Today, I begin a recording of a novel I wrote more than 20 years ago. At my current age of 81, I just want to get the book out in the public in some form while I still can. The novel is called The Pope, His Chamberlain, The Jinetera & Fidel.
It’s a fictional story about Pope John Paul II’s actual 1997 trip to Cuba. I repeat: it’s a fictional story. So, don’t go accusing the sainted pope of the moral failing I place at the story’s center.
On the other hand, the tale was inspired by my own actual first journey to Cuba in the summer of 1996. It reflects what I learned there during a two-week stay under the auspices of the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs – again, the first of many sojourns for me in the adopted home of Che Guevara and Assata Shakur. I’ve visited Cuba more than a dozen times since.
I originally wrote the book as a virtual vehicle for taking my friends and students to Cuba — to expose them to what I experienced during the 1990s “special period” there — and to clear up common misperceptions about life on the island. It was during the ’90s that U.S. sanctions coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union (and Cuba’s loss in the process of 85% of its trading partners) made life nearly unbearable for the Cuban people.
Today, something similar is transpiring for Cubans. The COVID-19 pandemic along with intensified U.S. sanctions have once again brought the tiny nation to its knees. (Hence the protests we’ve all heard so much about.) So, Cuba today is very similar to the Cuba of the last century’s final decade which is the novel’s setting.
The book’s relevance also stems from its indirect exposition of liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years. Pope John Paul II was its foremost opponent. I’d like readers to come away with a better understanding of that theology and social movements it inspired.
Here’s my bottom line: though largely fictional, the descriptions I’ve portrayed here are true in that many of them reflect my own experience. In the introductions to relevant chapters, I’ll emphasize those non-fictional details.
In any case, I hope that you’ll enjoy to some degree what I’ll read here – a chapter more or less each day for the next month or so.
So, get ready. Here it is: the opening of The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel.
(By the way, as a work still in progress, the book begs for suggestions about improving or changing it. So feel free to offer advice.)
Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 38: 8-11; Psalm 107: 23-31; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; Mark 4: 35-41
This Sunday’s readings celebrate water as a fundamental gift from the universe. They remind us that without water life itself is impossible.
More specifically, the account of Jesus calming a storm at sea centralizes the Master’s impatience with our fearful paralysis in the face of nature’s brute force demonstrated today in the disaster of climate chaos.
In the process, today’s selections also give insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship deals with the miraculous that post-moderns might reject out of hand as unacceptable or simply childish. Such knee-jerk reaction closes us off to the saving relevance of biblical narratives like those we encounter on this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
To avoid such dismissal, contemporary scholarship applies what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the principle of analogy. It says that we should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present. In applying that rule, scholars’ purpose is to get to the historical facts and (more importantly) to the human meanings that may lie behind biblical stories most of us might otherwise reject.
Let’s apply that principle to the Gospel story just mentioned (Jesus’ calming of a threatening storm). Doing so will unexpectedly reveal the humanity of Jesus as it calls us to recognize the Great Parent’s gift of water and its human-induced crisis.
Our Water Crisis
To set all of that up, however, consider more generally our readings’ focus on water.
Today’s biblical excerpts tell us that the ocean represents the Goddess’ ultimate self-disclosure. It manifests her sacred order. When waters are in trouble, human life itself is endangered.
And the planet’s waters are certainly in danger as we speak.
Think for example about the importance of water. Evolutionarily speaking, we all came from the ocean. Up to 60% of the adult human body remains water. Seventy-three percent of brain and heart are composed of water; the lungs are about 83% H2O. In the absence of potable water, we inevitably perish.
And yet, humans have come to treat this miraculous gift as simply another commodity. In my privileged position as a community elder, I still can’t believe that we bottle water in plastic, sell it at a price that far exceeds gasoline, and then throw its plastic container into the ocean, where it kills whales and other sea life.
In fact, the world’s oceans have become for us like huge commodes where we spew not only human but industrial waste including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and nuclear detritus. With virtual impunity, cargo ships flush and spill oil into our seas along with untold chemicals. Islands of plastic the size of entire countries threaten to replace the earthen landmasses our post-industrial lifestyles surrender to surging sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. Wars waged primarily by the United States and its allies routinely bomb water purification plants serving civilian populations – as in Yemen and Gaza.
Then when those immediately affected by such disasters arise as anti-colonialists or “water protectors,” authorities employ police, dogs, tear gas, live ammunition and water cannons to make them cease and desist. Elected officials enlist reporters and media in general to discredit protestors, even branding protectors of water as terrorists.
However, one Protestor whom industry-friendly authorities cannot silence is Mother Earth herself. Her responses to her children’s shameless elder abuse include tsunamis, hurricanes, massive flooding, and destruction of entire cities. The Earth’s response is to promise destruction of human life as we know it.
Despite all that, humans seem paralyzed by the multifaceted water crisis at hand. We end up arguing about the reality of the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. We’re like Jesus and his disciples caught at sea in the eye of a terrible squall while they waste time and energy paralyzed by argument about who’s to blame.
At least, that’s the interpretation of today’s final reading as given by Cuban theologians Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Jose Ignacio in Just Jesus. (The book is based on a radio program series they broadcast some years ago throughout Latin America. Scandalously to many and delightfully to even more, the airwave transmission attempted to put a human face on Jesus that accords with the interpretations of the modern scholarship mentioned above.)
Accordingly, the Lopez Vigils attempt to uncover the real-life basis of the story (assuming, of course, that some suggestive event may have actually occurred and that the account wasn’t a whole cloth invention of Mark’s community). In doing so, the Lopez Vigils implicitly take note of revealing phrases in today’s reading indicating that:
As a construction worker, not a seafarer, Jesus was out of his element in a boat. (He was truly “at sea.”)
It was he who suggested a late evening crossing of the sea.
In Mark’s mysterious words, his fisherman friends took him “just as he was.”
Jesus fell asleep and improbably remained unconscious even though the boat was tossed about and in danger of being swamped.
The disciples awaken the Master and blame him for not caring about their fate.
Jesus responds with a shout calling for “quiet” and “calm,” and with remonstrations about unwarranted fear and lack of faith.
With all of that in mind, the Lopez Vigils, elaborate Mark’s spare account. Their analysis involves an inexperienced landlubber Jesus persuading his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee despite indications of an approaching storm. Against their better judgment those veteran seamen obey.
Then Jesus gets seasick and passes out. In the middle of the trip, the storm hits, but the comatose Jesus remains dead to the world. The frantic disciples shake him awake. They blame not only him, but their terrified companions for not paying attention to what their experienced eyes told them would inevitably happen.
But instead of entering argument, Jesus shouts to everyone to shut up and start rowing. Miraculously, it seemed, the disciples’ resulting efforts save the day and bring them successfully to shore.
Put all of that in the larger context that includes all of today’s liturgy of the word, and (for me) it comes out something like my following “translations.” Please check out the originals here to see if I got them right:
Job 38: 1, 8-11
Our Holy Mother Earth
Through the ocean
To which her laws
Set firm boundaries
As if behind a mighty
Firmly sealed door.
As if its waters burst
From her very womb,
Attired at night
In shrouds of darkness
And by day in raiment
Of fluffy white clouds.
Psalm 107: 24-31
Thus, we know
Her love and power
As every astonished sailor
As huge breakers
Their magnificent vessels
Raising them like toys
To the heavens
Then thrusting them
Towards a bottomless abyss.
Their desperate prayers
Seek answer in Goddess calm
And safe return home.
(For such answered invocations
We are grateful.)
2 Corinthians 5: 14-17
Our Master Jesus
Knew such fearful threat
But his sailor’s prayers
Finally went unanswered.
Instead, he showed us
How to die
Under his saving conviction
That life can never end
And that apparent death
Leads inevitably to
Mark 4: 35-41
To illustrate his faith,
His friends recalled
How one day
Amid a fearful squall
The landlubber Jesus
And passed out.
How he came to
And shouted indignantly
At his paralyzed friends
To overcome their fears
And row mightily
Against the mountain waves
Until as if by miracle
They reached calm haven.
Some however remembered
That like creation’s Goddess
He had quieted
The storm directly
With his angry remonstrations alone.
(Both versions may be true.)
So here we are, like Jesus, knowing full well our basic relationship to water, but nonetheless landlubbers with little understanding of the sea, oceans, and the laws governing such bodies.
And so, we blithely endanger our lives by adopting courses of action that fly in the face of Mother Nature’s warnings that are abundantly apparent not only to climate scientists, but to “water protectors,” fishermen, and others mystically in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms.
Today’s readings make us aware that (again, like a sleeping Jesus) we can still be shaken awake by the more insightful among us.
Then once awakened, we need to listen to the courageous Master’s voice shouting at us to overcome our paralysis and fear. We cannot depend on divine intervention, the improbably miraculous, or on some scientific deus ex machina that will suddenly save us.
Instead, accepting the principle of analogy, we need ourselves to seize the oars of what’s become our Lifeboat Earth and row mightily against the mountainous waves that will otherwise engulf and swallow all of us including our children and grandchildren.
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:
“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).
“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).
“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
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).
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.]
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.
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
[This is a second reflection on a pair of Zoom experiences I had last Monday. I reported the first here – some comments I made at a meeting of the Y’s Men of Westport. What I said and my insistence on saying it had me wondering about my role in the world during this third stage of my life. How much should I say? To what extent should I just shut up?
Today, I’m reporting on a Zoom meeting later that same day. It had me co-leading a Lenten discussion at our new church in Westport, CT. It was our third pre-Easter session devoted to examining controversial topics connected with our faith. Two weeks earlier, we had discussed miracles, their nature and possibility. A week later, the topic was healing. The topic last Monday was the question of “Jesus for the poor.”
With the pastor’s consent, here’s the way I approached it.]
The question of Jesus and poverty is fundamentally a religious question. And religion, of course, is a language. It marries words and concepts to a fundamentally ineffable (beyond words) experience that is open to all people. When that experience occurs in China, it comes out as Buddhism or Confucianism; when it happens in India, it’s expressed as Hinduism; when it happens in Arabia, it takes the form of Islam.
When the religious impulse finds words among the world’s poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective lives, it is expressed as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, I mean that: the biblical tradition (virtually alone among the world’s great literature) thematically reflects the religious consciousness of awakened and impoverished victims of imperialism.
More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition found its origin among slaves in pharaonic Egypt. Those slaves formed a people (called Hebrews or “rebels”) who retained their worship of a God favoring ex-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident foreigners throughout their history of domination by empires of various sorts – under Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.
The Tradition’s Foundational Story
That fact becomes clear when we consider the basic biblical story. According to virtually all mainstream scripture scholars, that narrative begins not with Adam and Eve in the garden, but with the liberation of a motley group of slaves of various ethnic identities. The story told to give them a sense of national unity runs as follows:
Jesus the Christ
Here it is important to note that Jesus appeared precisely in the prophetic tradition. His message represented a defense of the poor. This is abundantly clear from the program he articulated in Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel:
Jesus’ program represented a reversal of the world’s values. Everything in God’s kingdom would be turned upside-down. According to Luke’s “Beatitudes,” the poor would be blessed, so would the hungry and thirsty along with those suffering persecutions. Meanwhile the rich would be condemned. “Woe to you rich,” Jesus is remembered as saying, “you’ve had your reward.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will soon be weeping.” In other words, Jesus’ understanding of God’s future entailed a complete reversal of the world’s social arrangement. As he put it, “The first would be last and the last would be first” (MT 20:16).
What’s more, the early Christian community’s interpretation of Jesus’ message underlined the entire tradition’s “preferential option for the poor.” In the first Christians’ efforts to follow the Master, they actually sold what they had and gave it to the poor. That way of life is reflected in three important passages from the Acts of the Apostles:
With all of that in mind, you can see why the Christian message was so popular with slaves, the poor, with social outcasts. You can see how it inspired revolts as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. You can also understand why Rome became alarmed and famously ended up sponsoring all those persecutions which iconically fed so many Christians to lions and other beasts in the Colosseum. However, it was all to no avail – as Christianity continued to spread like wildfire.
So, at the beginning of the 4th century of our era, the emperor Constantine decided to co-op Christianity. But to do so, the new religion’s basic narrative had to be changed. It became Romanized and was effectively transformed into a Roman mystery cult.
Mystery cults worshipped gods like Mithra (whose feast day btw was Dec. 25th), Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother God. Their stories had the god descend from heaven, die, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven from which s/he offered life everlasting to believers who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.
In Christian form, the narrative supporting such belief was best expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. Drawing on stories in the book of Genesis and on statements found in Pauline writings, this is the story with which Augustine shaped and captivated Christian belief for the next 1500 years:
Notice here how the story abstracts not only from the histories of Judea and Israel, but from Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God and its Great Reversal in the here and now. Instead, everything is mythologized.
And that brings us to our discussion questions:
What are your questions about the information in these slides?
What surprised you about that information?
What (if anything) do you find questionable or unacceptable about it?
What are the implications of this approach to the bible and Jesus for your own faith?
What are the implications of this approach for the Talmadge Hill Community Church?
My 1st & 2nd Mistakes
Of course, anyone reading what I’ve just presented can see that my first mistake was speaking too long and presenting too many new ideas for a 90-minute discussion. (My face is still bright red.)
My second mistake was even worse.
The slides I just presented had been shared beforehand with our group of about 20. And one member had done his homework. After expressing appreciation for my work, he went on to list in detail his points of disagreement. He began with his belief that the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition was indeed found in Genesis, not Exodus. He went on to say that my presentation overlooked the crucial fact that Jesus is divine, the very Son of God, and that his words about poverty were meant to be taken in a spiritual rather than in a material sense.
In response, I should have kept silent. And if I chose to respond, I should have said, “I really appreciate your taking the time to express so well and clearly the most important points of the Augustinian story. What you’ve done sets us up perfectly for comparing the two basic biblical stories we’ve just reviewed. Does anyone else in the group have similar or different thoughts from the ones just expressed?”
That’s what I should have said.
However, instead (and forgetting all I’ve learned from 40 years of teaching this stuff) I attempted to respond point-by-point to the issues my friend had so well summarized.
Mine was such a bad decision that at one point, the pastor had to cut me off to give other people a chance. (As I said, my face is still a vivid crimson.)
I didn’t sleep well Monday night. I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I ever learn?” I even thought, “I’m getting too old to do this sort of thing. I think my days of teaching, public speaking, and playing leadership roles in church might be over. I’ve got to learn to say less and to stop trying to convince others about what I’ve learned over all my years of studying and dialoguing with Global South scholars. It’s all counterproductive.”
The next morning, however, things appeared a bit less dire. I received telephone calls of encouragement from the co-leading pastor and some others. Emails tried to console me. (But all of that almost made matters worse. It made me think, “They’re just trying to make me feel good. It must have been more awful than I thought.”)
The problem is that I still feel so passionate about rescuing the Jesus tradition from the irrelevance of its domestication by Augustine and subsequent theologians.
In a world of globalized poverty and exploitation, the life, words and teachings of the historical Jesus are too powerful to keep silent about. I’m just going to learn from this sobering, uncomfortable lesson and move on.
This is about something much bigger than my mistakes as a teacher.
Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.
That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.
Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.
The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.
I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.
Let me explain.
Religion’s Sudden Decline
Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.
What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.
That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.
All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.
For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:
That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
That they stay at home and care for their offspring
That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality
However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.
And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.
Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)
However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.
To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.
The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.
Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.
Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.
Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.
In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.
All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.
In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.
Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.
Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.
Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.
More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.
For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.
In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.
Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.
All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.
And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?
More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?
For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:
First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran. To ignore this truism is to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.
I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s remarkable autobiography, A Promised Land. Its biblical title invites reflection about the theological orientation and resulting policies of the man the book portrays. By his own testimony, that direction was originally set by Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side.
James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology has described Dr. Wright as Black liberation theology’s foremost contemporary exponent. So, in Mr. Obama, the United States experienced not only its first Black president, but its first chief executive to have been shaped spiritually by liberation theology.
With all of that in mind, the point of the following review of The Promised Land will be that had Mr. Obama employed what he learned at the feet of Jeremiah Wright, his policies would have been markedly different from their actual forms. Practically speaking, they would have more resembled those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than a continuation of the neoliberal legacy of Bill Clinton. They would have set the country on a profoundly different and more widely beneficial trajectory from the one we are currently following.
Professed devout Catholic, Joe Biden, should take note. The radical biblical tradition espoused not only by Wright and Cone, but by King and William Barber – i.e., championed by thought leaders among Mr. Biden’s most crucial constituents – won’t support a return to “normalcy.” It requires policies that prioritize the needs not of Wall Street, but of the poor. It demands departure from Barack Obama’s business as usual.
And that brings me precisely to liberation theology.
In case you’ve forgotten, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective life economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.
Its Judeo-Christian orientation is about political and economic starting points and end points.
Sociologically speaking, it begins (as OpEdNews’ Rob Kall would say) from the “bottom up.” In the case of the Jewish tradition, it starts with the liberation of slaves in Egypt by a Life-Force they called “Yahweh.” It ends with Yahweh’s pledge to give the enslaved (as Mr. Obama’s book title reminds us) “A Promised Land.”
In its Christian form, the tradition starts with a poor houseless child who grows into a prophet. He promises dispossessed victims of the Roman Empire the end point of “the kingdom of God.” By this he meant a world where God is king instead of Caesar – a world with room for everyone. For liberation theology, that’s the North Star – the guiding vision meant to shape all of life, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually – a world where no one is excluded or marginalized
Following that star, liberation theology emphasizes what the Christian Testament’s Paul of Tarsus calls “the wisdom of God” contrasted sharply with “the wisdom of the world” (I Cor. 2: 1-16). In modern terms, the wisdom of the world is trickle-down; it begins with the well-off. It holds that if the wealthy prosper, the tide that lifts their luxury yachts will lift all boats. By contrast, God’s bottom-up wisdom begins with the well-being of the poor.
Unfortunately, the policies, Mr. Obama describes in A Promised Land ended up reflecting the former over the latter.
Jeremiah Wright’s Influence on Mr. Obama
That reflection contrasts dramatically with what scandalized America’s right wing when it first encountered Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology. The discovery occurred soon after they realized that Barack and Michelle Obama not only were parishioners of a fiercely radical black pastor, but that he had officiated at their wedding (A Promised Land 23).
That sent conservatives scurrying to unearth evidence of Wright’s (and by extension Obama’s) unacceptably extreme viewpoints. In fact, what their excavations uncovered nearly terminated Mr. Obama’s political ambitions (140).
That’s because (true to liberation theology’s form) Wright’s words explicitly foregrounded the experience of the poor as victims of what he called U.S. terrorism. His sermons often traced it from the genocide of Native Americans, through the enslavement of Africans, to Middle Eastern policies that, he said, invited the tragic events of 9/11/2001. It led him to refer to his country as the “USA of KKK,” and to conclude, “Not God bless America,” but “God damn America” (140).
Despite all of that, and notwithstanding his eventual repudiation of his former pastor, President Obama’s testifies in A Promised Land that Rev. Wright remained an important part of his consciousness (142). And so, throughout his narrative, the former chief executive gives indications of critical truths often reminiscent those voiced (albeit more forcefully) by his one-time pastor. For instance, Mr. Obama recalls that:
As part of a generation willing to question the U.S. government (456), he frequently found Wright’s black liberation theology inspiring and as channeling the understandable rage of black people in general (119, 141).
Not only did Rev. Wright’s disturbing insights become part of his consciousness, but so did the radical thought of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash (11) – along with those of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the belatedly revered socialist, Nelson Mandela (598).
He realized that despite the convictions of many liberals, America’s race problems are far from being solved (128).
He felt impatient with having to soften blunt truths that whites find disturbing (121).
He himself had often experienced police harassment (395).
He found sympathy with the assessment of critics like Wright that America’s “. . . ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start” (xv).
In fact, after World War II, the U.S. had “. . . bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether . . . meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results;” and its “. . . actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination and human rights. . .” (329).
America’s war in Vietnam was no less brutal than the Soviet Union’s repression of Hungary (469).
The criminal U.S.-supported Shah of Iran and his feared SAVAK secret police were typical of murderous client regimes supported by America in the Global South following World War II (310, 450-1).
The Shah’s regime was part of U.S. Mideast policy that needlessly alienated Muslims throughout the world. That policy tolerated corruption and repression in the region and routinely humiliated Palestinians (358).
China represents an attractive alternative (to the United States’) model for the developing world (481).
That’s true especially after so many Global South countries embraced the illusory “wisdom” of the Washington Neoliberal Consensus and thus followed America over a fatal precipice (330).
Obama’s Repudiation of Wright(and radical change)
Despite such insights, Mr. Obama’s presidential ambitions not only made it necessary for him to repudiate Jeremiah Wright, but evidently to adopt a series of policies that contradicted the tenets of liberation theology. His policies prioritized the welfare of the rich over those of the working class and poor. Accordingly, the president ends up admitting that:
Because of the financial crisis, he did not follow through on his campaign promises to U.S. workers (177).
For him, the financial markets (presumably as opposed to wage earners) were the only audience that really mattered (304).
His interventions alone were responsible for saving bankers from wage earners’ justified anger and retaliation (297).
Resulting white working-class anger, e.g., in Pennsylvania about jobs lost through such neoliberal policies, was justified (144).
In retrospect, bank nationalization and prosecution of crooked bankers might have been a better solution to the Crisis of 2008 than the bailouts favored by his economic team (280, 296, 305).
By avoiding that solution and bowing to bankers’ interests, Obama consciously missed a once-in-a-generation chance to reengineer the overall economy in a bottom-up way reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal (304).
He could have done so, because of his 70% approval rating coupled with the super majority he possessed in the Congress at the outset of his first term (225, 378, 243).
Nowhere in his autobiography does Mr. Obama reveal his repudiation of Wright’s outspokenness than in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil tragedy of 2010. There, BP Oil had unleashed the most devastating oil spill in the history of offshore drilling. It lasted for 87 days and pumped out into the ocean at least 20,000 (and possibly 50,000) barrels of oil daily (569).
As time wore on and scientists and engineers scrambled to cap the leaks, Republicans increasingly blamed the president for the failure to do so. They even referred to it as “Obama’s Katrina” (569).
What Mr. Obama’s best instincts told him to say in response was reminiscent of Wright’s candor – this time in favor of perhaps the earth’s most oppressed being, Mother Earth Herself. According to the former president, he should have said:
“. . . the only way to truly guarantee that we didn’t have another catastrophic oil spill in the future was to stop drilling entirely; but that wasn’t going to happen because at the end of the day we Americans loved our cheap gas and big cars more than we cared about the environment except when a complete disaster was staring us in the face, and in the absence of such disaster, the media rarely covered efforts to shift America off fossil fuels or pass climate change legislation, since actually educating the public would be boring and bad for ratings; and the one thing I could be certain of was that for all the outrage being expressed at the moment about wetlands and sea turtles and pelicans, what the majority of us were really interested in was having the problem go away, for me to clean up yet one more mess decades in the making with some quick and easy fix, so that we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy-wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it” (570-71).
Again, that’s what, Obama admits, he wanted to say: stop drilling altogether, get rid of your big SUVs, pay the true price of gasoline, and pass courageous climate change legislation despite effects on the “American Way of Life.”
Instead, the president describes his Casper Milquetoast response with the following words: “. . . I somberly took responsibility and said it was my job to ‘get this fixed.’”
In other words, in contrast to liberation theology’s and Jeremiah Wright’s “preferential option for the poor,” Obama’s policy preference supported the corporate status quo. He short-changed those represented by what he elsewhere describes as “his kind of crowd” from the days when he worshipped at Trinity United – “democracy activists, heads of nonprofits and community organizers working at a grassroots level on issues like housing, public health, and political access” (466).
That in a nutshell encapsulates Obama’s choice not to follow the outspokenness not only of Jeremiah Wright, but of FDR’s ghost with whom POTUS #44 wistfully compares himself throughout his memoir (177, 239, 240, 264, 388, 524, 547, 549).
Following Roosevelt, Mr. Obama’s legacy could have been different. He could have bailed out wage earners instead of the bankers. He could have instituted a 21st century New Deal prioritizing health care, infrastructure renewal, clean energy technology, and a green counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Moreover, Barack Obama was more up to selling those programs than any president within living memory. He was better equipped for game-changing fireside chatting than even Roosevelt himself. No chief executive since FDR enjoyed his natural charm, charisma or eloquence.
Yet by his own admission, he wasted what that other Roosevelt called his “bully pulpit” by failing to persuade the American people to support legislation in their own best interests regarding single-payer health care, immigration reform, clean energy, nuclear disarmament, and cessation of endless wars (594).
None of this is to say that his own words in A Promised Land reveal President Barack Obama as somehow nefarious or intentionally two-faced. As presidents go, he emerges as a decent man. And no one can deny the significance of his enormous achievement as the first black man to overcome the tremendous obstacles barring election to the highest office in the land. Moreover, once in office, #44 acquitted himself with impeccable moral integrity (595). His staff worked extremely hard. Mr. Obama was the kind of boss most of us would like to work for – upbeat, sensitive, inclusive and willing to laugh at himself (534). He is also a gifted writer.
Neither is any of this to say that Mr. Obama should have been as outspoken as Jeremiah Wright. Such style might be appropriate for a prophetic pastor on Chicago’s south side, but it’s surely not the way to get elected president.
As a theologian however, I find it regrettable that the former president so completely cut himself off from the lessons learned at the feet of his early mentor. (And this is where Catholic Joe Biden has something to learn from his boss’ admitted regrets.) Had President Obama quietly embraced Dr. Wright’s lessons, had he ignored the Geithners, Emanuels, and Sommers, had he prioritized the needs of the poor, had he offered us another New Deal, we’d likely be living in a far greener country with far less wealth disparity, injustice and anger ( 522, 524).
And judging by Mr. Roosevelt’s success with the electorate, the Democrats would today enjoy much firmer standing in the White House and halls of Congress.
Biblically speaking, Barack Obama would have brought us all that much closer to A Promised Land.
Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Great Holocaust caused several Jewish attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
Basically, the offending remarks identified Germany’s wealthy Jewish 1% as providing Hitler’s fascism with pretext for his genocide of the other 99%. (I’ve summarized what was actually said here.) The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.
Rob’s recommendation reminded me of a sobering experience I had years ago in Mexico. It put me in the position of the OEN provocateur. It also caused me to reflect on the role of self-criticism that is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of critical thinking in general.
My Report from Israel
The experience I’m referring to came when I was invited to give a “Report from Israel” after a three-week study tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt sponsored by Berea College, where I taught in the Philosophy and Religion Department for 40 years. The invitation came from the Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) congregation of San Miguel de Allende.
My report was heavily influenced not only by our time spent in the Palestinian community, but by a separate visit my wife, Peggy, and I made to the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for liberation theology in Jerusalem. Scholars there connected the Palestinians’ situation with colonialism. They pointed out that ever-expanding Jewish settlements stood in blatant contravention of UN Resolution 242. It was a continuation of the European colonial system that had supposedly been abolished following World War II. In Israel-Palestine, Jewish occupation represented the familiar European settler pattern repeated throughout the former colonies. It had (Zionist) settlers from Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and elsewhere arriving unexpectedly in lands belonging for millennia to poor unsuspecting Palestinian peasants, and then confiscating their homes, fields and resources.
With all of that fresh on my mind, the thesis of my U.U. presentation was clear and unambiguous. “The real terrorists in Israel,” I said, “are the Zionists who run the country.” I didn’t consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. The Sabeel Center and Noam Chomsky had been making it for years.
What I didn’t realize was that almost everyone in my audience was Jewish. (I didn’t even know about San Miguel’s large Jewish population – mostly “snowbirds” from New York City.) Nonetheless, my remarks that Sunday stimulated an engrossing extended discussion. Everyone was respectful, and the enthusiastic conversation even spilled over beyond the allotted time.
The trouble started after the head of San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice (CGJ) where Peggy and I were working at the time invited me to publish my talk as an article in San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atención.
I’ll never forget what followed; it was very similar to what occurred during Rob’s OEN Zoom call. All hell broke loose:
A barrage of angry letters flooded the Atención pages for the next two weeks and more.
As a result, Atención threatened to cancel the column space set aside for the CGJ each week.
San Miguel’s Bibliotheca (library) talked about ending the CGJ’s access to meeting rooms there.
My article was removed from Atención’s archives.
Someone from the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) phoned my provost at Berea College reporting me for my inflammatory article, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.
The CGJ’s leadership was forced to do some back-pedaling distancing itself from me and my remarks.
They lit candles of reconciliation at a subsequent U.U. meeting begging forgiveness from the community and absolution for that mad man from Berea.
The guiding assumption in all of this was that my argument was patently false.
In other words, an article that should have stimulated critical thinking and discussion (with CGJ activists leading the way as a voice for Palestine’s voiceless) was met instead with denial, dismissal, and apology.
Of course, I know that criticizing Zionists for their treatment of Palestinians is quite different from the holocaust denial that some on the OEN call perceived a few weeks ago.
It is also probably futile for members of the goyim like me to comment on the topic. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so, because:
My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers.
They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.
Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.
Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding a new religion. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.
In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. (Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are.) Additionally, what separates Zionists from other contemporary neo-colonizers is their claimed religious identity. So, to ignore the role of religion here overlooks the proverbial elephant in the room.
Recognizing the elephant gives license to say that what really happened in the Zoom conversation and in reaction to my remarks in San Miguel mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus and their contemporaries. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):
Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words
Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish 1% while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority. Pointing that out is simply telling the truth.
Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to a still wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.
All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.
The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, as both a Roman Catholic and a U.S. citizen, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany and against contemporary Zionists. I feel resentment at the very mention of such truths.
Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of parochial consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for the dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.
As Paulo Freire puts it in The Politics of Education, all critical thinking begins with self-criticism.
Here’s an interview posted last week by Rob Kall on OpEdNews, where Rob is the editor in chief and where I’m now serving as a senior editor. The exchange took place at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. As you’ll see, I’m speaking from my basement office in our home in Westport, Connecticut. (I’m thinking that I should do something to make the venue seem less like a basement. . .) Anyway, it’s the third time Rob has had me on his show.
Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 4: 12-23
In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to report on my rich but heartrending experiences in Tijuana Mexico where I’m volunteering for a legal services group, Al Otro Lado (AOL). We offer professional counseling and support to refugees at our country’s heaviest border crossing here in Baja California. For someone in his 80th year, workdays here have been incredibly busy, very exhausting, but also extremely rewarding.
I mean, who wouldn’t be edified to witness the example of heroic but impoverished fathers and mothers AOL counsels each day. Their love for their children is so powerful that it has driven them to leave the homes and countries they love and actually walk hundreds of miles to what they imagine will be safer conditions for their little ones? (How desperate do you have to be to do that?!) It’s like the mythic journeys celebrated in some of the greatest stories human beings have ever produced.
And yet, whose heart wouldn’t be broken to realize that helping these heroines and heroes fill out reams and reams of invasive forms and questionnaires will in most case lead nowhere but back to their original unbearable circumstances? That’s because the heartless Trump administration is doing everything in its power to thwart the dreams of these mythic champions.
To be more specific, here’s what I’ve been told over the past two weeks while taking testimony from refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (What follows is virtually in the refugees own words.) See if you find them as distressing as I have:
My country (e.g. Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Haiti) is controlled by drug cartels created by the U.S. so-called “war on drugs.”
Small business owners in my barrio must offer the gangs protection money or otherwise cooperate with them – either that or suffer horrific consequences.
They try to get the rest of us to pay “war taxes” and/or to transport or distribute drugs.
For refusing to do so, my father (and/or a brother, or uncle) has been murdered. They’ve beat me up too. They almost stabbed me to death. They’ve burnt down our family’s house.
And the gangs are currently threatening to kill me and remaining members of my family if we don’t give in.
I can’t move elsewhere in my country to escape all of this, because the gangs are everywhere. They’ve followed me to the border, made threatening phone calls, parked prominently outside my place of work. They always seem to know where I live.
Moreover, it doesn’t help to go to the police. They either fear the gangs or cooperate with them. We’re all afraid of the police; they are so corrupt and unhelpful.
I’m desperate, so I and my family have walked across three countries to get here.
Women hovering over young children, clinging infants, and adorable babies report:
I’ve been a victim of domestic violence for years.
My husband who’s alcoholic regularly beats me and my children.
Since I left him, there’s been no escape; he stalks me wherever I go.
I can’t live like this anymore.
I’ve got to get as far away from this man as possible.
To repeat: those are the stories all us volunteers for AOL hear each day. I bring them up today because they turn out to be intimately connected with the liturgical readings for this third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Those selections offer encouragement to our mythic heroes, because their stories are quite like those of 6th century (BCE) Jews reflected in today’s first reading as well as of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s gospel selection. In fact, heroes’ journeys, exile, and refugeeism turn out to be prominent recurring biblical themes. Think about it.
Consider for example today’s first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It celebrates Israel’s homecoming after a 50-year exile in Babylon (modern Iraq). It was then that their leaders had been forced to emigrate from Israel to Babylon. In other words, they were victims of wholesale kidnapping when Babylon’s rulers desired to prevent uprisings in the land they had just conquered and occupied. So, like our clients here in Tijuana, the removed ones became victims of heartless force and violence back home.
And then in the Gospel (500 years later), we find John the Baptist and Jesus similarly victimized by regimes almost as ruthless as the Trump administration. Today’s gospel reading focuses on Jesus himself becoming a political refugee for the second time. [Remember that first time in Matthew’s “infancy narratives,” when he and his parents sought expatriate status in Egypt to escape wholesale state infanticide (MT 2:13-23)?]
This time, that same King Herod has arrested Jesus’ mentor, the outspoken John the Baptizer. (The king would shortly have him beheaded.) And that in turn forces Jesus, as John’s protege, to go underground. So, the young teacher flees for refuge specifically among non-Jews in the Gentile region of Zebulon and Naphtali in eastern Galilee.
Significantly, that entire territory constituted a rebellious district and a hotbed of revolution. As such, it was largely out of Herod’s control. (To some extent, the king had only himself to blame for that, because it was in Zebulon and Naphtali that he had forcefully resettled migrants, non-Jews, and the poor.) In any case, Jesus finds comparative safety in that mixed context of foreigners, rebels and refugees.
Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ semi-clandestine status didn’t silence him. Instead, he simply took up where John had left off proclaiming their shared conviction that another non-imperialized world is possible. As a world without Caesars – as a world with room for everyone – Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what refugees and immigrants have always wanted.
What I’m trying to say is that here in Tijuana, AOL deals every day with refugees from violence pretty much like what’s portrayed in today’s biblical selections. Circumstances have forced most of them into exile every bit as effectively as 6th century (BCE) Jews were forced into Babylon. They are just as frightened as Jesus must have been when he fled to eastern Galilee to hide out in a district virtually ungovernable by the reigning King Herod.
Calling attention to the similarities between the stories of heroes at our southern border and those of Israel in general and of Jesus in particular should offer encouragement to both today’s refugees and those who work with them (like the AOL permanent volunteers I’ve found so inspiring). The message for everyone is “this too will pass.” In any case, here are my “translations” of the readings in question. You can find them here in their original form.
Today’s Readings (in Translation)
Our long, alienated exile
Is finally over.
Gloom and distress
Have been replaced
By light, joy and merriment.
Of foreign taskmasters
Have been lifted
Their instruments of torture,
It is time to celebrate.
Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13-14
Indeed, fear is gone
Removed by the Divine One
Who is Light, Salvation,
Refuge and Loveliness
The Source of
Bounty, courage, strength,
I Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
For us, Yeshua
Is the wellspring
Of such delight
So, as his followers
We should never
Split into petty factions
But stay united instead.
Is banished –
Has us rejecting
The World’s division
Its insanity –
Its fundamental sickness.
Matthew 4: 12-23
That World even
Imprisoned John the Baptizer
To hide underground
Yet he never stopped
Another world is possible
With room for everyone
Working class people
To leave behind
For its sake
With the added bonus
Of free health care
A key foundational principle of liberation theology is the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”
It means that since poor people stand on the same ground as the ones whose experience is centralized in the Bible, their interpretations of texts (hermeneutics) are probably more accurate than the readings of the non-poor and even of academics trained in biblical science. The poor and oppressed see elements of historical accounts, parables, and other literary forms that remain opaque to the rest of us.
The truth of that privilege has come home to me strongly since I began my stint two weeks ago here in Baja California. It has forced me to see the world through the eyes of the refugees our group accompanies each morning at the el Chaparral crossing.
So, when I considered this week’s liturgical readings from Isaiah and Matthew, I saw what I never saw before, though I was previously quite familiar with both passages. Today’s readings, I realized, are about escapees from persecution similar to what our refugees from Mexico and Central America have experienced.
In summary, Tijuana’s refugees are more authentically God’s people – God’s favorites – than the rest of us.
I thank the heroes I’ve met here in Baja California for teaching me that lesson. They are mythic giants indeed.
Last week’s homily on “Dives and Lazarus” evoked an interesting comment from one of the most faithful and thoughtful readers of this blog. The point of address was a statement in my related reflections on liberation theology, viz. that in the biblical tradition “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.”
In response, the reader commented, “The disheartening truth is
that I see no evidence of this ever having been the case in the literal sense.
Metaphorically, yes, and in prophetic but unfulfilled texts, but I fail to see
even one concrete example. The rich and the poor seem to be equal in that both
will have to wait for some nebulous afterlife to receive their reward.
Meanwhile, the rich, proverbially, get richer.”
The comment is providentially related to this Sunday’s
readings, which address the question of unanswered prayers and the frustration
of those who look for evidence of God’s presence in the world and find none.
Before I get to that, however, let me respond directly to what the reader said.
To begin with, I agree with his comment in that:
It is often “disheartening” to
look for God’s intervention on behalf of the poor (or any of us for that matter)
and to see none.
No one will see or ever has seen
“literal,” “concrete,” and undeniable evidence of such intervention.
So, in relation to faith and
speech about God, metaphor used by “seers” (i.e. prophets gifted with capacity
to see what’s opaque to the rest of us) is all we have.
Contrary to biblical tradition,
our inherited, domesticated religious culture insists that the rich and poor
are equal in God’s eyes and that we must endure obscene wealth disparities till
As a result, wealth disparities
flourish; the rich get richer.
So, relative to such observations and according to liberation theologians, what do the seers (those who can see beyond the shadows in our “Plato’s Cave”) tell us about God’s siding with the poor? Just this:
God is Love and has established a loving order with room for everyone. This loving order of Universal Intelligence represents the larger, unchanging dispensation in which we live and move and have our being. It is the world as God created it.
Throughout history, human structures (familial, economic, social, political, etc.) have been set up by the rich and powerful in opposition to the divine order. This is the origin of race-consciousness, nations, borders, latifundial holdings, slavery, poverty and wars. None of these represent the world as it comes from the hand of God, where the world belongs to everyone.
The spokespersons for that other world are the “prophets” who have always been among us pointing out the in-breaking of the Love that is always there (e.g. Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Marx, Gandhi, King, Greta Thunberg . . .) Uniformly, they point out the opposition between the order of Universal Intelligence and the “wisdom of the world;” they indicate where Love is manifesting Itself; they invite the rest of us to “see” and to align with Love’s order.
Those who listen to the prophets are the indispensable agents of Universal Intelligence for the “salvation” of humanity from the inevitable destructive results of the world’s “wisdom.” They are everywhere for those with eyes to see.
In the end, however, Love’s order will prevail regardless of human activity; it alone is Real; the rest is illusion and doomed to pass.
With that in mind, please turn your attention to today’s liturgy of the word. You can find the readings here. In the meantime, what follows are my “translations.” As you’ll see, they directly address unanswered prayers and Love’s order as decreed by Universal Intelligence.
HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4
I’ve been praying Dear God, For your Kingdom to come, For violence to cease For relief from our misery. Yet you seem deaf To my pleas. After all, Wars continue Violence increases Everyone’s at Each other’s throat. What should I think?
Only this: (And write it in stone!) My timetable, My order Is vastly different From yours. What’s invisible, What seems delay to you Is always there And perfectly timely for me. So, be patient Keep your commitment To my just order. My answer to prayer Is never late. It’s omnipresent.
PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
I have heard your response, Dear God I’m thankful and happy For the reminder. Your words Are solid as rock. It’s true: You know far more Than us. You have never Let us down. I will therefore not ever Lose faith Against your Proven fidelity.
2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14
Such words of response Are wise. They are the expression Of a Holy Spirit, Within us all. It can set The world ablaze With love. It is courageous And disciplined, It expresses the Strength of God. It enables us To endure even prison And hardships Of all kinds. It is the very Spirit Of Jesus, the Christ.
1 PT 1:25
We’re happy to say that We share Such enduring faith With sisters and brothers Past and present. What joy to live In such holy company!
LK 17: 5-10
When Jesus’ followers Prayed for stronger faith, He reminded them That even a little bit Can change Expectations profoundly. Never forget, he said, That you are not in charge; Love is. You are only Love’s servants. God is not Your errand boy Beholden to Culturally-shaped Plans and needs.
With those readings in mind, i.e. when we allow God’s word
to open our eyes and ears, when we listen to the prophets (God’s
spokespersons), we see concrete manifestations of God’s presence and siding
with the poor everywhere. Right now, they’re evident, I think, in:
Nature Itself: Regardless of human efforts to obscure and deny the divine, its presence calls constantly to us in events so close to us and taken-for-granted that they’ve become invisible. I’m thinking about the sun, the ocean, trees, the moon, stars, wild flowers – and our own bodies whose intelligence performs unbelievable feats each moment of our lives.
Liberation Theology: This rediscovery of God’s preferential option for the poor has changed and is changing the world. One cannot explain the pink tide that swept Latin America during the 1970s, ‘80s, and 90s – not Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela – without highlighting the inspiration provided by liberation theology. Neither can one explain the rebellion of the Muslim world against western imperialism without confronting Islam’s inherent liberating drive – again on behalf of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and imperialized.
Contemporary Social Movements: Think Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Yellow Vests, Standing Rock, the Green New Deal, and prophetic figures like (once again) Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Pope Francis with his landmark climate encyclical Laudato si’ . All of these movements and figures stand on the side of the poor and are having their effect.
Marianne Williamson’s Campaign: Of all the current candidates for president, Marianne Williamson most articulately and faithfully bases her “politics of love” on the five prophetic insights referenced above. The mere fact that she is actually running for president signals an actual and potential awakening of American consciousness far beyond what’s (thankfully) portended even in the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Martin Luther King once famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice. “Justice” in his vocabulary meant overcoming the laws and social structures crafted by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in their place. King (and Malcolm as well) was a practitioner of African-American liberation theology. As such, he was gifted with eyes to see differently — to see the Judeo-Christian tradition as revealing a God on the side of the poor.
That’s what our Sunday liturgies of the word reveal consistently. This week is no exception. It invites us to open our eyes.