Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47: 2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
The readings for this Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Sunday) should be thought provoking for people with ethical concerns around our upcoming presidential election. In that context, they illustrate the mainstream tendency to domesticate the radical social justice teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth – a tendency vigorously resisted by candidate Marianne Williamson.
The tendency in question stemmed from an early church interested in softening Jesus’ identity as firebrand advocate of social justice who was executed by Rome as an anti-imperial insurgent.
Intent on making peace with Roman imperialism, Christianity’s early message sometimes bordered on “You have nothing to fear from us. We’re not troublemakers. The two of us can get along. We’re not interested in politics.”
The process is especially noteworthy these days when social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson, raises questions of equity on specifically spiritual grounds.
As a longtime teacher of A Course in Miracles (ACIM) that centralizes the voice of Jesus, Ms. Williamson constantly does so in the context of her own insurgent campaign to unseat Joe Biden as president of the United States.
In that context too, Christians have domesticated Jesus. As a result, Ms. Williamson’s policy positions are portrayed as kooky and incomprehensible even by professed Christians who don’t understand Jesus’ program (Luke 4:14-22) as well as Williamson does.
That was illustrated two weeks ago when the candidate appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox news program. (See video at the top of this posting.)
In their exchange Hannity ended up specifically advocating the domesticated Jesus. Meanwhile, Ms. Williamson (without directly referencing Jesus) proposed a political spirituality concerned with Spirit, love, equity, and social justice.
To show you what I mean, let me compare the Jewish Ms. Williamson’s understanding of faith with that of the professed Catholic Sean Hannity. Then I’ll show how the roots of the two versions are found in today’s readings. Finally, allow me to draw an important conclusion relative to the current presidential campaign.
To begin with, Hannity was completely rude. He hardly let his invited guest get a word in edgewise.
His questions were all gotcha queries. For instance, he tried to associate Ms. Williamson’s call for a wealth tax on Americans earning more than $50 million per year ($50 million!!) with Communism’s motto “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.” He said the concept came from Karl Marx. [Too bad Ms. Williamson hadn’t read my homily of a month ago. She would have been able to counter that the concept originates not from Marx, but from the Acts of the Apostles. (See ACTS 2: 45, 4: 35, 11: 29.)]
Of course, Hannity’s bullying style of constant interruption and talking over his guests was absolutely to be expected. That’s what he does.
However, in terms of today’s homily, what was most interesting was the exchange between the Fox News host and Ms. Williamson about faith.
To that point, Hannity ended by saying, “I gotta ask you about some of the weird stuff you’ve said. You have said, ‘Your body is merely your space station from whence you beam your love to the universe. Don’t just relate to the station, relate to the beams. Everyone feels on some level like an alien in this world because we are. We come from another realm of consciousness and are long way from home.’”
With his probably largely “Christian” audience laughing in the background, Hannity asked derisively, “What the hell does that mean?” Ha, ha, ha!
With admirable calm, Ms. Williamson replied, “I’m really surprised to hear you say that. I would think that you would realize that as a very traditional religious and spiritual perspective – that we are spirits, that God created us as spirits. And that is what we are and are here to love one another. And we don’t feel deeply at home on a spiritual level on this planet because this world is not based on love the way it should be. I believe that agrees with the teachings of Jesus.” (That last sentence is my guess. It was obscured by Hannity’s over-talking interruption.)
Then the ex-seminarian said, “That’s fair answer. I’m a Christian. I believe in God the Father, that God created every man, woman, and child on this earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son, that died and resurrected (confused pause) – uh, came back from the dead – to save all of us from our sins. That’s what I believe.”
Do you see what I mean? Williamson’s faith is mildly in tune with the early church’s most radical ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In tune with Jesus’ teachings, she holds that we are primarily spiritual creatures called to love one another in a world that believes such idealism is “weird stuff.”
Accordingly, Williamson champions what she calls an “economic and political U-turn.” That involves (among many other policy positions) a wealth tax on the super-rich, something like a Green New Deal, and less of our money transferred to the military industrial complex. For her, all that is a practical expression of Ethics I01.
Meanwhile, Hannity owns a Christianity whose belief supports (as he put it twice in the interview) limited government, more freedom, lower taxes, and energy independence. In his second iteration of his faith, he added “I want borders secure; I want law and order . . . and freedom from the climate alarmist religious cult.”
As a Republican, Hannity was really saying he wants lower taxes for the rich, fewer restrictions on fossil fuel extraction, the right to ignore international law around asylum for refugees, more policing of poor communities, and less environmental regulation. (He evidently hasn’t read Pope Francis eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ that intimately connects the following of Christ with that U-turn Williamson referenced.)
This Sunday’s selections describe Jesus’ ascension into heaven. However, taken together the readings indicate a struggle even in the early church between Hannity’s domestication of Christian faith contrasted with Williamson’s position that gently gestures towards Jesus’ radicalism.
According to the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master is said to have spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom, would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.
Moreover, Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead, he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” Then he takes his leave.
The other story endorsed by Sean Hannity is conveyed by today’s reading from Ephesians. It emphasizes God “up there,” and suggests our going to him after death. In Ephesians, Jesus is less concerned about God’s kingdom, and more about “the forgiveness of sin.” For Ephesians’ Pseudo Paul (probably not Paul himself) Yeshua is enthroned at the father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is somehow his body.
This is the story that emerged when writers pretending to be Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for an imperialized people.
So, they gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.”
That’s the story that has prevailed for most Christians.
When Sean Hannity professed his faith that “Jesus died for our sins,” Marianne Williamson should have asked, “What sins are you referring to?”
As a traditionalist, Hannity was probably thinking about personal failings – especially anything to do with sex.
However, what actually killed Jesus was the Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious community that (like mainstream churches today) cooperated with empire by going along to get along. That sin accounted for Jesus’ death. It was the sin he died for.
Put otherwise, opposing his people’s cooperation with Rome led to Jesus’ crucifixion – a form of capital punishment reserved for insurrectionists, insurgents, and revolutionaries.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps led his early disciples to “weird” practices like wealth redistribution “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”
Unlike Jesus’ earliest followers, our compromised contemporary (Christian) religious community as embodied in Sean Hannity finds such practices threatening, ridiculous, laughable, and “weird.”
In tune with today’s Ascension Sunday readings, Marianne Williamson’s candidacy reminds us that they shouldn’t be.