“Game of Thrones”: Belated Theological Reflections

I’m probably the last person in “America” to finally watch the fantastically popular video series “Game of Thrones” which concluded in 2019. But that’s what I’ve done over the last month. In a very belated effort (initially at least) to see what all the fuss was about, I watched all 73 episodes.

Like most others, I was hooked from the get-go.

However, because of my peculiar theological background, the whole thing moved my octogenarian self far beyond any superficial desire for cultural literacy. It turned my thought squarely to what many still call “God.”

I mean the behavior of those playing the violent, sadistic game of musical thrones greatly resembled that of the God I and most others in the “Christian” west were taught to believe in. That’s because the dominant understandings of God as king, judge, condemner, and punisher were solidified precisely during the period depicted in the HBO series.

Let me show you what I mean by first briefly recalling what viewers saw on “Game of Thrones,” and then adding what the series revealed about medieval ideas of God. Finally, allow me to describe the alternative suggested by the insights of modern science – of quantum physics in particular.   

My hope in doing this is to bring back from the dead a version of the divine that I at least find more worthy of belief, and helpful (if not necessary) to the project of saving the planet. The resurrected belief also holds promise of redeeming the rest of us from our age-old habit of unquestioning acquiescence while our “betters” repeat with impunity the atrocities depicted on HBO.

Game of Thrones

But first some reminders of what most of us witnessed in the series. It treated us all to kings, lords, and ladies beheading, castrating, and inflicting other forms of torture including skinning victims alive.

Then there were the endless swordfights and battlefield massacres – the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of armed men (and a few women) including spectacular giants, armored soldiers, terrifying ghosts, assaulting castles of various descriptions – wildly setting fires, swinging long knives, daggers, hammers, spears, and scythes, or launching flaming cannonballs, and shooting hundreds of arrows in deadly unison. Fire breathing dragons joined the mayhem to devastating effect.

Significantly, it was all, well, “biblical” in scope and carnage.  

Even closer to the topic at hand, viewers witnessed supposed spiritual masters, witches, and military hierarchs supporting compulsory celibacy, slavery, shaming of women, and a sometimes-prudish morality also enforced by torture and death, along with solitary confinement to dungeons where prisoners were starved, and subjected to insistent commands to “confess.”

And the reactions of both palace officials and commoners to all of it? Apart from the Wildlings or Free Peoples, the universal response was blind obedience. Everybody but the Wildlings accorded to the royal classes absolute power even if orders given were foolish, cruel, selfish, suicidal, sadistic, genocidal, lustful, or completely demeaning. Everything was justified for the sake of “the realm.” Child sacrifice? “Yes, your grace, as you wish.”   

Thrones and God

My point here is that all those medieval practices shaped western ideas of God who ends up being seen primarily as a potentate just like the ones in “Game of Thrones” – or in the Bible. As such he (sic) emerged for western believers primarily as a king, a legislator, judge, condemner, and punisher. God ended up being a torturer too. According to resultant doctrine, he was prepared to commit to an eternal lake of fire (hell) unconfessed sinners who (for Catholics at least) ate meat on Friday, did anything sexual outside of marriage, or even missed Mass on Sunday.

Not only that but, according to the extremely influential Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the principal delights of those lucky enough to “get to heaven” would be their witnessing the torments of those tortured in hell. They’d take great pleasure in observing the agony of others.

To that point, here’s what Aquinas said: “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to perfectly see the sufferings of the damned …” [Summa Theologica, Third Part, Supplement, Question XCIV, “Of the Relations of the Saints Towards the Damned,” First Article]

It’s no wonder then that so many Christians accept torture on the one hand, but on the other have left aside unacceptable theological convictions straight out of Kings’ Landing, Winterfell, and the Seven Kingdoms depicted in “Game of Thrones.”

Problem is that the removal of such beliefs has confined us to a meaningless world in terms of life’s transcendent dimensions. And it apparently has done little to make us less obedient subjects of the realm.   

A Quantum Alternative

Despite everything however, at least according to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans retain belief in some sort of Higher Power, though not always in the God of the Bible. But if “God” is neither that deity described by the bloodier passages in the sacred scripture, nor the eternal torturer celebrated by Thomas Aquinas, what is left to believe in?

It’s here that quantum physics might offer some help. I mean, even those only marginally acquainted with the subject know that contemporary physicists see everything in the universe not as ultimately solid objects, but as packages of light waves – of energy.

Such understanding suggests not only that in a very real sense all of us form a single substance united with each other and with everything that exists – with animals, plants, minerals, soil, air, and water. All of it expresses the same energy, including that of consciousness. In some sense then, everything is united and aware. All reality is one.

Scientific insights like those suggest a Ground of Being who might be described simply as the sum of all the energy in the universe and in the universe of universes of which our solar system is an infinitesimal part. That unfathomable quantum would include, of course, the energy of consciousness. It might even be addressed personally as a Thou. It finds incarnation in each of our apparently solid bodies.

Such realizations have salutary consequences. That is, if we are one with each other, with the natural world, and ultimately with the one we used to call “God,” then wars, borders, and us-and-them thinking of any type should find no place among any but the psychopathically insane.

Moreover, the wisdom of one of the world’s great prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, who instructed us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes evident. Our neighbor is everyone. And everyone is our Self. There is no real distinction, no real separation among us. Loving one’s neighbor makes sense because one’s neighbor is in fact oneself.

Conclusion  

I suppose what I’m saying is that my binge watching of “Game of Thrones” helped me better understand firstly where our ideas of a sadistic god come from. Secondly, it made clear why so many of us have abandoned belief in that God. We can’t any longer accept a deity who acts as cruelly and arbitrarily as King Robert, Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsey Bolton, or Daenerys. 

Thirdly, and even more importantly, such rejection yields practical conclusions that might save us from the insanities of our contemporary political powers whose slaughters, genocides, ecocides – their omnicides – massively eclipse anything depicted in “Game of Thrones.” I’m thinking of modern weapons of war even well below civilization-ending nuclear weapons. So many of them make the fire breathing dragons and “Game of Thrones” massacres look like children’s pets.

And finally, all of this suggests resistance on the part of citizens like us. I mean, when you think about it, we’re not much different from those commoner subjects of the kings and royalty depicted in “Game of Thrones.” “Nuclear war, Mr. President? As you wish, your grace.”

I mean, most of us stand quite ready to turn off our rationality and consciousness and proceed to sacrifice our children and ourselves at the whim of those whose words and actions reveal them to be psychopathic and quite stupid.

It’s time we realize our “kings’” lunatic nature and deny them any authority whatsoever.  The revolution against the medieval mindset of “Game of Thrones” is still incomplete.      

“A Meaningless World Engenders Fear”

Welcome to Episode 21 in this series called “A Course in Miracles for Social Justice Warriors.” My name is Mike Rivage-Seul, and I’m your host on this podcast.

Today we’ll focus on Lesson 13 of ACIM’s Workbook for Students. Its main idea is summarized in these words, “A meaningless world engenders fear.” That is, today’s lesson expands Lesson 12’s insight that “I am upset because I see a meaningless world.” Today’s instruction identifies the specific emotion aroused by meaninglessness. The emotion in question is fear.

Before we turn to that notion, let me remind you of our podcast’s general approach to A Course in Miracles. As I pointed out in episodes 3 and 4, we’re interpreting ACIM as though it was written primarily for U.S. citizens living in the belly of the U.S. empire that is the latest iteration of global domination embodied, for instance in Rome and the British Empire.

A Course in Miracle’s Historical context, authorship, language, and literary genre makes that clear. The voice of Jesus in ACIM is not the voice of the historical Jesus, but of a Christ addressing well-educated, well-to-do Americans far removed from the poor, uneducated, and mostly illiterate victims of empire the Jewish master addressed in the first century of our era. As well see later in much greater detail, ACIM calls Americans away from imperial values of individualism, competition, separation, domination, and patriarchy.

With that said, let’s turn our attention specifically to Lesson 13. It reminds us that the cause of our fear is our country’s loss of meaning. To repeat: Lesson 13’s main idea is “A meaningless world engenders fear.”     

Such expression insists that although our national anthem identifies “America” as “the home of the brave,” we are in reality an extremely fearful people. In fact, ours is better described as “the home of the frightened.”  

Today’s lesson 13 calls ACIM students to come to grips with the most profound reason for our fear. It’s because the meaning stories we were raised on have disintegrated before our eyes leaving us with a meaningless world. Understandably, we find that extremely unnerving.

As we’ve seen before, we once thought that:

  • Our country is the greatest in the world
  • We’re a Christian nation
  • God is on our side
  • We live in a democracy
  • Our politicians represent “the people”
  • Our wars are just
  • Our armed forces are invincible
  • Our soldiers are heroic
  • Law enforcement protects and serves us

None of these formerly self-evident statements any longer proves convincing:

  • As Dr. King pointed out, far from being the “greatest” in terms of virtue and goodness, our country is instead the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” As such, it is the root cause of most of the world’s problems.
  • This means that the God of Jesus is not our God; we are therefore not his followers; we are not “Christian.”
  •  God is not on our side; we are not divinely favored. Instead, America is more like the Roman Empire responsible for the execution of Yeshua of Nazareth.
  • Neither is the United States a democracy. In fact, it never was. As Federalist Paper # 10 makes clear, the Founding Fathers specifically rejected democracy in favor of a republic where (as John Jay put it) “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” 
  • And Jay’s imperative has been obeyed throughout U.S. history. This truism has been unmistakably underlined in the Citizens United SCOTUS decision. Its aftermath shows that politicians represent their donors rather than “the people.” (This is why a coal baron like Joe Manchin can defy the will of West Virginians on issues they overwhelmingly favor like Medicare for all, a $15.00 minimum wage, pharmaceutical pricing, family leave, and college debt forgiveness.
  • As for our wars being just, think about the lies that got us into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  • Those same conflicts give the lie to convictions about the heroism of service in the U.S. military, whose personnel General Smedley Butler (already in the 1930s) implied are no better than brainwashed Mafia foot soldiers.
  • And just try to convince any black people you know that the police protect and serve them. Most would laugh in your face, if they didn’t burst into tears.

As pointed out in Lesson 12, A Course in Miracles itself can also engender fear. That’s because its relentless insistence that our favorite convictions (like those just mentioned) are 180 degrees opposite those of the divine order, can be extremely disorienting.

In the words of today’s lesson, “Recognition of meaninglessness arouses intense anxiety in all the separated ones” – that is, in everyone who sees herself or himself in competition and strife with fellow human beings. And that includes most of us.

And just whom is it that we Americans see ourselves in competition with? Largely, it’s with the poor, but ultimately, it’s with God.

Competition with the poor is evinced by that fact that (at least since the end of the Second Inter-capitalist War) ALL our wars have been fought against the impoverished identified as terrorists, communists, Muslims, and (as a Great Man once put it) “bad hombres.” (On this, please view the speech of the highly decorated ex-CIA operative John Stockwell.)

The real crime of the poor, however, is simply their poverty. It makes us afraid that they’ll rise and take our stuff [which our ancestors – and current wars – have taken from them (e.g., from Native Americans, from 250 years of enslaved Africans, in wars over oil, markets, water, raw materials etc.)].

Lesson 13 goes even further, however. It’s not only the poor we fear. It’s God we’re afraid of because (as the lesson puts it) “we think we’re in competition with God.” That is, we’re afraid of God whose primary function (we’re taught) is to legislate, judge, condemn, and punish. We’re afraid of this oppositional God. We might even say that he turns out to be not only our competitor, but an abusive enemy who threatens us all with eternal torture.

No wonder we’re upset.  No wonder we’re all afraid. No wonder that we find all that questionable if not downright meaningless.

Lesson 13 asks us to face that discordant music. Again, it says, “A meaningless world engenders fear.”

Accordingly, the lesson asks us to spend 3 or 4 periods of no more than a minute each doing the following: “With eyes closed, repeat today’s idea to yourself. Then open your eyes and look about you slowly saying: ‘I am looking at a meaningless world.’ Repeat this statement to yourself as you look about. Then close your eyes and conclude with: ‘A meaningless world engenders fear because I think I am in competition with God.’”

As usual, I’ll fulfill this assignment today as well. Remember that specifically as North American inhabitants of empire, we are at this point in The Course attempting to clear our minds of common misconceptions that have encumbered and polluted our consciousness. With that uncomfortable task foremost in my mind, this is Mike Rivage-Seul wishing you well and God’s abundant blessings.  

Episode 14, Lesson 6: I Am Upset, Because I See Something That Is Not There

Welcome to Episode 14 of “A Course in Miracles for Social Justice Activists.” I’m your host, Mike Rivage-Seul. Today we’ll examine together Part 1, Lesson 6 of The Course’s Workbook for Students. It’s found on page 10 of the text. Its central idea reads: “I am upset because I see something that is not there.”

To put this lesson in context, let me go back to the very beginning of ACIM, where the entire course is summarized in just three short sentences:

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.
Herein lies the peace of God.

Yes, according to the text, these words summarize The Course in Miracles in its entirety. Everything else is commentary.

But what do those brief sentences mean? What is meant by the word “real?” Similarly, what does “unreal” mean? And what about the word “exists?”

Answering these questions will help A Course in Miracles students understand today’s lesson, “I am upset because I see something that is not there.”

My reading and study of A Course in Miracles tells me that the word “real” refers to what truly exists. And the only thing that truly exists is found in the present moment. However, “real” does not refer to what is perceived by my senses at this moment. Those sense perceptions are temporary and passing. For A Course in Miracles, the term “real” refers to what some people call “God.” It refers to what does not change or die. Other than “God” we might call it:

  • Source
  • The Spirit or Power that informs everything
  • What holds all things together constantly creating, dissolving, and recreating life forms
  • The unalterable Background of all sense perceptions
  • The Ground of those sensitivities
  • Life Itself
  • Truth
  • Love
  • Supreme Goodness
  • Light

On the other hand, the word “unreal” has four meanings. It refers:

  1. To anything that doesn’t last forever – to everything that changes, that dies, that cannot or will not persist.
  2. To the past which is irretrievably lost.
  3. To the future which does not yet exist, and which in any case will be experienced as the “present.”. (Both past and future, then, are “unreal.”)
  4. To the contents of what our reflections so far have referred to as our cultural cave. We’ve already seen again and again that we’re all prisoners of our worldly “keepers” (the ones carrying those statues in front of the cave’s fire). They are our parents, priests, pedagogues, politicians, propagandists, and publicists. They are no better than us prisoners in their condition of living in the cave’s “unreal” space. They don’t grasp reality either. In fact, intentionally or not, their job is to deceive us. They are selling a world that is white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist and patriarchal. What we learn at their feet is illusion. It is unreal.

In summary then, the “real” is the background of what the present moment presents to us. The unreal belongs to present, past, and future phenomena, and to the “wisdom” of the world.

In this podcast, we’re highlighting what A Course in Miracles has to say about that worldly wisdom (those projected shadows) contrasted with the teachings of the historical Jesus who became one of history’s foremost manifestations of the eternal unchanging Christ or God-consciousness.

Now keeping that in mind will help you understand both yesterday’s Workbook lesson and today’s as well. Yesterday’s lesson said, “I am never upset for the reasons I think.” And, as you may recall, I listed a host of my upsets regarding the Democratic Party e.g., its failure to keep its campaign promises, and its climate policies that threaten the destinies of my children and grandchildren on an overheated planet. Besides anger, I said, those reasons sparked emotions in me including betrayal, despair, confusion, frustration, cognitive dissonance, fear, a sense of having been robbed, rage, and sadness. Now, if you think about it, all those sentiments and the reasons attached to them are inescapably connected to the past and future. They are based on what the Democrats did and failed to do last year. They are evoked by anticipation of my children’s grandchildren’s futures.  

Today’s lesson reminds us “reasons” like those are “unreal.” They are, in the words of today’s lesson, “not there.” This is because they belong to the past and future which unlike the present, exist no longer or not yet. So, the experiences I listed are not the “real” reasons for my upset. They relate to the past and future and therefore are “not there.”

But what then is in fact “there?” Not the past, not the future, but the present shadows I and my fellow prisoners are taking in. However, as we’ve seen, those shadows also depict an unreal world. So, even my present moment is “unreal” if I forget its unchanging Background or informing Spirit. Within Plato’s cave, you and I are “seeing” something that is not there. We’re seeing a world that is white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist and patriarchal. The “real” embraces none of those things.

In other words, we’re trapped. We’re living in an unreal world X 4. It is a changing world inescapably tied to the past, the future, and to a deceptive shadow theater.

And that returns us to Lesson 6, “I am upset because I see something that is not there.”

In keeping with the intention of this first part of A Course in Miracles, today’s lesson simply asks us to face up to the actual reason for any upset we might experience in our lives. We’re upset because we’re seeing something that is not there. If we saw the Ground of Being that is there, we would not be upset. We would know, in the words of The Course, “the peace of God.”

Towards achieving that peace, the lesson tells us to spend “three or four brief practice periods today . . . preceded by a minute or so of mind searching.” We’re looking for upsetting thoughts like those I listed yesterday – for whatever upsets you personally that may not be political at all. It might have to do with your relationships, with your job, with childhood trauma, with unrealized ambitions.

But this time when we confront our upsets, we’re instructed to say for example,

I am angry at _____ because I see something that is not there.

I am worried about _____ because I see something that is not there.

Again, the purpose here (and of the entire first part of our Workbook lessons) is to clear our minds of false perceptions.

So, use the words of today’s lesson to empty your mind of that’s irrelevant. Say repeatedly:

I am upset because I see something that is not there. . ..

I am upset because I see something that is not there. . ..

This is Mike Rivage-Seul signing off. Please join me again tomorrow when we’ll examine Lesson 7. Till then (and always) God’s blessings on you all.

For previous episodes in this series, please go to my podcast site.

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist

Bleeding Woman

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.

“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Jesus’ Angry Call to Fearlessly Protect the Waters of the Earth

Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 38: 8-11; Psalm 107: 23-31; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41

This Sunday’s readings celebrate water as a fundamental gift from the universe. They remind us that without water life itself is impossible.

More specifically, the account of Jesus calming a storm at sea centralizes the Master’s impatience with our fearful paralysis in the face of nature’s brute force demonstrated today in the disaster of climate chaos.  

In the process, today’s selections also give insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship deals with the miraculous that post-moderns might reject out of hand as unacceptable or simply childish. Such knee-jerk reaction closes us off to the saving relevance of biblical narratives like those we encounter on this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

To avoid such dismissal, contemporary scholarship applies what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the principle of analogy. It says that we should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present.  In applying that rule, scholars’ purpose is to get to the historical facts and (more importantly) to the human meanings that may lie behind biblical stories most of us might otherwise reject.

Let’s apply that principle to the Gospel story just mentioned (Jesus’ calming of a threatening storm). Doing so will unexpectedly reveal the humanity of Jesus as it calls us to recognize the Great Parent’s gift of water and its human-induced crisis.

Our Water Crisis

To set all of that up, however, consider more generally our readings’ focus on water.

Today’s biblical excerpts tell us that the ocean represents the Goddess’ ultimate self-disclosure. It manifests her sacred order. When waters are in trouble, human life itself is endangered.

And the planet’s waters are certainly in danger as we speak.

Think for example about the importance of water. Evolutionarily speaking, we all came from the ocean. Up to 60% of the adult human body remains water. Seventy-three percent of brain and heart are composed of water; the lungs are about 83% H2O. In the absence of potable water, we inevitably perish.  

And yet, humans have come to treat this miraculous gift as simply another commodity. In my privileged position as a community elder, I still can’t believe that we bottle water in plastic, sell it at a price that far exceeds gasoline, and then throw its plastic container into the ocean, where it kills whales and other sea life.

In fact, the world’s oceans have become for us like huge commodes where we spew not only human but industrial waste including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and nuclear detritus. With virtual impunity, cargo ships flush and spill oil into our seas along with untold chemicals. Islands of plastic the size of entire countries threaten to replace the earthen landmasses our post-industrial lifestyles surrender to surging sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Wars waged primarily by the United States and its allies routinely bomb water purification plants serving civilian populations – as in Yemen and Gaza.

Then when those immediately affected by such disasters arise as anti-colonialists or “water protectors,” authorities employ police, dogs, tear gas, live ammunition and water cannons to make them cease and desist. Elected officials enlist reporters and media in general to discredit protestors, even branding protectors of water as terrorists.    

However, one Protestor whom industry-friendly authorities cannot silence is Mother Earth herself. Her responses to her children’s shameless elder abuse include tsunamis, hurricanes, massive flooding, and destruction of entire cities. The Earth’s response is to promise destruction of human life as we know it.

Today’s Readings

Despite all that, humans seem paralyzed by the multifaceted water crisis at hand. We end up arguing about the reality of the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. We’re like Jesus and his disciples caught at sea in the eye of a terrible squall while they waste time and energy paralyzed by argument about who’s to blame.

At least, that’s the interpretation of today’s final reading as given by Cuban theologians Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Jose Ignacio in Just Jesus. (The book is based on a radio program series they broadcast some years ago throughout Latin America. Scandalously to many and delightfully to even more, the airwave transmission attempted to put a human face on Jesus that accords with the interpretations of the modern scholarship mentioned above.)

Accordingly, the Lopez Vigils attempt to uncover the real-life basis of the story (assuming, of course, that some suggestive event may have actually occurred and that the account wasn’t a whole cloth invention of Mark’s community). In doing so, the Lopez Vigils implicitly take note of revealing phrases in today’s reading indicating that:

  • As a construction worker, not a seafarer, Jesus was out of his element in a boat. (He was truly “at sea.”)
  • It was he who suggested a late evening crossing of the sea.
  • In Mark’s mysterious words, his fisherman friends took him “just as he was.”
  • Jesus fell asleep and improbably remained unconscious even though the boat was tossed about and in danger of being swamped.
  • The disciples awaken the Master and blame him for not caring about their fate.
  • Jesus responds with a shout calling for “quiet” and “calm,” and with remonstrations about unwarranted fear and lack of faith.

With all of that in mind, the Lopez Vigils, elaborate Mark’s spare account. Their analysis involves an inexperienced landlubber Jesus persuading his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee despite indications of an approaching storm. Against their better judgment those veteran seamen obey.

Then Jesus gets seasick and passes out. In the middle of the trip, the storm hits, but the comatose Jesus remains dead to the world. The frantic disciples shake him awake. They blame not only him, but their terrified companions for not paying attention to what their experienced eyes told them would inevitably happen.

But instead of entering argument, Jesus shouts to everyone to shut up and start rowing. Miraculously, it seemed, the disciples’ resulting efforts save the day and bring them successfully to shore.

My Translations

Put all of that in the larger context that includes all of today’s liturgy of the word, and (for me) it comes out something like my following “translations.” Please check out the originals here to see if I got them right:

Job 38: 1, 8-11

Our Holy Mother Earth
Manifests herself
Through the ocean
To which her laws
Set firm boundaries
As if behind a mighty 
Firmly sealed door.
As if its waters burst 
From her very womb,
Attired at night
In shrouds of darkness
And by day in raiment
Of fluffy white clouds.

Psalm 107: 24-31

Thus, we know
Her love and power
As every astonished sailor
Can attest
As huge breakers
Toss about 
Their magnificent vessels
Raising them like toys 
To the heavens
Then thrusting them 
Towards a bottomless abyss.
Their desperate prayers
Seek answer in Goddess calm
Gentle breezes
And safe return home.
(For such answered invocations
We are grateful.)


2 Corinthians 5: 14-17

Our Master Jesus
Knew such fearful threat
But his sailor’s prayers 
For deliverance
Finally went unanswered.
Instead, he showed us
How to die
Under his saving conviction
That life can never end
And that apparent death
Leads inevitably to
New Creation.

Mark 4: 35-41

To illustrate his faith, 
His friends recalled
How one day
Amid a fearful squall
The landlubber Jesus 
Caught seasickness
And passed out.
They remembered 
How he came to
And shouted indignantly
At his paralyzed friends
To overcome their fears
And row mightily 
Against the mountain waves
Until as if by miracle
They reached calm haven.
Some however remembered
That like creation’s Goddess
He had quieted
The storm directly
With his angry remonstrations alone.
(Both versions may be true.)

Conclusion

So here we are, like Jesus, knowing full well our basic relationship to water, but nonetheless landlubbers with little understanding of the sea, oceans, and the laws governing such bodies.

And so, we blithely endanger our lives by adopting courses of action that fly in the face of Mother Nature’s warnings that are abundantly apparent not only to climate scientists, but to “water protectors,” fishermen, and others mystically in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms.

Today’s readings make us aware that (again, like a sleeping Jesus) we can still be shaken awake by the more insightful among us.

Then once awakened, we need to listen to the courageous Master’s voice shouting at us to overcome our paralysis and fear. We cannot depend on divine intervention, the improbably miraculous, or on some scientific deus ex machina that will suddenly save us.

Instead, accepting the principle of analogy, we need ourselves to seize the oars of what’s become our Lifeboat Earth and row mightily against the mountainous waves that will otherwise engulf and swallow all of us including our children and grandchildren.

God’s Kingdom is for Clowns, Comedians, Immigrants and Exiles

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.

Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.

Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.  

“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.

Joker

Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.

“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.

And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.

The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.

Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”  

Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”

Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.

In the Heights

Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”  It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.

True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.

That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community.  As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.

All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.

Today’s Readings

In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”

I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.

Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.

But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.

In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.

Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.

To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.

Exodus 17:22-24

After their liberation from Egypt
Runaway slaves
Understood the Great Parent
Promising
That they would flourish
Like a giant old-growth cedar
A fruitful and mighty home
For escaped jailbirds like them 
According to the wise plan
Inherent in Life’s Great Force.

Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16

We thank you, Almighty Parent,
For your kind and faithful care
Showered upon us 
From bright dawns  
Through fearful nights.
Your will is that 
We all flourish like palm trees
And Cedars of Lebanon
In a just New World Order
Where all enjoy vigorous health 
And long productive lives.
Thank you indeed.

2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10

Knowing all of that
Is a source of our great courage
Admittedly based upon  
Unprovable convictions
That we will one day
Live in the just world
Called “God’s Kingdom.”
Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment
That in following him,
We are advancing towards that end.

Mark 4: 26-34

Trailing the Master
At a confusing distance
We are like farmers
Who sow seeds
Knowing they will grow
But without understanding
Why or how.
It’s that way too
With God’s Kingdom
Which, it turns out,
Is more like a pesky weed
Than Moses’ mighty cedar.
Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant
Draws the same odd birds
To flourish in its shade.
(How’s that
For a head-scratching simile?)


Conclusion

So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.

Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?

Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.

We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.

Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.

If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.

Jeshua’s Peace Invites Tax Resistance

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

On April 4th, 1967, Martin Luther King famously called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” That was in his “Beyond Vietnam: a Time to Break Silence.” Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, it was perhaps his greatest, most courageous speech.  King’s words are worth reading again.

Time Magazine denounced him for it.

Despite the fact that U.S. soldiers had killed more than two million Vietnamese, (and would kill another million before the war’s end), King was excoriated as a traitor. Even the African-American community quickly distanced itself from their champion because of his strong words.

To this day, King’s speech is largely ignored as the daring truth-teller has been successfully transformed into a harmless dreamer – an achievement beyond the wildest dreams of the prophet’s arch-enemy, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover who considered King a communist.

One wonders what Rev. King would say about the U.S. today. For despite what the mainstream media tells us about ISIS, the U.S. remains exactly what Dr. King called it. It’s still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – even more so. By comparison, ISIS is a pacifist organization.

Face it: absent the United States, the world would surely be a much better place. Even President Obama identified the rise of ISIS (our contemporary bete noire) as the direct result of the unlawful and mendacious invasion of Iraq in 2003. That act of supreme aggression (in the U.N.’s terms) is alone responsible for the deaths of well more than one million people.

And this is not even to mention the fact that our country is fighting poor people throughout the world – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and who knows where else?  “Americans” claim the right to assassinate without trial anyone anywhere – even U.S. citizens – simply on suspicion of falling into the amorphous category of “terrorist.”

Can you imagine the terror any of us would experience if enemy drones constantly hovered overhead poised to strike family members or friends because some “pilot” six thousand miles away might judge one of our weddings to be a terrorist gathering? Can you imagine picking up the severed heads and scorched bodies of little children and their mothers for purposes of identification following such terrorist attacks? This is the reality of our day. Again by comparison ISIS beheadings are completely overshadowed.

I bring all of this up because of the Risen Lord’s insistence on peace in today’s gospel reading.  As in last week‘s episode about Doubting Thomas, the Risen Christ’s first words to his disciples breathless from their meeting with him on the Road to Emmaus are “Peace be with you.”

Last week in their own homilies about that greeting, I’m sure that pastors everywhere throughout our Great Country were quick to point out that the peace of Christ is not merely absence of war; it is about the interior peace that passes understanding.

Their observation was, of course, correct. However, reality in the belly of the beast – the world’s greatest purveyor of violence – suggests that such comfort is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a terrorist nation. Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that the peace of the risen Christ is not merely about peace of mind and spirit; IT IS ABOUT ABSENCE OF WAR.

So instead of comforting us, Jesus’ words of greeting should cut us to the heart. They should remind us of our obligation in faith to own our identity as the Peace Church Jesus’ words suggest. More specifically, as Christian tax payers (having performed the annual IRS ritual last week) we should be organizing a nation-wide tax resistance effort that refuses to pay the 40% of IRS levies that go to the military. While it is absolutely heroic for individuals to refuse, there is safety and strength in numbers.

So an ecumenical movement to transform Christian churches into a unified peace movement of tax resistance should start today. All of us need to write letters to Pope Francis begging him to call his constituency to tax resistance – to call the UN and the U.S. Congress to stop the aggression.

Once again: there can be no interior peace for terrorists. And Dr. King was right: Americans remain the world’s greatest terrorists. We are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

The Magisterium of Money within the Catholic Church – and Higher Consciousness Community

I came across two very disturbing pieces this morning (one written, the other a video) about faith in a time of chaos. The written article was an editorial in The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) by the paper’s former editor, Tom Roberts. It elaborated on a theme I dealt with here a number of months ago about a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church” by wealthy hedge funders, bankers, and business leaders.

According to Roberts, the wealthy’s buyout of the church is moving forward at an alarmingly rapid and efficient pace. And this to such an extent that the rich are on the brink of becoming the church’s “new magisterium.”

That is, their money and the media megaphones it buys are enabling them to override even the voice of Pope Francis and the teachings of the official magisterium about social justice and the gospel’s “preferential option for the poor.”

In place of those doctrines, the Magisterium of Money is centralizing issues that nowhere appear in the biblical tradition, viz., abortion, homophobia, free market economics, voter suppression, and Trumpian politics. It’s convincing Catholics that those unbiblical matters represent the heart of Catholic moral concern.  

The second disturbing piece that crossed my desk this morning was frighteningly related to the first. It too unwittingly affirmed the superiority of the viewpoint of the wealthy over that of the poor championed by the church’s social teaching. 

The affirmation took the form of a video invitation to join a course by Caroline Myss, described as “one of our greatest modern mystics.” Her course is called “The Mystical Truths Behind Radical Change.” The course’s trailer explained an image that is central to this particular mystic’s understanding of the spiritual life.

The human condition, Dr. Myss explained, can best be understood in terms of a stationary structure like the Empire State Building. Like those constructions, we’re all outwardly fixed and immobile in our settings. Internally, however, movement abounds. Elevators move us upward, even to penthouses high above the dirt, smells, and squalor that constitute the reality of those living on comparatively low rent ground floors.

For instance, from the top of the Empire State Building vistas of extraordinary beauty unfold. Squalor, noise, and disagreeable odors disappear. They’re replaced by antiseptic panoramic visions revealing the city’s order and splendor. Central Park, the Hudson River, clouds and even birds suddenly materialize. At night, the danger of Batman’s Gotham is replaced by a brightly lit, enchanted fairy kingdom called Manhattan.

According to Myss, her image represents the task of the spiritual life. It’s like taking an elevator to the top floor of our more modest (10 floor) stationary buildings. Spiritual development is about attaining a level of consciousness inaccessible from the ground floor.

I have no doubt about Dr. Myss’ good will and mystical acuity. And, at a certain level, I get her point about the need for “higher consciousness.” My fear, however, is that her image as well as her understanding of the spiritual life feeds into and supports the project of the Magisterium of Money. It implicitly contradicts Catholic Church social teachings and their preferential option for the poor.

Those teachings are based on the fundamental revelation (in a poor first century construction worker) that mystical awareness is developed primarily on the ground floor, among the street walkers, gang bangers, and garbage collectors. What some call “God” is found precisely in the ones invisible from the 10th floor, and even more so from urban penthouses. I’m talking about people like Jesus himself – harassed by the police and who end up in jail, in the torture chamber, and on death row.

In other words and according to the official Catholic magisterium, the spiritual life and “higher consciousness” is found precisely by descending from penthouses and fairy kingdoms to the stink, dirt and noise that cry out for the radical change Dr. Myss advocates and that the Magisterium of Money completely ignores.

Ironically (and as the Jesus event clearly teaches) “higher consciousness” remains inaccessible from the spiritual equivalent of penthouse perches and corner offices on Wall Street.  

Doubting Thomas: Our Twin (Jesus’ Twin!) in Denial

Readings for 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 5:12-16; Ps. 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Rev. 1: 9-11A, 12-13, 17-19; Jn. 20: 19-31.

The picture painted in today’s gospel story should be familiar to all of us. I say that not only because we have heard it again and again, but because it’s our story. It’s about a man in denial, the original doubting Thomas. Thomas’ nickname was “the twin.”

Whatever that meant originally, Thomas is undoubtedly our fraternal double in that he depicts our condition as would-be followers of Yeshua. Like Thomas we live in practical denial concerning the reality of Yeshua’s resurrection – about the possibility of a radically transformed life. Recall our twin’s story. Pray that it can be ours as well.

The disciples are there in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Yeshua the night before he died.  And they are all afraid. John says they are afraid of “the Jews.” However it seems they fear death more than anything else. They dread it because they are convinced that death spells the end of everything they hold dear – their ego-selves, families, friends, culture, and their small pleasures. Besides that, they are afraid of the pain that will accompany arrest – the isolation cells, the beatings, torture, the unending pain, and the final blow that will bring it all to a close. Surely they were questioning their stupidity in following that failed radical from Galilee.

So they lock the doors, huddle together and turn in on themselves.

Nevertheless, the very fears of the disciples and recent experience make them rehearse the events of their past few days. They recall the details: how Yeshua so bravely faced up to death and refused to divulge their names even after undergoing “the third degree” – beatings followed by the dreaded thorn crown, and finally by crucifixion. All the while, he remained silent refusing to name the names his Roman interrogators were looking for. He died protecting his friends. Yeshua was brave and loyal.

His students are overwhelmingly grateful for such a Teacher. . . .

Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst. Locks and fears were powerless to keep him out. They all see him. They speak with him. He addresses their fears directly. “Peace be with you,” he repeats three times. Yeshua eats with them just as he had the previous week. Suddenly his friends realize that death was not the end for the Teacher. He makes them understand that it is not the end for them either – nor for anyone else who risks life and limb for the kingdom of God. No doubt everyone present is overwhelmed with relief and intense joy.

“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.

Later on, Thomas arrives – our fraternal double in unfaith. His absence remains unexplained. Something had evidently called him away when the others evoked Jesus’ presence by their prayer, recollections, and sharing of bread and wine. Like us he hasn’t met the risen Lord.

“Jesus is alive,” they tell the Twin. “He’s alive in the realm of God. He took us all with him to that space for just a moment, and it was wonderful. Too bad you missed it, Thomas. None of the rules of this world apply where Yeshua took us. It was just like it was before he died. Don’t you remember? Yeshua brought us to a realm full of life and joy. Fear no longer seems as reasonable as it once did. He was here with us!”

However, Thomas remains unmoved. Like so many of us, he’s is a literalist, a downer. He’s an empiricist looking for the certainty of physical proof. Thomas is also a fatalist; he evidently believes that what you see is what you get. And for him there has been no indication that life can be any different from what his senses have always told him. Life is tragic. Death is stronger than life; it ends everything. And that means that Yeshua is gone forever. Who could be so naïve as to deny that?

Our twin in unfaith protests, “In the absence of physical proof to the contrary, I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith that another life is possible. And make no mistake: Yeshua’s enemies haven’t yet completed their bloody work. They’re after us too.”

Can’t you see Thomas glancing nervously behind him? “Are you sure those doors are locked?”

Then lightning strikes again. Yeshua suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. Locks and bolts, fear and terror – death itself – again prove powerless before him.

Yeshua is smiling. “Thomas, I missed you,” he says. “Look at my wounds. It’s me!”

Thomas’ face is bright red. Everyone’s looking at him. “My God, it is you,” he blurts out. “I’m so sorry I doubted.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yeshua assures. “You’re only human, and I know what that’s like, believe me. I too knew overwhelming doubt. Faith is hard. On death row, my senses told me that my Abba had abandoned me too. I almost gave up hope. It’s like I’m your twin.

“But then I decided to surrender. And I’m happy I did. My heart goes out to you, Thomas. My heart goes out to all doubters. I’ve been there.

“However, it’s those who can commit themselves to God’s promised future in the absence of physical proof that truly amaze and delight me. Imagine trusting life’s goodness and an unseen future with room for everyone when all the evidence tells you you’re wrong! Imagine trusting my word that much, when I almost caved in myself? That’s what I really admire!

“My prayer for you, Thomas, and for everyone else is that you’ll someday experience the joy that kind of faith brings.

Working for God’s Kingdom – for fullness of life for everyone – even in the face of contrary evidence – that’s what faith is all about. May it be yours.”

May it be ours!

Easter Reflection: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Resurrection

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti supplies the details.