Controlling History’s Narrative: Who Speaks for God Today?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95: 1-9; I Corinthians; 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

Today’s readings once again raise the central biblical question of prophets and prophecy.

We should read them carefully remembering that prophets are not fortune tellers focused on the future. They were and today remain social critics focused on present injustices committed against the original beneficiaries of Life’s covenant with Moses – the poor and oppressed (widows, orphans, and resident aliens). Insofar as they predict the future, the prophets’ threat is usually that neglect of the poor will lead to national tragedy.

 Yeshua the Christ, of course, appeared in the prophetic tradition which is always confused by the fact that the Great Mother’s spokespersons are inevitably contradicted by their fake counterparts. This Sunday’s readings highlight that point.

 Prophets Then

I was reminded of all this last week during a Zoom “Talk Back” responding to our pastor’s Sunday sermon on the fictional story of the prophet Jonah. That tale was centralized a week ago in the liturgy of the word. Towards the end, the pastor herself asked the question, “Who today is speaking the harsh truth that the Book of Jonah expressed?”

(As we saw last week the little Jonah parable (only 48 verses) is about a reluctant prophet who eventually has to face the fact that those imagining themselves to be the People of God (Israel) were quite the opposite. Meanwhile those whom Israel viewed as their corrupt enemies (Assyrians) were more responsive to God’s word.

In my own response to our pastor’s question, I observed “That would be like our hearing during the Cold War that Russians (communists) were more on God’s side than Americans. Today, it would be like being told the same thing about the Chinese or Muslims, or (worse still) al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Yes, that’s the way the Book of Jonah would have been heard in the middle of the 8th century BCE – as the Assyrian hordes massed on Israel’s borders ready to descend on “God’s People.” Eventually, they’d come (as Lord Byron would put it) “like the wolf on the fold.” They’d destroy the Northern Kingdom and take large masses of its people off to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh – as slaves. The book of Jonah dares to identify Assyrians as godly.

Imagine if some prophetic preacher today actually echoed Jonah saying, “You American exceptionalists believe that you’re especially pleasing to God. The exact opposite is true. In fact, your designated ‘enemies,’ Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, and those you imagine as terrorists are actually God’s favorites.”

How hard would that be for Americans to hear?

Prophets Now

But (to answer our pastor’s question directly) there actually have been and are religious prophets among us who have said such things and who are saying them today. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Dorothy Day, and even Pope Francis. Here’s what they’ve said in the name of God:

  • Malcolm X: “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
  • Martin Luther King: The United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
  • Jeremiah Wright: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. . . The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America“. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America. . . as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme”
  • William Barber II: “. . . I, too, am an atheist. . . if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either.” 
  • Liz Theoharis: “Jesus led a poor people’s campaign.”
  • Dorothy Day: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
  • Pope Francis: “This system is by now intolerable: Farmers find it intolerable; laborers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; people find it intolerable.”

Those are not voices most of us are accustomed to hearing as representative of a Christian message that has been completely dominated by right-wingers who have effectively silenced the political voice of the one Christians pretend to recognize as the greatest of all prophets. They silence Yeshua’s authentic voice by focusing exclusively on the fiction of American Exceptionalism and on personal “salvation.”   

The Prophet Yeshua

Instead, the very life of Yeshua the Christ was highly political from start to finish. He literally embodied God’s prioritization of the needs of the poor while specifically condemning the rich and powerful of his day. That’s why he had to be assassinated at a very young age — same as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton. . .

Think of it this way: Isn’t it true that Christian belief holds that Yeshua was the fullest revelation of God? If so, isn’t it therefore significant that the revelation site supposedly chosen by God was a poor man from the working class? Isn’t it theologically meaningful that he was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother (LK 1:34), was houseless at birth (LK 2:7), experienced immigrant status as an asylum seeker (MT 2: 13-15), traveled with a band of young people who had no visible means of support, was thought insane by his mother and close relatives (MK 3:21), was identified as a terrorist by the most powerful nation then on earth, and finished a victim of its torture and capital punishment?

I’d say that believers should find all of that extremely revealing.  

Moreover, the highly political Yeshua is reported to have made radical statements about wealth and poverty, e.g.:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-22)
  • “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
  • “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (Luke 6:24).
  • “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
  • “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
  • “If you want to be whole, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

Still more, his followers took their teacher literally as they practiced a kind of primitive communism:

  • “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2: 44-47).
  • Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 2: 32).

All of that identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, of Amos who defended the poor and criticized the rich, of Karl Marx, the last of the great Jewish prophets, and of the contemporary troublemakers listed above.

Today’s Readings

Keep all of that in mind as you review today’s liturgy of the word which centralizes the question, “Who are the true prophets among us?” What follows are my “translations.” You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

 
 Deuteronomy 18: 15-20:
 More than 500 years
 After the Great Prophet’s Death
 Moses was remembered
 As predicting the advent
 Of another Great One
 For a people deathly afraid
 Of hearing God’s voice directly.
 Problem was:
 There’d be false prophets too
 Claiming to speak 
 In the name of Yahweh,
 But actually representing 
 False gods
 Whom, if listened to
 Would bring to believers
 Severe punishment. 
 (Hmm.
 Where does that leave us?)
  
 Psalm 95: 1-9
 It leaves us confused
 And in danger
 Of letting our own self-interest
 Harden our hearts
 To the authentic voice
 Of our loving Mother-Father God
 Our firm refuge
 Benefactor and guide.
 Her wonderful handiwork
 In creation itself
 Reveals more
 Than any prophet’s words.
 So, believe and embrace
 What you see
 With your own eyes.
 
 I Corinthians 7: 32-35
 The case of St. Paul
 Illustrates our confusion
 About what to believe – 
 What our eyes tell us
 Or the words 
 Of an anxious 
 Celibate prophet
 Like Paul
 Who’s been interpreted 
 To say that
 Eros is somehow “improper”
 And a huge “distraction”
 For anyone serious
 About what’s truly important.
 (For, doesn’t Life Itself teach
 That Eros is
 A primary source
 Of God’s revelation
 About the nature of Life
 And Love?)
  
 Mark 1: 21-28
 Jesus, on the other hand
 Had no such reservations.
 His followers believed
 Him to be the Great Prophet
 Predicted by Moses.
 He taught astonishing truths
 With authority and certainty
 Unlike the temple scribes
 (And the doubt-filled Paul).
 He terrified unclean spirits
 While delighting
 The (married) women and men
 Who hung on his every word.  

Conclusion

The disparity between the nationalistic and exclusively personal understandings of the prophet Yeshua on the one hand and the highly political nature of his life and discourse on the other is extremely important to confront.

That’s because (as Caitlin Johnstone has recently reminded us) those who control cultural narratives control the world. And no narrative is more important to history’s control than the religious one we’ve just considered. That’s because religious faith addresses life’s most fundamental questions – the ones so thrillingly addressed by the prophets we’ve considered here: about the nature of life; our relations with one another, human connections with the environment, about foreigners, power, love, money, and justice.

I’ll even venture to say that religious story supplies the popular “philosophy” of most people in the world. It organizes their experiences. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran.

To ignore this truism is tragically to surrender an essential tool of social justice to its enemies. On the other hand, exposing the radical social justice character of the Judeo-Christian narrative while challenging its domestication by false prophets represents an essential element of any attempts to shape the world by controlling its narrative.

Even completely secular social justice warriors should take note.

Jeremiads for America: Six Unspeakable Propositions (& One Glimmer of Hope)

Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JEREMIAH 20: 10-13; PSALM 69:8-17, 33-35; ROMANS 5: 12-15; MATTHEW 10: 26-33

Today’s readings can be seen as centralizing the term “jeremiad.” In that light, and despite its usually dismissive connotations, I hope you’ll consider what I’m about to say as belonging to that prophetic category. I make it my own in a spirit of desperation generated by the trouble we all observe in our streets these days following the murder of George Floyd. What follows is entirely consistent with a liberation theology perspective — the most important theological development in the last 1500 years.

Jeremiads

According to online dictionaries, “jeremiad” refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.

The word derives from the name of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah whose words set the tone for today’s liturgy of the word. Taken together, the day’s readings might be considered commentary on his opening denunciation of his own country, Judah.

By way of context, you should know that Jeremiah did his work during the Babylonian Exile (roughly, 597 – 538 BCE), when his country’s elite had been abducted to what is modern day Iraq. Jeremiah attributed that defining tragedy to the infidelity of Judah’s leadership to their covenant with their God. Above all, it mandated care for the nation’s poor, its widows, and orphans.

Instead, its kings and upper classes were busy lining their own pockets while neglecting the very ones their religious traditions identified as God’s favorites. For Jeremiah, that neglect represented a rejection of God’s very self. It accordingly merited a half century of exile from the Holy Land and God’s special presence there.

With all of that in mind, please read today’s biblical selections. To repeat, they will lay the groundwork for my contemporary jeremiads that might be addressed to the United States. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read them for yourself here to see if I got them right.

Today’s Readings

JEREMIAH 20: 10-13: I am surrounded by state terrorists. They monitor my slightest missteps using a sophisticated surveillance apparatus and sting operations that seek revenge for my damning accusations. But I remain undeterred.  My rich persecutors are the ones who will end up confused and shamed. YHWH, the champion of the poor, will see to that.  

PSALMS 69: 8-17, 33-35: In fact, nothing can stop any genuine prophet from siding with the poor: not public shame, not family ostracization, not insults or curses. Bolstered by divine kindness, mercy and love, all prophets speak words of comfort to the impoverished and imprisoned. In this, God’s spokespersons are one with the Source of Life itself that fills the seas and skies and the very hearts of humanity.

ROMANS 5: 12-15: The prophet, Paul of Tarsus, was no different from Jeremiah. Shockingly, he identified Law itself as the source of the world’s evil – a tool of the rich and powerful to control God’s favorites (the poor and despised) with feelings of guilt and shame. For Paul, Jesus the Christ – the greatest of the anarchistic prophets — rendered all such law obsolete. 

MATTHEW 10: 26-33: In that spirit, Jesus advised absolute refusal to accept the regulations, cover-ups and “state secrets” of the rich and powerful. Their every utterance should be disclosed for the lie it is. Speak truth then, even in the face of death threats. It is far better to lose your life, Jesus said, rather than surrender to lies of Rulers from Hell. Follow the example of prophets who though typically assassinated, preserved their integrity by telling the truth of a loving God committed to the poor and oppressed.

Jeremiads for America

So, in the spirit of those words from Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus the Christ, let’s review some of the most profound reasons for the police riots in our streets. I feel confident our three prophets would say that taken together, the following half-dozen propositions describe elements that have shaped our national reality of damning racism and police state violence. Our readings direct us to face up to these defining truths and take our lead from those vilified by mainstream culture – our nation’s indigenous, descendants of slaves, and the Latinx community.

  1. “America” was founded by scoundrels, not heroes: Face it: the so-called “Founding Fathers” were not heroic. They were outright colonialists who tired of sharing the spoils of their Grand Larceny with royal godfathers back home in England. Washington, Hamilton, and the rest wanted it all for themselves and their class. As liberation theologians argue, their Jeffersonian declaration that “all men are created equal” was intended principally to establish the fact that settlers were equal with the “Indians” and so could steal their land and resources which, they argued, were up for grabs according to the law of the strongest and that of capitalist “efficiency.”
  2. It all began with unbelievable genocide: In American Holocaust, David E. Stannard puts the number of indigenous Americans killed from the time of Columbus’ invasion to Wounded Knee (in the 1890s) at 100 million. It remains the most massive act of genocide in human history.
  3. Primitive accumulation of capital came from the unpaid work of millions of slaves: Three hundred years of such labor created huge fortunes and laid the groundwork for America’s industrial revolution.
  4. Huge swaths of “America” were stolen from Mexico: In 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first, and then [after the Mexican American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. So, it’s not that Mexicans are crossing “our border;” rather, the border crossed them.
  5. Probably, about 90% of the nation’s police force is criminal: The evidence or police brutality displayed in our streets these days leads one to think that not much has changed since 1973. That’s when NYPD police insider, Frank Serpico, estimated that about 10% of police officers are honest; about 10% are absolutely corrupt, and the other 80% wish they weren’t. In fact, ninety percent of the cops we’ve seen on our TV screens exhibit what can only be described as unconstitutional criminal activity. Virtually all of them cover up, condone evidence-planting, and make excuses for crimes of their colleagues that we’ve all seen with our own eyes. In other words, virtually all of them are liars.
  6. Our nation remains the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: This characterization by Martin Luther King is as true today as it was when he made the allegation in 1967. As the most violent nation on earth, the United States represents the origin of most of the planet’s problems. If it fell off the face of the earth, the planet would be better off.

Of course, the list of propositions like those could go on infinitum. Our nation continues to exist in profound denial about its continued racism and overwhelming corruption. Democracy in America has virtually disappeared through gerrymandering, voter suppression, crooked voting machines, and campaign contributions that amount to legalized bribery. All levers of power now reside in the hands of oligarchs supported by a racist “justice system” that has also been captured by the wealthy elite – all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Glimmer of Hope

Besides echoing prophetic jeremiads, what I’ve just said are simply home truths. By themselves they’ll surprise almost no one who is paying attention. Yet (at least for me) taken together they illustrate the fact that (far from being exceptionally good) our country is deeply, deeply flawed by a profound racism, corruption, and supporting violence that put us nearly beyond human possibility of redemption.

Ironically, however (as always in the biblical tradition that Jesus endorsed) it’s in society’s marginalized classes that hope is to be found.

At this particular historical moment, it’s the nation’s black community that embodies our last best prospect. It’s what makes America truly distinct and great. I’m referring to abolitionism, the civil rights movement, and heroes like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. They were more highly principled and greater heroes than Washington, Jefferson or Hamilton. Their work for social justice has influenced liberation struggles across the planet. It has inspired other achievements that make America great – such as the drive for women’s liberation, the gay rights struggle, and the environmental movement.  

Conclusion

Yes, this has been a jeremiad homily against a dying nation blinded to its false premises by systemic racism. Today’s readings and the prophetic traditions they represent remind us that what makes America great are those who have resisted and continue to resist all representations of white supremacy. The real heroes – the truly Great Americans – are our country’s indigenous remnant as embodied for example in the Standing Rock water protectors. They’re the slavery and prison abolitionists, women suffragists and feminists. Above all, at this moment, they’re the Black Lives Matter activists inspired by their Civil Rights Movement forebears.

The prophet Jeremiah himself, along with his counterparts, Jesus and Paul call us to accept such uncomfortable facts and join forces with those equally prophetic agents of hope.

Amos & Jesus Agree: America’s Not the Greatest Country in the World!

Greatest Country

Readings for 15th Sunday in ordinary time: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13

Do any of you remember the HBO series “Newsroom?” It lasted only a couple of seasons. However, I found it interesting and watched it faithfully.

As far as I’m concerned, the series’ highlight came when lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivered a speech about then-current dismal state of our country. I’m sure many of you have seen it. It seems more relevant today than it did in 2012.

As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:

Whew! That’s hard for most of us to hear, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represents the measure of greatness.

I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw.

I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.

And what did Amos say?

Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.

Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.

“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.

And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (By now he now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)

“Who?” they asked eagerly.

“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.

Of course, the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.

It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:

“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they? They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”

My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often perceive us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people?

And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching, curing the sick and driving out demons.

Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. (Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth. So they made up stories like this one.)

And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So, stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” (This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.)

Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today — seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties. Therefore, don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.”

Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying, is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.

But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to be the voice of the voiceless as both Amos and Jesus were. It’s difficult to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich.

For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos, Jesus, and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.

What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged enemies of the state as Amos, Jesus and early Christians were?

If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: (Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

SON OF GOD
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)

The Unschooled Prophet Shouts Down the Learned Rabbi (a one-minute Sunday reflection)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Truth to Power

He strides into the synagogue
Stinking whores, beggars and bandits creeping behind.

The presiding rabbi knows why he’s there.
He’s come to disrupt his Holy Mass.
“I know who you are: The Holy One of God”
The robed demon screams in terror.

“You hypocrite!”
The prophet shouts back.
“You know nothing of holiness,
Be gone!”

The devil slinks out, tail between legs
To await another day
Leaving the intruder to teach the enthralled masses.

They all wonder:
“Where did he learn to speak like that?
This workman with calloused hands and patched robes
Unschooled like us.

Truth to power
Maybe we can do the same.”

Yes, maybe we can do the same!

(Sunday Homily) July 4th in the Land of the Regimented and Home of the Terrified

July 4th

Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2KGS 4: 5-11, 14-18A; PS 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROM 5: 3-4, 8-11; MT 10: 37-42.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates hospitality. It lauds the loving reception of prophets, social justice activists (the righteous), and the least among us. It invites us to grow up and offer such welcome despite what family members might think, when prophets like Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus contradict the culture’s received wisdom.  We are to embrace such critics despite the resulting rejection and threats (even death) of the larger community. The liturgy reminds us that openness to prophets, champions of social justice, and their victimized protégées imitates the generosity of Jesus and God himself.

Reflections like these prove especially apt on this Fourth of July weekend, at a time when our national circumstances stand in such sharp contradiction to the ideals we celebrate. To understand what I mean, first consider the occasion; then the liturgy’s sobering reminders about hospitable openness to prophetic insights which in Israel were often critical of the distance between the nation’s ideals and its historical, lived reality.

Let’s begin with our context.

Tuesday, of course, will be Independence Day. It’s an annual festival to laud the Founding Fathers, democracy, and American ideals of freedom, justice, and our “exceptional” Way of Life. It’s a time to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants – those famous “tired, poor, and huddled masses” – seeking better conditions in a land of unlimited possibilities. It’s when we sing the “Star Spangled Banner” recalling that we’re all free and brave.

Some of us will go to baseball games or watch the national pastime on T.V. There, war planes will fly in formation as we sing Francis Scott Key’s hymn that has always connected our banner to rockets and bombs. At the 7th inning stretch, we’ll cheer local servicemen and women just returned from current U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, where (it will be claimed) they’ve bravely defended our democracy and freedom.

We’ll wave flags, attend fireworks displays, and wear clothes with patriotic insignia. There will be parades with high school marching bands. Picnics will feature hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, potato salad, beer and Coke. At other gatherings, the Pledge of Allegiance will be recited proclaiming that our nation is one, indivisible and lives “under God.” In the spirit of it all, some will inevitably cheer “U.S.A., U.S.A.”

In short, we’ll celebrate life in America, where patriots are blessed and happy.

Unfortunately, none of that will ring true for me this year. In fact, it hasn’t in a long time.

That’s because as a nation (as in the Israel of Elijah, Elisha and Jesus) we’ve long since abandoned the ideals that supposedly underlie the garish and familiar outward display. In fact, it’s all been hijacked in a coup d’état – or several of them – that we don’t even recognize as having occurred. I’m referring to the assassination of J.F.K. in 1963, and to the selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court (rather than by voters) in 2000, and to the recent gradual and undemocratic seizure of all levers of public power by what Chomsky calls “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world,” viz. the Republican Party. Their anti-democratic power grab has been facilitated by:

  • Governmental refusal to abolish the Electoral College despite the fact that two of our last three presidents have been selected by bureaucrats rather than elected by a majority of voters
  • The SCOTUS Citizens United decision equating money with free speech
  • The Supreme Court’s partial repeal of the 1963 Voting Rights Act (in 2013)
  • General voter suppression and intimidation in poor, minority communities
  • Depriving convicted felons of voting rights
  • Insistence on using hackable voting machines with no paper trail
  • Exclusion of third and fourth party candidates from presidential debates
  • Ridiculous gerrymandering
  • Violation of the Constitutions’ mandate to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat until a right-wing extremist could occupy the post

All of that has made untenable any pretension of democracy. Ours is now an entrenched plutocracy, where the popular will doesn’t matter. Our wars have nothing to do with advancing democracy’s cause. In fact, few could even explain (much less defend) why “we” are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. Can you? I can’t.

So it turns out that our soldiers are not heroes. They are well-meaning, but systematically brain-washed by their “basic training.” That enables them to routinely torture and kill the innocent impoverished people whom they’re mobilized against for reasons the soldiers don’t even question, much less understand. (Isn’t it interesting that ALL our wars are fought against the desperately poor?) Supposedly, our military is fighting terrorists. But those simply wouldn’t exist absent their direct creation by the U.S. government – to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan (during the 1970s) and as a direct response to our country’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no doubt about it: ISIS was “made in America.” Most of our victimized and victimizing service people know none of this.

Far from being brave and free, the rest of us are all scared out of our wits and are constantly and resignedly monitored by a Big Brother whose unchanging mantra is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” So we withdraw into our homes (some in literally gated communities) and distract ourselves with our T.V. shows, computers, IPads, and smart phones. We cheer an ignorant and mendacious Reality Show President as he proposes plans to build defensive walls against the immigrant successors of our own ancestors. We treat as normal an entire Know Nothing political party bent on depriving millions of health care and whose climate-change-denial will render the planet unlivable for our grandchildren. Without so much as a whimper, whites look on largely silent as skin-head police thugs are acquitted again and again, even after their neo-lynchings of unarmed black people are unambiguously caught on camera. The blue suited cowards’ unwavering self-defense is: “I feared for my life.”

We’ve become a land of the constantly surveilled and skittishly cowered.

All of that is called into question by today’s biblical readings. Together they celebrate “reception,” i.e. hospitality offered to prophets (social critics), the righteous (social justice champions), and the least among us. All of them, we’re told, are embodiments of the Christ Spirit and of God himself. The welcoming word “receive” appears eight times in today’s brief gospel selection.

And who is it that we’re receiving? As I’ve indicated, they are prophets to begin with. The first reading recounts an episode from Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Elijah, remember, was the fierce social critic of Israel for abandoning its identity as protector of widows, orphans, and immigrants. He excoriated palace sycophants who in the name of God optimistically, patriotically, and blindly proclaimed “peace, peace.” Instead, Elijah correctly predicted, Israel’s chickens would come home to roost. They’d be humiliated by Babylon – the ancient name of present day Iraq. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, continued his mentor’s mission after the latter was swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Jesus of Nazareth as well as John the Baptist were identified as Elijah redivivus. They suffered accordingly. The people turned against them as they had done against all the prophets. Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and its temple collaborators. According to Mark, the evangelist, the Master was thought insane by his mother and family.

So in today’s gospel, we find Jesus directing us to love God’s Kingdom more than family. (The Kingdom as embodied in Jesus’ person was a vision of what the world would be like if it were governed by God instead of Caesar and his successors.)  In today’s reading, Jesus calls us to damn the consequences of being as outspoken as were he and his prophetic predecessors.

We too must be ready, he says, to take up our cross and follow him. (Remember the cross was the instrument of torture and death reserved for opponents of Rome. His reported reference to “the cross,” then, is highly political.)

So on this Independence Day, perhaps our most patriotic action might be (at least in spirit) to spend the day in sackcloth, ashes, and mourning. It might be best to look critically at the fireworks, parades, ball games, picnics and family gatherings, as though they belonged to foreigners and to reinterpret them as a summons to resist. (In fact, any follower of Jesus, is a foreigner in this world, and a resister by definition.)

In other words, our call this day might be to speak the truth about our lost ideals, and then to endure patiently the fury of the family, friends, and community Jesus tells us to reject for his sake. Our true family, he reminds us, is not composed of “Americans,” but of the prophets, social activists, and “little ones” he, Elijah and Elisha championed so fearlessly.

Dan Berrigan: in Memoriam

Dan Berrigan Resist

I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available).  The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!

Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.

All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.

During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.

Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about.  In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.

On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).

I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!

I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.

He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.

Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky.  (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.

Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it.  “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.

One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.

I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”

I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.

In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers.  The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).

I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk.  I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book.  I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.

Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!”  That’s his message to us today!

Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.

(Sunday Homily) Why I Liked “American Sniper”

american-sniper

Readings for 3rd Sunday in ordinary time: DT 18: 15-20; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; I COR 7: 32-35; MK 1: 21-28

Today’s readings are about resistance to oppression. They invite us to side with the oppressed and poor in their fight against world-class bullies – to understand the world from the viewpoint of the “unclean.” Seen from that perspective, “American Sniper” is full of insight. It calls us to think critically about whose side we are on in the endless wars our country wages.

The need to see reality “from below” is a major point of today’s first reading. There the message of Moses announcing liberation of the oppressed is presented as the criterion of prophetic truth. Those who teach like Moses (on behalf of the enslaved) should be listened to. False prophets with another message will be punished. This first reading from the Jewish tradition goes on to promise the advent of another prophet like Moses.

By virtue of its inclusion in the liturgy of the word, today’s gospel selection from the Christian tradition identifies Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic promise. He not only astounds people by his authoritative way of speaking. His action on behalf of a man considered “unclean” demonstrates Jesus’ prophetic authenticity.

That insight was on my mind last week when I decided to see “American Sniper” for myself. I had read the reviews. I knew the criticisms. But I wondered what it would look like if I followed the suggestions of today’s readings and viewed the film “from below,” from an Iraqi perspective.

What I discovered was surprising.

Viewed from the underside of history, “American Sniper” was a tribute to the world’s poor and oppressed – especially to the heroic people of Iraq. That’s because “American Sniper” was about resisting bullies the way the Iraqis have since 2003.

That bully theme is not farfetched. It was announced in one of the film’s opening scenes.

There an adolescent Chris Kyle is instructed by his father about three ways of being in the world. Kyle, of course, is the film’s central character – the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. He is believed to have killed 255 Iraqis in his 4 tours of duty. Many, it is certain, had their heads blown right off.

“You can be a wolf, a sheep, or a sheepdog” Kyle’s father tells him (in my paraphrase). “Wolves are bullies; they are cowards preying on the weak. Sheep are the naïve who simply go along, following the herd; they do nothing about bullies. They too are cowards. The way to deal with bullies” says Kyle’s father,” is to be a sheepdog and protect those the bully preys upon.

“I want you to be sheepdogs!” the elder Kyle shouts at his sons, “Don’t let the bullies have their way.”

Ironically, the rest of “American Sniper” shows how Chris Kyle entirely rejected his father’s advice, but also how Iraqi patriots unconsciously heeded it. They emerge in the film as the sheepdogs Kyle’s father admired.

For his part, Kyle joins a gang that specifically preys upon the weak for no good reason – simply because it can and because (as Kyle writes) it’s fun. Chris Kyle became a gangster bully.

No, he didn’t join the “Crips” or “Bloods,” “Sharks” or “Jets.” He joined the “Seals.” And their destructive power was beyond belief. To begin with, their gang attire was fearful including matching helmets and boots, flak jackets, camouflage, wrap-around sunglasses, and night vision goggles. They had guns of all types, unlimited supplies of bullets, grenades, missile launchers, armored vehicles, helicopters, planes, and sophisticated communication devices. They prowled in menacing groups along the streets of Bagdad pointing guns at open windows and doors, pedestrians and drivers.

But it wasn’t easy for aspiring bullies to become Seals; doing so required absolute submission and humiliation. So as with all gangs, they had their initiation rites. These included merciless hazing and demeaning tests of endurance. Such rites of passage were accompanied by constant indoctrination that left initiates exhausted and absolutely malleable. In terms of today’s responsorial psalm, their hearts were sufficiently hardened for the inhuman tasks before them.

As a result, and with no knowledge whatever of their intended victims, Seals became convinced that anyone their superiors identified as “targets” were savages. They knew that because their indoctrinators told them so.  They knew nothing else about Iraq, Iraqis or their culture. And so, and like their Indian Fighter predecessors, Seals hated “savages” and wanted them all dead.

In other words, gang aspirants became servile and submissive sheep. They obeyed orders without question or understanding of context. (It’s the military way.) Seals stood ready to kill women, children, the elderly and disabled – anyone identified by their superiors or who threatened their mafia-like ethos of “family.” Protecting one’s “brothers” in crime became the justification of any slaughter. As a result of that brainwashing, Seals were entirely unable to see their “enemies” human beings.

Such identification was difficult for audiences of “American Sniper” as well. Nonetheless, Iraqi humanity inevitably surfaced for anyone remembering today’s readings about Moses and Jesus.  Those prophetic lenses revealed the Seals’ victims to be the successors of the poor and oppressed that both of those prophets came to rescue.

Think about the Iraqis for a minute.

Like their predecessors in Egypt, they were perfect targets for bullies. They had no army, no sophisticated weapons, no helicopters, planes or armored vehicles. They wore no uniforms or protective clothing. Apart from unemployed members of Iraq’s Republican Guard, almost none had formal military training.

Instead they were simple peasants, merchants, teachers, barbers and taxi drivers. They were fathers and mothers, children barely able to lift a grenade launcher, grandparents, friends and neighbors banding together as best they could to protect their homes, families from the ignorant, marauding invaders who proudly called themselves “The Seals.” Unable to show weapons in public (like their menacing occupiers), Iraqis hid them by day under floor boards in their homes.

Some were so desperate that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to resist the Seal home-invaders. So they became suicide bombers. Others experimented with non-violent resistance. They were willing to share their tables with the barbarians from abroad, offering them food and shelter in hopes that kindness might win them over.

But no such luck.

So the majority resorted to defending themselves and each other with weapons – mostly captured or left over from previous Seal invasions (there have been many). What else were these brave patriots to do?

One of them became particularly admired. He had been a national hero, called Mustafa. In the story, this fictional character was an Olympic gold medal winner like the American’s Michael Phelps. But instead of resting on his laurels or using his status to protect himself from harm, he employed his skills as a sharp shooter to defend his people.

We can only imagine the pride that swelled the hearts of Iraqis when they heard how he inspired fear in the American bullies who constantly kicked in their doors, destroyed and looted their property, belittled their culture and faith, intimidated their children, frightened their elders, and demeaned their women.

In the end, Mustafa became a glorious martyr.

Again ironically, he was gunned down by his ignorant American counterpart. He was killed by the bully without a thought in his head who was in the game for fun, for the rush of battle, and to protect his relatively invulnerable “brothers” from the harm they deserved at the hands of the civilian victims they tormented.

In what can only be described as an act of self-loathing, that counterpart, Chris Kyle, takes careful aim and from a great and safe distance shoots a patriot he considers “savage,” because he mirrors so well his own bloody “work.”

It’s easy to vilify Chris Kyle. But he’s not to blame. He was no different from any other soldier serving in Iraq. He was no different from drone “pilots” operating from their air-conditioned “theaters” in Nevada or New Mexico. Sad to say, all of them are unwitting bullies and gangsters. They are brainwashed sheep.

Today’s readings are a reminder of all that. So is “American Sniper.”

Both call us to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are taught to hate.

Shockingly, they call us to change sides!

(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis’ Prophetic Warning on Climate Change: Repent or Else; the Time Is Short

Pope-in-Philippines

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: JON 3: 1-5, 10; PS 25: 4-9; I COR 7: 29-31; MK 1: 4-20; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012515.cfm

Last week, Pope Francis offered a preview of his eagerly anticipated encyclical on climate change – to be published next June or July. While visiting the Philippines, the country most devastated by climate chaos, it wasn’t that the pope merely joined the chorus of scientists, environmental activists, and those who heed them. He went much further, promising to transform the issue of climate change from a debate topic trivialized on Fox News into a matter of “faith and morals” (The phrase used by Catholics to define the area within which the pope has overriding authority.)

In doing so, Francis follows the traditions of prophets like Jonah and Jesus – each centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Both prophets called for repentance (change of thought and action). However, the repentance they summoned pales in comparison to what the pope evidently has in mind.

Yes, the pope is a contemporary prophet. At this moment in history, he is arguably the most powerful ever in terms of his consciousness, courage, credibility and constituency. He literally embodies our best hope for “saving the world.” So it’s incumbent on progressives to heed, highlight and support his efforts.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings about prophetic warnings and how to respond.

The first recalls the message of the Bible’s fictional character Jonah. He’s a reluctant ethnocentric prophet forced by God to call Israel’s mortal enemy, Nineveh, to repentance. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” Jonah proclaimed with some delight.

Ultimately though, Jonah’s ethno-centricity is frustrated when against his desires, the Ninevites quickly and unexpectedly take his message to heart, change their ways, and God repents “of the evil he had planned.” In this way, the Divine One showed God’s character as depicted in today’s responsorial. There the psalmist says that (unlike Jonah) God is compassionate, loving, kind, good, and upright. God guides humble sinners on the path of truth – i.e. reality as it is, not as humans would like it to be.

Jesus’ proclamation was similar to Jonah’s, but without that prophet’s nationalist limitations. As depicted in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ basic message was a call to profound change: “This is the time of fulfillment,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” That notion of fulfillment and the nearness of God’s Kingdom introduces a profound element of hope to complement Jesus’ summons to repentance.

Like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, Peter and Andrew, James and John take Jesus’ words to heart profoundly altering their lives. They leave their former employment as fishermen abandoning their nets, their fathers’ boats and hired men. They follow instead a penniless itinerant preacher and community organizer, adopting his life of complete dependence on others for daily sustenance.

In today’s second reading, Paul shows that the early church embraced Jesus’ message. “Time is running out,” Paul warns. It’s time to prioritize the Kingdom even before family, emotional ups and downs, attachment to property — and to the world as it is. Paul is uncompromising in his perception of the profundity of change “repentance” calls for.

However the apostle’s perception is nothing like the lack of compromise called for by the historically unprecedented crisis of climate change. And this brings me back to Pope Francis and the promise of his prophetic consciousness, courage, credibility, and constituency.

Begin with Francis’ consciousness. He alone among our elected thought “leaders” recognizes contemporary historical patterns – the links between climate change, capitalism, its neo-liberal order, corporate power, income inequality, poverty, colonialism, and a host of other problems (including absence of universal education and health care). For Francis, climate change is not merely one issue among many. It is the frame which makes evident the solutions to those other issues.

More than this, the pope has the uncommon courage to identify without equivocation the cause of such problems – neo-liberal capitalism. He says what politicians like President Obama and other heads of state (with the exception of Raul Castro of Cuba) find impossible to say. Their dependence for survival on billionaires and plutocrats render them impotent before the ideologies of unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” theories. By contrast Pope Francis terms the latter homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). (Parenthetical numbers refer to sections of “The Joy of the Gospel.”)

Additionally while speaking the unspeakable, the pope enjoys tremendous credibility. With the exception of neo-liberalism’s intractable apologists, the world loves and embraces the man. His efforts to distance himself from the traditional luxurious papal lifestyle, his honesty in responding to difficult questions, his humility and genuine love for the poor make him our century’s most credible moral leader.

And finally, there’s the pope’s constituency. Unlike prophets before him (including Jesus of Nazareth) sheer numbers give Pope Francis unprecedented power to change the world. Jonah’s potential respondents to his calls for repentance were only inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. In today’s gospel reading Jesus’ respondents were four simple fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Eventually, only a minority of poor Palestinian peasants took to heart Jesus’ words. By contrast, and in virtue of his office, this pope’s constituency is trans-national and world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet the pope calls “Mother” and “Sister.”

Evidently Francis’ plan is to use his credibility to courageously spread his consciousness and widen his constituency. He plans to do so in five steps. He will (1) publish an encyclical (the most authoritative form of communication at his disposal), (2) convoke an ecumenical meeting of world religious leaders, (3) presumably secure from them a statement paralleling his encyclical’s conclusions, (4) present that statement in his speech to the United Nations in September, and (5) attempt in doing all of that to influence the conclusions of this year’s Climate Summit in Paris two months later.

That’s prophetic activism unparalleled in the recent history of the papacy.

And what specifically is entailed in the repentance necessary to save our Mother? Of course, to share the pope’s vision, we await details in the forthcoming encyclical. However, today’s liturgy of the word points us in the general direction. In the meantime, secular prophets like Naomi Klein fill in the challenging details.

General directions include (as Paul says in today’s second reading) transcending emotions like fear-inspired denial. They include willingness to cut family ties (i.e. narrow nationalism), re-examining our career paths, attachments to property and neo-liberal dreams of unlimited consumption and getting rich.

Specific repentance is more radical than any of our politicians dare articulate. According to Klein, author of This Changes Everything, that’s because our planet has reached “decade zero.” Denialists have led us to squander the leeway we had twenty-five years ago. If we don’t decisively alter within the next ten years our path of production and consumption, the planet’s temperature is bound to rise 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. However, according to climate scientists, any rise beyond 2 degrees will make disastrous climate change irreversible. And that will result in disastrous droughts, water shortages, typhoons, flooding, wildfires, and crop losses with whole cities under water and Islands swallowed by the sea.

To avoid such disasters, required repentance includes:

  • Rejecting the neo-liberal myth that has shaped our world over the last 35 years.
  • Replacing it (the pope will say) with the biblical vision of the Kingdom (proclaimed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading). God’s Kingdom is characterized not by competition and privatization, but by cooperation, sharing, prioritizing the needs of the poor and respecting the earth as commons.
  • Setting aside neo-liberalism’s fetish about regulation, and setting bold national policies guided by clear goals, a strictly imposed time table, and severe penalties for non-compliance.
  • Implementing corresponding policies to cut annual emissions in the industrialized world by 8- 10%.
  • Recognizing that exchange of myths means rejection of market-driven models of untargeted economic growth.
  • Redesigning our cities and redistributing population to eliminate long commutes between home and work.
  • Investing massively in light rail and other means of public transportation so that commuters might travel efficiently and free of cost.
  • Similarly subsidizing renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.
  • Turning the roof of every available building into an energy plant.
  • Respecting the rights of indigenous people under whose lands so much carbon deposit remains.
  • Eliminating by law, controlling by strong regulation or penalizing by heavy taxation industries that are wasteful and/or destructive of the planet such as arms manufacturers, the fast-food industry, GMO firms, and middle-man industries like health insurance.
  • Dealing with climate impact and damage according to “the polluter pays” principle. This recognizes that the 500 million richest people on the planet are responsible for 50% of the world’s pollution and that the U.S. military is by some estimates the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world.
  • According to “the polluter pays” principle, withdrawing from foreign wars, cutting the military budget by at least 25% and making the rich 1% pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Tolerating as necessary increased taxes on everyone, except the poor.
  • Drastically reducing the amount of energy each of us consumes.

You get the idea. The agenda necessary to save our planet from “the evil Nature has planned” is challenging indeed. But it contains that surprising element of hope Jesus signaled when he termed “repentance” as “good news” and “fulfillment.”

After all, our destructive way of life is anything but fulfilling. On the other side of the repentance just described is a cleaner, healthier, less stressful life with full employment, more leisure, greater equality, and harmony with one another and our world.

That’s the vision behind the pope’s courageous prophetic work. It deserves our undivided attention and support.

Pope Francis’ Compelling Revolutionary Vision: What Progressives Have Been Waiting for (Sunday Homily)

Pope Bergoglio

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120813.cfm

Recently articles in OpEdNews (my favorite on-line news source) have been full of revolutionary themes. For instance, Chris Hedges informed us of an invisible revolution simmering and about to erupt. It will be driven, he said, by widespread discontent with wages, wealth disparities, militarism, and climate change denial.

Then in his viral BBC interview, comedian Russell Brand called for revolution stimulated by everyone’s recognition of the futility of politics as we know it. No one should vote, he said; the system is too broken to be improved at the ballot box.

On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders’ revolution would be based wider participation in political processes, with everyone voting. That would overcome reactionary moves that disenfranchise voters and empower moneyed interests to determine electoral outcomes against the popular will.

Calling us back to reality, Robert Becker advised that any revolution at all is highly unlikely, since no one on the left offers compelling direction or revolutionary vision.

At the time of its publication, that last remark seemed apt. No world leader capable of mobilizing millions had yet emerged.

However all of that changed two weeks ago. The compelling direction and revolutionary vision whose absence Mr. Becker correctly lamented indeed materialized in an ironically unlikely form – a pronouncement of the Roman Catholic papacy.

On Tuesday November 26th, Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). It represents the most articulate and detailed “vision” of a revolutionary future yet offered by anyone actually capable of producing results in the street and at the ballot box.

That is, as a member of the world’s super-elite, and virtually above reproach and easy dismissal by his fellow aristocrats, the pope’s pronouncement demands serious consideration. This is especially true on the parts of the bishops and clergy who weekly have before them captive audiences voluntarily come together to meditate upon, pray about, and attempt to internalize the gospel vision which the pope describes as focused on the poor, peace, social justice and on the structural causes of violence, war and terrorism. Moreover, these themes, the pope insists, should be driven home in homilies at Sunday Mass, since such leitmotifs represent the inescapable essence of the Judeo Christian tradition.

Today’s liturgy of the word provides a case in point. It articulates the revolutionary vision and compelling direction the pope finds throughout the Bible. It’s a utopian vision that courageously connects peace with social justice and environmental consciousness.

Consider the first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It directly links peace and social justice – for the poor and oppressed who in Isaiah’s day and our own are typically ignored. By way of contrast, Isaiah’s concept of justice consists precisely in judging the poor and oppressed fairly and not according to anti-poor prejudice – in Isaiah’s words, not by “appearance or hearsay.” (No room here for “Stop and Frisk,” or “Shop and Frisk!”)

Not only that, but according to the prophet, treating the poor justly is the key to peace between humans and with nature. It produces a utopian wonderland where all of us live in complete harmony with nature and with other human beings. In Isaiah’s poetic reality, lions, lambs, and calves play together. Leopards and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes experience no threat from each other. Most surprising of all, even believers (Jews) and non-believers (gentiles) are at peace. (Today’s excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seconds this point. He tells his correspondents to “welcome one another” – including gentiles – i.e. those the Jewish community normally considered incapable of pleasing God.)

Today’s responsorial psalm reinforces the idea of peace flowing from justice meted out to the “least.” As Psalm 72 was sung, we all responded, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And again, the justice in question has the poor as its object. The psalmist praises a God and a government (king) who “rescue the poor and afflicted when they cry out” – who “save the lives of the poor.”

In his own time, the lack of the justice celebrated in today’s first three readings infuriates Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Today’s gospel reading has him excoriating the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers.” Unmistakably clothed as a prophet – in garments that absolutely repudiate fashion and the pretenses of his effete opponents John reminds us of the simple lifestyle adopted by Francis I. John lambasts the Scribal Establishment which had identified with the occupation forces of Rome. As opposition high priest, John promises a religious renewal that will lead to a new Exodus – this time from the power of Rome and its religious collaborators.

As part of today’s revolutionary theme, it’s important to emphasize the Exodus dimensions of Matthew’s description of John. The Baptist is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of their great myth of national origin. It would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. (I imagine that if the Romans had the power, they would have “droned” John and his followers in a “signature strike.”)

Do you see what I mean about harnessing the revolutionary power of the Bible’s myth, poetry, utopian visions, and preferential option for the poor? It’s all there in Isaiah, Psalm 72, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in Matthew’s portrait of John. And if we look with the eyes of Pope Francis, we can find those themes every Sunday. It’s powerful stuff, I’m sure you agree. And the pope not only sees that himself, he has called 1.2 billion inhabitants of this planet to recognize it along with him and act accordingly.

The action Francis recommends is particular. It consists in combatting a form of capitalism that he describes as systematized murder. He rejects “trickle-down” theory, and demands interference in the out-workings of markets in the name of the common good. The pope calls Catholics and others of good will to recognize access to food, education, and healthcare as human rights.

And the pope does all of this without demanding sophisticated comprehension of history, economic theories, or detailed social analysis.

Instead he relies on the power of myth, poetry, God-talk, and biblical focus on a divine preferential option for the poor and Jesus’ vision of God as universal parent.

All of that is there in today’s liturgy of the word. For any with eyes to see, it’s there every Sunday to assuage our hunger for “vision” and “direction.”

It’s time for progressives to follow the lead of Pope Francis. He’s calling us to set aside our pseudo-sophistication that has intellectuals rejecting the Bible’s power to mobilize huge masses of people. That is, we must reclaim the powerful mythology of the Bible and lay aside our practical disdain for story, myth and symbol. That’s where we’ll find our missing “vision and direction.”

I find that promising, invigorating . . . and somehow ironic.