The Word of God in a Globalized World:
Preaching the Kingdom or Religious Imperialism
A Lecture by Timothy Radcliffe,O.P.
On Monday, Feb. 10, English Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., who identified himself as one who for 9 years was a "jack of all trades and Master of the Dominican Order," spoke to about 200 guests at the 8th Annual World Mission Lecture at Catholic Theological Union, Hyde Park, Chicago. Drawing upon the thoughts of the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a martyred Dominican bishop from Algeria he fomulated a challenge to Catholics to draw deeply from the traditions of Judaism and Islam to find a way to acknowledge the damage done to so many from an imperialist attitude toward our faith, and to find a way to reformulate our Christ's "story" in a way that speaks to a suffering world.
Commenting at first on the challenging work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks entitled, "The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations" Fr. Radcliffe said that the 11th September happened when two universalist cultures, global capitalizm and an extremist form of Islam, met and clashed.
Sacks, writing about Judaism noted that since religions tend toward these total visions of humanity and God, we all need more humility to respect the dignity of difference between us. His thesis is that the Hebrew Scriptures show us how this can be done. They start from the universal Adam and Eve, Noah, Tower of Babel and then move on to Abraham, from the general to the particular. On the other hand, Western culture begins from the individual and rises to the abstract, from the particulars to a global vision, which can foster ideology and intolerance. Judaism witnesses to a universal God, but not a universal faith which all must adopt. A change of heart demands deep faith and real humility.
No doubt, at center of Christianity are uncompromising universal claims: Jesus Christ as the definitive intervention of God for humankind. The question becomes: How can we respect the dignity of differenece without contributing to the clashes of civilizations? Thus the subtitle of this talk should be: Go and make disciples of all nations: preaching the kingdom or religious imperialism.
All religions have "stories." The story of Judaism is the story of the exodus from Egypt and the gift of the Lord at Siniai. More than stories about origins, Judaism lives inside this story. The whole of the unfolding of Judaism is the ever deeper entering into this story with "the traumas of dispossession", a story of powerlessness.
Christianity's story is that all are one in Christ the universal savior. These two stories need not exclude one another. If our telling of the story crushes or excludes the story of Judaism, then we have not told it well. History reveals that our Christian story is also a story told of violence. Christ died on the cross. Under that same cross we imposed belief in him. We can't sanitize our faiths. The question is: How can we tell our stories in a way that doesn't perpetuate violence?
Judaism had to retell its story time and time again because of the experience of violence endured. Christianity had to retell our story time and time again...about a man who died on a cross because we have seen the violence we have done. For Judaism the story has been the experience of violence endured. For us it has been the experience of violence inflicted. In the new millenium, Christianity, once again experiencing itself as a small minority in other parts of the world, may now learn to tell its story differently.
The second part of Fr. Timothy's talk asks the question: How may three moments in our history help us retell our story? The three moments are: 1. The conquest of the Americas; 2. The Holocaust and 3. September 11. This last event invites us to ponder how the genius of Islam can help us to tell our story more beautifully.
The discovery and conquest of Americas put Western Christianity into a new contact with millions who had never come in contact with the story. There was first the shock of discovering millions of people who had never experienced Christianity. But more disturbing was the tales horror of the violence which these peoples suffered at the hands of Christians. The Advent sermon by Montesinos in 1511, the letters of Las Casas, the writings of Francisco Vittoria all dealt with the scandals of the Christian conquerors. The theologians wrestled with the question of the obligation of the new peoples to accept the Gospel. It was not enough to have heard the story to make them culpable for rejecting Christianity, if they have witnessed the way Christians acted.
The Christian theologians were beginning to see the new peoples, not just as players in the classic Christian story, but as subjects, viewing the experience of Christianity from the outside. What they saw was often violent and cruel. This forced the theolgians to recast their own understanding of the "story."
The second historical moment which helps us to review our story is the experience of the Jews during the Holocaust. What story must be told? What story of God can be credible in the presence of burning children? How can we recite each year the Passon narratives, which have the Jews cry out "his blood be on us and on our children..." in the experience of the Holocaust? Once more, the Jews can no longer be seen just as the actors in our story, playing the roles that we give them. This narratival violence is complicit with the violence of Christian anti-semitism.
The Jews have their own story to tell. The story of election, survival, witnesses to God's fidelity. The Jews, even today are an intrinsic part of our identity. We cannot say who we are apart from the recognition of who they are. John Paul II in an address to the Synagoge of Rome in 1986 said "The Jewish religion is not "extrinsic" to us, but in a certain way is "intrinsic" to our own religion." Narrative is the DNA which informs every cell of our religious identity. we have a double-helix, Judaism and Christianity.
The third historic moment to reflect on is Septmber 11 Two universalist cultures met and clashed. The violence of that terrible day showed up some of the hidden violence of our economic system which as it is presently structured, does indeed bring wealth to millions but destitution to billions. Two-thirds of all humanity lives on less than $2 a day, which happens to be the same amount that the European Union subsidises every European cow!
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book: "Writing in the Dust: After September 11" suggests: "Every transaction of the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of agression against the economic losers in the world-wide game." However much we may protest that this is a charicature, this is how it is experienced. Nevertheless we have to begin to understand this perception if we are to understand the benefits of globalization.
Violence is the fruit of such globalization, with its tarrif barriers, subsidies, trade agreements...which actually makes it serve the interests of the rich. Historically, that global capitalism has deep links with particular understandings of Christian universalism. The fastest growing form of Christianity in the world is American evangelical Protestantism which has deep roots in American culture, and western capitalism.
The violence of 9/11 must make us pause and wonder, "How can we tell the story of Christ's death and resurrection? What is the universalism which led to such a clash.
We have image of Islam as inherently intolerant. What's at the root of our image? There are numerous stories of how contact with Islam has brought Christians to a greater faith. Louis Massignon (1883-1962), the great Orientalist, returned to Christianity in his life after experiencing of the hospitality of Islam. Sacred hospitality meant shared sufferings. The story of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)(http://www.charlesdefoucauld.org/en/Index_en.htm) tells how the Islamic hospitality of the desert peoples tranformed his life, and brought him to a profound Christian spirituality. Pierre Claverie, O.P., Dominican Bishop of Oran, Algeria, spoke of himself as a "guest of the house of Islam".
It is said of Muslims and Christians that we are fellow "hearers" of God's word. It is suggested that the openness of Islam is grounded in the absence of a covenant. In Islam there is a primordial covenant with all peoples. Islam not a compact of a particular section of humanity, but an eschatological restoration of this primorial pledge between God and humanity. A Muslim scholar suggests: "At the last judgment, Moses will plead for the Jews, Jesus will plead for the Christians, but Muhammed will plead for everyone." As Christians, Fr. Radcliffe suggests, we have much to draw from Islam in terms of its hospitality and its universality.
[Hear the conclusion, which follows, in REAL AUDIO]"Islam has been for Christian west, for one and a half thousand years, our "other", the external other, just as Judaism is the internal other -- over and against which we have defined ourselves. So perhaps it is not so suprising that it was an extremist form of Islam which made that violent protest against an economic system sanctioned by the West. Would it be entirely crazy to dream that Islam might help us to understand all those others who suffer deprivation and misery at our hands? Would it be utterly stupid to hope that Islam might help us to understand a little better our story of Christ? ..to tell our story in a way that respects the stranger, as a fellow listener to the word? ...that it might teach us hosptality towards the strangers in our global village? ...that it might make us a little bit more humble when we talk about ourselves as the people of God? ...that it might loosen a bit our presumptive grip on the story of Christ that we must share as Christ shared himself?"
"As a Christian I do believe. I found my faith on the death and resurrection of Christ, as the definitive moment of God's relationship with humanity. But we see that the holocaust has changed our understanding of that definitive moment so that our DNA is a double-helix. Septemeber 11...further. Islam, of course, will have a different relationship -- I'm not dreaming of a triple-helix."
"Think of the cross with which we sign ourselves. The first representation of that cross by Christians was on the doors of Santa Sabina where Kevin [Toomey, O.P.] and I lived, occasionally, for nine years. Is it entirely a coincidence that we never dare to portray that symbol of Roman imperial power until the empire had become itself Christian? This cross became the cross of the Crusaders. This cross, we discovered, after the conquest of the Americas, crucified the indigenous people. This cross, we discovered, crucified the Jews. Maybe now we can tiptoe into an insight of how it crucifies all suffering humanity."
"Let me conclude with the words of Pierre Claverie [Bishop of Oran] spoken just a few weeks before his assassination [Aug. 1, 1996] in Algeria. "The Church fulfills her vocation when she is present on the fractures that crucify humanity in its flesh and unity. Jesus died spread out between heaven and earth, his arms stretched out to gather in the children of God scattered by the sin which separates them, isolates them and sets them up against each other and against God himself. He placed himself on the lines of fracture born of that sin. In Algeria we are on one of those seismic lines that cross the world: Islam, the west, the north, the south, the rich, the poor. And we are truly in our place here. You see it is in this place that one can glimpse the light of the Resurrection."
--Albert Judy, O.P.
- Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., Sing A New Song The Christian Vocation, Templegate Publishers, 1999
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference
- Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11
- Jean Jacques Pérennès: Pierre Claverie Un Algérien par alliance, Editions du Cerf, 2000.