Jesus Would Have Supported al Qaeda Sooner than the U.S.! (Sunday Homily)

jesus  terrorist

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; LK 14: 25-33.

Did you have trouble with today’s gospel reading? I did. Frankly, it makes me wonder about Jesus’ attitude towards violence and armed attempts to overthrow foreign occupation forces like the Roman legions in Palestine – or American armed forces in Afghanistan or their authoritarian clients in Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

I wonder: whose side would Jesus be on in today’s War on Terrorism? I doubt it would be “ours.” Certainly, Jesus was not on the side of Rome. Instead, he was clearly sympathetic to Rome’s armed opponents. That makes me suspect that he would also have sided with those our own government deems “terrorists.”

What do you suppose that means for us and our politics?

Before answering, think about Jesus’ words in today’s selection from Luke. There Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies. He’s saying that we must hate! Yes he is. And the objects of our hatred must be our family members, down to our spouses and children. According to Jesus, we must even hate our own lives!

That’s pretty outspoken, hyperbolic, radical and edgy. In fact, his words make clear why the Romans and their Jewish collaborators in the Temple would have seen Jesus as an insurgent and terrorist. In any case, he was surely not the apolitical, domesticated preacher tradition later made him. He was not blissfully unaware of or uncaring about the searing resentment his people shared about Rome’s occupation of the land whose only sovereign in their eyes was Yahweh.

Yet Jesus’ words today also make it clear that he was not a violent revolutionary like the many other “messiahs” who sprang up in his 1st century context. As Reza Aslan points out, Jesus was not like Theudas, Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba and the rest.

Still today’s gospel makes it clear that there was genuine cause for concern about Jesus and his followers among the Romans and their Jewish clients in the Temple.

To begin with there were those “great crowds” Luke describes as following Jesus everywhere. In revolutionary situations, masses of people thronging about a charismatic troublemaker are reason for serious concern. According to U.S. standards under American Empire, it’s enough for local armed men in suspect locations to merely assemble to justify their being droned. And, of course, we know that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed (MK 14:43-52). Presumably others in the “large crowds” carried weapons as well. They would not have been viewed any more kindly by Roman occupation forces than their U.S. equivalents.

Then, listen to Jesus’ rhetoric as recorded by Luke. There’s all that talk about hating everyone near and dear to us that I already mentioned. That’s the second time we’ve encountered such language from the Prince of Peace in the last few weeks. Remember what we read a month ago about his coming not as a peacemaker, but to create division between children, their parents and in-laws? In MT 10:34 Jesus even said specifically that he had come to bring the sword. “I come not to bring peace” he said, “but to bring a sword.” If he actually said those words, how do you think they would have been understood by Roman and Temple authorities?

However, Jesus’ most dangerous statement this morning is the one about willingness to be crucified in order to qualify as his disciple. In occupied Palestine, those words had nothing to do with patiently bearing life’s inconveniences. No, in Jesus’ context, they could only be about opposing Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

Again, it is Aslan who reminds us that crucifixion was the mode of torture and execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So in a Palestine where rebels were crucified almost every day (sometimes hundreds at a time), Jesus’ words could mean only one thing: his followers must join him in opposing Roman occupation of their Holy Land and in doing so virtually seal their fates.

But then comes the non-violent “catch.” Opposition to imperial occupation of the homeland might be the duty of every patriotic Jew, Jesus implies. But that doesn’t necessarily mean violent opposition. Calculate well, Jesus says – like a man building a tower. Realize whom we are opposing. We’re talking about Rome. Its legions can mobilize 20,000 well trained and heavily armed troops on a moment’s notice. At best we have less than half that number. To avoid suicide, we must “sue for peace” like a wise king threatened by a superior force. In other words Jesus counsels a prudent non-violence to avoid a bloodbath.

Bishop Oscar Romero made a similar recommendation to the revolutionary forces of El Salvador (the FMLN) in the 1970s. He said he could surely sympathize with the anger of the FMLN towards the United States and its puppet regime in El Salvador. He could understand why peasant farmers might see violent revolution as their only option in fighting brutal forces of “order” which wantonly tortured and murdered women, children, and the elderly, along with teachers, social workers, union organizers, priests, nuns, and other resisters.

No doubt Romero would say the same today about young Egyptians opposing the U.S.-supported military dictators in their own country, or about similar insurgents in the U.S.-controlled countries I’ve already mentioned.

But, Romero said, such violence is suicidal in the face of the billions in arms supplied such forces of oppression by the United States. Better to resist non-violently. At least then, the inevitable ensuing bloodbath (the modern equivalent of crucifixion) will be smaller in scope.

In 1st century Palestine, Jesus was not the only one employing such non-violent reasoning. According to John Dominic Crossan in his book, The Power of Parable, strong non-violent movements of resistance to Rome characterized Jesus’ context.

These movements were sandwiched between two epochs of extremely bloody opposition to Rome. The first occurred exactly in the year of Jesus’ birth, 4 BCE. That was the year the Roman client, Herod the Great, died. Jewish freedom fighters seized upon the resulting leadership vacuum as an opportunity to rise up against Herod’s Roman patrons. Jewish insurgents captured the city of Sephoris, the capital of Galilee. In response, the Romans razed the city to the ground and killed everyone who might be associated with the rebellion. Jesus’ family in nearby Nazareth was lucky to escape.

The second period of extremely violent resistance to Rome occurred about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – just before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were composed. This time the Jews rose up against the Roman occupiers throughout Palestine. The Roman response? They utterly sacked Jerusalem itself, destroying its temple, and killing virtually all those who had heard Jesus’ words and witnessed his deeds.

In between those fierce chapters, Crossan says, there was a period of non-violent resistance to Rome. That’s when Jesus traversed Palestine and spoke so memorably about God’s Kingdom. According to Crossan, Jesus’ era represented a period of “massive, well-organized, unarmed, nonviolent resistance against Rome.”

That’s the probable context for Jesus’ shocking words this morning.

There’s so much more that could be said about all of this. To fill in the blanks, read Crossan’s book, along with Aslan’s Zealot, which recently topped the New York Times Best Seller list.

For today it’s sufficient to note the implications of Jesus’ shocking words. Personally, I’m so glad the church makes us face them. They show that Jesus was far more complex regarding violence than he’s usually made out to be. These difficult readings open a conversation that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Going forward, the conversation might well address the following questions:

• What difficulties do we have with realizing that Jesus situation vis-à-vis Rome was extremely similar to that of today’s “terrorists” vis-à-vis the United States and that Jesus himself was considered a terrorist?
• Is the “War on Terror” a real war or merely empire once again defending its right to plunder, torture, and kill with impunity?
• How is it that U.S. citizens end up supporting massive U.S. violence against “terrorists,” but that we find the latter’s much less injurious response (like the “Boston Marathon Massacre”) so horrendous?
• Put otherwise, how is it that U.S. citizens generally support the wars of their country which Martin Luther King described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” while demanding pacifism on the parts of those whom the U.S. attacks.
• Do the ones our government calls “terrorists” have the right to defend themselves against what Edward Herman has termed the “wholesale terror” of the U.S. and its allies? (See his book, The Real Terror Network.)
• Which terrorists do we support – our government and its brutal military or their victims?

What other questions do the readings raise – for you?

How about my reflections?

(Discussion follows)

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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.

3 thoughts on “Jesus Would Have Supported al Qaeda Sooner than the U.S.! (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Hi Mike
    Very changeling indeed. Eliciting from me a little provocative mental ramble.
    I feel it depends, as is often the case, how one interprets the Gospels. Who actually wrote them? It depends on differing research. Did Jesus say what is written or was is later interpolated to suit the writer. My favorite is the example of “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. The “in spirit” clearly being an add-on by the banksters or Goldmans of the day.
    I do not intend being disrespectful to those who may believe most or all of what Jesus said is not historical, but I feel if he said here what he is supposed to have said – that we should hate people – he did not mean it in that way. Even if it is understood in it’s historical context. The historical context is maybe the confusing element.
    As it stands the statement goes against common sense. We have since scientifically evolved exponentially, even in hermeneutics in spite of Vatican restriction – to the point if we now have a few cans under an apple tree we are not surprised if hit by a falling apple!
    It is against our nature to hate any of our family. Some even adore their grandchildren! (there are always exceptions but as I often say I give these short shrift.)
    Jesus may have been talking about Love. God-related love not “me/we/you” related love.
    I became a priest and resigned all in my own interest…with some fuzzy feeling in between. Some remained on in their own interest. All the people we love make us feel good. Our love is self interest dominated. We love what gives us pleasure and dislike everything that does not, or unless that in the future it will end up giving us pleasure. Or avoiding more pain – same thing. Like getting a tooth pulled! I try to be kind, gentle and giving. I have an image to maintain!
    What Jesus said, if he said it, was if one wants to follow him to the Source of Love (the end-game according to all beliefs) we have to do it in a totally selfless and altruistic way. Loving my neighbor as myself means loving someone more than myself – more than I treasure my eye or my liver! If Mother Teresa loved the outcast children because of the fame and good feeling it would give her, this is not the love/hate quality meant here. The focus or intention must be only on the level of God. All else is Ego – as just about all ancient religions and bibles teach. In Buddhism there is a saying which goes something like – true alms is when the giver gives in the dark and never knows who the receiver is or if he ever receives it, and the receiver never knows where it comes from.
    Once I got talking to an old monk (my present age!) in the forest who asked when was the last time I did something without my own benefit in mind? Was I capable of such an act? I am not sure. But I am sure it is something that matters. Are any of us sure! But he sure started me thinking.
    As to whose side Jesus would be on in the present terrorist game of Chinese puppets?
    That’s an easy one.
    I have no doubt whose side he would be on. I’m sure!
    Every Dublin taxi-drivers figured that out years ago.
    God would be on the side of those promoting “swords into plowshares”. Or of those looking for enough, not more.
    But when we try putting it into historical context we run the risk of missing the whole point.
    Maybe that was what the old monk was trying to point out to me.
    Ps I don’t agree by the way that most Americans support present US imperial policy.
    It’s the money mullahs pulling their string.


    1. There’s so much in your rich reply, Jim. I agree, of course, that Jesus was not a hateful person. Like you, I see him as promoting selfless love and being part of the non-violent movements of resistance to Rome that I mentioned in the homily (taking Crossan’s lead). I also agree that the historical Jesus has been so distorted by the New Testament authors that determining what Jesus actually said and did is highly problematic. But if there’s one thing we know for sure about Jesus, it’s that he was crucified by Rome. And crucifixion was reserved for insurgents. We also know that there was at least one Zealot (Simon) in his inner circle, and that at least one of them was armed on the night of Jesus’ arrest. It’s interesting to think about why the evangelists included all of that which didn’t seem to accord with the self-interest of their communities which were trying desperately to get into Rome’s good graces. It’s also interesting to think about why the church highlights these readings insisting that the whole Catholic world read them — twice in the space of a few weeks. Are they trying to cause headaches for homilists?
      And then we have those traditions about Jesus’ coming to bring a sword, not peace. All of that (and more) suggests that Jesus gave people reason to believe he did not approve of Rome’s occupation of Palestine any more than Islamists today approve of U.S. occupations and general interference in affairs in the Middle East and Muslim world. That’s the main point I was trying to make. Loved your point about Dublin taxi drivers.


    2. “The historical context is maybe the confusing element.”

      I rather think the confusing element is, as usual, primarily due to appallingly inaccurate translations and/or politically-motivated Imperial and religionist Roman Church leaders’ redactions and forgeries.

      “As it stands the statement goes against common sense. … It is against our nature to hate any of our family.”

      Deaf, dumb, and blind loyalty was doubtless the objective, not common sense. It would not be surprising to me if the “actual original” saying (probably accretive of multiple cultures, rather than historical) referred to ‘abandoning’ pagan or quisling-Herodian or Zealot-betraying family members, rather than ‘hating’ them.


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