most of the Washington Republican machine didn’t think about abortion in the same way as their Evangelical base did, it was never going to be as high on the ‘to do’ list as Evangelicals would want it to be.

The weakness of the Evangelicals’ position, unfortunately, was similar to any dependable constituency in a two-party system: they had nowhere else to go- particularly in the Clinton-dominated 90’s- and they began to suspect the Republican machine was taking them for granted… which was probably true.

Each election cycle, Evangelicals rallied to the Republican candidates with the best Evangelical bona fides- Michelle Bachmann, Ben Carson, the seemingly-perennial Alan Keyes, even Pat Robertson himself back in the day- but dutifully and sometimes grudgingly voted for the Washington-connected center-right moderate Republican that got the nomination. 

Abortion on demand- seen by the majority of Evangelicals as America’s greatest moral failing- remained on the books and (it appeared) unassailable.

But Evangelicals were playing a very, very long game- longer than any of their detractors understand…  That's because the issues that they most care about- and abortion crystallizes that like no other issue- are timeless and non-negotiable. Abortion is murder. Roe v. Wade is demonic. What they want is no mere political victory, but a spiritual one, directed by God who, though he works in mysterious ways, absolutely assures them the victory.

Which pretty much brings us to the present moment, and in Evangelical terms, what a present moment it is…

President Trump (who, to be fair, wasn’t their first choice; they'd have much preferred Carson or Cruz) has given Evangelicals more of what they’ve actually wanted in a year and a half than every Republican administration in the past forty:

He’s been aggressively vocal about Christianity’s supremacy over other faiths; 

He’s been outspoken about culture war battles such as the ‘War on Christmas;

he’s moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, aligning himself with the most intransigent, militaristic, and theocratic elements within Israel and the US;

he’s packed the federal courts with ideological conservatives;

And crucially, he has brought Evangelicals within striking distance of the ultimate prize: a solidly ideologically-conservative US Supreme Court, capable of finally- at long last- ending abortion on demand.

Trump himself is not an Evangelical, nor has he shown any religious tendencies whatsoever, nor indeed (it could be effectively argued from his own sordid history) does he care or even have any particular opinion one way or another about any of these issues beyond seeing them as chances to aggrandize himself personally... but his administration includes die-hard conservative Evangelicals in Jeff Sessions and Betsy Devos, and he's had an open-door policy for Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and other powerful right-wing Evangelical leaders who have been able to steer his erratic ship toward their own fortunes, much to the delight of the average Evangelical voter.  

Simply put, for a significant majority of white Evangelicals, Trump is delivering, and in ways that no one has ever politically and culturally delivered to them before.

Trump offers victory... evidence, to many, that for all his faults and foibles, he must be the instrument of God.

With that in mind, do you really think Evangelicals will suddenly turn on Trump because he says mean and stupid things?Do you think they’re going to simply surrender a forty-year war because Trump was rude to Christine Blasey Ford?

Don’t be ridiculous. This is the win of all wins…

But (and here comes that huge, monumental, epic ‘but’…)
like the hero in the myths, there is a price to pay for all this, a ruthless and very disturbing bargain made:

It is nothing less than surrendering any moral authority to speak of the Gospel of Jesus as it is understood from the biblical text... all for the chance to 'restore' America to the image that the Trump-supporting Evangelicals envision. 

Trump insults and bullies the poorer, the weaker, the less-attractive;

He praises the strong, the supremacists, the prejudiced;

He defends the oppressor, the suppressor, the aggressive;

He lies, and lies, and lies;

He is the antithesis of every characteristic that Jesus in the biblical text lays out for those who follow him;

He is the antithesis- at times almost comically so- of every attribute that St. Paul considered evidence of the working of the spirit of God in a person's life- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control...

Needless to say (and I'm sure no one will be shocked to hear it), I just don’t see Jesus in this.

Needless to say, I don’t see the Gospel of the biblical text- food for the poor, sight for the blind, release for the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- in this.

This is not interpreting the Gospel; it's not spinning, finessing, or managing it… This is abandoning it.

Jesus’s words in the Gospel of Mark recently came to my mind:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 
‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel I preach will save it.
‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 
‘Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 
‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’

If Evangelicals are being forced to choose between the Christ of the Gospel and the adulterous and the sinful- as I believe they are- they risk gaining their 'whole world'- their 'restored America'- at the price of their soul.

That price is too high…

… and blessings on those Evangelicals trying to point that out.

But as to the rest turning on Trump? No time soon, I fear…

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Ireland, Pope Francis, and the Death (and Rebirth) of the Catholic Church

See the source image

So… As I write this, Pope Francis has arrived in Ireland,

An Ireland- so the media has reminded us ad nauseum- is far different from the Ireland that John Paul II visited in 1979.

I know what they’re trying to say, and some of the commentary says it very well. But at a fundamental level, it strikes me as somewhat lazy thinking. Name me one country that isn’t a lot different than it was forty years ago. I mean, even North Korea is significantly poorer…

And, as is often said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even with the decline of Catholic belief and practice in Ireland, 78.3% of the Republic still choose to identify as Catholic, as do 45% of the North.

Granted, we’re not Catholics the way the Church wants us to be Catholics.

But- and this is my topic today- after the way this Church treated us for decades, it truly is a miracle any of us call ourselves Catholics at all.

I say this because of my firmly-held belief that, if we want to do Catholic theology in Ireland and Northern Ireland with any integrity, we must grapple- and I do mean really and truly grapple- with the violent abuse inflicted by the Catholic Church in Ireland on the smallest, weakest, poorest, least influential, and least powerful… and that it did so with the collusion of the Irish state.

This is the social reality into which Francis stepped when he de-planed yesterday.

When we talk about the abuse scandals that have been exposed in Ireland and around the globe, because of the vast amount written about it in the past week, it’s easy to glaze over and say, ‘yes, yes, I know. It’s appalling’… We hear the stories of individual victims and it becomes small and personally tragic, tinged with sentimentality.

Make no mistake- the individual accounts are horrible; each victim has had to survive in their own way.

But when I was doing my Masters, I took the opportunity to read- in their entirety- the 2009 reports of the Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin (usually referred to as the ‘Murphy Report’ after presiding Irish judge Yvonne Murphy) and the ‘Ryan Report’ from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), charged with investigating the extent and effects of abuse on children in Ireland from 1936 onwards.

To put the reports into some kind of context, while doing my Masters, I also read- in their entirety- UN reports of the use of systemic torture in Apartheid-era South Africa, the use of torture and murder against political dissidents in Central and South America in the 70’s and 80’s, and the use of concentration camps and genocide during the Balkan wars of the 90’s.

Through the lens of my expertise on these issues, I feel confident in saying that what happened in Ireland and Northern Ireland can be spoken about in the same breath.

Reading the reports was- and I choose my words carefully- like staring the Antichrist full in the face.

Reading them, I felt that I understood why someone as compassionate as the Jesus of the biblical text would suggest such a cruel and unusual use for a millstone. 

What the Murphy and Ryan reports exposed was evil;

Over 800 known serial abusers;

Over 200 Catholic institutions;

Over 35 years;

Over the length and breadth of the nation;

Hundreds of industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes;

Abuse, neglect and death not sporadic or opportunistic;

Not a tragic failure of the system, but, horrifically, the system itself.

This was a gulag.

None of this is ancient history. The modern Irish state only dates to 1921. 

As late as last year, evidence emerged of a mass grave with the remains of 796 children on the former site of a mother and baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway. The Sisters of Bon Secours, the religious order who ran the home, through the efforts of the PR firm they hired, denied the existence of the mass unmarked grave for two years. It was only through the dogged efforts of a local historian who meticulously followed up the fact that there were nearly 800 deaths of children in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, but graves for only two, that we now know the scale of the horror.

These were the unwanted, uncared-for children of ‘fallen’ women, women and children simply seen as ecclesial detritus.

All of the horror is compounded by the Church’s reaction, which has been the very embodiment of the word ‘inadequate’.

First, there was silence. Then, where there had been silence, there has been noise;

Obfuscation, stonewalling, non-cooperation, platitudes, and rationalizations, making many of us, heads cradled in our hands, beg, 


In light of all this, it has been wondered, what will the Pope say?

Today, while saying Mass at Phoenix Park, the Pope begged forgiveness- from God and, ostensibly, the Irish people.  

I love Pope Francis; I truly do. But what he said was not enough; not nearly, remotely enough.

The Church has not repented. Worse, it has not mourned.

Rather, it has managed.

It has given broad, universal apologies, tried to ‘draw a line’ under the issue, put policies in place. But no financial compensation, no access to records for the victims’ families, no memorials, no masses for the dead souls…

For its part, the Irish government makes shocked noises and points appalled- APPALLED!- fingers at the Catholic hierarchy, but has been very careful so as not to have to address the complicity and collusion of the courts, the police, and the civil service.

It was they who, at the foundation of the modern Irish state, handed the schools, the hospitals, and entire social welfare apparatus to the Church who, we now know, ran them like an authoritarian, theocratic social experiment.

In short, what did the Irish state know, and when did they know it?

This is the Ireland to which Francis has come.

And yes, it is a very different Ireland to the one visited by John Paul II.

The dictatorship is over. The monolithic, imperial, Holy Catholic Church of the past is gone forever… and most Irish Catholics don’t mourn its passing.

The edifice endures, of course, frantically trying to save and salvage itself.

It still runs the schools and the hospitals;

It still dares to chide and to lecture us, grasping the remaining rags of its moral authority, hoping (in vain) to keep us from voting for marriage equality and the repeal of the 8th Amendment banning abortion.

Millions of self-professed Catholic People voted overwhelmingly for both, saying, in effect, 'Don’t you ever again tell me what is right, good, or appropriate for my life, my nation, or my family, ever.’

So… How do we do Irish Catholic theology with integrity in the shadow of the mass grave in Tuam?

With all due respect to what the Holy Father did say, what do I wish he had said?

I give you a mystery:

What would happen if he had said, ‘We have sinned;

‘We are sorry;

‘We humbly repent,

‘And as penance, we will shut ourselves down, collectively give up our vocation, sell all we have and give the money to the poor, the abused, the victims, and the survivors.

‘God forgive us.

‘God bless you.


The Church would end.

But through its self-destruction, through this self-immolation, I wonder if, in time, the Church might be reborn…

Those of us who weekly drag ourselves dejectedly to 11am Mass, as well as those who long ago stopped dragging themselves to Mass, now that there wasn’t one to drag ourselves to, might feel a new stirring.

Over time, as has happened in these islands for millennia, men and women would feel the call of God.

They would pray and they would serve.

They would heal each other’s bodies and souls.

They would meet together over bread and wine and feel God in their midst.

And each morning, as the first of us did, they would face the rising sun and worship the three-in-one, singing,

‘As it was in the beginning, it is now an ever shall be.’

The Church might be reborn…

For at the heart of the Christian faith is rebirth- life from lifelessness.

The writer of the Gospel of John has Jesus say,

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Those who love their life lose it. And those who regard the life of this world as nothing will keep it for eternal life.

The Irish Catholic Church must die… But it must die as Christ died.

It is only by doing so that it can fully be the Body of Christ, given for many.

The presence of evil and sin does not mean that there is no God.

It was God who raised the Body of Christ to life. I believe that God wishes to raise The Catholic Church- the Body of Christ- to life.

For what shall it profit the Church to maintain a crumbling façade and lose its soul?

It is the God of salvation who, in Christ, gives salvation.

The Church can be saved.

But it must die.

It's the only way to live...