If That’s Religion, Good Riddance!

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:

  • Large families
  • 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.

Liberation Theology

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.

In the first place, the prophets opposed the creation of royalty at all (1 Samuel 8). In the second place, their social criticism advocated the interests of those widows, orphans and strangers (https://www.openbible.info/topics/widows_and_orphans). In the third place, they suffered the predictable consequences experienced by all (then and since) who speak truth to the patriarchy. They were ostracized, exiled, imprisoned, assassinated or formally executed https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Killing-Prophets

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).      

Conclusion

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.

Reimagining Religion — with the Help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Dan McGinn

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.

 The Apostles'Creed

 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. 

Conclusion

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.

Jesus, the Law, and “Les Miserables” of Today

Les-Miserables[1]

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.

In 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.

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100718.cfm

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.

The Ten Commandments Call Us to Joy and Peace, Not to Guilt and War

Heston

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.” From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 89, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

* Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
* In all things, strive to cause no harm
* Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
* Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
* Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
* Always seek to be learning something new
* Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
* Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
* Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
* Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

* Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
* Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
* Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
* Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.

It’s Time To Post Luke’s Beatitudes in Front of the White House (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Second in the Extraordinary Time of Donald Trump) ZEP 2:3, 3:12-15; PS 146:6-7, 8-10; ICOR 1: 25-31; MT 5: 1-12A.

So we’re a Christian nation, right? At least that’s what right wingers would have us believe, despite the presence of millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists – and atheists – among us.

Well, if we’re so Christian, here’s an idea for you. How about posting the Beatitudes in front of U.S. courthouses instead of the Ten Commandments? How about posting them on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House? Doesn’t that seem more appropriate? I mean the Beatitudes come from the specifically Christian Testament. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, come from the Jewish Testament.

I predict that will never happen. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts, there’d be a hue and cry (on the part of Christians, mind you) that would prevent the move. And do you know why? Because the Beatitudes centralized in today’s liturgy of the word are too radical and un-American for the “Christian” right. They make sweeping judgments about classes. They indicate that the rich (evidently no matter how they got their money) are at odds with God’s plan, while the poor (regardless of why they’re poor) are his favorites.

No, I’m not so much talking about the version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew which were read in today’s Gospel excerpt. In Matthew, Jesus’ words are already softened. Instead, my reference is to Luke’s probably earlier version that expresses harsher judgments.

Here’s the way, Luke phrases Jesus’ words in Chapter 6 of his Gospel:

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . .

24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Do you see what I mean? Luke’s version doesn’t spiritualize poverty the way Matthew does. Matthew changes Jesus’ second-person statement about poverty (“Blessed are you who are poor”) to a third-person generalized and spiritualized “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Similarly, Luke’s “Blessed are you who are hungry now” becomes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” in Matthew.  In this way physical hunger is turned into something spiritual or psychological. Obviously, Matthew’s community was not as poor as Luke’s – or as the people Jesus habitually addressed.

In fact, the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is so valuable exactly because – unlike most of ancient literature – it represents the lore of poor people about their relationship with God.

Granted, that tradition became the object of class struggle about 1000 years before Jesus’ time, with the contested emergence of a royal class.

That is, starting with King Saul, the royalty of Judah and Israel tried mightily to turn a poor people’s faith into an ideology supporting the country’s elite. More particularly, under King David, palace oligarchs distorted the divine promise to slaves escaped from Egypt. That promise had been “I will be your God and you will be my people.” David turned it into a promise of a permanent dynasty for himself and his descendants. In other words, the country’s royalty transformed the Mosaic Covenant into a Davidic Covenant serving the elite rather than the poor.

However, the people’s prophets resisted them at every step. We find examples of that in all of today’s readings. For instance, in our first selection, the seventh century (BCE) prophet, Zephaniah, addresses the world’s (not simply Israel’s) poor. With his country’s aristocrats and priests in mind, he denounces their lies and “deceitful tongues” and urges them to treat the “humble and lowly” with justice as was prescribed by Moses.

Then with the responsorial Psalm 146 (probably written in the late sixth century) we all found ourselves chanting the words Matthew attributes to Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of God is theirs.” The “Kingdom of God,” of course, is shorthand for what the world would be like if God were king instead of those corrupt royal classes. The psalmist says that change would bring justice for the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, physically handicapped, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien. All of these were specific beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant.

Today’s third reading from I Corinthians promises a Great Reversal. There Paul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) identifies Jesus’ earliest followers as those who “count for nothing” in the eyes of the world. (Do you see the return to the Mosaic Covenant?)  Jesus followers are riffraff. Paul identifies them as unwise, foolish, and weak. They are lowly and despised. Yet in reality, Paul assures his audience, the despised will finally be proven wise and holy. Ominously for their betters, Paul promises that those who count for nothing will reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

Jesus, of course, appears in Zephaniah’s and Paul’s prophetic tradition as defender of the poor and the Mosaic Covenant. Matthew makes that point unmistakably by changing the location of Luke’s parallel discourse. In Luke, Jesus announces the Beatitudes “on a level place” (LK 6:17). Matthew puts Jesus “on a mount” for the same sermon. His point is that Jesus is the New Moses who also received the Old Covenant on a mount (Sinai). Put otherwise: the so-called Beatitudes represent the New Law of God.

That’s why it makes more sense to place the Beatitudes on a plaque in front of our courthouses, on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House.

But as I said, don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine Donald Trump and his super-wealthy cabinet members (and their constituents) having to read Luke’s words every day?

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

No, in its essence, the Judeo-Christian tradition belongs precisely to poor people. It belongs to those whom the Trump administration (and perhaps Americans in general) think “count for nothing.” As Paul intimates, those are the very ones who will rise up and reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.

That message is no more welcome today than it was 2000 years ago.

To Make a Nation Great Again: Trump’s Cabinet vs. Jesus’ (Sunday Homily)

fishermen

Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23

Well, it’s happened. Donald Trump is our new president. We saw the know-nothing real estate magnate, casino king, reality show star, and unrepentant assailant of women sworn in last Friday at noon. Many of us are still in shock.

As everyone knows, the new president’s announced program is to make America great again. His cabinet picks evidence his strategy. It’s to run the country “like a business.”

Look at them all. Every one sitting around the table where decisions will be made about our lives and the fate of the planet comes from the 1%. They are all billionaires, multi-millionaires, generals and Christian fundamentalists. (One of them boasts that killing is fun.) Ironically, they claim to prefer biblical science to what our world’s finest minds (including Pope Francis) tell us about the errors of “the American Way.” Evidently, for Mr. Trump the best and the brightest are the richest, most venal, and violent.

The new president’s cabinet picks reveal his underlying philosophy. It’s austerity for the poor (and the planet) complemented by welfare for the rich. They want to defund public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Meanwhile, they want to drastically lower tax rates for themselves. It’s the tired old “trickle-down” theory revisited with a vengeance, even though it’s been completely discredited. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called the ideology homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59).

Yet many Christians (even Catholics) voted for Trump and see him as somehow the instrument of God!

Providentially, all of that is extremely relevant to the readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and first in the Extraordinary Time of the Donald).  That’s because today’s Gospel reading in effect records Jesus’ selection of his own “cabinet picks” as he begins his campaign to make his country great again. Today’s reading from Matthew records his selection of the first of his twelve apostles – the successors to the great patriarchs of Israel.

It’s no stretch to say that Jesus’ program was to “Make Israel Great Again.” In his day, the country could have no such pretensions. (In fact, it probably never was great.) It was a poor backwater – an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

Yet its prophets remembered days of prosperity, when God seemed to be on Israel’s side.

Those were all times of liberation from oppression specifically by the rich and powerful – the ancient analogs of Mr. Trump’s cabinet. The first glorious period followed after Yahweh freed slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Another came in the 6th century, when the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, released captives from the long Babylonian Captivity of 70 years.

A third time of liberation and joy is the one Isaiah references in today’s first reading. The ecstasy he describes came in the 8th century BCE, when leaders from Israel’s Northern Kingdom returned home after a captivity (under Assyria) of some 20 years. Then, he says, bitterness and sorrow were turned to joy – specifically, for orphans, widows and resident aliens.

The bitterness began, Isaiah notes, in the regions where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived.  That was in the region that by Jesus’ time became known as Capernaum – the city in the Galilee that Jesus adopted as his own (MT 9:1). Significantly, in today’s Gospel excerpt, Matthew has Jesus beginning his public career in the very place where Israel had first become oppressed – in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew’s point is hard to miss: Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression with his announcement of the advent of God’s Kingdom. It would be a reality mirroring what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Prostitutes and beggars, n’er do wells, the halt and the lame would enter that kingdom, Jesus promised, before the rich and professionally holy (MT 21:31).

The Kingdom would represent a system that favored workers rather than rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus would say, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements betray an approach that might be described as “percolate-up” rather than “trickle-down.”

So does Jesus’ selection of the New Israel’s 12 patriarchs. From the viewpoint of the world, it’s almost comic. In today’s reading, Jesus chooses ignorant, illiterate working men as successors to Old Testament saints like Joseph and Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, and their eight revered brothers. In their place, Jesus installs smelly fishermen Peter, James, and John. Later he’ll add a reformed tax collector, and at least one insurgent against the Roman occupiers. Women who had no political power at all would be central in his band of followers.

All of that gives us a God’s eye view of how to make Israel, America – the world – great. Apparently, according to the divine order, it’s not by making the rich richer. To repeat: unlike Donald Trump, Jesus doesn’t begin by enlisting the services of his country’s great landlords, its generals, or its bankers. (As a poor peasant himself, the carpenter from Nazareth didn’t even have that option!) Instead, he starts from below, where all truly effective social change must start.

All such reflections give direction to those attempting to follow the Master from Capernaum today. Our readings call us to join Pope Francis and other critical thinkers in rejecting all forms of trickle-down theory. As the pope reminds us, history and common sense lead to that rejection.

Today’s Gospel supplies a more profound reason for doing so: trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus’ God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. The world itself is an expression of God’s generosity to all of us. And something is drastically wrong when workers and their children go hungry, when people are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and when beggars cannot find work.

Something is also profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is by giving even more wealth to the obscenely rich, while forcing austerity measures on the poor.

Mary’s “Virginity”: Its Warning about Donald Trump and Sexual Assault by the Military (Sunday Homily)

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 Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6; ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24.

Do you ever wonder what effect Donald Trump’s proclivity for sexual assault might have on the problem of military rape? After all, his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments along with his personal behavior have already emboldened copycat words and actions by many of his followers including schoolchildren. Will Mr. Trump similarly embolden enlisted men and officers to follow the example of their Commander-in-Chief?

That question becomes relevant on this Fourth Sunday of Advent because the readings for today emphasize Jesus’ “virgin birth.” Such emphasis resurrects a persistent tradition identifying Mary’s “miracle” as the result of military rape.

If that tradition were true, what light would it shed on the problem of rape in the military in connection with the example of its Commander-in-Chief?

Let me put that question in context by offering some background for today’s reading from Matthew along with a reference to the selection from Isaiah traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ virginal conception.

To get from here to there, try to understand the situation of Joseph and Mary as young marrieds in a context of imperial aggression. They’re a teenage couple; they are poor and living in an occupied country. Joseph is a jack-of-all-trades – that’s what the Greek word we translate as “carpenter” meant in first century Palestine. Like everyone from his class, he was unemployed most of the time. But he’d fix your leaking roof if you hired him. When he could, he’d harvest grapes and wheat for local landlords.

And he was probably deeply involved with the local insurgency against Roman occupation. (Nearly every impoverished patriot is in such situations.) Additionally, the only commentary we have on Joseph’s character is Matthew’s single word “just.” He was a just man. (By the way, his son, James – the one who headed the Jerusalem church following his brother’s death – was also known as “James the just.”) In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, justice meant taking the side of the powerless. It appears to have been a central value Joseph passed on to his children.

As resisters, Joseph’s kind would have been considered terrorists by the Romans. In fact, the very year in which Jesus was likely born (6 BCE) Galilee’s countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers fighting against people like Jesus’ supposed father. The occupiers were busy laying siege to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee – a mere hour’s walk from Joseph’s village.

There the insurgency had taken a decisive stand against Rome’s puppet, King Herod. And like Americans in Iraq’s Fallujah under “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Romans were determined to make an example of the city by laying it waste utterly. Before their final offensive, that involved night raids, kicking in doors, and raping young Jewish girls. (All forces of occupation – including our own today – know the drill.)

In any case, according to that persistent tradition about her “virginity,” that’s where Mary came in. She was a young teenager about 12 or 14. Although she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl” (MT 1:18-25), she was probably linked with him by the village matchmaker perhaps when they were both still toddlers. They had not yet begun to live together, because they were probably waiting for Mary to come officially “of age” – able to bear children.

Be that as it may, Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine her worry? Innumerable teenage girls can relate to her panic – and disgrace. Obviously, Mary did not want to be just another of her community’s “virgins.” [Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.” “Virgin” is what (behind their hands) local matrons called an unwed mother.]

According to the story, Joseph too shared Mary’s disgrace and embarrassment. He wanted a divorce (i.e. release from his commitment to marry). And he probably demanded it with the anger and recrimination that are inevitably associated with the dreaded “d” word.

Joseph’s anger, suspicion, and thoughts about divorce may also have come from his hatred of the Romans. (And here comes that persistent tradition about Mary’s “virginity.”) It even remembers the rapist’s name. According to Celsus’ “True Doctrines” written about 178 C.E., the rapist was called “Panthera.” That was also the name of one of the Roman legions involved in that siege of Sepphoris.

Such suspicious circumstances around Jesus’ questionable conception also find some support in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called a “Samaritan” (8:48). That was a harsh term equivalent to our “bastard.” Additionally, Mark refers to Jesus simply as “Son of Mary” (6:3) – a quite unusual reference in a culture where children were identified by their father’s name.

With all of that in mind, and if Celsus’ tradition has merit, it’s easy to understand how the thought of taking up with a girl defiled by a Roman “pig” (what Jews called the occupiers) probably turned Joseph’s stomach. No wonder he wanted a divorce.

That is, if the tradition has merit . . .  You see, we can take our pick here. And that brings me to the point about the historical veracity of the stories around Jesus’ birth: all of the traditions are entirely questionable as far as historical fact is concerned.

For instance, the familiar account of Jesus’ virgin birth is found only in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke). Mark and John make no mention of it. That means that they either didn’t know about the tradition, or Mark and John didn’t think it important enough to include. (By the way, if Jesus’ conception was as miraculous as we’ve always been taught, how likely is either of those alternatives?)

And then there’s that business – recounted in today’s first reading – about Isaiah’s supposed prediction of Jesus’ virginal conception. Matthew takes Isaiah’s words completely out of context.

Actually, Isaiah’s not referring to Jesus at all, but to his own time more than 500 years earlier. And the Hebrew term he uses is not the equivalent of “virgin.” That’s a mistranslation. The word the prophet employs simply means “young girl.” Isaiah’s prediction is that a “young girl” of his own time will conceive. The prophet’s words had nothing to do with Jesus or virgin birth.

The point here is we’re not dealing with “history” in the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead we’re confronted with a miraculous “birth story,” – a literary genre that characterizes accounts of virtually all “Great Men” in the ancient world. Its point is that God’s Spirit entered into Jesus from the very outset – long, long before his actual birth.

In that light, historically speaking, rape is a much more likely explanation of Jesus’ conception than intervention by the Holy Spirit. Think about it. That’s simply a fact.

How then was Jesus begotten? If Joseph was his father, we understand how Jesus was so concerned with social justice. And through this pre-birth story we can hear (once again!) a summons to learn from Joseph the way Jesus and his brother James did. It’s also a reason for re-evaluating our culture’s drumbeat of indoctrination against “terrorists.” Jesus came from a family the Romans would have considered terrorist.

If Panthera humiliated Jesus’ mother (and Joseph), and Jesus was the product of rape – and if rape is an inevitable strategy of war – then that’s an additional reason for pressuring the U.S. military to aggressively investigate and punish perpetrators of military rape. It’s also a reason for refusing to honor the U.S. military in general, for opposing war, working for peace, and appreciating Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

Finally, it’s yet another cause for reflection on the unsuitability of Mr. Trump as Commander-in-Chief. Predictably, his example will embolden soldiers to objectify, demean and rape the ones the president-elect termed“fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” It is certain that the Roman military made similar characterizations of Jewish girls like Jesus’ mother.

The bottom line here is that (as Pope Francis would have it) if we’re not resisting war, military culture in general, its Commander-in-Chief and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

If You Think Jesus Approves of GOP Policies towards the Poor, Here Are Two Riddles for You . . . (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for Third Sunday of Advent: IS 35: 1-6A, 10; PS 146: 6-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11

If Trump cabinet nominations are any indication, the president-elect will continue pursuing what have long been the GOP’s two main domestic goals. They are eliminating labor unions and cutting social services such as Food Stamps and Medicaid. Even Trump Republicans (led by their groper-in-chief) will do so while at the same time invoking values they call “Christian.”

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that the GOP position flies in the face of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition expressing (as it does) God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed.

More specifically, the readings demonstrate that the anti-poor policies of the Christian right are actually a slap in the face to Jesus himself. That’s because (once again) in today’s selections, the recipients of God’s special concern turn out to be (in Jesus’ words in our gospel reading) not just “the least.” Rather, in their collectivity, they are identified with the very person whom our sisters and brothers on the right aspire to accept as their personal Lord and Savior.

The vehicle for today’s version emphasizing Jesus’ identification with the poor is a riddle. It’s found at the very end of that reading from Matthew. Matthew has Jesus posing it by saying:

  1. John the Baptist is the greatest person ever born.
  2. Yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.

That leaves us with the question: How can this be? How can “the least” be greater than the one identified by Jesus himself not only as the foremost prophet of the Jewish Testament, but the greatest human being who ever lived?

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, the answer is the following:
1. Jesus is the one far greater than John. (As the Baptist admitted in last week’s reading from Matthew, John was not even worthy to loosen the straps on Jesus’ sandals.)
2. But Jesus identified himself with “the least.” Recall that in his parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25), Jesus says, “Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did to me.”
3. Therefore the “least” as identified with “the greatest” (Jesus) is greater than John and should be treated that way – as Jesus himself.

Riddle solved. The rest of today’s liturgy adds the details as it develops the theme: recognize the least as God’s favorites – as Jesus himself – and treat them as the most important people in the world.

And who are these “least?” According to Isaiah in today’s first reading, they are the blind, deaf, lame, and mute. They are ex-pats living in exile. The psalmist in today’s responsorial, widens the list by adding the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, and immigrants. He includes single moms (widows) and their children.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus recapitulates the list. For him “the least” (who are greater than John) include the imprisoned (like John himself sitting on Herod’s death row). They are (once again) the lame, the deaf, the mute, and lepers. They even include the dead who are raised to life by Jesus.

Do we need any more evidence to support the biblical authenticity of what Pope Francis continually references as God’s “preferential option for the poor?”

Does the Christian Right believe the teaching contained in Jesus’ riddle?

Well, maybe not. I mean, here’s another riddle for you: How can Christians oppose labor unions and eliminate Food Stamps and Medicaid, while still calling themselves followers of Jesus?

Sorry: I can’t solve that one.

Donald Trump and His Christian Supporters Hate Jesus (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43.

How on earth were USian Christians able to elect a man like Donald Trump?

After all, Trump represents the polar opposite of the values embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was the kind of person Donald Trump and his supporters actually hate.

I mean, the Nazarene was poor, dark skinned, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and an immigrant in Egypt. Jesus was viscerally opposed to an empire very like the United States. And that empire (Rome) executed him as a terrorist. Jesus ended up on death row and finished as a victim of torture and capital punishment. To repeat, Trump and the Republicans hate people like that. They want Middle Easterners like Jesus out of their country at best, and dead at worst.

Again, how could followers of Jesus elect his sworn enemy?

The readings for today’s feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” provide the answer. They explain what might be termed the great “makeover” of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar supporting the very institutions that assassinated him.

In other words: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, explains the process in detail. The book centralizes today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. There Aslan pays particular attention to:

  • Jesus’ cross,
  • to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
  • and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.) that utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. In the war’s aftermath, defeated Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their presence in empire.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

After the 4th century, Luke’s message became the official position of the Catholic Church – adopted subsequently by Protestantism. The message transformed the poor, brown, bastard, revolutionary martyr from a tortured and executed criminal into “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

So by now in 2016 Jesus has changed color and class. He is the white, rich, bigoted “American” champion of U.S. empire. Those pretending to follow the one-time immigrant from the Middle East show they want to keep riffraff like Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of their land of the free and home of the brave. They want enemies of empire like the Nazarene tortured and executed the way Rome tortured and killed the historical Jesus. Their president-elect even wants to go after Jesus’ parents while he’s at it.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

The truth is that only by rescuing the historical Jesus – the antithesis of his Republican version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.