Christmas: When Religion Is Capitalism and Market Is Our God

Recently I got involved in a debate about the relevance of religion. A fellow contributor to OpEdNews took the position that because its myths can be interpreted to support either right or left-wing political positions, the myths themselves are meaningless and so is religion itself.

Accordingly, the latter, he said, should be rejected entirely in favor of 18th century rationalism like that expressed by Thomas Paine. For my debate partner, a world without myth is a richer, more peaceful (!), less problematic one.

I can’t get that argument out of my mind especially at this Christmas season.

The position in question ignores the fact of class struggle and that any document worth its salt be it the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the writings of Paine himself will be subject to conflicting interpretations by forces of the left and right. Far from rendering meaningless the documents just referenced, the conflicts only underline their importance and power.  

Nowhere does that become clearer than in the cases of mythology, poetry, and art. No holiday better underlines the power of myth and the battle over its interpretation than Christmas.

Capitalism’s Christmas

Of course, right-wing interpretations of Christmas have carried the day in America for well more than a century – perhaps always. I’m talking about the holiday’s commercialization. It unveils the true religion of America. It discloses the fact that ours is perhaps the world’s most prominent religious fundamentalist culture.

That’s hard for many to see because America’s religion is a masked capitalism that pretends to be secular. However, capitalism’s God is real and all powerful. It’s called Market. In the Freudian sense, it’s a fetish – a human creation treated like a conscious subject with an infallible mind and will of its own. Market decrees who’s rich, who’s poor, who lives, and who dies. It directs our holy wars. For true believers to transgress its decrees for instance by advocating socialism is heretical and punishable by war, death, and excommunication in the form of economic sanctions. (Cuba is a case in point.) 

Market’s accompanying supporting myths are powerful too. All of them, of course are unprovable and unfalsifiable. They involve tales of a guiding “Invisible Hand,” Natural Order, a basically competitive Human Nature, Bulls, and Bears, free markets, trickle-down, democracy, the richest country in the world, and “America as leader of the free world.” No amount of contrary evidence can disprove such fairy tale convictions for Market’s faithful. That means that despite protests to the contrary, it’s all religion. It’s all myth.

Even those who insist on “the reason for the season” routinely reduce the religious meaning of Christmas to maudlin reflections on cute babies, mangers, shepherds in bathrobes, and church services that do nothing to challenge capitalism, commercialization, and the God called Market. Popular Christianity’s silence on the point ends up endorsing the whole embarrassing mess and its entrenched superstitions.

And so, Christmas is dominated by Market’s epiphanies such as Black Friday, “shopping days till Christmas,” special sales, plastic toys, meaningless gifts, and the deity’s final decree whether the season was economically successful or a flop. It’s all about Santa Baby, Rudolf, and Jingle Bells. Not a mention here of the Jesus Myth and its fundamental challenge to all of that.

(By the way, that the Bible’s Christmas story is a myth says nothing about its truth. In fact, from time immemorial, humans everywhere have employed myth to express the deepest truths about life that would otherwise remain ineffable – arguably the most important ones that escape our five senses. They’ve used mythological markers like those appearing in the Christmas story – divine signs, virgins conceiving, angel appearing, special stars shining, sorcerers perceiving hidden meanings, symbol-laden gifts, dreams, evil kings, and narrow escapes.)

Christmas Truth

And so, what’s the truth of Christmas? For those of us who recognize class struggle, as well as the truth and power of mythology, it’s about:

  • A houseless working-class family
  • Living in an insignificant country (maybe like Yemen)
  • Under a hated occupying empire (certainly like the United States)

It’s about:

  • An unwed teenage mother
  • Driven by state violence to seek refugee status in Egypt
  • Whose son grows up to become a poor street preacher
  • Without home or visible means of support
  • Announcing a Kingdom without Caesar
  • Where the poor will and rich will exchange positions
  • And all debts are forgiven

It’s about:

  • The child growing up to be an enemy of the state
  • And of its supporting religious establishment
  • To become a victim of torture
  • And capital punishment
  • But the founder of a renewed Jewish community
  • Where there are no poor
  • Or private property
  • But where everyone holds all things in common
  • Until that community too is destroyed
  • By the reigning imperial state (in 70 CE)
  • Only to be co-opted by that empire (in 325)
  • To become its most enthusiastic supporter
  • Down to our own day.

Conclusion

Sometimes I feel myself almost hating Christmas. Even within my own family, I can’t mention the meanings just listed without eyes rolling in my adult children’s heads – without being accused of negativity and politicizing an otherwise happy holiday. Let’s keep Christmas meaningless is the unspoken injunction.

It’s like the debate I mentioned at the outset. There the unspoken imperative is to close our eyes to the reality of class struggle. It is to surrender the most meaningful language we have – that of myth, poetry, image, art, and history – to the forces of the right to support their own capitalist religion, their own Market God, and their hideous distortion of one of mythology’s most powerful stories.

But I’m reluctant to do so. Like the entire Jesus story, Christmas is about a new political reality (the Kingdom of God). It’s about a coming Great Reversal where the rich will be poor and the poor rich. It’s about debt forgiveness, and about living a communal ideal that is far closer to what capitalism treats as the heresy of communism than to the masked religious creed supporting the destructive idolatry of the Great God Market.

The Ukraine War, Serenity & the Dawn of Hope

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; PS 98: 509; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 28; Lk 21: 5-19

As I read the news each day, I find myself wondering if we’re living in the “end times” described in biblical “apocalyptic” literature like we find in today’s liturgy of the word. I hope we are.

That’s because in the Bible, “apocalypse” isn’t a threat of doom, but a promise of hope. It’s not about the end of the world, but the end of the corrupt (imperial) order in which believers so often found themselves. The Book of Revelation (Unveiling), for example, pulls back the curtain covering first century Roman corruption and promises that it will all soon end.

In that sense, something similar seems to be happening today. (That’s what I try to point out in the video above.) Something new and hopeful is dawning worldwide.

For example, in Ukraine and on behalf of the Global South, Vladimir Putin is digging in the heels of those traditionally oppressed by U.S. imperialism and European colonialism and shouting a firm “NO!” to the bullies involved.

And then last week, I could hardly believe it when China’s President, Xi Jinping quoted Reinhold Niebuhr‘s “Serenity Prayer” at German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. In effect Xi told Scholz that a new multipolar world has dawned and there’s nothing he or NATO can do about it.

I bring all of that up because this Sunday’s liturgy of the word addresses the promise of God’s new order (aka the Kingdom of God). It promises a reordering of the political, economic, and spiritual status quo that turns everything upside down. The promised purge features the definitive downfall of those now governing the planet. It promises justice, peace, and happiness for the rest of us. That’s the real meaning of the Jesus’ proclamation. It describes what the world would be like if the GREAT SOURCE (not Rome or the United States) were in charge of the world. 

However, the liturgy also affirms the uncomfortable fact that before that Great Reversal, true followers of Jesus must endure severe persecution — very troubled times like our own. According to the Master, great trials must precede the Kingdom’s institution. Jesus promised arrests, judicial silencings, jailings, and general persecution for those with the courage to follow his example as an opponent of empire and injustice.

See that theme for yourself by reviewing today’s readings here. In any case, what follows are my “translations” of those selections. They describe the new order (or what scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s Great World Clean-up”) as advocated by the Jewish prophetic tradition and by Jesus himself. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus outlines the inevitable consequences for any who act to hasten the Kingdom’s eventual arrival:

MAL 3: 19-20A

 Scorching times are coming
 For the rulers
 Of this world!
 Root and branch
 They will be destroyed
 In purging fire
 When God’s Great Clean-up
 Finally sets things right.

PS 98: 5-9
  
 The Great Purge
 Will at last establish
 God’s justice
 On earth
 Including environmental rectification
 For the entire planet,
 With its seas and mountains.
 Above all,
 It will mean
 Equity and justice
 For the whole human race.
 Everyone should be
 Happy about that.
  
 2 THES 3: 7-12
  
But don’t relax.
Long ago,
 Some in Paul’s community
 Thought the Purge
 Would take place
 “Any day now.”
 So, they stopped working.
 “Don’t do that,”
 Said Paul.
 “Your faith
 Shouldn’t make you 
 A burden to others.”
  
 LK 21:28
  
 However,
 Just because
 The Great Purgation
 Has yet to occur,
 Don’t lose faith.
 Know that it is
 Still somehow
 At hand
  
 LK 21: 5-19
  
So, you’re wondering,
Are you,
When exactly
The Great Clean-up
Will take place?
It will happen in three stages
 
First, there’ll be
Wars, terror and insurrections
Along with natural disasters
That will leave
Religion in a shamble.

Secondly, all kinds of charlatans
Will show up
Claiming to speak for Jesus.

Thirdly, even family members
And religious authorities
Will blame believers for all of it.
They will hate, persecute, and arrest them 
For simply following the Master,
Handing them over
To civil authorities
Deeply fearful
Of the wisdom 
Of their unassailable defenses.

 Jesus’ recommendations?
 1.     Reject false Christs.
 2.     Trust the Holy Spirit within.
 3.     Endure imprisonment.
 4.     Persevere!

All of that represents an extremely high bar, don’t you agree? Following the martyr, Jesus – the tortured one, the one imprisoned on death row, the victim of capital punishment – is never easy.

But does that mean that those of us living beneath the lofty bar set by Jesus are lost? Can we not be part of God’s Great World Clean-up?

Let’s hope that we can.

At the very least however, here’s what we can do in line with today’s final reading:

  • Reject false Christs by realizing that the meek and mild Jesus of mainstream Christianity is a distortion of the one recognized as subversive by the Roman Empire and by the compromised Judaism of his day. Jesus meek and mild represents the false Christ the Master himself warns against in today’s Gospel reading.
  • Instead, embrace Jesus’ rebel Spirit as much as possible by for example refusing to patriotically accept “official stories” about either Russia or China. Despite their very evident limitations, both are resisting imperialism and neo-colonialism.
  • Pray for the Spirit of civil disobedience that inspired great people of faith like the prophet from Nazareth.
  • Don’t be discouraged by delays in the Kingdom’s arrival or by the apparent victories of its enemies. Persevere!

Christian Dominionism, White Supremacy, and Yeshua’s Law of Love

Readings for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT 30: 10-14; PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37; COL 1:15-20; LK 10: 25-37

Recently, Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and current Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley published an article called “The Ideology of Christian Nationalism.”

The piece reviewed the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference held in Nashville in June. The meeting promoted the theology of Dominionism which (ignoring American pluralism) holds that Christians have a duty to take over all aspects of government, culture, and society.

According to Reich, speakers at the convention including Donald Trump and Florida senator Rick Scott, promoted not only a union of church and state but the promotion of “gun violence, the subjugation of women through forced birth, and strongman authoritarianism.”  

It all represented, Reich said, an effort of white supremacists to “hold onto power in the face of massive demographic shifts: toward women (who now constitute 60 percent of all university enrollees, and therefore the future power structure) and people of color, and away from formal religion.”

Of course, over the long term, such denial of irreversible social realities is doomed, since (to repeat) it ignores our culture’s religious pluralism and the widespread secularism.  

It also runs contrary to the simple message of the selections in today’s liturgy of the word on this 15th Sunday in ordinary time. Their emphasis is not on the culture wars around abortion (which is nowhere mentioned in the Bible) and gun rights but on love even for enemies (which represented, of course, the heart of our Great Master’s teaching). Much less is the emphasis on the values of the dominant culture.

Promoting love and even admiration of enemies, today’s liturgy presents the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan – the religious and socially rejected outsider whose generosity and compassion put to shame the Jewish dominionists of Yeshua’s day.  

(Samaritans were considered enemies of the state, because their ancestors back in the 8th century BCE, intermarried with Assyrian occupiers of the Jewish homeland. Intermarriage rendered Samaritans unclean. They were simply sub-human.)

So, Jesus’ making a Samaritan the hero of his challenging parable and contrasting the outcast’s compassion with the “couldn’t-care-less” attitude of professional holy men – the priest and the Levite – also connects directly with the hypocrisy of Christians who lack understanding and compassion towards those who don’t share their identity politics or faith.

In doing so, they’ve actually criminalized God’s law of love as described throughout today’s liturgical readings. Read the descriptions for yourself here. For what they’re worth, what follows are my “translations” of their main ideas:  

DT 30: 10-14
  
 The Great Liberator, Moses
 Exhorted the former slaves
 To return to LOVE
 The most obvious, uncomplicated 
 Reality
 In the world.
  
 PS 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
 
 Love is all we need
 From Life Itself.
 It is always kind 
 And helpful
 Overflowing with gifts
 And ready to protect 
 The poor, the imprisoned,
 The exiled,
 And those in pain.
 Yes: All we need is Love.
  
 COL 1:15-20
  
 Jesus, the Christ 
 Shows what Love means – 
 That absolutely everything
 Was created for Love,
 The bond, the glue
 That holds us all together
 In complete at-one-ment
 Transforming the human race
 Into a single body
 Despite resistance
 And crucifixion
 By a hostile world.
  
 LK 10: 25-37
 
 For Jesus (like Moses)
 Love of God and Neighbor
 Is the only law
 Promising fullness of life.
 The two laws are one.
 
 Being “neighbor”
 Means rejecting 
 The ignorance of 
 Professional holy men
 And politicians,
 Adopting instead
 The compassion of
 The very minorities 
 We’re taught to hate
 Who provide
 Health care, transportation, 
 Lodging, mercy
 Follow-up,
 And money,
 For those they have every reason
 To hate.
 
 That’s what it means
 To love Our very Self! 


So, Moses was right after all: Love is really all we need. It couldn’t be clearer. Yeshua was right too: Love is God’s only law. There is no other.

Consequently, the theology of Christian Dominionism is wrong. It disrespects not only the Constitution’s separation of church and state, but the religious and moral convictions of human brothers and sisters not sharing their beliefs in the context of a pluralistic culture.

Most importantly however, for the followers of Moses and Yeshua such disrespect violates their teachers’ supreme law of love.

The Truth behind “Great Replacement Theory”:Capitalism, Imperialism, & Regime Change Are at Fault

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 66: 10-14C; Psalm 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Galatians 6: 14-18; Luke 10: 1-2, 17-20

You’ve all heard of the “Great Replacement Theory,” right?

It’s the analysis holding that white mostly Christian males have recently come to constitute an oppressed class. They are being “replaced” in the U.S. economy and culture by interlopers – immigrants, women, non-whites, and non-Christians. As a result, white Christian males suddenly find themselves unemployed or working in dead-end jobs for much lower wages than before.

Proliferation of the theory has led to widespread animus against the apparent replacers – non-males, immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians.

Just another right-wing conspiracy theory, no?

Not really.

The Truth of Replacement

In fact, according to my favorite economist, Richard Wolff (see above video), there is more than a grain of truth in that way of thinking.

According to Wolff, the replacement theorists are correct: white Christian males have indeed experienced substitution by others in the neo-liberal order organized by capitalists over the last 40 years or so.

But the ones responsible for the tragedy are not immigrants, women, and non-Christian people of color. Instead, the fault is systemic. It lies with capitalism itself. That system’s pursuit of profit has capitalists freely choosing to substitute previously high-wage earners with robots, policies of offshoring, and (far less often) by employment of desperate immigrants.

And there’s more (something Professor Wolff doesn’t note). U.S. policies of imperialism and regime change themselves end up being all about replacement of people’s governments with pro-elite puppets. It has removed socialist leaning governments throughout the world (closest to home in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala) and put in their place regimes that favor rich landowners, multinational corporations, drug cartels and gangs. Such replacement has spawned generations of desperate impoverished peasants anxious for a better life even if it means leaving the homeland they love.

Actual imperialism then and regime change (along with the normal dynamics of capitalism) are not just about theory. They are long-standing practices of the United States.

Identifying others as the culprits purposely distracts from the real problem – deregulated capitalism as administered by our own government.  

Today’s Readings

I bring that up in this Sunday’s homily because its readings (translated below) once again focus on the ways the biblical God favors the victims of empire and regime change – the very ones vilified by white Christian males who feel that their previously advantageous position in society is currently being usurped by those displaced workers who are overwhelmingly Christians too. The readings call people like us to re-identify our oppressors.

As suggested by Isaiah, the biblical psalmist, Paul, and Yeshua, the immigrants and refugees that our politicians want us to hate are exiles very like the ancient Hebrews in Babylon. They are the victims of the rich and powerful as were the Jews in Jesus’ day, when Rome occupied his homeland aided and abetted by the Temple clergy.

Put otherwise, today’s biblical selections say that the poorest and most vulnerable among us are God’s own people. The readings call us who live in the belly of the beast to acknowledge that hidden fact. Implicitly, they summon us to replace the true oppressor of white Christian males – the capitalist system itself – with a new order favoring the truly oppressed. Yeshua called that order the Kingdom of God.

Additionally, we’re asked to recognize that the homelands of Christian exiles and immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua are the very countries whose economies our government purposely and permanently crashed in the 1980s and subsequently.

Then, the Reagan and Bush I administrations used drug money to finance illegal wars that ended up killing hundreds of thousands while replacing governments and social movements whose primary beneficiaries would have been the parents of those at our borders today. The latter have been substituted by the drug lords we established and supported during the ‘80s and who today are doing the same things they did 40 years ago – marketing drugs while terrorizing and murdering the innocent. I’m talking about the generals and other military officers who are now the drug kingpins.

To repeat, it’s been that way from biblical times and before – rich foreigners oppressing poor locals for the benefit of the “Mother Country.” Listen to today’s readings. Or, rather, read them for yourself here. My “translations” follow:

IS 66:10-14c
 
These are the words
Of Isaiah’s prophecy
To exiles re-placed
By Powers
Foreign and domestic:
“Your time of desperation
Is nearly over.
You will soon
Rediscover a home
Like starving infants
Returned to
Their mother.
With hunger satisfied
And incredible
"Prosperity
Along with joy
And comfort, comfort, comfort
At last!”

PS 66: 1-7, 16, 20
  
Our liberator
From exile
So kind and powerful
Is the answer
To the prayers
Of replaced people
And a source of joy
For the whole
Human race
And all of creation.

No obstacle
Can impede
Our Great Parents' destiny
Of liberation
Joy and freedom
From oppression.
  
 GAL 6: 14-18
 
Yes, our true inheritance
Is an entirely
New World!
Where distinctions
Between rich and poor
Oppressor and oppressed
Are meaningless.

Anticipating
This New Order
Now
Will bring
Everyone
Compassion and peace.
However empires
Might crucify us
For this belief.

Nonetheless,
We are called to
Bear their torture
And scars
Gladly
As did Yeshua himself.

LK 10: 1-12, 17-20
 
Paul’s words
Agree with the Master
Who sent
Thirty-six pairs
Of “advance men”
And women
To announce
(Like Isaiah)
Liberation
From oppression
By powers imperial.
Like lambs among wolves
Like monks
With begging bowls,
They healed and proclaimed
God’s Great Cleanup
Of a world
Infested by demonic
Imperial oppressors.

And it worked!
Every one of those 72
Cast out evil spirits
Just like Yeshua.
(Despite powerful opposition
And crucifixion.)

Conclusion

Today’s readings should awaken those attracted by right-wing replacement theories. The selections call for a shift of blame for job loss and low wages from capitalism’s victims (both here and abroad) – from non-males, people of color, women, and immigrants. Instead, we’re reminded, blame for replacement belongs to the dysfunctional system that impoverishes all but the imperialists and regime change artists themselves.

In other words, the Great Replacer is the deregulated capitalist system of globalization that victimizes all concerned. The vilification of immigrants, people of color, and women is meant to distract us from that fact.

Today’s readings remind us that it has always been thus. Ancient Israel under the Babylonians and Yeshua’s Palestine under the Romans both had their governments replaced by imperialists. The result was predictable: impoverishment of empire’s victims, rebellion, and revolution.

In sum, the liturgy of the word for this 14th Sunday in ordinary time represents a prophetic reminder that imperialism and regime change despite their banal normalcy are not part of our Great Parents’ plan. The readings call us to join a band like Yeshua’s 72 emissaries who accepted, proclaimed, and lived according to the New Order the Master envisioned – a borderless world with no despised outgroups, but with room and abundance for everyone.

When They Ask : “Why Do You Hate America?”

Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kings 19: 16b, 19-21; Psalm 16: 1-11; Galatians 5: 1, 13-18; Luke 9: 51-62

I’m taking this Sunday’s readings quite personally. They’re about prophets leaving behind family and tribe for the sake of the divine order Yeshua called the “kingdom of God.” In the Master’s parlance, that referred to a world with room and abundance for everyone.

The readings are personal for me, because lately I’ve been feeling abandoned by my tribe – the people in the world I hold dearest – my own family. Especially in the context of the Ukraine war and my refusal to accept our culture’s official story about it, most in my tribe has decided that I’ve gone off the deep end.

I wonder how many readers here are experiencing similar rejection.

Tribal Abandonment

More specifically, my tribe’s abandoned me because I refuse to parrot the simplistic narrative: “Russia bad; NATO good.” Instead, as I’ve written here, here, here, here, here, and here, I find the truth to be much more complex.

NATO, I’ve concluded, started the war. Putin is only acting according to the same logic of self-defense and sphere of influence that the United States has used repeatedly to justify its illegal wars of aggression for more than 200 years. (See the above short list of such heinous interventions.)

Moreover, Putin is even more justified in using that tired logic because he’s responding to threats on Russia’s very border – not to those represented by Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan thousands of miles away.

In fact, Russia’s experience is even closer to home than the Soviet menace “we” perceived during the Cuban missile crisis. In that case, the U.S. government was prepared to incinerate the world itself – to end it all – rather than allow communists to install weapons of mass destruction on an island 90 miles distant from Florida.

But my family doesn’t get all of that. For most of them it’s still “Russia bad; NATO good.” It leads some of them to ask me the pointed question, “Why do you hate America?”

Of course, I don’t hate America, although I sometimes find myself saying that our planet would be much better off without the United States. At the same time I dearly love the American places where I’ve spent so much time studying our nation’s crimes — Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama.

But anyway, here’s what I tell my folks.

Hating the U.S.   

It’s all very simple, I say. The United States has 4.6% of the world’s population. Yet, it consumes something like 40% of its product. As George Kennan noted years ago, it wants to keep things that way by occupying the very position of world domination to which Adolf Hitler aspired in the 1930s and 40s.

As cited repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, here’s what Kennan said:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

In other words, since the Second Intercapitalist War (1939-’45) U.S. policy has been about preventing the world’s majority from acquiring its fair share of the world’s resources. It bullies the world.

Meanwhile, Russia occupies the largest land mass on the planet. China has almost 20% of the world’s population. So does India and Africa. Yet those countries and the African continent have traditionally been controlled by the U.S. and its NATO allies, the most powerful of which (as colonial powers) have looted their treasures for more than a century.

Currently, the Global South countries (sometimes called “The Group of 77 and China”) continue as victims of an imperial order administered by the United States and enforced by nearly 800 military bases scattered across the globe. In summary, though nations of the Global South constitute most of the world’s population, they have until recently wielded little political influence on a global scale.

Of course, all of that is changing now. The world’s white minorities, led by the United States, are being pressed by the world’s non-white majorities to yield them political and economic powers commensurate with their populations, land mass, and resource wealth.

However, United States policies enforcing unipolarity, its forever and regime change wars, NATO expansion, and “full spectrum dominance” (including in Ukraine) are still intended to shove minority white control down the throats of all those non-whites.

That’s arrogant, illogical and morally repugnant.

And in the context of this homily, it’s quite contrary to the prophetic tradition of the Judeo-Christian tradition as embodied in great prophets like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and Yeshua of Nazareth. The latter lived under imperialism and hated it.

As shown in today’s readings, all of those prophets (and many more) knew the loneliness of tribal abandonment for the sake of a human family much larger than that of their parents and remote ancestors.

For yourselves, please consult the selections here. Then look at my “translations” below to see if I’ve got them right.

Today’s Readings       

I Kings 19: 16b, 19-21

Thankfully,
We will never
Be without prophets
Who renounce everything,
Even family and nation
(For God’s sake!)
Without counting the cost.

That’s God’s honest truth
Exemplified, they say, 
In Elisha’s succession
To Elijah,
The prophet whose
Fiery chariot famously
Whisked him away
From death’s dread gate
To immortality.

“Come follow me,”
Elijah said  
To the young plowman.

Elisha replied,
“Yes, but let me first
Say goodbye 
To mom and dad.”

“There’s no time 
For such triviality!”
Elijah growled.
“Instead, burn your plow
Here and now!
Roast your oxen
Over its fire
And feed the poor
With their flesh.”

Elisha obeyed,
Charred everything
Leaving it all behind
Never once looking back.

Psalm 16: 1-11

Indeed, prophets 
Like Elijah and Elisha teach
That our real inheritance
Is neither silver nor gold,
Nor the equivalent
Of fields, plows, oxen,
Or family ties
But the Source of life itself –
(What some still call
“God”)
The Font of all nourishment.

Source makes us 
Calm and wise
Even when surrounded
By rejection,loneliness, 
Terror and darkness.

Source renders us 
Joyful and confident
Saving us from the abyss
Of the world’s contradictions

Showing instead 
The true path
Of life and joy.

Galatians 5: 1, 13-18

Yeshua, some claimed,
Was Elijah redivivus.
(Or was it John the Baptist?
I forget.)

No matter, Paul said.
The Master’s example
Has burnt away
Oxen’s yokes
That once bound 
Our bullish
Slave-stiffened necks.

Instead, Paul proclaimed:
Everyone’s free
From the culture’s 
Selfish, all consuming
Fools’ “wisdom”
That devours everything
And spits it out again.

We can
Love others
Without restriction
(Because they are 
In fact
Our true family
Our very selves!).

That’s the wisdom
Of Expanded Consciousness
(Aka the “Holy Spirit”)
That never agrees
With the world’s “truth” 
Or its elite-serving law.


Luke 9: 51-62

“Worldly wisdom,”
(What Paul called “flesh”)
Counsels revenge
And even violence
Simply for hurt feelings. 
(All in the name of God!).

“Don’t be like that,”
Yeshua laughed,
“Just forget it, 
And move on.

“Instead, follow me
Like Elijah’s Elisha.
Leave behind
Even your parents and family
Without bothering
To say goodbye.

“Choose to be homeless
(No better than birds and foxes)
For the sake 
Of Cosmic consciousness
And the order it dictates – 
Our only home
That truly matters.”

Conclusion

Do I “hate America” as my tribe alleges? Not really, if you’re asking about Yosemite or the Grand Canyon and certainly not about its heroes like Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, Malcolm, King, Liz Theoharis, and William Barber.

But if you’re asking about the system now controlling the world, Ms. Day’s words capture my own thinking inspired by today’s readings.

She said, “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists ‘of conspiring to teach [us] to do,’ but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

Those are the sentiments my tribe finds so hard to accept. Yeshua, I believe, would not find them so.

Buddhism and Catholic Belief in Eucharistic “Real Presence”

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110: 1-4; 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26; Luke 9:11b-17

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one “Body of Christ.”

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . . You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ — act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.”

The real presence is us.

Sexual Morality and Social Control: Yeshua Preaches a Silent Liberating Parable about Sex

Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philemon 3: 8-14; John 8: 1-11

Did you ever wonder why religious leaders seem so preoccupied with sex?

I have.

I bring the question up, because today’s reading from the Gospel of John presents Yeshua as confronting that clerical obsession. I’m referring to the famous case of the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Before I get to that, however, think of the preoccupation itself.

Clerical Preoccupation with Sex

We witness it all over the place, don’t we? Clerics, it seems, constantly worry about a long list of cringe-worthy and curious topics that include abortion, contraception, transgenderism, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, artificial insemination, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests, and (I guess) pedophilia.

Moreover, the clergy’s own sexual failings never inhibit their volubility on those topics. I mean, the record shows that Catholic priests have rather regularly sexually molested little boys. Famous evangelicals have consorted with prostitutes of both genders. Yet, Catholic or Protestant, both continue to pronounce on the topics just listed as though they retained their long-lost moral authority to do so.

 Why?

I think it’s all about the social control that over centuries religious “leaders” stumbled upon with increasing clarity and emphasis. Here’s what I mean focusing on the Catholic tradition with which I’m most familiar and which, of course, also shaped Protestantism:

  1. To begin with, religion is a very powerful means of social control. That is, if religious authorities can convince people that the clergy’s understandings of life and morality are shared by God, they’ve won the day in terms of power over “the faithful.”
  2. This is where sex comes in. As the second most powerful (and arguably the most enjoyable) drive shared by human beings, there is virtually no human being who can refrain from sexual activity.
  3. Therefore, making all sexual acts sinful outside of marriage (and “mortally” sinful – i.e., deserving of hell) the church guaranteed that every church member would sin and need absolution (which only the clergy was empowered to give.)
  4. Without that absolution, the church taught (infallibly) everyone who thought sexual thoughts or performed sexual acts (looking, touching, fornicating, committing adultery) would be tortured eternally in hell’s Lake of Fire.
  5. Even married couples would suffer such fate if they engaged in contraceptive acts.
  6. And since only the clergy and their Sacrament of Penance (confession) could save people from that horrible fate, the clergy possessed God-like power over the lives and fates of believers.

Incredibly, within my own lifetime, Catholics believed all of that – literally! Consequently, Saturday nights in any given parish would find long lines of people waiting to confess their sins in order to receive the absolution necessary for them to “save their souls” from a vengeful sex-obsessed God. Wow!

Yeshua & the Adulterous Woman

In Yeshua’s day, his religion’s clergy played a similar game. They had established themselves as the sex police. Only, instead of sending sexual transgressors to hell, Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning.

That was a biblical requirement. However, the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with a married woman. But if he slept with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute, or a slave, he remained innocent. A woman, on the other hand committed adultery if she slept with anyone but her husband.

Yeshua calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. You probably remember the story.

The Master is teaching in the temple surrounded by “the people” – the same outcasts, we presume, that habitually hung on his every word. Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are standing on the crowd’s edge wondering how to incriminate such a man?

As if ordained by heaven, an answer comes to them out of the blue. A woman is hustled into the temple. She’s just been caught in flagrante – in the very act of adultery. What luck for Yeshua’s opponents!

“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, our scriptures say we should stone her. But what do you say?”

Here Yeshua’s enemies suspect he will incriminate himself by recommending disobedience of the Bible’s clear injunction. After all, he is the Compassionate One. He is especially known for his kindness towards women – and others among his culture’s most vulnerable. He is the friend of prostitutes and drunkards.

But instead of falling into their trap, Yeshua simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he speak — but only 18 words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

A wordless parable . . .

What do you suppose Yeshua was scribbling on the ground? Was he writing the names of the guilty hypocrites who had cheated on their wives? Was he writing the laws the Scribes and Pharisees were violating? Some say he was simply drawing figures in the dust while considering how to reply to his opponents?

The first two possibilities seem unlikely. How would this poor country peasant from Galilee know the names of the learned and citified Scribes and Pharisees? It is even unlikely that Yeshua knew how to write at all. That too was the province of the Scribes. The third possibility – that Jesus was absent-mindedly drawing figures in the dust – is probably closer to the mark.

However, it seems likely that there was more to it than that. It seems Yeshua was performing some kind of symbolic action – that mimed parable I mentioned. By scribbling in the dust, he was wordlessly bringing his questioners down to earth. Was he reminding them of the common origin of men and women?

Both came from the dust, Yeshua might be saying without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dirt and in God’s image – equal in the eyes of God. “In God’s image God created them. Man and woman created he them,” says the first creation account (Genesis 1:27). By scribbling in the dust, Yeshua was symbolically moving the earth under the feet of the Scribes and Pharisees. He was asserting that they had no ground to stand on. They were hypocrites.

If this is true, then Yeshua’s 18-word pronouncement offers his own standard for judging the guilt of others even in the fraught field of sexuality. According to that standard, one may judge and execute only if he himself is without sin. This, of course, means that no one may judge and execute another.

Conclusion

The conclusion from all of this seems clear to me. Human beings don’t need sex police. To regulate the field, it would be enough to simply say “Don’t use your God-given gift of sexuality in any way that hurts another. After all sex is a precious gift from God. Enjoy the pleasure it gives but never in a way that hurts someone else.” 

That may well have been Yeshua’s attitude too. His final comforting words to the woman in today’s Gospel episode indicate that.

Yes, I believe today’s story ended with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.”

And here I’m basing my judgment on one of the criteria used by The Jesus Seminar for separating Jesus’ words from the creations of the early church and evangelists like Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

For Seminar participants, the more radical the pronouncement, the more likely it is that the words belong to Jesus himself. By the same token, the more conventional the words, the less likely they are to have come from Jesus’ own mouth. The words, “Go now and sin no more” seems pretty conventional to me.

What I’m saying is that the addition “Go now and sin no more” bears all the fingerprints of community elders (those clergy we’ve been focusing on) who were scandalized by the radicality of Yeshua’s response to the woman’s “sin.” They needed to tone down Yeshua’s words for fear of losing social control.

Meanwhile, “Neither do I condemn you,” is beautifully radical and characteristic of the Compassionate Yeshua.

Now that is Good News for us sexual beings.

Podcast Episode One (Take 2)

For real this time: Here’s the first official episode of my new podcast

A few days ago, I posted a trial balloon episode of my first podcast in a series called “A Course in Miracles for Activists: ACIM for social justice warriors.” It used one of those generic automatic “translations” from-text-to -voice. It featured a professional voice, but one that had predictable problems in phrasing and sometimes in pronunciation that often characterize disembodied automatic voice recordings.

My effort was a kind of place holder. I was looking for feedback. (I’ve since removed the posting.)

But with the responses I received in mind, I’m now posting “take two.” Its content is quite different from my first recording and its voice is my own. However, I’m still looking for feedback. (And please don’t pull any punches.)

I’m also looking for subscribers to my new podcast site which you’ll find here: https://acimforactivists.com/ Please use the “Follow” button towards the bottom of the page.

So, give a listen and sign up if you’re so inclined. I consider this project another step in my own spiritual pilgrimage. I’m learning as I go — both about podcasting and the meaning of life.

Pixar’s “Soul”: Profound Spiritual Wisdom from a Soulless Corporation

Isn’t it ironic that one of the most powerful businesses in the world, the Disney conglomerate, has ended up being one of our nation’s most effective spiritual teachers?

I mean, in Disney you have a typical heartless corporation that controls so much of our deceitful mainstream media and our superficial entertainment industry. Yet that very transnational firm has consistently produced popular art that calls viewers to introspection, identification with wildlife and nature, and to qualities of generosity, selflessness, and love.

I’m thinking of celebrated productions like “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and even “Bambi.” Arguably, such animated films issue more effective calls to spiritual values (especially to the young) than do most churches.

How that’s possible remains a mystery to me.  It’s probably because even Disney Productions discerns a deep hunger for meaning in audiences throughout the world. So, in its effort to enhance its bottom line, it acquires scripts authored by spiritually attuned writers. But that’s only a guess.

The Film

Nevertheless, that was probably the case with Disney’s latest issuance, “Soul” whose screenplay was written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers. It’s a charming, comedic yet penetrating probe into the meaning of life and death. Its depiction of the afterlife suggests characterization as a poor man’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has all the ingredients: a guided trip through the great beyond, a painful process of purgation, and finally arrival at peaceful beatitude.

(At this point, some might think it appropriate to give a “spoiler alert,” though that hardly seems necessary for a spiritually themed work like “Soul.” It’s not some cliffhanger. In any case, be forewarned.)

More specifically, as Disney’s first all-black production, “Soul” tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated middle school band teacher obsessed with jazz and landing his dream job of playing piano in a quartet headed by a diva saxophonist named Dorothea Williams.

Joe is himself an unappreciated musical genius as becomes evident every time his riffs transport him into the “Zone” of his prodigious brilliance. In his audition for the Williams quartet, the diva immediately recognizes Joe’s talent and hires him on the spot.

Joe is overjoyed. On his way home, he practically floats and dances down the streets of NYC. In his distracted oblivion he is narrowly missed by busses, cars, motorcycles and bikes. However, Joe himself doesn’t miss an open manhole, which swallows him up and apparently ends his life.

The next thing he knows, he’s is in the afterlife on his way towards the Bright Light invariably reported in the accounts of most near-death experiences (NDE). But possessed by his obsession with finally realizing his dream job, Joe refuses to die.

The Underworld

So, instead of escalating into the world of light, he’s returned to heaven’s underworld – a kind of limbo – a so-called “Youth Seminar” where unborn souls are prepared by the recently departed to enter into bodies on planet earth. There Joe is introduced to a rebellious unborn soul (Tina Fey) called #22 (seemingly because she was the 22nd soul ever created).

Despite its status as a truly “old soul,” #22 has remained unembodied for eons because she finds the prospect of life on earth boring. No mentor, no matter how prestigious – not Copernicus, Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Jung, George Orwell, Mother Theresa, or Muhammad Ali – has been able to successfully coax 22 to incarnate on the Milky Way’s “stinky rock,” where she knows that life is inevitably soul crushing.

Despite that history, Joe Gardner accepts the task of mentoring #22 in hopes that if successful, he might be allowed to return to earth and his dream gig. Joe is convinced that if he can help 22 find her passion – her Spark – then her fierce resistance to life on earth will dissolve.

So, acting like Dante’s Virgil, Joe leads 22 through the “Great Before.” She accompanies him as he reviews his own life and identifies jazz as the spark which had given his frustrated existence the modicum of meaning it’s had. From there the two travel through the Hall of Everything where Joe shows 22 her own life’s possibilities as a baker, fire fighter, artist, librarian, mathematician, gymnast, office worker, or astronaut. Not surprisingly, 22 remains unmoved.

However, it’s at this point that roles suddenly reverse as the unborn soul takes pity on Joe. He’s unlike any of her previous mentors, she says, because his life has been so sad and pathetic. Despite the fact that 22 can’t imagine why Joe wants so desperately to return to such pathos, she leads her mentor to the Zone – a state between the physical and spiritual – where he’s made to recall the times his music has induced a state of happiness and bliss.

From there, 22 takes Joe to the Realm of Lost Souls where she introduces him to “a guy I know” – a mad psychedelic captain, a self-described “mystic without borders.” Captain Moonwind (who doubles as a NYC sign spinner on the other side) helps lost souls find their way out of obsessions and anxieties that leave them disconnected from life. For instance, he once helped liberate a soulless hedge funder from his alienated labor. In the aftermath, the frustrated Wall Streeter completely trashes his obsessed, anxious and confining work environment while finally screaming “I’m alive! I’m alive!”

To the tune of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Moonwind ferries Joe and 22 across the Sea of Lost Souls. On the way, the captain tellingly instructs Joe that lost souls are not that different from those striving to live constantly in the Zone. In both cases, he warns, “When your joy becomes an obsession, you end up tragically disconnected from life.”

With the warning ringing in his ears, and after entering a deep state of meditation, Joe and 22 suddenly find themselves returned to earth – to the intensive care unit where Joe’s NDE began. He’s not dead after all. However, both Joe and 22 are surprised to find that they remain completely displaced. Joe’s personality is now located in the hospital’s therapy cat, Mr. Mittens. Meanwhile, 22 finds itself animating Joe’s just-revived body.

Desperate and confused, the two narrowly escape from intensive care and emerge onto NYC’s noisy, smelly and dirty streets. It’s in this Purgatorio that Joe resumes his role as 22’s Virgil. Trapped in the cat’s body, he is intent on leading his newly ensouled form to what he imagines as heaven – the Half Note Jazz Club where his platonic Beatrice (Dorothea Williams) awaits him impatiently.     

Purgatorio

On the way, 22 learns more about inhabiting Joe’s body. For the first time, she discovers the soul-purging joys of pizza; of simply walking, sky watching, taking a shower, tasting toothpaste, and of fitting into a comfortable old brown suit. She recognizes a kindred spirit in 12-year-old Connie, Joe’s gifted middle school trombonist who finds school stultifying.  When Connie expresses her boredom with school, 22 approvingly quotes her former mentor, George Orwell, “State-sponsored education is like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

22 even revels in subway rudeness and in the talent of an underground street musician. Above all, 22 likes “jazzing” – spontaneous self-expression or any kind. 

Now Mr. Mittens is the one to object. “No,” he insists, jazz is a completely other category. “Music and life,” he says, “operate by very different rules.”

Undeterred, 22 continues jazzing during a visit to Joe’s neighborhood barbershop. There, with Mr. Mittens sitting in her lap, Dez the barber reveals the possibility of finding joy in a second-choice career even when one’s first choice has been frustrated. Despite his genius at cutting hair, Dez explains that he originally wanted to become a vet. However, since barber school was less expensive than training for veterinary medicine, Dez chose the former. But it’s made him “happy as a clam.”

The lesson is not lost on Mr. Mittens. His wide eyes tell that he’s thoughtfully considering his own life in the light of Dez’s revelation. Meanwhile he listens incredulously as 22 philosophizes free form while Dez cuts the hair on the head she’s now thinking with.

Everyone’s enthralled as she pontificates about “existing as a theoretical construct in a hypothetical waystation between life and death. . .  left wondering whether all this (obsessed and over-focused) living was really worth dying for.”

Then she responds smartly to Paul, a hip barbershop customer, who rips Joe for falling short of his dreams. 22 fires back, “He’s just criticizing me to make up for the pain of his own failed dreams.” Her barbershop audience laughs at Paul derisively.

Later, 22 ecstatically explains to Joe: Didn’t you see? “I was jazzing.”  

22’s jazzing continues through the next stage of Joe’s purgatory – an encounter with his mother who has constantly urged her son to abandon his musical ambitions in favor of steady employment with pension and health care.

Still encased in Joe’s body and tentatively coached by Mr. Mittens, 22 boldly responds on Joe’s behalf, “Mom, I’m just afraid that if I died today, then my life would have amounted to nothing.”

That particular jazz riff opens Mrs. Gardner’s heart. In tears, she embraces her son and tells him how proud she is of him. She adds that his deceased father would have been proud too. She even gives Joe his dad’s handsome wool suit to wear at the anticipated performance that evening.  (Joe’s father too had been a musician dependent for support on his wife’s real job as a seamstress. No wonder she was worried about Joe.)

Paradiso

Finally, Joe arrives at the Half Note Jazz Club. By now, with the help of Captain Moonwind and a brief return to the Great Before, the difference between Joe and 22 has been completely overcome. Joe’s come to realize that 22 is the same as his own unappropriated unborn soul.

Whole at last, Joe is now ready for his beatific vision. Imagining that it will happen on the Half-Note’s stage, Joe persuades Dorothea Williams to rehire him despite his late arrival at the jazz club.  Reluctantly, she acquiesces.

However, all doubts vanish as Joe gives the performance of his life thrilling everyone present including his mother and Ms. Williams herself. Amid the applause, Joe’s mother is heard shouting proudly, “That’s my son!”

Nonetheless in the aftermath, Joe remains strangely detached. In effect, he wonders aloud, “Is that all there is? I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. I thought it would be different.”

The diva explains, “You’ve been like a fish discontent with his water habitat because he’s been searching for the ocean. You’ve had what you’ve been looking for all your life. It’s what you live in, move in and where you have your being.”

With that, Joe’s penny finally drops. Now his life flashes before him summarized in the symbolic trinkets that awakened the soul of # 22:

  • A Metro pass
  • A pizza crust
  • A piece of a bagel whose other half had been thrown into the tip basket of that subway musician
  • The lollypop Dez the barber shared during the session in his “magic chair”
  • A spool of blue thread that Joe’s mother used to refashion his father’s wool suit
  • A seed from a maple tree brought by a gentle breeze into Joe’s waiting hand

Yes, Dorothea’s version of Beatrice was right: Joe’s had everything he’s needed right from the beginning – in his father’s sharing his passion for jazz, in fireworks over New York City, in the heat blowing from city street grates, in the taste of pecan pie, in the star filled sky . . .

So have we all.

Conclusion

Such “morals of the story” might strike some as typically Hollywood – trite truisms generated algorithmically by pretentious but ultimately soulless corporations interested only in easy pandering to the peasant gallery. However, conclusions of this sort overlook the fact that most preaching and motivational talks contain similar messages. Fact is: we need the reminders.

Nonetheless, the morals of “Soul” go far beyond what’s already been itemized. A more comprehensive catalog might include the following.

  • Life on planet earth need not be boring or meaningless.
  • Death is not our enemy, but a portal to profound insight and expanded awareness.
  • Animals from which we evolved (symbolized in Mr. Mittens) continue to guide us.
  • So do previous human incarnations (like 22’s George Orwell and Muhammed Ali) who somehow persist as our mentor guardian angels.
  • When our joys become obsessive, they disconnect us from life’s richness.
  • Even our “dream jobs” are comparatively insignificant – carried out in the equivalent of a small basement jazz club.
  • The same holds true for the heroes we idolize (like the self-important diva Dorothea Williams).
  • In the light of impending death, (if we’re lucky) consciousness of such relativity eventually dawns as we realize that wish fulfillment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Instead, life is about overcoming separations – male from female, black from white, animal from human, body from soul.
  • It’s important “to jazz” and free flow at every opportunity; music and life both operate by the same rules.

These insights merit not only superficial review, but serious meditation by those whose spiritual hunger evokes them from sensitive writers like Docter, Jones and Powers despite their employment by Disney.

Do yourself a favor and see Pixar’s “Soul.” It will set you on the path of Dante, Virgil, Beatrice — and Joe Gardner.

My Recent Interview on the Rob Kall “Bottom Up” Radio Show

Here’s an interview posted last week by Rob Kall on OpEdNews, where Rob is the editor in chief and where I’m now serving as a senior editor. The exchange took place at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. As you’ll see, I’m speaking from my basement office in our home in Westport, Connecticut. (I’m thinking that I should do something to make the venue seem less like a basement. . .) Anyway, it’s the third time Rob has had me on his show.