My Growing Curiosity about Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology: Birth of the New Man, Managua, Batahola Community Center, Nicaragua. Showing the Magi as Carlos Fonseca, Che Guevara, Sadino and Archbishop Romero. [source]

I have become increasing curious about Liberation Theology. As I continue to become disillusioned by the state of politics in the U.S., including the politics of the Church (or certain prominent sections of the Church), and as I learn more about Latin America and its rich, but also violent, history, and as I have become increasingly curious about Saint Romero and the modern history of El Salvador, I find myself confronted with Liberation Theology. Can Liberation Theology teach us, perhaps even provide a way, for the Church seeking to follow Christ is a deeply broken and anti-Catholic world?

Almost immediately I find vociferous Liberation Theology antagonists. These are primarily conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics. Liberation Theology, they say, is merely Marxism dress up in some Catholic vestments. Ironically, while many of the conservative Catholics revere Saint John Paul II, it this quote from that dynamic and “muscular” anti-communist pope that sparks my interest:

Insofar as it strives to find those just answers – penetrated with understanding for the rich experience of the Church in this country, as effective and constructive as possible and at the same time consonant and consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, of the living and the everlasting Tradition Magisterium of the Church – we and you are convinced that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary. It must constitute a new stage – in close connection with the previous ones – of that theological reflection initiated with the Apostolic Tradition and continued with the great Fathers and Doctors, with the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium and, in more recent times, with the rich heritage of the Doctrine Church, expressed in documents ranging from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens . ( Emphasis added. Full text here)

Is this not an endorsement of Liberation Theology? Those who say it is actually just Marxism with a Catholic veneer seem to lack understanding. Or do they? I’m still learning.

I am reading Gustavo Gutiérrez‘ excellent and classic work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. In it I find an excellent explanation of the Catholic faith. Thus far I find no overt Marxist ideology (thus far) and, in fact, I find a challenge to such ideas. I ought to be clear at this point for the sake of honesty: I am not against all Marxist ideas, nor am I against all aspects of socialism. I am against all the evils done in the name, or using the name, of Marxism and socialism, just as in a similar way I am against all the evils done in the name of capitalism, republicanism, democracy, anarchy, fascism, and any other ideologies or systems of political and economic organization that men use against others. Men are wicked and they will wrap their intentions and deeds in whatever language is most convenient to “justify” their actions of power over others. Men will also quickly and effortlessly excuse evils done in the name of their own systems (those they accept) and their own cultures (those in which they were raised, or into which they were adopted, and in which they find acceptance). Thus, I am still cautious. I have studied the evils of man and the systems he builds. I am not yet convinced that socialism, and there are many versions and definitions of socialism, is or must be inherently evil, or must produce evil men. I am also not convince Liberation Theology is or must be fundamentally socialist, even if it informed by Marxist methods of social and political critique.

So I proceed with my research. I am curious.

Cardinal George was once asked about Liberation Theology and he gave a quick answer. It think his answer represents a kind of thoughtful middle ground that I feel I can get behind. However, I also wonder if he, and Cardinal Ratzinger whom he references, had an adequate understanding of Liberation Theology. Thus, I don’t completely buy into it, yet.

I do not think modern Americans (U.S. citizens) can quite fathom the context in which Liberation Theology developed. I certainly have never lived within a context like those in which Liberation Theology developed, arguably, out of necessity. In fact, U.S. citizens are rather notorious for having strange and perverted ideas about Latin American and its history, including U.S. foreign policy towards that Latin America, its governments, its resources and, more importantly, its people. We are also formed through decades of propaganda (for better or worse) to believe anything that is in any way associated with socialism or Marxism must be gravely and irredeemably evil. For most Americans this is an objective and unquestionable dogmatic truth. I am not convinced, but I am not wary either.

If we, for a moment, set aside the wrangling over theories, over political and economic systems, and about the examples of evil men, and simply consider what we Christians are called to do as we live out the Kingdom of God in tangible actions, we might find a calling to change the world. Pope Paul VI gave us some perspective in his encyclical Populorum progressio, an encyclical that informed Liberation Theology’s development, in which he wrote:

It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task. It involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table. [full text here]

Liberty must not be an idle word. Is that not the foundation of Liberation Theology? Of course, people will argue over that notorious and wonderful word: liberty.

But when politics and faith become entangled, it can be hard to know if one is talking about one or the other. And yet, how can the gospel not also be political? In God there is no separation, is there? In this world there is truth, there is heresy, there are lies, there is evil, and there is love. These things are present in all aspects of human life. Does not the gospel speak to all of that? Are not politics also under the reign of Christ? And what happens when we open our eyes beyond narrow, single-issue, lesser-of-two-evils, U.S. politics and begin to wonder if others, in others places also have eyes to see and hearts that long for justice? What do we do when they see things differently than we do and speak in foreign tongues and use words that frighten us and yet still call us brothers and sisters in Christ? What ought we to do then?

Still, the history of Liberation Theology and its proponents is interesting and, at times, perhaps troubling even for many in Latin America. But it is also fascinating. And there are, naturally, different perspectives.

This short Religion and Ethics piece gives a brief overview and some perspective, and not without moments that will give a traditionalist Catholic conniptions, make a conservative Catholic cringe, and make a liberal Catholic pause:

Is the Church today under Francis more attuned to Jesus? I don’t believe it is. But I also cannot buy in its entirety the critique of traditionalist Catholics (mostly Americans) who demonize Francis and the Church hierarchy today. There is so much that is bad, but there is so much that is good, and there is much good (I firmly believe) going on in the world beyond the horizon of American Catholics and their limited understandings and their historical prejudices. Perhaps that is where most of the good is happening.

One aspect of Liberation Theology, or at least as something clearly linked to it, is the fact of Catholic priests and bishops renouncing their vocations for political action in the name of Liberation Theology. For example, Fernando Lugo, who was a Catholic priest and bishop, then became president of Paraguay, gave up the priesthood for politics:

Lugo resigned his ordinary from the Diocese of San Pedro on 11 January 2005. He had requested laicization in order to run for office. However, the Holy See refused the request on the grounds that bishops could not undergo laicization, and also denied him the requested canonical permission to run for civil elected office. However, after Lugo won the presidential election, the Church granted his laicization on 30 June 2008. [from Wikipedia]

This bothers me a great deal. Why must they do this? I don’t know. Have they lost the faith, turned from God, or have they made the right choice? I have my opinions, but I’m holding off judgement until I know more. I first came across Lugo in Oliver Stone’s fascinating documentary film, South of the Border. I have a hard time faulting Lugo for making his decision, though i’m bothered by it. I am in no place to criticise him. I also sense that his position became somewhat untenable as he found himself between the Church that tends to side with those in power and Christ’s call to help the poor. And yet, I don’t like the decision he made and I am curious about his eternal destiny. What will Christ do with him and others like him?

Similarly, one of the more prominent theologians of the Liberation Theology movement is Leonardo Boff. Also a former priest and a sharp critic of the Church, he gave up the priesthood for social activism. This documentary gives a rather good picture of Boff and his views:

I am not sure what to do with this. Is Boff’s direction the right one? I’m inclined to think not, and I feel about him much as I feel about Fernando Lugo. And yet, I do agree with the general direction of some of his views, up to a point. I am also concerned about any movement where men give up the priesthood for the movement, or stop wearing traditional clerical clothing. However, I don’t know enough about Latin American history and culture to know the meaning of all that. I also think there is a generational element to it. Older, baby-boomer, 1960’s radicals might have thrown off their religious garb because that was the spirit of that age, whereas younger priests and religious today might insist on wearing more traditional religious clothing for, ironically, similar reasons. I can’t say, but it would make some sense to me. We are all far more children of the zeitgeist than any of us want to admit.

Still, I firmly believe that it’s all too easy to get pulled away from Christ and His kingdom by the enticements of the world and worldly politics, and thus lose one’s soul. I believe Liberation Theology is, at its heart, an attempt to avoid that, but clearly many questions still remain about many of its adherents. I am inclined to read some of Boff’s books eventually.


In summary, I know very little at this point, but I am inclined to believe Liberation Theology is a good thing and ought to be taken seriously, perhaps re-thought and re-addressed, by more Catholics. I also am beginning to think the Church (once again) dropped the ball in a big way by not more fully embracing it and thereby helping guide it rather than leave priests and faithful Catholics essentially on their own, sometimes feeling abandoned by the Church. This, I think, was a huge missed opportunity at a crucial time in Latin America. In a sense, I believe the Church “lost” Latin America, in a sense, because of this.

I welcome any comments pointing me to more resources.

The Salvadoran Civil War and the Martyrdom of Óscar Romero


Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president (pres. 1977-1981) that oversaw the giving of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. Carter was the first American president that I became aware of as I began to pay attention to the news as a boy. The first American president I voted for was Ronald Reagan (pres. 1981-1989), who came immediately after Carter. The Reagan administration increased the giving of military aid and support to the Salvadoran government. In 1980 the Salvadoran government was behind the brazen assassination and martyrdom of the then archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, now a saint of the Catholic Church. Thus, my first vote as an American citizen, though not for Carter, and actually for Reagan’s second term which happened years after Romero’s death, is nonetheless indirectly but forever linked to the death of a saint. I only just realized this. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being an American voting for candidates who then go on to promote questionable and sometimes terrible foreign policies. Of course I plead ignorance, but we’re all ignorant of many things, and that doesn’t mean we are not complicit at some level, even if not actually guilty. Perhaps its “structural complicity?”

Anyway, I am learning more about one of the Church’s most recent saints, Óscar Romero. I believe Romero’s concerns were ultimately spiritual and heavenly, but they played out within a volatile political context, and he was martyred for them.

The battle lines of politics are always much more than politics. There are narratives competing with narratives, ideologies with ideologies, and almost always class struggle. In the U.S. we are not allowed to talk about class struggle or the structures of economic inequality or we are immediately labeled a socialist or communist. There is a powerful narrative in that labeling, and that narrative and the hegemonic forces behind it drive a great many other narratives. Human beings, being sinners and fearful, will all too readily kill other human beings for the sake of the narrative they hold dear, often for very selfish and ignorant reasons. From Cain until now we have been killing our brothers. But Christ calls us to love our brothers, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Saint Paul tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is against spiritual forces of darkness. The entire narrative of salvation being written by God in the very fabric of creation tells us to trust in Him and that He will fight our battles. We forget this every day. They forgot that in El Salvador too. But many, including and perhaps especially Óscar Romero, did not forget it.

I know very little about the Salvadoran Civil War, but that is the historical context of Saint Romero’s assassination. I perhaps know only a little more about Saint Romero than I do about the war, which is to say almost nothing. Here are three contemporary news reports on the war, its brutality, and role of faith and the Church.

This 1983 documentary takes a look at both sides of the war and provides an intimate overview of the attitudes and perspectives of each side:

Made by the same filmmakers as the above film, this is an excellent documentary from 1983 on the religious aspects of the war, in particular the ideas of Liberation Theology:

Here is an in-depth documentary about the Salvadoran civil war and the life of Óscar Romero. It was made before he was canonized a saint.

Here is a great lecture by Michael Lee (Fordham University) on the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood:

I suppose little seeds were planted in my life along the way to prepare my heart and mind for caring for and wondering about the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood.

In 1984 (the same year I voted for Reagan) a largely unknown, but with a passionate fanbase, Canadian singer-songwriter and brilliant guitarist released a song that became a surprise hit. I vaguely remember that song, but I was so politically, geographically, historically, and socially unaware that I didn’t get what the song was about, except for the fact that I felt as much as anybody that we all need a rocket launcher sometimes. But the song was specifically about the brutal wars in Central America, the dictatorships that promoted and leveraged them, the support those dictatorships received from the U.S. government, and the terrible havoc they wrought on the lives of the people. Here is Bruce Cockburn, 30 years later, performing live and acoustically his song If I had a Rocket Launcher:

Jordan Peterson & Slavoj Žižek debate — “Happiness: Marxism vs Capitalism”

I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.

I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.

Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

Radical Feminism: Voices from 1969-1970 and beyond

Here’s a fascinating time-capsule from a key time in the feminist movement. Certainly it is dated, and some of it may seem a bit corny to us today, but the core message is still powerful and shocking — and not surprising too.

From a traditional Catholic perspective one can easily see why feminism, at least as it is presented here, was seen as incompatible with Catholicism — it has at its core the destruction of the traditional family. On the other hand, consider how much feminist thinking has entered into our culture and, in many ways, become the de facto position. Something about feminism captivated the collective consciousness of vast swaths of western culture and beyond, and has stayed with us and continued to influence and shape our culture.

In many ways this video is so sad — so much heartbreak beneath the surface of power posturing and strident demands. Consider where our society had to gotten to in order for these women, and so many others, to feel as they did. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to consider how such a radical change in attitudes may have also had a demonic element. I think it’s likely a lot of different elements and motivations were at play, some good and some bad.

And then three years later, this…

More “throwback” videos here.

When Faith Drains Away: Thoughts on Ireland’s Abortion Vote

Ireland Votes In Favour of Law Reform In Abortion Referendum
Irish celebrating their pro-abortion “victory” (source)

Ireland voted for abortion. Ireland voted in anger against the Catholic Church. The majority of Catholics in Ireland, and about a third of the Church hierarchy voted for abortion too (so I have heard). The New York Times ran a headline: “Ireland Votes to End Abortion Ban, in Rebuke to Catholic Conservatism.” Many today have asked how did this happen, how did Ireland, once one of the world’s most visibly Catholic countries, become so anti-Catholic in both spirit and in public will.

Naturally many will say the fault lies with the Church in Ireland. Who could blame them? The Church has not been so saintly in Ireland. (Of course, neither have the Irish people, who are just as wicked as people are anywhere, but I digress.) Some would say this is what happens when a government tries to legislate morality. But are not the prohibitions against bank robberies, blowing up parliament, or murder legislating morality? Are there not laws prohibiting the killing of one’s three year old child? Or even one week old child?

My guess is that the real cause is not so much what the Church did or didn’t do (mostly good, some bad), or whether morality should or should not be legislated (which it should), but that faith simply and tragically drained away, and that it began happening a long, long time ago.

Consider this newsreel film of a Corpus Christi procession through Bandon in West Cork, Ireland from 1941:

What a magnificent display of public piety and cultural cohesion. But is it truly a picture of actual faith? See, it gets tricky. When Catholicism becomes so deeply enmeshed with a people’s national and cultural identity, heredity, and national concept, it is not only possible, but nearly inevitable that actual faith becomes irrelevant and even unwelcome to daily life. Great public displays of piety can so easily become a way to signal faith in a group, being “of this group” or “of this people,” in other words it becomes all about being Irish and not about being followers of Christ. Being Irish becomes the thing to be, not being Christian. No matter how many layers of Catholic tradition, habits, actions, language, postures, images, and trinkets populate the Irish landscape, these things become the very things that not only hide faith from the people, they make it easy to not need faith.

Catholicism became the Irish “identity cloak” because of Irish history with its profound and bloody battles with England and its Protestant church. One might argue that Irish “Catholicism” killed true Catholicism in Ireland. But this happens all the time. People claim the name Catholic so they be protected from the truths of Catholicism. One could also argue that the worldly promises of capitalism killed modern Catholicism in Ireland. Regardless, and for whatever reason, faith drained away, and after Ireland’s relationship with England changed, and economic markets opened up, the Catholic cloak of national identity and rebellion became too heavy to wear (except as a commodity), then finally it was all too noxious to bear anymore.

In short, although the Catholic Church in Ireland is inextricably enmeshed in all of this, it’s the Irish people who have turned away from God. It is their own choosing, a product of their own free will, Church or no Church. They no longer love God. Probably none of us wants to suggest this, but could it be possible the God has withdrawn His Spirit from Ireland and is withholding His grace? If so, the withdrawal seems to have begun a long time ago. (We see this already in James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916. In that novel Stephen Daedalus, the protagonist, leaves the Catholic religion behind in order to be free. A shot across the bow for Ireland and a theme resounding down throughout the twentieth century.) And if so, why? What did Ireland do to earn God’s wrath?

I just don’t know.

But consider these Irish abortion referendum voting numbers from the same county that the video above is from.

Cork vote

These numbers tell us there are people in that video above from 1941 that voted in for abortion in 2018, people who, as children, knelt before the Real Presence as it passed by, people who could not imagine in 1941 being anything other than devout Irish Catholics. Now they are no longer Catholic and just barely Irish in any meaningful sense of that term, other than as a surface overlay to a thoroughly modernist world view — the Irish jigs danced in the streets celebrating their victory were only a hollow shell of a better and more humane past. They have become merely just more neo-liberal humans traveling in a selfish and lost modern world digging wells wherever they think they will find water. I believe it is inevitable they will eventually die of thirst or turn once again to the living water.

Pray for Ireland. God save them.

One of America’s great Christian heresies: Christian Zionism

Christian Zionism is ugly.

I find it interesting and rather amazing at just how much I was indoctrinated into the Christian Zionism heresy. It is a fundamental belief in the church in which I was raised, and later in a group of Christians with whom I fellowshipped. Christian Zionism is one of those easy heresies to latch on to. It just sounds right if one believes other heresies, like sola scriptura or dispensationalism. Brother André Marie gives two excellent talks on the subject of Christian Zionism, and shows clearly why it is a heresy condemned by the Church, and popular with many Protestants (and some Catholics), and what its implications are.

“The Greatest Error in History: Christianity Placing Violence Under the Patronage of Jesus”

Recently I have personally discovered Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. He is a powerful advocate for Christian Non-Violence or Pacifism. Years ago I came across Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. That was my first experience with Christian pacifism. More and more my inclinations lean in this direction. In fact, though I am willing to consider other arguments, and will change my mind if necessary, for now I cannot see any compatibility between being a follower of Christ and any kind of violence, including going to war. I say this while still finding stories of heroism in war deeply moving.

Here is one of several talks you can find online by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy:

Just War Theory – an overview

This is a great overview, in six short videos, of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Just Defense (formerly Just War) Theory or Doctrine. It is also a critique of where that theory stands today in light of modern ‘total” war, and ultimately advocates for the original Christian position of pacifism, or peace making.

“Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous”

After Pope John Paul II died many people reminisced about his life and the immense impact he had on the world. Peggy Noonan wrote a piece for the WSJ on the Pope’s first visit to his homeland of Poland in 1979. Noonan mentioned the efforts of the communist government of Poland to try to diffuse the impact they feared John Paul II would have. She wrote:

Two months before the pope’s arrival, the Polish communist apparatus took steps to restrain the enthusiasm of the people. They sent a secret directive to schoolteachers explaining how they should understand and explain the pope’s visit. “The pope is our enemy,” it said. “Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children. . . . It is modeled on American presidential campaigns. . . Because of the activation of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop. . . In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford any sentiments.”

Of course, the Polish government had no idea what they were getting themselves in for. And we know, looking back, that the world was never the same.

Perhaps John Paul II’s greatest homily of his tenure was given during the mass at Victory Square in Warsaw. This was the Pope’s first mass in Poland. The communist authorities were worried thousands, even tens of thousands of people would show up. Instead, over a million showed up. And then the Pope gave this homily:



Victory Square, Warsaw, 2 June 1979 

Beloved Fellow-countrymen.
Dear Brothers and Sisters.
Participants in the Eucharistic Sacrifice celebrated today in Victory Square in Warsaw.

1. Together with you I wish to sing a hymn of praise to Divine Providence, which enables me to be here as a pilgrim.

We know that the recently deceased Paul VI, the first pilgrim Pope after so many centuries, ardently desired to set foot on the soil of Poland, especially at Jasna Gora (the Bright Mountain). To the end of his life he kept this desire in his heart, and with it he went to the grave. And we feel that this desirea desire so potent and so deeply rooted that it goes beyond the span of a pontificateis being realized today in a way that it would have been difficult to foresee. And so we thank Divine Providence for having given Paul VI so strong a desire. We thank it for the pattern of the pilgrim Pope that he began with the Second Vatican Council. At a time when the whole Church has become newly aware of being the People of God, a People sharing in the mission of Christ, a People that goes through history with that mission, a “pilgrim” People, the Pope could no longer remain a “prisoner of the Vatican”.  He had to become again the pilgrim Peter, like the first Peter, who from Jerusalem, through Antioch, reached Rome to give witness there to Christ and seal his witness with his blood.

Today it is granted to me to fulfil this desire of the deceased Pope Paul VI in the midst of you, beloved sons and daughters of my motherland. When, after the death of Paul VI and the brief pontificate of my immediate Predecessor John Paul I, which lasted only a few weeks, I was, through the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence, called by the votes of the Cardinals from the chair of Saint Stanislaus in Krakow to that of Saint Peter in Rome, I immediately understood that it was for me to fulfil that desire, the desire that Paul VI had been unable to carry out at the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland.

My pilgrimage to my motherland in the year in which the Church in Poland is celebrating the ninth centenary of the death of Saint Stanislaus is surely a special sign of the pilgrimage that we Poles are making down through the history of the Church not only along the ways of our motherland but also along those of Europe and the world. Leaving myself aside at this point, I must nonetheless with all of you ask myself why, precisely in 1978, after so many centuries of a well established tradition in this field, a son of the Polish Nation, of the land of Poland, was called to the chair of Saint Peter. Christ demanded of Peter and of the other Apostles that they should be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Have we not the right, with reference to these words of Christ, to think that Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness? The right to think that from herefrom Warsaw, and also from Gniezno, from Jasna Gora, from Krakow and from the whole of this historic route that I have so often in my life traversed and that it is to proclaim Christ with singular humility but also with conviction? The right to think that one must come to this very place, to this land, on this route, to read again the witness of his Cross and his Resurrection? But if we accept all that I have dared to affirm in this moment, how many great duties and obligations arise? Are we capable of them?

2. Today, at the first stopping place in my papal pilgrimage in Poland, it is granted to me to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice in Victory Square in Warsaw. The liturgy of the evening of Saturday the Vigil of Pentecost takes us to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where the Apostles, gathered around Mary the Mother of Christ, were on the following day to receive the Holy Spirit. They were to receive the Spirit obtained for them by Christ through the Cross, in order that through the power of this Spirit they might fulfil his command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Before Christ the Lord left the world, he transmitted to the Apostles with these words his last recommendation, his “missionary mandate”. And he added: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It is good that my pilgrimage to Poland on the ninth centenary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaus should fall in the Pentecost period and on the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Fulfilling the desire of Paul VI after his death, I am able to relive the Millennium of the Baptism on Polish soil and to inscribe this year’s jubilee of Saint Stanislaus in the Millennium since the beginning of the nation and the Church. The Solemnity of Pentecost and that of the Most Holy Trinity bring us close to this beginning. In the apostles who receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost are spiritually present in a way all their successors, all the Bishops, including those whose task it has been for a thousand years to proclaim the Gospel on Polish soil. Among them was this Stanislaus of Szczepanow, who paid with his blood for his mission on the episcopal chair of Krakow nine centuries ago.

On the day of Pentecost there were gathered, in the Apostles and around them, not only the representatives of the peoples and tongues listed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Even then there were gathered about them the various peoples and nations that, through the light of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, were to enter the Church at different periods and centuries. The day of Pentecost is the birthday of the faith and of the Church in our land of Poland also. It is the proclamation of the mighty works of God in our Polish language also. It is the beginning of Christianity in the life of our nation also, in its history, its culture, its trials.

 3a. To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man. For man cannot be fully understood without Christ. Or rather, man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is. He cannot understand any of this without Christ.

Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.

The history of the nation deserves to be adequately appraised in the light of its contributionto the development of man and humanity, to intellect, heart and conscience. This is the deepest stream of culture. It is culture’s firmest support, its core, its strength. It is impossible without Christ to understand and appraise the contribution of the Polish nation to the development of man and his humanity in the past and its contribution today also: “This old oak tree has grown in such a way and has not been knocked down by any wind since its root is Christ” (Piotr Skarga, Kazania Sejmove IVBiblioteka Narodowa, I, 70, p. 92). It is necessary to follow the traces of what, or rather who, Christ was for the sons and daughters of this land down the generations. Not only for those who openly believed in him and professed him with the faith of the Church, but also for those who appeared to be at a distance, outside the Church. For those who doubted or were opposed.

3b. It is right to understand the history of the nation through man, each human being of this nation. At the same time man cannot be understood apart from this community that is constituted by the nation. Of course it is not the only community, but it is a special community, perhaps that most intimately linked with the family, the most important for the spiritual history of man. It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nationthis great thousand-year-old communitythat is so profoundly decisive for me and each one of us. If we reject this key to understanding our nation, we lay ourselves open to a substantial misunderstanding. We no longer understand ourselves. It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendour and also of terrible difficulties. It is impossible to understand this city, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, that undertook in 1944 an unequal battle against the aggressor, a battle in which it was abandoned by the allied powers, a battle in which it was buried under its own ruinsif it is not remembered that under those same ruins there was also the statue of Christ the Saviour with his cross that is in front of the church at Krakowskie Przedmiescie. It is impossible to understand the history of Poland from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe at Oswiecim unless we apply to them that same single fundamental criterion that is called Jesus Christ.

The Millennium of the Baptism of Poland, of which Saint Stanislaus is the first mature fruitthe millennium of Christ in our yesterday, and todayis the chief reason for my pilgrimage, for my prayer of thanksgiving together with all of you, dear fellow-countrymen, to whom Christ does not cease to teach the great cause of man; together with you, for whom Jesus Christ does not cease to be an ever open book on man, his dignity and his rights and also a book of knowledge on the dignity and rights of the nation.

Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking with all of you, through the great Eucharistic prayer, that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.

4. We are before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ancient and contemporary history of Poland this tomb has a special basis, a special reason for its existence. In how many places in our native land has that soldier fallen! In how many places in Europe and the world has he cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map! On how many battlefields has that solider given witness to the rights of man, indelibly inscribed in the inviolable rights of the people, by falling for “our free­dom and yours”!

“Where are their tombs, O Po-land? Where are they not! You know better than anyoneand God knows it in heaven” (A. Oppman, Pacierz za zmarlych).

The history of the motherland written through the tomb of an Unknown Soldier!

I wish to kneel before this tomb to venerate every seed that falls into the earth and dies and thus bears fruit. It may be the seed of the blood of a soldier shed on the battlefield, or the sacrifice of martyrdom in concentration camps or in prisons. It may be the seed of hard daily toil, with the sweat of one’s brow, in the fields, the workshop, the mine, the foundries and the factories. It may be the seed of the love of parents who do not refuse to give life to a new human being and undertake the whole of the task of bringing him up. It may be the seed of creative work in the universities, the higher institutes, the libraries and the places where the national culture is built. It may be the seed of prayer, of service of the sick, the suffering, the abandoned“all that of which Poland is made”.

All that in the hands of the Mother of Godat the foot of the cross on Calvary and in the Upper Room of Pentecost!

All thatthe history of the motherland shaped for a thousand years by the succession of the generations (among them the present generation and the coming generation) and by each son and daughter of the motherland, even if they are anonymous and unknown like the Soldier before whose tomb we are now.

All thatincluding the history of the peoples that have lived with us and among us, such as those who died in their hundreds of thousands within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.

All that I embrace in thought and in my heart during this Eucharist and I include it in this unique most holy Sacrifice of Christ, on Victory Square.

And I cryI who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul III cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:

Let your Spirit descend.
Let your Spirit descend.
and renew the face of the earth,
the face of this land.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

This homily can be found here.

Covenantal obligations

It is arguable that George Washington’s resignation letter to the Continental Congress (written in Annapolis, Md. 23 December 1783) after having won the War of Independence may be as important a document as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Washington’s refusal to take power and assume absolute rule over this newly born, fragile, and altogether tenuous nation, even if only for the sake of a short-term stability, is one of the most remarkable moments in history. Too often we view history as merely the outcomes of inevitable courses, but that is not how life truly works. Washington could have chosen differently. History could have been different.

Mr President

The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress & of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.

Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the oppertunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence—A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.

The Successful termination of the War has verified the more sanguine expectations—and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen encreases with every review of the momentous Contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War. It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice & patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commanding the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those Who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.

Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action—and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life

Does the chicken know? Some thoughts on popular Christianity in light of Slavoj Žižek’s critique of tolerance and ideology

Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Po: Huh?
Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.

(from Kung Fu Panda)

I wonder if this snippet from a rather popular and decidedly mediocre “family” movie captures some essence at the core of our culture’s popular ideologies of self and meaning. If so, do we find this ideology also at work in the heart of popular Christianity?

Over the years I have become convinced that most of popular Christianity¹ has more to do with questions of ideology² than with faith. For that reason maybe one of the most important philosophers today that Christians should consider (if not necessarily to agree with) is Slavoj Žižek. His take, which is fueled by Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalytical theories, provides rich fodder for thought. And given that he is coming from such a radically different place than most Christians, there is a kind of intellectual distance that may help Christians get some objectivity on their experiences. Keep in mind that I am not an advocate of Žižek, just a curious thinker fascinated by many of his observations.

Much of Christianity we take for granted, and quite a lot we don’t even really “see” at all—it’s just assumed and accepted. Common issues within Christianity are often framed in such a way as to mystify the real, underlying issues. This is not to say that there are not many who call themselves Christians who are also people of genuine faith, but the larger culture with all its variations and internal antagonisms, is rife with “givens.” Even the small community church that pulls away from the larger church (whatever that is) does so within a set of ideological assumptions about its place in the world and the available theological positions. There are, because there has to be, exceptions, but it is worth engaging with someone like Žižek (profane though he can be) in order to see with different eyes. Consider this talk he gave in 2008 at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. His topic was ideology and tolerance:

Though Žižek does not address many of the specific questions facing Christians, and though he speaks within a thoroughly secular framework, he does raise alternate views on how ideology plays out in our beliefs. If Christians thought more about their beliefs, especially their beliefs about being Christian in the social/cultural/historical sense (and I must say that some already do this), I think we would begin having more interesting conversations. Maybe we could cut through some of the garbage as well.

As I watched Žižek’s lecture, here are some brief thoughts that came to my mind:

  • When I think of his concept of a post-ideological society I wonder if we are living in a post-theological society as well. In other words, is Christianity today less theological and less ideological than in the past? Or is it that we are less theological and more ideological? In other words, are we more inclined towards illusions of truth?
  • His idea that we are addressed as slightly spiritualized hedonists strikes me as not only true in terms of advertising, but also true in terms of modern evangelical Christianity. Consider how so much of worship music in pop-Christian churches is a continual reference to the self and one’s personal feelings, desires, and experiences rather than what worship is supposed to be—about God. Consider how so many sermons are about how we can get through life better, have better marriages, raise better kids, find centered feelings of peace, rather than plain old encouragement to run the hard race through the frequently awfulness of life until the race is over.
  • Christians, as much as anyone, are living in a “realize yourself” world where we seek the truth not that we might conform to it, rather that we might find ourselves in it—that truth might be found to be us. Thus, truth becomes not only a tool for one’s own self-actualization, but truth must necessarily be fragmented into various individualized truths as self-actualizing individuals struggle to make truth change to their own desires.
  • His example of tolerance in explaining ideology is interesting. I wonder how much of the ecumenical spirit within much of Christianity is really about tolerance. And I wonder if tolerance is really just another word for smugness.
  • His tearing down of the ecological myth of a once balanced earth (Gaia) disturbed by man, and that we must get back to the natural balance of Nature, is rather profound. In a sense he is stating, in secular terms, that creation is fallen and out of balance already. Might this correspond to the biblical idea that the goal is not to get “back to the garden” rather it is for creation to be save, transformed, made new again?
  • I wonder how much of popular Christianity, from its pop music to it pop worship, operates within the terms of fetishism. In ideological terms, and Hegelian, could it be that pop Christianity is (or looks) more Christian than true Christianity? Or that the emotions contrived by so-called worship teams add greater depth to the truth of Christ? Or that the hi-def screens and concert quality audio make the message of faith more contemporary?
  • Lying for the common good: The idea that in classic totalitarian ideology (as exemplified in The Dark Knight film) a lie is necessary for social stability begs the question of how often we promote lies for the stability of our own social worlds. How often does it happen that Christian communities embody and carefully maintain little lies in order to maintain the particular idea of Christianity they are trying to believe is true?
  • His idea that we act as if we believe seems to fuel much of Christian culture, especially regarding popular attitudes towards prayer and worship. We pray that someone will be healed, in our hearts we do not believe that prayer will make a difference, but we believe prayer still works even if we do not believe it works, and thus we act as though it does, and thus we convince ourselves that it does.
  • I wonder how much of what goes for popular Christianity is really just a system of belief where nobody truly believes but they all pretend to believe because of the social constructs they inhabit (e.g. kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but they pretend to believe for the sake of the parents). In other words, how much of popular Christianity is a system of belief and how much is genuine belief?
  • The chicken who is not allowed to “know.” I wonder how much of popular Christianity is a kind of fiction born out of the need for a particular version of Christianity that we tell to children. In other words, do we change true Christianity into a a kind of fairy-tale Christianity so that it is much easier for us to tell it to our children, to answer their tough questions, and to not get too deep into the tragedy of life? And then, do children tend to know (or come to know) that it is a fairy-tale version of Christianity (or just a fake version of life) they are given, but they go along with the farce for the sake of their parents’ delusions? And do the parents end up believing the lies they tell? And finally, do the children end up believing the lie when they have children of their own?
  • In popular Christianity who is the “chicken” who is the Big Other? Think about the sexual scandals in the Catholic church over the last few years. What was the purpose of the systematic cover up? The church preaches that people are sinners, including priests. Who were they protecting? Was it the Pope? Or was it the laity? Who were they trying to keep from knowing? Or consider popular Christianity and its often strange language, linguistic tropes, its strange fashions and mannerisms. Why talk and behave that way? By behaving in a non-real way who is being protected? I wonder if the Big Other in popular Christianity isn’t God. I wonder if Christians tend to play the game not because they are lying to themselves but because (subconsciously) they hope they are lying to God.
  • Are there things that we “see” in popular Christianity that we know we see but are supposed to pretend that we do not see? That is, do we play a game of fabrication in which we sublimate the truth under the guise of acting like Christians?
  • We know we are to be loving, but are told that if we can’t be loving at least be polite. Then we believe that being polite is being loving. What do we do with this?
  • Do we like being Christians because it gives us more freedoms than our liberal, politically correct society? Is our desire for those freedoms from a good heart or bad? How often do Christians champion their subculture so that they can claim their gun rights, or their property rights, or even the right to hurt others in the name of Christ?
  • I wonder if our modern consumer Christianity falls into an historical progression from: 1) become a Christian because it is the truth, it is the best option, to 2) become a Christian because that’s what the other cool/hip people are doing, the mega-church is the happening place, to 3) become a Christian in order to realize your full potential, become the real you, actualize yourself.

Now, there is a problem in thinking about ideology, that is one can begin to feel trapped. I do not believe that we are trapped within ideologies or ideological structures to such a degree that we cannot get out of them. But I do believe it is good to more carefully examine the structures of our beliefs, including the social contexts that support and perpetuate those beliefs.

¹ By “popular Christianity” I mean that in the broadest sense, the way we use the phrase popular music for example. It is that form of Christianity that is most clearly evident across our culture. One could say it is that core orthodoxy that animates the personal claims of being Christian throughout much of the world, and especially in the West. All of us, I would contend, more or less hold to this form of Christianity, and all of us, more or less, struggle with it, either patching up the chinks as we go, or in some fashion, abandon it for another. Popular Christianity is not the same as biblical Christianity or authentic Christianity, though a Venn diagram would likely show some overlap.

² I recognize that the word ideology is rather vague in this context, and I intend it to be so. If I had to define ideology I might say it is the set of (largely submerged) beliefs (held sometimes consciously and generally unconsciously) that serve to propagate and maintain both other beliefs and social structures of belief. On the other hand, this definition is probably both too broad and poorly aimed. In short, to use the word ideology is to say that what is taken for granted, what is accepted as obvious, often belies a deeper, more complex, and frequently more troubling reality.

9/11 and the Kingdom of God

Ten years ago . . .

Firefighter climbing up WTC stairs while others go down, 9/11/2001.

I had to be at work by 6AM PST. I worked in tech support for a large software company on the west coast and many of my clients were on the east coast. As I entered the building the security guard asked me if I had heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I had not. When I got to my desk I logged on to my computer and then I thought I would check an online news source to see something about that plane. In my mind I imagined a small private plane. As I tried to access various news related web sites none of them would load. It was like the Internet suddenly ground to a crawl. I knew something must be up, meaning a lot of people were trying to access the same sites as me and the traffic was overwhelming their servers. So I stood up and noticed no one was at their desks around me, but that a crowd had formed at another cubicle across the room. I walked over. Someone had attached a television receiver to their computer and everyone was watching the live newscast. As I approached the first thing I saw was the image of the two towers, one of which had smoke pouring from it. I stood there thinking, “Boy is this ever a major mistake.” I assumed the pilot of a large plane had miscalculated terribly. Then, a couple of minutes later I saw the second plane hit the second tower. Immediately a shiver went up my spine and I knew this was no accident. We all stood there in silence, stunned. Then a number of us ran to our phones. A lot of the agents had clients in those towers. Though they may have never met them, they knew them, they had worked with them, talked with them about their families, and some had become friends of the agents. The phone lines were overloaded; they couldn’t get through. We could tell people were trapped in those buildings. Then I remembered my sister. She was on a business trip and was supposed to fly into New York City that morning. I called her but couldn’t get through. I called my parents. My sister had missed her flight and was fortunately stuck at the hotel. Her husband, a pilot for Continental, was at the controls of his plane returning from Mexico when he was forced to land in Florida. I called my wife and told her to turn on the television. All in all it was a strange and disturbing day: Lots of worries, lots of heartache, lots of speculation. That day also began a two week period for me of many tears as I watched over and over the footage, heard many of the stories of tragedy and heroism, and listened to recordings of last voicemails to loved ones.

I am getting teary just writing this, and yet “my” 9/11 was tame in comparison to many others’. Fortunately, no one I knew died or directly suffered anything serious that day, but I will never be the same nonetheless. That day left its imprint on all of us who, each with our own stories, were witnesses.

Tragedies like 9/11 are defining moments. Recently I have been viewing once again Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War. That war was probably the most defining “moment” in the history of our nation, and it was an indescribable tragedy. It was, in effect, the “crossroads of our being” as Shelby Foote said. I wonder what we will say about 9/11 in a hundred years. Was it also a crossroads? Maybe so. I hope that in the long run it was a crossroads for good; I hope the direction we go as a nation redeems, in some way, that horrible day.

As a parent I am deeply concerned about this world and the future. And as a Christian facing into tragedies I have to ask if I truly believe that God is sovereign. What I have learned the hard way is that God is good and trustworthy regardless of the tragedies in our lives. I am not to live in fear but to trust God. That is sometimes hard to do. It is in our nature to live in either fear or denial. As I look at this country since that fateful day I do not think we have done a great job as a nation in dealing with 9/11. Even though many people died that day, I believe the real motive behind the attacks was to create a climate of fear. From what I can tell the terrorists succeeded. But it does not have to be that way. Christians are to be salt and light. The early church could have lived in fear. They were a persecuted church and many Christians came to tragic and terrible deaths. But they did not live in fear. Instead they proclaimed the good news. They knew that God was in control, that He is trustworthy, and that true life is much grander than the few years we experience in this age. We should have the same attitude today as those early Christians. We should not fear terrorists or other enemies; we should not fear other 9/11’s, we should not fear death.

I know it is easy to say this from the comfort of my office, but the older I get the more I am convinced that events like 9/11 are touchstones that bring out who we truly are. We can be the kind of people who cling ever more tightly to this world, who fear tragedy might strike us too, and that are loath to give up what little we have. Or we can be people who are reminded by 9/11 that this life is fleeting, that our lives are utterly contingent upon God, and that our lives are not only about the here and now, but even more so about the kingdom of God where no tear shall be shed. To live in fear is to remain only in the kingdom of this world. The tragedy of 9/11 was born from the kingdom of this world and inflicted by its servants. Christians, however, belong to a different kingdom, a kingdom that this world desperately needs to embrace and to love. Christians of all people should not be cowed into a fearful submission by the popular rhetoricians of the day, rather we should confidently turn to God and proclaim that He is the source of all life, and then turn to the world and continue to proclaim.

Remember what Christ said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (St. Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

Let us then, as we remember 9/11, and as we rightly mourn the day, continue to seek first the kingdom of God. And let us teach our children to do the same.

>Mindless Menace of Violence

>In light of the shooting in Arizona today that left several people dead, including a 9 year old girl, I am reminded of a speech by another politician:

I wonder how compatible or incompatible the concepts outlined in this speech are with biblical Christianity.

Note: When I first posted this I made mention of the shooter being an Afghanistan war veteran. That information was erroneous and came from early but false reports. I have removed that information. I apologize for any misrepresentation.

>Jacques Ellul: Anarchy and Christianity


I am thus very close to one of the forms of anarchism, and I believe that the anarchist fight is a good one. What separates me, then, from the true anarchist? Apart from the religious problem, which we shall take up again at length, I think that the point of division is as follows. The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society – with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities – is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.

~ Jacques Ellul

Here is the text of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity from Google books.

The link to the book is here.

The Christian Nation

I am re-posting this from my other blog.

To the degree that this nation (U.S.A.) is, or has ever been, a Christian one, is the degree to which one can question such a “fact.” For to be called “Christian” is to bring along all that that name implies, evokes, and requires. But that is a very dicey proposition at best. What nation would want to be judged by the Sermon on the Mount? What nation would want to be compared to the example of Jesus? What leader would want to be evaluated by Jesus’ definition of hypocrisy? When we examine this country, its history, its foreign policies, its current events and current leaders, the facts say otherwise. Regardless of the hagiographic mythologies of this country’s creation and of its “fathers”, this is not, nor has ever been a Christian country that has lived up to that name. But from the political stump and from its pulpits this country grasps at that label as though it were some ultimate and magical brand that can whitewash any tomb. And Christians go along with the charade. Maybe it is because modern American Christianity is only a pale shadow of its Christ. Maybe we have lost sight of what Jesus taught us. Maybe most of us never really knew. I am reminded of something Wendell Berry wrote:

Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?
~ Wendell Berry, “Christianity and The Survival of Creation” (1993)

Before Constantine it took courage to be a Christian. After Constantine it took courage to be a pagan. The Roman empire became the Holy Roman Empire. Conquering by conversions is not quite the same as leading people to truth. But then, once everyone was a Christian, there arose the idea of the invisible church, that is, that group of individuals who were truly “believers” not merely playing the part. Many so-called Christians did not behave as Christians should so there was a need to, in effect, say there are two kinds of Christians, the real and the fake. This is an important distinction. However, it is easy to claim membership in the invisible church. Who is to say you are wrong? If we look for evidence it must come from the outward actions, the visible behaviors that represent the inner heart (I think of the book of James). So we look at each others actions, and what is it we should see? Consider this passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, verses 16 & 17:

Wash yourselves;
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

These words are directed at a certain people – the “people of God.” Many Americans today would also say these lines describe what the U.S. is all about, along with saying this is God’s country, etc. But they are misinformed. These words are part of a passage calling for repentance. They are so simple and yet they are the opposite of so much that is done in this nation’s name. Think of the genocide of native Americans, or the labor struggles and their often brutal suppression, or the struggle for civil rights. U.S. foreign policy in Latin America alone of the past 50 years is enough to be ashamed for this country. And this is a remarkably un-repentant country. A case could be made that the U.S. is the most prideful country on earth today. I am reminded of President Obama’s inaugural speech where he stated, “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.” We have heard the same kinds of statements from all presidents. Bush said the same kinds of things on numerous occasions. But the true Christian – the one with the eyes to see and the ears to hear – will not be surprised. Just as the religious leader thanked God he was not like other men, so goes the way of the self-righteous nation.

So, is this a Christian nation? Yes, but not of the so-called invisible church – the one trying to live out the example of its Christ in fear and trembling. That church has no nation – only a kingdom for which it waits. This is a Christian nation in the Constantinian sense. And its Christ is now the one with the sword, and the checkbook, and the influence, and the self-righteousness.

There are three problems with my statements above. First is that I am implicated along with all of you. It is easy to point fingers and criticize, but I have benefited from all the good things this country offers and I am glad I was born here. I live in what was once called the frontier – a land taken from the indigenous peoples through force, cunning, and broken promises. And yet I love living here and will continue to do so. I am grateful for the role this country has played in securing freedom, yet I also benefit from many atrocious actions it has taken in securing that freedom. In short, I eat from a morally compromised harvest. The second point is that for all its faults the U.S.A. is not significantly different in its wickedness than other countries. The scale of its influence and global impact is often more staggering than most, but its moral nature is that of others. One cannot point the finger at this country without also pointing the finger all countries. (The reverse is true as well.) But this is the country I know best, and I am confronted by its apparently pivotal role in the world – for good and for wickedness. So I am compelled to criticize. Thirdly is the fact that one cannot really speak of a unrepentant country, for a country is really only a concept, a theory with a tenuous physicality. To speak of a country in moral terms is to get us all off the hook. When we speak of a foreign policy we are speaking of real actions based on real decisions made by real people and supported by other people. A country cannot be held accountable for its actions. For a country does not act. It’s citizens, leaders, bureaucrats, politicians, workers, and captains of industry do the acting. What we see on the whole is an aggregate of actions that, when taken together, appear to be a country acting. But it is each of us, as individuals who must cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause. And as we come together corporately we must create institutions that reflect those same values.

Again, is this a Christian nation? Christianity did not die off in America as many predicted a hundred years ago. In fact it has flourished. And yet, if we take a broad view of Christianity today we see a wildly mixed bag of cultural shallowness, tepid convictions, ignorance, political myopia, and a laundry list of conflicting statements of faith that more or less reflect a shadow of Christ. But we also find people profoundly challenged and changed by the life and teachings of Jesus. Some of these individuals may not fit into the standard, culturally defined aesthetic of our cultural Christianity. They may not fit into the visible church. And they may not (probably cannot) fit neatly into the commonly accepted cultural role of the citizen without challenging many of it assumptions. In other words, that invisible-church Christian living out her faith will likely come into deep conflict with the prevailing winds of this country’s politics, economics, and culture. And if we use that as our working definition of a Christian nation then any nation can be (might be, probably is) a Christian nation – but you’d never know.

>Celebrating the Oligarchy?


My goal was to publish this for July 4th. Other things took precedence, but here it is now.

Of the [forms of government] the perversions are as follows: of monarchy, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of polity, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.

~ Aristotle (1)
Governments are by definition about “power over” others. In the words of Greg Boyd, Jesus is about “power under.” (2) This is exemplified in Jesus’ example as well as his teaching. The establishment of the United States of America was, on the one hand, about getting out from under the power of England’s ruling class. On the other hand, the U.S. government is another form of “power over” others. It is a government, certainly somewhat unique at its inception, but still a controlling “power over” force. Popular ideology sees U.S. citizens freely and democratically submitting to that power, and even partaking democratically in the continued creation of that power. However, if Aristotle is right, and the “founding fathers” where certainly reading him in 1776, then what was established on July 4th was an oligarchy, not a democracy.

One question for us is whether the U.S. government is still an oligarchy (parading as a democracy) or whether it is truly a democracy. The other question, one for Christians specifically, is whether it matters.

The answer to the first question is most obviously that we still live in an oligarchy. It is well known that the “founding fathers” championed democracy early on and then became fearful of having uncorked the scary bottle of democratic populism. They were scared of mob (indigent) rule and realized they needed to carefully craft a constitution that used the language of democracy to appease the masses, but created an oligarchy in order to ensure the already established relations of power continue. In this sense the U.S. Constitution was a masterful response to the Declaration of Independence. One declared freedom, the other made sure that freedom was appropriately allotted. The wealthy would remain free and rule over the lesser freedoms of everyone else. All citizens are free, only some are more free than others. Concentrated power remained so, protected from the masses.

Since that time more democratic forms have been established (hard won) for all regardless of race or gender. We can all vote. We don’t have to own property, be of European decent, and male, in order to cast a ballot. In other words, the U.S. has shifted towards democracy in spite of the intentions of the majority of its powerful and wealthy rulers, though that shift has been limited and specific. But what is that shift worth in the face of limited candidate choices, mass collusion between big business and government, and increasing monopolization of media. The powerful generally always remain powerful and work to keep it that way. The wealthy remain wealthy and are the ones with the power. The game we call the U.S. government is truly a game from which we are fundamentally excluded. When we read about U.S. military actions, or the Patriot Act, or Wall Street bailouts we, the people, have no say or control in any of those areas. Though we can cast ballots we are not really in power. The great promise of democracy is fundamentally an illusion in this country.

So then, for all intents and purposes we are living under and oligarchy still. Does that matter? Yes and no.

Christians are called to be servants, to give up their lives for the lives of others, to love their neighbors and their enemies, and to trust in God for their well being and ultimate destination. Christians know that the first (the rich and powerful in this world) will be the last in the Kingdom of God. Jesus also taught us that the wisdom of God is sheer folly to us. The world is truly upside down, on its head. Christians are supposed to have eyes to see this, to have hearts that long for the reality of the kingdom, and to live their lives in light of that reality. But Christians don’t do that very well, and many Christians have embraced the Kingdom of this World and cloaked it in Christian sounding language. I believe the religious right falls into this camp. So do many others; maybe the religious left just as much.

Of all forms of government democracies may have the most potential for equality and freedom, which may be a better situation for Christian “values” to flourish. Though both points are debatable. On the other hand, there is no form of government that can either truly challenge or suppress the Kingdom of God. Totalitarian governments may persecute Christians. Caesars may throw them to the lions. But Christians are still promised the Kingdom, and no government – democracy, oligarchy, monarchy – can either offer a comparable replacement or take the Kingdom of God from anyone.

So the answer is no, it does not fundamentally matter whether we (Christians) live under one kind of flavor or style of the Kingdom of the World or another. We should still be able to have our faith, trust in God, love others, and find contentment (sophrosyne) in what ever situation we find ourselves in. We should be comforted that God is both sovereign and trustworthy.

On the other hand the answer is yes we should care. To the degree that any government oppresses others it should be called to account. To the degree that any government lies it should be called to account. Christians, while not being particularly concerned with Kingdom of the World concerns, are very much concerned with love, mercy, and truth. We have a desire that the Kingdom of God should triumph, that it should over take the Kingdom of the World and turn it upside down. We are revolutionaries at heart, but our methods are not to violently smash the structures of power (though we might throw our bodies on the gears) but to overcome with Jesus as our leader and our example. We seek a “power under” stance that begins with loving our enemies, even if it means to die for them. That is not just different than the Kingdom of the World, it is not merely opposite, it is the most fundamental challenge to everything the Kingdom of the World stands for, or is capable of achieving. It is LIFE in the face of death.

To give up our lives for our enemies. That is what Christians are called to do. Unfortunately, I can preach it but I don’t do it.

We make a big deal of the freedoms we have in the U.S. We tend to be proud of our life, liberty, and happiness. (It has been said that the attacks on the World Trade Center happened because “our enemies” hate our freedoms.) But Christians are called to give up their life, liberty, and happiness. We are to hold lightly such things in the light of a different set of priorities. The very foundation upon which the U.S. is based, though noble is, in a way, also un-biblical. It is not un-biblical because life, liberty, and happiness are bad things. No, they are good things as far as it goes. We should want those things for others and appreciate them when we have them. As Christians, however, we are to set aside those things, to be bond servants of God and not merely to ourselves and our desires. To be thankful that one lives in the U.S. is fine, but to be proud to be an American is folly. We are to recognize that the Kingdom of the World, no matter the amount of flowery language with which it surrounds itself, cannot offer life, liberty, or happiness. Nor can it take it away.

We are, however, not to live our lives as though there is no real world, no physicality, no Kingdom of the World. People are suffering because of wars and famines, because of poor choices and sin, because of foolishness and faulty social structures. Christians should be the first in line to help others through their suffering. We should not shy away, though I tend to. The Kingdom of the World is very real even though it’s not eternal. How we respond to the realities of this world has a lot to do with our eternal destinies and shows us where our hearts are. Do we love God? Then we will love others. Do we trust God? Then we will not fear the world. Do we follow Christ? Then we will love God, love our neighbors, and love our enemies, yeah even give our lives for our enemies as did Christ.

So, really it does not matter if we live in a oligarchy or a democracy. What matters is that we live in the reality of the Kingdom of God – and act accordingly.

(1) From Book III of Aristotle. Politics. trans. Benjamin Jowett. Thatcher, ed., Vol. II: The Greek World, pp. 364-382. New York: Colonial Press, 1900. Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text. Online at

(2) See chapter two of Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Question for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.