Friday, July 13, 2012

More on New Evangelization: José Antonio Pagola on Evangelization and Renunciation of Control and Domination

Fr. José Antonio Pagola

On Wednesday, I drew readers' attention to Bill Tammeus's recent article at National Catholic Reporter  asking whether the Catholic church will still be standing in a few generations.  I highlighted Tammeus's assertion (which draws on Richard Giannone's book Hidden) that 

[t]he church -- if it's to adapt and not disappear with the blacksmiths, manual typewriters and Kodachrome film -- will have to return to its center, Christ Jesus, and to its mission.

Earlier in the week, I took note of Valerie Tarico's recent Alternet piece about the attempt of the Southern Baptist Convention to rebrand itself for a new conservative evangelical market.  I noted how neatly Tarico's description of the Southern Baptist rebranding process dovetails with the so-called "new evangelization" being promoted by top leaders of the Catholic church right now.

Both the "great commission" theology of the rebranded Southern Baptists and the papal "new evangelization" Catholic marketing strategy depend on assertions that (and I'm echoing Tarico here)

1. Every member is a part of the sales force.   
2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims.   
3.  The measure of a spiritual person is right belief.  
4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. 

Because I've just blogged about Tammeus's insistence that we must return to focusing on Jesus as the center of mission if we expect to evangelize effectively, and about Tarico's analysis of "great commission" theology (and Catholic "new evangelization"), I'm interested to read Spanish theologian José Antonio Pagola's recent summary of what he thinks new evangelization should be all about.  The summary is at an Eclesalia Informativo link that appears not to be working right now.  But Rebel Girl has very helpfully provided an English translation at her Iglesia Descalza site.

Pagola's formulation of what new evangelization should be all about (but is, in fact, not about in its current Catholic hierarchical formulation): it should be all about Jesus as the source, inspiration, and model of evangelization.  But this is a Jesus who is to be communicated to those being evangelized not as an idea, a theological formula, a credal oath to affirm.

It's a Jesus to be emulated in praxis.  In particular, the model of evangelization the disciples received from Jesus in the gospels (which should be foundational for the process of evangelization in the church today) is a model of emulating Jesus by healing wounds, liberating from fear, and casting out spirits that bind human beings through enslaving, oppressing, and dehumanizing them.  This is a model of evangelization that deliberately renounces (as Jesus himself did) the impulse "to control, rule, or dominate others."

Pagola states,

On sending them, Jesus doesn't leave His disciples to rely on their own strength. He gives them His "authority", which is not power to control, rule, or dominate others, but His strength to "cast out unclean spirits," freeing people from what enslaves, oppresses, and dehumanizes individuals and society. 
The disciples know very well what Jesus has tasked them with. They have never seen Him ruling over anybody. They have always known Him to heal wounds, alleviate suffering, regenerate life, liberate from fear, spread confidence in God. "Healing" and "liberating" are priority tasks in the work of Jesus. They would put a radically different face on our evangelization.

And so Pagola concludes that the indispensable preliminary to effective evangelization--if the church really wants to proclaim the gospel to the cultures in which it lives--is conversion.  We ourselves in the church have to be converted, and radically so, if we expect to be effective evangelizers.

We have to renounce the impulse to control, rule, and dominate, and we have to emulate Jesus in becoming healers and liberators.  Pagola's conclusion,

Without regaining this evangelical style, there will be no new evangelization. The important thing is not initiating new activities and strategies, but letting go of the habits, structures and obligations that are preventing us from being free to spread the essence of the Gospel in truth and simplicity.

The Church has lost this itinerant style that Jesus suggests. Its tread is slow and heavy. It fails to accompany humanity. We don't have the agility to go from one culture to another. We cling to the power we have had. We become entangled in interests that don't go along with the kingdom of God. We need conversion.

There's a world of difference between this understanding of evangelization, which is centered on praxis and on providing lived witness to Jesus's hunger and thirst to liberate and heal human beings, and the "new evangelization" (or "great commission") model.  The latter is centered on marketing exclusive truth claims, and on setting up standards to determine who counts and who doesn't, when it comes to the marketing process.

The latter model actively demands the kind of orthodoxy litmus tests (which are litmus tests not about emulating Jesus through discipleship and praxis, but about professing the right credal formulations) that have become routine in the Catholic church under the last two papacies.  These orthodoxy litmus tests are back in the news now as the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, implements an orthodoxy oath for Catholic religion teachers, requiring them to sign a statement assuring that they "submit" in "will and intellect" to magisterial teaching about matters such as contraception.

As the word "submit," which plays a central role in these orthodoxy oaths that are becoming standard in Catholic institutions, suggests, credal tests used as litmus tests for orthodoxy are all about controlling, ruling, and dominating others.  They're about, in other words, the very opposite of what Jesus himself practiced and taught to his disciples as his own litmus test for effective evangelization.

In demanding that those working for its institutions swear such orthodoxy oaths, the Catholic church is walking hand in hand right now with the Southern Baptist Convention, which started walking down its current path of "great commission" fundamentalism several decades ago, as religion teachers in Southern Baptist colleges were required to submit to orthodoxy tests and were purged if they failed these tests.

We have, in Pagano's gospel-based description of what Jesus himself was all about with the process of evangelization, and in the process currently practiced by two key institutions of the religious right starkly divergent models of evangelization.  One model depends on lived witness to the example of Jesus.  In depending on such lived witness to the example of Jesus, it also depends on the deliberate renunciation of attempts to control, rule, and dominate others.

And it demands that, in one's own lived emulation of Jesus, one focus one's evangelical efforts on healing and liberating others--on making common cause with the least among us, on living in solidarity with them.  Healing and liberating others rather than preaching to them: the act of catechesis or the transmission of credal formulas is a secondary step that demands as its indispensable foundation the embodiment and praxis of the evangelical message one seeks to communicate.

The other model envisages adherence to statements, to credal formulations, as the center of Christian life and the core of the evangelization process.  This model naturally requires controlling and dominating centers--it requires controllers and dominators at the center--since someone must establish the litmus tests of orthodoxy, administer them, and punish and exclude those who refuse to take the tests or who fail them.  

The "new evangelization" or "great commission" model requires me to engage those I'm seeking to convert as if I--and only I--have the truth, and as if those I evangelize are walking in darkness.  This model also requires me to view other religious groups and other philosophies of the spiritual life as the enemy, since they do not have the truth, and their notions about spirituality and religion are inherently wrong--to be swept away in the evangelization process.

By contrast, the solidarity model of evangelization as Pagano describes it assumes that I receive from those on the margins with whom I stand in solidarity.  I may well offer liberation, but I am myself liberated at the same time, through my exchange with the marginal folks among whom I walk, with whom I live, to whom I proclaim the gospel--and from whom I receive the gospel even as I proclaim it.

Since the gospel is about renouncing the impulse to control and dominate others, and nothing teaches us more effectively to renounce that impulse than living in solidarity with those on the margins of society, those in need, those who have long since learned what renunciation of the attempt to control and dominate is all about.  And who have the potential to teach us extremely important evangelical lessons through the receptivity and gratitude they have often learned by functioning on the margins. . . .

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