(Sunday Homily) Listen to ISIS and Stop Committing Suicide!

steven sotloff

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: EZ 33: 7-9; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 13: 8-10; MT 18: 15-20 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090714.cfm.

We’ve met the enemy and it is us!

Indeed! Over the past number of weeks, we’ve been introduced to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Its militants seem to have somehow appeared from nowhere.

However, as Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, they actually represent the largely Sunni blowback from U.S. policies over the last 13 years. In fact, ISIS would not exist were it not for the United States.

Think about it. ISIS is the direct result of:

• The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its over-the-top, loosely-target response to 9/11.
• The 2003 criminal occupation and destruction of Iraq.
• The thoughtless dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army with its largely Sunni command structure (which is now directing ISIS).
• The crimes of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and other massacres perpetrated by barbaric elements in the U.S. military.
• The more than one million Iraqis who have lost their lost their lives as their country has been systematically pulverized by bombings, white phosphorous, and the nuclear waste called “depleted uranium.”
• Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney bragging about ordering the war crimes of water boarding and other forms of torture.
• U.S. soldiers urinating on the bodies of Iraqi insurgents and on copies of the Holy Koran.
• The horrors of the film clip, “Collateral Murder” released by Chelsey Manning.
• Drone strikes across the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere routinely killing women and children, revelers at weddings and mourners at funerals.
• Blind U.S. support of Israel’s pogrom aimed at “the Jews’ Jews” concentrated in the world’s largest open-air prison camp called Gaza.

Such horrendous provocations make it entirely possible for ISIS leaders to echo the words solemnly intoned by President Obama last week in response to their movement’s brutal beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. ISIS leaders might well have said:

“We will not be intimidated. Those who make the mistake of harming Muslims will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served . . . such horrific acts only unite us as movement. . . ISIS will continue to lead the battle against the kind of barbaric and empty vision that the United States represents. We will degrade their forces and destroy them completely.”

In fact, the whole ISIS phenomenon and the response it has evoked only illustrate the senselessness of any strategy of revenge and fatuous, doomed attempts to solve conflict by the unapologetic use of military first response to violence perpetrated against “Americans” or Muslims.

A different way of responding is outlined for followers of Jesus’ Way in today’s liturgy of the word. It might seem idealistic and perhaps even unrealistic in the face of ISIS. But give it a chance.

In today’s gospel reading, Matthew the Evangelist addresses the problem of conflict resolution. He emphasizes dialog not revenge and violence. In fact, he outlines four alternatives towards resolving disputes. He has Jesus say that if step one doesn’t work, move on to the subsequent strategies. The four alternatives include (1) healing conversation with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) shunning the offending party.

More specifically, Matthew has Jesus say, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Obviously, these words did not come from Jesus himself. To begin with, there was no “church” at Jesus’ time. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and a reformer of Judaism rather than the founder of some new religion or “church.”

It was different for Matthew who was writing for a community of specifically Jewish Christians some fifty years after Jesus’ death. By then, questions of community order within the emerging church had become prominent. So Matthew invents this saying of Jesus to deal with them.

Another reason for reaching this conclusion is the reference to treating a recalcitrant individual “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” This phrase reflects traditional Jewish avoidance of Gentiles and hatred of Roman collaborators. It runs counter to the practice of Jesus who time and again in the Gospels causes scandal by practicing table fellowship and community with the very people Matthew’s instruction indicates are outsiders to be shunned by believers.

Were Matthew following the Spirit of Jesus, the evangelist’s instructions for addressing conflict resolution might involve the following process: (1) private dialog with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) moving in with the offending party – or at least taking them out for dinner regularly.

In any case, the emphasis in Jesus’ own approach is communion, not shunning or refusal to talk. Nowhere does Jesus’ approach say that one should refuse meeting until the offending party stops offending. Much less does the process outlined include “if he refuses to listen, shoot him, cut his head off, or kill his family.”

“But,” you object, “The words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel selection are about church order, not about international politics, much less the barbarity of a movement like ISIS. Jesus’ instruction, you might say, is about private disputes among Christians and are laughably impractical in the political sphere.

And that’s just my point. To repeat: Matthew’s account does not reflect the teaching or practice of Jesus. Jesus’ actual teaching was not confined to the private realm. His practice was highly political.

Eating with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, Gentiles (including members of the Roman army) represented doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. . . . It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates.

This is what the example of Jesus calls us to do even in the case of ISIS. Its emergence calls for departure from business as usual. It requires admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of the United States. It demands a complete reversal of “American” policy.

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Rome puts a finer point on the reasons for such response on the part of those pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Paul reminds us of Jesus’ summary of God’s law. He writes:

“Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Emmanuel Levinas helps us understand that Jesus’ teaching on neighbor love is much more radical than commonly accepted. Loving your neighbor as yourself, Levinas says, does not mean “Love your neighbor because s/he is like you.” No, according to Levinas, it means, “Love your neighbor as yourself, because s/he is you.”

In other words, there is no meaningful distinction between you and any other human being you care to name – even if we call them “terrorists.” Moreover, if you shared the same history as your “enemy,” you would be doing exactly the same thing that currently enrages you. As a result, no killing can be justified. It is suicide. That’s the thrust of Jesus’ words: to kill the other is to kill yourself. Killing of any kind is suicide.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus’ way as we try to respond to the ISIS phenomenon? At least the following, I think:

• Facing the fact that the ONLY REASON for our Middle Eastern policy and wars is oil, and doing everything necessary to wean our lives away from dependence on fossil fuels.
• Realizing that we cannot expect politicians like President Obama to initiate any other policy than revenge as if the U.S. were principled, civilized, innocent, and pure before an enemy that is completely unlike us.
• Nonetheless demanding that our officials absolutely reverse course, recognize responsibility for the emergence of ISIS, and establish dialog with their leaders.
• Refusing to allow our children to serve in an armed force that commits ISIS-like crimes on a wholesale scale.
• Imagining what would happen if even a quarter of our country’s 160 million people who claim to be Christian refused the self-destruction the words of Jesus and Paul imply.

For Christ’s sake, do the unthinkable. Hard as it might be: listen to ISIS. Reverse course. Put a stop to our collective suicide!

The Boston Marathon Bombing: Our Wake-Up Call

Pakistan Drone Victims

Last Tuesday I shocked some of my blog readers by observing that the carnage of the Boston Marathon bombing paled in comparison with the mayhem the U.S. inflicts daily on anyone who happens to be near designated enemies in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. My observations were dismissed by some as “incredibly insensitive” and as the “garbage” comments of an armchair philosopher unacquainted with the brutality of “those Jihadists.” One former army chaplain accused me of having a screw loose somewhere.

Be that as it may, I was in reality simply trying to highlight the double standard most of us have internalized concerning our own victimhood when tragedy strikes close to home. We wring our hands and ask “Why us?” Meanwhile we exhibit little compassion for those our country’s policies punish with the equivalents of Boston Marathon bombings virtually every day. Our media regularly ignore those tragedies and so insult our country’s victims with the mainstream media’s (and our) own brand of incredible insensitivity.

The implication of ignoring the suffering of the victims of U.S. policy is that “American” lives and children are more valuable than the lives and offspring of “those others.” We seem convinced that our “holy wars” are somehow different from their jihads. Any fool, we imply (and sometimes state) would see that we are good and they are evil. We are, after all, the exceptional, indispensable nation.

That conviction of American exceptionalism seems impervious to fact and memory. It allows U.S. perpetrators of human rights abuses such as wars of aggression, death squads, drone killings, torture, imprisonment-without-charge, voter suppression, and incarceration of whistle-blowers to pontificate about those same human rights violations when they occur in other countries.

Consider the following:

• The Obama administration is currently withholding its recognition of the results of last week’s election of Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela. Maduro was the personal choice of U.S. bête noir, Hugo Chavez. Standing alone in its refusal to recognize his electoral victory (except for the arch-conservative Spanish administration) and despite assurances of international election observers and the Venezuelan National Election Commission, the United States solemnly insists that Venezuelans deserve a complete recount of every single vote.

Apparently, the Obama folks have forgotten the 2000 election of George W. Bush when its country’s own government refused to perform a recount, even though the eventual loser had verifiably received more votes than the winner. That victor was finally selected not by popular vote but by the Supreme Court dominated by his cronies.

In the light of such irregularities, not to mention gerrymandering, legalized vote-buying sanctioned by “Citizens United,” voter suppression of minorities, and refusal to set up the paper trail the Venezuelan system has so firmly established, wouldn’t you think our government would recognize that it’s lost all moral ground to lecture others about or adjudicate “free and fair” elections? No – not when inconvenient truths can be successfully flushed down George Orwell’s memory hole. Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans are still convinced their election system is the world’s gold standard. Go figure.

• The week before last Beyonce and Jay-Z decided to celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary in Cuba. Their decision drew immediate response from Miami expatriates of Cuba who descried the couple’s implied support for such an egregious violator of human rights as Cuba.

Apparently, the objectors had forgotten that the U.S. has a higher percentage of its population in prison than Cuba or any other nation in the world for that matter. Additionally, the “Americans” maintain a world-wide system of secret jails for political prisoners. Practically all of the 166 incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are currently on hunger strike protesting their inhuman treatment there. The “American” torture and even murder of its political prisoners is better documented than any alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Cuba or anywhere else you might care to name.

And yet, U.S. patriots somehow feel free to lecture Cuba about respect for human rights. Can you say “denial;” can you say “1984” or “memory hole?” Once again, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Americans are still convinced that the United States is somehow the world’s leading defender and observer of human rights.

• Last week the Obama administration’s press secretary, Jay Carney sanctimoniously justified (with a straight face) the refusal of visas to 18 Russian citizens. The banned individuals were all linked to the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower lawyer who had exposed widespread corruption and theft of national resources by high officials in the Russian government. Magnitsky had died in prison while awaiting trial. His death sparked congressional passage of the “Magnitsky Act” to protect whistle-blowers – in Russia.

Carney intoned,

“This administration is committed to working with the Congress to advance universally recognized human rights worldwide, and we will use the tools in the Magnitsky Act and other available legal authorities to ensure that persons responsible for the maltreatment and death of Mr. Magnitsky are barred from traveling to the United States and doing business here.”

Apparently, Carney wants us to forget the fact that untold (literally) numbers of incarcerated individuals have died in U.S. political prisons – many of them directly under torture. He wants us to forget that the Obama administration has virtually transformed whistle-blowing (i.e. the exposure of government and military crimes) from an act of virtue to a felony.

More specifically, Carney’s consigned to the memory hole the fact that the Obama administration has indicted more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations combined. In doing so he has criminalized the prophetic act of speaking truth to power. This is best illustrated in the case of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army whistle-blower who obeyed his conscience and Army regulations by going public with the war crimes he observed. His reward? Imprisonment without charge, torture, and a possible life sentence. Here again we’re expected to believe that the United States respects “universally recognized human rights worldwide.” We really respect them universally only in places like Russia.

You see, it’s not just that official hand-wringing over the Boston Marathon Bombing highlights U.S. hypocrisy concerning the injuries and deaths of the innocent people it’s responsible for killing; it’s that such hypocrisy has become a way of life. It has blinded U.S. citizens to the fact that their country is not at all exceptional except in its disregard for universal human rights and international law.

It’s time for “Americans” to realize that their country long ago lost any moral ground they once believed it occupied. It’s time for politicians to observe humble and repentant silence about human rights, election validity, and whistle-blowers.

As it turns out, the Marathon Bombing is only a faint “retail” reflection of the wholesale mayhem the United States routinely wreaks in every corner of the planet. Cuba is a paragon of virtue compared to the U.S. Nicolas Maduro owns far more legitimacy than did George Bush who committed those war crimes Bradley Manning has been punished for exposing.

The Marathon Bombing was a wake-up call.