Border Reality in Tijuana: Horror, Heartbreak – and Heroism

Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 4: 12-23

In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to report on my rich but heartrending experiences in Tijuana Mexico where I’m volunteering for a legal services group, Al Otro Lado (AOL). We offer professional counseling and support to refugees at our country’s heaviest border crossing here in Baja California. For someone in his 80th year, workdays here have been incredibly busy, very exhausting, but also extremely rewarding.

I mean, who wouldn’t be edified to witness the example of heroic but impoverished fathers and mothers AOL counsels each day. Their love for their children is so powerful that it has driven them to leave the homes and countries they love and actually walk hundreds of miles to what they imagine will be safer conditions for their little ones? (How desperate do you have to be to do that?!) It’s like the mythic journeys celebrated in some of the greatest stories human beings have ever produced.  

And yet, whose heart wouldn’t be broken to realize that helping these heroines and heroes fill out reams and reams of invasive forms and questionnaires will in most case lead nowhere but back to their original unbearable circumstances? That’s because the heartless Trump administration is doing everything in its power to thwart the dreams of these mythic champions.

Refugee Testimony

To be more specific, here’s what I’ve been told over the past two weeks while taking testimony from refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (What follows is virtually in the refugees own words.) See if you find them as distressing as I have:

  • My country (e.g. Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Haiti) is controlled by drug cartels created by the U.S. so-called “war on drugs.”
  • Small business owners in my barrio must offer the gangs protection money or otherwise cooperate with them – either that or suffer horrific consequences.
  • They try to get the rest of us to pay “war taxes” and/or to transport or distribute drugs.
  • For refusing to do so, my father (and/or a brother, or uncle) has been murdered. They’ve beat me up too. They almost stabbed me to death. They’ve burnt down our family’s house.
  • And the gangs are currently threatening to kill me and remaining members of my family if we don’t give in.
  • I can’t move elsewhere in my country to escape all of this, because the gangs are everywhere. They’ve followed me to the border, made threatening phone calls, parked prominently outside my place of work. They always seem to know where I live.
  • Moreover, it doesn’t help to go to the police. They either fear the gangs or cooperate with them. We’re all afraid of the police; they are so corrupt and unhelpful.
  • I’m desperate, so I and my family have walked across three countries to get here.

Women hovering over young children, clinging infants, and adorable babies report:

  • I’ve been a victim of domestic violence for years.
  • My husband who’s alcoholic regularly beats me and my children.
  • Since I left him, there’s been no escape; he stalks me wherever I go.
  • I can’t live like this anymore.
  • I’ve got to get as far away from this man as possible.

To repeat: those are the stories all us volunteers for AOL hear each day. I bring them up today because they turn out to be intimately connected with the liturgical readings for this third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Those selections offer encouragement to our mythic heroes, because their stories are quite like those of 6th century (BCE) Jews reflected in today’s first reading as well as of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s gospel selection. In fact, heroes’ journeys, exile, and refugeeism turn out to be prominent recurring biblical themes. Think about it.

Biblical Parallels

Consider for example today’s first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It celebrates Israel’s homecoming after a 50-year exile in Babylon (modern Iraq). It was then that their leaders had been forced to emigrate from Israel to Babylon. In other words, they were victims of wholesale kidnapping when Babylon’s rulers desired to prevent uprisings in the land they had just conquered and occupied. So, like our clients here in Tijuana, the removed ones became victims of heartless force and violence back home.

And then in the Gospel (500 years later), we find John the Baptist and Jesus similarly victimized by regimes almost as ruthless as the Trump administration. Today’s gospel reading focuses on Jesus himself becoming a political refugee for the second time. [Remember that first time in Matthew’s “infancy narratives,” when he and his parents sought expatriate status in Egypt to escape wholesale state infanticide (MT 2:13-23)?]

This time, that same King Herod has arrested Jesus’ mentor, the outspoken John the Baptizer. (The king would shortly have him beheaded.) And that in turn forces Jesus, as John’s protege, to go underground. So, the young teacher flees for refuge specifically among non-Jews in the Gentile region of Zebulon and Naphtali in eastern Galilee.

Significantly, that entire territory constituted a rebellious district and a hotbed of revolution. As such, it was largely out of Herod’s control. (To some extent, the king had only himself to blame for that, because it was in Zebulon and Naphtali that he had forcefully resettled migrants, non-Jews, and the poor.) In any case, Jesus finds comparative safety in that mixed context of foreigners, rebels and refugees.

Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ semi-clandestine status didn’t silence him. Instead, he simply took up where John had left off proclaiming their shared conviction that another non-imperialized world is possible. As a world without Caesars – as a world with room for everyone – Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what refugees and immigrants have always wanted.

What I’m trying to say is that here in Tijuana, AOL deals every day with refugees from violence pretty much like what’s portrayed in today’s biblical selections. Circumstances have forced most of them into exile every bit as effectively as 6th century (BCE) Jews were forced into Babylon. They are just as frightened as Jesus must have been when he fled to eastern Galilee to hide out in a district virtually ungovernable by the reigning King Herod.

Calling attention to the similarities between the stories of heroes at our southern border and those of Israel in general and of Jesus in particular should offer encouragement to both today’s refugees and those who work with them (like the AOL permanent volunteers I’ve found so inspiring). The message for everyone is “this too will pass.” In any case, here are my “translations” of the readings in question. You can find them here in their original form.

Today’s Readings (in Translation)

Isaiah 8:23-9:
Our long, alienated exile
Is finally over.
Anguish, darkness
Gloom and distress
Have been replaced                                       
By light, joy and merriment.
The burdens                                                   
Of foreign taskmasters
Have been lifted
Their instruments of torture,
Smashed.
It is time to celebrate.
 
Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14
Indeed, fear is gone
Removed by the Divine One
Who is Light, Salvation,
Refuge and Loveliness
The Source of
Bounty, courage, strength,
And life.
 
I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
For us, Yeshua
Is the wellspring
Of such delight
Despite Empire’s
Divide-and-conquer strategy.                        
So, as his followers
We should never
Split into petty factions
But stay united instead.
 
Matthew 4:23
Yes, embracing 
God’s Kingdom
Where disease                                               
Is banished –
Has us rejecting
The World’s division
Its insanity –
Its fundamental sickness.
 
Matthew 4: 12-23
That World even
Imprisoned John the Baptizer
And caused
Yeshua himself
To hide underground
Among anarchists.
Yet he never stopped
Insisting that                                      
Another world is possible
With room for everyone                    
Even persuading
Working class people
To leave behind
Job security
For its sake
With the added bonus
Of free health care
For everyone!

Conclusion

A key foundational principle of liberation theology is the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”

It means that since poor people stand on the same ground as the ones whose experience is centralized in the Bible, their interpretations of texts (hermeneutics) are probably more accurate than the readings of the non-poor and even of academics trained in biblical science. The poor and oppressed see elements of historical accounts, parables, and other literary forms that remain opaque to the rest of us.

The truth of that privilege has come home to me strongly since I began my stint two weeks ago here in Baja California. It has forced me to see the world through the eyes of the refugees our group accompanies each morning at the el Chaparral crossing.

So, when I considered this week’s liturgical readings from Isaiah and Matthew, I saw what I never saw before, though I was previously quite familiar with both passages. Today’s readings, I realized, are about escapees from persecution similar to what our refugees from Mexico and Central America have experienced.

In summary, Tijuana’s refugees are more authentically God’s people – God’s favorites – than the rest of us.

I thank the heroes I’ve met here in Baja California for teaching me that lesson. They are mythic giants indeed.

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)   

(Sunday Homily) Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Sisters and Brothers?

Islam

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30.

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
_____
Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
______
Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
_____

Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.

Jesus as Self-Hating Jew!

Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012713.cfm

Last week I published an editorial on my blog site that was picked up by the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://www.kentucky.com/2013/01/19/2482073/ky-voices-the-chosen-people-are.html) and by OpEdNews (http://www.opednews.com/articles/Unconditional-Support-for-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-130118-813.html.) It was about Chuck Hegel and the criticism he has endured from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and people like Elliot Abrams, the former Undersecretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration.

Hegel had been nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Obama. Abrams and the others had criticized the nominee for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and therefore unfit for the “Sec Def” position. Hegel’s critics were looking for “unconditional support” for Israel, and didn’t find it in President Obama’s candidate. Their criticism was so effective that Hegel has since been forced to apologize for his past criticisms of the Jewish-Zionist Lobby.

Many Christians probably felt vindicated by Hegel’s groveling before his Jewish critics. After all, they might reason, Israel is God’s Chosen People; they deserve unconditional support.

However, today’s liturgy of the word underlines the point I tried to make in my op-ed: the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed.

Biblically speaking, it is true that Israel did fit that profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). They were oppressed as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). Then, precisely as oppressed, they were the object of God’s special love and protection.

At Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in the law protection of people like them – slaves, widows,orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.

That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is recorded as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Bible) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. With Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful experience in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – eating rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.

Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews. When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue, it enraged his former neighbors. (Their response reminds me of Elliot Abrams and the AIPAC demanding “unconditional support” for Israel.)

By the way, did you notice the strangeness of the reading from Luke’s gospel today? It starts out with the very first verses of Luke, verses 1-4. There the evangelist announces his intention – to carefully draw on the oral traditions of eyewitnesses and present an orderly researched account of what Jesus said and did.

But then the reading suddenly jumps ahead to Luke chapter 4 and presents Jesus’ preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. That gives the impression that Jesus’ first significant act was that Nazareth sermon. Perhaps it was – since Luke’s “infancy narratives” belong more to the realm of poetic imagination than of history.

Today’s reading also leaves out the response of those who heard Jesus’ words in Nazareth. (And that’s where the theme of “chosen people” becomes relevant.) Verses 22-30 tell us that the Nazarenes were outraged by Jesus’ implied criticism of Jews and his openness to non-Jews. After all, he had charged that prophets like Elijah and Elisha found more receptivity to their work in Lebanon (Sidon) and Syria than they found among Jews in Israel.

“Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him. (Chuck Hegel is in good company!)

Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight? Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission. (The implication here is that anyone who brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind embodies the Spirit of God.)

Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.

Today’s readings are calling us to grow out of our nationalism that understands Jews or Americans as God’s favorites. They call us to become citizens of the world – or in Jesus’ words to be cured of our blindness.

He wants us to finally see, the readings suggest, that the Jews as such are not God’s people. Neither are Americans. In God’s eyes, (despite the protests of our politicians and talking heads) our country is not the greatest in the world. For in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American, Afghani, Iraqi or Cuban.

Instead, true followers of Christ recognize that our allegiance belongs to the Body of Christ. This means that our care should be showered on the widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, beggars, and social outcasts – LGBTQs, victims of AIDS, mothers on welfare, and on Mother Earth herself. These are the poor and oppressed. These are God’s people.

Our presence at this Eucharist represents our pledge to put the needs of those groups and individuals before our own.

Given the numbers of those who claim to be Christian, if we followed through on that pledge, how drastically different our world would be! Don’t you agree?

“Ephphatha” Be Opened (Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Recently Bill Moyers wrote an insightful column picked up by the alternative news and commentary website AlterNet. The article highlighted the clip from President Obama’s 2008 campaign speech we just watched (see immediately above).

Moyers’ piece was about the invisibility of the poor in the United States. We can’t see them, he wrote, not because they’re not there; the numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. This year the number of Americans at or below that level is expected to reach 66 million. And they’re facing the prospect of an incoming government bent on shipping jobs abroad, cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicare as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of its elimination.

In the light of such prospects, Moyers asks Candidate Obama’s question, how can we allow this to happen? How especially, Moyers asks, can someone like President Obama allow this to happen?  After all, he should know better. He was a community organizer in Roseland, one of the poorest most despair-driven neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. In Dreams from My Father, Mr. Obama calls his work there “the best education I ever had.” The experience motivated him to attend Harvard to gain the knowledge and resources he needed to return to Roseland and make an even bigger difference than he did before. “I would learn power’s currency,” he wrote, “in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Since writing those words, Mr. Obama, of course, has become President. However since his election he has not given a single speech about poverty. It’s difficult to do so, his staff says. If you talk about the poor, the middle class says, Hey, what about us?  And the 1% who lay out fat campaign contributions say So what?

Today’s liturgy of the word, addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, the readings for today implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (Be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as God’s people reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including  Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and  James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world. This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to drop the “Hey what about us?” attitude Bill Moyers referenced and that keeps President Obama from addressing the issue of poverty. Poverty and God’s poor are biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, joining the “Occupy Movement,” or phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues” — not only to speak the truth about poverty (as President Obama did in 2007), but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”

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Don’t miss tomorrow’s third installment on Mary Magdalene: “The Magdalene Code”