Why I’m Supporting Marianne Williamson’s Run for President

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11 32.

Recently, two very good friends challenged me about supporting Marianne Williamson’s run for president. “She has no chance,” they objected. “You should be supporting Bernie instead.”

Their remarks coupled with today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son have prompted me to explain myself. The parable particularly as re-created by the French Nobel laureate, Andre Gide, is about a person like Marianne Williamson who eventually identified and escaped the oppressive reality we all take as normal. In Gide’s interpretation, Jesus’ parable is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

So, today I want to describe what we might call the “deep politics” of Marianne Williamson. After all, it’s her spirituality (her deep politics) that first drew me to support her candidacy. Because of her more than 30 years of work as a spiritual teacher, we can know her more deeply than any other presidential candidate. And that’s important. Our interior lives – our thoughts and values – are finally shaped by our relationship with what we consider ultimately important. They are shaped by what some of us term “God.”

So, let me first talk about Marianne’s deep politics and then connect it with Gide’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son.

To begin with, I’m supporting Marianne Williamson because she represents the most radical candidate in the field “of thousands,” as she often jokes. Using the term “radical” here, I’m referring to its etymological meaning which derives from the Latin word radix meaning “root.”

Alone in the crowded field of Democratic candidates Marianne puts her finger on what’s really ailing our nation. It’s not primarily an economic or military problem. No, at root, it’s a deeply spiritual malady. Yes, ours is a spiritual problem!

The problem is that rather than “free and brave,” we’re all scared out of our wits. We subscribe to values that are 180 degrees opposed to those identified as ultimate by all the world’s great wisdom traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheistic. At their deepest level, all of those traditions converge identifying compassion rather than fear as the supreme human value.

Ms. Williamson says it clearly: fear (which is the opposite of compassion) has us captive. Fear has us identifying Russians, Chinese, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBT community members, poor people in general, and even (at our borders) children and babies as somehow our enemies fundamentally unlike us and threatening us at every turn.

None of that is true, Marianne says. It’s quite the opposite. All of us have far more in common than anything that can possibly separate us. In fact – as she puts it – “There is really only one of us here.” We are not only sisters and brothers, we are really a single person. What I do to you, I do to myself.

That’s really the authentic teaching of Jesus, isn’t it? That’s the meaning of his words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love our neighbor because our neighbor is our self.

As Williamson explains, that conviction is what moved the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights campaigners and many who brought the Vietnam War to an end. It’s no accident, she says, that so many of the abolitionists and suffragettes were Quakers, that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, and that anti-war activists like the Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests. Those are the great heroes of the land we call “America.” Like Marianne herself, they all recognized our fundamentally spiritual nature.

So, none of us should say all of this is too idealistic. Instead, we should realize that, in effect, Marianne Williamson is challenging Americans to live up to their faith claims. After all, 70% of us claim to be Christian. Then there are the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists I already mentioned, as well as atheists and those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” As I said, all of those traditions, at their most profound level, converge in calls to liberty, equality, and fraternity.

And that brings me to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and its connection with Marianne Williamson’s deep politics. In what I’m about to say, I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about JesusThere, Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

Crossan asks, what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and leaving home for good?

Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there. (Are you hearing overtones of Plato’s parable?)

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him.

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns me to Marianne Williamson, and how in these pivotal times she has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable and calls the rest of us to go over the wall with her – to escape Plato’s cave and pass into the “other world” that is possible if only we take seriously the spiritual teachings of the world’s great traditions. Making that transition, she says, means becoming economically literate, re-learning American history, and internalizing what used to be called “Civics.”

So, don’t expect Ms. Williamson to directly invoke her spirituality during her presidential campaign. She’s won’t stump as some kind of preacher or moralist like Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee. Unlike those other two, Marianne is no come-lately to political analysis and policy recommendations. In fact, twenty years ago in her prescientHealing the Soul of America, she predicted the crisis we’re now experiencing in the person of Donald Trump. No, Williamson will stick to her policy positions – Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college-debt forgiveness, raising the minimum wage, drastically reducing the inflated military budget, making reparations for slavery, and establishing a cabinet-level secretariat for children and youth.

But aren’t those what (since Bernie) have become the standard positions of progressive Democrats? Of course, they are. But in Marianne’s case, such positions are grounded in a vision honed and sharpened over more than 30 years of forging connections between her deep spirituality and her deep politics.

And that personal reality, that long-term genuineness is precisely what’s required for our world to abandon the destructive reality of business-as-usual – to go over the wall of our father’s compound, to leave Plato’s Cave.

The very profundity of her “deep politics” is precisely why I’m supporting the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. If you’re similarly intrigued, and want to hear her voice in the Democratic debates, please go here and contribute at least $1.00. She needs 65,000 donors to be included.

Stephen King’s IT: A Halloween Parable about America and Its Orange-Haired Clown

Pennywise 2

I don’t like horror films. They’re too much like real life with its mass shootings, hurricanes, and the policies of that clown in the White House. So I demurred when friends invited me to see the film version of Stephen King’s IT.

In the end, however, I was somehow persuaded. After all, as a box office phenomenon, IT remains the highest grossing “R” rated film in history. Its subconscious cultural content, I suspected, might somehow explain that huge box office success. So I accompanied my friends to our local Miramax determined to find that content.

Before I get to that however, a word about the film itself. . . To put it succinctly, IT was quite boring. In terms of horror, it didn’t even succeed in the (otherwise quite easy) task of scaring me!

Think about the movie’s unlikely premise: a group of 7 pre-teens meet a terrifying clown who lives submerged in the sewer underworld of Derry, a small town in Maine. The kids are all outsiders; they even call their group “The Losers’ Club.” One is black, another Jewish, and the remainders a tomboy, a stutterer, a frail hypochondriac, an overweight intellectual, and a wise-cracking smart-aleck.

The Losers’ adversary appears every 27 years to maim, kill and disappear children in Derry. No one but the kids can see the motley spirit who appears all-powerful. Nonetheless, in the end, (spoiler alert) the children improbably, but only apparently kill the clown. (Readers of King’s book know Pennywise will return in 30 years or so – thus setting up the dreaded sequel.)

Oh hum!

None of this is to say that IT wasn’t terrifying. However, its truly scary characters were the story’s adults – especially the Losers’ parents. They were variously fat and lazy, sexually abusive, violent in the extreme, deceptive, authoritarian, possessive and stultifying.

What united them all was their mirror-perfect depiction of our country’s adult refusal to recognize an extreme violence threatening our own children, even when it’s staring us in the face. Nothing mobilized the adults; not disappearances, shootings, torn limbs, decapitations, bleed-outs, bullying, racism, child abuse and even a room covered with blood. They just couldn’t see any of it, and got angry when the children suggested that something was wrong.

Of course, all of this reflects our culture’s normalization of terror in a country described by that other Mr. King (Martin) as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” We’re blind, for instance, to the horror of our economic system that today allows the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day – without most of us taking any more note of the tragedy than the adults in Derry’s Maine-stream.

With the clown, we leave the terrifying adult world, and enter an ironically less threatening spirit world. But the spirit of what? The clown’s name “Pennywise” might offer a clue. (After all, Stephen King did choose to call him that?) Pennywise’s puzzling designation implies a connection between terror and money. Could he be the embodiment of an economic spirit that saves pennies, while being pound-foolish – the implied second half of the clown’s name? There’s got to be some meaning there.

In any case, and regardless of Stephen King’s intentions, our culture’s short-term focus on saving pennies (e.g. by defunding public schools, and healthcare) destroys children’s lives as surely as bites from the movie-clown’s yellowed incisors.

So, my premonitions may have been spot-on. Despite its artistic demerits, IT does hold lessons for those determined to probe its cultural context. They include:

  • Wake up!
  • Realize our pound-foolish system is destroying our children.
  • It depends on terror, fear, and violence to do so
  • Most of its older victims are in denial.
  • Younger “Losers” know better.
  • Listen to them.
  • And don’t be afraid of that violent, pennywise clown in the oversized suit.
  • Get rid of him as soon as possible.

(Sunday Homily) Ken Burns’ “Vietnam War” Is Reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Rebellious Tenants

China

Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 5:1-7; PS 80:9, 12-16, 19-20; PHIL 4: 6-9; MT 21: 33-43

For the past week, I’ve been watching episodes of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS production “The Vietnam War.” The series has ten episodes, each about an hour and a half long. So far I’ve seen three.

I bring it up because the viewing experience has relevance to this morning’s Gospel reading which describes resistance to a landlord system similar to the one that provoked Vietnam’s peasantry to take up arms.

Such local motivations remain obscured by Burns and Novick. The official story they tell is that of a geopolitical struggle between China and Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and France on the other. So the film’s narrative is dominated by maps depicting huge swaths of geography (China and Russia) looming menacingly over Vietnam. The maps indicate that Vietnam along with the rest of French Indochina (including Laos and Cambodia) were threatened by monolithic communist takeover.

U.S. officials one after another describe their alarming “domino theory” contending that if Vietnam were “lost” to communism, so would Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and the rest of Far East. It wouldn’t be long before Ho Chi Minh’s forces would be landing in Hawaii and then in California.

So viewers are asked to believe that in the footage showing huge numbers of Vietnamese civilians (including the elderly, women and children) moving equipment, building bridges, ferrying supplies, we are simply witnessing mindless agents of China and Russia. The Vietnamese were somehow persuaded to risk their lives (four million of them were killed in the conflict) to advance the totalitarian cause of Sino-Soviet world conquest.

As John Pilger and others have written, that simply doesn’t stand to reason. For one thing, there was no monolithic alliance between Russia and China. Any semblance of that lay in ruins between the years 1960 and 1989.

That is, for the Vietnamese, what they call “The American War” (1960-75) could not have been fought on behalf of China or Russia. Rather, the conflict represented a struggle against colonial rule by French and American forces. It was also fought against a rent system that had peasants paying predatory tribute to absentee landlords. The latter were holed up in Saigon along with other beneficiaries of deteriorating colonial arrangements including its dysfunctional army, government officials, and participants in the supporting infrastructure.

Meanwhile, outside of Saigon, the peasants’ revolutionary army (the Viet Cong) defended farmers against rent collection. They had the peasantry stop traveling to Saigon to pay their land fees. This, they said, would force representatives of the landlord class to venture out into territory controlled by the Viet Cong to collect their money or in-kind revenue. And there in the countryside they would be duly slaughtered.

In other words, patriotism and the peasants’ immediate economic interest, not geo-political considerations, provided their main motivations for resistance to a colonial rental system that had long exploited them and caused their families to starve.

All of this has relevance to this morning’s Gospel episode where Jesus tells a story that parallels the situation I’ve just described. Jesus and his audience too were living under an imperial system not unlike Vietnam’s. The Romans controlled Palestine using tactics highly similar to those of the French and Americans in Indochina. The system’s administrators, armies, police, and hangers-on were all holed up in Jerusalem protected by Roman legions.

Meanwhile, absentee administrators and landlords kept the province’s peasants impoverished by exacting rent and taxes that the farmers detested. The latter resisted accordingly – at times in Israel’s history forming armies of resistance similar to the Viet Cong. One of those militias was known as the Zealots.

In any case, the parable centralized in this morning’s gospel has Jesus problematizing a situation of violent peasant conflict over rent collection. In so doing, Jesus, no doubt, provoked a spirited discussion among his listeners about colonialism, landlordism, and about violent vs. non-violent resistance.

Jesus’ story goes that an absentee landlord has rented out his vineyard. Peasants are resisting payment. So the man in the Big House sends out no doubt well-armed rent collectors. After the first ones are murdered by the farmers, he sends out what was probably a small army of “enforcers.” But the peasants successfully defeat them too. Eventually, the landlord gets more serious. His own son heads up a collection force probably much larger and better armed than its predecessors. But surprisingly, the renters wipe them out as well. They assume ownership of the land in question presumably under some ancient version of the revolutionary slogan “Land to the tiller.”

That said, the Master’s articulates the problem that certainly provoked spirited discussion in his audience. “What will happen,” Jesus asks, “to the revolutionaries demonized as ‘wicked’ by the landowning class?”

No doubt some in Jesus audience would say they weren’t “wicked” at all, but heroic champions of the exploited. They would applaud their armed resistance. Others though joining the applause, might point out that the peasant victory would be short-lived and doomed.

These more cautious discussants would hold that the better-armed and trained forces of the landowners and their Roman sponsors would eventually prevail with disastrous results for the entire province of Palestine. Accordingly, they might advise nonviolent resistance to the system in question. (There were, by the way, at least three such forms of nonaggressive struggle in Jesus’ first century context.)

It is unlikely that any in Jesus’ audience would defend the imperial status quo the way Matthew’s allegorized retelling of the parable seems to do. Fifty years after Jesus death the anonymous Jewish author called by that name even goes so far as to imply identification of the absentee landlord with God and the landlord’s son with Jesus himself. Such identification would have been possible around the year 80 or 85 when the Gospel of “Matthew” was written following the utter defeat of Jesus’ people by the Romans in the year 70.  That same identification would, of course, have been abhorrent to Jesus listeners and thus impossible in the Master’s revolutionary context.

Considerations like these – about the similarities in revolutionary situations separated by 2000 years – might help viewers better understand the causes of the Vietnam War and other conflicts even closer to our own day. Clearly, I find those causes obscured in the Burns and Novick documentary despite its very evident artistic merits.

It’s just too simplistic to explain Vietnam in terms Sino-Soviet geopolitics and domino theories. It is similarly facile to describe ISIS in terms of abstract evil or purely religious motivation. It also represents shallow analysis to dismiss resort to violent insurrection as self-evidently unjustified – especially in a country like ours founded on such revolution.

No, all of those elements deserve deep analysis and long discussion.

Jesus’ parable in today’s reading is geared to stimulate such conversation. What is your contribution to the debate?

Stop Being a Control Freak: (Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

(Sunday’s Readings: Ez. 17: 22-24; Ps. 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; II Cor.5:6-10; Mk. 4:26-34)

It’s June now and most of us are trying to get rid of dandelions. They’re all over the place. Most of us hate them. I’ve long since given up on trying to kill them. I figure the way nature works, they’ll be gone in a month or so anyway.

What bothers me are “trees of heaven.” The hill behind my house on Jackson Street is now filled with them. Some people call them “stink trees.” I cut them down one spring, and the very next, they’re back, more than ever. They just won’t go away. They want to take over and create their own forest. As I’m cutting them down, I imagine them laughing at me. “Your chain saw can roar and smoke as much as it wants,” they seem to be saying, “It makes no difference. We’ll prevail in the end.”

Today’s Gospel reading caused me to think of dandelions and trees of heaven – and some other things as well. It really makes three points. The first is about God’s providence, the second is about those “trees of heaven,” and the third is about Jesus’ teaching method. He taught in parables which help us understand God’s providence, the processes of life, and the inevitably of the Kingdom of God and its mystery.

The first point about God’s providence brought to mind Sir Arthur Eddington. He was a physicist who did his work before the middle of the 20th century.  At the end of his life, he remarked that after all his time and effort, he knew only one thing. “Something unknown,” he said ”is doing we don’t know what.”

In parable form, Jesus says something like that in today’s Gospel. Farmers sow seeds, he says, and then some mysterious force takes over and brings them to fruition. The farmer sows the seed; nothing else is required of him, but to reap the harvest.

“Don’t worry,” is the implication. There’s no need for you to push the river; no need to control. God is in charge. After you’ve done your best, Eddington’s “Something Unknown” takes over. And the outcome is the very best possible. Inevitably, that outcome will be the Kingdom of God whether we want it to come or not.

Central to Jesus’ parable is the notion of faith as “letting go” so that God’s work might be done in God’s own time. That’s so hard for us to accept, isn’t it? Just looking around the world, watching the news, thinking about our own lives, our marriages, our children, most of us find that counsel incredible. We’re convinced we have to get to work, not waste a moment, and clean up the mess.

Yet today, Jesus implies that acting like a control freak is exactly the wrong strategy in life. It leads to unhappiness, nervous breakdowns, discouragement, and to a negativity that brings others down. Jesus was not about any of that. He was about kindling hope not giving in to stress and worry.

Jesus was able to avoid that kind of negativity because he had a guiding vision. Once again, he called it the “Kingdom of God.” That vision held, as today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed suggests that God is in charge and so it’s foolish for us to worry and fret.

But what is God up to? Jesus surprises us with his answer. (And that brings me to the second point of today’s Gospel – stink trees.) Jesus says God’s Kingdom is like a mustard tree. That’s like saying it’s like a tree of heaven or a dandelion.  

I say that because, I’m told the mustard tree really isn’t a tree at all. Scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan says it’s a plant that’s more like a weed. We don’t like weeds, do we – those dandelions again? We don’t recognize them as beautiful or powerful. But they could be seen that way – and probably should be. Deep down we know they have a part in the earth’s ecology. Birds come to the mustard tree (or the tree of heaven), and make their home there, Jesus reminds us.

As for power, have you ever seen a weed move a rock? I have. I think that’s what Jesus meant (with his typical hyperbole) when he said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move.” Compared to the mustard seed, a rock of almost any size is like a mountain. Weeds are beautiful; they are part of God’s plan; weeds are powerful. Learn from them Jesus seems to be saying – inevitably, I think, with a mischievous smile.

But learn what? That what we see as small and weak, what we see as negative is all part of the plan. See beauty in what the world sees as ugly. Small is beautiful. But whether you do or not is irrelevant in terms of God’s will. It will be done in any case. You can dig up the dandelions, spray them with Roundup, or cut down those pesky trees of heaven. You can’t stop that Something Unknown from doing we don’t know what.

And that brings me to the third point of this morning’s Gospel – the power of parable. They can turn our worlds upside down. They surprise, delight, confuse, disturb, challenge, or comfort. They’re meant to make us think more deeply and to stimulate discussion. That’s the case with today’s Parable of the Farmer and the Seed, as well as with the Mustard Plant.

Above all, the power of parable is illustrated in the case of Jesus himself. Jesus, after all, is the best parable our tradition holds.  He was a seed sown 2000 years ago that continues to bear fruit today. But he and his message were also like a weed. He wasn’t a Cedar of Lebanon, but more like that mustard plant. Like the rest of us, Jesus lived such an extremely limited life, but he accomplished everything.  

Think about it. We believe Jesus is the very presence of God. Yet in the world’s eyes, he did absolutely nothing with more than 90 % or his life. We know nothing of what he did with his life till he was about 30. And then, history records, he did a few relatively insignificant things in an insignificant part of the world.

Not only that, what he did eventually do all ended in failure. He evidently thought the Kingdom was coming in his own lifetime. But here we are 2000 years later, and not a sign of its arrival as far as we can see.

…  As far as we can see. Our trouble is with our limited vision. We’re expecting God’s Kingdom to be the “Cedar of Lebanon” referenced by Ezekiel in the first reading. It won’t be like that, Jesus says. With a smile, he suggests, it will be something small – even something we see as undesirable, ugly or failed – even like our own lives.

Our perception forgets about the Kingdom vision that was so central to Jesus’ life. In modern terms, we might say, we only see a small part of life’s computer screen – that lower right hand corner for example. We see maybe an inch or so of a screen that’s 21 inches big. On the huge part we’re not seeing, God is up to all kinds of things we’re not aware of – that we can’t be aware of or even understand.

Something unknown is doing we don’t know what. All we have to do is our best at whatever task life has given us, and then get out of the way. That’s what Jesus seems to be telling us this morning.

What do you think? Can we accept that Good News? Can we recognize God at work in the mustard plant, in the dandelion, in the tree of heaven?