Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; PS 98: 509; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 28; Lk 21: 5-19
As I read the news each day, I find myself wondering if we’re living in the “end times” described in biblical “apocalyptic” literature like we find in today’s liturgy of the word. I hope we are.
That’s because in the Bible, “apocalypse” isn’t a threat of doom, but a promise of hope. It’s not about the end of the world, but the end of the corrupt (imperial) order in which believers so often found themselves. The Book of Revelation (Unveiling), for example, pulls back the curtain covering first century Roman corruption and promises that it will all soon end.
In that sense, something similar seems to be happening today. (That’s what I try to point out in the video above.) Something new and hopeful is dawning worldwide.
For example, in Ukraine and on behalf of the Global South, Vladimir Putin is digging in the heels of those traditionally oppressed by U.S. imperialism and European colonialism and shouting a firm “NO!” to the bullies involved.
And then last week, I could hardly believe it when China’s President, Xi Jinping quoted Reinhold Niebuhr‘s “Serenity Prayer” at German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. In effect Xi told Scholz that a new multipolar world has dawned and there’s nothing he or NATO can do about it.
I bring all of that up because this Sunday’s liturgy of the word addresses the promise of God’s new order (aka the Kingdom of God). It promises a reordering of the political, economic, and spiritual status quo that turns everything upside down. The promised purge features the definitive downfall of those now governing the planet. It promises justice, peace, and happiness for the rest of us. That’s the real meaning of the Jesus’ proclamation. It describes what the world would be like if the GREAT SOURCE (not Rome or the United States) were in charge of the world.
However, the liturgy also affirms the uncomfortable fact that before that Great Reversal, true followers of Jesus must endure severe persecution — very troubled times like our own. According to the Master, great trials must precede the Kingdom’s institution. Jesus promised arrests, judicial silencings, jailings, and general persecution for those with the courage to follow his example as an opponent of empire and injustice.
See that theme for yourself by reviewing today’s readings here. In any case, what follows are my “translations” of those selections. They describe the new order (or what scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s Great World Clean-up”) as advocated by the Jewish prophetic tradition and by Jesus himself. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus outlines the inevitable consequences for any who act to hasten the Kingdom’s eventual arrival:
MAL 3: 19-20A
Scorching times are coming
For the rulers
Of this world!
Root and branch
They will be destroyed
In purging fire
When God’s Great Clean-up
Finally sets things right.
PS 98: 5-9
The Great Purge
Will at last establish
Including environmental rectification
For the entire planet,
With its seas and mountains.
It will mean
Equity and justice
For the whole human race.
Everyone should be
Happy about that.
2 THES 3: 7-12
But don’t relax.
Some in Paul’s community
Thought the Purge
Would take place
“Any day now.”
So, they stopped working.
“Don’t do that,”
Shouldn’t make you
A burden to others.”
The Great Purgation
Has yet to occur,
Don’t lose faith.
Know that it is
LK 21: 5-19
So, you’re wondering,
The Great Clean-up
Will take place?
It will happen in three stages
First, there’ll be
Wars, terror and insurrections
Along with natural disasters
That will leave
Religion in a shamble.
Secondly, all kinds of charlatans
Will show up
Claiming to speak for Jesus.
Thirdly, even family members
And religious authorities
Will blame believers for all of it.
They will hate, persecute, and arrest them
For simply following the Master,
Handing them over
To civil authorities
Of the wisdom
Of their unassailable defenses.
1. Reject false Christs.
2. Trust the Holy Spirit within.
3. Endure imprisonment.
All of that represents an extremely high bar, don’t you agree? Following the martyr, Jesus – the tortured one, the one imprisoned on death row, the victim of capital punishment – is never easy.
But does that mean that those of us living beneath the lofty bar set by Jesus are lost? Can we not be part of God’s Great World Clean-up?
Let’s hope that we can.
At the very least however, here’s what we can do in line with today’s final reading:
Reject false Christs by realizing that the meek and mild Jesus of mainstream Christianity is a distortion of the one recognized as subversive by the Roman Empire and by the compromised Judaism of his day. Jesus meek and mild represents the false Christ the Master himself warns against in today’s Gospel reading.
Instead, embrace Jesus’ rebel Spirit as much as possible by for example refusing to patriotically accept “official stories” about either Russia or China. Despite their very evident limitations, both are resisting imperialism and neo-colonialism.
Pray for the Spirit of civil disobedience that inspired great people of faith like the prophet from Nazareth.
Don’t be discouraged by delays in the Kingdom’s arrival or by the apparent victories of its enemies. Persevere!
Readings for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT 30: 10-14; PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; COL 1:15-20; LK 10: 25-37
Recently, Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and current Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley published an article called “The Ideology of Christian Nationalism.”
The piece reviewed the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference held in Nashville in June. The meeting promoted the theology of Dominionism which (ignoring American pluralism) holds that Christians have a duty to take over all aspects of government, culture, and society.
According to Reich, speakers at the convention including Donald Trump and Florida senator Rick Scott, promoted not only a union of church and state but the promotion of “gun violence, the subjugation of women through forced birth, and strongman authoritarianism.”
It all represented, Reich said, an effort of white supremacists to “hold onto power in the face of massive demographic shifts: toward women (who now constitute 60 percent of all university enrollees, and therefore the future power structure) and people of color, and away from formal religion.”
Of course, over the long term, such denial of irreversible social realities is doomed, since (to repeat) it ignores our culture’s religious pluralism and the widespread secularism.
It also runs contrary to the simple message of the selections in today’s liturgy of the word on this 15th Sunday in ordinary time. Their emphasis is not on the culture wars around abortion (which is nowhere mentioned in the Bible) and gun rights but on love even for enemies (which represented, of course, the heart of our Great Master’s teaching). Much less is the emphasis on the values of the dominant culture.
Promoting love and even admiration of enemies, today’s liturgy presents the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan – the religious and socially rejected outsider whose generosity and compassion put to shame the Jewish dominionists of Yeshua’s day.
(Samaritans were considered enemies of the state, because their ancestors back in the 8th century BCE, intermarried with Assyrian occupiers of the Jewish homeland. Intermarriage rendered Samaritans unclean. They were simply sub-human.)
So, Jesus’ making a Samaritan the hero of his challenging parable and contrasting the outcast’s compassion with the “couldn’t-care-less” attitude of professional holy men – the priest and the Levite – also connects directly with the hypocrisy of Christians who lack understanding and compassion towards those who don’t share their identity politics or faith.
In doing so, they’ve actually criminalized God’s law of love as described throughout today’s liturgical readings. Read the descriptions for yourself here. For what they’re worth, what follows are my “translations” of their main ideas:
DT 30: 10-14
The Great Liberator, Moses
Exhorted the former slaves
To return to LOVE
The most obvious, uncomplicated
In the world.
PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
Love is all we need
From Life Itself.
It is always kind
Overflowing with gifts
And ready to protect
The poor, the imprisoned,
And those in pain.
Yes: All we need is Love.
Jesus, the Christ
Shows what Love means –
That absolutely everything
Was created for Love,
The bond, the glue
That holds us all together
In complete at-one-ment
Transforming the human race
Into a single body
By a hostile world.
LK 10: 25-37
For Jesus (like Moses)
Love of God and Neighbor
Is the only law
Promising fullness of life.
The two laws are one.
The ignorance of
Professional holy men
The compassion of
The very minorities
We’re taught to hate
Health care, transportation,
For those they have every reason
That’s what it means
To love Our very Self!
So, Moses was right after all: Love is really all we need. It couldn’t be clearer. Yeshua was right too: Love is God’s only law. There is no other.
Consequently, the theology of Christian Dominionism is wrong. It disrespects not only the Constitution’s separation of church and state, but the religious and moral convictions of human brothers and sisters not sharing their beliefs in the context of a pluralistic culture.
Most importantly however, for the followers of Moses and Yeshua such disrespect violates their teachers’ supreme law of love.
Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 66: 10-14C; Psalm 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Galatians 6: 14-18; Luke 10: 1-2, 17-20
You’ve all heard of the “Great Replacement Theory,” right?
It’s the analysis holding that white mostly Christian males have recently come to constitute an oppressed class. They are being “replaced” in the U.S. economy and culture by interlopers – immigrants, women, non-whites, and non-Christians. As a result, white Christian males suddenly find themselves unemployed or working in dead-end jobs for much lower wages than before.
Proliferation of the theory has led to widespread animus against the apparent replacers – non-males, immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians.
Just another right-wing conspiracy theory, no?
The Truth of Replacement
In fact, according to my favorite economist, Richard Wolff (see above video), there is more than a grain of truth in that way of thinking.
According to Wolff, the replacement theorists are correct: white Christian males have indeed experienced substitution by others in the neo-liberal order organized by capitalists over the last 40 years or so.
But the ones responsible for the tragedy are not immigrants, women, and non-Christian people of color. Instead, the fault is systemic. It lies with capitalism itself. That system’s pursuit of profit has capitalists freely choosing to substitute previously high-wage earners with robots, policies of offshoring, and (far less often) by employment of desperate immigrants.
And there’s more (something Professor Wolff doesn’t note). U.S. policies of imperialism and regime change themselves end up being all about replacement of people’s governments with pro-elite puppets. It has removed socialist leaning governments throughout the world (closest to home in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala) and put in their place regimes that favor rich landowners, multinational corporations, drug cartels and gangs. Such replacement has spawned generations of desperate impoverished peasants anxious for a better life even if it means leaving the homeland they love.
Actual imperialism then and regime change (along with the normal dynamics of capitalism) are not just about theory. They are long-standing practices of the United States.
Identifying others as the culprits purposely distracts from the real problem – deregulated capitalism as administered by our own government.
I bring that up in this Sunday’s homily because its readings (translated below) once again focus on the ways the biblical God favors the victims of empire and regime change – the very ones vilified by white Christian males who feel that their previously advantageous position in society is currently being usurped by those displaced workers who are overwhelmingly Christians too. The readings call people like us to re-identify our oppressors.
As suggested by Isaiah, the biblical psalmist, Paul, and Yeshua, the immigrants and refugees that our politicians want us to hate are exiles very like the ancient Hebrews in Babylon. They are the victims of the rich and powerful as were the Jews in Jesus’ day, when Rome occupied his homeland aided and abetted by the Temple clergy.
Put otherwise, today’s biblical selections say that the poorest and most vulnerable among us are God’s own people. The readings call us who live in the belly of the beast to acknowledge that hidden fact. Implicitly, they summon us to replace the true oppressor of white Christian males – the capitalist system itself – with a new order favoring the truly oppressed. Yeshua called that order the Kingdom of God.
Additionally, we’re asked to recognize that the homelands of Christian exiles and immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are the very countries whose economies our government purposely and permanently crashed in the 1980s and subsequently.
Then, the Reagan and Bush I administrations used drug money to finance illegal wars that ended up killing hundreds of thousands while replacing governments and social movements whose primary beneficiaries would have been the parents of those at our borders today. The latter have been substituted by the drug lords we established and supported during the ‘80s and who today are doing the same things they did 40 years ago – marketing drugs while terrorizing and murdering the innocent. I’m talking about the generals and other military officers who are now the drug kingpins.
To repeat, it’s been that way from biblical times and before – rich foreigners oppressing poor locals for the benefit of the “Mother Country.” Listen to today’s readings. Or, rather, read them for yourself here. My “translations” follow:
These are the words
Of Isaiah’s prophecy
To exiles re-placed
Foreign and domestic:
“Your time of desperation
Is nearly over.
You will soon
Rediscover a home
Like starving infants
With hunger satisfied
Along with joy
And comfort, comfort, comfort
PS 66: 1-7, 16, 20
So kind and powerful
Is the answer
To the prayers
Of replaced people
And a source of joy
For the whole
And all of creation.
Our Great Parents' destiny
Joy and freedom
GAL 6: 14-18
Yes, our true inheritance
Is an entirely
Between rich and poor
Oppressor and oppressed
This New Order
Compassion and peace.
Might crucify us
For this belief.
We are called to
Bear their torture
As did Yeshua himself.
LK 10: 1-12, 17-20
Agree with the Master
Of “advance men”
By powers imperial.
Like lambs among wolves
With begging bowls,
They healed and proclaimed
God’s Great Cleanup
Of a world
Infested by demonic
And it worked!
Every one of those 72
Cast out evil spirits
Just like Yeshua.
(Despite powerful opposition
Today’s readings should awaken those attracted by right-wing replacement theories. The selections call for a shift of blame for job loss and low wages from capitalism’s victims (both here and abroad) – from non-males, people of color, women, and immigrants. Instead, we’re reminded, blame for replacement belongs to the dysfunctional system that impoverishes all but the imperialists and regime change artists themselves.
In other words, the Great Replacer is the deregulated capitalist system of globalization that victimizes all concerned. The vilification of immigrants, people of color, and women is meant to distract us from that fact.
Today’s readings remind us that it has always been thus. Ancient Israel under the Babylonians and Yeshua’s Palestine under the Romans both had their governments replaced by imperialists. The result was predictable: impoverishment of empire’s victims, rebellion, and revolution.
In sum, the liturgy of the word for this 14th Sunday in ordinary time represents a prophetic reminder that imperialism and regime change despite their banal normalcy are not part of our Great Parents’ plan. The readings call us to join a band like Yeshua’s 72 emissaries who accepted, proclaimed, and lived according to the New Order the Master envisioned – a borderless world with no despised outgroups, but with room and abundance for everyone.
Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kings 19: 16b, 19-21; Psalm 16: 1-11; Galatians 5: 1, 13-18; Luke 9: 51-62
I’m taking this Sunday’s readings quite personally. They’re about prophets leaving behind family and tribe for the sake of the divine order Yeshua called the “kingdom of God.” In the Master’s parlance, that referred to a world with room and abundance for everyone.
The readings are personal for me, because lately I’ve been feeling abandoned by my tribe – the people in the world I hold dearest – my own family. Especially in the context of the Ukraine war and my refusal to accept our culture’s official story about it, most in my tribe has decided that I’ve gone off the deep end.
I wonder how many readers here are experiencing similar rejection.
More specifically, my tribe’s abandoned me because I refuse to parrot the simplistic narrative: “Russia bad; NATO good.” Instead, as I’ve written here, here, here, here, here, and here, I find the truth to be much more complex.
NATO, I’ve concluded, started the war. Putin is only acting according to the same logic of self-defense and sphere of influence that the United States has used repeatedly to justify its illegal wars of aggression for more than 200 years. (See the above short list of such heinous interventions.)
Moreover, Putin is even more justified in using that tired logic because he’s responding to threats on Russia’s very border – not to those represented by Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan thousands of miles away.
In fact, Russia’s experience is even closer to home than the Soviet menace “we” perceived during the Cuban missile crisis. In that case, the U.S. government was prepared to incinerate the world itself – to end it all – rather than allow communists to install weapons of mass destruction on an island 90 miles distant from Florida.
But my family doesn’t get all of that. For most of them it’s still “Russia bad; NATO good.” It leads some of them to ask me the pointed question, “Why do you hate America?”
Of course, I don’t hate America, although I sometimes find myself saying that our planet would be much better off without the United States. At the same time I dearly love the American places where I’ve spent so much time studying our nation’s crimes — Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama.
But anyway, here’s what I tell my folks.
Hating the U.S.
It’s all very simple, I say. The United States has 4.6% of the world’s population. Yet, it consumes something like 40% of its product. As George Kennan noted years ago, it wants to keep things that way by occupying the very position of world domination to which Adolf Hitler aspired in the 1930s and 40s.
As cited repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, here’s what Kennan said:
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
In other words, since the Second Intercapitalist War (1939-’45) U.S. policy has been about preventing the world’s majority from acquiring its fair share of the world’s resources. It bullies the world.
Meanwhile, Russia occupies the largest land mass on the planet. China has almost 20% of the world’s population. So does India and Africa. Yet those countries and the African continent have traditionally been controlled by the U.S. and its NATO allies, the most powerful of which (as colonial powers) have looted their treasures for more than a century.
Currently, the Global South countries (sometimes called “The Group of 77 and China”) continue as victims of an imperial order administered by the United States and enforced by nearly 800 military bases scattered across the globe. In summary, though nations of the Global South constitute most of the world’s population, they have until recently wielded little political influence on a global scale.
Of course, all of that is changing now. The world’s white minorities, led by the United States, are being pressed by the world’s non-white majorities to yield them political and economic powers commensurate with their populations, land mass, and resource wealth.
However, United States policies enforcing unipolarity, its forever and regime change wars, NATO expansion, and “full spectrum dominance” (including in Ukraine) are still intended to shove minority white control down the throats of all those non-whites.
That’s arrogant, illogical and morally repugnant.
And in the context of this homily, it’s quite contrary to the prophetic tradition of the Judeo-Christian tradition as embodied in great prophets like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and Yeshua of Nazareth. The latter lived under imperialism and hated it.
As shown in today’s readings, all of those prophets (and many more) knew the loneliness of tribal abandonment for the sake of a human family much larger than that of their parents and remote ancestors.
For yourselves, please consult the selections here. Then look at my “translations” below to see if I’ve got them right.
I Kings 19: 16b, 19-21
We will never
Be without prophets
Who renounce everything,
Even family and nation
(For God’s sake!)
Without counting the cost.
That’s God’s honest truth
Exemplified, they say,
In Elisha’s succession
The prophet whose
Fiery chariot famously
Whisked him away
From death’s dread gate
“Come follow me,”
To the young plowman.
“Yes, but let me first
To mom and dad.”
“There’s no time
For such triviality!”
“Instead, burn your plow
Here and now!
Roast your oxen
Over its fire
And feed the poor
With their flesh.”
Leaving it all behind
Never once looking back.
Psalm 16: 1-11
Like Elijah and Elisha teach
That our real inheritance
Is neither silver nor gold,
Nor the equivalent
Of fields, plows, oxen,
Or family ties
But the Source of life itself –
(What some still call
The Font of all nourishment.
Source makes us
Calm and wise
Even when surrounded
Terror and darkness.
Source renders us
Joyful and confident
Saving us from the abyss
Of the world’s contradictions
The true path
Of life and joy.
Galatians 5: 1, 13-18
Yeshua, some claimed,
Was Elijah redivivus.
(Or was it John the Baptist?
No matter, Paul said.
The Master’s example
Has burnt away
That once bound
Instead, Paul proclaimed:
From the culture’s
Selfish, all consuming
That devours everything
And spits it out again.
(Because they are
Our true family
Our very selves!).
That’s the wisdom
Of Expanded Consciousness
(Aka the “Holy Spirit”)
That never agrees
With the world’s “truth”
Or its elite-serving law.
Luke 9: 51-62
(What Paul called “flesh”)
And even violence
Simply for hurt feelings.
(All in the name of God!).
“Don’t be like that,”
“Just forget it,
And move on.
“Instead, follow me
Like Elijah’s Elisha.
Even your parents and family
To say goodbye.
“Choose to be homeless
(No better than birds and foxes)
For the sake
Of Cosmic consciousness
And the order it dictates –
Our only home
That truly matters.”
Do I “hate America” as my tribe alleges? Not really, if you’re asking about Yosemite or the Grand Canyon and certainly not about its heroes like Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Malcolm, King, Liz Theoharis, and William Barber.
But if you’re asking about the system now controlling the world, Ms. Day’s words capture my own thinking inspired by today’s readings.
She said, “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists ‘of conspiring to teach [us] to do,’ but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
Those are the sentiments my tribe finds so hard to accept. Yeshua, I believe, would not find them so.
Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110: 1-4; 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26; Luke 9:11b-17
This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).
It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”
Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”
Let me explain.
To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.
But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:
Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.
“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.
That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.
That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.
Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.
Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.
Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.
In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.
Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one “Body of Christ.”
All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.
Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”
And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:
“There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . . You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”
Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.
In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ — act together as I would.”
Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?
It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.
That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.
The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.
Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.”
Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philemon 3: 8-14; John 8: 1-11
Did you ever wonder why religious leaders seem so preoccupied with sex?
I bring the question up, because today’s reading from the Gospel of John presents Yeshua as confronting that clerical obsession. I’m referring to the famous case of the woman caught in the act of adultery.
Before I get to that, however, think of the preoccupation itself.
Clerical Preoccupation with Sex
We witness it all over the place, don’t we? Clerics, it seems, constantly worry about a long list of cringe-worthy and curious topics that include abortion, contraception, transgenderism, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, artificial insemination, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests, and (I guess) pedophilia.
Moreover, the clergy’s own sexual failings never inhibit their volubility on those topics. I mean, the record shows that Catholic priests have rather regularly sexually molested little boys. Famous evangelicals have consorted with prostitutes of both genders. Yet, Catholic or Protestant, both continue to pronounce on the topics just listed as though they retained their long-lost moral authority to do so.
I think it’s all about the social control that over centuries religious “leaders” stumbled upon with increasing clarity and emphasis. Here’s what I mean focusing on the Catholic tradition with which I’m most familiar and which, of course, also shaped Protestantism:
To begin with, religion is a very powerful means of social control. That is, if religious authorities can convince people that the clergy’s understandings of life and morality are shared by God, they’ve won the day in terms of power over “the faithful.”
This is where sex comes in. As the second most powerful (and arguably the most enjoyable) drive shared by human beings, there is virtually no human being who can refrain from sexual activity.
Therefore, making all sexual acts sinful outside of marriage (and “mortally” sinful – i.e., deserving of hell) the church guaranteed that every church member would sin and need absolution (which only the clergy was empowered to give.)
Without that absolution, the church taught (infallibly) everyone who thought sexual thoughts or performed sexual acts (looking, touching, fornicating, committing adultery) would be tortured eternally in hell’s Lake of Fire.
Even married couples would suffer such fate if they engaged in contraceptive acts.
And since only the clergy and their Sacrament of Penance (confession) could save people from that horrible fate, the clergy possessed God-like power over the lives and fates of believers.
Incredibly, within my own lifetime, Catholics believed all of that – literally! Consequently, Saturday nights in any given parish would find long lines of people waiting to confess their sins in order to receive the absolution necessary for them to “save their souls” from a vengeful sex-obsessed God. Wow!
Yeshua & the Adulterous Woman
In Yeshua’s day, his religion’s clergy played a similar game. They had established themselves as the sex police. Only, instead of sending sexual transgressors to hell, Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning.
That was a biblical requirement. However, the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with a married woman. But if he slept with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute, or a slave, he remained innocent. A woman, on the other hand committed adultery if she slept with anyone but her husband.
Yeshua calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. You probably remember the story.
The Master is teaching in the temple surrounded by “the people” – the same outcasts, we presume, that habitually hung on his every word. Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are standing on the crowd’s edge wondering how to incriminate such a man?
As if ordained by heaven, an answer comes to them out of the blue. A woman is hustled into the temple. She’s just been caught in flagrante – in the very act of adultery. What luck for Yeshua’s opponents!
“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, our scriptures say we should stone her. But what do you say?”
Here Yeshua’s enemies suspect he will incriminate himself by recommending disobedience of the Bible’s clear injunction. After all, he is the Compassionate One. He is especially known for his kindness towards women – and others among his culture’s most vulnerable. He is the friend of prostitutes and drunkards.
But instead of falling into their trap, Yeshua simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he speak — but only 18 words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
A wordless parable . . .
What do you suppose Yeshua was scribbling on the ground? Was he writing the names of the guilty hypocrites who had cheated on their wives? Was he writing the laws the Scribes and Pharisees were violating? Some say he was simply drawing figures in the dust while considering how to reply to his opponents?
The first two possibilities seem unlikely. How would this poor country peasant from Galilee know the names of the learned and citified Scribes and Pharisees? It is even unlikely that Yeshua knew how to write at all. That too was the province of the Scribes. The third possibility – that Jesus was absent-mindedly drawing figures in the dust – is probably closer to the mark.
However, it seems likely that there was more to it than that. It seems Yeshua was performing some kind of symbolic action – that mimed parable I mentioned. By scribbling in the dust, he was wordlessly bringing his questioners down to earth. Was he reminding them of the common origin of men and women?
Both came from the dust, Yeshua might be saying without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dirt and in God’s image – equal in the eyes of God. “In God’s image God created them. Man and woman created he them,” says the first creation account (Genesis 1:27). By scribbling in the dust, Yeshua was symbolically moving the earth under the feet of the Scribes and Pharisees. He was asserting that they had no ground to stand on. They were hypocrites.
If this is true, then Yeshua’s 18-word pronouncement offers his own standard for judging the guilt of others even in the fraught field of sexuality. According to that standard, one may judge and execute only if he himself is without sin. This, of course, means that no one may judge and execute another.
The conclusion from all of this seems clear to me. Human beings don’t need sex police. To regulate the field, it would be enough to simply say “Don’t use your God-given gift of sexuality in any way that hurts another. After all sex is a precious gift from God. Enjoy the pleasure it gives but never in a way that hurts someone else.”
That may well have been Yeshua’s attitude too. His final comforting words to the woman in today’s Gospel episode indicate that.
Yes, I believe today’s story ended with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.”
And here I’m basing my judgment on one of the criteria used by The Jesus Seminar for separating Jesus’ words from the creations of the early church and evangelists like Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
For Seminar participants, the more radical the pronouncement, the more likely it is that the words belong to Jesus himself. By the same token, the more conventional the words, the less likely they are to have come from Jesus’ own mouth. The words, “Go now and sin no more” seems pretty conventional to me.
What I’m saying is that the addition “Go now and sin no more” bears all the fingerprints of community elders (those clergy we’ve been focusing on) who were scandalized by the radicality of Yeshua’s response to the woman’s “sin.” They needed to tone down Yeshua’s words for fear of losing social control.
Meanwhile, “Neither do I condemn you,” is beautifully radical and characteristic of the Compassionate Yeshua.
Religion is in extremis – on its deathbed; it’s breathing its last.
That’s the unmistakable conclusion reached by Dr. Ronald Inglehart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Michigan. He was interviewed recently by OpEdNews editor-in-chief, Rob Kall.
Over the last 40 years, Inglehart has overseen a study of the worldwide viability of religious belief and practice in every inhabited continent on the planet. The work of his international World Values Research Team has covered the beliefs of 90% of our globe’s inhabitants.
The survey’s results have been published in Inglehart’s new book, Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next. And if Rob’s interview is any indication, it shouldn’t be missed.
I say that as a liberation theologian whose discipline has long anticipated the conclusions reached by the World Values Survey.
Let me explain.
Religion’s Sudden Decline
Personal experience (even with our own children) tells most of us that despite the dominance of white evangelicals over the Republican party, and despite the claim of most Americans to “believe in God,” religion has largely lost its power.
What’s surprising about Inglehart’s study, however, is its claim that the decline has reached a “tipping point” over the last ten years.
That is, after a post WWII surge in religious fervor from 1947 through the early 1950s, disaffection with religion has gradually increased not only within the U.S. population, but worldwide. Over the last decade, it has reached an epidemic point of no return. That’s what “tipping point” means.
All of that raises the question of the meaning Inglehart assigns “religion,” and (for me) that meaning’s relationship to liberation theology.
For Inglehart, religion represents a cross-cultural survival mechanism found in every human community on the planet. In the face of their overwhelming insecurity in the face of wild animals, famine, wars, unpredictable weather patterns, and high infant mortality rates, humans have traditionally sought refuge in religion’s moral order that ensured most prominently survival of the species. The resulting morality of survival mandated:
That women’s bodies be controlled as “baby factories”
That they stay at home and care for their offspring
That human morality adopt a prohibition of birth control, abortion, divorce, and unproductive sexual behaviors such as homosexuality
However, with the advent of modern medicine, decline in infant mortality, and the emergence of the welfare state, such restrictions became unnecessary. The role of women changed.
And with that mutation, the door almost imperceptibly began to swing open towards a world without religion. That new context even showed signs of accepting non-binary sexuality.
Another factor contributing to that liberation has been the progressive decline of authoritarian government and the spread of democracy. Inglehart recalls that ancient hunter-gatherer tribal societies were more egalitarian. (For more than 50,000 years they worshipped female goddesses.)
However, with the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, power became increasingly centralized in palaces and manors while the majority of the world’s population remained disaggregated and relatively powerless.
To maintain that situation, kings, royal classes, emperors, popes, and priests emerged. They hijacked the more democratic popular religious beliefs and practices of matricentric societies. Increasingly, the divine was imagined as masculine.
The resulting patriarchy used religion to shore up its power and to justify the consequent wealth disparities. This entailed creating and invoking their “divine right” which enabled the minority of rich and powerful patriarchs not only to rule over their inferiors at the local level, but (where possible) to impose their sway over weaker neighboring peoples in the form of empires. The point of it all was to transfer wealth from the weak to the strong.
Once again, on Inglehart’s analysis, the decline of empires following the Second Inter-Capitalist War simultaneously undermined the reigning political order and religious beliefs in the ideological remnants of that dispensation. No more divine right of kings.
Moreover, the decline in question was accompanied by new conceptualizations of governments’ very purpose and the emergence of the welfare state. No longer was the state’s raison d’etre to be defined from the top-down. Instead, (as Rob Kall says) it became a “bottom-up” affair.
Increasingly (and most successfully in Scandinavian countries) the point became (at least modest) wealth transfer from the top to the bottom and the provision of free health care and education, along with subsidized housing and transportation.
In other words, as Inglehart would have it, the rapid decline of religion’s influence was due to liberation movements in general – most prominently, to the women’s liberation movement and anti-colonialism – that have swept the planet since the Second Inter-Capitalist War.
All of that brings us to liberation theology and its alternative reconceptualization of religion.
In its Christian form (and there are parallels in Judaism, Islam, engaged Buddhism, etc.) liberation theology is reflection on the following Yeshua the Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed committed to the collective improvement of their lives economically, politically, socially and spiritually.
Put otherwise, liberation theology is a champion of anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism. It is pro-women’s liberation and stands on the side of the LGBTQ movement. In that sense, it is anti-religion as understood by Dr. Inglehart’s study. It welcomes the death of traditional faith.
Moreover, liberation theology’s critical approach to the Bible (along with 90% of biblical scholars over the last century) recognizes the “battle of the gods” implicitly described by the World Values Survey.
Its understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition exposes the class struggle over the biblical God within the pages of the Bible itself. Fundamentally, the conflict pitted the God of Moses against the God of David and the royal classes.
More specifically, the Moses tradition celebrated the liberation of slaves from Egypt as its foundational event. Slave liberation led to a loose confederation of nomadic tribes whose decentralized religious “covenant” prioritized the rights of widows and orphans while mandating hospitality to strangers – just as Dr. Inglehart describes.
For its part, the Davidic tradition’s covenant had Israel’s God assuring dynasty to David and his sons – to Judah’s royal crime families with their wealth exploitation of disaggregated peasants along with imperial ambitions that sacrificed young men’s lives in pointless wars. To that end, the royals and their scribes advanced an idea of a blood-thirsty war God who delighted in the slaughter of “enemy” men, women, children and animals.
In the meantime, the biblical prophetic tradition stood on the side of the Mosaic covenant.
Yeshua the Christ appeared in the prophetic tradition. As such, his story emerges as profoundly anti-religious in Dr. Inglehart’s sense. His incarnation took place not in a palace or temple, but among the poorest of the poor – in a stable and on the banks of the Jordan river as a disciple of a harsh critic of the temple priesthood and its co-dominion with Rome’s imperialists.
All of that (and so much more) identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, and of predecessors like Amos who defended the poor, criticized the rich, and scandalized everyone by condemning temple sacrifice and imposition of laws that penalized the poor and favored the rich.
And besides, Jesus was more than a prophet, social critic, and movement organizer. He was also an incisive mystic, a seer. He saw and taught the fundamental unity of all people and of all creation. He taught love of neighbor as oneself, because he evidently recognized that one’s neighbor is in fact oneself. There is really only one of us here. Or, as Paul of Tarsus put it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, if religion has been historically so retrograde and negative, why bother with it? Why continue reading something like the Bible? Why claim adherence to the teachings of Yeshua the Christ?
More personally, why should I continue to work as a theologian and contribute to an OEN series called “Homilies for Progressives”? Why not follow the implications of Dr. Inglehart’s study and jettison faith altogether along with its supporting documents?
For me, the answer to all these questions is threefold:
First of all, because though undeniably in decline, religion remains a potent source of meaning for the world’s majority. You might even say that its stories supply their popular “philosophy.” It organizes their experience. 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 to tragically surrender a potential tool of human liberation to its enemies.
Second and relatedly, because even in the face of encroaching irrelevance, patriarchal religion remains that powerful tool in the arsenal of the oppressors of women, widows, orphans, immigrants, gender nonconformists, and the current empire’s oppressed and slaughtered subjects. (Of course, I’m speaking here of the United States.) The servants of patriarchy invoke religion at every turn. They use it to justify their wars. They employ religion to rationalize massive theft of natural resources across the globe. They need it to explain the wholesale destruction of the earth as subject to God-endorsed human domination. Religion’s liberation potential therefore needs to be understood and exposed as a countervailing, in-kind force for good. In this context sound biblical theology is an indispensable instrument for dismantling “divinely sanctioned” structures of oppression.
And thirdly, because the mystical strain found in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as in all major religions) addresses life’s most fundamental questions –about the nature and meaning of life at its deepest level; about our relations with one another and with the environment, about those mistakenly perceived as foreigners and enemies, about power, love, money, and justice.
Here in Connecticut, where we’ve been living these last three years, the non-denominational church that Peggy and I are aspiring to join is sponsoring a six-month “mindfulness dialog” on “Reimagining Religion.” About a dozen people are participating under the leadership of Danny Martin, a former Catholic priest and Thomas Berry scholar.
So far, I’ve found the whole experience both inspiring and a bit troubling. As I’ll explain below, the inspiration comes from a very thoughtful mindfulness dialog process itself. The trouble comes from the tendency of the process to overlook the proverbial elephant in the room in terms of contemporary political realities. Those realities have an imperial United States of America assuming exactly the international dominance to which Adolph Hitler aspired almost a century ago. In the prophetic spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such development cannot be ignored or given second place by those wrestling with religion’s significance.
The Mindfulness Approach
To begin with, our approach to reimagining religion has three phases, connecting, exploring, and discovering:
Connecting involves our trying to pinpoint the human experiences that give rise to the religious impulse.
Exploring has us discussing that experience in the light of relevant texts such as poetry, essays or sacred scripture drawn from various traditions.
Discovering means answering the question, “What then must we do?”
In the connecting phase, we’re combing through our lives in terms of experiences of mystery, beauty, love, and oneness with nature. These, we’re finding, put many in the presence of the “mysterium tremendum” that evokes awe, reverence, adoration – and religious responses involving story and ritual.
The exploring stage has most turning to poetry and non-Christian texts in search of meaningful story. Participants seem to share the conviction that we need a “new story” to replace the one most of us have rejected. The latter was based on belief in an old white man in the sky. He evicted our first parents from their original paradise. He then sent his divine son to redeem sinful humankind so we might gain heaven and avoid hell. We need a better story; we all seem to agree.
As for discovery. . . Our whole experience has us thinking more deeply about changes in our lives based on loving family members and neighbors precisely as ourselves (because in some real sense they truly are us) and on reverence for nature.
That Troubling Elephant
My reservations about our approach so far concern our apparent reluctance to address what strikes me as the main God-related experience facing humankind today (at least in terms of the Judeo-Christian tradition).
That experience involves the worldwide oppression of the former colonies and their resulting experience of poverty, hunger, environmental destruction and war. That entire syndrome directly involves people like us, since our country, the United States of America, is principally responsible for the oppression just referenced. In the words of Martin Luther King, we are the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
To ignore such realities is analogous to German Christians in the 1930s overlooking the rise of fascism with its imperial ambitions and immediate persecution of communists, socialists, Jews, people of color, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled and immigrants. I can imagine the irrelevance of German Christians in 1933 gathering in a church basement to discuss reimagining religion. How would we judge them in that context if they focused primarily on their interior and interpersonal lives while Germany was ablaze and about to set the world itself on fire?
Of course, not all German Christians did that. In fact, in the face of fascism’s rise and Hitler’s establishment of his Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church took on a project very like our own. As a result, just before his execution by the Nazis (for participating in a plot to assassinate der Fuhrer) Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, advocated imagining “Christianity without religion.” That is, he wanted to reappropriate the faith of Moses and Jesus without the traditional trappings, rituals and language that narcoticized and blinded believers to the socio-political reality staring them square in the face.
The New Old Story
To my mind and in our analogous context, “connecting” should mean coming to grips with America’s role in creating the world that our system of political economy, neo-colonial ambitions, environmental devastation and militarism has set on fire. That in itself requires deep and serious study and discussion. It’s time to revisit official and competing stories of American history.
Then, “exploring” means linking the resulting new understandings with the authentic biblical narrative as revealed by modern scripture scholarship. Its relevance to the global circumstances I’m describing here is exceedingly clear. That’s because modern scholarship shows that the essence of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not centralize increasingly inapt Genesis mythologies. Instead, it tells a story of oppression and liberation that runs as follows:
Israel’s God first revealed himself by liberating slaves from Egypt.
He gave them a covenant to form a just community where widows, orphans, slaves and foreigners would be especially welcome.
Israel’s leaders often broke the covenant.
They were confronted by prophets who called them to task.
Repeatedly, Israel itself was victimized by surrounding empires – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
In such circumstances, they were promised a new future by prophets who denounced mistreatment of the poor and announced a new future of deliverance from imperialism.
Jesus appeared in the tradition of the prophets.
He proclaimed a future kingdom where a new covenant would be in force.
His teachings on God’s Kingdom described a world where God would be king instead of Caesar.
He thus raised the hopes of the poor and the ire of the Jewish and Roman authorities.
So, they executed him.
His followers became convinced that he was somehow raised from the dead.
They formed a Kingdom community of faith, sharing all things in common.
Questions of the afterlife were left in God’s hands.
In the light of this narrative, answering the question “What then must we do?” takes on highly political and threateningly controversial features that few outside the former colonies are willing to address. That’s because most even there who drew the obvious political conclusions about opposing empire have been assassinated by the current imperial power that is absolutely intolerant of anti-imperial faith.
A Reimagined Creed
In the light of truths like the foregoing, in Jesus against Christianity, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer calls for reimagining fundamental Christian professions of faith such as the Apostles Creed. In concentrating on Jesus’ birth and resurrection, he says, they fail to honor the thrust of Jesus’ life towards resistance to domination systems, and identification with the poor and outcast.
But what forms would a reimagined creed take? Below are printed two responses to that question – the familiar Apostles Creed on the one hand and a reimagined form on the other. Personally, I find that the latter contributes mightily to our task of reimagining religion.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus
Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, who was
conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the
Virgin Mary, suffer under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried. He descended
into hell; the third day he arose again from
the dead. He ascended into heaven, sits at the
right hand of God, the Father almighty; from
thence he will come to judge the living and the
dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy
Catholic church, the communion of saints, the
forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the
body, and in life everlasting. Amen.
A Reimagined Creed
We believe in humankind
and in a world in which
it is good to live for all people
in love, justice, brotherhood and peace.
We must continually act out these beliefs.
We are inspired to do so, because we believe
in Jesus of Nazareth
and we wish to orient our lives to him.
In so doing, we believe that we
are drawn into the mysterious relationship
with the One, whom he called his father.
Because of our belief in Jesus
we make no claims to exclusivity.
We shall work together with others
for a better world.
We believe in the community of the faithful,
and in our task to be the salt of the earth
and the light of the world.
But all of this in humility
Carrying our cross every day.
And we believe in the resurrection
whatever it may mean. Amen.
Whenever I think of it, I’m drawn to the conclusion that my entire adult life has been devoted to reimagining religion. I was encouraged in that endeavor by my study and teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and works. Whether we’re aware of it or not, Bonhoeffer’s represents the kind of prophetic faith our CT church group is trying to reimagine.
At the same time, I bear in mind the words and example of an outspoken mentor of mine during my graduate studies in Rome so many years ago. His name was Dan McGinn. Dan was about 15 years older than me. By his example, he taught me how to celebrate the Eucharist spontaneously and without written text.
In any case, Dan always said that if he were ever made bishop (There was absolutely no chance of that!) his episcopal motto under his coat of arms would read “No more bullshit.”
I’m tempted to recommend adopting Dan’s motto for ourselves as our church group tries to reimagine religion. While not exactly B.S., our traditional forms of belief (even the Apostles’ Creed) have been rejected as such by much of our world. Hence the relevance of our task.
What I’m suggesting here is that reappropriating the biblical story cited above and reformulating our creed accordingly would go a long way towards the culturally imperative assignment of making our faith relevant to the undeniable resurgence of fascism in our contemporary context.
Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 62; 1-5; Ps. 96: 1-3, 7-10; I Cor. 12: 4-11; Jn. 2: 1-11
During our family’s recent Christmas trip to France, we spent a couple of evenings watching “on location” films. We saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and loved it. Owen Wilson did such a good job of imitating Allen himself. And seeing Wilson wander through the famous sites we were passing each day was great fun.
But on a more serious note, we also took in “Les Miserables” which was such a success back in 2013. At the Golden Globes that year, “Les Miserables” won the “best film” award in the category of musicals and comedies. Hugh Jackson was named best actor for his portrayal of Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress for her role as Fantine. She went on to win an Oscar as well.
Watching the film in France this time made it especially poignant. I ended up in quiet tears at its conclusion.
“Les Miserables” is Victor Hugo’s familiar tale of Jean Valjean, a Christ figure intimately connected with today’s Gospel reading about Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.
Following the royal restoration after the French Revolution of 1789, Valjean was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children. He was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the most brutal conditions.
Having completed his sentence under the watchful and threatening eye of the cruel Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe in the film), a bitter and vengeful Valjean journeyed homeward. As he passed through the town of Digne, he was given food and shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel, the pastor of the local cathedral.
But Valjean is not impressed. He rises in the dead of night, steals the bishop’s silverware and candelabra, and flees the rectory. Soon he’s captured by the gendarmes. When he’s dragged back to the bishop by the police, Bishop Myriel secures Valjean’s release by confirming the thief’s lie that the stolen goods had been given him as a gift by the priest. Valjean cannot believe his ears. The bishop’s act of generosity, forgiveness, and mercy transforms him. He goes on to become a successful factory owner and champion of the poor.
However the former convict has broken his parole. So he’s pursued by his prison tormentor, Inspector Javert. Javert is determined to return Valjean to chains. The inspector is a lawman in the strictest sense of the word. He believes he is doing God’s work in pursuing Valjean, and often prays for success in his mission.
Nonetheless towards the film’s end, Javert falls into Valjean’s hands. His former ward has the opportunity to kill Javert with impunity for opposing the People in their revolution against the French crown. Yet Valjean refuses to do so, opting instead to follow the example of bishop Myriel, even though releasing Javert means Valjean will likely return to prison.
Javert can neither believe nor accept Valjean’s generosity. In his eyes, since the law has been broken, Valjean must pay the price. Yet Valjean has acted towards him with such generosity. . . . Javert doesn’t know how to handle such kindness. His life dedicated to law enforcement now seems entirely wasted in the light of Valjean’s compassion and wonderful disregard of the law. Confused and disheartened Javert commits suicide.
Of course, Victor Hugo’s tale is much more complex than that – and much more beautiful. (The singing and lyrics are gorgeous!) But that’s the story’s kernel – a portrayal of a conflict between love, compassion, and mercy on the one hand and respect for the law on the other. That’s what makes it relevant to today’s Gospel.
There we find Jesus attending a wedding. With the other revelers at this feast of seven days, he’s been dancing, singing, eating and drinking already for days. Then the wine runs out. The party is in danger of losing its spirit; the guests will go home; the bridal couple will be disgraced. So Jesus responds to the alcohol shortage by providing about 200 gallons of the best wine the partiers had ever tasted. Significantly, he takes the large stone vessels full of water for ritual washing according to Jewish law, and turns that water into wine. As a result, the fun never stops. And believers have never ceased telling this story – the very first of Jesus’ “signs” as John calls them. We’ve come consider them miracles.
But let’s take John at his word. He sees this rather trivial event at what turns out to be Jesus’ coming out party as a sign, a symbol, a metaphor. . . . (I say “trivial” because on its surface nothing “great” is accomplished. A party is saved from petering out. Some friends – the bridal couple and their families – save face. But was that worth this exercise of divine power?) Nevertheless, John says this is a sign. But of what?
The answer, of course, is that changing water into wine so early in John’s story constitutes an image providing indication of Jesus’ entire mission as John understands it. Jesus’ mission is to obey the spirit of the law even when that means disobeying its letter.
In John’s poetic narrative, the letter of the law is cold, hard, and insipid – as hard and frigid as the stone vessels John takes care to mention, and as tasteless as water in comparison with wine. But it’s even worse than that. The law as Jesus will criticize it in John’s pamphlet is routinely used against the poor (people like Valjean in Hugo’s tale) – the lepers, prostitutes, beggars, Samaritans, tax collectors, and the generally “unclean.” The law is used to oppress “Les Miserables.” Meanwhile, the privileged and elite use legalisms for their own benefit – to enrich themselves and elevate their prestige. Jesus, John is saying, has come to transform all of that.
He has come to change the water of the law’s letter into everything wine symbolizes. The wine of Jesus’ teaching and life is meant to lift the spirit. (It’s not for nothing that alcohol is called “spirits.”) Wine is red like blood not colorless and neutral like water. Wine relieves pain. It evokes laughter, and singing and dancing as it did for the revelers at the Cana wedding feast. Wine enlivens life which, John implies, has more to do with a seven-day party than with what happens in the Temple (or our churches!).
We need to be reminded of all that don’t we? That’s especially true today when the law is used so clearly against the poor, while the rich typically escape its reach. Think about the way our political “leaders” villainize the world’s most impoverished people. They tell us that the dirt poor are the cause of the very problems they and their rich friends have produced. (For example, the poor had nothing to do with the Great Recession whose disastrous effects are still ruining the lives of the poor and middle classes.)
Even worse, the coalition of the rich creates refugees by sending planes, missiles and drones to destroy the homes, schools, hospitals of already desperate people throughout the Middle East and Global South. They overthrow the governments the poor have elected, and afterwards install dictators and drug lords to take their places. Then they complain when the refugees they’ve created seek escape in countries like our own.
the process, distressed mothers and their children are described as drug dealers,
gang members, and murderers. So, in the name of unjust laws, our leaders rationalize
the separation of pre-teens from their parents and even create baby jails. Meanwhile,
the business of privatized prisons prospers, while their dungeons are
increasingly filled with the poor and minorities.
In the meantime, the those who dedicate their lives to exposing such crimes are treated like Jesus and Valjean. The Julian Assanges and Chelsea Mannings — the whistle-blowers of the world – are arrested, tortured and threatened with life imprisonment. “The law is the law,” the criminal arresters remind us. Once again, it’s the story of Jesus and Jean Valjean all over again.
Like “Les Miserables,” John’s story of Cana can raise our consciousness about all of that. The tale of water turned into wine can move us to defend the poor, powerless, imprisoned and whistle-blowers that the law routinely oppresses. Jesus’ example calls us to celebrate “spirit,” and feasts, and food, laughter and dancing. It invites us to destroy by our own hands the law-worshipping Javert who resides within each of us.
Both John the Evangelist and Victor Hugo call us to imitate those who dedicate their scandalous lives to obeying the Spirit of God’s Law by disobeying the letter of human law.
I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.
However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.
What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.
By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.
First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.
To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men. The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world. In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.
Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.
So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.
And what was that practice?
In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.
Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.
In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”
Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.
Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.
Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.
So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.
Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.