Lenten Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Todd Bentley, and Performance Healing


Tip of the Hat to Vintage Jeannie‘s eclectic tastes that led me to performance artist Marina Abramovic and “Our America with Lisa Ling,” a new TV series on OWN. Both have prompted some esoteric reflections on Lent, Lenten disciplines, prophetic witness, and social healing.

From the Lenten prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.”

First, the strange world of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic, born in Belgrade, is one of the leading artists from the “live act” performance art movements from the 1960s and ’70s in Eastern Europe. The performance art and body art movements in Europe can be traced back to the Dadists in 1915 who created “anti-art” to shock and critique the values of a society that preferenced the pretensions of high culture while countenancing the brutality of World War I.

In Abramovic’s performance pieces, her body is the primary medium–taking her and her audience to the limits of emotion. She creates dangerous spaces. She says, “I’m interested in art that disturbs and pushes that moment of danger.” After the terrorist attacks in New York city on Sept. 11, Abramovic performed “House With an Ocean View” at a gallery in Manhattan in which she publicly mourned for 12 days, including fasting, weeping, sometimes tearing her clothes.

“For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water,” wrote art critic John Haber. “She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to ‘change my energy field.’ By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.” And hundreds came to the gallery to participate with her in the public ritual, her prophetic witness. So like Jeremiah weeping for an unrepentant people.

Last year, in preparation for a retrospective of performance art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic led a workshop at her farm in upstate New York called “Cleaning the House.” Participants slept outside and did not eat nor speak for four days. They engaged in a regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal of these exercises was to enable them to become aware of their limits and to find their own “charismatic space.” They pushed their bodies and minds to learn something about their souls.

The trailer to the movie Marina (see above) tracks one of those workshops. Individuals are led through a series of exercises meant to sharpen their minds and shock their bodies. They go through a 4-day process of “cleansing.” Abramovic walks through the group with an “offertory basket” collecting everyone’s cell phones, IPAs, Iphones, etc.  They are asked to temporarily sacrifice communication in order to be present to themselves and their surroundings. They take a vow of silence. They sleep in the open, in the cold. They bathe in the river. They find a spiritual space where they can identify their own limits, the spiritual boundaries of another, and the impenetrable mystery that lies in the gap between the two. Participants come away completely transformed–shocked at how much more “human” they have become in just 4 days of intense study and training.

In “Our America with Lisa Ling,” the premier episode is devoted to exploring faith healing through Todd Bentley at Morning Star Ministries in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. Ling describes Bentley as a “rock star among faith healers,” and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery nearly derailed his ministry.

Bentley runs a school for would-be faith healers. Those who come are the addicted, the abused, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, the needy. With the praise band wailing in the background, Bentley – who looks like a biker in his black t-shirt, full-sleeve tattoos, and body piercings – mows down the line of the desperate, slaying them in the Spirit. It is powerful and pitiful, prayerful and spiritually pornographic.

It is also performance art: Bodies in space; the interacting of charismatic energies. Also with painful, though less dangerous, social commentary.

Ling visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend Bentley’s workshops, hoping that when they bring their mother to one of Todd Bentley’s worship services she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. “Faith healing is,” Ling points out, “a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.”

One commenter on the episode said, “Many turn to faith healing because they cannot afford treatment from conventional medicine (like the woman in the show with cancer who had to stop her chemo). There are many who want to go the route of conventional medicine, but when that is no longer an option for them, where do they turn? I hope that this show, and those like it, help others to see that we need to find ways of helping everyone have access to medical treatment (no matter what their financial situation may be).”

When the faithful are not cured of cancer or paralysis, Ling reframes (as people of faith have done for centuries in these situations trying to understand the mysterious ways of God). She looks at how the individuals have transformed their own lives with God’s help–turning away from drugs, leaving abusive relationships, gaining emotional and psychological strength–rather than emphasizing the somewhat suspicious snake oil of Todd Bentley.

At the end of the episode Steve, a man paralyzed for years who is convinced that the Lord will heal him through Todd Bentley, is not able to walk again. But when Ling kneels before him in his wheelchair asking how he understands what has happened, he instead pours out his prayers on her. He is compelled to release the spiritual energy built up inside him. He lays his hands on Ling’s head and she receives a peculiar annointing. All of which calls into question who or what was actually being healed.

Liturgy and ritual, stripping away illusions, prayer and healing, surprise and danger, temptations all are part of Lent. We experiment with who we are in our humanness, when masks are ripped away. We expose our wounds. We are vulnerable to Satan/hucksters selling us cheap grace.

Lent is a time to “Clean the House.” St. Augustine’s prayer continues: “My soul is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you?” We are such peculiar creatures. We choose such strange sins.

Joan Chittister: The Problem With Clinging to Old Certainties

What do the great prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Ezekiel and Jesus—have in common with us? asks Joan Chittister. And she answers: All of them were simple souls like you and me. Here’s an excerpt from Chittister’s book Cry of the Prophet that helps me understand how faith keeps us flexible in eras of great social change.

It is so easy to make God to our own image and likeness. It is so easy to see only the images we make of the Unimaginable, to the exclusion of all others. It is so easy to make God small and call that faith.

The evidence in every sector of human life makes the point all too well: open-mindedness, breadth of vision, the universal mind rise all too rarely in the human heart.

Fundamentalism, biblical literalism, reactionism and ideological extremism — all dispositions designed to freeze spiritual and social development to a given period — ride high now. The condition is not uncommon during periods of great social change and deep social stress. The situation begs for it, in fact. Given the loss of past absolutes and the shift in the social consensus on national values that come with technological development, major cultural transformations and new social realities, people cling to old certainties like shipwreck survivors to lifeboats.

It is precisely in times like those a world in flux needs a prophetic commitment to principle in the face of practices long since gone awry or begging to be reviewed again. What the world needs then is openness to the Holy Spirit and a commitment to basic tenets of truth and justice and goodness and to the Will of God for all humankind. We need a faith than can function in the present, not a religion that mirrors the past.

It is not an easy task, this openness to the Spirit. It demands that we let go of our own ideas to make way for new manifestations of the presence of God in time. It is not a comfortable call, this invitation of God to a dark walk toward a distant future, but it is the ultimate manifestation of response to the Spirit.

It takes vision…to see good will where we do not see a similarity of ideas. It takes courage…to admit the weaknesses within us that corrupt our strength and erode our hearts. It takes openness of heart to see God everywhere and in everyone when we assume that godliness is common only to us, to our groups and our nation and our church and our ideas.

Vision and courage and openness to the Spirit call us to breadth of vision, to softness of heart, to the expansion of our souls beyond our parochial worlds and chauvinistic politics and segregated social lives and intellectual blandness that mask as faith and parade as religion.–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpt from The Cry of the Prophet by Joan Chittister, OSB

Why Does a Yemeni Woman Have Pictures of Gandhi, King, and Mandela?

Tawakkol Karman in Saana, Yemen.

“Tawakkol Karman sat in front of her laptop, her Facebook page open, planning the next youth demonstration. Nearby were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These days, though, Karman is most inspired by her peers. ‘Look at Egypt,’ she said with pride. ‘We will win.'”

When I read this in Sudarsan Raghavan‘s Washington Post article yesterday on Yemen’s women activists, I was reminded that America’s very best export is the civil rights movement.

There is an intellectual and spiritual lineage from the 20th century that is being played out on the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Riyad, and elsewhere today.

In the 1850s, Russian aristocrat Leo Tolstoy became disgusted with violence after doing tours of duty in Chechnya and after seeing a public execution in Paris. His conversion toward nonviolence and Christianity led him to write The Kingdom of God Is Within You (published in 1894).

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to the Hindoo laying out a plan for a massive nonviolent civil resistance campaign to free India from British imperialism. The letter fell into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and in the beginnings of becoming an activist. This prompted an exchange of letter between the two that was foundational for Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy. Gandhi listed Tolstoy’s seminal work The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the top three influences on his life. He called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.”

Less than 10 years after Gandhi was assassinated, a young American conscientious objector named James Lawson went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed.

In 1955, Lawson returned to the United States and was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., who had also studied Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. King told Lawson to come South, telling him “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Lawson began implementing large-scale strategic nonviolent civil resistance training that was deeply rooted in Christian faith and spiritual principles. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States became one the most massive civil resistance movements in U.S. history.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, South African freedom leader Nelson Mandela was entering his fourth year of his life-sentence for “sabotage.” It took awhile for the news of King’s murder to reach Mandela in prison. Over the course of his 27 years in prison, Mandela studied deeply the work of Gandhi and King. Mandela was uncertain that the tactics of either would work in the South African context.

But the church leaders leading South African freedom movement outside of prison – particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu – were highly motivated by both Gandhi and King. South Africa’s freedom struggle became known for taking the power of song to the streets. It became an image iconic of the freedom movement to hear South African children singing “We Shall Overcome” – an anthem of the American civil rights movement – and dancing the Toyi-toyi.

Thirty-one years after being imprisoned, Mandela was elected president of a free South Africa. Coretta Scott King was in the audience for Mandela’s acceptance speech as the new president.  He looked at her and said: “This is one of the most important moments in the history of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy–pride in the ordinary humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now with joy we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops–Free at last! Free at last!” Mandela quoted the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.

Somewhere in Yemen today, Tawakkol Karman is sitting in front of her laptop. She’s received death threats. She fears for the life of her three children. And she is determined to shatter perceptions of women in Yemen’s conservative society (and around the world), while emboldening a new generation of Yemenis to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 30-year grip on his country.

Inspired by civil resistance in Tunisia and Egypt, Karman said upon her release from detention, “We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis” Karman spoke these words to hundreds of protesters who were demanding the release of other detainees.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her are Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. They’ve all been where she is now. They are cheering her on. And so are we.

For more information:
Tolstoy and Gandhi: Light as Darkness Approached by Rene Wadlow

An excerpt of the exchange of letters between Tolstoy and Gandhi

Is the Christmas Story Midrash on Our Own Times?

Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas
Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic sister who is now an authority on religious history.  Armstrong has a very nice commentary in the LA Times on the true meaning of the Christmas story in the Bible.

She says, if we study the Christmas story carefully we are left with a disturbing sense that the world’s future lies with the very people cast to the margins. Read an excerpt below:

For the rabbis, scripture was not an arcane message from the past but a miqra, a summons to action in the present. Similarly, Matthew and Luke designed the Christmas story as a program of action for their mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, who were attempting the difficult task of living and worshiping with people hitherto regarded as alien. Their Gospels make it a tale of inclusion: From the very beginning, Jesus broke down the barriers that divided people, so Jesus’ followers must gladly welcome outsiders into their midst.

If, therefore, we read the Christmas story as commentary, as Midrash, it becomes a miqra for our own time, and for circumstances the evangelists would recognize. We might, for example, reflect on the fact that Matthew’s Magi probably came from Iran. Or note that in our multicultural societies, we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves and whose presence in our lives may challenge us at a profound level. Moreover, as a species, we are bound tightly to one another — electronically, financially and politically. Unless we manage together to create a just and equitable global society, in which we treat all nations with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.

The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod’s tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering — within our own society and worldwide — will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded.

For Luke, the pregnant Mary becomes a prophetess, proclaiming a new order in which the lowly will be exalted and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. At the beginning of his story, he reminds his readers of Caesar Augustus, who, like the Roman emperors who succeeded him, described himself as “God,” “Son of God,” the “Savior” and “Lord” who would bring peace to the world. Official proclamations and inscriptions throughout the empire announced “the good news” (Greek: euvaggelion) of Roman rule to the subject peoples. Luke’s readers would have noticed that the angel who proclaims “good news” to the shepherds applies all those imperial titles to a child born in a hovel.

Read the full commentary here.

Armstrong’s most recent book is The Case for God. In November 2009, she launched the Charter for Compassion, a global initiative to bring compassion back to the center of religious, moral, public and private life.

Joan Chittister: Silence and Art in the Work of Brother Thomas Bezanson

Brother Thomas Bezanson was a Benedictine monk and ceramics artist who died in 2007. He accepted the rules of monastic solitude, and followed the advice of St. Benedict who said: “If there be craftsmen in the Monastery, [then] let them practice their crafts with all humility.” Brother Thomas spent the final years of his life at Mount St. Benedict Priory in Erie, PA, with the community of Sr. Joan Chittister. Below Sr. Joan reflects on art and the contemplative life in light of Brother Thomas’ work:

If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one. Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility.

Basic to art are the very qualities demanded of the monastic: single-mindedness, beauty, immersion, praise and creativity. The merger of one with the other makes for great art; the meaning of one for the other makes for great soul.

It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture. Ecstasies, pain, fluid truth, pass us by so quickly or surround us so constantly that the eyes fail to see and the heart ceases to respond.

It is in the awful grip of ineffable form or radiant color that we see into a world that is infinitely beyond our natural grasp, yet only just beyond our artist’s soul. It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents.

Only by seeing the unseen within can the artist dredge it out of nothingness so that we can touch it, too. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it.

The artist details for the world to see the one idea, the fresh form, the stunning grandeur of moments which the world has begun to take for granted or has failed even to notice, or worse, has now reduced to the mundane.

It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth. Knowing the spiritual squalor to which the pursuit of less than beauty can lead us, the artist lives to stretch our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things: sleazy stories instead of great literature; superficial caricatures of bland characters rather than great portraits of great souls; flowerpots instead of pottery.

Finally, it is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.

Charles Peguy wrote, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

From “The Monastic Spirit and the Pursuit of Everlasting Beauty” by Joan Chittister in The Journey and the Gift: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas.

On the Outskirts of the Enlightenment: Prophets, Power, and Post-Modernism

Why is this issue of the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism of interest to Christians?  I’m working my way through an academic paper by Jesuit priest Hugues Deletraz on Post-Modernism Opens New Perspectives for Evangelization (see earlier post ‘Modernism has reached its limits‘) to understand what are the marks of this shift and how it helps us understand changes in institutional Christianity today.

While reading Deletraz’ paper, I also picked up Hopeful Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. I love Walter’s deep Bible study and contemporary wisdom drawn from the ancient sources. (I have the honor and pleasure of working right now as his editor at Sojourners while he’s writing Living the Word, our monthly lectionary reflections, for us.)

by Banksy

In Hopeful Imagination, Walter compares and contrasts the eras of the biblical prophets around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE with our current shift from  modernism to post-modernism. His premise is that the loss of the authority of the priestly dynasty and the temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, centralized authority, legitimacy, and dominance in our own times. Here’s what he says:

“A variety of scholars are calling attention to the prospect that Enlightenment modes of power and Enlightenment modes of knowledge are at the end of their effective rule among us.  All of us are children of the Enlightenment. That cultural reality of the last 250 years has brought us enormous gifts of human reason, human freedom, and human possibility. None of us would want to undo those gifts, but they are gifts not without cost. The reality of the Enlightenment has also resulted in the concentration of power in monopolistic ways which have been uncriticized. Moreover, it has generated dominating models of knowledge which have been thought to be objective rather than dominating.

The evidence grows that the long-standing concentration of power and knowledge which constitutes our human world is under heavy assault and in great jeopardy. God’s work at transforming our world is apparent in the rise of Third World nations, the emergence of Islam as a vigorous political force, and the visibility of a variety of liberation movements. In the midst of such realities, we discover the ineffectiveness of old modes of power. American military and economic power is of course considerable, but it is not everywhere decisive. The limit of such power is matched by the limit of Enlightenment modes of knowledge, for we are coming to see that such “scientific” knowledge no longer carries authority everywhere. There is increasing suspicion of such knowledge because it has long been in the service of domination. Such knowledge arranges reality in ways that are not disinterested. Technique becomes a mode of control, and that mode is no longer easily or universally addressed.

Trust in these conventional modes of power and knowledge is matched by a growing uneasiness when those modes are critiqued or rejected.”–Walter Brueggemann (Hopeful Imagination, p. 5-6)

The question that runs through the communities addressed by the biblical prophets — particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah — during the paradigm shift brought on by the destruction of the Temple and the forced emigration of the Hebrews is this: Are the promises of God strong enough to deal with the current collapse of our “known world”?

It’s a question we are still asking.

Sr. Sandra Schneiders: What’s Prophetic Ministry (Part 3 of 5 with Discussion Questions)

sandraschneidersI got a little behind in this Sandra Schneiders’ series due to the earthquake in Haiti, but now I’m back on track. This is part three of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter.

In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, explores Jesus’ life out of which his prophetic ministry flowed. One asks: Is it a realistic model for the life of ministerial religious today? If so, what are the implications of the prophetic character of religious life for the behavior of religious in ministry and in relation to church hierarchy? (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here, and Part 1, and Part 2.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.

What Jesus taught us about his prophetic ministry (Part 3 of 5)

The Prophet’s Life
We turn now to Jesus’ life out of which his prophetic ministry flowed. Is it a realistic model for the life of ministerial religious today? If so, what are the implications of the prophetic character of religious life for the behavior of religious in ministry and in relation to the hierarchy?

First, Jesus’ prophetic vocation was rooted in and expressive of his mystical life, the intense contemplative prayer life that the Gospels present as the root of his experiential knowledge of God. He not only took part in Jewish vocal prayer and liturgy (e.g., see Lk. 4:16; Mt. 26:17) . He spent long periods — whole nights (Lk. 6:12), hours before dawn (Mk. 1:35), times of decision making (Lk. 6:12-13) and anguish (see Mk. 14:32-42), and, at least once, “40 days” — in prayer to God (see Mk. 1:13 and pars.). Jesus not only knew about God; he knew God intimately. He experienced God as his “Abba” (Mk. 14:36), his loving parent, from whom he drew his own identity, and whose project was his own. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of being “one” with God (Jn. 10:30) whose words he speaks and whose works he does (see Jn. 14:10).

The prophet’s direct and immediate experience of God is the root of her or his words and actions. But this activity is often enough critical of or even in opposition to the positions of the legitimate ecclesiastical authorities who are usually presented as, and in fact are, God’s institutional representatives. Jesus’ confrontation with the officials over the woman taken in adultery was not an isolated case. He was frequently in heated conflict with the hierarchy.

We can be tempted to think that such opposition to institutional authority was fine for Jesus in relation to the Jerusalem hierarchy in the first century but not for us in relation to ecclesiastical authority in our own time. Jesus, after all, was God so he knew all the right answers. And the Jerusalem hierarchy was degenerate and filled with evil hypocrites.

To sanitize (and even trivialize) Jesus’ prophetic ministry in this way is to miss the point entirely. Jesus did not claim personal divine authority when he acted prophetically in relation to the religious institution. He claimed to be speaking for God, not as God. And it is important to note that his adversaries were claiming exactly the same thing, that is, to be God’s official representatives to the people which, in fact, they were. They actually had the ecclesiastical authority of office on their side, which Jesus did not because he was not a priest, an elder, a scribe, or any other kind of religious official.

Jesus had prophetic credibility among the people because he “spoke with authority,” precisely not as the scribes, that is, not by virtue of institutional position nor backed up by texts (see Mk. 1:27; Mt. 7:29). He spoke “like no other person ever has” (cf. Jn. 7:45-46). It was not because he was God in thin disguise or because he was credentialed by the religious establishment, but because his truth telling, despite overwhelming personal threat when what he said and did ran counter to what the laws or the officials required, manifested to the people that he was indeed representing the true God. Only later, only after the Resurrection, did they realize that this “prophet, mighty in word and work,” was indeed the Son of God. During his public life, his authority flowed from what he did and said. No one can confer, and no one can “claim,” moral authority. It belongs only to one earns it. Jesus was powerfully, personally authoritative and that is why he was recognized as a prophet.

Furthermore, the religious officials of Jesus’ time were no more wicked, hypocritical, oppressive, immoral, or corrupt than officials of state and Church in other ages. They had the same status among their contemporaries as do our legislators, priests and bishops, presidents and popes. The presumption of legitimacy and competence was theirs by virtue of their office. The officials Jesus confronted were not wearing signs saying embezzler, hypocrite, pedophile, adulterer, pornographer, so that anyone looking at them would know that Jesus was certainly right to call them to account. Jesus was seeing in them, in their teaching and their behavior, what his contemporaries, like so many of us when we deal with people in high places, were conditioned not to see, or were afraid to name. And he bore witness, at risk of his life, to what he saw.

The problem for Jesus’ contemporaries was the same as ours today. How are we to judge between voices competing for our acceptance? How do we recognize the prophet, the one who “speaks for God?” Obviously, as the horror of the Holocaust made clear for all time, it is profoundly immoral to uncritically “follow orders” simply because they come from someone in authority. Jesus warned his contemporaries to beware of the official teachers, of the priests and elders and Pharisees who “sit in the chair of Moses” but are hypocrites (see Mt. 23:1-5), whited sepulchers (see Mt. 23:27), self-serving oppressors of the poor in the name of God.

There were, of course, sincere men among the ecclesiastical officials of Jesus’ time, like Nicodemus (Jn. 3, 7, 19); and the scribe who was “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:28-39). But there were many others, like Caiaphas (Jn. 11:49-50 with 18:14), who were “the blind leading the blind” (see Mt. 15:10-14). We face the same challenge today. There are many men of integrity, holiness, and compassion holding office in the Church. But popes can be wrong, even culpably so; bishops can be criminals; priests can be embezzlers or sexual predators. One thing is certain: hierarchical status, office in the Church, is no guarantee that the speaker or his message comes from God. An office holder may be prophetic, or a prophet may hold office, but the two charisms as such do not imply each other. And history suggests that there is virtually always tension, if not opposition, between institutional and prophetic authority.

Besides an intense life of prayer which unites the prophet to God, was extraordinarily “unattached,” not only inwardly, but even in his personal lifestyle. By his own choice, he had no family to provide for or to protect. He owned no personal property that he could lose. He held no official position of power, political or ecclesiastical, that his actions could jeopardize.

Of course, family, property, and power are not necessarily impediments to prophetic freedom. Like St. Thomas More, many people in high places, with much to protect personally, professionally, and politically, have given their lives in witness to the truth. But being without such attachments is a bulwark of prophetic freedom simply because it makes it easier to “hear,” without distortion from one’s own inner voices or outer demands, the voices that are relevant to the issues one must discern. With less “static” from legitimate competing interests the prophet can more easily listen full-time, with all his or her attention, for the truth to which witness is required, the truth that must be done regardless of orders to the contrary. Discernment based on attentive listening, not submission to the will of another, is the essence of prophetic obedience.

Third, a major and non-negotiable criterion of the true prophet is the coherence between the prophet’s message and the prophet’s life. The more insensitive one is to the devastation one’s teaching or legislating causes in the lives of real people, the more willing one is to “stone the sinner” in order to bolster official authority and guard public morality, the more likely it is that, no matter how highly placed, one is a “blind guide,” one of those Jesus described who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt. 23:4). Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were willing to pay the price for their witness for racial justice. Jesus defending the woman taken in adultery was risking his life for hers. Witness to the truth is never comfortable or self-aggrandizing for the true prophet, and the risks are usually high. “Witness” from the favored side of power is dubiously prophetic.

The issue that emerges as central when the prophetic charism conflicts with institutional authority is precisely the one operative in much of the current struggle between the institutional church and religious, namely, obedience. Can we equate obedience to God with doing what we are told by people who hold office? And can we submissively abstain from interpreting the present situation in light of the Gospel and responding to the present needs of real people, because those who hold office require that we do so?

We will return to this topic shortly, but, by way of anticipation, it appears from Jesus’ practice and especially from his life that religious obedience cannot be adequately understood or defined as “blind or absolute submission to official authority,” whether to people, teaching, or laws. No matter how highly placed in the religious institution they might be, human beings do not take God’s place in the life of believers. To pretend otherwise is blasphemy on the part of those who claim to do so and idolatry on the part of those who accord to humans the obedience that belongs to God alone. There is no avoiding the challenge and the obligation of discernment and “blind obedience,” i.e., uncritical submission to power, is neither discernment nor obedience. Nor can it ever be a substitute for either.

Coming to grips, in genuine obedience to God, with the tension between their prophetic vocation and the demands of ecclesiastical authority is at the heart of the current struggle between religious and the Vatican. So we turn now to a focused examination of contemporary ministerial religious life against the background of the understanding of Jesus’ prophetic vocation in which religious are called to share.–Sr. Sandra Schneiders

Read the whole series at the National Catholic Reporter.

DISCUSSION

I think this series by Sr. Schneiders offers an important opportunity for serious conversation among all Christians–not just Catholics–on the quality of our life in Christ and our relationship to our church and our world. Below are some quotes from her article and a few questions of my own.–RMB

* “First, Jesus’ prophetic vocation was rooted in and expressive of his mystical life, the intense contemplative prayer life that the Gospels present as the root of his experiential knowledge of God.”

* “[Prophetic] activity is often enough critical of or even in opposition to the positions of the legitimate ecclesiastical authorities who are usually presented as, and in fact are, God’s institutional representatives.”

* “No one can confer, and no one can “claim,” moral authority. It belongs only to one earns it. Jesus was powerfully, personally authoritative and that is why he was recognized as a prophet.”

*”An office holder may be prophetic, or a prophet may hold office, but the two charisms as such do not imply each other. And history suggests that there is virtually always tension, if not opposition, between institutional and prophetic authority.”

* A second requirement of prophetic identity and mission is a certain freedom from attachments which pressure the person to prefer personal or institutional goods, the maintaining of the status quo within which one’s own position and interests are protected, to God’s interests or the good of those to whom one is sent.”

*”Third, a major and non-negotiable criterion of the true prophet is the coherence between the prophet’s message and the prophet’s life.”

* “Uncritical submission to power is neither discernment nor obedience.”

1. Jesus rooted his life in prayer–privately, in community, and in officially religious settings. In what ways do you allow prayer to root your life in and out of “official” church settings? We can assume that Jesus’ “prayer practices” changed over the course of his life. How have yours changed over time? Do you experience prayer as increasing a sense of intimacy with God?

2. In modern society, we have terrible examples of “prophets” who are told by “the voice of God” to commit terrible anti-social acts. What distinctions does Schneiders mention and might you add that help distinguish prophetic ministry from mental illness (to put it bluntly)?

3. Schneiders says that “Jesus did not claim personal divine authority when he acted prophetically in relation to the religious institution.” Do you agree? Do you think Jesus ever doubted whether he was doing the right thing? What questions do you ask yourself when you are compelled to speak out against an established authority?

4. In some Christian traditions, if a person has a vision for a new ministry, that vision must be “confirmed” by 3 others before it is considered a legitimate ministry of the church. Schneiders implies that Jesus’ prophetic word was “confirmed” because the people heard it as “truth,” as full of “authority.” When have you heard someone speak who you felt immediately had touched on a deep truth that you needed to hear? How did you respond? What actions did you take?

5. Schneiders says prayer, unattachment, and integrity of life and word are hallmarks of prophetic ministry.How are these elements balanced in the life of a prophetic community, not just an individual?

6. Post-Watergate/post-Vietnam era Americans have had experiences that make them very skeptical of authority. The post-9/11 generations often see authority as the only thing protecting them from forces of chaos. How do generational or psychosocial differences influence “prophetic action”? For those in institutional leadership, how do they view “prophetic action”? Can you act prophetically from “within” the system?

David Anderson’s ‘The Things of This World’

anderson_200_01Friend and fellow poet David E. Anderson has just posted an excellent review essay The Things of This World.

David, who is senior editor at Religion News Service, touches on several books examining the religious sensibilities of famous poets, including Naming Grace by Mary Catherine Hilkert; The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty by Peter Stitt; The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie; and Cheryl Walker’s God and Elizabeth Bishop.

He also looks at the wonderful Welsh poet R.S. Thomas who died in 2000. Here’s the opening to David’s essay:

For many poets, believers and nonbelievers alike, it is possible to talk about the religious imagination they bring to apprehending reality and describing the world.

Theologically, Christianity provides a language—and some doctrinal and historical metaphors or benchmarks—for two such imaginations: the sacramental and the dialectical. The first is broadly linked to Catholic ways of seeing and understanding God and the world, and the second, equally broadly and generally, to a Protestant sensibility.

Holy Health Care! Laying Hands on the Whole System

healthcarecartoonDebates on our national system of providing health care are raging in political and corporate offices around the country. Traditionally, however, churches and faith centers have been the sites of healing, health, and wholeness for a community.

In the 1970s, many churches in the U.S. experienced a resurgence of “healing ministries” that accompanied a renewed charismatic movement. Healing services, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, healing prayer, and many other manifestations all spring from the healing ministry of Jesus. It’s what he did: He healed. He taught. He saved.

This “making people whole again” was a way Jesus prepared those he met for receiving the good news into their lives. Karin Granberg-Michaelson wrote in her article The Healing Church:

In considering the healing miracles of Jesus and the profound emphasis he placed on wholeness, we must ask what Jesus wished to communicate through his healing works in people’s lives. That is best answered in the context of more basic assumptions about the meaning of Jesus’ overall ministry in and to the world.

While many churches are deeply faithful to their healing ministry, it sometimes doesn’t make it past the church doors. It doesn’t flow into a social concern for how we as Christians can serve the common good. “If the church is to reclaim its healing ministry, it must ask the question ‘what constitutes wholeness?’” writes Granberg-Michaelson.

Wholeness is not just for the individual or the community of Christians; it is a gift God gives to us and through us for the larger society. It is part and parcel of how we move as a society “toward healing and reconciliation,” as Granberg-Michaelson puts it.

If healing and wholeness (spiritual, physical, and emotional) is a gift that God gives to the church, then it is our responsibility to find ways to share the workings of that gift in service of the common good. Granberg-Michaelson says:

Whole person health care [the treatment of a person as a unity of body, mind, and spirit] is, therefore, the heritage of the church. We must reclaim our function as the primary mediator of healing in society.

One important way that we as Christians can “reclaim our function as the primary mediator of healing in society” is by educating ourselves on the nitty-gritty of the health-care debate and working to craft a system that allows healing to flow throughout our land.

We want to craft a health-care system that honors a fair exchange of money for services, that redistributes our social capital toward the health and healing of all over the long-term, and that allows for philanthropy and generosity of heart by those who can give freely for the betterment of all.

A generous health-care system that reflects a commitment to healing and wholeness for the sake of securing human dignity is a priority. It’s one way Christians can extend our healing ministry toward our national body.

You can read Karin Granberg-Michaelson’s whole article here.

This article first appeared on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog on 07-21-2009. Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners.

Kwok Pui-Lan: From Tiananmen to Tehran

puilan4website

Kwok Pui-lan is Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

She is an Asian feminist theologian that I’ve always been very impressed with. Her writing on the role of the Bible in a non-Bible culture was eye-opening–as well as all of her scripture interpretation from the perspective of the colonialized.

In a recent blog post at Religion Dispatches, she examines the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square revolt with the current uprising in Iran:

On the twentieth anniversary of June 4, Tiananmen Square was relatively quiet and heavily guarded by the police. Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region, was the only place in China where a public candlelight vigil could be held. Several Christian groups in Hong Kong have helped organizing these annual vigils and pushed for the vindication of the June 4 demonstrators. The Hong Kong Christian Patriotic Democratic Movement issued a twentieth anniversary prayer, which says:

Righteous and peaceful God,
We pray to you.
The tears of Tiananmen mothers have not dried.
The curse of the wrongful deaths has not been lifted.
We pray that we will have a gentle and humble heart
To hold steadfast to our belief
And not allow distorted history have the last word . . .
Even though the dark night may be long
The light of our hope will be as long. . .

Last week as the world watched the demonstration of the Iranian people, images of the Tiananmen crackdown flashed back on many people’s minds. President Barack Obama invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He continued, “We are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

Read her whole post here.

Kwok Pui-lan’s the author of Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, and editor of the major 4-volume reference work Women and Christianity (coming out in October 2009 from Routledge).