Tertullian: ‘Then Art of Prayer’

St. Seraphim and the Bear

“[Prayer’s] only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more need be said on this duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. Amen.” — Tertullian (3rd century), from “On Prayer” (Chapter 29)

Christian Support for Repealing DADT Is a Double-Edged Sword

Most Americans – including Christians – now support equal rights for gays and lesbians serving in the US military.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 58 percent of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Large majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (62%) favor allowing gays to serve openly. Republicans are divided (40% favor, 44% oppose).

But let’s look at the religious breakdown too:
62 percent of white mainline Protestants support equal rights for gays in the military
52 percent of black Protestants support equal rights
66 percent of Catholics favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly

Let me be clear, I’m very glad to have Christians moving toward a strong stance in support of equal rights for gays and lesbians in all sectors of society. This is a positive step forward for the society at large and Christians should be part of it.

The Pentagon report released yesterday finds significant support for repealing DADT among the the younger “blue collar warriors,” while a vocal minority of top brass will be uncomfortable with the shift. And don’t get me wrong, I want the churches to continue to support fair and equal treatment for gays and lesbians.

However, there are other sticky questions I want to raise.

Are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also supporting gays and lesbians within their own churches? Do they advocate for LGBT justice and liberation? Do they invest in and promote gay and lesbian leadership and open their congregations to new, liberating ways of reading scripture in the context of the LGBT life experience?

Secondly, are the Christians that want a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also calling into question military service in a era when the U.S. has the second largest standing army in the world (behind China) and has troops stationed on all 6 inhabited continents?

I can support equal rights for gays in the military – but there’s the bigger question: As a Christian should I be supporting military participation at all? And how do Christians critique the prevailing “Empire consciousness” and offer instead our “prophetic imagination” or “alternative consciousness,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann calls it, on issues of war and peace?

If Christians are supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then are they also advocating strong teaching in their churches on the Christian pacifist tradition or the rigorous moral “just war” process that any Christian – gay or straight – must go through before participating in any given war?

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” what does he mean? Or when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? Or “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic”?

Early generations of Christians refused to participate in war (though those who did were counseled and sometimes asked not to seek communion for a period of time, but were not cut off from community). Soldiers who subsequently converted to Christianity often left military service, viewing it as incompatible with their new life.

Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. “Love of enemies is the principal precept of the Christian,” said the Tunisian theologian Tertullian in the first century. Until the time of Constantine no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

In a democracy that enshrines civil rights and “justice for all,” it is right and good for Americans to support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and promote LGBT civil rights in the society at large.

Christians, however, have another set of values to examine. For traditionalists it may be whether you can be gay and Christian. For progressives, it’s whether you can be Christian and ‘Army Strong.’

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning?, is a Catholic peace activist and regular writer on faith and justice.

Kristof: A Church Mary Can Love

supermaryWhen I was in Venezuela in in 2004, the country was 95% Catholic and 60% of the people lived in poverty. Hugo Chavez–for better or worse–was trying to change the poverty statistics. But he was alienated from the Catholic hierarchy (the cardinal had plotted a coup against Chavez) and he was not well-connected to the popular Catholic Church on the ground.

It was with this “popular church” that I spent most of my time. In one very poor barrio high in the mountains above Caracas, I met Norma who talked to me about there being “two Catholic Churches”: one is the hierarchy and one is the people.

She said: “The bishop in his black cassock and scarlet came once to our barrio and said it was the most horrible place and he hated coming here, but I said this is my life, my reality, can it be so terrible for him? Our question is why are the church hierarchy not coming to be involved with us rather than always expecting that we will be involved with them?”

I remembered Norma’s wisdom when I read Nick Kristof’s wonderful op-ed in the New York Times titled A Church Mary Can Love. I’m reprinting the whole thing here, as a sign of encouragement to all of us downcast and discouraged by the Vatican’s child abuse scandal. Read Kristof’s column below:

I heard a joke the other day about a pious soul who dies, goes to heaven, and gains an audience with the Virgin Mary. The visitor asks Mary why, for all her blessings, she always appears in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: Is everything O.K.? Mary reassures her visitor: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we had always wanted a daughter.”

That story comes to mind as the Vatican wrestles with the consequences of a patriarchal premodern mind-set: scandal, cover-up and the clumsiest self-defense since Watergate. That’s what happens with old boys’ clubs.

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene: “She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.” Likewise, the Gospel of Mary (from the early second century) suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to instruct the disciples on his religious teachings.

St. Paul refers in Romans 16 to a first-century woman named Junia as prominent among the early apostles, and to a woman named Phoebe who served as a deacon. The Apostle Junia became a Christian before St. Paul did (chauvinist translators have sometimes rendered her name masculine, with no scholarly basis).

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.

Military Empire Requires Religious Blessing

“What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?”–Tertullian (160–220 AD), De Idolatria

“In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.”–Jim Wallis, Dangerous Religion (Sojourners, September-October 2003)

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