Horizons: Courage that dares to speak
(POSTED: 11/14/12) A friend was talking to me recently about a family that she has become acquainted with. For some reason, I asked what their religious background was. Her response was that they belong to no organized religion: they are not Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic. They have gone through life with no religious tradition. My friend’s comments made me wonder about the difference that faith and religion have brought into my life. I am an Irish-American Roman Catholic: how has this identity influenced me?
Faith involves multiple layers. Sister Joan Chittister has written and spoken over the years about relational faith, a faith anchored in a personal relationship with God. She also has spoken of intellectual faith, abiding truths that we know about and can articulate. There is also performative faith: faith leads us to act, do, and behave in certain ways. These multiple layers of faith are not experienced in a vacuum. We are gifted with faith and grow in faith by being members of a faith community. This community is experienced in layers: the worldwide, universal church; a parish community that we might be part of; a small faith sharing group that we may meet with; and the church of our family and primary relationships. The overarching blessing that I have received from my involvement in Catholicism is a great sense of meaning in life. My conviction about God’s love for me and for all people; my belief in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of living dying and rising with Jesus; the call that I hear service, ministry, and justice have convinced me of the deep down meaning and purpose that our lives are founded in. I have written and spoken frequently about Viktor Frankl and his approach to psychotherapy that he called logotherapy. Frankl believed that therapy should help people discover meaning. If people discover meaning they are empowered to face any struggle or challenge in life. When I have gone through difficult times, the Paschal Mystery has helped me to re-imagine these experiences as the movement from death to new life and Resurrection.
In these comments, I am not being judgmental about the family with no religious affiliation or about anyone who does not agree with my convictions. There are many people who do not belong to any religious group who live good, moral, loving, and just lives – who contribute to the value of other people’s lives. In fact, the great theologian, Karl Rahner, spoke of the phenomenon of the anonymous Christian – people who live many elements of the Reign of God with no particular religious affiliation.
What is at the core of the meaning that Catholic Christianity offers our lives? The answer to that question can be found in the first reading from Deuteronomy in the gospel from Mark. Moses told the people to fear the Lord. I do not think we should immediately run to the most common understanding of fear. In this context, I believe Moses is calling the people of his day and us to have awe and reverence toward God. No matter how much we believe in God or work at faith, God is still essentially mystery, who deserves our love and reverence. We all have concepts and experiences of God, but the true God is beyond and above all our understandings of God. The true God is the God above God, as Paul Tillich taught.
Having clarified the transcendence of God, Moses goes on to invite us to a unique kind of relationship with God. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. How can we love this transcendent God? I invite us to retrieve the original meaning of the word credo, the Latin word for “I believe.” Credo originally meant “I give my heart to…” To love God is to strive to give our hearts to God. The heart is the symbol for the deepest dimension of each of us. Moses challenges us to practice a mutual indwelling with God on the level of our hearts. This is what living in love with God is about. As we allow God space in the deepest part of ourselves we grow in intimacy and closeness with God, inviting God to influence who we are and all that we do. In this attempt to love God, it has been my experience that we grow in the conviction that God knows and loves each one of us unconditionally. This conviction gives us courage and strength and hope for living.
When the scribe asked Jesus in today’s gospel which is the first of the commandments, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy. But then he went on to add material from Leviticus 19:18: we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We commonly understand love as something emotional; and with some people it certainly is. But the love that Jesus calls us to is more than emotional. It involves positive regard for people whom we do not like or who do not like us. Jesus encourages us to love our enemies. Love is a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice for others. Love is generosity. Love should be our motivation for ministry. Love manifests itself in deeds of mercy and justice toward other people. Love and lives of love require decision and intentionality.
Jesus said also that we are to love ourselves. We are to have positive regard for ourselves. We are to take good care of ourselves – our physical, emotional, and spiritual/moral health. We are to strive for good, healthy self-esteem. Self-love has always been a great challenge for me – I’m not nuts about myself! In trying to grow to become a healthy, whole person, I have had to learn to love, accept – and challenge myself. When I first began preaching in my 20s, I was terrified. I articulated a prayer that I still say before I preach or teach. It is: “Lord, help me to feel good about myself. Help me to care about these people. Help me to give witness to you.” If I do not feel good about myself, I will not be effective in helping other people. Preaching is not about impressing people. It is about caring for and trying to help people. At the core of our faith is that for each of us there is the potential for a transforming relationship with God. An effective preacher reminds people that that relationship is there for them.
At the end of a recent gospel Jesus told the scribe that he was not far from the kingdom of God. Jesus was complimenting the man, but he also was suggesting that there were things that to some degree got in the way of this man living a life of love. As I reflect on that which keeps me far from the kingdom of God, I come upon two realities: anxiety and anger or resentment. I still can fill up with anxiety and worry. Reflecting on past hurts, especially recent hurts from other people, I become very angry and resentful. I must work on something that I have talked and written about: forgiveness. One of the greatest signs of conversion in any of our lives is forgiving the people who have hurt us.
What is it all about? Love!
Courage that dares to speak
The Taliban came to power in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan in 2007. Up until this time, the Swat Valley was a kind of resort town, known as the Switzerland of Pakistan. Many people would go there for their honeymoons. When the Taliban took over the area, they opposed young girls going to school and becoming educated. They actually destroyed over 200 schools. They were known for flogging and beheading people who disagreed with them.
In this context, there was a young girl, Malala Yousafzai, who fought for the right of girls to go to school. Malala was named after Malalai, an Afghan heroine who led Afghan soldiers to victory and cared for the wounded in the battle against the British, the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. Malalai was killed in this battle. Malala started a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC in England in which she described Taliban atrocities and called the people of Pakistan to peace. She won a national peace prize for her efforts. Malala is currently 14 years of age. The Taliban were driven out of the region in 2009 through a Pakistani military operation. They nonetheless have maintained a covert influence over the Swat Valley.
Recently, Malala was on her way home from school. Two gunmen boarded her school bus, walked up to her, and shot her in her temple and her neck. Two of Malala’s friends were also injured. The Taliban expressed no regret at the shooting, saying that Malala’s thinking and speaking had become too Western. They vowed to finish the job, if Malala survives her wounds. She has been transferred to a hospital in Britain for better care and security. But even in Britain the fear is that the Taliban are trying to get into the hospital to kill her.
At 14 years of age, Malala had the courage to speak the truth about what was going on in her homeland, to work for peace, and to strive for the dignity and respect of women and girls. People from the area have said that Malala had courage that adults and government officials did not have because of their fear of repercussions from the Taliban. The country of Pakistan has been inspired by this 14-year-old girl, and is in shock about what adult men would do to a teenage girl. Malala was certainly fighting for her own rights and education, but she also was speaking up for and investing her life in the lives of other girls and women.
In my speaking and teaching I have been recommending the book “Moral Courage” by Rushworth Kidder. The author laments that there is a lack of moral courage in contemporary life. He describes moral courage as: 1) the possession of strong moral principles; 2) the knowledge that speaking about or living those principles is dangerous; and 3) nonetheless practicing endurance regarding the principles, despite the danger involved. Malala is truly a person of moral courage.
An old friend and I had a discussion recently about our felt need to at times give voice to questions and critiques we have about issues in the Church. We both concurred that we have learned to keep our truth to ourselves, for fear of losing our roles in the Church. Not just the Taliban can be punitive, if people say or do things that run against the grain of the dominant culture of an organization. Unfortunately this means some of us either never develop moral courage, or have developed it, but now suppress it out of fear. We learn how to fly under the radar, do we not? Some of us need to learn the courage that dares to speak, modeled to us by a 14-year-old girl.
Malala is a contemporary example of the suffering servant in a reading from Isaiah 53, and of Jesus in Mark, chapter 10. In the second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, known as Deutero-Isaiah, we experience four Servant Songs. The identity of the suffering servant is not known, but someone is described as entering into experiences of redemptive suffering for the benefit of others. It is not clear whether the writer is speaking of himself, or of the entire community. The first Christians interpreted this mysterious figure as prefiguring Jesus, the suffering servant who engaged in redemptive suffering for the benefit of others. The prophetic writer said that the suffering servant gave his life as an offering and through his suffering he would justify many. Malala was and is a true suffering servant.
In the gospel, James and John asked Jesus for positions of prestige and power when he comes into the fullness of his Reign. Jesus explained to all the apostles that his mission, and consequently theirs, was not about power and prestige. He said that true greatness is found in being a servant, that wanting to be first needed to be replaced by seeking only to be a slave of all. Holding himself up as an example he taught that he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life for many. Malala was and is a great example of the kind of lifestyle that Jesus calls us to as his disciples. Her witness is juxtaposed to two grown men who resembled prizefighters this past week, as they debated to gain the American presidency.
Jesus told James and John and the others that if they were to truly follow him, they/we will drink the cup that he drank and be baptized in the same baptism he experienced. Let us willingly embrace this cost of discipleship, and pray that we develop the courage that dares to speak and serve.
The actress, Marlo Thomas, appeared on the Today show recently to talk about a new project she is involved with regarding bullying. She said that the greatest challenge in counteracting bullying is to persuade children and teens who are bystanders, witnessing bullying, to intervene in and stop the experience of bullying.
Similarly, I have witnessed the phenomenon of mobbing at a place of work – in fact a church – in which a group of adults bullied a colleague, in an attempt to get that worker to leave the workplace. As with children, teens, and bullying, so also with adults and mobbing, there are bystanders, who do not intervene. We all run the risk of being what Thomas Merton called “guilty bystanders.”
I came across a cartoon by Pat Bagley in a recent edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. It pictures Malala Yousafzai holding a book entitled “Knowledge.” The cartoon reads: ”What Terrifies Religious Extremists like the Taliban are not American Tanks or Bombs or Bullets; It’s a Girl (woman), with a Book (intelligence).” Additions in parentheses are mine.
Let us learn from the moral courage of a 14-year-old girl, and pray for Malala’s total recovery.
The religion of better than
I was struck in the early years of my priesthood by the number of factions or divisive groups that I found in parishes. I frequently encountered one group that communicated to me that I truly was not a converted Christian if I did not go on and experience a certain retreat. I would respond that there is no one way of conversion, that God enters each of our lives in different ways. I profoundly drew close to God through struggles with my emotions, psychotherapy, and spiritual direction. But this retreat group became a kind of clique that saw itself as an elite group, more spiritual and better than those who did not make the retreat.
I have experienced prayer groups that communicate similar religious/spiritual arrogance. To not be in such a group, with a similar style of praying, rendered people to be spiritually inferior and inadequate. Similarly, people can go through parish-based or inter-parish programs that make them feel very good about themselves, too good about themselves, as they look down their noses at others who have not experienced the program. In too many parishes, the parochial school becomes the tail that wags the dog, the school using up so many of the parish’s resources and finances, and consuming so much parish effort. It is almost as if other parishioners are not as important as school families – and I helped begin the first parochial school to open in the last 30 years in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Sometimes priests are silenced or exiled if they appear to those in authority to not be orthodox enough. Other priests engage in crime or aberrant sexual behavior with children, and they are moved from parish to parish and protected. The clothing that clerics and hierarchy wear at liturgy have a monarchical aura which suggests that clergy are “better than.” The position power of a pastor sometimes resembles the divine right of kings, in which he can do what he wants with the parish staff, with little responsibility toward the staff or lay parishioners.
Recent Scripture readings warn us of the possible use of religion or spirituality to make one’s self feel superior to or better than others. Adlerian psychology warns about two tendencies in human beings: the need for superiority, or chronic feelings of inferiority. Adlerians speak of emotional health as having social interest, that is to approach one’s fellow person with an attitude of mutual equality and respect. Sometimes people use religion or religious practices to make themselves feel better than others.
This is certainly the drama of the first reading from the Book of Numbers. The Holy Spirit came upon Moses and 70 others transforming them into prophets. The same Spirit came upon two other men, Eldad and Medad. The experience was at a different time and place than the one Moses and the 70 had. These two men also began to prophesy. Joshua went to Moses and told Moses to stop the two men, because they were not part of the first coming of the Spirit. They had experienced God in a different way. In a way, Joshua was trying to establish institutional control over the charisms and gifts of the two men. Moses recognized that God enters people’s lives in unique, different ways. He said to Joshua: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his Spirit on them all!” Moses challenged Joshua’s use of religion and faith to be better than others.
There is a similar dynamic in the gospel from Mark. John came to Jesus and told him that someone was driving out demons in the name of Jesus. John told Jesus that he tried to stop the man, because the man did not follow in the group that was close to Jesus. John was expressing an exclusiveness and cliquishness about the apostles and disciples. Jesus told John: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus went on to express a kind of impatience with this spirituality of better than. As he did last week, He spoke in defense of children, warning adults to not give scandal to children. Then he went on to speak radically about confronting sin. He almost seems to have been saying, “This is what is important – conversion of mind, heart, and behavior, not using religion to make yourself feel superior to others.” He used the horizon of death to focus John and others on the importance of how they are living their lives now. Borrowing imagery from Isaiah 66, he spoke of hell as an eternal fire that his followers ought to be concerned about.
The challenge from the Book of Numbers and Mark is continued in the Letter of James. James warns against the accumulation of wealth for the self. He warns that wealth is false security, and that it will rot. He challenges the wealthy who find comfort in money and things, all the while ignoring the needs of the poor. In our own day, there is a spirituality and theology of success, that says God rewards the people most close to him with wealth and resources. In such an approach, we can again see a spirituality of better than.
The spirituality of better than flies in the face of ecumenism. For too many years, Catholics looked on themselves as the “one true Church,” certainly better than Protestants, and we did not know much about Judaism at all. In turn, there are some Fundamentalists and Evangelicals who think Catholics and other Christians are going to hell, because they have not had a born-again experience similar to the ones that they have had. It is unfortunate that we do not appreciate the truth in all of the world’s religions, and strive to learn more about each other’s faith traditions.
When my parents were still living on the southwest side of Chicago, an evangelical preacher, bent on converting the 99.9 percent Catholic neighborhood, came to our front door and asked my mother if he could come in and tell her about Jesus – a spirituality of arrogance and better than. My mother said he was welcome to do that and then she would explain to him how to say the rosary. She said this as she pulled a rosary from her apron pocket. He stared at her in shock, said no thank you, and went down the front stairs. Way to go, Ma!
One of the producers where we tape our radio program, Horizons, told me that he is dating a Jewish young woman, and that he has learned a lot from her about Judaism. He explained that his friend told him that Jewish people do not bring flowers to the cemetery when they visit. Rather they place rocks and stones on their loved ones’ graves. They believe that flowers wither, fade, and disappear. Rocks and stones do not die, and they speak of the eternal nature of the love that survivors feel toward their deceased loved ones. I have been a priest for 39 years and I did not know about this beautiful custom. We ought to spend less time judging others of different faith expressions and more time learning about them.
As I have taught about evangelization for many years, and as I pastored for 14 years, I have always tried to promote the convergence model of evangelization. In a parish or congregation, there can be many groups and organizations. They can all be different, with different callings, and gifts. But all of these individuals, groups, and gifts converge on one mission: inviting people to the Reign of God and conversion. When I worked at The Clare, a continuing care retirement community, we called this mission integration – everyone who worked there did different things, but were about one mission, bringing the healing touch of Jesus to all who lived there and to each other.When the need for power enters the world of faith, something is radically wrong.
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a longtime priest, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.