It’s Time for Catholics to Employ the Shock Doctrine: Set Up Alternative Storefront Churches Everywhere


“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

As described by Naomi Kline, that’s been the motto of reactionary politicians forever. In her book by the same title, she calls it “the shock doctrine.” It highlights the fact that when disasters occur, it becomes possible for politicians to ram through policies that otherwise wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining approval.

9/11 provides the most obvious case in point. Its aftermath saw Congress gain quick endorsement of policies that its neo-fascist members have impotently lusted after for decades. I’m referring to the institution of a police state, to widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens, to the use of torture, to wars against oil and mineral-rich Muslims in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, and to the mass expulsions of foreigners from U.S. soil.

It was similar with Hurricane Katrina. Following its devastation, public schools were privatized, government programs of aid to the impoverished were shredded, and black neighborhoods were gentrified on behalf of wealthy real estate moguls and their clients. All of those were prominent among the “impossible” desiderata of Washington’s elite.

And without 9/11 and Katrina, they would have forever languished beyond the pale of prospect.

The argument here is that the mega-crisis of clerical pedophilia has opened the way for ordinary Catholics to apply Klein’s shock doctrine to an institution that has otherwise remained immobile even in the face of the urgent call of Pope Francis (in “The Joy of the Gospel”) for radical change at almost all ecclesiastical levels.

I say “almost all,” because even in his otherwise brilliant Apostolic Exhortation, the pope specifically ruled out the ordination of women. (He did not even mention abolishing the requirement of priestly celibacy.)

However, my point here is that the horrendous pedophilic crisis has cardinals, bishops, priests, and even the pope himself on the run. Consequently, the door has swung wide for those outside the clerical establishment to take matters in their own hands. It’s time for us to demand changes that would otherwise remain unthinkable for the fossilized ecclesiastical establishment.

First on the list should be the re-examination of all church teachings about sex from masturbation to abortion. And here the laity should be in charge. For it has become evident that a celibate clergy has NOTHING at all to teach us about sex. In the light of clerical pedophilia and its coverup, they should forever remain silent on the subject.

Put otherwise: precisely as celibates, the Catholic clergy’s knowledge of sex can only be either entirely theoretical (usually based on a medieval understanding of the topic) or gathered from illicit, guilt-ridden practice. As such it is invalid and should be ignored on principle.

Second on the list should be the elimination of mandatory clerical celibacy itself. Common sense tells us that it is connected with the perversions of sex-starved priests.

Thirdly, it’s time to admit the obvious, viz. that pedophilia would never have flourished under the leadership of women. In other words, the door has swung open to the otherwise unthinkable for the clerical boys’ club – to the ordination of women.

With all of this in mind, Catholics should take advantage of this crisis by:

• Refusing to let the pope and others to get away with mere apologies and discussions about what to do with pedophilic offenders.
• Insisting instead that as a good faith measure, the pope immediately declare his intention to phase out mandatory celibacy and to open the way for women to serve the church at all levels from priest to pope.
• Demanding the convocation of a General Council (under lay leadership) to re-examine the entire corpus of church teaching on human sexuality.

But how apply pressure to bring about such changes? (And it’s here that the Shock Doctrine applies to a heretofore immobile laity as well as the clergy.)

Let me put it in terms of my own experience.

For years, it has been evident to me and other progressives within my local church in Kentucky that restorationist priests coming out of the reactionary papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not meeting the needs of local parishioners shaped by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Those teachings, I reminded my friends, remain the official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

With that in mind, I counseled repeatedly that without abandoning our identity as Catholics, we should leave the local church building and open a storefront, lay-led Catholic Church down the street. We would become a “shadow church” with its own lay pastor, its Eucharistic celebrations, its on-going education programs, and its outreach programs to the local poor. I recommended that we publicly invite our entire congregation to join us, and that we notify the local bishop of our intentions. We would continue meeting in this way, I recommended, until changes were instituted that met our needs.

Our model would be the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (JMJ) Catholic Church centralized in James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God (which I reviewed here).

No one in our group of 20-25 proved ready to do any of that.

What I’m suggesting here is that the pedophilia crisis may have so shocked my sisters and brothers within my own community that they may now be open to follow the example of Brigid Fitzgerald, the priest hero of Patterson’s novel. She and her ex-priest husband opened a storefront church of the type I’m suggesting here.

I’m betting that following that example across the country and world would move local bishops, Pope Francis and the Catholic establishment to adopt something like the reforms I’ve suggested here.

So, let’s form our own JMJ churches. What have we got to lose?

A Reunion of Former Priests Underlines Deep Paradigm Shifts in the World, the Catholic Church – and in Myself


Last weekend, I experienced an event that made me realize yet again how much the world, my Catholic faith – and I – have changed over the last 50 years. All at once, I realized that my prayers had been answered: a new age has indeed dawned for us all. It’s all quite revolutionary. Paradigms that once guided me and my contemporaries both religiously and politically have dissolved before my very eyes.

The clarifying event in question was a reunion of Catholic priests most of whom were ordained in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I was in attendance since I too had been a priest. I was ordained in 1966 – after entering training for the priesthood in 1954 at the age of 14. Unbelievably to me now, at that tender age – as a high school freshman – I had enrolled in St. Columban’s Seminary in Silver Creek, New York. With virtually no experience of the adult world, I decided to give it all up to become a priest.

I changed my mind 22 years later. I left the priesthood in 1976, 10 years after ordination (for reasons I’ve explained here, here, here, here, and here). But it all means that I had spent more than 20 years in the religious life. I don’t regret a minute of it.

The Reunion

However, with all of that baggage, I found myself at this reunion at a former seminary in Bristol, Rhode Island – a place where, in 1960, I passed the “spiritual year” that candidates for the priesthood were required to experience. There, we had made our 30-day Ignatian retreat. We learned to meditate, fast, pray and discern God’s will. Today the seminary is a residence for retired priests.

Everyone at the reunion shared such experiences, though unlike me, few had begun their training as high schoolers. But all present are or had once been members of the Society of St. Columban – an Irish missionary organization founded to convert the Chinese in pre-revolutionary China. Though originally founded for China, Columbans were expelled from the mainland after Mao Tse Tung’s revolution in 1949. Thereafter, they moved on to work in 17 different countries, including Korea, the Philippines, Myanmar, Fiji, Pakistan, and various Latin American venues. Only relatively recently have they returned to resume work in China.

About 30 priests attended last week’s event – about a third of them still active priests, while about 2/3, like me, had long since left the clergy. Many of the “formers” came with their spouses.

Every three or four years, Columbans have held such reunions since the mid 1970s. This one, however, was special, since it marked the 100th anniversary of the Society’s founding in 1918.

Like all Columban gatherings of this type, the centennial version was characterized by reminiscences, jokes, laughter, plenty to eat and drink, along with questions and answers about what we and our families have been up to over the last 50 years or so since ordination. Name tags, of course were de rigueur. Nearly all of us have changed beyond recognition.

Religious Changes

But history was in the air. And a century of work called for placing the event in that wider context. Fr. Tim Mulroy, the Society’s U.S. regional director, obliged on the meeting’s second day. His remarks connected world events over the past 100 years with profound changes not only in the Society of St. Columban, but in its umbrella institution, the Catholic Church – and in everyone’s understanding of God, priesthood, and life itself.

The changes in question were provoked more than anything by the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when Pope John XXIII called a meeting of all the world’s bishops for purposes of aggiornamento – for updating and modernizing the Catholic Church – for bringing it into dialog with the contemporary world. That meant embracing modern scripture scholarship and honestly coming to terms with the scientific revolution, evolution, and developments in history, psychology, economics, political theory, and related fields.

Judging by conversations with my reunion colleagues, more than a half century of living with the resulting reforms has rendered our faith as unrecognizable as our wizened and deeply lined faces.

As outlined by Fr. Mulroy, here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

• China has changed drastically; it is now part of the global village. More than ½ million Chinese students are currently studying in the United States. Nothing like that was happening in 1918. To put a finer point on the phenomenon: China is waxing as a world power; the U.S. and Europe are waning.
• Ireland has similarly transformed. Many now even speak of that famously Catholic country as a post-Christian society. The clerical pedophilia scandals are largely responsible for Ireland’s loss of faith, though the transition from a basically rural culture to a more urban, globally-integrated one bears at least equal responsibility. It has introduced a level of materialism never before seen in Ireland.
• The teachings of Vatican II about the salvific value of other religions has called into question the very purpose of missionary endeavor. If, as the Council taught, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and tribal peoples all have valid understandings of God and can be “saved” (whatever that means), there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to convert them.
• The internet has underlined that same point. Moreover, the new atmosphere created by social media means that a strong on-line presence for groups like the Columbans has become even more important than preaching effective Sunday homilies.
• The priesthood has also changed. Again, pedophilia along with Vatican II’s revised theology emphasizing a “priesthood of the laity” has taken priests off the pedestal they once occupied. In the Society of St. Columban, there hasn’t been an ordination either in Ireland or the United States since the year 2000.
• Of necessity then, Columbans have become less western. In fact, there are now two classes of Columban priests: the over-fifties and the under-fifties. The over-fifties are found in Ireland, the United States and in Australia. Most of them are either in or about to enter nursing homes. Meanwhile, the under-fifties typically come from Korea, the Philippines, Peru, Fiji and Brazil. Gradually, they find themselves working in the United States and Ireland evangelizing the now-secularized countries whose priests once evangelized them! Global South clergy working in the U.S. bring with them understandings of mission, life, and family very different from what their new audiences have grown to expect.
• All of the changes just listed have meant that English-speaking Columbans (for reasons of self-preservation) are gradually transitioning towards membership in a lay missionary organization. And fully 80% of its new members are female. One can only imagine what this means in terms of altering the extremely macho, patriarchal culture I experienced growing up in a Columban seminary!

In sum, the centennial celebration of our clerical group caused all of us to face the undeniable fact that our world has been drastically transformed. The Catholic Church has changed along with it. So has the Missionary Society of St. Columban along with all of its members and former members. The last 100 years (and especially the last 60 or so) have altered our understandings of God and the meaning of life.

Spiritual Changes

Take my own case.

When I began my priestly odyssey, my faith was simple. I was certain that God was “up there.” His word was revealed in the Bible whose truths were infallible and valid for all time. I knew for a fact that the Catholic Church was in sole possession that book’s true meaning. My purpose as a missionary-in-training was to get others to see that truth, so, like me, they might get to heaven.

The “holy sacrifice of the Mass” was all important then. I believed that the words of a priest could call Jesus down to enter a piece of bread and a cup of wine. I believed in Jesus actual presence in the tabernacle of every Catholic church where I might literally sit before him and “visit” as I would an intimate friend. Similarly, a priest’s words of absolution spoken in the confessional could open the gates of heaven to sinners previously on the road to hell.

Sin, judgment, heaven and hell were inescapable preoccupations for me. My focus was on the after-life. The priesthood was a divine calling that would make me “another Christ.” What a singular privilege!

Today, I can believe none of those things with the simplicity of faith I once enjoyed. Instead, my idea of God has become belief in the universal presence of a creative Life Force in whom (as St. Paul put it) we live and move and have our being (ACTS 17:28). Other religions are just as valid and questionable as Christianity. I have no idea what happens after death. Heaven and hell are this-worldly realities shaped either by love on the one hand, or fear on the other. Like almost all other Catholics, I’ve given up going to confession. And my commitment to daily meditation has replaced the importance I once gave the Eucharist. I’ve been driven away from the latter by priests still promulgating a vision I can no longer endorse.

Political Changes

All of this, I believe, represents not only a profound paradigm shift, but a kind of liberation. Its process has been a gradual coming of age that is paralleled by a similar shift in the political realm.

During the reunion, that political change was reflected in conversations with my former colleagues in the seminary and priesthood. Almost to a person (there were a few exceptions), everyone was completely scandalized by Donald Trump and his politics that have impacted so negatively the migrant communities to whose welfare (according to Fr. Mulroy) all Columbans are committed. I mean, political remarks at our gathering were more critical and negative about the United States than I’ve ever heard before at similar gatherings.

It all suggested that at least many of my Columban friends had gone through political paradigm shifts like my own. Again, without speaking for others, let me admit my own swing from right to left. My friends may have experienced something similar.

Growing up, of course, and at least till my late twenties, I was a good American and quite conservative. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the pre-Vatican II American church responsible for my seminary education was so conservative, anti-communist and patriotic. As a result, I believed that the United States was a force for good in the world and that it had always been so.

Only afterwards, did events and study correct such misperceptions. For me, the catalyzing elements included:

• The Vietnam War
• The Civil Rights Movement
• Women’s liberation movements
• Study of Global South, post-colonial theologies
• Travel and study in Rome (and across Europe), Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Israel, and India.

All such experiences gradually revealed to me the truth of Martin Luther King’s identification of the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – and (I still find it shocking to write this for a polite audience) the challenge of the Nicaraguan Sandinista meme that the United States is “the enemy of mankind.”


A sad highlight of the reunion I’ve just recounted was a meeting with a former mentor of mine. Fr. Dan remains a Columban priest and at the age of 92 resides in the Society’s nursing home in Bristol. For the past few years, dementia has robbed him of his memory to the extent that in our meeting last week, he was unable to remember me or the time we shared in Rome, where we both completed our formal studies. (There, Dan had given me sound advice as I contemplated leaving the priesthood for which I had prepared since the age of 14. I remain extremely grateful for his wise counsel.)

In any case, Dan was always a maverick and I loved him for that. One time, he announced that if he ever made the rank of bishop (fat chance!) the slogan on his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”

As I left our reunion last week with the reflections and insights just shared, I couldn’t help thinking of the relevance of Dan’s motto. It applies to church and state as I’ve experienced them over my 78 years. Over those years, both the Catholic Church and the U.S. government have exposed us all to great quantities of b.s.

Thankfully, the events of the past hundred years (especially since Vatican II) have empowered us to leave much of that behind while retaining the friendships and quasi-family ties that have characterized the Society of St. Columban. The evidence I encountered in Bristol last week shows that (despite the ancillary uncertainties) we’re all better off for the process.

I’m grateful to my Columban brothers (and sisters) for the experience of last week, and for the continued friendship and support that have enabled us all to more or less approximate Dan’s ideal.

This Just in: Both U.S. Government & Catholic Church Confirmed as Crime Syndicates


Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 9:1-6; PS 34:2-7; EPH 5: 15-20; JN 6:56

Ironically, I felt some relief at last week’s horrendous revelations about the 300 Pennsylvania priests who sexually victimized more than 1000 children and young people over the last 70 years. The relief was similar to what I feel each day now as President Trump spews his venomous lies and implements his cruel policies to restore “America” to its good old days before the post-World II achievements of blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and social justice advocates.

I mean, the veils have finally been pulled back in both politics and religion. In this Sunday homily, though, it’s the latter that will be my focus, since I want to connect today’s Gospel reading with the priesthood and pedophilia.

Let me begin, however, with politics and its scandals that mirror and illuminate those of the church.

Politically, the deceits of Donald Trump have done us all a huge favor. They’ve forced us to face undeniably what our presidents, teachers, and media enablers have been doing for centuries. The revelations cannot be denied. What Mr. Trump is doing, they all have done. The only difference is that Trump’s predecessors didn’t admit it all so openly. But they’ve all lied to us about wars, elections, American ideals, and about their personal lives.

For instance, in the light of Mr. Trump, it’s now indisputable that the entire Republican Party is corrupt just like him. (The Democrats are not far behind.) By endorsing his racism, they reveal their own racism. They all routinely lie; they enrich themselves at public expense; they practice nepotism; they break laws, dishonor the Constitution, care only about their rich donors, and don’t give a damn about the rest of us.

The voting system is rigged against us. Republicans don’t even want everyone to vote. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to follow the Constitution after the death of Antonin Scalia, illegally stacked the Supreme Court in favor of corporations. For that reason, the Court’s decisions should all be considered invalid.

In other words, every branch of government – including the Fourth Estate – has been corrupted. As a result, we’re living in something like the Soviet Union, where NOTHING the government or media says can be taken at face value. (In fact, it never should have been.) Thank you, Donald Trump, for making all of that indisputable! It frees us up to work for outright revolution.

It’s the same with the Catholic Church, with Protestants not far behind. The widespread pedophilia among the clergy reveals that the faithful have been duped by the very people we were taught to trust as God’s representatives. (If there were at least 300 pedophilic priests in one state, how many have there been in the other 49?) All priests and former priests are now under suspicion.

And the hell of it is that these were the very teachers whose principal moral obsessions centered on sexual morality! They worried us about impure thoughts, pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, petting, fornication, adultery, birth control, abortion, and divorce. Since Augustine, they made us all feel guilty about the second strongest drive (after self-preservation) that humans possess (i.e. propagation of the species). In the confessional, we told them of our most intimate failings in that area. And they shared their sage advice on how to overcome them. These sex-obsessed “celibates” even advised couples about their married lives.

Could we have been more deceived? And what made all of that possible?

Those questions bring me to today’s Gospel whose content has traditionally be used by the Catholic Church to persuade the faithful that priests have quasi-magical powers. According to Catholic teaching, priests can change little wafers into the actual body of Christ. They can change wine into his blood. Similarly, in the confessional, their words can remove sin and open the gates of heavenly after-life to those who would otherwise be condemned to eternity in hell.

Can you imagine anything more powerful than that? No wonder priests were revered, and their faults, sins, and crimes overlooked!

More specifically, in today’s third reading, John the Evangelist has Jesus say

“Amen, amen, I say to you . . my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

However, as I noted in last week’s reflections, the words John invents about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood could not possibly have been spoken by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience. After all, drinking any kind of blood – not to mention human blood – was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law.

Nonetheless, by the time John wrote his Gospel (anywhere between about 90 C.E. and 110) the evangelist’s audience (predominantly non-Jews) was highly influenced by Gnostic beliefs. Gnostics – and John’s audience – were all quite familiar with “dying and rising Gods” and with the ritual practice of metaphorically eating the Gods’ flesh and drinking the Gods’ blood by sharing bread and wine. So, to them, Jesus could be explained in precisely those terms, even if it meant putting into the mouth of Jesus words that he could never have spoken.

Yet, the “real presence” that even John was concerned about had nothing to do with the containment of an infinite God within a wafer or sip of wine. John’s audience was worried about connecting with the long-dead Master from Galilee. How might they do this? That was their question. John’s response was “Do what Jesus did: share food and drink.” And he wasn’t talking about “the Mass.” Sharing of bread with the hungry is what makes Jesus present. In fact, “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh,” “wine” and Jesus’ “blood” are all interchangeable terms. It’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup with the poor that makes Jesus present.

Catholic fundamentalism and literalist reading of scripture denied such understandings as heresy. And that enabled priests to masquerade as magicians and eventually gave them the power to determine the eternal destinies of their charges. It gave them immunity in their own eyes and even in the eyes of their victims.

After the pedophilia revelations, who can believe any of that?

However, we shouldn’t be discouraged. I mean, realizing our deception frees us up, doesn’t it? Just as in the field of politics, it can help liberate us from the childish beliefs that ignorant, hypocritical liars have foisted upon us. I mean, what can we believe that either our politicians or our clergy have told us about ANYTHING?

What I’m suggesting is that it’s all up for grabs now. We have to think for ourselves, not only about our presidents, but even about God.

And that’s true freedom.

So, what should Catholics who still care do about the latest expositions of duplicity? For starters, here are some suggestions:

• Admit that the Catholic Church has been generally corrupted by the pedophilic scandal; like the U.S. government, it is a crime syndicate
• More specifically, recognize that the priesthood along with bishops, cardinals, and the papacy itself have been perverted
• In that light, boycott the church until it calls a General Council to institute reforms from the top-down
• Realizing that the pedophilic scandal would not have occurred under the aegis of women, demand not only their ordination, but their empowerment to replace men in roles of church leadership including at the highest level
• Similarly, demand the abolition of required clerical celibacy for Catholic priests

Yes: It is undeniable that the lies of Mr. Trump and the sins of our clergy have initiated a new era in our country and in the world. That shouldn’t depress us. Rather, it should inspire us to completely throw off the old and embrace new possibilities both politically and in the realm of faith.

The Missing Faith Dimension of the Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate

Jesus Communist

Democracy Now recently reported surprising results from a new Gallup poll about evolving attitudes in this country about socialism. The poll concluded that by a 57-47% majority, U.S. Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism.

Let me offer some reflections sparked by those poll results. I offer them in the light of some pushback I received over my related blog posting about the capitalism vs. socialism debate. These current reflections will emphasize the faith perspective that has not only shaped my own world vision, but that should mobilize Christians to be more sympathetic to socialist ideals.

To begin with, the Gallup poll results are themselves astounding in view of the fact that since after World War II all of us have been subjected to non-stop vilification of socialism. As economist and historian, Richard Wolff, continually observes Americans’ overcoming such programming is nothing less than breath-taking. It means that something new is afoot in our culture.

On the other hand, the Gallup results should not be that shocking. That’s because since 2016, we’ve become used to an avowed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, being the most popular politician in the country.

On top of that the recent 14-point victory of another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, grabbed everyone’s attention. Recall that Ms. Cortez defeated 10-term congressional incumbent, Joe Crowley, in her NYC race for the Bronx and Queens seat in the House of Representatives.

Socialist candidates seem to be sprouting up everywhere. They advocate a $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and tuition free college education.

Such promises seem to be somehow awakening Americans (at least subconsciously) to the reality that at least since WWII, similar socialist programs have become quite familiar. We’ve all experienced their efficacy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. We expect the government to intervene in the market to make our lives better.

In fact, since the second Great War, there have been no real capitalist or socialist economies anywhere in the world. Instead, all we’ve experienced are mixed economies with huge elements of socialism that we’ve all taken for granted.

Put otherwise, economies across the globe (however they’ve identified themselves) have all combined the three elements of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, with the corresponding and opposite elements of socialism: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. The result has been what economists everywhere call “mixed economies”: (1) some private ownership and some public ownership of the means of production (exemplified in the post office and national parks), (2) some free markets and some controlled markets (e.g. laws governing alcohol, tobacco and fire arms), and (3) earnings typically limited by progressive income taxes.

What has distinguished e.g. the mixed economy of the United States from the mixed economy, e.g. in Cuba is that the former is mixed in favor of the rich (on some version of trickle-down theory), while the latter is mixed in favor of the poor to ensure that the latter have direct and immediate access to food, housing, education and healthcare.

My article also went on to argue that the socialist elements just mentioned have enjoyed huge successes in the mixed economies across the globe – yes, even in Russia, China and the United States.

“All of that may be true,” one of my readers asked “but how can you ignore the tremendous human rights abuses that have accompanied the “accomplishments” you enumerate in Russia and China? And why do you so consistently admire socialism over capitalism which has proven so successful here at home?”

Let me answer that second question first. Afterwards, I’ll try to clarify an important point made in my recent posting’s argument about the successes I alleged in Russia and China. That point was in no way to defend the horrendous human rights abuses there any more than those associated with the successes of the U.S. economy which are similarly horrific. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In the meantime, let me lead off with a that basic point about faith that I want to centralize here. Here my admission is that more than anything, I’m coming from a believer’s perspective.

That is, without trying to persuade anyone of its truth, I admit that my Judeo-Christian faith dictates that the earth belongs to everyone. So, boundaries and borders are fictions – not part of the divine order. Moreover, for some to consume obscenely while others have little or nothing is an abomination in the eyes of God. (See Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31).

Even more to the point of the discussion at hand, it is evident that the idea of communism (or communalism) comes from the Bible itself. I’m thinking of two descriptions of life in the early Christian community that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. For instance,

Acts 2:44-45 says:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Acts 4:32–35 reads:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed is also important for me. He said that whatever we do to the hungry, sick, ill-clad, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned, we do to him. The words Matthew attributes to Jesus (in the only biblical description we have of the last judgment) are:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There is much, much more to be said about this basic faith perspective. But for now, let that suffice.

Now for the second point about human rights:

• To repeat: no one can defend the obvious human rights abuses of Russia or China. They are clearly indefensible.
• In fact, they are as inexcusable as the similar abuses by the United States in countries which are or have been U.S. client states. I’m referring to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and countries throughout Latin America and Africa. In all the latter, it has not been unusual for freedom of press to be violated, for elections to be rigged (think Honduras just recently), for summary executions to be common, for journalists to be assassinated in large numbers, and for dissenters to be routinely imprisoned and tortured. Christians advocating social justice have been persecuted without mercy. (Recall that infamous Salvadoran right-wing slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”)
• Moreover, while we have been relatively free from such outrages on U.S. soil, the events of 9/11/01 have been used to justify restrictions of freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Here the reference is to wiretappings, e-mail confiscations, neighbors spying on neighbors, and other unconstitutional invasions of privacy that seem to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. It is now even permissible for the nation’s head of state to identify the press as “the enemy of the people.”
• 9/11 has also been used to justify the clearly illegal invasion of at least one sovereign country under false pretenses (Iraq) with the resultant deaths of well over a million people (mostly civilians). Other countries have also been illegally attacked, e.g. Libya, Yemen and Somalia without due congressional authorization. 9/11 has further “justified” the establishment of “black sites” throughout the world, the “rendition” of prisoners to third countries for purposes of torture, innumerable (literally) arrests without charges and imprisonments without trial. It has even led to extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens.

Such observations make the general point that when countries perceive themselves to be under attack, they implement policies both domestically and abroad that defenders of human rights correctly identify as repressive, cruel, criminal and even homicidal. Russia, China, and Cuba have been guilty of such policies. But so has the United States in supporting friendly regimes throughout the world and by implementing increasingly repressive policies here at home.

Now consider the pressures that led Russia, for example, to implement its own indefensible repression:

• As the most backward country in Europe, its people had suffered enormously under an extremely repressive Czarist regime. [Czarism, in fact, was the model of government that most Russians (including criminals like Stalin) had internalized.]
• Following its revolution, Russia was invaded by a vast coalition of forces (including the United States). It was forced to fight not only the invaders, but Czarist sympathizers and anti-communists within its own population.
• The country had twice been invaded by Germany through Poland and saw itself as needing a buffer from its implacable enemies to the west.
• Its people had fought heroically against German invaders and though suffering 20 million deaths and incredible infrastructure destruction, it managed to defeat the German army and largely be responsible for winning World War II.
• During the Cold War, Russia found itself under constant threat from western powers and especially from the United States, its CIA, and from NATO – as well as from internal enemies allied with the latter.

My only point in making such observations was not to defend Russia’s indefensible violations of human rights (nor China’s, nor Cuba’s); it was, rather, to make my central point about the efficiency of economies mixed in favor of the poor vs. those mixed in favor of the rich.

As shown by Russia (and even more evidently by China), economies mixed in favor of the poor develop much more quickly and efficiently than economies mixed in favor of the rich. While both Russia and China became superpowers in a very short time, the former European and U.S. colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have remained mired in colonial underdevelopment. The latter’s organizing principle of “comparative advantage” has proven ineffective in enriching them, since it locks them into positions of mere suppliers of raw materials to industrialized countries. No country has ever reached “developed” status by following such principle. In other words, Global South countries are still waiting for that wealth to “trickle down.”

So, readers shouldn’t mistake the argument made by Wolff and others. It was not to defend the indefensible. (Even Khrushchev and Gorbachev recognized and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin.) The relevant point is about capitalism vs. socialism. It was to indicate that the vilification of socialism overlooks the achievements of that system despite (not because of) restrictions on human rights that are common to both systems in egregious ways that no humanist or follower of Jesus should be able to countenance.

My conclusion remains, then, that it is up to people of conscience (and especially people of faith) to oppose such restrictions and violations wherever we encounter them – but especially in our own system where our voices can be much more powerful than denunciations of the crimes attributable to “those others.”

On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

Three Unspeakable Descriptors of California’s Omni-Fire


California is on fire. Its 17 unprecedented conflagrations are predicted to rage out-of-control till at least the end of this month.

Despite such disaster, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of the catastrophe. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is a person, “Pope Francis.”

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change.” The term hardly crosses the lips of commentators covering the wild fires across an area larger than the sprawling city of L.A.

That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.) So, you don’t hear much these days connecting wild fires and climate change.

And that brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s.

Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial is not jobs, but money. It’s greed that drives corporations such as Exxon to accept destruction of the planet over appropriate response to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name is unmentionable in connection with California’s omni-fire. In fact, more than three years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.)

Yet, Francis’ dire warnings in Laudato Si’ (LS) remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic” leaders like Paul Ryan.

Worse still, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet, the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to not only to wild fires, but to the record temperatures, droughts and increasingly violent hurricanes now happening in real time. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain . . . The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only . . . be reduced by our decisive action here and now”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175). That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Their rationale? Such submission threatens profits.

But realities much more important than unspeakable profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith and morality.

In fact, the California fires and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

The California omni-fires demonstrate that truth.

The question is: why aren’t people of faith listening? Why are we not electing public servants who will simply recognize and respond appropriately to the disasters unfolding before our very eyes?

The Triumph of Socialism: Is My Family Squabble Like Yours?

Socialist Programs

Whenever I’m with my liberal Gen-X sons, the conversation inevitably turns towards the topic: capitalism vs. socialism. They see me as a socialist – a product of my times rooted in the post-depression era and in the 1960s.

Similarly embedded in the Reagan counter-revolution, they argue that socialism is hopelessly impractical. Their arguments echo Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum about capitalism, “There is no alternative.”

“Just give me one example of any country in the world where socialism has worked,” they demand. . . “See, you can’t,” they continue triumphantly, “because socialism might be great in theory, but it never works in practice.”

Well, I’m tired of that conversation. My dear partners never listen when I mention Sweden, Norway, Denmark, or Iceland. They don’t hear me out when I cite the wildly successful Mondragon workers’ cooperative in Spain. “Never heard of it,” they say.

Even more: they can’t even entertain the possibility that Cuba in comparison to other former colonies is actually the envy of most peers in Africa, Latin America, South Asia – and yes, Puerto Rico, which is part of the capitalist United States. People in Puerto Rico are far worse off than in Cuba. Of course, that’s because of the latter’s socialist system of education, health care, environmental protection, centrally-planned hurricane measures, efficient first-responders, and housing. And this despite decades-long, extremely active efforts by the United States and CIA to make the island’s economy scream.

So, in my argument here that socialism actually does work, I promise to minimize mention of those tired examples. Let me instead take the bull by the horns and simply say: socialism has worked in Russia, China – and (get ready) here in the United States.

There, I’ve said it. Now let me make my case.

[Before I get into that, however, allow me a word of clarification about capitalism and socialism themselves.

Neither system exists in any pure form. I mean, if we understand the three basic elements of capitalism to be (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, we must conclude that the system exists nowhere outside the world’s black markets. (And everyone considers those to be somehow criminal.)

Instead, especially since the Great Depression, all we have are mixed economies – i.e. blends of capitalism and its opposite on every point, viz. socialism. More specifically, I’m referring to capitalism’s inclusion of socialism’s own three basic elements: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) earnings limited by income ceilings or redistributive taxes. This means that Sweden has a mixed economy, so does Russia, China, Cuba – and the United States.

That is, at least since the 1930s, the world has agreed that capitalism cannot succeed without incorporating elements of socialism. And so, we have the U.S. government filling the role of the country’s largest land-owner; we find ourselves cherishing the Social Security System; and then there’s the IRS. . . Similarly, socialism cannot make it without absorbing the capitalist components of private ownership, markets, and incentivized incomes.

Does this mean that all economies are the same? Obviously, not.

No, what distinguishes the mixed economy of Cuba, for example, from our own, is that Cuba’s is mixed in favor of the working classes, while our economy in the U.S. is mixed in favor of the rich (on the familiar theory that the wealth they “create” will eventually trickle down to the rest of us).

In other words, what my debate with my sons is really about is this: can I offer an example of economies mixed in favor of the poor that have actually worked?

My answer is, of course, that I can.]

So, let me proceed.

Begin with Russia. Yes, Russia. When its revolution triumphed in 1917, it was the most backward country in Europe. Moreover, after the revolution, it faced not only its own civil war but invasions by anti-socialist forces including troops from the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, Italy, Romania, Greece, Poland, China, and Serbia. At the time, Winston Churchill said that the point of such incursion was to “strangle the baby in its crib.”

Add to that the fact that following World War II, Russia lay in ruins from Hitler’s devastating invasion. Nonetheless, the country’s heroic resistance to Nazism not only was the key element in defeating the Third Reich; it had cost Russia 20 million lives. Greater devastation can hardly be imagined, especially for a country attempting to emerge from cruel Czarist feudalism and to implement a system never before tried on a national scale.

However, despite such overwhelming set-backs, after only 40 years of “socialism,” the USSR assumed the position of the world’s second leading super-power. It was treated as a peer and rival by the United States, Japan and the rest of Europe. That is to say: in purely economic terms, Russia enjoyed success that was historically unprecedented.

In fact, the rapidity of its development remained unsurpassed anywhere in the less developed world – until the emergence of “socialist” China whose largely controlled economy today dwarfs that of the U.S. and Europe in terms of annual growth percentage.

None of this is to say that huge mistakes were not made by both Russia and China. Like the victims of capitalism, for instance in Dickensian Manchester and Liverpool, labor paid a huge price as an emergent system’s leaders attempted to develop a new economic form – industrial capitalism in Manchester, socialism in Leningrad and Peking.

The reason for such failures is obvious. All economic systems develop by trial and error. For instance, in Russia, socialist theoreticians had thought that the root of worker exploitation was found in greedy captains of industry. Replacing them with government officials would solve that problem. It didn’t. Instead, workers soon awoke to find that they had merely exchanged one set of oppressors for another. Very little had changed for them on the factory floor. After Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev was about changing that. So was Mikhail Gorbachev. In the end, though, it was all too little, too late.

In spite of that, however, the rapid economic successes of both Russia and China must be acknowledged. In this country, they never are.

But even more importantly, what is never acknowledged here in the U.S. is the success of those elements of socialism that were incorporated into our economic system with Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Recall that after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, capitalism was in its death throes.

Emboldened by the collapse, the U.S. Communist Party along with the country’s two strong socialist parties and powerful trade unionists led by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Workers)pressured F.D.R. with the following proposition: “Either you persuade your fellow upper-class Wall-Streeters to meet our (socialist) demands or you’ll be forced to accept a revolution here like the one in Russia.”

Roosevelt and most (though by no means all) in his economic class, found the argument distasteful, but persuasive. The result was the New Deal with all its socialist programs including Social Security, legalized unions, minimum wages, consumer and worker protections, universal public schooling, environmental protection, government-sponsored jobs programs, and eventually a G.I. Bill that provided free university education and healthcare for veterans.

The New Deal created a large middle class with an unprecedentedly high standard of living. That represented a triumph not principally for the capitalist component of the U.S. mixed economy, but for its socialist elements.

In other words, the U.S. provides a shining example of a place where socialism has worked.

But there’s more.

During times of extreme crisis represented by a truly threatening war such as WWI and WWII, even the most ardent defenders of “capitalism” in our country have chosen to implement “war socialism.” That is, they chose military conscription, wage and price controls, rationing, and direction of privately owned productive facilities away from luxury goods towards military manufacture. They chose to do so evidently because the central planning embodied in such measures is far more efficient than laissez-faire “capitalism.”

And finally, even Wall Street bankers, when it’s a question of their own survival, will opt for socialist programs every time. That was illustrated during the Great Recession of 2008. With the capitalist economy in its worse condition since the Great Depression, the Wall-Streeters all came to the government with hat-in-hand. They wanted a bailout that completely contradicted capitalist theory. The latter would have the inefficient among them fail only to be replaced by something better. That’s capitalist theory.

Behind the bankers’ socialist begging, however, was the implied recognition that such theory really doesn’t work. In fact, their petitions for bailout suggested that the actual implementation of capitalist principles would do irreparable harm to the world’s economy. It would ruin us all!

Keep all of this in mind the next time you get into an argument about capitalism vs. socialism:
• Neither system exists in its pure form.
• It is questionable whether either ever did exist.
• All the world has are mixed economies.
• The question is: will a particular economy be mixed in favor of the rich or the poor.
• Economies mixed in favor of the poor have historically proven more efficient in times of national crisis,
• And in raising the tide that lifts all boats.
• That’s been demonstrated in Russia, China, Cuba – and even in the United States.

I’m hoping my Gen-X sons (who btw have unsubscribed from my blog) may one day transcend their unconscious Reaganite roots to read and ponder this particular entry. At the very least, it supplies context for our interminable debate.

God’s Gift Economy: Food w/o Overwork


Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ex. 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps. 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Eph. 4:17, 20-24; Jn. 6:24-35

Allow me to set up this Sunday’s reflections with three items connected with the topic of over-work and wages. I believe all three are linked to today’s readings.

(1) Bonnie Ware, an Australian nurse working with Hospice International has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Nurse Ware worked in palliative care for 12 years. And during that time, she recognized an unmistakable pattern especially in dying men. As they talked of their past lives many of them expressed similar regrets. According to Ms. Ware, at least among men, the top death-bed regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working.” They regretted not spending more time with family and doing the things that make life enjoyable and really worth living.

(2) There was an interesting article in The New York Times few years back. It was about happiness and its connection with money. The article was entitled something like “How Much Money Does It Take to Be Happy?”
What do you think the figure was? The Times article said that while everyone recognizes that money can’t buy happiness, levels of contentment stop increasing once households reach a level of $75,000. As incomes increase beyond that, more money and the consumption it allows do not actually make people more content.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? It suggests that six figure salaries and the incomes of millionaires and billionaires might in the end be rather pointless – and not worth protecting (as many of our politicians seem so hell-bent on doing). Am I correct?

(3) In 2012, I published an article in the on-line news source, OpEdNews. The piece was called “Thank God for the Jobs Crisis.” Calling on authors like Jeremy Rifkin, J.W. Smith, and Juliette Shor, I argued that replacing workers with robots is actually a good sign. It indicates that the promise of what used to be called the “Cybernetic Age” has finally come true. Computers and robots have taken over the job market to such an extent that the only way to solve the “jobs crisis” is to share the work. That means that none of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could all share the work and put in four-hour days or three-day weeks. Alternatively, we could work for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage. We could retire at 40. And this would be possible world-wide.

We’d pay for all of this by cutting back the military budget 60% and by taxing the rich and corporations. Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place in the United States following World War II? We could reinstate that, I said. We could boldly restructure the economy and share the wealth that is there in abundance.

Please hold those thoughts if you will. They are about spending too much time working to reach income levels that don’t really make us any happier, and about the possibility of a whole new way of life that disconnects consumption from the type of employment many of us resent.

All three of those considerations turn out to be closely connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings. All three readings are about God’s economy of gift and abundance – unbelievable gift and abundance with no work required. The readings are about work, consumption and the power that faith supplies to break away from overwork, competition, scarcity, and fear that have most of us spending too much time on the job.

Consider that first reading. The Israelites have just been liberated from Egypt. It was an economy where God’s People were even more literally enslaved by their work than we are. (Can you imagine how many Hebrew slaves died with regrets about working too much?) But their slave labor, unsatisfying as it was, at least provided food.

In fact, the Hebrews were so bound to Egypt’s enslaving economy that they could hardly conceive a reality outside it. Who would feed them now that they were without work? At least they had something to eat in Egypt. The Pharaoh ran a tight ship there but put food on their tables. But who, after all, was this rebel leader, Moses? How would he feed them out there? Today’s Exodus reading says that the Hebrews actually resented Moses and his “false promise” of a better life.

And the story’s response? Through the provision of manna, God suggests the new order God has in mind not only for Israel, but for all of humanity. Unbelievably, God rains bread down on the people. No work needed. The main requirement: don’t take more than you need. Don’t hoard.

It was like Jesus’ desert feeding of 5000 in last week’s readings. The message: everybody deserves food whether they can pay for it or not, whether or not they work, whether or not they want to work. There will be enough for all, as long as no one takes more than he needs. (Actually, Gandhi said something like that: “There is enough in the world,” he said, “to satisfy everyone’s need, but not to satisfy everyone’s greed.”)

When you heard my proposal this morning about sharing the work, did you react like the Hebrews? “Yeah, right,” you might have thought. “When’s that gonna happen?” I mean, we find it almost impossible to break out of the mindset of overwork. We can hardly allow ourselves to imagine that God is so generous that overwork is not required to enjoy the good life. We can’t conceive of what we’d do if our needs were met without enslaving ourselves to those who would convince us that scarcity rather than plenty and abundance represent God’s way – God’s will for us.

Consider today’s second reading as well – still in the context of our work lives. There Paul tells the Christian community at Ephesus that the lives of those without faith are (in Paul’s words) “futile.” That’s because they are deceived by what Paul terms “desires” for more than they need. Those desires, Paul implies, always make promises beyond their capacity to deliver.

I don’t care what The New York Times says, the better off among us might tell themselves, $75,000 per household is not enough. Others say neither is a million or a billion. More is always needed. But, Paul points out, despite what our unbelieving culture tells us, beyond the point of satisfying basic needs, more actually adds little to our happiness. In fact, it can greatly increase unhappiness. It seems The New York Times agrees.

Such considerations have relevance to today’s political scene. So-called “experts” argue that there are not enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and cure the earth’s seven billion people. But, of course, that’s not true. Remember my reference last week to the U.N. study that said that a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 men (They are men almost without exception) could meet all those needs.

What if $100,000 or even a million were set as the highest income anyone was allowed to earn in a single year? If the Times is correct, no one would be any unhappier for it. And think of the resources that would be released to enrich the lives of those for whom today’s cybernetic economy can’t supply jobs. (Keep that in mind the next time you hear a politician resisting tax increases on the world’s richest.)

For Paul, it’s a matter of faith – yes even questions of taxation, I’d say. (And that brings us to that third point about a new future of abundance with greatly reduced hours in the workplace.) We used to believe in the world’s promise of unlimited more, Paul reminds his readers. But that was our old self listening. The New Self which we’ve adopted through faith in Jesus has learned God’s way from the Master not to mention Moses and the manna in the desert. And of course, God’s way is the way of the Kingdom – a world with room for everyone. That’s what Paul tells us.

The gospel of today’s liturgy completely supports Paul’s point. John the Evangelist has Jesus say “Don’t work for bread that perishes. Work for imperishable bread – those relationships with family and friends, time with your spouse and kids, the fruits of creative self-expression in tune with your unique gifts,” Work for those, Paul suggests, and avoid the “top five regrets of the dying.”

Don’t we all wish we could do that? However, to do so we must ignore that old self Paul refers to, and make room for the New Self to emerge. And what a struggle that is! It means actually believing that there is a Giver who will provide for us the way the Great Provider did in the desert with Moses and in the desert with Jesus when he fed the 5000.

Do we really believe there is such a Provider? Think about it in the context of work, deathbed regrets, money’s inability to make us happy, and structural unemployment connected to the digital revolution. What are the implications of that belief for our personal, familial, political and work lives? (Discussion follows.)