Friday, December 30, 2011

Religious Laws and the "Unclean" Jesus: A Heritage Neglected

fter revealing God as one who loves us unconditionally, Jesus invites us to love God in return by loving our neighbor, not to earn salvation, but to respond naturally to God’s great love.  “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  This law of love is attested to in all four gospels and in Paul. But, love of neighbor is not a command hurled at us from above. It is law only because, written in our hearts, it says: if you would be yourself, your best self, love your neighbor. Instinctively we know this to be true. Throughout all of our history mankind has recognized that the hero, the best anyone can be, is someone who puts his or her life on the line for others. True religious response to God calls for nothing more or less than putting ourselves on track to become our best selves. I can only show love to God by loving people.

BUT, WHAT IS LOVE? Jesus by his example, and philosophers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle define love for us. To love is to be for others for the other’s own sake.

We look to Jesus for our lived example. Jesus wanted to free people from religious laws, many of which were actual obstacles to loving. In the religious culture of Jesus’ time there existed a whole range of laws that covered nearly every moment of people’s daily lives. Should anyone violate one of these laws they were considered unclean. They required purification before they could again be considered clean and allowed once again to associate with the clean people. A lawbreaker was sent out, ostracized, kept out of law-abiding society until he or she had gone through the purification requirements.

Jesus broke these laws with total abandon. He violated the hugely important Sabbath laws. He defended his disciples for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath. He healed people on the Sabbath. These were grave violations of the Sabbath law, and Jesus was unclean because of it.

There were laws about washing hands often each day, and laws about what you could or could not eat. Jesus summed up his response: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” He didn’t worry about these laws, and was unclean because of it.

In that culture you were not permitted to touch or associate with anyone considered unclean. Jesus did. He touched and healed the outcasts: lepers, the blind, the lame, a hemorrhaging woman. He ate and drank with the outcasts, the despised tax collectors, the wounded. And he was unclean because of it.

Jesus lived in a patriarchal society where women were practically invisible, or who left the men unclean by association. Jesus’ association and friendship with women made it clear that women were equals to men in His kingdom. And he was unclean because of it.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite didn’t walk past the wounded man because they were mean and uncaring. They walked past him because their laws said they would be unclean if they touched him. And, who did Jesus point out as being a good neighbor to the wounded man? A Samaritan, a foreigner, an unclean person.

For pointing out the unloving nature of their laws, the religious leaders eventually took their clean revenge and had Jesus killed.

Have you ever noticed that our bishops love laws whose only purpose is to control?

Resource: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg. HarperCollins, 1995.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jesus' Love: A Standard for the Purple Culture

e need to establish a standard before we go further, a standard by which we can measure the purple culture and the dictates that emanate from that culture.
I suspect that many of us older people have or had an image of God imprinted on us that saw God as an avenging, punishing, hellfire-threatening God. That God is dead. He/She does not exist and never did. Isn’t it some species of blasphemy to paint attributes on God that we would find unacceptable in our next door neighbor?
But how does a person look through the everyday tragedies that surround us and find a loving God? We all sense how difficult it must be for many people to find a God of love through a prism of pain, suffering and privation. I believe, however, if we listen quietly to our personal experience, we will find the measure we seek in Jesus.

Jesus was, in his life and in his dying, the revelation of the character of God. Jesus did not die on a cross to ransom us from a devil, as the metaphor of St. Paul would have it. Nor did Jesus die to satisfy some demand of justice on God’s part as retribution for Adam’s sin, as theologies from the eleventh century onward would posit. The sole mission that Jesus had was to show God to us, and our salvation flows from that.

Jesus was an intimate of God. He called God Abba (Daddy). He said to his apostle, Phillip, “If you see me, Phillip, you see the Father.”

What God is revealed when we study Jesus? He loved his neighbors, and they included the outcasts, the untouchables, the maimed, foreigners, prostitutes, rogues, tax collectors, and the invisible of his time, women. He healed anyone who needed healing. More important, he ate and drank with them. He lived at their level. He was one of them, an absolute egalitarian even with those at the bottom rung of society. For his efforts and for directing religious expression away from laws and ritual, he became a threat to the religious leaders of his time and to their privileged status. They had him killed. So, for loving others he died, and in dying showed the full passion of God for us.

It is not possible for a human to comprehend a love greater than that of one who lays down his or her life for others. But that is exactly what Jesus did in his living and in the dying his living led to. For speaking the truth, for naming the self-serving hypocrisy of religious leaders, he was killed. His death is as God-revealing as was his teaching. His death reveals a God who, in terms of human understanding, is someone who lays down his life for us. God is someone who loves each of us to the limit of our ability to understand what love is.

That’s the Gospel! That’s the Good News! That is the rock core of what Jesus was all about.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Infallibility" and All-Too-Human Clerical Leadership

n a moment seemingly graced with both arrogance and a peoples’ cry for salvation security, Pope Pius IX declared himself and all popes to be infallible in matters of faith and morals. The declaration flaunted centuries of inquisition-caused murder, centuries of witch burning, centuries of wars and crusades, and centuries of papal self-indulgence. As we noted before, the declaration also established a new form of monarchy for the Pope just as the Papal States were being wrested from his control.

But, the declaration did even more than that. It also put a padlock on the episcopal cultural box. As time passed, the sense of infallibility crept beyond its original, somewhat limited, intent. It extended its tentacles far beyond relevance. It made itself felt at every level of the Church from the papal halls to the smallest remote parish. It eventually reached into every possible concern of the clerical estate. By intimation, bishops appropriated it in their most inane and mundane utterances, and priests too often assumed its mantle on their own shoulders, both in their speech and in their demands for deference and privilege.

We find the shadow of infallibility alive and well in the purple culture today. It works on both pope and bishops to incapacitate their ability to admit mistakes and errors. Teachings that were uttered by the “Fathers” of the Church in the early Christian centuries were often based on a limited understanding of the universe, a limited understanding of Sacred Scripture, a limited understanding of human biology, and a limited understanding of human psychology. Pope John Paul II blamed theologians for the condemnation of Galileo–four hundred years after the event and after the world knew that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.

We find shades of infallibility in their inability to show genuine remorse to victims of clerical sexual abuse, and in their ongoing attempts to prevent justice being done for the victims. They point fingers at irrelevant causes. Perhaps above all, we find it in their inability to give hearing and credence to the laity’s wisdom in matters of faith and morals. We find it in their removed and incestuous thinking that they alone have the authority to dictate values in moral matters, and that authority somehow equates with competence. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Catholic Church Hierarchy as Cult

oday we take a look at a more serious implication of the monarchical structure of our Roman Catholic Church: the relation of monarchy to cult, and the consequent relation of cult to its members.
         Monarchy is easily understood as the prime paradigm of a cult. A cult is always centered around a living leader who requires absolute submission. Questioning and dissent are forbidden, and violations of either are quickly met with immediate consequences including marginalization and/or expulsion.
         An example of marginalization toward a member bishop is the case of Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington. Cardinal Ratzinger (Now Pope Benedict XVI) of the Vatican Curia subjected Archbishop Hunthausen to a humiliating investigation, and for a time took away much of his authority with the appointment of a coadjutor archbishop. The investigation centered around progressive perspectives that Hunthausen held on moral issues: e.g., women’s role in the Church; use of married priests; ministry to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transvestites; justice and peace; group confession, etc.  Hunthausen retired in 1991.
         A cult presents itself as special and elitist. We saw this when we presented the narcissism native to the culture of bishops. In a cult, behavior of members is controlled, sometimes to the minutest detail. By custom; insertion of fear by the Curia; controls at every level of behavior; and by their own timidity in the face of danger to their status, bishops have no stomach for straight talk or argumentation on moral or doctrinal issues with the Vatican power base. The thought of representing the wisdom of the laity on a host of issues is frightening to bishops and they cannot entertain the idea, even collegially.
         The cult structure of the episcopacy, and the cultural addiction of its members, imprisons both individuals and the group itself in a box, the equivalent of a steel trap. Escape becomes almost unthinkable, and rarely occurs. Once a priest candidate commits to membership in the episcopal cult, he already feels, thinks, and behaves as the cult leader prescribes. And then the puppeteers take over. Not all is golden in the purple culture.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Mirror, Mirror": Narcissism and the Church Hierarchy

he Roman poet Ovid wrote of the tragic tale of Narcissus, son of the river god, Cephissus, and the nymph, Leiriope. Narcissus, handsome beyond imagination, rejected all who loved him. The nymph, Echo, lacking the ability to speak directly, was one of his rejects. Another reject, a young man, prayed that Narcissus would love only himself, Narcissus, forever. A goddess answered the prayer and arranged that Narcissus would stop at a spring to drink. Looking at his reflection in the water, he fell hopelessly in love with his own image. He was unable to free himself from his reflection in the water and gradually starved to death.
Narcissists have a fantasy life loaded with self-images that possess the heights of beauty, wisdom, love, power, success, etc. They believe themselves so special that only persons of equal grandeur can understand them.
Narcissists require huge amounts of admiration while, paradoxically, their self-esteem is very low. They need praise from others to give themselves a self. And they are very deft at extracting expressions of admiration from others. They feel entitled to special considerations and can be unreasonable in their demands for them. This sense of entitlement, like their grandiosity, does not depend on any external achievements on their part.
There is a great deal of envy in the narcissist. They become green with envy at the success of others and the applause given them. They feel applause belongs to them. They are lacking in empathy and show disdain for others.
We all begin life as narcissists. Most of us grow out of it in the daily give-and-take of family and school life. It is only lately that psychotherapists have realized that narcissism can be re-acquired. They give examples of various celebrities, doctors and the like. The experts refer to this circumstance as “acquired situational narcissism.”
Large groups of people can also acquire narcissism. Experts give the example of an elite military force. Members are indoctrinated as being special. They receive praise for their specialness. They wear the insignia of their specialness. They look upon themselves as warriors without peer, and dismiss the regular foot soldiers and the enemy as inferior. They acquire a sense of invulnerability. When shown to be vulnerable by those they dismiss as inferior, they often react with violence on the unprotected.

One can easily see the parallel between the military culture and that of the bishops.  In their cultural mindset theirs is the only intellectual capacity, theirs is the only moral authority, and protection of their aristocratic status is always a first consideration in their dictates.  They are ever ready to exclude and excommunicate to protect their voice and their status.  We hear them refer to their assembly as “the most exclusive club in the world.”