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Monday, May 19, 2014

Resources for Studying Dorothy Day

My colleague, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, has a forthcoming book on Dorothy Day for Westminster John Knox Press' Armchair Theologians series (the book will be released in September, but is available for pre-order here).  The Catholic Worker worked out a deal with Elizabeth to post a great timeline for Dorothy Day that Elizabeth developed, and she tells me she will work with the Catholic Worker to write a series of essays for the website that will link to various chapters of her book.  The timeline can be accessed here.

Elizabeth's book will provide a great introduction to Dorothy Day's life and thought.  In addition, I encourage you to surf through the Catholic Worker website.  All of the articles Day wrote for the Catholic Worker paper are archived there, as are some articles from other publications, as well as some of her books.  The Catholic Worker has done a great job of making Dorothy Day's thought available to us all, and Elizabeth's contributions will make the site even better.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Relics and Affirming the Body (Part II)

One of the worst homilies I ever heard began with this line:

"The body is evil."

I waited for the punchline to what I thought must surely be a joke.  It wasn't a joke.  In unequivocal terms, the elderly priest outlined in his homily all the ways that the body is a hindrance to our soul, all the ways the body holds us back from what God wants us to be, all the ways the body continually fights against the good impulses of the soul.  Oh, this damned evil body!

What I thought was a caricature of really terrible Catholic theology came to life in this priest's words.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, I've a thing for relics, and there are others like me, too.  Thomas Merton received numerous relics from friends over the years, and even carried a number of these relics with him in his shaving bag on his last trip to Asia.  By the way, the relics he carried with him were those of St. Charbel (Syrian hermit), St. Peter Damian, St. Romuald (founder of the Camaldolese), St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Bede (Venerable Bede), St. Bruno, St Nicholas of Flue (a Swiss hermit), and St. Therese of Lisieux (thanks to Mark Meade, assistant director of the Merton Center for this information).  I also have a colleague in the English department here at Bellarmine University who has a substantial relic collection in his house; he often brings samples to show his classes.

When I talk to my students about the Catholic and Orthodox penchant for keeping and displaying bones or other parts of the body of various saints, most - including my Catholic students - express total incomprehension and even disgust.  They tend to view this practice as being morbid and weird, particularly when they see images such as the body of the recently canonized Pope St John XXIII (see right), on display in St Peter's Basilica.

I have a different take.  It seems to me, as I noted briefly in my previous post on relics, that our practice of keeping and venerating relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body.  Far from denigrating the body as evil or as a fleshly prison for a soul that can't wait to burst its earthly bonds, the theology of relics affirms one of the central truths of the Incarnation of the Son of God; that God took on human flesh and in so doing, made it a full participant in the life of the Spirit.  This life is not one that consists in us shirking our bodies to attain something more.  The life of the Spirit, rather, is one that necessarily incorporates all that which is constitutive of our very beings, such that we really do participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through the Holy Spirit both bodily and spiritually.  Our transformation is one that takes place in and through our bodily existence, not despite it.  As Rowan Williams writes in Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, "Christian faith says that since God has come to encounter us in this world of material bodies, as a material body, and since God continues to use material things and persons to communicate who and what he is, we can't suppose that life with him will ever simply sidestep our material life" (140). 

The veneration of relics is really a natural outgrowth of the theology of the Incarnation. To venerate relics is to affirm that God became human and that, therefore, the body participates fully in our transformation to Christ-likeness, to the point that we recognize the continued divine presence in the mortal remains of our saints.

Christians have long suffered from, and frequently succumbed to, the temptation to radical dualism.  To believe in the Incarnation is to reject such a dualism, and our veneration of relics is the continued recognition that God transforms holistically and that our life in God is one that fully encompasses our bodily existence.

Photo of Pope St John XXIII by Eve Anderson: http://www.eveandersson.com/photo-display/large/italy/vatican-st-peters-basilica-pope-john-xxiii-embalmed.html

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Being a Pacifist without Causing Offense

Christ our Lord came and took upon Himself our humanity. He became the Son of Man. He suffered hunger and thirst and hard toil and temptation. All power was His but He wished the free love and service of men. He did not force anyone to believe. St. Paul talks of the liberty of Christ. He did not coerce anyone. He emptied Himself and became a servant. He showed the way to true leadership by coming to minister, not to be ministered unto. He set the example and we are supposed to imitate Him. We are taught that His kingdom was not of this earth. He did not need pomp and circumstance to prove Himself the Son of God.
His were hard sayings, so that even His own followers did not know what he was saying, did not understand Him. It was not until after He died on the cross, it was not until He had suffered utter defeat, it would seem, and they thought their cause was lost entirely; it was not until they had persevered and prayed with all the fervor and desperation of their poor loving hearts, that they were enlightened by the Holy Spirit and knew the truth with a strength that enabled them to suffer defeat and martyrdom in their turn. They knew then that not by force of arms, by the bullet or the ballot, they would conquer. They knew and were ready to suffer defeat--to show that great love which enabled them to lay down their lives for their friends."
And now the whole world is turning to "force" to conquer.
"A new commandment I give, that you love others as I have loved you," not to the defending of your life, but to the laying down of your life.
A hard saying.
"Love is indeed a harsh and dreadful thing" to ask of us, of each one of us, but it is the only answer.

I grew up in Canada, and while Canada is not as militaristic in its focus as the United States, the messages driven home to young people are similar.  We're consistently told that our 'freedoms' are tied to military force, and therefore that we must honour those who were/are willing to use physical violence for the sake of the country.  In the soteriological picture painted by the nation-state, the veterans are our saints and martyrs, and all Canadians are expected to participate in the liturgies of war-remembrance.

None of this bothered me as a child and teenager, though I do remember reading the Sermon on the Mount and wondering why those around me (I grew up in the Protestant Evangelical tradition) didn't seem to think that Jesus' words in this sermon needed to be read literally, even though I was told that we were always to read the scriptures literally, particularly the first chapters of Genesis.  It seemed to me that there was a real disconnect between the message and example of Jesus and the eager willingness of my fellow church-goers to celebrate the military and even participate in the military.  But my interest in Christianity as a teenager was pretty low, so I merely noted the disconnect and then moved on without a second thought.

The question became more pronounced for me as I began to study theology in more depth as an undergraduate and graduate student.  I devoted one of my doctoral comprehensive examinations to the topic of war and pacifism throughout Christian history, a topic that led me to explore Christian thinking on violence from the first century to the present.  My reading of pre-Constantinian theologians – figures like Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Origen, and Tertullian (to name just a few) – convinced me that early Christians were generally opposed to the idea of Christian participation in military service, both because it involved participating in idolatrous worship of the gods and because it involved contravening the clear witness and teaching of Jesus in the gospels.  The arrival of Constantine – and so of Constantinianism (the alliance of Christianity with political power) – necessitated a re-think of early Christian political theology, and while some interpret this as positive progress away from the naïveté of early Christian idealism, I concluded that Constantinianism marked the failure of Christianity to maintain fidelity to Jesus’ life and teachings and to the early Christian understanding of what Jesus taught us about ‘power’ and Christian participation in such ‘power’.

Further reading of Erasmus of Rotterdam, Menno Simons, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and William Cavanaugh solidified me in my position regarding Christianity and the military.  I found thinkers like Oliver O’Donovan unconvincing.

So I have been a pacifist for many years.  Moreover, my political theology leads me not only to reject military service as a Christian option, but also to be deeply wary of Constantinianism in any form; it is for this reason that I have difficulties with acts of patriotism such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem, and why I choose not to vote.

It goes without saying that these positions place me in the minority within both Canada and (my adopted country) the United States, but also within my Roman Catholic tradition (and indeed within almost all Christian traditions, save the Anabaptists and Quakers).

While I am deeply committed to my political theology, I am troubled by the reality that my positions often cause offense to my sisters and brothers within the church and in the society at large.  In my classroom, among my colleagues, among by friends and my family are women and men who have served or currently serve in the armed forces, or who have family members who fought – and sometimes died – in service to their country.  My position is often offensive to them, for very understandable reasons.

I cannot and will not compromise my political theology simply because it is offensive to my sisters and brothers.  But I have been asking myself lately how I can articulate my own position in such a way that is less offensive.  It is probably impossible not to cause offense when one calls into question theological justifications for military service, but I wonder if pacifism can be argued for in a way that causes less offense.  Specifically, I wonder if there’s a way to articulate my own pacifist stand in such a way that I simultaneously honour in some way those who have chosen the path of military service.  Is this even necessary?  It is necessary if I want, as I do, for my position to be acknowledged and respected rather than marginalized.  More importantly, it is necessary for the sake of love.

But I’m not sure precisely what it could look like to articulate my position in a way that also honours military service.  Is it enough to recognize that many have pursued military service out of humility, selflessness, and love?  Or it is enough simply to express my viewpoints humbly and lovingly?

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Image of Dorothy Day from www.dorothydaymemphis.org