Category Archives: Religion

Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

barmherzigkeit

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Looking into the Face of Evil: A Centurion Meets the Terrorist Barrabas

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This is the third chapter of a prequel to my series on Longinus the Centurion, who according to tradition was the Centurion in charge of the execution of Jesus. Today is how I imagine that the Centurion would deal with receiving orders to prepare for the execution of a condemned terrorist.

The next morning a messenger knocked on the door to Longinus’s quarters in Fortress Antonia. He told Longinus that Pilate wanted to speak to him and to report as soon as possible to Pilate’s headquarters in the fortress.

Longinus, who had been discussing the day with Decius in order to ensure his soldiers were ready for any contingency but also conduct some training was bothered by the request. He had discussed the situation in the city and about Jesus in particular the previous afternoon with Pilate and figured that unless there was some sort of incident that he would meet again later in the day to discuss the latest events.

Instead Longinus, was being ordered to report to Pilate again and it was interfering with his conduct of military business. Longinus hated dealing with politicians and diplomats and though he respected Pilate who he felt to be as decent of man as any politically appointed diplomat as any Pilate was still not a military man. He did not always understand military matters.

Longinus looked at the messenger and asked: “Tell me. what would the Governor need of me at this hour?”

“Centurion,” the messenger replied. I was only told to have you report as soon as possible.”

Bothered by the lack of detail Longinus told the messenger to go and tell Pilate that he would be there shortly. He then looked at Decius, and shook his head. “My friend, I am afraid that I will be delayed. Take care to conduct today’s training and be ready in case any trouble arises.” With that he put on his armored breastplate and cape and left the room.

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When he arrived at Pilate’s headquarters the Governor greeted him cheerfully. “Centurion, it is good to see you.”

“Likewise sir…” Pilate stopped him before he could continue.

“I don’t suppose that you know why I called you here do you?” Pilate asked, irritating Longinus who feeling even more irritated by Pilate’s levity kept his feelings to his self and simple replied: “No my Lord, your messenger only told me to report here, he did not give me a reason.”

Pilate smiled. “It was with good reason, had he done so I am sure that you, like any other Centurion in the province would have found some “pressing military duty,” isn’t that what you call it? to avoid coming here.”  He paused for just a moment and before Longinus could respond continued: “Of course I know the answer, you need not say anything and I suppose if I was in your position that I would feel the same way.”

Longinus knew this was the case and had no answer to Pilate who continued.

“Centurion, this week will unfortunately be a week where we must conduct some rather unpleasant business, less than soldierly business but necessary.” Pilate paused again and motioned for Longinus to take a seat at his desk and Longinus did so, looking about the room and noticing Pilate’s civilian staff and several soldiers assigned as his personal bodyguard.

Longinus, decided to hasten the length of the visit and asked: “My Lord, may I ask why I am here? After all I do have pressing military business to attend to.”

Pilate immediately caught the sarcasm in Longinus’s words and smiled. “Centurion, you amuse me, because I know how you military types think. You see I may not have served with a Legion, but I have served with enough officers to know that you would rather be fighting the enemies of the Empire than doing police work, but we are in Palestine, not the Teutonic Forrest.”

Longinus stared back at Pilate and said nothing.

“Centurion, this week we will dispense justice to three Jewish prisoners. Men of your unit will conduct the crucifixions this Friday.”

“Yes my Lord.” Longinus’s muted response spoke more than any protest could.

Pilate continued. “Centurion, I want you to see the prisoners and in doing so know in your heart why this must be done. These men are violent criminals, and one of them is the infamous Bar-Abbas.”  Longinus looked at Pilate, and asked “the insurgent who has attacked and killed our soldiers and officials?”

Pilate nodded and replied “so you know why this is important, in an environment as volatile as Judea we cannot let a man like this remain unpunished, it would only encourage more men to rise up like him.” Pilate smiled and continued. “We cannot forget how the Jews rose up and overthrew the Seleucid rulers underestimated these Jews when that Judas Maccabee fellow led that bloody revolt.”

Longinus replied “No we could not let that happen on our watch.”

Pilate nodded in agreement and continued. “So you understand Centurion, it is an unpleasant duty, but mind you history will thank us for it, as will any God that you believe in.” Pilate finished by telling Longinus to visit the prison for himself and begin to choose his soldiers for the crucifixion detail with care.

Longinus rose and saluted Pilate, turned and left the room without another word. He was not happy but proceeded to the dungeon where he met the Jailer of the Fortress, a rather obese and dirty looking man named Alexander, a Roman citizen of Greek origin hailing from Antioch.

When Longinus reached the dungeon he immediately noticed the stench and again realized why he was a Legionnaire and not a policeman. The prison was dark, and by Palestinian standards dank and moist smelling of human excrement and body odor.

“Well Centurion, welcome to my kingdom” said Alexander, a smile pressing through his grimy face.

“Thank you Alexander, where are the condemned?” asked Longinus icily.

They are in the cells to your left. Bar-Abbas is in the first and the other two, neither as notorious as he are in the next cell.”

“What are their names?”

“Dismas and Gestas, they are violent criminals of their own accord, but they were only out for personal gain. I think that one feels some remorse, but the other seems to be a rather hardened and unrepentant man.” The words came effortlessly to the unkempt jailer

“Thank you warden, I will see them now” said Longinus as he turned to look over these men as quickly as possible so he could return to his unit.

He walked past Bar-Abbas without making eye contact and went to the second cell. The two prisoners could not appear more different. One, seemed to accept his fate while the other looked at Longinus without remorse. After about a minute Longinus asked their names. The remorseful looking one answered, “I am Dismas, I stand condemned for robbery and murder. I accept my fate Centurion.” The other prisoner glared at his mate and with hatred in his voice and eyes said to Longinus “I am Gestas, and I am not sorry for anything that I did you Roman swine.”

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Longinus stared back saying nothing, his continued lack of respect for such people seemed vindicated. He turned to the other cell and looked at the burly prisoner in it. “So you are Bar-Abbas?”

The prisoner snarled “So what is it to you Roman?”

Longinus began to feel better about his mission. “Well, Bar-Abbas, it seems that you have killed one too many of my comrades and it is I who will get to exact justice on you.”

Bar-Abbas smiled an evil smile and said, “The Roman that can kill me has not been born.” He laughed at Longinus who stood silently for a moment. Then, quietly Longinus replied, “We’ll see about that.” With that Longinus motioned to Alexander the Jailer to let him out. The jailer unlocked the door and Longinus walked up the steps and into the courtyard of the fortress where his unit was practicing battle drills.

Calling Decius to his side, he said. “We have a second mission this week, the mission of executing some dangerous prisoners, including Bar-Abbas the insurgent.”

“Bar-Abbas sir?” replied the junior officer.

“The same, but we have to wait until Friday. It seems that our governor wants to make a show if his generosity to the people here. If it was up to me I would have killed them in the dungeon and been done with it, we could have said that they died of the plague.” Longinus looked at his assistant and then continued “Of course that is not how we Romans do things, they will be executed in public to show these Jews that they cannot engage in such conduct, but it will only build more resentment.”

“Sir, are you saying that our methods are wrong?” asked Decius.

“Young man, look around you. You know the history of these people. They will continue to rise up until they regain their independence or we kill them all.” He paused. “That is their history and they can do no other. After all, if they were occupying our homes, establishing their God in cities and forcing our people to serve them how would we respond?”

Decius nodded his understanding and looked at the Legionnaires practicing close combat tactics that might be necessary in a pitched battle if the city was to erupt in revolt.

Longinus continued “Decius, choose a squad of men as the execution team and another as the escort. The rest of the Century is to be trained to maintain a secure perimeter and ensure that no Jews attempt to interfere with our mission.

“Sir, where is the execution to take place?” asked Decius.

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Longinus motioned to a hill visible just outside the city walls. “Over there, that barren hill. The locals call it Golgotha.” He paused. “Fitting name, the place of the Skull. I perfect place to kill people that don’t want us here wouldn’t you say?” He chuckled and continued, “don’t answer, it is a rhetorical question.”

His assistant nodded and Longinus gave the order “Carry on with training, let me know which men you think should be on the execution team later tonight.”

Longinus turned and walked away wondering what else might happen, after all, the best laid plans of men sometimes don’t work out. He silently cursed under his breath the day that he was assigned to this place, which despite its history and splendor seemed forsaken by the Gods.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Meeting of Centurions in Jerusalem

centurions

This is another part in the historical fiction series that I am wrote about the Centurion Longinus, who according to tradition was the Centurion at the Cross who put his lance in the side of Jesus and who would exclaim “Surely this was the Son of God” as Jesus breathed his last. This chapter takes up where after the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and is about a meeting between Longinus and another Centurion who I call Flavius. This second character is based on the Centurion that Jesus meets in Capernaum recorded in Matthew Chapter eight. I began the first trilogy in 2012 and the second trilogy which is the prequel to the first last year as part of my Holy Week meditations. Hopefully I will to a concluding trilogy at some point imagining what things were like for these men in the years after that momentous week.  

The day after the entry of this Jesus character into Jerusalem was uneventful for Longinus and his fellow Roman officers. Jesus had returned to Bethany after driving out the money changers and other assorted riff-raff out of the Temple but had returned without the tumult of the preceding day, Instead, Jesus with a number of his disciples went to the Temple where he engaged the people and some of the Pharisees in a time of teaching culminating in a series of what Longinus’ Jewish spy said were comments that could be interpreted as threats against the Temple establishment and veiled allusions to Jesus being the Messiah of the Jews.

Jesus left the Temple at the end of the day without incident but Longinus’ spy indicated that the Priests and other religious authorities were discussing ways by which they might rid themselves of this Galilean would be Messiah. Now Longinus and his fellow officers couldn’t care a whit about Jewish religious disputes so long as it did not make their job keeping the peace any more difficult than it already was.

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When his spy reported back Longinus briefed Pilate of the simmering tensions. Pilate was with his wife Bernice when he received the report. Pilate did not like what was going on but had no contact with any of the religious leaders from any faction since his arrival and was troubled. His wife warned him in the presence of Longinus “not to have anything to do with that man” and he told Longinus to continue monitoring the situation, He also dispatched a messenger to the commander of the Legion in Caesarea to send reinforcements to Jerusalem just in case things got out of hand. Until then, Longinus, the Primus Pilus, or senior Centurion of the Legion was to help him maintain a close watch on the situation and hopefully keep the situation from boiling over.

After his meeting with Pilate and Bernice, Longinus sat around the tavern in Fortress Antonia with several others of his officers and Centurions from the Legion currently in Jerusalem. His Optio, or second in command Decius, a Roman from his former unit who had accompanied him to Palestine was there, as were two Decurio officers from the cavalry detachment and his Tesserarius, Quentin, a man who held a position much like a First Sergeant. Late in the evening another Centurion came to the tavern. This Centurion, was accompanied by his young servant was in charge of the Century based in Capernaum in Galilee.

The Centurion, Flavius by name ordered an ale from the barkeeper and walked over to the table where Longinus and the other officers sat. After the exchange of formalities Flavius sat with them. His young servant remained at the bar sitting alone.

Longinus had known Flavius for several years and known him to be an honorable man, though he did not necessarily approve of the very “Greek” arrangement that he had with his Pais,* which was common in the Roman and Greek military units, he respected Flavius’s soldiering abilities, leadership and integrity. Flavius and his Century had arrived in Jerusalem the previous night after Jesus had made his entry into the city. Longinus was glad to see Flavius because he felt that an officer stationed in Galilee might be able to shed more light on this man of mystery who had Jerusalem up in arms and so troubled Pilate.

Flavius asked what Longinus knew about Jesus, and Longinus told him what he had seen the day before as well as the information that he had obtained from his own Jewish spy.

Flavius, nodded and then began to tell Longinus and the other officers of his encounter with Jesus a couple of years before in Capernaum of Galilee.

Flavius began: “Longinus my friend, I met this Jesus in Capernaum and he is no ordinary man.” He paused to take a drink and continued as Longinus nodded for him to continue.

“It was a difficult time my friend. My Pais was very ill, sick to the point of death, He lay in our quarters and I heard that the miracle working Rabbi named Jesus was in town. Now, you know my friends that I care not a thing about what these Jews believe but I was desperate and from what I had heard and seen I believed that the Gods had to be with this man.”

Longinus continued to listen and then asked “Why didn’t you go to our Temple and have our Gods intercede for your Pais?”

“My friend I had already done that but my Pais’ condition had worsened. So I found this Jesus fellow as he was entering the city and sent some Jews that I had befriended to him.” He paused. “Those Jews convinced Jesus that I was a friend of the Jews and had done many good things for their community, and this my friend is true.”

“So the Jews helped you contact this Jesus fellow?” asked Decius. Longinus looked at his subordinate disapprovingly and asked Flavius to continue.

“I tell you my friends, this man is like no one that I have ever met, the Gods are certainly with him, whether our Gods or the Jewish God I know not which but he is not a normal Rabbi.”

The officers looked around the table as Flavius continued.

“Gentlemen, when this Jesus came to me I felt something that I have never felt in my life. Jesus asked what he could do for me and I told him of the sickness of my Pais and he asked if he could come to my quarters. I replied that I didn’t need him to come, because I was not worthy for him to come under my roof but to only say the word and my Pais would be healed.”

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Longinus looked at his fellow Centurion in disbelief. Flavius sensing this continued. “My friend, I could not believe that I uttered those words but Jesus peered into my eyes and I knew that he knew all about me. Then he replied that “your servant is healed” and then exclaimed to all of the Jews around us that he “had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Then, he put his hand on my shoulder, blessed me with some Hebrew blessing and walked away with his friends. When I returned to my quarters, my Pais, the young man over at the bar was well.”

Longinus saw the deep emotion that Flavius was expressing and raised his mug. “A toast to this Jesus!, whatever and whoever he he is.”

“Here here” replied those at table as Flavius looked on and several laughed. He had not expected such a reaction and said softly.

“My friends I don’t think you understand.” He paused a second and looked Longinus in the eyes. “I do hope that whatever happens in the next few days that no harm will come to this man. I would hate that my spear could bring harm to him.”

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Longinus responded. “I hope that nothing happens to cause any of us any problems. The city is boiling with emotion and unlike your friend Jesus, most of them hate us and would rather see us dead, and some of their leaders from what I understand wouldn’t mind seeing him dead either.” Longinus paused and emptied his mug, drinking the ale to the last and then continued “My friend, I appreciate what you have to say, but we have to do our duty for the Empire regardless of our personal feelings. We are outnumbered here and this Jesus, as much as we may find him fascinating is the source of much of the current discord.” He looked at Flavius. “You do understand this?”

Flavius looked down at his drink and looked back up at Longinus and then at the officers around the table.

“I do understand my duty my friend, but you have to know what he did for me.”

“We do understand my friend” replied Longinus, “but our honor is loyalty to Caesar, not any other man.”

“I know Longinus, I do know, more than you think, but what if he is more than just a man?”

Longinus and the other officers sat silently pondering Flavius’s words. The silence was deafening and slowly the junior officers individually asked to be excused, begging pressing duties to attend to leaving Flavius and Longinus at the table. The bartender brought each man another ale and the two friends continued to drink in silence.

Note: The Greek word Pais is the word used in many Greek texts to to describe a homosexual relationship. The use by Matthew in his account of the healing of the servant of the Centurion used the word Pais to describe the servant, not the typical Doulos which is used for slave or bond servant as is most common throughout the New Testament. In fact this is the only use of the word Pais in the New Testament. Many Biblical scholars and linguists, though not completely certain do entertain that possibility that the Centurion that I call “Flavius” and his servant were a Gay couple. If so that would add an interesting twist of even more inclusiveness on the part of Jesus to the Gospel narratives.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Centurion’s Remarkable Sunday in Jerusalem: The Story of Longinus

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This article is the first story in a prequel trilogy to a trilogy that I wrote about Longinus the Centurion who according to tradition commanded the detail in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. I plan on re-publishing each segment this week as part of Holy Week and I hope that you find them interesting. Story is basically historical fiction and my imagination about what it must have been like to be a Roman officer witnessing the drama of the Passion during what we now call Holy Week.

I find a special affinity to this soldier who while serving his country in a land far from home whose people detested the occupiers of their country by a foreign power that most considered infidels. I don’t think that anyone can really understand the plight of the Roman officers assigned to the occupation of Judea and Samaria in the First Century until they have  done their time in Iraq or Afghanistan. These peoples, though not Jewish have similar divisions,  contradictions and prejudices against foreigners as those that lived in First Century Palestine. Those American, NATO or coalition troops that served in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially those who actually worked alongside or came to know the people in those countries understand the plight of the Roman soldiers assigned to occupation duty throughout the Empire, but especially in the volatile provinces of Judea and Samaria like Longinus.

So enough of the introduction, on to the story…

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Longinus and his men were tired. Pilate, the Governor had decided that he would travel from his Provincial capital of Caesarea in order to maintain a close watch on the Jews of Jerusalem during the annual celebration of Passover. During such times that city, the largest in the province would see its population expand exponentially as Jews from the diaspora, that is those living around the known world would make pilgrimage to the holy city.

Longinus’s men had helped provide the escort as Pilate travelled the nearly 80 miles moving up from the coastal plain where Caesarea was up to the hill country of Judea. The trip took three days as Pilate wanted to be in the city in plenty of time. The weather was conducive to the march, but though well trained Longinus’ men were not Romans but primarily recruited locally from drafts of Syrian’s and Samaritans.

Longinus never really enjoyed this assignment. He had served in other areas as a young officer and much preferred serving with and commanding Italians, Greeks, Macedonians and others to the men that he now commanded, but his duty was to serve wherever he was sent. He thought at times of his family in Italy near his home in Lanciano in the Abruzzo region near the Adriatic, missing his wife and children.

coin-vespasian-judea-capta-sestertiusThe duty of Longinus and other Romans in the region chiefly consisted of helping police the region and protecting the much despised tax collectors. One of those tax collectors, a Jewish man named Matthew had left the employ of Caesar a few years back and was now a “disciple” of some itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus. He had heard a story from another Centurion about this preacher that made him chuckle. Evidently some Jews of the sect know as the Pharisees, a particularly strict group tried to trap the Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. They thought that they had trapped him because if he answered in the affirmative he would be rejected by them and discredited among the people, while if he answered that it was not they would have him on record as urging the people to disobey Caesar.

The Centurion who told the story said how with him standing in the background watching and listening that Jesus asked one of the Pharisees to bring him a coin. Looking at the coin he asked the man whose image was on it. The Pharisee, a bit hesitantly replied that it was “Caesar” to which Jesus, who supposedly was an unlearned but charismatic bumpkin from Galilee replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God that which was God’s.” Longinus’ colleague, an outsider looking in at this curious religious dispute was amazed with the acumen of Jesus in dealing with a question that someone less intuitive could have botched with potentially fatal consequences.

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The march through Samaria was particularly uneventful but as the Legionaries entered Judea, a region seething with hostility toward the Romans he and his men became more guarded, very aware of the hostility that sometimes invited violence.

They arrived about noon on Friday in order not to stir up the Jewish faithful on their sabbath and took up residence in the Fortress Antonia, the symbol of Roman might in this always rebellious city. That evening and the next day were uneventful, but on Sunday, Longinus was told to have his troops stand by in case of violence. The man named Jesus was entering the city and pandemonium was expected. According to rumor this Jesus had raised a many from the dead in Bethany the day before and was being greeted as a potential King and liberator.

The Roman presence was muted, Pilate and senior commanders not wanting to do anything that might provoke an insurrection. The troops remained on alert at the fortress while Longinus and a number of other officers went to observe events at a distance.

Longinus was amazed at what he saw. Thousands of people singing and throwing cloaks and palms along the street as Jesus, mounted on a white donkey accompanied by his disciples as well as numerous people from Bethany where he had been staying paraded down the street.

The procession moved toward the Temple where an understandably nervous delegation of Pharisees and the Priests of the Temple wondered what Jesus might do. If he was the “Messiah” that they preached about it could be a direct threat to their positions of power and provoke a Roman crackdown against them.

Jesus dismounted from the donkey and entered the Temple area, now crowed with thousands of pilgrims coming to offer sacrifice where he began to condemn the moneychangers. The moneychangers were in charge of selling animals for sacrifice to pilgrims, many of whom who could not bring their own animals for sacrifice. They were not according to what Longinus knew from his previous visits to the city at Passover and other Holy days men of good repute. They were believed to make their profit off the poor and widows and even the Romans that knew of the practice considered it less than honorable, and certainly the religious authorities were making money from their efforts.

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As Jesus went into the Temple, Longinus and his fellow officers stayed back. As Gentiles their presence would create a crisis so they remained outside entrusting a Jew who worked with them to make the observation. They could hear commotion in the Temple and as they watched money changers and others came spilling out of the Temple grounds, many surrounded by their animals, lambs, doves and oxen. Longinus wondered what in the name of Jupiter was going on and soon his spy came running out of the Temple to make his report.

Slowing down as he approached Longinus he breathlessly gave his report. Jesus had taken a whip and driven out the moneychangers, condemning their activities and those of the religious leaders. Longinus had never heard of Jesus ever doing anything remotely violent before and this shocked him. He asked what else had happened and the spy reported that the Temple police and authorities did nothing and that Jesus left without further incident.

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Longinus knew that the coming days could prove interesting. Going to Pilate that evening he gave his report. Pilate was quite concerned about the situation and considered it volatile. He ordered Longinus and the other officers to maintain an elevated state of readiness in case there was some sort of protest or even civil strife between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

Longinus left Pilate and he and his fellow officers discussed the situation, briefed their subordinates and as night fell met in the tavern in the fortress where they quietly drank and wondered what the coming days might bring.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Distant Origen: The Danger of Doctrinal Certitude While Living in the Uncomfortable Middle

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“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:
“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

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There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

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Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Plays Devil’s Advocate: The Complex and Often Confusing Issue of Religious Liberty

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“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this and my view is as long as the religious practice is not harming anyone who cares?

I believe like Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article. Instead my intent is to point out some of the inconsistencies of those who proclaim their rights also seek to limit the religious and even the civil rights of others based on their religious beliefs.

What I will do in this essay is to play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

This has to be done because of the number of laws being passed by various states which are labeled as acts to protect religious liberty. Unfortunately the reality is that these laws grant license for the Christian majority in those states to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious beliefs. These individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise, but it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others.

In fact those that shout the loudest are also those who seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the United States. Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters. Precedent matters and once legal precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus each decision sets a precedent and these precedents can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?

In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion, or other hated minority group is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power. The list is long. Some of the countries include Sudan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Of course there are many more but those are just some of the places where members of minority religious face discrimination, persecution and even death.

The rights we have as Americans provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution. The Baptists are a good example. In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.

On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” the forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands. The example of the siege and destruction of Munster Germany by combined Catholic and Lutheran forces after “enthusiasts” seized power is just one example.

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The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere in Europe for centuries. They were the “Christ killers” and that was even enshrined in the liturgies of churches. But the Jews had a surprising amount of freedom and influence in the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.

Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation. Hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence.

Then there were the Huguenots in France. They were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.

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Spain was another brutal place for religious liberty. Even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were brought before the Inquisition. Protestants, Jews, Moslems were all persecuted in Spain, and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”

The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Pogroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.

The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration so long as you didn’t make trouble and paid your taxes. One cannot really call it liberty for the Empire and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical. These included the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Then along came the United States where our forefathers ensured religious liberty in our Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It is a wonderful thing, but we have not always done well with it and there are always those trying to carve out addition “rights” for themselves or their faith communities. Sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this experiment, often being involved with acts of religious and civil intolerance worthy of our European ancestors.

That being said many religious people, particularly Christians and churches have done many good things in promoting human rights, religious rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

In Colonial America most of the colonies had official state religions. In Massachusetts that was the Congregationalist Church and it conducted many of the witch trials and the persecution of people deemed heretic including Quakers and Baptists.

dyer-hanging1Hanging the Quakers in Massachusetts

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery. These denominations included the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.

After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Some Christians and churches advocated for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants to California who were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

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While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves. They allowed the practice of slavery counting Blacks as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being. my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

We drove the Native Americans off of their lands, hunted them down and confined them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations. This practice was actually recently defended by the faux “historian” of the Christian Right, David Barton.

If we believe Barton’s “history” the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians. But then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith? If you are Barton you assume that what happened was due to the sin of the Native Americans who had to be subjugated by Christians.

Likewise nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land. It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty. The problem is that those who fight the hardest for their religious liberty frequently want to deny the rights that they have to others that they disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

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Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.

However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion. Some Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.

The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to? Not on your or my life, but in the past the Vatican has blatantly done so and hopefully under Pope Francis this too will change.

One of the key issues of religious liberty is the right of those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty? I may not agree with what they broadcast but they have the right to do it.

Many Conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are keen to support their rights to publicly exercise their religion, even in the government. But they are not good when it comes to other branches of Christianity or non-Christian religions.

The Metropolitan Community Church comes to mind. It is a predominantly Homosexual Christian church many of whose members were driven from their home churches due to their sexuality. Many, except for being gay are very conservative in their theological beliefs. That church has been in the forefront of the fight for marriage equity as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.

The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group? We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members. What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

There are so many issues regarding religious liberty. What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object?

Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigiously minded. Usually these cases are long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose. I am not in favor of government using such symbols to advance the rights of any given religion, even Christianity. But that being said there are times where religious symbols are part of our American culture where we have memorialized our war dead without the intent of promoting a religious cause. However, if one symbol is present we should not object to others.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so. Some in polite and well-mannered but others are pretty unseemly. That being said I do not think that the religious beliefs of anti-abortion people should be the law for unbelievers or for that matter a believer with different views on abortion.

The problem is that many who call themselves “pro-life” are not pro-life at all but simply anti-abortion. Many Christians who call themselves “pro-life” bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they use to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite the aversion and opposition to it by the Early Church a and the evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Likewise the belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system is promoted as the Gospel. The same people often treat the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies. Some have acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations. Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with using the government to suppression other religious or splinter groups. The tragic example of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound looms large. David Koresh was a labeled as a “dangerous” cult leader. Nor do many Conservative Christians have a problem in limiting the rights of American Moslems and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood. I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder. As David Barton the President of “Wallbuilders” an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

Barton’s friend and ally Gary North wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

So as you can see the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.

To play the Devil’s advocate here let me ask this question: “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion for any group?” If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say “everything goes” does this mean for everyone or just us? Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights? Those are all hard questions. As you can see there are a tremendous amount of issues at play when we attempt to legislate or regulate religious practice.

I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished. But I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression. This would not be to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others, just as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of, makes me a bit of a prostitute. But still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.

The waters get pretty muddy and my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their agenda, be it religious or secular. As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue go to court or establish a new law which enshrines any group with the ability to discriminate against others based on the majority’s religious beliefs.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the Christian faith and will actually do great damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.

This causes me great concern as I value the right to the free exercise of religious expression and the right of others not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.

Religion can and often has been abused and used by the faithful as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Freedom of Living on the Margins of American Christianity

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_nMe and my Littlest Buddy, Minnie Scule

I have been living on the margins of American Christianity for a bit over six years now. The watershed moment was when I returned from Iraq in February 2008 my faith shattered and my soul wounded suffering from severe PTSD. I was not in good shape then and two years later after faith returned, albeit in a different form I realized that I no longer fit in the mainstream of conservative American Christianity.

When I began to express some of those changes, which mainly had to do in the manner of how I viewed others I got in trouble. At the time I was part of a pretty conservative Episcopal-Catholic denomination with very strong Evangelical and Charismatic leanings. I wrote that I thought that homosexuals could be Christians and not automatically damned to hell. I wrote that not all Moslems were bad. I expressed a great deal of empathy for non-believers, particularly Atheists and Agnostics having recently come out of a period where for all intents I was an Agnostic praying that God really did exist and care. I also asserted that I saw no reason why women could not or should not be ordained to the Priesthood and the Episcopacy and I expressed other views that while not connected with anything to do in the Christian faith was not politically correct in conservative circles.

During that time period I found that I was getting slammed and “unfriended” on Facebook by people I had previously considered friends whenever I had the nerve to disagree with them, or innocently post something that they disagreed with on my Facebook page. I think that was the hardest part for me, I was shocked that people who I had thought were friends, who knew what I was going through were so devoted to their ideology that they condemned me and threw me away. I found that I agreed with Mahatma Gandhi who observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Of course I say that with a fair amount of humility because most of the time I am not a very good Christian, if that means actually trying to emulate Jesus.

Of course that is not uncommon in the annals of Christianity. Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich was so upset when his students and closest associates became Anabaptist that he had them drowned in the Rhine River. In fact any time Church leaders have had significant powers over people through the levers of the State they have quite often used that power to crush anyone that did not believe like them or questioned their authority.

In a sense for two millennia various groups of Christians have been creating God in their own image and inflicting their beliefs on others. Anne Lamott has a pithy little thought that I love: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

In September of 2010 I was asked to leave that church, even though my actual theological orthodoxy, as to what I believed about God and Christ was unchanged. Thankfully another church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a denomination of the Old Catholic tradition took me in. It is a tiny denomination, much like the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but very affirming and I fit well in it.

As far as my old church, it was going through a difficult time and the Bishop who threw me out was a big part of the problem. He was removed a few months later when it was revealed that he was plotting to take all of the military chaplains out of the denomination to another without consulting the other bishops. One friend who is still in that church speculated that I was asked to leave by the bishop because he thought I might reveal his plans, even though he had not told me directly about them.

What was odd about that church was that in 2004 I was censured by the then second ranking archbishop in that church, forbidden from publishing and even having or having any personal contact with his clergy where I was living because I was “too Catholic.” The irony was that this bishop was a big cause of the trouble that the church went through including the massive splits that occurred in 2005-2010. He left that church, became the editor of a conservative Catholic website and now is a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate and effectively a Roman Catholic Priest.  I love irony.

Thankfully I still have many friends in my old church, and thankfully there are good people there doing their best to live the Gospel. I can’t say that I would fit in there anymore, but I have no residual animosity to the current leadership of that denomination and pray that they continue to recover from the tumult and division that marked their struggle from 2005-2011. I admit that it was a painful time and for a while I was quite bitter about how I had been treated, but it has been easier to live by forgiving. C. S. Lewis noted: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Since I have been forgiven for so much how can I not at least try to live in a forgiving manner?

Last night I wrote about my frustrations with American Christianity in particular the conservative Christian subculture. Looking at what I wrote I can see that I definitely exist on the margins of that world. But that is not a bad thing, there is a certain amount of freedom as well as intellectual honesty and integrity that I have now that I could not have being for all intents closeted in my former denomination.

Living on the margins allows me to echo Galileo who wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” It allows me to be at the intersection of faith and unbelief and allows me entry into both worlds, both of which I believe to be sacred and both need to be heard, as well as protected.

Thus when I champion religious liberty, it is not the liberty to use religion to bludgeon others or to use the police power of the State to enforce their religious views on others. Unfortunately that is what I see going on in this country as conservative American Christians especially Evangelicals, Charismatics and conservative Roman Catholics wage a Kulturkampf against modernism and secularism. It as if many of the leaders of that movement desire to set up a Christian theocracy. Gary North, a longtime adviser to Ron Paul and many in the Tea Party movement wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

Personally, and with no invective intended I have to imagine that if a Moslem leader in this country said somethings similar that the Religious Right would be screaming bloody murder and that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News would be leading the charge.

Thus we see a reprise of the Scopes Monkey Trial in efforts to diminish the teaching of real science in schools and replace it with various religious theories of origins such as Young Earth Creationism. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is: equality for women, minorities, gays, teaching science, caring for the poor, the sick and the weak, acknowledging the value of other cultural traditions and religions it seems that many politically charged conservative Christians have no tolerance for anyone outside their often quite narrow belief system. North wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

I’m sorry but again this sounds not too dissimilar to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the sheep and the comfortable clothes, or the Moslem Brotherhood types, Hezbollah or the Iranian Imams. The religion of North might be different from the Taliban but the goals are eerily similar, and only a fool would not see that. But then we Christians are quite good at ignoring the hate being preached by those that claim to be defending us from those “evil” Moslems.

This is no empty threat, throughout the country Christian Conservatives and their political front men are ramming through laws that have but one intent, the establishment of a Christian theocracy and the persecution of those who do not agree. Allegedly all of these laws are designed to “protect religious liberty” but in fact are nothing more than a legislative attempt to disenfranchise non-believers or others that the majority does not approve. Unfortunately the people pushing these laws do not understand that once the become law they can be used against them if another group comes into power. They set precedent and under such precedent even Sharia Law could could be enacted in Moslem dominated areas of the country, such as Dearborn Michigan, or polygamy in separatist Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho.

I am sorry but that is antithetical to the thoughts of our founders and the real defenders of religious liberty in the early days of our republic. John Leland, head of the Virginia Baptists and a key player in the drafting of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections in Virginia wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Leland understood what he was talking about, because in Virginia Baptists and others were being persecuted by Anglicans who before the Revolution had been the State Church of Virginia and wanted to be again in the new republic. James Madison wrote of the danger:  “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

I will defend the right of religious conservative to believe what they want, including the right to teach it in their churches, church schools and homes and to express those views in the public square as part of real dialogue. I may not agree with them, but if I want my views to be protected I should grant others what I would want. What I cannot support is the attempt of some politically active Christian conservatives to force those views on others through the power of the State, the public schools or any other place where the citizens of our very diverse and pluralistic society have to co-exist.

I love the movie Inherit the Wind. I especially love the scene where Spencer Tracy playing the fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow gives a logical yet passionate defense of religious, civil and intellectual liberty.

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

Since I don’t want to go back to the 16th Century I will be content to live in the freedom that I have on the margins of contemporary American Christianity. Personally I would rather be there than in the 16th century.

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Back in 2010 when I was getting kicked out of my old church and suffering the rejection of friends it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. However, I am grateful to be where I am now and to have the freedom that I enjoy. I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am definitely okay with the way things have turned out.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve Shrugged: My Frustration with the Christian Subculture

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“If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.” Mark Twain

Padre Steve is shrugging a lot today, so please excuse this but I have to say it. Sometimes I just want to scream when I see people and institutions claiming to be Christian when they exhibit none of the Christian graces or marks of the Christian faith.

I am constantly amazed by the self serving and self-righteous hatred shown by many of my allegedly Christian brothers and sisters towards that they do not approve.  This is especially true of how they treat the LGBT community, who only want to get equal rights under the law. Of course my brothers and sisters who want to legislate the LGBT community out of existence. Some American Christians promote laws in Africa to send gays to prison or even worse sentence them to death. They do this with gusto, all while claiming with absolute certitude their interpretations of the Bible. While they condemn gays they ignore all the other Old Testament laws that prescribe similar harsh sentences, such as death for the very things that they do. The fact that supposedly Christian leaders such as Scott Lively and others are attempting to pass laws in the United States and other countries, especially in Africa to openly persecute and even execute gays is abhorrent.

To use the power of the State to enforce one’s religious beliefs on others is exactly what the founders of our country attempted to negate in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson writing to Alexander Humbolt in 1813 correctly noted: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”  

Thus I shrug my shoulders and wonder which Bible they are reading, and I am a Priest, with a sound Biblical and theological education. Thus to those without that it really has to be confusing. But I am also a historian, ethicist and occasionally a stand up philosopher and I can spot theological and historical bullshit when I see it and smell it. Unfortunately many leaders of the American “Christian Right” are full of it and it stinks to low Hell.

I shrug my shoulders in wonder of the ignorance I see displayed by my Christian bothers and sisters, some of whom certainly regard me as an apostate or heretic for criticizing their political-religious crusades.  But then I remember that the Bible they read is the one that excuses all the sins that they approve of, but condemns the sins of those that they don’t like. I think that the translation they cite is the Damn Everyone Else to Hell But Me Version of the Bible. But wait, you say that that there is no such translation? Well it may not be in print but it is certainly written on their hearts, like it is on the hearts of all true believers, but I digress. The great American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Likewise I get frustrated by my Christian brothers and sisters who routinely tell those suffering from Cancer or other painful or terminal conditions that they need to read a book or listen to a sermon by some Christian that is obviously more spiritual and better than the rest of us. Instead of coming alongside of those suffering they spout empty words, just like Job’s friends.

So I shrug because I remember that the command of Jesus to Christians is to bear one another’s burdens, not preach at those that are suffering.

But that being said I shrug my shoulders in amazement when I see those same Christian brothers and sisters embracing the abject and atheistic Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist Philosophy. This has now been “baptized” by many leaders of the Christian Right as “Biblical” or “Christian.”

I also shrug when I see men who are paid millions of dollars a year to stir up hate and discontent by criticizing those that they do not approve throw tantrums and compare themselves to Jesus. Fox News Pundit Bill O’Reilly whined last week and did just that, saying that “even Jesus had haters.” Sorry Bill, but there is no comparison. You and those like you are hacks paid to stir shit up and keep people enraged so they keep watching your program. Unlike you, Jesus showed love and compassion to those that condemned him and didn’t get a penny for it.

I am a Christian, but I hate to say that the more I look around the more I see Christians who make me wonder about the God that they claim to represent. If I was not a believer I would have to admit that I see nothing redeeming in what I see and that have to wonder why I would want to believe in a God who according to the Christian Right is capricious, vindictive, petty, unloving, unethical and unjust. A “God” who is nothing like the one who according to Paul the Apostle:

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8 NRSV)

Thus I shrug. I cannot fathom the absurd depths of ignorance and hatred that is so routinely and even unthinkingly a part of the lives of some of my fellow Christians.

If the fact that I say this pisses people off, I have to say that I no longer care.  I cannot pretend as I can no longer live in the cloud cuckoo land of conservative American Christianity.

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So anyway. I had to get it out. I know that there will be some people who take offense to most of what I said and that is fine with me. But it has to be said if Christianity is to survive in the West. If Christians do not throw aside the mantle of power, privilege and priority that it assumed under Constantine, the mantle of the imperial church and return to being Christians, the Christian faith will not survive. And yes, that includes all of those massive auditoriums built by narcissistic mega-church pastors and the congregations that worship them.

People are fleeing what we call Christianity in the United States. They are fleeing churches in ever growing numbers and all the statistics, surveys and polls confirm this. More and more people are identifying themselves as not having a particular religious belief. Likewise more and more are openly admitting to being atheists or agnostics.  The numbers and percentages of unbelievers are growing at exponential rates. They are known as “the Nones” or those with no religious preference. As a military chaplain I have seen this trend growing for the past 25 years and it is only getting worse, and truthfully I cannot blame them. And who can blame the “nones” for turning their backs on Christianity? If I was not already a Christian there is little that convince me to become one today, not because of Jesus, but because of how Christians treat others. So that being said I will still love and care for all of my “nones” and be there for them.

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Christians have forgotten the reality of the Gospel. The world will not know us by our correct doctrine, nor will it know us by how well we observe the law, nor will it know us by any other thing but this: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The fact is that if I wasn’t already a Christian there is nothing in the witness of most American Churches and Christians, especially Evangelicals and conservative Catholics that would ever bring me to faith in Jesus.  I totally agree with author Ann Rice who back in 2010 said:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

The sad thing is, that before Iraq and my PTSD crash and crisis of faith that left me a practical agnostic for nearly two years that I used to be just like many of people that I am calling out today. Maybe I was a bit more nuanced theologically and better able to say cruel things without making them sound too cruel, but truthfully some of the things that I said and believed at one time were not much different than what my more crass brothers and sisters do today. For that I am sorry.

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Okay, I have said it. I have gotten it off my chest for now, though I am sure that some time in the next number of months or year that I will pop my cork again. But what can I say?

So for tonight and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Doubt on a Friday During Lent

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William James wrote that “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”

Many religious people, be they Christians, Jews, Moslems or others equate their faith in what cannot be seen or proven to be a certainty. But faith, even as understood by someone like the Apostle Paul was something that was not provable in this life. In fact Paul is bold enough to proclaim that if Christians are not correct concerning their faith in the risen Christ that they are to be pitied among men.

Faith in something, even God is not proof. In fact faith can never be asserted to be fact until the final consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Creation and Fall Temptation, Two Biblical Studies wisely noted that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Bonhoeffer’s words show a wisdom often lacking in young theologians. No matter how firmly we believe the words of Scripture or the Creeds they are at their heart statements of faith, not fact. They may be true, and I believe them to be. That being said we cannot prove them  and simply making circular arguments about their truth does not make them true. Thus I always find that I am amazed when I see some Christians insist that what they believe is “absolute truth” even when they have no “proof” of its truth outside of their statements of faith. Such is the trap of circular logic. Bonhoeffer quite correctly noted that “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

I have learned to appreciate the struggle of faith. I believe, but I seek understanding. That being said I know that whatever I know, I only know in part, as Paul said I see “through a glass darkly,” but one day I shall see “face to face.”

Those that equate faith with certitude do so at their own peril, and often are willing to sacrifice others to ensure that their belief remains unquestioned.

The great American Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologies, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with doubt. There is nothing wrong with struggle. In fact it is shown in the lives of those that we consider “saints” throughout both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Faith without doubt and faith without struggle is not faith, it is idolatry. Bonhoeffer expressed this well when he said “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

In fact absolute certitude masquerading as faith in the life of the faithful often leads to great violence and evil. One only has to look at what happened on September 11th 2001 to see the results of such violent certitude.

As for me I have faith, but at the same time I doubt. Sometimes doubts outweigh faith and at other times faith outweighs doubt. That being said I find comfort in the scriptures where Paul honestly and openly writes of his conflicts and doubts. Henri Nouwen had it right when he said:

“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

That is the real fact of the matter. It is something that Christians more interested in truth rather than protecting their social position have believed for decades have died to proclaim.

None of us, no matter how learned we are, or how certain we believe, really know much about God. And that my friends is certain.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Lent is Here Again…Oh Joy…

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Lent is my least favorite season of the Church year. Try as I might, despite the catholic ethos that I acquired as a student in  a Southern Baptist Seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education and the military chaplaincy I have a hard time with it.

I think that part of the reason is I don’t think that I need to set aside a season of the year to acknowledge what a colossal screw up I am. Like George Constanza in Seinfeld I don’t need God, my mother or anyone else to remind me of my shortcomings. They are ever before me.

Despite that for years I tried to be the most observant observer of the outward traditions of the season. If we were to fast from meat on Fridays I would do it on Wednesdays too. As someone who came to the catholic side of life later in life I felt that I needed to out do those who had grown up that way. As a priest in a conservative Episcopal denomination with aspirations of eventually making the transition to Rome I did all that I could to take up the internal spiritual disciplines as well as the external forms of Catholicism. I did so good at it that I was banned from publishing by the Archbishop who headed our denomination’s communications department. The irony is that he is now a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate that is in communion with Rome. Go figure.

But that all came apart during and after my time in Iraq. Beset with chronic PTSD and moral injury faith itself became problematic. For all intents and purposes I existed as an agnostic who prayed that God still existed for nearly two years after I returned from Iraq. For me that fact that I returned to faith in any form was a miracle and when it did return I was told to find a new church home because now instead of being either too “Catholic” or “a Wounded Warrior Priest” I was now “too liberal.”

I would like to say that I am over it but obviously I am not, but I digress…

So this year Lent is again upon us. Tonight was Fat Tuesday, so I had a big burger, fries and a couple of beers for dinner at Gordon Biersch. Afterward I  picked up some fresh Krispy Kreme hot glazed donuts on the way home and washed them down with another beer. For those of you that don’t know there is little better than beer and hot fresh donuts. I discovered that in my darkest hours after Iraq. I think I even have a post that I wrote back in 2009 called Beer and Donuts. I’m not going to look for it now and give you the link but you can put “Beer and Donuts” in the search box on the home page and I am sure you will find it.

In my journey I am coming to realize that holiness is not simply a matter of out Phariseeing the Pharisees, or matters of external observance. I am coming to believe that Jesus really nailed it when he said that to fulfill the law was to love God and love your neighbor.

So my Lenten observance will be of two aspects. For the first time since 2010 I am going to give up something physical, the hamburger.I am going to go without a hamburger of any kind until Easter. When I break my Lenten fast it will be with a hamburger, or should I say a very non-Kosher cheeseburger.

That may not seem like much, but please hear me out. For those that  not know me when I eat a hamburger it is not simply to ingest something fast and filling, it is a ritual that is almost spiritual in its own right. You see I don’t eat crappy burgers. I eat fresh burgers of the best quality, cooked medium or medium rare. I prefer a toasted bun, fresh crisp lettuce, tomatoes and red onions and either Swiss or Gruyère cheese. I then need at least two to four ounces of dill pickles, a side of mayo, catchup and at least a half bottle of yellow mustard. It is a nearly religious ritual for me to enjoy a burger in this manner.  After all a eating a hamburger should be a spiritual experience.

Bh6mIhqCAAMTni9.jpg_largeThe Last Burger before Easter

As far as the spiritual dimension I am going to try to be a bit more conscious of my prayer life, more importantly my prayer for others who are in distress. I figure that God will take care of my needs and that when I pray it would be better that I concern myself with people who are in real danger, real need, real distress. Those who are the least, the lost and the lonely. Likewise I will endeavor to be more positive in all of my interactions. I am going to try to take the words of the immortal Sergeant Oddball (Donald Sutherland) of Kelly’s Heroes seriously.

“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?”

Tomorrow I will celebrate a simple Ash Wednesday liturgy at our small chapel and the scripture readings will come out of Matthew Chapter Six where Jesus begins “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

With that I will take my “Mario Mendoza Line ” self off line and begin working on yet another Gettysburg article.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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