Friday, May 21, 2010

Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing

By Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, 165 pages, Intervarsity Press.

An African Catholic theologian and an American Protestant pastor team up to reflect on reconciliation in the world using Christian principles. They reject the use of "experts" solving problems, preferring something deeper than the latest technique of peace-making.

In fact, this book is a loud "No!" to the technique-mentality, which claims that specially-trained people can swoop into a troubled situation and somehow clean up the mess for the local people. Katongole and Rice claim that true reconciliation starts with the locals, and keep such trained people at a distance. The problem with experts is that they don't know the local human and geographical terrain, and don't necessarily need to change their hearts.

When dealing with the massacre in Rwanda, killings in Durham, South Carolina, or racial tension everywhere, changed hearts rather than new policies or training workshops are needed. This is the long, slow process whereby local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mothers cook together to feed children in Palestine, or where Hutus and Tutsis work as one to rebuild schools and churches, drinking banana beer out of the same cup in the sweltering heat. This is where members of multiracial churches in the American south work together on everyday church life.

Reconciling All Things rejects heroism, the big play that will magically resolve all tensions and heal all hurts. Loud revolution is not possible, and often, in fact, leads to more violence. When humans try to take peace-making into their own hands, violence and disaster happen, Rice and Katongole remind us again and again.

True Christian peacemakers realize that they don't own a map of reconciliation. They don't know where their work is leading. They are like Noah, building an ark even though it's not raining; or like Abraham, who left his country for an unknown land; or like Moses, who left his comfortable life to challenge the pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves. These men heard a call – one that confused and disoriented them – but they followed nevertheless. Rice and Katongole call us to have the same faith as we embark on a long journey with no visible end.

The authors note that we embark on such a journey because of our restlessness for the way that things are: "even in a deeply divided world, even in the most deeply divided relationship, the way things are is not the way things have to be," they write, adding that God is central to this: "An emphasis on right relationship with God is crucial to a Christian vision of reconciliation."

The authors mince no words in rejecting the Christian peacemakers who, becoming ever more zealous, get so wrapped up in opposing and resisting things that they forget about God. They become bitter, angry, and burnt out. In contrast, Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier have offered the world laughter, smiles, and celebration because they always returned to their spiritual foundation, which they built on a strong theological foundation.

If we can rely on God, we can face the terrible injustices of the world rather than trying to bring about superficial reconciliation that is impatient with pain and suffering.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Priest Forever: Nine Signs of Renewal and Hope

By Alfred McBride, 117 pages, SAMPBooks.

McBride's simple, straightforward book aims to show the beauty of the Eucharist, Reconciliation, celibacy, Marian devotion, and chaste human sexuality that form the bedrock of the Catholic priesthood.

The humble power of the priesthood comes from the work of Christ. A priest has a special relationship with the Lord, as reflected in the Last Supper, which Jesus spent with his first priests. McBride notes, Jesus "called them his friends, he shared his divine life with them and shared with them the first truths of revelation of the new covenant."

A priest's identity and calling come from this close relationship with Jesus. Rather than deprivation, celibacy is about love: loving Jesus above all with an "undivided heart," which the priest also offers his parishioners.

The important chapter on chastity helps remove the usual misunderstandings that Catholics and non-Catholics often have regarding this calling. Celibacy, McBride notes from the Catholic Catechism, "means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being."

This leads to an important discussion on the contrast this presents with the secular, sex-saturated world. McBride notes how interesting it is that our permissive culture seems to have a real problem with priestly celibacy. Interesting because in a North American population in the hundreds of millions, the celibacy of not even 70,000 celibate priests seems constantly to pose a problem for the public.

Hence the prophetic role of the priest: His celibacy and undivided, chaste living serves as a reminder that the Church offers an alternative to the pornographic culture.

Perhaps a greater development of the need for virility and manliness in the priesthood – even a whole new chapter to deal with this! - would have capped off an excellent discussion.

McBride does show the manly, heroic intervention of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who gave his life at Auschwitz so that another, a husband and father, could live. Throughout the book, McBride reminds the reader of the unmistakable identity that Kolbe had of himself, an identity that came purely from his priesthood. When the Nazi guard asked who he was, St. Maximillian answered "I am a Catholic priest," rather than responding with his nationality or name.

Priests live heroically, McBride observes, when they know exactly who they are, and then live out this identity. This issue is so important because of what he calls the "assault on priestly identity from 1965 to the present." Again, McBride sees these difficulties as a call to manliness, and reminds the reader of the harsh travails of St. Paul, including imprisonment and torture.

At this point, McBride again counters the nonsense from mainstream culture, in this case its pop-psychology, therapeutic way of seeing religion and spirituality. "A priest is more than an enabler and facilitator." "Enabler" and "facilitator" were catchwords of liberal Catholic and Protestant seminaries for decades, often used in opposition to the cultic notion of the priesthood.

Throughout A Priest Forever McBride emphasizes this cultic meaning, putting the Eucharist at the center of the priest's existence: "No priest without the Eucharist, no Eucharist without the priest."

I Am Hutterite

By Mary-Ann Kirby, 246 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mary-Ann Kirby does an exceptional job detailing the civilizational clash between her communal early upbringing on a Western Canadian Hutterite colony. Her father, feuding with the leaders, took his large family to go it alone. Kirby's years of communal closeness were over, and she became a misfit in the "English world," though she enjoyed the solid support of her siblings.

The Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect with roots in Austria in the Reformation, had been persecuted in Germany, then in Russia. They came to North America in the nineteenth-century. Living as a tight-knit community, they practice adult baptism and once-yearly communion. Those practices got them into trouble with the Christian mainstream in Europe as much as their strict male-female segregation gets them deeply rejected by mainstream society today.

Kirby weaves fact with fictional story-telling, liberally creating her own dialogues. She's a good story-teller and brings her childhood, and the various characters of the colony, back to life. Rather than sweeping the troublesome events and divisions under the rug, she shows how the various Hutterite communities were anything but perfect. Refreshingly, though, she writes with respect rather than bitterness, thankful for the solid spiritual and moral center that the Hutterites and her deeply religious and devoted parents gave her.

I Am Hutterite critiques modern English-speaking society more than it does Hutterites, contrasting the love and warmth of Hutterite society with the cold indifference of mainstream Canadian society.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Life in Letters: Thomas Merton

Edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, 402 pages, Harper One.

Both traditionalists and renewalists love Merton so this thick book offers something to everyone. It reflects in depth the peacenik Merton who wrote against the Vietnam war, seeing it through a spiritual rather than geopolitical lens. This war, as well as the arms race, was for Merton really about deeper issues related to what he saw as the ugliness of modern, industrial living.

Merton the traditionalist opposed the commodification and commercialization of life. His letters reflect his love of deep, real relationships with people. He saw technology and industrialization as dehumanizing forces. His conception of Catholic freedom opposes the liberty of capitalism and consumerism:

"Our souls cannot be free if we believe only in money and power and comfort and having a good time. I do not think that our present line of action is doing anything to keep us free."

These prophetic words were written when these economic and political changes were happening, and not from decades later after the fact. Though a convert to Catholicism, Merton was able to be so prophetic because of he was so deeply immersed in the Catholic worldview:

"I do not aim at the heights, I aim at the depths. Not at what is exalted and spectacular but what is humble and unenviable and unattractive and blank. I aspire to become a nonentity and to be forgotten."

Merton's openness to the world came through a Catholic view of diversity rather than the current, post-modern one. He loved the variety of paths to God that the monastic life offered religious. Because of this high esteem for monastic and contemplative living, he had high standards for the religious orders. Echoing other mid-twentieth-century Catholics, he saw them and the Church as a whole, as having become too institutionalized.

Being so immersed in the roots of Catholicism, he took obedience to mean more than simply an institutional obedience that makes each religious a cog in an institutional wheel. Repeatedly, Merton called for the spirit of things to overshadow the institutionalization of things. Heavy institutionalization killed the spirit of individual monks, he noted: "[O]ur problem is not to be solved so much by rules as by men who are alive with the Spirit of the Risen Saviour and are not afraid to seek new paths guided by the light of perennial tradition and the wisdom of Mother Church."

Merton was keenly aware of his place as a monk in American society. He strongly believed in the value of his vocation for his fellow, secular Americans; the monastic vocation went against the capitalist-technological utilitarianism of modern living. The usefulness of a man of prayer was precisely the fact that he didn't fit into the paradigm of what was useful.

Since society was off the right tracks, a contemplative calling could bear prophetic witness. This view tied together Merton's social concerns with his contemplative life. He was qualified to speak out against war, nuclear build-up, prejudice, and industrialization only because he was a monk rooted in a way of living that was quite different from the rest of us.