Jimmy Lai vs. Julian Assange: Prophets without Honor (A July 4th Sunday Reflection)

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10; Luke 4: 18; Mark 6: 1-6

I can’t believe that we’re still expected to believe that the United States and Great Britain are concerned about human rights or press freedom or that either has any leg to stand on in such posturing.

I mean, how can any of us still believe after the lies about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Julian Assange, the demonization of Wikileaks, and the cooperation of the mainstream media (MSM) with all of it.

You’re telling me that either London or Washington has the right to pronounce on press freedom? On human rights? Please!

Demonization of China

Nonetheless, they’re at it again in relation to China and the desperate campaign of both Great Britain and America to demonize Beijing and its implied invocation of an Asian version of The Monroe Doctrine in relation to Hong Kong [which, by the way, (unlike the U.S. relationship to Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or Venezuela) is actually part of China.]

More specifically, we’re supposed to join the MSM and “our” government as well as England’s in worrying about the recent shutdown of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong – a publication that sounds a lot like The National Inquirer.

Judge for yourself. A recent cover story in The Guardian describes the paper as a tabloid-style publication that has “a chequered history including cheque-book journalism, muckraking and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigation into government corruption and police brutality.”

What? Chequered history? Paying sources for information (probably with money from the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy) and unethical reporting?

Oh, and the paper is owned by billionaire Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned (according to The Guardian) “on protest-related convictions and national security charges.”

So, now it’s “Hands across the Planet” for poor Jimmy and his yellow journalism.

Meanwhile Julian Assange wastes away precisely in a British prison for publishing government secrets exactly about U.S. war crimes in Wikileaks – a source that publishes the Washington’s own unquestionably true confessions of the criminal acts it desperately wants kept secret from the rest of us.

So let me get this straight: Jimmy Lai’s a hero. And we’re all supposed to get misty-eyed about the Hong Inquirer’s brave reporters. But Julian Assange is a criminal. And Wikileaks doesn’t even qualify as journalism.

And, by the way, we’re supposed to forget that there was absolutely no press freedom all those years the Brits controlled Hong Kong.

Does anyone else sense the irony?

Today’s Readings

Such considerations are especially relevant this July 4th as we celebrate our supposed “freedoms” and the tarnished ideals of the United States. Significantly, this month marks as well the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CCP) whose good example (in drastically reducing world poverty and extending foreign aid) our country so fears.  

Besides being July 4th, today also happens to be Sunday, time for a weekly “Homily for Progressives” where the theme of the day is prophecy in the sense of social criticism in the name of all that’s holy.

The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel implicitly reminds us that there were two kinds of prophets among the ancient Hebrews. Both are still with us today.

One type was a “court prophet” telling the king and power structure what they wanted to hear – justifying their oppression of the poor. (On this Independence Day you’ll hear a lot of their drivel as they praise “America” as though it were not – as Martin King put it – “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”) Think about The Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and our MSM as court prophets.

The other type of prophet spoke for the Truth that was commonly referred to as “God.” The words of such men and women were routinely dismissed by the powers that happened to be. Some prophets (as is the case with Jesus in today’s final reading) were even rejected by the very oppressed people they were trying to champion. Their words were thought too dangerous and, in some cases, too good to be true. Think about Julian Assange as a prophet in the mold of Ezekiel or the Nazareth construction worker many of us claim to follow.

In any case, here are my “translations” of today’s selections. You should really check them out here to see if I got them right. As you read, think of Julian Assange.

Ezekiel 2: 2-5

I was startled
When God’s Spirit
Demanded that
I criticize my own people
As ungodly and stubborn
Telling me 
To make them uncomfortably
Aware
That a fearless prophet
Was at work
Among them.

Psalm 123: 1-4

Great and holy Parent
We invoke your compassion
On your prophetic
Servants and handmaids
So eager to serve you
Despite contemptuous mistreatment
At the hands 
Of our so-called “leaders”
With their pride and arrogance
Directed 
Against your beloved poor.

2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Neither do prophets 
Have to be perfect.
Even Paul of Tarsus
Despite his many gifts
Suffered under
“An angel of Satan”
And “a thorn in the flesh"
To keep him humble
Lest he take credit
For the work
Of the Holy Spirit
Within him.

Mark 6: 1-6

But like Ezekiel
Jesus was rejected 
By his own townsfolk
Who complained that
He had gotten “above his raisin’s”
They didn’t even
Call him by  
His father’s name
(Implying he was a bastard)
While dismissing
His brothers and sisters
As quite unremarkable.
There’d be
No mighty deeds
For such whiners.
Only cures for
A few ailing beggars.

Conclusion

In a recent New York Times editorial, another court prophet, Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, joined the chorus of warnings about China’s grave threat to the West.

To an audience acquainted with the revelations of Edward Snowden Lian decried China’s surveillance system. To those whose country has bombed and killed Muslims by the scores and thousands every day over the last 20 years, he complained about treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. To Americans who have lived through a Trump presidency, he criticized Chinese governance by lies. (His example? President Xi Jinping actually claimed that China seeks an international image that is “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”) The horror of it all!   

Nonetheless, Lian also pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party retains high popularity among a vast majority of its people. In fact, the party has grown by 20% annually since its foundation 100 years ago. There are no refugees from China. Travelers and students come and go at will and usually return home.

For Lian, the bottom line is that China is showing no evident signs of decline. This means that it will remain a formidable force continuing to threaten the United States and Western allies for years to come. This will be true, he said, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically.

So, the West, Lian concludes, had better get used to the CCP’s threatening presence “at its front door.”

Of course, all this talk of threat and menace from a country that (unlike the United States and Great Britain) has bombed no one in the last 40 years – all this imperial identification of a country more than 7000 miles away as at “our front door” is nonsense.

So is any continued posturing about “our” championing of human rights and press freedom. July 4th in the context of faith reflection is a good time for reminders of such home truths.  

For Decades the U.S. Hated Nelson Mandela

NelsonMandela_Terrorist

Nelson Mandela was buried yesterday. The entire world is in mourning. President Obama joined others in eulogizing the 95 year old hero with words of deep admiration and praise.

All the adulation was richly deserved.

However, in our present context of anti-terrorist hysteria, it is important to note that Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) party were on the U.S. terrorist Watch List until quite recently. In fact, after spending more than a quarter century in South Africa’s Robben Island, and despite Mandela’s stature as President of South Africa, it wasn’t until 2008 that Mandela and his ANC were removed from that role of infamy.

That fact coupled with Mandela’s now-heroic status shows how the term “terrorist” can be misapplied for decades to genuine freedom fighters while the U.S. opposes them in its de facto support of oppression. Martin Luther King teaches the same lesson.

The Reagan administration was largely responsible for attempting to ruin Mandela’s reputation. It called him “subversive” and “communist” all during the 1980s. Mr. Reagan insisted that Mandela and the ANC were Cuban backed enemies of the United States and its interests in South Africa. Such charges were behind the administration’s refusal to support UN and international trade sanctions and an arms embargo against the racist South African apartheid system.

Even after “Madiba” (his affectionate tribal name) received the Nobel Peace Prize (1993), the U.S. continued to treat Mandela as a pariah. However, after 9/11, it changed its reason for doing so. The State Department then stopped referring to him as a communist and called him a “terrorist” instead. In fact as late as 2005, he was required to get a special State Department waiver in order to enter the U.S. in order to visit George W. Bush.

Finally in 2008, with a big prod from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congress at last voted to remove the by then 90 year old Mandela and ANC from the U.S. government’s official list of terrorists.

All of this has been consigned to George Orwell’s Memory Hole in the upsurge of universal acclaim for South Africa’s safely dead Madiba.

The same thing happened, of course, to Martin Luther King whom the State Department, CIA, and others had labeled “communist” and “subversive” before finally honoring the martyr’s memory with a national holiday and with innumerable “Martin Luther King Boulevards” throughout the country.

In the light of such history, can our grandchildren look forward to misty eyes, holidays and street renamings after the passing of Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, and Assata Shakur?

Stay tuned.

Going to the Movies in Bangalore: “Elysium,” Snowden, Manning and Assange

Elysium

“Elysium,” the film starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster showed up in India this past weekend. My wife, Peggy, and I happened to be in Bangalore to celebrate her birthday. So we went to see the film – our first time at the movies since arriving in India about three weeks ago. (We intend to stay here another three months as Peggy’s Fulbright at Mysore University takes its course.)

“Elysium” has been panned by some as convoluted in plot, over-the-top in its acting, and filled with typically Hollywood violence as indestructible and robotic adversaries clash in hackneyed, interminable and highly unlikely fight scenes.

I however found “Elysium” strangely intriguing when viewed from our setting in India and in the context of our government’s furor over information leaks. From that perspective, “Elysium” was evocative of the Bhagavad Gita in pitting its protagonist against overwhelming odds in a fight to the finish for human liberation.

More specifically, “Elysium” played out in comic book fashion the battle of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other information “criminals” against the overpowering state apparatus of a militarized, out-of-control and venal federal government.

To begin with, take the film’s setting – Los Angeles in 2054. The streets of Bangalore were a good prep for the film. Like L.A. in the film, they are polluted, over-crowded, and dirty. However, unlike the imagined L.A. of the future, Bangalore finds itself going in two directions at once, not simply downhill.

Bangalore is situated somewhere between decay and an undisciplined version of globalized commercialization. It features “branded stores” like The Gap, Nike, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Dominos alongside stalls and shops overflowing with goods of all description. The treatment of workers on this sub-continent (as exemplified in the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh), is not unlike workers take-it-or-leave-it dilemma in the film.

Then consider the film’s plot. It’s about Max, a factory employee (played by Matt Damon) who is injured on the job as he’s exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, he must find his way to “Elysium,” a human-fabricated planet floating above the earth. There the rich live in idyllic conditions, where life-saving medical care is readily available. “Elysium’s” story is about Max’s quest to reach for that star. Damon does so by stealing government secrets.

Meanwhile the government responds with extreme violence. It pursues Max in ways reminiscent of the U.S. pursuit of Snowden, Manning and Assange. Its security apparatus hunts him down relentlessly. He is pursued by an implacable, incredibly powerful mercenary agency. He is threatened by drones. Finally, he sacrifices his life so that the information he divulged might set others free.

All of this happens in an oppressive culture characterized by:

• Dominance of the military-industrial complex that completely subordinates politicians to business moguls.
• A high unemployment rate that makes it a privilege for workers to be exploited in the workplace as opposed to remaining jobless.
• A medical system that provides healthcare only to those who can pay for it.
• Total surveillance of everyone involved.
• Fail-safe border patrol that entirely eliminates refugees by killing those attempting to cross borders illegally.
• A highly brutal police force that acts with robot brutality, absolute lack of compassion, and over-all impunity.
• The use of drones to hunt down and eliminate dissenters.
• Women (personified in the Jodie Foster secretary of defense) who despite finally holding high office prove to be more heartless than their male counterparts.

So in the end, “Elysium” is about the fate of a low-level corporate employee like Edward Snowden. The secrets Max reveals show the Department of Defense violating Elysium’s own constitution that supposedly governs a highly polarized society and keeps the reins of power in the hands of a rich minority. While protecting and empowering the minority, the rules in place deprive the majority of the rights of citizenship.

The disclosure of the planet’s governing secrets not only exposes abuse of power, but ends up dethroning the elite, while enabling ordinary people to claim the rights that belong to them in virtue of their humanity. “Elysium” is about information as the key to revolution.

Very little of this is perceived by movie critics. A movie review in The Indian Times saw “Elysium” as just another Hollywood action flick. Without explanation, it remarked that “conspiracy theorists” might find it interesting, and that the film said something about immigration and health care.

I’m suggesting that “Elysium” says much more than that. It perfectly describes the direction in which our culture is traveling. It represents a story of hope. It’s about the triumph of the working class against overwhelming odds. “Elysium” is about the power of information and the heroism of people like Snowden, Manning, and Assange. As a cautionary tale, the film is a call to support whistle-blowers against our own corrupt “leadership.”

Too bad all that de rigueur Hollywood overlay of violence, chases and predictability obscures “Elysium’s” valuable message.

Fire from Heaven: “Collateral Murder,” Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 13th Sunday in ordinary time: I Kg. 19:16B, 19-21; Ps. 16: 1-2, 5, 7-11; Gal. 5:1, 13-19; Lk. 9: 51-62. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/063013.cfm

The film clip you have just seen has been dubbed “Collateral Murder.” It chronicles a series of attacks by the U.S. Army in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The attacks directed 30 mm cannon fire at a group of nine to eleven mostly unarmed men – apart from one who carried an AK-47 and another who was holding a grenade launcher. Two in the group were war correspondents for Reuters News Service. Their cameras were mistaken for weapons. After the attack took place, Iraqi civilians arrived on the scene and attempted to aid the wounded. They too were killed. Children in the van which their father stopped to help were also shot. The film was taken by a camera mounted on the gun sights of two AH-64 Apache helicopters.

In 2007, Reuters requested the footage of the airstrikes under the Freedom of Information Act. Their request was denied. Instead the military reported that the shooters in the film had come under attack and were following strict Rules of Engagement.

However in April of 2010, U.S. Army Private, Bradley Manning, released the footage (along with other revealing documents) to the internet whistle-blower website, WikiLeaks. Manning said he wanted to expose crimes whose details routinely crossed his desk as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer. His intention was to bring those specifics to the attention of the American people, and stimulate debate about U.S. military policy and tactics. He judged that policy and its implementation to be largely immoral and contrary to international law. This was true, he said, especially in the criminal war in Iraq which the U.S. entered on false pretenses against a nation that represented no threat to its well-being. Manning found especially shocking the cavalier chatter of those he saw as murderers. Manning’s action also implied that Iraqi citizens had the right to arm themselves against such aggressors brutally invading their sovereign country without provocation.

For his trouble, Private Manning was arrested in July 2010 and held in solitary confinement for more than a year in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. His treatment there was described as “torture” by more than one international human rights agency. In February of 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him. He is currently being tried for alleged crimes that could bring a sentence of life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

I bring those details up this morning because inflicting death from the skies seems particularly relevant to our readings about Elijah and Jesus. There the concept of “fire from heaven” is associated with Elijah, invoked by James and John, and rejected by the non-violent Jesus. The readings raise questions about Christians’ routine support for wars – especially illegal ones – and about our attitudes towards prophetic disturbers of our peace such as Bradley Manning and (most recently) Edward Snowden. Snowden, of course, is the CIA employee who recently leaked details of mass surveillance programs directed against ordinary citizens like you and me. The programs appear to violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

You see, all of them – Elijah, Jesus, Manning, and Snowden have been judged by the State to be trouble-makers. In fact, Elijah was specifically called “the troubler of Israel” by King Ahab (I Kg. 18:17). In retort Elijah replied as perhaps Pvt. Manning would to President Obama. The prophet said in effect, “Now there’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. You, dear King (or Mr. President), are the real trouble-maker. I am merely pointing that out.”

It was later on, when Ahab’s successor, his son Ahaziah, sent soldiers to arrest Elijah, that the prophet called down fire from heaven to kill the fifty arresting officers. Elijah was a fierce man.

That’s the way James and John wanted Jesus to be. It was the way they imagined God to be – fierce, vengeful, and blood-thirsty. It’s the way unquestioning supporters of “our troops” appear to picture God today. But Jesus refused to reprise Elijah’s vengeance. He rejected the prophet’s violent conception of God.

Instead, the divine as embodied in and described by Jesus is more reminiscent of the Yahweh who appears in today’s responsorial Psalm 16. There God is described as the protective refuge of the afflicted, the one who holds human destiny in his loving hands, the God who shows the way to fullness of life and lasting joy. Jesus’ God was not a war God. Instead, the divine for Jesus evoked self-sacrifice in the face of attack.

All of this means that the cost of discipleship for the followers of Jesus is high – especially when speaking truth to political power as both Elijah and Jesus made a habit of doing.

Jesus says as much in this morning’s gospel. Discipleship, he insists, requires adopting Jesus’ own posture of non-violent resistance which rejected the “fire from heaven” approach of Elijah, James and John. It entails being decisive, leaving home and family, crossing borders, and in the end not having anywhere to rest one’s head. Once we put our hands to that plow, Jesus says, there must be no turning back.

Regardless of their spiritual motivation, that in fact is the price being paid today by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as they oppose tyranny in the spirit of Elijah, but especially of the non-violent Jesus.

To put it in terms of Paul’s Letter to Galatia, both Manning and Snowden are living “according to the Spirit.” They are engaged in non-violent resistance to acts of deceit and murder. They are serving Truth and opposing “the father of lies.”

God is truth. Or as Gandhi put it, “Truth is God.” Living according to God’s truth means resisting “flesh,” which was Paul’s term for the way of the world that Jesus found so offensive. To repeat, that is what Pvt. Manning and Edward Snowden are doing. And they are paying the price Jesus said was inevitable in this morning’s gospel. They are homeless and hunted by the same kind of arrogant powers that were mobilized against Elijah and Jesus.

Few of us have the courage of a Manning or Snowden. At the very least, however, they deserve our support against those who would turn our world into the Surveillance State so presciently described in George Orwell’s 1984. Manning and Snowden have put their hand to the plow, and for them there is no turning back.

Recently in my travels I saw a sign in the airport reading, “If you see something, say something.” I thought, “Yeah, unless the one you’re reporting is your boss, the President or the head of the CIA, or other officials engaged in mayhem like that portrayed in ‘Collateral Murder’.” Then if you “say something” you’ll be called a terrorist, traitor and thief.

Tellers of truth like Elijah, Jesus, Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden saw what is true, reported it, and suffered the consequences which are always the lot of prophets. They opposed fire from the sky. They all live(d) according to the Spirit and rejected business as usual (“flesh”).

Thank God for all of them! My God give us the courage to support them and follow their examples!