(Sunday Homily) Black Lives, Muslim Lives Matter: Obama’s as Guilty as Wilson & Pantaleo

awlaki-killing-of-american

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85: 9-14; 2 PT 3: 8-14; MK 1: 1-8. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120714.cfm

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. . . .

The very mention of those names calls to mind the protests that have filled our nation’s streets over the past week – in Ferguson Missouri, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and places in between. The teenager, the father of six, and the sixth grade child represent deeply racist and unjust social structures where criminals and thugs masquerading as law enforcement officers have implicitly been granted a license to kill with impunity.

The nation-wide demonstrations on behalf of black and brown victims of the resulting “American” police state remind us that our country is decidedly on the wrong track. Like John the Baptist in today’s gospel excerpt, statements by New York’s Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, President Obama, and the U.N. special rapporteur on torture call us all to what the Greeks called metanoia – a drastic change of direction.

Ironically however that call to repentance is especially addressed to Messrs. Holder and Obama themselves. They, after all, find themselves in charge of a national and world-wide police state of which Mike Brown’s Ferguson and Eric Garner’s Staten Island represent merely the tip of an iceberg. The call to repentance invites all of us to apply pressure for profound systemic reform that far surpasses anything those “leaders” have in mind.

Today’s liturgical readings inspire such thoughts. Listen to the prophet Isaiah as he cries out for repentance and a restructuring of reality so intense that he imagines mountains being levelled and valleys filled. The point is to smooth the way for the advent of a profoundly non-violent God in our midst. The peace-filled change Isaiah envisions is not trivial.

Listen to Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptizer, as he echoes Isaiah word-for-word. (Needless to say, neither Isaiah’s nor John’s words have anything to do with the artificially excited anticipation of our culture’s Winter Festival and its orgy of selling, buying, and conspicuous consumption – even though “Christmas” deceptively continues to somehow associate itself with the homeless child from Nazareth.)

As a matter of fact, the cult of materialism and “Christmas cheer” couldn’t be more antithetical to sincere recollection of the birth of Jesus who had more in common with Mike Brown and Eric Garner than with the white middle-class culture Christmas celebrates.

More specifically, Jesus was the embodiment of nearly everything “good Christians” (presumably) like Officers Wilson and Pantaleo (the executioners of Brown and Garner) give evidence of despising.  After all, the working man from Nazareth was not only the poor son of an unwed teenage mother. He was an immigrant whose family took refuge in Egypt, the penniless friend of prostitutes and drunkards, and the prophet drummed out of his faith community as villain possessed by demons. He was the victim of torture and capital punishment who was treated as a terrorist by the reigning imperial power.

To the authorities of their day, both the Baptizer and Jesus even looked like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Both were dark-skinned, either black or brown; they were not white men. Today’s gospel emphasizes how poorly John was dressed.

To repeat: during his life Jesus was impoverished, homeless, unemployed, accused of being subversive, placed on death row, and ultimately executed. As a Jew, he was considered as “other” and worthless to Roman authorities as Mike Brown was to Darren Wilson or Eric Garner to Daniel Pantaleo. He was as worthless as Abdulrahman Al-awlaki (pictured above) was to Barack Obama.

And that brings me to today’s real call to repentance.

It can’t merely be:

  • A superficial call to “trust” – an echo of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all get along?”
  • A reform of police culture
  • A de-militarization of police arsenals
  • A mandating of special independent prosecutors to handle incidents like those in Ferguson and Staten Island
  • Or even prosecution and conviction of police thugs like Wilson and Pantaleo

Instead, our nation has to address the root of the problem which is a world-wide policy of extra-judicial killings of racially-profiled Muslims and dark-skinned poor people. (That’s what a “signature strike” means as executed by drone “pilots.”)

Put otherwise, President Obama, Eric Holder and their minions are as guilty as Wilson and Pantaleo. All of them place themselves above the law. They kill with impunity those “others” they consider expendable. They answer to no one. They refuse to investigate much less prosecute such crimes.

John the Baptizer’s call to repentance summons us to publicize such guilt and completely withdraw support from the policies of the thug leaders of the world-wide U.S. police state.

That, I think, is what metanoia and repentance mean for “Americans” this particular advent.

(Sunday Homily) The ‘Gates of Hell’ from Ferguson to Gaza

Wall Palestine

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082414.cfm

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and (now) Syria – again. . . .

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? Solving social problems requires locking people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” referenced by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, it’s a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in occupied Ferguson, Palestinians in Gaza’s mammoth concentration camp, or the ISIS militants – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to confine Palestinians in fenced off open-air concentration camps like Gaza, where there’s literally no exit. Then from time to time you “mow the lawn,” i.e. shoot the non-Jews like fish in a barrel – even though most of them are children, women, and aged people.

Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Gazans and residents of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history make Jesus’ prayer, “They Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, the Gazan concentration camp, and rich people making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared last June 27th (just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul”). We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Fergusons, Gazas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Messrs. Netanyahu, Obama and Officer Wilson or of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Michael Brown.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, they disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will come.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He said it’s not always apparent what God is doing in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”