Jimmy Lai vs. Julian Assange: Prophets without Honor (A July 4th Sunday Reflection)

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10; Luke 4: 18; Mark 6: 1-6

I can’t believe that we’re still expected to believe that the United States and Great Britain are concerned about human rights or press freedom or that either has any leg to stand on in such posturing.

I mean, how can any of us still believe after the lies about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Julian Assange, the demonization of Wikileaks, and the cooperation of the mainstream media (MSM) with all of it.

You’re telling me that either London or Washington has the right to pronounce on press freedom? On human rights? Please!

Demonization of China

Nonetheless, they’re at it again in relation to China and the desperate campaign of both Great Britain and America to demonize Beijing and its implied invocation of an Asian version of The Monroe Doctrine in relation to Hong Kong [which, by the way, (unlike the U.S. relationship to Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or Venezuela) is actually part of China.]

More specifically, we’re supposed to join the MSM and “our” government as well as England’s in worrying about the recent shutdown of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong – a publication that sounds a lot like The National Inquirer.

Judge for yourself. A recent cover story in The Guardian describes the paper as a tabloid-style publication that has “a chequered history including cheque-book journalism, muckraking and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigation into government corruption and police brutality.”

What? Chequered history? Paying sources for information (probably with money from the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy) and unethical reporting?

Oh, and the paper is owned by billionaire Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned (according to The Guardian) “on protest-related convictions and national security charges.”

So, now it’s “Hands across the Planet” for poor Jimmy and his yellow journalism.

Meanwhile Julian Assange wastes away precisely in a British prison for publishing government secrets exactly about U.S. war crimes in Wikileaks – a source that publishes the Washington’s own unquestionably true confessions of the criminal acts it desperately wants kept secret from the rest of us.

So let me get this straight: Jimmy Lai’s a hero. And we’re all supposed to get misty-eyed about the Hong Inquirer’s brave reporters. But Julian Assange is a criminal. And Wikileaks doesn’t even qualify as journalism.

And, by the way, we’re supposed to forget that there was absolutely no press freedom all those years the Brits controlled Hong Kong.

Does anyone else sense the irony?

Today’s Readings

Such considerations are especially relevant this July 4th as we celebrate our supposed “freedoms” and the tarnished ideals of the United States. Significantly, this month marks as well the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CCP) whose good example (in drastically reducing world poverty and extending foreign aid) our country so fears.  

Besides being July 4th, today also happens to be Sunday, time for a weekly “Homily for Progressives” where the theme of the day is prophecy in the sense of social criticism in the name of all that’s holy.

The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel implicitly reminds us that there were two kinds of prophets among the ancient Hebrews. Both are still with us today.

One type was a “court prophet” telling the king and power structure what they wanted to hear – justifying their oppression of the poor. (On this Independence Day you’ll hear a lot of their drivel as they praise “America” as though it were not – as Martin King put it – “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”) Think about The Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and our MSM as court prophets.

The other type of prophet spoke for the Truth that was commonly referred to as “God.” The words of such men and women were routinely dismissed by the powers that happened to be. Some prophets (as is the case with Jesus in today’s final reading) were even rejected by the very oppressed people they were trying to champion. Their words were thought too dangerous and, in some cases, too good to be true. Think about Julian Assange as a prophet in the mold of Ezekiel or the Nazareth construction worker many of us claim to follow.

In any case, here are my “translations” of today’s selections. You should really check them out here to see if I got them right. As you read, think of Julian Assange.

Ezekiel 2: 2-5

I was startled
When God’s Spirit
Demanded that
I criticize my own people
As ungodly and stubborn
Telling me 
To make them uncomfortably
Aware
That a fearless prophet
Was at work
Among them.

Psalm 123: 1-4

Great and holy Parent
We invoke your compassion
On your prophetic
Servants and handmaids
So eager to serve you
Despite contemptuous mistreatment
At the hands 
Of our so-called “leaders”
With their pride and arrogance
Directed 
Against your beloved poor.

2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Neither do prophets 
Have to be perfect.
Even Paul of Tarsus
Despite his many gifts
Suffered under
“An angel of Satan”
And “a thorn in the flesh"
To keep him humble
Lest he take credit
For the work
Of the Holy Spirit
Within him.

Mark 6: 1-6

But like Ezekiel
Jesus was rejected 
By his own townsfolk
Who complained that
He had gotten “above his raisin’s”
They didn’t even
Call him by  
His father’s name
(Implying he was a bastard)
While dismissing
His brothers and sisters
As quite unremarkable.
There’d be
No mighty deeds
For such whiners.
Only cures for
A few ailing beggars.

Conclusion

In a recent New York Times editorial, another court prophet, Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, joined the chorus of warnings about China’s grave threat to the West.

To an audience acquainted with the revelations of Edward Snowden Lian decried China’s surveillance system. To those whose country has bombed and killed Muslims by the scores and thousands every day over the last 20 years, he complained about treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. To Americans who have lived through a Trump presidency, he criticized Chinese governance by lies. (His example? President Xi Jinping actually claimed that China seeks an international image that is “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”) The horror of it all!   

Nonetheless, Lian also pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party retains high popularity among a vast majority of its people. In fact, the party has grown by 20% annually since its foundation 100 years ago. There are no refugees from China. Travelers and students come and go at will and usually return home.

For Lian, the bottom line is that China is showing no evident signs of decline. This means that it will remain a formidable force continuing to threaten the United States and Western allies for years to come. This will be true, he said, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically.

So, the West, Lian concludes, had better get used to the CCP’s threatening presence “at its front door.”

Of course, all this talk of threat and menace from a country that (unlike the United States and Great Britain) has bombed no one in the last 40 years – all this imperial identification of a country more than 7000 miles away as at “our front door” is nonsense.

So is any continued posturing about “our” championing of human rights and press freedom. July 4th in the context of faith reflection is a good time for reminders of such home truths.  

The Biblical Call to Woke, Politically Correct Identity Politics

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14; Romans 8: 9-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

Whatever the world believes and does, choose to believe and do the opposite. That’s because the Truth that some call “God” is found 180 degrees opposite to what the world claims as true. That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.

So, take heart if as a follower of the Christ, they accuse you of advocating identity politics, deride you as a social justice warrior, woke, politically correct, a conspiracy theorist, or a whatabouter. Leaving aside their distorted meanings, all of those categories should actually be embraced by critical persons of faith who take this Sunday’s readings to heart.  

In today’s key selection, Paul refers to accusations like the above as “flesh,” because they insistently judge according to external appearances and directly contradict the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Such judgments routinely gas light activists demonstrating for social justice across the world. For instance, followers of Rush Limbaugh tell awakened Black Lives Matter demonstrators to go back to sleep. They admonish “conspiracy theorists” to simply accept White House narratives. They ridicule “social justice warriors” as pathetic Don Quixotes impotently jousting at windmills. And they say progressives, “snowflakes” should be embarrassed about their annoying “political correctness” and whataboutism.       

However, today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah calls for political strategy that penetrates below such superficiality at every turn. In the process, he longs for political leaders whose laser vision will reject the outer manifestations that tell us that things are fine the way they are. For instance, his ideal ruler will refuse military display and instead sponsor programs of national disarmament. That, of course, flies in the face of “American” cultural ideals of bluster, toughness, and aggression.

Finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that adopting contrary unfleshly values will result in easy, restful and unburdened existence for everyone.

Flesh Merchants

Before we get to those separate readings, begin by contrasting the wisdom of the world’s flesh merchants with the general vision recommended (as we’ll see below) in today’s selections. Think about the dominant culture’s superficial dismissal of social justice warriors, the “woke,” of everything that smacks of political correctness, or conspiracy theories or whataboutism. Those caught up in fleshly appearances want progressives to feel guilty about the critical thinking implied in each of those categories understood in the light of faith.

  • The Struggle for Social Justice: Our era’s flesh merchants generally ridicule what they call “social justice warriors” as naïve bleeding hearts. However, the truth is that the struggle for social justice lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It all began with the liberation of slaves from Egypt. The Hebrew Covenant prioritized the needs of widows, orphans and immigrants. It instituted permanent land reform measures and periodic wealth redistribution. Jesus advocated replacement of Rome’s empire with what he called the Kingdom of God – a world where God’s truth and love replaced Caesar’s looting, lies and oppression. All the great followers of Jesus were social justice warriors. Think Bartolome de las Casas, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and today’s William Barber.
  • Wokeness: Following in the footsteps of such prophets, all of us are called to permanent spiritual insomnia. In fact, Buddhism is entirely based on the concept. It teaches that the whole purpose of life is to wake up from the slumber that is endemic to dominant cultures everywhere. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” had a similar message. Any follower of the Judeo-Christian tradition is called to wake up.
  • Identity Politics: Notwithstanding its Buddhist and classical derivations, the term “woke” comes from the African American community. That origin reminds us that any struggle for social justice must begin with heightened awareness and affirmation of specific identity as an oppressed people. That’s why James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, jarringly insists that God is black. He’s referring to a divine preference for the unfairly “burdened” (as today’s Gospel selection puts it) in any age. It’s what lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ repeated allusions to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It’s with the impoverished that followers of Moses and Jesus are called to unambiguously identify spiritually and politically. 
  • Political Correctness: This is perhaps the most distorted and denigrated of the concepts considered here. Originally, it was a self-critical tool used by political activists to make sure that their speech and action were consistent with their principles. More recently however, the term has been appropriated and trivialized by opponents of social justice to refer to any infringement of a dominant group’s supposed right to speak and act without considering the consequences for members of a subordinate class. Obviously, such “freedom” is out of step with the just-referenced preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, all would-be followers of Jesus the Christ are called to bring their speech and actions into correct alignment with their faith.    
  • Conspiracy Theory: Like political correctness, the original concept of conspiracy theory had no insulting overtones. In fact, conspiracy is a legal category referring to two or more people planning to commit a crime. Lawyers and prosecutors theorize about conspiracies all the time. And, of course, Jesus’ assassination resulted from a conspiracy between Jerusalem’s temple priests and the Roman imperial state. That fact alone should make his followers especially sensitive to conspiratorial plots. (BTW, one prominent conspiracy theory holds that following the Kennedy assassination, the CIA appropriated a negative understanding of the term conspiracy theorists precisely to discredit critics of the highly questionable Warren Report – and subsequently of every other CIA operation.) Bottom line here: no one familiar with history, much less Christianity, should be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists. Such allegations are meant to inhibit critical thinking.   
  • Whataboutism: The Wikipedia Dictionary defines whataboutism as any attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Actually, in our U.S. context, it’s most often a refusal to take seriously right-wing accusations against designated enemies such as Russia, China, or Venezuela for crimes routinely committed by the United States itself. It recognizes that “America” has no ground to stand on in its accusations of election-interference, persecution of Muslims, or corruption in high office. That’s because our country’s officials routinely engage in such activities themselves and embody unsurpassed corruption at every level. It’s all in the spirit of Jesus’ words, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Like Jesus, whatabouters are concerned with hypocrisy.

Today’s Readings

With all of this in mind, here are my “translations” of the readings that inspire today’s reflection. Please read them for yourselves here to see if I’ve got them right. I take them all as issuing a call to depart entirely from the dominant culture’s way of thinking and acting in the areas just designated.

Zechariah 9: 9-10: The world leader we’re all waiting for won’t come driving a Sherman Tank, Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  Rather, she’ll arrive on a bicycle. Moreover, she’ll achieve peace by eliminating the entire military-industrial complex. No more war for this non-violent champion! 

Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14: When she comes, we’ll all join in grateful thanksgiving to our Great Cosmic Mother. We’ll praise her for her grace, patience, goodness, kindness and compassion. We’ll finally realize that might is found precisely in what the world considers weakness – in the fallen and heavily burdened. 

Romans 8: 9-13: On that happy day, everyone on earth will understand their spiritual unity with everyone else regardless of externals – “flesh” including its color. We’ll see that at core, all of us share the loving Spirit that animated Jesus the compassionate Christ. Fullness of life, he taught, lies in a direction 180 degrees away from the fleshy exterior reality to which the world so insistently limits our attention.   

Matthew 11: 25-30: Yes, the worldly wise and learned tell us that “reality” is defined by what we can see and feel and that might makes right. However, the unpretentious nobodies of the world who follow Jesus know much more. In their humility, disarmed non-violence, and refusal to compete, they share the very mind of God. They’ve discovered the secret of an easy, restful and unburdened existence.

Conclusion

I suppose what I’ve been seeing in today’s biblical readings are implications that call into question our culture’s superficiality – something Paul called “flesh.” I hear the readings warning us against the dominant culture and its rejection of much deeper (spiritual) values firmly founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’m talking about commitment to social justice, and the identity politics that sides with the poor and oppressed. I’m referring to awakening from cultural slumber and the adoption of woke ways of thinking and acting that are politically correct in terms of coherence between theory and action. My reference is also to judicious suspicion of official stories mouthed by “leaders” who have repeatedly lied to us – even in the face of their accusations about conspiracy theories. All of this, I’m saying, entails complete rejection of hypocrisy hiding behind deflecting complaints of whataboutism.

I at least feel great relief to recognize culturally imposed guilt tripping for what it is. I’m happy to embrace my efforts to be an awakened politically correct social justice warrior identified with the poor and oppressed and alert to conspiracies by the rich and powerful.

All of these are proud labels embodied in countless heroes most of us profess to admire – people like Moses, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin King, Dorothy Day, William Barber, and Jesus himself. We’re in very good company.        

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: (Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

SON OF GOD
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)