My Fight with Richard Rohr

I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.

My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.

The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.

Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.

Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.  

Fr. Rohr and Me

I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.

Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.

Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.

Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.

Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.

Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.

The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.

Rohr, Jesus and Rome

Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.

All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.

Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:

  • Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
  • Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
  • [Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
  • It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
  • Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
  • According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
  • Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
  • The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
  • In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).

The Historical Jesus

My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”

Take those points already reviewed:

  • For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
    1. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
    2. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
    3. “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
    4. Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
    5. Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
    6. Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
  • The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
  • As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
  • Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
  • Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.

Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:

  • Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
  • His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
  • She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
  • Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
  • The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.”  They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
  • In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
  • Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
  • At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
  • Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
  • On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.  

Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ

Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.

Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.

Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.

By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.

To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.

Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.

Conclusion

None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is.  Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.

As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.

As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.

Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance  is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.

That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.

In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.

Something else is needed.

We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.

And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:

  • Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
  • Sponsoring specifically anti-imperial education programs
  • Lending each other community support in collectively refusing to pay war taxes
  • Counselling young people against entering the military
  • Political campaigning for peace candidates
  • Divesting from and boycotting key economic engines of the U.S. economy like Amazon and Wal-Mart
  • Forming or joining local credit unions

But above all, in our churches we must escape contentment with cleaning our own cup or tending our own garden as a somehow adequate response to our extraordinary times.

Such uncontroversial spiritual solipsism may let us off the hook. But it was not the way of the historical Jesus.

(Sunday Homily) Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Sisters and Brothers?

Islam

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30.

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
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Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
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Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
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Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. I say that because, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Reza Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So, with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So, whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

(Sunday Homily) Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Sisters and Brothers?

Islam

Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30.

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
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Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
______
Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
_____

Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.

 

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

Jesus-Said-Video-Preview.jpg

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. That is, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

(Sunday Homily) The Pope’s Faith vs. The Donald’s

 

Fired

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36.

Is faith more about what we say or what we do? And who is more Christian, Donald Trump or Pope Francis?

Those questions were sharpened yesterday, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” In other words, the pope was saying that actions speak louder than words.

The pope’s comment came at the end of his six-day trip to Mexico, where he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. That analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.

It’s not surprising then that the pope’s words drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges “disgraceful” and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government. His sentiments were mirrored mildly in the comments of Mr. Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. They seemed to agree that faith and Christianity is a private matter, between the believer and God. About that no one – not even the pope – can or should judge. For instance, Jeb Bush said, “Christianity is between he and his creator. I don’t think we need to discuss that.”

Today’s liturgy of the word disagrees. It wants us to discuss the relationship between words and actions – even between God’s words and God’s actions. In fact, according to readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, actions constitute demonstrable proof of faith claims. Specifically, the first reading from Genesis presents the God of Israel as one who is willing to stop being God – to butcher himself – if God’s word does not match with God’s deeds.

Then today’s Gospel reading (the account of Jesus’ transfiguration) indicates the type of action of which Israel’s God approves in his People.  It is not action motivated by fear, but by courage – even in the face of failure, personal harm, or death itself. In other words, the Gospel call is to put aside our fearful little selves who rank personal safety and security above everything else.

First of all, consider that very strange first reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s about Abram, an ancient sheik – the Founding Father of the Jewish nation. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? Can God be trusted to have God’s actions and words conform?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

That tells us something about the biblical attitude towards word and deed – faith and works. God’s word is God’s bond. The same should be true of those who profess to be God’s people.

But what type of action are believers bonded to? Today’s reading from Luke answers that question. They are called to courageous action against those who oppress the poor (immigrants, victims of war and “scorched earth”) including religious “leaders” cooperating with empire. And they must do so even at the risk of their own lives.

That’s the implication of today’s gospel reading. There the young carpenter from Nazareth is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows something extremely risky is about to happen there. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!” It was all very political.

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message for us here as the pope and Donald Trump disagree over authentic Christian faith?

I think there is.

Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security above compassion for the poor and oppressed. Faith is not primarily about words, thinking, written creeds, or feeling in one’s heart. Instead it’s about living God’s life – the One who before Abram was willing to self-immolate rather than “break faith.”

Being a follower of Jesus is not about “security above all.” Quite the opposite: it is about risk on behalf of God’s true people – the poor, immigrants, and victims of war, violence and scorched earth.

Yes, Mr. Trump, there are people who say they believe in God, but who cancel out that belief by their concern for self-preservation and fearful willingness to sacrifice others rather than themselves. Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth.

Give Up Devil-Worship for Lent:Reject U.S. Imperialism

Temptation

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of renewal – of getting back to basics – to asking questions about what we really believe and what God we truly worship. Today’s liturgy of the word helps us to do both. Deuteronomy 26 directs us to the authentic faith of Jesus – in the God who liberates the enslaved. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel calls us to worship that God rather than devil – the evil one that our culture and church (!) have been worshipping for centuries – ever since they first embraced imperialism in the 4th century C.E. Let me explain.

Start with that reading from Deuteronomy 26. It’s a key text if we want to understand the God in whom Jesus placed his faith. Jesus, remember, was a Jew, not a Christian. And Deuteronomy 26 provides us with the creedal statement that the Jewish Jesus accepted as did all Jews of his time. I mean, for them, Deuteronomy 26 functioned much like our Nicene Creed does for us each Sunday. It was a reminder of their basic belief. As such, it can be summarized in the passage’s seven points:

  1. Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean (a Syrian).
    2. “Abraham” (i.e. his descendents) went down into Egypt.
    3. There we became a great people.
    4. But the Egyptians enslaved us.
    5. We cried out to our God, Yahweh, who raised up the rebel prophet, Moses.
    6. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert, and to this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
    7. This land is our gift from Yahweh; Thanks be to God!

That’s it! That was the faith that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, inherited from his ancestors. It was a tribal faith centered on the ownership of a God-given piece of land (Palestine) which (despite its dryness and desert character) the descendents of Jacob saw as rich and productive (flowing with milk and honey).

Notice that this Jewish faith had nothing to do with an afterlife, heaven or hell. (In fact, belief in the afterlife was a very late development among the Jews; it didn’t emerge even for debate until about 200 years before Jesus’ birth.) Instead, as among all hunter-gatherers, herds people and agriculturalists, Jewish faith was centered on land. Obviously then, it had little tolerance for colonial military forces like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans all of whom at various times occupied Palestine. Colonialism and foreign occupation contradicted Jewish faith in a fundamental way. It was intolerable.

That was true for Jesus too. As a prophet, his fundamental proclamation was not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.

In God’s Kingdom, everything would be reversed and guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).

The creedal account of Deuteronomy 26 sets the stage for today’s gospel narrative about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. (And it’s here that the devil-worship connected with empire enters the picture. Listen closely.) In a context of Roman occupation, Luke’s account raises the question of whom to worship. The choice he presents is stark: one can worship the devil the author of empire or Yahweh, the opponent of imperial power of all types.

That clear choice becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because the devil has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

But Jesus responds,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”

Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.

Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? These were the questions.

However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!

Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift which leave people like the liberated daughters and sons of Abraham free to live in control of their own God-given piece of earth. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

All of this has implications for us as would-be followers of Jesus and as citizens of a country whose “leaders” (supported by their “Christian” counterparts) increasingly embrace empire as the inevitable and fitting destiny of the United States.

In fact, in 2003, then vice-president, Dick Cheney sent out a Christmas card on which was inscribed the words, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Cheney’s implication was that the United States is God’s new chosen people. Empire as practiced by the United States represents God’s will.

Instead, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us the opposite. Empires arise only with the devil’s aid.

Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?
(Discussion follows)

(Sunday Homily) The Torture Report: Cheney Channels King David in the Struggle over Historical Narrative

Cheney

Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd SAM 7:1-5, 8-12, 14A, 16; PS 89: 2-5, 27-29; ROM 16: 25-27; LK 1: 21-38 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122114.cfm

Strange that according to a poll last week, more than half the “American” people think torture is permissible. I say “strange” because nearly 80% of Americans consider themselves “Christian.” And Jesus himself was a victim of torture. On the other hand, can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone?

You’d think the similarities between the Romans’ treatment of Jesus and the “Americans’” treatment of countless innocent victims would make devout Christians less accepting of torture.  Maybe they’d oppose torture on principle, as a matter of faith.

Or perhaps it’s that they just agree with ex-VP, Dick Cheney. After all, he wouldn’t consider “torture” what the Romans’ enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) did to  Jesus  – not the prolonged beating we all witnessed portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” not the crowning with thorns, not forcing a beaten man to carry his own instrument of execution, not driving nails into his hands and feet, not leaving him for hours struggling for breath on a cross whose chief agony was bringing the victim to the point of asphyxiation (like waterboarding) and beyond.

According to Mr. Cheney, that punishment would have crossed the line to torture only at the point when death proved imminent. Unfortunately, as with untold (literally) victims of U.S. enhanced interrogation, that line was crossed in the case of Jesus.

But in the end, as supporters of U.S. Empire, “American” Christians probably understand and forgive what the Romans did. After all, like its U.S. counterpart, the Roman Empire was under siege on all sides. And the Jews were particularly rebellious. And Jesus (in Roman eyes) gave every indication of leading a rebellion. An empire’s got to do what an empire’s got to do – even if it means killing the innocent like Jesus.

I think however that there’s something more than compassion failure at work here.  The “more” is the power of propaganda. That’s something addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. There the author of 2nd Samuel whitewashes the brutal King David and turns him from something like a mafia don into a national hero. In today’s gospel selection, even the evangelist, Luke buys the distortion. He makes Jesus the successor of David.

I’ll get to that in a moment. But let me first finish with the torture document. You see, (as Glen Greenwald has pointed out) it’s no wonder that “Americans” can’t identify with the tortured much less connect them with Jesus.

That’s because since the Report’s release on December 9th, the mainstream media (MSM) has treated us to an endless parade of torturers and torture enablers explaining away the conclusions of the Senate’s years-long study.  We haven’t heard a word from the victims of torture or from the families of those whose sons and daughters were killed at the hands of sadistic representatives of our government.

The result of this one-sided silencing of the victims has been to rob them of their humanity – of their very existence.  Given the deafening silence, why would we feel compassion for people who don’t even exist? Out of sight, out of mind.

Imagine how better informed we’d be if on “Meet the Press” or somewhere Mr. Cheney had to defend his policies against his victims – many of whom, Greenwald reminds us (because he has interviewed them) are incredibly articulate. Perhaps the victims might suggest waterboarding the ex-VP to see if he really believes that practice doesn’t sink to the level of torture.

According to University of Wisconsin –Madison Professor Alfred McCoy (the author of Torture and Impunity) this erasure of victims is all part of a five-stage policy on the question of torture. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the first step was identifying the low level perpetrators with “bad apples.” The second stage kept rumors of more widespread torture at bay in the name of national security. Thirdly, President Obama adopted the “let’s look forward, not backward” approach. Fourthly came the move to exonerate all those guilty of torture or enabling the practice. Finally we’ve reached the stage which emerged last week: vindication before the bar of history of all those connected with U.S. torture.

Again, that’s where the battle has been joined today; we’re struggling over historical narrative. This is the stage all empires come to eventually as their crimes inevitably come to light. It’s what we witness in today’s liturgy of the word and the white-washing of Israel’s King David. The example is instructive. It suggests practical responses to the Torture Report at both the level of faith and political action.

You see, there are really two separate king David traditions in the Bible. One presents the good David, the other, the bad. The good David is the one largely presented in I Chronicles 10:14-29:30. He also appears in today’s first reading from 2nd Samuel and in the responsorial psalm.

This David is pious, and wants to build a temple for God. According to the story, God is pleased, and rewards him with everything a king could want: victory over his enemies, immortal fame, prosperity for his people, thriving descendants, and a dynasty that will last forever.

Then there’s the bad David who begins to appear in I Samuel, chapter 16. This David is a murderous tyrant. He rebels against Saul, Israel’s first king. He’s a womanizer, a murderer and an object of popular hate.  Far from lasting forever, his dynasty ends with the death of his successor, Solomon. He’s the David whose death-bed instructions are worthy of any Mafia godfather. To Solomon he says, “Take care of my friends, Sol – and my enemies too (wink, wink). You know what I mean?” (IKGS 2: 1-9)

Besides that, the bad David bastardizes the Mosaic Covenant and its protection of widows, orphans, and resident aliens and turns it into a tool of the ruling classes – from Moses’ “I will be your God and you will be my people,” into David’s “You are my son, the king of Israel, and your dynasty will last forever.”

Of course, the bad David has been swallowed up by popular memory of its competing tradition. David is uniformly remembered by the majority of believers as the man “after God’s own heart.” As I said, in today’s familiar gospel selection, Luke falls into that trap. He makes Jesus (through his foster father, Joseph, no less) the successor of David. And this even though Jesus as portrayed by Luke is no friend of the Temple or of kings and emperors. Rather he is the friend of the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant – the widows, orphans, aliens, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans. His values do not include enemies (much less victory over them) or prosperity, fame, or everlasting dynasties.

Recognizing this struggle over which narrative will prevail sheds light on the Torture Report. It enables followers of the simple man from Nazareth to judge that the struggle even before the bar of biblical history has been won by the likes of Cheney and Bush. It has been won by the bad David.

Our conclusion: we must not allow that to happen as we fight over whose story should prevail concerning the latest revelations about the powerful organized crime syndicate known as the CIA.

So what should we do?  Our response should be at two levels.

At the level of faith believers should be exposed to the historical Jesus I’m attempting to present in these homilies. We neglect those powerful myths at our own peril. Even the uninformed can understand them.  This means that the Jesus’ story represents a powerful tool for raising consciousness about torture (and other issues of social justice).

It’s true that the MSM might not expose the story of the tortured to that 80% of “Americans” who claim to be Christian. However, if those with the responsibility for explaining the sacred texts assume that responsibility and do their homework, there’s no reason why those wishing to follow Jesus can’t understand that:

  • Jesus himself was a victim of torture at the hands of an empire very like the United States.
  • He taught universal love.
  • He was non-violent
  • He said he considers what’s done to the least of the human race as done to him.
  • He said we should love our enemies.

At the political level we should:

  • Urge outgoing senator Mark Udall (D Colorado) to use his senatorial privilege of unlimited free speech to release the entire unredacted torture document.
  • Pressure the media through phone calls and letters to the editor to present the other side of the torture story including interviews with torture victims and with the families of those whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives were killed under CIA torture.

Mary’s “Virginity” and the Problem of Military Rape (Sunday Homily)

Rape

Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6;ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122213.cfm

As we know, rape in the military is a huge problem. According to Amy Ziering’s award-winning film, “The Invisible War,” more than 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the armed forces. In 2009 alone, more than 3200 cases were documented. But since 80% of such instances go unreported, the figure is closer to 16,000.

My question is: if U.S. soldiers are raping and otherwise sexually assaulting their colleagues with such regularity, what do you suppose they’re doing to “enemy” women? What do you suppose the figure is there?

From time immemorial, of course, rape has been used as a weapon of war. It’s a classic way of asserting power over the enemy by defiling the ones they cherish and are expected to protect. Raping their women humiliates enemy men.

Clearly, we have no trouble recognizing rape as an enemy strategy. But what about our servicemen in relation to the “ragheads” and “gooks” they’ve been taught to objectify, hate and despise?

The evidence is that it’s part of their indoctrination too. Years ago, I remember reading in our local paper of how scandalized one of our Kentucky congressmen was when he visited a military base and heard jogging servicemen chanting, “Burn, rape, pillage, kill. . . .” Note the second word in the chant. Why is it there? Is it meaningless in practice?

And then, of course, there’s the logic introduced earlier. If U.S. soldiers rape servicewomen with such abandon, what about those despised women in (most recently) Afghanistan and Iraq?

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word because of its emphasis on Jesus’ “virgin birth,” and a persistent tradition that Jesus’ conception was the result of rape by a Roman soldier. What if that tradition were true? Would that make the story less inspiring or more? I’d choose the latter – especially in the light of the questions I’ve just raised.

Let me explain simply 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, 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. To repeat, all forces of occupation – even 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 (as Matthew’s gospel tells it) she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl,” 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.” [That’s what (behind their hands) local matrons called unwed mothers.]

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.

And then (once again) even Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.”

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.” As Pope Francis has recently said, if we’re not concerned with justice for the poor, we can’t pretend to be following Jesus’ way.

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.

Once again, as Pope Francis would have it, If we’re not resisting war and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

The Church’s Disastrous Domestication of Jesus (Sunday Homily)

King of the Universe

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. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/112413.cfm

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” The contrast between the feast’s grandiose title and the readings prescribed for the occasion illustrate a basic reason behind the irrelevance of the church (and Jesus) to the post-modern world. It’s irrelevant to the social and economic transformations necessary to redeem the church’s overwhelmingly Third World membership from globalized oppression.

The contrast I’m referring to involves the great makeover of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar of the exploitative status quo.

Let me put it this way: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire – the one who promised a new heaven and earth belonging to the simple and poor, and who was executed as a terrorist by Rome – 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.

Following that transformation, kings and popes (now themselves transformed into gaudy temporal rulers) claimed to govern by divine right on behalf of Jesus as his representatives and vicars. In this way, the poor and oppressed (who then and now constitute the world’s majority) lost their paradigmatic leader, example and advocate. Jesus became instead a key part of the apparatus oppressing them.

Reza Aslan’s recent best-seller, Zealot, attempts to rescue the revolutionary historical Jesus from the distortions of the royal classes just mentioned. Aslan connects his salvage project specifically with today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. In doing so, the author 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.

According to Aslan, all three – cross, inscription and dialog – mark Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary “terrorist” rather than a domesticated upholder of the given order. That terrorist remains as threatening to today’s dominant empire, the U.S.A., as he was to imperial Rome. So he continues to be erased from history and by “feasts” like today that mask his true identity.

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. How could it have been otherwise, Aslan asks? 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, he 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.

And, no, the whole world wasn’t watching either. As scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan observes, Jesus would have represented hardly a blip on the screen of Pontius Pilate. And Jews would have averted their eyes from the spectacle depicted in this morning’s gospel. They wouldn’t want to see “one more good Jew” suffering the fate of so many heroic patriots.

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.). By then the Romans had utterly defeated the Jews, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple as well as slaughtered the city’s population including practically all of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ messianic campaign. Virtually the only Christians left standing were foreigners – gentiles living in population centers like Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Few of these had any understanding of or sympathy for Judaism much less for Jewish politics and its liberation movements.

Besides that, in the war’s aftermath, both Jews and Christians sought to distance themselves from the socio-political expectations that had brought on the disaster of the Jewish War. So Judaism tried to transform itself from a Temple-centered religion to one focused on the local synagogue and rabbinic teaching – both overwhelmingly concerned with simply preserving the culture and identity of a people in diaspora.

For their part, Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their membership.

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.

Loss of the radical revolutionary Jesus is not a trivial matter in terms of Christianity relevance to a world ruled by a nation that styles itself as Rome’s worthy successor. Like its ancient archetype, the U.S. (and a majority of first-world Christians) found the historical Jesus so threatening, that it determined that Jesus’ followers deserved the same fate as their crucified Master. For this we have the evidence of the war that the U.S. fought against liberation theology when it first emerged following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).

Liberation theology committed the unforgiveable sin represented by this homily. It was guilty of connecting the Jesus of history described by scholars like Aslan to post-colonial independence movements and struggles against the neo-colonialism spearheaded by the U.S. and its oligarchical clients in the Third World.

In that struggle Pope John Paul II and his henchman, Josef Ratzinger, threw in their lot with a neo-imperial Ronald Reagan. It was deja-vu all over again: Reagan as Pilate and J.P.II and Ratzinger as the temple priesthood. It was the deja-vu of the church melding its interests with Rome towards the end of the 4th century.

More specifically, the two reactionary popes looked the other way and actively supported Reagan’s policies that assassinated hundreds of thousands of Christians (200,000 in Guatemala alone!) who found the radical Jesus threateningly relevant to their struggles in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

To balance liberation theology’s threat, Reagan patronized Evangelical Christians who eventually morphed into the Tea Party. It finds Aslan’s understanding of Jesus anathema. Meanwhile, John Paul II and Ratzinger “cleaned house,” eliminating every single progressive bishop from the hierarchy and transforming seminaries into hot houses to nurture a pre-Vatican II reactionary clergy.

Recently Pope Francis delivered a long-winded, very general and content-less speech to the National Council of Bishops in Brazil. That group used to head a church that was a hot-bed of liberation theology I’ve been describing here. The term was never mentioned in the new pope’s remarks. Instead, he presented John Paul II and Pope Ratzinger as champions of Vatican II.

He’ll have to do better than that to fulfill his aspiration towards making the church relevant to the poor he professes to care so much about.

He’ll have to confess the Church’s sins against liberation theology and revive the cult of the historical Jesus – instead of the depoliticized imperial “King of the Universe” today’s feast calls to mind.