Amid the Carnage, a “Theology of Presence”

President Obama’s recent decision to send 100 armed military advisers to central Africa has turned a spotlight on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel movement that crosses not only national borders but also the lines between savagery and spirituality. The advisers will be stationed primarily in Uganda and will not engage directly in battle with the guerrilla group, according to the Obama administration.

Though classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, the LRA really isn’t a capital “T” terrorist operation like Al Qaeda with a clear and corrosive ideology. It’s more like a religious cult with a craving for crime and violence. The movement is a cross between the Sopranos and the sex cult Children of God, with the Manson Family tossed in for good measure.

Leading the force is the self-announced prophet Joseph Kony, who was raised a Roman Catholic. He began his career as a witch doctor and became the “spiritual adviser” to a previous incarnation of the LRA, a role that involved calling on the spirits to aid the rebels in battle. Not strikingly out of the ordinary for a fighting force in that region. 

But something happened. As Todd Whitmore, a Notre Dame theology professor who has spent time in Uganda as a religious peacemaker, told me recently: “At some point he jumped the tracks. The people there say he went over to the dark side.” Kony launched the LRA more than two decades ago and began racking up his elaborate record of massacres, mutilations, abductions, and child sexual slavery. 

Kony’s cult is a syncretistic mix of Christianity and traditional African tribal faiths. It roams the borderlands of murder and mysticism. Kony presides over cleansing rituals in which the soldiers, many of them children abducted by the LRA, are “purified” of their inhibitions against slaying the innocent. They are sent forth to do their deeds that also include rampant looting, which helps perpetuate the organization. Some observers, like Whitmore, believe the LRA is now a marauding criminal band as much as an anti-government insurgency. 

Enter the Peacebuilders

Where are the bonafide spiritual leaders in this grisly picture? They’re right there, in the thick of it. 

In a diary excerpted in a book compiled by Notre Dame’s Catholic Peacebuilding Network, Whitmore tells of a conversation he overheard among three Catholic priests in a northern Ugandan village a couple of years ago. Word had come that the LRA was surging toward the village. The priests hatched a plan to hop on their motorcycles and ride into the army’s onslaught, to give the villagers more time to flee. For unknown reasons, the attack didn’t materialize.

Whitmore also tells of going from hut to hut with “Sister Rose,” bathing and comforting people stricken by diseases and malnutrition as a result of warfare. His article, with the diary entries, is carried in the collection Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, published late last year by Orbis Books.

On a larger scale, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative has been working to transform conflicts since 1997. Bringing together Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, Orthodox, and Muslim leaders, the interfaith group has dealt with land disputes and cross-border tensions, among other challenges. International faith-based agencies including Catholic Relief Services have stood with the local religious leaders, helping, for example, to reintegrate former LRA soldiers into the villages from where they came.

Some commentators have cast the LRA as yet another example of religious violence, which may be technically true but is barely descriptive. It’s clear who the real religious people are, in this unholy mess. They’re the ones forging what Whitmore describes as a “theology of presence” among the victims of war.

…read more

Idol Chatter, Public Discourse

Genuine idolaters (courtesy of JewishSpiritualRenewal.org)

A couple of weeks into the Occupy Wall Street uprising, the movement began to reveal a “spiritual side,” as USA Today headlined it, and since then the prophetic showing has been emphatic at the demonstrations in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. Like other occupiers, the spiritual ones are piqued by corporate greed. A number of them take the further theological step of declaring that Wall Street worships false gods, namely money.

In a detailed roundup for Religion News Service, correspondent Jack Jenkins described one bracing scene in New York on October 9:

On Sunday, a diverse group of New York religious leaders marched to Zuccotti Square carrying a handmade golden calf fashioned to resemble the iconic bull statue near the New York Stock Exchange.

“We think Wall Street has become idolatrous,” said the Rev. Donna Schaper, senior minister at New York’s Judson Memorial Church and one of more than 50 clergy who joined the New York protest, independent of the chaplains group.

“I’m not saying God is against the people of Wall Street, but I think God is sick of Wall Street taking more than they deserve.”

The golden calf harkens back of course to the Exodus account of when Moses went up Mount Sinai, leaving the Israelites to their own spiritual devices for 40 days and nights. Not knowing when or if he’d get back to guide them in faith, the Israelites molded the object out of golden earrings, and bowed to it.

The biblical motif is resonating in the choir lofts of the 99 percent. “We believe that too many in our culture worship the false idols of profit and selfishness, which all too often comes at the expense of others,” declared the Washington group Catholics United, which is an organizing a “Catholics Occupy K Street” presence at D.C. rallies.

Where’s the Path?

It’s hard to argue with the proposition that greed is ungodly and that it helped trigger the financial dissolution that has finally sent people into the streets. Still, pronouncing on the mortal sins of one’s political opponents—as much fun as that could be—isn’t the only option for faith-based activists. It’s possible to speak up for economic justice without declaiming against idol worship and other evil-doing.

The spiritual occupiers have offered glimpses of this possibility, even as they’ve paraded with the young bulls. As Jenkins noted, they’ve also held signs reading “Blessed are the Poor,” which is a social theology in itself. They’ve invoked biblical teachings like the Golden Rule, which would, in this context, discourage behavior that enriches some people while impoverishing others.

All of the major faith traditions represented in the occupation (and they are a big interfaith tent) have systems of social ethics with teachings about wealth and poverty. These include what is phrased in Catholic social teaching as “the social mortgage” (fortuitously, in light of Wall Street’s mortgage meltdown), which fixes a public claim on a portion of private wealth. Part of the idea is that the accumulation of wealth is inconceivable apart from social relationships and public institutions.

And yes, there are times when a faith community has to name certain patterns of social, political, and economic behavior as sinful (if not demonic, which is a sort of nuclear option). It’s hard to get this right, when speaking in the public square. How do you balance prophetic denunciation with public discourse that continues rather than ends the conversation? Where’s the path to moral and political consensus?

This past weekend at the dedication of the new monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall, President Obama spoke intently to the question. He said King realized that to “bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.” The president added that King would remind us today that people can and should “challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.”

And that’s what the occupiers, both spiritual and not so much, have been doing on their good days. …read more

Speaking of the Devil

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Most people would agree that a political conversation is probably skidding downhill when one participant accuses another of channeling demons. One person who would beg to differ is the political firebrand Ann Coulter, who lives pretty far down that hill and whose latest book is Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

According to her, liberals and Democrats are literally demonic because they foster a “mob mentality,” which they’ve done since the civil rights movement— “the first mob,” Coulter calls it. Left-leaning activists including environmentalists and unionists are the principal horn-wearers in this book. They are cast as both demonically possessed and as the evil spirits themselves—which raises the metaphysical conundrum of demons possessed by demons.

Of course Coulter is hardly the first to see the Prince of Darkness behind causes unpalatable to her. Many opponents of civil rights conducted a brisk trade in such imagery during the 1960s, and still do—if the deluge of Google results for “Martin Lucifer King” is any guide. Christian antinuclear protesters have proclaimed a mission to “expel the demons” from those who countenance the stockpiling of such weapons.

I’d be happy to leave Satan out of any and all political discussions. But now comes a different tack on the subject by one of my favorite scholars of antiquity, Luke Timothy Johnson, whose probing article in the October 7 edition of Commonweal magazine is titled “Powers and Principalities: The Devil is No Joke.”

Johnson points to a general inclination among reasonable people to see the Devil as an amusing topic—rendered as the man in red tights, for instance, or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. In contrast, he makes an authoritative case that the New Testament writers and early Christian theologians, not to mention the Greco-Roman world and Jewish thinkers, used the language of demons and evil spirits fluently. And they did so in all seriousness.

A professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he asks: “Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?”

Johnson argues soundly that in our time the language of social science has proved inadequate to the task of explaining such unspeakable evil as the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. For such behavior, he writes, “It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.”

A Call for Reticence

Perhaps, but Johnson is quick to acknowledge the downside. He grants that demon language has a checkered history of “misapplication, overextension, and trivialization,” notably among Christians (as evidenced in the polemics against Jews, heretics, and many others). People of faith should exercise “reticence and linguistic discipline” as they seek to rehabilitate Devil talk, he advises.

At the same time he sees ample signs of demonic pull—for example, in the “systems of addiction” that enslave people and destroy families. In addition, Johnson (whose most recent book is Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity) applauds the liberation theologians for speaking of the Evil One when critiquing structures of oppression.

Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed…. The act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans.

Johnson’s cautions and caveats are welcomed, but there’s still cause for wariness. He might see a huge difference between demonizing an oppressive social system (which can be problematic enough), and demonizing one’s political opponents (as Coulter does with aplomb). Unfortunately the distinction can be a quick casualty in the ideological crossfire.

What might help is the sensibility of St. Augustine. The theologian and philosopher understood evil, which is why he believed the use of deadly force against an aggressor could be (in theory) morally justified. But he also wrestled with his internal demons and wrote about them more than 1600 years ago in his Confessions, the first and most celebrated spiritual autobiography.

One lesson from Augustine is that no one should ever fight evil as though it were completely outside of himself or herself. Or, to paraphrase a modern-day conservationist slogan: We have seen the Devil, and he is, all too frequently, us. …read more

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