Readings for Feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross: NM 21:48-49; PS 78: 1BC-2, 34-38; PHIL 2: 6-11; JN 3: 13-17 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091414.cfm
Today is the feast of “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” It might as well be called the feast of “The Exaltation of the Electric Chair” or of the exaltation of death row or of torture or terrorist martyrs. For relevance’s sake, we might today call the feast “The Exaltation of ISIS or Al Qaeda.”
That’s because the cross on which Jesus died was not only empire’s instrument of unspeakable torture and capital punishment. It was also the punishment the Romans reserved for terrorist insurgents against their empire. Among many others, biblical scholar, Reza Aslan underlines that point in his best-selling study, Zealot. (I recommend the book.)
All of that indicates that the Romans thought of Jesus as a terrorist – just as “Americans” do its enemy du jour whether we call them ISiS, ISIL, or al Qaeda. Let me repeat, Christians worship someone whom the quintessential empire (Rome) and its hangers-on vilified as much as President Obama vilified ISIS last Wednesday night in his address to the nation announcing yet another war. In the eyes of Rome and its Jewish collaborators, Jesus was a terrorist. They said he was stirring up the people and trying to take Caesar’s throne by force (LK 23:5, JN 19:15).
And yet, in today’s liturgy of the word, Jesus himself tells us to follow his example. You might say that he urges us to do what’s necessary to merit the charge of “terrorism” and even its punishment. That’s right. He says, “You cannot be my disciple unless you too take up your cross and follow me to Golgotha – or as we might put it, to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, death row, and ultimately to the electric chair or gurney to be lethally injected. That is, following Jesus means all of us should be traitors and rebels and enemies of the murderous state the U.S. has become. This is particularly true since our “leaders” have chosen the path of war without end.
However, (if we’re to believe the polls) instead of taking up our crosses, those calling themselves “Christians” have identified with another of the empires in the long line that has succeeded Rome. In other words, we’ve refused the project of Jesus who had more in common with ISIS than with the United States.
Think about it. Jesus’ “gang” was filled with insurgents. How could it be otherwise – poor working class men coming from the hotbed of rebellion in Galilee? They followed a man proclaiming “God’s Kingdom” as a world where Yahweh is king instead of Caesar. In fact, there were many points of convergence between Jesus’ program and that of Zealot terrorists. Like them he favored land reform, cancellation of debts, and justice for the poor. Both the terrorists of his day and Jesus opposed the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome. Both detested Roman occupation of God’s lands.
Even more, one member of Jesus’ inner circle was specifically called “the Zealot” (the 1st century equivalent of ISIS). Another’s nom de guerre was “Iscariot” [quite possibly a “sicarius” or assassin of occupation forces). Peter’s nickname was “Rock Thrower.” And James and John were fierce enough to merit the name “Sons of Thunder.” Recall that one of Jesus’ closest friends tried to cut off the head of one of Jesus’ arresters. Yes, cut off his head! Luckily for the militarized cop in question, Peter narrowly missed and only cut off the man’s ear.
But it was at that point, though traveling with an armed group (Think about that for a minute!) that Jesus made the pronouncement that separated him from his band of patriotic resisters to imperial occupation. It’s here that he departs from ISIS as well. He rebukes Peter for drawing his sword. Jesus said, “Put away your sword. All those who live by the sword will perish by it” (MT 26:52).
Those words should astound would-be Christians so ready to bomb, kill and live by the sword to an extent unsurpassed in all of human history. You’d think that if there’s ever been justification for using weapons, it would be to defend the life of a man like Jesus. But no, Jesus insisted that the way to liberation is not by taking life, but by giving one’s own life in non-violent surrender – an insistence echoed by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Last Thursday, the day following President Obama’s war speech, Amy Goodman ran a segment on “Democracy Now” asking the question, “What would Martin King do in the face of ISIS?” The segment recalled for viewers Dr. King’s 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. There he memorably called our beloved country ”the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html
King, of course, was right in 1967 when he spoke those words. They ring even truer today. Without the U.S. there would be no ISIS, no al-Qaeda. We’ve trained many of their troops; they’re using weapons the United States military has poured into the region. Without “America,” there would be no crisis in Ukraine evoking threats of World War III. Without U.S. unconditional support of Israel, there would be no “Operation Protective Edge” with more than 2500 Palestinians dead – mostly women and children. Libya would still be intact and so, of course, would Iraq. More than a million people our brutal military has slaughtered in Iraq would still be alive.
(Talk about transubstantiation! Everything our country touches is transformed into the crucified body of Christ. Wine people share at droned weddings and funerals in a sense becomes Jesus’ blood.)
So what would King do? According to Tavis Smiley who has just published Death of a King: the Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, King would urge a sharp turn in U.S. policy. Such repentance would entail:
• Confessing our nation’s responsibility for the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Assyria, Yemen, Somalia, Bahrain, Egypt, Ukraine. . . .
• Paying reparations to all those countries.
• Redirecting the billions (and trillions) wasted in war to health care, education, and infrastructure reconstruction in our own United States.
• Using presidential speeches not to announce further wars, but to lay out emergency plans for addressing the genuine crises that face us, viz. climate chaos world-wide and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
• Announcing expedited plans to wean the U.S. from the oil consumption that drives our country’s perpetual war policy.
In today’s second reading St. Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn which scholars universally recognize as encapsulating the belief of the earliest Christians. It’s a song about the Divine One choosing to appear in history not as an exalted king, but as a human being, a slave, and an executed criminal.
If we wish to find God, the hymn suggests, we should look and listen not to our presidents, but to “the other – those the Empire hates – and make their cause our own. It’s in the ranks of the oppressed that God’s Son is found – among empire’s designated enemies, among the enslaved, the tortured and those our “leaders” identify as terrorists.
Does this mean we are being called to somehow recognize Jesus in ISIS?
Yes it does. ISIS has legitimate demands. We need to talk with them, not bomb them. Followers of Jesus should be demanding that – even if it means being branded “terrorists” ourselves.