The Dysfunctional Holy Family

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: Sir. 3: 2-6, 12-14; Ps. 128: 1-5; Col. 3: 12-21; Lk. 2: 41-52 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/123018.cfm

Today is the feast of the Holy Family. We’re used to thinking of it as a cozy group of 3, Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in ideal circumstances, the way we picture them in our nativity crib scenes. Or we imagine Jesus’ early life as we find it depicted in medieval paintings of the carpenter Joseph’s workshop. There we often find a loving haloed and elderly foster-father instructing Jesus in his trade while Mary smiles in the background.

However, if we take seriously the “infancy narratives” coming from Matthew and Luke, we must draw the conclusion that Jesus’ home life was more complicated than that. You might even say that it was “troubled” right from the beginning. So for the moment, let’s suspend disbelief surrounding the historicity of the narratives about Jesus’ early years. Let’s try instead to unpack the stories at face value. Doing so, I think, shows them to be quite relevant to our own experiences – especially to that of our family dysfunctions and to our own experiences of being no one, without face, identity, or power before the world’s problems.

To begin with, think about Jesus’ family, the focus of today’s liturgy of the word.  It wasn’t perfect. The holy family was larger than we’re accustomed to imagine. Joseph and Mary probably had 7 or 8 children. According to the gospels, Jesus’ brothers’ names were James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Jesus is also said to have had at least 2 unnamed sisters. On the one hand, a large family like that would have been helpful to peasant farmers, if Mary and Joseph had any land. On the other hand, a family of 9 or 10 people would have been hard to maintain for rural peasants living in a backwater like Nazareth. It is likely then that hunger and struggling to make ends meet was a major part of Jesus’ early experience.

Jesus’ country was also war-torn at the time when he was born, and that certainly impacted his family. At approximately the moment of his conception, the Romans had razed the city of Sepphoris, located just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee where Nazareth was located. Galilee was a hotbed of resistance to Rome’s occupation of Palestine. And a rebellion had erupted in Sepphoris about the year 4 BCE. That meant that the countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ conception. Inevitably, many young Jewish girls would have been raped by the occupying forces. Some see that fact as lending credence to an anti-Christian tradition claiming that Jesus was the product of rape of Jesus’ mother, Mary by a Roman soldier called Panthera.

In any case, Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have raised many eyebrows in the rural village of Nazareth. Town gossips would have snickered and talked behind their hands about the young girl’s “virginal conception.” We know for certain that Mary’s mysterious pregnancy put Joseph in crisis. According to tradition, he suspected she had been unfaithful and thought her condition reason enough to break off their engagement. We also know that Mary chose to leave town “in haste” and travel to the hill country of Judah to her Cousin Elizabeth’s home – possibly to get some distance from small village talk.

Once that problem was resolved, the holy family’s troubles continued.  There was the matter of Jesus’ homelessness at the time of his birth. For the occasion, Joseph and Mary had to make do with a filthy stable with all of its animal droppings, noises, smells, vermin, rodents and cold.

And things got worse after that. The story goes that the local king Herod ordered an infanticide of all children under the age of 2 in the area surrounding the place of Jesus’ birth.  For Mary and Joseph, avoiding such unspeakable violence meant fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night. It also meant trying to survive as immigrants in that far-off country – not speaking the language or knowing the customs, or feeling at home among those prejudiced against foreigners.

Once back in Palestine, things apparently settled down. However, the episode in today’s gospel reveals tension in the holy family that will resurface later in the gospels.

“The Finding in the Temple” is a coming of age story. At the age of 13, all Jewish boys would accompany their parents for the first time as a “genuine Israelite.” Each would then become a man, “one who goes up to the temple.” In Jesus’ time, the 13th year was anticipated by a year as a kind of preparation for the “big step” into adulthood.  Coming from a place like Nazareth, the boy from the country would have been dazzled by the splendor of the Temple with its colonnades, precious woods, unending polished steps, gold and silver candelabra. It would have been easy for him to wander away with other boys and become lost in it all.

His parents find him, we are told, easily conversing with learned men from the city whose manners, accents and clothing would have been intimidating to Jesus’ simple parents. And yet here was the country boy Jesus astounding the city people with the incisiveness of his questions and the wisdom of his answers. No doubt, the rural parents waited till they were out of earshot of their “betters” till they gave Jesus the dressing down they thought he deserved. The scolding may have lasted the entire three-day journey back to Nazareth.

His parents, we’re told in this morning’s reading, did not understand their son. We find out later on that the lack of understanding continued. At one point in Mark’s gospel, his mother and his siblings are described as thinking Jesus was out of his mind (Mk. 3: 34-35). This led to a formal estrangement between Jesus and his family. He more or less disowned them. When Jesus was told that his family has come to rescue him from his madness, he said in effect, “My mother – my family? That’s not who those people are. Instead, you (the outcasts, beggars, insurrectionists, prostitutes, unemployed, and ne’er do wells, who were his companions) – you are my real family, my real people.”

And yet today’s gospel concludes that Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. He advanced, Luke tells us in age and wisdom and grace before God and his neighbors. And that’s it. We hear no more about him for 20 years or so. He disappears. He becomes nobody.

And that brings me to the other part of today’s reflection – being a nobody. What does Jesus’ disappearance, his “hidden life,” tell us about the human condition?  According to our faith, Jesus was the full embodiment of God. Presumably, then, he had infinite power at his disposal. His world was as filled with problems as ours. There was Roman imperialism and the occupation of Palestine with its brutality, torture, rape, exploitation and oppression. There was political corruption among Jesus’ own people as the leaders of his time climbed into bed with the Romans. There was extreme poverty alongside obscene wealth. There was religious corruption. There was disease and ignorance.  And yet as far as the record is concerned, this embodiment of God did nothing.  For 97% of his life, Jesus did absolutely nothing!

Why? Do you think it might have been because, like us, he could do nothing significant about all those problems? And even when around the age of 30 he did finally emerge as a more or less public figure, what did he really do? He spoke some inspiring words, healed a few people, and worked some miracles that his contemporaries dismissed as parlor tricks. He provoked the authorities in a temple demonstration for religious purity and social justice, was arrested, tortured and executed as an insurrectionist.  That was pretty much it as far as his “public life” was concerned. Afterwards, the world pretty much continued as it had before his arrival.

I somehow find comfort in both Jesus’ family dysfunctions and in his “nobodiness.”  None of our families is perfect. Unexpected pregnancies, suspicions and jealousies dividing couples, financial struggles, problems with neighbors and gossip, displacement, lost and alienated children – it all seems about par for the course. I’m not even sure that Mary and Joseph didn’t wonder at times where they went wrong. There was a lot for them to process in their pillow talk as they saw their son hanging out with the wrong crowd, apparently losing his faith, and then getting into political problems they didn’t understand. My God, he finally ended up on death row! The black sheep of the family . . . .

And then there are our own little lives and their apparent lack of meaning. In the end, we’re nobodies, all of us. That’s what death makes apparent as we lose our physical form and minds and all that we worked for. We’re nobodies.  Few will remember us or think of us after we’re gone. We’re born, get married, have children, buy and sell a few items, and then die. And what became of all our hopes and dreams? What does it all mean?

Does it mean that it’s all O.K.; it’s all good? Does it mean “that’s life” – what it’s about? In fact, our vocation is to be precisely nobody instead of constantly striving to be Somebody. In the end, death discloses the truth about our vocation. It is the same as Jesus’ vocation. And that is to be open, faceless channels that disclose the presence of God in our very ordinary lives with their family dysfunctions and personal failures. It is to rise above such limitations or rather to use them to express the unbounded love of an apparently powerless God to those around us – especially to our family members who might not even understand.

Christmas Vacation in the French Alps!

I can hardly believe this. But here I am with my whole family in the French Alps for a skiing vacation at the Ski Loge Broski in Belleville near San Martin.

I used to be a skier. However, after nearly 50 years away from the slopes, I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to resume here at the age of 78. So, if anything, I’ll confine my skiing activity to the cross-country variety.

We arrived in France last Saturday. Our eldest son, who is now living in Paris, hosted us overnight in a very comfortable three-bedroom apartment.  

One of the reasons I’m especially happy to be in France is that it’s currently the center of what may well be a truly revolutionary movement not only in France, but across Europe. I’m referring to the Gilet Jaune  (yellow vest) protesters who have been demonstrating on weekends here for the past month or so.

In the course of our drive to Belleville, we encountered some of them who had occupied a toll station. The waved us through the facility without making us stop to pay. Anyone can see how that contributes to winning hearts and minds.

In my understanding, the Yellow Vests are very like the OccupyMovement we experienced in the United States beginning in 2011. Like the Occupiers, the umbrella issue of the Gilet Jaunes is what (outside the United States) is called “neo-liberalism.” That’s the lionization of deregulated free-market capitalism which benefits the 1% while demanding austerity from the rest of us.

It’s that austerity in the form of low wages, raised taxes on gasoline and cut-backs in social programs that has angered Europeans, most notably in France, Spain, Greece, and Italy – not to mention the Brexit advocates across the pond. People here are now talking about “Frexit.” If that occurs, it will signal the end of the European Union.

When we return to Paris next weekend, while others in my family will be visiting museums, I plan to attend the protests scheduled in the city center. To that end, I’ve been brushing up on my French. In any case, I’m sure I’ll be able to get along quite well in English.

Everyone in the country, I’m finding, has an opinion on the Gilet Jaune movement and is quite willing to share thoughts on the topic.

I’ll report here on what I find.

In the meantime, having arrived here only late last night, I’m off to explore the environs here in Belleville.

More later . . .

Ruth Butwell: In Memoriam

I had an apparition the other day. I saw my recently deceased dear friend and mentor, Ruth Butwell. She spoke to me.

Her medium was a book we both contributed to in 1990. It was called Democracy Watch, Nicaragua: Five Central Kentuckians Observe the 1990 Nicaraguan Elections. The book recorded the journals of Ruth and four others of us who in 1990 officially observed the presidential elections in Nicaragua. Those elections had the U.S.-favored, Violetta Chamorro, defeating Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). To this day, in some sense, I’m still reeling from the disappointment.

As I re-read Ruth’s sparkling diary and paged through the pictures in the book, vivid memories of her friendship and guidance came flooding in. There we were taking Spanish classes together, living with our working-class families, walking Managua’s dusty streets, visiting the offices of the Sandinistas and their opponents, touring farming co-ops and a prison, interviewing people on the streets, attending political rallies, talking with U.S. officials, and watching Nicaraguans vote in polling place after polling place. It was all as if she were there in the room with me as I read. And there was more. I recalled her not only as my traveling companion, but as my boss, the match-maker who brought me together with my bride of 40+ years, and as the dearest of friends.

I met Ruth Butwell in 1974, my first year at Berea College, where I ended up teaching for 40 years. Ruth was the Dean of Students at the college and therefore became my boss as I took a part-time job as the director of Dana Hall, a men’s residence there. (I also was hired to teach a section of a freshman course called “Issues and Values.”) Ruth played a big part in orienting me towards the Berea College ethos — “the Berea way.”

Very significantly, that same year, Peggy DuRivage also arrived on the Berea campus. Like Ruth, Peggy was a Michigander. The two of them hit it off immediately. In fact, the day that Ruth hired Peggy, she told her (with that twinkle in her eye) of this other Catholic who had just been hired – a former priest – whom Peggy might find interesting. (At the time, it was still unusual for Berea to hire Catholics – and even more so, a former priest.)

Of course, Peggy and I hit it off too. We got to know each other at the weekly meeting of residence hall directors chaired by Ruth in her office just off of Fairchild Hall. Ruth and her secretary and dear friend, Gloria Vanwinkle, saw what was developing between Peggy and me. (We both felt that they along with the rest of the residence hall faculty were watching us closely. Naturally, they were – and all smilingly cheering us on.)

And so, two years later, Ruth found herself generously hosting a wedding-day breakfast for Peggy and me and our guests at her home on Pinnacle Street. I remember that feast so well – a wonderful fruit salad, omelets, breads, sweet rolls, juices, coffee and teas. Ruth presided regally. Her mother was there too – and her children, John and Ann. (Then in 2016, Ruth reprised the event to help us celebrate our milestone 40th anniversary.)

But the wedding breakfast was only half the story. With the students gone in early June, Ruth allowed my mother and other members of my family, along with some friends to stay two nights free-of-charge in Dana Hall.

The night before the wedding, we threw a big party right there. The campus minister, Henry Parker, showed up. (He’d help us tie the knot the next day.) There was wine and homemade lasagna. My mother played the piano. Her signature rendition of “Bumble-Bee Boogie” was a big hit. Everybody was dancing. Peggy’s mom and dad showed everyone how to jitterbug.

No wonder Peggy and I remained close friends with Ruth even after she retired from the college around 1996. She was an important part of our life. To this day, we lovingly treasure her friendship.

All of that was great.

However, I got to know and love Ruth Butwell even more during our trip to Nicaragua. Throughout the 1980s, that tiny Central American country was in the news every day. President Reagan tried to persuade Americans that the FSLN was the incarnation of evil and and a direct agent of the Soviet Union. He said that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in general were “Marxist-Leninist-totalitarian-Communist-dictators.” They were about to invade the United States through Harlingen, Texas. Reagan called the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionaries (the “Contras”) “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.” Many of us who had already traveled to Nicaragua knew better. The Contras were terrorists pure and simple. The Sandinistas were champions of the country’s poor.

Ruth suspected all of that. So, when I asked her to join a fact-finding delegation that would double as election observers, she gave the invitation serious consideration. We would fund the trip, I said, by selling in advance copies of a book of the journals we’d keep during our 10-day stay in the country. And as soon as I could persuade her that the book would be of sufficiently high quality, she agreed to go. I was so grateful. Ruth enjoyed unquestioned credibility on campus as a smart, fair-minded, highly principled educator. Her contribution would help our book’s readers correct Reagan’s lies.

But those weren’t even Ruth’s main qualities. She was absolutely full of grace. She was extremely kind, optimistic, funny, and possessed of a wonderfully grounded sense of empathy and fairness – especially towards impoverished women like those we met at every turn in Nicaragua.

Her journal entries (nearly 50 pages in our book) also revealed her as a brilliant extremely perceptive writer with a gift for colorful description worthy of a wonderful novelist.

Here, for example, is the way she depicted buying a Coca-Cola on a Managua street:

“There are vendors of all kinds selling ice cream bars, Cokes, and water. We stop to get a Coke. Bottles are scarce, so the vendor is not going to part with the bottle. Instead, he has a large wooden wheelbarrow with a truck or box full of drinks perched above the wheel part. Down in the barrel is a 100-pound chunk of ice. The vendor has a metal shaving plane used at home in my dad’s shop for planning wood, but here used to shave up curls of ice from the big block. He scoops these curls up with his hand into a small plastic bag and pours a bottle of Coke or Pepsi (bottled in Nicaragua) into the bag. He deftly ties a knot in the plastic bag, collects 25,000 cordobas (about 50 cents) and hands me a brown balloon with two corners sticking up. Soon I see how to manage. I, like the others, bite off a corner of the bag with my teeth and suck the Coke out of the hole. At the same time, I push the liquid with my hands – sort of a liquid bagpipe. In the process, quite a bit escapes and trickles down my chin and shoots up my nose. Never mind. I am hot and dry and the stuff is cold and wet.”

After the Nicaragua trip, my bond with Ruth deepened through her daughter, Ann, and her son-in-law John Wright-Rios. During her sophomore year, Ann, was an outstanding student in my section of a “Great Books” course required of all second-year students. It was called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” Subsequently, I asked Ann to be my teaching associate in the same course. And, again she excelled in that role. 

Ann’s sense of social justice and the deeply-informed “preferential option” for the world’s poor are themselves testimonies to Ruth’s own global awareness, sense of justice, and commitment to on-going growth and development. Ruth was a wonderful mother.

Yes, my life (like the lives of countless others) has been and continues to be blessed by Ruth Butwell. Again, I consider her a mentor and shining example of the best traditions Berea College has to offer the world. Neither Peggy nor I will ever forget her brightness, intelligence, sense of humor, rock-solid integrity, and deep commitment to justice and peace.

I am so grateful for her apparition in my life — and in my memory.

The Canonization of George H.W. and the Elevation of the Bush Crime Family

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: BAR 5:1-9; PS 126: 1-6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:1-6

It all made me very sad. I’m referring to this week’s post-mortem celebration of George H.W. Bush. I was saddened not only because of a family’s loss, but because of what the event said about our country’s amnesia concerning Mr. Bush’s crimes.

Absent that forgetfulness, I saw the funeral as the transformation of a deplorable mass murderer into some kind of Christian saint. It demonstrated what’s wrong with our country and with its supporting Christian ideology.

I’m emboldened to make such irreverent observations because the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. They reintroduce us to the great prophet, John the Baptist who got himself martyred because of his own irreverent criticism of the royal family of his day. And the Bushes, who occupied the very highest offices in our country for 20 years [8 as vice-president + 4 as president (Bush 41) + 8 as president (Bush 43)] come as close to royalty as our country will allow. So, consider these remarks as coming from John’s voice in the wilderness. They may get me in trouble too.

In any case, I watched H.W.’s celebratory funeral unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the other side of the story that I and my students at Berea College had learned about the man back in 1990. That’s when participants in my Freshman Seminar section researched Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm disasters as they developed. We produced a book on it all: Eye on the Storm: Berea College Students Examine the First Gulf War.

The book was finally published in 2002 as Mr. Bush’s disgraced son prepared for the even more disastrous Second Gulf War. Here’s how the book-jacket blurb described our work:

“This book shows how the Gulf War was motivated by greed for oil, how it violated elementary ethical principles, and even more elementary human rights. Additionally, this study indicates how such motivations and violations were papered over by a basically uncritical, cheerleading press.

But not all Americans joined in the cheers. There was significant opposition to the war throughout the United States. That opposition surfaced strongly at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. There, teach-ins and rallies were held regularly; many students traveled to Washington to join the national protest; General Studies courses focused on understanding the war. One student, whose essay appears in this volume, spent days encamped in front of Berea College’s administration building to make his dissenting voice heard.

That voice and the others appearing in this volume, deserve to be heard. So do dissenting voices today, at Berea and throughout the country. For the Bush war on our immediate horizon threatens not simply to repeat the history of twelve years ago, but to make its horror seem benign.”

Right now, all of that seems eerily prophetic – especially in the light of Bush 43’s indirect creation of ISIS, the absolute devastation of Iraq, and the more-than-one-million deaths caused by his war of aggression.

But before I get to what I and my students learned about W’s father, think of the contrasting story we heard and witnessed about the patriarch last week. 

“He was such a good and noble man,” all the mainstream commentators seemed to whisper in hushed and reverent chorale refrain. “A class act,” Ms. Clinton said. “I so admire his family – so dignified even in mourning,”others gushed. “He was so unlike the present occupant of the White House.” “There’ll never be another like him – such a statesman. “A wonderful father,” Mr. Bush’s son (the greatest war criminal of the 21st century) proclaimed from a pulpit of all places!

That’s what we heard. What we saw was even worse.

All the surviving war-criminal heads of American Empire had come together in Washington’s National Cathedral to normalize a mafia don and invoke God in doing so. There they were: Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and Donald Trump. As Chomsky has said, they’re all war lords and mass murderers, every one of them.  

But each had his church game-face on as if they themselves were followers rather than enemies of the non-violent Jesus who was ironically a victim of imperialists exactly like themselves. That’s right: Jesus was tortured and executed in an imperialized province – his own day’s equivalent of our oligarchs’ killing fields in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

But there they all sat solemnly honoring one of their own – a rich patrician, a CIA spook, an inveterate racist, a bald-faced liar, and contemptible war criminal. So, we heard the prayers (I’m not sure addressed to whom); we witnessed the crime- boss’ canonization, and our hearts went out to the members of the Bush crime family.

And yes, we all listened in respectful silence. Instead, all of us should have been shouting “Shame! Shame!”

And that returns me to my students’ research. What we discovered was eye-opening. We found out that:

  • George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, did business with the Nazis during World War II. In other words, President Bush came from a right-wing Nazi-sympathizer family. (Can you imagine the dinner-table-conversations young George overheard and participated in?)
  • Bush was a racist and misogynist. He pioneered dog-whistle campaign tactics to become POTUS through his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. He opposed Anita Hill in her testimony against his SCOTUS appointee, Clarence Thomas. (We later learned that Mr. Bush was a serial groper as well.)
  • H.W. was the first ex-CIA Director (1976-’77) to become U.S. president – having served as Vice-President during Ronald Reagan’s genocidal war of terror in Central America which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. In those official capacities, and contradicting the hypocritical “war on drugs,” Bush employed the drug cartel boss, Manuel Noriega, as a CIA asset. He looked the other way as Noriega dealt drugs that eventually ended up in the veins of U.S. citizens.
  • Then just before leaving office, Mr. Bush pardoned his Iran-Contra co-conspirators — the ones responsible for all those Central American deaths.   
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega (1989) when the Panamanian leader got too independent for his own good. In the process Bush oversaw the killing of anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 impoverished and unarmed Panamanians in the country’s poorest neighborhood. He destroyed the Panamanian Army so that the U.S. would have reason to stay on after a recently-signed treaty turned over ownership of the Panama Canal to local authorities. 
  • According to a long-standing goal articulated in 1988 by Miles Ignotus, the real reason for Bush’s First Persian Gulf War (1990-’91) was to “Seize Arab Oil.”
  • To that end, Bush induced former CIA asset, Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait by allowing his ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to mislead Saddam into believing that the Bush administration would not interfere with his invasion of Kuwait.
  • Bush also manipulated U.S. public opinion by using a 15-year-old “eye-witness” from Iraq to falsely allege that Iraqi soldiers tore infants from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Bush’s lies swung national opinion in favor of his war.  
  • In the first Gulf War, Bush oversaw the slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers, shooting untold (literally!) thousands of them in the back in what perpetrators described as a “turkey shoot.”
  • In a clear effort to dispel the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Mr. Bush elevated the concept of “fake news” to an entirely new level by strictly controlling reporters’ access to combat zones in Panama and Iraq.

That last point deserves special notice, because of my daughter Maggie’s contribution to my class’ study of the Persian Gulf War. At the time of our work, Maggie was in the 6th grade at our local Berea Community School (BCS). For her science project that year, we decided to study the war’s coverage by our local Lexington Herald-Leader.

Together, we collected and examined all editions of the paper from day-one to the war’s official end. We categorized its news accounts, editorials, and cartoons as pro-war, anti-war, or simply descriptive. We counted words and measured column inches.

As you might expect, Maggie found that Bush’s implementation of his “embedded journalist” strategy proved completely successful in his prescient creation of fake news and alternative facts. Words criticizing the war were few and far between. But Maggie’s project ended up achieving recognition beyond BCS. It got her into a regional competition for best science project. As a result, she was exposed to the concept of fake, state-controlled news long before Donald Trump. So were the judges who reviewed her work.

It was all so ironic, isn’t it — transforming a war criminal into a noble saint?  It’s a complete distortion of American history – not to mention of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself.

But what else can we expect in a nation whose entire people have been systematically taught to ignore what all our leaders have done without exception at least since World War II. None of them deserve our admiration.

Our “Christian” leaders are not much better. They’ve wedded themselves to blood-thirsty, deceptive regimes. They’ve sent the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth down Orwell’s memory hole. In his place they would have us worship as our saviors the rich white patricians who rob us blind while terrorizing and exterminating poor red, yellow, brown and black people across the globe?

As John the Baptist might say, “Shame! Shame!”

On the Brink of Apocalypse: Lock Him Up (and Obama & Hillary too)

Readings for 1st Sunday ofAdvent: Jer. 33:14-16; Ps. 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thes. 3: 12-4:2; Lk. 21:25-28, 34-35 

We’re standing on the brink of Apocalypse. I don’t mean the end of the world. I’m talking about the end of empire.

That’s the point I tried to make here two weeks ago, when our Sunday liturgies began featuring apocalyptic readings from both the Jewish and Christian Testaments. That’s what the biblical literary form “Apocalypse” is about– not the end of the world, but the end of empire.

Apocalypse is resistance literature, written in code during times of extreme persecution by powerful imperial forces like Greece and Rome. The code was understandable to “insiders” familiar with Jewish scripture. It was impenetrable to “outsiders” like the persecutors of the authors’ people.

In our own case, all the provocations of apocalyptic rebellion are there. Our country is following faithfully in the footsteps of the biblical empires against which apocalypse was written: Egypt, Assyria, the Medes and Persians, Babylon, Greece, and Rome.

To say it unambiguously: Our government is headed by gangsters pure and simple. It’s as if Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Nero, Caligula, Domitian –or Al Capone – were in charge. All of them (Trump, Obama, the Clintons, and the Bushes) should be in jail. In fact, as Chomsky has pointed out every single post-WWII U.S. president from Truman and Eisenhower to Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, Obama, and Donald Trump has been guilty of crimes that contradict the Nuremberg Principles. The only policy difference between Donald Trump and his immediate predecessors is that he’s blatantly shameless in owning his criminalities.

Here’s what Chomsky has said:

To clarify Chomsky’s point, here’s a short list of our current president’s most recent atrocities. He has the country:

  • Fighting perpetual and internationally illegal wars against at least five sovereign nations. Count them: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen . . . without any sign of ending. (The genocidal war in Yemen has caused a cholera epidemic and will soon have 14 million people starving to death. Can anyone tell me why we’re in Yemen??)
  • Refusing to recognize the validity of a CIA report identifying Mohammed bin Salman as the Mafia Don who ordered the beheading and dismembering of a correspondent for a major U.S. newspaper.
  • Similarly soft-pedaling the climate-change findings of the government’s own scientific panel predicting the devastating effects of climate change for our economy, country, and species including, of course, our children and grandchildren.
  • Spending billions modernizing a nuclear weapons arsenal, while our cities’ bridges, roads, and other infrastructure disintegrate before our eyes.
  • Insisting on wasting billions building a wall along our southern border instead of sea-walls, dykes and levies along our country’s coasts.
  • Following Obama and Hillary Clinton by backing a narco-government in Honduras that has become a street gang making huge profits from the addictions of U.S. citizens while directly producing the immigrants and refugees Trump identifies as our enemies.
  • Using chemical weapons against the resulting caravan of women and children seeking refuge at our southern border and justifying it in a way that would be trumpeted as a casus belli were the perpetrator’s name Bashar al-Assad instead of Donald J. Trump.  

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgical reading, because (as I’ve said) this is the third week in a row that the lectionary has given us readings from apocalyptic literature.

As I indicated, apocalypse differs from ordinary prophecy in that it addresses periods of deep crisis, when the whole world appears to be falling apart. Neither prophets nor apocalyptics were fortunetellers. Instead, they were their days’ social critics. They warned of the disastrous consequences that inevitably follow from national policies that deviate from God’s will – i.e. from policies that harm God’s favorites: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor – and (we might add) the planet itself.

When Luke was writing his gospel around the year 85 of the Common Era, Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish War (64-70 CE). The Romans had brutally razed the city and the temple that had been rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile. For Jews that was something like the Death of God, for the Holy City and its Temple were considered God’s dwelling place. The event was apocalyptic.

In today’s gospel, Luke has Jesus predicting that destruction using specifically apocalyptic language. Luke’s Jesus says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

What can such apocalyptic message mean in our own day faced as we are with a false crisis stemming from U.S. policies in Central America in general and in Honduras in particular that identify the poorest people in the world as the causes of our problems instead of climate chaos and narco-kleptocrats?

Yes, the immigrant crisis is a mere distraction – a completely human and remediable fabrication caused by U.S. policy. Meanwhile, the real threat to our planet is the threat of nuclear war and the environmental cliff that our “leaders” refuse to address. And who’s responsible for that crisis?

Prominent religious leaders would have us believe it’s God. He (sic) is punishing us for opening borders to the poor, for Roe v. Wade, for legalizing same sex marriages, or for allowing women access to contraception. Let’s face it: that’s nonsense. It turns Jesus’ embodiment of the God of love on its head. It turns God into a pathological killer – a cruel punishing father like too many of our own dads.

The real culprit preventing us from addressing climate change is our government. Our elected politicians are truly in the pockets of Big Oil, the Banksters, narco-criminals and other fiscal behemoths whose eyes are fixed firmly on short-term gains, even if it means their own children and grandchildren will experience environmental apocalypse.

What I’m saying is that this government has no validity. How dare a small group of climate-change Philistines take it upon themselves to decide the fate of the entire planet in the face of overwhelming evidence contradicting their stupidity?

It all has me wondering when our fellow peasants who don’t share Jesus’ commitment to non-violence will get out their pitchforks and storm the White House and other seats of government.

Remember: It was Thomas Jefferson who advised periodic revolution. He said: “What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”