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.

On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)

Chelsea Manning

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 32: 7-11, 13-14; PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 19; ITM 1: 12-17; LK 15: 1-32. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091513.cfm

A few weeks ago, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for blowing the whistle on the U.S. military and the officials who run it. In her job in Military Intelligence, Ms. Manning came across thousands of documents and videos exposing war crimes routinely committed by U.S. troops and their superiors. She released more than 700,000 of those documents in the hope that they would start a national dialog about the morality of the War on Terror. For her trouble, Ms. Manning was tortured for months. Following a court martial, she has been imprisoned instead of the criminals she reported.
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Last May, Edward Snowden, a data analyst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Security Agency and the CIA, released a trove of documents revealing that the U.S. government has been spying on all U.S. citizens. Those spying on us have been secretly reading our e-mails and recording our phone conversations.

Such intrusion stands in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Mr. Snowden released the documents to start a national conversation about the justification for secretly suspending such constitutional guarantees. For his trouble, he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the very agents whose alleged crimes he was exposing. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia where he has been given temporary political asylum. His asylum has largely been justified by the fear that if returned to the U.S. he would suffer the torture and mistreatment inflicted on Chelsea Manning.
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Please keep the Manning and Snowden cases in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel selection.
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Didn’t we just recently read the Parable of the Prodigal Son at Mass?

I checked.

Well, yes, if you count the 4th Sunday of Lent less than six months ago. In fact, this famous story repeats so many times in our Liturgies of the Word that most of us know it nearly by heart.

Personally, I must confess a bit of boredom with the tale. It even crossed my mind to skip a homily this week, and simply refer my readers back to last Lent’s reflections.

But on second thought, allow me to take another shot at it with the Manning and Snowden cases as background. This time I’ll take my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There 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.

But 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 never looking back?

The French intellectual 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.

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. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like the male hierarchy’s claims within the church in relation to the Bible? It’s also reminiscent of our government’s position regarding the Constitution. Our president’s interpretation is the only valid one.)

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 makes me think of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and how in these pivotal times they have followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

In both cases, making that move required great courage. It meant escaping the safety and comfort that the confines of the patriarchy provide. Today Chelsea Manning sits in Leavenworth Prison in a far different “America” than the one she was trying to save. Snowden lives in exile in Russia without any hope of return to the country he too was attempting to help. In Manning’s case, leaving the father’s estate even meant transcending the patriarchy’s strict boundaries around sexual identity.

Because of the courage of Manning and Snowden we’re all better off and the patriarchy is weakened.

What does all of this mean for us as we reconsider Jesus’ overly-familiar parable in the light of Gide’s retelling? I think it might mean that we must:

• Be courageous and think for ourselves even about values seemingly endorsed by Jesus.
• See that patriarchy and male values of power, prestige, profit, individualism, competition, violence and war represent the roots of our world’s problems.
• Recognize that comfort in “our father’s house” is not good for us, our children or the planet.
• Do all we can to reject the patriarchy and its values and never look back
• Value people like Mr. Snowden and Ms. Manning as exemplary heroes showing us that it is indeed possible to leave “Our Father’s House” and its values for the sake of God’s Kingdom or however Snowden and Manning might understand the new reality to which they summon us.
• Appreciate the symbolic importance of Chelsea Manning’s rejection of military machismo in favor of the feminine world and its values of inclusion, community, and cooperation.
• Admit that our male-dominated church is a central part of the reigning system of patriarchal dominance along with its exclusively male understandings of God as Father. Act accordingly.
• Always be careful on the steps.

Jesus’ Message to Angry White Christians: Join the Party! (Sunday Homily)

angry-white-man

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11-32 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031013-fourth-sunday-of-lent.cfm

There’s a lot of anger in our culture these days, isn’t there? And a lot of anger among Christians. . . . That was apparent in the last elections – and really in the politics of the last 35 years or so. Over that period, Catholic and Evangelical fundamentalists (especially men) have identified more and more closely with conservative politics. That’s because conservative politicians have presented themselves as upholding what they take to be Christian values.

In the name of those values, they and their constituents find themselves resentful of the social advancement of African Americans, women, gays, welfare recipients, and undocumented immigrants. Such groups are seen as threatening Christian values with their alleged disregard of white middle class values around families, sexuality, work, and legality.

This morning’s gospel “Parable of the Prodigal Son” addresses resentment of that kind. It is one of the most beautiful and well-known stories in World Literature. However, standard readings of the parable domesticate it. They turn the parable into an allegory and in so doing rob it of the cutting edge which makes it relevant to our age of Angry White Christians. Please think about that with me.

Standard readings of “The Prodigal Son” make it a thinly veiled allegory about God and us. God is the father in the story, non-judgmental, full of compassion, willing to overlook faults and sins. Meanwhile, each of us is the wayward son who temporarily wanders away from home only to return after realizing the emptiness of life without God. The older brother represents the few who have never wandered, but who are judgmental towards those who have.

Such reading never fails to touch our hearts and fill us with hope, since the story presents such a loving image of God so different from the threatening Judge of traditional Christian preaching. And besides, since most of us identify with the prodigal rather than with the older brother, we’re drawn to the image of a God who seems more loving towards the sinner than towards the saint.

Though beautiful and inspiring, such allegorical reading distorts Jesus’ message, because it makes us comfortable rather than shaking us up. At least that’s what modern scripture scholarship tells us. Those studies remind us that Jesus’ stories were parables not allegories. Allegories, of course, are general tales in which each character stands for something else.

Parables on the other hand are very particular rather than being general stories about the human condition. Unlike allegories, they’re not about human beings in general – everywoman and everyman. Instead, parables are addressed to particular people – to make them uncomfortable with their preconceptions and cause them to think more deeply about the central focus of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God. In the gospels, Jesus’ parables are usually aimed at his opponents who ask him questions with an eye to trapping or discrediting him. Jesus’ parables turn the tables on his opponents and call them to repentance.

That’s the case with the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It contrasts two very particular historical groups absolutely central to the teaching career of Jesus of Nazareth. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ inner circle, “tax collectors and sinners.” These including sex workers, lepers, beggars, poor peasants, fishermen, shepherds, day-laborers, insurgents, and non-Jews, all of whom were especially receptive to Jesus’ teaching. On the other there are the Pharisees and Scribes. They along with the rabbis and temple priesthood were responsible for safeguarding the purity of the Jewish religion. They were Jesus’ antagonists.

Today’s gospel tells us that the sinners were “coming near to Jesus and listening to him.” For their part the Pharisees and Scribes stood afar and were observing Jesus’ interaction with the unwashed and shaking their heads in disapproval. They were “grumbling,” the gospel says, and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s a key point in the reading – Jesus was eating with the hungry, poor, and unclean.

The gospel goes on, “So he told them this parable” – the parable of the prodigal son. In other words, the parable was addressed to the Pharisees and Scribes. And the story not about God and humans in general. It’s simply about a father and two sons and the way things work in the Kingdom of God, which (to repeat) was consistently the focus of Jesus’ preaching.

According to Jesus, that New Order will be a Great Party to which everyone is invited. The party will go on and on. There will be laughter, singing and dancing and the wine will never run out. The “fatted calf” will be slaughtered and there will be an overabundance of food. What fun!

Jesus was anticipating that order by practicing table fellowship with sinners and outcasts. At the kingdom’s banquet, the sinners gathered around Jesus in this morning’s gospel will be the first to accept the invitation. And though the Scribes and Pharisees are invited as well, they freely choose to exclude themselves. Like the older brother, they are “angry and refuse to go in.”

What I’m saying is that the lesson of today’s gospel (read as a parable rather than an allegory) is: Join the Party! Anticipate the New Order of the Kingdom in the here and now. Follow Jesus’ example, sit down with the unwashed, poor and despised. After all, the kingdom of God belongs to them – and to anyone (even the priests, scribes, rabbis, Pharisees, and any of us) who can overcome our reluctance to descend to Jesus’ level and to that of the kind of people he counted as his special friends.

What can that possible mean for us today? First of all it means don’t allegorize Jesus’ parables. It’s easy to understand how parables were turned into allegories as time passed. After all, Christians found themselves distanced further and further from the historical circumstances of Jesus in Galilee. They were looking for meaning and forgot who the scribes and Pharisees were. They forgot how those religious leaders despised the Great Unwashed. As well, with growing emphasis on heaven, Christians gradually lost capacity to recall the here and now nature of God’s Kingdom as envisioned by Jesus. They eventually came to identify it completely with the afterlife.

Additionally, there is no denying the truth to be found in allegorizing a parable like the Prodigal Son. Even according to the historical Jesus, God is good, forgiving, compassionate and non-judgmental. We are wayward people indeed. And like a loving father, God does receive us back no matter how far afield we may have gone. Nonetheless such allegorizing distorts the message of the historical Jesus which, as always, centralizes the Kingdom of God, and not the general human condition.

However, if we keep Jesus’ original meaning in mind, we’ll more likely see “the Prodigal Son” as a call to change our attitudes towards the second and third class citizens of our culture. That’s a hard message for most middle-to-upper class white people to hear. Like the culture of the professionally religious of Jesus’ day, our own despises those with whom Jesus ate and drank. In fact, it teaches us to dislike people like Jesus himself. Our culture sees those in Jesus’ class as lazy, dishonest, and undeserving.

So rather than making us feel more comfortable, today’s gospel should have the same effect Jesus’ parables in general were intended to have. It should make us squirm just as Jesus’ original words must have embarrassed the scribes and Pharisees.

But Jesus’ parable shouldn’t just embarrass us. His words should be hopeful too. Like the father in the parable, he’s telling us, his self-righteous sons and daughters, “We’re having a party. Why don’t you join us? Come in and share what you have, adopt God’s political program which creates a world with room for everyone – even the undeserving.”

In other words, it’s not God who excludes us from the Kingdom’s feast. It’s our own prejudice and choice.