Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53
Today, Christians throughout the western world celebrate the end of the Easter season with their commemoration of what their mythology calls “the Ascension of Jesus.” The midrash tells the story of Yeshua’s bodily removal from the earth and passage into the World of Light.
The readings for this Sunday are noteworthy because they reveal to the attentive eye a conflict that afflicts the Christian community to this day. It pits those who understand Yeshua as summoning his followers to actively resist empire in favor of a this-worldly Kingdom of God over against those who reduce the Master and his teaching to the other worldly irrelevance rejected by our children. In contemporary terms, it pits liberation theology against its more domesticated counterpart.
As such, today’s readings connect firmly with the struggle for justice throughout the Global South and particularly in Haiti.
Let me explain.
Haiti & Liberation Theology
I reference Haiti in particular because just last week the history of that long-troubled island was brought to our nation’s attention by a shocking series of articles in The New York Times. The series is called “The Ransom.”
Its articles detail how ever since Haiti’s black population successfully rebelled against the slave system imposed by France at the beginning of the 19th century, both France and the United States have been mercilessly punishing Haitians with unimaginable cruelty.
France even went so far as to force Haiti (under threat of invasion) to pay reparations to former French slaveholders for their lost “property.” Over more than 200 years, the reparations in question systematically devastated the Hattian economy. They’ve condemned the island’s inhabitants to more than two centuries of extreme, grinding poverty.
For Americans, the U.S. role in the tragedy is especially revealing. It uncovers a pattern of American imperialism that has caused similar devastation throughout the Global South. I’m speaking of regime change, alliances with local elites, and habitual support for dictators and generals with their harsh repression including practices of torture, disappearances, death squads, rigged elections, and lootings of national treasuries. That’s what the U.S. has always been about in the Global South.
If you don’t think so, just go to Wikipedia’s entry on “U.S. Regime Change Policies.” There you’ll find an astonishingly long list of such imperialistic interventions. In Haiti, interference like that saw the U.S. actually occupying the country from 1915 to 1934.
The exploitation at the hands of our country and France in turn gave rise to a decades long demand for reparations on the part of the island’s non-elite who didn’t get a democratically elected president until 1991. It was then that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, took office. As a liberation theologian, he promptly owned his faith’s prophetic tradition and gave voice to his country’s poor and their demands for reparations.
As documented by the Times series, the response of the United States was familiarly predictable. It involved the removal of Aristide from office in a coup that restored the rule of the island’s elite enforced by the brutal Tonton Macoute goon squads.
This is the way (despite the example of Yeshua himself) that those espousing their hero’s anti-imperialism have been treated throughout the history of the church. The Jewish prophets were killed one after another. Jesus himself was the victim of torture and a form of capital punishment (crucifixion) that the Romans reserved for insurgents. Most of his inner circle were martyred. And, of course, the persecution of Christians at the hands of Roman imperialists and their Colosseum lions is legendary.
Meanwhile, believers favoring an other-worldly understanding of their faith were embraced and rewarded (as they are today) by imperial powers.
I bring all of that up in an Ascension Day homily because today’s readings highlight the conflict just noted between followers of Yeshua of Nazareth who, like Fr. Aristide, see him as the defender of the poor and oppressed on the one hand and those who insist on kicking that poor Galilean construction worker upstairs on the other.
The former see Jesus as a messiah intent on replacing empire’s oppression with what he called “the Kingdom of God.” There the world’s order will be reversed. The rich are accursed. This tradition records Yeshua saying– “Woe to you rich, for you have already received your reward”/ “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God”)./ “If you will be a follower of mine sell what you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.” Meanwhile, the poor will “have the earth for their possession.”
Those who espouse the competing understanding of the Yeshua tradition (like most believers in the United States) find poverty, hunger, imperialism and its wars irrelevant. For them it’s all about life after death – being “saved” and avoiding eternal punishment in hell. For them, far from being the enemy of humankind, empire is somehow divinely ordained.
All of that is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word mixes each view with its alternative.
According to the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.
Moreover, Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead, he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.
Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So, the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.
The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Pseudo Paul (probably not Paul himself) tells his readers in Ephesus, that Yeshua is enthroned at the father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.
This is the story that emerged when writers pretending to be Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So, they gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the morality spiritual seekers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.
Empire has never liked prophets. Like its Roman counterpart, the U.S. version hates Jesus.
That’s why it vilified and couped Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. That’s why it killed those six liberation theologians in El Salvador. That’s why it raped and murdered those three nuns and their lay associate also in El Salvador. That’s why it joined with two anti-liberation theology popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) to crush liberation theology and the priests, nuns, catechists, activists, teachers, social workers, and union leaders influenced by liberation theology wherever it dared to raise its ugly (to them) head. The popes in question stood by silent as America and its allies killed as many liberationists as they could.
And all those reactionary forces have apparently succeeded – just as the Roman Empire and its biblical predecessors enjoyed apparent success in stamping out the prophetic tradition of the authentic Judeo-Christian tradition.
And by the way, that success in turn is why so many of our children have left behind an increasingly irrelevant version of Christianity that has no connection with a world shaped by the cruelty recounted in the NYT series.
To get a fuller picture of what I mean, please read “The Ransom” for yourself or at least view the “Democracy Now” segment at the head of this blog entry.
And please consider this homily a call to rethink your assessment of Yeshua and his Jewish prophetic tradition. It is more relevant and necessary than ever before for combatting the evils of imperialism.