When the Government Turns Criminal: Edward Snowden and the Good Samaritan (Sunday Homily)


Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT. 30: 10-14; Ps. 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 34, 36-37; Col. 1: 15-20; Lk. 10: 25-37. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071413.cfm

In his recent book about the parables of Jesus (The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus), John Dominic Crossan poses the question: What happens to your world when the “best” people act badly and only the “worst” do what is right?

That scenario seems to be playing itself out in the case of Edward Snowden.

Snowden, you recall, is the NSA contractor and CIA employee who last month disclosed a vast secret program of U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on individuals, corporations, and governments throughout the world.

The program (Prism by name) seems to violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Snowden made his disclosures three months after James Clapper, the Director of U.S. intelligence had denied its existence in testimony (under oath) before the Senate Committee overseeing the U.S. intelligence program. Snowden’s disclosures also followed hot on the heels of President Obama’s publically expressed concern that China was illegally spying on the U.S. in exactly the same way (though on a smaller scale) that the U.S. turns out to have been spying on China and its own allies.

For his troubles in exposing such lies, hypocrisy, and violations of the Constitution, Snowden himself has been designated a spy, traitor, and enemy of the United States – categories applied to its worst enemies. As a pariah in his own country, he has fled the United States and sought asylum in various countries including China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Snowden (and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International) alleges that if extradited to the U.S. he is unlikely to receive a fair trial, but instead to be tortured and indefinitely imprisoned like other whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning.

All of the countries just mentioned have histories less-than-friendly to U.S. interests, which they have each described as criminally imperialistic. Other “good” countries such as France and Germany have (under great pressure from the United States) refused Snowden asylum.

Meanwhile, James Clapper has not been charged with perjury, and President Obama has managed to deflect attention away from constitutional violations to the search for the fugitive Snowden.

In other words, the Snowden Affair presents us with a “Spy,” “Traitor,” and “Terrorist Sympathizer” obeying his conscience in his exposure of government crime. He has done the right thing. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, himself a constitutional lawyer, has been caught violating the Constitution, and the Director of Intelligence has been exposed as a perjurer. And on top of that, friendly countries often lauded by the United States as models of democracy refuse to respect International Law governing asylum seekers. Only the “bad countries” are willing to honor that law.

In this situation, the question Crossan posed earlier finds uncomfortable relevance: “What happens to your world if a story records that your “best” people act badly and only your “worst” person acts well?”

As I said, Crossan asks that question in the section of his book commenting on “The Good Samaritan” which is the focus of the gospel selection in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

The parable, of course, is very familiar. Almost all of us know it nearly by heart. Typically sermons find its point in simply calling us to be “follow the Samaritan’s example, treat everyone as your neighbor, and help those you find in trouble.”

That’s a good point, of course. But Jesus’ own intention went beyond simply providing an example of a good neighbor. More profoundly, it focused on the hypocrisy of “the good” and the virtues of designated enemies. As such, the story calls us to transcend those socially prescribed categories and look at actions rather than words of both the “good” and “bad.”

More specifically, the hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. According hero status to such a person would be unthinkable for Jesus’ listeners. After all, Samaritans were social outcasts belonging to a group of renegade Jews who (by Jesus’ time) had been separated from the Jewish community for nearly 1000 years. They had also polluted the Jewish bloodline by intermarrying with the country’s Assyrian conquerors about 700 years earlier.

Jews considered Samaritans “unclean;” they were traitors, enemy-sympathizers, heretics and even atheists. They rejected Jewish understandings of Yahweh and the Temple worship that went along with it.

And yet in the story, Jesus finds the Samaritan to be more worthy, more pleasing in God’s eyes than the priest or Levite. That’s because the Samaritan’s actions speak much louder than the word “Samaritan” would allow. He is compassionate; so Jesus approves.

In the meantime, the priest and the Levite lack compassion. Their actions condemn them.

They say that slightly more than 50% of the American people think Edward Snowden is a traitor and spy. And this despite the fact that his accusers have advanced no evidence to that effect – and despite polls that indicate a solid majority believing that the government’s surveillance program is objectionable if not clearly unconstitutional.

Today’s parable invites us to reconsider – not just Snowden, but our very understanding of the world and its categories of “good” and “evil.”

Perhaps we’re looking for the real criminals, traitors, spies, and terrorists in exactly the wrong places.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

13 thoughts on “When the Government Turns Criminal: Edward Snowden and the Good Samaritan (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Excellent. I agree 100% with your rationale here. And the juxtaposition of the Gospel account of the Good Samaritan is appropriate and very clear. Our government is run by evil people who commit evil actions in our names. I do not understand why more people do not see that. We are lied to about almost everything that matters to us. Worse, those lies have been enacted into laws, most of which are contrary to the spirit of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was right: we need a revolution every 20-25 years! I’m ready — have been for years. And I’m only 80 years young. We have prophets but we do not listen to or believe them. Instead, we persecute them, repudiate them and, destroy their families and, in some cases, cause them to ‘disappear.’


  2. Mike,
    You ask “What happens to your world when the “best” people act badly and only the “worst” do what is right?”
    Answer : You drive on. Many of us had to. And the “worst” became my best friends!
    People who represent the establishment, join a BOD, a Central Committee of an Institute, an Executive Committee, just like a swarm, a shoal, a flock or herd…their nature changes.
    In humans they defend their control, fight to increase their power and will become criminal to protest their status. They rise to the top thru sifting beginning at kindergarten, They often kill. They include popes, presidents, pickers, pushers – and preachers when their stoned….as KrisK would say.
    In that sense they differ from Nature which usually group to defend. I think it is related to an emergent behavior: and in humans a mob one.
    By the way I love Aliceny’s comments.


    1. Thank you — from one Mick to another. And I enjoy your comments — sometimes hard as they are. Don’t get some of the priest inside comments although our home was always open to many of them – diocesean and Jesuits included. They sat around the kitchen table with my father drinking Kentucky sour mash or Irish whiskey. And they let their hair down at which point we children were sent to bed! Never saw a stoned preacher that I know of. One of our Assoc. Pastors used to get high. He left and got married. Our loss.

      Our Irish pride in our roots run incredibly deep. My father was a Civil War and a family historian. When he began to age and get ill he wrote everything down for us, in longhand, no computer then. He had been a newspaper reporter at one time. My paternal relatives were from Waterford and Wexford (where the ‘black Irish’ come from he’d say). My maternal relatives were from Mayo which, as my mother said, got the worst of the famine. If one were to say that they were from Mayo they would hear the other person remark, “Oh, you poor dear….” My great great uncle taught religion in the hedgerows and never got caught, wily one that he was. He never emigrated, stayed there to

      continue his calling.


      1. p.s. If you have not yet discovered the late John O’Donohue check him out. You’re Irish so you must like poetry – especially Irish poetry. He wrote much about Celtic spirituality. I have never read such beautiful insights into faith and human nature as what John has written. He left the ministry after nearly 30 years I think and eventually married- happily. He had issues with the institutional Church, including its views on sex and women. He said the Church ‘is not trustable in the area of Eros at all.” And it “has a pathological fear of the feminine…it would rather allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests.” He was born in and continued to live in the West of Ireland and spoke Irish most of the time. Two of my favorite poems are based on the Rosary – on the birth of Jesus and one on the placenta. No sterile, bloodless, painless birth scenes here! They are the most beautiful, insightful looks at the ‘otherness’ of women that very few men I think could ever have – particularly an RC priest. Sadly, he died in 2008 at the young age of 53. His last book, “To Bless the Space Between Us,” was published posthumously. The book I mentioned above is “Conamara Blues.” Check them out.


  3. Mike-Comment #2:
    Just read the current issue of Counterpunch online. FYI: there are two articles you might want to read (1) The American Way of Torture and (2) Obama’s Amerika

    There is another article in this issue that I agree with: Israel’s Indigenous Invaders. I have noted your sympathies in previous posts for what I consider to be Israel’s war crimes in their years-old persecution against the Palestinians. I like the article. You may disagree. I cannot understand how a people who survived the murder/genocide of nearly six million souls cound then turn around and persecute another people – including torture that has been documented and photogaphed by Israeli peace groups (just like the ones we had in our country during the Vietnam war).No need to respond to my opinion on this article. I’ve already heard your point of view — and I must honor it!


  4. Mike
    I would appreciate if you gave Aliceny my email address.

    The Trayvon Martin verdict is extraordinary.
    Even the “closer to Boston than Berlin” Irish rte (Radio Television Ireland) is waking up to it…I cant wait to hear Amy Goodman tomorrow on demnow.org
    Other than the news bulletins BTW the rte (Radio One) quality is super and any of your readers with a “Mick” connection would find it most entertaining. It is regularly rated one of the world top English stations.
    http://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!0 jim


  5. Years ago, my minister at the time had an interesting take on the story of the Good Samaritan. He used to say that each of us is the injured person lying bleeding at the side of the road, and not to be surprised when help comes from the most unlikely people. Perhaps a different twist on what you and Crossan are saying, but similar result.


  6. Hi Mike,

    We exchanged emails about Rom 13:1-7 recently. Since then I came across this page http://thinkingpacifism.net/2011/05/01/romans-13-supports-pacifism/ The author uses the Book of Romans to argue that Paul sees the church as God’s social miracle of the peace growing in the midst of fallen powers-that-be, including the bit about subordinating ourselves (not necessarily participating in) government in chapt 13.

    The author also suggests pacifism could be regarded as a core tenant of Christianity – a sort of modern day equivalent to “shalom” in the purposes and priorities of God. Which I thought was excellent – see http://thinkingpacifism.net/2011/12/04/how-does-pacifism-properly-understood-work-as-a-core-christian-conviction/#comment-4327




    1. Thanks for the reference, John. I’m currently reading Crossan’s “The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus.” I find it very helpful. He has a good section on how Luke and Paul replaced Jerusalem with Rome as the new holy city and Jews with gentile Christians as God’s new people. Both Paul and Luke villainize the Jews and exculpate the Romans in ways that would have been quite foreign to the Jewish Jesus.


      1. Hi Mike,

        If I thought the case for Evolution has been proven and death was in the world ever since some first primordial soup, and if I believed God was so ineffable that He would never bother to intervene in world events let alone speak (and preserve) a true Word to us – then of course I would see any Church writings about Jesus as inescapably and inextricably limited by the worldview and political motivations of the founders and I would consequently become much more open to the speculation about such matters from the Jesus Scholars. But I don’t (not by a long shot), so I’m not. I had a brief look for a free article from Crossan and couldn’t find one but, even just calling up the Amazon review of the book you mentioned, I felt my initial interest shrivel up and die, after reading a rave review by John Shelby Spong (God bless him). It seems to me that most (99%??) of Christians would struggle with a universe without a living God in it and so – as I think I mentioned before – I am convinced that humanity’s personal encounter with Prince of Peace is primary in relation to humanity’s regeneration into being lovers of all.

        Finally, I wonder if you’d agree with this. It is a huge risk to educate the masses about the way their rulers manipulate and exploit them. Take the Arab Spring, which was arguably precipitated by release of information to the masses via Wikileaks about their leaders machinations, stirring up anger, hubris and hope for change. In my view, the anger was completely justified, but the hubris leading to violence was deplorable and the hope for change was/is/will prove to be mostly unfounded. Violence begets violence in a never ending cycle. The changes that come toward peace come from at least some of the people having a view that life is sacred and retaliation, vindictiveness and killing always wrong. This is the view of the Buddhists despite having no word or mental category for God. It was the kind of orientation guiding George Washington despite him being a just war theorist, when he in a most counter-cultural way, abdicated his power to set the United States on the road to democracy.

        What I think is needed is for pacifism to be acknowledged as a core part of the Gospel by the Churches, as they keep and reaffirm their belief in the Trinity and in Special Revelation. e.g. http://thinkingpacifism.net/2011/12/04/how-does-pacifism-properly-understood . Maybe the Jesus Scholars are doing their bit towards peace in their way – I don’t know enough to say they aren’t – but it is certainly not obvious to me that they are.



  7. Me again,

    Reading my post over again, I think the second paragraph above would make more sense if I had written,

    “The changes that come toward peace come from at least some of the people having a view that life is sacred and retaliation, vindictiveness and POWER FOR INDIVIDUAL AGGRANDIZEMENT is always wrong.”


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