The first half of the week 9 JustFaith program spends 50 minutes listening to Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has built a small New Age empire around books and talks on subjects ranging from the Enneagram, the Cosmic Jesus, Liberation Theology, and the Men’s Movement. Titled “Portrait of a Radical,” this talk seems to be a surprising detour. There is nothing in it about social justice other than a passing comment that even peace and justice activists can be happy because it’s not their job to save the world – it’s God’s.
That’s a true enough point but it’s unlikely that’s all the JustFaith participants are meant to take from the talk. The facilitator materials, describing “Portrait of a Radical” as an attempt “to draw the viewer into a space where Jesus can be seen from the perspective of his radical, compassionate, and inclusive teachings,” clarifies the intention of the JustFaith program to leave the participant with additional messages, which are confirmed in follow up questions: “How did this representation of Jesus’ ministry add to…understanding of Jesus as a person? As the Son of God?” (p 4, JustFaith facilitator’s materials, week 9: 2011-12)
Rohr’s talk is largely a challenge to the institutional church, what he dubs “managed” religion. Jesus, he says, has been largely misunderstood by European Christendom. “In so many ways, it didn’t matter what he [Jesus] said; it’s what we wanted him to say and many people really thought he said these things that they presumed they wanted him to say.” Rohr wants to get us back to the honest, Jewish Jesus so we can get away from dealing with Jesus as “the divine savior of our denomination.”
The Bible, according to Rohr, moves us from a violent, angry, “toxic” God demanding to be placated with human – and later with animal substitutions – blood to a God who has taken away human shame about being naked and unworthy. Far from demanding our blood, Rohr says, we are confronted with “the most extraordinary turn-around in the history of religion – God spilling [His own] blood to get to us.”
“But how do you give away God?” Rohr asks. Nobody wants Him; He’s too frightening. Yet, God could not be content to be a theology, which we’d like because we can argue about it and “keep God as a private possession in our pocket.” So, He became a person, and “we see in the Risen Christ a God Who blames nobody…The Good News is that the end of the Bible is a totally non-threatening, non-blaming, non-violent God” – not that God was ever violent, Rohr adds, but that we had created him in our own image.
This “non-blaming” Jesus says nothing about the things the Church is obsessed about, such as premarital sex – he is only concerned with violence and greed….and in overcoming those diabolical possessions with possessing us himself. “We’ve been so comfortable with violence – we’ve been comfortable with greed – since the 3rd century, since Constantine made us the established religion. It almost seems like some kind of smoke and mirrors game is going on here – some kind of shadow game, diversionary tactic: ‘Look over here, so you won’t see what He’s really talking about…”
Of course, Rohr is quick to say that he’s not condoning pre-marital sex but “the Christianity is much more about mystical issues than about moral issues.” Get the mystical issues right and “the moral issues will take care of themselves.”
That mystical relationship is about intimacy, the “emptying of self so there’s room for another person inside of me.” “It’s almost sexual, cannibalistic language, this Eucharistic language. Jesus saying, basically, “Eat Me. Drink Me. Get Me inside of you.”
Rohr insists that faith isn’t a head thing, as opposed to doubt, but is a trust thing, as opposed to anxiety. Jesus doesn’t worry about the hot sins – like premarital sex – but worries about power, prestige, illusion, and the other things that blind us. Jesus came to say it’s radically OK, that life is great simplicity and comfort. We don’t have to control it all.
If Jesus takes away the sin of the world – and Rohr stresses the Biblical use of the singular “sin” (John 1:29) – what is “the sin”? Rohr answers that Jesus didn’t go to a brothel or to a bar but to a place of execution, a place where people try to “destroy evil” and then feel good that they’ve done away with the impure and are themselves superior. That behavior, says Rohr, is the sin of the world Jesus will take away.
There is much more in this vein. Managed religion – or institutional religion, Rohr explains – makes the law complex to keep us safe (e.g. no premarital sex). Jesus, on the other hand, wastes no time on the shadow but focuses on the ego, respecting the infinite complexity of people – honoring that people break the rules in very unique ways – but keeps his law very simple: Love one another.
One is at a loss to see how this brings JustFaith participants into any deeper understanding of the Church’s social teachings. Rather, it seems designed to reinforce within them a qualified relationship with the Church – the liberationists’ view of “church” – that either bends to the will of the social activist or is dismissed as merely “institutional” and “immature.”
Spero columnist Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.