Peggy and I will take off for Bustin’s Island, Maine, tomorrow morning. We’ll be gone for a week to a place reachable only by ferry. No electricity; no cars; no internet; outhouse toilet; all water must be boiled. On Tuesday, our daughter, Maggie, and her two youngest (of five) children will join us. (The other three are away at summer camp, also in Maine.) This should be fun and interesting. So, there’ll be no postings here till next week. But I’ll give a report when I get back.
Since April 28th, the people of Colombia have virtually shut down the nation with repeated general strikes. For nearly three months, thousands have been in the streets all over the country demanding that its right- wing president, Ivan Duque, step down. They also want economic reforms, including higher wages, and increased taxes on the rich. Their demands include reduction in transportation fares and better health care.
And the response of the Colombian government? Absolute repression from its police and military including sexual assault, use of live ammunition (with 42 killed so far), deployment of tear gas, bashing in the heads of peaceful protestors, and even the criminalization of those who supply medical assistance to the wounded and food to activists in the street.
And what about the response of the U.S mainstream media (MSM), the president and “our” representatives in Congress? Given their outrage over comparatively minor protests in Cuba, surely, they’d express support for Colombians battered in the streets.
But no, there hasn’t been a peep out of them – no word of solidarity with demonstrators nor criticism of the hugely unpopular Colombian administration. No calls for regime change or U.S. intervention. Not even the beginnings of public conversation led by our intrepid MSM.
And then there’s the involvement of Colombian paramilitaries in the assassination of Haiti’s president just last week. Turns out that several of the well-financed assassins were from Colombia and had actually trained in the United States with ties to the CIA, DEA and U.S. military establishment.
Just imagine if the Haitian assassination had involved Cuba and Cubans. Imagine if the paramilitaries implicated had been trained in Russia or China?
What do you suppose would have been the response of our “leaders”?
Go even further . . . Ask yourself how the United States would have responded had a Washington Post reporter been killed and dismembered in Cuba as Jamal Khashoggi was in the Saudi Arabian embassy less than three years ago.
What if such a crime had occurred in a government office in Havana with the proven direct involvement of Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel? Would the White House and Congress have responded as they did when Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince (no democrat he), was shown to be directly responsible for Khashoggi’s butchering? Would our officials with their heart-wrenching concern for democracy and human rights in Cuba have thrown up their hands in helpless impotence as they did in the case of MBS?
We need no more than considerations like those to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States government, academic establishment and “free press.” They care not a whit about human rights, basic freedoms, democracy, or government repression – unless the alleged violations can be connected to a government that refuses to fulfill its expected role as vassal of the United States in service of its country’s rich and powerful strongly allied to their counterparts in “America.”
The exact opposite happens when any government (like Vietnam’s, Cuba’s, Venezuela’s, Nicaragua’s or China’s) shows concern for ordinary people – mothers and children, the houseless, the hungry, the sick, workers, and the elderly. Ditto when governments in question assert ownership and control over their own resources.
Such “regimes” are quickly marked for change. Regardless of their accomplishments, they’re dismissed as “socialists,” or “communists,” subversives or terrorists. So, the United States routinely interferes in their elections, finances demonstrations of the well-off (which are publicized by the media those same elite control), organizes paramilitaries as “freedom fighters,” and (if push comes to shove) invades the country to finish the job.
Until “Americans” are willing to recognize that shameful pattern, till we can look in the mirror and recognize that the United States is indeed the world’s greatest force for evil and the cause behind most of its conflicts, we’ll continue to naively buy “official stories” about the designated enemies of the rich and powerful. We’ll continue in our delusions about our country’s exceptional virtue, about U.S. consistency in supporting democracy, rights and freedoms.
In other words, we’ll continue to be patriotic. But we’ll have morphed into oppressors ourselves! Maybe we’re already there. I suspect we are.
A few days ago, I received a disturbing email blast from Lyle Roelofs, the president of Berea College (where I taught for 40 years). It was about recent “Events in Cuba.” The notice was upsetting because it reflected the one-sided narrative of the U.S. government and its subservient mass media.
This is not to vilify Berea’s president who is sincere and well-intentioned. It is however to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. anti-Cuban propaganda that would have even academicians think that “our” government has a leg to stand on in its denunciation of anti-democratic measures anywhere, of intolerance of any dissent, or of police attacks on peaceful protestors.
See for yourself. In his characteristic spirit of compassion, the president had written:
Many of you are aware of the ongoing unrest in Cuba as the country struggles with severe blackouts, a food shortage, high prices, lack of access to COVID-19 vaccinations as outbreaks increase, and an unstable economy. Residents of the island nation have taken to the streets to protest, filming conditions to share with the world. In response, the repressive government shut down the internet.
While we all care about the people of Cuba as our fellow human beings, a number of members of our immediate community have family ties there, as well, so our concern extends particularly to them in this worrisome time.
President Biden addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.
At Berea College, where one of our eight Great Commitments calls for us to create a democratic society, we align ourselves with the people of Cuba and echo the President’s sentiments. In a democratic society, organizations and the government can cooperate to address the sorts of critical problems currently being faced by Cubans, but which are found to a lesser extent elsewhere as well. For example, at Berea College our Grow Appalachia program combats food insecurity in Appalachia working to ensure community members have enough to eat and teaching them how to grow their own food.
Globally, the U.S. and Cuba are among the countries that signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a list of 30 rights that every human being is entitled to. The right to free speech and health are most relevant to the current events in Cuba. It is our hope that tensions will ease soon, the leadership there will work to provide food, access to vaccines, and make improvements to stabilize the country’s economy, and that this crisis will be an opportunity for improved relations with other countries, including our own, allowing urgently needed assistance to flow to the people of Cuba.
In solidarity with Cubans and Cuban-Americans,
What follows is my response in hopes that it might help Dr. Roelofs and the rest of us to be more cautious in accepting party lines about “official enemies” such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Russia. . .
It was with rather eager anticipation that I opened your recently emailed note entitled “Events in Cuba.” Because of Berea’s commitment black, brown and impoverished communities, I thought your notice would express solidarity with virtually the entire world in its yearly demand that the United States lift the Cuban embargo (Cubans call it a “blockade”) especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, I found your comments quite incomplete and misleading. Together they gave the erroneous impression that:
- All Cubans (“residents of the island nation”) endorse the anti-government street demonstrations
- That Cuban leadership is ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic
- That the same leadership is resisting improved relations with other countries including the United States
- That Cuba should combat the island’s food insecurity by teaching people “how to grow their own food”
- That Cuba is out-of-step with the United Nations and its “Declaration of Human Rights” by specifically depriving its people of health care
- That President Biden has satisfactorily “addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.”
Such commentary appears to simply repeat the U.S. official story about Cuba without even once mentioning:
- The U.S. economic embargo of more than 60 years
- The blockade’s intensification under President Trump
- That the Biden administration has kept all of the restrictions in place despite the pandemic and the president’s campaign promises
- The resulting devastating effects of those measures
- Cuba’s world-renowned health care system
- Its development (unique in the former colonies) of several WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines
- The U.S. policy of blockading sale of syringes to Cuba thereby preventing the country from administering its own COVID-19 remedies
- Cuba’s long-standing attempts to feed its own people by extensive, government sanctioned urban gardening projects and by environmental policies that make it arguably the greenest country in the hemisphere
- The fact that similar demonstrations are happening all over the world including U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa, Haiti, Lebanon, Colombia, India, Ethiopia, Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not to mention Black Lives Matter in the U.S. and the January 6th assault on the Capitol) — without comment on your part or emphasis in the mainstream media at large
- The allied fact that “a number of members of our immediate community have family ties” in the countries just mentioned.
I am making these observations as a longtime friend of Cuba and (of course) Berea College. I have visited the island many times, never as a tourist, but always as an educator and researcher. In fact, the last course I taught at Berea (Summer 2014) had my wife Peggy and me leading another study tour of Cuba.
I have published many articles on Cuba including here and here about the country’s vaccine research and development. My daughter was treated for appendicitis while visiting Cuba two years ago. After spending five days in the hospital there, she was released virtually free of charge.
With Jose Gomariz (a Cubanist scholar, Jose Marti specialist, and former Berea College professor of Spanish) I once taught a Berea Short Term course at Havana’s Instituto de Historia de Cuba. The course was entitled “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” When I visited Cuba with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs, I was befriended by a family outspokenly and fearlessly critical of the Castro government. And in my many stints with the Latin American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we took students to Cuba each semester to meet government officials, opposition forces, and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In all, I’ve been there around a dozen times.
During the Fidel Castro years, I vividly recall a U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman revealingly lamenting the fact that Cuba (as she put it) did not hold presidential elections (thereby demonstrating her misunderstanding of Cuba’s electoral system). “As everybody knows,” she admitted, “he’d win hands down.”
What I’m suggesting is that there is much more to the Cuban story than we’re led to believe by United States propaganda against that beleaguered country.
By simply rehearsing the U.S. official story, Lyle, I suggest that (uncharacteristically) you are not helping the Berea community understand Cuba, its history, and the role of the U.S. in creating misery there, or what our government could do this very day to relieve it – namely lift the embargo and allow the import of syringes into the country.
Respectfully, Mike Rivage-Seul
Readings for 15th Sunday in ordinary time: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13
Do any of you remember the HBO series “Newsroom?” It lasted only a couple of seasons. However, I found it interesting and watched it faithfully.
As far as I’m concerned, the series’ highlight came when lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivered a speech about then-current dismal state of our country. I’m sure many of you have seen it. It seems more relevant today than it did in 2012.
As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:
Whew! That’s hard for most of us to hear, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represents the measure of greatness.
I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw.
I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.
And what did Amos say?
Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.
Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.
“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.
And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (By now he now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)
“Who?” they asked eagerly.
“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.
Of course, the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.
It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:
“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they? They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”
My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often perceive us more clearly than we see ourselves.
Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people?
And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching, curing the sick and driving out demons.
Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. (Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth. So they made up stories like this one.)
And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So, stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” (This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.)
Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today — seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties. Therefore, don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.”
Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying, is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.
But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to be the voice of the voiceless as both Amos and Jesus were. It’s difficult to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich.
For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos, Jesus, and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.
What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged enemies of the state as Amos, Jesus and early Christians were?
If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)
Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10; Luke 4: 18; Mark 6: 1-6
I can’t believe that we’re still expected to believe that the United States and Great Britain are concerned about human rights or press freedom or that either has any leg to stand on in such posturing.
I mean, how can any of us still believe after the lies about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Julian Assange, the demonization of Wikileaks, and the cooperation of the mainstream media (MSM) with all of it.
You’re telling me that either London or Washington has the right to pronounce on press freedom? On human rights? Please!
Demonization of China
Nonetheless, they’re at it again in relation to China and the desperate campaign of both Great Britain and America to demonize Beijing and its implied invocation of an Asian version of The Monroe Doctrine in relation to Hong Kong [which, by the way, (unlike the U.S. relationship to Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or Venezuela) is actually part of China.]
More specifically, we’re supposed to join the MSM and “our” government as well as England’s in worrying about the recent shutdown of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong – a publication that sounds a lot like The National Inquirer.
Judge for yourself. A recent cover story in The Guardian describes the paper as a tabloid-style publication that has “a chequered history including cheque-book journalism, muckraking and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigation into government corruption and police brutality.”
What? Chequered history? Paying sources for information (probably with money from the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy) and unethical reporting?
Oh, and the paper is owned by billionaire Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned (according to The Guardian) “on protest-related convictions and national security charges.”
So, now it’s “Hands across the Planet” for poor Jimmy and his yellow journalism.
Meanwhile Julian Assange wastes away precisely in a British prison for publishing government secrets exactly about U.S. war crimes in Wikileaks – a source that publishes the Washington’s own unquestionably true confessions of the criminal acts it desperately wants kept secret from the rest of us.
So let me get this straight: Jimmy Lai’s a hero. And we’re all supposed to get misty-eyed about the Hong Inquirer’s brave reporters. But Julian Assange is a criminal. And Wikileaks doesn’t even qualify as journalism.
And, by the way, we’re supposed to forget that there was absolutely no press freedom all those years the Brits controlled Hong Kong.
Does anyone else sense the irony?
Such considerations are especially relevant this July 4th as we celebrate our supposed “freedoms” and the tarnished ideals of the United States. Significantly, this month marks as well the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CCP) whose good example (in drastically reducing world poverty and extending foreign aid) our country so fears.
Besides being July 4th, today also happens to be Sunday, time for a weekly “Homily for Progressives” where the theme of the day is prophecy in the sense of social criticism in the name of all that’s holy.
The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel implicitly reminds us that there were two kinds of prophets among the ancient Hebrews. Both are still with us today.
One type was a “court prophet” telling the king and power structure what they wanted to hear – justifying their oppression of the poor. (On this Independence Day you’ll hear a lot of their drivel as they praise “America” as though it were not – as Martin King put it – “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”) Think about The Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and our MSM as court prophets.
The other type of prophet spoke for the Truth that was commonly referred to as “God.” The words of such men and women were routinely dismissed by the powers that happened to be. Some prophets (as is the case with Jesus in today’s final reading) were even rejected by the very oppressed people they were trying to champion. Their words were thought too dangerous and, in some cases, too good to be true. Think about Julian Assange as a prophet in the mold of Ezekiel or the Nazareth construction worker many of us claim to follow.
In any case, here are my “translations” of today’s selections. You should really check them out here to see if I got them right. As you read, think of Julian Assange.
Ezekiel 2: 2-5 I was startled When God’s Spirit Demanded that I criticize my own people As ungodly and stubborn Telling me To make them uncomfortably Aware That a fearless prophet Was at work Among them. Psalm 123: 1-4 Great and holy Parent We invoke your compassion On your prophetic Servants and handmaids So eager to serve you Despite contemptuous mistreatment At the hands Of our so-called “leaders” With their pride and arrogance Directed Against your beloved poor. 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10 Neither do prophets Have to be perfect. Even Paul of Tarsus Despite his many gifts Suffered under “An angel of Satan” And “a thorn in the flesh" To keep him humble Lest he take credit For the work Of the Holy Spirit Within him. Mark 6: 1-6 But like Ezekiel Jesus was rejected By his own townsfolk Who complained that He had gotten “above his raisin’s” They didn’t even Call him by His father’s name (Implying he was a bastard) While dismissing His brothers and sisters As quite unremarkable. There’d be No mighty deeds For such whiners. Only cures for A few ailing beggars.
In a recent New York Times editorial, another court prophet, Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, joined the chorus of warnings about China’s grave threat to the West.
To an audience acquainted with the revelations of Edward Snowden Lian decried China’s surveillance system. To those whose country has bombed and killed Muslims by the scores and thousands every day over the last 20 years, he complained about treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. To Americans who have lived through a Trump presidency, he criticized Chinese governance by lies. (His example? President Xi Jinping actually claimed that China seeks an international image that is “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”) The horror of it all!
Nonetheless, Lian also pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party retains high popularity among a vast majority of its people. In fact, the party has grown by 20% annually since its foundation 100 years ago. There are no refugees from China. Travelers and students come and go at will and usually return home.
For Lian, the bottom line is that China is showing no evident signs of decline. This means that it will remain a formidable force continuing to threaten the United States and Western allies for years to come. This will be true, he said, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically.
So, the West, Lian concludes, had better get used to the CCP’s threatening presence “at its front door.”
Of course, all this talk of threat and menace from a country that (unlike the United States and Great Britain) has bombed no one in the last 40 years – all this imperial identification of a country more than 7000 miles away as at “our front door” is nonsense.
So is any continued posturing about “our” championing of human rights and press freedom. July 4th in the context of faith reflection is a good time for reminders of such home truths.
It seems the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can’t stop embarrassing itself.
No, I’m not referring this time to its incompetent mishandling and scandalous coverups of priest pedophiles. (By rights, those disgraces should themselves deprive the Conference of ALL claims to speak authoritatively on ANY matter having to do with sex.)
instead, I’m talking about the latest manifestation of the USCCB’s obsession with abortion.
As if we needed a reminder, its fixation with the matter came under harsh spotlight on June 18th when an overwhelming majority of the Bishops’ Conference decided to proceed with drafting a document whose bottom line would have them refusing communion to Joe Biden (and by extension to other pro-choice Catholic politicians).
The whole affair made evident first of all that the bishops are pronouncing on an issue far beyond their ken. Secondly, their action flies in the face of position adopted by Pope Francis himself. Thirdly, it aligns the bishops with the most extreme faction of the Republican Party. And finally, it is quite unbiblical and contradicts the teachings of Jesus and his expression of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.
For thinking Catholics, all four points should be quite embarrassing. For others, it’s just one more reason to write off the Church as completely irrelevant.
Unsubstantiated Obsession with Abortion
The evident purpose of the Conference’s strategy is to advance repeal of Roe v Wade as if it were morally self-evident that (as they say) “abortion is murder.”
Of course, no such self-evidence exists. This is because the question of abortion’s morality turns on the issue of when specifically personal human life begins. And NO ONE knows for sure the answer to that question. Even the seminal Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought that personal life (“ensoulment”) for males began 40 days after conception and for females 80 days after conception. The church operated on that assumption for centuries.
Moreover, other religions variously identify the beginnings of personal life with the moment of quickening (usually 17-20 weeks after conception), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or even (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the child to distinguish it from the animals.
In view of such variation, to impose a single religion’s answer to the crucial question about the beginning of personal life disrespects those of other faiths and of no faith at all. It is therefore to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”
(And, by the way, the USCCB’s extreme position that specifically personal life begins when sperm fertilizes egg contradicts the “practice” of Nature itself. It ignores the fact that literally countless such fertilizations end in spontaneous abortions – suggesting that Nature itself (God?) is unconcerned with the issue.)
A Rejection of Pope Francis
The Catholic Bishops’ ham-handed power play also flies in the face of gentle advice from Pope Francis. Instead of confrontation and effective excommunication, the Pope urged “extensive and serene dialogue.”
The Conference position also contrasted sharply with Francis’ allies like Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. Both urged adoption of the pope’s approach, which McElroy described as speaking to Mr. Biden “in his humanity” and as “a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.” McElroy recommended encouragement of “our new President: by entering into a relationship of dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness.”
However, USCCB disagreement with Francis goes much further. It is not simply an internecine squabble about arcane Catholic issues. Identifying abortion as “the preeminent priority” of the bishops’ conference highlights disagreement at the highest level of the Catholic Church about the essence of the faith. For Francis, the Church’s preeminent priority is social justice and a radical concern for “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.” His pro-life commitments extend far beyond abortion to climate justice, elimination of capital punishment, renunciation of war, and welcoming of immigrants.
Of course, all such concerns are rejected by Republican extremists with whom the USCCB ends up aligning itself.
Alignment with Extremists
Such alignment was noted recently by Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. Dionne pointed to a relevant Pew Research survey of last spring. It showed that even 44% of Republican Catholics agree with the 67% of American Catholics in general that Biden should be allowed to receive communion.
This means that in adopting their position on weaponizing communion, the U.S. bishops are identifying themselves with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party which, of course, has also made abortion a key culture wars issue.
This alignment means supporting election of Republicans whose climate change denial ends up favoring omnicide while claiming to prioritize unborn human life.
Moreover, Dionne correctly observes that the bishops’ position is an outlier in the Catholic world itself. Almost nowhere else is the abortion issue given the preeminence claimed by the USCCB. Its position would be unthinkable in most of Europe and Latin America.
Unbiblical Obsession with Abortion
Even though women have always practiced abortion, the Bible shows no concern for the issue; it is mentioned nowhere in its pages. Therefore, to make it the church’s “preeminent priority” over those articulated by the pope is questionable at the very least.
Moreover, seeking to remedy the practice of abortion by imposition of law flies in the face of the habitual antinomian postures of both Jesus and St. Paul. Neither was friendly towards legal statutes and their enforcers. Jesus routinely disobeyed Judaism’s most sacred (Sabbath) law. He famously asserted his indisputably humanist position that “The sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).
For his part, Paul was so liberal in his interpretation of Jewish Testament law that he set it aside entirely – including dietary restrictions and even circumcision. It was futile, he said, to seek salvation in law – even in God’s law (e.g., Romans 7: 13-24).
By adopting such positions, both Jesus and Paul seemed to recognize that complicated issues of personal morality cannot be effectively imposed by law, force, or sanctions. Thus, the two most prominent foci of Christian Testament texts implicitly acknowledged the truism that human laws generally favor those who made them, viz., the wealthy and powerful – usually elderly males (and in our case, specifically white old men). Meanwhile, they militate against the interests of those without power or wealth and (in the case of abortion) seem to represent one more way of controlling women.
This is especially vexing for women, since the planet’s female citizens have had virtually no determining input regarding the content of laws that govern their reproductive processes.
The bottom line here is that law has no salvific power for friends of women or followers of Jesus.
Does any of this mean that church leaders should abandon the abortion issue? Not really.
It does however mean that leadership should recognize the fact that Roe v. Wade represents a reasonable resolution of the abortion question in a pluralistic society. It is an imperfect but even-handed compromise in a culture divided on fundamental questions concerning the beginnings of personal human life. It is reasonable that during the first trimester of pregnancy, the pregnant woman may herself decide about the termination of her pregnancy without legal consultation; that during the second trimester the state may regulate abortion to protect the health of its pregnant citizens, and that during the final three months of pregnancy, the state (in recognition of its obligation to protect the unborn) can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.
Meanwhile, the bishops and others seeking to lessen the number of abortions should use their influence to foster a welcoming atmosphere for all children. This would entail supporting measures that (among others) provide otherwise reluctant parents with:
- The good example of Catholic practice
- Preemptive sex education
- Extensive prenatal care
- Postpartum parental leave
- Affordable childcare
- Adequately paid jobs
- Dignified housing
- Safe abortion facilities
Only by adopting such pro-life positions can the USCCB hope to overcome the embarrassment that its patriarchal, legalistic and unbiblical alignment with the Republican Party has brought upon it and upon all Roman Catholics.
Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43
My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.
Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.
She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.
I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.
In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.
First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.
In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.
The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.
Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)
All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.
In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.
Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.
Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.
Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)
While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.
What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.
“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”
Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?
My Peggy would say yes.
Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.
Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.
Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.
This Saturday, I’ll be traveling back to Berea, Kentucky where I lived and taught for more than 40 years. The sad occasion will be a memorial service for my life’s best friend, Guy Patrick who died at the very beginning of this year. Guy’s widow, Peggy, has asked me to read at the ceremony an excerpt from one of Guy’s favorite authors, Thomas Merton. What follows is my “translation” the Merton passage as applied to Guy’s life. Afterwards, I include the great Trappist monk’s original words, so you can see if I got them right.
Guy’s death has created a hole in my own life that will never be filled.
Paradoxically, Guy Patrick’s life Affirmed itself By all the endings It contained. He was blessed To learn early on The self-transcendent Rewards and meaning Of dying to himself and Of using his time, Effort, strength And intelligence To serve others By giving them Everything he had. Doing so Made Guy The very embodiment Of a mature man. It set him apart As uniquely Productive and complete Because he wasted no time Seeking money or power. So, at the age of 85 With nothing else Left to give To family world and humanity He showed us How to die As his final bequest. For Guy The “end of life” Meant culmination Not termination. It was an act of love Of acceptance And surrender Of his entire life With its good and bad Sins and love, Conquests and defeats Into God’s gracious hands Who then, no doubt, Fulfilled Guy’s fondest hopes By finally Revealing life’s meaning and worth Its point and destiny – For all of us too. Thank you, Guy For your love, generosity And wondrous example!
Thomas Merton On Worthful Living and Culminating Death
As a man grows into other stages of human development, he realizes that there are ways in which life affirms itself by consenting to end. For example, youth begins to discover that by bringing to an end some egoistic satisfaction, in order to do something for another, he can discover a deeper level of reality and of life. The mature man realizes that his life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things for himself, but in giving his time, his efforts, his strength, his intelligence, and his love to others. Here a different kind of dialectic between life and death begins to appear. The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by “ending” its trend to self-satisfaction and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself. It “dies” insofar as the ego is concerned, for the self is deprived of immediate satisfactions, which it could once claim without being contested. Now it renounces these things, in order to give to others. Hence, life “dies” to itself in order to give itself away, and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others.
But since contingent lives must end — they are not interminable and there is nothing whatever in their constitution that justifies us thinking that they are — it is important that the end of life itself should finally set the seal upon the giving and the sacrifice which has marked mature and productive living. Thus man physically and mentally declines having given everything that he had to life, to other men, to his love, to his family, and to his world. He is spent or exhausted, not in the sense that he is merely burned out and gutted by the accumulation of money and power, but because he has given himself totally in love. There is nothing left now for him to give. It is now that in a final act he surrenders his life itself.
This is the “end of life,” not in the sense of termination, but in the sense of culminating gift, the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance: the surrender of his being into the hands of God, who made it, and the acceptance of the death which in details and circumstances is perhaps very significantly in continuity with all the acts and incidents of life — its good and its bad, its sins and its love, its conquests and its defeats. A man’s last gift of himself in death is, then, the acceptance of what he has been and the resignation of all final judgment as to the meaning of his life, its worth, its point, its ultimate destiny. It is the final seal his freedom sets upon the love and the trust with which it has striven to live.
Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 38: 8-11; Psalm 107: 23-31; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41
This Sunday’s readings celebrate water as a fundamental gift from the universe. They remind us that without water life itself is impossible.
More specifically, the account of Jesus calming a storm at sea centralizes the Master’s impatience with our fearful paralysis in the face of nature’s brute force demonstrated today in the disaster of climate chaos.
In the process, today’s selections also give insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship deals with the miraculous that post-moderns might reject out of hand as unacceptable or simply childish. Such knee-jerk reaction closes us off to the saving relevance of biblical narratives like those we encounter on this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
To avoid such dismissal, contemporary scholarship applies what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the principle of analogy. It says that we should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present. In applying that rule, scholars’ purpose is to get to the historical facts and (more importantly) to the human meanings that may lie behind biblical stories most of us might otherwise reject.
Let’s apply that principle to the Gospel story just mentioned (Jesus’ calming of a threatening storm). Doing so will unexpectedly reveal the humanity of Jesus as it calls us to recognize the Great Parent’s gift of water and its human-induced crisis.
Our Water Crisis
To set all of that up, however, consider more generally our readings’ focus on water.
Today’s biblical excerpts tell us that the ocean represents the Goddess’ ultimate self-disclosure. It manifests her sacred order. When waters are in trouble, human life itself is endangered.
And the planet’s waters are certainly in danger as we speak.
Think for example about the importance of water. Evolutionarily speaking, we all came from the ocean. Up to 60% of the adult human body remains water. Seventy-three percent of brain and heart are composed of water; the lungs are about 83% H2O. In the absence of potable water, we inevitably perish.
And yet, humans have come to treat this miraculous gift as simply another commodity. In my privileged position as a community elder, I still can’t believe that we bottle water in plastic, sell it at a price that far exceeds gasoline, and then throw its plastic container into the ocean, where it kills whales and other sea life.
In fact, the world’s oceans have become for us like huge commodes where we spew not only human but industrial waste including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and nuclear detritus. With virtual impunity, cargo ships flush and spill oil into our seas along with untold chemicals. Islands of plastic the size of entire countries threaten to replace the earthen landmasses our post-industrial lifestyles surrender to surging sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Wars waged primarily by the United States and its allies routinely bomb water purification plants serving civilian populations – as in Yemen and Gaza.
Then when those immediately affected by such disasters arise as anti-colonialists or “water protectors,” authorities employ police, dogs, tear gas, live ammunition and water cannons to make them cease and desist. Elected officials enlist reporters and media in general to discredit protestors, even branding protectors of water as terrorists.
However, one Protestor whom industry-friendly authorities cannot silence is Mother Earth herself. Her responses to her children’s shameless elder abuse include tsunamis, hurricanes, massive flooding, and destruction of entire cities. The Earth’s response is to promise destruction of human life as we know it.
Despite all that, humans seem paralyzed by the multifaceted water crisis at hand. We end up arguing about the reality of the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. We’re like Jesus and his disciples caught at sea in the eye of a terrible squall while they waste time and energy paralyzed by argument about who’s to blame.
At least, that’s the interpretation of today’s final reading as given by Cuban theologians Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Jose Ignacio in Just Jesus. (The book is based on a radio program series they broadcast some years ago throughout Latin America. Scandalously to many and delightfully to even more, the airwave transmission attempted to put a human face on Jesus that accords with the interpretations of the modern scholarship mentioned above.)
Accordingly, the Lopez Vigils attempt to uncover the real-life basis of the story (assuming, of course, that some suggestive event may have actually occurred and that the account wasn’t a whole cloth invention of Mark’s community). In doing so, the Lopez Vigils implicitly take note of revealing phrases in today’s reading indicating that:
- As a construction worker, not a seafarer, Jesus was out of his element in a boat. (He was truly “at sea.”)
- It was he who suggested a late evening crossing of the sea.
- In Mark’s mysterious words, his fisherman friends took him “just as he was.”
- Jesus fell asleep and improbably remained unconscious even though the boat was tossed about and in danger of being swamped.
- The disciples awaken the Master and blame him for not caring about their fate.
- Jesus responds with a shout calling for “quiet” and “calm,” and with remonstrations about unwarranted fear and lack of faith.
With all of that in mind, the Lopez Vigils, elaborate Mark’s spare account. Their analysis involves an inexperienced landlubber Jesus persuading his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee despite indications of an approaching storm. Against their better judgment those veteran seamen obey.
Then Jesus gets seasick and passes out. In the middle of the trip, the storm hits, but the comatose Jesus remains dead to the world. The frantic disciples shake him awake. They blame not only him, but their terrified companions for not paying attention to what their experienced eyes told them would inevitably happen.
But instead of entering argument, Jesus shouts to everyone to shut up and start rowing. Miraculously, it seemed, the disciples’ resulting efforts save the day and bring them successfully to shore.
Put all of that in the larger context that includes all of today’s liturgy of the word, and (for me) it comes out something like my following “translations.” Please check out the originals here to see if I got them right:
Job 38: 1, 8-11 Our Holy Mother Earth Manifests herself Through the ocean To which her laws Set firm boundaries As if behind a mighty Firmly sealed door. As if its waters burst From her very womb, Attired at night In shrouds of darkness And by day in raiment Of fluffy white clouds. Psalm 107: 24-31 Thus, we know Her love and power As every astonished sailor Can attest As huge breakers Toss about Their magnificent vessels Raising them like toys To the heavens Then thrusting them Towards a bottomless abyss. Their desperate prayers Seek answer in Goddess calm Gentle breezes And safe return home. (For such answered invocations We are grateful.) 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17 Our Master Jesus Knew such fearful threat But his sailor’s prayers For deliverance Finally went unanswered. Instead, he showed us How to die Under his saving conviction That life can never end And that apparent death Leads inevitably to New Creation. Mark 4: 35-41 To illustrate his faith, His friends recalled How one day Amid a fearful squall The landlubber Jesus Caught seasickness And passed out. They remembered How he came to And shouted indignantly At his paralyzed friends To overcome their fears And row mightily Against the mountain waves Until as if by miracle They reached calm haven. Some however remembered That like creation’s Goddess He had quieted The storm directly With his angry remonstrations alone. (Both versions may be true.)
So here we are, like Jesus, knowing full well our basic relationship to water, but nonetheless landlubbers with little understanding of the sea, oceans, and the laws governing such bodies.
And so, we blithely endanger our lives by adopting courses of action that fly in the face of Mother Nature’s warnings that are abundantly apparent not only to climate scientists, but to “water protectors,” fishermen, and others mystically in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms.
Today’s readings make us aware that (again, like a sleeping Jesus) we can still be shaken awake by the more insightful among us.
Then once awakened, we need to listen to the courageous Master’s voice shouting at us to overcome our paralysis and fear. We cannot depend on divine intervention, the improbably miraculous, or on some scientific deus ex machina that will suddenly save us.
Instead, accepting the principle of analogy, we need ourselves to seize the oars of what’s become our Lifeboat Earth and row mightily against the mountainous waves that will otherwise engulf and swallow all of us including our children and grandchildren.
Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.
Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.
Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.
“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.
Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.
“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.
And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.
The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.
Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”
Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”
Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.
In the Heights
Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.
True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.
That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community. As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.
All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.
In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”
I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.
Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.
But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.
In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.
Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.
To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.
Exodus 17:22-24 After their liberation from Egypt Runaway slaves Understood the Great Parent Promising That they would flourish Like a giant old-growth cedar A fruitful and mighty home For escaped jailbirds like them According to the wise plan Inherent in Life’s Great Force. Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16 We thank you, Almighty Parent, For your kind and faithful care Showered upon us From bright dawns Through fearful nights. Your will is that We all flourish like palm trees And Cedars of Lebanon In a just New World Order Where all enjoy vigorous health And long productive lives. Thank you indeed. 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10 Knowing all of that Is a source of our great courage Admittedly based upon Unprovable convictions That we will one day Live in the just world Called “God’s Kingdom.” Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment That in following him, We are advancing towards that end. Mark 4: 26-34 Trailing the Master At a confusing distance We are like farmers Who sow seeds Knowing they will grow But without understanding Why or how. It’s that way too With God’s Kingdom Which, it turns out, Is more like a pesky weed Than Moses’ mighty cedar. Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant Draws the same odd birds To flourish in its shade. (How’s that For a head-scratching simile?)
So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.
Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?
Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.
We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.
Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.
If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.