U.S. Wars on Muslims Continue Even During CV-19 & BLM Uprisings

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8: 26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire. So, don’t be confused by the words Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth about an afterlife filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

No, today’s readings are much more relevant than that. They’re actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. They suggest that Americans withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East. (Need I remind us that even during the Covid-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter uprising, U.S. wars against Muslims continue unabated?)

At the same time, the day’s three parables attributed to Jesus also imply a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. Today, as the principal victims of (U.S.) imperialism, Muslims are the closest analogue to the Judeo-Christian understanding of “People of God.” So, all three readings call followers of Islam [which recognizes Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

Today’s Readings

To get my meaning, begin by considering my translations of today’s exceptionally beautiful readings. As usual, you’re advised to check the originals here to see if I’ve got them right:

Wisdom 13: 13, 16-19: Our Divine Mother loves all her creatures, even unbelievers. She condemns no one. Her love is the source of justice, easy forgiveness and of human courage. Consequently, the truly powerful on earth are also merciful, lenient, gentle and kind. None of us should worry about our “sins.” They are all forgiven.

Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16: Yes, our Divine Mother is good, understanding and kind. So, in time of trouble, we should feel confident asking for her help. She’s the One we’re all looking for. Deep down, we all want to be like her – forgiving, graceful, patient, gentle and faithful. At our profoundest level, we are!

Romans 8: 26-27: In fact, our Mother is there even for those who don’t know how to pray. Weak, painful groanings are enough. She knows what they mean. She knows we’re trying to do our best.

Matthew 13: 24-43: Our Mother’s world is like a garden sown with radiantly beautiful flowers of all kinds and colors. However, the spiritually unevolved sow weeds of hatred and violence to ruin that splendid paradise. Don’t resist them in kind. That only makes matters worse. Instead, just tend the flowers. Our compassionate Mother will do the rest. Her power is everywhere like yeast in a loaf of bread. That knowledge should give us courage to exercise similar gentle influence everywhere.

Jesus & Nonviolent Resistance

I hope you’re able to see the call to non-violence contained in those selections. They implicitly address all victims of aggression by Americans, today’s ruling empire. This means the selections are most relevant to the Muslim community and the question whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist their oppressors in kind – i.e. with extreme violence.

That is, Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause including land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

Conclusions for Muslims

How then are Muslims to respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ answer? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all, think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants, weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So, Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves in Rome’s “garden.” Be like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than ordinary Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

Conclusions for Christians

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or our Divine Mother?

What do you think?

From the Beatification of Pontius Pilate to the Sanctification of Donald Trump: Two Peas in a Pod

Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the one who owns casinos and strip clubs, who has been married three times and brags about sexually assaulting women. 

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a person whose policies favor the rich and punish the poor, who despises immigrants, advocates torture, and whose appetite for profit seems insatiable.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He himself was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the declared positions of virtually the entire Republican Party. They’re all imperialists. All of them are friends of the one percent. They all want to increase military spending — apparently without question or limit.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way. It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safehouse to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so, what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 87 years ago in Germany. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities and the trend among white evangelicals that impossibly transforms Donald Trump into a Christian hero. The imperialists Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler, and Mr. Trump all belong in the same anti-Christ category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
MAL 3: 19-20A

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

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

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

Let’s hope that we can.

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

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

How We Rich Exclude Ourselves from the Kingdom of God

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. 

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened today’s familiar gospel parable with the words “A pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence was like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all? Why would a tax collector?

Despite its shocking overtones, homilists generally domesticate this parable to make it reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

Crossan however says that there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised who are celebrated throughout today’s liturgy of the word. The parable and its supporting readings also explain why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God, which in Jesus’ understanding is never about life after death, but a this-worldly reality where God is king instead of Caesar.

Please give a listen to the readings. You can find them here. My “translations” run as follows:

 SIR 35: 1-14, 16-18
 
God’ justice reverses
The world’s preferential option
For the rich.
It is instead
Duly prejudiced
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
And affirms
Their rights
To speedy justice.
 
 
 
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
 
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
The brokenhearted
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
By oppressors
Whose names
Will soon
Be forgotten.
 
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
 
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
Even during
His rigged
Imperial trial
When his friends
Abandoned him.
Though exhausted
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
He nonetheless
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
Enabling him
To proclaim
God’s Kingdom
To everyone.
.
 
2 COR 5:19
 
God’s preferential
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
 
LK 18: 9-14
 
Jesus’ parable
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Taught that
Self-justifying
Conventional morality
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
Generous tithes,
Sexual purity,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Instead,
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
Requires nothing
But membership
In the group
Considered sinful
By us pharisees and
Our conventional morality.

To unpack those readings, first of all, think of the last one in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’ time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally, Pharisees were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer. Each reading is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However, all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with people of color – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto, the barrio or favela. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

Yes, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” among us are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So, today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It’s not even a celebration of imagined virtue on the part of the poor or about repentance. It rejects all such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God, about those who belong and about us who exclude ourselves.

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. I say that because, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Reza Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So, with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So, whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Candidate Marianne Williamson Reduces All Of Our Problems to One (Trinity Sunday Homily)

On this Trinity Sunday, Marianne Williamson’s basic approach to our national problems reminds me of traditional trinitarian doctrine. I mean, when I was a kid in catechism class, the mystery of the Holy Trinity seemed like one of those word-problems I found so difficult in arithmetic. I wondered, how can there be three divine persons in one God? Was it 3+ 1= 1? Or was it 3 ÷ 1 = 1? I was confused.

Williamson’s basic approach to politics presents a similar quandary. Her basic math problem is: How can we solve our myriad national problems? There seem to be so many. However, like what I heard in catechism class, her solution remains theological. But it goes like this 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 = One.

What she means is that we really have only a single problem. It’s extremely personal, but at the same time very political and highly theological. It’s our relationship with God (though we might with good reason reject that particular word as culturally debased). Williamson observes that (whatever name we might prefer) until we get our God-problem straightened out, all those other difficulties will continue to plague us and threaten our very survival.

That simple but profound spiritual insight is what distinguishes Williamson from other Democratic candidates for president. It’s that ecumenical, all-inclusive spirituality that separates her from Republican Christianists. Specifically, it calls us to profoundly correct our perception of reality from that of the “world” based on fear and greed to a divine perception based on love and compassion.

Think, for instance, about our endless political troubles. Internationally, they’re based on the conviction that we are surrounded by enemies radically different from us. They are so threatening that we must spend billions each day — yes, nearly $2 billion every 24 hours — to protect ourselves against the likes of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Yemen(!), ISIS, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and against immigrants and refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Domestically, politicians want us to think that we’re threatened not only by all those foreigners, immigrants and refugees, but by what the Clintons once termed “super-predators” who tend to be black or brown, by LGBTQQIA individuals, and by poor people in general. That’s why we end up imprisoning a greater percentage of our population than any other country — and that doesn’t even include the immigrants and refugees in our border concentration camps and baby jails, or those in the black sites (sic!) we maintain across the globe.

No wonder we anesthetize ourselves to forget it all. So, we consume drugs like guns, alcohol, pot, amphetamines, other pharmaceuticals, tobacco, our iPhones, pornography, spectator sports, snacking, comfort food, and TV binges. That’s quite a list, don’t you think? Each item creates its own problem in the personal and familial spheres. It’s a never-ending cycle of threat-fear-denial and escape. And it’s all-encompassing.

However, according to Williamson, all of that — the guns, wars, fear of “the other,” and narcotization of all sorts — are simply means of side-stepping our only real problem: God.

And that’s what’s centralized in today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The day’s readings call us to face the nature of God straight-on. And it has nothing to do with catechism math. Neither, according to today’s biblical selections, is God what we’ve been taught. God is not a judge, punisher, and torturer. Instead, the passages selected for this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity invite us to appreciate divine goodness and love for all of humankind, and to use those insights to reduce our countless problems to merely one.

Consider today’s readings. (Please read them for yourself here.) They describe for us the three-fold nature of the One we find so problematic. As depicted in the graphic above, she is Mother (Wisdom), Father (Creator), and Child (as revealed in Jesus the Christ). Here’s my “translation” of this Trinity Sunday’s readings specifically about the nature of God:

PRV 8:22-31

God as Wisdom Itself 
Is embodied in all the world.
As feminine and Mother
She is like a skilled craftswoman
Who set the very foundations of the earth
And shores of the seas
All in a spirit of playfulness
Finding special delight in the human race.

PS 8: 4-9

Which is amazingly loved 
By the Creator-Father
For whom
All human beings are like angels
Glorious and honorable
Caretakers and rulers of
Wild and domesticated animals
Birds and sea creatures
And whose traditions across the earth 
Have always recognized
And loved 
The Reality of God. 

ROM 5: 1-4

It is that universally-shared faith 
That gives human existence
Worth and value
Making possible 
Peace among nations
Giving us hope
But putting us at odds with “the world”
Which punishes us for our faith
(contradicting, as it does 
The world’s fear-full “wisdom”).
But the world’s opposition
Only strengthens
Our sensitivity to
The Holy Spirit of Jesus.

JN 16: 11-15

Who offers
A guiding vision of the future
Expressed in teachings
About humankind’s fundamental 
Unity with God
And each other.

Do you see how owning and interiorizing that single trinitarian vision of Mother, Father, and Child holds potential for dissolving our countless problems? The earth belongs to all of us who constitute a single family. Each angelic member is loved by God who as our Female-Male Parent has filled all with the very Spirit of Jesus. His fundamental teaching is to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self. That means we need to recognize that those whom we fear as enemies and foreigners are our very Self. Or, as Marianne Williamson puts it, “There is really only one of us here.”

According to Williamson, interiorizing that insight and expressing it in our personal, familial, social, spiritual and political lives would absolutely eliminate every single problem I listed earlier.

So how do we get from here to such problem-free existence? That’s where Williamson descends from the sublime to the nitty-gritty. Unlike some others who’ve qualified for the first presidential debate, she’s signed Cenk Uygur’s TYT Progressive Pledge. (You can sign it here.) Watch how she responds to Uygur’s questions:

Yes, I know, that sounds very similar to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. However, Marianne’s distinguishing edge is her insistence on calling for the change in spiritual consciousness that is necessary to effect redirection of U.S. policies. In that sense, she’s far more progressive than anyone else in the field.

Opponents and the media, of course, will smile and condescendingly pat her on the head and say, “Oh, that’s very sweet, Marianne, but quite naive. Your approach will never work in the dog-eat-dog world we live in.”

However, along with Jesus and countless others whom we profess to admire, Williamson reminds us that it is precisely the “world’s” patronizing approach that is not working. That “realism” has brought us to the brink of atomic, biological, climatic, demographic, and economic annihilation (and as Crossan says, that’s only up to “e” in the alphabet!).

What remains unimplemented on a broad scale is the explicitly spiritual approach of Jesus, Gandhi, of Quakers in the Abolitionist and Women’s Suffragist Movements, of the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, of Catholic priests like the Berrigan brothers, and of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers .

Along with today’s readings, all those spiritually inspired and deeply politicized figures agree with Marianne Williamson: We have only one problem; it’s about family; it’s about correcting our relationship with our Mother and Father in the Holy Trinity of which all humans are an integral part. Williamson is right: we have only one problem; there is really only one of us here. We are infinitely closer than brothers and sisters. Her presidency will move us towards a practical realization of that vision.

Marianne Williamson and War (Memorial Day Sunday Homily)

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 15: 1-2, 22-29; PS 67: 2-3, 5-6, 8; REV 21: 10-14, 22-23; JN 14: 23-29

It’s Memorial weekend already – the unofficial beginning of summer, 2019. As usual, it’s a day when our country celebrates war and its heroes. That’s simply the American way of commemorating every patriotic occasion.

Appropriately however, this weekend’s liturgy of the word introduces a note of dissent. It centralizes peace as the content of Jesus last will and testament. In so doing, it implicitly contrasts Jesus’ concept of peace with that of Rome or any empire for that matter. The Roman Tacitus described his country’s understanding with the famous aphorism: “They create a desert and call it peace.” For me, Tacitus’ description applies just as well to the United States.

With that in mind, it also seems appropriate to connect Memorial Day, the peace Jesus advocated and the presidential candidacy of Marianne Williamson. I say “appropriate” this time because Williamson is the only candidate in the crowded Democratic field who thematically centralizes the need for change of specifically spiritual consciousness about all things political – including matters of war and peace. Her attitude on those issues corresponds closely with that of Jesus as expressed in today’s Gospel reading.

Marianne Williamson and Peace

To begin with, Williamson is a harsh critic of the Pentagon and the policy of perpetual war into which our country has increasingly fallen since the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45) and especially since 9/11/01. 

In fewer than 100 years, she points out, the real driving force behind United States military posture has become the interests of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing and other defense contractors. That has Americans, for instance, buying one hundred B-21 stealth bombers each costing $550 million and each capable of carrying thermonuclear weapons. That’s $55 billion in total.

Such investment, Williamson says, is completely over-the-top. Why 100 planes of that type? At the very least, it all seems completely out-of-proportion to the danger posed by our perceived terrorist enemy. Terrorists belong to no particular state. Very often they are home-grown. In any case, their hit-and-run attacks cannot be effectively answered with wholesale bombing, much less with nuclear weapons. Williamson writes:

“America today is like the British Red Coats during the Revolutionary War – standing abreast in a straight line waiting for someone to yell ‘Fire!’ while American colonists were hiding behind trees like the early guerrilla fighters that they were. Our entire notion of national security is like something out of another century.”  

Instead of such waste and without neglecting legitimate defense concerns, Williamson calls for effective recognition of the soul force of peace building. She wants established a US Department of Peace that would make peace-creation a central goal of national policy, both foreign and domestic.  It would use resources like those now wasted on those B-21s to support diplomatic efforts with those currently villainized in order to justify purchase of overpriced weapons systems.

Peace building would reconstruct the cities that US policy has destroyed. It would support educational opportunities for children, expand economic prospects for women, and in general alleviate human suffering across the planet. “That would be the moral thing to do,” Williamson says. “That would be the loving thing to do. And that would be the smart thing to do.” In summary she says, “The best way to create a more peaceful world is to treat people with greater compassion.”

Jesus and Peace

Williamson’s approach to peace-building is in sync with Jesus last will and testament expressed in today’s liturgy of the word. There he says: My peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. Not as the world (meaning Rome) gives, do I give.”

Jesus words and ultimate fate remind us that Rome’s policies created terrorists no less predictably than our own country’s way of creating “peace.” It led the empire to identify Jesus as a terrorist and execute him accordingly.

Jesus, I’m sure, must have hated Rome. Like all his Jewish contemporaries, he must have despised Rome’s imperial presence in Palestine – especially since it was headed by a man who considered himself God, Savior, Lord, and Prince of Peace. Scholars remind us that empire was the most significant factor shaping Jesus’ life. We know for a fact that he opposed it vigorously – especially its local collaborators personified in the Jewish high priesthood of his day, along with the scribes, Pharisees and Jewish high court. However, his resistance was non-violent.

Yes, Jesus’ peace is not what the world calls peace. It’s not Roman peace which was imposed by means of war. Rome’s, like the Pentagon’s, was peace through victory – always supported by Roman religion. In fact, as scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan, puts it in God and Empire: Jesus against Rome then and now, the exact sequence was religion – war – victory – peace. Sound familiar?

By contrast, the peace Jesus bequeathed had nothing to do with Rome or empire in general. His peace is brought not by victory, but by justice – especially for the poor. His was not peace through victory, but peace through justice. As I noted last week, that point was made in the programmatic sermon the Master gave in Nazareth at the beginning of his public life. These are the words with which he described his very purpose: “The Spirit of the Lord in on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (LK 4: 17-19).

Jesus was about serving the poor, releasing the imprisoned, caring for the disabled, liberating the enslaved, and ending debt servitude. His peace had nothing to do with victory as the world understands it – as Rome understood it or as the United States does. The sequence of Jesus’ gift to the world was religion – nonviolence – justice – peace.

Conclusion

And that’s what Marianne Williamson’s national defense program is about as well. It entails a spiritual conversion that takes its cue as well from Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. It also takes heed of Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Williamson’s program would:

  • Have our country live within its means
  • Emphasize peace building rather than war-making
  • Rather than bombs and drones, it would rain down rebuilt homes, schools, hospitals, factories, temples, mosques and churches on the enemies created by our imperial philosophy of peace through victory   

And to those who say that all of that won’t work or that it’s totally unrealistic, Williamson is fond of responding, “And how’s that realism working out for you?” In fact, it’s creating more terrorists and mayhem while simultaneously destroying the planet.

We’ve got to try something different. And that means national spiritual conversion. It’s in that call for repentance, transformation and restorative justice that the campaigns of Jesus and Marianne Williamson coincide. And that coincidence has nothing to do with memorializing, much less glorifying our country’s ceaseless imperial wars.

(By the way, Marianne has not only achieved the 65,000 unique donors required for her to appear in the debates with other presidential candidates. As well, she has surpassed the minimum 1% support in 3 separate national polls. Nate Silver has identified her as a major candidate.)

Why I’m Supporting Marianne Williamson’s Run for President

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11 32.

Recently, two very good friends challenged me about supporting Marianne Williamson’s run for president. “She has no chance,” they objected. “You should be supporting Bernie instead.”

Their remarks coupled with today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son have prompted me to explain myself. The parable particularly as re-created by the French Nobel laureate, Andre Gide, is about a person like Marianne Williamson who eventually identified and escaped the oppressive reality we all take as normal. In Gide’s interpretation, Jesus’ parable is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

So, today I want to describe what we might call the “deep politics” of Marianne Williamson. After all, it’s her spirituality (her deep politics) that first drew me to support her candidacy. Because of her more than 30 years of work as a spiritual teacher, we can know her more deeply than any other presidential candidate. And that’s important. Our interior lives – our thoughts and values – are finally shaped by our relationship with what we consider ultimately important. They are shaped by what some of us term “God.”

So, let me first talk about Marianne’s deep politics and then connect it with Gide’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son.

To begin with, I’m supporting Marianne Williamson because she represents the most radical candidate in the field “of thousands,” as she often jokes. Using the term “radical” here, I’m referring to its etymological meaning which derives from the Latin word radix meaning “root.”

Alone in the crowded field of Democratic candidates Marianne puts her finger on what’s really ailing our nation. It’s not primarily an economic or military problem. No, at root, it’s a deeply spiritual malady. Yes, ours is a spiritual problem!

The problem is that rather than “free and brave,” we’re all scared out of our wits. We subscribe to values that are 180 degrees opposed to those identified as ultimate by all the world’s great wisdom traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheistic. At their deepest level, all of those traditions converge identifying compassion rather than fear as the supreme human value.

Ms. Williamson says it clearly: fear (which is the opposite of compassion) has us captive. Fear has us identifying Russians, Chinese, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBT community members, poor people in general, and even (at our borders) children and babies as somehow our enemies fundamentally unlike us and threatening us at every turn.

None of that is true, Marianne says. It’s quite the opposite. All of us have far more in common than anything that can possibly separate us. In fact – as she puts it – “There is really only one of us here.” We are not only sisters and brothers, we are really a single person. What I do to you, I do to myself.

That’s really the authentic teaching of Jesus, isn’t it? That’s the meaning of his words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love our neighbor because our neighbor is our self.

As Williamson explains, that conviction is what moved the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights campaigners and many who brought the Vietnam War to an end. It’s no accident, she says, that so many of the abolitionists and suffragettes were Quakers, that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, and that anti-war activists like the Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests. Those are the great heroes of the land we call “America.” Like Marianne herself, they all recognized our fundamentally spiritual nature.

So, none of us should say all of this is too idealistic. Instead, we should realize that, in effect, Marianne Williamson is challenging Americans to live up to their faith claims. After all, 70% of us claim to be Christian. Then there are the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists I already mentioned, as well as atheists and those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” As I said, all of those traditions, at their most profound level, converge in calls to liberty, equality, and fraternity.

And that brings me to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and its connection with Marianne Williamson’s deep politics. In what I’m about to say, I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about JesusThere, Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

Crossan asks, what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and leaving home for good?

Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there. (Are you hearing overtones of Plato’s parable?)

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him.

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns me to Marianne Williamson, and how in these pivotal times she has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable and calls the rest of us to go over the wall with her – to escape Plato’s cave and pass into the “other world” that is possible if only we take seriously the spiritual teachings of the world’s great traditions. Making that transition, she says, means becoming economically literate, re-learning American history, and internalizing what used to be called “Civics.”

So, don’t expect Ms. Williamson to directly invoke her spirituality during her presidential campaign. She’s won’t stump as some kind of preacher or moralist like Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee. Unlike those other two, Marianne is no come-lately to political analysis and policy recommendations. In fact, twenty years ago in her prescientHealing the Soul of America, she predicted the crisis we’re now experiencing in the person of Donald Trump. No, Williamson will stick to her policy positions – Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college-debt forgiveness, raising the minimum wage, drastically reducing the inflated military budget, making reparations for slavery, and establishing a cabinet-level secretariat for children and youth.

But aren’t those what (since Bernie) have become the standard positions of progressive Democrats? Of course, they are. But in Marianne’s case, such positions are grounded in a vision honed and sharpened over more than 30 years of forging connections between her deep spirituality and her deep politics.

And that personal reality, that long-term genuineness is precisely what’s required for our world to abandon the destructive reality of business-as-usual – to go over the wall of our father’s compound, to leave Plato’s Cave.

The very profundity of her “deep politics” is precisely why I’m supporting the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. If you’re similarly intrigued, and want to hear her voice in the Democratic debates, please go here and contribute at least $1.00. She needs 65,000 donors to be included.

Following Jesus Means Resisting U.S. Empire: It Means Risking Jail, Torture & Execution

Imperial Bombs

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

Presently, I’m reading again John Dominic Crossan’s brilliant book on Jesus’ resistance to empire. It’s called God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. As described on its jacket, the book’s thesis is that “at the heart of the bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America.”

Since it is about empire, this Sunday’s Gospel selection is directly related to Crossan’s thesis. In fact, the selection addresses Jesus’ non-violent and hugely ignored resistance to Rome. It includes his call for us to join him in resisting empire’s inherent evil, while nevertheless refusing to employ violence in doing so.

Though most who preach this week probably won’t say so, that’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the anti-imperial “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers oppose empire non-violently no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with the man, and in effect tells Peter to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”)

Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand on the one hand who Peter is, and on the other the claimed identity of Jesus.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of armed violence.

What I’m pointing out is that many scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers.

Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However, his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear. Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.” (That’s what “messiah” meant for first century Jews.)

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) As today’s text shows, his primary identification was not with “messiah,” but with a particular understanding of the “Son of Man.” The latter is a figure taken from the Book of Daniel which was written in resistance to the Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek sovereign who oppressed the Jews in the 2nd century BCE.

Daniel presents the Son of Man (or the Human One as some translate it) as the opponent and conqueror of all Israel’s oppressors from the Babylonians, through the Medes, Persians and Greeks. However, as Crossan and others show, Jesus’ opposition to empire remained non-violent.

Jesus reveals this crucial distinction, for instance, in the full form of his famous declaration before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (JN 18:36). In its complete form, the quotation runs, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. These words contrast the nature of Jesus’ non-violent kingdom founded on justice with that of Pilate’s extremely violent Rome founded on injustice.

So, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter might be translated: “Look, like you and the Human One Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as any good Jew. However, unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing my Roman brothers and sisters who share our humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans will actually end up torturing and killing me! But I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant.

[Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.]

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute. So, he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to join him in non-violent resistance to empire. Despite Peter’s remonstrances, the Master doubles down on his call to such activism. He says unequivocally that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. (Remember that the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So, Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.)

What can that mean for us today, when so many of our politicians and their cheerleaders proudly embrace U.S. identity as the latest most powerful incarnation of Roman dominance?

Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and our church communities.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.” Simply put: we’re not living in the greatest country in the world. Instead, we are living in the belly of a brutal imperial beast.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the inevitable “prophetic script” that Jesus foresees, then our claim to follow him has consequences.

It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie, Berta Cáceres and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we too must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for our church communities here in the beast’s belly. They mean we must come to terms with the fact that circumstances have changed here over the last 17 years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, pepper sprayed, tear gassed, jailed, or even (especially if we are not white) murdered by out-of-control police forces. We risk going to jail and all that suggests.

The question is, are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard questions and challenges. And surely, we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though, I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom of God.”

You probably won’t hear that from the pulpit this morning.

On Joining John the Baptist in Rebellion against the Religious Establishment – and Trumpism (Sunday Homily)

dangerous

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12

“The meaning of the Incarnation is this: In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets. And preparing for that is the meaning of Advent.” (Jim Wallis. “Advent in 2016: Not Normal, Not Now, Not to Come.”)

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A few days ago I published a review of James Patterson’s novel, Woman of God. It’s the story of Brigid Fitzgerald, a medical doctor who though female, becomes a priest and candidate for the papacy.

Brigid and her husband (also a dissident priest) decide to form their own Catholic parish. They do so because of the studied irrelevance of the Catholic Church to pressing problems of the real world. The two call their congregation the “Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Church.” They insist on remaining Catholics not allowing their opponents to drum them out of the church as just another break-away Protestant sect.

The JMJ Church spreads rapidly, largely because it connects Jesus’ Gospel with issues of peace and social justice. And though vilified by her local bishop and physically threatened by right wing Catholics, Brigid eventually becomes widely celebrated and is summoned to Rome not for condemnation, but papal approval.

I couldn’t help thinking of Woman of God as I read today’s liturgy of the word this Second Sunday of Advent. Like the JMJ Church, the first two readings along with the responsorial psalm emphasize the connection between faith and social justice.

Then in today’s Gospel, the prophet, John the Baptist, like Brigid Fitzgerald, initiates an alternative community of faith far from the temple in the desert wilderness. John’s credibility leads “all Jerusalem and Judea” to see him as a prophet. In fact, (as John Dominic Crossan has pointed out) John becomes for the Jewish grassroots their de facto alternative “High Priest.”

To see what I mean, consider that first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It directly links faith with justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalized. In Isaiah’s day (like our own) they were typically ignored. By way of contrast, Isaiah’s concept of justice consists precisely in judging the poor and oppressed fairly and not according to anti-poor prejudice – in Isaiah’s words, not by “appearance or hearsay.”  (A clearer statement against contemporary police and/or government profiling can hardly be imagined.)

Not only that, but according to the prophet, treating the poor justly is the key to peace between humans and with nature. Centralizing their needs rather than those of the rich produces a utopian wonderland where all of us live in complete harmony with nature and with other human beings. In Isaiah’s poetic reality, lions, lambs, and calves play together. Leopards and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes experience no threat from each other. (This is the prophetic vision of the relationship between humans and nature – not exploitation and destruction, but harmony and mutual respect.)

Most surprising of all, even believers (Jews) and non-believers (gentiles) are at peace. Today’s excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seconds this point. He tells his correspondents to “welcome one another” – including gentiles – i.e. those the Jewish community normally considered enemies. (That would be like telling us today to welcome Muslims as brothers and sisters whom God loves as much as any of us.)

Today’s responsorial psalm reinforces the idea of peace flowing from justice meted out to the “least.” As Psalm 72 was sung, we all responded, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And again, the justice in question has the poor as its object. The psalmist praises a God and a government (king) who “rescue the poor and afflicted when they cry out” – who “save the lives of the poor.”

In his own time, the lack of the justice celebrated in today’s first three readings infuriates Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. His disgust forces him out of the temple and into the desert. It has him excoriating the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers.”

Unmistakably clothed as a prophet – in garments that absolutely repudiate the “sacred garb” of his effete opponents – John lambasts the Scribal Establishment which had normalized relationships with the brutal occupation forces of Rome. As opposition high priest, John promises a religious renewal that will lead to a new Exodus – this time from the power of Rome and its religious collaborators.

I hope you can see as I do the parallels between the context of John’s preaching and our own. We live in a culture where those in charge contravene our faith by openly slandering the poor and marginalized celebrated in today’s readings as especially dear to God. I mean since November 8th, all the levers of power (the presidency, the Supreme Court, the House and Senate) find themselves in the hands of billionaires and their friends – the 1% that the Occupy Movement identified so accurately five years ago. Ironically that richest 1% has succeeded in scapegoating the country’s poorest 1% (immigrants) as a major cause of our country’s problems. Moreover, they equally vilify other poor and marginalized people: the impoverished in general, brown and black-skinned people, women, the LGBTQ community, environmentalists, protestors and anyone who exposes the crimes of the billionaire class.

As a result, we are about to enter a period of unprecedented national darkness that promises to rival that of Germany, 1933-1945. For at least the next four years our country will be controlled by an organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world.”

More dangerous than the Nazis? Yes, Chomsky insists. Hitler did not have the power to destroy the planet by nuclear war. Hitler ruled Germany before climate change threatened innumerable species, Mother Earth herself, and continued human existence. And yet the entire Republican Party denies that the problem even exists! Yes, it is the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

And despite all of that, there’s not a peep about it from the pulpit. People keep going to Mass as though the most important upcoming event is the arrival of St. Nicholas at the parish potluck – or the Christmas bazaar.

So what should we do in the face of such disconnect?

How about following the example of John the Baptist, Brigid Fitzgerald and her husband?

This would entail:

  • Admitting that present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of anti-poor climate change deniers.
  • Publicly moving out of our local church building.
  • Perhaps, opening a store front JMJ Catholic church on the Main Street Jim Wallis referred to in his article referenced above.
  • Inviting former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publishing the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meeting in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empowering faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gathering in the storefront on Wednesday evenings for prayer and to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.
  • Using those premises as a sanctuary for the bottom 1% threatened by ICE and police.

Objectors will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections John the Baptist might reply:

  • “I had no official authority to start my desert community of resistance and reform. In fact, I was identified by the authorities as an enemy of the state. Eventually they cut off my head. So don’t expect approval.”
  • Reform from within? “I gave up on that early on. So did my cousin, Jesus. Both of us operated outside the temple system which we criticized harshly.”
  • Division in our faith communities? “That didn’t bother me either. Can you get much more divisive or polarizing than calling religious leaders a ‘brood of vipers’?”
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? “The spiritual masters in my Essene community convinced me that prayer and meditation are essential elements undergirding prophetic action. However, pietism is useless unless it leads to the kind of witness I gave and risk I took on the banks of the Jordan.”
  • Too old? “Again, my Essene mysticism would not permit me to identify with the physical as if I were primarily a body with a soul. The truth is that we are first of all ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Hell, the elders criticized me for being too young to oppose them. I was barely 30 when they killed me.”

Again, as Jim Wallis has intimated, the specter of John the Baptist should haunt us this second Sunday of Advent, and drive our faith communities onto Main Street. These unprecedented times call for radical response outside the sacred precincts and independent of the sleepwalkers awaiting the arrival of St. Nicholas.