Which to Celebrate This Year: Easter or April Fool’s?

Gandhi:Jesus

This April 1st, I fear I won’t be able to say “Happy Easter” to anybody. I’m even thinking about boycotting the festival altogether as a cruel April Fool’s hoax.

That’s because Easter is a celebration of life’s triumph over death. Yet we “Americans,” despite the fact that 70-75% of us claim to follow the risen Christ, find ourselves immersed in a culture of death. We love it; we’re actually necrophilic. Somebody’s got to protest that.

Examine the evidence so out-of-sync with Americans’ faith claims:

* Our Religious Fundamentalist Party, the G.O.P., is engaged in all-out terrorism on God’s creation. Republicans are worse than the Taliban or ISIS. Alone in the world, they bully every creature on earth by denying human-caused climate change. Millions of humans and billions of other creatures will die as a result.
* Totally beholden to the arms industry, U.S. politicians of every stripe choose violence as their first response to most problems they face. Their remedy for school shootings? Above all, don’t adopt the common-sense policies that have worked in every other industrialized country. Instead, bring guns to school; arm kindergarten teachers!
* Rather than pursue nuclear disarmament, they tear up past agreements and modernize our overwhelming arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. (They stand willing to totally destroy North Korea for doing something similar!)
* While claiming to be pro-life, they wage a genocidal war in Yemen (and half a dozen other places) where millions of children face mass starvation and an unprecedented cholera epidemic.
* Our Commander-in-Chief proposes a military parade in D.C. that will cost up to $50 million that could be better spent on programs to help veterans needlessly traumatized by our country’s absolutely futile and endless wars.
* In fact, nothing has changed, except for the worse, since Martin Luther King identified the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?

That’s because everything I’ve just described profoundly contradicts the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his family and friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and capital punishment rather than take a life. Protecting himself or his loved ones by killing or sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.

He taught his followers the Golden Rule (MT7:12). He said we should love our enemies (MT:5:43-48). When attacked, he told his followers to put away their swords (MT26:52). In the midst of his death throes, he prayed for his executioners (LK23:34). His Easter greeting was the repeated phrase, “Peace be with you” (JN20:24-29)

Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens:

* Truly accepted those teachings
* Refused to succumb to today’s necrophilia because of our faith in Jesus’ Way
* Called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the
bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the world’s problems
* From that same faith perspective, recognized the NRA, the arms industry and their political servants for the terrorists they are

A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference and bring many of us back to our faith roots.

It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter” instead of sneering “April Fool’s!”

How Biblical Studies Helped My Critical Thinking: Part Two (Personal Reflections Pt. XIII)

Kennedy

These last three weeks I’ve been trying to show how critical reading of biblical texts is connected to critical reading of every other text — including that of my own life. In all cases, “ideological suspicion” Is central.

It alerts readers to the fact that vested Interests tend to distort analysis — but mostly in conservative ways Intent on supporting the status quo. That’s the way as well with most extra-biblical texts like the mainstream media, best-sellers and school text books.

By way of contrast, readings issuing from the viewpoints of the socially-conscious dispossessed tend towards subversion of the status quo. That’s significant for Bible reading because (as I was saying last week) the Bible largely represents the memory of poor and oppressed communities. As such, books within the biblical cannon are nearly unique in history whose records normally preserve the memories of the rich and famous.

So with that in mind, here are twelve more conclusions I’ve drawn about the Bible. Notice the connections to politics and the very complex question of violence so pertinent in a world characterized by a permanent war against terrorism. Again, I present this second list of 12 conclusions to expose the way biblical studies have influenced my political leanings and the ideas that seem so strange to my adult children. .

  1. The experience of the socially activist poor and oppressed leads them to discover a liberating God in the Bible. He habitually overturns political, economic and social structures oppressive of people like themselves.
  1. In other words, the God of the Bible is not a neutral God. The biblical God is a class-biased God who has made a “preferential option for the poor.”  Similarly, Jesus is class-biased, not averse to making sweeping statements about “the poor” and “the rich” as groups without specific reference to individuals within those groups.
  1. Neither is the Bible a neutral text.  In fact, there are no neutral texts at all.  Any text, biblical or otherwise, either supports the status quo or it attempts to subvert it.  A text which does not subvert supports.  There is no third position.  By and large (though not universally) the biblical texts predominantly produced in situations of persecution, attempt to subvert the order of the world; they support God’s order often described in terms of “the reign of God.”  Once again, it is an order which as the antithesis of the world’s present order favoring the rich and powerful, favors instead the poor and oppressed.
  1. Similarly, there is no neutral exegesis of the sacred texts. Every reading is done by a person of a particular gender, race, nationality, and creed, with a particular personal history, and located in a given historical era.  Inevitably such readers possess more or less definite political commitments, and have predetermined understandings of the world.  Each of these elements as well as others inevitably bias his or her exegesis of the text. Each interpretation facilitates some insights but excludes others.  With this in mind, it is revealing to note that almost invariably respected mainstream exegesis has been done by rather comfortable white males of European background.  This means that the vast majority of believers, women, people of color, the poor, the illiterate, as well as Christians of the Third World have been left voiceless.  All of these have been forced to accept as normative well-off European, white, male biblical interpretations.  And once again, these interpretations almost universally have supported maintenance of white male euro-centric privilege.
  1. Today our Third World brothers and sisters are asking us to open ourselves to the levels of meaning they are discovering. They do not claim these are the only possible meanings; for clearly there are others.  Neither do they hold that those who make diametrically opposed interpretations are insincere; for such a claim would obviously be false.  They do, however, observe that these latter interpretations are extremely partial, for normally such readings take no note of their contradictory alternatives produced for example by unlearned people in the Third World.  Meanwhile, the exegesis of the poor and oppressed is normally more comprehensive, for it is well aware of the mainstream interpretation and usually spends a good deal of its time contesting such understandings as ideological.
  1. Meanings uncovered in this way lead to judgments about the structures of poverty and oppression experienced in the world, and to action towards changing those structures. Here the emphasis is on judgment of sinful structures rather than on sinful human beings.  For although personal sin is a painful reality, it is not up to Christians to judge how others stand in God’s eyes.  Nevertheless, God’s word can shed light on the human institutions which victimize both oppressed and oppressors by facilitating and often appearing to necessitate injustice.  An example of such an institution is international capitalism particularly as it impacts the Global South.  Institutions of this kind must be eliminated by Christian action in the world.
  1. Unfortunately, those who profit from the world’s sinful structures do not usually allow them to be changed willingly; instead their more frequent response to movements for change is one of extreme violence often directed towards the most vulnerable, children, the elderly, women, the sick.
  1. As a last resort, defense of these “least of the brethren” may demand that Christians take up arms and give their lives on behalf of the otherwise defenseless. Here other Christians, especially those outside the violent and threatening context in question must exercise extreme caution in judging such actions as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.  This is especially true if those tempted to judgements of this type are among those whose taxes and/or silence enable their own  government to sponsor the violence which prompts assumption of arms in defense of the otherwise helpless.

21. Likewise criticism of Christians who take up arms in defense of “the least of the brethren” must be restrained since the Gospel is by no means clear consistent in its judgment about such action. In fact, historically speaking, most Christians who read the Bible in good faith have found that it does not require non-violent resistance.  A close reading of the biblical texts, and an examination of church history seems to reveal that highly contextualized considerations rather than some unchangeable principle of non-violent resistance have dictated the responses of Christians in situations of persecution.

  1. In addition, it must be admitted that not all violence is the same. There is a real difference between (a) the violence of the unprovoked attacker (This is clearly against Gospel teaching); (b) the violence of one defending himself or herself against unprovoked attack (This is less evidently against Christian belief); and (c) the violence employed in similar circumstances by one risking his or her own life in defense of the lives of the otherwise defenseless such as children or the elderly (Arguably this may represent a positive response to the Gospel).  To neglect such distinctions is to obscure questions of violence and non-violence.
  1. For these reasons, advocates of non-violence for others must humbly examine their consciences to see if their advocacy is not unwittingly supporting the interests of those oppressing the defenseless. Here it must be noted that most robbers and perpetrators of other forms of violence are quite enthusiastic supporters of “peace” which takes the form of non-violent response on the parts of their victims.  It should also be observed that in this case those upon whom the strategy of non-violence is so enthusiastically urged are the least able to defend themselves.  In fact, historically speaking, the poor and working classes of the world who for the most part are the victims of oppression, stand virtually without means of self-protection, having no armies of their own.  They are the only ones to whom both state and church authority have forbidden violence  as a legitimate means of defending their loved ones from their oppressors of the propertied classes who have huge armies and defense budgets at their disposal.
  1. Perhaps in view of all this, the most that some North American Christians can say is that they themselves are hearing a vocation to non-violent resistance, and that Christians in other very different situations  are being called to determine how best to defend the “least of the brethren.” in their own contexts.  No doubt some Christians there will choose to arm themselves on behalf of their families, friends and fellow citizens.  Others will choose non-violent resistance. Still others will choose a combination of the two approaches.   A great deal will depend on the context in question. Christians living in the U.S.A. must overcome the affliction of tolerating violence in service to U.S. corporate interests while condemning the violence of those who resist such oppression.  “I would assert that people who have not actively opposed the violence of the powerful against the poor, at some cost to themselves,” writes Philip Berryman, “have no moral authority to question the violence used by the poor.”  (Jack Nelson PallmeyerThe Politics of Compassion.”  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books 1986, 87.)

Realizations like the ones I’ve noted here — all of them faith-based have inclined me to:

  • Understand world events in ways that privilege the viewpoints of the  world’s poor.
  • Side with them in their conflicts with the rich and powerful.
  • Acquaint myself with the reasons for what the privileged habitually describe as the unprovoked “violence” of those they habitually oppress.
  • See that the violence of the rich and powerful dwarfs that of the poor they exploit.
  • Perceive that since World War II all of the U.S. wars have actually been fought against the world’s poor and oppressed to keep them in that condition.

We Are Called to Atheism by Abraham and Jesus! (Sunday Homily)

drone victims

Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3, 608; Col. 2:12-14; Lk. Ll:1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfmhttp://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfm

Today’s readings about Abraham bargaining with God and about Jesus teaching his followers to pray raise some vital questions about God’s personality and existence. Abraham’s compassionate God seems to conflict with the warlike God who appears elsewhere in the Bible.

So who’s right? Should we be afraid of God? Or can we trust him? Is God warlike and punitive or kind and forgiving? If he’s our “Daddy” (that’s what “Abba” means in Jesus’ prayer: “Our Daddy who transcends everything”) does our experience show him to be abusive or loving? Today’s readings help us wrestle with those questions. In fact, they call us to a holy atheism.

But before I get to that, let me frame my thoughts.

Last week the government of Pakistan released a classified document revealing that scores of civilians had been killed in dozens of CIA drone strikes between late 2006 and 2009. That period mostly covered the final years of the Bush administration. However as we all know, such strikes have increased under the presidency of Barrack Obama.

Citing the leaked report, the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism said “Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.”

Meanwhile, the United States has consistently denied that significant numbers of civilians have been killed in drone strikes. It claims that “no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed during the entire, nine-year-long drone campaign.” Our government argues that such numbers are tolerable because the strikes protect Americans from the terrorists actually killed in the drone operations.

That’s the logic our government has adopted as it represents our country where 78-85% of the population claims to follow the one who refused to defend himself and gave his life that others might live. The logic of most American Christians says that killing innocents – even children – is acceptable if it saves American lives. Apparently, that’s the American notion of salvation: better them than us.

However that way of thinking is not what’s endorsed in today’s liturgy of the word. (And here I come back to those questions I raised earlier about God’s personality and existence.) There in Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh refuses to punish the wicked even if it means that as few as 10 innocents would lose their lives in the process.

Better-us-than-them is not the logic of Jesus who in teaching his disciples to pray tells them that God is better than us. God gives bread to anyone who asks. Yahweh acts like a loving father. He forgives sin and gives his children what they ask for. In fact, God shares his Spirit of love and forgiveness – he shares Jesus’ spirit of self-sacrifice – with anyone who requests it.

Elsewhere, Jesus says something even more shocking. Yahweh doesn’t even prefer the good over the wicked, he says. He showers his blessings (not bombs!) on everyone. Or as Jesus himself put it, God makes the sun rise on the virtuous and the criminal; his rain benefits those we consider evil as well as those we classify as good (Mt. 5:45). We should learn from that God, Jesus says, and be as perfect like him (Mt. 5:48). In fact, we should consider no one “the enemy” not even those who threaten us and kill us even as Jesus was threatened and killed (Lk. 6: 27-36).

How different is that from the way most of us think and act? How different is that from the God we’ve been taught to believe in?

Yes, you might say, but what about those other passages in the Bible where God is fierce and genocidal? After all, the Great Flood must have killed many good people and even children. And God did that, didn’t he? What about his instructions (more than once) to kill everyone without distinction. For example the Book of Joshua records: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Joshua 10:40). What about the Book of Revelation, which many Christians argue predicts God’s total destruction of the world? What about that violent, pitiless, threatening God? Is that the “Abba” of Jesus?

Good questions. They’re good because they make us face up to the fact that the Bible is ambiguous about God. No, let me put it more strongly. The Bible isn’t just ambiguous about God. It’s often plain wrong – at least If we adopt the perspective of Jesus and Abraham in today’s readings.

After all, Abraham’s God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Jesus’ God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Those Gods are not compatible. One of them must be false. Or as Jack Nelson Pallmeyer writes in his book Is Religion Killing Us? “Either God is a pathological killer or the Bible is sometimes wrong about God.”

Today’s readings show us that both Abraham and Jesus agree.

The Abraham story is about a man gradually rejecting Nelson’s Psychopath in the sky. Israel’s furthest back ancestor comes to realize that God is merciful, not punitive or cruel. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, God is kind, true, and responsive to prayer. God protects the weak and lowly and is distant from the powerful and haughty. In today’s reading from Genesis, we witness Abraham plodding slowly but surely towards that conclusion.

It’s the realization eventually adopted by Jesus: God is a kind father, not a war God. If Abraham’s God won’t tolerate killing 50 innocent people, nor 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10, Jesus’ God is gentler still. That God won’t tolerate killing anybody – not even those threatening Jesus’ own life.

All of that should be highly comforting to us. It has implications for us, politically, personally and liturgically.

Politically it means that followers of Jesus should be outraged by anyone connecting Jesus with our country’s perpetual war since 9/11, 2001. A drone program that kills the innocent with the targeted flies in the face of Abraham’s gradually-dawning insight about a merciful God. The war itself makes a complete mockery of Jesus’ total non-violence and the words of the prayer he taught us. Those supporting “America’s” “better them than us” attitude are atheists before Jesus’ God and the one depicted in the Abraham story.

Personally, what we’ve heard this morning should drive us towards an atheism of our own. It should cause us to review and renew our understandings of God. Impelled by today’s readings, we should cast as far from us as we can any inherited notions of a pathological, punishing, cruel, threatening and vindictive God. We need that holy atheism. Let’s pray for that gift together.

And that brings us to today’s liturgy. In effect, we’ve gathered around this table to hear God’s clarifying word, and symbolically act out the peaceful world that Jesus called “God’s Kingdom.” We’ve gathered around this table to break bread not only with each other, but emblematically with everyone in the world including those our culture considers enemies.

I mean if God is “Our Father,” everyone is our sister, everyone, our brother. It’s just that some couldn’t make it to our family’s table today. But they’re here in spirit; they’re present around this altar. They are Taliban and al-Qaeda; they are Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, and Somalis; they are Muslims and Jews; they include Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin. They include those children killed in U.S. drone strikes. They are you and I!

All of us are children of a loving God. Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” says that.

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus before Pilate: His heroic refusal to name names

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112512.cfm

This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker.  It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.

So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”

The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.

That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.

No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.

After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth!  So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.

Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun.  No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)

Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.

Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.

However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God.  For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“  No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.

What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.

How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?

(Discussion follows.)

Hating THE SIN, but Loving the Sinners (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

I often have spirited political debates with my grown children. My contributions to such debates have often been critical of the U.S. So my sons half in jest often accuse me of “hating America.”

Really though, I love the United States. It’s my home; it’s the country I know best; it’s simply beautiful; its people, its artists, its inventors have given so much to the world. Its Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement have set examples for emancipation campaigns throughout the entire world. As the song says, it all makes me feel “Proud to be an American.”

And yet there is some truth in what my sons say. While I love America, I have trouble with “Amerikkka.”  That, I suppose, is like saying “I love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I say that because in this case “Amerikkka” stands for the imperial United States. And here I’m referring to the nation described in the following film clip by John Stockwell. He’s the former and much-decorated CIA station chief in Angola who has “gone public” with his story about what the United States has actually done in the world for the last forty years. He describes a “Third World War” against the poor – a war responsible for the death of more than 6 million of the world’s poor. Listen to what he has to say; its information is what I have in mind in those conversations with my sons.

What Stockwell says is quite shocking, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with you today, because the liturgy’s Gospel selection is about empire and Jesus’ non-violent resistance to it. It’s about his hating the sin of empire, while refusing to do harm to the sinners who support it.  That’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers must oppose empire no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with Peter, and in effect tells him to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”) Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand who Peter is.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of arms. Scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers. Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear.  Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.”

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) Because his primary identity is not being Jewish but being human, he forbids Peter to call him “Messiah.” In effect he says “Look,” “like the “Human One” (Son of Man) Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as you are.  But unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing the brothers and sisters who share my humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans are actually end up torturing and killing me! And I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant. [Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute.  So he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to follow him to the cross. In today’s reading he says that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. Now the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.

What can that mean for us today – for those of us who have chosen to join this emerging ecumenical Christian Base Community meeting here in Richmond, Kentucky? Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and this emerging Christian Base Community.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.”  We’re not living in the greatest country in the world. We are indeed living in the belly of the brutal imperial beast.  While loving our fellow Americans, we have to (as they say) “hate THE SIN” – of being imperialists, of being  Amerikkka.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the “prophetic script,” then our claim to follow him has consequences. It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for the Christian Base Community we’re attempting to form here in the belly of the beast. In our community’s attempt to follow Jesus more closely, can we determine a prophetic project that we can all support? What might the project be? The question has particular importance in the context of the approaching General Election. Should our little community become directly involved in the campaign?  Should we bring the Occupy Movement to Madison County or take on the Climate Change issue? What about Mountain Top Removal?  Should we join forces with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, with Sustainable Berea, with the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice? Today’s Gospel implicitly calls us to a serious conversation about all of that.

In answering such questions, we must realize that circumstances have changed here over the last eleven years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, peppers sprayed, or tear gassed. We risk going to jail and all that suggests. Are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard words and challenges. And surely we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom.”

(Discussion follows.)

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on Mary Magdalene as Egyptian priestess and consort of Jesus