New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern’s Example of Lenten Repentance

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex. 3:1-8A, 13-15; Ps. 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; I Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9

The entire world was shocked last week when a right-wing gunman and admirer of Donald Trump slaughtered at least 50 worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

At the same time, the world edified when the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest head of state, donned a hijab in a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community. The Muslim worshippers, she said “are us.”  She resolved immediately to change her country’s gun laws (in defiance of the international gun lobby) including a ban on assault weapons.

Her response contrasted sharply with that of President Trump following a similar massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October. Then, instead of calling for solidarity and disarmament, the president famously advised placing armed guards at synagogue doors.

Prime Minister Ardern’s words and symbolic action were a demonstration of the very type of repentance to which the non-violent Jesus called his own community (and us!) in the puzzling episode recounted in today’s Gospel reading for this third Sunday of Lent.

To make his point, Jesus comments on two contemporary tragedies that were “in the news of the day” as prominently as last week’s New Zealand catastrophe. Then he adds an explanatory parable underlining the time-urgency of his summons to non-violence. All three elements are highly relevant to Christchurch and our president’s and our culture’s tendency to solve everything with violence.

The similarities between Christchurch and the Gospel’s first-mentioned tragedy are undeniable. Like what happened in New Zealand, it involved the slaughter of worshippers by reactionary outsiders who despised their victims’ religious faith. Some Galileans (no doubt identified as insurgents) were killed by Roman soldiers while offering sacrifice in the temple.

Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he answers his own question, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

The second tragedy had eighteen people killed by the collapse of a tower located in the section of East Jerusalem called Siloam. In this case, it seems that a tower had fallen by chance and killed some innocents.

Regarding that second tragedy, Jesus asks, “Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were guiltier than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

But what does Jesus expect his audience to repent from? Does he want them to stop being insurgents against Rome? Does he want them to be more faithful to the Ten Commandments or something?

As Jesus would say, “By no means!”

How then do these two events connect?

To get the connection, put the incidents in context. There they become statements about violence, counter-violence and the need for non-violent resistance. Again, that contextualization sheds light on the Christchurch tragedy and our own culture’s worship of guns, as well as the permission it gives our military to kill people in their mosques and schools, at their funerals and weddings.

This approach takes seriously the political intent of the news item shared with Jesus at the very outset. Luke tells us, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”

No doubt, this was not news to Jesus. The opening words of today’s gospel were not meant to communicate news but to complain about the Roman occupiers. Those introducing the topic were looking for sympathy and agreement. Jesus does not disappoint.

Pilate, of course, would have claimed that his temple victims were insurgents against the Roman occupation; they were “guilty” as terrorists, he would have said. That was his official line.

Jesus says, “Don’t believe it” – as if his audience were tempted to believe Roman lies. “Do you think they were guilty?” Jesus asks. “By no means,” he answers.

Here Jesus is agreeing with his Galilean compatriots. If the ones Pilate killed were terrorists, he says, so are all Galileans; we’re all guilty in Pilate’s eyes. None of us wants the Romans here, Jesus implies. After all, it wasn’t the Galileans who threw the first stone; it was Pilate and the Roman soldiers who did so by invading Israel’s sovereign territory.

But then Jesus suddenly takes another tack. He connects Pilate’s butchery with another headline of his day – an act of counter-violence taken by the “Zealot” forces Pilate was attempting to punish. (Zealots were the revolutionary force committed to ousting the Roman occupiers from Palestine.) Pilate’s action, Jesus suggests, started the cycle of violence that evoked a disaster at Siloam at a spot near the Fountain of Ezekias. Siloam was the location of a small arsenal, where the Romans kept their swords, shields, battering rams and other weapons.

According to Maria and Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, a group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower with hopes of seizing the weapons and turning them against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the entire construction to suddenly collapse. The falling tower claimed the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the arsenal.

Jesus point: Pilate is certainly a bloodthirsty man. None of us want him or his armies on our soil. However, those who resist the hated Romans by resorting to arms are bloodthirsty too. And if we follow their example, we’ll all drown in a bloody deluge. Or as Jesus put it, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

And time is running short, he adds with his parable about a fig tree. The bloody deluge has been building for at least three years. We have maybe another twelve months before the chickens of the deadly cycle of violence come home to roost. Without repentance, without replacing violent resistance to Roman butchery with non-violent tactics, we’ll all be cut down like a barren fig tree. (Later on, remember, Jesus himself demonstrates the kind of non-violent direct action he had in mind, with his “cleansing” of Jerusalem’s temple.)

Jesus’ prediction of bloodbath, of course, eventually came true, but not as soon as he thought. The Romans would defeat the Zealot uprising in the year 70, and definitively squash all Jewish rebellion in 132. Jesus was right however about the extent of the slaughter. It was horrific resulting in the deaths of more than a million Jews. Such disaster is inevitable, Jesus teaches for all who “live by the sword.”

What does all of this say to us today? The message is quite relevant. It reminds us first of all that empire represents the systematized oppression of the poor and defenseless by the rich and powerful. That was true of Rome; it’s true of U.S. empire today. We’re still killing those identified as insurgents in their churches and mosques. In fact, our soldiers do it every day. And far from being outraged, we applaud them as heroes.

Secondly, this passage calls us to non-violence and warns us about where the cycle of violence will inevitably lead. Christchurch NZ provides a window into the world created by the worship of guns. Another window is provided by Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the general impoverishment of our country and world brought on by so-called “defense” spending. All of it has us drowning in a deluge of blood. And it promises to get worse and eventually destroy us all. How much time do we have before our chickens come home to roost – three years, one year. . .?

Christians represent about 30% of the world’s inhabitants. There are more than two billion of us. Imagine the world we’d create if we insisted on following the call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel!

Imagine the country we’d create if our politicians followed the example of Jacinda Ardern ‘s identification with the Muslim community instead of following the divisive policies of Donald Trump and endorsing the genocidal violence of our armies.

Synagogue Terrorist, Robert Bowers, Tried to Kill the God of Moses and Jesus

Jewish Bolshevism

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34

All of us were stunned and disgusted last week when Robert Bowers, an ardent right-wing supporter of Donald Trump slaughtered 11 Jewish worshippers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. It was yet another instance of extreme violence by what are proving to be the most dangerous terrorist threats in our nation. They are not Muslims, but white male Christian nationalists with expressed Nazi sympathies.

Such identifications are sharply contradicted by today’s liturgical texts from Deuteronomy and Mark. When you think about them, they turn out to be subversive and even quite anarchistic. They fly in the face of Bower’s sympathies and probably unconscious understandings of Jesus and his teachings.

We’ll turn to those contradictions in a moment.

But first, think about Bowers himself. His despicable act was not an isolated instance of anti-Semitism. It’s much bigger than him. In fact, actions inspired by hatred of Jews are part of the very fabric of western culture. In that tradition, Jews become scapegoats bearing the blame for plagues, poverty, wars, and wealth disparities. The emperor Constantine along with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, the Inquisition, Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and now Trumpists have all done their parts to vilify those the Bible identifies as God’s Chosen People. They have tried to murder the Jewish God.

For instance, here’s what Martin Luther had to say about Jews:

“. . . (T)hey are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus, they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch¬-thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.”

But why the Jews? And even more broadly, why do white male Christian terrorists specifically pick on worshippers not only in synagogues, but in churches and mosques as well? Why did Dylan Roof perform his massacre in a church basement where African-Americans were studying the Bible? Why the assassinations of spiritual leaders like King, Malcolm X? Why shoot Oscar Romero as he was celebrating Mass or slaughter that team of liberation theologians in El Salvador? Why did Salvadoran Treasury Police rape and kill those U.S. nuns in 1980? And, why did the United States decide to wage what Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century” specifically against the Catholic Church in Central America killing hundreds of thousands of believers in the process?

It’s because religion, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, represents a particularly powerful tool for inciting criticism of and resistance to oppression that serves the world’s ruling classes whose laws justify the exploitation, marginalization and exclusion of whole classes of people — women, orphans, day-laborers, the unemployed, the homeless, those with non-binary gender-identities, refugees and immigrants.

In his posting on the alt-right Gab social media site, Bowers himself railed against refugees. He justified his planned attack by referring to Tree of Life’s commitment to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded in 1881. In Bowers’ mind, the synagogue’s connection with HIAS’ traditional commitment to immigrants and refugees has it importing “foreign invaders that kill our people.” For that reason, he shouted, “All Jews must die.” He might just as well have yelled, “The Biblical God must die!”

More specifically, Bowers’ words suggest that the enemy of the right (including — let’s admit it – the U.S. government) are those who find in the Bible (and Holy Koran) a “higher law” that inspires them to relativize human laws that the most vulnerable among us find oppressive.

After all, these oppressed groups intuit that human laws by definition are not neutral or just. They were formulated by power-establishments specifically for the purpose of solidifying existing relationships of superiority and inferiority. Human laws decidedly isolate those I’ve just mentioned in positions of distinct inferiority. For that reason, those locked into positions of subservience and subordination – those locked into refugee prisons with their children in “baby jails” – find great meaning in the basic Judeo-Christian tradition that prioritizes the needs of people like them: widows, orphans, and foreigners. Yes, that’s precisely what the Judeo-Christian tradition does. And in doing so, it inspires resistance. (Just witness the caravan of more than 6000 refugees now approaching our border to the south.)

All of that proves relevant to this Sunday’s liturgical readings which place God’s law above all human legislation – including, when you think about it, those governing borders, identification papers, green cards, sexual identity, voting practices, and women’s bodies. That’s what I meant about the readings being subversive, anarchistic, and resistance-provoking.

Those characteristics are made evident in today’s Gospel reading. There a member of the Scribal Establishment asks Jesus what is the most important law of all? Of course, Jesus does not say “the laws of imperial Rome.” Neither does he identify even Sabbath law as the most important. Instead, he simply quotes the Hebrew Shema, which according to today’s first reading from Deuteronomy originated with Moses himself.

Jesus response: The most important law is “‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

In other words, according to both Moses and Jesus, all human laws must take a back seat to love of God and love of neighbor. And (crucially here) neighbor in foundational Jewish texts is always epitomized in widows, orphans and resident aliens. This is shown by any quick perusal of Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and Malachi. According to all these sources, widows, orphans and resident aliens constitute God’s Chosen People.

Jesus, of course, appears in that prophetic tradition. In fact, his words in today’s Gospel indicate that he actually considers sinful any attitude that places other laws above God’s. Jesus’ response to the scribe is subversive of any religion or empire (like Rome’s or the United States’) that stands willing to sacrifice women, children, and foreigners to “law and order.”

Why then do right wingers like Robert Bowers, Donald Trump, and Republicans in general do exactly that? Why do they prioritize human-fabricated borders along with supporting laws intended to solidify privilege, over what Jesus’ Jewish tradition identified as supreme?

The short answer is that the subversive character of the Judeo-Christian tradition was lost following the conversion of Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century C.E. Afterwards, the anarchistic Mosaic tradition championed by Jesus became Romanized, as those in power reinterpreted the Bible in the light of their own experiences as imperial servants. Subsequently, the laws of empire turned on their heads the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Imperialists championed state law over divine law which was increasingly relegated to the private sphere.

Even worse, the teachings of Moses and Jesus with their overriding concern for widows, orphans, and resident aliens became vilified as somehow heretical, diabolical, and disloyal to Caesar. More to our point here: Luther and Calvin referred to such concerns as “Jewish Madness,” and “Jewish Materialism.”

That, of course, was the theme adopted by Hitler’s Third Reich whose anti-Semitism was inflamed by Russia’s October 1917 Revolution and its insistence on social justice. From that point on, and even from the middle of the nineteenth century, socialism too was constantly referred to as specifically “Jewish madness,” and as “Jewish materialism.” Hitler called it “Jewish Bolshevism.” Winston Churchill agreed. [Karl Marx, of course, was a Jew. German theologian, Bernard Haring (one of my great teachers in Rome) even referred to Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.”]

In this light, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was part of his offensive against communism and capitalist liberalism. It was really an attempt to kill the Jewish God of Moses and Jesus. Der Führer’s anti-Semitism was also in complete harmony with a widespread anti-Semitism which found open expression throughout Europe and in the United States in movements such as the Ku Klux Klan. All of those legalistic projects represented attempted deicide.

So, there we have our answer.

Whatever Bowers’ consciousness, his anti-Semitism is really hatred of the forgotten and anarchistic Jewish God who champions the poor and vulnerable and places love of neighbor above all national laws. That God stands with the enslaved, with mothers who have lost husbands, with children orphaned by wars and “zero tolerance policies,” and with refugees, immigrants and undocumented residents.

Terrorists like Bowers, Roof, Trump, along with present and past U.S. governments (both Democrat and Republican) realize all of that. So, they hate such people and by extension the God those people study, worship, serve and invoke.

Consequently, prophets like King, Malcolm X, and Romero must die. So must liberation theologians and oppressed people who take seriously the God of Moses and Jesus.

That God must die.

When you think about it (thanks to agents like Luther, Calvin, the Inquisition, the Klan, Hitler and Trump) perhaps such deicide is already a fait accompli.

Ironically however, those slaughtered at Tree of Life remind us that the resurrection of Jesus’ subversive and anarchistic God might still be possible.