Forget Despair (If you can): Neither Betrayal by Our “Leaders” nor Personal Death Is Final

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Psalms 130: 1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11: 1-45 

On this fifth Sunday of Lent our readings prepare for Easter by directing us to consider death and resurrection both politically and personally.

The readings are especially poignant and relevant at a time when as a people we appear to be in a cruel political captivity not unlike that of Israel more than 2500 years ago. Besides that, the loss of loved ones to the Coronavirus has brought into so many families the experience of Martha and Mary bereft of their beloved brother Lazarus who was so dear to their family’s close friend, Jesus the Christ.

Our Own Babylonian Captivity

Today’s first reading reminds us that we’re like Israel during its Babylonian Captivity. The prophet Ezekiel addresses that latter situation right off the bat. His sixth century was the saddest of times for his people – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Judah’s leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

Like his audience, we’re undeniably in the grip of cruel masters. During the COVOD-19 crisis, our version of captivity has our “public servants” treating us as if we were aliens in a Babylon that belongs to them and their rich donors. It’s as if we were powerless defeated foreigners under their power rather than their employers. That’s shown by the fact that they’ve dealt with the Coronavirus problem not by improving the people’s healthcare system. Instead they’ve used the crisis to take care of the bank accounts of their sponsors who end up being our captors! In other words, we’re the victims of a coup by the corporate elite and their congressional minions. There seems no way out.

That’s the way Matt Stoller, research director at the American Economic Liberties Project, has described the bailout. His recent column for the Guardian is entitled “The coronavirus relief bill could turn into a corporate coup if we aren’t careful.”

According to Stoller, suddenly, under the pressure of COVID-19 congressional representatives on retainer from corporations like Boeing and Citibank found the very money they claimed wasn’t there when it came to providing for us the same healthcare that every other industrialized nation offers taxpayers. Suddenly that money materialized out of nowhere, but not to cure the failed “healthcare market,” but to heal instead their failed stock market and to save a moribund capitalism.

Predictably, they’ll use that money not principally to address COVID-19, but to eventually buy up distressed businesses and taxpayers’ homes. (Stoller warns that we may end up with just three retailers in this country: Amazon, Walmart, and Costco.) In the process, they’ll gift dividends to their investors and bonuses to their CEOs. They’ll also further consolidate their control of the nation’s and world’s economy. It’s pure Disaster Capitalism as described so well by Naomi Klein. Absolutely no one asked legislators, “How are you going to pay for the generosity you’ve just extended to your corporate sponsors?”

Meanwhile, “our” representatives have given highly conditioned, means-tested crumbs to the rest of us. It’s what the Mafia does. As Jimmy Dore says, they rip off the ones who pay them protection money all year. Then give their proteges a turkey at Thanksgiving – and expect gratitude in return.

I mean, none of what the Congress passed showed any awareness of dealing directly with the actual problems facing our nation in the face of COVID-19. They’ve done nothing to immediately address the lack or face masks, hospital beds, or respirators, — much less that universal healthcare insurance which our situation absolutely cries out for.

No, healthcare and all the rest have been left to the mechanisms of trickle-down economics and private insurance companies. The implication is that if we take care of Wall Street first, our immediate healthcare needs will somehow be met one day when private enterprise finally decides to produce what we so desperately need right now. We’ve seen this horror movie before.

And just watch the dead bodies pile up while we wait. It’s already happening. And the crisis hasn’t nearly peaked.

We are captives. We are enslaved in this New Babylon by resuscitated Robber Barons!

Biblical Analogs

Nonetheless, in the face of all this, today’s readings urge us not to give up hope either in the face of seemingly inescapable exploitation nor in that of premature death. As such the readings are not just happy talk. They’re seriously calling us instead to face the undeniable fact that this too will pass. It will. And (hard as it might be to believe) what we’re promised instead is God’s Kingdom. The Robber Baron system is on its last legs.

Babylon’s empire fell; so did Rome’s. And genuine tears, compassion, and words of comfort like those Jesus shared with Martha and Mary can somehow restore life that seemed hopelessly lost. Both Ezekiel and Jesus believed in resurrection. In the present crisis, their followers are urged to do the same.

Review the readings for yourself here. What follows are my own “translations” of their content.

Ezekiel 37: 12-14 Death as a Metaphor for Political Captivity: Five hundred years before Jesus, while God’s people were imprisoned in what we now call Iraq, the Prophet Ezekiel predicted their release from captivity and return to Judah. It would be, he promised, like a resurrection from the dead. God’s people would once again experience her goodness and feel Life’s Spirit rushing through their veins.

Psalm 130: 1-8: The Spirit of God Favors Such Release: This is because when people cry out to their Great Mother, God always hears. She is completely trustworthy, kind, and above all, forgiving.

Romans 8: 8-11: And This Despite the World’s Denial: No one ever enjoys fullness of life living by the values of the world. That’s because we are not merely bodies as the world teaches. No, we are Divine Spirits who enjoy our bodies to serve the world, just as Jesus did. So, don’t worry. What the world calls defeat and death can never be final. The Divine Spirit we share will always return to life.   

John 11: 5A, 26: So, those who follow the path trod by our Enlightened Master are never afraid of death. They never give up.

John 11: 1-45: A Living Parable Showing that Death Does Not Have the Final Word: Lazarus along with his sisters Mary and Martha were among Jesus’ best friends. So, the Master was heartbroken when word reached his hideout that Lazarus was deathly ill. However, his careful measures to avoid the police kept Jesus from getting to Lazarus’ home before it was too late. When he finally arrived, a distraught Martha gently scolded him for his delay. Mary was softer in her expression of disappointment. “I’m sorry,” Jesus said through his own tears, “but don’t you see that nothing in this world – not even death – is final. Life always has the last word. That’s true for Lazarus; it will be true for our suffering people.” Unconvincingly, both Martha and Mary nodded agreement. He embraced both sisters fondly and asked to be taken to Lazarus’ tomb. Once there, from his profound heartache, Jesus shouted, “I’m so sorry, Lazarus. I loved you so much, my dear brother!” And true to his words, Jesus’ grief and evident love somehow made everyone realize that he was right: death is not the end. Everyone’s sorrow turned instantly to joy. It was miraculous!

Conclusion

Once again, I know that in our present crisis, it’s almost impossible to take those hopeful readings to heart. It’s hard to believe that one day we’ll be released from the captivity of the rich and powerful who are using the COVID-19 crisis to even further consolidate their power over us. It’s hard in such circumstances to believe that Life and History are on our side.

But that’s what our readings today call us to. Improbably it seems, they ask us to believe that Life and Justice will eventually triumph over the ways of the world that seem so overwhelming and powerful — that seem to be winning.

The hammerlock the rich have on all of us is painful and seems absolutely inescapable. They don’t care about us and neither do most of our elected officials.

Meanwhile as we sweep up our crumbs, as we await our Thanksgiving turkey, we have to watch our loved ones die for lack of testing kits, face masks, hospital beds, protective clothing for heroic healthcare workers, and universal healthcare coverage for the rest of us. It’s all so sad. As with Ezekiel’s people in Babylon, as with tearful Martha and Mary – and Jesus – we’re hard put to believe in resurrection. But Easter is on the horizon. . .

Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

(Sunday Homily) Marianne Williamson Raises Jesus from the Dead!

Marianne

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45

Last week, the great spiritual teacher and social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson came through Berea like a Pentecost whirlwind. The message she brought connects intimately with today’s Liturgy of the Word that centralizes the political realities of resurrection from the dead in hopeless circumstances like those we’re currently experiencing in the United States.

Marianne Williamson had been invited to Berea College by my wife, Peggy, who heads the Women and Gender Studies program there. It was a real coup. Peggy worked for months trying to make it happen. In the realm of spiritual leadership, she (Marianne and my wife too) is a rock star.

Ms. Williamson not only presented an inspiring hour and a half convocation lecture with Q&A, she did the same thing for an hour at Peggy’s “Peanut Butter & Gender” luncheon series at noon. Afterwards, Peggy and I along with Berea’s president and seven of the college’s feminist leaders shared supper with Marianne at Berea’s famous Boone Tavern. To top it all off, Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary back to Cincinnati – a two-hour trip that was filled with wonderful conversation about (as my blog site puts it, “Things that Matter”). The whole experience was for me unforgettable.

Here are a few nuggets of Marianne’s wisdom:

  • In the Trump phenomenon, we’ve witnessed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has poor and middle class people identifying with and seeming to love their captors and oppressors.
  • Our country and the world are in unprecedented crisis. Our Titanic is headed towards huge icebergs represented by nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical poisoning.
  • In such context, citizens, not politicians, are captains of our ship. There is nothing more important than our seizing control before it’s too late. Working to do so should fill our waking hours.
  • Young people, no doubt, have much to offer in helping our ship to reverse course. However, as community elders, others of us are Keepers of the Story. We remember the invaluable lessons of Malcolm, MLK, Dorothy Day, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We experienced the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. We must share that experience and the understanding it generated.
  • If in doing so, you find everyone agreeing with you, you’re probably not speaking the truth.
  • On the other hand, when you hear the truth spoken (even if others are rolling their eyes), it’s incumbent on you to say, “Actually I agree with her,” if that’s the case. Studies show that speaking up like that encourages others to overcome inhibitions in advancing the conversation and speaking more truthfully.
  • In its attempts to speak truth, the left is making a huge mistake by not owning the power of faith. It was no accident that abolitionists and women suffragists were Quakers. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher or that Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu prophet.
  • Imitate those people of faith. It’s no use waiting for the others to “come around.” The majority didn’t support abolition of slavery, women getting the vote, the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage – or the American Revolution, for that matter. Such changes were effected by relatively small groups of highly committed idealists.
  • In fact, people are hungering for spiritual nourishment; and if they’re not offered authentic spirituality, they’ll accept its ersatz version.
  • That’s a reality that the political right has exploited. It has substituted a Prosperity Gospel that worships capitalism and money for authentic spirituality’s advocacy of social justice.
  • In the Christian context, the ersatz version has figuratively killed Jesus, who needs once again to be raised from the dead.

It’s that last point that especially connects with today’s liturgical readings – and with our current seemingly hopeless political reality. There to begin with, Ezekiel coins the concept of “raising from the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In her convocation address to Berea College students, Marianne Williamson embraced not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. She did so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 45 years. It’s that version, Marianne said, which has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor and all of God’s creation, not to the rich whom ersatz Christians prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Marianne strongly implied that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is chillingly represented recently by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

As Ms. Williamson indicated, no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan on the one hand, and Marianne, and Jesus on the other are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, today’s Gospel reading calls him back to life. It’s as if the followers of the authentic Jesus were standing before his grave shouting ”Come Forth!”

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews our faith.

Our faith is renewed because, as Marianne reminded us last week, we recognize in Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

As Marianne Williamson constantly reminds her congregations, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” She  reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So today, as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo her cry: “Jesus, come forth!” And then for the rest of our lives, let our actions make that resurrection happen in our own!