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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.