The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Pope Blasts Vatican Administration, Accuses Some of Spiritual ‘Alzheimer’s’

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis launched a blistering attack on the Vatican bureaucracy on Monday, outlining a “catalog of illnesses” that plague the church’s central administration, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and gossipy cliques.

The pope’s traditional Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was more “Bah! Humbug!” than holiday cheer as he ticked off a laundry list of “ailments of the Curia” that he wants to cure.

In a critique that left many of the assembled clerics clearly uncomfortable, the 15 ailments in Francis’ “catalog of illnesses” reflected the take-no-prisoners approach he promised when he was elected nearly two years ago as an outsider with little direct experience in Rome.

“The Curia is called upon to improve itself, always improve itself and grow in communion, holiness and knowledge to fully realize its mission,” the pope said.

“Yet like every body, like every human body, it is exposed to illnesses, malfunctioning, infirmity. They are illnesses and temptations that weaken our service to God.”

In a separate address to Vatican staff later, Francis begged pardon for the “shortcomings” of senior church leaders, as well as the “several scandals” that had “caused so much harm,” without specifying which scandals he had in mind.

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Can the Church Offer More than Candlelight Vigils for Justice?

What can local churches do to support ongoing protests against, and indeed upheaval of, an unjust criminal justice system and deep-seated white supremacy? In a season that Lisa Sharon Harper recently described as “Advent as protest,” what might it mean for Christians to anticipate the coming of Christ by physically challenging oppression? For pastors all over the United States, these are the questions of the moment.

In Washington, D.C., local faith communities sought to live into the vision of Advent as protest by holding a “vigil for justice.” Although this vigil beautifully documented the capacity of the local church to advocate for justice, the way local media framed the vigil forces communities of faith to think more deeply about their understanding of solidarity.

Spread out along nearly 6.5 miles of 16th Street, hundreds of people held candles and signs in support of recent protests against racial injustice. As people passionately waved their signs or held their heads down in prayerful lament, passing cars and buses slowed to honk in support. Catching on with the theme of Advent, attendees hoped to shine light in the darkness not only to create awareness and show solidarity, but also to testify to the hope of faith.

Cecilia Choi, a member of District Church explained, “This is the time of Advent when God came and he started his work of reconciliation with us by becoming one of us. And I think it’s perfect to come out and work on reconciliation and joining with our black brothers and sisters. They’re not just our neighbors, they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have such an obligation to them. I think this is an act of worship.”

When asked why she was on the streets, one woman responded, “Well, what do I say? [Laughs.] That’s the meaning of our faith! To be one with people who are suffering.” Another man called racism “the deepest sin in the United States.”

Such descriptions of the vigil reach to the core of the church’s mission to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” Here are churches standing in solidarity with those suffering at the hands of racist oppression as an “act of worship.” Here are churches bringing their resources of prayer, lament, and peace into the public sphere, challenging observers to wrestle with God’s call to justice. Yet, though the event was beautiful, the way it was framed by local media raises tough questions for churches. Contrasting this demonstration with other recent protests, one reporter said, “This protest was in contrast to many of the protests we’ve seen over the past few weeks, with groups blocking traffic and loudly chanting. This group was quiet and purposeful.”

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An Inconvenient Truth: Everyone Is Created and Loved by God

Sometimes we dehumanize people by speaking, thinking, or imagining about them in generalizations, by covering their true identity with generic labels and terms that are impersonal, cold, and less meaningful. For example, you can refer to your brother as “someone that I know” or your best friend as “this one guy.”

We often do this when we want to create separation or disassociate from others — often in order to protect ourselves, make ourselves look better, or attack others. Thus, we refer to our spouse as “this person I know” when we’re agreeing with a coworker about people who hold an opposing political belief we disagree with, or offhandedly use the phrase “this guy I know” about our dad when talking about annoying habits that we can’t stand.

We see Peter do the same thing in the Bible, referring to Jesus — his savior, closest friend, companion, teacher, and leader — as simply “him” when being accused of knowing Jesus right before the crucifixion.

Luke 22: 56-57: Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.”

I don’t know “him.”

One word: him.

No harm done, right? It’s just a simple pronoun.

We do the same thing all of the time.

Him, her, she, he, them, those people, etc.

As innocent as this practice may seem, the ideas behind them are more cynical, and it becomes much more serious for Christians when we use terms, thoughts, and ideas as a way to disconnect people from God.

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Converting People: I Don't Buy It

I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.

But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.

To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.

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Ameican Nuns: Grounded Leadership in Conflict

Last week the Vatican released the final report on its unprecedented investigation of Roman Catholic sisters in the United States. Six years ago, when the Vatican announced the apostolic visitation (its formal name), many of the sisters whom the investigation affected responded with hurt and anger. Now, thanks largely to competent, spiritually grounded leadership on the part of American sisters, the spirit is conciliatory.

When the Vatican launched the investigation in 2008, under Pope Benedict, to “look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States,” the announcement was met with suspicion and apprehension. Since the Vatican had previously only ordered an apostolic visitation when a group had gone astray, sisters wondered what the Vatican wanted to investigate and why. Some congregations reported that their elder sisters felt that their whole lives had been judged and found wanting," remembers Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the U. S. When Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., learned of the visitation, she warned sisters to be cautious, treating the visitors as “uninvited guests who should be received in the parlor, not given the run of the house.”

In a situation that could have escalated badly, American sisters rose to the occasion.

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Terrorists Win: 'The Interview,' North Korea, and the Tragic Irony of Christmas

Unfortunately, we will not be able to watch Kim Jong-un’s assassination on the big screen this Christmas. We will not be able to cheer as the brutal dictator’s helicopter explodes in the air “ while Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ plays on the soundtrack.” We will not be able to fulfill this Christmas Day fantasy by watching The Interview because the terrorists have won.

The FBI now claims that Kim Jong-un’s government is behind the act of terrorism. In retaliation for the movie, a state-sponsored North Korean cyber-terrorist group called “The Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Pictures and leaked sensitive information, including internal emails, future Sony films, and sensitive employee records. “The Guardians of Peace” also threatened movie goers with a “9/11 style attack” on every cinema that shows the movie.

After the threats were made and many theaters decided to pull the film, Sony Pictures canceled the release of The Interview. Sony said in a statement:

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

Washington and Hollywood are also in an uproar:

“Wow. Everyone caved. The hackers won. An utter and complete victory for them,”tweeted Rob Lowe. Jimmy Kimmel claimed that pulling the movie was, “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Steve Carell said it was a, “Sad day for creative expression.” Sen. John McCain stated “yielding to aggressive cyber-terrorism by North Korea … sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.”

And White House officials are exploring retaliation, saying security leaders “would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response.”

The terrorists may have won the battle, but the United States will win the war!

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Dreaming of God With Us

Author's Note: As we close out Advent, when we so quickly determine what’s our legal right or what we’re owed or what “the Bible really says” when, after all, we’re just simply too quick to judge. In these days where we must affirm #BlackLivesMatter, where we must stand up for victims of rape and abuse, and where we must struggle with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers for full inclusion, sermons like this are humbly offered.

We know the Christmas story well.

Those of us that have grown up with regular, annual, church-going rhythms — we essentially hear this story once a year.

Even so, those with no regular church commitments — people from all walks of life, people of faith or no particular faith, people from varied faiths — if you asked your friend, your neighbor, your cousin, a stranger on the street, I bet at least 50 percent of the time they’d be able to share the gist of the story:

Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.
Mary was married to a guy (named Joseph).
There were angels, and wise men, and shepherds.
And I think there was a manger.

We know this story well.

But we hear it so often it becomes rote — literally a mechanically, automatically, mindlessly routine on repetition in our brains.

Yeah, yeah, yeah — 6lb 8oz baby Jesus, in a manger, Virgin Mary, Adopted Dad Joseph, sheep, shepherds, angels, stars at night, wise men, white Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer …

You get my point.

So, let’s hear the story one more time and lean in a bit to this wild world of dreams, angels, and ancient Jewish marriage contracts.

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In Celebration of the 'Average' Church

You may have never attended an "average" church, but you've certainly seen one. Older buildings, often made of dark brick, old-fashioned roofs that slope down from the center — possibly a bell tower and a steeple. St. Stephen's. Redeemer. Hope. Resurrection. St. Thomas. St. Vincent. Beautiful Savior. The names recall an age gone by — not just the 1950s, when neighborhoods walked together to Sunday morning worship, but also an age 2,000 years ago, when the world was changed by the witness of Stephen the martyr, and Jesus' resurrection from death on a cross in Jerusalem brought freedom and life to a world hungry for God's love and redemption.

If you've never been in an "average" church, or even if you have, long ago, you may wonder what it's still there for. The median American church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning. More than half of American congregations worship between 7-99 people each Sunday. They are strikingly homogeneous. In 2010, just 13.7 percent of congregations reported being "multiracial." Thirty percent of congregations still didn't have a website in 2010.

Reading these statistics, it may seem easy to despair — to drive by one church and then another, to attend worship there on Christmas Eve and wonder why you bothered.
 

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How A Drunk Man Got Home One Christmas Eve

I was 6 years old, growing up in Cleveland. It was Christmas Eve. The traditional Slovak meal was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise. 

My dad was an alcoholic. During the Korean war, he went off to serve as a paratrooper. He was wounded. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some personal demons with him when he returned. 

Those demons seemed to emerge especially during the holidays. When my dad got off work, he’d go to a bar downtown near the butcher shop where he worked. The other workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and keep drinking. He couldn’t stop. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons. Who knows? 

While he was at the bar, we were home waiting. And getting hungry. 

Finally, my mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes. Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom got very anxious, afraid that something bad had happened. 

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger. 

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Wearing Black in Advent

On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.

This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.

But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.

The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.

 
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