Jesus & Rent Strikes: Violent or Non-Violent?

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 9-20; Philemon 4: 6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

During the COVID-19 hiatus, I watched in its entirety Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS production “The Vietnam War.” The series has ten episodes, each about an hour and a half long.

I bring it up because the viewing experience has relevance to this morning’s Gospel reading which describes resistance to a landlord system similar to the one that provoked Vietnam’s peasantry to take up arms.

Closer to home, the parable is also relevant to our current Corona Virus context, where unemployed renters will soon be required either to pay their rents or risk eviction. Their dilemma, like those of Jesus’ audience 2000 years ago is whether to pay those rents or to join a general rent strike. Additionally, Jesus asks to what extent citizen violence might be justified as a strategic option as they resist paying rent.

Ironically, both the Burns and Novick film series and this morning’s gospel obscure the questions just posed. The producers of “The Vietnam War” avoid the rent question altogether. As for Matthew the evangelist, he completely allegorizes Jesus’ parable to similarly obscure its central question about absentee landlordism, rent strikes, and the role of violence in social change.

Vietnam & Rent Strikes

Let’s begin with Burns and Novick. The official story they tell is that of a geopolitical struggle between China and Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and France on the other. So, the film’s narrative is dominated by maps depicting huge swaths of geography (China and Russia) looming menacingly over Vietnam. The maps indicate that Vietnam along with the rest of “French” Indochina (including Laos and Cambodia) were threatened by monolithic communist takeover.

U.S. officials one after another describe their alarming “domino theory” contending that if Vietnam were “lost” to communism, so would Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and the rest of Far East. It wouldn’t be long before Ho Chi Minh’s forces would be landing in Hawaii and then in California.

So, viewers are asked to believe that in the footage showing huge numbers of Vietnamese civilians (including the elderly, women and children) moving equipment, building bridges, and ferrying supplies, we are simply witnessing mindless agents of China and Russia. The Vietnamese were somehow persuaded to risk their lives (four million of them were killed in the conflict) to advance the totalitarian cause of Sino-Soviet world conquest.

As John Pilger and others have written, that simply doesn’t stand to reason. For one thing, there was no monolithic alliance between Russia and China. Any semblance of that lay in ruins between the years 1960 and 1989.

That is, for the Vietnamese, what they call “The American War” (1960-75) could not have been fought on behalf of China or Russia. Rather, the conflict represented a struggle against colonial rule by French and American forces. It was also fought against a rent system that had peasants paying predatory tribute to absentee landlords. The latter were holed up in Saigon along with other beneficiaries of deteriorating colonial arrangements including its dysfunctional army, government officials, and participants in the supporting infrastructure.

Meanwhile, outside of Saigon, the peasants’ revolutionary army (the Viet Cong) defended farmers against rent collection. They had the peasantry stop traveling to Saigon to pay their land fees. This, they said, would force representatives of the landlord class to venture out into territory controlled by the Viet Cong to collect their money or in-kind revenue. And there in the countryside they would be duly slaughtered.

In other words, patriotism and the peasants’ immediate economic interest, not geo-political considerations, provided their main motivations for resistance to a colonial rental system that had long exploited them and caused their families to starve.

Jesus & Rent Strikes

All of this has relevance to this morning’s Gospel episode where Jesus tells a story that parallels the situation I’ve just described. Jesus and his audience too were living under an imperial system not unlike Vietnam’s. The Romans controlled Palestine using tactics highly similar to those of the French and Americans in Indochina. The system’s administrators, armies, police, and hangers-on were all holed up in Jerusalem protected by Roman legions.

Meanwhile, absentee administrators and landlords kept the province’s peasants impoverished by exacting rent and taxes that the farmers detested. The latter resisted accordingly – at times in Israel’s history forming armies of resistance similar to the Viet Cong. One of those militias was known as the Zealots.

In any case, the parable centralized in this morning’s gospel has Jesus problematizing a situation of violent peasant conflict over rent collection. In so doing, Jesus, no doubt, provoked a spirited discussion among his listeners about colonialism, landlordism, and about violent vs. non-violent resistance.

Jesus’ story goes that an absentee landlord has rented out his vineyard. Peasants are resisting payment. So, the man in the Big House sends out no doubt well-armed rent collectors. After the first ones are murdered by the farmers, he sends out what was probably a small army of “enforcers.” But the peasants successfully defeat them too. Eventually, the landlord gets more serious. His own son heads up a collection force probably much larger and better armed than its predecessors. But surprisingly, the renters wipe them out as well. They assume ownership of the land in question presumably under some ancient version of the revolutionary slogan “Land to the tiller.”

That said, the Master articulates the problem that certainly provoked spirited discussion in his audience. “What will happen,” Jesus asks, “to the revolutionaries demonized as ‘wicked’ by the landowning class?”

No doubt, some in Jesus audience would say they weren’t “wicked” at all, but heroic champions of the exploited. They would applaud their armed resistance. Others though joining the applause, might point out that the peasant victory would be short-lived and doomed.

These more cautious discussants would hold that the better-armed and trained forces of the landowners and their Roman sponsors would eventually prevail with disastrous results for the entire province of Palestine. Accordingly, they might advise nonviolent resistance to the system in question. (There were, by the way, at least three such forms of nonaggressive struggle in Jesus’ first century context.)

It is unlikely that any in Jesus’ audience would defend the imperial status quo the way Matthew’s allegorized retelling of the parable seems to do. Fifty years after Jesus death the anonymous Jewish author called by that name even goes so far as to imply identification of the absentee landlord with God and the landlord’s son with Jesus himself. Such identification would have been possible around the year 80 or 85 when the Gospel of “Matthew” was written following the utter defeat of Jesus’ people by the Romans in the year 70.  That same identification would, of course, have been abhorrent to Jesus listeners and thus impossible in the Master’s revolutionary context.

Considerations like these – about the similarities in revolutionary situations separated by 2000 years – might help viewers better understand the causes of the Vietnam War and other conflicts even closer to our own day. Clearly, I find those causes obscured in the Burns and Novick documentary despite its very evident artistic merits.

Conclusions

Several conclusions suggest themselves from the considerations just advanced. They have to do with Jesus himself, with rent, and with considerations of violent vs. non-violent resistance.

First of all, Jesus:

  • As originally told, Jesus’ parables weren’t nice little five-minute vignettes. They were meant to stimulate long lively discussions as indicated in this morning’s reflection.
  • As thought provocateur, Jesus was wildly popular among peasants and the dispossessed on the one hand and hated by the religious-political establishment and occupying Romans on the other, not because of one-dimensional religious teachings, but because he constantly connected his people’s faith with issues like land reform, workers’ wages, debt and rent.
  • Those are the same connections that put religious leaders in danger and in early graves today, whether they’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.

Secondly, rent:

  • According to Jesus’ teaching, land reform, wages, and rent were more matters of faith than what we term “going to church” or saying the right words about God, the Bible, sexual behavior, or “thoughts and prayers.”
  • For the dispossessed including basically conservative peasant farmers (in ancient Palestine, Vietnam, or in the United States) such local issues are what lead to revolutionary action, not geopolitical considerations.
  • That is, like politics, all revolutions are local and center on issues of exploitation involving food, shelter, and dignity.

Thirdly, violence:

  • High rents imposed on poor people are an egregious form of violence.
  • Even violent resistance to such deprivation of the fundamental human right to shelter and subsistence is entirely justifiable as self-defense.
  • The U.S. Founding Fathers said something like that.
  • However (as indicated by the “more cautious discussants” referenced above) such secondary violence can be counterproductive in terms of the absolute destruction wreaked in response by state and empire.
  • Ironically too, the propaganda arms of state, empire, and church (including someone like Matthew the evangelist) excel at lastingly branding justifiable violence by the poor and oppressed as (to use Matthew’s word) “wicked.”

Finally, the very least people of faith can do today is to support rent strikers and to help others understand motivations for violent response in places like Vietnam, Lexington and Concord – or the streets of New York today. Equating state and imperial violence with the self-defense and counterattacks of the poor represents a false equivalency. Thoughtful people of faith must reject it.

Forget Despair (If you can): Neither Betrayal by Our “Leaders” nor Personal Death Is Final

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Psalms 130: 1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11: 1-45 

On this fifth Sunday of Lent our readings prepare for Easter by directing us to consider death and resurrection both politically and personally.

The readings are especially poignant and relevant at a time when as a people we appear to be in a cruel political captivity not unlike that of Israel more than 2500 years ago. Besides that, the loss of loved ones to the Coronavirus has brought into so many families the experience of Martha and Mary bereft of their beloved brother Lazarus who was so dear to their family’s close friend, Jesus the Christ.

Our Own Babylonian Captivity

Today’s first reading reminds us that we’re like Israel during its Babylonian Captivity. The prophet Ezekiel addresses that latter situation right off the bat. His sixth century was the saddest of times for his people – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Judah’s leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

Like his audience, we’re undeniably in the grip of cruel masters. During the COVOD-19 crisis, our version of captivity has our “public servants” treating us as if we were aliens in a Babylon that belongs to them and their rich donors. It’s as if we were powerless defeated foreigners under their power rather than their employers. That’s shown by the fact that they’ve dealt with the Coronavirus problem not by improving the people’s healthcare system. Instead they’ve used the crisis to take care of the bank accounts of their sponsors who end up being our captors! In other words, we’re the victims of a coup by the corporate elite and their congressional minions. There seems no way out.

That’s the way Matt Stoller, research director at the American Economic Liberties Project, has described the bailout. His recent column for the Guardian is entitled “The coronavirus relief bill could turn into a corporate coup if we aren’t careful.”

According to Stoller, suddenly, under the pressure of COVID-19 congressional representatives on retainer from corporations like Boeing and Citibank found the very money they claimed wasn’t there when it came to providing for us the same healthcare that every other industrialized nation offers taxpayers. Suddenly that money materialized out of nowhere, but not to cure the failed “healthcare market,” but to heal instead their failed stock market and to save a moribund capitalism.

Predictably, they’ll use that money not principally to address COVID-19, but to eventually buy up distressed businesses and taxpayers’ homes. (Stoller warns that we may end up with just three retailers in this country: Amazon, Walmart, and Costco.) In the process, they’ll gift dividends to their investors and bonuses to their CEOs. They’ll also further consolidate their control of the nation’s and world’s economy. It’s pure Disaster Capitalism as described so well by Naomi Klein. Absolutely no one asked legislators, “How are you going to pay for the generosity you’ve just extended to your corporate sponsors?”

Meanwhile, “our” representatives have given highly conditioned, means-tested crumbs to the rest of us. It’s what the Mafia does. As Jimmy Dore says, they rip off the ones who pay them protection money all year. Then give their proteges a turkey at Thanksgiving – and expect gratitude in return.

I mean, none of what the Congress passed showed any awareness of dealing directly with the actual problems facing our nation in the face of COVID-19. They’ve done nothing to immediately address the lack or face masks, hospital beds, or respirators, — much less that universal healthcare insurance which our situation absolutely cries out for.

No, healthcare and all the rest have been left to the mechanisms of trickle-down economics and private insurance companies. The implication is that if we take care of Wall Street first, our immediate healthcare needs will somehow be met one day when private enterprise finally decides to produce what we so desperately need right now. We’ve seen this horror movie before.

And just watch the dead bodies pile up while we wait. It’s already happening. And the crisis hasn’t nearly peaked.

We are captives. We are enslaved in this New Babylon by resuscitated Robber Barons!

Biblical Analogs

Nonetheless, in the face of all this, today’s readings urge us not to give up hope either in the face of seemingly inescapable exploitation nor in that of premature death. As such the readings are not just happy talk. They’re seriously calling us instead to face the undeniable fact that this too will pass. It will. And (hard as it might be to believe) what we’re promised instead is God’s Kingdom. The Robber Baron system is on its last legs.

Babylon’s empire fell; so did Rome’s. And genuine tears, compassion, and words of comfort like those Jesus shared with Martha and Mary can somehow restore life that seemed hopelessly lost. Both Ezekiel and Jesus believed in resurrection. In the present crisis, their followers are urged to do the same.

Review the readings for yourself here. What follows are my own “translations” of their content.

Ezekiel 37: 12-14 Death as a Metaphor for Political Captivity: Five hundred years before Jesus, while God’s people were imprisoned in what we now call Iraq, the Prophet Ezekiel predicted their release from captivity and return to Judah. It would be, he promised, like a resurrection from the dead. God’s people would once again experience her goodness and feel Life’s Spirit rushing through their veins.

Psalm 130: 1-8: The Spirit of God Favors Such Release: This is because when people cry out to their Great Mother, God always hears. She is completely trustworthy, kind, and above all, forgiving.

Romans 8: 8-11: And This Despite the World’s Denial: No one ever enjoys fullness of life living by the values of the world. That’s because we are not merely bodies as the world teaches. No, we are Divine Spirits who enjoy our bodies to serve the world, just as Jesus did. So, don’t worry. What the world calls defeat and death can never be final. The Divine Spirit we share will always return to life.   

John 11: 5A, 26: So, those who follow the path trod by our Enlightened Master are never afraid of death. They never give up.

John 11: 1-45: A Living Parable Showing that Death Does Not Have the Final Word: Lazarus along with his sisters Mary and Martha were among Jesus’ best friends. So, the Master was heartbroken when word reached his hideout that Lazarus was deathly ill. However, his careful measures to avoid the police kept Jesus from getting to Lazarus’ home before it was too late. When he finally arrived, a distraught Martha gently scolded him for his delay. Mary was softer in her expression of disappointment. “I’m sorry,” Jesus said through his own tears, “but don’t you see that nothing in this world – not even death – is final. Life always has the last word. That’s true for Lazarus; it will be true for our suffering people.” Unconvincingly, both Martha and Mary nodded agreement. He embraced both sisters fondly and asked to be taken to Lazarus’ tomb. Once there, from his profound heartache, Jesus shouted, “I’m so sorry, Lazarus. I loved you so much, my dear brother!” And true to his words, Jesus’ grief and evident love somehow made everyone realize that he was right: death is not the end. Everyone’s sorrow turned instantly to joy. It was miraculous!

Conclusion

Once again, I know that in our present crisis, it’s almost impossible to take those hopeful readings to heart. It’s hard to believe that one day we’ll be released from the captivity of the rich and powerful who are using the COVID-19 crisis to even further consolidate their power over us. It’s hard in such circumstances to believe that Life and History are on our side.

But that’s what our readings today call us to. Improbably it seems, they ask us to believe that Life and Justice will eventually triumph over the ways of the world that seem so overwhelming and powerful — that seem to be winning.

The hammerlock the rich have on all of us is painful and seems absolutely inescapable. They don’t care about us and neither do most of our elected officials.

Meanwhile as we sweep up our crumbs, as we await our Thanksgiving turkey, we have to watch our loved ones die for lack of testing kits, face masks, hospital beds, protective clothing for heroic healthcare workers, and universal healthcare coverage for the rest of us. It’s all so sad. As with Ezekiel’s people in Babylon, as with tearful Martha and Mary – and Jesus – we’re hard put to believe in resurrection. But Easter is on the horizon. . .

Cuba’s Response to the Coronavirus Is Far More Enlightened Than Ours

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: 1 Samuel 16: 6-7, 10-13A; Psalm 23: 1-6; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41

This week’s liturgy of the word centralizes the concepts of blindness and darkness on the one hand and vision and light on the other. The constellation of readings is extremely relevant to our situation during this election season and time of Coronavirus.

Taken together, they claim that in the end, the processes of the Loving Universe (aka God) differ sharply from the choices of “the world.”  While the world chooses the rich and powerful to lead, God chooses the least. What the world calls “seeing” is really blindness enshrouded in darkness.  What it calls blindness is deeply perceptive and surrounded in light.

I’ll get to those readings in a minute. But before I do, consider their relevance to our culture’s own highly cultivated blindness.

On Our Blindness

Yes: from birth we’re taught to deny what’s staring us all in the face. We’re actually trained to be blind by our parents, culture, teachers and holy men. That imposed condition is exhibited today as we confront the world’s current pandemic crisis brought on by the Coronavirus.

Think of how our politicians both Republican and Democrat want us to deny what we’ve all seen with our own eyes.

Begin with the Republicans and Mr. Trump. (This is quite amusing.) Mr. Trump actually wants us to believe that he deserves a grade of “A” for dealing with the crisis that surfaced last December and which he ridiculed, belittled, and mocked all the way up until last week. Despite that clear record, the man’s dared to say, “This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

What?

Then there was Joe Biden’s admonition last week that we all close our eyes to the achievements of the Cuban revolution. This man was shocked and appalled by Bernie Sanders recognition regarding Cuba that “. . . (I)t’s simply unfair to say everything is bad.”

“No,” Biden insisted, since Cuba is a “brutal dictatorship,” it’s somehow wrong to recognize the truth acknowledged even by the vice president’s own mentor (Barack Obama). Obama said, “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.” Biden doesn’t want us to see any of that.

But there’s more – even apart from the arguable fact that for nearly 20 years, the most brutal human rights violations in Cuba have been carried out by the United States in its heinous hellhole known as Guantanamo Bay.

Cuba’s Enlightened Humanity

The “more” is that Cuba is exhibiting much greater humanity and skill in dealing with the Coronavirus than is the United States. That is, even in this time of pandemic, “we” not only refuse to lift sanctions on Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and the other countries we’re punishing for crimes very similar to our own and even surpassed by “friends” such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the Philippines. We’re actually intensifying the sanctions in the case of Iran while it’s an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Evidently, for our leaders, there’s no recognition of human solidarity that transcends political considerations. They want us to forget that we’re all in this together – to be blind.

Meanwhile, Cuba has given docking privileges to a British cruise ship (and medical treatment to its passengers and crew) after those same privileges were refused elsewhere – even by Great Britain’s former colonies. Cuban authorities gave permission, they said, out of “humanitarian concerns” and the need for “a shared effort to confront and stop the spread of the pandemic.”

But Cuba’s response to the Coronavirus goes far beyond a one-off act of compassion. The country’s entire healthcare system is better equipped than ours for dealing with recurring epidemics like COVID-19, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and flu. And it’s not just a question of a Caribbean version of Medicare for All.

No, Cuba has a whole army of doctors to care not only for its own people, but also stands ready to respond to crises outside its borders. And it has done so repeatedly – even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The country also offers free medical education to students from the United States, provided they pledge themselves to serve their local communities on their return home. Moreover, every barrio in the country has a doctor known by name, because she makes house calls!

Add to this Cuba’s highly developed system of urban and community gardens, its use of animal-intensive rather than carbon-intensive plowing, and its generally low-carbon economy, and you’ll see why it’s better equipped than we are to deal with food shortages caused by a breakdown of the commercial supply chain during emergencies like the one we’re now experiencing.

Then there’s the Cuban education system vilified here as propagandistic – as though ours were not. Besides the exemplary literacy program implemented at their revolution’s outset, Cubans study colonialism, imperialism, and the way capitalism works to cause, profit from and exacerbate inevitable human disasters like pandemics, hurricanes, world hunger, and climate change. The 60-year blockade and quarantine imposed on the island along with the presence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp provide teachers with close-to-home illustrations of capitalism’s brutality. Meanwhile, our version of schooling (even at doctoral levels) never touches such matters. So, whose system is propagandistic?

The bottom line here is that far from being a brutal dictatorship, Cuba presents us with a model of response not only to COVID-19, but to healthcare in general, climate change, and education. It’s just that we’ve been made so blind by our political “leaders,” teachers, and priests that we cannot see it.   

Today’s Readings

With all of that in mind, consider today’s liturgical readings and what they have to say about seeing, insight, and light on the one hand blindness, superficiality and darkness on the other. Again, the selections could hardly be more relevant in this election season and time of COVID-19. Here are my “translations” of the texts. Once again, I urge you to read them for yourself here.

1 Samuel 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A

The Spirit of Life chooses national leadership from the least in the working class: The prophet Samuel was a great seer gifted with divine insight. Sent to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem, he sought Israel’s new King not from among the wealthy, but from a herdsman’s seven sons. However, his sharp prophetic perception found none of them worthy. “Have you no other son?” the prophet asked. “Well,” Jesse said, “David, my youngest is out in the field tending the sheep. But surely, he can’t be . . .” “Bring him to me,” the prophet growled. So, the youngest entered, red-faced and handsome. Seeing with God’s eyes, Samuel proclaimed, “This indeed is God’s chosen.” He then anointed David’s head with oil. And God’s Spirit rushed in upon the unsuspecting youth.   

Psalm 23: 1-6

We can trust such choices by the Great Spirit: This is true because ultimately the Holy Spirit is humanity’s shepherd; there is nothing, then, to fear. She has created for us peaceful pastures near gentle refreshing waters. She is our guide and encouragement even in moments of darkness when we are overwhelmed by threatening circumstances. Her spirit nourishes us and protects us from all enemies and has done so throughout our entire lives. Who could ask for more?

Ephesians 5: 8-14

Trusting the insights of seers like Jesus confers salvific vision: Thanks to the enlightened Jesus (and other seers), our once darkened lives are now filled with light, goodness, justice and truth. We can finally see! In fact, we can become light itself. So, when shameful evil comes into our presence, it is exposed as such; it is transformed into light and quite disappears. Seeing with enlightened eyes is like awaking from a deep sleep or even rising from the dead.  

John 9: 1-41

An illustration of how Jesus, his example and teaching can cure our blindness: As Light of the World, Jesus demonstrated the very meaning of enlightenment, when he met a beggar who was blind from birth (a metaphor for each of us). Living in blind darkness, Jesus said, is not the result of sin, but is part and parcel of the human condition. Escaping such shared handicap means overcoming the “wisdom” of the crowd, parental formation and religion itself. It means making choices based on personal experience of divine insight and then following Jesus (or some other enlightened avatar).

Conclusion

Wow! What clear direction at this crucial time! Seeing with God’s eyes reveals a world 180 degrees opposite the one endorsed by our culture, politicians, and even most church leaders. One hundred-eighty degrees!! If they say white, think black. If they say true, think lie. If they say peace, think war. We will not go far wrong adopting the working principle that our leaders lie whenever they move their lips. And that’s the truth.

Specifically, at this time of national choice and raging pandemic, the readings suggest that all of us are blind and zombie-like; we’re the walking dead. We can’t see what’s staring us in the face.

  • Contradicting today’s first reading, we reject worker-friendly leadership in favor of billionaires and corporate lackeys.
  • Blind as we are, we’re easily convinced by serial liars like Trump and Biden that up is down and that greed is good.
  • We actually still believe that even after Vietnam, Iraq, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Yemen, prison camps and baby jails on our southern border – after alliances with the likes of Bolsonaro, Duterte, MBS, Netanyahu . . . — we can still lecture the world about our need to combat “brutal dictatorships.”
  • We still believe that our election system – even after retention of the Electoral College, Citizens United, gerrymandering, voter suppression, hackable voting machines, and mile-long lines on election days – is still somehow the world’s gold standard for democracy.
  •  Above all, we still impossibly believe that capitalism is at all capable of functioning effectively at times of crisis like the ones we’re facing now. (Here in mid-March, it can’t even produce Coronavirus test kits equivalent to what China’s been using since December!) Somehow the belief in capitalism’s superiority persists even when the record shows that in time of war, natural disaster, and predictable systemic failures, we always resort to socialism. In fact, the rich demand it! That’s because socialism is less rigid and more efficient!
  • In the case of Cuba, we can’t even recognize that a poor socialist country, oppressed and impoverished by 60 years of U.S. quarantine and blockade has shown itself more flexible, generous and humane than its uber-rich capitalist neighbor to the north.

Could we be more blind?