Oh How Can It Go So Wrong?

humilityWho among us has not felt the ugly cloak of self-righteousness upon our shoulders? For most of us, it is a humbling and heartbreaking experience, one that leaves us filled with shame and begging to be forgiven for forgetting who and what we are.

Not that I favor the constant not-really-so-humbling- practice of constantly confessing loudly our sinful nature. I find that rather self-righteous actually. I see no need to heap ashes upon my head on a regular basis. My failures and limitations are known to God and to me, and in the quiet of my own heart these things are pondered deeply and acted upon appropriately. All else is for show it seems to me.

Today’s liturgy focuses on the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we all know, the Pharisee was among his peers an object of piety, a stickler for the details of Jewish law, and always quick to call for perfect compliance in the strictest sense. The tax collector, was an outsider within his community, working for the Romans, taking his pay as a cut from the exorbitant tax bills of his fellow Jews. The more he got from them, the more he got. He was shunned and hated by all those who saw him coming.

The Pharisee enters the temple and begins reciting all his virtues–how he is superior to most of his fellow Jews, especially this lowly tax collector. He apparently thinks that God needs reminding and remind Him he does. On the other hand, the tax collector dares not even raise his eyes heavenward, so ashamed of his sinful nature is he. He begs for mercy.

No doubt the Pharisee, perhaps not with words, but in intent does not beg at all, but merely asks to be given his due, what he assumes is his (wealth, prestige, power) because he is who he is, a Pharisee.  The tax collector expects nothing, but he trusts that this God of love will consider his plea.

We are led to recall the first reading from Sirach:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay. (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18)

Can we relate?

If there was ever a story to point out what Pharisees might appear like today it is this story:

A server at a popular Italian eatery in Kansas was shocked to find that customers had left behind an anti-gay message on their bill in lieu of a tip.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent,” the customers had written. “That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.

The customers continued: “We hope you will see the tip your fag choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’S love, but none shall be spared for fags. May GOD have mercy on you.”

No doubt any decent person finds this type of thing utterly shocking. One can easily see the self-righteous arrogance of the writer. So very sure they are right. So very sure they know the mind of God. So very sure they will be properly rewarded for their public chastisement of the young waiter. The slurs make it clear that there is no human love offered, but merely condemnation.

Good people of faith will of course be horrified and condemn this behavior for what it is, an utterly misguided reading of scripture, a failure to recognize the over-riding directive of love that we are all to obey first and foremost, and a blatant exhibition of raw bigotry.

Others will condemn the words used, but claim that the action was still appropriate because they too are sure they understand the bible correctly.

Some few others will remind us that it is our “job” to advise the sinful of their sins, since they may be somehow “unaware”. Christian duty is their cry.

People of no faith will nod their heads and once again point out that this is what “religion gets you”. If there is anything good in religions of any kind, it has long been lost to powerful interests within and their acceptance of “rules” that on their face are unfair, unjust, ugly, bigoted. No God who would create such a rule, they argue, is a God worth worshiping or following.

As I remain separated from my Church, I watch as it struggles with these issues. Pope Francis signals that at the very least, our rhetoric has been ugly and off-putting. It does no good to welcome with the one hand while the other is demanding that to be a member in good standing, one must cease and desist being who you are. There is no welcoming in this. There is only some sick pathetic attempt to portray something one is not.

One wonders how the patron at the restaurant learned such ugliness. Jesus certainly modeled no such behavior. The companies like Hobby Lobby who are suing the government in order not to be required to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of birth control and other reproductive assistance is another example. Where does Jesus model this sort of “my way or the highway” approach. Did he not uphold the Samaritans on many occasions–a sect reviled by ordinary Jews.

If one believes that this is from God, then surely one must be horrifically wrong, for this is not love, this is not compassion, nor is it forgiveness, welcoming, community, support, loving kindness. There is nothing good here at all. There is only hatred, fear, and self-righteousness, that suggests that in finding you lesser I am somehow better.

And this cannot be so.

This cannot be God.

 

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The Agony of the Scandal

Catholic bishop head in ground sexual abuse scandal denial child rape abuse hypocrisy vatican pope liars roman catholic churchLast Wednesday I was greeting some workmen come to do some decking work on our patio. Noticing the smudge of black soot upon my forehead, Ernest said, “You’re Catholic huh?”

I nodded, and mumbled something like, “Yes, unfortunately sometimes.”

I could barely believe that that came out. And I found myself mulling over the fact that what once was a proud declaration “YES! I’m Catholic!”, had become something to be mildly ashamed of.

I began to ponder upon this, as I have more than once. The Church that I had joined so happily was almost an embarrassment to me. Yet, I feel it is my Church, one that I must stick with, albeit with all it’s warts and self-inflicted wounds.

Of course what prompted the remark I made Wednesday, were more revelations about the priest abuse scandal in Los Angeles, and how then Cardinal Mahoney had not just remained mute as authorities sought to investigate criminal charges against priests in the archdiocese, he actually aided and abetted them avoiding justice, by assignments outside the state.

In a seeming never-ending series of such announcements, both in America and in Ireland and elsewhere, the Church never seems to get it. Some of the cover-ups have occurred as recently as three years ago. It is horrifying to regular Catholics, two-thirds of which in the US no longer attend mass on any reasonable basis.

I was watching UP with Chris Hayes this morning and the discussion was  about the scandals and the recent decision on the part of Pope Benedict to step down. Actually Benedict’s decision is a model for what should have been done by Monsignors, bishops and cardinals throughout the church when it was determined that they had abused their office in trying to hush the abuse of young children and keep it under wraps.

All those who participated should have resigned their office. ALL of them. Any priest, either by evidence or by confession, who was guilty of abusing children should have been dismissed from all duties as a priest immediately. A church that can pour literally millions of dollars into the Knights of Columbus for the purpose of funding NOM and preventing loving people from a legal union, can certainly have afforded to use millions to help all the victims of abusing priests.

That is where the anger lies.

But it goes deeper than that, I realized, as I listened to the panel discuss the issues.

Many priests and lay have decried the incessant and relentless interest that the Church maintains about sexual issues. Certainly if one looks at the Gospels, one finds few references by Jesus to the issue, yet the Church finds itself embroiled in what are sometimes referred to as “pelvic issues” constantly. At least they are the favorite issue of the media.

As you know, I am “living in sin” as far as the Church is concerned, because my husband has been previously divorced. Neither he nor his exes were Catholics. I am the only Catholic, yet our marriage is considered illegal and at age 62, they insist he should seek annulment. I can make the step to say that the Church has some right to make this declaration, however silly it all seems to be, but the real rub for me, and where I dig in my heels, is that it denies me the right to full communion with the Church.

I am denied Eucharist. The Church decides that my marriage makes me an unrepentant sinner, and unworthy of union with the Lord. There I disagree. To a Catholic, nothing is more sacred, more awe-inspiring than the Eucharist, where we, (including myself) believe that in some mysterious way, Jesus joins with us in union. To deny me this, is to deny me the very essence of the Church.

I of course ignore the rule. I freely receive communion (although of course I remain a visitor to my church rather than a member where prying questions might lead to uncovering my status). I feel deeply that it is Jesus who invites us to the table, not the Church. If Jesus determines that I am unworthy, then my Lord has the perfect ability to avoid this union and I  will partake of simple bread and wine. That I am willing to accept as possible. But the Church’s opinion is not of concern to me.

The Church speaks boldly its objection to sex without benefit of marriage, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. These are all “pelvic” issues. Yet, when faced with its own sex-related crimes, which are not religious “crimes” but real and terrible crimes, it doesn’t correct the wrong to the best of its ability, rather it flagrantly avoids punishment and sets the worst possible example. Why should anyone listen to the Church’s pronouncements on how they should conduct their most intimate life when the Church still refuses to address its own failures and crimes?

We as laity cannot fathom why this was done. No good reason has been proffered as to why the Church did not do the obvious thing–dismiss each priest immediately and accompany the victims to the police and stand by them as they gave their evidence. There is no excuse. For God’s sake, our Lord stood by  truth even when they hung him on a tree! Where in the scriptures does the Vatican find excuse for its behavior in all this?

If the Church feared losing it’s power and authority, well it has accomplished that in its attempt to sweep it all under the rug. Jesus lost all authority and power from a human point of view when he went to Calvary. He lost his very life. Yet he gained everything, a loyal following that, has spread his Word worldwide, and engaged in incredible acts of charity and love for our fellow man.

This is being lost. All the good that the Church has done and counseled in the area of poverty, fair wages, immigration, universal health care, and justice issues throughout the world is being threatened by this ugly and awful response to a crisis that should never have been a crisis in the first place. Men who prey on children seek places to have easy access to them. The priesthood was always a logical place to expect it. Yet, we find ourselves here at  this place, with this scandal.

Why don’t we all leave? Because it is OUR Church, and we still remember what she has been and can be again–the place of refuge for the weary and downtrodden, the home for those rejected because of arbitrary conditions. It will once again return to being the shepherd she was meant to be. That is why we stay.

Amen.

A New Look at Romans 1:26-27

This is a reprint of a post from Nota Bene:

I believe it is the most interesting and convincing argument I have yet seen on the issue of homosexuality and “Paul’s” alleged beliefs about it. It is compelling in my opinion.

Romans

Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.


Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It’s yet another example of how close study of the Bible – in this case, the function of a single word – raises far more questions than it does answers.

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