Return to Liberation Theology

Back when I went to school for my religious studies degree, liberation theology was a new phenomenon. One could have gotten a major in just that. In the April 2015 issue of Sojourners, Emilie Teresa Smith writes about it in her article, “Coming in From the Cold”. She quotes Jon Sobrino Laughs in defining liberation theology: “Liberation theology is a way of thinking about how a Christian must live-in active, engaging struggle for the flourishing of all life. Liberation is the primary movement of the Holy Spirit. It is the duty of those baptized into the life, death, and ministry of Jesus Christ to live this out, immediately and urgently.”

I can still remember stories of those who died in central America because they took to heart liberation theology’s approach to the scriptures. I especially remember Bishop Oscar Romero killed by government assassins during the Eucharist for speaking out against the injustice toward the poor of El Salvador. Jean Donovan, along with three other women, was murdered for helping the poor in the same country. The homeless shelter where I briefly served in St. Cloud MN was named in her memory. When Bernie and I were in Guatemala in the 90’s, we visited the village of Santiago Antitlan and were taken on a tour of the church where Fr. Stanley Rother was murdered. In the room where he was shot, we saw his picture and candles were lit to honor the priest the people believed to be a saint.

What I did not realize is that these martyrs were not honored by the Church they had given their lives in service. Those I mentioned above and many others who died “were left off the list of nearly 500 saints proclaimed by Pope John Paul II,” Smith says. “Additionally, liberal theologians were disowned and prevented from writing.” This was done under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XVI. I can still remember listening to the radio announcement that Ratzinger had been chosen. It was a turning point for me and my relationship with the Catholic Church.

Smith suggests that perhaps with the arrival of Pope Francis “a fresh wind is blowing.” There is no doubt in my mind that something has changed. Many of those ignored by the Church are now on the list for sainthood. And Francis statements in support of justice and preferential treatment of the poor are echoed throughout the world.

I am one who believes that to be Christian is to live as Jesus did in the way he healed the sick, cared for the poor, and comforted the grieving. I am grateful for this important shift in the Church that claims to be the messenger of Christ on earth.

Muslim Faith in Central Minnesota

I am continuing to read and enjoy Hudda Ibrahim’s book, From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis. This morning I am reading Hudda describing the beliefs and practices of the Muslim faith as practiced by Somalis. I am attracted to a number of thing that I would like to share. Some practices remind me of my own Christian traditions. Here are a few:

The Arabic word Islam means submission to the will of God and derives from the word islama which means to surrender. I love this. It reminds me that Jesus once spoke these words to the Father: “Not my will but thine be done” and he admonished his followers to always do what God wants of them. In this sense, anyone who chooses to do the will of God is a Muslim at heart.

Salah is the practice of praying five times a day. When I was staying in the Palestinian district in Israel, Muslim prayers were sung five times each day over a loud speaker for all to hear. A Christian woman I was with said, “Isn’t that wonderful, to be reminded five times each day to turn our thoughts and hearts to God in prayer.” She was not deterred by the fact that the prayers were not Christian nor were they spoken in her language. She just jumped in and prayed her own prayers. There is a history of regular daily prayers in the early church. Some Christians may remember the angelus bells that still ring from churches around the world. I recall that there were specific prayers associated with these moments of reminder to pray. Farmers in their fields would stop and pray in gratitude to God for His abundance. The Brevary is still read by priests and other Christians throughout the world: psalm readings and prayers read at specific times throughout the days of the year. Hudda said that in this country, Muslims sometimes use their I-phones to remind them to pray. What a great idea!

Zakat is the tradition of paying alms. She writes: “Only those who have been bestowed by wealth should pay alms to the poor. According to eminent Muslim scholars in St. Cloud, the payment of Zakat multiplies one’s wealth. In Islam, wealth hoarding is prohibited.” This last statement really struck me. It speaks of a special responsibility to be generous with the gifts God has provided.

Sawm is fasting and Muslims around the world fast during the whole month of Ramadan. I admire my Muslim friends and family who fast during Ramadan.They go far beyond what I have experienced as a Catholic. Nevertheless, the purposes for fasting as a religious practice are similar: total devotion to God, an appreciation of the gifts He has given and to develop a sense of compassion for those that have less than we do.

Wudu is ritual cleansing done before prayers. Similar Christian practices would include blessing oneself with holy water when entering a church and ritual washing during the celebration of the Eucharist in some churches. Hudda mentioned that Muslims have had to adapt to their particular situations in schools or work places. My feeling is that we can at least try to accommodate them wherever practical.

Muslim women sometimes wear a Hijab, the traditional head covering. They do so for modesty and for religious reasons. Christians often like to wear crosses and Jewish men may wear a yarmulka. We are used to seeing priests and ministers, monks and nuns wearing garb that signifies their devotion. I think it is a beautiful thing when people are not afraid to show their devotion to God in this non-intrusive manner.

Some people might say that for Muslims to wear their special garb or to stop and pray during their work days is pushing religion on others. When I see Christians wear crosses or bow their heads to say grace before a meal in a public restaurant, I don’t in any way feel they are pushing religion on anyone. I enjoy watching people express their faith in different ways. I especially like it when devotion is followed by love and compassion for others. It is this common outcome that makes us one in Spirit.

Christian Values and Government

I tend to preach that people shouldn’t mix their religion with politics. I mean that politics is just a functional thing, a structure human groups create use to carry keep order. I am not so sure my God really cares about what political systems, but he cares lots about the values of justice and fairness and respect and dignity and caring. So, as a citizen, I look for these values in the way our democracy is played out.

I suppose the question is are the values I listed above religious values? I know I first learned them in my religious upbringing but I have learned that people of other religions share these values. In fact, people who claim no religious affiliation or even a belief in God espouse them. That leads me to believe these are human values.

Having said all of the above, I want to share a passage from a book that my religion espouses as its foundaton. It is one very familiar to me, but today it wants to leak into my political views. Here it is:

(Jesus) said to the one who had invited him (to a feast), “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

So here is the question. If this is a passage presents a particular religious view, is it something my non-religious government system should be applying in some way? Or am I supposed to just accept that if I want to welcome the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, I should just do it myself and let my government off the hook? I could do that but there are so many poor, crippled, lame and blind people out there, it breaks my heart. I’d have to do what my friend John Huebsch used to say, “Take care of your little corner of the world”. But my corner is so small and my resources are so limited.

So I take back my idea that religion and politics don’t mix. I want my government to carry out my Christian values and spend money and create programs to help the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And I don’t want my government to complain when they don’t pay back. If there is s shortage of funds, simply uninvite friends, brothers, relatives, and the rich neighbors. Let them take care of themselves.

One could argue, “That is fine for you, Judy, but I don’t want my tax dollars to be wasted in that way.” Well, for me it isn’t waste. It is a Christian imperative!

Rats! I forgot. I said religion and politics aren’t supposed to mix.


Learning to Honor the Variety of Religious Experiences

In the books I read, I keep coming across one book in the notes section or the bibliography at the back. The book is by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have not read the book but I am sensing that it is considered a classic and am committed to reading it in the near future.  Based on the way it is referenced, I imagine that it treats the differences between people and how they experience the divine with respect and humility. I like the book already. Going to Israel, where religious people come to places they deem holy, even central to their faith, one sees a variety of faith expressions. It is easy to find one’s self judging, especially when others are expressing their faith in ways that seem foreign. This happened to me while I was visiting the Holy Land.

The first day of the course began with a lecture on Luke, author of the third of the synoptic gospels. The religious scholarship piece of the experience is what drew me to this trip in the first place so an occasional lecture was much to my liking.  Luke is the chosen gospel of the 2016 liturgical year and is the reason we focused on it rather than any of the others. It would take too much time to explain that here, so I won’t. Just suffice it to know that we read stories out of Luke throughout the whole experience.

I learned some of interesting things at the lecture that I didn’t know before. I learned that Luke wrote his gospel after an intentional research investigation. He studied and evaluated other writings and interviewed many people including eye witnesses. He was an historian so he was knowledgeable about the cultural and political setting of the time.

We were told that there are 19 meal stories in the gospels and 13 of them are in Luke’s gospel. Meals are a symbol of inclusion, we heard. I remembered from my studies that Luke is known for revealing Jesus’ compassion for the poor and social outcasts. I remember hearing that he ate and drank with sinners; he was even accused of eating and drinking too much. I rather like the thought that he knew how to have a good time.

After the lecture, we had our first outing which was to the Old City in the center of Jerusalem. After we walked through one of the city’s gates, we entered a large dark place. Inside we found a number of sacred places. Our instructor was focusing this day on the rock theme: “The stone the builders rejected has become a cornerstone.” We saw what is believed to be the one Jesus prayed over the night before he died and the stone slab on which he was laid after his death. There were many pilgrims there, usually in groups that would come together into small cave-like spaces like little chapels. Usually there was a leader who spoke to them about what they were seeing. We had our own, of course.  Looking around, I saw people touching the stones or icons, kneeling, bowing, praying, chanting, lighting candles, and sometimes weeping.

I felt uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. First of all I struggled with the crowdedness of the place. In some places we were pressed against people or against a wall as one group would try to pass through a narrow place when we were headed in the opposite direction. I often lost sight of my own group. I looked at the faces of the people and seemed to see the same bewilderment that I was feeling.

The second thing that made me uncomfortable was the darkness of the place. I learned later that sacred places in Israel are cared for by different groups. These places in the ancient section of Jerusalem, known as the Old City, are cared for primarily by the Greek Orthodox Church. The places tend to be “down under” where it is dark already, but there is a darkness about Greek Orthodox ritual and art that I have noticed through the years. Even when I look at an Icon, a particular art form of ancient times, the faces always seem dark to me. As a person of light, who connects with God each day by greeting the sun, I find darkness difficult.

The third thing that made me uncomfortable is the intensity of the reverence I was witnessing among the faithful who came there and how important these ancient symbols were to them. I could see that many of them were having profound spiritual experiences. I began this blog talking about the variety of religious experiences. That first day in Jerusalem I was being challenged to be respectful and accepting of people whose expression of their faith was different than my own. I wrote in my journal: “I feel nothing. This talk of symbols, no matter how reverent these people are, leaves me cold.”  I will tell you with complete honesty…I understood that this was my problem, not theirs. I do not doubt the authenticity of anyone else’s spiritual experience. But I need to be honest about my own.

Following this honest statement in my journal, I added a couple of sentences that describe my own spirituality: “My spirituality is that of flesh and blood, of humans reaching out to humans. Of brokenness and mending, of compassion and – in the deepest places – of Oneness.”

As I progress through this sharing of my trip to Israel, I will share some experiences I had in which I felt this human oneness and the Oneness with the Divine that always seems to follow.



Following what Jesus Actually Said.

I read something this morning intended for women married to active alcoholics:

“They are not ‘bad boys’ who must be directed, disciplined or punished by us. They are sick, confused and guilt-ridden human beings with badly battered egos. God has given no one the right to humiliate another. In every one of His children there are qualities that should command our respect, and to withhold it is a wrong that will return to wound us.” (One Day at a Time)

I thought of a whole list of applications besides the one intended here. I thought about the way jails and prisons are set up. From being on the inside of a jail, I learned how effective respect is in gaining the cooperation of those who have to go there and how counterproductive are actions and words intended to discipline or punish. I have been in court rooms where the outcomes would have been totally different had those involved, including defendants, those who brought suit and judges and lawyers, had respect for one another.

I thought about raising children and how respect changes the parent-child interaction and smoothes the path to cooperation.

I thought about the way citizens approach their public officials and the way public officials approach those they serve. Even when a person is judged to be coming from the “wrong” position, “God has given no one the right to humiliate” that person.  We are all God’s children, even those who don’t know that they are.

For those who need the Bible to give reason to listen to my ideas, think about how Jesus threw out the law about “eye for an eye”. Instead, he recommends that we control the urge to return a hurtful action with another hurtful action. Then there is the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.” Don’t we all want respect? If we do, simple universal rule should lead us to our respecting others. He countered another belief: “You have heard that you should ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

One of my biggest frustrations over the years has been people who claim that they are Christian but fail to follow the teachings of the person they say they are following.  I notice that they rarely quote Jesus himself.  I think they do that because they don’t want to draw attention between what they do and what Jesus said. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if they ever actually read the Bible. My frustration has broadened to people of other religions who do the same with their sacred scriptures. They pick and choose passages that justify their own thoughts and actions.

I don’t know what to do about these folks. I try to apply the principles I have suggested above by respecting them because they are God’s children. And I keep reading what Jesus said. I seem to see new ways to apply his words every day.

Praying for Peace

Looking over my calendar I notice that Sept.21 is International Peace Day. In years past it was common for churches to come together to pray for peace on this day. I checked the events calendars of some neighboring towns and found nothing happening. Surprisingly, even the Sisters of St. Frances don’t have anything listed.

I wrote yesterday about the power of prayer. Will it get what we want? I said that what a person needs to do is bring their will into accordance with God’s will. So then one may ask, “Why pray at all if we can’t coerce God to do things our way?” I wonder if this is the question that those church communities that no longer bring people together to pray for peace are asking. It sure doesn’t appear that their prayers have been answered. One starts to wonder if peace is God’s will at all.

I don’t know if, by praying for peace in the world, peace is more likely to come. But I do know this. I am one cell in this body we call humankind. I know that I effect those around me. When I am at peace, these are more likely to have peace. Peace is within but it manifests in my words and actions. This is what it means to be a peacemaker.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world. I don’t know why peace is so hard to attain. I am just as discouraged as anyone. But I know that peace is less likely if this peacemaker loses her peace. And I know that this little light of peace in me needs the light in others to keep me believing. Prayer changes me. And in some strange way, I think this is how God’s will for peace in the world will be achieved. Clever God.

Benevolent God/Malevolent God

I am reading a book by Neale Walsch, Tomorrow’s God. I have read a couple of his others Conversations with God 1 & 2. Walsch raises questions most of us have about God or at least about the teachings we have received about God. He does it in a conversational format. He asks his questions and puts the responses into God’s mouth, so to speak. I am perfectly okay with this method. The writers of the Bible do the same thing.

As a pacifist, I have reflected on the writings in the Bible that present a God of murder and war. Like Walsch, I came to the conclusion that the Bible’s presentation of God, at least in this violent depiction, is not a god I can believe in. So I simply reject it. Many would say I am taking theology into my own hands, creating god in my own image. So be it. I like my god better than their god.

Walsch challenges us to do just what I have done, to question what we have been taught. “…isn’t it time now for us to declare that the emperor has no clothes? When are we going to admit that we believe in a God of extraordinary contradictions, who we say loves and who we say kills, who we say creates and who we say destroys, who we say accepts and who we say rejects, who we say rewards and who we say punishes, who we say brings good and who we say visits evil upon us, who we say is the All in All and who we say is separate from everything, who we say is Everywhere Present and who we say is not in us”…or in those others.

Walsch has God responding to this: “These completely contradictory beliefs are called sacred and are placed in the scriptures of the world’s religions. The sum total of all the sacred scriptures of all the world’s largest exclusivist organized religions, combined into one could thus very well be entitled: Benevolent God/Malevolent God.

I used to hear it this way – when we talk about God as merciful and loving, we say God is Love. When we talk about God as demanding, exclusive, murderous, we say God is Just. Sounds like some kind of mental manipulation to me.

Walsh’s God says: “So long as you believe in a Two-Faced God, you will create ecstasy and terror side-by-side. You have imagined a God who is the epitome of both, and by telling yourself that you are created in the Image and Likeness of God, you have given yourself the moral authority to demonstrate both.”

I am at peace.