Personal Reflections: Hagiography of Privilege

I teach 4th grade CCD. During snack time, the leaders take turns presenting a saint we think the children might find interesting and inspiring. This year, we have a black student in the class. I’ve made a conscious effort to talk about saints from around the world – not just Europe.

For All Saints’ Day last year I asked my students to present a saint of their choice. I had printed out short biographies of at least 20 saints with accompanying coloring pages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a black saint who was not a victim of discrimination, abuse, and/or slavery. White children can find saints who lived heroic lives and were perhaps persecuted for their faiths, but not many European saints were persecuted by their fellow Christians for being human.

St. Martin de Porres was persecuted by members of his own order (the Dominicans) for being biracial. In Peru, descendants of Africans and Indians were not allowed to be members of religious orders. Martin performed menial tasks for the brothers, but he was never allowed to be a Dominican. Worse still, Martin had internalized the racism. When the monastery was in debt, he offered to be sold into slavery. Priests mocked him for his race. The Catholic Church venerates Martin de Porres as a saint, but the Church has never owned up to its complicity in his persecution. I encounter white privilege when I choose saints for my students. White students are taught that Christians face persecution when they stand up for their faith. But what does St. Martin’s life teach black children? His life teaches, instead, that black Christians become saints when they overcome the racism they face in their own Church. They are saints when they find ways to survive (barely) in a Church that doesn’t accept them.

Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence

Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Translated by J.C. Grayson, U of Toronto P, 1991. Print.

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Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466(?) – 1536) was an important figure of the Northern Renaissance. A biblical humanist, educator, satirist, and social theorist, Erasmus was implicated in many of the social and religious movements of his day. Roman Catholics identified him as a “Lutheran”, Luther dismissed him as an Epicurian without convictions, and Zwingli praised him as a forerunner of the Reformation. Cornelis Augustijn’s biography is a short but impressive introduction to one of the most misunderstood Christian thinkers in history.

Erasmus was a restless soul. Although he was trained as an Augustinian canon regular in the monastery of Steyn, he obtained permission from Pope Julius II to leave the monastery. For the rest of his life, Erasmus would have nothing positive to say about the monastery. The harsh discipline, bad food, and poor education did not suit his inquisitive temperament. In the late 15th century, the printing press made available volumes of the writings of Greek and Roman writers. Erasmus applied the philological tools of the Italian Humanists to the study of the Bible. He published his own Greek New Testament (the Novum Instrumentum omne) with an accompanying Latin translation. Many of his contemporaries were not pleased. The theology faculty at Louvain condemned any tampering with Jerome’s Vulgate. Erasmus’ Paraphrases were seen as an attempt to rewrite the Word of God. It didn’t help that the Renaissance scholar ridiculed Catholic piety in his satires. Noel Beda called Erasmus a “Lutheran”.

At first, Luther was impressed by Erasmus’ learning. Luther, too, was trained in humanism, but it soon became clear that the two men interpreted Paul’s epistles differently. Whereas Erasmus thought the “works of the law” in Galatians referred only to the ceremonial laws prescribed by Moses, Luther was convinced that the “law” referred to any Christian duty, including the Ten Commandments. Both contrasted inward and outward piety, but Luther emphasized human impotence while Erasmus emphasized man’s dignity as a being made in the image of God. Consequently, they had different soteriologies. Augustijn describes the debate on free will between Luther and Erasmus in two chapters.Although he gets the facts right, the author fails to mention Augustine of Hippo or William of Ockham anywhere in the book. The relationship between Grace, Predestination, and human freedom was widely debated in the Middle Ages.

Erasmus never started a religious movement. He was considered too unorthodox for Roman Catholics, but he refused to join the Protestant reformers. Despite his relative unimportance, Erasmus continues to interest scholars because of the progressive views he promoted. He opposed warfare, condemned the use of force in evangelizing the “New World”, and had relatively less misogynistic views about women than most of his contemporaries. He also believed that humanistic education could transform a society. The current political climate was my motivation for reading Augustijn’s biography. It didn’t disappoint. A larger biography might have given us more information about the theological controversies of his day, but Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence is nonetheless a very fine introduction to this “man for all seasons”.

The Gospel of Discomfort: Welcoming the Stranger

In the Scriptures, God cares a lot about the widow, the refugee, the orphan, and the immigrant.

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:31-40).

I do not know ancient Greek or Hebrew. I cannot read the Scriptures in the original languages. But I am aware of how radical the teachings in the Old and New Testaments are. When I reflect on passages such as the ones above, I am reminded that God calls us to be uncomfortable to make our neighbors comfortable. The Mosaic Law ordered the Jews to cancel all debts and free their slaves every seven years. Scholars say that these teachings weren’t always followed. I’m not surprised! I’m sure many Jews found the teachings impractical. Wouldn’t freeing slaves and canceling debts destroy the economy? And in the New Testament, we come across a lot of really hard teachings that sound unreasonable. If I turn the other cheek, have I not allowed myself to be trampled on? But try as I might, I am not convinced that the Bible is always exaggerating.

On the issue of immigration, the Scriptures are clear. We are called to welcome the stranger. We Christians may decide to disregard the teaching because it’s “impractical”, but then let’s not pretend we are acting in conformity to the Gospel. We are certainly not! Although I usually don’t observe it, I am not convinced that God’s Word is impractical. The foolishness of the cross lead to the victory of the resurrection. Because of Christ’s total self-giving, we are given new life.

#Iamastranger

Hello everyone! I am posting a selfie today (even though I generally hate having my picture taken) for a good cause. Two Franciscan friars started a hashtag campaign to fight Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim policy. I encourage all of you to do it, especially if you are Christian. We need to remind the world that Jesus was a refugee, and that rejecting the stranger is not Christian.

Take a picture of yourself holding the #Iamastranger sign, then post it on social media. I handwrote mine, but you can print one out here: https://pax-bonum.com/2017/01/26/iamastranger-campaign/

selfie

Thanks!

The Art of Biblical Narrative

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Print.

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I am currently reading The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter. This work is a good introduction to the narrative language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Type-scenes are analyzed linguistically to reveal the tensions and ambiguities of the stories. Alter argues that scholars need to carefully study the language of the Biblical stories to understand their content. Alter pulls no punches in his criticism of much of the Biblical scholarship of his day. Repetition is dismissed as scribal error, and over-emphasis of the composite nature of the stories has downplayed their unifying themes. Alter’s work has definitely motivated me to reread Biblical stories that I thought I understood or that I considered trivial.

In the following passage at the end of chapter five, Alter describes the role the Biblical authors give to language in their vision of the world:

Language in the biblical stories is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events or an aesthetic embellishment of them but as an integral and dynamic component – an insistent dimension – of what is being narrated. With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in an ultimate coherence of meaning through language that informs the biblical vision. When the action and speech of men and women, always seen in some fateful course of convergence with or divergence from divine instruction, are reported to us in biblical narrative, repetition continually sets their lives into an intricate patterning of words. Again and again, we become aware of the power of words to make things happen. God or one of His intermediaries or a purely human authority speaks: man may repeat and fulfill the words of revelation, repeat and delete, repeat and transform; but always there is the original urgent message to contend with, a message which in the potency of its concrete verbal formulation does not allow itself to be forgotten or ignored. On the human plane, a master speaks (for spiritual and social hierarchy is implicit in this patterning), his servant is called upon to repeat through enactment; and, most frequent of all, an action is reported by the narrator, then its protagonist recounts the action in virtually the same terms, the discrepancy between “virtually” and “exactly” providing the finely calibrated measure of the character’s problematic subjective viewpoint. As human actors reshape recurrence in language along the biases of their own intentions or misconceptions, we see how language can be an instrument of masking or deception as well as of revelation; yet even in such deflected form we witness language repeatedly evincing the power to translate itself into history; a history whose very substance seems sometimes men and their actions, sometimes the language they use (p.112).

Repetition, far from being a scribal error, is a deliberate device employed by Biblical authors to reveal and conceal important information about the characters in the story. I highly recommend The Art of Biblical Narrative.