Donald Trump and Torture (Sunday Homily)

torture-trump

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 MC 7: 1-12, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 3, 15; 2 THES 2:11-3:5; LK 20: 27-38.

One of the wonderful aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition is how so much of it reflects the consciousness of the poor and oppressed, while at the same time giving expression to a “preferential option for the poor.” That’s a gift for us in a culture that generally despises poor people, oppresses the world’s impoverished majority, and spins the news in ways that ignore the poor and reflect a decided “preferential option for the rich.”

This morning’s first reading is especially valuable for us who live in a system where a candidate for president, Donald Trump, advocates torturing poor people who rebel against American imperialism. He has promised, to bring back water boarding.  He’s said, “I would bring back water boarding, And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than water boarding.”

Before Abu Grahib, a statement like that would have been unthinkable. Torture is against international law. It contradicts Article 5 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which identified the right not to be tortured as a fundamental human right. At least since the end of World War II, torture has been considered one of those intrinsic evils about which there simply could be no debate.

However, ever since Abu Ghraib gave the lie to George W. Bush’s famous prevarication, “The United States doesn’t do torture” – ever since our government redefined the word to exclude even waterboarding – it has become apparent that Bush (and so many others of our “thought-leaders”) was lying. So today, it’s possible for a presidential candidate to propose measures worse than water boarding – perhaps cutting out of tongues and removal of limbs – as measures Americans admire and advocate..

But what do tortured terrorists actually think about while having limbs removed and tongues cut out? Read today’s selection about the Maccabee brothers and find out.

The Maccabees were members of a heroic family of guerrilla fighters who in the mid- 2nd century BCE terrorized the invading Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (Actually, “Maccabee” wasn’t the family’s name; it was more a nom de guerre for an entire resistance movement. The word meant “Hammer” – the Hammer Gang – so-called because of its delight in pounding to mincemeat the invaders of their beloved homeland. The term “Maccabee” was similar to “al Qaeda,” when it simply meant “the list” – a reference to the Rolodex of assets the CIA used when it employed al Qaeda back when they were “freedom fighters” against the Russians in Afghanistan.)

For his part, the Seleucid king, Antiochus, was fiercely anti-Semitic. He considered the Jews historically and culturally backward. For him and his empire’s advancement, Jews had to be brought into the 2nd century BCE even if it meant their kicking and screaming the whole way.

Today we might understand Antiochus’ project as “modernizing” the Jews – as Hellenizing them for purposes of imperial control. Evidently the Seleucid king subscribed to the position that if empire can persuade conquered peoples to adopt its patterns of thinking and especially of imagining God, the task of imperial administrators is made that much easier.

Many Jews agreed with the program of Antiochus. After all, the Greeks’ empire seemed invincible. If the empire couldn’t be beat, it was better to join it willingly. So these “Hellenized Jews” stopped circumcising their sons, and changed their diets even to include eating pork. They became more Greek than the Greeks.

They also became the targets of Maccabee “terrorist” attacks. In today’s terms, such Hellenized Jews would be the targets blown up by Maccabee suicide bombers in marketplaces located in Jewish but Greek-loving neighborhoods. (Even if the Maccabee targeting may have been more selective than that, it is certain that Hellenized Jews were as much the objects of Maccabee terror as were the Seleucid forces themselves.)

In countering such extremism, Antiochus IV proscribed the Jewish religion as itself criminal and illegitimate. This was very similar to the way many “Americans” consider Islam. So Greek troops burnt and otherwise desecrated copies of the Torah in much the same way as our “Christian” troops are frequently caught burning or urinating on the Holy Koran and on corpses of Muslim resistance fighters.

Though the Greeks considered the Maccabean forces to be terrorist, faithful Jews admired them as national heroes and servants of God. They understood that the Maccabees were fighting a Holy War against the much more powerful Seleucids. It was David against Goliath all over again.

In any case, according to today’s selection from Second Maccabees, seven brothers of the gang’s leadership were finally arrested (along with their mother) by the Greek invaders. (This would have been reported to Greeks “back home” as a great triumph – “Senior Leaders” captured making “our troops” and “our world” much safer.)

Then the torture and the screaming start.

According to today’s reading, all eight are beaten with whips and instruments designed to tear open their flesh. Then following standard operating procedures still practiced today, other enhanced interrogation techniques were used to torture the brothers one after the other in the presence of their blood-drenched mother, herself near death. The purpose here, of course, was to induce the woman to divulge names, places, and plans that she was privy to as the wife of the one who started the Jewish resistance to the Seleucids.

But what does she do? And what about her sons?

In a word, they are all – mother as well as her sons – completely defiant.

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us” one of the brothers shouts? “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Even at the point of death he spits out the words: “You accursed fiend” (I wonder what expletive he really used!), “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

Another of the brothers sees that his torturers are actually enjoying their work. (The text refers to cutting out his tongue and amputating his hands as “cruel sport.” Does that remind you of Abu Ghraib?) So he sticks out his tongue and stretches out his hands inviting them to do their work. “It was from Heaven that I received these,” he says. “I’d rather lose them than offend Yahweh” (read Allah).

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,” the text says. Far from being intimidated, the freedom-fighter “regarded his suffering as nothing.”

Just before dying, another of the tortured brothers undergoing the very same cruelties says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” As indicated by those words, conviction of a happy eternity moved these guerrilla fighters to embrace death willingly. (Seventy-two virgins, anyone?)

So what goes on in the heads of the tortured? Disdain for their torturers. Defiance. Show of courage. Love for the motherland. Hope.

And what is the response from the people they die for? Admiration. Elevation of martyrs and the tortured to sainthood. Motivation to follow their example.

And ultimately victory for the tortured and assassinated. . .  I mean, against all odds, the Jewish resistance – the Hammer Terrorists – did succeed in evicting the Greeks from their homeland.

As I was saying, this reading should cause us to reevaluate our attitude towards terrorism, terrorists, and the scandal of debating the pros and cons of torture. It should cause us to reevaluate any thoughts of voting next Tuesday for the would-be torturer-in-chief, Donald Trump.

Urinating on Corpses and Burning Holy Books

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time : Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-3 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/111812.cfm

In January of this year six U.S. soldiers had themselves videotaped while they urinated on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan. In a separate incident three other soldiers started widespread riots after they publicly burned copies of the Holy Koran. Then in September the posting of an on-line film depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a deviant terrorist was blamed for other anti-US protests throughout the Muslim world costing the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three staff workers.

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In the year 168 C.E., the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes  invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. He hated Judaism and defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He also erected an altar to Jupiter in the Temple.  Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus also destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find, and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus IV and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Bible’s Book of Daniel (excerpted in today’s first reading) was written.

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On September 8th of the year 70 of the Common Era, after a six-month siege, the Roman Emperor Titus, with four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders. Moving from house to house, the Romans destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1947. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Jesus predicts in today’s Gospel excerpt from Mark.

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Today’s liturgy of the word is shaped by apocalyptical writings – from the Book of Daniel in the first instance, and from Mark, chapter 13 in the second. The writings speak of wars and rumors of wars, of unprecedented suffering for all of humankind, of false messiahs and false prophets, and of the “Son of Man” coming on clouds of glory to render a final judgment.

Most of us think of such writing as describing the end of the world. And why not? That thinking is fostered and exploited by a whole industry of evangelical preachers like John Hagee who appear regularly on our television screens. The approach is foundational to the publishing success of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

A unifying thread throughout all such understandings of apocalypse is their idea of God, who turns out to be a pathological killer. That is, the mayhem and disaster depicted in apocalypse becomes something God does to the world and the human race to bring history to a close. According to the preachers and books I’ve just mentioned, apocalypse describes a final battle between Good and Evil. The battle will be fought in the Middle East on the Plain of Armageddon. Two billion people will die as a result – including 2/3 of the Jewish people.  The remaining 1/3 will be converted to Christianity because God’s final violent revelation will be so awe-inspiring and convincing. A “Rapture” will then occur, taking all faithful followers of Christ into heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity for a period of “tribulation.” In all of this, God is the principal actor. As an angry father, he is finally taking his revenge for the disobedience and lack of faith of his ungrateful children – whom he loves!

Problem is: all of that is dead wrong and blasphemous in  terms of the God of love revealed by Jesus. The Rapture story, for instance, appeared for the first time only in the 19th century. In fact, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. It is about the end of empire – the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the case of Daniel, and the Roman Empire in the case of Mark. The mayhem and unprecedented suffering referenced in both readings is not something God does to the world, but what empire routinely does to people, their bodies, souls and spirits, as well as to the natural environment.

Because it has ever been so with empire, today’s excerpt from Mark calls for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with Zealot nationalists. As the Romans under Titus approached Jerusalem between 66 and 70, Zealot recruiters traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Jesus’ counsel instead was for his followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were to do so not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.

How should those readings affect us today whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Roman Titus – both of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!) How should the readings affect us whose soldiers destroy holy sites, burn holy books and desecrate corpses just as their Roman counterparts did?

Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means refusing to defend the present order and allowing it to collapse. It means total rejection of U.S. imperial ambitions and practices. It means refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” of patriots defending their countries from invasion by U.S. forces. It means determining what all of that might signify in terms of our consumption patterns and lifestyles, and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.

So in a sense, apocalypse is about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today.  And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.

However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

How might we support one another in letting go of imperialism, nationalism and the lifestyles dependent on them?

(Discussion follows)

Mini-Class on the Historical Jesus: Early Development of the Christian Tradition

(This is the fifth in a series of Monday postings on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The modern scripture scholarship we’re exploring here has discovered that there were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. Understanding these stages is important for grasping the difference between the Jesus of history this series is attempting to explain and the Jesus of faith who has come to dominate our understandings of the prophet from Nazareth.

The five stages I’m referring to include (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) his disciples post-crucifixion “resurrection experience,” (3) the first proclamation of the disciples’ post-resurrection faith (called “kerygma,” a Greek word for proclamation), (4) a long period of oral tradition, and (5) the production of written reflections on the believing community’s experience of Jesus including his response to problems he did not himself encounter during his life. At each of these stages the Jesus of history recedes further from the Jesus of faith.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll devote a column a week to briefly exploring each one of the stages just referenced. This week I’ll  begin with some observations about what we’re able to say about the life of Jesus by applying the criteria for discernment I tried to explain last week. You’ll recall that those criteria were:  (1) Multiple attestation from independent sources, (2)  Dissimilarity from the apparent immediate interests of biblical authors , (3) Semitisms, (4)Content reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus, (5)Vividness of descriptionand (5) Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus. Additionally, relevant scholarly insights are derived from the modern disciplines of linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, comparative religion, history, psychology, economics, physics, biology, medicine, etc.

Application of these criteria uncovers a Jesus who is:

(1) A teacher of unconventional wisdom: Jesus’ teachings largely deviated from those of the rabbis of his time. In contrast to them, we would say he was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish tradition and especially of its laws. Law was not a priority for Jesus. In fact we might say he understood himself as fulfilling the Law by breaking laws and teaching others to do so. His priority was a Higher Law which put positive response to human need ahead of legal requirements. Jesus method of teaching such values was parable and story.

(2) A faith healer. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. As scholars point out, miracle workers in the first century of the Common Era were “a dime a dozen.” All “great men” – including emperors and kings – were expected to work miracles and were remembered as doing so. It would have been remarkable had Jesus not been identified as a miracle worker. Instead, Jesus was a faith healer of extraordinary power. His presence and words were able to evoke the healing powers present within all human beings.

(3) A prophetic critic. Jesus was not a priest or a king. He was a prophet. Prophets were social critics. So Jesus addressed the problems of his day including Roman imperialism and the collaboration with that system of exploitation on the part of the religious “leadership” of his day – its priests and kings.

(4) A Jewish mystic. Mystics are spiritual practitioners and teachers who believe that: (a) a spark of the divine resides within each human being; (b) humans can know that divinity and live from that place within them; (c) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (d) once that purpose is realized, the enlightened human perceives the spark of the divine in all of creation and lives accordingly.

(5) A movement founder. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His purpose was to reform Judaism. His specific interest was to proclaim a Jubilee Year which included debt forgiveness and land reform on behalf of the poor.  Following his death, Jesus’ Jewish reform movement evolved into a “church” overwhelmingly composed on non-Jews.

Next Week: Step One in the Development of the Christian Tradition: A portrait of the Jesus of History.