Amazon Workers to Vote on Unionization: Bezos Says He Can’t Afford It

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 7: 1-7; Psalm 147: 1-6; 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39.

Tomorrow, 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will vote on unionization. Of course, their decision will affect workers throughout Amazon’s mammoth enterprise – most of them non-white. The company employs 798,000 full-and part-time employees. In 2019, its net revenues were around $280.5 billion. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, is himself worth about $184 billion. He’s the second richest man on the planet.

Work at Amazon

Despite company profits and the wealth of its chief, there’s good reason for the unionization drive including alienated labor resulting from:

  • Low pay: Recently, Amazon raised its wages to $15 per hour. It also extended to its workers a $2 per hour bonus for “heroic” service during the pandemic. However, the company has since removed that extra pay in the light of its claims that the pandemic’s severity has diminished. Amazon workers dispute that assertion, while maintaining that $15 per hour remains inadequate remuneration for their heavy workloads. And besides, Amazon workers’ unprecedentedly profitable production increases during the pandemic need due reward.
  • Intense surveillance of workers: Sophisticated AI technology tracks every move of each Amazon worker – to such an extent that those not meeting production goals can be threatened with imminent job termination by a robot without intervention from a human supervisor.
  • Union-busting: That same sort of technology makes sure that workers on break do not congregate for purposes of conversation related to union organizing. Those caught engaging in such exchanges have been summarily fired.
  • Wage theft: Last Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission fined Amazon $61.7 million for actually stealing tips from Amazon’s Flex drivers over a two and a half-year period. Flex drivers are hourly workers who receive no benefits and use their own cars to make deliveries.
  • Dangerous working conditions: Work at Amazon is three times as dangerous as employment across the private sector and twice as dangerous as warehouse work in general. 911 records show that on the job mental episodes and even suicides are common in the Amazon workplace.  
  • PR to the contrary: The Amazon website proclaims that it supports the Black Lives Matter movement. However, according to Amazon’s largely non-white workforce, the items just listed tell another story.

Today’s Readings

I bring all of this up, because this Sunday’s readings suggest themes of work, overwork, and low pay.  They implicitly compare the alienated work of “hirelings” and “slaves” to that of the self-chosen pro bono work done by Yeshua and Paul in service of the poor. Both types of work are exhausting. But one is human, the other not.

What I’m driving at is reflected in my translations of these thoughtful readings about work. Please check out the originals here:

 
 Job 7: 1-7:
 Joining Job
 On his stinking POS
 Wage workers know
 That life is hard
 When a plague requires
 Months of misery
 Sleepless nights
 Overtime work
 And hopeless days
 That drain their lives
 And have them wondering
 If they’ll ever
 Smile again.
  
 Psalm 147: 1-6:
 Brokenhearted,
 Some look to “God”
 And still find words
 Of prayer,
 Praise and thanks
 That transform 
 Even bricklayers’ 
 Tattered blueprints
 Into transcendent plans
 Of infinite intelligence,
 Power, and wisdom
 That one day will find
 Bosses humiliated
 And poor workers 
 Finally earning 
 Their just wage.
  
 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23:
 Paul’s proud labor
 Was teaching
 Which he too found 
 Underpaid and driven
 As he gave hope to
 Those too poor to pay
 Just as his Master had
 In order to help them
 Regain that grin.
  
 Mark 1: 29-39:
 Yes, Jesus too 
 Worked hard
 As a day-laborer
 Become faith healer
 First of his friend’s 
 Feverish in-law
 And then 
 Of the insane
 And those afflicted
 With unnamed infection
 Of every type.
 Sustained by prayer
 At early dawn,
 He too soon returned 
 To his tireless grind
 As a selfless
 Pro bono physician
 Without borders.

Alienated Labor or Not

Do you see what’s happening in those readings?

The first one from the Book of Job indirectly reveals reluctant wage labor (a la Amazon) to be like sitting on top of Job’s famous pile of excrement (Job 2: 8-13). It’s pure drudgery. It’s slavery. Its misery leads to sleepless nights, and a shortened life entirely deprived of happiness.

By way of contrast, the second and third readings describe unalienated labor. In both the case of Paul and Yeshua, the work is completely exhausting and without monetary remuneration – but by their own choice. (The gospel reading’s description of a typical “day in the life” of Yeshua the Christ is actually quite detailed. It’s up in the early morning for prayer and then dealing with a constant stream of impoverished peasants seeking relief from diseases both mental and physical. Then it’s on to the next town for a round of the same – all without charge.)

Of course, the difference between the work Job’s text references and that of Yeshua and Paul is that the latter determined their own workload and pace of activity. They exhausted themselves because they freely chose to do so – not in the service of a distant wealthy slavedriver like Bezos, but in service to Life Itself.

Though union organizers don’t put it this way, that’s the ideal of the labor union movement – a humanized workplace, where workers have voice and some control over conditions in the place where they spend fully half of their waking hours.

As economists like Richard Wolff point out, an even more humanized workplace would be run entirely by workers. They’d determine for themselves every aspect of their workday – what to produce, where to produce it, the pace of work, and what to do with the profits. In such a cooperative there’d be no alienation, no intense surveillance, no dangerous working conditions, no underpayment or wage theft.

Conclusion

Naturally, all of us have to work. But exhausting labor too (like that of Yeshua and Paul) can bring a sense of joy and participation in creation of the universe like that described in today’s responsorial, Psalm 147.

Even work for Amazon could be dignified – absent the intense surveillance, constant race against the clock, low pay, and wage theft at the hands of one of the wealthiest companies in the world run by the globe’s second richest man. That sort of work can and does drive people over the edge even to the point of suicide.

The efforts by Alabama’s Amazon employees to unionize represent an attempt by wage earners to humanize all of that harshness. Within the capitalist system as we know it, unionization is the closest workers can get to escape slave-like conditions and completely alienated labor. The real humanization however would come from transforming the workplace into a cooperative where employees would be self-empowered.

As always, the call of today’s readings is to do what our faith tells us the Great Father-Mother God did: become human. In today’s instance that means humanizing the workplace. That means opposition to Amazon’s exploitation of workers. It implies support of unions everywhere. It suggests support of the co-op movement.

80th Birthday Reflections, Part One: Order

(This is the first in a series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday.)

Last Sunday (Sept. 6th) I celebrated my 80th birthday. I feel as if I’ve crossed a line into a new psychological and spiritual territory. I’m now officially old.

On Sunday, my daughter, Maggie, and her family graciously celebrated the event. My younger son, Patrick, was there as well. He works in DC and came to Westport for the occasion.

My elder son, Brendan, was unable to come. He works for the State Department in Paris, France. COVID-19 kept him from crossing the pond with our lovely daughter-in-law, Erin, and our recently arrived granddaughter, Genevieve Simone. (We’re still feeling bad about not yet having seen little Gigi except on ZOOM.)

Maggie invited us for lunch. She made my favorite dish for the occasion – spaghetti alle vongole (with in-the-shell clams freshly delivered from the ocean a few miles away from here). Maggie’s white clam sauce was perfect. Then, of course, there was a birthday cake (chocolate mousse – again my favorite).

After lunch we all drove to nearby Greenwich to begin an hour-and-a-half yacht ride to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The weather was glorious. There were drinks, cigars, laughter and just enjoying the boat’s swift dash to Manhattan.

In the presence of Lady Liberty, we took photos (see above), marveled at the historic objet d’art, and then turned back towards Greenwich, stopping on the way for crab sandwiches and French fries as the sun rapidly descended and the cool breezes forced us to put on our wraps.

The next evening (Monday), we reprised the celebration with friends from our new church in nearby Darien. Again, there was cake, candles, and singing “Happy Birthday.” And then everyone took turns saying nice things about me.

Imagine that: not one, but two birthday celebrations!

Still, regret was expressed that COVID kept us from a bigger party with more relatives and friends, including some former students. However, I pointed out that I already had such a celebration when I formally retired from Berea College ten years ago. I remember thinking at the time as people spoke kindly about me, “This is like hearing speeches at my own funeral. I’m glad I’m here to experience it all. What joy to be with so many relatives, friends, and so many of those I’ve taught!” For me, that was enough.

When my own turn came to speak on Monday, I quoted Richard Rohr who speaks of the “three boxes” that contain life’s memories for all of us. One is labeled “Order,” the second is “Disorder,” and the third, “Reorder.” The categories represent apt summaries of my life, I said; its elements clearly fit into such containers.

An Ordered Life

Like Rohr, I was blessed with a great deal of order in my early life – till about the age of 21. As a Roman Catholic boy attending St. Viator’s School on Chicago’s Northwest Side, I had clear ideas of who I was. I knew exactly what life was for, who God is, and what he expected of me. I wanted nothing more than to save my soul; nothing else mattered.

So, having just turned 14, I chose to leave home and begin preparation for becoming a priest. I figured that was the best way to get into heaven.

Accordingly, I shipped off to St. Columban’s Minor (i.e. high school) Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo). There, every day was highly ordered with 6:30 rising and 10:00 “lights out,” intense study especially of Latin, mandatory study hall, compulsory sports activities, and strict supervision by a host of father figures, disciplinarians, and demanding teachers. At “The Creek,” I doubled down on my determination to become a priest, even as most of those I entered with either decided otherwise or were “bounced” (as we said) for disciplinary or academic reasons. 

In 1958, I entered the college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. There, my inner student was awakened as never before by Fr. James Griffin, my English teacher nonpareil at Milton for two years. Under his watchful eye, I discovered poetry, music appreciation, and creative writing. I learned how to read with a critical eye. I feared and loved the man at the same time. He was the best.

In 1960, my classmates (now reduced from 32 to 12 in number) and I embarked on our “Spiritual Year” in Bristol Rhode Island. It was the Columban version of a religious novitiate. Its centerpiece was a 30-day Ignatian silent retreat that began on October 6th of that year. It was unforgettable. So was the entire year. It taught us to pray, silence our voices and minds, to meditate and appreciate God’s creation as never before there on the shores of Narragansett Bay.

After Bristol, it was time to return to Milton – this time to the major seminary – to complete college work on our philosophy majors and then to continue with four years of theological and scriptural studies. As far as order was concerned, it was more of the same: rising at 6:30, retiring at 10:00, mandatory classes and study periods, long periods of silence, regular spiritual retreats, daily meditation, and little contact with “the outside world.”

I thrived on it all. I still knew who I was and what was expected of me. God was in his heaven. All was right with the world – despite what was happening outside e.g. with the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam.

(I’ll soon post a reflection on the collapse of my ordered certainty.)

No Room for Hunger or Homelessness in Our Great Mother’s “House of Spirits”

Readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 6: 1-7; PSALMS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 PETER 2: 4-9; JOHN 14: 1-12

Although it might not be apparent at first glance, the readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter address homelessness. During this COVOD-19 pandemic, it’s an exceptionally vexing problem that finds many Americans unable to pay their rent or mortgages. In New York City, for example, many of those rendered homeless end up seeking shelter and the possibility of social distancing within the city’s subway cars

As if in response to such developments, today’s selections centralize the concern of the Great Cosmic Mother for her children in similar situations of powerlessness and abandonment.

These, the readings tell us, were also the concern of Yeshua’s Jewish followers immediately following his death and the mysterious experience they came to call his “resurrection.” For those reformers of Judaism, social problems like hunger and homelessness were not to be solved by force or organized abandonment, but by compassion, sharing, service, and loving kindness.

Homeless in America

But before I get to that, think for a moment about homelessness in America. It’s deeply connected with the U.S. prison system which has actually become the de facto form that low-income housing assumes here.

That point was made last week on “Democracy Now,” when Amy Goodman interviewed Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore. She’s the co-founder of California Prison Moratorium Project (CPMP). CPMP represents an abolitionist decarceration movement in the United States which houses approximately one in four prisoners in the entire world. (Perhaps coincidently, the U.S. has also produced the same proportion of COVID-19 deaths.)

To begin with, Wilson Gilmore contrasted the U.S. approach to crime with those of other industrialized countries. Within our borders the emphasis is on deprivation, isolation, punishment, pain and force. By contrast, many other systems emphasize rehabilitation.

Of their “Reformative Justice” dispensations the interviewee said “Where life is precious, life is precious. In places where the state, the government, municipalities, social justice organizations, faith communities, labor unions work together to lift up human life, the incidence of crime and punishment, including incidents of interpersonal harm, are less likely to occur. . . We also see that in places where inequality is the deepest, the use of prison and punishment is the greatest.”

In the same interview, Wilson Gilmore went on to specifically address the problem of homelessness here and what she called our country’s strategy of “organized abandonment.” By that she meant urban organization like New York City’s, where working class neighborhoods are routinely razed to make room for gentrified condos and exotic shopping experiences.

There, displaced lower-class renters are left on their own. Some, of course, are welcome to return to their old neighborhoods as waitpersons, delivery personnel, janitors, nannies and caregivers. That’s bad enough, but others are excluded altogether. They’re left homeless and find themselves with nowhere to seek shelter and social distancing but in those MTA subway cars I just mentioned.

Nevertheless, instead of dealing with the real problem of homelessness, NYC’s mayor and the state’s governor have justified increased deployment of transit police who apply to the systemically abandoned the same sort of force that their counterparts use in American prisons.

In the U.S., Wilson Gilmore observed, force and violence turn out to be the default strategy employed to address most problems.

Today’s Readings

All of that contrasts sharply with the approach to homelessness depicted in today’s readings. They describe the first Christian community of Jewish Reformers. After all, they were followers of the great Hebrew prophet from Nazareth whose family found itself without shelter at the time of his birth. He later promised the poor that in God’s New Order (what he called God’s “Kingdom”) far from being displaced, they would inherit the earth itself.

What follows immediately are my “translations” of the readings in question. Please look at the originals here to see if I’ve captured their spirit in relation to hunger and homelessness.

ACTS 6: 1-7: Soon after Jesus died, a cultural social justice rift surfaced among members of his Jewish Reform Movement. Some (called “Hellenists”) were not Jewish enough for the rest of Jesus’ followers. Hellenists were too Greek – too like the despised goyim. So, in the daily distribution of food, Hellenized widows were neglected. In response, Jesus’ apostles appointed “deacons” precisely to provide daily bread for those women and their children. As a result, the Jesus Movement grew spectacularly among the Hellenists. Even many Jewish priests joined up.

PSALMS 33: 1-2, 4-5, 18-19: It is this sort of concern with fairness and justice that mirrors the love, trustworthiness, kindness, and generosity of our Great Mother Goddess. Even in times of severe famine, it is her will that no one starve or go homeless. She is merciful, and we place our trust in her.

1 PETER 2: 4-9: Jesus’ nickname for his friend Simon was “Rocky” (perhaps because he was especially good at throwing stones at Roman soldiers during the first recorded Intifada). In any case, Rocky (Peter) called early members of Jesus’ Reform Movement “living stones” in a divine House of Spirits. Jesus himself, Peter said, was its “corner-stone.” (Speaking from experience, Peter knew what stones can do to confuse enemies and bring them down.)

JOHN 14: 1-12: More than three generations after Jesus’ death, John the Evangelist, recalled Jesus as continuing the House of Spirits imagery. He has Jesus say: “In God’s GREAT HOUSE there are no homeless or hungry people. When you shelter the homeless, you are really sheltering me. That is the way of the Great Mother; it is my way too – the one I’ve manifested time and again by my concern for and identification with the unhoused, hungry, sick, blind, widowed, mistreated and despised. Follow my example. Even exceed it,” Jesus urged.

Conclusion

Taking seriously the centralization of housing as expressed in today’s readings should lead believers to dissent from our culture’s treatment of the incarcerated and homeless. Imprisonment and organized abandonment are no way to treat those left without shelter by policies favoring the wealthy instead of God’s favorites – those unhoused, hungry, sick, blind, widowed, mistreated and despised just referenced.  

The readings also suggest the need for new policy initiatives. Such measures will include not merely taking care of food needs of single moms and their children (as depicted in today’s episode from the Acts of the Apostles) but also support for :

  • Outlawing evictions and foreclosures
  • Widespread cancelling of rents and mortgages
  • Building 12 million green housing units over the next 12 years
  • Massive investment in public housing under community control.
  • Rent freezes, rent control, tenant protections, and anti-displacement measures across the nation.

Of course, the chances of those measures taking legislative shape under the current political dispensation are about nil.

But that in itself shows how far Christians have strayed from actually following Yeshua.

Instead, we’re more like those among early Christians who looked down upon the culturally diverse Hellenists and neglected their widows and children.

So, today’s readings issue a special call to us to from Jesus, his main man, Rocky and the entire cadre of Jesus’ surviving apostles to become deacons – service workers at the disposal of the hungry and homeless.

After all, it’s the way of the Great Cosmic Goddess. 

“Murder Most Foul”: My Translation of Bob Dylan’s New Song

I found “Murder Most Foul” intriguing. Its retelling of the assassination of JFK was provocative as it attributed it to Deep State forces. But the lack of melody was disappointing. It was also difficult to understand the connections between Dylan’s narrative and the over-long list of songs he centralized. It seemed mostly random and unconnected. Along with references to his story, my own “translation” tries to subtly connect as many of those song titles as I could to Dylan’s well-told tale. I’ve referenced “Only the Good Die Young,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Scratch My Back,” “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Twilight Time,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “In God We Trust,” “Cry Me A River,” “That Old Devil Moon,” “One Night of Sin,” “Misty,” “Anything Goes,” “Blue Sky,” “Deep in a Dream,” and “The Blood-Stained Banner.”

Near the Ides of last March
The Seer from Duluth
Sang a swan’s song
To all
About murder and truth.
 
He sang to a world
Sick and under arrest
In a globe-wide pandemic
And put to the test
By an earth in decay
In the Antichrist’s age
When faith, hope and love
Disappeared from the page
(Of our nation’s own book).
 
It all began
(He said)
On a Dallas dark day
In the blinding-bright sun
Which brought hell to pay
To an Aquarian Age
Shaped by spinning magicians
With a shot that all heard
But nobody listened.
They exploded the head,
They blew the brains out
Of the King JFK
(But we’re all left in doubt)
 
He was a sacrificed lamb
Put down like a dog
Mocked and shocked
By the killers
While spreading a fog
Yes, everyone watched
But few can recall
What our own eyes revealed
We saw nothing at all.
 
It was carefully planned
During nights filled with sin
And carefully timed  
With LBJ in
Standing prepared
To step forward and take
The place of late Claudius
At 2:38.
 
The message was sharp:
We forbid New Frontier
Segregation will stay
With everyone here
With ghettoes in ruins
Illumined at night
By red lights and crime
It’s all such a fright
Ruled by cops on the beat
To enforce
Elm Street’s nightmare
For the sake of elite
For the sake of what’s right for
Cash on the barrelhead
(After all, business is business).
 
We’ve seen this crime’s movie
Again and again
But frankly, Miss Scarlet,
We don’t give a damn
We’re distracted by Woodstocks
Beatles, acid and flags
We’re forbidden to ask
As if mouths filled with gags
Prevented owl’s questions
Beyond what we’re told
About Oswald and Ruby
We’re left out in the cold
With mouths firmly shut
With those questions so old
All left unanswered
(And subject to scold).
 
It’s all unfair to Jackie
And Marilyn too
It’s unfair to us
To me and to you
We’re blind by our choice
To back-scratchers all
Who refuse to take questions
Whenever we call.
They kill all the young
The brave and the good
They make us all fearful
That we’ll be misunderstood
At this twilight time
As rivers we cry
Watching our heroes
All bite dust and die
As we sing about crosses
And the God who’s a lie.
 
So, we’re all feeling misty
Lonely but brave
Under the old devil’s moon
As in Plato’s dank Cave
We wander in mystery
Where anything goes
We’re deep in a dream
When we’ll wake
No one knows.
We’re surrounded by darkness
Nightfall and death
Under a banner
That’s blood-stained
With nothing that's left
But music and jazz
And that prophet
In howl
Who shakes us to wake us
About murderS most foul.

Report from Tijuana: A (Near) 80-Year Old’s Experience at Ground Zero of the Immigration Crisis

Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, 7:10 p.m.

Today near the middle of my 80th year, I’m off to Tijuana to work for a couple of weeks with refugees and immigrants at the border. I mention my age not because I feel old, but because 80 used to seem ancient to me. Yes, I’ve done lots of these fact-finding trips before beginning with our family’s six months in Brazil during the military dictatorship there back in 1984. Then there were all those trips to revolutionary Nicaragua beginning the next year, and many visits to Cuba. This time around, I find myself wondering if my age will be a factor in the eyes of my co-workers.

In any case, this is the first in a series of daily reports I plan to make on this blog site. I want to take readers with me on this particular expedition of first-hand observation and discovery.

So, I’m now seated on Delta Flight 2685, in seat 23B on my way from New York’s JFK Airport to San Diego CA. It’s a 5 hour and 45-minute flight. I’ll stay overnight in San Diego’s Gaslight District. Then, tomorrow I’ll cross over into Tijuana, and begin work on Monday at 9:00 a.m.

My plan is to join forces with Al Otro Lado (AOL), a Tijuana-based social justice and legal services organization whose task is to help asylum-seekers in their quest to find refuge in the United States. I’m not sure what my function with the group will be. I might end up sweeping, washing floors, making beds, working in the kitchen, and serving meals. That would be fine. But I’m hoping my Spanish will be of some use. (For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been burnishing my skills in hour-long Skype sessions with a wonderful Spanish teacher in Cuernavaca.)

My main task however is to learn. I want to build on what I’ve gathered throughout my professional life as a theologian, researcher, teacher and habitual traveler to Global South stress points.

More specifically, my past observations (during those long stays in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil and Cuba) as well as my study with Global South thought leaders (especially in Costa Rica’s Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones and during my years teaching in an on-site Latin American Studies Program) have already taught me that today’s refugees are seeking escape from:

  • The effects of U.S. wars during the 1980s which destroyed families, church communities, businesses, towns, and entire countries. Those wars were aimed at keeping in power brutal dictators who served U.S. business interests such as Chiquita Banana. They were intended to prevent democracy from replacing the tyranny of Latin America’s wealthy classes allied with their counterparts across the U.S. border.
  • Gang violence inflicted on whole communities by the now decommissioned national soldiers and paramilitaries employed 40 years ago by the United States in South and Central America in the wars just referenced. [During the years of cooperation with the CIA and U.S. Army, those terrorists (that’s what they were) supported their illegal war efforts by deep involvement in drug trafficking – with CIA facilitation. Now, with the wars over, the former U.S. assets are simply continuing the work they learned all during those years of conflict – including the associated threats, bribes, kickbacks, death squads, assassinations, rapes, and torture.]
  • The devastating results of free trade pacts (like the North and Central American Free Trade Agreements – NAFTA and CAFTA) that have allowed the United States to e.g. dump cheap corn on the international market thus driving millions of small farmers off their land and into unemployment in big city slums.
  • The effects of climate change such as rising temperatures, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and forest fires, exacerbated by the entire Republican Party which insists not only on denying scientific fact, but on doubling down on the ecocide’s causes.
  • Domestic violence exacerbated by rampant unemployment (caused by those free trade deals) that has made mothers and their children absolutely desperate to escape the violent men in their lives.

Virtually none of those causes are explained to the American people. Instead, the multifaceted central role of the U.S. government and CIA in creating the crisis is completely overlooked as politicians and the mainstream media (MSM) ahistorically “explain” the problem in terms of freeloaders, drug dealers, rapists, gangbangers and general criminality.

Ignored as well is the undeniable moral obligation of the United States to make reparations by rebuilding the economies and infrastructures they’ve destroyed and by giving generous and easy asylum (not to mention jobs and cash payments) to the refugees manufactured in the process. WE ABSOLUTELY OWE THESE PEOPLE SHELTER, PROTECTION, AND RESTITUTION! THIS IS NOT A QUESTION OF CHARITY. WE ARE MORALLY OBLIGED!

As you can see, my project here is to help balance our MSM-cultivated ignorance by acquainting readers with actual refugees and immigrants and their full stories.

Please tune in tomorrow for an update.

Marianne Williamson & the Immigration Crisis (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 66:10-14C; PS 66: 1-7, 16, 20; GAL 6: 14-18; LK 10: 1-12, 17-20.

The theme of today’s liturgy of the word is exile and deliverance from captivity. In its light, I can’t help thinking of all those refugees at our southern border and of Marianne Williamson’s wise and unique response in last week’s second Democratic Debate.

According to our readings, the immigrants and refugees our politicians want us to hate are exiles like the ancient Hebrews in Babylon. They are the victims of the rich and powerful as were the Jews in Jesus’ day, when Rome occupied his homeland aided and abetted by the Temple clergy. That is, today’s biblical selections say that the poorest and most vulnerable among us are God’s own people.

Yet incredibly, the richest and most invulnerable at the top of our contemporary social order – the very ones who crashed our economy, looted our common treasury, and escaped unscathed with the handouts we ourselves provided – somehow want us to believe that the poor exiles from their beloved homes in Central America are the cause of all our problems.

But remember: the home lands of these exiles from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are the very countries whose economies our government purposely and permanently crashed in the 1980s. Then, the Reagan and Bush I administrations used drug money to finance illegal wars that ended up killing hundreds of thousands and replacing governments and social movements whose primary beneficiaries would have been the parents of those at our borders today. The latter are victims of the drug lords we established and supported during the ‘80s and who today are doing the same things they did 40 years ago – marketing drugs while terrorizing and murdering the innocent. I’m talking about the generals and other military officers who are now the drug kingpins.

That’s the point Marianne Williamson tried to make at the first Democratic debate. But no one picked it up. None of the other candidates elaborated on Ms. Williamson’s observation that today’s immigration “crisis” amounts to our government’s reaping what it sowed. The other candidates still haven’t seconded Marianne’s point. Instead, they and their interlocutors remain stuck in the same old, same old. They mouth the standard political platitudes while ignoring the shameful history that explains today’s headlines.

It’s been that way from biblical times and before – rich foreigners oppressing poor locals. Listen to today’s readings. Or, rather, read them for yourself. Here are my “translations.”

IS 66:10-14c

These are the words
Of Isaiah’s prophecy
To all in captivity
By Powers
Foreign and domestic:
“Your time of desperation
Is nearly over.
You will soon
Return home
Like starving infants
To Mother-Jerusalem.
With hunger satisfied
And prosperity
Incredible
Along with joy
And comfort, comfort, comfort
At last!”
 
PS 66: 1-7, 16, 20
 
Our liberator
From exile
So kind and powerful
Is the answer
To the prayers
Of captive people
And a source of joy
For the whole
Human race
And all of creation.
No obstacle
Can impede
God’s destiny
Of liberation
Joy and freedom
From oppression.
 
GAL 6: 14-18

Yes, our destiny
Is an entirely
New World!
Where the world’s distinctions
Are meaningless.
Acting accordingly
Now
Will bring
Everyone
Compassion and peace.
However,
The World
Crucifies us
For this belief.
Nonetheless,
We’re called to
Bear its torture
And scars
Gladly
As Jesus did.
 
LK 10: 1-12, 17-20

Paul’s words
Agree with Jesus
Who sent
Thirty-six pairs
Of “advance men”
And women
To announce
(Like Isaiah)
Liberation
From oppression
By powers imperial.
Like lambs among wolves
Like monks
With begging bowls,
They healed and proclaimed
God’s Great Cleanup
Of a world
Infested by demonic
Imperial oppressors.
And it worked!
Every one of those 72
Cast out evil spirits
Just like Jesus.
(Despite powerful opposition
And crucifixion.)
Some have ridiculed Marianne's debate performance. However, that only shows how our country thought-leaders have become tone-deaf to biblical values. They consider them ludicrous.

For me, that only signals the necessity of doubling-down on support for the only one in the crowded Democratic field who courageously insists on the values embedded in today's readings which identify the keys for solving the problems caused by "experienced" politicians. As Marianne says, those keys are love and forgiveness precisely for and of those the rich and powerful vilify.

Marianne Williamson Speaks for Herself

Just for fun, here’s an interview with Marianne Williamson whose candidacy for POTUS I’ve been trying to promote. I’m doing that because I think Marianne offers the national presidential debate a refreshing, deeply spiritual dimension that it sorely needs. She makes that contribution in a way helpful to believers, non-believers, and those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” In any case, give this little interview a look and listen and see what you think.

Mike Pompeo’s Cynicism vs. Marianne Williamson’s Politics of Love

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter: Acts 5:12-16; Ps. 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Rev. 1: 9-11A, 12-13, 17-19; Jn. 20: 19-31.

By the time you see this, many of you will have been yet again outraged by the crude cynicism of Mike Pompeo, America’s Secretary of State and former head of the CIA. This time, I’m referring to his embarrassing throw-away line following a speech at Texas A&M last week. Secretary Pompeo said:

“. . . When I was a cadet, what’s the first – what’s the cadet motto at West Point? You will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do. I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. (Laughter.) It’s – it was like – we had entire training courses . . . (Applause.) It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.”

In this election season, Pompeo’s arrogant disregard for the disastrous effects of the actions he described (in terms of governments overthrown, innocents slaughtered, and our own democracy discredited) offers an instructive foil to recommend the contrasting approach of Marianne Williamson, whose presidential campaign is based on what she terms a “politics of love.” The contrast between Pompeo and Williamson is further illumined by the familiar story of Doubting Thomas which is the focus of today’s liturgy of the word. It locates divine presence precisely in a victim of the imperial double-dealing and cruelty Pompeo finds so amusing and that Williamson finds abhorrent.

But before I get to that, please watch the secretary’s remark for yourselves:

What I found noteworthy in what you just saw was not so much what Pompeo said. (Anyone who knows anything about the CIA would not find that surprising.) What I found amazing was the audience laughter and applause. Both suggested not only rejection of U.S. ideals, but of the faith Americans commonly claim. Pompeo’s words absolutely contradict the Jewish tradition’s Ten Commandments.  The laughter and applause also suggested that Pompeo’s audience recognized that lying, cheating, and stealing somehow have more power than the teachings of Jesus about the primacy of love and doing to others what we would have them do to us. (Let’s face it: that’s the underlying reservation many have about Marianne Williamson’s candidacy as well.) Even more, the audience’s approval cynically endorsed Pompeo’s position that such actions constitute something glorious about Americans and their country!

I suppose the secretary would hasten to explain that we’re living in a dangerous world, where enemies lie, cheat, and steal all the time; so, we must do the same. But just imagine if Vladimir Putin or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro had uttered Pompeo’s words! We’d never hear the end of it.

It’s principled response to such cynicism that fuels Marianne Williamson’s campaign for president. And in the light of today’s Gospel reading, which endorses miracles over “realism,” she should be taken seriously. More directly, and at a far deeper level than any of the other 20 (so far!) Democratic candidates, Williamson actually believes in a “Politics of Love,” and says so openly.

In fact, Williamson is running on a platform that holds that there is no distinction between personal and public morality. As she points out, the world and our country have a long history of acknowledging that fact. Jesus himself embodied that teaching. So did Gandhi. Abolitionists were Quakers, as were many of the suffragettes. Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher. The Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests; so was Thomas Merton. None saw any distinction between the personal and political.

However, it’s not that Ms. Williamson is any less aware of our world’s evils than Mr. Pompeo. She doesn’t claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition invites anyone to ignore immorality and violence. Quite the contrary. As she points out, the entire Jewish tradition stems from rebellion precisely against the horror of slavery (in Moses’ Egypt). And the Christian tradition is founded on the teachings of a prophet who was tortured and executed by one of history’s most brutal empires. To ignore such evils, Williamson says, is not transcendence; it’s denial.

And that thought brings us to today’s Gospel reading.  It’s the familiar story of Doubting Thomas, whom in today’s context we might call “Realistic Thomas.” That’s because the story is finally about Christ’s call to recognize his own presence in the tortured victims of the kind of empire Pompeo’s audience applauded. It’s a parable told 80 years after Jesus’ death to encourage believers who, unlike Thomas, had not seen the risen Christ, yet believed anyway. The story is about the early Christian community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever is done to the least of my brethren, is done to me” (MT 25). Williamson recognizes all those truths. Evidently, Pompeo does not. 

Recall the parable.

The disciples are in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Jesus the night before he died. But Thomas is not present. Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst.

“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.

Later on, Thomas arrives. Like the believers for whom the story was written (at the end of the first century) he hasn’t met the risen Lord.

“Jesus is alive,” they tell him.

However, Thomas remains unmoved. He protests, “I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith. Things like that don’t happen in the real world.”

The words are hardly out of his mouth, when lightning strikes again. Jesus suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. He tells the realistic one to examine his wounds – to actually probe them with his fingers. It’s then that Thomas recognizes his risen Lord. Yes, he realizes, Jesus is present in the tortured and victims of capital punishment – in those crucified by empire. The story invites hearers to join in Thomas prayer before such victims, “My Lord and my God.”

And that brings me back to Marianne Williamson . . . Let’s be honest: when we heard Williamson’s phrase, “politics of love,” did any of us find ourselves rolling our eyes? If so, that probably means we’ve somehow joined Secretary Pompeo in his cynical realism – in his implicit denial of the power of today’s parable. It suggests that we too believe that lies are more powerful than truth, that cheating is more rewarding than acting justly, that might makes right, that violence represents a more effective strategy than love.

In summary, we’re in denial about the truth of Jesus’ teaching – and that of virtually all of history’s sages. Williamson asks: “How’s that been working out for you – and for the world?” It’s time for a change of heart and soul like that of “Realistic” Thomas and like that represented by the campaign of Marianne Williamson.

She needs about 10,000 more individual contributions to qualify for appearance on the debate stage with the other candidates. If you want to see her there, contribute $1.00 or more right now!

Jesus Was Not Preoccupied with Sex: Neither Should the Church Be!

Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126:1-6; Phil. 3: 8-14; Jn. 8: 1-11.

Not long ago, Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills coined an insightful phrase, “The Big Crazy.”  Yes, he was talking about the pedophilia scandal. But his point was more general than that. Wills was referring to the Church’s insane obsession with a long list of cringe-worthy and curious topics that for him included “masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests.”

The list is curious because today’s Gospel reading shows that Jesus didn’t share such prudish concern. And this despite the fact that the religious leaders of his day leaned in that direction – at least regarding women and adultery. Consequently, in the eyes of the priests and scribes of his day, Jesus would have been far too liberal, understanding and forgiving of sexual frailty – far too feminist. His attitude seemed to be: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Here’s what I mean: Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning. That was a biblical requirement. However, the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with a married woman. But if he slept with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute or a slave, he remained innocent. A woman, on the other hand committed adultery if she slept with anyone other than her husband.

Jesus calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. All the elements of last week’s very long parable of the Prodigal Son are here. Jesus is teaching in the temple surrounded by “the people” – the same outcasts, we presume, that habitually hung on his every word.

Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are standing on the crowd’s edge wondering how to incriminate such a man?

As if ordained by heaven, an answer comes to them out of the blue. A woman is hustled into the temple. She’s just been caught in flagrante – in the very act of adultery. What luck for Jesus’ opponents!

“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, the Bible says we should stone her. But what do you say?” Here Jesus’ enemies suspect he will incriminate himself by recommending disobedience of the Bible’s clear injunction. After all, he is the Compassionate One. He is especially known for his kindness towards women – and others among his culture’s most vulnerable. He is the friend of prostitutes and drunkards.

But instead of falling into their trap, Jesus simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he speak — but only 18 words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

A wordless parable . . .  

What do you suppose Jesus was scribbling on the ground? Was he writing the names of the guilty hypocrites who had cheated on their wives? Was he writing the laws the Scribes and Pharisees were violating? Some say he was simply drawing figures in the dust while considering how to reply to his opponents?

The first two possibilities seem unlikely. How would this poor country peasant from Galilee know the names of the learned and citified Scribes and Pharisees? It is even unlikely that Jesus knew how to write at all. That too was the province of the Scribes. The third possibility – that Jesus was absent-mindedly drawing figures in the dust – is probably closer to the mark.

However, it seems likely that there was more to it than that. It seems Jesus was performing some kind of symbolic action – that mimed parable I mentioned. By scribbling in the dust, he was wordlessly bringing his questioners down to earth. He was reminding them of the common origin of men and women?

Both came from the dust, Jesus seems to say without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dust and in God’s image – equal in the eyes of God. “In God’s image God created them. Man and woman created he them,” says the first creation account (Genesis 1:27). By scribbling in the dust, Jesus was symbolically moving the earth under the feet of the Scribes and Pharisees. He was asserting that they had no ground to stand on. They were hypocrites.

Then his 18-word pronouncement offers Jesus’ own standard for judging the guilt of others even in the fraught field of sexuality. According to that standard, one may judge and execute only if he himself is without sin. This, of course, means that no one may judge and execute another.

And that brings us back to Gary Will’s “Big Crazy.” Jesus’ silent rearranging of “ground” along with his 18 words seem to call into question the very foundation of the bishops’ right to authoritatively pronounce on any sexual matters. They, after all, are the guilty ones who denied, covered-up, and excused sexual deviance on the part of the clergy they were responsible for overseeing – and whose overriding (public) concern has centered on sexual purity. Does that not dictate that the bishops and their priests have no ground to stand upon in the field of sexual morality? Isn’t it time for them to silently slink away along with their Scribe and Pharisee counterparts, and to replace judgmentalism with Jesus’ relative silence, forgiveness and compassion?

Jesus’ mime also directs all of us to reconsider our double standards and preconceptions about men and women in general. It reverses a prayer every first century Jewish man was to recite each morning. The prayer went, “Blessed are you, Lord, for making me a Jew and not a Gentile, for making me free and not a slave, and for making me a man and not a woman.”

Certainly, Jesus was taught that prayer by his pious father, Joseph. Perhaps for most of his life, Jesus recited that prayer on a daily basis. But something must have happened to him to change his faith. We’ll never know what that “something” or someone was.

After all, if Jesus thought like the Catholic bishops I mentioned, he would have thrown the first stone. He alone in that group was without sin. He would have thought, “Forgiving this woman will seem like condoning adultery. And condoning adultery might lead to abortions of the pregnancies that result. Not throwing the first stone will also lessen the authority of the Bible which clearly justifies punishing women for adultery. I’ve got to do it.”

Luckily for the woman taken in adultery (and for the rest of us), Jesus wasn’t a fundamentalist – or a Roman Catholic bishop. He recognized the equality of men and women. He recognized that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

That proverb has incredibly wide application, doesn’t it?

President Marianne Williamson?? Yes, That Miracle Can Happen!

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 6:1-2A, 3-8; PS 138: 1-8; ICOR 15: 1-11; LK 5: 1-8

In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter Jesus’ radical message of social justice and of the abundance-for-all that results from accepting his insights. Significantly for this series on the presidential candidacy of Marianne Williamson, her program parallels that of the Master whose miraculous teaching has constituted the center of her own career for the last 30 years and more.

Before I get to that, however, allow me a word about miracles and Marianne’s presidential campaign.  

For starters, she herself is very clear about one thing: without a miracle, our country (and the world) is doomed. But that doesn’t mean her thinking is negative or pessimistic.

That’s because (and this is crucial) Marianne’s use of the term “miracle” does not reference marvels contrary to the laws of nature. Instead, her understanding of the word is something more significant even than the “miraculous” catch of fish reported in today’s Gospel reading. By miracle she means a profound change in consciousness. It’s a change in attitude from one governed by fear and guilt to an outlook inspired by love and forgiveness. As I said, without that change, we’re all finished.

Think about it. Isn’t it true that fear and guilt absolutely govern our lives? We’re taught to be very afraid of the Russians, Iranians, the Taliban, ISIS, Muslims, immigrants, climate change, nuclear holocaust, poverty, the police, gun violence, and death. And standard answers to such threats always include denial and violence in the form of war, more guns, sanctions, walls, prisons, weapons-modernization-programs, and an unlimited consumerism that has us drowning in our own waste.

In fact, it’s precisely that fearful thinking that continues to inform the candidacies of our country’s political classes (Democrats as well as Republicans). All of them except Marianne Williamson are imprisoned in old thought patterns. All of them are locked into political group think which typically dismisses Marianne’s approach as “unrealistic,” “impractical,” “inexperienced,” too idealistic.

Ignored is the fact that their own “realistic” thinking has brought us to the brink of extinction. Their “practical” consciousness has given us the war in Iraq and at least six other countries, the resulting uptick in terrorism, a planet on fire, world hunger in the face of enormous food waste, homeless populations freezing to death outside abandoned buildings, huge wealth disparities, the threat of nuclear war, more prisoners than anywhere else in the word, and a whole host of other problems.

All of those catastrophes, Marianne tells us, will remain without solution absent the miracle – absent the change in consciousness – that her campaign represents. She’s fond of quoting Einstein who said that the same kind of thinking that brought us into a crisis cannot extricate us from its predicament.

Now get ready: For Marianne, the answer to all those perceived threats is love and forgiveness. Yes, she actually dares to say that – to say what Jesus said!  But for Williamson, both love and forgiveness are understood in terms of realizing the unity of all human beings. In other words, only a switch in consciousness from seeing others as separate to envisioning humankind’s underlying unity can save us.

Can you imagine seeing ISIS, the Taliban, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, people of all races, religions and skin colors – and Mother Earth Herself – as truly related to us at an intimate level?

Actually, it’s more than that. As Marianne tells us repeatedly, “There is really only one of us here.” All those demonized groups are us. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our neighbor is our self. When we hate and kill him or her, we’re hating ourselves. We’re committing suicide!

Radicality like Marianne’s is precisely what today’s liturgical readings call us to. They remind us that followers of Jesus (and about 75% of Americans claim to be that) should not shy away from love and forgiveness in the form of wealth redistribution and reparations to exploited classes. No, it’s the heart of our faith. It’s the only realistic solution to our problems, both personal and political.

Consider today’s Gospel story. According to Luke, the crowds of those following Jesus are so thick that he has to get into a boat, a little bit from shore to address the people.

Thanks to what we read from Luke two weeks ago, we know who was in the crowd and why they were so enthusiastic. They were poor people responding to Jesus’ proclamation of a Jubilee Year. (For Jews, Jubilee, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” was good news for the poor. That’s because every 50 years it called for radical wealth redistribution in Israel. Debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, harvests were left un-gleaned and land was returned to its original owners.)  

Recall that using the words of Isaiah, Luke had Jesus summarize his Jubilee message like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  

Yes, Jubilee represented biblical law. But it was honored more in the breach than in the observance. Astoundingly, Jesus was calling for its revival. Hence the overwhelming crowd. 

Not accidentally, Isaiah’s words are a description not only of Jesus’ highly popular program, but of Marianne Williamson’s presidential agenda. It embodies Jubilee Spirit by advocating:

  • Concern for our society’s and the world’s dispossessed (Good News to the poor)
  • Prison reform (Release of captives)
  • Health care (Recovery of sight to the blind)
  • An end to neocolonial wars (Letting the oppressed go free)
  • Reparations to descendants of African slaves (Jubilee)
  • Wealth redistribution that has the rich paying their fair share (Jubilee)
  • Forgiveness of student loans (Jubilee)

Next Jesus demonstrates the counter-intuitive abundance-for-all that inevitably results when his program is implemented. He tells his friends to go out into deeper waters and cast their nets despite the fact that their previous efforts had yielded no results. [Marianne constantly stresses the need for us to “go deeper” if we’re ever to go about Healing the Soul of America (the title of the 20th anniversary edition of her 1997 book.)]

Following Jesus’ instruction, the fishermen net a catch so great that it threatens to tear their nets apart and sink both of their boats. The message: abundance is the result of following Jesus’ program prioritizing “good news to the poor.” Abundance doesn’t trickle down from the elite; it percolates up from the poor.

And, of course, that latter point is underlined by Jesus’ final words in today’s reading, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching men.” In other words, Jesus confirms his “preferential option for the poor” by selecting working class fishermen – not the rich and elite – as his first disciples.

Like Marianne Williamson (and all who miraculously overcome the fear Jesus references), Peter, James, and John leave everything (including evidently the fish they’ve just caught) and follow Jesus into the unknown.

Their audacious act, their detachment from fear, possessions, the past, and the relative wealth they’ve just attained all demonstrate their readiness for further expansions of consciousness – for further miracles.

In our own day, Marianne Williamson’s unusual presidential candidacy summons us to similar changes – to similar miracles.

Yes, it’s true: it may take a miracle to get her elected. But that’s her point. It will also take a profound change in consciousness to save our world.

Let’s work for both wonders. Let’s expect both. We desperately need to change our minds. We desperately need a woman like Marianne Williams as president.