For a couple of years now my pastor (Carter Via) at our newly-adopted non-denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church (THCC) has tried to find an opening for me to speak about liberation theology during one of our Sunday services. But Covid-19 as well as Peggy’s and my three months in Florida this winter made it difficult to arrange.
However, now that most of us are vaccinated, we’re back to in-person Sunday worship services. So, my opportunity to speak came over the Memorial Day weekend. The holiday made it possible for many members of my family to attend.
To illustrate liberation theology’s approach to the Bible, I selected for my remarks the strange story of The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac that appears in the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20. It was read beautifully by our co-pastor (Jennifer McCleery).
Carter had asked me not only to explain liberation theology, but my personal journey towards accepting its approach to the following of Jesus.
What follows is the church service. If you watch the entire thing, it may give you an idea of why Peggy and I find ourselves drawn to this particular church community. Otherwise, of course, you can simply move the cursor to the point where my remarks begin (around the 22 minute mark). Find the link immediately below. Scroll down to the second video viewer.
A few days ago, I posted a trial balloon episode of my first podcast in a series called “A Course in Miracles for Activists: ACIM for social justice warriors.” It used one of those generic automatic “translations” from-text-to -voice. It featured a professional voice, but one that had predictable problems in phrasing and sometimes in pronunciation that often characterize disembodied automatic voice recordings.
My effort was a kind of place holder. I was looking for feedback. (I’ve since removed the posting.)
But with the responses I received in mind, I’m now posting “take two.” Its content is quite different from my first recording and its voice is my own. However, I’m still looking for feedback. (And please don’t pull any punches.)
I’m also looking for subscribers to my new podcast site which you’ll find here: https://acimforactivists.com/ Please use the “Follow” button towards the bottom of the page.
So, give a listen and sign up if you’re so inclined. I consider this project another step in my own spiritual pilgrimage. I’m learning as I go — both about podcasting and the meaning of life.
Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.
That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.
Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.
The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.
I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.
Let me explain.
Religion’s Sudden Decline
Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.
What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.
That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.
All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.
For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:
That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
That they stay at home and care for their offspring
That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality
However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.
And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.
Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)
However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.
To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.
The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.
Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.
Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.
Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.
In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.
All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.
In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.
Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.
Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.
Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.
More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.
For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.
In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.
Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.
All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.
And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?
More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?
For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:
First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.
Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).
Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.
Mike Pence’s small god
Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.
In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”
He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”
Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”
Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.
Yeshua’s Big God
The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.
(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)
Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:
Lived his entire life in poverty.
Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).
Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial. . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.
Subsequently and besides:
Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.
Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.
Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.
So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.
It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.
That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.
Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Great Holocaust caused several Jewish attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
Basically, the offending remarks identified Germany’s wealthy Jewish 1% as providing Hitler’s fascism with pretext for his genocide of the other 99%. (I’ve summarized what was actually said here.) The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.
Rob’s recommendation reminded me of a sobering experience I had years ago in Mexico. It put me in the position of the OEN provocateur. It also caused me to reflect on the role of self-criticism that is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of critical thinking in general.
My Report from Israel
The experience I’m referring to came when I was invited to give a “Report from Israel” after a three-week study tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt sponsored by Berea College, where I taught in the Philosophy and Religion Department for 40 years. The invitation came from the Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) congregation of San Miguel de Allende.
My report was heavily influenced not only by our time spent in the Palestinian community, but by a separate visit my wife, Peggy, and I made to the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for liberation theology in Jerusalem. Scholars there connected the Palestinians’ situation with colonialism. They pointed out that ever-expanding Jewish settlements stood in blatant contravention of UN Resolution 242. It was a continuation of the European colonial system that had supposedly been abolished following World War II. In Israel-Palestine, Jewish occupation represented the familiar European settler pattern repeated throughout the former colonies. It had (Zionist) settlers from Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and elsewhere arriving unexpectedly in lands belonging for millennia to poor unsuspecting Palestinian peasants, and then confiscating their homes, fields and resources.
With all of that fresh on my mind, the thesis of my U.U. presentation was clear and unambiguous. “The real terrorists in Israel,” I said, “are the Zionists who run the country.” I didn’t consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. The Sabeel Center and Noam Chomsky had been making it for years.
What I didn’t realize was that almost everyone in my audience was Jewish. (I didn’t even know about San Miguel’s large Jewish population – mostly “snowbirds” from New York City.) Nonetheless, my remarks that Sunday stimulated an engrossing extended discussion. Everyone was respectful, and the enthusiastic conversation even spilled over beyond the allotted time.
The trouble started after the head of San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice (CGJ) where Peggy and I were working at the time invited me to publish my talk as an article in San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atención.
I’ll never forget what followed; it was very similar to what occurred during Rob’s OEN Zoom call. All hell broke loose:
A barrage of angry letters flooded the Atención pages for the next two weeks and more.
As a result, Atención threatened to cancel the column space set aside for the CGJ each week.
San Miguel’s Bibliotheca (library) talked about ending the CGJ’s access to meeting rooms there.
My article was removed from Atención’s archives.
Someone from the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) phoned my provost at Berea College reporting me for my inflammatory article, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.
The CGJ’s leadership was forced to do some back-pedaling distancing itself from me and my remarks.
They lit candles of reconciliation at a subsequent U.U. meeting begging forgiveness from the community and absolution for that mad man from Berea.
The guiding assumption in all of this was that my argument was patently false.
In other words, an article that should have stimulated critical thinking and discussion (with CGJ activists leading the way as a voice for Palestine’s voiceless) was met instead with denial, dismissal, and apology.
Of course, I know that criticizing Zionists for their treatment of Palestinians is quite different from the holocaust denial that some on the OEN call perceived a few weeks ago.
It is also probably futile for members of the goyim like me to comment on the topic. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so, because:
My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers.
They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.
Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding a new religion. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.
In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. (Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are.) Additionally, what separates Zionists from other contemporary neo-colonizers is their claimed religious identity. So, to ignore the role of religion here overlooks the proverbial elephant in the room.
Recognizing the elephant gives license to say that what really happened in the Zoom conversation and in reaction to my remarks in San Miguel mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus and their contemporaries. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):
Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words
Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish 1% while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority. Pointing that out is simply telling the truth.
Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to a still wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.
All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.
The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, as both a Roman Catholic and a U.S. citizen, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany and against contemporary Zionists. I feel resentment at the very mention of such truths.
Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of parochial consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for the dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.
As Paulo Freire puts it in The Politics of Education, all critical thinking begins with self-criticism.
Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 4: 12-23
In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to report on my rich but heartrending experiences in Tijuana Mexico where I’m volunteering for a legal services group, Al Otro Lado (AOL). We offer professional counseling and support to refugees at our country’s heaviest border crossing here in Baja California. For someone in his 80th year, workdays here have been incredibly busy, very exhausting, but also extremely rewarding.
I mean, who wouldn’t be edified to witness the example of heroic but impoverished fathers and mothers AOL counsels each day. Their love for their children is so powerful that it has driven them to leave the homes and countries they love and actually walk hundreds of miles to what they imagine will be safer conditions for their little ones? (How desperate do you have to be to do that?!) It’s like the mythic journeys celebrated in some of the greatest stories human beings have ever produced.
And yet, whose heart wouldn’t be broken to realize that helping these heroines and heroes fill out reams and reams of invasive forms and questionnaires will in most case lead nowhere but back to their original unbearable circumstances? That’s because the heartless Trump administration is doing everything in its power to thwart the dreams of these mythic champions.
To be more specific, here’s what I’ve been told over the past two weeks while taking testimony from refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (What follows is virtually in the refugees own words.) See if you find them as distressing as I have:
My country (e.g. Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Haiti) is controlled by drug cartels created by the U.S. so-called “war on drugs.”
Small business owners in my barrio must offer the gangs protection money or otherwise cooperate with them – either that or suffer horrific consequences.
They try to get the rest of us to pay “war taxes” and/or to transport or distribute drugs.
For refusing to do so, my father (and/or a brother, or uncle) has been murdered. They’ve beat me up too. They almost stabbed me to death. They’ve burnt down our family’s house.
And the gangs are currently threatening to kill me and remaining members of my family if we don’t give in.
I can’t move elsewhere in my country to escape all of this, because the gangs are everywhere. They’ve followed me to the border, made threatening phone calls, parked prominently outside my place of work. They always seem to know where I live.
Moreover, it doesn’t help to go to the police. They either fear the gangs or cooperate with them. We’re all afraid of the police; they are so corrupt and unhelpful.
I’m desperate, so I and my family have walked across three countries to get here.
Women hovering over young children, clinging infants, and adorable babies report:
I’ve been a victim of domestic violence for years.
My husband who’s alcoholic regularly beats me and my children.
Since I left him, there’s been no escape; he stalks me wherever I go.
I can’t live like this anymore.
I’ve got to get as far away from this man as possible.
To repeat: those are the stories all us volunteers for AOL hear each day. I bring them up today because they turn out to be intimately connected with the liturgical readings for this third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Those selections offer encouragement to our mythic heroes, because their stories are quite like those of 6th century (BCE) Jews reflected in today’s first reading as well as of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s gospel selection. In fact, heroes’ journeys, exile, and refugeeism turn out to be prominent recurring biblical themes. Think about it.
Consider for example today’s first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It celebrates Israel’s homecoming after a 50-year exile in Babylon (modern Iraq). It was then that their leaders had been forced to emigrate from Israel to Babylon. In other words, they were victims of wholesale kidnapping when Babylon’s rulers desired to prevent uprisings in the land they had just conquered and occupied. So, like our clients here in Tijuana, the removed ones became victims of heartless force and violence back home.
And then in the Gospel (500 years later), we find John the Baptist and Jesus similarly victimized by regimes almost as ruthless as the Trump administration. Today’s gospel reading focuses on Jesus himself becoming a political refugee for the second time. [Remember that first time in Matthew’s “infancy narratives,” when he and his parents sought expatriate status in Egypt to escape wholesale state infanticide (MT 2:13-23)?]
This time, that same King Herod has arrested Jesus’ mentor, the outspoken John the Baptizer. (The king would shortly have him beheaded.) And that in turn forces Jesus, as John’s protege, to go underground. So, the young teacher flees for refuge specifically among non-Jews in the Gentile region of Zebulon and Naphtali in eastern Galilee.
Significantly, that entire territory constituted a rebellious district and a hotbed of revolution. As such, it was largely out of Herod’s control. (To some extent, the king had only himself to blame for that, because it was in Zebulon and Naphtali that he had forcefully resettled migrants, non-Jews, and the poor.) In any case, Jesus finds comparative safety in that mixed context of foreigners, rebels and refugees.
Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ semi-clandestine status didn’t silence him. Instead, he simply took up where John had left off proclaiming their shared conviction that another non-imperialized world is possible. As a world without Caesars – as a world with room for everyone – Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what refugees and immigrants have always wanted.
What I’m trying to say is that here in Tijuana, AOL deals every day with refugees from violence pretty much like what’s portrayed in today’s biblical selections. Circumstances have forced most of them into exile every bit as effectively as 6th century (BCE) Jews were forced into Babylon. They are just as frightened as Jesus must have been when he fled to eastern Galilee to hide out in a district virtually ungovernable by the reigning King Herod.
Calling attention to the similarities between the stories of heroes at our southern border and those of Israel in general and of Jesus in particular should offer encouragement to both today’s refugees and those who work with them (like the AOL permanent volunteers I’ve found so inspiring). The message for everyone is “this too will pass.” In any case, here are my “translations” of the readings in question. You can find them here in their original form.
Today’s Readings (in Translation)
Our long, alienated exile
Is finally over.
Gloom and distress
Have been replaced
By light, joy and merriment.
Of foreign taskmasters
Have been lifted
Their instruments of torture,
It is time to celebrate.
Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14
Indeed, fear is gone
Removed by the Divine One
Who is Light, Salvation,
Refuge and Loveliness
The Source of
Bounty, courage, strength,
I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
For us, Yeshua
Is the wellspring
Of such delight
So, as his followers
We should never
Split into petty factions
But stay united instead.
Is banished –
Has us rejecting
The World’s division
Its insanity –
Its fundamental sickness.
Matthew 4: 12-23
That World even
Imprisoned John the Baptizer
To hide underground
Yet he never stopped
Another world is possible
With room for everyone
Working class people
To leave behind
For its sake
With the added bonus
Of free health care
A key foundational principle of liberation theology is the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”
It means that since poor people stand on the same ground as the ones whose experience is centralized in the Bible, their interpretations of texts (hermeneutics) are probably more accurate than the readings of the non-poor and even of academics trained in biblical science. The poor and oppressed see elements of historical accounts, parables, and other literary forms that remain opaque to the rest of us.
The truth of that privilege has come home to me strongly since I began my stint two weeks ago here in Baja California. It has forced me to see the world through the eyes of the refugees our group accompanies each morning at the el Chaparral crossing.
So, when I considered this week’s liturgical readings from Isaiah and Matthew, I saw what I never saw before, though I was previously quite familiar with both passages. Today’s readings, I realized, are about escapees from persecution similar to what our refugees from Mexico and Central America have experienced.
In summary, Tijuana’s refugees are more authentically God’s people – God’s favorites – than the rest of us.
I thank the heroes I’ve met here in Baja California for teaching me that lesson. They are mythic giants indeed.
Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31
Today’s liturgy of the
word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most
important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most
important social movement of the last 150 years.
I have come to those
conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation
theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967
through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is
considered the father of liberation theology.)
Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s book, A Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.
You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.
read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire
Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our
contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live
in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes
from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant
with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the
personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor
and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw
My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.
at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the
college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with
liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with
its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to
me the obvious political conclusions from their work.
specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of
slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole
tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish
prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more,
Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king.
Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4:
18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:
“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.”
his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally,
having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the
All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.
The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.
railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to
the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial
psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the
wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed,
giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the
blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.
Then today’s excerpt from
1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following
in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which
is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
According to St. Paul,
that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience,
the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship
between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of
the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin
significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the
names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are
reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a
name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.
part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His
sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his
wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though
the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the
wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling
from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those
crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus
two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not
told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of
being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part,
Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.
is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply
because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the
slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.
with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people
imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire,
of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of
punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find
themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful,
Dives experiences as tormenting.
why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.
the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the
economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the
last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is
case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in
the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to
Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central
characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the
side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.
You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
And that’s why the
reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation
theology. It initiated what Noam
Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It
was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America –
yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of
priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students,
teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.
liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final
word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St.
Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.
Here are my “translations” of the liturgical readings for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time. As we’ll see more explicitly in my Sunday Homily, they provide a virtual catechism of liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years.
AM 6:1A, 4-7
The Spirt of Life informs us that: Complacent “religious” people Are in for a sad surprise. They might be enjoying Their “Sleep Number” mattresses And Lazy Boy chairs; While gorging on Wagyu Beef And meats No one else can afford; They might be attending A-list concerts And drinking Chateau Lafite While reeking of Chanel Grand Extrait. But the world’s on fire! And its flames will soon consume Even the decadent lifestyles Of the super-rich.
PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10
For the poor, There’s a certain Schadenfreude In all of this. For God’s future assures Downfall for the rich While promising Justice for the oppressed Rich food for those now hungry And liberation for the imprisoned. The obtuse will see, We’re told. The overworked Will be relieved. Immigrants and refugees Will be safe at last. Children born out of wed-lock And abandoned women Will finally know peace.
1 TM 6:11-16
So, be of good heart. Despite appearances, That golden future awaits Those who live like Jesus. He was so committed To the poor To justice, non-violence Patience and love That the imperialized world Could not stand it. Nevertheless, his powerful Christ-consciousness (That you btw have promised To live by) Will bring the world A completely new order And enlightenment beyond Our wildest imaginings.
2 COR 8:9
In fact, Jesus accomplished All of that By becoming a poor man Not a rich one So that we might know Where true wealth lies And live accordingly.
LK 16: 19-31
Jesus illustrates His meaning With the story (Told to the complacent believers) Of poor Lazarus Who often begged From a rich man. But soon had Dives Begging from him And experiencing The awful frustration Of unbridgeable gaps In consumption And in ability To communicate The desperation And torment, Of hunger and thirst Even if revealed By a ghost from the other side.
[The quadrennial election-season is upon us. Accordingly, today’s posting is the first in a series on Marianne Williamson and her candidacy for President of the United States. The series will explore parallels between her platform (as articulated in her 20th anniversary edition of “Healing the Soul of America”) on the one hand and “A Course in Miracles” (ACIM) on the other. Postings to follow will also connect ACIM and Williamson’s policies with liberation theology – the most important theological development of the last 1500 years, and the inspiration for the Global South’s most effective social movement since the middle of the 19th century. The thesis here will be that Marianne Williamson is actually a U.S. liberation theologian, but in the tradition of 19th century abolitionists, as well as that of women suffragists, Martin Luther King, and Mohandas Gandhi. As such, her candidacy promises our country the revolutionary impetus that liberation theology provided for the profound socio-political changes Latin America has experienced over the last six decades. Apart from more formal explanations of this thesis, the latter’s point will be made in the form of weekly Sunday homilies reflecting on the narratives of Jesus’ words and deeds as presented in each week’s liturgical readings.]
Marianne Williamson for President! She’s a Liberation Theologian
On Monday, January 28th, Marianne Williamson declared herself a candidate for President of the United States. In making her declaration, this great spiritual leader, who has a larger social media following than any Democratic candidate declared so far, implicitly proposed addressing in 21st century, non-religious ways the spiritual hunger that Williamson and others in the “higher consciousness community” consider endemic to the human condition, whether that hunger is recognized or not.
However, the difference between Williamson and others in that community is that she consistently applies her spiritual insights to the public sphere. And as we shall see shortly, she does so in a manner that completely respects the convictions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs – and atheists, along with those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
Because of its inclusive approach, Ms. Williamson’s
candidacy promises to build on the accomplishments of 19th century
abolitionists, and on those of 20th century women suffragists, and participants
in the American civil rights movement. The abolitionists and many suffragists
were highly committed Quakers. And, of course, King was a Baptist minister. Following in their footsteps, Williamson
promises to at last offer progressives (and the country at large) entry into a
sphere that conservatives – Christian fundamentalists to be exact – have
controlled at least since the 1980s. It’s the essential realm of faith and
Failure to enter that sphere has hamstrung the left whose
“enlightened” tendency has been to reject and ridicule rather than embrace what
many consider the deepest dimension of being human. That tendency has not
simply cost progressives votes on election day. Even more fundamentally, it has
incapacitated them by its implied blindness to the spiritual hunger shared even
by humans in general. Put otherwise, Williamson is confronting the right on its
In daring to do so, she is boldly following in the footsteps
of Martin Luther King who demonstrated the ability of faith to awaken critical
thinking capacities belonging to ordinary people. King as well as Malcolm X,
and the abolitionists that preceded them all tapped into the undeniable power
that religious language, symbols and metaphors possess to actually motivate
ordinary people to work for social justice and profound political change. The
same, of course, is true of Mahatma Gandhi and the liberation theologians of
the Global South. In fact, I’ll argue in future postings that Marianne
Williamson could easily be classified as a liberation theologian.
Before I get to that however, please recognize that during
her campaign Williamson does not plan to wear her identity as spiritual teacher
on her sleeve. And that’s her strength too. Instead, she’ll employ her
spiritual consciousness and conviction fostered by years of spiritual
discipline to guide her campaign in the right direction which will inevitably
call for deep psychological – not to say – spiritual – transformation for all
Recently, she described that transformational direction in an extended interview with CNN’s John Berman. Williamson said her most prominent issues would be:
Medicare for All
A permanent tax cut for the middle class
Free education for all children (including
tuition for public colleges)
Government support for children’s services
A Green New Deal
Those, of course, are proposals similar to what have been
proposed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, whom Williamson supported in
Why then run, Berman asked, before Sanders and Warren have
officially announced? Won’t her campaign be somewhat redundant in the face of
two veteran politicians who, he intimated, have a much better chance of getting
Williamson’s response was significant in that it clearly
underlined not so much her competitive edge even over candidates like those
just mentioned, but the added value her candidacy represents. Ms. Williamson
wants to expand the conversation, she said, to address the psychological and
spiritual issues underlying what she sees as the severe disease that mortally
threatens the American body politic. As long as those remain unaddressed,
conversation and policy proposals, however excellent and whatever their sources,
will remain at less-helpful superficial levels. It will be like watering the
leaves of a plant, when its roots remain dry and shriveling.
And what root causes is Williamson referring to? Basically,
she says, it’s an amoral economic system. It is capitalism-as-we-know-it that
has focused on short term gains while allowing market forces instead of common-sense
spiritual principles (as elementary as the Golden Rule and democracy) to assume
their irreplaceable and decisive roles in the organization of our country’s
Such assumption now has millions of children living in
chronic despair and trauma. (Williamson always begins with child welfare.) The
system has also created layers of racism and fostered wars across the planet.
It has made our country destructively expert at waging wars but unwilling to
Williamson reminded her interviewer that Franklin Roosevelt
considered the administrative aspects of the presidency as secondary to the
moral leadership the position affords. She pointed out that her 35 years of
naming and addressing such moral dimensions of public policy is what qualifies
her to exercise the moral leadership F.D.R. referenced. That’s Williamson’s
competitive edge. It’s her added value. It’s what no other Democratic candidate
offers so clearly.
When asked about paying for her program, Williamson
chuckled. She asked: Isn’t it interesting that interviewers always raise that
tired canard? When it comes to giving a $2 trillion tax break to billionaires,
very few, she said, will ask, “Where will the money come from?” Even less do
they raise that question when it comes to fighting wars – not even wars like
the one against Saddam Hussein in Iraq that was entirely illegal and based on
Marianne Williamson had a similar response when asked about
the reparations she advocates for African-American descendants of slaves. She’s
proposing a fund of $100 billion for the purpose. It would be paid out over a
period of 10 years to finance economic and educational projects to benefit the
community in question.
There are precedents for this she added. After World War II, Germany paid out $89 billion in reparations to Jewish organizations in the country. President Reagan signed into law the American Civil Liberties Act to similarly repair harm done to every survivor of the internment camps set up for the Japanese-Americans during the same World War. Moreover, following our nation’s Civil War, General Tecumseh Sherman proposed giving every freed slave 40 acres and a mule. Instead, former slaves were given the Black Code Laws that plagued them till the mid-1960s. It’s time, Ms. Williams said, to make good on Sherman’s reparational promise which was never kept.
From all of this, you can see that Marianne Williamson with
her huge social media following is a serious candidate. For people of faith and
advocates of social justice without a shred of religious faith, she presents a
strong antidote to the religious right that has cornered the field of language,
symbols, and metaphors by which most people in the world make sense of the
Williams knows that field inside-out. She recognizes that surrendering that field to reactionary forces is what renders progressives relatively weak before the 75% of Americans who identify as Christians. In the spirit of the abolitionists, women suffragists, and civil rights activists – in the spirit of Gandhi and liberation theologians – she wants to reclaim that turf and the specifically moral influence missing in the Democratic White House since the FDR era.
(Next week: My Meeting with Marianne Williamson. )
Two weeks ago, Rob Kall posted an interview with me on OpEdNews. It centered on my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news. I had great fun doing the show. Here it is.