U.S. Empire, Haiti, and the Tragic Suppression of Liberation Theology

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.

Today’s Readings  

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.

Conclusion

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.

My Fight with Richard Rohr

I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.

My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.

The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.

Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.

Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.  

Fr. Rohr and Me

I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.

Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.

Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.

Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.

Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.

Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.

The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.

Rohr, Jesus and Rome

Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.

All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.

Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:

  • Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
  • Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
  • [Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
  • It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
  • Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
  • According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
  • Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
  • The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
  • In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).

The Historical Jesus

My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”

Take those points already reviewed:

  • For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
    1. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
    2. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
    3. “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
    4. Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
    5. Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
    6. Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
  • The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
  • As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
  • Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
  • Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.

Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:

  • Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
  • His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
  • She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
  • Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
  • The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.”  They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
  • In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
  • Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
  • At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
  • Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
  • On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.  

Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ

Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.

Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.

Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.

By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.

To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.

Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.

Conclusion

None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is.  Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.

As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.

As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.

Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance  is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.

That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.

In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.

Something else is needed.

We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.

And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:

  • Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
  • Sponsoring specifically anti-imperial education programs
  • Lending each other community support in collectively refusing to pay war taxes
  • Counselling young people against entering the military
  • Political campaigning for peace candidates
  • Divesting from and boycotting key economic engines of the U.S. economy like Amazon and Wal-Mart
  • Forming or joining local credit unions

But above all, in our churches we must escape contentment with cleaning our own cup or tending our own garden as a somehow adequate response to our extraordinary times.

Such uncontroversial spiritual solipsism may let us off the hook. But it was not the way of the historical Jesus.

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.

My Confusion & Fear of Walking on Water

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KINGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PSALMS 85: 9-14; ROMANS 9: 1-5; MATTHEW 14: 22-23

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s iconic account of Yeshua walking on water – and of his invitation to Peter to follow the Master’s example.

The story is relevant to our times filled as they are with turbulence, polarization, and uncertainty. Those were the disturbing characteristics of Yeshua’s time as well – and of Matthew’s early church. In both contexts, there was turbulence everywhere. But despite it all, the early followers of Yeshua were asked to do the impossible – to walk on water themselves.

Before I get to what that might mean, here’s a reminder of how our own tempestuous times mirror those of Yeshua and Matthew.

My Own Confusion

If the truth be told, I must admit that I hardly know what to think anymore. The polarizing spirit of the day has me pretty upset. I can barely listen to the news each day.  And the mere images of the politicians I have come to despise cause my stomach to churn. I can’t stand to hear their voices – or those of their ever-harsher critics. And besides that, I see no alternatives. (How much better is Joe Biden than Donald Trump?)

However, the immediate cause of my upset and confusion is the video I posted here last week – an interview by Jason Dean of Sacha Stone, the founder of the International Tribunal for Natural Justice. It generated a lot of controversy when it appeared on OpEdNews on Thursday.

Subsequently, a whole ZOOM meeting of the site’s editors, contributors, and readers had everyone arguing about the interview’s truth claims. Is the coronavirus a pandemic or a “plandemic?” Does wearing a facemask make sense? There was wide disagreement during the call.

Those questions and emotions generated by the video were rooted in the polarizing figure of Sacha Stone himself. He’s charismatic, articulate, extremely outspoken, and given, I fear, to hyperbole. On the one hand, he is deeply spiritual and reflective of the best of the mystical traditions shared by all the world’s great faiths. His passionate concern about and energetic action against the trafficking of children for pedophilic purposes is unmistakable and genuine.  

On the other hand, he somewhat off-puttingly fills his discourse with references to evil, Satanic cults, the deep state, and to ruling class rituals devoted to drinking the blood of fear-adrenalized two and three-year-olds.  

Obviously, then Stone himself is controversial. He illustrated, I said, the difficulty of classifying people today on the basis of the traditional categories of “left” and “right,” liberal and conservative.

For instance, he is a supporter of President Trump. But he has long despised, he says, all politicians as liars and sell-outs to the rich 1% that govern our nation through the lawmakers they have long since bought and sold. Nonetheless, Stone sees Trump as one of the two modern-era U.S. presidents of true human worth. The other one? John F. Kennedy.

In all of this, Stone finds prominent support in a former CIA operative, Robert David Steele. Steele was described by one OEN ZOOM call participant who knows Steele well, has corresponded with him, and has interviewed him formally as “a brilliant guy.” In fact, as an elite insider, Steele not only backs Stone’s claims about cults and blood, he serves as Commissioner and Chief Counsel on Stone’s International Tribunal for Natural Justice. Steele says 22,000 children are disappeared each day for purposes of pedophilia and employment in those blood rituals.  

Is all of that disturbing and confusing enough for you? It’s almost more than I can bear. It has my head spinning with questions I thought resolved long ago about Trump, his portrayal in the media, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more seriously, it makes me wonder if our world is indeed controlled by sexual perverts who seem (in Stone’s words) “soulless” and as if they were aliens from another planet.

My only hope is that despite Steele’s endorsement, Stone’s claims about trafficked children are false or exaggerated. Failing that, my hope is that the truth of Stone’s accusations will all unmistakably come to light in the context of the explosive tip-of-the-iceberg saga of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Such revelation has world revolutionary potential.

Yeshua’s & Matthew’s Confusion

In the context of this Sunday homily, my thoughts about national and personal upset and about revolutionary solutions return me to the social and political circumstances of Yeshua’s own day and of the Gospel writer, Matthew some fifty years later. Both contexts were no less turbulent than our own. As a matter of fact, they were even more so.

Yeshua, of course, lived under Roman occupation. As a good Jew, he surely hated that. The four Gospels are filled with indications of his antipathy towards Rome. However, as a reformer of Judaism, the Master was even more upset about the collaboration between Rome and the Temple Establishment’s scribes and priests. In his estimation, they were even worse sell-outs than our own presidents, congresspeople, judges, media, police, and military.

I’m sure that Yeshua along with his inner circle and his poor and oppressed audiences hardly knew what to think.

The same was true for Matthew’s audience. More than fifty years after Yeshua’s death, tensions with Rome had exploded just as Yeshua had predicted they would. In the year 70, Rome had finally punished Jerusalem’s Jews for their insubordination. In fact, the genocidal Romans had attacked and brutally destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem, killed more than a million of its inhabitants (including the entire leadership of the emergent Christian community) and razed its temple to the ground. Fifteen or 20 years later, when Matthew wrote his Gospel, his community was still reeling from that defining act of devastation.

It’s in that context that Matthew spins his iconic story of Yeshua walking on water.

The story goes that following Yeshua’s feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel focus), Yeshua forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Yeshua made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Yeshua) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Yeshua’s urgings.] In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are all about to drown. You can imagine their cries for help.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first, they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Yeshua. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, ever the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So, he says “Prove to me that it’s you, Yeshua; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Yeshua says, “Join me then over here then.” So, Peter gets out of the boat and, like his teacher actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord!” he cries out again. Yeshua stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful tale. It’s about Yeshua’s followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of the seriously threatening crises life forces upon us.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And courageously walking on water was a dramatic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal they could think of, the Roman Empire.

Yeshua’s invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Yeshua in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is: we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters we imagine are lurking underneath.

Conclusion

So, what does it mean to confront today’s angry waters and invisible monsters. What are we to believe before those who tell us that everything’s fake, there is no truth, and that the world is run by leviathan beasts hiding below the waves boiling all around us? What are we to think for instance, when the police and military we were taught to trust, betray us utterly? What do we make of the fact that there are no leaders we can follow – when we fear that talking heads, pundits, and even the spiritually astute are only sowing confusion, spin, falsehood and doubt? What’s entailed in stretching out our hand towards our Great Teacher inviting us to walk on water and ignore the threatening confusion and fear engendered by our uncertain times dwarfed by those he himself and his followers endured?

Frankly, I’m not sure. As I said, I remain more confused than ever.

However, I do think that walking on water today means desperately grasping Yeshua’s hand in the sense of getting back to the basics of our Great Master’s message about the Kingdom of God. That’s the anchor for many of us. He told us that despite all appearances to the contrary – despite the engulfing waves:

  • We humans are not truly in charge. Life Itself is working things out in an evolutionary pattern that is beyond any of our thought categories (Matthew 6:25).
  • A New Era is in the process of birthing – a new heaven and a new earth is about to dawn (Matthew 3:2, 4:17; Mark 1:15).
  • In that order, empires of all kinds (including our own) are doomed (See the entire Book of Revelation).
  • The new heaven and earth are destined for everyone – not merely for the 1% (Luke 4: 14-22).
  • In fact, the present reality will be turned upside down. Those now considered “first” will be last (Matthew 20:16).
  • The dawning Kingdom will prioritize the needs of widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor and the oppressed.
  • It will be governed by a politics of love (not fear or hate).
  • There, the identity of those now despised (the poor, hungry, thirsty, houseless, naked and imprisoned) will be revealed as embodying Yeshua himself (Matthew 25: 40-45).

Embracing those truths promises to save us from being overwhelmed and drowned. No matter what the “informed” or “experts” might say, living by those convictions represents what it means to walk on water in these uncertain times.

The Plowshares 7 Are Convicted for Following Jesus’ Resistance to State Oppression

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; PS 98: 509; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 28; Lk 21: 5-19

At the end of last month, a federal grand jury in Georgia convicted seven Catholic peace activists on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base on April 4, 2018. The activists included Liz McAlister, the widow of peace activist, Philip Berrigan, along with Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Catholic Worker founder, Dorothy Day.  

Known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the group entered the base armed with hammers, crime scene tape, and baby bottles containing their own blood. Once inside, they splashed their blood on the walls of the base’s administration building. They also posted a formal indictment of the U.S. government charging it with crimes against peace. Kings Bay harbors at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each of them carries 20 Trident missiles.

The activists’ defense was that they were following the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” (IS 2:4). However, at their trial, they were forbidden to cite their religious motivations. The judge disqualified their planned “necessity defense” which claims that their lawbreaking was required to prevent the far greater crime of a nuclear war. On their sentencing within 90 days, the activists will face more than 20 years in prison.

All of that fits in perfectly with the theme of this Sunday’s liturgy of the word.  It deals with the promise of God’s new order (aka the Kingdom of God) and with the persecution of Jesus’ followers that, according to the Master, must precede its institution. Jesus promised arrests, judicial silencings, jailings, and general persecution for those with the courage to follow his example as an opponent of empire and war.

See that theme for yourself by reviewing today’s readings here. In any case, what follows are my “translations” of those selections. They describe the new order (or what scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s Great World Clean-up”) as advocated by the Jewish prophetic tradition, by Jesus himself, and just recently by the Plowshares 7. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus outlines the inevitable consequences for any who, like the 7, act to hasten the Kingdom’s eventual arrival:

 
MAL 3: 19-20A

Scorching times are coming
For the rulers
Of this world!
Root and branch
They will be destroyed
In purging fire
When God’s Great Clean-up
Finally sets things right.
 
PS 98: 5-9
 
The Great Purge
Will at last establish
God’s justice
On earth
Including environmental justice
For the entire planet,
With its seas and mountains.
Above all,
It will mean
Equity and justice
For the whole human race.
Everyone should
Be happy about that.
 
2 THES 3: 7-12
 
Long ago,
Some in Paul’s community
Thought the Purge
Would take place
“Any day now.”
So, they stopped working.
“Don’t do that,”
Said Paul.
“Your faith
Shouldn’t make you
A burden to others.”
 
 
LK 21:28
 
However,
Just because
The Great Purgation
Has yet to occur,
Don’t lose faith.
Know that it is
Still somehow
At hand
 
LK 21: 5-19
 
So, you’re wondering,
Are you,
When exactly
The Great Clean-up
Will take place?
It will happen in three stages
First, there’ll be
Wars, terror and insurrections
Along with natural disasters
That will leave
Religion in a shamble.
Secondly, all kinds of charlatans
Will show up
Claiming to speak for Jesus.
Thirdly, even family members
And religious authorities
Will blame believers for all of it.
They will hate, persecute and arrest them
For simply following the Master,
Handing them over
To civil authorities
Deeply fearful
Of the wisdom
Of their unassailable defenses.
Jesus’ recommendations?
1.     Reject false Christs.
2.     Trust the Holy Spirit within.
3.     Endure imprisonment.
4.     Persevere!

All of that represents an extremely high bar, don’t you agree? Following the martyr, Jesus – the tortured one, the one imprisoned on death row, the victim of capital punishment – is never easy.

But does that mean that those of us living beneath the lofty bar set by the Plowshares 7, by the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, and Jesus are lost? Can we not be part of God’s Great World Clean-up?

Let’s hope that we can.

At the very least however, here’s what we can do in line with today’s final reading:

  • Reject false Christs by realizing that the meek and mild Jesus of mainstream Christianity is a distortion of the one recognized as subversive by the Roman Empire and by the compromised Judaism of his day. Jesus meek and mild represents the false Christ the Master himself warns against in today’s Gospel reading.
  • Instead, embrace Jesus’ rebel Spirit as much as possible by refusing to be patriotic under the imperial system that Jesus hated. Perform organized and random acts of specifically unpatriotic civil disobedience. Think Colin Kaepernick.
  • While there’s still time contact the presiding judge in the case of the Plowshares 7 and intercede on their behalf, perhaps sending the judge a copy of this homily.
  • Pray for the Spirit of civil disobedience that inspired not only the 7, but Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jesus himself.
  • Don’t be discouraged by delays in the Kingdom’s arrival or by the apparent victories of its enemies. Persevere!

How We Rich Exclude Ourselves from the Kingdom of God

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. 

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened today’s familiar gospel parable with the words “A pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence was like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all? Why would a tax collector?

Despite its shocking overtones, homilists generally domesticate this parable to make it reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

Crossan however says that there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised who are celebrated throughout today’s liturgy of the word. The parable and its supporting readings also explain why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God, which in Jesus’ understanding is never about life after death, but a this-worldly reality where God is king instead of Caesar.

Please give a listen to the readings. You can find them here. My “translations” run as follows:

 SIR 35: 1-14, 16-18
 
God’ justice reverses
The world’s preferential option
For the rich.
It is instead
Duly prejudiced
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
And affirms
Their rights
To speedy justice.
 
 
 
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
 
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
The brokenhearted
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
By oppressors
Whose names
Will soon
Be forgotten.
 
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
 
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
Even during
His rigged
Imperial trial
When his friends
Abandoned him.
Though exhausted
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
He nonetheless
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
Enabling him
To proclaim
God’s Kingdom
To everyone.
.
 
2 COR 5:19
 
God’s preferential
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
 
LK 18: 9-14
 
Jesus’ parable
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Taught that
Self-justifying
Conventional morality
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
Generous tithes,
Sexual purity,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Instead,
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
Requires nothing
But membership
In the group
Considered sinful
By us pharisees and
Our conventional morality.

To unpack those readings, first of all, think of the last one in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’ time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally, Pharisees were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer. Each reading is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However, all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with people of color – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto, the barrio or favela. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

Yes, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” among us are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So, today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It’s not even a celebration of imagined virtue on the part of the poor or about repentance. It rejects all such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God, about those who belong and about us who exclude ourselves.

We Baptize Our New Grandson, Sebastian Nels

Last Sunday, we had yet another baptism in our family — this one of our new grandson, Sebastian Nels. And what a beautiful event it was!

Our daughter, Maggie (Sebastian’s mother) was the MC. Sebastian’s godmothers were outstanding. One, Eden Werring, gave a beautifully sung Jewish blessing; the other, Claudine Maidique read the Gibran classic “On Children.” Rob Silvan, the music minister at our new church here in Connecticut (Talmadge Hill Community Church) led us in singing “Down to the River” (from “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”), “Swimming to the Other Side,” “The Prayer of St. Francis, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Our son, Patrick, was here with his lovely girlfriend, Michelle. And later, we all retired to Maggie’s beautiful home here in Westport for the after-party. It featured a bluegrass band, a hot-dog food truck, and lots of good conversation and laughter. What fun!

As I remarked to Maggie, it was all perfect in its imperfection. The star of the event, however, was little Sebastian Nels. I’ve never seen a more tranquil baby. His quiet demeanor made the remarks I share below (my homily on the occasion) even more relevant. Please allow me share them with you. To begin with here are the readings:

  • LK 3: 21-22: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
  • LK 3:21-22: So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
  • MK 10: 13-16: 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

And here is the homily:

“Sebastian’s First Sermon”

Here we are yet again, gathered for yet another baptism. Having done this with Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya, it’s now Sebastian’s turn. These experiences are always so memorable.

Of course, Sebastian knows nothing of why we’re doing this. After all, as my good friend, Guy Patrick (also a former priest), reminds us, religion really isn’t for children, much less for babies. It’s an adult thing. And when children express boredom or rebellion against going to church or religious practice, we should patiently tell them, “Don’t worry, if you’re lucky, you’ll one day ‘get it,’ maybe when you grow up. And if you don’t get it then, perhaps you will in some other life.” (At least, that’s what Guy says. I think he’s right. He usually is about these things.)

So, what’s here for adults to “get”? Today’s readings and that beautiful song, “Swimming to the Other Side,” suggest an answer. Baptism, they tell us, is about personal transformation. It’s about navigating from the world’s way of thinking to God’s way, which lies on the other side of the Jordan, where Jesus himself was baptized. It’s about swimming against the world’s current to what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” God’s way of thinking is 180 degrees opposed to that of the world. It’s the very definition of “the other side.”

Think about Jesus’ own baptism. As a 30-something adult, he has evidently reached a decision point about the direction of his life. As a disciple of John, he’s seeking a new course; he wants to “swim to the other side.” So, like so many others (Luke tells us “all the people” were being baptized) he presents himself for a rite of conversion performed by John the Baptist whom Luke describes as completely counter-cultural in his dress, diet, and way of speaking. [Jesus will later describe him as the greatest person who has ever lived (MT 11:11).]

Anyway, Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, is pushed beneath the water, and emerges with a new vocation. He hears a voice that tells him “You are my beloved Son.” Evidently puzzled by that revelation, the next thing he does is to go out into the desert to discover what those words might mean.

He’s on a vision quest. And there, in the desert’s heat and cold, in the company of wild beasts and scorpions, the visions come to him. Fevered from 40 days of starvation and thirst, he sees angels, devils, and fantastic possible futures. He imagines stones as bread. He’s taken to a mountain, and to the pinnacle of the temple. The thought of suicide crosses his mind. He’s shown all the kingdoms of the world. He’s presented with unlimited possibilities.

In all of this, his question is the same as ours. Which will he choose? Will it be the world’s ways of pleasure, power, profit, and prestige? Or will he instead swim against the current and live out his identity as God’s beloved son?

We all know Jesus’ decision. He chose poverty over wealth, non-violence over violence, and identification with the poor, oppressed, tortured and victims of capital punishment. Those were his decisions. They’re what his followers claim commitment to.

What a challenge to us!

Sebastian, quite naturally, understands none of that.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s disconnected from Jesus’ vision quest or that his role here is entirely passive. Quite the contrary. By merely acting like a baby, Sebastian is preaching a sermon – his first one. He’s reminding us of what Jesus discovered in the desert. He’s showing us who we are as we come from the hand of God. He’s reminding us of what’s important in life. And it’s not what the world says. 

It’s not borders or of being American. Sebastian knows nothing of such things – nothing of male privilege, or white privilege, of war, lust, politics, or the power of money.

What he does know is love. He knows that he’s entitled to food and warmth, to the simplest of clothing. He’s aware of his entitlement to care from his mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and from all those strangers who are constantly fawning over him, picking him up, and making all those strange happy sounds. In our adult language, we’d call all of those human rights.

Yes, by simply being a baby, Sebastian is preaching us a sermon. He’s saying, “Be like me.

Set aside what the world values, because those values are categorically opposed to life as those closest to its origins experience it. Swim against the current. Swim to the other side to what Jesus called the God’s Kingdom. At your deepest level, live the consciousness I experience and exemplify.” Become as little children – or as St. Paul puts it: live in a world uncontaminated by race, class, or sexual orientation. In God’s world, Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Of course, we don’t know if any of this will stick for Sebastian. We don’t know if in this lifetime he’ll choose to follow Jesus’ teachings. We pray that he will. But at this moment – before he forgets –  his silence couldn’t be more eloquent in reminding us of the nature of life as it comes from the hands of God! This is his first sermon. Let’s all take it all in, remember it, – and now get on with his baptism.

What Stephen Saw (Yet We Do Not) — Homily for 7th Sunday of Easter

Readings for Seventh Sunday of Easter

ACTS 7:55-60

Stephen
Executed before Paul
Falls asleep
Envisioning God’s Kingdom
While forgiving the ignorant
Who cover their ears
Against hearing
The Human One
Who substitutes God’s Reign
Of compassion and love
For religion’s insatiable
Blood thirst. 

PS 97: 1-2, 6,7,9

Yes, Jesus’ Kingdom rests
Not on executioners’ haste
To throw the first stone
But on justice
Joy and gladness
For everyone
It confers judgment
Revealing
The emptiness of
Everything
Killers venerate.

REV 22:12-14, 16-17, 20

May God’s Kingdom come!
Even amid roadside missiles and martyrs’ gore.
Hear the urgency!
“Come, come, come, come, come, come”
Six times over:
Come Alpha and Omega
First and Last
Beginning and End
Root and branch
Starlight and Bride
Water and Life.

JN 17: 20-16

It’s about Unity
The Master assures
Five times he says:
One, one, one, one, one
We are
Close like Jesus and Abba.
Foundationally coherent
With them, Stephen, Paul
And those myopic men
Throwing rocks
Powerful enough
To awaken
Prophet’s rage
To know, know, know, know, know, know
(Count them!)
That God and
We are One
Rendering stones and blood
Impotent
To destroy
Shared unity
At divine core.






	

Americans Love Jesus, but Hate His Politics

Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 1 SM 28: 2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 15: 45-49; LK 6: 27-38

This Sunday’s instruction from Jesus stands on its own. Comment seems hardly necessary.

Instead, Jesus’ unadorned words should turn bright red the faces of all in our country who claim to be his followers. For they contradict our economic system and entire way of life driven as it is by the military-industrial complex, unending wars, and an economic system that victimizes the poorest among us, while enriching beyond belief a tiny minority.

Moreover, Jesus’ teachings call entirely into question the “realism” of mainstream politicians. Such realism ridicules anyone (like Marianne Williamson) who might have us adopt Jesus’ approach before it’s too late.

Think about that in the light of our readings from the Gospel of Luke these past few weeks. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a summary of Jesus’ absolutely radical, highly political program found in the passages we’ve read. To begin with, he describes his entire purpose in this way:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me 
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Notice the undeniable political thrust of Jesus’ teaching. He emphasizes bringing good news to the impoverished. He wants to clear out the prisons, to cure the disabled and liberate those oppressed (by the Roman empire that controlled Israel in Jesus’ day). Notice he is proclaiming a Jubilee Year with its debt forgiveness, release of slaves, and radical land reform. That’s Jesus’ agenda. It’s undeniably political; it’s directed towards the poor.

And just in case we might miss the point, our readings of just last week had Jesus continue like this:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh . . .
But woe to you who are rich . . .
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

As I indicated last week, those words should shock us. Jesus’ words turn everything upside-down. It’s the poor who are God’s favored, not the rich. According to his promise, the poor will govern God’s Kingdom (a highly politicized image for what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar). By contrast, the rich, well-fed, the apparently happy and admired stand in God’s disfavor.

Read those words again. Imagine if our leaders insisted that they instead of the Ten Commandments be posted in front of our court houses and on school walls! “Blessed are you poor! Woe to you rich!”

But the evangelist still isn’t finished. Here’s what he has Jesus say in today’s Gospel selection:

“To you who hear, I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you . . .  (L) end expecting nothing back . . .”

And yet, despite such clear instruction, here’s what our “Christian” criminals in Washington do (with scarcely a whimper of objection from us “believers”):

  • They spend more on war than the next 12 countries combined.
  • They’re currently fighting wars against poor people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ethiopia – having just destroyed Libya and previously most of the countries in Central America.
  • Against all the principles of international law, they’re tightening the screws on Venezuela causing hunger and shortages of medicine in order to spark rebellion against a government that has not attacked the United States.
  • They have their eyes set on regime change in Nicaragua and Cuba which have harmed the U.S. in no way at all.
  • They’re cooperating with Saudi Arabia in bombing to smithereens Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. (And virtually none of us can explain exactly why. Can you?)

With that in mind, doesn’t it seem true to say U.S. policy (especially towards the world’s poor) is 180 degrees opposed to what Jesus is reported to have said? It’s as if Jesus taught:

“To you who hear I say, hate your enemies. Annihilate those who disagree with you. Curse those who speak ill of you. Condemn those who retaliate against you. If someone defends himself by striking you back, waste him. And take everything from the person who tries to recover what you yourselves have stolen; put them in prison and throw away the key. Ignore those who seek alms from you; they’re just lazy freeloaders. And jail the one who takes what your system denies him making sure he pays back every cent with interest. Do others before they can do you. Lend at the highest rate of interest the market will bear – even if it causes women and children to starve.”

Just look at the world such departures from Jesus’ wisdom have produced!

Still, when someone (e.g. like Marianne Williamson) comes forward calling the nation to a radical spiritual change based on the elementary teaching found not only in Christianity but in all religions – viz. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – she’s dismissed as “impractical,” “unrealistic,” and “new age”

No, that teaching is “old age.” It comes from Jesus! It represents his political program.

Isn’t it time for politicians to reverse course and follow the teachings of the spiritual Master they claim as the Savior of the world? For starters, truly following Jesus’ political program that we’ve reviewed these past few weeks would have us:

  • Assume leadership in the fight against climate change
  • Cut our defense budget by at least two-thirds
  • Withdraw from all foreign wars
  • Repair the damage done by those conflicts
  • Close our country’s military bases across the world
  • Forgive the debt of the former colonies
  • Completely reform our prison system from one dominated by punishment to one centered on rehabilitation
  • Make reparation to the descendants of former slaves
  • Renounce interference in foreign elections (as we would have others do in relation to our own voting system)
  • And so much more

You get the idea. I get the idea. Or maybe we can’t . . .

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: (Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

SON OF GOD
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)