James Alison: On Clericalism

“Clericalism” is not a “thing” that can be undone with a single silver bullet. It is a combination over time of a number of different things which have together metastasized into what now seems like an excrescence on the face of Christianity. The metastasis, for which “clericalism” is as convenient a name as any, maintains itself as something sacred. That is to say, it has become an apparently necessary form of the group’s fake self-transcendence, a form of idolatry. Like all forms of idolatry, it damages not only social relationships between people, but also their capacity to imagine. Since it is not a simple incubus, capable of being removed by exorcism, I propose looking at each one of a number of the strands of the metastasis so that we can welcome in something new rather than simply extirpating the old and leaving space for seven worse demons to arrive. For the purposes of this conference, I’m attempting what in a business group would be called “blue-sky thinking”. Here I am calling it “Open heaven thinking” (following St Stephen and St John) aiming at a bestirring of the imagination in an attempt to work through, and beyond, our idolatry in this sphere. Nothing I say here has the pretension of being other than material to promote discussion, and I am probably wrong in a whole series of things that I say. I merely hope that the wrongness be of the sort that encourages mutual build-up rather than mutual down-tearing.–James Alison

Read James Alison’s full presentation “Clericalism and the Violent Sacred: Dipping a Girardian Toe in Troubled Waters” given at the Von Hügel Institute, Cambridge University, 18 September 2019.

Fr. Bryan Massingale: ‘I come to this conversation as a Black, gay priest and theologian.’

Bryan N. Massingale is a Catholic priest who holds the Professor
James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

Tom Roberts has written an excellent opinion piece in National Catholic Reporter titled It’s not about ethics, it’s about how we imagine God, on preeminent theologian Bryan Massingale’s July address in which he shifts the conversation on LGBTQ Catholics.

“I come to this conversation as a Black, gay priest and theologian,” said Massingale at a July 4 talk titled “The Challenge of Idolatry for LGBTQI Ministry,” at the 50th anniversary conference of DignityUSA, a group that self describes as “Celebrating the wholeness and holiness of LGBTQI Catholics.” DignityUSA also hosted a four-day gathering of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics prior to the conference.

Here is an excerpt from Massingale’s email and phone conversation with Tom Roberts:

The major challenge we face as sexually minoritized persons is not a problem of sexual ethics. We tend to think, and we are told, that our problems in church and society stem from our nonconformity with the church’s moral code. 

But the church has a solution for that issue. If you sin, you can go to confession. You receive forgiveness and absolution. … Our deepest problem — the one that causes us the most pain, alienation, and self-estrangement — is that we’ve been told a false story about God and have been given false images of God. That’s our problem. 

Underlying all of the struggles we endure around the world and the stories that we’ve heard throughout this assembly — stories of being kicked out of parishes, ostracized from our families, and in general being not welcome — underlying all of these experiences is a story that Catholicism tells about itself.

At the heart of this story is that to be Catholic is to be straight. “Catholic” = “straight.” Official Catholicism tells a story where only heterosexual persons, heterosexual love, heterosexual intimacy, heterosexual families — only these can unambiguously mirror the Divine. Only these are truly sacred. Genuinely holy. Only these are worthy of unreserved acceptance and respect. All other persons and expressions of love, family life, intimacy, and sexual identity are sacred (if at all) only by toleration or exception.

In effect, we are told that we are “afterthoughts” in the story of creation, not part of the original plan. In other words, we are “children of a lesser god.” … Yes, we certainly need to rethink our church’s official sexual ethics. But even more, we have to rethink God.Bryan Massingale

‘You Didn’t Answer My Question, Mr. President’

On Monday, President Trump held a post-G7 press conference with French President Macron. In the last few minutes Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey asked Trump about climate change (see transcript below).

Trump missed or skipped the G7 discussion on climate, oceans, and biodiversity led by French president Macron. France is leading the Carbon Neutrality Coalition of countries that have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, in part to make up for the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accords.

Greta Thunberg, the youth climate leader who sailed into New York harbor on Tuesday to attend UN climate meetings, was asked if she had a message for President Trump, who has expressed skepticism about the science behind climate change, Thunberg said, “If no one has been able to convince him about the climate crisis — the urgency — then why should I be able to do that?”


Josh Dawsey: Mr. President, there was a significant talk at the summit about climate change.  I know in the past you’ve harbored some skepticism of the science in climate change.  What do you think the world should be doing about climate change?  And do you still harbor that skepticism?

Trump:   I feel that the United States has tremendous wealth.  The wealth is under its feet.  I’ve made that wealth come alive.  We will soon be one of the — we will soon be exporting.  In fact, we’re actually doing it now — exporting.

But we are now the number one energy producer in the world.  And soon, it will be by far, with a couple of pipelines that have not been able to get approved for many, many years.  It’ll have a huge impact.

I was able to get ANWR in Alaska.  It could be the largest site in the world for oil and gas.  I was able to get ANWR approved.  Ronald Reagan wasn’t able to do it.  Nobody was able to do it.  They’ve been trying to do it since before Ronald Reagan.  I got it approved.

We’re the number one energy producer in the world.  Soon it will be, by far, the number one.  It’s tremendous wealth.  And LNG is being sought after all over Europe and all over the world, and we have more of it than anybody else.  And I’m not going to lose that wealth.  I’m not going lose it on dreams, on windmills — which, frankly, aren’t working too well.  I’m not going to lose it.

So, Josh, in a nutshell, I want the cleanest water on Earth.  I want the cleanest air on Earth.  And that’s what we’re doing.

And I’m an environmentalist.  A lot of people don’t understand that.  I have done more environmental impact statements, probably, than anybody that’s — I guess I can say definitely, because I have done many, many, many of them.  More than anybody that’s ever been President or Vice President or anything even close to President.  And I think I know more about the environment than most people.

I want clean air.  I want clean water.  I want a wealthy country.  I want a spectacular country with jobs, with pensions, with so many things.  And that’s what we’re getting.  So I want to be very careful.  At the same time —

Josh Dawsey:    But, Mr. President, do you believe in climate change?  Do you believe in climate change?

Trump:   At the same time — at the same time — you weren’t called.

At the same time, it’s very important to me — very important to me — we have to maintain this incredible — this incredible place that we’ve all built.  We’ve become a much richer country.  And that’s a good thing, not a bad thing — because that great wealth allows us to take care of people.  We can take care of people that we couldn’t have taken care of in the past because of the great wealth.  We can’t let that wealth be taken away.  Clean air, clean water. Thank you very much everybody.  I appreciate it.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

Josh Dawsey: You didn’t answer my question Mr. President as to whether you believe that climate change is happening.

From August 26, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D8aTigGClw [Minutes: 1:08:12 – 1:11:09]

400 Years: Slaves in Our Family

A cleansing ceremony at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., on Aug. 24 during a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia.

Today at 3:00 p.m, bells across America will toll for 4 minutes to remember the 400 years since the first Angolans were captured in 1619 by British slave traders and brought to English-speaking colonies on the ship White Lion. They landed at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for Sojourners magazine about my own family owning enslaved people. I reprint it here today.–Rose Marie Berger

[From Sojourners, February 2012]

My family held slaves.

Among my maternal grandmother’s papers there is a 1820s deed of sale. In the list of farm equipment and livestock are the names of two “negroes.” The right-hand ledger column lists their dollar value.

That branch of my family is from Louisiana. In that same region, there were several slave uprisings, including the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795 and the Cane River rebellion in 1804.

In 1793, Father Jean Delvaux, a priest who served the Catholic parish in Campti, Louisiana (where more than 100 years later my grandmother would be baptized), was deported to Cuba by his bishop for leading “seditious movements” proclaiming the abolition of slavery and “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the motto of the French Revolution.

On my family’s deed, the price for two human beings—chattel slaves—was about $1,000.

“THE AVERAGE PRICE of a human being today,” says researcher Kevin Bales, “is about $90.” That’s the price averaged across the global market. In North America, slaves go for between $3,000 to $8,000. In India or Nepal, you can buy a human being for $5 to $10.

But didn’t slavery disappear after abolition? Isn’t that what the Civil War was all about?

Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, has a succinct response: “Thinking slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation is like thinking adultery stopped with the Ten Commandments.”

However, Bales also wants to make clear that the 27 million people enslaved today represent the smallest percentage of the global population ever to be in slavery. And the $40 billion generated by slavery into the global economy each year is the smallest proportion of the global economy ever represented by slave labor.

Slavery is now illegal in every country in the world; it’s shifted from being universally accepted to universally condemned. But, as abolitionist Wendell Phillips preached nearly 160 years ago, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

ONE SLAVE ANYWHERE is an affront to human dignity, a moral outrage. But slavery, in its most pernicious forms, has always been about profit.

When, as is true today, the richest 10 percent own 85 percent of the world’s wealth and the poorest 50 percent live off the crumbs of 1 percent of the total global wealth, you’ve created a market where slavery will thrive.

Wherever he goes around the world, says Bales, the story is the same. Someone came to the village. They stood on the back of a truck shouting, “I’ve got jobs! Who needs a job?” The person was “suspicious,” but her kids were hungry. She tells Bales, “I had to do anything I could to earn some money.” So she climbed in the back of the truck. “They take [the dangerous working conditions] for a little while,” says Bales, “but when they try to leave—bang!—the hammer comes down. They discover they are enslaved.”

Economist Elizabeth Wheaton writes that within the next 10 years human trafficking is expected to surpass drug and arms trafficking. “As people become vulnerable to exploitation and businesses continually seek the lowest-cost labor sources,” Wheaton explains, “trafficking human beings generates profit and a market for human trafficking is created.”

During the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795, a French school teacher and abolitionist named Joseph Bouyavel was accused of reading to slaves from The Declaration of the Rights of Man. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” he told them. “These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”

What liberating word do we bring to slaves today? If our Christian good news doesn’t free the captive, then it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. French poet Placide Cappeau put it this way, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother. And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic peace activist and poet, is a Sojourners associate editor.

Evil Leader or Crazed Elephant?

Shakyamuni Buddha

“Truth is a rare commodity. We need to make sure that our sources have the conscience to do good. Nichiren Shonin was very aware of this as well. He said in his Kyoki Jikoku Sho that the Buddha once warned, “it is more harmful to meet a bad leader than it is to meet a bad elephant.”

One may end up being killed upon meeting a crazed elephant. But, it is still better than meeting an evil leader who will corrupt and defile one’s mind to the effect that its contamination will eventually destroy one’s mind and body with lingering repercussions, culminating into one’s fall into the depths of hell. That is, it is better to die with virtuous thoughts than to be polluted by misinformation and bad direction.”—Eisei Ikenaga, minister at Nichiren Buddhist Temple, Portland, Oregon (sermon 2019)

Ched Myers: Healing as Liberation from Crippling Debt

By Ched Myers, on Luke 13:10-17, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016. Published at RadicalDiscipleship.net.

This part of Luke’s gospel offers two symbolic stories about the healing of “political bodies” that signify pathology in the body politic: the “bent over” woman (13:10-17) and the “too big” man (14:1-6). Sadly, the second of these is (literally) skipped over by the lectionary. These intimately related healings bracket a series of Jesus’ sayings concerning the Kingdom as surprise and mystery (13:18-21), the “narrow Way” (13:22-30) and the cost of prophetic discipleship (13:31-35).

To make sense of the symbolic and even political character of these two Lukan healings, a bit of background is needed. Our modern worldview assumes that the gospel healing stories relate “supernatural” cures of medical disorders. The ancient Mediterranean world, however, like many other non-modern cultures, was not bio-medical in its approach to illness, but symbolic. While certainly traditional medicine (herbal, somatic and spiritual) was practiced to address physiological symptoms, serious or chronic illness was perceived primarily as a “socially disvalued state,” an aberrant or defective condition that threatened communal integrity. The job of the healer, then, was to restore the subject back to the community.

Human societies (then and now) seek to order themselves by regulating and socializing bodieswithin the body politic, defining what is pure or impure, safe or threatening to the social norm. Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas reflects on this phenomenon in a seminal essay entitled “Two Bodies” (1973):

The physical body can have universal meaning only as a system which responds to the social system, expressing it as a system. What it symbolized naturally is the relations of parts of an organism to the whole. Natural symbols can express the relation of an individual to his society at that general systemic level. The two bodies are the self and society.

The body politic (the imperatives, symbols and hierarchies of the dominant socio-political order) is reproduced by how, where, and when we present our political bodies (what Douglas understands as the “socialized self,” including the consciousness, physical body, personal habits, and socio-political practices of the individual). Douglas continues:

The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived. The physical experience of the body, always modified by the social categories through which it is known, sustains a particular view of society. There is a continual exchange of meanings between the two kinds of bodily experience so that each reinforces the categories of the other.

The notion of the political body as a mirror of the body politic is common to most traditional cultures, which do not make the radical distinctions between self and society that moderns do; it was certainly characteristic of first-century Palestine. This explains why the Jesus of the gospels pays as much attention to healing and exorcising individuals as he does to what wemight recognize as “political” engagement. Jesus heals those who are physically impaired because they are also socially “dis-membered” according to the dominant Debt and Purity systems. He also enters into conflict because of how he places his body within the accepted/expected proprieties of social space, crossing boundaries of power and prestige. The political character of such gospel symbolic action was intelligible (and thus subversive) within its original cultural context, but is missed by us, having disappeared beneath our literalizing, spiritualizing, and privatizing reading strategies.

In Luke 13:10, the scene is a synagogue on the Sabbath, symbolizing sacred time and space. The phrase “just then,” or “and behold” (Gk kai idou) seems to suggest some essential correlation between the synagogue space and this woman and her condition. She is described as having labored under a spirit of “weakness” (13:11; Gk asthenia, literally lack of strength) for 18 years, which has caused her to become “bent over” (Gk sugkupt?, a verb appearing only here in N.T.). This detail concerning duration could allude to one chapter in the deep history of subjugation suffered by biblical people: “Eglon the Moabite king and the Philistines… oppressed the Israelites for 18 years” (see Judges 3:12-14, 10:7-8). Such an allusion would suffice to reframe condition of this woman’s political body in terms of an oppressive body politic.

Natalie K. Houghtby-Haddon, in her Changed Imagination, Changed Obedience: Social Change, Social Imagination, and the Bent-Over Woman in the Gospel of Luke (2011), argues that “this story is a key interpretive text for seeing Luke’s social vision for his community at work.” Indeed, this is a curious episode in Luke—a sort of combination of call, healing, controversy and exorcism stories. Jesus summons the woman over (the same verb as the call of disciples), but only later addresses the synagogue leader (13:12), defying gender conventions. Moreover, he firstannounces her “release,” and then lays hands on her (13:13), suggesting that the issue here is not disease but bondage. Only here in Luke’s gospel does Jesus say: “You have been set free” (the perfect passive form of apoluo represents the “divine passive”). This verb, a legal term (it means to “pardon” in Luke 6:37 and 23:16-25), is also used in the parallel healing of the man with dropsy (14:4).

The synagogue leader objects to Jesus’ intervention on the basis of Sabbath rest (13:14), but Jesus’ riposte invokes Deuteronomy 5:12-15, which enjoins Sabbath rest for whole household, including beasts of burden. Indeed, Sabbath rest is for purposes of continuing the liberation struggle: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Dt 12:15). If animals are to be liberated, Jesus reasons, how much more should a “daughter of Abraham” (Lk 13:16, a phrase unique in the N.T., anticipating its counterpart in 19:9) be released from “bondage.” The Greek term desmos refers to the chains holding the demoniac in Lk 8:29, and imprisoning Paul in Acts 26:29; Luke may be alluding to how daughters were to be redeemed during the Sabbath year from debt slavery (Ex 21:7-9).

Richard Lowery summarizes this logic in Sabbath and Jubilee (2000): “The connection centers on the imagery of ‘binding’ and ‘releasing’ the ox and the donkey… The root meaning of shemittahin the Sabbath-year passage refers to loosening a yoke and letting it drop from the shoulders. With shoulders now unbound, the one released can stand completely erect. By the very nature of her debilitating ailment, the woman is a living embodiment of the standard metaphor for indebtedness and oppression.”

What had this woman’s political body “doubled over,” in other words, was the oppression of debt bondage structured into the body politic, the inevitable result of an unjust socioeconomic system of disparity. How relevant this story is to our economic realities today! After all, we routinely talk about “crippling debt,” and how individuals and even whole nations groan under debt “burdens”! This is why contemporary groups are resisting the debt economy both at the personal (e.g. the “Rolling Jubilee” movement) and political levels (e.g. the Jubilee Debt Campaign), and why we work intensively in Sabbath Economics education and organizing.

It is hardly surprising that the release proclaimed unilaterally by Jesus earns the immediate ire of the authorities. Or that such opposition to his liberation mission recurs in the “twin” healing of Luke 14:1-7, in which a “man with dropsy” signifies the disease of “Affluenza” that afflicts the ruling class. (There is a long list of ancient writers who specifically associated “dropsy” with the pathology of being too rich.) Jesus again “releases” a political body, this time representing the opposite side of the body politic’s social divide from that of the woman, with a similar appeal to Sabbath rest for animals (14:5; see also the parallel to Lk 6:6-11).

But also unsurprising is the fact that the crowd is with Jesus in this work: our episode concludes with everyone “rejoicing at the glorious things Jesus was doing” (13:17), doubtlessly alluding to the “signs and wonders” of the God of Exodus. True celebration has been restored to this synagogue.

Yet this will be the last time Jesus teaches or heals in this space in Luke’s story. In the initial episode back in the Nazareth synagogue (4:16ff), Jesus proclaimed release to those captive (Is 61:1) and oppressed (Is 58:6). At the conclusion of that inaugural sermon, Jesus declared: “Today these Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). As Houghtby-Haddon suggests, the liberation of the Bent-Over woman in this Sunday’s gospel story is indeed the embodiment of that Nazareth promise. And an invitation for us to do the same for all crippled by debt today.–Ched Myers

‘A Presumption of Innocence’

Rose and Sorelle, 2018

By Sorelle R. Berger and Rose M. Berger

In July, I was one of 71 Catholics arrested by the U.S. Capitol Police in the rotunda of the Russell Senate building in Washington, D.C., for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” while praying the rosary. My prayer was — and is — to end the warehousing of immigrant children in cages, seven of whom have died after being in federal custody since September. More than a dozen Catholic orders and organizations sponsored the event. Seven Catholic bishops sent letters of support.

Before the demonstration, my 11-year-old niece Sorelle tweeted her support. Thus began my conversation about liturgical direct action with a rising 6th-grader at a Catholic school. Below is our exchange.–Rose Berger

Rose: I just wanted to give you all this update. I’m risking arrest tomorrow, Thursday, at the Russell Senate office building as part of the Catholic Day of Action for Detained Immigrant Children. We have legal representation and have talked to the Capitol police. Everything should go relatively smoothly. Likely outcome is that I will sit the a holding cell for 6 hours with a bunch of Catholic sisters.

Sorelle to Rose: good luck I love you and call us when you’re out were so proud of you aunt rose.

Rose to Sorelle: I’m out. Everything went fine. Do you want to write an article with me about my arrest on Thursday? Here are some questions to think about: What happened at the Senate building? Who was there? Why did they do it? What were the responses to what they did? Who did they do it for? What did you think about it? Would you ever consider doing something like this? Why was it important that this event was with Catholics? Would you talk about the event at your school? Would you like your teachers to discuss this event at your school?”

Sorelle: “The Catholic Day of Action. On July 18 at the senators’ building in Washington DC, Catholics were peacefully protesting about the situation at the border. The priests and religious sisters were try to get the Trump administration to view immigration as a pro-life issue. With current American politics, this is a long up-hill fight, but it is one worth fighting. The situation at the border is one that is not only racist towards Mexicans, but it gives all people of color presumption of guilt. The current president doesn’t understand that they are born with presumption of innocence. I think the situation at the border is proof that history repeats itself. In the 1920s, we had to fight for women’s suffrage. Before that we had to fight against slavery. Now in 2019 we have to fight against these border problems. At some point Trump has to realize that we’re all created equal and stop assuming that whoever comes into America is a drug dealer, because he has no right to. At my Catholic school, they are not allowed to tell us about politics or the border. But this [day of action] relates to Jesus loving everybody. It’s important for people to say what they believe. Catholic Day of Action was just that.

Rose: [mic drop]


by Rose Marie Berger (Sojourners, August-September 1992)

September 3, 1992, was the first anniversary of the fire in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

That man dressed fine as Sunday every day
of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products–
poultry processors. Had a plant right here
in town. Every morning, early, the workers
would line up at the front gates–mostly women,
mostly black folk, some with joints froze up from
working those machines, some with emphysema
from working the pantyhose factory
down the road, but all wanting their babies
to eat half as good as what sat on that
rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time.
Well, he got to worrying that some folks
might start stealing his chicken parts,
so he took to locking up the factory
doors once the morning shift was in place. The
time came when a hydraulic line blew on
one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke
filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of
the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon
dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most
folks died at the south end of the building
near the walk-in freezer. They had headed
for the exit, but it was locked. Then they
were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some
died down at the loading dock. Piled up on
each other trying to get through the small
hole between the wall and the truck blocking
the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.

She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She
was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall,
who’d only worked chicken a few months. She
was dead. And Margaret Banks. When
they brought her out, you could already
tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25
who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant
said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies
were white or black on account of the smoke; but the
angels, who pay no mind to color, came
and carried every single one of them
up into the arms of Abraham.
Now, all of this happened the day after
Labor Day. And even though Imperial
didn’t allow no organizing in its
plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers
Union still sent dresses (and suits for the
men) to use as burying clothes. At the
First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord,
Lord,” maybe because in the confusion
they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery
time’s been over! How much longer is it
going on?” To which there was just no good
answer. What all happened to the rich man
was never much covered in the newspapers,
but the actual truth is his story’s been told before.[]