Anti-Colonial Decolonized Universal History (Part 2)

What if I told you that virtually everything you’ve been taught about European and American history is false? What if I said that far from leading human development in the fields of science, industry, culture, philosophy, and religion, Europeans and their American cousins have on a world scale been marginal and unoriginal?

What if you were told instead that African, Arab, Persian, Chinese, and indigenous peoples across the planet have demonstrated superior intelligence, more scientific originality, greater technological proficiency, and deeper spirituality than their western counterparts?

Well, believe it or not, those are the conclusions of critical thinkers in the Global South. As I pointed out in a recent posting, the latter are reconceptualizing and debunking Euro-Centric colonized history. In the process, they put Europeans and American “achievements” in their proper place as minor, derivative and ultimately destructive.

I’m referring to critical thinking specialists like Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica, Enrique Dussel of Argentina, and Ramon Grosfoguel of Puerto Rico. [The first (age, 91) is a colleague of mine; the second (age, 87) was my teacher in Brazil in 1984]. The work of all three centralize liberation theology.  

Together with other Global South philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists, and theologians, they are inviting the rest of us to understand that the history we’ve been taught is narrow and misleading. It falsely presents as “universal” the historical experiences of nations and cultures that globally are of marginal importance at best. At worst, they are larcenous and plagiarist.

According to the thinkers I’m referencing, Eurocentric history has become universalized only because of its imposition on richer more original cultures through the militarized processes of imperial colonialism. All of us are its victims.

Euro-centric Fake History

For instance, westerners are taught that philosophy surfaced for the first time in “ancient” Greece six centuries before the dawn of the Common Era. It was only then that ideas of universal good, justice, and democracy came to be thought about in systematic ways.

None of that is true according to the thinkers referenced here. Philosophy and concern for universal values emerged not in Greece, but in the more ancient centers of learning located in Egypt, among African Bantu peoples, in ancient Babylon (modern Iraq), and eventually in China, India, as well as among Native Peoples in Abya Yala (the Americas). (The latter, by the way, were all immigrants from Asia. They brought with them their essentially Asian values.)

Take, for instance, the concept of justice. It was enshrined in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE). The latter defined justice as caring for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants. That is, justice centralized not one’s own spouse, but that of others; not one’s own child, but the abandoned children of others; not members of the royal household, but those without material resources; not one’s own people, but foreign residents. That understanding of the good was adopted a thousand years later by, for instance, the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, including the Jewish prophet Yeshua of Nazareth.

Anti-Colonial History

To counter western misconceptions, critical thinkers from the Global South paint a new anti-colonial and decolonized picture of humankind’s origins. It recognizes the African beginnings of homo sapiens (300,00 years ago) and its eastward movement from Africa with its Bantu and Egyptian cultures to the ancient cities of Babylon (modern Iraq) to Arabia, India, China, across the Bering Straits to Turtle Island and then southward all the way to Tierra del Fuego. To this ancient human migration, Europe and the Mediterranean cultures were comparative latecomers and quite marginal until about 140 years ago.

This of course runs counter to Eurocentric narratives like that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who found the roots of human culture in the Mediterranean, in 5th century (BCE) Athens while denigrating Far Eastern cultures like China’s as infantile, prescientific, and morally deficient. In fact, however, the Mediterranean was nothing more than the center of a marginal (and comparatively inferior) culture. 

By way of contrast, critical historians like Dussel point out that:

  • Egyptian philosophers anticipated the analysis, theories, and insights of Aristotle and Plato 3000 years before the latter’s’ celebrated writings.
  • Ancient Babylon (modern Iraq) represents one of the world’s oldest settlements. Bagdad is perhaps the most sacred city in world history – much more important than Rome, London, or Berlin. (It and its historical relics were absolutely destroyed by 21st century barbarians and iconoclasts led by George W. Bush. According to Dussel, that destruction was a worse tragedy than would have been the levelling of all three European cities just mentioned.)
  • The “West” owes a huge debt of gratitude to Islamic science which was not inhibited by Roman Catholicism’s fundamentalism and anti-science dogma. As a result, during Christianity’s “dark ages,” Islam experienced a Golden Age that spread learning across Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up into the Philippines. It’s no accident, for instance, that Europeans ended up using Arabic numbers. They were invented by Arabs in Bagdad, not in Paris. Moreover, Copernicus “discovered” what Islamic astronomers had known for 600 years. And the Pythagorean theorem was not invented by Pythagoras in Greece, but by Syrian scholars 1000 years earlier.
  • The Chinese had their own versions of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution long before Europe’s. In fact, the Renaissance began in China. Already by 1463 Chinese scholars began translating Plato from Greek to Latin. Geniuses like Leonardo DaVinci depended heavily upon and even merely copied the insights already elaborated in Chinese tomes.
  • Chinese scholars had invented paper in the 6th century CE, the printing press in the 8th century, and paper money in the 9th. (The printing press wasn’t “invented” in Europe until 1436.)
  • Already in 1434, a delegate from China appeared in the court of Eugenio IV in Florence with books presenting profound treatises on astronomy, agricultural tools, and military weapons.
  • Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was completely dependent on China for fine textiles such a silk. Kings and queens ate and drank from Chinese porcelain (“China”).
  • In 1870, China produced more steel than England and the United States combined. Chinese engineers traveled to Sheffield to teach industrialists there how to make steel.

Western Distortions

The West’s so-called Enlightenment specifically targeted the insights just cited as backward and belonging to “Dark Ages.” Enlightenment thinking sought a completely new beginning divorced from a “superstitious” past.

By the same token, it rejected Hammurabi’s Code as the product of an era superstitiously thought to be governed by gods and goddesses through their priests, temples, and cathedrals. All of that was eventually rejected as unenlightened.

Ironically, however, ancient religious ideas were merely swapped for more destructive modern ones. The gods of the Dark Ages were replaced by a new God called “Market” – a true fetish in the sense of “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.”

Far from decreeing concern for widows and orphans, the poor and strangers, a fetishized Market demanded their rejection as unworthy and disposable. The Market god’s idea of justice continues to demand self-centeredness. Its “invisible hand” gives everyone their due even if it means their (deserved) destruction and that of the natural environment required to support life itself. The outworkings of market are final, infallible, and therefore beyond question.

According to Global South critical thinkers, it is that god and that theology that are responsible for modern “inquisitions,” wars, nuclear brinksmanship, mass extinctions, and environmental omnicide.

Conclusion

All of this means that:

  • American “exceptionalism” and its older European counterpart are true largely in the negative sense that both Europe and “America” were long excepted (absent) from the antecedent intellectual, industrial, and spiritual achievements of superior and more original cultures.        
  • The “history” we’ve been taught is filled with lies and omissions. It is ideological in the sense that it has been fabricated to support economic, political, and social structures responsible for transferring knowledge and wealth from universal history’s most productive peoples who are not white Europeans. Rather, they are Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Muslim Arabs, and the indigenous descendants of Asian migrants in Abya Yala.
  • Western insistence on “intellectual property” is disingenuous. For centuries, Europeans have appropriated (mostly without attribution) ideas and productive processes that have originated in much older cultures now accused of “stealing” what originated with them. In fact, ALL of the great “European” inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries (including the steam engine) were anticipated elsewhere.
  • In all of this, religion (far from irrelevant and transcended by secularism) has been and continues to be central. To begin with, the claim that God exclusively revealed himself (sic) to Europeans through institutions such as the Catholic Church (and later by Reformation national churches) delegitimized more ancient and more deeply spiritual traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Beyond that, capitalism with its fetishized Market God has been responsible for far more barbaric deaths than the much-maligned War Deity of the Old Testament.
  • The Chinese People’s Republic is no upstart. It’s “miracle” is no miracle. Instead, current developments represent a 6000-year-old cultural, industrial, and mercantile leader reassuming its accustomed place of world leadership.
  • Haitian filmmaker, Raoul Peck’s summary of European history’s three basic points is correct. He described them as (1) “Civilization” (i.e., white supremacy), (2) colonialism, and (3) extermination.

Beyond Eurocentric Theology: How Jesus Is (and Is Not) the “King of the Universe”

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43

Since taking up residency in Spain two months ago, I’ve developed a new understanding of why I’ve learned Spanish. It has allowed me to access lines of critical thought that would otherwise be closed to me as a resident of the imperial Global North.

Those lines have given me a new understanding of this Sunday’s liturgical focus, viz., the celebration of “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” They have shown me how that phrase, “King of the Universe” can be understood in two ways, one that is oppressive and the other that is liberating – one that is Eurocentric and the other that is truly universal.

The Solemnity calls westerners to change our minds from Eurocentrism to one that sees Jesus as promising a New Order where the poor and oppressed displace the earth’s traditional rulers.

Let me try to explain what I mean.

Critical Thinking

To begin with: a word about the critical thinking I’m referencing. (I intend to write much more about this in upcoming posts.)

I’m talking about Global South scholars who have shaped my worldview over my last 50 years. They include Costa Rica’s Franz Hinkelammert, Mexico’s Enrique Dussel, and Puerto Rico’s Ramon Grosfoguel. I consider the first two to be colleagues and mentors of mine. I worked with them in Brazil and Costa Rica.

My initial reason for reconnecting with these scholars while in Spain was to sharpen my understanding of the language here. However, what I’ve learned has gone far beyond that superficial intention. 

That’s because the current project of my mentors is the reinterpretation of the “universal history” of humanity in ways that are anti-colonial and decolonized, and that put in ideological perspective the understanding of Jesus as “King of the Universe.”

Fake Eurocentric History

Their critical vision holds that the traditional tri-partite periodization of western history as (1) antiquity, (2) middle ages, and (3) modernity is deceptively Euro-centric and colonial.  It completely distorts human experience as if universal history were synonymous with European history – as if God’s self-revelation began with the Hebrews 1200 years before the dawn of the Common Era, as if philosophy started in 5th century (BCE) Greece, and as if modernity began with the European Renaissance in the 16th century CE.

According to Hinkelammert, Dussel, and Grosfoguel, none of that is true. It ignores the fact that in terms of world history, Europe and its understandings of God, philosophy, astronomy, physics, and industrial development are completely marginal. Theology and philosophy began in Africa (think Egypt and the Bantu nations) thousands of years before Moses and Socrates.

Its development moved eastward towards India and China, leaving a marginalized Europe on the periphery.

For instance, China experienced its Renaissance long before Europe. Islam’s understanding of the world based on scientific principles (including the heliocentric universe) preceded Galileo’s and Newton’s by centuries. In fact, the latter European “greats” largely copied their insights from Chinese books printed on presses that predated Guttenberg’s by hundreds of years.

China also developed processes of steel production long before Europe. In the 19th century, it sent advisors to England’s city of Sheffield to teach industrialists there how best to make their world-changing product. 

Of course, there is so much more to be said here. But you get the idea. My teachers are insisting that Europe’s culture and achievements, far from groundbreaking were marginal and derivative – not at all central.

This means that establishing the central figure of European religion as the “King of the Universe” was completely ideological, misleading, and imperial. It was part of a colonial project that allowed European despots to delegitimize much older and more deeply spiritual visions – like those of India and China. Europeans used the universalization of their religion to justify their holocausts of “pagans,” “witches,” “Indians,” and “infidels” all in the name of their false “universal” God.

Jesus’ Universal Meaning

But none of this means that Jesus does not have a universal meaning which is in fact portrayed in today’s liturgical readings for the celebration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

The texts identify Jesus as a member of a class that perhaps alone merits the term “universal,” viz., the poor and oppressed everywhere – the victims of imperial kingdoms be they European, Muslim, Chinese, or Indian.

The historical experience of such people is shared across cultures. It includes poverty, houselessness, hunger, rejection by their “betters,” rebellion, police harassment, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. It’s all remarkably similar regardless of the historical period or culture in question.

According to Christian belief, that’s the “universal” experience their God chose as the vehicle for revealing the Divine Self. And it’s all reflected in today’s final reading from Luke, Chapter 23. Consider its content for a moment.

Here, Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, is the most accessible guide I’ve come across. It clarifies what I’ve been saying by paying particular attention to Jesus’ cross, and to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e., as the successor of David in today’s first reading who was expected to lead “The Great War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions.

Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat from below that the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s lionized King David.

However, according to Aslan, nothing humorous or ironic was intended by the inscription. Instead, it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution.

The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a tool of Eurocentric empire.

Conclusion

For years while I was teaching at Berea College in Kentucky, I taught a Great Books course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” It was the best education I’ve ever received.

However, the course followed that tripartite historical organization referred to above — ancient roots (in Israel, Greece, and Rome), Middle Ages (with virtually no mention of the Ottoman Empire), and Modern developments (focused on Galileo, Newton, and figures like Marx, Dawin, and Freud).

There was hardly a word about Islam, and none about the great world cultures of India and China. In other words, for all its virtues, the course was completely Eurocentric and colonial. Its treatment of Judeo-Christian texts implicitly justified belief that God chose the Mediterranean West as the exclusive site for his (sic) Self- Revelation.

Moreover, references to Jesus’ “kingship” along with the iconography of the European Renaissance gave the unspoken impression that “Christ the King,” along with his mother “Mary Queen of Heaven and Earth” were from the royal class or at least its supporters.

According to Hinkelammert, Dussel, liberation theologians, and so many others from the Global South, all of that not only distorts history itself, but the true meaning of the significance of a Divine King who was truly universal in the sense of sharing the invariable lot of the poor and oppressed.

According to perspectives from the Global South, the “Kingship” of Yeshua of Nazareth promises to turn the world upside-down. In the words attributed to Jesus mother in Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-55), Jesus reigning from the cross embodies Mary’s promise to “put down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble.”

From that perspective, today’s liturgical celebration promises the eventual triumph of the marginalized over their royal , imperial, eurocentric oppressors. It’s all about the coming Great Reversal.

Simon: My Hermit Friend (Who’s No Perroflauta)

Simon, My Hermit Friend

Since my arrival in Spain (2 months ago), I’ve become friends with a man whom a Spanish acquaintance of mine dismissed as a perroflauta.

Don’t worry; until recently, I never heard that word either. But here’s the way it’s defined online: “A perroflauta (plural “perroflautas“, invariable in gender) is a normally young person with an appearance and behavior reminiscent of those of  the hippie movement .”

The flauta (flute) part of the term comes from the fact that most in the category are street musicians. The perro (dog) part refers to the buskers’ habit of taking their dogs along.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the one I’m referring to is called Simon. He’s Chilean. He plays guitar in the street (all the while dodging the police). And he’s lived here in Spain for the past 20 years.

But Simon is not young. He’s 60 years old. And has no dog accompanying him. Neither would I describe him as a hippie.

So, he’s no perroflauta — which (as Simon informed me) turns out to be a disrespectful, dismissive characterization.

Rather, I think of Simon as a kind of hermit, a cave-dweller (literally), a wise man, a philosopher, a seeker of truth, a sort of shaman. (The two of us plan to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together as part of his helping me with my Spanish.)

Simon himself jokingly refers to his kind as “troglodytes” — as cave dwellers, since many of them live in caves above the albaicin barrio here in Grenada — as I said, our home for the past couple of months.

In any case, last week I had the privilege of entering Simon’s cave. It took me a long time to get there. Usually, my daily exercise routine has me walking 4 miles. Last week, in order to get to Simon’s cave, I walked twice that distance — up and down severe inclines, along stony dirt paths, and narrow ridges.

My poor arthritic knees have been complaining about all that ever since. And this, even though Simon and I stopped several times so I could rest, while Simon rolled and smoked a couple of joints.

Following Simon to his cave

Below is an overview of Simon’s community. All its members live in caverns originally dug out by gitanos (gypsies) as far back as the 15th century — or maybe (Simon told me) by Arabs before them. Anyway, squatters like Simon have converted many of the dugouts into homes, some of them with electricity and running water:

An overview of our destination

Simon’s cave has no electricity and no water. The fridge in this picture merely serves as a cabinet for storing his food.

Simon’s “fridge” and gas “stove” where he’s brewing T-4-2

Here’s the cave from the outside:

The Cave from the Outside

And here’s Simon’s bedside “stuff” — including a candle and a couple of books on Tarot. My friend’s trying to learn all about it in case the police confiscate his guitar again — or fine him $300 to get it back. (Simon told me he’s had “about a thousand” guitars in is life, and that he’s like to write a book on “How to Lose 1000 Guitars and Still Stay in Business.”) In any case, Tarot reading, he says, would be an alternate source of income if the cops remove his livelihood. He only needs about 10 euros a day to get by.

Bedside Stuff

Here’s the wall hanging at the end of Simon’s bed:

Edvard Munch’s The Scream which the artist admitted “could only have been painted by a madman”

Simon’s bedside reading:

Leibniz, 1646-1716 — A philosophical theory about monads

On each side of Simon’s cave was another dugout about the size of his own dwelling. The floors in each were dirt, the walls still unwhitewashed. Using typical American reasoning, I asked my friend, “Why don’t you make a couple of more rooms for yourself in these caves? You could cover the dirt floors and whitewash the walls in both of them.” The hermit looked puzzled at my reasoning. He shook his head, “No,” he said, “I don’t need the space. And changes like that would only cause envy in the community. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.”

One of the empty caves alongside Simon’s

Towards the end of my visit, I asked Simon about the point of his life — about the point of my life. He paused a long time searching for words. He looked out the door of his cave . . .

The view from inside Simon’s Cave

and said, “I don’t know. I don’t think much about such things. I don’t think about the past or the future. It’s just about living in the present moment.

Do you see what I mean about my hermit friend and his simple wisdom?

The Ukraine War, Serenity & the Dawn of Hope

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; PS 98: 509; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 28; Lk 21: 5-19

As I read the news each day, I find myself wondering if we’re living in the “end times” described in biblical “apocalyptic” literature like we find in today’s liturgy of the word. I hope we are.

That’s because in the Bible, “apocalypse” isn’t a threat of doom, but a promise of hope. It’s not about the end of the world, but the end of the corrupt (imperial) order in which believers so often found themselves. The Book of Revelation (Unveiling), for example, pulls back the curtain covering first century Roman corruption and promises that it will all soon end.

In that sense, something similar seems to be happening today. (That’s what I try to point out in the video above.) Something new and hopeful is dawning worldwide.

For example, in Ukraine and on behalf of the Global South, Vladimir Putin is digging in the heels of those traditionally oppressed by U.S. imperialism and European colonialism and shouting a firm “NO!” to the bullies involved.

And then last week, I could hardly believe it when China’s President, Xi Jinping quoted Reinhold Niebuhr‘s “Serenity Prayer” at German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. In effect Xi told Scholz that a new multipolar world has dawned and there’s nothing he or NATO can do about it.

I bring all of that up because this Sunday’s liturgy of the word addresses the promise of God’s new order (aka the Kingdom of God). It promises a reordering of the political, economic, and spiritual status quo that turns everything upside down. The promised purge features the definitive downfall of those now governing the planet. It promises justice, peace, and happiness for the rest of us. That’s the real meaning of the Jesus’ proclamation. It describes what the world would be like if the GREAT SOURCE (not Rome or the United States) were in charge of the world. 

However, the liturgy also affirms the uncomfortable fact that before that Great Reversal, true followers of Jesus must endure severe persecution — very troubled times like our own. According to the Master, great trials must precede the Kingdom’s institution. Jesus promised arrests, judicial silencings, jailings, and general persecution for those with the courage to follow his example as an opponent of empire and injustice.

See that theme for yourself by reviewing today’s readings here. In any case, what follows are my “translations” of those selections. They describe the new order (or what scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s Great World Clean-up”) as advocated by the Jewish prophetic tradition and by Jesus himself. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus outlines the inevitable consequences for any who act to hasten the Kingdom’s eventual arrival:

MAL 3: 19-20A

 Scorching times are coming
 For the rulers
 Of this world!
 Root and branch
 They will be destroyed
 In purging fire
 When God’s Great Clean-up
 Finally sets things right.

PS 98: 5-9
  
 The Great Purge
 Will at last establish
 God’s justice
 On earth
 Including environmental rectification
 For the entire planet,
 With its seas and mountains.
 Above all,
 It will mean
 Equity and justice
 For the whole human race.
 Everyone should be
 Happy about that.
  
 2 THES 3: 7-12
  
But don’t relax.
Long ago,
 Some in Paul’s community
 Thought the Purge
 Would take place
 “Any day now.”
 So, they stopped working.
 “Don’t do that,”
 Said Paul.
 “Your faith
 Shouldn’t make you 
 A burden to others.”
  
 LK 21:28
  
 However,
 Just because
 The Great Purgation
 Has yet to occur,
 Don’t lose faith.
 Know that it is
 Still somehow
 At hand
  
 LK 21: 5-19
  
So, you’re wondering,
Are you,
When exactly
The Great Clean-up
Will take place?
It will happen in three stages
 
First, there’ll be
Wars, terror and insurrections
Along with natural disasters
That will leave
Religion in a shamble.

Secondly, all kinds of charlatans
Will show up
Claiming to speak for Jesus.

Thirdly, even family members
And religious authorities
Will blame believers for all of it.
They will hate, persecute, and arrest them 
For simply following the Master,
Handing them over
To civil authorities
Deeply fearful
Of the wisdom 
Of their unassailable defenses.

 Jesus’ recommendations?
 1.     Reject false Christs.
 2.     Trust the Holy Spirit within.
 3.     Endure imprisonment.
 4.     Persevere!

All of that represents an extremely high bar, don’t you agree? Following the martyr, Jesus – the tortured one, the one imprisoned on death row, the victim of capital punishment – is never easy.

But does that mean that those of us living beneath the lofty bar set by Jesus are lost? Can we not be part of God’s Great World Clean-up?

Let’s hope that we can.

At the very least however, here’s what we can do in line with today’s final reading:

  • Reject false Christs by realizing that the meek and mild Jesus of mainstream Christianity is a distortion of the one recognized as subversive by the Roman Empire and by the compromised Judaism of his day. Jesus meek and mild represents the false Christ the Master himself warns against in today’s Gospel reading.
  • Instead, embrace Jesus’ rebel Spirit as much as possible by for example refusing to patriotically accept “official stories” about either Russia or China. Despite their very evident limitations, both are resisting imperialism and neo-colonialism.
  • Pray for the Spirit of civil disobedience that inspired great people of faith like the prophet from Nazareth.
  • Don’t be discouraged by delays in the Kingdom’s arrival or by the apparent victories of its enemies. Persevere!

Second Report from Spain

Flamenco Dancer in Elaborate Cave Home

As you may have noted from previous postings, Peggy and I have joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their five children (Eva 14, Oscar 11, Orlando 10, Markandeya 7, and Sebastian 3) in Granada, Spain. Peggy and I have been here just over two months. (Please forgive any repetitions here. But I want to tell the story from the beginning.)

It’s all been quite fascinating.

To begin with, the two of us came across from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

Neither of us had ever traveled that way – seven nights at sea. And it was unforgettable. It included all you’d expect, fabulous meals, first class entertainment, live music that never stopped, dancing, lectures, films, and long hours in silence on deck chairs contemplating the Divine Presence of ocean and sky. It was all magnificent.

However, upon arriving at our destination, I came down with a severe case of COVID-19. So, I started out on the wrong foot. That called for 10 days or so of isolation and recovery.

Nonetheless, since arriving in Granada, the QB2 magic has continued. We’re in the city’s Albaycin neighborhood just above the famous 11th century Alhambra – a Moorish fortified city that draws tourists from all over the world. From the roof patio of our artistically decorated three-bedroom apartment you can see it all.

We can hear its uniqueness too, since we’re located right next to a Mesquita, a local mosque. When we’re on our patio we can see the muezzin and hear him sing the Salat calling his fellow religionists to prayer five times each day. Peggy and I treat it as a summons addressed to us as well.

Our barrio is also in the heart of what remains of Spain’s Gitano (Gypsy) culture with its famous Flamenco music and dance. On one high holiday here, Peggy and I stole a front row seat at a serious Flamenco performance in the square adjacent to our apartment. It was beautiful. Another night our whole family crowd attended a performance at a cave-turned-into-a-house in the nearby Sacromonte neighborhood. This area is covered with caves where people live. (But more about that later.)

Since our arrival, we’ve done some tourism too. For instance, we spent an unforgettable four days walking the famous Camino Santiago de Compostela. I tried to make it the spiritual experience reflecting its original intention (and rediscovered the rosary in the process).

It was also fun watching my grandchildren enjoying the same experience at a different level – all anxious to collect stamps recording their progress in their pilgrimage “passports.” For my part, arthritic knees confined my own advance to maybe 25 miles of walking over the 3 days of actual pilgrimage. My passport contains only a few stamps.

From there, we all traveled to Bilbao. We stayed a couple of nights there in a classy hotel. Visited the Guggenheim and a Fine Arts museum. Then it was on to Madrid and the Prado where, we enjoyed a guided tour pitched to the grandchildren’s interests and understandings. Of course, we barely scratched the museum’s surface.

Then a couple of weekends ago, Peggy and I traveled to Europe’s southernmost geographical point. We spent two nights in a beautifully simple hotel in Tarifa near the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean flow into each other. We took in a newly excavated Roman City (Baelo Claudia) near Bolonia and Cadiz. There were also the remains of Moorish forts and palaces to see in Tarifa itself. All quite interesting.

As for my exclusively personal interests, I’ve been intent on recovering my understanding of the Spanish language and a greater fluency in expressing myself. So, I took “classes” for 10 days at a language school just down the street from us. The sessions consisted in conversations with 4 different professors. During the one-on-one periods, we mostly talked about Spain, its history and culture.

I was especially interested in the years during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). I wanted to know how Spain made the transition from Franco’s fascism to its present situation where it’s governed by a coalition of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and a rechristened Communist Party called Podemos (“Yes We Can!”). Of course, there remains a lot for me to learn there.

Since finishing my “classes,” my continued interest in improving my language and cultural understanding has moved away from the language school to the street. I’ve made friends with a very interesting street musician from Chile. He’s 60 years old and is a kindred spirit. He lives in a cave neighborhood across the valley from us and high above our apartment’s location. There are about 40 people like him living there. All live in caves; none pay rent. Many are ex-military who have been alienated from “normalcy” by their experiences in the army.

I’ve mentioned Simon in a previous posting. But I’ve been learning more about him. He knows I’ve been a writing teacher and wants my help in authoring his autobiography. He also wants us to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together. Just this morning he invited me to visit his cave community. I intend doing that tomorrow. I’ll soon tell you whatever I learn there.

In the Bible, the Real Terrorists Resemble Imperialist “Christians” More Than Muslims

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 MC 7: 1-12, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 3, 15; 2 THES 2:11-3:5; LK 20: 27-38. 

As I’ve note in a recent posting here, one of the wonderful aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition is how so much of it reflects the consciousness of the poor and oppressed, while at the same time giving expression to a “preferential option for the poor.” That’s a gift for us in a culture that generally despises poor people, oppresses the world’s impoverished majority, and spins the news in ways that ignore the poor and reflect a decided “preferential option for the rich.”

This morning’s first reading is especially valuable for us who live in under the torture regime of American Empire. It actually invites us inside the heads of tortured “terrorists.”

It raises the question, who are the real terrorists – the forces of empire or those who resist them? In doing so, the reading from Second Maccabees sheds light on the contemporary debate about torture in service of empire. It also highlights parallels between the mentalities of “terrorists” then and now. The reading calls us to question our support for the entire War on Terror — for all our wars.

For starters, consider torture itself. Our culture actually debates torture’s use, its effectiveness and morality! (See video above.)

Previously, that would have been unthinkable. Torture used to be considered one of those intrinsic evils about which there simply could be no debate.

However, ever since Abu Ghraib gave the lie to George W. Bush’s famous prevarication, “The United States doesn’t do torture” – ever since our government’s redefinition of the word to exclude even waterboarding – it has become apparent that Bush (and so many others of our “thought-leaders”) was lying. So today, many prominent “court intellectuals” have been pushed to actually defend torture’s permissibility.

But what do tortured terrorists actually think about having limbs removed and tongues cut out? Read today’s selection about the Maccabee brothers and find out.

The Maccabees were members of a heroic family of guerrilla fighters who in the mid- 2nd century BCE terrorized the invading Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (Actually, “Maccabee” wasn’t the family’s name; it was more a nom de guerre for an entire resistance movement. The word meant “Hammer” – the Hammer Gang – so-called because of its delight in pounding to mincemeat the invaders of their beloved homeland. The term “Maccabee” was similar to “al Qaeda,” when it simply meant “the list” – a reference to the Rolodex of assets the CIA used when it employed al Qaeda back when they were “freedom fighters” against the Russians in Afghanistan.)

For his part, the Seleucid king, Antiochus, was anti-Semitic in the extreme. He considered the Jews historically and culturally backward. For him and his empire’s advancement, Jews had to be brought into the 2nd century BCE even if it meant their kicking and screaming the whole way.

Today we might understand Antiochus’ project as “modernizing” the Jews – as Hellenizing them for purposes of imperial control. Evidently the Seleucid king subscribed to the position that if empire can persuade conquered peoples to adopt its patterns of thinking and especially of imagining God, the task of imperial administrators is made that much easier.

Many Jews agreed with the program of Antiochus. After all, the Greeks’ empire seemed invincible. If the empire couldn’t be beat, it was better to join it willingly. So, these “Hellenized Jews” stopped circumcising their sons, and changed their diets even to include eating pork. They became more Greek than the Greeks.

They also became the targets of Maccabee “terrorist” attacks. In today’s terms, such Hellenized Jews would be the targets blown up by Maccabee suicide bombers in marketplaces located in Jewish but Greek-loving neighborhoods. (Even if the Maccabee targeting may have been more selective than that, it is certain that Hellenized Jews were as much the objects of Maccabee terror as were the Seleucid forces themselves.)

In countering such extremism, Antiochus IV proscribed the Jewish religion as itself criminal and illegitimate. This was very similar to the way many “Americans” consider Islam. So Greek troops burnt and otherwise desecrated copies of the Torah in much the same way as our “Christian” troops have frequently been caught burning or urinating on the Holy Koran and on corpses of Muslim resistance fighters.

Though the Greeks considered the Maccabean forces to be terrorist, faithful Jews admired them as national heroes and servants of God. They understood that the Maccabees were fighting a Holy War against the much more powerful Seleucids. It was David against Goliath all over again.

In any case, according to today’s selection from Second Maccabees, seven brothers of the gang’s leadership were finally arrested (along with their mother) by the Greek invaders. (This would have been reported to Greeks “back home” as a great triumph – “Senior Leaders” captured making “our troops” and “our world” much safer.)

Then the torture and the screaming start.

To begin with all eight are beaten with whips and instruments designed to tear open their flesh. Then following standard operating procedures still practiced today, other enhanced interrogation techniques were used to torture the brothers one after the other in the presence of their blood-drenched mother, herself near death. The purpose here, of course, was to induce the woman to divulge names, places, and plans that she was privy to as the wife of the one who started the Jewish resistance to the Seleucids.

But what does she do? And what about her sons?

In a word, they are all – mother as well as her sons – completely defiant.

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us” one of the brothers shouts? “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Even at the point of death he spits out the words: “You accursed fiend” (I wonder what expletive he really used!), “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

Another of the brothers sees that his torturers are actually enjoying their work. (The text refers to cutting out his tongue and amputating his hands as “cruel sport.” Does that remind you of Abu Ghraib?) So, he sticks out his tongue and stretches out his hands inviting them to do their work. “It was from Heaven that I received these,” he says. “I’d rather lose them than offend Yahweh” (read Allah).

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,” the text says. Far from being intimidated, the freedom-fighter “regarded his suffering as nothing.”

Just before dying, another of the tortured brothers undergoing the very same cruelties says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” As indicated by those words, conviction of a happy eternity moved these guerrilla fighters to embrace death willingly. (Seventy-two virgins, anyone?)

So, what goes on in the heads of the tortured? Disdain for their torturers. Defiance. Show of courage. Love for the motherland. Hope.

And what goes on for the people they die for? Admiration. Elevation of martyrs and the tortured to sainthood. Motivation to follow their example.

And ultimately victory for the tortured and assassinated. . . . I mean, against all odds, the Jewish resistance – the Hammer Terrorists – did succeed in evicting the Greeks from their homeland.

As I was saying, this reading should cause us to reevaluate our attitude towards terrorism, terrorists, and the scandal of debating the pros and cons of torture.

Economic Systems: Notes on My Conversation with My 13 year-old Granddaughter

Last evening, my granddaughter, Eva (who’s about to celebrate her 14th birthday) and I had a remarkable hour-long conversation about economic systems. The topic was the focus of one of the classes she’s taking here in Spain, where the government is run by a coalition of socialists and rechristened communists (in a party called “Podemos” (“Yes, We Can!”). Whereas in the United States one can hardly use the word “socialism” without suffering opprobrium, I’ve learned that it’s the opposite here in Spain. Discussing socialism in clear and objective ways is de rigueur in school.,

Since Eva’s classes are in Spanish (and she’s only been here a couple of months), she had a hard time understanding the thrust of her teacher’s remarks and of observations by her fellow students.

So, Eva asked me about the differences between capitalism and socialism — a topic I’ve taught about and have tried to simplify or years and years.

She was very attentive as I shared what I know. Afterwards, we promised to continue the discussion. And to that end, I made up the following notes on the similarities and differences between capitalism, socialism, mixed economies, Marxism, communism, and fascism. I promised Eva that if she just understood and memorized what appears below in bold, she’d be streets ahead of most college students (and many professors!).

I sent her the notes with the following message:

Dearest Eva,

Really enjoyed our discussion last evening. It drove me to compose the attached summary for you. Please study it. Bring your questions the next time we get together for a chat. Learn as much of it as you can. THERE WILL BE A QUIZ!  I’ll expect ready answers to my questions. 

Love,

Baba

Economic Systems

Key Terms

Means of production = what produces consumer goods, viz., land, mines, forests, factories, oceans

Markets: Places where goods are sold and bought

Free Markets: No regulation. Anything (including people) can be bought and sold

Open Markets: Anyone can be a buyer or seller regardless of age or other restrictions

Earnings: Profit, income, wages. . ..

I

Capitalism

(An Economic System comprising the following elements)

1.Private ownership of the means of production

2. Free and open markets

3. Unlimited earnings

[In its pure form, this type of “free market capitalism” exists only in the illegal black market, where the Mafia, for example, sells anything (or anyone) without regulation or paying taxes. Note also that the three points indicated above summarize the ENTIRE economic program of the U.S. Republican Party that always seeks PRIVATIZATION, DEREGULATION OF MARKETS, AND LOWER TAXES.]

II

Socialism

(The opposite of capitalism. It is an economic system comprising the following elements)

  1. Public ownership of the means of production
  2. Controlled or regulated markets
  3. Capped or otherwise limited earnings (e.g., by income taxes).

[In its pure form, socialism does not and never has existed. That’s because ALL economies represent mixtures of capitalism and socialism. That is, they are “mixed economies.” The question is, “mixed in favor or whom — the rich or the poor?”]

III

Mixed Economies

(Economic systems embodying some elements of free market capitalism and some of socialism featuring the following elements)

  1. Private ownership of some enterprises and public ownership of others [e.g., in the U.S. the government (i.e., the public through their elected representatives) is the country’s biggest landowner (through its national park system); it also owns the U.S. postal system, and the rail system. In many other “capitalist” countries, governments also own electrical grids, energy sources (such as oil), water supplies, and transportation systems (like airlines).
  2. Some free and open markets and some that are regulated. [For instance, in the U.S., regulations insist that minors cannot buy tobacco products or alcoholic drinks. Restaurants must maintain standards of cleanliness or risk being closed by government authorities. The same with food factories.]
  3. Limited earnings usually by a “progressive” income tax (meaning that those with larger incomes pay in taxes a higher percentage of their income).

Economies can be mixed in favor of entrepreneurs as in the United States (offering them government subsidies, tax breaks, and deregulation) or in favor of workers as for example in Cuba or China (offering them free healthcare, education, subsidized food and housing, etc.)

IV

Marxism

(The philosophy of Karl Marx, who was a socialist and a communist — see below.) His analysis held that

  1. Capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment [“Necessarily” because the market system has workers competing with one another for scarce jobs. They therefore bid one another down as they seek employment until they end up working for the lowest wage possible. Also, few entrepreneurs seeking to maximize profits will ever voluntarily add costs to their production by protecting the environment (e.g., by adding scrubbers to their smokestacks or filters cleansing any effluents pouring into nearby rivers). Those who do protect the environment voluntarily drive up their costs of production and will be undersold and driven out of business by competitors lacking environmental consciences.]
  2. The workers will inevitably rebel against such exploitation, replacing capitalism with socialism.
  3. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism.

V

Communism

(A vision of the future embraced by some socialists.) All communists are socialists; some socialists are communists, most are Marxists who envision a future with

  1. No classes (rich or poor)
  2. No state (because they see the state as enforcing dictatorships – either the “dictatorship of the capitalists” (whereby a small body on boards of directors decide unilaterally on what is produced, where it is produced, and what to do with the profits) or the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (Marx’s term for the working class). Under the envisioned proletariat’s dictatorship, workers, e.g., through their labor unions, and as co-op owners of the means of production decide what to produce, where to produce it, and what to do with the profits.
  3. Abundance for all

VI

Fascism

Police state capitalism. It is the form capitalism (or more accurately an economy mixed in favor of entrepreneurs rather than workers) tends to assume when it is threatened by socialist movements or by other malfunctions such as falling profits, widespread unemployment, high inflation, etc. It is:

  1. Capitalism in crisis
  2. Enforced on workers by police and military forces
  3. Blaming “the usual suspects” for capitalism’s malfunctions (e.g., Jews, Muslims, terrorists, socialists, labor unions, communists, immigrants, asylum seekers, non-whites, women, the disabled . . ..)

Remember: THERE WILL BE A TEST!!

Report from Spain: I Meet Simon the Street Busker

Since coming to Spain, I’ve made it my business to improve my Spanish. I recently met a very interesting and unlikely friend who’s helping me with that. Let me tell you about him.

But first a word about my Spanish.

I started learning it in 1985 in Nicaragua where I spent six weeks of study at a language school called Casa Nicaraguense de Español. The point there was to spend the mornings in class and the afternoons learning about the Revolution that was then celebrating its sixth anniversary. It was my first experience of living in a revolutionary situation.

Getting some fluency in Spanish wasn’t so hard for me, since I already had studied Latin, French, Italian, and Portuguese. So I could get along.

Seven years later, Peggy and I did an intensive three-month Spanish course in San Jose, Costa Rica at a school set up there to equip evangelical missionaries from the States to learn enough Spanish to convert Tico Catholics to evangelical Protestants.

Both Peggy and I did well enough in our courses for us to participate in a semester-long workshop on liberation theology in a think tank in San Jose called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (DEI). We were the first North American “invited researchers” allowed into those hallowed halls where everyone was suspicious of Yankees. (I remember being told about worries that I might be CIA!)

But while Peggy’s Spanish has since taken off because of her work with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, mine has remained where it was twenty years ago.

So, now that we’re in Spain long term, I find myself scrambling to get back on top of Español. To that end, I enrolled for ten hours of conversation with language teachers at a school just minutes away from our apartment in Granada’s picturesque Albaicin barrio. My intention was not just to improve my Spanish, but to learn about Spanish history. I was especially interested in knowing about the years when the fascist caudillo, Francisco Franco ruled the country (1939-’75). My four language teachers at the local school were happy enough to help me with that project.

I learned not only about Franco and how he came to power, but also about Spain’s current government which happens to be run by two left-wing parties, the socialist Spanish Workers’ Party, and a rechristened Communist party called Podemos (“Yes, we can!”). The country’s president is the socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez. But its most popular politician is the Podemos politician (and communist) Yolanda Diaz who is Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister.

All of that was fine. I really enjoyed conversations with the teachers just mentioned. But as my daughter, Maggie, said, “Why are you paying $50 an hour for conversations, when you could have the same experience for free with any elderly person sitting on a park bench down in the Plaza Larga?”

I had to admit she had a point. So, just recently I decided to locate such a person. I went down to the local Senior Center and struck up a conversation with a woman there. Her name was Carla. And she was very kind. However, she wasn’t really interested in conversational exchange. She just wanted someone to complain to about how terrible her life had become. The “conversation” was all one-way. On top of that, she spoke so quickly and with such dialect that I only understood about 20% of her complaints.

I decided to seek conversation elsewhere.

So, I approached an interesting looking busker playing at the entrance to the Plaza Larga which around here resembles an outdoor living room where locals gather at the many outdoor cafes and bars for cappuccinos and charlas.

The man’s name is Simon. He’s 60 years old and hasn’t a spare pound on his 5’3” frame. He wears a black tee, and at first peers out at you suspiciously from serious brown eyes framed with long and scraggly gray hair.

After I introduced myself and explained my language project, Simon warmed up and agreed to share a café con leche now and then and talk. He wasn’t interested in getting paid. “Just coffee,” he said.

Turns out that Simon is Chilean, living here for the last fifteen years without papers or passport. He plays a quietly thoughtful guitar.

I’d describe Simon as an old hippie. Looking out at the world, he sees a madhouse that he wants no part of. He’s discovered that he can live by singing and nothing other than his faith that Life will provide him with whatever he needs. It always does, he says. His busking brings him an income of about ten euros a day, sometimes a bit more. And that’s all he needs.  

Simon tells me that he lives in a simple house in San Miguel Arriba, a leisurely half-hour ‘s uphill walk from the Plaza Larga. At home, he cooks the vegetables he purchases at his local market on a butane stove. He defecates in a bag and disposes of his personal waste “more ecologically,” he said than the rest of us. It’s important, he says, to take care of his health, because he has no medical insurance.  

Simon’s mother died when he was very young. So, he was raised by his father who was an automobile mechanic usually paid in kind by his customers. His dad was an anarchist who always kept a statue of La Virgen prominently displayed in the house.

Simon was schooled by the Jesuits in Chile and went as far as his freshman year at a private university, where he studied special education for children suffering from dyslexia and other developmental problems. He left school though to become an artisan working in metal and wood.  

He took up with a woman he lived with for several years, fathering three children (ages 15 to 8) none of which (“sadly,” he says) he ever sees.

Simon is interested in theology and was amused by the fact that I had been a priest. The Jesuits, he said, taught him well and set him on a spiritual path that he’s followed ever since. It has led him to Shamanism and the Psycho-magic of the Chilean artist and filmmaker, Alexander Jodorowsky. Psycho-magic allows practitioners to heal and even perform operations using nothing but their imaginations.   

Simon now finds himself studying Tarot – as a fallback, he laughed, and source of income should he somehow become unable to busk any longer.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first conversation with Simon. On parting we agreed that we are somehow kindred spirits, and both look forward to future conversations.

Over his protests, I gave him ten euros anyway.

Liberation Theology: the Answer to Tom Paine’s Prayers?

A recent OpEdNews article entitled “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right” adopted the following lead, “The fact that the religious left and the religious right can both use the Bible to back up their opposing agendas shows us that the Bible is meaningless.”

I found the essay interesting, especially since it quotes me as a liberation theologian advocating a “Jesus for the left” position that (in my brother-author’s opinion) is no more well-founded than the “Jesus for the right” view. Both are simply matters of bias, he held. Each side merely chooses biblical texts that support its prejudices while ignoring problematic ones that contradict them. The left likes socialism and selects accordingly. The right opposes socialism and does the same thing.

As his remedy, my dialog partner argued for:

  • Reason not the Bible
  • Deism not religion
  • Thomas Paine not Jesus

This Article

What follows here attempts a largely appreciative response to my friend’s argument. In fact, I and most liberation theologians and biblical scholars agree with Paine’s critique of pre-Enlightenment religions founded on the naïve approaches to the Bible enumerated in the article under review.

Nonetheless, I found my friend’s critique did not go far enough. His equation of Jesus- for-the-left with Jesus-for-the-right remains mired in Thomas Paine’s pre-modern approach to biblical texts.

I wish it had gone further. 

I mean my friend’s piece ignored the fact that “Jesus for the left” theology takes seriously relevant discoveries in archeology, history, ancient languages, and in texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It wrestles with developments in literary analysis and critical studies involving recognition of diverse literary forms. It does the detective work of redaction criticism that traces down the historical and political reasons for editors’ changes in scrolls over centuries of revision with its additions, omissions, contradictions, and errors.

In other words, Jesus-for-the-left scholarship is founded on scientific method and advances unknown to Thomas Paine and other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, they are also largely ignored by Jesus-for-the-right advocates who as a result remain vulnerable to the criticisms of Paine and my brother author.

Without getting too far into the weeds of modern biblical scholarship, let me show what I mean by first expressing appreciation for Paine’s critique of religion, by secondly illustrating the advances in biblical science since Paine, and thirdly by reflecting on liberation theology as a politically powerful alternative to Paine’s 18th century Deism.

Paine’s Criticism  

A great deal of Thomas Paine’s criticism of traditional religion as understood before the Enlightenment was spot on. That approach to the Bible was unscientific. It understood the Bible as a single book inspired by a single author (viz., God). Before the advent of modern biblical scholarship, the Bible’s interpreters tended to read texts literally as though they were all infallible statements of historical fact. This led to the inanities and contradictions Paine struggled against and which my dialog partner rightly lampooned.

So, as a seeker of truth, Paine could write with reason:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by … any church that I know of . . . All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. . . Whenever we read the obscene stories . . . with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. . .The Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world. . . The fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty.”

Harsh words, no?

However, I don’t know a single liberation theologian who would argue with Paine’s criticism. In fact, it is a principal purpose of liberation theology to free humans from what Paine rightly calls the terror and enslavement of religious forms meant to consolidate the power and profit of the professionally religious. Liberation scholars do so by basing their approach to the Bible on the discoveries of modern scientific scholarship.

Paine would have welcomed both their commitment to science and the revolutionary implications of their work.

Biblical Science

The discoveries in question are myriad and complex.

At the simplest level though, they tell us that what we call “The Bible” (The Book) is not a book at all, but a collection of books – an entire library written by different authors at different times, under vastly different circumstances, and for different and often contradictory purposes involving what we call today “class struggle.” No wonder then that we often find an upper-class God supporting the royal classes with their debaucheries, exploitation of the poor, and bloody wars all fought (as they are today) in the name of their deity.

All of that becomes even more complicated when we realize most of the literary forms within the Bible are far from history as we understand it. Yes, there are “Annals of Kings” (like Saul, David, and Solomon). But those represent the work of court historians whose job was to glorify their employers, not to tell the truth; all of them must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides such “histories” the Bible also contains myth, legend, debate, and fiction. There are letters. There are ancient laws that seem superstitious and ludicrous to moderns. There is poetry and song. There are birth stories and miracle accounts that all follow predetermined patterns. There are prophetic texts and wisdom literature including proverbs, jokes, and plays on words. And then there’s that strange literary form called “apocalypse” which, scholars tell us, was a form of resistance literature written in code during times of foreign occupation and oppression. If all of these are read as history, as statements of fact, or as somehow predicting the future, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings result.

What’s more, virtually all biblical scholars (even the most politically conservative like Josef Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI) tell us that the Bible’s basic story is that of the formation of the Jewish people. And that account, the scholars say, begins not in Eden, but in Egypt and the deliverance of slaves from bondage there. It’s a story of liberation. All the rest is commentary.

The rest is also an account of the struggle between the poor and oppressed on the one hand against the royalty, generals, priests, and scribes on the other who consistently tried to wrest away from the poor a God the privileged wanted to support the elites’ status quo. It was a struggle between the establishment and the prophets who defended the poor as God’s favorites. What we find in the Bible then is a “battle of gods,” a kind of theogony.

According to the scholars I’m referring to, Jesus appeared in the Jewish prophetic tradition. He was a poor man himself – a prophet, a mystic, a storyteller, a healer, a social critic, an opponent of oppression by priests, kings, and emperors. And the one certain thing we know about him was that he offended the Establishment (Rome and its temple and court collaborators) to such an extent that they arrested, tortured, and killed him. Significantly, they used a form of execution reserved for rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists.

Yes, Jesus was on the side of the poor and oppressed. But close examination of texts shows that even the evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) often altered the Master’s radical pronouncements to suit their own more conservative purposes. Scholars like those in the famous Jesus Seminar have developed criteria for (tentatively) separating the wheat of Jesus’ own words from the chaff of his editors. Liberation theologians avail themselves of such scholarship.  

Alternative to Deism

So, if it’s all so complicated, why not just pitch it all in favor of Paine’s reason and Deism which conceptualizes God as the Great Watchmaker in the sky who set the world spinning according to its own rules and hasn’t been heard from since? Why not just reason everything out abstractly?

To my mind, the answer is because we are human beings. And humans need stories. Perhaps some, like my dialog partner find abstract reason and an even more abstract concept of God more inspiring and helpful. If so, good on them.

But I repeat: most of the rest of us need stories. In fact, many like Nesrine Malik hold that with everything falling apart in our world, we need more not fewer stories.

My reply is that we already have the stories we need. And the ones found in the Bible are shared across the western world and by Islam. We all know those tales. They can bring us together and shed a penetrating transcendent light on issues that plague our world just as they did those of Jews living under foreign imperialism – including Jesus and the early Christians under Rome.

When those issues are confronted in the face of the liberating God of the Exodus or of Jesus and his pronouncements about God’s Kingdom, they can generate the power to move people to revolutionary action.

The experience inspired by liberation theology in Latin America during ‘70s and ‘80s is proof enough of that. Without liberation theology one cannot explain the Nicaraguan revolution, nor similar movements in El Salvador, Brazil, or Argentina. One cannot explain the pink tide that subsequently swept all of Latin America including the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez.

What I’m saying is that liberation theology provides a scientifically based revolutionary potential that Tom Paine would have admired.

(However, it must also be acknowledged that without liberation theology, one cannot explain the rise of the religious right in America and elsewhere in the world. Its Jesus-for-the-right was instrumentalized for reactionary purposes by the Reagan administration precisely to combat liberation theology which was seen by the CIA and State Department as a threat to U.S. national security.

That is, besides inspiring social activism, liberation theology evoked the exact type of persecution and martyrdom suffered by the early church under Rome. Such parallels say a great deal about liberation theology’s authenticity.)    

Conclusion

I hope it is evident from the foregoing that I very much respect what my friend wrote in “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right”. However, I worry about its call to surrender religion and spirituality to right-wing forces. To my mind, there is no more powerful or important ground to defend.

Like the Constitution and American history, spirituality has always been and remains contested terrain. The fact that the left and right have differing interpretations and narratives by no means proves anything about “meaninglessness.”

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The struggle over history’s versions, over the Constitution’s interpretations, and especially over biblical texts only serves to illustrate their importance and the need to approach them with the scientific spirit of Thomas Paine.

Had he been exposed to modern biblical science, I believe Paine would have embraced liberation theology. He may have seen it as his counterpart, Noam Chomsky does in the film clip at the head of this essay. Paine may even have accepted liberation theology as the answer to his prayers.

How U.S. Capitalism Works: House Painters That Cover the Earth

“I heard you paint houses.”

“Yes, sir, I do. I also do my own carpentry.”

Those were among the first words exchanged between Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his “house painter,” Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

Of course, in the Mob’s parlance, “painting houses” refers to the blood splashed on walls when hitmen like Frank Sheeran do their work. “Carpentry” refers to getting rid of the resulting corpses. Sheeran does both.

I was reminded of “The Irishman” recently, when Antony Blinken all but admitted that the United States was responsible for the terrorist attack that (against international law) destroyed civilian infrastructure represented by Nord Stream pipelines One and Two.

Blinken said the attack presented America with a “tremendous” business opportunity – to sell natural gas to Europe.

His remarks made me realize first that the U.S. is in fact the most active “house painter” and “carpenter” in the world. Like the Sherwin-Williams’ claim, it “covers the earth” – with hitman efficiency. It gets rid of bodies by just not counting them — or at least by vastly undercounting them.

Think about the paint spilled.

“America” is responsible for virtually ALL the wars waged on the planet since WWII: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ukraine. . . That’s the short list. And those wars have taken millions of lives – turned walls bloodred across the globe.

Remember, it’s not China that started and funded those conflicts. Neither is it Russia. It’s the United States.

But that’s not the end of the “Irishman” connections. Think about the logic behind the Nord Stream attacks. It’s how gangsters operate. It’s what “our” government does. It’s what capitalists do routinely instead of competing according to free market theory.

In fact, few of the most powerful among them seem to even like “natural” marketplace dynamics where business concerns succeed by producing a better product or service. No, they prefer to adopt mob tactics and simply whack their competitors. They deconstruct their rivals’ infrastructure.

Do you remember this scene from “The Irishman?” It’s where “Whispers” (“not that Whispers; the other one”) asks Frank Sheeran to do what’s necessary to put a competitor’s laundry business out of commission.  Here’s the exchange:

Note the similarities between Whispers’ request and Blinken’s intimations about U.S. involvement in Nord Streams’ destructions.

Like Blinken, Whispers is a business front man. He’s financing an Atlantic City laundry service that’s making money hand over fist.

Face it: Blinken is also a front man for oil, gas, and arms industry concerns.

However, both men have powerful competitors. Whispers’ challenger calls itself Cadillac Linen. It’s located in Delaware. It’s underselling Whispers’ business and threatening to take away its customers.

That’s like Russia and China for Blinken. They’re both outcompeting the United States in energy and manufacturing. That has Blinken, Wall Street, and powerful oil and gas concerns exactly in Whispers’ position.  As they keep insisting, they’re “more than a little concerned.”

In both cases, something must be done. But what? Whispers’ could lower his prices and upgrade his product to better compete. According to capitalist theory, that’s the way to win back his hotel and restaurant clientele now seeking lower costs and superior service with Cadillac Linen.

For his part, Blinken could simply recognize that Russia and China now enjoy overwhelming logistical benefits. They’re both much closer than the U.S. to the main buyers of their products.Their shipping costs are therefore lower. There’s nothing nefarious about that. Capitalist theory calls it “comparative advantage.”

Additionally, with its higher “social wages” (i.e., government subsidies in areas of food, rent, healthcare, entertainment, education, etc.) China can easily outcompete America with lower wages for its workers.

Under its present form of capitalism (with all but non-existent “social wages”) the U.S. simply can’t keep up. To get back in the game, Blinken’s handlers could decide to match China’s social programs to compensate for lower wages. They could arrange for workers to have nationalized health care and free college tuition. They could institute nationwide rent control and stop treating food and medicine as commodities instead of as human rights.

Alternatively, and according to capitalist theory, they could simply accept the fact that they can’t compete, back out of the relevant markets and seek prosperity elsewhere.

That’s the way the system’s supposed to work.    

But no. Both Whispers and Blinken instead choose bombing over free market competition. Whispers wants Sheeran to do to Cadillac what he and the U.S. army did to Berlin during World War II. He wants him to destroy his competitors absolutely.

Blinken evidently chose something similar relative to Russia’s Nord Stream I and II. All fingers point to U.S. involvement in the pipelines’ destruction. After all, “Dark Brandon” Biden had threatened to do the deed. Additionally, more than any other suspects, America had the motivation and capacity for performing the task in question. As Blinken’s words indicate, Wall Street, and U.S. energy concerns, and America itself benefit most from the destruction of Nord Stream I and II. As Blinken admits, the destruction of Russia’s property is “tremendous” for America.

It’s hard to believe the United States wasn’t responsible.

In their recent co-authored book, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad compare the United States to the Mafia. Their identification is more than apt. Like the Godfather, U.S. mobsters demand that everyone bend the knee or else. Their answer to most problems of market competition involves threats, sanctions, guns, and bombs – almost never lower prices, product improvement, increased social wages, or diplomacy. Instead, in the form of death squads, hitmen like Frank Sheeran, and lethal drones, they continue to “cover the earth” with red just like the Sherwin-Williams ad says.

China especially is adopting a different tack. And if it can avoid being provoked into responding in kind to American Mafia tactics, it will probably come out on top.

China’s just better at capitalist dynamics than the U.S. or E.U.