by Philip Pinto, cfc
CORI / IMU Workshop
Talk delivered at the Justice Workshop on
Friday 9 March 2012
Marino Institute of Education
IN THE LIGHT OF THE GOSPEL
Spirituality, Ministry and Human Rights
by Br. Philip Pinto, cfc
Over the past months we have grown accustomed to seeing images of unrest on our TV screens: pictures from the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement show the dissatisfaction of people with the current system of affairs. People are saying, ‘enough is enough!’ They are looking for change, and they are being incredibly brave about it. What sacrifices they are ready to make for this! Well, our Sacred Story too tells of such times. Allow me to remind you of one such time.
God said to Samuel, “Listen carefully. I’m getting ready to do something in Israel that is going to shake everyone up and get their attention. The time has come for me to bring down on Eli’s family everything I warned him of, every last word of it. I’m letting him know that the time’s up. I’m bringing judgment on his family for good. He knew what was going on, that his sons were desecrating God’s name and God’s place, and he did nothing to stop them. This is my sentence on the family of Eli: The evil of Eli’s family can never be wiped out by sacrifice or offering.” (1 Sam. 3:11-14)
We speak easily and glibly of “regime change.”
We imagine it is some regime other than our own;
We imagine our rightful capacity to make such change elsewhere.
But then you in Scripture,
You making regime change,
You overthrowing long-established priestly power;
You moving against things holy and treasured among us;
You causing endings that we had never thought possible;
You making newness beyond our conjuring.
And just behind old Eli and his loss of regime
Comes this Other Voice from your inner circle,
Summoning to radical newness,
Summoning to “repent”, and then,
A new regime: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
And all our old regimes –
Of heart and of mind,
Of money and of power,
Of privilege and of entitlement –
All are in one instant placed in jeopardy.
Give us courage to hear your summons;
Give us freedom to relinquish old regimes that have gone stale
In hardness and disobedience;
Give us ease to receive new governance that reshapes everything,
Even our deep treasures.
We live by your word; we await your news,
But we do so tentatively, reluctantly,
Knowing the cost to all that is settled and old.
So, Power of newness, come here, come soon.
One of the last things the Risen Jesus said to his disciples, before he was taken up like Elijah into the heavens, was that the church would depend for its survival and growth upon its ability to read the bible. The story has it that, on the way to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted the scriptures to the disciples” (Lk 24:27). That word for interpreted, whenever it appears in the New Testament, means “to translate from one language to another” (Acts 9:36), especially the interpretation of ecstatic tongues (I Cor 12:30; 14:5,13,27). The risen Jesus is, in other words, portrayed here as a patient translator of counterintuitive biblical wisdom into a parlance that his demoralized disciples can fathom.
Jesus makes it clear that the prophetic tradition should be the lens through which we make sense of our national history. Israel’s prophets were forever engaging the way things were with the vision of what should be: questioning authority, picketing palaces, refusing to settle, interrupting business as usual, speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless, stirring up the troops.
“The prophets were accused of treason in times of war-making, for being an inconvenient conscience, and inevitably jailed, exiled, or killed. Only after they were disposed of did they become nostalgic celebrities. Nevertheless, insists Jesus, it is these very prophets who teach us how the sacred story should be read. Their witness, represents the hermeneutic key to the whole tradition.
The prophets exhort us to defend the poor; but we lionize the rich. They assure us that chariots and missiles cannot save us; yet we seek refuge under their cold shadow. They urge us to forgo idolatry; but we compulsively fetishize the work of our hands. Above all, the prophetic Word warns us that the way to liberation in a world locked down by the spiral of violence, the way to redemption in a world of enslaving addictions, the way to genuine transformation in a world of deadened conscience and numbing conformity, is the way of nonviolent, sacrificial, creative love. But neither polite religion nor society are remotely interested in this—which is why Jesus had to “translate” and “midwife” the prophetic insights for his companions in their historical moment.”
I remember coming to Rome from India and entering this new world where everything was so different. I had never used email before coming to Rome. I now did not have to save my document after every paragraph just in case the electricity went off. The showers worked and water was always available. The house was warm and the table was always well laden. A few months after my arrival my Congregation Leader asked me what my greatest fear was. And out of my mouth came the words, “My greatest fear is that I might grow to like Rome!” I think I knew instinctively that if I were to lose my connection with a simpler way of living, with the plight of the poor, I would lose myself. No wonder Shakespeare could write with such powerful insight: ‘Security, is mortals’ chiefest enemy!’
Many of us, good men and women, live on the ‘epidermis of faith’, nourished by a conventional Christianity. We find religious security in the beliefs and practices that are within our reach, but we do not live in joyful relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus is slowly being extinguished in our hearts, while we listen to ‘clichés’ that impoverish and distort his person: such a Jesus cannot attract, seduce, or enamour us. It also hurts to hear him described in routine, worn-out language. It does not ignite our hearts or set fire to the world; it does not start a conversation.
Strangely, we have come to a moment in human history when the message of the Sermon on the Mount could indeed save us, but it can no longer be heard above the din of dueling doctrines. Consider this: there is not a single word in that sermon about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!
Thus the most important question we can ask in the church today concerns the object of faith itself. The earliest metaphors of the gospel speak of discipleship as transformation through an alternative community and the reversal of conventional wisdom. In much of the church today, our metaphors speak of individual salvation and the specific promises that accompany it. The first followers of Jesus trusted him enough to become instruments of radical change. Today, worshipers of Christ agree to believe things about him in order to receive benefits promised by the institution, not by Jesus. What, says Robin Meyers, must we do today so that once more we can take seriously what Jesus demanded of the first disciples? ‘Follow me’ he said, not ‘worship me’.
This difference, between following and worshiping, is not insignificant. Worshiping is an inherently passive activity, since it involves the adoration of that to which the worshiper cannot aspire. It takes the form of praise, which can be both sentimental and self-satisfying, without any call to changed behavior or self-sacrifice. In fact, Christianity as a belief system requires nothing but acquiescence. Christianity as a way of life, as a path to follow, requires a second birth, the conquest of ego, and new eyes with which to see the world. It is no wonder that we have preferred to be saved.
If the church is to survive as a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, then we will need to commit ourselves once again not to the worship of Christ, but to the imitation of Jesus. His invitation was not to believe, but to follow. Since it was once dangerous to be a follower of The Way, the church can rightly assume that it will never be on the right track again until the risks associated with being a follower of Jesus outnumber the comforts of being a fan of Christ. Until we experience Jesus as a “radically disturbing presence,” instead of a cosmic comforter, we will not experience him as true disciples. The first question any churchgoer should be asked and expected to answer is: What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?
Jesus leads us to believe in God without making God’s mystery an idol or a threat. Unfortunately we sometimes live with sick images of God, and transmit them from generation to generation without weighing their disastrous effects.
Contact with Jesus invites us to set aside routines and posturing: it frees us from the deceptions, fears and selfishness that paralyse our lives; it introduces in us something as decisive as joy in living, compassion for the least of these, or tireless effort toward a more just world. Jesus teaches us to live with simplicity and dignity, with meaning and hope.
“We begin to encounter Jesus when we begin to trust God as he did, when we believe in love as he did, when we come to suffering people as he did, when we defend life as he did, when we look at people as he did, when we confront life and death with hope as he did, when we pass on the contagion of the Good News as he did.”
To proclaim God’s mercy in a concrete, understandable way, he began doing something that John never did. He healed people that no one else could heal; he soothed the pain of the forsaken; he touched lepers than no one else would touch; he blessed and embraced children and the little ones. They would all feel the saving nearness of God, even the most forgotten and despised of them: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the demon possessed, the Samaritans.
Jesus was trying to convince people that the coming of God to establish justice was not a terrible, spectacular intervention but a liberating force, humble yet effective, and that it was there in the midst of life, within reach of anyone who accepted it with faith.
Jesus did not ask the peasants to fulfil their obligation of paying the tithes and first fruits; he didn’t tell the priests to observe the purity laws more carefully when they conduct atonement sacrifices in the temple, and he didn’t encourage the scribes to enforce the Sabbath and other laws more faithfully. The reign of God was different. What God cared about was liberating the people from whatever dehumanised them and caused them suffering.
All his activity was aimed at establishing a healthier society: his rebellion against pathological religious attitudes such as legalism, authoritarianism, or the meaningless cult of righteousness; his efforts toward justice and solidarity; his offer of forgiveness to people overwhelmed by guilt; his embrace of people abused by life or society; his determination to liberate them all from fear and security for a life of absolute trust in God. Healing, liberating from evil, lifting out of depression, reprimanding the religious leaders, building a more friendly society, were all paths toward the reign of God. These are the paths that Jesus followed.
Jesus cannot think about God without thinking about his plan to transform the world. Thus for Jesus the best place to understand God is not at worship, but wherever God is making the reign of justice a reality among human beings. Jesus understands God in the midst of life, as an accepting presence for the excluded ones, as a healing power for the sick, as gratuitous forgiveness for the guilty, as hope for those who have been defeated by life.
His filial experience of God also impels Jesus to unmask the machinery of a religion that is not at the service of life. A religion that works against life is a false religion. No divine law is unchangeable if it harms people who are already so vulnerable. When religious law harms people and plunges them into despair, it loses its authority; it does not come from the God of life.
Sr. Janice McLaughlin MM in a very readable presentation writes:
“Julius Nyere told us forty years ago that we should leave our institutions and go and live with the people, work with them, suffer with them and fight against injustice with them. ‘The poor and oppressed should come to you not for alms, but for support against injustice’.
“My forty years in mission on the African continent have helped me to know what this means.
· It means to make friends with the people to whom you are sent. They will be your new family and will teach you all you need to know.
· It means to let your heart be broken by the poverty and suffering you will encounter each day. Your tears will enable you to be a compassionate and healing presence.
· It means to accept your powerlessness. This will allow you to become an open channel of God’s transforming love.
· And it means to trust in God who loves you and who loves the people you have come to serve.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that one of our roles is to be “mid-wives of meaning”. We help to reveal the presence of God in the small events of everyday life.
“The great challenge today is to convert the sacred bread into real bread, the liturgical peace into political peace, the worship of the Creator into reverence for the Creation, the Christian praying community into an authentic human fellowship. It is risky to celebrate the Eucharist. We may have to leave it unfinished, having gone first to give back to the poor what belongs to them.” [Raimundo Panniker]
“Redemption means overcoming all forms of patriarchy…. Suffering is a factor in the liberation process, not as a means of redemption, but as the risk that one takes when one struggles to overcome unjust systems whose beneficiaries resist change. The means of redemption is conversion, opening up to one another, changing systems of distorted relations, creating loving and life-giving communities of people here and now, not getting oneself tortured to death.” [Rosemary Radford Ruether]
When the World Bank produces data showing that worldwide there are twenty-five thousand children who die of starvation each day and more than one billion people who live on less than one dollar a day, a critical judgement becomes inescapable. The ship of concentrated poverty, built by systems that plunder the many to feed the wealth of the few and kept afloat by the denial of basic human rights, is laden with a cargo of grinding misery and cruel death. Thus depicted, poor people are the ‘under side’ of history. They are ‘nonpersons’ who count least or not at all. Among the six-billion people on this planet, their name is legion.
In Latin America, base Christian communities made a startling discovery: in situations of misery God is not neutral. When people are ground down, this violates the way God wants the world to be. In response, the living God makes a dramatic decision: to side with the oppressed peoples in their struggle for life. In theological shorthand this is known as God’s preferential option for the poor. The sole reason for this partiality is divine love, which freely sides with the poor not because they are more saintly or less sinful than other, but because of their situation. The purpose of this divine partiality is to heal, redeem, and liberate the situation so that the dehumanising suffering will cease. Precisely in this partiality is the goodness of divine love revealed to be truly universal, because it includes the nonpersons whom the powerful and wealthy thought did not count.
“Liberation” becomes the language for exploring this precious, startling insight. God is a liberating God whose signature deeds set people free.
Listen to the way the Holy One summons Moses from the burning bush in the desert. The four verbs of this text are utterly revelatory of the heart of God:
I have seen the misery of my people here in Egypt; I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know well what they are suffering; therefore I have come down to deliver them. [Ex. 3:7-8]
The text reveals that the God of Israel sees, hears, knows (feels) the affliction of these enslaved people, and so comes to set them free. No wonder the bush was on fire!
For decades the concern of European church leaders and theologians has focussed on persons whose faith is threatened by the acid of secular, atheistic culture. Among the poor, by contrast, the focus is not on the non-believer struggling for faith but on the non-person struggling for life. Here the question is not whether God exists, but how to believe in God amid such inhumane suffering. The quest for an answer moves theology to proclaim the true God of life against false idols.
Idolatry entails putting alien gods before the true God of the Bible. In the Church of the Poor these gods are money, the comforts it brings, and the power necessary to make and keep it. And like all false gods, money and its trappings require the sacrifice of victims. The truth of God is twisted to justify human oppression, and companion creatures are demeaned in the name of a distorted view of divine will. On this frontier a profound challenge goes forth to the whole church: stop trivialising the scandalous statements that scripture makes about God.
I would like to finish with a reading of the Scriptures that allows us to see how central Jesus’ cry for justice is to the whole scene. It is not about another world that he alludes, not about ‘salvation’ for the sake of heaven or the soul. It is about this world and the right relationships that are central to being human, and thus finding our soul.
In the parable that we have called the unjust judge, or the importunate widow, we come across the story of the widow crying for justice and the judge procrastinating. Story is interpreted with God as the widow and we as the judge. We are deaf to the cries of the poor and to the situations of violence and injustice in our world. Yet God does not give up.
 Ched Myers
 Jose Pagola, Jesus An historical approximation
 Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church
 Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God
 Elizabeth Johnson