Controlling History’s Narrative: Who Speaks for God Today?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95: 1-9; I Corinthians; 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

Today’s readings once again raise the central biblical question of prophets and prophecy.

We should read them carefully remembering that prophets are not fortune tellers focused on the future. They were and today remain social critics focused on present injustices committed against the original beneficiaries of Life’s covenant with Moses – the poor and oppressed (widows, orphans, and resident aliens). Insofar as they predict the future, the prophets’ threat is usually that neglect of the poor will lead to national tragedy.

 Yeshua the Christ, of course, appeared in the prophetic tradition which is always confused by the fact that the Great Mother’s spokespersons are inevitably contradicted by their fake counterparts. This Sunday’s readings highlight that point.

 Prophets Then

I was reminded of all this last week during a Zoom “Talk Back” responding to our pastor’s Sunday sermon on the fictional story of the prophet Jonah. That tale was centralized a week ago in the liturgy of the word. Towards the end, the pastor herself asked the question, “Who today is speaking the harsh truth that the Book of Jonah expressed?”

(As we saw last week the little Jonah parable (only 48 verses) is about a reluctant prophet who eventually has to face the fact that those imagining themselves to be the People of God (Israel) were quite the opposite. Meanwhile those whom Israel viewed as their corrupt enemies (Assyrians) were more responsive to God’s word.

In my own response to our pastor’s question, I observed “That would be like our hearing during the Cold War that Russians (communists) were more on God’s side than Americans. Today, it would be like being told the same thing about the Chinese or Muslims, or (worse still) al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Yes, that’s the way the Book of Jonah would have been heard in the middle of the 8th century BCE – as the Assyrian hordes massed on Israel’s borders ready to descend on “God’s People.” Eventually, they’d come (as Lord Byron would put it) “like the wolf on the fold.” They’d destroy the Northern Kingdom and take large masses of its people off to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh – as slaves. The book of Jonah dares to identify Assyrians as godly.

Imagine if some prophetic preacher today actually echoed Jonah saying, “You American exceptionalists believe that you’re especially pleasing to God. The exact opposite is true. In fact, your designated ‘enemies,’ Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, and those you imagine as terrorists are actually God’s favorites.”

How hard would that be for Americans to hear?

Prophets Now

But (to answer our pastor’s question directly) there actually have been and are religious prophets among us who have said such things and who are saying them today. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Dorothy Day, and even Pope Francis. Here’s what they’ve said in the name of God:

  • Malcolm X: “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
  • Martin Luther King: The United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
  • Jeremiah Wright: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. . . The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America“. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America. . . as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme”
  • William Barber II: “. . . I, too, am an atheist. . . if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either.” 
  • Liz Theoharis: “Jesus led a poor people’s campaign.”
  • Dorothy Day: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
  • Pope Francis: “This system is by now intolerable: Farmers find it intolerable; laborers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; people find it intolerable.”

Those are not voices most of us are accustomed to hearing as representative of a Christian message that has been completely dominated by right-wingers who have effectively silenced the political voice of the one Christians pretend to recognize as the greatest of all prophets. They silence Yeshua’s authentic voice by focusing exclusively on the fiction of American Exceptionalism and on personal “salvation.”   

The Prophet Yeshua

Instead, the very life of Yeshua the Christ was highly political from start to finish. He literally embodied God’s prioritization of the needs of the poor while specifically condemning the rich and powerful of his day. That’s why he had to be assassinated at a very young age — same as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton. . .

Think of it this way: Isn’t it true that Christian belief holds that Yeshua was the fullest revelation of God? If so, isn’t it therefore significant that the revelation site supposedly chosen by God was a poor man from the working class? Isn’t it theologically meaningful that he was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother (LK 1:34), was houseless at birth (LK 2:7), experienced immigrant status as an asylum seeker (MT 2: 13-15), traveled with a band of young people who had no visible means of support, was thought insane by his mother and close relatives (MK 3:21), was identified as a terrorist by the most powerful nation then on earth, and finished a victim of its torture and capital punishment?

I’d say that believers should find all of that extremely revealing.  

Moreover, the highly political Yeshua is reported to have made radical statements about wealth and poverty, e.g.:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-22)
  • “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
  • “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (Luke 6:24).
  • “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
  • “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
  • “If you want to be whole, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

Still more, his followers took their teacher literally as they practiced a kind of primitive communism:

  • “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2: 44-47).
  • Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 2: 32).

All of that identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, of Amos who defended the poor and criticized the rich, of Karl Marx, the last of the great Jewish prophets, and of the contemporary troublemakers listed above.

Today’s Readings

Keep all of that in mind as you review today’s liturgy of the word which centralizes the question, “Who are the true prophets among us?” What follows are my “translations.” You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

 
 Deuteronomy 18: 15-20:
 More than 500 years
 After the Great Prophet’s Death
 Moses was remembered
 As predicting the advent
 Of another Great One
 For a people deathly afraid
 Of hearing God’s voice directly.
 Problem was:
 There’d be false prophets too
 Claiming to speak 
 In the name of Yahweh,
 But actually representing 
 False gods
 Whom, if listened to
 Would bring to believers
 Severe punishment. 
 (Hmm.
 Where does that leave us?)
  
 Psalm 95: 1-9
 It leaves us confused
 And in danger
 Of letting our own self-interest
 Harden our hearts
 To the authentic voice
 Of our loving Mother-Father God
 Our firm refuge
 Benefactor and guide.
 Her wonderful handiwork
 In creation itself
 Reveals more
 Than any prophet’s words.
 So, believe and embrace
 What you see
 With your own eyes.
 
 I Corinthians 7: 32-35
 The case of St. Paul
 Illustrates our confusion
 About what to believe – 
 What our eyes tell us
 Or the words 
 Of an anxious 
 Celibate prophet
 Like Paul
 Who’s been interpreted 
 To say that
 Eros is somehow “improper”
 And a huge “distraction”
 For anyone serious
 About what’s truly important.
 (For, doesn’t Life Itself teach
 That Eros is
 A primary source
 Of God’s revelation
 About the nature of Life
 And Love?)
  
 Mark 1: 21-28
 Jesus, on the other hand
 Had no such reservations.
 His followers believed
 Him to be the Great Prophet
 Predicted by Moses.
 He taught astonishing truths
 With authority and certainty
 Unlike the temple scribes
 (And the doubt-filled Paul).
 He terrified unclean spirits
 While delighting
 The (married) women and men
 Who hung on his every word.  

Conclusion

The disparity between the nationalistic and exclusively personal understandings of the prophet Yeshua on the one hand and the highly political nature of his life and discourse on the other is extremely important to confront.

That’s because (as Caitlin Johnstone has recently reminded us) those who control cultural narratives control the world. And no narrative is more important to history’s control than the religious one we’ve just considered. That’s because religious faith addresses life’s most fundamental questions – the ones so thrillingly addressed by the prophets we’ve considered here: about the nature of life; our relations with one another, human connections with the environment, about foreigners, power, love, money, and justice.

I’ll even venture to say that religious story supplies the popular “philosophy” of most people in the world. It organizes their experiences. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran.

To ignore this truism is tragically to surrender an essential tool of social justice to its enemies. On the other hand, exposing the radical social justice character of the Judeo-Christian narrative while challenging its domestication by false prophets represents an essential element of any attempts to shape the world by controlling its narrative.

Even completely secular social justice warriors should take note.

Pope Francis Calls Possession of Nuclear Weapons Sinful

Readings for First Sunday of Advent: IS 2:1-5; PS 122:1-9; ROM 13: 11-14; PS 85:8; MT 24: 37-44

Last weekend, Pope Francis outright condemned the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons. (I’ll bet you didn’t notice that in the mainstream media.)

The pope did so during his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where he met with survivors of the two Japanese cities which were virtually wiped off the map when atomic bombs were dropped on them in 1945. The weapons of unprecedented mass destruction killed more than 200,000 people in matters of minutes.

During his remarks, Pope Francis said, “A world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary. . .  The use of atomic energy for the purpose of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral . . .”

The pope’s visit and sharp condemnation could not come at a more opportune time either historically or liturgically (on this First Sunday of Advent). Historically, they follow hard upon the conviction of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of seven Catholic peace activists who in April of last year entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia to symbolically destroy the nuclear weapons housed there. (Kings Bay harbors at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each of them carries 20 Trident missiles.)

The Seven included Liz McAlister, the wife of deceased peace activist Phil Berrigan, as well as Martha Hennesy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the legendary co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.  

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the group’s own “weapons” for accomplishing their task were hammers, crime scene tape, and baby bottles containing their own blood. Once inside, they splashed their blood on the walls of the base’s administration building. They used their hammers to “destroy” the nosecone of one of the Trident missiles. They also posted a formal indictment of the U.S. government charging it with crimes against peace.

At their trial the activists had planned to mount a “necessity defense.”  However, the presiding judge forbade them to cite their religious motivations. That nullified their planned argument that their “crime” was morally necessary to prevent the far greater catastrophe of a nuclear war.

The Seven had also planned to present Daniel Ellsberg as an expert witness to articulate that defense. All of us recall Ellsberg as the most famous whistle blower in U.S. history. In 1971, he risked a lifetime behind bars when he leaked the famous Pentagon Papers that revealed Washington’s hidden strategy behind the Vietnam War. His recent book The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner details his work as a Defense Department analyst and nuclear weapons strategist.

However, Ellsberg too was forbidden to testify. Had he done so, he would have argued that the Seven were faithfully following the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” (IS 2:4).

(By the way, with the judge’s restrictions in place, the Plowshares 7 were convicted of conspiracy. On their sentencing within 90 days, the activists will face more than 20 years in prison.)

All of this – Pope Francis’ words about the sinfulness of nuclear weapons manufacture and possession as well as the conviction of the Plowshares 7 – is relevant to this Sunday’s liturgy of the word and historically relevant in the way just explained. That’s because today’s first reading contains those words from the prophet Isaiah.

Contradicting his people’s earlier understanding of God as a “Man of War,” Isaiah’s words describe divine opposition to all war and a fortiori, of course, to nuclear war. They envision a precisely enlightened human future when the people of the world will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” and where “one nation shall not raise the sword against another.”

Then in today’s Gospel reading from the 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus (like the Buddha before him) calls his followers to simply wake up rather than prepare for war against their Roman occupiers led by a violent “Son of Man.” As Matthew’s readers will discover in his 25th chapter, “waking up” means recognizing Christ’s presence in the “least of the brethren.” Jesus implies that such recognition precludes war of any kind and (again a fortiori) nuclear war.

To get what I mean, please read for yourself today’s biblical selections. You can find them here. Despite their obscurity (especially in today’s apocalyptic Gospel passage), you’ll see that they’re about waking up and renunciation of war. At least that’s what I see in them, as you can tell from my “translations” immediately below:  

IS 2:1-5

For the prophet Isaiah,
Jerusalem and its Temple
Called people everywhere
To lift their gaze
Above the world’s
Hills and highest mountains
To the realm of peace and light
He believed possible.
To get there, he said,
Disarm and demilitarize.
Transform all
Weapons of mass destruction
Until they look like
Hoes and shovels,
Tractors and cultivators.
 
PS 122: 1-9
 
Yes, it’s possible to turn this world
Into a house of worship –
A City of Peace –
Where all human beings
Enjoy the prosperity
That disarmament makes possible.
That’s the key to reconciliation and happiness.
 
ROM 13: 11-14
 
St. Paul calls us to wake up!
Only our selfishness,
He says,
Prevents the advent
Of that other peaceful world.
So, don’t be deceived, he said,
By the world’s empty promises
Of fulfillment by (Christmas) consumption
And militarization.
Instead, seek that other world first
And everything else you need
Will follow automatically.
 
PS 85:8
 
Lord, please show us
How to get from here to there!
 
MT 24: 37-44
 
Jesus warned his friends
About using violence
To achieve peace.
They hoped that
Daniel’s “Son of Man”
Would dethrone imperial Rome
By force of arms.
“Be careful what you wish for,”
Jesus cautioned.
“Your hoped-for apocalypse
Will recall the devastation
Of Noah’s Flood.
Civilian casualties
Will run at 50% —
Killing innocent
Men and women alike
(Just as at Hiroshima
And Nagasaki).
True change however
Comes from disarmament
(as Isaiah taught)
And from extreme wakefulness
(as the Buddha instructed).
Pray then for blessed insomnia!
Wake up
To the signs of the time!”

Don’t you agree that Pope Francis is wonderful? His faithful following of Jesus and of St. Francis of Assisi has led him to call things by their right names. Nuclear war is sinful, he has said unmistakably. Possessing nuclear weapons is immoral. Catholics and the entire world need to take those words to heart and act upon them.

The Plowshares Seven show us what such open-hearted action means. The Seven are willing to go to prison for enacting the logical consequence of the words of Pope Francis and of Jesus in a world cursed by nuclear weapons.

But few are paying attention. Few take notice. Since Francis’ words weren’t about abortion, homosexuality, or refusing communion to politicians, the pope’s words of condemnation received little attention in the mainstream media. Moreover, those words seemed pointed sharply at the U.S. which alone has ever used nuclear weapons and possesses more of them than any nation on earth. And who among us (much less, among the corporate media) is willing to endure such condemnation?

Fewest of all among us are willing to take seriously the challenge of the Plowshares 7. Who among us is willing to do prison time for the sake of following the prophetic ones who identified disarmament, wakefulness and enlightenment as the only effective path to happiness and peace?

Advent is the time for entertaining those questions. What are your answers? What are mine?

(Discussion follows)   

The Plowshares 7 Are Convicted for Following Jesus’ Resistance to State Oppression

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; PS 98: 509; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 28; Lk 21: 5-19

At the end of last month, a federal grand jury in Georgia convicted seven Catholic peace activists on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base on April 4, 2018. The activists included Liz McAlister, the widow of peace activist, Philip Berrigan, along with Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Catholic Worker founder, Dorothy Day.  

Known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the group entered the base armed with hammers, crime scene tape, and baby bottles containing their own blood. Once inside, they splashed their blood on the walls of the base’s administration building. They also posted a formal indictment of the U.S. government charging it with crimes against peace. Kings Bay harbors at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each of them carries 20 Trident missiles.

The activists’ defense was that they were following the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” (IS 2:4). However, at their trial, they were forbidden to cite their religious motivations. The judge disqualified their planned “necessity defense” which claims that their lawbreaking was required to prevent the far greater crime of a nuclear war. On their sentencing within 90 days, the activists will face more than 20 years in prison.

All of that fits in perfectly with the theme of this Sunday’s liturgy of the word.  It deals with the promise of God’s new order (aka the Kingdom of God) and with the persecution of Jesus’ followers that, according to the Master, must precede its institution. Jesus promised arrests, judicial silencings, jailings, and general persecution for those with the courage to follow his example as an opponent of empire and war.

See that theme for yourself by reviewing today’s readings here. In any case, what follows are my “translations” of those selections. They describe the new order (or what scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s Great World Clean-up”) as advocated by the Jewish prophetic tradition, by Jesus himself, and just recently by the Plowshares 7. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus outlines the inevitable consequences for any who, like the 7, act to hasten the Kingdom’s eventual arrival:

 
MAL 3: 19-20A

Scorching times are coming
For the rulers
Of this world!
Root and branch
They will be destroyed
In purging fire
When God’s Great Clean-up
Finally sets things right.
 
PS 98: 5-9
 
The Great Purge
Will at last establish
God’s justice
On earth
Including environmental justice
For the entire planet,
With its seas and mountains.
Above all,
It will mean
Equity and justice
For the whole human race.
Everyone should
Be happy about that.
 
2 THES 3: 7-12
 
Long ago,
Some in Paul’s community
Thought the Purge
Would take place
“Any day now.”
So, they stopped working.
“Don’t do that,”
Said Paul.
“Your faith
Shouldn’t make you
A burden to others.”
 
 
LK 21:28
 
However,
Just because
The Great Purgation
Has yet to occur,
Don’t lose faith.
Know that it is
Still somehow
At hand
 
LK 21: 5-19
 
So, you’re wondering,
Are you,
When exactly
The Great Clean-up
Will take place?
It will happen in three stages
First, there’ll be
Wars, terror and insurrections
Along with natural disasters
That will leave
Religion in a shamble.
Secondly, all kinds of charlatans
Will show up
Claiming to speak for Jesus.
Thirdly, even family members
And religious authorities
Will blame believers for all of it.
They will hate, persecute and arrest them
For simply following the Master,
Handing them over
To civil authorities
Deeply fearful
Of the wisdom
Of their unassailable defenses.
Jesus’ recommendations?
1.     Reject false Christs.
2.     Trust the Holy Spirit within.
3.     Endure imprisonment.
4.     Persevere!

All of that represents an extremely high bar, don’t you agree? Following the martyr, Jesus – the tortured one, the one imprisoned on death row, the victim of capital punishment – is never easy.

But does that mean that those of us living beneath the lofty bar set by the Plowshares 7, by the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, and Jesus are lost? Can we not be part of God’s Great World Clean-up?

Let’s hope that we can.

At the very least however, here’s what we can do in line with today’s final reading:

  • Reject false Christs by realizing that the meek and mild Jesus of mainstream Christianity is a distortion of the one recognized as subversive by the Roman Empire and by the compromised Judaism of his day. Jesus meek and mild represents the false Christ the Master himself warns against in today’s Gospel reading.
  • Instead, embrace Jesus’ rebel Spirit as much as possible by refusing to be patriotic under the imperial system that Jesus hated. Perform organized and random acts of specifically unpatriotic civil disobedience. Think Colin Kaepernick.
  • While there’s still time contact the presiding judge in the case of the Plowshares 7 and intercede on their behalf, perhaps sending the judge a copy of this homily.
  • Pray for the Spirit of civil disobedience that inspired not only the 7, but Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jesus himself.
  • Don’t be discouraged by delays in the Kingdom’s arrival or by the apparent victories of its enemies. Persevere!

Dan Berrigan: in Memoriam

Dan Berrigan Resist

I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available).  The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!

Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.

All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.

During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.

Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about.  In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.

On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).

I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!

I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.

He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.

Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky.  (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.

Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it.  “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.

One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.

I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”

I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.

In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers.  The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).

I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk.  I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book.  I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.

Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!”  That’s his message to us today!

Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.

Pope Francis Criticizes Capitalism as a “Putrid, Rotten System”

filthy system

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges criticized Pope Francis for not being radical enough in his criticism of capitalism. He said that in the end, the pope was merely advocating charity and not real systemic change.

Hedges is an award-winning journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister. He is one of our culture’s most courageous writers and prophetic critics. He is always worth listening to. So I was surprised by his remarks.

The interview gave the impression that the pope not only should have been stronger in his criticism of capitalism; he should have denounced it as such, and offered some alternative.

My personal response is that the pope actually has done all three – during his six-day trip to the United States, and especially in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’. During his visit here, he offered an extremely harsh denunciation capitalism. He scathingly criticized its “American” embodiment as violent and a form of gangsterism. And finally, in Laudato Si’, he offered a workable alternative.

Think about the pope’s criticism of capitalism-as-we-know-it.

Begin by understanding that it is historically short-sighted to argue that something called “capitalism” actually exists and needs reformation. The system has long since been reformed. In the midst of the Great Depression, it became clear to everyone that capitalism in its pure form (private ownership of the means of production, free and open markets, and unlimited earnings) was simply not workable.

So under the influence of John Maynard Keynes and others, the New Deal in the U.S. and the more extensive welfare states of Europe incorporated elements of socialism (public ownership of the means of production, controlled markets, and limited earnings). In other words, economies became mixed (some private ownership and some public, some controlled markets and some free, and earnings limited by progressive income tax).

The problem is that the new mixed economy was blended in favor of the rich. The theory was “trickle-down.” If the rich prospered, the rising tide of their prosperity would lift all boats.

Another problem surfaced with the Reagan and Thatcher counter-revolutions during the 1980s. Reagan called the New Deal a “fifty-year mistake.” So he focused on eliminating or shrinking the elements of socialism that had crept into economies everywhere since the emergence of the welfare state. It’s that counter-reformation that Pope Francis has criticized in polite terms as the excrement of evil personified.

He elaborated his point during his address to the U.S. Congress on September 24th when he referred to economic system we know as “filthy,” “rotten,” and “putrid.” He called the Wall Street speculators “hypocrites.” Moreover, the pope directly confronted the members of his audience by calling the system they represented “the greatest purveyor of violence” in the world today. And he called the politicians seated before him a bunch of gangsters.

Yes he did.

Of course the polite, soft-spoken, and gentle pontiff was a gracious enough guest to do none of those things directly. He did so instead by offering Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton as embodiments of our country’s greatest values.

It was Dorothy Day who is remembered as saying, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

It was King who called the United States itself, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And it was Thomas Merton, the apostle of non-violence, who classified U.S. politicians and military leaders among the world’s gangsters when he said, “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle . . .”

Moreover, Pope Francis did not leave his audience merely reeling from such heavy blows un-complemented by clear systemic alternatives to the filthy rotten arrangement he addressed. Instead, the pontiff called for a deep restructuring of capitalism-as-we-know-it. This would involve turning the present system’s preferential option for the rich precisely on its head, replacing it with his favorite guideline, the “preferential option for the poor.” Even more particularly, restructuring would require a central international legislative body endowed with power to override national economic practices judged to be environmentally unsound.

Both recommendations are found in Laudato Si’ which the pope cited in his congressional address. Both have already been implemented world-wide.

To begin with, the New Deal, the Great Society and (even more so) Europe’s introduction of the welfare state already represent arrangements which forefronted the needs of the working classes and poor. The reform measures were at the very least strong gestures towards economies mixed in favor of the poor rather than of the Wall Street rich. Such reforms demonstrated that another economic order is indeed possible.

As for the world body with power to enforce environmental legislation, the World Trade Organization (WTO) already has it, though perversely in its present form. According to the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (and of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership), multinational corporations (MNCs) now have the power to sue before the WTO and invalidate U.S. environmental protection standards if those laws can be shown to diminish a corporation’s expected profits.

What the pope is proposing is an international body that turns the WTOs mandate upside-down.  The body the pope proposes would have binding power to protect the environment from the depredations of MNCs – i.e. is to eliminate their profits if they result from environmental destruction.

So I respectfully suggest that Chris Hedges is mistaken when he says Pope Francis pulled punches in his address before the U.S. Congress. And the pontiff has offered an alternative. As an honored guest, he gently delivered knock-out blows clearly observable to attentive listeners.

It remains for prophets like Hedges and others to highlight and reinforce them and in this way to advance us towards the Other World Pope Francis would convince skeptics is possible.

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!

None of Us Can Change the World, So We’d Better Get Busy!

Gandhi

The other day a good friend and I were discussing the state of the world. Our conversation touched on the Boston Marathon bombing, the Bangladesh factory collapse, drone warfare, Guantanamo, the increasing concentration of media ownership, and the sorry state of the Roman Catholic Church. My friend remarked on the futility of attempting to do anything to change the world situation. Better to simply tend your garden, he said, rather than wasting psychic energy and physical effort to affect what cannot be changed.

I must confess that I found myself agreeing with my conversation partner more than not. It all seems so futile when we consider the overwhelming power of money, the state, the military, and of education and media propaganda whose predominantly conservative purpose is to keep things the way they are.

Suitably depressed, I took up my spiritual reading before going to bed. I’m currently pouring over, perhaps for the fifth time, Eknath Easwaran’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. In The End of Sorrow, the first of his three volume work (The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living), Easwaran addresses the question of “detachment.” By that he means being free from anxiety or depression about the results of anything we do. What I read seemed intimately related to my exchange with my dear friend.

Easwaran points to the example of Gandhi:

“Prior to Gandhi, even people who had seen and grieved over the political bondage of India could not bring themselves to act because they thought the situation was impossible. They could not act because even before taking the first step they were already caught in results. We too, when faced with problems, have a tendency to think, ‘There is nothing we can do about it.’ . . . Wherever we find a wrong situation – in our personal life, in our country’s life, or in our world’s conflicts – we all have a duty to work to correct it.”

The words hit home. It’s giving up in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds that so strongly tempts us (me!). It’s just so easy to give up.

But as Kevin Trudeau reminds us, the temptation gives us far more credit for knowing our situation than our actual condition warrants. Coming from a completely secular and otherwise questionable perspective, Trudeau says we’re like people looking at a computer screen, but seeing only the bottom right hand corner – perhaps an inch square. We just don’t see what’s going on in the rest of the screen at all. But we make decisions and value judgments, we go in and out of depression as though we were all-knowing. We react and get attached to results as though our lives were not mere blips on the cosmic screen.

Thankfully, we don’t know very much. And our brief lives don’t offer much perspective on the effects of our actions. I’m reminded of what Mao Tse- tung’s is reputed to have answered when asked whether he thought the French Revolution was successful or not. “Too soon to say,” was his response.

It’s definitely too soon to say what the effects of our actions are or those of Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Bradley Manning, or John XXIII.

My friend is right. Results are out of our hands. But the person of faith, like Gandhi and those others I’ve just mentioned pushes ahead, doing what’s possible, leaving the results in the hands of the One who directs the universe. Only She sees the whole screen.

I take some comfort in that.

Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

To the least

Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.

At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”

What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.

First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.

Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.

More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.

The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.

And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.

The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.

This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.

By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.

So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:

1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)

2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!

3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.

4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.

5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.

6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!

7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!

Lenten Reflection: The Ash Wednesday after the Pope’s Resignation

ash-wednesday-1[1]

Well, it’s Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday. My question is what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?

The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” That title swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”

But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found such occupation unbearable, and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.

The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them. He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders.”

What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013?

I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.

Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”

Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that any new pope save the church from itself by rejecting the anti-Vatican II schismatic tendencies of the last two popes, healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination, and recognizing and honoring the contributions of Catholic women like the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)?

Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.

Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints I’ve just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So it’s time to get to work.

As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. I’m going to keep a spiritual journal this Lent to make sure I stay focused.

I’m also joining some friends of mine in a resolution to give up church for Lent. We’re doing so in favor of a six week experiment with an “Ecumenical Table” — a lay-led liturgical gathering often featuring a woman as homilist and Eucharistic Prayer leader. Though some in the group will also continue to attend their normal churches, the experiment may help us discern how to finally cope with the white-washed tombs of God I mentioned earlier.

And then there’s our parish Lenten Program I’ll be facilitating. It’s called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus: from Jesus to Christ.” It will be devoted to discovering the carpenter Yeshua behind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. In the light of our discoveries, we’ll unpack the liturgical readings for the following Sunday in hopes of making those Lenten liturgies more meaningful and challenging.

Additionally, my wife Peggy and I will also be working hard on our communication and have decided to devote significant time each evening to listening to each other in a loving respectful way.

In these ways I hope to pass my most fruitful Lent ever, to be truly able to rise with Yeshua to a new level of Kingdom-commitment on Easter Sunday.