Monday, 28 April 2014

Forever Scolded from The Heavens: A Revolutionary Reflection on St. John Paul II

It’s not every day you go to Mass and your local parish church has, that very day, changed its name.

But with yesterday’s canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday, 27 April, here in Bigfork MT, Blessed Pope John Paul II parish is now Saint John Paul II parish. When the woman who welcomes us at the beginning of the service welcomed us to the latter instead of the former, there was loud applause from the congregation. The parish was founded months before John Paul’s death, so there is a strong affinity with John Paul for many. He was a living memory; he was Pope in the lifetime of most, a constant presence. I guess it’s only natural…

Perhaps it is needless to say that I had mixed feelings. 

At the risk of being needlessly cynical, the choice of these two particular Popes seemed calculated to perfectly appeal to two wings of the Church without offending either. What I mean is that it would be extremely difficult to imagine either one of these men being canonized singularly in the current cultural context of the Catholic Church. John XXIII seems to be there to appeal to progressives within the Church. This was, after all, the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and delivered the famous encyclical Pacem in Terris. As someone whose theology is rooted in liberation theology, which in some ways was both a catalyst and a fruit of the Latin American bishops’ efforts to practically implement the far-reaching implications of the Council, John XXIII in a sense represents for me the probing Church, the seeking Church; the Church of optimism and opportunity, openness, and transformation; the Church grappling with and embracing the modern world in all its complexity and dynamism. John XXIII embodies for me the question, ‘how broad and expansive might the Church be?’

John Paul II, on the other hand, was there for the conservatives, those who’d always been suspicious of Vatican II and all that followed it. John Paul II, it would not be wholly unfair to say, spent the majority of his papacy rolling back and corralling much of Vatican II’s possibilities- or at least what its most expansive interpreters might have hoped for. Progressive seminaries were closed; hierarchical positions went to the most conservative candidates; Leonardo Boff was silenced, Jon Sobrino reprimanded and much of the most dynamic aspects of the movement were either condemned, co-opted or sanitized; Archbishop Oscar Romero was unsuccessful in gaining from John Paul an official condemnation of El Salvador’s brutal regime, which eventually killed Romero; John Paul was scathing in his criticism of the Base Christian Communities movement in Central America; any discussion of a more nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality and reproductive issues were off limits under John Paul’s papacy; centralization and autocracy were hallmarks it. John Paul II embodies for me the question, ‘how can we more rigidly define and control what the Church should be?’

This is not to overlook John Paul II’s many positive policies and stances- his implacable opposition to state communism, war, and organized crime, as well as being the first world leader to use the word ‘genocide’ to describe the 1994 events in Rwanda. His spirituality and religious devotion are beyond dispute, and he was a man of personal righteousness. 

So, my difficulties with John Paul II are not over this issue or that issue; we are simply two different sorts of men and two different sorts of Christians. At bottom, I am a revolutionary- not a liberal, not a progressive- a revolutionary. I seek liberty, justice, equality, reparation, and social transformation; I don’t seek it from a government, a class, my ‘betters’, or from beneficiaries. In the face of systematic oppression, marginalization, theft, and violence, the revolutionary does not lobby or appeal; the revolutionary resists- directly, actively, and collectively. Revolutionary resistance encompasses many things. But make no mistake: our resistance must be nonviolent, but our nonviolence must be resistance…

Revolution is a radical response. The word ‘radical’ derives from the Greek word for ‘root’. A radical response seeks to get to the heart of the issue, focusing on root causes rather than symptoms. In situations of egregious repression and violence, such as those in Central and South America of the decades that saw the rise of radical theology, there were no mechanisms of democracy, independent trade unions, free press, or free media. There was, however, the Church- or more specifically, a vision of ‘Church’. Brazilian priest Frei Betto explained it thus:

It wasn’t so much a question of the Church opting for the poor as of the poor’s – forced by the repression of the people’s and trade union movements- opting for the Church. In other words, the poor turned to the Church in order to remain organized, articulate, conscious and active… The poor invaded the Church, and Catholic priests and bishops started to be converted to Christianity.

For Betto, radical theology is an inversion of norms and roles; it is the poor laity who convert the influential and well-off hierarchy to the Gospel. Many clergy and hierarchy stepped into the breach, and began to articulate a radical Christian analysis against a repressive and unjust status quo, the most famous example of which is perhaps that of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara: ‘When I give food to the poor, I am called a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, I am called a communist.’

This the essence of a radical Christian critique, which seeks not charity or good deeds, but justice. It understands that the incarnation itself was a revolutionary action on the part of God toward humanity. It sees the resurrection of Jesus as a revolutionary transformation, old things dead and passed away, all things made new. Both were not simply spiritual occurrences, but directly imply the need for radical social change- ‘thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven’.

So I have no doubt that John Paul II and I are both Christians, but I’m a radical Christian- a revolutionary Christian. This idea was put most bluntly by Columbian priest Camilo Torres Restrepo, who left his vocation as a priest and an academic to join the ELN guerillas in June 1965:

The duty of every Catholic is to be a revolutionary; the duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution. The Catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin.  

Perhaps a quintessential picture of the difference between a radical Christian vision and that of John Paul’s vision was embodied when he traveled to Nicaragua in 1983. The Somoza dictatorship was ousted by the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, and priest, author, and poet Ernesto Cardenal took up the post of Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government. The Pope was incensed that a priest had entered front-line politics- and leftist revolutionary politics at that- and demanded that Cardenal resign his post. Matters came to a head when John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983. When the Pope disembarked from his plane, it had been arranged that he would not greet individuals so as to avoid embarrassment on both sides regarding disagreements over politics. But one minister mistakenly stepped forward and greeted the Pope, awkwardly necessitating that the Pope greet all in the same way. When the Pope reached the rebel priest, Cardenal knelt to kiss the Papal ring. John Paul removed his hand and openly scolded Cardenal, wagging his finger at him and demanding in Spanish, ‘Usted tiene que arreglar sus asuntos con la Iglesia! (You must fix your affairs with the Church!)’. The episode- and the image- was disheartening for many Nicaraguans, both for the fact that the revolution was popular after the overthrow of Somoza, and that Cardenal was a revered figure in the country.

Perhaps it is impossible for a Pope to be a revolutionary. Perhaps no one in such a position can be truly radical. Perhaps it is unfair to even suggest it. But when I look at the picture of a rebel priest being upbraided by a finger-wagging Pope, I don’t have to consider long which side I’m on.

Anyway, John Paul II is now a saint. As a devout Christian, I believe he is glorified and in heaven. He is now part of the great ‘cloud of witnesses’ from which Christians can gain encouragement, inspiration, and intercession. So, what does a revolutionary Catholic, a parishioner of St. Pope John Paul II, make of the canonization of a Pope who so effectively resisted what has been so influential in my life and work, and what I believe without a shadow of a doubt is the life and salvation of the Church in the midst of the world?

I keep thinking of the image of Pope John Paul scolding Cardenal. Perhaps, as we try to effectively live a life of radical Christianity, we will continue to be scolded by St. John Paul as well. As we struggle for justice and to build a Church from the bottom up rather than from the top down;

as we demand a more inclusive Church for women, laypeople, LGBT people;

as we resist clericalism and Vatican bureaucracy;

as we demand transparency and transformation in how our Church is run- yes, ‘our’ Church;

As we demand full justice and reparations for the abused, the disaffected, and the disillusioned;

As we envision and practice new models of radical ecumenism and Eucharistic sharing with all of our Christian brothers and sisters;

As we actively resist and practice direct action against those who bring death to humanity, whether it be militarily, economically, ecologically, or financially;

As we comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable;

As we build the revolution;

Perhaps we will still invoke the ire of St. John Paul II, forever scolded from the heavens.

For my dreams and my visions, I expect little else…

Friday, 18 April 2014

Jesus Is Dead: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

This is Holy Saturday. Jesus is dead.

We spend so much time talking about how Christ ‘died and rose again’ that we fail to meditate on his death. He died. His heart stopped beating, his brain flat-lined and his body started to decay.

And if we do engage with his death, we run the risk of engaging with his death grotesquely or forensically, like the disturbing mania a few years ago over the disgusting gore-fest that was Mel Gibson's ‘Passion of the Christ’.

But for the most part, Christ’s death remains for most Christians a theological footnote, an unpleasant necessity that assuages God’s justice and allows them to go to heaven.

But Holy Saturday is when we come face to face with a dead Jesus. On that day, Christians worship a corpse. There is no Sunday. Dead bodies don’t come back to life.

To speak of Easter Sunday on Holy Saturday is to not comprehend what happened on Good Friday. It is to understand Christ's death only on a philosophical or theological level. However, we must experience Christ's death from the place of the disciples who watched it happen. They did not go home that night saying, 'O well, no matter. He promised to rise.' No, they went away dead men, the most dead men ever, for they had lived with Christ for three years and experienced the Kingdom of God in a way no one ever had. And now it was over… Killed.

The Empire won. Corruption won. It was all a lie. There was no hope; and no hope of hope ever again.

We will never be able to feel as they felt. But we can take this day to meditate what it means to live without hope, to think about those who, in our world, are living with no hope:

the sex slave in a back room of an unmarked building in a back alley of a city whose name they don't know;

the refugee from an African war now living in a camp a thousand miles away from the spot where she was raped as her husband was shot in front of her and was raped by soldiers yesterday and wonders if they’ll be back today;

The detainee in Guantanamo Bay, denied any semblance of universally-recognised judicial rights, who even if found to be wrongfully detained, will never be released; 

The woman in an abusive relationship ignored or called a liar because her husband holds a position of power and influence in their church;

the child handcuffed to a sewing machine who will be beaten if they don't meet their quota of designer handbags;

the family coping with disability whose vital lifelines are being cut by austerity packages;

the family of a young child killed by a drone strike which the US government will neither confirm or deny launching;

The Palestinian Christian farmer watching Israeli bulldozers tear up his olive trees to make way for a new Israeli settlement, funded in part by his Christian brothers and sisters in the US;

These are the ‘Holy Saturday people’, the worthless and the hopeless that live in a world where God is dead and will not come back to life.

There is no Easter Sunday without Holy Saturday. It is through the blackness of Holy Saturday that we must see the joy of the women at the tomb, the joy and courage of the disciples.

Easter is about life in the fullest sense. Not theological life or philosophical life, but the life of a man who was dead and then not dead anymore.

The ‘Holy Saturday people’ of this world are looking for ‘Easter people’. The essence of Christianity is not in doctrine or confessions, important as they are. The first Christians, the first ‘Easter people’, had a simple message: ‘Jesus was dead. Now he is alive. We’ve seen him.’

This is what we have to offer the ‘Holy Saturday people’. Nothing is impossible anymore. No system is so evil, so oppressive, so entrenched that we cannot overthrow it. If Jesus is not dead then nothing is impossible. We await no revolution; Easter was the revolution.

But that’s all for another day.

Today is Holy Saturday. Jesus is dead.