A Psalm For Today: “Do Not Let The Foot Of The Arrogant Tread On Me”

I’m familiar with the 36th for its inner passage about the goodness of God. It came up in today’s 2020 pilgrimage of lectio divina through the Psalter. Maybe I’m a few days behind the “foot of the arrogant,” but it seems more than apt.

We covered this psalm earlier in the series on the Reconciliation Lectionary. Those who prepared the rite selected the middle verses, and left alone a lament that seems quite timely given the unrest across the US:

Transgression speaks to the wicked
   deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God
   before their eyes.
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes
   that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

In an era of ever-present social media captured on everyone’s mobile phones, hiding iniquity is a lot more difficult. Needless to say if a Good Samaritan had caught the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on her or his phone, there wouldn’t have been several weeks’ delay between death rendered and warrants served.

Still, it is human nature for someone to wish, desperately, that their sin will remain covered. The psalmist recognizes the slippery slope to foolish evil:

The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit;
   they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
They plot mischief while on their beds;
   they are set on a way that is not good;
   they do not reject evil.

“A way that is not good,” a more direct understatement of this week could not be uttered.

The Psalmist turns a brief eye away from the wicked to contrast with God. This is what the Church finds so comforting, but when placed side by side with grave evil, it has a different sort of power:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
   your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
   your judgements are like the great deep;
   you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
   All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
   and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
   in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
   and your salvation to the upright of heart!

The final two verses in the NRSV translation hammer it home:

Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me,
   or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie prostrate;
   they are thrust down, unable to rise.

I have long attempted to live as a man of peace. I aspire to pacifism, but I recognize the urge to compete, to vanquish, and I feel emotions stir when others are mistreated. It is easy, too much so, to nod and smile at the biting sarcasm in cartoons this week with Mr Chauvin kneeling on the liberty goddess’ neck, or the juxtaposition of his head with that of Mr Floyd. I remain unconvinced that a soul-for-soul vengeance will achieve racial truce, let along equality or peaceful coexistence.

I also remain a skeptic that more than a fraction of the violence and looting is perpetrated by protesters. It seems all too convenient that another set of wicked people want to mask themselves, then flatter themselves that they will not be found out.

Hopefully civic leaders are in dialogue with protesters during the daylight hours. They have failed on multiple fronts in reacting to the death of a man of color in police custody: delaying legal charges, gassing peaceful protesters, the arrest of a news crew and the abuse and intimidation of the press, and especially the militarization of police forces.

Some US bishops have their statement. Some of it is quite good. Some of it falters. Perhaps the best of it:

While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged.

And a weak moment follows:

Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.

It’s not a feeling, bishops. It’s called knowledge. People know their voices are not being heard. Much like the bishops may and must feel about their own pronouncements. They earnestly desire that their people listen to them. Our Catholic tradition suggests they are our shepherds and they have something of value to offer us. I believe they do.

I am sure it must pain a shepherd to see churches emptied, faith go into a hibernation, and alternate values take hold. Think of people of color experiencing–not just feeling–the same. Communities are being emptied of young men who should be working, starting and providing for families, and learning the ways of service, involvement, and citizenship instead of languishing in jails in far greater numbers than their white peers. Think of people seeing once-thriving neighborhoods to into an economic and cultural sleep. Think of the values of drug dealers, bad cops, corporate plunder, and indifferent whites on committee seats overriding virtue in so many neighborhoods.

Wanting to see the evildoers thrust down, lying prostrate, unable to rise? It sounds almost godly to me.

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Redemptoris Missio 18: The Kingdom Is A Person

Speaking of inclinations within the Church that lack a focus on Jesus. Not just the facts and knowledge about him. But the person:

This is not the kingdom of God as we know it from Revelation. The kingdom cannot be detached either from Christ or from the Church.

By Revelation, I think we are talking about the whole of received grace from God, not the view of the Church and the Reign of God in the last biblical book.

As has already been said, Christ not only proclaimed the kingdom, but in him the kingdom itself became present and was fulfilled. This happened not only through his words and his deeds: “Above all,…the kingdom is made manifest in the very person of Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, who came ‘to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45).” (Lumen Gentium 5)

By this definition, the Reign of God in its fullest form, balances word and deed. To be sure, individual disciples might lean to a stronger charism on one side or the other, or shift between the two, based on need. With fallible souls, that seems inevitable. The quality of unity in the Church would be one level of assurance the entire project (whatever it might be, micro- or macro-) is more balanced than if it were run by a lone ranger. Lacking unity, it’s not impossible. Just made more difficult. The citation from Lumen Gentium informs us that the orientation is to serve others in sacrifice. Not preserve institutions.

Pope John Paul II rightly identifies the Reign of God as a person:

The kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program subject to free interpretation, but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God. (Cf. Gaudium et Spes 22) If the kingdom is separated from Jesus, it is no longer the kingdom of God which he revealed. The result is a distortion of the meaning of the kingdom, which runs the risk of being transformed into a purely human or ideological goal, and a distortion of the identity of Christ, who no longer appears as the Lord to whom everything must one day be subjected (cf. 1 Cor 15:27).

And this criticism naturally applies to the so-called ecclesiocentrist tendencies in organized religion. John Paul II didn’t do well by minimizing this trend during his papacy. It can be very difficult to recognize a person when the focus is on his words only. And worse, when the focus is on the words others have written about him, his goals, his morals.

Likewise, one may not separate the kingdom from the Church. It is true that the Church is not an end unto herself, since she is ordered toward the kingdom of God of which she is the seed, sign and instrument. Yet, while remaining distinct from Christ and the kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both.

This is true. Yet it is possible for people in the Church, even those elevated to leadership, to separate themselves from the Church’s mission and the accompaniment of Christ. As such, they give contrary witness to the values of God. And most dangerously, they do so while claiming the mantle of faithfulness.

The obvious example in our times would be the cover-up of abuse by predators and the scandal in which we have invested so much hand-wringing. One certainly can’t say the attempt to preserve institutions from scandal is aligned with the Kingdom.

But in our better moments, when we have embraced the qualities endowed to us–unity, holiness, etc., we can experience as much of a fullness in the fruits of the Lord’s mission:

Christ endowed the Church, his body, with the fullness of the benefits and means of salvation. The Holy Spirit dwells in her, enlivens her with his gifts and charisms, sanctifies, guides and constantly renews her. (Cf. Lumen Gentium 4) The result is a unique and special relationship which, while not excluding the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries, confers upon her a specific and necessary role; hence the Church’s special connection with the kingdom of God and of Christ, which she has “the mission of announcing and inaugurating among all peoples.” (Ibid., 5)

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The Armchair Liturgist: Pandemic Gloria

Looking to a return to Mass in public, we are getting the first guidance for parish worship from our bishops in Washington state. I dreamed last night that people in the hundreds crashed our “private” livestream recording. It was tense. What that says about my anticipation or nervousness about a first step back to “normal,” I have no idea.

One proposal afoot in the next phase of public worship involves the Glory To God. “Spoken” is emphasized in one report shared with me. Frankly, in a good musical parish, I don’t see how. Since the new Roman Missal, I haven’t been to a Mass that had anything other than a sung Gloria. None of my parishioners have any experience reciting the hymn. I know I couldn’t do it without humming along.

One other bit of advice for parishes with the lone cantor and accompanist was to select musical settings unknown to the assembly so they wouldn’t be tempted to sing along. I suppose it’s affirming we’ve done such a good job with congregational singing that our bishops and medical advisors are actually scared of it.

So, sit in the liturgist chair and render judgment. I’ve also added a line for omission. People seem concerned about the length of Mass. And given the lack of missals and hymnals, nobody’s going to have the words anyway.

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Redemptoris Missio 17cd: Being Centered on Christ

We continue with the topic: The Kingdom in Relation to Christ and the Church

There are also conceptions which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as “kingdom-centered.” They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally concerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a “Church for others” just as Christ is the “man for others.”

We are probably seeing a bit more of this under the current papacy. Being “for others,” imitating Christ as John Paul II describes it, is an Ignatian trait.

The Church’s task is described as though it had to proceed in two directions: on the one hand promoting such “values of the kingdom” as peace, justice, freedom, brotherhood, etc,, while on the other hand fostering dialogue between peoples, cultures and religions, so that through a mutual enrichment they might help the world to be renewed and to journey ever closer toward the kingdom.

Will these two vectors tear people apart? It can happen. Usually a sense of mutual trust can prevent the shredding of unity. That is an aspect on which we’ve needed work for many years now. And it continues today.

Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well. First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is “theocentrically” based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.

One key to this is to notice if people anywhere in the Church speak often and well of Jesus. For people who have made him a friend, it is difficult not to speak favorably of a friend. Do they see Jesus as a companion? If so, they will notice him frequently. Do they strive to imitate him in deed and word? Trust me: people notice. And some who do not give such example can be very deep and very high up in the Church indeed. Not always in liberation-minded Catholicism.

For the same reason they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed “ecclesiocentrism” of the past, and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity.

This so-called “ecclesiocentrism” is indeed a continuing problem. Most people I’ve known who criticize it don’t spend that much time on it. Many are involved in the mission of the Lord deeply enough that a passing comment here and there is enough.

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Triple Threat

I remember 1968 vaguely. My family had just moved from renting a townhouse to living in a modest house in an urban ethnic neighborhood–mostly Italians and Germans. Some of the grandparents around were “old country” people. It was something of a happy and innocent time. Teenagers in the neighborhood were somewhat crazy, but every ten-year-old thinks that way about older “kids.”

Reflecting after the fact, I think the events affected my parents with much worry. The high school where my older brother was a star swimmer in the 50s was experiencing racial tensions and outbreaks of violence. It was the main reason why my mother was looking into Catholic school, though none of us in the family were churchgoers.

I wonder if today’s ten-year-olds will experience this year as the 1968 of their generation. It seems we have widespread revolt. (I hesitate to use the term “riot.”) This, on top of a health threat we haven’t seen in a century and that nobody remembers. Plus a fragile, propped up economy defined by how much money the rich can gather rather than a rising level that floats everybody’s boat.

There seems to be a lot of momentum toward authority we just can’t kick. 9-11 has given us the surveillance state, but I’m not sure the 99% of the world feel much safer. Hurricane Katrina and follow-up storms, climate change fires, and not even Greta Thunberg can capture the attention span needed to address a potential collapse of the modern food chain.

I think future historians will look back on events like 1963, 1989, 2001, 2005, and 2008 as little blips that let the 1% consolidate their agenda. We’ll see if a triple threat like pandemic, economic depression, and racial unrest can do something in 2020. It’s sort of like 1919, 1929, and 1968 all rolled up into one nasty package.

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Redemptoris Missio 17ab: The Kingdom, Christ, and the Church

In our discussion of John Paul II’s document on Jesus’ mission of redemption, we come to the topic: The Kingdom in Relation to Christ and the Church

Nowadays the kingdom is much spoken of, but not always in a way consonant with the thinking of the Church. In fact, there are ideas about salvation and mission which can be called “anthropocentric” in the reductive sense of the word, inasmuch as they are focused on (people’s) earthly needs.

I think there is a danger of church operations becoming like an “NGO” as Pope Francis has opined. Clericalism is another manifestation of this: the creature comforts of the clergy, and the adoption of anthropomorphic models of hierarchy. To be sure, many aspects of hierarchy are godly and appropriate. But secrecy, intimidation, and other sins have infected Catholic clergy in many places.

John Paul II’s skepticism focused on matters associated with liberation:

In this view, the kingdom tends to become something completely human and secularized; what counts are programs and struggles for a liberation which is socio-economic, political and even cultural, but within a horizon that is closed to the transcendent.

I think the burden of proof is on those who perhaps fail to see instances of where the Church’s efforts are indeed transcendent. Certainly we’ve seen clergy who persist in going through the motions of faith leadership, but the focus is on balanced budgets, warm bodies in seminaries, and less on the good of the entire people of God.

Without denying that on this level too there are values to be promoted, such a notion nevertheless remains within the confines of a kingdom of (humankind), deprived of its authentic and profound dimensions. Such a view easily translates into one more ideology of purely earthly progress. The kingdom of God, however, “is not of this world…is not from the world” (Jn 18:36).

This is true. But it’s also undeniable that the kerygma of Jesus himself in the Gospels was that he came to address human needs of the poor, the blind, prisoners, and many others. In fact, he preaches explicitly that his presence is to be known in the service of the needy. (Cf. Matthew 25:31ff) We’ll pick up this topic a bit more with the next post. Meanwhile, any commentary from the readers? Have I been unfair in my mild criticism so far?

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Redemptoris Missio 16: The Risen Christ

Shall we look into John Paul II’s next theme: In the Risen Christ God’s Kingdom Is Fulfilled and Proclaimed? The Paschal Mystery is mentioned yet again. I never tire of hearing of it. I hope the same is true for you readers. It is a term and concept that should never tire a Christian.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God has conquered death, and in Jesus he has definitely inaugurated his kingdom. During his earthly life, Jesus was the Prophet of the kingdom; after his passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven he shares in God’s power and in his dominion over the world (cf. Mt 28:18; Acts 2:36; Eph 1:18-21).

These Easter season readings cited above should be well familiar to us from Mass, or at least livestreaming as of late.

The resurrection gives a universal scope to Christ’s message, his actions and whole mission. The disciples recognize that the kingdom is already present in the person of Jesus and is slowly being established within man and the world through a mysterious connection with him.

It’s not mentioned in this section, but the encounter on the road to Emmaus is the hallmark of this experience. The two companions are gradually moved from despair to a movement of joy. They are led through the tradition of the Law and Prophets and emerge at table with the Lord, where they experience something altogether new and different. Cleopas and his wife might not be able to label it “Kingdom of God,” but what they described to the disciples back in Jerusalem is no small bit of evidence of its emergence in the world.

Remember also Martha’s witness in John’s Gospel:

I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. (11:27b)

Is it just the strange wording, or a theological afterthought by the evangelist? I’d like to believe the woman of Bethany is well aware of the process already begun. Newness is breaking into the world. The relationship between human beings and God will never be the same.

The kerygma moves ahead after Pentecost, as we read all through the Christian Scriptures:

Indeed, after the resurrection, the disciples preach the kingdom by proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. In Samaria, Philip “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). In Rome, we find Paul “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). The first Christians also proclaim “the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5; cf. Rev 11:15; 12:10), or “the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt 1:11).

This is an important historical insight by the pope:

The preaching of the early Church was centered on the proclamation of Jesus Christ, with whom the kingdom was identified. Now, as then, there is a need to unite the proclamation of the kingdom of God (the content of Jesus’ own “kerygma”) and the proclamation of the Christ-event (the “kerygma” of the apostles). The two proclamations are complementary; each throws light on the other.

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