Monday, August 25, 2008

Newman and Jägerstätter, Kosher Ethics and Hurricane Fay: Ruminations on the News

John Henry Newman Exhumation Story

I’ve blogged several times about the plans underway to exhume the body of the 19th-century theologian and Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman (,, As my previous postings note, since Newman has been declared blessed by Rome (a preliminary to canonization, the step at which a blessed becomes a saint), the Vatican has announced plans to move Newman’s body from its resting place in a small cemetery in Rednal, England, to a shrine in Birmingham.

As I’ve also noted, the ostensible reason the Vatican is giving for this move is to allow the faithful to venerate Newman more readily than they can do at the present burial site—where Newman shares a grave, at his explicit end-of-life request, with his lifelong companion Ambrose St. John. I’ve also discussed the protest of gay activist Peter Tatchell, who views Newman’s exhumation as “an act of religious desecration and moral vandalism.”

The story continues. This past week, National Catholic Reporter published an outstanding overview of the story, including the question of Newman’s sexual orientation and relationship to St. John—Dennis Coday’s “Moving Cardinal Newman’s Body Runs into Controversy” ( Coday’s article notes that the London paper Church Times has an online poll in which readers can vote regarding whether they approve or disapprove of the removal of Newman’s body. The poll is at

Last I checked, the vote was 80% against the exhumation of Newman’s body and his separation from St. John, and 20% in favor. And how this whole thing feels to me? Frankly, as though churches that can’t do enough to make the lives of gay folks hell on earth won’t even leave us alone in death!

There. I’ve said it. And am happy to have that off my chest.

Newman Story in Light of Story of Franz Jägerstätter

As I reflected recently on the story of what the church wants to do with the resting place of Newman and St. John, it occurred to me that there’s an interesting parallel case that, to my mind, represents the disparity between how the churches treat gay relationships and gay human beings, and how they treat straight relationships and straight persons. This has to do with the Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter.

Jägerstätter was an Austrian layman who refused conscription into the Nazi army, and was executed for this refusal. He defied the pressure of priest and bishop to enter the army; these pastoral counselors told him that Christians have a solemn duty to obey the dictates of the state. Jägerstätter insisted that Catholic teaching stresses the inviolability of one’s sacred conscience, which one must follow even if church authorities tell one to do otherwise. He was executed because of his defiance of the Nazi regime.

Last October, Pope Benedict declared Franz Jägerstätter blessed. Insofar as I know, Jägerstätter is still buried in his parish cemetery, in a simple grave that is not marked with any conspicuous signs. If I am not mistaken, his elderly widow Franziska still lives, and is to be buried beside him in the rural parish cemetery.

My source for this information is a moving account by Jesuit writer John Dear in National Catholic Reporter of a pilgrimage he made to Jägerstätter’s grave in the 1970s ( Dear notes that no signs mark the way to the shrine, and that Jäggerstätter is buried in an humble grave outside the chapel in which he attended Mass, his grave marked by a simple crucifix.

And so it should be, in my opinion. And so it should remain—Franz Jägerstätter buried with his wife and family beside him in the simple churchyard where he attended church, to remind us that sanctity is accessible to all of us, is the call of every one of us, who achieve sainthood as he did, by living our “ordinary” lives in the light of the gospel. I would be appalled, frankly, if the church should choose in future to move Jägerstätter from his current burial site, and to separate him from his wife.

With churches, I’ve learned, anything is possible, no matter how outlandish and how obviously cruel to some folks’ eyes. It will be interesting to see if there will be any pressure in future to move Jägerstätter from his current burial site. If not, one cannot help concluding that the churches employ a cruel double standard, when it comes to how they treat gay persons and our relationships.

Discussion of Kosher Ethics

I blogged some time ago about how the federal raids on the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa (raids that led to the deportation of a large number of Mexican and Central American workers) have resulted in a discussion of the ethics of declaring food kosher ( In my previous posting on this topic, I linked to an op-ed article by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who quotes 19th-century Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who is believed to have refused to certify a matzo factory as kosher because its workers were being treated unjustly.

I noted my own interest in this discussion: is ritual truly effective (in the literal sense of that word: it effects, it accomplishes) when circumstances in which the ritual is celebrated undercut the fundamental ethical proclamations of the religion mounting the ritual? I’ve noted on this blog that where I find myself vis-à-vis my own church, the Catholic church, and its central ritual, the Eucharist, is a position of alienation.

I am alienated—I cannot participate in the Eucharist—precisely because I believe in the Eucharist. I believe in what it means. I believe that communion in the sacred, ritual sense must be mirrored by the intent to effect communion within the body of Christ, or the ritual contradicts what it proclaims at the most fundamental level.

For me, as a gay person who has been hounded out of a livelihood and career—out of daily bread—by church officials who never have to question where their daily bread will come from, the disparity between how the church behaves and what it proclaims has become too stark to support. I simply can’t stomach that disparity by participating. My very presence at Eucharistic celebrations would be, I feel, a confirmation of the emptiness that surrounds the Eucharistic proclamation, until the church examines the radical injustices it is doing in the name of a clerical system based on power over others who are dominated by clerics. And until those of us at the receiving end of the clerical lash receive a mere apology.

As I have also noted, my gay believer’s experience at the Lord’s Table has not really been any different in some other churches—notably the Methodist church, with which I have had close contact due to my work in two United Methodist colleges. Though, as an alienated Catholic doing administrative work in Methodist institutions, I felt for some time a strong sense of welcome and communion within the Methodist context, that communion ended decisively when I knelt one Sunday at the communion rail beside a Methodist university president who, the following day, told me she/he wished me gone from the campus, and two days later, out of the blue, terminated me in the ugliest way possible.

One cannot believe in Communion when members of the body of Christ grossly violate the most fundamental principles of communion. I have now seen what the “welcome” offered me by the Methodist church really means. The total absence of any protest or pastoral outreach by the Methodist bishop and ministers sitting on the governing board of this university shows me how they regard me as a gay human being, and what that church’s open door slogan really means for me and my kind.

How can someone kneel beside a brother or sister in the Lord on Sunday, intending all the while to do a grave injustice to that same person on Monday—to deny him his daily bread, knowing full well that one’s reasons for doing so are vicious—how can one engage in this behavior, and mean what Communion is all about? My thinking about this issue has long been decisively shaped by German Lutheran martyr-theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer, who notes,

In the Eucharist . . . we receive not only Christ, the Head of the Body, but its members as well. . . . Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot properly receive the Bread of Life without sharing bread for life with those in want.

When Christian institutions deny employment to people unjustly—in the cases I am addressing, solely because those people are gay—they radically undercut all they proclaim about the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. The current pope echoes Bonhöffer’s analysis of Communion and communion when he notes,

The consequence is clear: we cannot communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another . . . . Fellowship in the Body of Christ and receiving the Body of Christ means fellowship with one another. This of its very nature includes mutual acceptance, giving and receiving on both sides, and readiness to share one's goods . . . In this sense, the social question is given quite a central place in the theological heart of the concept of communion.

All this as a preliminary to noticing another story about the fascinating discussion now going on in the American Jewish community following the Postville raids. Last week, Julia Preston reported in a New York Times article entitled “Rabbis Debate Kosher Ethics at Meat Plant” that a debate about the meaning of kosher regulations is now underway among rabbis (

To be specific: while some rabbis are urging the creation of a set of “social justice criteria” to accompany the koshering of food, others resist the proposal to add to the criteria by which food is koshered considerations about the social ethics of the food plant in which food is declared kosher.

This debate mirrors, in a theological context different from the Christian one, the discussion I have highlighted above. Is it possible for church or synagogue to keep engaging in ritual actions whose fundamental significance is belied by the behavior of those mounting the actions?

For me—and, I suspect, for many alienated believers—these are real questions, and profound ones. If communities of faith expect to be taken seriously when they call us to worship, they need to reflect much more seriously about the ways in which the lives of the members of the worshiping community either proclaim the message imparted in worship and ritual action, or impede that message.

And they need to listen to those of us who have been seriously hurt by communities of faith, and who can easily point to the areas in which the message is definitively broken by the behavior of the bearers of the message.

The Weather and God’s Wrath

This is another have-to-get-it-off-my-chest item. Following the California Supreme Court’s decision to legitimate gay marriage, not only blogs, but the mainstream media buzzed for weeks with stories about the “unprecedented” lighting strikes in California and the fires those lightning strikes caused.

The subtext was clear, and was particularly gross, when it appeared in “unbiased” “secular” media statements from places like the AP: God is hurling lightning bolts on Californicators because of their recognition of gay marriage. “Christian” blogs, of course, made the subtext very clear, as they jubilated about the wildfires even as the red states of the heartland were being inundated by unprecedented floods.
And now along comes Fay. And soaks Florida. Another red state, one in which a lesbian not too long ago was denied access to visiting her partner as the partner died, while hospital workers told her that she was in an anti-gay state with anti-gay laws and had better just accept it.

And news reports are noting that Fay’s constant twisting and turning around the peninsula of Florida, and its drenching rains, are highly unusual and unprecedented events. But never a peep of that ugly subtext of God’s wrath raining down on Florida.

Double standard? Indeed. This selective use of the weather to underscore God’s wrath has been going on a long time among the religious right. It’s really time for it to stop, and for the AP and other “unbiased” “mainstream” media outlets to stop taking talking points from people who not only predict monsoons as punishments for areas that try to be merely humane to gay folks, but who actually crow when any weather disaster occurs in a state they have targeted.

To say that such behavior is unbecoming among people of faith would be a gross understatement. Might be better, in this age of capricious weather when God seems to send rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike, to stop claiming that you can call down God’s wrath in the form of bad weather on anyone at all.

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