Marx and Jesus: The Trouble with Prophets


Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 1: 4-5, 17-19; Ps. 71: 1-6, 15-17; I Cor. 12: 31-13; Lk. 4: 21-30

I remember when my ideas about prophecy changed – when I really began to understand the term’s implications. I was a graduate student in Rome – already a priest – and completing my doctoral studies at the Academia Alfonsiana on the Via Merulana there in the “Holy City.” I was taking a class in I’ve forgotten what. But my professor (a German Redemptorist as I recall) got my attention during one of his lectures by referring to Karl Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.” That was in 1970 at the height of the Cold War, and I had been reading Marx and about the then-flourishing Marxist-Christian dialog. I realized that my professor was right.

Marx of course was a Jew like Jesus, and Jeremiah who are centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Like them, Marx was totally absorbed by questions of social justice for the poor and exploited. He was pretty much penniless, like most prophets, and spent his time thinking, writing, speaking, and organizing workers against exploitive employers. He was also highly critical of organized religion and its idols.

Marx’s insight (shared with the biblical prophets) was to realize that both Judaism and Christianity worshipped idols more often than the God of Israel. And by that he meant “gods” who not only justified an oppressive status quo, but who anesthetized the workers and unemployed to the fact that they were indeed oppressed by the capitalist system. Marx called such idols “the gods of heaven.”

We’re all familiar with what he meant. These idols are worshipped each Sunday – usually from 11:00 to 12:00 in what a theologian friend of mine used to call the “be kind to God hour.” You can encounter the “gods of heaven” any day at any hour on Cable television’s Channel 3 or in most Catholic Churches any Sunday morning. “God” there is concerned with correct worship, with bows, genuflections, and with correct terms such as “consubstantial,” “chalice,” “with thy spirit,” “under my roof” and so on. The stories or mythology upholding such idols have to do with “Jesus as your personal savior,” with “going to heaven,” and with avoiding hell.

Marx was also critical of what he called the “gods of earth.” They’re what people worship all those days and hours when they’re not in church. They include Capitalism, “America,” Nationalism, National Defense, Homeland Security, the Military, Money, and Profit. The issues of this God focus on sexuality: contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. This God is a War God – always on the side of “America.” He’s celebrated in songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Proud to Be an American.” He is the protector of “religious freedom” understood as privileging Christianity over other faiths while preserving tax exemptions worth billions each year. He blesses the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” concerned as it is with protecting such benefits.

Marx’s prophetic work made him extremely popular with working classes. It was not uncommon for a worker to request that he be buried with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” placed on his chest.

At the same time, Marx was vilified as the devil himself by factory owners, businessmen, bankers, and the professors and politicians representing their interests. Defenseless against such “education,” most of us have accepted such defamation of this last of the great Jewish prophets.

You see, that’s the trouble with prophets like Marx, Jesus and Jeremiah. They have to take on the “powers and principalities” of their cultures. They must swim against the torrential stream of public opinion.

In today’s first reading, Jeremiah is informed of his lot. But he must “man-up,” he’s told. He must steel himself to confront the “whole land,” along with kings and princes, priests and people. All of these, he’s warned, will fight against him. Nevertheless, God will make of Jeremiah a ‘fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass.”

I suppose God followed through on those promises. But that didn’t prevent Jeremiah from being imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. He was vilified, demonized (literally!) and defamed.

That process begins for Jesus in today’s selection from Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel. As we saw last week, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth and criticizes his neighbors’ narrow nationalism. In today’s episode his neighbors try to kill him. Later on, of course, Jesus goes more public. Like Jeremiah, he takes on his nation’s priests and scribes, princes and king. Ultimately his words and deeds threaten the Roman Empire itself which classifies him as a terrorist. Together those powers and principalities (national and international) not only defame Jesus the way Jeremiah and Marx were defamed; they actually kill him just as so many prophets have been killed from John the Baptist and Paul to Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

All of them – Jesus, Jeremiah, Gandhi, King, Paul and Marx – followed the same “prophetic script” whose inevitable directive prescribes that no prophet is accepted in her or his native place. It’s easy to see why. It’s because their “native place” bears the brunt of their prophetic words.

Meanwhile, it’s easier for outsiders to recognize prophets. The “outsiders” who concerned Jesus were the uneducated, poor, and unclean. However, even those seem to turn against him this morning. It’s unlikely that there were any rich or powerful resident in Nazareth – a place scripture scholar Ched Myers describes as “Nowheresville.”

Few of us are rich and powerful. Yet we’ve been schooled by those entities to reject prophets who speak in our name and defend our interests – those belonging to our “native land” to use the words of this morning’s gospel. It’s as though we’re looking at reality in that “darkened mirror” Paul wrote about in today’s excerpt from his letter to Corinth. The darkened mirror not only turns things backward, but it’s smudged with the fingerprints and dirt of ignorant and/or perverse propagandists.

The trouble – the trouble with prophets – is that most of us have bought into all that anti-prophet propaganda. So we hate Karl Marx without realizing that he’s on our side and speaks for us. We honor the Martin Luther King who has been reduced to a “dreamer,” but not the MLK who described the United States as the most violent and destructive country in the world. We don’t remember the King who was slandered as a communist and encouraged to commit suicide by the FBI and the COINTELPRO program.

We’re willing to stand by while Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange is persecuted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States. We presume that Chelsea Manning is guilty of treason because our government, (despite its record of lies and heinous crimes) says so. We wonder what all the fuss is about Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden.

These are the prophets of our time who, like Jesus, do not find a sympathetic hearing in their native place. It might be time to embrace them as our own and see what difference that makes in the way we look at the world and our country. The examples of Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul — and the hopes of the world’s poor and victims of U.S. wars — beg us to do so.

Family Troubles: Reflections on My Life (Part I in a series)

crazy dad

My blog has gotten me into lots of trouble lately with people I care about – family members, former students, and academic colleagues.  So I feel I owe them an explanation of where I’m coming from. It’s complicated. It has taken me a long time to get from normalcy to what my son-in-law terms “your father’s crazy theories.”

But before I get to that, here’s the trouble I’m in.

My recent review of the Broadway musical, “Hamilton” ticked off my children – all three of them. They love the play. Now they’re not too sure about me!

You see, I wrote off “Hamilton” as a reverse minstrel show.  Black and brown equivalents of Stepin Fetchit and Bojangles, I said, simply endorse the “official story” of American history. They prostitute their revolutionary rap music to celebrate their own people’s white oppressors like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and James Madison. All the while the actors ignore their own bitter backstory of slavery and “Indian” extermination. The audience leaves the theater royally entertained but with their prejudices not only intact but reinforced.

My children didn’t like that. Two of them unsubscribed from my blog. I’m too extreme, they said. “You’re always so anti-American. You’re as knee-jerk on the left as Rush Limbaugh is on the right. I’m tired of reading your “commie crap.”

A former student and a university colleague implied the same thing when they responded to another post, “In Defense of ISIS” (Scroll down this blog to January 19, 2015).

There I had tried to say that ISIS is much more than a group of pathological killers. They have longstanding historical grievances that go back 1400 years. Those grievances were aggravated over the last 80 years as Arabia was balkanized in a major act of “divide and rule” by England, France, the United States and others. Moreover, ISIS does more than terrorize those under its sway, I said. It also wins hearts and minds by providing a wide array of social services.

The colleague said I romanticized a brutal military force that controls by terror and gives aid only to those who agree with its viewpoint. (Which sounded to me a lot like the United States!)

And what about ISIS’ public executions and all those beheadings? That was the objection of my former student.  In one of those executions, she pointed out, a 20 year old son executed his own 35 year-old mother for apostasy. He did so in front of a crowd of hundreds apparently approving of his act. Tell me that’s not pathological, she demanded. (For my answer, scroll down to January 23, 2015).

And then there’s a close relative of mine who stopped talking to me when I pointed out that Muslim refugees shouldn’t be profiled or looked on with suspicion. They’re here, I said, because we’ve bombed their homes! We’ve done that in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. If we want to keep them out, we should stop the bombing.

But, she asked, if we leave, what would happen in Syria?

We have no dog in that fight, I replied. We should simply stop the bombing and leave the Arabian Peninsula to fend for itself. The only reason we’re there is for the oil.

At that point my dear relative hung up on me.

You see what I mean? I’m in deep trouble with everyone.

So let me explain myself. I want the series of articles I have in mind to show that my “crazy theories” didn’t just fall out of the sky. They’re based on life experience that has taken me all over the world, on what I’ve learned during my 40+ years of teaching and research, and on trying to think about all of that in a disciplined way. Be forewarned: my thinking centralizes a personal faith shaped by my allegiance to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and prophetic atheism.

(More next Tuesday)

When a Son Kills His Mother for “Apostasy”

isis-shoots-mother 3

A friend of mine recently raised a problem with my last post (“In Defense of Isis”). My argument, she said, didn’t account for ISIS atrocities like the son who shot his mother for “apostasy” while a crowd watched approvingly. Tell me that’s not psychopathic, she implied.

Good observation. So let me first elaborate my article’s reasoning a bit and then address the question of “apostasy,” matricide, and U.S. responsibility for the son’s action.

In my posting I had left aside the obvious – namely, that the United States has only itself to blame for ISIS’ coalescence.

Obviously, the group is a direct product of U.S. intervention. It is the result of “our” country’s fostering and directly supporting Islamic fundamentalism during the Russian war in Afghanistan. I’m talking about the Taliban and Mujahedeen.

ISIS also grew out of the complete dissolution of the Iraqi army in the wake of the absolutely illegal and criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its recruiting efforts are fueled by the relentless bombing campaign of the United States and its allies (especially Saudi Arabia) and by “America’s” (again) illegal extra-judicial drone assassination program which amounts to nothing less than an automated death squad. Recruits join because of Fallujah, Haditha, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Torture Report, Gaza, and images of U.S. soldiers urinating on corpses and the Holy Koran. Recruitment is inspired by America’s efforts to reverse the Arab Spring as it’s done so successfully in Egypt.

All of that should be obvious to anyone paying the least attention.

No, my argument was sociological and historical. ISIS, I said, is not simply a 20-30 thousand member gang of pathological killers who “hate our freedom.” The organization is much more complicated.  It is composed of super-patriots, the unemployed, adventure-seekers, directionless youth – and yes, of medievalist anti-moderns, mentally ill psychopaths and of those inspired by fanatical Imams misinterpreting Islam’s religion of peace.

In other words, mutatis mutandis, ISIS is just like the U.S. armed forces or any other military you care to name. All of them behead, have “chaplains” that motivate them religiously, and commit atrocities. The difference between U.S. forces and ISIS is one of scale with the U.S. easily winning the grim competition for sponsoring and implementing the most atrocious acts.

Instead, I argued that ISIS is the latest embodiment of a 1400 year struggle by inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula to secure Arabia for Arabs. Their efforts took on special urgency after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the subsequent colonial balkanization of Arabia led by England and France and later insured by the United States.

It’s that U.S. insurance and the Arab resistance it evoked that is intimately connected with the son who executed his mother for “apostasy.”

First of all, deal with the question of apostasy.  Here readers should check out the Atlantic Monthly article published last March. It was called “What ISIS Really Wants,” and turned out to be the most read article in the recent history of the magazine. The article pointed out that “apostasy” is really ISIS’ term for collaboration. So the son might not have been simply a religious zealot, but a patriot who put “the cause” ahead of his mother’s welfare. We don’t know.

Secondly, sons kill their mothers all the time – for many reasons. It’s not that unusual; our dictionary even has a word for it. I used it earlier, matricide. In our country, angry, out-of-control sons just shoot their mothers too. Or they stab them or they poison them. Mental illness is often involved. Sometimes the mothers are just too controlling. We don’t know what was going on with the Muslim son in question. In any case, he chose to take advantage of community hatred for collaborators with a U.S. supported regime.

And that brings me to my most important point here. It’s simply this: people in feudal, pre-modern, undemocratic societies ruled by anachronistic unelected monarchs act accordingly. Before the Enlightenment and during feudal times, good European (and American!) Christians burned witches and apostates at the stake. They fought holy wars (the Crusades) against infidels and to recover religious sites they considered especially holy. (And I’m sure angry sons, daughters, husbands and wives motivated by their faith turned over family members to authorities for torture and execution.)

Bottom Line: if you support a feudal order you shouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people end up acting like pre-modern medievalists or like Christians in Salem.

The cure for all of that is democracy and education. And that’s exactly what the United States and its allies have been thwarting in Arabia since 1918. The country needs to stop supporting medieval potentates and their feudal order. In effect, we should be dropping schools and hospitals on ISIS rather than bombs.

In Defense of ISIS

ISIS Defense

Imagine where America’s wealth would be if at the beginning of the 20th century Mexico had seized control Texas/Oklahoma, Japan had grabbed up California, England the northeast, Spain the south, and the rest of the country was divided into small emirates.

What would the response of Americans have been? Certainly there’d be resistance and rebellion. There would be attacks on occupying forces and/or collaborators with the colonial process by proud, well-armed Americans willing to resist external control “by any means necessary.” There would be bloody battles and excesses of brutal violence where both foreigners and their U.S. collaborators would be killed. The response would surely be called “terrorism” by Mexico, Japan and England.

This impossible scenario puts into perspective the confusing rise of ISIS which most commentators simply write off as a mob of pathological killers motivated to act because “they hate our freedom.”

In the historical perspective supplied by the U.S. analogy, they are much more than that.

In fact ISIS is a sophisticated resistance organization that is well funded and administered.  It not only resists foreign domination by any means necessary, it also provides day-to-day assistance for those impoverished by colonial process. In so doing it secures allegiance from many of those under its sway. These often prefer ISIS’ ministries to that of the U.S.-backed government, for instance, of Iraq. In many places ISIS provides health care, food subsidies, schooling and care for the elderly that is unattainable in Bagdad. These are just some of the reasons why thousands of Europeans flock to the ranks of the “Islamic State.”

More particularly ISIS might be seen as the militant wing of the Arab Spring that began throughout Arabia at the end of 2010. That movement in turn was Arabia’s latest response to the European balkanization of the region that took place with the end of the Ottoman Empire following the First Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War I) which concluded in 1918.

It was then that the European powers in a major act of “divide and rule” carved up Ottoman Arabia, renaming it the Middle East. The Europeans hewed out from a region previously governed by caliphs, sultans, and kings, modern “states” that in most cases never existed before.

In this way, the French colonized what they called Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Tunisia, Cyprus, and Lebanon. The British controlled Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, and Oman. Italy governed Libya.

After the Second Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War II), the U.S. took over as the stabilizer of the colonial New Arab Order. It maintained in power obedient feudal clients resistant to democratic movements. They ruled on condition that they grant access to oil, trade and seaports. If not, they would be removed. The result was enrichment for both the colonial powers and their royal clients, but impoverishment for the vast majority of local populations.

In this perspective ISIS represents today’s impoverished Muslim Arabs seeking the autonomy of the Middle East. Their goal is Arabia for the Arabs. ISIS is struggling to wrest its control from Europeans and Americans who have dominated the area since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

So it is a shallow mistake to write off ISIS forces as a mob of pathological killers with whom negotiation is impossible. To do so is to take one faction of a highly disparate group and universalize it as though it were the entire body. It’s like identifying Christianity with its most extreme faction, the Ku Klux Klan or the Tea Party for that matter.

In other words, there are sane ISIS factions with whom negotiations are possible. It is the task of diplomacy to identify them and to isolate the Klan and Tea Party elements depriving them of support. Bombing is futile.

The problem is: such observations presume a willingness on the part of neo-colonial westerners to cede colonial control and allow Arabia to belong to Arabs. And that in turn means weening western economies from dependence on Middle East oil.

For the arrival of that willingness and weening we should not hold our breath.

Democracy at Work and in Play: Capitalist Rams vs. Socialist Packers

On Tuesday , Stan Kroenke, the owner of the NFL Rams franchise decided to move operations from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

The decision brought sorrow and a bitter sense of betrayal fans in St. Louis who have supported “their” football team through thick and thin. For them the penny dropped: their Rams were not theirs at all.

The obvious injustice prompted them to chant “Kroenke Sucks!” when the move was announced during a St. Louis Blues –New Jersey Devils hockey game.

The chant showed that people intuitively recognize the problem. It’s the problem of capitalism: a single owner backed by a small group of similar wealthy stockholders can override the interests of an entire local community for one reason and one reason only — MONEY!

With capitalism, it happens all the time. A small board of directors (15-20 people) can decide to override the interests of entire communities — Detroit, Youngstown, Camden New Jersey — and move operations offshore to Mexico, China, Taiwan, and who knows where else? In doing so, the private owners devastate the abandoned communities. Yet they bear no responsibility for their actions.

They simply leave. They leave without reimbursing the community for roads built to service their facilities, for tax breaks granted, for plants constructed with community subsidies, for families destroyed by loss of employment.

And, once again, it’s done for one reason and for one reason only — MONEY! It’s the logic of capitalism.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

As economist Richard Wolff has indicated, there can actually be democracy at work. Democracy at work means that if workers shared ownership of their factories, they’d never vote to offshore their jobs.

Following Wolff’s logic, there can also be democracy in play — even in the NFL.

The case of the St. Louis Rams contrasted with that of the Green Bay Packers illustrates the possibility. Unlike the NFL Rams, Packers’ owners could never vote to move their franchise. That’s because the owners are the club’s fans themselves. So moving from Green Bay (pop. 104,000) even to Los Angeles (pop. 4.8 million) is out of the question.

More specifically, according to the Packers’ 1923 Articles of Incorporation, no single person can control more than 4% of the club’s stock. So these spiritual descendants of workers — the Green Bay Meatpackers’ Union — have no one like Kroenke to deal with.

Moreover, Incorporation Articles stipulate that profit from any (unimaginable) transfer of ownership must go not to individuals but to the Green Bay Packer Foundation which benefits community education, civic affairs, health and human services and youth programs.

There are lessons in all of this:

– Democracy at work and in play is possible.

– It is preferable to capitalism’s oligarchical tyranny.

– The traditional name for such democracy is “socialism.”

– Socialism can be successful. (The Packers have won more championships than any of their capitalist competitors).

– Maybe workers should be rooting for the Packers in Saturday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

– Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Hmm . . .

Pope Francis’ Encyclical: My New Book and a Lenten Program


I must apologize for my absence from the blog site over the last couple of weeks. It’s that I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a new book I’ve written about Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I consider the most important public document of the present century.

The 150 page book is called Understanding Laudato Si’: A Discussion Guide. (It is featured along with a “Buy Now” button on the right hand side of my blog homepage. The price is $8.15 per copy.) The book is aimed at people of faith who’d like to start or participate in discussion groups about climate change as the moral issue Pope Francis calls it.

(By the way, an “encyclical” is a general letter to the church as a whole. It represents the highest most solemn form of papal teaching.)

Laudato Si’ is unique in that it comes from the pen of history’s first Global South pope. So it is shaped by the experience of the former colonies (Latin America, Africa, and South Asia). It is heavily influenced by colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

More particularly, Laudato Si’ was written by a priest who comes from country victimized by the U.S.-supported “Dirty War” that the Argentinian Army waged against the pope’s homeland from 1976-1983. That war took the lives of at least 30,000 Argentinians – at least one bishop, many priests, nuns, and lay catechists along with union organizers, teachers, social workers and those suspected of supporting the democratic resistance.

No other pope has had such “Third World” experience of aggression at the hands of the United States. No other pope has been influenced directly by liberation theology – which has centralized the concept of “preferential option for the poor” that marks Francis’ papacy.

Read in that light, Laudato Si’ presents the world with understandings of climate change, economics (especially capitalism), history, theology, and church that are uniquely “Global South” rather than the European understandings that shaped the visions of Francis’ predecessors. All the other commentaries I’ve seen have overlooked those differences.

I’ve shared drafts of the book with friends. One wrote: “Your book should be in the hands of every bishop and priest and parish, as well as to the pundits we daily read and hear in the mass media.”

The great African-American feminist scholar, bell hooks, commented: “You make difficult concepts and theories accessible. The work itself embodies the spirit of inclusion you write about so eloquently. Bravo!!!”

A priest-activist working in the Appalachian region wrote:  “Congratulations, this is a winner! . . . You wrote an amazing book.  I read it and I remembered.  I thought about it and I learned.  I critiqued it, and I grew. . . Let’s see how we can spread the analysis.”

I’m hoping that my book will be used this Lent as a discussion guide in parishes throughout the United States.  It is currently under review by my own diocese of Lexington, Kentucky.

In my own parish, St. Clare’s here in Berea, we’ve made the following proposal for dealing with Pope Francis’ call to action. Perhaps readers of this blog might implement something similar in their own parishes:

Lenten Program, St. Clare Church, Berea, Kentucky (Wed. Feb. 10- Sat. Mar. 26, 2016)

The St. Clare Peace and Social Justice Committee proposes a Lenten adult education program that will centralize the Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’. Participants in the six week program will pursue the following goals:

  • Acquaintance and familiarity with the content and historical background of Laudato Si’.
  • In the light of that encyclical:
    • Sharpening awareness of the environmental crisis itself and of capitalism’s role in that predicament, as well as the parts played by U.S. policy, Global South theology, and the Catholic Church.
    • Rethinking the elements of each person’s Catholic faith including understandings of God, Jesus, church, and salvation.
    • Re-evaluating the relationship between a reconsidered Catholic faith and the environmental crisis.
    • Identifying practical ways of coping with the environmental crisis in the personal, familial, parochial, national and global dimensions of life.

To achieve these goals, each participant will:

  1. Adopt as a Lent 2016 practice, participation in six 90 minute group sessions discussing issues raised by  Laudato Si’.
  2. Sign up in advance for program participation. (Non-obligatory “interest cards” will be found in each pew on Ash Wednesday and on the First Sunday of Lent.)
  3. Before each meeting, read and reflect on the discussion guide adopted by the group (either the one to be provided by the diocese or Rivage-Seul’s Understanding Laudato Si’: A Discussion Guide).
  4. Actively participate in the discussions.

Program Organization

Feb 14:  View the first half of “Time to Choose” followed by a disciplined discussion. (“Time to Choose is a new 90 minute film by Oscar winner, Charles Ferguson. The film makes the case that we can combat climate change; that we have the tools and the knowledge to begin doing so right now.) (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 1-30)

Feb 21: View second half of “Time to Choose.” Discuss in the light of the Discussion Guide’s summary of Laudato Si’.  (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 31-50)

Feb 28: View lecture by economist, Richard Wolff on capitalism and the environment. Discuss the pope’s approach to economy facilitated by Chapter Two of the Discussion Guide.   (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 51-82).

Mar 6: View the first half of “This Changes Everything” (a new 90 minute film by Naomi Klein based on her book by the same name). Discuss in the light of Pope Francis’ “preferential option for the poor” as explained in Discussion Guide (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 83-100)

Mar 13: View second half of “This Changes Everything” in the light of liberation theology as explained in Discussion Guide. (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 101-140).

Mar 20: Discuss the Church as Caravan and practical responses to Laudato Si’.