Reflections for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jesus Becomes a “Low-life Scum”: So Should We!

leper

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 13: 1-2, 44-46; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 11; I COR 10: 31-11:1; MK 1 40-45.

“Get out of here, you low life scum!” Those were the words U.S. Senator, John McCain, shouted at protestors two weeks ago when they confronted Henry Kissinger as a “war criminal.” The 91-year-old ex-Secretary of State had been invited to give testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing.

Those are pretty strong words – and perhaps justified, you might think, depending on your political persuasions.

However the point of bringing them up here is to highlight the deeper significance of Jesus’ curing a leper in today’s gospel. In Jesus’ day, lepers appearing in public would have merited Senator McCain’s disdain. Anybody would have felt justified shouting at them, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.” After all, the reigning morality of the day considered lepers not only sick, but morally degenerate. They must have committed some terrible sin to bring the disease upon themselves.

Today’s readings invite us to reject such superstitions. They highlight the radical nature of Jesus’ act of actually touching a man afflicted with one of the ancient world’s most feared diseases. They invite us to identify with those our culture tells us are “unclean.”

Begin by considering today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus. It lays out the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law for dealing with skin diseases marked by “scabs, pustules and/or blotches.” Leviticus prescribes a priestly declaration designating the afflicted person as “unclean.” Thereafter “lepers” had to wear distinctive dress. They were forbidden to wear head covering that might disguise their affliction. They were to muffle their beards. If they happened upon apparently healthy people, lepers were to declare their status by shouting the warning, “unclean, unclean!” They were to be segregated from the community – banished “outside the camp.”

So in Israel’s ancient world, leprosy was painful physically, but even more so socially. Contracting the disease meant banishment from family, community, synagogue and temple. It made the diseased one “low-life scum” – totally ostracized. No one could touch a leper without themselves incurring the status of “unclean.”

However, today’s responsorial psalm says “no” to all of that. It reminds us that in God’s eyes, no one is scum.  God endorses no system of clean and unclean – no caste arrangement of insiders and outsiders. Instead, the psalmist has us singing, God wants only joy for the troubled. God takes away any fault, covers any sin, and completely removes guilt complexes. No room for ostracism there.

Lepers in Jesus’ day needed that kind of acceptance. (And so do we!) And complete acceptance is just what Jesus offers in today’s gospel. There he addresses not only a physical disease, but even more importantly the social ostracism and lack of compassion that the Master evidently found insufferable for anyone.

So just what is it that Jesus does?

A scum bag of a leper kneels before the working man from Nazareth. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” the poor man begs. The Compassionate Jesus is moved by the leper’s simplicity of faith. So he first gives him a healing touch.

But remember what I said about that: in doing so, Jesus deliberately contaminates himself! By that fateful act (right here in Chapter One of Mark’s Gospel) Jesus identifies with the lowest of the low in his culture. He makes himself an outsider. As a result, Mark informs us, Jesus afterwards could not enter any town openly. As “unclean,” he had to sneak around.

Jesus’ act of identification with “the least of the brethren” holds a powerful message for all of us. It invites us to embrace absolutely everyone as the Master did – even (and especially) those our culture rejects.

Remember how a few weeks ago, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, mourners carried placards proclaiming, “Je suis Charlie!” (I am Charlie!)? Remember how in Ferguson following the police shooting of Mike Brown six months ago, mourners carried signs saying, “I am Michael Brown!”? Well, Jesus’ example calls us to go even further.

It tells us that we are one not only with the persons with whom we agree, but even with those our culture (and personal prejudices) tells us are somehow “unclean.” So, yes, we might gladly say, “Je suis Charlie!” but we are also the killers who shot up the Charlie Hebdo office. We might be proud to say, “I am Mike Brown.” But we are also his killer, Officer Darren Wilson.

John McCain is somehow the same as those protestors he called “low-life scum.”

Please remember that today at our liturgy’s “kiss of peace.” The person beside you, behind or in front of you might be on a completely different page politically, socially, or even religiously. But Jesus says “touch them;” embrace them; recognize them as your brother and sister – as yourself!

Then continue doing that all week – and beyond.

Mike Rivage-Seul

February 10, 2015

 

Mike Rivage-Seul is a former priest who in 1972-’73 served St. Clare’s parish. A liberation theologian, Mike  has been a member of St. Clare’s since then. He taught at Berea College for 40 years and was co-founder of its Peace & Social Justice Program. He blogs at   https://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com

Respecting Hard Evidence: 9/11, Pearl Harbor, JFK, and Edward Snowden

New Pearl Harbor

Recently, I watched “September 11: The New Pearl Harbor.” That’s Massimo Mazzucco’s documentary that 9/11 scholar, David Ray Griffin, has called “the film we’ve been waiting for.” It’s available gratis on the web, and I recommend it highly.

The amount of evidence the film offers to discredit the official story of 9/11 is overwhelming. It comes from eyewitnesses, government officials, and experts on aviation and explosives. It comes from architects, engineers and others in the scientific community.

Similarly persuasive are the historical details and personal testimonies Mazzucco offers to discredit the official line about the Old Pearl Harbor of December 7th, 1941.They too come from eyewitnesses and a whole array of insiders. Together they debunk the notion that the attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii came as a surprise. Instead, the evidence shows that Franklin Roosevelt and others allowed Pearl Harbor to happen in order to justify U.S. entry into World War II.

In the face of such evidence, the refusals of our educational system, the mainstream media, and U.S. politicians to reopen investigations into both the new and the old Pearl Harbors are simply amazing.

It’s enough to make one recall similar refusals concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. Instead, the media, politicians, and educators allow to stand an explanation that literally has bullets changing direction in ways that defy the laws of physics. The official explanation holds even though expert riflemen have repeatedly found themselves unable to duplicate the alleged marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald using the alleged assassination weapon.

As I write such words, I can almost hear what’s going through some readers’ minds. “Oh, I get it. You’re another one of those ‘conspiracy theorists.’ I’m sorry, but I don’t find the ‘evidence’ you’re citing persuasive. As Americans, we and our leaders have higher standards.”

Really? Consider the following:

• In 2003, the U.S. government insisted on invading Iraq because of its possession of “weapons of mass destruction.” When inspectors couldn’t find those weapons, their failure was characterized by the Bush administration as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s evil genius. Hussein was so insidious, they claimed, that he was able to hide masses of chemical and other weapons from very aggressive inspectors. The administration used such non-evidence-as-evidence to justify an invasion and war that has taken more than a million lives of innocent Iraqis. What’s that you say about high standards of proof?

• Last September President Obama was on the point of bombing Syria for its use of chemical weapons against insurgents whose ranks include al-Qaeda, the arch enemy of “America.” The evidence justifying Obama’s attack remained secret. Beyond that, when asked for justification, only purely circumstantial proof was offered. The chemical weapons in question, we were told, required launchers available only to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This means that for Mr. Obama, secret evidence and circumstantial proof were sufficient to justify bombings that would kill hundreds, if not thousands or even hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians. And yet all those hundreds of serious, science-based questions about 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination remain . . . well, unanswered.

• Just last week, Senator John McCain of Arizona accused Edward Snowden of sharing U.S. secrets with Russia. “If you believe he didn’t, McCain said, “then you believe that pigs fly.” McCain’s incontrovertible evidence? Hmm. Maybe he thought his smart remark was enough. But we can’t be sure. He didn’t say. Perhaps he was going on his own experience when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Did he reveal U.S. secrets to the Vietnamese? How else could he act as both judge and jury, and make his flying pigs deduction with such certainty? Logic? Is his evidence stronger than that allegedly requiring a reinvestigation of 9/11?

That last question makes my point.

When it’s a question of attacking enemies, the flimsiest of reasons, the thinnest of connections, simple implications, logical deductions, illogical conclusions, and circumstantial evidence are enough to justify mass murder of the innocent.

Imagine if the proof against Saddam Hussein or al-Assad had risen to the level of that advanced by 9/11 scientists and other scholars. In that case, I’d wager there’s not a person in the world who wouldn’t recognize the guilt of Washington’s designated enemies. The proof would be so overwhelming.

My conclusions:

• “9/11: The New Pearl Harbor” is compulsory viewing for those with the courage to think for themselves.
• We shouldn’t buy any further wars unless their justification transcends the level represented in that film and ridiculed as merely “conspiratorial” by our government and pundits.
• That is, evidence should go beyond the detail offered in Mazzucco’s five hour documentary.
• Moreover, any reasoning legitimizing future wars should evoke comparisons with and questions about 9/11, the level evidence there, and the reasons for ignoring its questions about the official story.
• In effect, such demands would preclude said future wars. In fact, no war in recent memory has been based on anything like the evidence and reasoning marshaled in “9/11: The New Pearl Harbor.”
• Even more concretely, we should ask John McCain about the basis for his statement about Edward Snowden and then judge the weight of his evidence by comparing it with that offered in Mazzucco’s film.

Do you see what I mean? What do you think?

Muhammad: Cars, Burkas, Lechery, Pedophilia, and Gold-Digging

Women in Islam

(This is the fourth in a series on Islam as liberation theology and on Muhammad as a prophet for our times. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad, prophet for our times: London, Perennial Books, 2006.)

Have you noticed how champions of women’s liberation come out of the woodwork and suddenly materialize in the unlikeliest of places to justify wars against Muslims? After all, they argue, Sharia Law won’t even let women drive automobiles. How shocking! This contravenes (rich) women’s unalienable right to drive cars the same as men! Let’s go to war to liberate women!

And then there are those awful burkas and veils imposed by Islam. How cruel! Women should be allowed to wear mini-skirts and bikinis if they want. They should be allowed to coif themselves according to the West’s latest fashions, and to show their faces in public. Hell, if they want to be pole dancers, that’s their right! Those not recognizing it are worthy of death!

As we all know, such arguments have actually been used to mobilize support for wars in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. And they’ve often been advanced by Republicans who like Rush Limbaugh, otherwise despise Women’s Liberation movements, and ridicule feminists as Femi-Nazis. But if it means killing Muslims, GOP Tea Partiers are happy to display pink ribbons. Whatever. Or as a Great Man once put it, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . Bomb, bomb Iran

These are the same people, by the way, who downplay the seriousness of rape. They blame it on men’s “understandably” uncontrollable impulses in the presence of women “provocatively” attired. After all women’s bodies are so programmed that pregnancy hardly ever results from rape. Or as another Great Man once said, “When rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.”

Can you spell “hypocrisy?”

Actually, according to Karen Armstrong, burkas, driving prohibitions, and veils have little to do with the Holy Qur’an and the spirit of the prophet Muhammad. Armstrong argues that he was a champion of women far ahead of his time. In general, women recognized in Muhammad a prophet on their side. In the face of cultural prohibitions, he allowed his wives to express their opinions freely and even to confront and disagree with him in front of others.

Muhammad also advocated complete equality of the sexes, with men and women sharing the same duties and responsibilities. Women were no longer to be treated as property bequeathed from one male to another. They could inherit estates, initiate divorce suits, and hang on to their dowries even following dissolution of marriage. As a result of such revolutionary teachings, women located themselves prominently among the prophet’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers.

Still, however, the western enemies of Islam insist on vilifying Muhammad as a lecher, pedophile, and gold digger. But these accusations turn out to be invidious calumnies. They stem from a failure to appreciate Arab culture 1400 years ago. It was an ethos that encouraged polygamy, just as had been the case among Israel’s patriarchs like Abraham and kings like David and Solomon.

In particular, Arab custom recommended the incorporation of vulnerable widows into the harems of those who could afford them, in order to protect the women from starvation and abuse. Additionally, treaties between tribes and nations were customarily sealed by marriage – again just as they had been in the culture of ancient Israel as described in the Hebrew Testament.

Acting in accord with such norms, Muhammad eventually assembled his own harem which came to include “child brides.” These were often part of the treaties just referenced. In such cases, cohabitation was postponed until the bride’s coming of age.

As for “gold-digging,” this accusation stems from Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija, a distant relative who as a widow inherited a fortune from her first husband. She was a shrewd trader and employed a twenty-five year old Muhammad as one of her traveling merchants. This eventually led to a proposal of marriage on the part of the older woman. Muhammad accepted.

However, far from providing evidence of gold-digging on the prophet’s part, the history of the subsequent union offers ample proof of sincere love and respect between Muhammad and Khadija. She became his principal confidant as his revelations began to unfold. She encouraged him when they ceased for over two years. Following Khadija’s death, Muhammad continually upset his other wives by regularly singing her praises in their presence.

No, like other calumnies uttered against Muhammad and Islam, the ones about his repression of women contradict a reality that runs in quite the opposite direction.

It was men whose patriarchal instincts caused them to resist Muhammad’s leadership in this field. It was men who following Muhammad’s death interpreted one of the Qur’an’s surahs as requiring women to be segregated and veiled in public.

The surah in question (Number 33) was spoken by Muhammad during the reception following one of his late marriages. There some of his enemies acted passive-aggressively by overstaying their welcome, speaking disrespectfully to Muhammad’s wives, and generally preventing the newly weds from retiring for the night.

In response, after admonishing his guests about good manners, Muhammad gave Surah 33 the following expression:

“And as for the Prophet’s wives, whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen; this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.”

It was not until three generations after the prophet’s death that those controversial words were used to justify the veiling and segregation of Muslim women in general, as though they applied to all of them and not just to Muhammad’s wives.

Still even those late interpretations are understandable in the light of threats to Muslim culture, including those of our own day. As Karen Armstrong puts it,

“In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab (veiling) has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah (community) from the threat of the West (170).” (Parenthetical translations my addition)

In other words, Muslims are not blind. They see clearly the disrespect, abuse, and violence to which western women are routinely subjected. Evidently, it’s their judgment that such repression and negativity can best be avoided by eschewing mini-skirts, bikinis, fashionable hairdos, pole dancing, and even driving.

As another Great Man has said, “Who are we to judge?”