Be Like Jesus: Break the Commandments!

Since last Sunday and a sermon I heard about Ezra reading “the law” to the people for hours, I’ve been thinking about Jesus and the law. Chief among my reflections is the one that sees Jesus as anything but the stickler for the law that Christians have made him out to be. Neither is God primarily concerned with “keeping the commandments.” Rather, as God’s Symbol, Jesus revealed a God of compassion, not the angry punisher we’ve been schooled to believe in. Let me explain.

To begin with, we often confuse the Jewish meaning of The Law with laws. “The Law” refers to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Jewish Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those books tell the story of Israel’s foundation with the focus on the account of the liberation from Egypt under the leadership of the rebel hero, Moses. Those readings reveal a God whose main interest is in liberating an enslaved people from oppression by the rich and powerful.

So when the priest-scribe, Ezra, read the Law to the people in last Sunday’s selection from Nehemiah (8:2-6, 8-10), he was telling them the basic story of Israel’s foundation – something they had apparently become foggy about during their more than fifty years of exile in Babylon (586-531 BCE). He was reminding them that they had been enslaved much more cruelly in Egypt than they had in Babylon.

Their oppression in both instances should have reminded them of The Law’s basic thrust – viz. Do not forget where you came from! As a result of such memory, the inheritors of the Mosaic tradition were to take care of slaves, widows, orphans, resident aliens, and “the poor” in general – people like themselves. “The Law” was a call to freedom and compassion – not to guilt, shame and judgment of others.

Over the years, however, especially under the tutelage of the priestly classes, understanding of “The Law” shifted from the myth of Israel’s origins to strict rules and regulations. These were also contained in the first five books of the Jewish Testament, but were not as central as the Exodus story. The regulations had multiplied over the more than a thousand years between their supposed formulation and the life of Jesus.

And by Jesus’ time the professional religious classes of priests, scribes, and lawyers had virtually identified being a good Jew with observance of the legal codes of the lawyers and priests. If you kept the laws, you were a good Jew and “clean.” If you did not (or could not) you were “unclean” and excommunicated. People were considered unclean because of their occupations (e.g. tax collectors, shepherds, and prostitutes). They could also become “unclean” for touching a corpse or, in the case of women, by simply experiencing their menstrual periods.

What I’m saying is that by Jesus’ time, Jewish laws had become burdensome and oppressive. They had assumed disproportionate importance over the story of Israel’s beginnings. They were interpreted as calling community members to invidious judgments rather than to compassion.

This is where “the Prophets” came in. Together “The Law and the Prophets” comprised the Jewish Testament I’ve been referring to. The prophets were people like Elias, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, John the Baptist – and Jesus. They represented a counterbalance to legalistic interpretations of scripture.

When the prophets spoke of the Law, they were referring more than anything to the story of God’s compassion for oppressed people. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). In fact, the prophetic task by and large was to call Israel back to its origins. The prophets (and Jesus in particular) harshly criticized the priestly classes and their legalist allies for giving too much import to the laws as opposed to Israel’s great Myth of Origin — the The Law.

So Jesus got into great trouble with the lawyers and priests for breaking the laws in the name of The Law. Especially galling to the religious leaders of his day was Jesus’ willingness to put compassion ahead of the Law of Laws, Sabbath observance. He even put that law in its place by giving it a completely humanist interpretation: “The Sabbath was made for human beings; human beings were not made for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2: 27).

That’s what I mean by urging “Be like Jesus: break the Commandments!” I mean we should be humanistic and put compassion above the legalisms we’ve come to identify as Christianity.

Name and Shame Republican Attempts at Voter Suppression

Gerrymander[1]

It is interesting to watch the Republicans floundering about wondering how to deal with the rebuke of the last General Election and with the country’s changing demographics largely responsible for that rejection. Some in the party recognize the mistake of having surrendered so completely to the Tea Party faction and to the “Christianist” extremists who like their “Islamist” counterparts live in the distant past and refuse to address the post-modern world on its own terms.

For one, Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, has urged his party affiliates to stop being the Party of Stupid. He expressed dismay at candidates, for instance, who in the last election adopted the position that women using contraceptives are “whores,” and that female bodies automatically prevent pregnancies resulting from rape. He might have added that denying climate change and evolution is also part of the Republican image of Know-Nothing ignorance.

However, others Republicans want to double down on their party’s extremism, shift even further to the right, and seek election victories by changing the rules of the electoral game rather than responding to the game changes that are represented by the post-modern spirit of the 21st century. These others now want the battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia to allocate Electoral College votes not on the traditional winner-take-all system, but according to victories in the congressional districts Republicans have so successfully gerrymandered in recent years.

Such reallocation would mean that Mitt Romney would have won the election last November despite being decisively beaten by more than 5 million votes. The changed way of apportioning electoral votes would allow the Christianist-dominated party to win elections the way they’ve won control of the House of Representatives – on procedural technicalities rather than by winning voter approval.

This choice of procedure over necessary political change mirrors and carries to even further extreme Republican attempts at voter suppression that backfired so disastrously last fall. There they chose misinformation, crooked machines, long waiting lines, and voter intimidation over meaningful response to the legitimate concerns of women, minorities, the unemployed, gays and immigrants. Such procedural choices culminating now in this Electoral College gambit project an image of elderly, out-of-touch, bitter and desperate white people who no longer believe in democracy.

Apart from being a sad display of cynicism, the Republican’s is a strategy that small “d” democrats cannot allow to succeed whatever their party tendencies might be.
Recently John Nichols has advanced three suggestions for thwarting the Christianist extreme’s clear assault on democracy (http://www.opednews.com/articles/2/Three-Strategies-to-Block-by-John-Nichols-130126-217.html).

The first is to “Name and Shame,” i.e. to bring this issue out of the shadows and publicize its cynicism. The blog posting you are now reading is an attempt to lend my small voice to this process. The hope is that it may stimulate thought and debate among the readers of this blog and their friends and acquaintances.

According to Nichols, the second way to combat this latest form of voter suppression is to join the campaign to eliminate the Electoral College. This should have happened following the fiasco of the 2000 election. But inexplicably, Democrats did not push the issue. Of course, setting aside the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment. However the campaign is already underway and is advanced by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.

The third approach to Republican anti-democracy strategies is to make the gerrymandering of congressional districts a public issue. For a long time the courts have frowned upon the practice of drawing district lines to strengthen the hand of the majority party in Congress. However the judicial branch has been lax in giving legal implementation to its disapproval.

Granted, Congressional districts need to be redrawn on a regular basis. But redrawing should be accomplished with the goal of securing representation more reflective of the electorate’s make-up, and not in order to win elections for the majority party. To this end, the legal criterion of “compact and contiguous” should be reasserted as the fundamental guiding principle. All of this should be brought to the fore in public debate.

Now is the time to act on Nichols’ suggestions – while the memory of Republican voter-suppression tactics is still fresh in the minds of scandalized Americans. The electoral system needs reforming. There is no time like the present for beginning that process.

Jesus as Self-Hating Jew!

Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012713.cfm

Last week I published an editorial on my blog site that was picked up by the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://www.kentucky.com/2013/01/19/2482073/ky-voices-the-chosen-people-are.html) and by OpEdNews (http://www.opednews.com/articles/Unconditional-Support-for-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-130118-813.html.) It was about Chuck Hegel and the criticism he has endured from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and people like Elliot Abrams, the former Undersecretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration.

Hegel had been nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Obama. Abrams and the others had criticized the nominee for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and therefore unfit for the “Sec Def” position. Hegel’s critics were looking for “unconditional support” for Israel, and didn’t find it in President Obama’s candidate. Their criticism was so effective that Hegel has since been forced to apologize for his past criticisms of the Jewish-Zionist Lobby.

Many Christians probably felt vindicated by Hegel’s groveling before his Jewish critics. After all, they might reason, Israel is God’s Chosen People; they deserve unconditional support.

However, today’s liturgy of the word underlines the point I tried to make in my op-ed: the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed.

Biblically speaking, it is true that Israel did fit that profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). They were oppressed as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). Then, precisely as oppressed, they were the object of God’s special love and protection.

At Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in the law protection of people like them – slaves, widows,orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.

That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is recorded as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Bible) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. With Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful experience in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – eating rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.

Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews. When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue, it enraged his former neighbors. (Their response reminds me of Elliot Abrams and the AIPAC demanding “unconditional support” for Israel.)

By the way, did you notice the strangeness of the reading from Luke’s gospel today? It starts out with the very first verses of Luke, verses 1-4. There the evangelist announces his intention – to carefully draw on the oral traditions of eyewitnesses and present an orderly researched account of what Jesus said and did.

But then the reading suddenly jumps ahead to Luke chapter 4 and presents Jesus’ preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. That gives the impression that Jesus’ first significant act was that Nazareth sermon. Perhaps it was – since Luke’s “infancy narratives” belong more to the realm of poetic imagination than of history.

Today’s reading also leaves out the response of those who heard Jesus’ words in Nazareth. (And that’s where the theme of “chosen people” becomes relevant.) Verses 22-30 tell us that the Nazarenes were outraged by Jesus’ implied criticism of Jews and his openness to non-Jews. After all, he had charged that prophets like Elijah and Elisha found more receptivity to their work in Lebanon (Sidon) and Syria than they found among Jews in Israel.

“Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him. (Chuck Hegel is in good company!)

Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight? Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission. (The implication here is that anyone who brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind embodies the Spirit of God.)

Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.

Today’s readings are calling us to grow out of our nationalism that understands Jews or Americans as God’s favorites. They call us to become citizens of the world – or in Jesus’ words to be cured of our blindness.

He wants us to finally see, the readings suggest, that the Jews as such are not God’s people. Neither are Americans. In God’s eyes, (despite the protests of our politicians and talking heads) our country is not the greatest in the world. For in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American, Afghani, Iraqi or Cuban.

Instead, true followers of Christ recognize that our allegiance belongs to the Body of Christ. This means that our care should be showered on the widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, beggars, and social outcasts – LGBTQs, victims of AIDS, mothers on welfare, and on Mother Earth herself. These are the poor and oppressed. These are God’s people.

Our presence at this Eucharist represents our pledge to put the needs of those groups and individuals before our own.

Given the numbers of those who claim to be Christian, if we followed through on that pledge, how drastically different our world would be! Don’t you agree?

Mali for Dummies (Part Two: Mali)

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On Monday we saw that U.S. interest in the 3rd world (i.e. the former colonies) follows the pattern identified by J.W. Smith of the Institute for Economic Democracy. That pattern holds that:

1. Any former colony (or group within that entity) attempting to break for economic freedom
2. By establishing government representing the interests of its own people rather than those of the former Mother Country
3. Will be accused of terrorism or communism
4. And will be overthrown by military intervention
5. Or by right wing (often terrorist) elements from within the local population
6. To keep that country within the ex-mother country’s sphere of influence
7. So that the former colonists might continue to use the country’s resources for the invaders own enrichment,
8. And that of the local elite.

Following that sequence, U.S. and E.U. interest in Mali is driven by resource concerns, not by zeal for democracy or anti-terrorism. It is also motivated by competition with China for the resources in question (uranium, oil, and gold among others).

The indigenous Tuaregs represent an obstacle to the desired U.S. and E.U. access to those resources. The Tuaregs are secular Muslims – i.e. not fundamentalists desiring to impose Sharia Law. Since achieving independence from French colonialism in the early 1960s, the Tuaregs have been seeking independence from the artificially created Mali. Tuaregs want control of their own territory and its resources, presumably with the option of selling them to China. In fact, the Tuareg want their own country (Azawad). Presumably, Azawad would eventually be co-extensive with the Tuareg People who spill over into parts of neighboring Niger, Algeria and elsewhere in the region.

The Tauregs see Mali’s government as the puppet of France facilitating alienation of Azawad’s valuable resources from the Tuareg People to benefit France, the E.U. and U.S. To achieve liberation from such western control, the Tuaregs have organized a rebel army, the NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad).
In its drive for independence and control of its own resources, the NMLA was supported by Muammar Gaddafi. As a “Pan Africanist,” Gaddafi was a proponent of ‘Africa for Africans” and generally opposed continued control of the continent by the U.S. and Europe. (This was a principal reason for western demonization of the man.)

Many Tuaregs were part of Gaddafi’s army. And after its dissolution (with major intervention by the U.S. and E.U.), these Tuareg fighters returned to Northern Mali with many of Gaddafi’s sophisticated weapons. Their heavily armed participation in the Tuareg struggle enabled the NMLA to make strong headway against the government of Mali, thus causing concern to its European and American sponsors about unfettered access to the region’s uranium and other resources. In fact the NMLA gained complete control of Northern Mali, declared their rebellion successful and announced withdrawal of Azawad from Mali. As far as Azawadians were concerned, the rebellion was over.

It was not over however for the U.S. and France. In response, they facilitated a military coup to replace Mali’s president (seen as ineffective against the Tuaregs), substituting in his place a U.S.-trained military general. His new government [allied with the U.S. and E.U. (led by France)] encouraged Muslim jihadists (otherwise considered “terrorists” by the West) to rebel against the NMLA so as to weaken its hold on the country’s North. According to western sources, chief among the Muslim jihadists is AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

AQIM successes have created a cover for France (with support from the U.S.) to intervene directly in Mali under the claim of prosecuting its “war on terrorism” against the AQIM it had just used for its own purposes up north. However, the real intent of the intervention (as it has been for 500 years) is resource transfer to the E.U. and U.S.

And that’s where most of us dummies came in. The story never changes, and we’ll fall for it every time: We’ll also be expected to dumbly foot the resulting bill and eventually accept austerity measures to pay for it.

Mali for Dummies (Part One: General Background)

Are you confused by what’s happening in Mali? Welcome to the club. We’re probably all puzzled and feel like dummies overwhelmed by information pieces that provide a welter of names, dates, organizations and explanations that are complicated, contradictory and vague. As a result, we probably accept the “official story” behind France’s U.S. – supported intervention in Mali as promulgated by our own State Department, France, Algiers and others.

That story goes that “we” are fighting AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has suddenly materialized in Mali as part of a world-wide terrorist offensive that justifies the “Global War on Terrorism.” Well, if it’s a fight against al-Qaeda, we might reason, I guess I have to be for it.

I too felt drawn to just throwing up my hands and participating in the dummy syndrome of simply surrendering to government de-contextualized muddle and propaganda. But then I remembered what I’ve been reading in Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States. I recalled what I studied in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I drew on my recollections of Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America.

All of those taught me that the real justifications for invading the former colonial world rarely coincide with the stated rationale. It’s virtually never about democracy or protecting national sovereignty (though it might be about “maintaining regional stability” in lands where the median income is less than $2.00 per day!) Instead developed-world intervention is invariably connected with continuing the process of transferring wealth and commodities from the resource-rich south to the “developed” north. It’s about keeping the rich south subservient and impoverished.

In fact, as pointed out by J.W. Smith of the Institute for Economic Democracy, there’s a pattern to all interventions like the one we’re witnessing in Mali. In its starkest form, the pattern runs like this:

1. Any country (or group within a country) attempting to break for economic freedom
2. By establishing government representing the interests of its own people rather than those of the former Mother Country
3. Will be accused of communism or terrorism
4. And will be overthrown by military intervention
5. Or by right wing (often terrorist) elements from within the local population
6. To keep that country within the ex-mother country’s sphere of influence
7. So that the former colonists might continue to use the country’s resources for the invaders own enrichment,
8. And that of the local elite.

To put a finer point on all of that, the sources I have mentioned have taught me that the West is not interested in democracy or in the freedom of its former colonies. That’s proven by examining a short list of dictators the West (particularly the United States) has supported. The list includes Bonzer (Bolivia), Mobutu (Zaire), the Duvaliers (Haiti), Rios Montt (Guatemala), the Somozas (Nicaragua), Resa Palavi (Iran), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Suharto (Indonesia), Pinochet (Chile), Fujimori (Peru), Diem (Vietnam), Marcos (Philippines), Noriega (Panama), Al Saud family (Saudi Arabia), Batista (Cuba).

All of these are robbers and thugs. In fact, colonialism is little more than a system of robbery intended to transfer raw materials and agricultural produce from the resource-rich colonies to the “Mother Countries.”

European and American colonists initially achieved control of the colonies by military power. The power was used indiscriminately, viciously and “necessarily” since the colonies were overwhelmingly inhabited by tribal peoples who typically did not share western values. You just couldn’t do business with most of them. After all, they usually believed that their land belonged to their God and cannot be treated simply as another commodity. So at least since 1492 the West has engaged in a world-wide genocidal process of eliminating and neutralizing tribal peoples. We’re witnessing the latest chapter of that process today in Mali.

Because of the business-averse tendencies of most tribal people, the colonial process also involved identification of individuals or groups within tribes who were willing to sell out their brothers and sisters. Alternatively it consisted in identifying and exploiting rivalries between tribes. In either case the point was to employ cooperative local elites (frequently, it turns out, Christian and lighter skinned) who were richly rewarded for controlling and using violence to oppress their own people or rival peoples on behalf of the colonists. In other words, the favored locals ended up being mercenary puppets of the colonists during the colonial era.

Following the end of formal colonialism (1950s and ‘60s), the departing colonists typically tried to keep their puppets in control by rigging “free” elections to elect “the willing” who would continue doing business with their former masters on favorable terms. Colonial powers also arbitrarily drew up gerrymandered borders delineating colonist-created “countries” that separated tribal peoples from fellow tribe members. This was done in order to segregate natural allies from one another and to set them against each other in competing states. The result was the creation of artificial “countries” like Mali and Niger whose boundaries have little meaning for the tribal families they separate, while the primary loyalties of those families remain to their tribes.

The processes and consequences of all this are being demonstrated in Mali today as the French, attempt to reassert control of rebels in their former resource-rich colony.

(On Wednesday we’ll review the particulars.)

Save the Dates! A Lenten Series on the Historical Jesus

SON OF GOD

Today’s blog posting is an announcement of a Lenten course I will be offering beginning on February 20th. The course is sponsored by The Ecumenical Table of Madison and Fayette Counties and by the Berea College Women and Gender Studies program. It is open to all, and will be held in the Women and Gender Studies Center of Berea College on Wednesdays, Feb. 20th and 27th and on March 6th, 20th and 27th. (The Center is located on the second floor of Phelps-Stokes Chapel.) Sessions will run from 7:00 to 8:30. Here are the details:

From Jesus to Christ
The Quest of the Historical Jesus
(A Lenten Series for Seekers of an Adult Faith)

Course Description: This is a five-session Lenten experience of presentations by Mike followed by extensive group discussion. Its purpose is to enrich this Lent’s observance by helping participants to “meet Jesus again for the first time” – as thoughtful adults. To this end, participants will be introduced to the centuries-long “Quest of the Historical Jesus” and its importance to understanding Jesus and his relevance for our contemporary world – particularly to church, spirituality, and engagement with world issues. The course will focus on the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the four canonical gospels). Reflection on Mark will be facilitated by reading and discussion of Ched Myers’ “Binding the Strong Man,” a series of Lenten reflections first published in Sojourners Magazine. (Texts will be supplied). Mike’s blog-site series on the historical Jesus and on Mary Magdalene will give additional input (http://www.mikerivageseul.wordpress.com/). The hope is that along with course sessions, a prayerful reading of Mark’s gospel accompanied by the other sources will provide inspiring and provocative Lenten reading for all. Presentations will be supplemented by excerpts from the PBS series, “From Jesus to Christ.”

Session Content

Wed. Feb. 20: Paradigms of Faith: four approaches to the Bible and faith
Wed. Feb. 27: The Quest of the Historical Jesus: history, principles,relevance
Wed. Mar. 6: Stages in the Development of the Christian Tradition:Jesus to Christ
Wed. Mar. 20: The Gospel of Mark: Its purposes and political import
Wed. Mar. 27: Finding our Places in the Church: the church as caravan

Typical Session Organization

1. Film Clip: “From Jesus to Christ” (10 minutes)
2. Presentation by Mike (30 minutes)
3. Questions and responses (15 minutes)
4. Break (5 minutes)
5. Discussion of Myers’ reading (30 minutes)

Please mark these dates on your calendar. Make this Lent purposeful and focused.

Unconditional Support for Israel? Even God Couldn’t Pass that Test!

Bible

In last week’s debate about Chuck Hegel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense, the phrase “unconditional support for Israel” surfaced as the expressed or implied criterion for Senate approval of nominee Hegel. Individuals like Elliot Abrams and organizations such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) implicitly used that criterion to criticize the nominee for failing to offer such support despite Mr. Hegel’s unblemished record of voting for Israel’s interests. In doing so the AIPAC and its allies were evidently hoping to find receptive ears in the conservative Christian community which typically constitutes Israel’s strongest support-group on the grounds that the Jews are God’s “Chosen People.”

However, even passing acquaintance with the Bible shows that God himself (sic) never offered “unconditional support” of Israel, nor did the prophets, or Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the Bible’s stories are largely accounts of Israel’s infidelities, of prophetic criticism of those failures, of their severe punishment by God. (Prophets, of course, were routinely denounced, persecuted, and killed for not offering unconditional support to the Jewish state.)

Usually divine punishment came in response to neglect and mistreatment of those who arguably represent God’s real “chosen people,” viz. the poor and oppressed – the widows, orphans, and resident immigrants. In fact, it might be argued that the Jews were God’s chosen people only insofar as they made up a paradigm of the poor and oppressed when Jacob’s descendents were enslaved in Egypt and exiles in Babylon. Given that understanding, the Palestinians today far better fit the profile of “chosen people” than do Zionist Jews.

Imagine the changes that would take place in U.S. domestic and international politics if Christians adopted the understanding of chosen people as the country’s and world’s poor and oppressed. Imagine if they demanded that nominees for Secretary of Defense or of President (!) show evidence of unconditional support for inner city children, the homeless, LGBTQs, AIDS victims, and the billions on our planet living on less than $2 a day. Imagine if they recognized Mother Earth herself as oppressed by U.S. consumption patterns and demanded the reforms necessary for her unconditional support.

If Christians made such demands (as we should), our country, our world would be an immeasurably better place. Because we do not, but concentrate instead on a nationalistic understanding of chosen people, Christians end up aggravating the world’s problems rather than pointing the way to solutions.

It’s time to change, read the Bible through the eyes of the poor and oppressed, and make demands accordingly.

Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/011313.cfm

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.

Shame on NPR: Elliot Abrams Is Not a Trustworthy Authority

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Have you noticed the rightward drift of National Public Radio? I think it’s unmistakable. That hasn’t caused me to adopt Mitt Romney’s position on the station’s defunding. However NPR’s validation of spurious right wing commentators has led me to petition my local station (WEKU) to replace “All Things Considered” with Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” After all, the right has enough air space with its nearly absolute domination of AM radio.

Case in point: On yesterdays “All Things Considered,” Melissa Block interviewed Elliot Abrams about the pending appointment of Chuck Hegel, the former senator from Nebraska, as Secretary of Defense. Though a Republican, Hegel has been tapped by President Obama for this important cabinet post. His Republican credentials however have not prevented him from being opposed by neo-conservatives like Abrams who see him as “anti-Semitic.”

Abrams’ charge is based on Hegel’s criticism of “the Jewish lobby.” Apparently, the ex-senator is suspect not only for his use of that somehow objectionable phrase, but for pointing out that he had been elected a senator from Nebraska, not from Israel.
Additionally Abrams contests Hegel’s appointment because of the former Vietnam veteran’s seeming reluctance to endorse possible military action against Iran over its alleged nuclear ambitions. Hegel is suspect because he sees diplomacy and dialog as less destructive and more productive than yet another war in the Middle East.

Before voicing such opinions, Abrams was introduced as a former advisor to Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and as Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. What the NPR interviewer didn’t say was that Abrams himself is part of “the Jewish lobby.” He is also a convicted felon. Abrams, you’ll recall, was found guilty of criminal activity for his role in the Iran-Contra affair and was later pardoned by George W. Bush.

Also unmentioned was Abrams’ role as point-man in Reagan’s wider illegal U.S. policy in Nicaragua costing the lives of nearly 100,000 Nicaraguan peasants at the hands of U.S.-supported terrorists. I remember quite well his interviews during the 1980s when he endorsed Reagan’s ridiculous characterization of the vicious Contras as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” He also repeatedly (and falsely) described the Sandinistas as “totalitarian, Communist dictators.”

Despite such discredits, Block treated Abrams as a trustworthy objective authority from just another Washington think-tank. In reality, she might just as well have been interviewing Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy or Rush Limbaugh.

That NPR should validate Abrams’ commentary without reminding its audience of such important elements of Abrams’ biography is inexcusable. Similarly unpardonable is Ms. Block’s failure to ask the obvious: (1) Is there a “Jewish lobby” or not? (2) Might Abrams be considered part of that lobby? (3) Was Hegel wrong in identifying himself as primarily responsible to his Nebraskan constituents rather than to Israel? (4) Why has Israel (unlike Iran) not signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? (5) If Iran should be sanctioned and threatened for its alleged nuclear ambitions, why not Israel for its de facto possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons?

NPR habitually ignores such obvious questions. “Democracy Now!” never does. That’s why I tune in more often to the latter than the former.

Returning Home by “Another Way” (Not Herod’s or the Priests’)

Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/010613.cfm

Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany. The word epiphany means the appearance or manifestation of God. Today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East traveled through Palestine seeking the long-awaited manifestation of God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. He and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us a great deal about that God. S/he’s not what small-minded believers expected or even wanted.

That’s why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking a manifestation of the universal God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew and loved was nationalistic favoring Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood. So the nationalists were “troubled” when the universalists came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king transcending boundaries of all kinds. The wise men claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, they realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God to everyone who would listen.

The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the wise men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. Recall what today’s reading said: This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three kings) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.

Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.

Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?
Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions too. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.

No, for Herod and his allies there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly ecumenical face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.

Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” universalist consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of nationalism, which makes us see the other and the other’s understanding of God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent us from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of nationalism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.