Tag Archives: Catholic Church

On Canonization and Colonization: Junipero Serra

 

The canonization of Junipero Serra, who used the militaristic fort-mission system to become the Evangelizer of the West, is puzzling, paradoxical, leaving me to wonder, is it pardonable? I mean why would a pontiff who demonstrates progressive overtones, like his “Who am I to judge” statement towards gay priests; his support for women having a greater role in the Church; or his hand out onto the world political stage brokering a rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S, make such an affront to the plight of Indigenous peoples in the Americas still coping with the legacy of colonial oppression? Why on earth, would the Pontiff sanctify the role of a friar, Serra, whose missionary zeal caused irreparable damage to countless numbers of native peoples in California? Should the Pope, the first from the Americas, have been more sensitive to the shared experience of the people who bore the brunt of the Spanish crown’s imperial program and its handmaiden, the Catholic Church? The answer is both yes and no.

 

As a scholar of colonial Mexico, I can assert that when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they came in contact with an ethnically and linguistically diverse Indigenous population who had varied settlement patterns. In the areas furthest from the sedentary lifestyle of the central power, the people moved with the rhythms of the agricultural cycles and resisted domination from within or abroad. For Spanish missionaries, this posed a pastoral problem – How do you convert “barbarian” Indians when you have to chase them and they resist? Father Serra took his cue from 5th and 6th century missionaries preaching to the heathens: St. Colomba who did so to the Picts, St. Patrick to the Celts and St. Augustine of Canterbury preaching to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The titles before each speaking volumes and probably not lost on Serra. Hence he implemented a clever tactic in the ecclesiastical arsenal of preachers since the mid 16th century – the practice of Congregecíones, or congregations. This institution grouped Indians from outlying communities into a central settlement that facilitated conversion and also supplied a steady labor force. Brown robed, roped and tonsured, Serra preached, like the great Saints before him, evangelizing the neophytes. For those who did not subjugate themselves, which among the free thinking Indigenous of the Americas, there were many, they were convinced with a little help from the mighty sword.

 

Given the irreversible damage this caused to the very fabric of native life, the loss of land, the separation of families, the enslavement of an entire people at the hands of evangelical missionaries, I think the Pontiff’s choice of canonizing Junipero Serra perplexing. And then I remember, the Pope is still a man of the institution. When I look back at the millennia of ecclesiastical history, I see the church chockfull of contradictions, the human condition overwhelmed by the irony of its interdependence, the predicament of expressing free-will dysfunctional. Yes, I see the contradictions. While Serra propagated the faith this way in the 18th century, a Dominican Friar in the 16th century, Bartolomé de Las Casas, was ablaze in his criticism of the violence and injustice the Spanish conquistadors and the Church committed against the natives of Mexico.

 

I see the contradictions in Las Casas as he took pen to paper, waging a bitter invective against his coreligionists, though he himself once having profited from the very institutions he decried. I see the contradictions as he used his missionary post to speak out against the Encomienda system, the obligatory labor and tribute forced upon the Indians, the bread and butter of Spanish livelihood. I see the contradictions as Las Casas, armed only with his knowledge of Christ’s teachings and canon law, used his pulpit to advocate for the Indians, earning the title Protector of the Indians. I see the contradictions that the very same religious convictions and powers of persuasion that emboldened Serra to advocate for Congregcíones, a system like Encomienda, emboldened Bartolomé to advocate bishops, cardinals, monarchs and popes against it. Yes, I see the contradictions. And the bottom line is yes, the Pope should have been more sensitive to the political and moral climate of his decision, but the papal faux pas is pardonable.

 

I also see the contradictions in what I am saying here, so let me explain – I am no apologist for the Catholic Church, nor am I a crusader for its progressivist program. But as a scholar in the history of colonial Latin America and law, I see an institution, like most others, including our own government, reaching for a higher progressive moral ground in an ever widening, growing and evolving moral climate. And in that evolution lies exactly the problem: progressive and Institution (i.e Catholic Church) forever illusive by their very nature. Hence that expectation is a cross too heavy even for Pope Francis, the sweetheart of liberals, to bear. By liberals, I mean the hopeful: hopeful in expecting an immediate world-wide hospitable climate for gay marriage, hopeful in expecting to see world-wide respect for women (including their ordainment as priests), hopeful in expecting the amelioration of global economic inequality, hopeful for world wide vindication for native peoples who suffered the enslavement and violence of evangelization and imperialism. They probably won’t be seeing that any time soon. Although I concede that the Holy Father straddles a political tightrope within his own institution, the complexities and contingency of history compels us more than ever to bring a consciousness to the leaders we heroize. As for Bartolomé Las Casas’ Sainthood? Well, maybe when hell freezes over.

 

Maria Ornelas is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at UCLA where she is specializing in the colonial history of Mexico. Her dissertation focuses on how indigenous communities in Oaxaca used the Spanish legal system during the colonial period to challenge the abuses of power by Spanish and indigenous officials, and how indigenous communities influenced Spanish law in the process.

Photo Description: Picture of a statue of Junipero Serra, located at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, CA. Photo found on Flickr.  

Will ISIS Bring About Christian Unity?

 Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.

There is no question that Christians around the world ought to pay attention to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East due to their oppression by the Islamic State.  The Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1st Corinthians 12 speaks to the universal solidarity that the Body of Christ possesses by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, Christians should be united in their mourning of the recent martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and for the 100 Christians in Syria being kidnapped by the Islamic State. We ought to follow the example of Bishop Angaelos and pray for our brothers and sisters-in-Christ. They were a sacrifice to draw attention to the suffering of those oppressed by the Islamic State.

“I learned a long time ago that when one prays, one prays for the best outcome, not  knowing what that outcome would be. Of course, I prayed that they would be safe. But I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be  able to get through it. It doesn’t change my view of God that these 21 men died in this        way. They were sacrificed, but so much has come out of it. They brought the imminent   dangers to marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yazidis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the whole world.”

One can add that they are also a sacrifice to help generate a conversation on inter-church relations. This horrific event offers us an opportunity to discuss the large relational gap between liturgical forms of faith and free churchversions of the Christian faith.  Many American protestant denominations and non-denominational organizations in the United States have chimed in on the killings. Most notably, leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention expressed solidarity with the Coptic and wider Middle Eastern Christian community. This caused some controversy since shortly before the murders, the convention recognized the Coptic community as an “unreached” people group. “Unreached” is this context means any nation with not enough Christians to witness. Arguing against calling the Coptic faith Christian, the Baptist blog the Pulpit & Pen points out that “the SBC’s International Mission Board has scrubbed all articles relating to Coptic Christians and their status of being unreached, lost, or in need of evangelism.” In response to this, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Center for Great Commission Studies has issued an official response to the recent controversy:

“Southern Baptists have not suddenly changed our definition of what it takes to become a  Christian. However, it is indeed possible for a cultural group, a people group, to bear the name ‘Christian’ yet remain almost entirely unreached. It is also possible for individuals within an unreached people group to be genuine Christians. In such cases, we are dependent on what we can see of their individual witnesses.”

 

The Southern Baptist Convention is not the only organization to chime in on the murders. The website 21martyrs.com is the product of over one dozen American organizations and aims to honor the memory of the 21 martyrs by encouraging believers to pray every day for 40 days. Some notable organizations involved include Focus On the Family, Barna Group, the NHCLC, and The Justice Conference. Out of all of those involved, not one organization is Coptic or even from the wider Orthodox community. It only seems appropriate to recognize the special place the Coptic Church has. Basic civility seems to imply that there should be representatives from the community impacted by an atrocity.

From my personal experience, conservative evangelical sympathy for the Coptic community can be quite shallow. After I revealed that I liked liturgical worship, I received numerous concerns from evangelical friends for my soul. I had one tell me that iconography was demonic and harmful to my spiritual health. That same friend often talked about the violence the Coptic community faced during the Egyptian revolution. When I revealed to him that the Coptic community was theologically closer to myself than he, he replied “well I guess they died for nothing” and stopped sharing material regarding their plight.

No doubts that there are non-Christians within the Coptic community. The Coptic Orthodox Church makes no claim that every single soul that passes through its door will be saved nor does the Coptic Orthodox Church claim that every single person born within the Coptic ethnicity will obtain salvation. Salvation is open to all of humankind. As an African-American convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I find such a misunderstanding of the theology of the Oriental Orthodox community to be disgusting. In fact, it has been condemned as heresy to teach that one’s ethnicity can somehow gain someone salvation. For example, in regards to Eastern Orthodoxy, ethno-phyletism or the confusion of nation and church was specifically denounced as heretical by Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872. Simply put, to claim that the Orthodox churches claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between any ethnicity and salvation is a serious distortion of doctrine.

Ultimately, what many Southern Baptists along with many well-meaning conservative evangelicals are claiming is not that there are absolutely no Christians in the Coptic community. Rather, they are claiming that there is a low percentage of “true Christians” in the Coptic community, enough to list their community as non-Christian. The problematic category of “unreached people group” in this instance borders on following a “No-True Scotsman” fallacy. The tragedy is that it seems to be that only under the circumstances of martyrdom that faith of people who practice liturgical worship is genuine. Such a line of thought is common among free church Protestants who insist that members of liturgical churches can only obtain salvation on accident when they unknowingly practice their Protestantism. We must admit the analysis from Pulpit & Pen is correct inthat, historically, many within the Baptist, Evangelical, and non-denominational traditions have denied that liturgical forms of faith are even valid. Simply affirming the divinity of Christ and Trinity are not enough for some to recognize the Christian character of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and other liturgical forms of faith.

We must remember that, in the U.S. American context, free church refusal to recognize the legitimacy of liturgical forms of faith has had a cost. Historically, liturgical forms of worship were concentrated among old world immigrant groups that found it difficult to adjust to life in the United States and Latin-Americans. This made them easy targets for nativist organizations that distinguished between their “true” Christianity and the “cultural” Christianity of foreigners. Claims that President Obama is Muslim channel similar conservative protestant claims that JFK was a threat to the constitutional order since he was Catholic. Conflict and at times violent conflict between Christian denominations is real and must be acknowledged.

Conservative Republicans in the United States use the plight of the Coptic, Assyrian, and other Christian communities in the Middle East to argue for what can only be called total war and unrestrained support for the state of Israel, in direct opposition to the words of Bishop Angaelos’ words that we should be “very wary of them [the 21 martyrs] being used to make a political point.”These people did not shed a tear when several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq after the US invasion to flee the fighting between American troops and the insurgency. I am not suggesting moral equivalence, rather that protecting Middle Eastern Christians or their interests is clearly not the motiving factor in the foreign policy stances of conservative Republicans. The closest many Republican politicians have come to experiencing the ethos of Eastern Christianity is through far-right pundits such as Maronite Brigitte Gabriel (who openly sympathizes with Phalang fascist militias) and Greek Catholic Robert Spencer (who mass murderer Ander Breivik cites in his personal manifesto).

Some conservative concerns for Middle Eastern Christians are best understood as a reflection of their own persecution complex, hence why they sometimes make wild analogies that compare the culture war between themselves and liberals to oppression of Middle Eastern Christians. For example, Scott Walker’s recent comparison of union protestors to the Islamic State implies that conservatives are analogous to Middle Eastern Christians. Such comparisons are more akin to the ravings of a mad man than the words of a pious saint only concerned for the well-being of his brothers-in-Christ.

In all likelihood, the recent killings in Libya will not be the last time such a discussion will arise again, but we must resist conservative evangelical co-opting of the suffering of Christians in the Middle East and instead use it as an opportunity to discuss differences betweenChristian communities. The narrative that the 21 martyrs in Libya somehow fit into the American Culture War is just as dangerous and inaccurate as the claim that the Coptic faith does not fit into Christianity. It may be shocking to some, but Christianity is more than a praise and worship band playing reworded love songs to a crowd full of middle class Americans in a church located in an urban-sprawl. To use it as a point of reference for an instance of martyrdom on a different continent is the height of hubris. By reflecting on the theological consequences of the 21 martyrs as well as the Christian witness of the specific community in which they were a part of, we can create a space for mutual understanding.

Photo Description: (Found on Flickr, Tomasz Szustek photographer; Coptic orthodox Christians were protesting outside Irish Parliment against killing Copts in Egypt, on October 15, 2011. One protestor is holding up an Egyptian flag and a cross, another is carrying a bullhorn. One sign behind both men reads ‘Stop persecuting Christians in Egypt’)

Book Review: The Quest For The Creed by @dlongenecker1

 

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A few months ago, I received a review copy of Father Dwight Longenecker’s The Quest for The Creed: What The Apostles Really Believed and Why It Matters. You can find the book on Amazon here.

I read this book as a CredoBaptist: Nicene Creedal Faith + Free Church baptist. This work is a series of geeky reflections on the Nicene Creed, with quite a bit of a personal touch. Longnecker believes that it is the scandal of paradox that is the best way to confront our modern/post-modern society with it’s “Men from Missouri.” Missouri, you see, is the Show-Me-State, that it has a reputation of having people who need to see it before they believe it. In one trip to a museum, Longenecker meets a POC who acts as a Man From Missouri, and Longnecker writes on the importance of being culturally inclusive based “Beauty is in the eye of the beheld” and how beautiful the “scandal” of particularity is as a reflection on the Incarnation and Miraculous Conception.

By completing this work written by a Catholic clergyperson, it has made me a better Christian, and Baptist. I only wish that Longenecker would take more seriously the problem of sin and its impact on humanity socially. That, and I feel that his enthusiasm for the Jedi side of Star Wars was a tad bit much for this Sith warlord. Overall, I would recommend this book to laypersons and persons who would like an introduction to the history of Christian faith.

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