Returning to Rome after 43 Years!

St Anselmo

(My Alma Mater: the Atheneum Anselmianum, Rome)

So there I was, last July 24th returning to my old haunts in the Holy City. As mentioned in previous postings, Peggy and I had returned to Italy with our family – with my daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and their four children, with our youngest son, Patrick, one of our nieces, and with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Late in the trip, a friend of Maggie also joined us. In all we were 17 people!

It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since those halcyon days when I was studying in Rome. I had actually spent five wonderful years there from 1967-’72. It was a time of unprecedented personal growth for me as I passed from my late 20s to my early 30s.

The Second Vatican Council had just concluded (1965), and the city was still electric in the aftermath. Everything I cared about was under question – the nature of God, Jesus, morality, the church, papal infallibility, the priesthood, and mandatory celibacy.

After 12 years of being cooped up in highly regimented seminaries in Silver Creek, New York; Bristol, Rhode Island, and Milton Massachusetts, I had at last been ordained. In Rome I found myself living in a community of 20 priests also involved in their graduate studies. Our home was a sprawling house belonging to the Society of St. Columban, of which I was a member. It was located on Corso Trieste 57, right next to the Russian Embassy. I can still smell the fumes of the city busses that passed our front door.

Only two of us in our community were from the U.S. The others came from Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand. I was studying systematic and moral theology. Others were similarly occupied or focused on Canon Law, liturgy, or Sacred Scripture. Daily meals around our huge refectory table were usually raucous affairs as we bantered over the new theology or political questions – often surrounding “the troubles” then afflicting Ireland or the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States, or the youth revolution sweeping Europe especially in France. The times couldn’t have been more exciting.

Every couple of weeks we’d have special guests at table (bishops, theologians, politicians, intriguing women). All of them were passing through Rome on business or vacation. Those, I remember, were special feasts. The guests enriched our table-talk. And the elaborate dinners were always followed up by “retiring” to our community parlor for cognac and cigars. Then the guitars would come out, and everyone would do their party-pieces. It was all great fun. Unforgettable.

So on July 24th I was trying to recapture some of that. On that day, our daughter, Maggie, had arranged for a tour of Rome in long “golf carts” to accommodate that family party I mentioned.

I begged off saying I’d rather revisit my old schools – the Athenaeum Anselmianum (where I had gotten my licentiate in systematic theology), and the Academia Alfonsiana (where I received my doctorate in moral theology). Generously, Maggie and everyone else let me go. I had a great day.

Two years ago, when Peggy and I were in Rome, I had tried to do the same thing. But at both my schools, the portieres were so uptight that they wouldn’t let me in. This time was different.

At the “Anselmo” (pictured above)  I met the same dour doorkeeper of two years ago. But this time, I somehow persuaded him to let me enter – though he stipulated “for one minute only!”

So I walked quickly around the monastery’s ample cloister where the main classrooms were located. I poked my head into the Aula Magna, where I recalled the life-changing lecturers of the great Magnus Lohrer. I had so admired him – that chubby red-cheeked German theologian (who I was told died about six or seven years ago). He was such a great teacher. I wanted to be like him – smart, committed, energetic, enthusiastic, interested and interesting. It was such a pleasure sitting at his feet – even when the lectures were in Latin!

Despite the portiere’s injunction, my personal tour took at least five minutes. Afterwards I went to the monastery chapel to do my day’s second meditation. I was slightly distracted by a couple whispering in a pew across from me. It turned out that they were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. They had been married in the Convento Church where the three of us were sitting. When we spoke outside, they told me of their wedding, their life together, their children and grandchildren. They seemed so happy to be in Rome. I was too.

Next, I took a cab to the Alfonsiana, just down the Via Merulana from Santa Maria Maggiore. The portiere there let me in with no stipulations. I explored the rambling set of attached buildings at my leisure. I recalled lectures by Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy (who mysteriously had reported on Vatican II for The New Yorker under the pseudonym, Xavier Rynne).  In theological terms, Haring was a giant. I didn’t really hit it off with Murphy though. That was probably because he gave me a lower grade expected on a paper where I argued that Vatican II represented the Catholic Church finally catching up with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I remember appealing that grade to no avail. I still think I was right.

As I left the Alfonsiana, I spoke with a very pleasant 45-year-old Polish woman who directs maintenance there. (She had been a librarian in Poland.) She asked me about my impressions of the school after so many years. I told her it all seemed renovated, shiny and up-to-date.

Finally, I took another cab to Corso Trieste 57. There I had a most interesting conversation with Fr. Robert McCullough, the Procurator General of the Society of St. Columban and the rector of the house that now has a much-reduced population.  Fr.McCullough had a lot to say about Pope Francis.

I’ll tell about that in a future posting.

Our Family Trip to France & Italy

Panzano

I’ve been off line for a while . . .

A week ago Peggy and I returned from almost three weeks in Europe. The two of us spent a couple of days in France, near Nice on the Cote d’Azur. Then it was on to Italy and Cinque Terre, where we had a marvelous time in Monterosso.

Next we travelled to Rome where we joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their four children – along with our son, Patrick, Peggy’s brother, Artie, his wife, Mary, and their three children, along with another niece. In all we were a group of 15 – 16 when a longtime friend of Maggie also joined us towards the end of our trip.

Our group spent three days in Rome. Afterwards we drove to Tuscany where we spent ten days in a villa in the little town of Panzano. (The photo above shows the villa where we stayed.) From there we did day trips to Florence and Pisa. But mostly we just enjoyed the unparalleled beauty, peace and quiet of the Chianti wine country.

Finally, Maggie and her family, Peggy and I spent three days on the beach on the island of Elba.

Throughout the magical days, we ate marvelous meals in restaurants of many kinds, as well as sumptuous repasts prepared by Maggie and Peggy at “home.”

It was all a wonderful experience.

But we’re all still recovering – I in more ways than one. Towards the end of our first day in Rome, I slipped and fell down three marble steps outside a restaurant where our large group ate its first meal together. I was wearing my Croc sandals and it had just rained. I felt like I was walking on ice. Just before I slipped, I was thinking, “I could easily fall down these stairs; I’d better be careful.”  Before I knew it, I was flat on my back. I jumped up right away though claiming that I was ok. That wasn’t exactly true.  Now, weeks later, my left shoulder is still sore, though the large black-and-blue mark that side of my body has finally disappeared.  I’m still not able to do my morning exercise routine as normal. But I’m lucky I didn’t break anything.

If most of this sounds wonderful, it’s because it was.

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

Here’s an exchange I overheard in Cinque Terre. Hot and sweaty, we had just disembarked from the ferry that takes tourists past all of Cinque Terre’s five villages scattered along the mountainside.

Husband: Remind me again why we’re doing this.

Wife: Yeah, why are we doing this?

Husband (frustrated and testy): Because we need to see the five villages!

Wife: Can you tell one from the other?

Personally, I could relate to the couple’s weariness, frustration and touristic overload. That kind of sight-seeing is not at all my cup of tea. I prefer what Peggy and I ended up for the next two days – vegging on the beach under big umbrellas.

(Next Posting: Visiting the Matisse Chapel in Vence)

Asian Journal: First Stop, Tuscany

Panzano

Well, we’re finally off on our five-month-long adventure to India. Peggy and I left last Wednesday (August 28th). Right now we’re in Italy staying in a Tuscan villa in Panzano in Chianti. It’s hard to believe that people actually live in such bucolic beauty surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills and castle-like structures like the one we’re luxuriating in at the moment.

I won’t bore you with the details of our journey here – cancelled flights, lost luggage, racing through airports, schlepping excessive baggage through the streets of Rome, lugging it onto a train between Rome and Florence, mistaking someone else’s bag for my own and carrying it off the train, getting tongue-tied in Italian and having it all come out Spanish. You can imagine the drill.

The reason for our trip? Peggy has won her second Fulbright Award – this time to Mysore, India. (Her last Fulbright in 1997-98 brought all of us to Zimbabwe, where Peggy taught at the University of Harare.) We’re all so proud of her. She’s enriched all of our lives immeasurably by the brilliance and hard work that have brought us to such exotic places.

This time Peggy’s grant will have her teaching at the university in Mysore. But that’s not the good part. Whereas in Zimbabwe, it was Peggy, I and our two boys Brendan and Patrick staying in Harare, this time we’ll be with our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their three children, Eva (4), Oscar (2), and Orlando (1). That’s the group that’s so enjoying our stay in Tuscany right now.

And, yes, our son, Brendan and his girlfriend, Erin, were with us as well. They stayed here for a week and left last evening. Brendan’s on leave from his work at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. He’ll be back at his desk there on Wednesday. His tour in Afghanistan will end on December 29th. We’re all holding our breath and counting the days.

Maggie and her family are here because Kerry has taken a sabbatical from his job with a hedge fund. What an opportunity for them and their children! While in India, the kids will be in Montessori School just as they were back home in Westport, CT. Who knows what adventures await all of us in India?

My own adventure, I hope, will involve deepening my practice of meditation. With everyone’s blessing my plan was to do a ten-day retreat centralizing the Vipassana method of meditation. That would have begun on September 11th, and involved ten hours of meditation each day. Just this morning however, I received word that my application has been refused because of oversubscription. I’m now searching for an alternative.

In any case, if all goes well with the shorter experience, I’ll do a thirty-day retreat later on. We’ll see how things develop.

I’ll be writing regularly about our experiences as the adventure unfolds.

Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Enemies? (Sunday Homily)

Allah-the-only-true-god

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. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082513.cfm

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.

Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From

[This is the fifth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Today’s blog post begins explaining my second rule for critical thought, “Expect Challenge: Questioning the ‘Ruling Group Mind’” I open the topic with an autobiographical explanation of why I approach critical thought the way I do.]

Let me tell you where I’m coming from when it comes to critical thinking.

I am a field researcher whose travels have been inspired by concerns about Peace and Justice Studies – a program which I helped found and direct at Berea College in Kentucky. My research “digs” began in Rome where many years ago I spent half a decade doing graduate work, and where I first encountered Third World colleagues who raised deep questions about my own perceptions of reality.

Subsequently, my pursuit of intellectual archeology took me all over Europe – most notably to Soviet Poland – and then to Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, Palestine-Israel, and Cuba. Over the years, I’ve taught as well in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica, where I’ve also worked with a think tank, the Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), in San Jose.

In all those places I’ve found that developing world thinkers are far ahead of would-be progressives in the United States. Third World scholars know all about colonialism, neo-colonialism, the CIA and its coups, as well as its support of dictators and right-wing counter revolutions around the world.

In the Third World, university students also know about the IMF and its disastrous Structural Adjustment Policies – terms which often raise nothing more than quizzical looks from U.S. audiences. So there’s no need in most Third World settings to argue about the pros and cons of corporate globalization and its effects on the world’s majority. For them the argument was long ago settled.

None of that is true in the United States. Here higher education largely ignores the Third World, where most people live. Most college classes overlook its rich traditions, indigenous scholarship, and progressive thinking. (I even once had a well-meaning colleague respond to similar observations on my part by admitting, “I didn’t know there were any Third World scholars.”) In the United States, the so-called “developing world” is seen as a center of self-induced misery, population problems, food-shortages, and inexplicable revolutions and genocides. Alternatively, the Third World is seen as the undeserving recipient of largesse on the part of the United States understood as the Santa Claus of the world

In the light of history and political realism, I’ve concluded that clearing up such misunderstandings should be Job #1 for post-secondary educators concerned with critical thinking. Doing so entails questioning the unquestionable and broadening students’ horizons to embrace what most thinkers in the Third World recognize as simply given.

To begin with, critical thinking must question the “of course” convictions that belong to American culture – to any culture. As noted earlier, Plato referred to such unquestioned beliefs with the Greek word, doxa. Its power is conveyed by his familiar “Allegory of the Cave.” There the human condition is portrayed in terms of prisoners chained in a cavern where their only experience of reality (including themselves) is conveyed by shadows produced by their manipulative captors.

Plato’s allegory finds its counterpart in American culture, including the prevailing system of education. Typically what happens in the classroom predisposes students to accept what John McMurtry of the University of Guelph (in Canada) calls “Ruling Group Mind” which is largely set by the parameters of generally admissible political opinion. Within such confines, the United States is seen as the best country in the world. Its overriding concern is with democracy, peace, justice and human rights. Its wars are fought in the interests of peace. God is on its side. “Of course!” we all agree.

Such naiveté is revealed in the second episode of the HBO series, “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering a question posed by a bright American college student: “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered.

Daniels’ answer captures the realism of what I consider a major goal of critical thinking.

(Next week: Unveiling the uniquely narrow U.S. spectrum of debate)

How Empire Eliminated the Historical Jesus for Good

(This is the twelfth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

According to the biblical scholarship we’ve been reviewing over the last dozen weeks or so, Jesus of Nazareth stood with the poor, and announced a future of justice for them. Jesus also resisted the empire which, as we’ll see presently, eventually dramatically diminished the importance of the Jesus of history. Examination of Jesus’ resistance to empire and empire’s co-opting of the Nazarene’s life and words is the point of this posting on the historical Jesus.

That Jesus stood with the poor and favored them is obvious. He was a simple worker, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and theologized as an immigrant in Egypt. He healed sick people, fed the hungry, and cast out evil spirits. He announced and embodied a new reality for the poor. In the “reign of God” justice would replace exploitation; the positions of rich and poor would be reversed, and a sharing ethic would take the place of competition and oppression. To put it in terms of faith: a poor person was the site God chose to reveal God’s Self to the rest of us. That in itself constitutes a stupendous revelation.

Being a poor person in Palestine, and especially coming from the revolutionary Galilee district, Jesus himself was understandably anti-empire. The best illustration of Jesus’ resistance is in the famous story of his temptations in the desert. We all know the story with its rich blend of historical fact, symbolism, and explicit and implied scriptural references. Jesus has just been baptized by John. A voice has told him that he is somehow the “Son of God.” He goes out to the desert to discover what that might mean. On this vision quest, he prays and fasts for 40 days. The visions come. He is tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s account, the culminating vision is imperial (4:8-9). Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth – an empire much vaster than Rome’s. Satan says, “All of this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me. Jesus, of course, refuses. He says, “Be gone, Satan! It is written, the Lord God only shall you adore; him only shall you serve.” In other words, Jesus rejected empire in no uncertain terms.

Jesus’ opposition to empire is extremely important to understanding how Christianity lost contact with the historical Jesus over 1500 years ago, when it became pro-rich and pro-empire. That’s what happened to the faith of Jesus under Constantine when Christian “orthodoxy” emerged. Christianity lost its soul. Or to put it more starkly: it actually began worshipping Satan at that point.

Here’s what I mean. Jesus rejected the temptation to empire as we’ve just seen. But in the 4th century, circumstances made it necessary for the emperor Constantine and his successors to repeat unwittingly Satan’s temptation – this time to the leadership of the Christian church. They could allow Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All they had to do was to accept empire, give it religious legitimacy – become the state religion. Jesus had said “No!” to a similar temptation back there in the desert. Fourth century church leadership said “Yes!” and in doing so, in effect said “yes” to Satan worship – the necessary precondition of accepting empire. They also abandoned the Jesus of history and his this-worldly message. In the process, they reduced Jesus to a mythological figure and Christianity to a Roman mystery cult. Let me explain.

Think about the historical circumstances that led Constantine to be concerned with Christianity at all. Like all oppressors, he realized that religion represented an incomparable tool for controlling people. If an emperor can convince people that in obeying him they are obeying God, the emperor has won the day. In fact it is the job of any state religion to make people believe that God’s interests and the state’s interests are the same.

What Constantine saw in the 4th century was that as Rome expanded and incorporated more and more Peoples with their own religions, Rome’s own state religion was losing power. At the same time, Christianity was spreading like wildfire. And it was politically dangerous.  The message of Jesus was particularly attractive to the lower classes. It affirmed their dignity in the clearest of terms. Often the message incited slaves and others to rebel rather than obey. Rome’s knee-jerk response was repression and persecution. But by Constantine’s day, Rome’s repression had proved ineffective. Despite Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions for decade after decade, the faith of Jesus was more popular than ever.

Constantine decided that if he couldn’t beat the Christians, he had to join them. And he evidently determined to do so by robbing Christianity of its revolutionary potential. That meant converting the faith of Jesus into a typical Roman “mystery cult.”

Now mystery cults had been extremely popular in Rome. They were “salvation religions” that worshipped gods with names like Isis, Osiris, and Mithra. Mithra was particularly popular. He was the Sun God, whose feast day and birth was celebrated on December 25th.  Typically the “story” celebrated in mystery cults was of a god who descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, died, rose from the dead, ascended back to heaven, and from there offered worshippers “eternal life,” if they joined in the cults where the god’s body was eaten under the form of bread, and the god’s blood was drunk under the form of wine.

To convert Christianity into a mystery cult, Constantine (who wasn’t even a Christian at the time) convoked a church council – the Council of Nicaea in 325. There the question of the day became who was Jesus of Nazareth. Was he just a human being? Was he a God and not human at all? Was he some combination of God and man? Did he have to eat? Did he have to defecate or urinate? Actually those were the questions. For Constantine’s purposes, the more divine and otherworldly Jesus was the better. That would make him less a threat to the emperor’s very this-worldly dominion.

The result of all the deliberations was codified in what became known as the Nicene Creed. Maybe you know it by heart. It runs like this:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.[

The Nicene Creed can be so familiar to us that we don’t notice what it does. In the part italicized above, it jumps from the conception and birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection. It leaves out entirely any reference to what Jesus said and did. For all practical purposes it ignores the historical Jesus and pays attention only to a God who comes down from heaven, dies, rises, ascends back to heaven and offers eternal life to those who believe. It’s a nearly perfect reflection of “mystery cult” belief. In effect Jesus becomes a harmless Mithra. The revolutionary potential of Jesus’ words and actions relative to justice, wealth and poverty are lost. Not only that, but subsequent to Nicaea, anyone connecting Jesus to a struggle for justice, sharing and communal life is classified as heretical. That is, mystery cult becomes “orthodoxy.” Eventually, the example and teaching of Jesus becomes heresy – especially later on when “communism” becomes a threat to Rome’s modern imperial successors.

Please think about that.

Next week: Series Conclusion

“Widow’s Mite” or “Don’t Put That Money in the Collection Plate!”

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111112.cfm

In the election season just passed, some politicians were pushing for a “flat tax.” They called attention to the “unfairness” of a tax system which has rich people paying more than everyone else. The asked, why not tax everyone the same?  That would be fair. Today’s gospel reading says something about that idea of fairness.

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About a month ago, the great theologian and spiritual teacher, Matthew Fox, passed through our town in Berea, Kentucky. Matt is an ex-Dominican priest who was forced by Pope Benedict XVI to leave the Dominicans and to cease publishing. Fox’s crime, like that of more than a hundred theologians in the past twenty years, was being too energetic in teasing out the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the world we actually live in. According to Matthew Fox, the anti-Vatican II stance of present church leadership places the present pope (and the one who preceded him) in schism. It’s the duty of Catholics, Fox says, to withhold financial support from the church until popes and bishops once again embrace the official teaching of the church, which remains the doctrine of Vatican II. Today’s gospel reading also says something about that.

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The gospel reading just referred to is the familiar story of “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will soon find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.

In the meantime, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today’s Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.

Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.

Then in today’s second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly “Holy of Holies” but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.

The standard way of treating these readings would run like this: (1) The widow of Zarephath gave the Holy Man all she had to live on and was materially rewarded as a result; (2) the widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (3) follow the examples of the widow feeding Elijah and the widow giving her “mite;” (4) donate generously to your priest (a successor of the Great High Priest in Hebrews) and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores the liturgical response to the Elijah story taken from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s readings, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Elijah and Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.

All of that represents a “red thread” running through the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. It offers us a key for interpreting the story of Elijah as well. It changes the emphasis of the story from the widow’s generosity, to God’s provision of food for the hungry and God’s concern for the children of single mothers.

With that key in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard treatment.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24).  The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite.  Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Jesus was probably referring to the practice of turning over to scribes the estates of deceased husbands. The surviving wives were considered incapable of administering a man’s affairs. For his troubles, the scribe-trustee was given a percentage of the estate. Understandably fraud and embezzlement were common. In this way, religion masked thievery from society’s most vulnerable.

With Jesus’ accusation ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He leaves the temple in disgust.

According to this second interpretation, Jesus is not praising the generosity of the widow. Instead, he is condemning the scribes, the priests, the temple and their system of flat taxation. Jesus’ words about the widow represent the culminating point in his unrelenting campaign against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor by the religious and political leadership of his day.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind when evaluating “Christian” politicians calling for a “flat tax” in the name of the “fairness” of taxing everyone at the same rate.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind – and the example and words of Matthew Fox –  when the collection plate passes in front of us on Sunday or when our pre-Vatican II priest urges us to follow the example he finds in the story of the widow’s mite.

Step One in the Five-Step Development of the Christian Tradition: The Human Jesus

(This is the sixth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Through the application of the method described so far in this series, the story of Jesus takes on an intensely human character unfamiliar to most. Such unfamiliarity especially arises when the principle of analogy comes into play. As already indicated, that principle holds that: We must not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is assumed or proven to be impossible in the present. The application of this largely negative standard leads scholars to explain away the miraculous in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in particular. In the Christian Testament, the principle is applied to reported events from the virgin birth to the resurrection, with events like the feeding of the 5000 and raising of Lazarus in between.

But there’s also a positive side to the principle of analogy. This positive side is especially important for uncovering the often neglected political and economic dimensions of Jesus’ life.  In its positive formulation I would express the principle of analogy in the following words: We must ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens to human beings in the present.  Put otherwise, at their most basic levels human beings are highly similar across time and place. This similarity includes the interaction between the rich and the poor, and between oppressors and the oppressed.

That is, apart from local collaborators, the colonized usually resent the presence of occupation forces in their country. Workers generally resent being underpaid and exploited. They are critical of the rich whose extravagant lifestyle peasants perceive as based on their underpayment. They find interesting and can easily relate to those who criticize the rich and foreign occupiers and to descriptions of a future where such oppression is absent. Meanwhile the rich and powerful find such criticism threatening and normally try to suppress it if it mobilizes the masses.

The application of the principle of analogy in this positive meaning allows (especially politically committed Third World) scholars to connect the alleged words and deeds of Jesus to circumstances of Roman imperialism and first century Palestinian poverty, and to draw conclusions about the historical Jesus that do not generally occur to those living outside circumstances of imperial oppression. Such conclusions based on the principle of analogy assume that Roman imperialism was the most significant element of life in first century Palestine. That imperialism must therefore be kept prominently in mind when analyzing texts within the Christian Testament.

It is at this point that something called the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” comes to the fore. The adjective “hermeneutical” refers to interpretation – of texts or of life itself. “Hermeneutical privilege of the poor” means that people living in circumstances of poverty similar to those of Jesus and his friends – especially under the violent realities of imperialism or neo-imperialism – often have a better understanding of texts about those circumstances than do those living more comfortably. Today’s uneducated poor might even have a better understanding than contemporary intellectuals and scholars.

To be more concrete . . . . We know that Palestine was a province occupied by the Romans. The rich Sadducees, the temple’s establishment of priests, lawyers, and scribes, as well as the court of Herod in Galilee were collaborators with the Romans. Jesus came from the Galilee, a section of Palestine that was a hotbed of resistance to Rome and of resentment against Jews collaborating with the occupiers. Jesus was born around the year (4 BCE) when the Romans finally destroyed Sepphoris, the capital of the Galilee. Sepphoris was located just 3.7 miles from his home in Nazareth – less than an hour’s walk. In that year of uprising, rebellion, and slaughter, Jesus’ parents gave him a revolutionary name – Yesua (=Joshua) the general who conquered the land of Canaan now occupied by Rome. Jesus’ brothers also bore significant names in terms of Jewish nationalism and ownership claims to Palestine. James was named after Jacob, the last of Israel’s three great patriarchs. Joses bore the name of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.  Simon (= Simeon) and Jude (= Judah) both were named after fathers of one of Israel’s 12 tribes.

On top of that, Jesus’ Mother, Miryam, is remembered by the evangelist Luke as a woman of revolutionary conviction. In her “Magnificat” poem (1:46-55), she praises the God of Israel as one who “has scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things . . . and sent the rich away empty.”

In the light of such circumstances, and given Jesus’ evident commitment to the poor, it becomes highly likely that Jesus not merely shared the anti-Roman and anti-Jewish establishment sentiments of his family and neighbors. It also becomes likely that Jesus’ family was involved in the Jewish resistance at the very time of Jesus’ birth. After all, circumstances like the siege of a nearby town by foreign occupiers generally find everyone local somehow involved. (In fact, occupiers routinely assume such involvement and retaliate accordingly, both then and now.)

And there’s more.  The fact that nearby Sepphoris was under siege in 4 BCE carries implications about Jesus own conception.  It means that the surrounding territory including Nazareth must have been crawling with Roman soldiers at that time. Under such circumstances, the principle of analogy tells us that many Jewish girls would have been raped by those soldiers. After all, rape is a standard strategy for occupiers in all wars from first-century Sepphoris to twenty-first century Kabul. This realization makes more interesting the tradition that surfaced in the 2nd century with the pagan author Celsus. He alleged that Jesus’ “virginal” conception was the result of Miryam being raped by a Roman soldier called Panthera. (By the way, according to scripture scholar Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, the term “virgin” was snidely applied in first century Palestine to unwed mothers and victims of rape.)

(Step one will be continued next Monday)

Hating THE SIN, but Loving the Sinners (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

I often have spirited political debates with my grown children. My contributions to such debates have often been critical of the U.S. So my sons half in jest often accuse me of “hating America.”

Really though, I love the United States. It’s my home; it’s the country I know best; it’s simply beautiful; its people, its artists, its inventors have given so much to the world. Its Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement have set examples for emancipation campaigns throughout the entire world. As the song says, it all makes me feel “Proud to be an American.”

And yet there is some truth in what my sons say. While I love America, I have trouble with “Amerikkka.”  That, I suppose, is like saying “I love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I say that because in this case “Amerikkka” stands for the imperial United States. And here I’m referring to the nation described in the following film clip by John Stockwell. He’s the former and much-decorated CIA station chief in Angola who has “gone public” with his story about what the United States has actually done in the world for the last forty years. He describes a “Third World War” against the poor – a war responsible for the death of more than 6 million of the world’s poor. Listen to what he has to say; its information is what I have in mind in those conversations with my sons.

What Stockwell says is quite shocking, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with you today, because the liturgy’s Gospel selection is about empire and Jesus’ non-violent resistance to it. It’s about his hating the sin of empire, while refusing to do harm to the sinners who support it.  That’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers must oppose empire no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with Peter, and in effect tells him to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”) Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand who Peter is.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of arms. Scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers. Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear.  Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.”

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) Because his primary identity is not being Jewish but being human, he forbids Peter to call him “Messiah.” In effect he says “Look,” “like the “Human One” (Son of Man) Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as you are.  But unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing the brothers and sisters who share my humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans are actually end up torturing and killing me! And I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant. [Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute.  So he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to follow him to the cross. In today’s reading he says that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. Now the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.

What can that mean for us today – for those of us who have chosen to join this emerging ecumenical Christian Base Community meeting here in Richmond, Kentucky? Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and this emerging Christian Base Community.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.”  We’re not living in the greatest country in the world. We are indeed living in the belly of the brutal imperial beast.  While loving our fellow Americans, we have to (as they say) “hate THE SIN” – of being imperialists, of being  Amerikkka.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the “prophetic script,” then our claim to follow him has consequences. It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for the Christian Base Community we’re attempting to form here in the belly of the beast. In our community’s attempt to follow Jesus more closely, can we determine a prophetic project that we can all support? What might the project be? The question has particular importance in the context of the approaching General Election. Should our little community become directly involved in the campaign?  Should we bring the Occupy Movement to Madison County or take on the Climate Change issue? What about Mountain Top Removal?  Should we join forces with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, with Sustainable Berea, with the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice? Today’s Gospel implicitly calls us to a serious conversation about all of that.

In answering such questions, we must realize that circumstances have changed here over the last eleven years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, peppers sprayed, or tear gassed. We risk going to jail and all that suggests. Are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard words and challenges. And surely we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom.”

(Discussion follows.)

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on Mary Magdalene as Egyptian priestess and consort of Jesus

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. He was unimposing – probably about 5’10” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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