The End of U.S. Empire Is Simply a Matter of Time: Reflections on a Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square (Sunday Homily)

Empire's End

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HB 1:2-3, 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; 2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14; KJ 17L 5-10. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/100613.cfm

Last month, just as the United States seemed about to launch a disastrous war against Syria, Peggy and I had the privilege of gathering in St. Peter’s Square in Rome with thousands and thousands of other believers praying for peace. We filled the huge square in an inspiring demonstration of deep faith attempting to address impending catastrophe.

We prayed that the United States would come to its senses and realize (as Pope Francis put it) that violence only begets violence, and war only begets war. There is no other way to peace than by forgiveness, reconciliation, and a dialog that respectfully includes all stakeholders – the al-Assad government, its opponents, al-Qaeda, Iran, and (representing the rest of the world) the United Nations. (Let’s face it: apart from its membership in the U.N., the United States is not a real stake holder in this conflict so distant from its shores.)

So there we stood for hours praying the rosary together, listening to readings from Holy Scripture and the writings of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. We recited litanies, sang familiar hymns, listened to the pope speak, and passed long minutes of quiet meditation and personal prayer. (It was amazing to experience so many people being so quiet for so long.) Preceding Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a harpist played, and choirs chanted. On huge TV screens, we saw the pope’s eyes tightly closed in prayer. We saw cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, praying for peace. The vigil lasted from 7:15 p.m. till midnight.

It was entirely inspiring and uplifting.

But as I participated with as much faith as possible, I couldn’t help thinking: What good is all of this doing? As the reigning imperial power, the United States government and its brutal military are completely secular and tone-deaf to such demonstrations. They have absolutely no awareness of, much less respect for, the spiritual, moral, or faith dimensions of life.

Instead, from its highest levels, United States’ policy is entirely controlled by power-lust, money and by the personal, class and national interests of its so-called “leaders.” They laugh at popes and believers with their silly prayers and naïve talk of forgiveness, reconciliation, dialog, diplomacy, and beating swords into plowshares. Power and money rule their world. “God” is entirely irrelevant, except as one more tool in the arsenal – this time to persuade the people they despise to support policies driven by their selfish interests and realpolitik.

Even more fundamentally, I wondered: Is God Himself tone-deaf to demonstrations like these? “He” and the Blessed Virgin (who often seemed to overshadow God and Jesus in this intensely Catholic gathering) won’t really do anything to prevent the blood-bath that’s threatening.

Can they even do anything, I wondered? I couldn’t remember the last time they did. They didn’t answer prayers to prevent U.S. inflicted slaughter in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, or Afghanistan. They didn’t do anything about the Jewish Holocaust (at the hands of Christians no less!). Can they answer our prayers for peace? Or are they as impotent as we are?

Today’s liturgy of the word seems to address those questions. It’s about faith and what we mean by that term. More specifically, the readings call us to revise our understandings of God – from the “Man Upstairs” micromanaging the world and intervening to prevent wars like the tragedy in Syria.

Instead, the readings invite us to see God as the One who empowers us to figuratively transplant trees and relocate mountains by simply saying “Move from here to there.” On the other hand, our readings call us to be slow, patient, persevering and trustful in the face of our desires for instant solutions to imperial madness.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Habakkuk apparently believes in the Man Upstairs. Faced by imperial hubris, he openly and impatiently questions that God.

Towards the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the prophet was witnessing the rise to power of the Chaldeans (or Babylonians). Like the U.S. today, that particular empire ruled by means of a sickening and genocidal violence.

“Are you blind to their wanton destruction?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “Why don’t you do something?”

And then comes the unexpected divine response: “Don’t worry, Habakkuk; things will get a lot worse before they get better!”

What kind of response was that? God seems to be answering Habakkuk’s challenge with one of his own. Change your idea of God, s/he seems to be saying. “I’m not the Man Upstairs. My modus operandi is not to eliminate the Babylonians according to your time table. Be patient. Change your idea of God.

The reading from Habakkuk is complemented by the discussion of faith in Luke. It’s about faith too. At the beginning, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” What do you suppose they meant by that? What do we mean when from the bottom of our hearts we echo their request as so many thousands did last month in St. Peter’s?

Is it our desire – was it that of the apostles – to have fewer questions about the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the existence of God, or papal infallibility? Is it our prayer that we become more convinced that God can prevent and stop wars like the slaughter in Syria? Is that what we mean by faith – believing things about God, Jesus, or the doctrines of the church? Does faith mean believing that God will defeat the apparent omnipotence of the rich and powerful who themselves would occupy God’s throne?

Or is faith the power we achieve when, like Jesus, we realize that the divine dwells within us – that we are in effect God? That faith would lead us to act like Jesus and to share in his unshakeable commitment to God’s Kingdom of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation despite setbacks and complete failure before the might of the Romans who killed him.

Yes, that’s the kind of faith Jesus had. As Paul says today in 2nd Timothy, such faith is synonymous with courage. It is identical with the power of God as revealed in Jesus – a human being who could cure the sick, drive out evil spirits and even raise the dead.

Problem is, Jesus didn’t use that power to dismantle the Roman Empire, block its destruction of Jerusalem, or even prevent his own death by Roman decree. Despite the miraculous powers the gospels attribute to him, he seemed impotent before imperial Rome, even though like the rest of his contemporary Jews he struggled for its replacement with the Kingdom of God. To repeat: in the end, he was empire’s victim and died an apparent failure overwhelmed by realpolitik.

What does that tell us about Jesus-inspired faith? At least the following:

• Faith is not about believing doctrines or things about God and Jesus.
• Rather, it’s about commitment to the Kingdom of God – to a world ruled by love, community values, justice, and peace, despite the apparent futility of our best efforts before empire governed by power-lust, greed, and violence.
• The prayer “Increase our faith” is about deepening commitment to God’s Kingdom in terms of patience with God’s time table without reducing our efforts to thwart imperial ambitions in the here and now.
• In other words, faith is about the long haul, about God’s time, compared with which our notions of time are laughably brief and insignificant. (In God’s time, empire of Babylon, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire are mere blips on the screen of evolution and eternity.)
• We should take comfort in realizing that in the divine long haul, God’s law of karma (“We reap what we sow”) is at work to answer our prayers for peace and the defeat of empire.
• According to that law, the U.S. will ultimately reap the harvest of violence and destruction its policies so consistently disseminate.
• The world will see the humiliation of the United States for which its majority so ardently longs.
• No, for followers of Jesus, God is not impotent before U.S. violence, destruction, brutality and hypocrisy.
• It’s simply a matter of time.

God’s time. Evolutionary time. Kingdom time.

Who Ended the Syrian Crisis, Putin or Pope Francis? Reflections on Saturday’s Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square

Peace Vigil

The sudden success of the “Putin Plan” to end the chemical weapons crisis in Syria has occasioned a crisis of faith for me. But even more so has the “Francis Plan” addressing the same crisis and executed last Saturday in St. Peter’s Square. The pope’s plan involved Christians and others of good will fasting and praying to end the impending Syrian catastrophe. I wonder whose plan did most to resolve the crisis. Together their apparent effectiveness makes me wonder about miracles and the power of prayer.

Of course, everyone knows about Putin’s plan to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to U.N. monitors for purposes of the weapons’ destruction. Its acceptance by Syria and even by war hawks in the United States has caused Putin’s image as a diplomat and peacemaker to skyrocket. That coupled with his defiance of President Obama in the Edward Snowden case, has raised beyond measure his international standing as a defender of human rights. (Meanwhile the Christian “leader of the free world” has shrunk to the size of a shallow militarist who must be restrained by atheists and former communists now occupying the higher ground.)

However, from a faith perspective, I’m thinking that the plan of Pope Bergoglio may have been even more influential than Putin’s. At the very least, the pope’s contribution to solving the Syrian crisis suggests that there might be more to the man than first met the eye. After all, in the case of Syria, the pope went beyond simply wringing his hands over the irrationality and counter-productivity of Obama’s rash proposals. (That’s what other popes have occasionally done in cases of other wars of aggression by other U.S. presidents.)

Instead, Francis called people out into the streets. He hosted and led what amounted to a 5 ½ hour anti-war demonstration in St. Peter’s Square. Without ever mentioning Obama’s name or referring specifically to the United States, he asked people of good will throughout the world to similarly demonstrate wherever they might be. By the tens of thousands they responded in St. Peter’s Square. By the millions they responded across the planet.

I know about the Rome demonstration, because I was there. My wife, Peggy and I just happened to be in the Eternal City last Saturday. We took the occasion to join with thousands and thousands of other believers for that evening-long prayer vigil led by Francis I. Our overwhelming numbers filled the huge historic square in an inspiring demonstration of deep and sincere faith.

We prayed that the United States would come to its senses and realize (as Pope Francis put it) that violence only begets violence, and war only begets war. There is no other way to peace, he reminded us, than by forgiveness, reconciliation, and a dialog that respectfully includes all stakeholders. That means the al-Assad government, its opponents, al-Qaeda, Iran, and (representing the rest of the world) the United Nations. (Let’s face it: apart from its membership in the U.N., the United States is not a real stakeholder in this conflict so distant from its shores.)

So there we stood for hours praying the rosary together, listening to readings from Holy Scripture and the writings of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. We recited litanies, sang familiar hymns, listened to those words from the pope, and passed long minutes of quiet meditation and personal prayer. (It was amazing to experience so many people being so quiet for so long.) Preceding Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a harpist played, and choirs chanted. On huge TV screens, we saw the pope’s eyes tightly closed in prayer. We saw cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, praying for peace. The vigil lasted from 7:15 p.m. till midnight.

It was entirely inspiring and uplifting.

And it apparently had its effect. I awoke Monday morning to find that President Putin had upstaged the Obama administration with (of all things!) a diplomatic proposal to replace the Obama policy of bombing as a first resort.

Imagine that: a “leader” from a country emerging from nearly a century of communism and official atheism making a peace proposal completely in tune with the pope’s wishes and what we were praying for in St. Peter’s Square. And this in the face of the bellicose threats of a Christian presiding over a country where the majority claims to follow Jesus of Nazareth!

Was it some kind of miracle? Had our prayers been answered?

(To be continued in Monday’s post)