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.

(Sunday Homily) Massacre in Paris: The Apocalypse Is upon Us

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-3.

The entire world was shocked by yesterday’s brutal attacks on innocent civilians in Paris. President Obama accurately expressed consensus in the West that the attacks “were not just on Paris, but on all of humanity and the universal values we share.”

Early reports have France’s President Hollande attributing the slaughter in Paris to ISIL forces. French police have said that one of the terrorists was carrying a Syrian passport. Such attributions make the attacks part of the war in the Middle East that has been raging since 2001.

France, of course, is a close ally of the United States in its global war on terror. It is a founding member of the coalition which (under U.S. leadership) has been bombing Iraq and Syria for over a year. In fact, hundreds of civilians have been killed in coalition attacks which as of last August had rained 17,000 bombs on Syrian and Iraqi targets and claimed more than 600 civilian lives. Most casual observers don’t know that. Those living under the ’round-the-clock air raids, of course, do.

If Syrians are responsible, it is reasonable to assume their intent is to make the French and their coalition partners (the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and Australia) feel the pain of civilians in Syria and Iraq. President Obama’s words show the point has been made.

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It is a sad coincidence that today’s readings centralize apocalyptic texts found in the Book of Daniel and in the Gospel of Mark. Both are war documents. That is, contrary to insistence by evangelical fundamentalists, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. Instead contemporary scholarship identifies it as a literary form always associated with war and resistance to empire. As such (it may shock us to know) the form is more sympathetic to the cause of ISIL and other “terrorists” than to the efforts of the U.S. and its close ally, France, to control their imperial outposts. Nonetheless, apocalypse in no way condones terror — neither the wholesale terror of empire exhibited in its incessant bombings, nor the retail version we witnessed yesterday in France.

The Book of Daniel originates from Israel’s resistance to the Hellenistic empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In the year 168 C.E., he invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. He hated Judaism and went out of his way to offend Jews at every level. He slaughtered them mercilessly. But he also defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He even erected a monument to Jupiter in the Temple. Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find, and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Book of Daniel was written. It assures the Jewish resistance (which the Greeks saw as a “terrorist force”) that the Seleucid Empire, like all those preceding it, would fall in ignominy.

Something similar is happening in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. Written around 70 C.E., its context is a six-month siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Titus. On September 8th of that year four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders (whom the Romans considered “terrorists”). Moving from house to house (like U.S. soldiers in Iraq), the legionaries destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1948. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Jesus predicts in today’s Gospel excerpt from Mark.

But the excerpt also calls for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant not only obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with the Zealots and Sicarii — the resistance assassins who specialized (like Palestinian resisters today) in knifing occupation soldiers.

Though sympathetic to the resistance, Mark’s Jesus evidently saw the counter-productivity of tit-for-tat violence. He exhibits no sympathy for the Zealot recruiters who between 66 and 70 traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Instead, Mark’s Jesus counsels his followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were to do so not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.

How should today’s Liturgy of the Word affect people of faith whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Roman Titus — both of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!)

Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means attempting to grasp the worldview of empire’s victims rather than of its agents — i.e. attempting to understand the reasons behind acts of terrorism like those which unfolded yesterday in Paris.

More basically adopting apocalyptic vision means rejecting defense of the present order and allowing it to collapse. It entails total rejection of U.S. and French imperial ambitions and practices. It signifies refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” patriots desperately defending their countries from invasion by imperial forces. It means determining what such rejection might signify for our consumption patterns and lifestyles, and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.

Missing the insights of contemporary scripture scholarship, fundamentalists routinely teach that apocalypse is about the end of the world — not about the end of particular empires. In a sense, they are right. Apocalypse is about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today. And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.

However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

Ironically, tragic events like yesterday’s massacre remind followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition to abandon a past based on dominion and violence and to create the entirely new reality based on the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Jesus.

Hating THE SIN, but Loving the Sinners (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

I often have spirited political debates with my grown children. My contributions to such debates have often been critical of the U.S. So my sons half in jest often accuse me of “hating America.”

Really though, I love the United States. It’s my home; it’s the country I know best; it’s simply beautiful; its people, its artists, its inventors have given so much to the world. Its Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement have set examples for emancipation campaigns throughout the entire world. As the song says, it all makes me feel “Proud to be an American.”

And yet there is some truth in what my sons say. While I love America, I have trouble with “Amerikkka.”  That, I suppose, is like saying “I love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I say that because in this case “Amerikkka” stands for the imperial United States. And here I’m referring to the nation described in the following film clip by John Stockwell. He’s the former and much-decorated CIA station chief in Angola who has “gone public” with his story about what the United States has actually done in the world for the last forty years. He describes a “Third World War” against the poor – a war responsible for the death of more than 6 million of the world’s poor. Listen to what he has to say; its information is what I have in mind in those conversations with my sons.

What Stockwell says is quite shocking, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with you today, because the liturgy’s Gospel selection is about empire and Jesus’ non-violent resistance to it. It’s about his hating the sin of empire, while refusing to do harm to the sinners who support it.  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 “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers must oppose empire no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with Peter, and in effect tells him 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 who Peter is.

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 arms. 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.”

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) Because his primary identity is not being Jewish but being human, he forbids Peter to call him “Messiah.” In effect he says “Look,” “like the “Human One” (Son of Man) Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as you are.  But unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing the brothers and sisters who share my 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 are actually end up torturing and killing me! And 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 follow him to the cross. In today’s reading he says that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. Now 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 – for those of us who have chosen to join this emerging ecumenical Christian Base Community meeting here in Richmond, Kentucky? Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and this emerging Christian Base Community.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.”  We’re not living in the greatest country in the world. We are indeed living in the belly of the brutal imperial beast.  While loving our fellow Americans, we have to (as they say) “hate THE SIN” – of being imperialists, of being  Amerikkka.

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 “prophetic script,” 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 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 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 the Christian Base Community we’re attempting to form here in the belly of the beast. In our community’s attempt to follow Jesus more closely, can we determine a prophetic project that we can all support? What might the project be? The question has particular importance in the context of the approaching General Election. Should our little community become directly involved in the campaign?  Should we bring the Occupy Movement to Madison County or take on the Climate Change issue? What about Mountain Top Removal?  Should we join forces with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, with Sustainable Berea, with the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice? Today’s Gospel implicitly calls us to a serious conversation about all of that.

In answering such questions, we must realize that circumstances have changed here over the last eleven 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, peppers sprayed, or tear gassed. We risk going to jail and all that suggests. 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 words 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.”

(Discussion follows.)

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on Mary Magdalene as Egyptian priestess and consort of Jesus