Tag Archives: Catholicism

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.  

Conservative Ecumenism and Dominionist Politics

In the May 2015 issue of the Atlantic, Ross Douthat asked “will Pope Francis break the Church?” By this he meant, will the current Pope’s activities push conservative out of Roman Catholicism or cause deep controversy. Douthat asked many important questions, but his analysis breaks down within the North American context. Though very informative on papal politics and it’s relation to progressivism, Douthat misses that, within this context, conservativism often leads to denominational de-evolution. A proper amount of progressive utopianism is needed to keep any religion alive.

A common talking point of more conservative minded individuals is that the “creeping liberalism” of mainline Protestant denominations is a source of evangelical revival and mainline diminishment; thereforethe remedy to the decline of membership within mainline protestant denominations is for them to increase their political conservativism, for example regarding issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and homosexuality.There is some truth to this, mainline denominations are indeed losing large portions of their membership to conservative evangelical churches, but it does beg deeper examination. This analysis forgets to include the opposite variable into the equation. Namely, the influence of political conservativism on denominations.

Why is it relatively easy for many conservative non-denominationalists to change their home church in the blink of an eye? Many denominations have lost their doctrinal specifics in favor of appealing to the evangelical subculture, canonizing the Benham Brothers and Tim Tebow as examples of true Christian character and upholding the Duggar family as the ideal Christian household. Effectively, when many individuals leave their old mainline denomination for an overwhelmingly Republican evangelical congregation they have already been de-denominationalized. The novel doctrines of their old faith have already been put onto the backburners and conservative political culture has already been made the vehicle by which faith is expressed.

Consider the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition. Despite having a history well entrenched into the Midwestern landscape, the Methodist context of the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition is slowly eroding. A 2012 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that revealed that Holiness-Wesleyans have some of the lowest retention rates in the entire country rang alarms at my mother’s church; to the point that the pastor preached about it on Sunday. He was concerned that other Christian faiths, according to the study, were more successful in sustaining their existence, so he chastised the entire congregation for not reciting the Nicene Creed enough during services.

From personal experience, one of the leading causes of this are that many are de-denominationalized by their own denomination’s culture; then they jump ship and join evangelical churches dominated by conservative politics. Functionally speaking, there is already little difference between the two; most Wesleyans treat novel doctrines such as Entire Sanctification with a passing glance and there is no hope of reconstructing the Methodist-Episcopal approach to faith. In aesthetic, theology, and daily life, the shared culture of the Religious Right allows individuals to chuck the Holiness-Wesleyan tradition and other Christian traditions for the seemingly more ecumenical evangelical churches that attract members from multiple denominational backgrounds, including that of the Catholic Church. When denominational specifics are disregarded, often the Religious Right replace what is missing.

We must realize that the North American Religious Right serves as an ecumenical movement between conservatives within numerous denominations. The very notion of traditionalist Roman Catholics getting along with Southern Baptists or historically black denominations with socially conservative leanings co-operating with denominations with a history of white supremacy is living proof of this. The success of individuals such as Jerry Farwell and Paul Weyrich is that they surpassed previous denominational feuds to create a new voting bloc, one centered on getting social conservatives into public offices. Weyrich, a Byzantine Catholic, Republican strategist, and founder of ALEC, was successful in helping the Republican Party appeal social conservatives across denominational lines and thereby creating a new identity; one that put the culture war in the middle of the conservative identity. To quote his 1990 speech to the University Club of DC, “our agenda will effectively polarize the political debate and expose the left-wing agenda as the product of a fringe element hostile to our culture and our civilization.”

Of course, Farwell and Weyrich drew upon many sources to construct their worldview. They merely mainlined already existing notions within Christian dominionism. Christian dominionism is the belief that God desires Christians rise to power in civil systems so that the nations will be governed by biblical law. The people who adhere to its ideas are particular groups of conservative, politically active Christians who believed in having dominion, which meant a takeover, in the social civic and governmental spheres.  It starts off with emphasis of being Christians first and then live out the political implications of that. The most influential form of dominionism is Christian reconstructionism.

Christian reconstructionism arose out of conservative Presbyterianism (Reformed and Orthodox), to proposes that contemporary application of the laws of Old Testament Israel, or “Biblical Law,” is the basis for reconstructing society toward the Kingdom of God on earth. Dominionism, specifically reconstructionism, started out as a view being primarily held by small group of theologically conservative scholars and pastors, at the level of being of a sub culture. It also supports the idea of theocracy and social hierarchies. Its potent ideas about having dominion over social, civil and governmental spheres, having the Bible being the governing text for all aspects of life, and constructing a revisionist Christian and world history that explaining that history is predestined from creation until kingdom of God in on earth became very attractive to far right Christians that need a framework for their worldviews. Being a decentralized, covert movement of ideas led to a creation of networks and coalitions of churches across various denominations that are influenced by dominionism and its framework as well as various networks of Christian think tanks such as the Christian Coalition, and Operation Rescue.

What makes dominionism powerful and attractive to those Christians who are the on right was it gave some form of internal logic and narrative to how can their politics be a means to manifest Kingdom of God on Earth. It can also gave of a type of rationale and framework to justify the belief that they can control the principalities and powers to stop whatever is considered ‘evil’ or ‘ungodly’ if they are in the position of political and social leadership on their terms without examining the inherent merit of their politics. For instance, Frances Schaffer and his theological work advocated on how to do social action informed by a Christian worldview when the issue of Roe vs. Wade came about. His theological work from the 60s to the 80s was deeply influenced by Christian dominionism. His work sparked a renewed interest in political activism among various conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. In spite of Schaffer’sintelligence and cultural engagement,  some of his work plays on the reinforcing the problematic dichotomy between the secular and the religious, the implicit assumption of some political views being more “Christian” than others by default without examining the merits, and very limited understanding of sociopolitical and economic thought and theory. Through Christian dominionism, the Christian right got the intellectual and theological framework to mobilize. It also indirectly catalyzes other Christians from other denominations who are distraught the changes within their denominations to participate in the culture wars.

 

Despite how sincere we may be, ecumenism is a two edged sword. Many join politically conservative evangelical churches precisely because they view it as a means of getting around denominational in-fighting. Douthat is right that Pope Francis is a test to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, but let’s not forget that conservativism in the States has been breaking mainline denominations ever since the rise of the Religious Right due to its ecumenical character, cutting across worlds by creating a common conservative political discourse.

 

 

Xeres Villanueva wears many different hats between a budding entrepreneur, a comrade and a social activist for various social justice issues. She worked with InsideOut Community Arts as a mentor, an art education organization dedicated to empower middle school students. She was involved with various groups, past and present, such as Asian Pacific American Student Organization, Gay Christian Network, St. Monica Catholic Community Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Food Not Bombs and Stop the Traffik. Xeres is currently a part of network of social justice thinkers and practitioners called Asian American Pacific Islanders Christians for Social Justice and Jesus for Revolutionaries.
She also wrote an Oral Oratory speech “Living Miracle”, which won the 2005 Spirit of Hope Award. She takes delight in reading, cooking, and watching live music performances.

POLITICS Editor 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.

Photo description: The image is of two flags, the American flag, red/white/blue and the Christian Nation/Dominionist flag, white with a blue square, and a red cross inside of it. Photo found on Flickr. 

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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