Bob Schwartz

Category: Christianity

James Carroll: To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood

James Carroll is the author of 20 books, including his memoir, An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, and Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism. While he left the priesthood 45 years ago, he remains a faithful Catholic.

This extraordinary essay by James Carroll is a must read—not just for Catholics or Christians or other religionists or skeptics, but for anyone interested in the place of religion in our 21st-century world.

I am not a Catholic, I am not a Christian, but I am a person who believes that religion is important and that religions of all kinds best serve and are best served when they function as human and humane enterprises, just as their founding spirits intended. When they don’t, but instead excuse or pretend or ignore their own spiritual failures, religions of all kinds not only disserve but do hypocritical harm. And turn more and more people off and away.

There is a future for the Catholic Church, as there is a future for other religious traditions, including my own. But that future, if it is to include a wide range of 21st-century citizens, must begin with institutional courage, honesty, self-reflection, and necessary change and evolution—even if that change and evolution amounts to reformation.

A very brief excerpt of the essay follows.


Abolish the Priesthood
James Carroll

To save the Church, Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy—and take the faith back into their own hands.

…What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman Empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascetic monks and hermits, may have been put forward, early on, as a mode of intimacy with God, appropriate for a few. But over time the cult of celibacy and virginity developed an inhuman aspect—a broader devaluation and suspicion of bodily experience. It also had a pragmatic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself….

The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too. The habit of looking away was general enough to have taken hold in me back then. When I was the chaplain at Boston University, my campus-ministry colleague, the chaplain at Boston State College, was a priest named Paul Shanley, whom most of us saw as a hero for his work as a rescuer of runaways. In fact, he was a rapacious abuser of runaways and others who, after being exposed by The Boston Globe, served 12 years in prison. It haunts me that I was blind to his predation, and therefore complicit in a culture of willed ignorance and denial.

Insidiously, willed ignorance encompasses not just clerics but a vast population of the faithful. I’ve already noted the broad Catholic disregard of the Church’s teachings about divorce and remarriage, but on the issue of artificial contraception, Catholic dissent is even more dramatic: For the past two generations, as Catholic birth rates make clear, a large majority of Church members have ignored the hierarchy’s solemn moral proscription—not in a spirit of active antagonism but as if the proscription simply did not exist. Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way….

The model of potential transformation for this or any pope remains the radical post-Holocaust revision of Catholic teachings about Jews—the high point of Vatican II. The formal renunciation of the “Christ killer” slander by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality. The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished. The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged. Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now….

[T]o simply leave the Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged and its best ones unsupported. When the disillusioned depart, Catholic reactionaries are overjoyed. They look forward to a smaller, more rigidly orthodox institution. This shrinkage is the so-called Benedict option—named for the sixth-century founder of monasticism, not for Benedict XVI, although the pope emeritus probably approves. His April intervention described an imagined modern dystopia—pedophilia legitimated, pornography displayed on airplanes—against which the infallible Church must stand in opposition. Benedict’s Catholicism would become a self-aggrandizing counterculture, but such a puritanical, world-hating remnant would be globally irrelevant.

The renewal offered by Vatican II may have been thwarted, but a reformed, enlightened, and hopeful Catholic Church is essential in our world. On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no nongovernmental organization has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church. So let me directly address Catholics, and make the case for another way to respond to the present crisis of faith than by walking away.

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority….

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”

In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken….

What remains of the connection to Jesus once the organizational apparatus disappears? That is what I asked myself in the summer before I resigned from the priesthood all those years ago—a summer spent at a Benedictine monastery on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I came to realize that the question answers itself. The Church, whatever else it may be, is not the organizational apparatus. It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to him—or it is nothing. The Church is the fellowship of those who follow him, of those who seek to imitate him—a fellowship, to repeat the earliest words ever used about us, of “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.”

Sarah Sanders Knows God’s Will and Says God Wants Trump

Berry Chapel, Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, alma mater of Sarah Sanders

“I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president. And that’s why he’s there.”
Sarah Sanders, White House Press Secretary, interviewed by Christian Broadcasting Network

[long pause]

[another long pause]

Some people believe that that they know the will of God and that God intervenes in worldly affairs according to that will, in any and all matters. In this view, God exercises preference for particular outcomes—from presidential elections to football games to epidemic diseases. God wants Trump to be president. God wants the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl. God wants to punish homosexuals with AIDS. And so on.

Others believe in a non-interventionist God, who has set the scene, given humans a treasure of tools, and expects those humans to make or break whatever they will. Sometimes those humans use those tools for great good, sometimes they act the fools, and sometimes they are monstrously destructive. It’s up to them. It’s up to us.

If, like Sarah Sanders, you claim to know God’s will and know that he wants Trump, consider this. If you sum up all that Trump has done and said so far, in his life and his presidency, does God by his “choosing” Trump endorse all of that? That is, under the Sanders theology, if we know Trump, we know his benefactor God.

Leaving us with this disturbing question: Just what kind of God does Sanders believe in?

Christmas: The Prequel (Infancy Gospel of James)

Gaudenzio Ferrari, The Annunciation to Joachim and Anna, 1544-45

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out.
Bart Ehrman

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Joan Didion

Whether you are one who takes the events in the canonical gospels as history or story, there are certainly missing pieces in the narratives. Over the centuries, these gaps have been filled in by inspiring and imaginative “other gospels.”

The Infancy Gospel of James is a dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. It can be found in The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše.

Bart Ehrman writes:

Of all the early Christian apocrypha, none played a larger a role in the theology, culture, and popular imagination of late antiquity and the Middle Ages than the Proto-Gospel of James. This is the Gospel “prior to” the Gospel, an account of the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus.

The focus of attention is on Jesus’ mother Mary, on her own miraculous birth, upbringing, young life, and engagement to Joseph. In addition, the account narrates, as a kind of Christian expansion and interpretation of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s continued virginity (demonstrated famously by a midwife’s postpartum inspection), and the opposition to the Christ child by King Herod, leading to the miraculous protection of John the Baptist and his mother, and the murder of his father, Zacharias, the high priest of the Jews, in the temple.

The account was probably written in the late second century and became particularly popular in the eastern part of Christendom….

For the most part the Proto-Gospel was not transmitted in the West because its portrayal of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage was roundly condemned by no less an authority than Jerome. In Jerome’s forcefully stated view, Jesus’ alleged brothers were in fact his cousins. This interpretation was closely tied to Jerome’s ascetic agenda: for him, not only was Mary a perpetual virgin, but Joseph—the earthly father of the Lord—was as well. The account of the Proto-Gospel was explicitly condemned in 405 CE by Pope Innocent I….

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out. If he was special, as shown by the fact that he was conceived by a virgin—what can we say about his mother? Who was Mary? What made her special? How was she herself born? How did she maintain her own purity, to make her a worthy “vessel” for the Son of God?…

Here Mary is not an impoverished Jewish peasant. Her father is the richest man in Israel and of royal blood. She herself is of impeccable morals and purity. Her purity is safeguarded from the time of her birth and demonstrated in her unusual upbringing, as she spends her young life, literally, in the temple, day and night, fed by the hand of an angel. The stories of the account demonstrate in particular her sexual purity. Not only is she a virgin at the time of her conception; she also remains a virgin, even after giving birth, as shown by the physical inspection of a skeptical midwife. Joseph himself never lays a finger on her. Moreover, he is not a poor carpenter, but an established building contractor. Finally, Mary’s spinning activity is not for money, it is to provide a curtain for the sacred temple of God.


From The Proto-Gospel of James (The Birth of Mary, the Revelation of James)

The Rich Joachim and His Self-Exile
1

(1) In the “Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” there was a very wealthy man Joachim, who used to offer a double portion of his gifts to the Lord, saying to himself, “The portion that is my surplus will be for all the people, and the portion that is for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my atonement.” (2) Now the great day of the Lord drew near, and the sons of Israel were offering their gifts. Reuben stood before him and said, “You are not allowed to offer your gifts first, since you have not produced any offspring in Israel.”

(3) Joachim was very upset and went away to consult the book of the twelve tribes of the people, saying to himself, “I will examine the Book of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to see if I am the only one not to produce offspring in Israel.” And he searched and found that everyone who was righteous had raised up offspring in Israel. Then he remembered the patriarch Abraham, that at the end of his life the Lord God had given him a son, Isaac.

(4) Joachim was very upset and did not appear to his wife, but went out to the wilderness and pitched his tent there. Joachim fasted for forty days and nights, saying to himself, “I will not come down for either food or drink until the Lord my God visits me. My prayer will be my food and drink.”

***

Some Angelic Visitations
4

(1) Then, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.” Anna replied, “As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it will minister to him its entire life.”

(2) Behold, two angels came, saying to her, “See, your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.” For an angel of the Lord had descended to Joachim and said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here; see, your wife Anna has conceived a child.” (3) Joachim immediately went down and called his shepherds and said, “Bring me here ten lambs without spot or blemish, and the ten lambs will be for the Lord God; and bring me twelve young calves and the twelve calves will be for the priests and the council leaders, and bring a hundred male goats for all the people.”

(4) And behold, Joachim came with his flocks and Anna stood beside the gate and saw Joachim coming with his flocks; and running up to him she hung on his neck and said, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me abundantly. For see, the widow is no longer a widow and I who am childless have conceived a child.” Then Joachim rested the first day in his home.

The Birth of Mary
5

(1) On the next day he brought his gifts as an offering, saying to himself, “If the Lord is gracious to me, the leafed plate of the priest’s mitre will make it known to me.” And Joachim offered his gifts and looked closely at the priest’s leafed mitre as he went up to the altar of the Lord; and he saw no sin in himself. Joachim then said, “Now I know that the Lord God has been gracious to me and forgiven me all my sins.” He went down from the temple of the Lord justified and came to his house.

(2) Some six months came to completion for Anna; and in the seventh month she gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The midwife replied, “A girl.” Anna said, “My soul is exalted today.” And she laid the child down. When the days came to completion, Anna washed off the blood of her impurity, gave her breast to the child, and named her Mary.

Mary’s Early Life
6

(1) The child grew stronger every day. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground, to see if she could stand. She walked seven steps and came to her mother’s bosom. Her mother lifted her up and said, “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk at all on this ground until I have taken you up to the temple of the Lord.” Then she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not allow anything impure or unclean to pass through her lips. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews and they entertained her.

(2) When the child had her first birthday, Joachim held a great feast and invited the chief priests, priests, scribes, council leaders, and all the people of Israel. Joachim brought the child out to the priests and they blessed her, saying, “O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name that will be famous forever, to all generations.” And all the people replied, “Let it be so! Amen.” They brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, “O Most High God, look upon this child and bless her with an ultimate blessing, equal to none.”

(3) Her mother took her back to the sanctuary in her bedroom and nursed the child. And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying, “I will sing a holy song to the Lord my God, for he has visited me and removed from me the reproach of my enemies. The Lord my God has given me the fruit of his righteousness, unique and abundant before him. Who will report to the sons of Reuben that Anna is now nursing a child? Listen closely, you twelve tribes of Israel: Anna is nursing a child!” And she laid her down to rest in the bedroom of her sanctuary and went out to serve the others. When the feast ended they descended happy, and they gave glory to the God of Israel.

***

Joseph Becomes Mary’s Guardian
8

(1) Her parents went away marveling, praising and glorifying God, the Master, that the child did not turn back. Mary was in the temple of the Lord, cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel.

(2) But when she reached her twelfth birthday, the priests held a council and said, “See, Mary has become twelve years old in the Lord’s temple. What then shall we do with her, to keep her from defiling the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” They said to the chief priest, “You have stood on the Lord’s altar. Go in and pray about her, and we will do whatever the Lord God reveals to you.” (3) The chief priest went in, taking the robe with twelve bells into the Holy of Holies; and he prayed about her. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to him, “Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and gather the widowers of the people, and have each of them bring a rod; she will become the wife of the one to whom the Lord God gives a sign.” The heralds went out to all the countryside of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord was blown, and see, everyone came running.

***

Mary Spins for the Curtain in the Temple
10

(1) Then the priests held a council and said, “We should make a curtain for the Lord’s temple.” The priest said, “Call to me the undefiled virgins from the tribe of David.” The servants went out looking for them and found seven virgins. The priest then remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David, and that she was undefiled before God. The servants went out and led her back. (2) And they brought them into the Lord’s temple. And the priest said, “Cast lots before me to see who will spin the gold, the asbestos, the fine linen, the silk, the sapphire blue, the scarlet, and the true purple.” Mary drew the lot for the true purple and the scarlet, and taking them she returned home. At that time Zacharias became silent. Samuel took his place, until Zacharias spoke again. And Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it.

The Annunciation
11

(1) Mary took a pitcher and went out to fetch some water. And behold, she heard a voice saying, “Greetings, you who are favored! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” Mary looked around, right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She then entered her house frightened and set the pitcher down. Taking up the purple she sat on her chair and began to draw it out. (2) And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her and said, “Do not fear, Mary. For you have found favor before the Master of all. You will conceive a child from his Word.” But when she heard this she asked herself, “Am I to conceive from the living Lord God and give birth like every other woman?” (3) The angel of the Lord said to her, “Not so, Mary. For the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one born from you will be called the Son of the Highest. And you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary replied, “Behold the slave of the Lord is before him. May it happen to me as you have said.”

Mary Visits Elizabeth
12

(1) She made the purple and the scarlet, and brought them to the temple. The priest took them and blessed her, “Mary, the Lord God has made your name great; you will be blessed among all the generations of earth.”

(2) Full of joy, Mary went off to her relative Elizabeth. She knocked on the door; and when Elizabeth heard she cast aside the scarlet and ran to the door. When she opened it she blessed Mary and said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For see, the child in me leapt up and blessed you.” But Mary forgot the mysteries that the archangel Gabriel had spoken to her, and gazed at the sky and said, “Who am I, Lord, that all the women of earth will bless me?”

(3) She stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Day by day her own belly grew. Mary then returned home in fear, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. She was sixteen when these mysteries happened to her.

Joseph Discovers Mary’s Condition
13

(1) When she was in her sixth month, behold, Joseph returned from his buildings. As he came into the house he saw that she was pregnant. Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.”

(2) Joseph rose up from the sackcloth, called Mary, and said to her, “You who have been cared for by God: why have you done this? Have you forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you humiliated your soul—you who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel?” (3) But she wept bitterly and said, “I am pure and have not had sex with any man.” Joseph replied to her, “How then have you become pregnant?” She said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know.”

***

The Authorities Discover Mary’s Condition
15

(1) But Annas the scribe came to see him and said, “Joseph, why have you not appeared before our council?” Joseph replied, “I was tired from my journey and rested on my first day back.” Annas then turned and saw that Mary was pregnant. (2) He left and ran off to the priest and said to him, “Joseph, the one you have vouched for, has committed a great sin.” The priest replied, “What has he done?” He said, “He has defiled the virgin he received from the Lord’s temple and has stolen her wedding rights. And he has not revealed this to the sons of Israel.” The priest asked, “Joseph, has done this?” Annas the scribe replied, “Send some servants, and you will find that the virgin is pregnant.” The servants went off and found her just as he had said. They brought her back to the judgment hall, along with Joseph.

(3) The high priest said to her, “Mary, why have you done this? Why have you humiliated your soul and forgotten the Lord your God? You who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel, and heard his hymns, and danced before him—why have you done this?” But she wept bitterly and said, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him and have not had sex with any man.”

(4) The priest then said, “Joseph, why have you done this?” Joseph replied, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure toward her.” The priest said, “Do not bear false witness, but speak the truth. You have stolen her wedding rights and not revealed it to the sons of Israel; and you have not bowed your head under the mighty hand that your offspring might be blessed.” Joseph kept his silence.

***

The Journey to Bethlehem
17

(1) An order went out from the king, Augustus, that everyone from Bethlehem of Judea was to be registered for a census. Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But what should I do about this child? How should I register her? As my wife? I would be too ashamed. As my daughter? The sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord will turn out as he wishes.”

(2) He saddled the donkey and seated her on it; and his son led it along, while Samuel followed behind. When they approached the third milestone, Joseph turned and saw that she was gloomy. He said to himself, “Maybe the child in her is causing her trouble.” Then Joseph turned again and saw her laughing. He said to her, “Mary, why is it that one time I see you laughing and at another time gloomy?” She replied, “Because my eyes see two peoples, one weeping and mourning and the other happy and rejoicing.”

(3) When they were half way there, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out.” He took her down from the donkey and said to her, “Where can I take you to hide your shame? For this place is a wilderness.”

Joseph Watches Time Stand Still
18

(1) He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

(2) But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked down to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. The shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

The Birth of Jesus and the Witness of the Midwives
19

(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.

(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”

(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”

***

The Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents
21

(1) And behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judea. But there was a great disturbance in Bethlehem of Judea. For magi came saying, “Where is the king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.”

(2) When Herod heard, he was troubled; and he sent servants to the magi. He then summoned the high priests and asked them in the praetorium, “What does Scripture say about where the messiah is to be born?” They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for that is what is found in Scripture.” He then released them and asked the magi, “What sign did you see concerning the king who has been born?” The magi said, “We saw a magnificent star shining among these stars and overshadowing them, so that the other stars disappeared. And thus we knew that a king had been born in Israel, and we came to worship him.” Herod replied, “Go and look for him. If you find him, let me know, that I too may come to worship him.”

(3) The magi then left, and behold, the star they had seen in the east preceded them until they entered the cave, and it stood over the entrance of the cave. The magi saw the child with its mother, Mary, and they took from their packs gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (4) When they were warned by a revelation from an angel not to enter Judea, they went home another way.

***

The Death of Zacharias
23

(1) Herod was looking for John, and he sent servants to Zacharias, saying, “Where have you hidden your son?” He answered them, “I am a minister of God, constantly attending his temple. How could I know where my son is?” (2) The servants left and reported everything to Herod. Herod became angry and said, “His son is about to rule Israel.” He sent his servants back to him to say, “Tell me the truth: where is your son? For you know that I can shed your blood with my hand.” The servants went to report these things to him. (3) Zacharias responded, “I am God’s witness if you shed my blood. For the Master will receive my spirit, since you will be shedding innocent blood in the forecourt of the Lord’s temple.” Zacharias was murdered around dawn, but the sons of Israel did not know that he was murdered.

***

Epilogue
25

(1) But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness when there was a disturbance at the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem came to an end. There I glorified God, the Master, who gave me the wisdom to write this account.

(2) Grace be with all those who fear the Lord. Amen.

© Oxford University Press 2014

A 7-year-old girl dies in U.S. custody. The White House disclaims responsibility. The White House needs lessons in logic. And compassion.

When I was hungry you gave me to eat
When I was thirsty you gave me to drink
Whatever you do to the least, you do it to Me

Washington Post:

Trump administration not to blame for ‘tragic’ death of 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody, White House says

A White House spokesman on Friday called the death of a 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody a “tragic situation” but said the Trump administration is not to blame and called on Congress to “disincentivize” migrants from making long treks to the southern U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday that the girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert.

Asked by a reporter if the administration is “taking any responsibility for the girl’s death,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”

According to CBP records, the girl and her father were detained about 10 p.m. Dec. 6 south of Lordsburg, N.M., as part of a group of 163 people who approached U.S. agents to turn themselves in.

More than eight hours later, the child began having seizures, CBP records show. Emergency responders, who arrived soon after, measured her body temperature at 105.7 degrees. According to a statement from CBP, she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”

She died less than 24 hours after being transported by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso.

Here is the missing logic:

It is stipulated that the girl died in part from dehydration, also possibly from malnutrition.
It is stipulated by the U.S. CBP that she had not eaten or consumed water for several days.
The CPB had her in custody for eight hours before she showed symptoms.
During the eight hours she was in custody, she could have been given water and food, but apparently wasn’t.
Therefore, CPB could have done something to help prevent the death but didn’t, which indicates some responsibility.

As for the missing compassion, last night the White House held its grand Christmas Party. Maybe somehow, sometime, during the season, they will learn something. Miracles do happen.

“Honoring Pittsburgh synagogue victims, Pence appears with ‘rabbi’ who preaches, ‘Jesus is the Messiah’”

 

Washington Post:

Two days after the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, Vice President Pence bowed his head at a rally on Monday in Michigan as a religious leader who casts himself as a “rabbi” offered a prayer for the victims in Pittsburgh.

But the man who shared a stage with Pence, Loren Jacobs, preaches Messianic Judaism, a tradition central to Jews for Jesus, a group condemned by Jewish leaders as faux Judaism that seeks to promote Christian evangelism. The major Jewish denominations join the state of Israel in viewing followers of Messianic Judaism as Christian, not Jewish.

His appearance drew outrage on social media.

When I read this story, my reaction—I am not kidding—was: Oh Jesus!

I haven’t covered this issue of messianic Judaism much, though I’ve talked with others about it plenty. The last time I wrote about it was in discussing Roy Moore.  You may recall that his controversial and unsuccessful run for the Senate, along with including questions about Moore’s inappropriate behavior with a young woman, also included claims that Moore was anti-Semitic. To counter the charge, Moore’s wife pointed to their having a Jewish attorney. It turned out that the attorney was a messianic Jew.

The Post story does a good job of outlining the issue. Suffice it to say that if you believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, you are free to believe that. But according to any accepted normative theology held by any Jews, Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, and believing that he was makes you by definition not Jewish. (To go into a little more detail, a number of Jews historically gave up on the coming of any messiah, while a small minority still believe in the future possibility of a messiah. Jesus has no place in either of those schemes.)

Along with the question of whether the “rabbi” Pence invited was actually a rabbi or a Jew, the whole approach is inappropriate by any spiritual or humane lights. That is, under the tragic and sensitive circumstances, bringing this person to that event and having him say what he said (including endorsing Republicans) was about as un-Jesus-like as anything imaginable. Pence’s “rabbi” is no Jew, and with this stunt, neither Pence nor his “rabbi” appear to be very good Christians either.

What Some American Christians Can Learn From Mexican Catholics

Mexico has the second largest Catholic population in the world. With over 100 million Catholics, 91% of Mexicans are Catholic.

There is a migrant caravan of thousands currently heading north through Mexico. I saw a Mexican policewoman giving water to migrants. I saw Mexicans giving food and clothing to migrants.

Forget about the circumstances and politics of this particular migration. Maybe your family history does not include those who had to endure a long and arduous journey to get away from something bad or seek something better—or both. Maybe your family history does.

Forget about what we learn almost daily about the Catholic Church and hidden institutional corruption and perversion. Many in the Church still try to closely follow the teachings of Jesus and the compassion of the Holy Mother—maybe more in Mexico than anywhere.

Thirst, hunger, exposure, suffering. Christians claim to understand these through the example of a savior painfully dying on the cross yet to the end demanding love and compassion, no questions asked. This is something some American Christians—some prominent and powerful American Christians—seem to hypocritically ignore. This is something some Mexican Catholics seem to remember and live by.

Who damaged him?: “Trump cites as a negotiating tool his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.”

It is the kind of question we usually ask about serial killers and genocidal dictators, not about the President of the United States: who damaged Trump so tragically? Was it his parents? Satan? Or did he invent himself in the form of a toxic monster? (My thought, which may be suggested in a future post, is that Trump may be the Antichrist. But that’s for later.)

Washington Post:

President Trump has calculated that he will gain political leverage in congressional negotiations by continuing to enforce a policy he claims to hate — separating immigrant parents from their young children at the southern border, according to White House officials.

On Friday, Trump suggested he would not change the policy unless Democrats agreed to his other immigration demands, which include funding a border wall, tightening the rules for border enforcement and curbing legal entry. He also is intent on pushing members of his party to vote for a compromise measure that would achieve those long-standing priorities.

Trump’s public acknowledgment that he was willing to let the policy continue as he pursued his political goals came as the president once again blamed Democrats for a policy enacted and touted by his own administration.

The real tragedy is not that Trump is trying to reshape America as his personal hell on earth, for his purposes. The tragedy is how many Americans, including so many Republican leaders and people of supposed faith, are willing to join him in that effort and cheer him on.

As with all monsters, political and criminal, the question is not really how they became the monsters they are. The question is what, if anything, we do about it.

The Very Small People Running America

The people running America are very small, starting with the president, and continuing down through his administration and his Republican supporters.

What does small mean?

Let us put it in terms these people will understand, since practically all of them claim to be faithful, most of them faithful Christians:

So God created mankind in his own image.
Genesis 1:27

That is, of course, aspirational. Not that people will be able to reach godlike heights of compassion and care. But that is the constant goal—interrupted by the shortfalls we are all subject to, being human as we are.

But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe God is petty and ignorant, uncaring and uncompassionate. In which case, those running America are being faithful, acting so small in the image of a very small God.

Or maybe they don’t understand the very first chapter of the Bible they embrace, or maybe they ignore it or skip it. Maybe they don’t understand, ignore or skip the entire Bible.

Anyway, these are very small people, faithful or just pretending to be. Way too small to be doing such a big job.

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

Jews begat
Christians begat
Muslims.
Thousands became
Millions became billions.
Blessed and blind warriors
Pages of holy books
Edged in gold
Sharp as swords.
Angry and bitter blood transmutes
To sweet water in the scorching desert
Of seeking souls.

©

Note: We are in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, commemorating the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. It is sad astonishment to students of all three Abrahamic faiths to see how zealously ignorant and contentious some of the faithful of each may be to each other. (Jews who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the New Testament; Jews and Christians who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the Qur’an.)

In fact, each faith has produced extraordinary core texts that should be the first stop for anyone claiming to know anything—not only about the other, but about their own traditions. The golden threads of Judaism are woven into Christianity, the golden threads of Judaism and Christianity are woven into Islam. The ugliness and terror are man-made; the best parts are from the compassionate and caring.

L’dor vador. From generation to generation. One family.

Merton’s Last Year: Wisdom is No Vaccine

I’ve been reading the journals of Thomas Merton, and here is a thought. There is never a level of wisdom and awareness that removes doubt, no matter who you are. Never a level of wisdom and awareness that answers all the questions. Only better doubts and questions, unresolved and unanswered.

If you pay attention, you’ve noticed that people you admire, people you study and may try to emulate, are “only human.” They suffer from physical, psychological or soul problems, just like anybody else. This applies to people who may have served, or are still serving, as spiritual guides.

I’ve been with Thomas Merton a long time, reading him, reading about him, visiting his abbey and his Center. I am well aware of some of the questions and doubts that dogged him, especially about the choices of life he had made. Of course, Merton had pushed the envelope and managed a few tricks that benefited us and him. Entering a cloistered and mostly silent order, he produced thousands of words that reached around the world.

One of the things I have not read enough of are his journals, which he kept for decades, and which occupy seven published volumes. I had read his Asian Journal, which he kept on what was to be his final trip, when he was accidentally killed on December 8, 1968 in Bangkok. Aside from that, I had not read much of the journal of his last year, a time when Merton was more expressly reviewing his life and choices.

Knowing what we know about events, some think that Merton “sensed” he was heading towards an unexpected end. But Merton always knew there was an end, and Merton never stopped investigating, whether he had a few more days or, as we would like, many more years.

I am working my way through the last volume of his journal, covering October 1967 through December 1968 (The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, The Journals of Thomas Merton Book 7). Along with his valuable observations about America and the world in that tumultuous time, we get close to a great man wondering whether the things he had done, for himself and others (like us), was the best use of a life. An unmarried Catholic monk in rural Kentucky, but also a very worldly man, he wonders about other religious traditions, about getting married, about living in California.

Wisdom does not provide immunity, wisdom is no vaccine. If anything, that is wisdom itself.