Rebutting Critiques of the Encyclical

June 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The other day I was reading some materials on how to discuss Laudato Si’ with the media. They basically said if the interviewer, reporter, whoever, asks a critical question about the encyclical,  the person being interviewed should disagree as briefly as possible and then get back on message. So:

Interviewer: But doesn’t the Catholic Church’s position on population doom the planet?

Interviewee: No. What the Pope is saying is…

The only problem with this approach is, if I didn’t engage criticisms (and make them!), that is to say, if I stayed exclusively on some positive message, I would have very little to say. As my father, Joe Ronan, used to put it, I have quite a mouth on me.

So I’d like to discuss some of the things the critics of “On the Care of Our Common Home” are saying. That is to say, I’d like to rebut them. But so as not to fail the “positive messaging” exam altogether, let me summarize  what Papa Francesco said to the world a week ago.

  1. The earth, our common home, is in increasingly terrible shape (“a pile of filth”) thanks primarily to human activity.
  2. The Catholic faith, based in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the lives of the saints, and the writing of previous popes, is basically a “Gospel of Creation,” which calls us to protect and defend that creation.
  3. The people most harmed by environmental destruction and climate change are the poor.
  4. The “technological paradigm,” that is, the worship of unbridled growth, the free market, profits as an end in themselves, and convenience, is the primary cause of the destruction of our “common home.”
  5. The solution to this crisis is “integral ecology,” that is, embodying the profound interconnection between God, all human beings, and the rest of God’s creation.
  6. Spirituality and religious education must be based in this “integral ecology.”

Now, on to those criticisms!

The part of the encyclical that has gotten the most negative feedback, at least from my admittedly limited perspective on the margins of New York City, is the statement that cap-and-trade is not the solution to the environmental crisis. First Ross Douthat denounced this position in the New York Times the day after the publication of the encyclical; and then on Sunday, David Brooks chimed in in agreement, also in the Times.

It’s perhaps helpful to observe that Pope Francis addresses the issue of cap-and-trade in only one paragraph of the entire 246 paragraph document. Admittedly, he is unambiguous in his rejection of this approach. But it needs first of all to be said that the rejection of cap-and-trade as a solution is utterly consistent with the argument throughout the encyclical that market solutions have had lots of time to solve the problem and have failed. The current over-consumptive economy simply is not working, and the destruction of the earth is the result.

It is also worth noting that a wide range of experts and organizations outside the Vatican argue convincingly that cap-and-trade just doesn’t work. It’s a system that is rife with fraud, corruption and dishonest calculations. At bottom, it allows groups with more money, the fossil fuel industry, to buy exemptions (offsets) from regional, national, and international emissions limits (should there ever really be any of the latter) without in any way changing their  CO2 output. That is to say, the 1% get to buy exemptions from the emissions limits that the rest of us will be forced to observe.

Finally, it’s worth noting that one of the noteworthy points Papa Francesco makes throughout the encyclical is the high value of local cultures and voices. In particular, he highlights that the deaths of indigenous cultures will be as great a loss as the extinction of various non-human species. This is quite something coming from the head of a church that led the way in Europeanizing indigenous tribes during the colonial period.

But another significant aspect of the pope’s defense of indigenous cultures is that indigenous peoples are some of those most harmed by cap-and-trade, and by the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Destruction (REDD) policies that are a big part of cap-and-trade. What is happening, as the galvanizing video “A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests” shows, is that some governments in the Global South–Mexico and Brazil in particular–sell “offsets” to carbon emitting companies in the North. The governments get money and the  companies get to continue their emissions because rainforests and other woodlands in the Global South are”offsetting” those emissions. Then the governments of those countries run the indigenous peoples out of those rainforests and woodlands, cut down the trees, and replant them with palm oil or pine forests so they can continue to sell offsets and make a profit from the market. These are the same indigenous peoples whose extinctions the Pope is lamenting. Is it any wonder he is opposed to cap and trade?

Another criticism of the encyclical comes from the other end of the political spectrum, and  involves the Pope’s claim that population is not the cause of the climate crisis.  One humanist webpage last week had twenty-five or so people arguing about whether what the Pope says about population (and abortion, and implicitly contraceptives) makes the encyclical worthless, or something to that effect.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that in many respects, the Pope is correct. The countries whose populations have leveled off or are declining, the countries in the North and West, give off vastly more greenhouse gases per capita than countries in the Global South that have growing populations, and have done so for decades.s. Per capita, U.S. residents give off four times as much greenhouse gas as the Chinese do, even if collectively, the Chinese give off more. The historic climate destruction debt is ours. It’s not population that’s the primary problem: it’s consumption, sloth, and greed.

Let me also say that I have been working really hard for the equality of women in the Catholic Church for over forty years. I have written five books and many, many articles concerning gender and sexuality in Catholicism and Christianity. I was also at one point the president of the board of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference. I even published a blog post criticizing what Pope Francis says about women in the previous document he wrote, “Evangelii Gaudium.” I get it that the Catholic church has serious women problems.

But it is also the case that one out of every six people on the planet is a Roman Catholic. In addition to that, the Pope is the single most well-known religious figure on earth. As Mary Evelyn Tucker at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology says, this encyclical “changes everything” because the most high-profile religious leader in the world has announced that climate change is a MORAL issue, not just a political or economic one.

If the changes in belief and action that the Pope calls for in Laudato Si’ were to happen, the situation of women would inevitably improve. After all, the anthropocentrism he rejects identifies women (and people of color) with the earth, even as it identifies males with the transcendent, implicitly male, God. And women and their children are at least seventy percent of the poor the Pope tells us are most harmed by environmental destruction. Pope Francis may not be going to ordain women, but he’s doing more for us in this encyclical than even he may realize.

Race Murder and Ecological Destruction

June 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The pastor at my parish, Michael Perry, had his work cut out for him last Sunday.

Our Lady of Refuge is a tri-lingual, multiracial parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. (Some say it’s in Midwood, but that’s another discussion). There are a few odd lots of white folk there, me, for example, but basically, Refuge is a Caribbean-Latino-Haitan parish.

So the pastor pretty much had to begin by acknowledging the murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the previous Wednesday. This is not to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted to in any case. But the murder of nine people of color in a church can’t help but mean a great great deal to a church full of people of color. As Father Perry said, the people of Our Lady of Refuge were grateful that the murders hadn’t happened there.

Then there was Father’s Day. Encouraging fathers–and mothers and families–is one of the things Catholic churches do well, and Refuge did so, acknowledging fathers at various points in the liturgy, and conducting a blessing ritual for all the fathers present before the last blessing.

And then there was  Francis’s encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” Apparently a lot of priests and bishops didn’t mention the encyclical, despite the fact that it was garnering massive attention around the world, in the media, from other faith leaders, even from secular environmentalists. But Michael Perry was not one of those priests or bishops. He spoke of the encyclical in his introduction to the liturgy; he talked about it in his sermon; and he spoke about it again in his comments before the end of Mass. The earth is our home, he reminded us, and the Pope reminds us that we have to care for her as we care for the poor. I especially loved what he had to say about the attacks on the encyclical on Fox News. You go, Father Perry!

All in all, this was a lot of stuff to fit into one liturgy and sermon (along with the usual readings, offertory, canon, consecration, communion routine.) And I can’t really imagine any way that the pastor could have dealt with Father’s Day except the way he did–directly.

One way that he might have consolidated his treatment of the Charleston racial murders and the Pope’s call for us to stop making our common home into a pile of filth is that in certain respects, they are the same violence. And I’m not being metaphorical here: the destruction of Black lives in Charleston (and elsewhere) and the destruction of our common home are underpinned by the same mistaken vision–that the earth, and people whose color resembles the earth, are equally worthy of mistreatment. The nineteenth century ideology of Social Darwinism was an inherent part of all this: black and brown people had evolved from the animals, who had intern emerged from the soil. At the top of the heap were white people, who had the right to abuse those beneath them by virtue of being on top.

Another dimension of the link between racism and environmental destruction is that so many (ostensibly white) people don’t understand the ways in which their own ancestors were once associated with the earth. One of the things that most astounds me about the noxious politics of Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is that they are oblivious to the reality that the Irish immigrants in this country were considered much farther down the evolutionary pyramid than Irish-Americans think they are today. The phrase “black Irish” can be illustrated by  a cartoon from the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic caricaturist Thomas Nast portraying Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling out of the water. And then there was the eighteenth century English travel writer who described the Irish as “primitive savages in the sea of Virginia.” Paul Ryan is genealogically a lot closer to those murdered folks at Mother Emanuel than he cares to admit.

A French historian whose name I’m blanking on (Mouthot, maybe) also clarifies the link between environmental destruction and Wednesday’s race murders when he argues that the end of slavery was less about abolitionist virtue than it was about the invention of the steam engine. Coal, and later oil, were cheaper and easier to maintain and house than actual human beings, so once the steam engine was invented, slaves came to be seen as less and less economical. This helps me understand why it was that the  British government who allowed a million Irish to die in the Potato Famine of the late 1840s were adamantly abolitionist. Each policy was more economical.

So to return to my pastor’s sermon: while  the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the care for our common home may seem to be two different topics, actually, destroying our brown (and green and yellow and white) mother earth and our brown and black brothers and sisters are pretty much one and the same activity. And as Papa Francesco says, until we understand that we are fundamentally connected with God, Creation, and one another, we are in for really big trouble.

Pope Francis’s Eco-Fireworks

June 14, 2015 at 11:52 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone by now who hasn’t heard of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato si,  due out from the Vatican this coming Thursday. An article about it is on the top of the front page of the New York Times today. Predicted for months, and described in advance by Vatican big-shots like Cardinal Peter Turkson, the encyclical will connect the dots between Francis’s signature  commitment to the poor and the increasingly dire climate crisis  The pope is going to call on us all, including (especially) world leaders in Paris next December, to change our ways.

If you didn’t grasp the significance of this encyclical already, you will when you hear that on Friday, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee, announced that “God is still up there,” and that the Pope should do his own (implicitly spiritual) business and let the politicians do theirs. This follows upon Rick Santorum, ten days ago, telling Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists.”

Given the history of Catholicism in the United States, it’s downright unimaginable that a leading  non-Catholic politician like Inhofe would have enough respect for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to bother to tell him in public that he should mind his own business. Sixty-six years ago, journalist Paul Blanchard’s book American Freedom and Catholic Power denounced the Vatican for attempting to control American governance, and sold 240,000 copies in its first edition. A second edition appeared in 1958. Then, in September, 1960, a group of 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and declared that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate, could not remain independent of Church control unless he specifically repudiated its teachings. Days later, Kennedy clarified his position in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy went on to win the election, but it was the closest presidential election in U.S. history, and many historians believe that anti-Catholicism played a significant role in Kennedy’s majority being razor-thin.

The Catholic (some would say Christian) Church was for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the civil as well as religious power in the West, appointing and crowning kings and intimately connected with the aristocracy. Since this was so,  it became for many after the Reformation and especially after the liberal revolutions of “Long 19th Century” (1789-1914) the enemy of freedom and democracy.  Indeed, not until the Second Vatican Council, and in particular, after the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) in 1965 did the Church officially revise its teachings formulated in reaction to the French Revolution and the loss of the Vatican territories. (In that earlier teaching the Church had claimed that all states have an obligation to worship God according to the precepts of the one true religion–Catholicism).

A great deal has happened in the fifty years since the Catholic Church “entered the modern world” at the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965). In many respects, the Church entered the modern world just as the world itself was becoming postmodern. Catholics welcomed the Church’s acknowledgment of historical context, and the freedom of individual, but at the same time, individuals and their communities were beginning to fragment in multiple directions.  For example, the United States Congress has gone, over that half-century, from passing a Clean Water Act in 1972 (under a Republican President) to being able to decide on almost nothing in 2015, even with a Republican majority. And it would take a computer program to keep track of all the Muslim groups that are peeling off and attacking one another with every day that passes. At the same time, the sea-levels keep rising, the droughts intensify, and extreme weather events multiply, even as the leaders of world’s great nations bury their heads in the sand

In the face of all this, the post-post-modern world finds itself desperately in need of a unifying figure, someone who can call upon our deepest moral instincts and inspire us to repent and change our ways. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the head of a monarchical, change-averse, woman-minimizing, two-thousand year old religious body would have anything to say to the world in 2015? Even in the 2000s, as the Catholic clergy-abuse crisis was roiling the U.S. and Europe, it was virtually inconceivable that a pope would have anything more to say to the secular world than “I’m sorry.”

Yet it is worth remembering that the Catholic Church is the biggest religious organization on earth. One out of six people on the planet is a Catholic. And those of us who have spent our lives lamenting the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the church–and I am definitely one of them–might bear in mind that having one person as the symbol of an outfit does have certain media advantages. Even the amazing get-ups the popes and the bishops wear give them a certain edge over at least most U.S. Protestant clergy, out there trying to give interviews in a suit and tie.

Finally, if there’s anything that we can learn from the massive attention afforded the prospect of an eco-encyclical written by a seventy-eight year old celibate pope, it’s that God has a sense of humor. And we’re going to need one too in order to get out there and sustain the creation that God has given us in the months and years to come.

Remembering Our Dear Carolyn

May 12, 2015 at 4:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Professor, author, spiritual guide, radiant friend. Born on March 5, 1930, in Toronto; died on Dec. 24, 2014, in Toronto, following several strokes, aged 84.

Carolyn Gratton, the only child of Eleanor and James Gratton, grew up in Toronto and earned a bachelor of arts in English and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Toronto. A gorgeous young woman and committed Catholic, she might well have spent her life as a devoted wife and mother, or a librarian, or as a member of a vowed community of religious sisters.

But when she was 23 she visited Grailville, a farm and conference centre near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the North American headquarters of the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement. Carolyn attended a summer program on women’s role in society and was so fascinated by the ideas she encountered that she returned in the fall for the Grail’s year-long formation program, which prepared her for deeper participation in Catholic lay leadership. Within three years, she was a member of the Grail’s staff in North America and by the 1960s was leading Grail projects and programs across the United States and Canada. Wherever she went, people fell in love with her: her radiant smile and cracker-jack sense of humour, but especially her profound spiritual wisdom, surprising in a relatively young woman.

These were years of lively intellectual ferment within Catholicism and in Western societies. To deepen her own thinking on the burning questions of the time, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical anthropology in 1967. The life of academic inquiry suited her well, and Carolyn went on for a doctorate in phenomenological psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which she completed in 1975. She then taught at Duquesne’s Institute of Formative Spirituality until the early 1990s.

During her teaching years Carolyn also had a strong impact on spiritual searchers throughout the world, leading ecumenical contemplative retreats and spiritual formation programs in Canada, the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, Australia, East Africa, and other places. She also published two books and numerous articles aimed at spiritual directors and spiritual seekers. During these years she also served as a mentor to many individuals, myself included. As a result of our conversations with her about spirituality, life choices and faith, we were never the same again.

In the early 1990s, after retiring from teaching, Carolyn moved back to Toronto. She continued to travel abroad, leading spiritual programs for the increasingly ecumenical Grail movement, and other groups. But her main focus was on building Centering Prayer groups throughout Ontario. Centering Prayer is a branch of Contemplative Outreach, a movement founded by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating to spread the practice of contemplative prayer beyond monastery walls. Thanks to her passionate leadership, there are now 45 such groups in Ontario.

Carolyn was extraordinarily gifted in relating to people of all cultures and classes. During a 2005 Grail visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, she was paired at a village meeting with a woman named Efigenia, a barely literate member of the indigenous community. Efigenia came back from their conversation glowing with pride, explaining that the two women had much in common: They were both catechists (something like a Sunday school teacher), she explained.

Carolyn had not mentioned that she held a doctorate, or was a noted professor and author. Instead, she focused on what she and Efigenia had in common – the work of spiritual outreach. This was the remarkable woman whose death elicited messages and memories from people across North America and around the world. We will never forget her.

The author, Grail member Marian Ronan, is Carolyn’s friend of 50 years.

(This article appeared in the “Lives Lived” series in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. It sounds almost as much like the editor as it does like the author!)

Alas

May 4, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Well, no photo on that “Crabapple” blog. . Maybe one of the young people will come by some day and show me what I am doing wrong

Our Crabapple Tree

May 4, 2015 at 10:15 am | Posted in Amazon Rainf, Amazon Rainforest | 2 Comments
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Well, a couple of weeks ago it was my birthday. Sixty-eight years old. A little hard to take in.

When I was a teen-ager, what I loved best about my birthday was that the crabapple in the backyard  came into blossom then. We had moved to the house with the crabapple tree the summer before I started high school For twelve years previously we had lived in a much smaller stucco post-war “twin” house several miles south of the Philadelphia city line. Four of us–my parents, my grandmother (“Dommie”) and I–shared three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. Then, when I was seven, my brother was born and he and I shared the smallest of the three rooms until seven years later we moved a few miles south to a four bedroom house, with an extra half bathroom. But what I loved best was the crabapple tree in the backyard, and how it invariably burst into pink blossoms by the time of my birthday on April 18.

After thirty years or so in that house, long after my grandmother had died and my brother Joseph and I were out in the wide, wide world, my parents sold the house and moved to a retirement community a few miles southwest, in Media. The couple who bought the house seemed nice enough, with two little boys. When I was doing my Ph.D. at Temple in the 1990s, I used to drive by the house, on Crum Lynne Rd., on my way to visit my parents (and soon, just my mother) out at Riddle Village.

That was how I discovered that the nice young couple had cut down the crabapple tree and the rose garden next to the house. They had cemented the two areas and put in an above the ground swimming pool and a basketball court. I almost cried..

I do not think of those people with hostility. I’m sure they considered it a good thing to enable their kids to get some exercise, become athletes, whatever. I do think of them as symbols of what human beings–especially human beings with some money to invest–are doing to the crabapple trees, and the Amazon rainforest, the wetlands, and on and on. With the best will in the world, we are destroying not only our own lungs but also the lungs of the planet.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though, or at least a hopeful one. When I was   a seminary professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley from 1999 to 2009, I worked with a lot of wonderful students. One of them was a Jesuit seminarian, now Father Hanh Pham, SJ. Hanh made some insightful contributions to my Religion and American Film class. He was also a terrific photographer.

At one point there was an exhibit of Hahn’s photos at  JSTB (The Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, now at Santa Clara University). There I found a wonderful photograph of some crabapple buds. The buds were surrounded by snow, so it wasn’t my birthday yet. But they were beautiful nonetheless. A framed copy of the photograph hangs in our apartment, so I see it quite often. And if am not too much of a Luddite,I have shared a copy of that photo with you next to this blog post,  courtesy of Father Hanh who’s now in campus ministry out at Regis University in Denver. In looking at it, please hope with me that human beings like that young couple down near Philly, and like us, will see the error of our ways and begin planting crabapple trees instead of cutting them down.

The Vatican and the Nuns

April 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Well, the word is out. The Vatican has ended mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group representing eighty percent of the 59,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S. Such supervision by three U.S.bishops resulted from a long “doctrinal assessment” of the group, begun in 2009, and a hostile report, or mandate, at the end of that investigation in 2012. The report accused the LCWR of entertaining “radical feminist themes” and mandated episcopal supervision of the group until 2017.

Commentators are ecstatic. Jason Berry, the journalist who previously beat the bishops black and blue over clergy sex abuse, declares on the Global Post, “The Nuns Won!” Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times links the end of the doctrinal process to Pope Francis’s call for “broader opportunities” for women in the church; she also quotes a Vatican expert to the effect that the pope’s meeting with four LCWR leaders on April 17 was “about as close to an apology…as the Catholic Church is officially going to render.” And The Boston Globe’s John Allen, a centristwelcomes the development but claims that it was in the cards almost from the outset.

Some of the activist groups supporting the LCWR are a bit more balanced in their responses. The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of progressive groups that organized to stand up for the nuns after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its hostile mandate in 2012, issued a statement in response to yesterday’s  joint communication from the LCWR and the Vatican. Like many others, Nun Justice welcomes the resolution but attributes much of it to “the dogged determination of LCWR sister-leaders to persevere in dialogue with those who unjustly maligned them.” They also restate their conviction that the Vatican owes the sisters an apology.

A number of commentators consider this unexpectedly benign conclusion to the lengthy investigation, hostile report, and mandatory supervision to be a function of “the Francis effect.” Yet it’s worth noticing that Francis by no means stopped Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Vatican office that inaugurated the crack-down, from chastising the LCWR a year ago for giving a leadership  award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is the feminist theologian whose book Quest for the Living God had been previously denounced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cynic that I am, I suspect this conclusion to the LCWR investigation, described by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as a public relations”disaster,”  is as much an attempt to cut off at the pass crowds of demonstrators carrying  “Support Our Sisters” signs during Papa Francesco’s upcoming visit as it is an act of mercy.

I admit, it’s hard not to welcome this end to hostilities, no matter what underpins it. But I would urge those celebrating in the streets to bear something in mind. As Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff said with some astonishment after the Vatican trashed his years of work on musical settings when it rejected the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s translation of the Roman Missal in 2008, “The Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.” Nobody at any level is accountable to anyone below him (and I use the male pronoun intentionally).

So if the early suspension of the offensive mandatory supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is a result of Francis’s focus on mercy, or because he was once the superior of a province of a religious congregation and thus understands what a tough job leadership is, or if he’s listening to the bishops who support the sisters as his predecessors didn’t–whatever the reason–he’s still seventy-eight years old.  The vast majority of Catholics have absolutely nothing to say about who will succeed him, or what the attitude of said successor toward nuns (or women, or LGBT people, or mercy) will be. All we can do is pray that Papa Francesco lives a long time and appoints a whole lot of merciful bishops and cardinals while he’s still with us.

Wheat that Springeth Green

April 5, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Back in the 1970s, I lived for a number of years at Grailville, the Grail’s national center and organic farm in southwest Ohio. There was much that I loved about being there, but what I loved most was the singing. We sang for everything, feasts, holidays, people’s birthdays. We sang Gregorian chant. We sang in three parts, under the leadership of fine choir directors–Lynn Malley, Fran Martin, and many others. But what we really sang for was Holy Week.

The Easter carol I learned to love more than other while I was at Grailville is an English one, “Love is Come Again.”At first, I loved it for the music. It uses a melody from a French medieval Christmas carol–I’m nuts about medieval music–and the harmony makes it even more gorgeous. Take a couple of minutes and listen to the YouTube recording, sung by a choir of gorgeous young people.

But as the years have passed, I’ve also come to love it because of the words:

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, love whom hate had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

I love these words because they highlight the connection between Christ , and therefore, between Christians–between human beings–and the earth itself. And as the situation of the earth becomes more and more perilous, isn’t this exactly what we need to hear? Orthodox types would probably argue that it only says that Jesus is like wheat that springs from the earth. But more and more, theologians are realizing that God’s connection with the earth, through the creation, and the incarnation, is much more intimate than that. God is one with the earth, as well as beyond it.

So when we sing this hymn we are reminded of that intimate connection–that integral ecology, as Pope Francis will soon argue in his encyclical–between God and us and the earth, one we must not violate or abuse if we want to have life. Imagine what it might have meant if, over the years, Christians–Catholic Christians in particular–had been singing about Christ the Wheat instead of Christ the King? How might our world be more whole?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Thirst

April 3, 2015 at 11:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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This post is an edited version of a sermon I preached as part of a Seven Last Words service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the biggest African American church in Oakland, California, on a Good Friday sometime in the middle of the last decade. It’s dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Luise Schottroff, the gifted German feminist New Testament scholar, whose work I draw on here. Luise died in February .

 

After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19:28-29

Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend John and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his Father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.

Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. His dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”

But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s Gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?

Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of Psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.

But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the Gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well (John 4:4-26).

Let’s note the similarities between these two stories. In John 4,  Jesus is also thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.

What’s generally remembered about this story is that the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his  knowledge about her.

But there’s nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about a widow obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know of poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged (and still damages) the postures of the women required to do it.

But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus talks with her. And he doesn’t do all the talking; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.

What does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.

Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living water, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”

Perhaps people who are taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like many of us Americans (though, increasingly, not Californians!) who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the three-quarters of a billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the 2.5 billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 500,000 children who die every year from diseases caused by contaminated water.

Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s Gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we resonate with Jesus when he gets nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestows on his newly created church is the water that flows out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.

All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?

Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine, but the fresh and living water he so desires.

 

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