Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bishop Finn Declares War: The Devil We Know

Most Americans may be unaware of this, but a U.S. Catholic bishop recently declared war (here) . . . on, well, just about everybody but himself and the religious right.

Speaking at the 2009 Gospel of Life Convention in Overland Park, Kansas, on the theme "Warriors for the Victory of Life,” Kansas City bishop Robert W. Finn announced, “We are at war.” Bishop Finn’s speech, which is going viral on websites of the political and religious right, is a rousing, rootin’, tootin’ call to the troops to gird on their armor and do battle with the enemy.

We: the enemy: war. Bishop Finn’s analysis of where “we” find ourselves today and who "our" enemy is enfolds a lot of hidden presuppositions that are never quite spelled out. “We” are clearly all Catholics, all good and faithful Catholics. Bishop Finn appears oblivious to (or does not seem willing to acknowledge) the fact that a majority of American Catholics rejected his call last November to vote against Mr. Obama, or that the large majority of American Catholics accept neither his analysis of abortion nor his political recommendations for dealing with the abortion issue.

So an important preliminary point to note about Bishop Finn’s call to “us” to gird our loins for war is that his “we” refers to his church and not necessarily ours—the tiny church of the pure and true believer, and not the large church of sinners and the unwashed. The “we” who are at war are a group of Christian warriors with a hidden gnosis, a peculiar vocabulary and eccentric worldview known only to the true believer, from which the rough masses are shut out.

That peculiar vocabulary and eccentric worldview revolve around images of battle, militancy, blood, and, above all, Satan. Yes, Satan—in all his scary-alluring glamor; Satan, the old deceiver and father of lies, who constantly tries to weave his snares around our feet and claim us for the kingdom of darkness. Satan, who can, the good bishop warns, lay claim to us without our knowing we’ve been so claimed: “So let’s be clear: Human beings are not Satan, but certainly they can come under his power, even without their fully realizing it.”

Bishop Finn’s brief lecture employs the name Satan five times, that of Jesus six times.

And that pretty much says it all to me, where this apocalyptic worldview of Satanic possession of people who don’t know they’re possessed, with its lurid imagery of war and bloodshed and its gnostic vocabulary and worldview, is headed. It’s headed way off the charts of Christian orthodoxy, as every other gnostic and apocalyptic form of Christianity has done in the past.

With its virtual equation of Jesus and Satan—Savior matched with Arch-Enemy—this is a worldview and theological system long ago condemned by most Christian churches, one that makes the devil as powerful as God. It’s a worldview and theological system that spectacularly miss the central point of the gospel proclamation: that Christ has died and is risen, and in this paschal event, the powers of evil have once and for all been decisively defeated.

Certainly in this already-but-not-yet time in which we move towards the eschatological consummation of that victory, we live amidst struggle. And certainly we struggle to make our voices heard in the public square, as pilgrim people who have no lasting place in history, but who are walking towards a New Jerusalem that totally transcends all that will be built in history. And without a doubt, we struggle against powers and principalities—though those demonic forces, in my view, have faces entirely different from those that occupy Bishop Finn’s fantasy, and they do not take control of my heart and mind without my desire to yield control to them.

But as we walk on that pilgrimage to a goal we can already glimpse, as we read the gospels and place ourselves on the way of discipleship in response to the gospels, we live in hope. We are a people of hope because the battle has already been won. Satan is defeated. With all others seeking a better world, with all those who, whether they believe or not or are Christian or not, glimpse that same eschatological vision of the possibility of history that we glimpse: with them, we build, we share, we make common cause.

We do not construe the majority of people in the world as our enemies because they are not our enemies. They are fellow pilgrims towards the reign of God. We do not rule the majority of our brothers and sisters out of the church because, if we did that, we would evacuate the term “catholicity” of its core meaning, and we would establish a church that is not church at all, not a home for all sinners in the world, but a counter-sign to the gospel’s invitation to all sinners to find a welcoming place among the community of those following Jesus.

With the election of Barack Obama, with the decisive checkmate of their lurid theocratic imaginings centered on domination and coercion, with the waning power of the political party to which they have uncritically given idolatrous status, Catholics of the right are boiling mad. They’re on the warpath. And they’re spinning off into theological never-neverland as they plot their strategies of war.

I had not intended to give any notice on this blog to an exceedingly strange Good Friday homily one member of the Catholic right placed on the web earlier this month. I don’t like helping to circulate the dangerous balderdash of the lunatic fringe of the religious right.

Now, however, I feel compelled to draw attention to this sermon, because it is a counterpoint to what Bishop Finn has recently stated about the church militant, Satan, and “our” need to be at war. To appreciate where Finn is coming from and what he’s getting at, it’s important to place his words against the backdrop of  the Good Friday homily of another clerical leader of the Catholic right, Rev. Thomas Euteneuer of Human Life International.

Euteneuer’s sermon, entitled “Good Friday: The World’s First Exorcism,” is the strangest Good Friday homily I have ever had the misfortune to read. It opens—wham, bam—right in the middle of apocalypse, with the Book of Revelation, the ravenous dragon seeking to devour the new-born baby of the woman clothed with the sun.

Yes, a Good Friday homily. Yes, an apocalyptic homily on the day set aside for liturgical remembrance of Jesus’s passion and crucifixion. Yes, on that day, a homily centered on the devil. Rev. Euteneuer’s homily uses the term “devil” ten times, the word “Jesus” twice.

This is a sermon about Jesus and his death that almost completely ignores Jesus and his death, except insofar as the latter is an adjunct to an elaborate gnostic system preoccupied instead with demonic possession and exorcism, with blood as a magic purifying substance in battles with demonic forces. No mention at all is made of how Jesus lived, of his constant preaching about love as the center of the life of discipleship, of how his death sums up that constant preaching in a definitive way.

In this sermon, Jesus is divorced—the life of Jesus, his words, are divorced—from Jesus’s blood, which is everywhere in the sermon. A magical, mystical substance that believers can somehow “call down” on their enemies and benighted family members who live outside gnostic certainty, including those “mired in an immoral lifestyle”—blood as weapon, as thaumaturgic object accessible only to true believers and withheld from those outside the tight circle of those believers:

The Blood of Christ is also our greatest weapon against the evil that afflicts those we love. Do you have a loved one that is pierced by an addiction? Call Christ's Blood down upon him daily. Pray that the shed Blood will penetrate all the demonic bonds on his soul and break their grip. Do you have a family member or friend mired in an immoral lifestyle? Immerse her in Christ's Blood and symbolically bring her in prayer to Calvary to stand with Mary at the only place in the world the devil will not go.

While using the term “Jesus” only twice in his homily, Euteneuer uses the word “blood” ten times. With Euteneuer as backdrop, do you see where Finn is headed with his call to true Catholics to do battle with Satan?

Battle with Satan in the America headed by Barack Obama, it goes without saying. One cannot understand the significance of this truly crazy theology without placing that theology in the context of the America of Barack Obama. When Bishop Finn insists on informing us that the devil is everywhere and can grab hold of our minds and hearts even if we are unaware of his diabolical influence, he wants us to think of Barack Obama, of Notre Dame University, of the millions of American Catholics who voted for and continue to support the new president.

He wants us to project onto the living, breathing human beings all around us—including those kneeling in church right beside us—the suspicion of demonic possession. He wants us to widen the circle of our enmity, not of our compassion.

Reading Finn and Euteneuer, you can understand, can’t you, why I concluded  a posting two days ago with the observation that we’ve worked long and hard to place ourselves, we American Catholics, in a “curious, irrelevant ghetto position when it comes to many of the most significant moral and political discussions of the day,” and that we now richly deserve to be dismissed by people of good sense and good will?

Blood and battle and the smoke of Satan, when people want to hear about hope and peace and fulfillment. About assurance that they and their loved ones will have adequate health coverage. About the possibility that they and their loved ones can find fulfilling work at a good wage. About access to good educations and freedom from discrimination.

Instead, we offer them in the name of Christ wild chatter about blood and battle and the wily old devil with whom we seem altogether more familiar than with Jesus. Yes: we do deserve to be marginalized by people of good will and good sense today.

Apocalyptic rants just won’t do the trick, if we expect to convince the general public that we have something of importance to offer. The louder we shout about the devil, the less convincing we can expect to be. These are arguments from weakness and not from strength—the kind of argument people of faith offer when they sense that they have lost or are about to lose a battle for which they were ill-prepared in the first place, because they were off-base in their analysis of the situation they were addressing.

People want hope, a better life, a chance to collaborate in building a better world, and what do we offer them: rants about Satan and magic blood we “call down” on the world and warfare in which we take barely concealed, shameful delight, as if shedding of blood somehow satisfies us. When people begin nattering on about the devil, I long ago decided to stop listening, because I recognize that they have lost connection with what is truly important in the spiritual life.

And I suspect that's going to be the reaction of large numbers of our fellow citizens, as Finn's war gets underway. It will also, I feel sure, be the reaction of large numbers of Catholics who, to the shame of our pastoral leaders, have been made to feel less welcome in the church today than Robert Finn and Thomas Euteneuer, with their wild babble about the devil.