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April 24: It was a beautifully clear and cool Sunday afternoon. As Carol, Bill, and I made our way through the streets of south Saint Louis, heading to Mira and Obi’s to join them in celebrating the naming of their newborn daughter, Priya, the rows of old brick houses and the church spires stood out in crisp outline against the blue sky. There was something vibrant and propitious about that piercing blue sky. I couldn’t help but feel wrapped in a sense that the world was turning. These old neighborhoods, nearly abandoned a generation or two ago by those seeking suburban bliss, speak in testament to the passionate living of our forbears. Immigrants with a concrete vision of the new.
The house was welcoming, laughter and an old grand piano. It was a great gathering, the interconnections of Mira and Obi’s lives, Quakers, fellow activists and writers, friends and relatives, black and white, African garb, a gaggle of little kids romping in the back yard. The hosts offered a table loaded with fruited rice, spicy potato samosas, fried plantains, the guests supplied the chatter.
Talking in the yard with Terry, a fellow teacher, I asked him his good word for the planet. “Peak oil,” was his immediate reply, no hesitation. I detected a real hope and longing. Rather than a dire warning, it was a promissory word of new birth. Rather than decline, a new vista. From that peak we’ll see our liberation. The beginning of the new age that is radically local and human in its scale. Something of what Rebecca Solnit talks about as the “global local,” thinking locally while acting globally.
The promise, though, comes wrapped in a dire threat. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, James Howard Kunstler describes the beginning of a “long emergency” brought on by the end of cheap and readily available energy. “This is going to be a permanent energy crisis,” Kunstler writes, “and these energy problems will synergize with the disruptions of climate change, epidemic disease and population overshoot to produce higher orders of trouble.”
He goes on to catalogue the catastrophic dislocations and rearrangements that will literally change everything about the way we live. Food will once again need be grown locally, but the suburbanization of the landscape has shattered the integrity of once fertile farmland. The other goods we have come to rely on, as basic as shelter and clothing, will no longer arrive from 12,000 miles away. The supply lines will be cut. He foresees a period of turbulence, social instability and violence. “Obviously, geopolitical maneuvering around the world’s richest energy regions has already led to war and promises more international military conflict.”
Ah, the sheer amount of human labor that is going to be needed, the creativity, the ingenuity, the commitment. I share Terry’s feeling of anxious anticipation. At once the probability of immense destruction, both from natural disasters and the effects of militarism, and the great promise.
The Long Emergency is going to be a tremendous trauma for the human race. We will not believe that this is happening to us, that 200 years of modernity can be brought to its knees by a world-wide power shortage. The survivors will have to cultivate a religion of hope-that is, a deep and comprehensive belief that humanity is worth carrying on. If there is any positive side to stark changes coming our way, it may be in the benefits of close communal relations, of having to really work intimately (and physically) with our neighbors, to be part of an enterprise that really matters and to be fully engaged in meaningful social enactments instead of being merely entertained to avoid boredom. Years from now, when we hear singing at all, we will hear ourselves, and we will sing with our whole hearts.
It’s really quite an exhilarating feeling when you allow it to wash over you and seep into your pores: the realization that we’ve come to the end of what we have known and are being beckoned by the dawn of a new age. Two thousand years after the birth of the Nazarene are we waking up? A religion of hope. The good news to be preached. [Consider the damage that has been done over the centuries in response to that injunction!] But today, with global climate change threatening the very existence of the planet, and us already in the death throes of an unbridled militarism that now wants to extend its capabilities to include destructive blows anywhere on the face of the globe within thirty minutes, we hardly have a choice.
I set before you life and death. Choose life.
Friday, April 22: Slightly more than one hundred old men, knelt, one by one, at the feet of Joseph Ratzinger, promising their fealty. All but a few had been appointed by the last pope and had, upon his death, conspired together, in secret, to choose a successor. All decked out in their finest robes. Ratzinger himself was perched on a gilt throne, and according to press accounts, accepted their promises of obedience in a “fatherly” manner.
This is not only utter nonsense, this is death. Turn your back on it and resist all temptation to pay it any heed. Run away from it and let it rot. It does not deserve our attention, energy or time. It demands derision.
As far as we know not a single woman was present that Friday. Ratzinger and his cabal have continued to make the argument that women are physically, biologically and morally unable to fully “image Christ.” Their defective nature suits them admirably for some tasks, kissing the feet of the man in the golden chair not being one of them. Enough! Not another word wasted in engaging this pseudo-theology, for this, too, is death.
“Let the dead bury the dead.” While scripture scholars seem to choke on that “hard saying,” it’s our lifeline. “What could Jesus have meant,” they wonder? Obviously only one thing: “Run for your lives!” When you smell the rot, get out before it’s too late.
[Note-upon the heads of the hapless Taliban we rained billions of dollars worth of bombs in order to clarify their thinking about women, Laura Bush weeping at her sisters’ wondrous liberation.]
Sunday, April 24: It was revealed that in 2001, Joseph Ratzinger wrote to the world’s bishops and instructed them in the fine art of obstructing justice. All cases involving sexual activity between clerics and little boys were to be hidden from public view, the church asserting its right to seal the proceedings, its jurisdiction running “from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age” and lasting for 10 years. “‘Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,” Ratzinger concluded, and those who break the silence are subject to excommunication.
The pontifical secret is death. The secret has killed and continues to kill, a penalty undeserved by any of its victims, be they little boys or grown-up clerics. It can only earn our outrage, scorn and revulsion. The mighty oak with the rotted core. Get out of the way so that when it collapses it doesn’t take you with it.
[Note-Condoleeza Rice excoriates the North Korean dictator for his secretive ways and threatens nuclear attack.]
We’ve seen a quarter century of the cult of personality. The dead pope, the last pope, and his globe trotting ways. A fanatical devotion that far outstrips anything Pius IX could have conjured in his wildest ultramontane fantasies. A media superstar, a made man. In 1983 Nicaraguan campesinos spent months preparing for the “papal visit,” anxious to show off their new-found human dignity to the great Polish liberator, only to be greeted with a wagging finger and tongue lashing. Father was not pleased. And so it went across the globe, the mobile pope, infantilizing the entire church in his wake. Local community sacrificed on the altar of Roman hegemony.
Our bodies have been stolen. 1.2 billion Catholic souls and a relatively small handful of bodies, not a one-to-one correspondence. Where have all the bodies gone?
Why do you look here for him, among the dead? He is risen.
And along with the body snatching, the mind numbing. The greatest scandal of all has been to watch the deliberate and systematic slaying of creative thought, theological and otherwise, among Catholics over the past twenty-five years. The heady exuberance of the sixties has been replaced with a theological orthodoxy that silences, constricts, and constrains. The thinking of a single old man coming to determine the fate-or so they would have us believe-not only of the earth’s 1.2 billion Catholics but of everyone else as well. Vibrant Catholic thought is where? Fides querens intellectum-faith seeking understanding-the best of the tradition, has been choked out by mindless conformity and fear. Leonardo Boff wrote last week that he still believes in miracles, waiting and hoping that the “old Ratzinger,” might reemerge. Pace Leonardo, but that, too, is death. Don’t lead us down that road, you of all people. I won’t follow you there. We need every available creative brain working full-time on the stuff that matters if the planet is to survive.
This is anything but a churchy matter. The media creation, the great man of peace, the moral guide, most often shown leaning on his simple shepherd’s crook, was laid to rest by the media. He was beloved and mourned by all the world, we were told, and without a trace of irony, we watched for days as all the world’s liars, thieves, and warmongers shed tears at the side of his casket.
As Dorothee Sölle reminded us, “the truth is concrete.” And the truth obscured by this myth is that the principalities and powers, secular and ecclesial, are having a field day. George Bush smirks and says attending the papal funeral was the highpoint of his public life. The great man of peace is dead and his faithful flock poses no threat. A supine Catholic leadership, silent and complicit along with everyone else. Not a word from the bishops in this country since war began. Cluster bombs, depleted uranium, destruction of Falluja-and torture. (Where are the just war theorists now?) This is death. We know that, and have known it for a long time.
Here’s a word to those who would pour energy into the reform of the Catholic church: let the dead bury the dead. Here’s another word: new wine, new wineskins. Here’s yet one more: mustard seed.
There have been a number of articles written these past few weeks under the rubric of “Why I am still a Catholic” or “Why I can’t leave” to which I would reply, Didn’t Jesus call the possessed man out from among the tombs, free up his mind and body, and send him out to a new life? Leave the whitened sepulchers behind. Our life together depends on it. Come out into the vineyards. It’s time for empowering direct action. It’s time for non-cooperation with the principalities and powers. It’s past time to withhold our consent.
So here’s another word: exile, a desert life, before we gorge ourselves on the flesh pots and fall into a permanent stupor. We have so much work to do.
I’ve been thinking about Benedict. Born in the waning years of the fifth century, with Rome on the skids, the West about to slide into its long darkness, he high-tailed it out of the city, took to the hills to escape the decay of empire. We read his story as a spiritual quest only, missing the urgency. He and his fellows were literally fleeing for their lives. Together they struggled to create a new community. The handbook he left us is filled with the practical details of day-to-day life together, a life constructed on the periphery of the old order, shunning the trappings, and traps, of power: economic, political, ecclesial, theological. The language is spare, direct: attend to the important rhythms of the human spirit, create the spaces that nurture, read and meditate. Offer hospitality as a matter of course. Work together at meaningful tasks, sell the produce at a fair price. Take care of the weak, the sick. Stay put, as most flitting around leads to dissipation of energy and a loss of focus on what matters.
Benedict called it a school. Simple precepts for living together in a perilous time, body and soul at grave risk. He offered PAX as the watchword. Peace comes from truth telling. Truth telling demands a spare, economic vocabulary.
As my good friend and sometime co-author, Mark Chmiel, routinely reminds me in his Chomskian way, “They will do what they do and we will do what we do.”
What they will do is continue to constrict and constrain. Bush will exclude all but the party loyalists whenever he deigns to appear, while our ecclesial friends will draw the circle ever smaller, extracting oaths of orthodox obedience. Professions of faith will abound.
And what will we do? When Arundhati Roy listened to Bhaiji Bhai, a Tadvi tribal member from Undava, tell of the imminent inundation of his home and livelihood, yet another among the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of one of India’s Big Dam projects in the Narmada Valley, she wrote:
Bhaiji Bhai, Bhaiji Bhai, when will you get angry? When will you stop waiting? When will you say `That’s enough!’ and reach for your weapons, whatever they may be. When will you show us the whole of your resonant, terrifying, invincible strength?
When will you break the faith? Will you break the faith? Or will you let it break you?
What we will do is continue the struggle. Open minds, put bodies on the line. Create and resist!
ANDREW WIMMER is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis (CTSA) in St. Louis and teaches at St. Louis University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and invites you to join a public conversation at http://www.ctsastl.org/.
Members of CTSA are involved in solidarity work with Palestine, care for refugees and victims of war trauma newly arrived in St. Louis, direct action against torture, and neighborhood revitalization.