Megan McKenna is an internationally known author, lecturer, retreat leader, spiritual director, and peace and justice activist. She has taught in Ireland, Asia, South America, Chicago, Marshall Islands, Thailand, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she currently lives. She is profiled in our Living Spiritual Teachers Project here.
McKenna's latest book is On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross. We were immensely impressed with its messages, so we asked her to talk about it some more.
Frederic Brussat: Which of the major themes in Mark's gospel is the most meaningful to you personally?
Megan McKenna: I think the fact that Mark's gospel was written in the midst of a terrible persecution and that the fledging community of believers are realizing how hard it is to actually be a follower of Jesus in the world they inhabit — the Roman empire, living in occupied territory, disdained by their conquerors.
Religion with its rituals, liturgies, and prayers can sometimes give us the sense that we are invincible, that we are somehow singled out by God, and that we do not have to worry about reality — specifically, suffering or persecution — and Mark's gospel is definitely a reality check! The religion of Jesus is demanding and all-encompassing: loving one another as God has loved us in Jesus, expressing that love in universal justice for all, not harming anyone, resisting violence and evil with the truth and goodness. To do that one desperately needs a community of support.
Mark's genius is in using Peter, a disciple with his own hopes and ideas/agendas, as the model of the disciple that fails and fails; he fails Jesus personally and he fails as a community leader. That hits home because we all know the experience of having to mature and change in our beliefs and practice.
But Peter finally does get it! And so, one day we each/all may one day get it. We'll learn that religion binds us to God and to one another as one, and that the more we belong to God, the more our lives may actually reflect some of the rejection and struggle that Jesus faced. We'll get that we must live with our failures, conscious humbly that others too fail and that we are a community of forgiven failures who are slowly becoming more human, and so more like God in Jesus. We'll know Jesus' God so intimately that this deeper truth can sustain us.
Frederic: I was blown away by your statement that no baptized believer could take up arms or kill. Talk a little bit about your interpretation of nonviolence as an essential linchpin of Christianity. Why was it abandoned?
Megan: The practice of the early Church — up until Constantine in 325 AD and in the 50 - 80 years after — was that no soldier could be baptized until they left their profession that was in direct opposition to the foundational Christian belief that we are to love one another as God has loved us in Jesus, and that we are to love our enemies, do good to those who persecute and harm us, and pray for blessings upon those we fear.
This practice began to break down after Constantine made Christianity the state religion, and by the early 400s the church had turned aside from many of the basic practices that were its initial strength and singular expression of what makes us truly human and like God.
When the church institution became the state (Rome), it betrayed the teaching of Jesus and the early martyrs. As it continued to grow in power and military might and political and economic dominance, the church became distorted with an emphasis on centralization in Rome and the practice of personal devotion. I think ignorance of history and of the Gospels is the root cause of contemporary Christian rejection of nonviolent resistance to evil, coupled with the long history of the 1,600 years of learning to say that you can kill and love in the same sentence.
Frederic: What are your personal feelings about the role of pacifists in the context of war mongering by the United States? And what do you think could help more Christians see that Jesus stood for loving one's enemies?
Megan: I would prefer not to use the word "pacifist" because it has picked up such negative connotations as basically doing nothing. I would use the word "peacemakers" — those described in the Gospels as the children of God. Integral to any adult relationship to Jesus is to make peace, to forgive, reconcile, and hold the community together in communion.
The understanding of the tradition of the church has always been that the Spirit gives insight, wisdom, and imaginative, creative ways to make peace to any community that refuses to kill, let alone ever attack. It was not easy for the early Church who were faced with the violence on a regular basis. One of the last lines Jesus' disciples would hear from him was "Put up your sword! Those who live by the sword die by the sword!" Christians draw closest to Jesus the Christ/the Crucified and Risen Lord when they stand and resist violence as he did., even when his own safety and life are in the balance.
What would help Christians see this more clearly today? Read the Gospels in light of the history of the early Church that abhorred killing. And follow Jesus, who refused to retaliate, physically or verbally, even when his own safety and life were in the balance; who forgave and stood for the truth of what it means to be human even as he was killed.
Interestingly, the patron of the military is Martin of Tours who was enrolled in the catechumenate (preparation for baptism) when he was around 11 - 13 years old. His father was a career military officer, and he was slated for that same position. He remained in the catechumenate for over a decade. In his early 20s he sliced his military cloak in half and gave it to a beggar. That night he dreamed that the beggar was the Crucfied Christ, and he put together the connections between poverty, the suffering of the innocent people, the military and killing.
He then sought to resign his post in the military so that he could prepare more intently for baptism. He was refused and for a year struggled to get out of the military. They bribed him with lands in northern France — this is around the late 300s to early 400s — with pay raises, with a higher officer rank. He turned them down and tried to convert many of his cohort to leave as well. Finally the military authorities realized that they were not going to dissuade him so they flogged him before he is allowed to leave as a warning to others who might be thinking of joining him and getting baptized. The patron of the military is a conscientious objector who is flogged for leaving and seeking to practice his religion ethically!
Frederic: We loved your assessment that contemporary Christians have "the same access, the same relationship of intimacy and knowing of God the Father that Jesus knew on earth, in the power of the Spirit." What kinds of communities do you envision could grow out of this understanding of the Spirit?
Megan: The description of having the same access to God that Jesus knew is a theological description of the sacrament of baptism and what it initiates in the believer joining the community of those who follow Jesus' way to the Father in the power of the Spirit. In the Acts of the Apostles, believers were first called the "followers of the Way." This is the way of intimacy with God, the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of the Spirit of Truth, the way of "good news for the poor," the way of the kingdom of peace and abiding justice for all, the way home together on the earth.
I think every religious community of men/women in the history of the church that sought to serve those rejected, those falling through the cracks in the system, those denied justice and dignity, grew out of that realization that we called to be intimate with God. Jesus' last prayer in John's Gospel at the Last Supper — Holy Thursday night this week — is crystal clear: "Father, may they all be one, as we are one; as I am in you and you are in me, and I am in the Spirit and the Spirit is in us." God's prayer is that we are to be one people, one heart, living in peace and justice together.
Examples from our times are Martin Luther King's community of the beloved disciples, those who nonviolently resisted injustice and stood up to evil -- in the form of dogs, water hoses, intimidations, jailings, killings -- with dignity and courage together. Also those who belong to Pax Christi USA and Pax Christi International, the peace movement of Catholic Church, as well as other organizations like the Jewish Peace Fellowship, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, Voices in the Wilderness, the Nonviolent Peace Force, and so many others who work specifically in war- torn areas to make peace, to reconcile, and to help communities once again live with each other after horrific inhumanity among them. These are the people who will save the world again.
Frederic: In On Your Mark you write: "Our religious worship is meant not only to be symbolic or liturgical but also to identify a lifestyle characterized by an awareness and sharing of all food, water, and other resources so that everyone is satisfied." Spin out for us your take on the connection between the Eucharist and the contemporary issues of hunger and poverty.
Megan: Eucharist means "thanksgiving," and the ritual is the breaking of bread — taking the resources of the earth, blessing God for this graciousness, breaking it up, and sharing it with others. It is also the taking of the cup and offering the bread and wine back to God, by sharing it with one another. It is food for the journey of hope, the making of peace, the bringing of justice.
The Eucharist is often called The Bread of Life, the Bread of Peace, the Bread of Justice, the Wine of Freedom, the Wine of Peace. All the sacraments bear with them ethical imperatives — demands that reveal a practice of how to live everyday — to be this bread and wine of hope and courage for others who need it desperately, daily. If we are fed by God so lavishly in this feast of freedom, then we must make sure that no one else goes hungry. The early Church was described in the Didache (a book around the late first, early second century that described ritual and life) as "see how those Christians love one another — there are no poor among them!"
Sharing of food and water and sustenance is the basis of justice and living religiously. It is a mockery of the Eucharist to eat at the table in church and to exclude or ignore and not be shamed by those who go hungry, without water and the basic necessities of life. Worship is not what we do in church on a Sunday morning or during Holy Week. Worship is what we do with our lives, our time, our money, our priorities, our excess and our resources every day of our lives.
God cares not that we go to Church regularly but God does care whether or not we show the same respect to the bodies/lives of all the children of God in the world. Matthew 25 reminds us that "whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to God . . . and whatsoever we refuse to do, or ignore that the least of our brothers and sisters needs, we ignore and refuse to God." This is a sobering teaching of Jesus.
Frederic: Talk about Jesus' view of children in relation to the plight of children around the world who are poor, abused, serving as slave labor, etc.
Megan: Children, even in the United States, are probably the most endangered species on the planet today because of what we have done to water sources, air, food chains, the atmosphere, and the sheer waste of the resources of the planet, along with the buildup of nuclear materials, waste products, and nuclear weapons.
We live in a bizarre time when we seem to be obsessed with anyone who hurts a child sexually, physically, violently, individually, but don't care much for the billions of children who slowly starve to death; who never know childhood because of slave labor; who never know freedom from fear, bombings, child trafficking; who are not safe in their homes; and who die of diseases that could be easily obliterated for a tiny fraction of what we spend on killing one another and strangers around the globe.
Jesus tells us that "unless we become like a little child, we will never know the kingdom of God." Children in his day, as in ours, were those without rights, without access to power, at the mercy of others for what they needed just to survive. Unless we know what it means to be without power, without might, without resources, and to have to depend on others, we will never know what it means that God has become human and dwells with us. What we do to each other, we do to God. God takes it very personally what we do to one another!
We should start by taking half the military budget of the U.S. and immediately begin saving the water, the air, the land, and the resources. We should make sure that everyone, beginning with the children and the women who bear them, has the basic necessities of life. Then take the other half of the military budget and undo the harm that we have done through global warming, destruction of the earth, seas and watercourses, and make sure there is an Earth that can support all life.
Frederic: You share a favorite quote from Dom Helder Camara: "Do not fear the truth, hard as it may appear. It is your best friend and closest sister." What spiritual practices do you recommend for those who want to take that thought to heart?
Megan: I do love that line by Dom Helder Camara! Spiritual practices — whether done individually or as churches, groups, organizations, and nations — begin by being honest and taking responsibility for our behavior, our actions, our failures, and our lack of tolerance for others. Asking forgiveness is good, but taking responsibility and then undoing what one does, responding to the reality of what has happened because of our actions and then doing restitution for the harm we have done, is the more crucial. Stop blaming others and start a practice of never reacting, but learning to stop, to reflect, and then to respond to others as human beings, as all children of the same family in the same house.
Honor the prophets, the truth-tellers, and refuse to take as "truth" what immediately serves your own ends, your agenda, and your existing biases and desires. In fact, be reluctant to only listen to those who agree with you and back you up. And never ever use the words of Jesus or the Scriptures against anyone — we are only allowed to use them on ourselves, calling us to a deeper practice of our religion.
My nana used to say over and over again: There is my truth, and there is your truth, and there is our truth, and then there is the Truth." This Truth is never the domain of one person or one group. We have small shards of the Truth and the practice of religion is to search for it and honor the shards of truth that others have learned and treasure.
There is a saying I have seen accredited to at least four major religious traditions: "Call God by whatever name you wish, God's name is Truth." Whatever is the Truth is universal, and the Truth is that God is the God of life, and therefore no one is allowed to kill. Or as the huge billboard in many places reads, "What part of Thou Shalt Not Kill do you not understand?" (God)
Frederic: Who do you see as inspiring living models of Christian discipleship today?
Megan: The first and largest group are just folks — ordinary people, many of them poor, struggling to make ends meet, struggling alone or with handfuls of other folks to living decently, to live truthfully, to live humanly in spite of what others with power, money, resources, might, and self-rightousness do to make life so hard. They are families not necessarily only connected by blood and marriage, but connected by dedication to common dreams and hopes, committed to care for one another. They are those left out and often considered expendable, those unnamed except to those who have the privilege of knowing and being loved by them. They are often those we lump in anonymous groups (usually with the edge of disdain attached to them) immigrants (alien--from other planets?) or illegals (according to what law?), the sick, the elderly, those without decent healthcare, education, or housing; and those who are different than us, however small our group is or however dominant.
They are the majority of the human race — men and women of every nation and religion who are as truly human as any of us, and often more human — who are our teachers and wisdom figures and our hope for the future if we would just learn to see and to listen and to relate to them with dignity and appreciativeness.
Most individuals I would name are models/saints and shouts of hope for me. They are missionaries in other countries who have been there for decades, teaching me of other cultures, languages, heritages, knowledge of food, and ways of doing restorative and reconciling justice. Or they are those of other religions that have taught me the depth and wonder of my own belief and where we come together and where we diverge but always with respect at the vastness of what it means to be human and seek God in one another and the world. And they are people who are nameless in our encounters: folks on the street, folks coming back wounded from wars, folks who not only resist me and what I say and believe but in their actions and my responses teach me where I believe and where I fail to live up to my beliefs. I think these are the people who are disciples.
Frederic: Could you name three places the way of the cross leads contemporary believers?
Megan: One is the foot of the Cross. Like Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Cleopas, and the John the Beloved Disciple, we stand in silent witness at other places of execution — where we kill brutally but legally and where we let people die slowly — in prisons and jails, in areas of our cities that no one wants to be caught in, in facilities that pick up the leftovers of our society, on the streets and hotels that cater to the poor, on reservations and detention centers like Guantanamo where we store people.
Another place we need to find ourselves is with Simon of Cyrene, someone who was dragged in to help carry the cross for Jesus for a while. We need to become one of those who helps others for a while, even if we are forced to, shamed into it, dragged into it by circumstances, relationship, or just being there at that moment. Those places are everywhere — the neighborhoods where we worship, work, live, visit, or shun, and the places far from us but close in our living rooms, on the media and often seen as places of destruction rather than places being restored, from the Gulf coast the Sudan, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, refuge camps, health clinics and wherever people are on their last legs.
The third place we should find ourselves on the way of the cross is standing at the interface between church and state and refusing to let them work in collusion with each other to do evil. In the new stations of the cross that John Paul II wrote over 14 years ago, he includes the station of Jesus in the Sanhedrin speaking the truth and being slapped for it. This incident was followed by some of the leaders of the people colluding with the leaders of the Roman empire of occupation to have the death penalty enacted and executed on Jesus.
We need to stand and separate the powers of religion and state, to resist saying that any nation is Christian or Islamic or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu. Nations are about retaining positions of control and order and dominance, and getting more of the same. Religions are about worshipping God and expressing who they believe God to be in how they treat other human beings. We must stand there and not allow religion to be used to serve nationalist and political ends. Religion is only allowed to serve human beings before God.
Frederic: We always love the wonderful and creative stories from all religious traditions that you use in your books. Please talk a bit about why you use them so much and why such stories are important for those on a spiritual journey.
Megan: The stories — I couldn't imagine my life without them! They are a way of cherishing and carrying people with me, from the past, from other traditions, folks that actually lived and struggled and died being human and holy.
Stories carry universal truths. They give experiences to diverse people as they listen and then again as they talk about them. They have a power that goes beyond ordinary language, time, and space. They remind us of the vastness of the world, the depth of hope, and the possibilities of grace that are part of the structure of our bodies and souls as surely as our gene patterns. They connect us, unite us, reconcile us, make us one, grasp us, and lift us out of our separateness and isolation and draw us into the deeper realities of solitude and communion.
There is a saying that there is only one story — how do you tell it? Or there is only one story — how do you serve it? As a Catholic (meaning universal) my tradition begins the story with these words: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwells among us." It begins in the past beyond time and it is now and everywhere and all flesh one day will be Word and Truth and with God and we will dwell together in God. And so the story goes on and on and on . .