Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11 32.
Recently, two very good friends challenged me about supporting Marianne Williamson’s run for president. “She has no chance,” they objected. “You should be supporting Bernie instead.”
Their remarks coupled with today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son have prompted me to explain myself. The parable particularly as re-created by the French Nobel laureate, Andre Gide, is about a person like Marianne Williamson who eventually identified and escaped the oppressive reality we all take as normal. In Gide’s interpretation, Jesus’ parable is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
So, today I want to describe what we might call the “deep politics” of Marianne Williamson. After all, it’s her spirituality (her deep politics) that first drew me to support her candidacy. Because of her more than 30 years of work as a spiritual teacher, we can know her more deeply than any other presidential candidate. And that’s important. Our interior lives – our thoughts and values – are finally shaped by our relationship with what we consider ultimately important. They are shaped by what some of us term “God.”
So, let me first talk about Marianne’s deep politics and then connect it with Gide’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son.
To begin with, I’m supporting Marianne Williamson because she represents the most radical candidate in the field “of thousands,” as she often jokes. Using the term “radical” here, I’m referring to its etymological meaning which derives from the Latin word radix meaning “root.”
Alone in the crowded field of Democratic candidates Marianne puts her finger on what’s really ailing our nation. It’s not primarily an economic or military problem. No, at root, it’s a deeply spiritual malady. Yes, ours is a spiritual problem!
The problem is that rather than “free and brave,” we’re all scared out of our wits. We subscribe to values that are 180 degrees opposed to those identified as ultimate by all the world’s great wisdom traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheistic. At their deepest level, all of those traditions converge identifying compassion rather than fear as the supreme human value.
Ms. Williamson says it clearly: fear (which is the opposite of compassion) has us captive. Fear has us identifying Russians, Chinese, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBT community members, poor people in general, and even (at our borders) children and babies as somehow our enemies fundamentally unlike us and threatening us at every turn.
None of that is true, Marianne says. It’s quite the opposite. All of us have far more in common than anything that can possibly separate us. In fact – as she puts it – “There is really only one of us here.” We are not only sisters and brothers, we are really a single person. What I do to you, I do to myself.
That’s really the authentic teaching of Jesus, isn’t it? That’s the meaning of his words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love our neighbor because our neighbor is our self.
As Williamson explains, that conviction is what moved the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights campaigners and many who brought the Vietnam War to an end. It’s no accident, she says, that so many of the abolitionists and suffragettes were Quakers, that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, and that anti-war activists like the Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests. Those are the great heroes of the land we call “America.” Like Marianne herself, they all recognized our fundamentally spiritual nature.
So, none of us should say all of this is too idealistic. Instead, we should realize that, in effect, Marianne Williamson is challenging Americans to live up to their faith claims. After all, 70% of us claim to be Christian. Then there are the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists I already mentioned, as well as atheists and those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” As I said, all of those traditions, at their most profound level, converge in calls to liberty, equality, and fraternity.
And that brings me to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and its connection with Marianne Williamson’s deep politics. In what I’m about to say, I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There, Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.
Crossan asks, what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and leaving home for good?
Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.
According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there. (Are you hearing overtones of Plato’s parable?)
For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him.
Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.
And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.
“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”
The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”
Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns me to Marianne Williamson, and how in these pivotal times she has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable and calls the rest of us to go over the wall with her – to escape Plato’s cave and pass into the “other world” that is possible if only we take seriously the spiritual teachings of the world’s great traditions. Making that transition, she says, means becoming economically literate, re-learning American history, and internalizing what used to be called “Civics.”
So, don’t expect Ms. Williamson to directly invoke her spirituality during her presidential campaign. She’s won’t stump as some kind of preacher or moralist like Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee. Unlike those other two, Marianne is no come-lately to political analysis and policy recommendations. In fact, twenty years ago in her prescientHealing the Soul of America, she predicted the crisis we’re now experiencing in the person of Donald Trump. No, Williamson will stick to her policy positions – Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college-debt forgiveness, raising the minimum wage, drastically reducing the inflated military budget, making reparations for slavery, and establishing a cabinet-level secretariat for children and youth.
But aren’t those what (since Bernie) have become the standard positions of progressive Democrats? Of course, they are. But in Marianne’s case, such positions are grounded in a vision honed and sharpened over more than 30 years of forging connections between her deep spirituality and her deep politics.
And that personal reality, that long-term genuineness is precisely what’s required for our world to abandon the destructive reality of business-as-usual – to go over the wall of our father’s compound, to leave Plato’s Cave.
The very profundity of her “deep politics” is precisely why I’m supporting the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. If you’re similarly intrigued, and want to hear her voice in the Democratic debates, please go here and contribute at least $1.00. She needs 65,000 donors to be included.