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The treason of being Christlike

February 27, 2010

Two blog posts by different authors on the same blog on the same day. Both are about boundaries between human beings.

The first is a predictable glorification of imperial boundary-making. The author enthusiastically passes along yet another artifact from u.s. american civil religion, this time a hymn to that personification of the nation-state, Uncle Sam. And you’d have to suffer from complete religious illiteracy to miss the deeply theological content here, with its nation-based (i.e. pagan) eschatology and soteriology:

For to fight for Uncle Sam;
He’ll lade us on to glory, O!
He’ll lade us on to glory, O!
To save the Stripes and Stars.

Somehow, this blogger thinks his Catholic readers are supposed to be as enthusiastic as he is when hearing this hymn to another god. The linkage of deeply theological ultranationalism, as portrayed in this hymn, and Catholicism — a linkage made regularly on this blog — produces nothing short of Christo-fascism.

And although this is par for the course on this particular blog, two posts later we see another approach to boundaries: the insistence that being Christlike requires an intentional “crossing over” those boundaries into solidarity with those who suffer. The post is short — it features a moving video set to U2’s song “One” followed by this brief text:

There is only One World, but there is a big dividing line between those who are comfortable, happy, healthy, and safe, and those who are in pain, miserable, sick, and in danger. We cross the lines involuntarily at times- but we can also choose to cross over for periods of time from the happy place to the places of sorrow. This is being poor in spirit, this is compassion, this is prayer, this is where we love our neighbor as ourselves, where we love our enemies, where we develop our Christ-likeness. We cross over not because we have to, but because we choose to love.

In the context of the Roman Catholic blogosphere, these are powerful words. And I agree with the sentiment expressed. Although I would also say that the luxury of choosing when to cross over “at times” is itself a signal of which side of the “big dividing line” we are on: the side of comfort. Following Christ demands not crossing over “at times,” but a more severe, more permanent kind of crossing over: a crossing over that the church (through the prompting of various liberation movements from below) has called opting for the poor and oppressed.

Contrary to popular understanding, opting for the poor and oppressed is not something done “at times,” here and there, as one chooses in the moment. Volunteering at the soup kitchen and a yearly mission trip doesn’t guarantee any kind of authentic crossing over. In fact, when done “at one’s leisure” in a spirit of voluntarism (“I’ll spend my retirement doing such-and-such” is but one example) this approach can be a sort of affirmation and reinforcement of the kind of line drawing that this world system has erected. An “option for the system and my place in it” if you like.

Opting for the poor refers, in Rahnerian terms, to a radical change in one’s fundamental option or life orientation. It’s a changing of the way one sees the entire world and the way it is intentionally arranged and divided, seeing it from the perspective of the underside. It is a taking sides that is profoundly theo-logical: we take sides because God takes sides and because Christ took/takes sides.

So in our boundary-drawing world, this “crossing over” could be called a kind of “treason.” And depending on one’s own social location this “treason” will take different forms: upper and middle-class persons committing “class treason,” white persons committing treason against their white privilege, men committing “gender treason,” heterosexual persons committing treason against heteronormativity, and so on.

And as anyone who has “crossed over” in this way knows, there is a certain kind of permanence to these treasonous moves. It’s not a crossing over that one can do “from time to time.” It is not easy to recover once one has been labeled a “ni**er lover,” a “faggot,” a “queer,” a “p*ssy,” a “communist,” an “america-hater,” a “terrorist,” or in Jesus’ case, a “blasphemer” and a “subversive.” No, there is no recovery. There is only the cross.

Catch that? Really and truly “crossing over” leads directly to the cross.

Although this treason or crossing over cannot be temporary or at one’s leisure and is, in some sense, permanent, there are, of course, no easy or quick ways to do this. It is not done “once and for all” along the lines of being “born again.” Catholics know that conversion is ongoing. Likewise, white, middle-class, heterosexual males, for example, cannot simply step out of themselves and “cross over” into “the other world” intellectually or by an act of the will. But what we can do is commit to make one’s life orientation a kind of permanent tendency of “crossing over,” a permanent questioning of the lines themselves and the systems that produce them, and a permanent identification with those on the “other” side of the line(s). We can commit to dying to the false spiritualities that vie for our loyalty — spiritualities that thrive on division, on boundaries, and ultimately on other gods. This is baptism.

But regardless of my quibbles and my insistence upon a deeper, more treasonous, spirituality of “crossing over,” it is good to see that on a blog that predictably and continuously boasts of the lines that we draw in the united states of america — lines of national heritage, lines of masculinity, lines of race and class divisions, lines of religious affiliation, and the like — at least one blogger there is interested in challenging the line-drawing that our society assumes to be normative through his call to “cross over.” This out-of-place viewpoint is a kind of “blogger treason” that I find refreshing. And Christlike.

So let’s no longer boast of the boundaries. Let us only boast of the cross. “Come, let us cross over to the other side.”

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21 Comments
  1. February 28, 2010 12:24 am

    The point about ‘crossing over’ would be made more effectively if the post did not begin by characterizing a reflection on Union troops in the Civil War as fascistic. Perhaps that was intentionally ironic (if so, well done!). Assigning the worst possible gloss to the statements of ‘the other,’ then proceeding to lament the lack of a ‘life orientation’ of openness underscores the validity of the general point quite well.

  2. February 28, 2010 4:05 am

    John Henry – 1) It doesn’t appear that you are understanding what I’m saying. I am not arguing for “openness” (didn’t use that word at all) but a Christlike option for the poor and oppressed. Not sure how you read “taking sides” and “treason” and got “openness.” 2) Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions about McClarey’s writings regarding the extent to which they express a kind of fascism.

  3. February 28, 2010 7:39 am

    Love of one’s land and country is not fascism, nor is it idol worship. To treat something as an idol means to place it BEFORE God.

    But this is a good post, especially, as John Henry points out, after the beginning section ends.

    • February 28, 2010 1:10 pm

      Love of one’s land and country is not fascism, nor is it idol worship. To treat something as an idol means to place it BEFORE God.

      I have no disagreement with this. But this is always the defense of people who are, in fact, nationalists and even fascists.

      As a form of Christian charity (a call for an orientation towards the poor and oppressed) is the focus of the post, starting off with an uncharitable smear, makes the point about the difficulty of ‘crossing over’ very effectively.

      Whether or not the comment about McClarey is an “uncharitable smear” will have to be decided by other people who have read him. But I understand why, as his co-blogger, you are anxious to defend him and your blog. Let me point out to you that the kind of crossing over that I am arguing for does not exclude “calling it as one sees it” with regard to the death-dealing politics that surround us. In fact, it requires truth telling.

  4. February 28, 2010 12:49 pm

    Well, sure, but you seem to have misinterpreted my comment. The basic idea under the ‘treason’ language is simply ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. Or, if that isn’t the idea, then it’s worthless. As a form of Christian charity (a call for an orientation towards the poor and oppressed) is the focus of the post, starting off with an uncharitable smear, makes the point about the difficulty of ‘crossing over’ very effectively.

  5. February 28, 2010 2:37 pm

    “me point out to you that the kind of crossing over that I am arguing for does not exclude “calling it as one sees it” with regard to the death-dealing politics that surround us. In fact, it requires truth telling.”

    But don’t you think that it is sort of a stretch here. I mean the song is much about being Irish and a love for their General than Worshiping the American Nation State.

    Catholics know little about their History in this country and needless to say the Civil War was a important moment for Catholics that had long term effects on how people viewed them on both sides.

    I found it instructive

  6. February 28, 2010 2:49 pm

    Does that make it untrue? No.

    Am I defending a fascist? No.

  7. February 28, 2010 6:59 pm

    John Henry – I realize that you take issue with my application of the term “fascist” to the views of some of your co-bloggers. That’s fine and you have made your point. Further comments on this will be deleted.

    I find it truly funny, though, that while you were over here protesting my use of the word as it applies to your blog, your co-blogger Tito posted this.

    It’s truly great to have your blog as such a great example of what is wrong with u.s. Catholicism. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

  8. February 28, 2010 7:00 pm

    Am I defending a fascist? No.

    Let’s agree to disagree.

  9. February 28, 2010 7:59 pm

    Ha. Yeah, I thought the timing on Tito’s post was funny, too. Not exactly relevant to your comments about Donald’s post, though.

  10. February 28, 2010 9:17 pm

    Mr. Iafrate,

    You had me until:

    heterosexual persons committing treason against heteronormativity

    You see, heterosexuality is both normative and normal, and it expresses no fear (let alone hatred) to say so, to call that spade a spade. It simply reminds the listener of the three-thousand year teaching of Moses, the Prophets, the Church; the natural law obvious to anyone with eyes; medical science; psychologists’ consensus until very recently; and plain statistics to boot.

    This casual addition to an otherwise good article alarms me a bit.

    Lastly, I notice that you do not seem to capitalize United States of America, America, and the acronym U.S. Now, I have strongly ambivalent feelings about the land of my fathers, the people I love – just as one might have about a family. As an amateur grammarian, though, I’ll point out that they are proper nouns, and should be capitalized. Your repeated, deliberate failure to do so represents something more strongly negative than ambivalence. Hatred of nation is not an antidote to the idolatry of nation that you correctly diagnose.

    CCC 2239 states, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.”

    CCC 2240 states, “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.”

    CCC 2310 states, “Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.”

    Patriotism, properly balanced between the excesses of nationalism and collective self-hatred, shows a healthy love of one’s own country analogous to what one might give a spouse or neighbor. We are allowed to love our country more than others; in fact, it is only natural. I have serious doubts about someone who loves the starving Ethiopians he’s never met, but cannot get along with the “idiots” in the pew next to him, with whom he shares the Sacrament weekly.

    Love is not blind to defects in the beloved, but it is not blinded by them either.

    • February 28, 2010 9:24 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ryan. Nothing there that was unpredictable, but thanks nonetheless.

      And the addition that you found “alarming” was not a “casual” one. It was deliberate.

  11. February 28, 2010 10:04 pm

    I still don’t understand what was so objectionable about the song. Heck, even Karl Marx was for the Union in the Civil War (to speak of opting for the oppressed and downtrodden). He said, “white labor will not be free as long as black labor is in chains”. I don’t get it. Maybe you are right about the general trajectory of that blog, but pace what many say about the Civil War, it WAS about ending slavery. Is “John Brown’s Body” a fascistic hymn?

  12. Ryan Klassen permalink
    February 28, 2010 10:58 pm

    Arturo – The song states that “Uncle Sam” will lead us to glory. This is the nation-state usurping the role that belongs only to Christ. It gives a salvific role to that which cannot save. Just one more example of the idolatrous American civil religion.

  13. March 1, 2010 10:23 am

    Wow, no room for hyperbole in poetry! Nice. Maybe we should do what Plato says and expel all the poets from the Republic. To my knowledge, no one has literally began to worship Uncle Sam. But maybe that will happen one day, just as Simon Bolivar forms part of the divine court in the Venenzuelan spiritist cult of Maria Lionza.

  14. March 1, 2010 12:50 pm

    Well, Arturo, we live in a nation that is particularly starved for worship. We must be careful not to ascribe to the nation those attributes reserved for God, or else we will certainly begin to worship it in our hearts, even if our civil discourse lacks the gestures to worship it formally. We can tell we worship it in our hearts when we let the nation become the guiding light of our lives, instead of being the aggregation of our neighbors and our shared way of life. Symptoms of nation-worship include putting national political interests over what we would otherwise consider to be moral concerns and objections; looking to it to provide solutions that are beyond its ken; seeing it as inherently superior to other other institutions.

  15. March 1, 2010 1:29 pm

    Ryan:

    I am not disagreeing with your analysis of the tendency to make America a “shining city on the hill”. I have devoted enough time to dissecting American religiosity to know that there is something profoundly disordered in how Americans see their political order, i.e. the Constitution being the Fifth Gospel and so forth. I just don’t think the song is a good example of it. Indeed, one can play the same song while inserting the name of one’s favorite sports team. The Saints have certainly brought us in New Orleans “to glory”. Are we idolaters for thinking that? All I have to say is, “lighten up”.

  16. Ryan Klassen permalink
    March 1, 2010 2:51 pm

    Arturo – I know many Christians who worship the United States of America. They may not bow down before an idol, but they do believe the Constitution is a divinely inspired document of equal nature and authority with the scriptures. They do believe that the U.S. is a nation uniquely established by God to be God’s instrument of political salvation to the world. They are willing to kill for their country but not for their God.

    I have nothing against poets, but hyperbole cannot excuse an attitude that ascribes a role reserved for God to something that is not god. It simply brings out into the open an attitude that many hold unconsciously.

  17. Jeff permalink
    March 1, 2010 5:09 pm

    In an attempt to engage with what I read as the actual purpose of Michael’s post, I must say that his point about a deeper and permanent crossing over resonates.

    I asked Michael this on his blog, but I am also interested in hearing from others.

    Michael gave a concrete example of temporarily crossing over, that being the example of volunteering at the soup kitchen at one’s leisure.

    But I am wondering what a deeper and permanent crossing over looks like in real, practical, and concrete terms living in the US. Would anyone like to share some examples? …perhaps how you, yourself have taken steps in that direction?

  18. Rodak permalink
    March 1, 2010 7:48 pm

    Although she was technically neither a Catholic, or even a Christian, Simone Weil was totally devoted to Christ and to service. She shed the both the status of her birthright and the status that her intellectual brilliance earned her as a student in order to devote her time and her talent to teaching those who otherwise would not be taught. She sought work in factories and on farms in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the lives of workers. She crossed over from a life of status and privilege in imitation of Christ’s ministry to the outcasts of his time and place. A political leftist and a “social conservative,” she stressed that one’s primary loyalty should be focused on one’s city and region, than on one’s nation as the truest form of patriotism. One does not see many like her in the modern world. I would take her as an exemplar on the matter of “crossing over.”

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