ADVENT HOPE ON A BUS RIDE TO BALTIMORE
by Ted Schmidt
The existing religious traditions are too distant from our new sense of the universe to be adequate to the task before us. We cannot do without the traditional religions, but they cannot do what presently needs to be done. We need a new type of religious orientation. This must emerge from our new story of the universe.
Thomas Berry, the Dream of the Earth
It is time to embrace the cosmic and planetary context within which our life story and the story of all life enfolds.
The church in America — in fact, in the West as a whole — has accepted as religion a kind of cultural syncretism, culminating in near perfect allegiance to the State. Not a few of our more prominent Bishops have even waited upon the Presidency like court jesters….we want to express our fidelity to the Church and the Chair of Peter, even as we sorrow over Christian myopia, hardness of heart, and even cowardice.
Phil Berrigan in a letter to Bishop William Baum of Washington, September 1971
This month of December 2002 has been an extraordinary Advent for me. I suspect that I am not alone among Christians when I name this liturgical season the most meaningful of all. There are many reasons for this. In my own life it is the bad taste in my mouth at what has happened to Christmas in the west. It has exploded into a consumerist orgy almost totally divorced from the holy story of the babe born in the stable, for whom there was no room in the inn. When our children were infants we tried to celebrate Advent as a time for preparation and now, as adults, our gift giving is simple. Those four weeks then are for me that special time of waiting for God, though I know God is always here, upholding you, breathing through all of creation. What exactly then am I waiting for?
Many years ago Daniel Berrigan the Jesuit poet said that we are looking not for a second coming which will wind up history, but we would really like a coming-and-a- half. I think he was right. Each of us is waiting "with revolutionary patience" for a deeper grasp of the divine mystery, a more just social embodiment in history, a sign that the living God is active in our personal and collective history.
Prayer is the way we seek to apprehend the Mystery and prayer is radical waiting on the God who always and everywhere speaks first to us. Yet in our modern world of almost instant connection through modern technology we seem disconnected from the God of our depths. On the one hand, we are overwhelmed by information. John Seely Brown in his book The Social Life of Information points out that on an average weekday alone a modern newspaper contains more information than a contemporary of Shakespeare would deal with in a lifetime! People are overwhelmed by this "info-glut." Not only that, but we are overwhelmed by the speed of modern life. Many scientists are suggesting that the stress levels are exceeding our evolutionary limits. The Guardian newspaper in October 2000, pointing to a United Nations study said that the western world was experiencing low level depression and burnout. Hence the need for Advent prayer time!
For me, it came during a 14 hour all night bus ride to Baltimore in early December. The ride back and forth was punctuated by the life-giving funeral of my friend Philip Berrigan who had died of cancer at 79. One of the most radical pacifists and authentic Christians of the 20th century, Phil’s life spoke volumes about the role of Christianity in the world. Reading his life
in conjunction with the prophet Isaiah, whose readings dominate the Advent season, I think I experienced a coming-and-a-half; things became much clearer. Two other incidents helped me discern the "signs of the times" — the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and the release of the Razanski report in Ontario. Razanski, the president of the University of Guelph, released his findings on public education funding on December 10, a day after the Berrigan funeral. Cardinal Law resigned on December 12. What do these have in common?
First, Philip Berrigan’s life connected the dots. It is not easy to do so in a culture dumbed-down and Disneyfied, a culture where time has been stolen from citizens by a succession of neo-liberal governments all over the world. Since Reagan-Thatcher (1980), globalization led by American corporations, have engulfed the planet with their policy prescriptions of economic
restructuring, deregulation and privatization of public wealth. Secret transnational treaties overrode government control of domestic economies. The impact on the poor has been horrendous; the greed of disgraced CEOs as in the Enron/WorldCom fiascos has been breathtaking. Advertising, exploding
seven times faster than the growth of economies, often has overwhelmed susceptible people, infantilizing them and turning them into docile consumers rather than engaged global citizens. Market forces have commodified every thing in their way. A major shift from governments to transnational corporations (TNC’s)has taken place. Labour shifted to capital as the state disengaged from its social function to one of repression and curtailing of democratic freedoms.
The International Monetary Fund reviewing their devastating strategies of the past 30 years admitted that "in recent decades one fifth of the world has regressed" and they conceded that "this has been one of the greatest economic failures of the 20th century." Berrigan understood the link between all of the above. He understood the context of his life within a country which had become an empire — the bloated Pentagon budgets, hundreds of bases around the world used not for democratization but to safeguard American investment (Chile, Iran, Latin America, Indonesia) the pursuit nuclear of mega-death etc. — all resulted in poverty at home and penury in foreign aid. The warfare state literally robbed the poor everywhere, the very poor in which Jesus took his central abode. Philip Berrigan took the beatitudes
seriously and threw his peacemaking life in front of this machine.
And what of Bernard Law, the disgraced Cardinal of Boston, the most powerful cleric in America?
His vision of church was much different than Berrigan’s. The Church for Law seemed an entity apart from life, a holy island on which he presided as a CEO; as an institution it never marched with other agents of justice. Though strong on abortion and capital punishment, no howls were heard from Law over the barbaric 500,000 deaths of the children in Iraq; no understanding that the Church should represent the weeping earth plundered by corporate greed.
Bernard Law was too integrated with the lords of this earth. A Republican, and a friend of the Bush family, he never challenged the neo-liberal view of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era. Bernard Law was a papal watchdog obsessed with the law and the Church; he actively discouraged religious from getting too prophetic about America’s sins. The Church was his fiefdom and he ruled it like a medieval prince. As well, as the prime papal loyalist, he presided over all American Episcopal appointments making sure all would fit the template of a "law and order" over against a sociopolitical, critical prophetic vision of Church. The sex abuse scandal which entrapped Law and many of his auxiliaries who went on to head dioceses, shows what happens when men are fixated on church-loyalty rather than world and earth loyalty. His fall from grace is indeed tragic and injurious to the Church.
At a local level here in Ontario, the Rozanski report was a ringing
endorsement of education as part of the common good. It was the educational equivalent of the Romanow report, a ringing defense of public health care. It called for an immediate infusion of the money squandered by a neo-con government on tax breaks for the wealthy and the privatization of public goods, two of the staples of modern economic neo-liberalism. Rosanski and Romanow both represent the repudiation of attacks on the broad base of citizens. The acceptance of the Kyoto Accord, as well, represents citizens fighting back against corporate attempt to restructure civilization.
This week in Advent helped focus my thinking. It made me realize with much clarity a number of things.
First, as Phil Berrigan’s life showed, we need to connect the dots as
Christians, to see how our living theology, our understanding of that prime biblical metaphor of Jesus, the reign of God, is alive, often outside the Church, challenging the horrendous neo-con assault on life everywhere. Phil’s prophetic mysticism, so united with the God of Life and Peace, helped him rage with holy fury against the indignities presently heaped on the earth and humanity. His work for justice was profoundly spiritual. Phil forged connections, as we must with all the life forces bigger than the Church. He plumbed his Catholicism and found other fellow travelers were there in a similar still point.
Around the world there is a phenomenal resistance toward globalization. In Ontario it would be those who fought the Harris cuts and the appeal to "more money in your pocket" and to private greed over public good. It was and is educational activists, health care activists, environmentalists who deep in their bones understand the sacramental nature of the earth as God’s body, a living organism inviting our participation; it is Christians who understand that the future is not about the survival of the fittest, but as Theodore Roszak says, "the survival of the gentlest." This principled anti-war movement (lest we get down about the power of George W. Bush and the oil oligarchy) is being waged nonviolently by vigils, rallies which go unreported, cell phones, community radio, cartoon strips like Doonesbury and others, art students, culture jammers like Adbusters, bumper stickers and citizens using the Internet to connect with others in this, the fight of our lives).
Future bishops will need to understand this; Bernard Law did not. His vision was too small. His loyalties were misplaced. The reign of God must transcend ecclesial enclaves; the Church needs to be in the world as Phil Berrigan was, concerned about the healing of the planet. Episcopal leaders of the future need to learn from this. I suspect that big changes are in store for the Catholic Church in this regard. Patriarchy, hierarchy and clericalism have suffered a major blow here. The new physics indicates that the future lies with interdependence, cooperation — both part of a feminist orientation.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light said Isaiah 2700 years ago. Did I catch a glimpse on that bus ride to Baltimore? Was this my Advent hope?
Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times and author of Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood.