Friday, September 21, 2012

Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God: Concluding Theological Reflections (2)

Continued from yesterday's posting--again a transcript from a journal entry I've written as Steve and I travel, after I finished Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God

The point about lies: I'm struggling to understand how people can both see and not see (how I can both see and not see).  How they/I can have powerful insights into the mechanisms that reduce some human beings to the status of non-persons, and be incapable of seeing a group of human beings reduced to that status who are right in their/my midst.

I'm trying to understand why so many Christian theologians (Catholic ones, in particular) are able to understand the atrocious mechanisms that reduced the Jewish people to the level of non-persons in the Holocaust, but are seemingly unable to understand those mechanisms today--when it comes to some people.  When it comes to a selected minority group targeted by the leaders of many churches, including (conspicuously) my own Catholic church.

And wasn't that, after all, precisely why the Holocaust could occur in the 20th century, as so few Christians, including Christian theologians, opened their mouths: it's always so much easier (and safer) to see these processes post factum.  When it's too late for our seeing to matter except as a lament for our lack of insight and action when seeing counted.  When the bodies have already all been piled up and incinerated.

What's constant as versions of this reduction-to-non-persons treatment is dished out to targeted minority groups throughout history seems to me to be the lie: the lie we tell about the despised, marginalized Other to excuse our dehumanizing behavior; and the lie we tell ourselves about ourselves.  The lie that we're the good, well-motivated, justice-dealing person who assists the poor.

It was both kinds of lies that permitted the large majority of Christians and Christian theologians to remain utterly silent as the Holocaust was staged: the Jews are dirty, immoral, social parasites undermining Christian civilization.  And I am the good, the just, the faithful disciple of Jesus who could not possibly inflict harm on others when that harm is unmerited.

I don't intend to imply that there's any kind of exact equivalency between the lives and experiences of gay people today and those who underwent the Holocaust.  What I do want to say is that the mechanisms by which people of faith--and theologians in particular--justify oblivion (from the Latin root, "to forget") for a certain targeted minority group right in front of their faces are the same.

And the effects are the same: those reduced to the status of non-persons suffer the fate of non-persons.  And moral insight and attempts to remedy the situation come always after the fact, when it's too late to retrieve the lives and talents we threw away due to our moral blindness.

And a postscript to the preceding, which comes from a dialogue with Adam following what I posted yesterday (with one or two additions I didn't think to include when I replied to Adam):

It goes without saying that self-knowledge is an essential ingredient of any well-balanced spiritual life. And as all religious traditions teach, it's exceptionally hard to arrive at: my Judaeo-Christian tradition, for instance, speaks of the duplicity of the human heart, which finds every way possible to avoid seeing itself clearly.

My emphasis here is not so much on taking names and making accusations. It's on bearing witness. I want to bear witness on behalf of all those gay and lesbian folks who are still excluded from Catholic institutions, even as we Catholics speak about inclusion of all (and justice for all) as one of our central values.

The powerful theology E. Johnson surveys in her book loses its coherence when we speak in glowing terms of the need to stop making various groups of people non-persons--while we and our community do precisely that to one particular community we've chosen to target in this moment of history.

The fact that these are more than pedantic issues is obvious when you look, for instance, at what the bishops are doing in the state in which I'm now traveling, Minnesota. They're spending huge sums of money precisely to target a minority group. They've asked parishes to organize teams to politicize the Catholic faith around an issue specifically targeting LGBT persons. They're asking priests to preach about this and to use liturgies to pray for the success of the anti-gay initiative facing voters this fall.

I'm hearing and reading about this everywhere as we travel through the state.  The opinion page of the St. Cloud newspaper, a city in which we just spent several days, is full of statements favoring and opposing the amendment to the state constitution to bar marriage equality.  St. Cloud is in an area that is heavily Catholic, with important and longstanding Catholic universities.  One of those writing a statement for the paper says that he has attended Mass at various parishes in recent weeks, always having to sit through intercessions for the protection of "religious freedom" that seem to him thinly veiled partisan political appeals.  And he connects these partisan appeals to the marriage amendment, which he opposes as a Catholic who believes in justice for all.

And yesterday, as we drove into Minneapolis, I saw on the outskirts of the city, in a suburb, a rainbow flag unfurling in the wind outside the sign of a United Methodist church.  As I saw this--a bare statement with no other message attached, to show that the church stands for inclusion and justice and with gay people as some religious groups assault their rights in the fall elections--I thought with no little sadness how impossible it would be to see such a flag flying outside any Catholic church in the state right now, though several priests in the state have courageously resisted the pressure of their bishops to target gay folks.

This bearing witness is not primarily on behalf of Steve and myself, who are, after all, now not too far away from retirement age, and whose thwarted vocational lives as Catholic theologians are too far down the line to be set right by any movement for justice within the institution. But there are new generations of gay and lesbian Catholics coming along who deserve better. And I feel obliged to bear witness to what has been done to us as an appeal to all those who hear, within my community, to stop doing this to people in the name of Christ.

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