Don’t Listen to Blinken: China’s System Is More Just Than Ours

Readings for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 25: 4-9, I Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20.

The liturgical readings for this Sunday are about designated enemies often being readier to recognize and respond to divine wisdom than are believers who consider themselves God’s People.

Accordingly, the selections present the mind-blowing discovery of the reluctant chauvinist prophet Jonah (he of belly-of-the-whale fame) alongside the habitual people-centered attitude of the courageous universalist prophet Yeshua the Christ. Together, the readings’ call is to open ourselves to the wisdom and goodness of despised foreigners and the non-elite.

That theme (explained below) reminds me of China and its bipartisan vilification by U.S. politicians and mainstream media. Like the Ninevites in today’s first reading, China has gradually and unquestionably become the enemy du jour as described not only by outgoing Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo but by his incoming counterpart, Antony Blinken.

The Case of China

Like Jonah’s assessment of Nineveh, neither can say a good word about China, even though (according to western polls) its government enjoys something like 90% approval by the Chinese people. (Furthermore, according to Dorinda Elliot of the China Institute, rather than diminishing its popularity, the government’s success in dealing with Covid-19 has made it more popular than ever.)  

Still, on his way out the State Department door, Mr. Pompeo denounced China not only for stealing western intellectual property, but for its policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in its western Xinjiang region. According to Pompeo, those policies constitute “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.”   

In his testimony before the U.S. Senate, Antony Blinken fully agreed with Pompeo’s assessment. Both painted China as an enemy rather than a hugely successful competitor with whom our country might well cooperate and from whom we might learn. Relative to crimes against humanity, both Pompeo and Blinken ignore the facts that their own country’s policies:

  • Continue to kill Muslims every day in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia
  • Imprison and torture them in Guantanamo and other black sites
  • Have done so for nearly 20 years
  • While maintaining concentration camps and baby jails for immigrants and asylum seekers on its southern border.

Despite all of that, Mr. Blinken had the temerity to criticize China’s use of reeducation camps as its particular method of dealing with Muslim terrorist threats rather than “our” method of endless wars, bombings and drone strikes. (In Iraq’s illegal war, such have taken the lives of more than 1 million people — with no official mention of genocide or crimes against humanity.)

Moreover, Pompeo’s and Blinken’s denunciations ignore the facts that China’s system of political economy has (in Jonah’s terms) “repented.” It has self-consciously departed from the inefficient and destructive ways of capitalism-as-we-know-it. Yes, China’s way involves a large free-market sector. But a huge part of its economy is under direct government control. The results of that combination have been astoundingly successful.

Moreover, according to economist Richard Wolff, accusations against China’s alleged stealing of intellectual property are nonsensical. According to Wolff, the transfer of intellectual property was part and parcel of the bargain long since struck between U.S. companies and the Chinese government when those companies were given access to Chinese labor and the country’s markets. On China’s part, the understanding was: we give you access to our market and cheap labor; you share profits with us and give us the right to reverse engineer your technology. It was an at least implied quid pro quo agreement that everyone understood.

The result was the Chinese Way that enjoys huge success not only internationally, but domestically. According to Bloomberg News, the Chinese economy is set to grow by 2.5 percent this fiscal year, despite the ravages of Covid-19.

In other words, Chinese “repentance,” its unprecedentedly rapid response (in just over 40 years) to the needs of its people, has saved it from the destruction our version of capitalism has arguably made inevitable for us. Like the prophet, Jonah, our politicians and business elite don’t want to hear any of that.

Today’s Readings

As I’ve been saying here, all of this is closely connected with today’s readings. In the first selection, the Spirit of Life sends Jonah to learn from Nineveh, Israel’s archenemy. He’s completely surprised to discover that the Ninevites, like China, are more responsive to the way of Yahweh than Jonah’s own people.

Similarly, in today’s Gospel selection, Jesus departs entirely from conventional wisdom. He selects illiterate workmen (rather than temple priests or members of his country’s elite) as recruiters for his Kingdom of God Movement bent on creating a world governed by divine principle rather than Caesar’s brute force.

Here’s the way I translate today’s readings about the superior ways of those (like China) whom we routinely despise as foreign and inferior. You can find their original forms here to see if I’ve got them right.    

 Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
 The reluctant prophet Jonah
 Braved Nineveh’s
 Hostile urban jungle
 To announce Yahweh’s
 Urgent call
 For Israel’s Great Enemy
 To change its entire
 Unjust system.
 To the patriotic prophet’s
 Great chagrin
 The enemy listened
 Changed completely
 And transformed
 Its destructive way
 In just 40 days!

 Psalm 25: 4-9
 So, Great Mother-Father
 Teach us the way
 Of the Ninevites.
 For the enemy’s
 Path of justice
 Humility, love
 Kindness, good
 Truth and compassion
 Is your way too.

 I Corinthians 7: 29-31
 Our time for such willing
 Social transformation
 Is quickly running out.
 Choosing it
 Is more important
 Than sex,
 Our little trials
 And triumphs
 Our trinkets
 And work.
 But actually,
 Our Great Father-Mother’s
 Drastically New World
 Is inevitable.

 Mark 1: 14-20
 Yeshua recognized
 That inevitability
 After conservative forces
 Arrested his mentor,
 The Great prophet,
 John the Baptist.
 Ordinary workers
 With simple names like
 Simon, Andrew,
 James and John
 Saw it too.
 So, they left everything:
 Work and companions
 Father and mother,
 Wives and lovers
 To join Yeshua’s
 Working class movement
 For the sake of
 Good News
 To laborers like themselves
 About the Great Mother-Father’s
 In-breaking New Order. 

Conclusion

Like Yahweh in the days of Jonah and Jesus centuries later, the Spirit of Life today is calling us in so many ways to repent and imitate the equivalents of Jonah’s Ninevites. Like Paul in Corinth, the Great Mother-Father tells us that the time is short. Climate chaos itself underlines that urgent message. Our task is more important than anything our culture presents as essential.

China’s example of repentance, its departure from capitalism-as-we-know-it, its construction of an economy based above all on meeting the needs of its huge population represents a path forward – if not for imitation, for inspiration and instruction.

It tells us that we must reorient away from profits and wealth for the few towards the creation of a society with room for everyone and abundance for all – just what the working man, Yeshua, demonstrated in his choice of working-class people to introduce the Kingdom’s new heaven and new earth.   

We’re called today to listen to the prophets of such unconventional wisdom rather than to Pompeo and Blinken’s misdirection.

(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis’ Prophetic Warning on Climate Change: Repent or Else; the Time Is Short

Pope-in-Philippines

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: JON 3: 1-5, 10; PS 25: 4-9; I COR 7: 29-31; MK 1: 4-20; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012515.cfm

Last week, Pope Francis offered a preview of his eagerly anticipated encyclical on climate change – to be published next June or July. While visiting the Philippines, the country most devastated by climate chaos, it wasn’t that the pope merely joined the chorus of scientists, environmental activists, and those who heed them. He went much further, promising to transform the issue of climate change from a debate topic trivialized on Fox News into a matter of “faith and morals” (The phrase used by Catholics to define the area within which the pope has overriding authority.)

In doing so, Francis follows the traditions of prophets like Jonah and Jesus – each centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Both prophets called for repentance (change of thought and action). However, the repentance they summoned pales in comparison to what the pope evidently has in mind.

Yes, the pope is a contemporary prophet. At this moment in history, he is arguably the most powerful ever in terms of his consciousness, courage, credibility and constituency. He literally embodies our best hope for “saving the world.” So it’s incumbent on progressives to heed, highlight and support his efforts.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings about prophetic warnings and how to respond.

The first recalls the message of the Bible’s fictional character Jonah. He’s a reluctant ethnocentric prophet forced by God to call Israel’s mortal enemy, Nineveh, to repentance. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” Jonah proclaimed with some delight.

Ultimately though, Jonah’s ethno-centricity is frustrated when against his desires, the Ninevites quickly and unexpectedly take his message to heart, change their ways, and God repents “of the evil he had planned.” In this way, the Divine One showed God’s character as depicted in today’s responsorial. There the psalmist says that (unlike Jonah) God is compassionate, loving, kind, good, and upright. God guides humble sinners on the path of truth – i.e. reality as it is, not as humans would like it to be.

Jesus’ proclamation was similar to Jonah’s, but without that prophet’s nationalist limitations. As depicted in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ basic message was a call to profound change: “This is the time of fulfillment,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” That notion of fulfillment and the nearness of God’s Kingdom introduces a profound element of hope to complement Jesus’ summons to repentance.

Like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, Peter and Andrew, James and John take Jesus’ words to heart profoundly altering their lives. They leave their former employment as fishermen abandoning their nets, their fathers’ boats and hired men. They follow instead a penniless itinerant preacher and community organizer, adopting his life of complete dependence on others for daily sustenance.

In today’s second reading, Paul shows that the early church embraced Jesus’ message. “Time is running out,” Paul warns. It’s time to prioritize the Kingdom even before family, emotional ups and downs, attachment to property — and to the world as it is. Paul is uncompromising in his perception of the profundity of change “repentance” calls for.

However the apostle’s perception is nothing like the lack of compromise called for by the historically unprecedented crisis of climate change. And this brings me back to Pope Francis and the promise of his prophetic consciousness, courage, credibility, and constituency.

Begin with Francis’ consciousness. He alone among our elected thought “leaders” recognizes contemporary historical patterns – the links between climate change, capitalism, its neo-liberal order, corporate power, income inequality, poverty, colonialism, and a host of other problems (including absence of universal education and health care). For Francis, climate change is not merely one issue among many. It is the frame which makes evident the solutions to those other issues.

More than this, the pope has the uncommon courage to identify without equivocation the cause of such problems – neo-liberal capitalism. He says what politicians like President Obama and other heads of state (with the exception of Raul Castro of Cuba) find impossible to say. Their dependence for survival on billionaires and plutocrats render them impotent before the ideologies of unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” theories. By contrast Pope Francis terms the latter homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). (Parenthetical numbers refer to sections of “The Joy of the Gospel.”)

Additionally while speaking the unspeakable, the pope enjoys tremendous credibility. With the exception of neo-liberalism’s intractable apologists, the world loves and embraces the man. His efforts to distance himself from the traditional luxurious papal lifestyle, his honesty in responding to difficult questions, his humility and genuine love for the poor make him our century’s most credible moral leader.

And finally, there’s the pope’s constituency. Unlike prophets before him (including Jesus of Nazareth) sheer numbers give Pope Francis unprecedented power to change the world. Jonah’s potential respondents to his calls for repentance were only inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. In today’s gospel reading Jesus’ respondents were four simple fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Eventually, only a minority of poor Palestinian peasants took to heart Jesus’ words. By contrast, and in virtue of his office, this pope’s constituency is trans-national and world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet the pope calls “Mother” and “Sister.”

Evidently Francis’ plan is to use his credibility to courageously spread his consciousness and widen his constituency. He plans to do so in five steps. He will (1) publish an encyclical (the most authoritative form of communication at his disposal), (2) convoke an ecumenical meeting of world religious leaders, (3) presumably secure from them a statement paralleling his encyclical’s conclusions, (4) present that statement in his speech to the United Nations in September, and (5) attempt in doing all of that to influence the conclusions of this year’s Climate Summit in Paris two months later.

That’s prophetic activism unparalleled in the recent history of the papacy.

And what specifically is entailed in the repentance necessary to save our Mother? Of course, to share the pope’s vision, we await details in the forthcoming encyclical. However, today’s liturgy of the word points us in the general direction. In the meantime, secular prophets like Naomi Klein fill in the challenging details.

General directions include (as Paul says in today’s second reading) transcending emotions like fear-inspired denial. They include willingness to cut family ties (i.e. narrow nationalism), re-examining our career paths, attachments to property and neo-liberal dreams of unlimited consumption and getting rich.

Specific repentance is more radical than any of our politicians dare articulate. According to Klein, author of This Changes Everything, that’s because our planet has reached “decade zero.” Denialists have led us to squander the leeway we had twenty-five years ago. If we don’t decisively alter within the next ten years our path of production and consumption, the planet’s temperature is bound to rise 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. However, according to climate scientists, any rise beyond 2 degrees will make disastrous climate change irreversible. And that will result in disastrous droughts, water shortages, typhoons, flooding, wildfires, and crop losses with whole cities under water and Islands swallowed by the sea.

To avoid such disasters, required repentance includes:

  • Rejecting the neo-liberal myth that has shaped our world over the last 35 years.
  • Replacing it (the pope will say) with the biblical vision of the Kingdom (proclaimed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading). God’s Kingdom is characterized not by competition and privatization, but by cooperation, sharing, prioritizing the needs of the poor and respecting the earth as commons.
  • Setting aside neo-liberalism’s fetish about regulation, and setting bold national policies guided by clear goals, a strictly imposed time table, and severe penalties for non-compliance.
  • Implementing corresponding policies to cut annual emissions in the industrialized world by 8- 10%.
  • Recognizing that exchange of myths means rejection of market-driven models of untargeted economic growth.
  • Redesigning our cities and redistributing population to eliminate long commutes between home and work.
  • Investing massively in light rail and other means of public transportation so that commuters might travel efficiently and free of cost.
  • Similarly subsidizing renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.
  • Turning the roof of every available building into an energy plant.
  • Respecting the rights of indigenous people under whose lands so much carbon deposit remains.
  • Eliminating by law, controlling by strong regulation or penalizing by heavy taxation industries that are wasteful and/or destructive of the planet such as arms manufacturers, the fast-food industry, GMO firms, and middle-man industries like health insurance.
  • Dealing with climate impact and damage according to “the polluter pays” principle. This recognizes that the 500 million richest people on the planet are responsible for 50% of the world’s pollution and that the U.S. military is by some estimates the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world.
  • According to “the polluter pays” principle, withdrawing from foreign wars, cutting the military budget by at least 25% and making the rich 1% pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Tolerating as necessary increased taxes on everyone, except the poor.
  • Drastically reducing the amount of energy each of us consumes.

You get the idea. The agenda necessary to save our planet from “the evil Nature has planned” is challenging indeed. But it contains that surprising element of hope Jesus signaled when he termed “repentance” as “good news” and “fulfillment.”

After all, our destructive way of life is anything but fulfilling. On the other side of the repentance just described is a cleaner, healthier, less stressful life with full employment, more leisure, greater equality, and harmony with one another and our world.

That’s the vision behind the pope’s courageous prophetic work. It deserves our undivided attention and support.

Lessons Drawn from Modern Scripture Scholarship: (Part 3 in a Series on the Historical Jesus)

(This is the third in a series of Monday “classes” for those wishing to deepen their understanding of the historical Jesus and the biblical sources of their faith.) 

Last week we reviewed the history of modern scripture scholarship. The significant events recorded there have made a difference. For instance, since the seventeenth century, scientific method has greatly influenced biblical studies. New fields of study developed over the last 300 years and applied to the Bible have yielded unprecedented insight. These academic disciplines include archeology, linguistics, political science, economics, sociology, psychology, comparative religion . . . New literary discoveries (including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic documents of Nag Hamadi) have provided previously unknown versions of canonical texts as well as alternative gospel narratives suppressed since the fourth century. Obviously then we have more information about the Bible than any generation before us. This information has changed the way scholars view Sacred Scripture. It has led them to draw important conclusions that they didn’t tell you about in Sunday school, and still haven’t shared from the pulpit.

Let me name just a few of the conclusions I personally have drawn from my reading, studying, and teaching the sources I’m referring to. I’ll try to do so in the most direct unvarnished way I can. Obviously chapters might be written on each point:

1.       The Bible is not the inerrant or inspired Word of God valid for all time. Rather, the Bible represents the word of men (sic) who were trying to make sense of life in the light of their religious faith and the knowledge that was available to them at the time. The Bible is conditioned by history. It is full of historical and geographical errors, as well as understandings of God that are contradictory, primitive, repulsive, and not in line with the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless many parts of the Bible can be considered “inspired” – just as parts of Shakespeare might be so considered.

2.       The Bible is not a single book with chapters, but a library of books. Literary types in the Bible include myth, legend, debate, fiction, law, parable, allegory, miracle stories, letters, gospel, apocalypse, and prophecy to name a few.  These entries were written and revised by many authors in many drastically different historical contexts. Moreover to mistake the literary form of any text is to mistake the meaning.  For example to read the myths contained in the Book of Genesis as though they were history is to miss the profound truths those myths contain. To read the fictional story of Jonah and to focus discussion on whether a human can live for days in the belly of a whale is to similarly miss the story’s powerful point about receptivity to prophecy.

3.       The ancient idea of history was different from our modern idea. Ancient history did not have the benefit of digital recorders or phone cameras. Words and accounts of events were published long after the fact. So speeches and events often had to be “reconstructed” according to what historians imagined took place or thought appropriate. Moreover, unlike their modern counterparts, ancient historians were more interested in the meaning of the events they reported than in accurately recording what happened. Hence we should not be surprised when events are exaggerated or otherwise enhanced to bring out the authors’ “lessons.”

4. The Bible should not be read a-historically, but contextually. The Bible was not written for us. Hence it is a mistake to read it “a-historically” (i.e. as it were written in a historical vacuum by writers who had us in mind). Rather, biblical entries were composed for the communities their various authors were addressing over a period of more than a thousand years.  The books should therefore be read “contextually,” i.e. with their historical circumstances and the intentions of their authors in mind. Of course, biblical inclusions do contain meaning for us. However discovering that meaning in circumstances vastly different from those characterizing their original composition is risky business, and must be done with caution and humility.

5.       Biblical content should be judged according to the “Principle of Analogy.” This principle states that “We should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present.” Application of this principle causes scholars to “demythologize” miraculous events such as the Crossing of the Red Sea or the Feeding of the 5000. Doing so doesn’t mean that believers can’t or shouldn’t take at face value the accounts in question. However it does make it possible for skeptics in a secular society to honor such accounts without having to take them literally.

6.       The Jesus of history is different from the Christ of faith. Examination of Gospel sources shows that faith about Jesus of Nazareth developed and deepened over time. During his life Jesus made prophetic proclamations about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. That was the Gospel of Jesus: “Repent the Kingdom of God is at hand.” After his death and the experience of “resurrection,” the Gospel of Jesus was replaced with the Church’s Gospel about Jesus: “Jesus is Lord.” Moreover, following the resurrection experience, faith in Jesus “real presence” in the community had church members believing that he continued addressing those communities’ problems through Christians endowed with the gift of prophecy. And so, gospel writers had no trouble placing those post-resurrection prophetic words into the mouth of the pre-resurrection Jesus.

7. Criteria are available to discover the Jesus of history. The difference between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith has made scholars (for example in the “Jesus Seminar”) wonder just what it was that the historical Jesus said and did. They have developed criteria for separating the words and deeds of the pre-resurrection Jesus from those of the post-resurrection Christ. Those criteria will be the focus of next week’s “class.”