Unforgetting the Past: The Karmic Roots of U.S. Border Problems

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Sirach 27: 30-28:7; Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12; Romans 14: 7-9; Matthew 18: 21-35. 

This week’s readings are about forgetting and unforgetting. They emphasize our tendencies to remember, rehearse and perversely treasure wrongs done to us, while denying, ignoring or dismissing those we’ve done to others. The wrongs in question can be both personal and/or political.

For today, let’s leave aside the myriad personal grievances we all nurse.  

Instead, let me focus on political resentments and point out that this week’s selections are especially relevant to an interview many of us may have seen last week on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. The telecast spent time with Salvadoran journalist Roberto Lovato who has just published his own memoir called Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.

Problems at the Border

In tune with our readings, the book addresses the topic of our collective amnesia about the true causes of immigration problems and their uncomfortable cure. In Lovato’s case, both remembering and forgetting connect more than four decades of destructive U.S. policy in Central America with the refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those three countries, Lovato pointedly recalls, were absolutely destroyed by counter-insurgency wars that go all the way back to 1932.

Without “unforgetting” those disasters, the author insists, we can understand neither the border crisis nor the gang phenomenon that causes it.

To begin with, Lovato reminds us why almost no one outside El Salvador remembers “la matanza” of ‘32. Instead, that massacre along with its more recent reprise at El Mozote in 1981, have been shoved down our Orwellian memory hole by the U.S. and Salvadoran states whose very job is to destroy records and manufacture the mass amnesia that afflicts American culture.  

Similarly, very few of us connect our contemporary border crisis with U.S. Central American policy during the 1980s. Virtually no one links the Central American policies of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump administrations to immigrant prisons and baby jails.   

Nonetheless, on Lovato’s analysis, the connections are there for the rescue.  La matanza, he says, was one of the most violent episodes “in world history in terms of the numbers of people killed per day, per week, in a concentrated place.” The massacre at the hands of a U.S. supported military government killed thousands upon thousands of mostly indigenous Salvadorans.

As for El Mozote, some can still remember that horrendous U.S. crime where nearly 1000 unarmed Salvadoran villagers were slaughtered by U.S.-trained forces.

In fact, El Mazote encapsulates the entire disaster of American policy towards Central America foreshadowed in la matanza and resumed with a vengeance all during the 1980s. Under its aegis, entire towns were destroyed; homes were set ablaze and jobs destroyed; families were decimated; sons and husbands were killed; wives and daughters were systematically raped; union leaders, social workers, and teachers along with liberationist priests and nuns were assassinated without pity.

Disgracefully, much of the destruction was financed by CIA operations that flew narcotics from Central America to Florida and carried guns and ammunition back to U.S.-supported terrorist troops in Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – not to mention the Contras in Nicaragua. 

And of course, in the aftermath the militarily decommissioned terrorists continued their lucrative involvement with narcotics. They became the drug gang kingpins and foot soldiers who in turn have driven so many families northward.

All of that, Lovato repeats, must be “unforgetted” if we North Americans are to have any hope of solving our problems of immigration, gangs, drugs, and social justice. Our country owes extensive reparation to Central Americans.      

Today’s Readings

So, with all of that in mind, please consider this Sunday’s selections. On the one hand, they centralize the divine amnesia of Jesus’ Great Father-Mother God regarding our personal and communal shortcomings that some refer to as “sin.” On the other hand, our Divine Parents’ compassionate forgetfulness is contrasted with our own petty preoccupation with the way we imagine others have somehow done us wrong.

Sirach, the Psalmist, Paul, and Jesus all remind us of how easily we forget the way we’ve abused “strangers” (like those at our border) whom the Master identified as our very sisters and brothers. Ironically, unforgetting them is the karmic key to our own forgiveness and liberation.

In any case, what follow are my “translations” of today’s biblical excerpts. You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right. 

Sirach 27: 30-28:7: Karma is a Law of the Universe. LIFE will treat you as you treat your neighbor. If you’re vengeful, you’ll inevitably experience others’ revenge. If you’re always angry, life will seem cruel. But if you’re forgiving, Life itself will forgive you. So, forget about your own fictitious wounds. Instead practice forgetful mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. After all, life is short. Vendettas will mean nothing to you on your deathbed.

Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12: Our Divine Mother herself sets the example. She is patient, forgiving, kind, generous and compassionate. She doesn’t remember any of our faults – not even grave “sins” we fear may have destroyed our lives. Far, far from such guilt, it’s as if she never witnessed our shortcomings at all.

Romans 14: 7-9:  Practicing such forgetfulness, none of us will have anything at all to fear from death which will simply be surrender to the One in whom we have always lived and moved and had our being. This is what Jesus himself showed us by the example of his own life.

Matthew 18: 21-35: When Peter asked him about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus said there are none at all. “Or maybe” (he joked) “you can stop forgiving after the 490th time – but be sure to keep track, Peter, as I know you will. Don’t let yourself go over 500.” (He said that with a gentle smile.) “In any case, remember what Sirach said about karma. If you’re generous to others, Life will treat you kindly; If not, you’re creating your own tragic misfortune – and that of your entire family. It’s you, not God who creates your inevitable destiny.”

Conclusion

Yes, Karma is a law of the universe. All the world’s great spiritual traditions teach that simple profound truth. What we do to others will eventually come back to haunt us. There’s no getting around it.

The problems experienced at our borders are simply blowback from our country’s own criminal missteps in the world. While we imagine that we’re threatened and wronged by those at our border, simple unforgetting reminds us that we’re actually the ones who have victimized the ones seeking refuge and asylum. Actually, we have nothing at all to forgive them. Instead, we owe them enormous repair.

No, it’s the ones at our border who have so much to forgive us. So far, they’ve been generous in doing so – well beyond the 500-mark specified by Jesus. Both our karmic liability and our debt of gratitude to our southern siblings are huge.

We’re indebted to Roberto Lovato for helping us unforget all of that.

The Unique Importance of Marianne Williamson’s Campaign (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; PS 119: 135; LK 14: 25-33

Marianne Williamson’s campaign is not dead. True, she will not be appearing on the stage of the third Democratic debate. Although she has the required number of donors, Williamson has not yet attained the necessary 2% in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Nonetheless, her campaign continues its concentration on Iowa, where she’s been working for the last several months. Her people confidently anticipate her participation in Debate # 4.

Recently, the New York Times (NYT) ran a long very positive column on Marianne. It was called “The Gospel according to Marianne Williamson.” It reminded readers of Ms. Williamson’s identity, her growing and highly enthusiastic audiences, and the persuasive power of her remarkable eloquence.  

The article assured readers that Williamson is far more than some New Age guru or the spiritual advisor of Oprah Winfrey. Jokes and criticisms aside, she has nothing to do with crystals or burning sage. Instead, she is a widely-hailed, best-selling author, spiritual teacher, counsellor, and generally wise person. For more than 40 years, she has been a student and teacher of A Course in Miracles (ACIM), a book published in 1974) which Williamson describes as “basic Christian mysticism.”

It’s that latter qualification – Williamson’s connection with Christian mysticism – that makes her continued campaign extremely relevant to this Sunday’s liturgy of the word. That’s because the theme of today’s readings contrasts the wisdom of God with the wisdom of the world just as does ACIM. Serious consideration of that contrast illustrates the unique importance of Marianne Williamson’s candidacy at this particular juncture in the history of our nation and world.

For ACIM, the world’s wisdom is based on fear; God’s wisdom is based on love. In fact, according to A Course in Miracles, love and fear are the only two motivational forces in the entire world. That’s true in our personal relationships, but also in politics. Either we see others as enemies poised to attack us at every opportunity, and act accordingly. Or we recognize our very selves in those the world would teach us to fear, mistrust, and hate.

More specifically, the politics of fear sees Muslims, Russia, China, the Taliban, ISIS, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQQIAAPs, and poor people in general as our enemies. Meanwhile, a politics based on love recognizes that none of those the world teaches us to fear is basically hostile. Rather, when we take 100% responsibility for the problems designated enemies ostensibly represent, a path opens up to achieving peace with all concerned.

Does such conviction seem woo-woo or unrealistic to you? If it does, please be reminded first of all, that such belief is basic not only to Christian faith, but (as Williamson constantly reminds us) to all the world’s great religious traditions, including Islam. It is basic also to many secular traditions that consider themselves atheistic or agnostic.

Secondly, remember that according to Christian faith, “God” is synonymous with “love,” so that Williamson’s “Politics of Love” means the politics of God. That means (thirdly) that rejection of political love as woo-woo trivializes Christian faith and Jesus himself.

With all of that in mind, please read for yourselves this Sunday’s liturgical readings. (You’ll find them here.) To repeat, they contrast the wisdom of the world with the Wisdom of God. In any case, and for what it’s worth, here are my “translations” of their content. Their thoughtful review will help you see what I’m getting at in saying that Marianne Williamson’s “Gospel” is far deeper than revealed in the NYT article just referenced.

 WIS 9:13-18B
 
The wisdom of God
Unlike the world’s
Is sure and decisive.
For human thought processes
Focused on the body
And its shifting reality
Are necessarily confused.
Hence, we cannot judge wisely
Without assistance
From the Holy Spirit
Who consistently reveals
God’s Reality
As filled with love.
 
PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17
 
This is because
Time has no meaning
For God.
Everything but Love
Passes in an instant.
Consequently
Our prayer must be:
“Teach us
Your changeless vision
Filled with kindness
Joy and gladness.”
Only such
Synonyms for love
Give meaning
To our lives.
 
PHMN 9-10, 12-17
 
For example,
An elderly and imprisoned Paul
Long ago
Rejected the world’s wisdom
About slavery.
Seeing with the eyes of Christ
He says
Miraculously transformed
Onesimus
From slave and chattel
Into a man
A partner
A son and brother.
“Follow my example,”
The shackled one implores.
 
PS 119: 135
 
We agree:
Show us your face,
O, Lord,
In slaves
And in those behind bars.
Yes, teach us your ways.
 
LK 14: 25-33
 
But the Master warns:
“If, like me, you live
According to God’s Wisdom,
The World
Will surely crucify you
As the subversive
You must be
To qualify
As my disciple.
But be sure to
Subvert non-violently
For otherwise,
The militarized
Powers of the world
Will surely crush you.
Sabotage instead
By insistent example
That refuses
To value anything
The world treasures.”

Those are radical thoughts. They are 180 degrees opposed to the “wisdom of the world.” Yes, the very wisdom of God teaches that we have no enemies other than those our thoughts and resulting actions have created. It’s reconciliation with our designated enemies (recognizing them as embodiments of our very selves) that holds the promise of our very salvation.

No Democratic candidate other than Marianne Williamson dares call us to such radicality. It’s that change in attitude that ACIM defines as “miraculous.” Only that sort of basic transformation in consciousness can save us from the unprecedented catastrophes facing our world today.

As Ms. Williamson puts it: “It’s unreasonable to expect those who drove us into the ditch we’re in now to be the ones qualified to get us out.”

No: our present context necessitates an entirely new leadership and consciousness – a new wisdom based on love rather than fear. That’s the vision Marianne Williamson offers us this election season. And it’s not New Age woo-woo. In reality, the wisdom in question is not new at all. It’s reflected in the teachings of Jesus. It’s the wisdom of Paul. It’s the theme of today’s liturgical readings.

Following Jesus Means Resisting U.S. Empire: It Means Risking Jail, Torture & Execution

Imperial Bombs

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

Presently, I’m reading again John Dominic Crossan’s brilliant book on Jesus’ resistance to empire. It’s called God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. As described on its jacket, the book’s thesis is that “at the heart of the bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America.”

Since it is about empire, this Sunday’s Gospel selection is directly related to Crossan’s thesis. In fact, the selection addresses Jesus’ non-violent and hugely ignored resistance to Rome. It includes his call for us to join him in resisting empire’s inherent evil, while nevertheless refusing to employ violence in doing so.

Though most who preach this week probably won’t say so, that’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the anti-imperial “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers oppose empire non-violently no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with the man, and in effect tells Peter to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”)

Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand on the one hand who Peter is, and on the other the claimed identity of Jesus.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of armed violence.

What I’m pointing out is that many scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers.

Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However, his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear. Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.” (That’s what “messiah” meant for first century Jews.)

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) As today’s text shows, his primary identification was not with “messiah,” but with a particular understanding of the “Son of Man.” The latter is a figure taken from the Book of Daniel which was written in resistance to the Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek sovereign who oppressed the Jews in the 2nd century BCE.

Daniel presents the Son of Man (or the Human One as some translate it) as the opponent and conqueror of all Israel’s oppressors from the Babylonians, through the Medes, Persians and Greeks. However, as Crossan and others show, Jesus’ opposition to empire remained non-violent.

Jesus reveals this crucial distinction, for instance, in the full form of his famous declaration before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (JN 18:36). In its complete form, the quotation runs, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. These words contrast the nature of Jesus’ non-violent kingdom founded on justice with that of Pilate’s extremely violent Rome founded on injustice.

So, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter might be translated: “Look, like you and the Human One Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as any good Jew. However, unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing my Roman brothers and sisters who share our humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans will actually end up torturing and killing me! But I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant.

[Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.]

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute. So, he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to join him in non-violent resistance to empire. Despite Peter’s remonstrances, the Master doubles down on his call to such activism. He says unequivocally that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. (Remember that the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So, Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.)

What can that mean for us today, when so many of our politicians and their cheerleaders proudly embrace U.S. identity as the latest most powerful incarnation of Roman dominance?

Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and our church communities.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.” Simply put: we’re not living in the greatest country in the world. Instead, we are living in the belly of a brutal imperial beast.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the inevitable “prophetic script” that Jesus foresees, then our claim to follow him has consequences.

It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie, Berta Cáceres and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we too must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for our church communities here in the beast’s belly. They mean we must come to terms with the fact that circumstances have changed here over the last 17 years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, pepper sprayed, tear gassed, jailed, or even (especially if we are not white) murdered by out-of-control police forces. We risk going to jail and all that suggests.

The question is, are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard questions and challenges. And surely, we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though, I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom of God.”

You probably won’t hear that from the pulpit this morning.