August 10, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
For want of a better adversary in today’s edition of the New York Times, I’ll engage with Brother Douthat, the Vatican’s emissary to the paper of record, whose stated concern today is “American Nuns and the Fate of Liberal Christianity.” Jim Salter of the Associated Press provides some background:
At a pivotal national meeting, members of the largest group for American nuns have been weighing whether they should accept or challenge a Vatican order to reform. The national assembly is the first since a Vatican review concluded the Roman Catholic sisters had tolerated dissent about the all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality, while remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion. Officials at the Holy See want a full-scale overhaul of the organization under the authority of U.S. bishops.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 American sisters. The rebuke from the Holy See, issued in April, prompted an outpouring of support for the sisters nationwide, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a resolution in Congress commending the sisters for their service to the country….
The president of the nuns group, Sister Pat Farrell, is expected to make an announcement Friday as the meeting ends. She has indicated in her public remarks this week that the sisters may not formulate a definitive response.
In Douthat’s telling, the nuns have only an either/or choice. They can either knuckle under to Vatican “reforms,” or they can go all new-wavy and become (even more) irrelevant. Here’s how Douthat puts it: “I think it’s fair to see the Leadership Conference on Women Religious as torn between … two alternatives.” The first alternative: “only a reaffirmation of historical Christian practice and conviction can restore liberal Christianity’s vitality.” The other alternative: “a path that Sister Laurie Brink memorably (and controversial) described as ‘moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus’ – shedding the ‘bounds of institutional religion’ and dropping a focus on ‘Jesus as Christ’ in favor of a pilgrimage that seeks ‘the spirit of the Holy in all of Creation.’”
As Douthat has written before, liberal Christianity is in “decline and disarray,” so their second choice would be a disaster. Ergo, their only viable alternative is to submit to the pope and his American enforcers. Salter explains: “Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain has been appointed along with two other American bishops to oversee rewriting the groups’ statutes, reviewing its plans and programs and ensuring the group properly follows Catholic ritual.” Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times wrote this week,
The Vatican’s ‘doctrinal assessment,’ issued in April, accused the nuns of a host of transgressions, including featuring speakers at conferences who did not adhere sufficiently to Catholic beliefs, advancing ‘radical feminist themes,’ permitting ‘corporate dissent’ on church teachings against birth control and homosexuality, and being silent in the church’s fight against abortion and same-sex marriage while pouring energy into working for the poor and disenfranchised.
As far as I can tell, the Vatican’s “charges” are essentially true.
Let’s assume that part of Douthat’s thesis is correct (I don’t know if it is or not, but it seems plausible) – that “the distinctiveness of the liberal churches’s decline – its depth, duration and seeming irreversibility – remains an incontrovertible fact.” Douthat calls it “liberal Protestantism’s current sickness-unto-death” and claims that “at least some of Catholicism’s post-’60s decline is part of the same story of liberal Christian failure that’s visible in the Episcopal/Methodist/Presbyterian dégringolade.” That is, liberalism is responsible for any decline in adherence to the Roman Catholic Church, too.
Let’s further assume, for argument’s sake, that the underlying reason for this decline is what Douthat identifies as being “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” Douthat was referring here to the Episcopalian Church, but he recognizes the same phenomenon among liberal Roman Catholics, like the nuns meeting in St. Louis: “Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves,” Douthat wrote.
The only way to save modern establishment Christian denominations, in Douthat’s view, is to go the pope’s route: demand an adherence to “more dogmatic” teachings, deeply grounded “in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.”
Because Douthat sees everything from religion to politics in black-and-white, either/or terms, it is not surprising that he cannot – or prefers not to – come up with solutions that might (a) stanch orthodox church decline, (b) be grounded “in Bible study,” and (c) be downright liberal.
The New Testament is chock-full of liberal teachings. In fact, it is these liberal Christian teachings that inspire the nuns (and others) to “work for the poor and disenfranchised.” Even this Pope and these American bishops do not disagree with this principle. In fact, earlier this year American bishops wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and other Roman Catholics in Congress, reminding the lawmakers that “Just solutions … must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs. The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria….” Boehner chastised the bishops for taking too narrow a view.
Among evangelical Christian, whose churches Douthat says are “the most successful Christian bodies,” the favorite Gospel is the Gospel of John, the last-written Gospel. (I guess they’re right fond of Revelations, too, which only made it into the canon over the objections of many early theologians.) Unlike the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, which all flow from the same general biography of Jesus, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as “a stranger from heaven,” and a very dogmatic one at that. John is essentially one long, often elegant, argument for getting with Jesus or else: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) While such dogma is definitely open to a Gnostic interpretation that allows plenty of wiggle room – the Gospel itself borrows from some Gnostic texts – modern fundamentalists accept only a literal reading: “For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who believes the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life.” (John 6:40) If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re destined to rot in hell. The Gospel of John is an extended scare tactic.
The Jesus of the other three Gospels – called the Synoptic Gospels because they see the Jesus story from similar perspectives (and probably rely heavily on the same source texts) – is a decidedly more liberal and open-minded guy. In the Synoptic Gospels, the rich are the heavies – “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25) – and Jesus advocates for the poor in deed, sayings and parable. Traditionally, many of these sayings and parables have been misunderstood. More recent Biblical scholarship, however, has returned to the original meaning of sayings attributed to Jesus – sayings that fit well into today’s “liberal” theology.
Take, for instance, the saying, “… whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other one also.” (Luke 6:29) This has long been interpreted as pacifistic advice and is unpopular with the holy war crowd. But theologian Walter Wink, who died recently, understood the saying quite differently. In the gospel story, Wink noted, Jesus was speaking to poor, mistreated Jews who had to make their way through life under the constant threat of persecution by their violent, tyrannical Roman oppressors. Since the Jews used their left hands only for “unclean” tasks, it was against the law even to gesture with the left hand. Now, if someone is facing you and strikes you on the right cheek, it has to be a back-handed slap. Such a slap is not meant to physically injure the victim, as in a fistfight, but to insult and humiliate him. Just as there were legal consequences for using the left hand in ancient Judea, so were there laws against striking an equal. So, Wink reasoned, a slap on the cheek would come from a “superior,” someone who was legally allowed to punish an inferior. Thus, the slap came from the master to his slave, the husband to his wife, the parent to his child, the Roman to the Jew; “… retaliation would be suicidal…. Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because,” Wink reasoned, “this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them.” By turning the other cheek, the victim is showing the oppressor that his slap had no effect. Not only that, logistically, the superior cannot effectively slap the right cheek with his right hand, so he cannot hurt his victim with the full force of his usual strength. In Wink’s interpretation, then, “turn the other cheek” is one of the few ways a powerless person can get the better of his oppressor. It is an “aggressive” action, or as aggressive as an oppressed person can get without suffering dire consequences. It is the essence of nonviolent resistance: an inspiration for protest movements the world over.
The Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus are not uniquely Christian. In fact, there are almost no sayings attributed to Jesus that cannot be found in other, earlier-written literature. “Turn the other cheek,” for instance, appears at least twice in the Old Testament: in describing what is good for a man, Lamentations introduces the language of “turn the other cheek”: “Let him give his cheek to the smiter.” (Lamentations 3:30) The Suffering Servant of Isaiah expresses a similar sentiment and credits his forbearance to God’s help:
I gave My back to those who strike Me, and My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting, for the Lord God helps Me, therefore, I am not disgraced…. Who has a case against me? Let him draw near to Me. Who is he who condemns Me? Behold, they will all wear out like a garment, the moth will eat them. (Isaiah 50:6-10)
A saying in an ancient catechism called the Didache is more or less identical with the Gospel saying: “If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.” (Scholars disagree as to whether the Didache was written before or after the Gospels.) The teaching was not limited to Jewish ethicists, either. Right before his death in 399 B.C.E., Socrates said, “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” Socrates’ acceptance of his fate is certainly a model for Jesus. That is, these early Christian texts express fairly universal progressive ideas, ideas that champion the oppressed over their oppressors. “Turn the other cheek” is doctrine, Mr. Douthat, and it is doctrine that a liberal can love. Christian ideals are, for the most part, ecumenical ideals, so Christian leaders can be dogmatic and Jesus-centric, or they can be “experimental” and “boundary-blurring,” as Douthat puts it. Either way, Christian doctrine serves as a guide to liberal values.
Let’s take a quick look at one parable to see how it fits into liberal ideology: Matthew’s “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16) In the parabolic story, a landowner goes out in the morning and contracts with some day laborers to pay them one denarius for a day’s work. He went out several times again the same day and offered work to laborers with a promise to pay them “whatever is right.” At the end of the day, he called all the men to come and get their wages. “When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.” Those who worked all day grumbled when they learned that all the men, no matter how late they came and how relatively little work they did, received the same pay.
Traditional theologians treat the parable as an allegory. They say the landowner represents God, and the parable contrasts divine compassion (represented by the landowner) with human envy (as evidenced by the grumbling laborers). But scholar William Herzog says that the characters in the parable are not allegorical types at all. They are exactly who the parable says they are: participants in Palestinian agrarian society. The landowner is not God; he is a member of the urban elite who own large tracts of land which the elite usually obtained by foreclosing on bankrupt peasant farmers. Day laborers were even more destitute than peasants. In Roman Palestine, they were the younger sons of peasants whose fathers didn’t have large enough estates to leave to them. They were former landholding peasants who lost their lands to folks just like the landowner in the parable. They were “expendable” people in the oppressive society in which they lived. They had nothing. Day laborers lived horrible existences: homeless, starving and able to find only occasional work. As the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, for the peasant, “life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard makes the point that the first laborers hired had “agreed” to the pay of one denarius for the day’s work. The landowner described the pay as “generous.” Since theologians and some scholars have long assumed the landowner represented God, they accepted the landowner’s word. But Herzog thinks the pay was inadequate for even a single person to live on, much less an entire family. He says the laborers would have spent their one day’s wage on one day’s food for themselves. But, as the parable implies, day laborers could not find work every day. On their “idle” days, they would have to beg to eat. In ancient Palestine, even at harvest time, there was apt to be a surplus of these half-starved men looking for work. The parabolic laborers whom the landowner hired at the start of day had no bargaining power whatsoever. They “agreed” to the paltry pay because it was better than nothing. Had they not accepted the landowner’s terms, the landowner would have hired some of the others who were still “standing around” at the third, sixth and even the eleventh hours. When the landlord accused those he hired later of being “idle,” they retorted that they were “standing around … ‘because no one hired us.’” They were not lazy; they were anxious to work. These other workers, when the landowner later hired them, were so desperate for work they didn’t even demand a contracted wage. They agreed to work for the landowner based on his vague promise that, “whatever is right I will give you.” They had probably heard this one before. So had some of the early hearers of the parable.
Herzog notes that most scholars devote a lot of ink to the faults of the first group of laborers, while none finds fault with the oppressive landowner. But the landowner reveals he is not only cheap and arbitrary, he is cruel. Herzog says the landowner pays the last-hired first because he wants to insult and shame the first-hired workers. He wants to let them know how little he values them and their work at the same time he makes the pretense of being friendly and fair. The landowner’s dismissive treatment of the poor laborers is his own way of rationalizing and “justifying” aristocratic behavior that the Torah said was unlawful.
Herzog’s interpretation fits well into the general theme of the Synoptic Gospels. We can scarcely doubt that the Synoptic writers saw Jesus’ ministry as one directed primarily toward helping the poor. As Luke put it, Jesus began His ministry by announcing, “…He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor….” [Luke 4:18] Again and again the Synoptic Gospel writers favor the poor over the rich and the powerless over the powerful. In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, by Herzog’s reckoning, we find Jesus once again preaching a radical, communistic concept, one that astonished his disciples and which today forces us to question our own nation’s “standard operating procedures.”
I have no idea how American nuns will address their differences with the male hierarchy that dominates the Roman Catholic Church and that intends to put the nuns “in their place.” I would not presume to tell them what to do, nor do I think I have any ideas that are better than theirs. But I do know this: the teachings of the Gospels support them. And if orthodox Christianity itself can only survive by becoming, as Douthat writes, “recognizably Christian: Biblical and gospel-centered, liturgical and devotional, creedal and churched,” the Gospels provide a clear path for liberal church leaders to follow. It is true that the dogma is not unique to Christianity, and it is true that – just like the Constitution – it wants updated interpretations to fit modern circumstances. But the human condition has not changed much in 2000-plus years. The oppressors – like the Roman Church’s hierarchy, like Republican lawmakers – are still with us, and therefore, so are the oppressed. “The poor will always be with you,” Jesus is supposed to have said. (Mark 14:7) Maybe he had the Romney-Ryan budget in mind.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com