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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that provocative enough for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Up Devil-Worship for Lent: Work and Pray for the Defeat of U.S. Empire

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

Last Tuesday’s edition of “Democracy Now” had Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewing Daniel Immerwahr, and associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. Dr. Immerwahr has just published a book called How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.  For me, it was an eye-opening conversation, because it described the actual extent of U.S. empire that remains hidden even, as Dr. Immerwahr noted, from PhD historians.

Yet more importantly, for today’s reflections on this first Sunday of Lent, the interview revealed how the hidden U.S. empire actually involves our country in devil worship as defined by this Sunday’s Gospel episode.

Actually, that’s been the case for Christians in general ever since the 4th century of our era, when their predecessors threw in their lot with Constantine’s Roman army. Since then, they’ve (we’ve!) been worshipping Satan while calling him “God.” Today’s Gospel calls attention to that contradiction. It implies that Christians should no more support their country’s foreign policy (or what pretends to be the Christian Church) than if it were run by Hitler or the devil himself.

Let me explain.

Begin with Dr. Immerwahr’s description of the hidden U.S. Empire. He traces its inauguration to the period immediately after our country’s founding. It was then that settlers incorporated territories seized (in clear violation of treaties) from Native Americans. Then in 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first and then [after the Mexican-American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had added Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, and Wake Island.

If we add to this the implications and actual invocation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) in order to control the politics of Latin America, we can see forms of U.S. colonialism extending throughout the western hemisphere.

Coups in Africa [e.g. Congo (1961), Ghana (1965), Angola (1970s), Chad (1982)] established U.S. hegemony there. Similar interventions in the Middle East (e.g. Iran in 1953) along with the establishment of Israel and Saudi Arabia as a U.S. proxies controlling political-economy throughout the region established United States control there.

Factor in the 800 U.S. military bases peppered across the world and one’s understanding of our empire’s extent expands exponentially. (Russia, by contrast has 9 such bases; the rest of the world has virtually 0). To understand the sheer numbers involved, think of our continued military presence in South Korea (35,000 troops) Japan (40,000), and Germany (32,000). Besides this, of course, there are the active troops who daily kill civilians and destroy property in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. In total we’re told that there are about 165,000 troops deployed in 150 countries throughout the world – though, in the light of what I’ve just recounted, even that number seems vastly understated.

In any case, all of that describes an extensive, highly oppressive, and extremely violent American Empire.

And we’re proud of it. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson thought of colonialism as marvelous. However, by the first decade of the 20th century, politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with “the ‘C’ word,” and exchanged references to colonies for the gentler euphemism, “territories.”

But whatever name we give it, the reality of U.S. empire stands in sharp contrast to today’s Gospel reading and its description of Jesus basic proclamation with its negative judgment on empire and colonialism.

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

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

That basic message becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation described in today’s Gospel episode. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

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

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

However, Jesus responds,

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

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

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

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

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

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

Yet, as Dr. Immerwahr attests, those very people living in the West’s former colonies in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are the very ones ceaselessly victimized by the empire historians have so well-hidden from our consciousness.

As described in Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, colonialism and neo-colonialism are diabolic abominations in the eyes of Jesus’ God. They represent nothing less than a system or robbery currently bent on confiscating the rich resources of the Global South. Authentic followers of Christ can never support such depredations.

On this First Sunday of Lent, we should pray sincerely and work tirelessly for the defeat of such abominable practices.

God’s Answer U.S. Imperial Madness: Defeat Is Only a Matter of Time (Sunday Homily)

beware-of-america-1366x768

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HAB 1:2-3, 2:2-4; PS 95 1-2, 6-7, 8-9; 2TM 1: 6-8, 13-14, LK 17:5-10.

The United States is an imperial country. That’s beyond question. The title is proudly owned by our presidents, military leaders, public intellectuals and academics. Our country is intent on world conquest beyond anything Adolf Hitler imagined. According to the Defense Planning Guidance for the 1994–99 fiscal years, the United States will brook no military rival as it seeks to maintain and expand U.S. control of the entire world. That’s the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine.

Having fulfilled its expansive intention in countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union, the U.S. is now concentrating on the Middle East. According to General Wesley Clark, not two weeks after 9/11, the United States decided to invade seven countries over the next five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.

The goal is resources – especially oil and natural gas – as well as strategic locations for military bases, not to mention the profits from massive arms sales necessary for such conquest. So far, “America” has reduced Iraq and Libya to chaos. It is now working mightily on Syria and is accomplishing the same chaotic results. (In Syria the immediate intent is to secure corridors for natural gas pipelines from Qatar to service the EU.) According to many, ultimate focus for the U.S. is control of Russia and China.

For people of faith, such plans (unfolding before our very eyes) are shocking, especially in view of the wanton destruction of human life and the environmental catastrophe wreaked by such misuse of resources and power. It is enough to make us wonder where is God? Why does he not intervene to destroy this new Evil Empire which happens to be our home? Isn’t God on the side of empire’s victims? Isn’t God on the side of peace and justice?

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that such questions are long standing. The day’s readings are about faith and miracles, and about what we mean by those terms in situations of occupation by predecessors of the United States in the bloody business of empire. More specifically, the readings call us to revise our understandings of God – from the “Man Upstairs” micromanaging the world and intervening to prevent wars and suffering caused by brutal empires like Babylon, Rome – and the United States.

Instead, the readings invite us to see God as the One who empowers us to be miracle workers – to figuratively transplant trees and relocate mountains by simply saying “Move from here to there.” Since miracles are fundamentally changes of perception, the call here might be for us to change our benign perception of the United States. Without that, it will just continue to do what it’s doing – destroying nation after nation and the natural environment with it.

On the other hand, our readings call us to be slow, patient, persevering and trustful in the face of our desires for instant solutions to imperial madness like the insanity I’ve just described.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Habakkuk apparently believes in the Man Upstairs. Faced by imperial hubris, he openly and impatiently questions that God.

Towards the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the prophet was witnessing the rise to power of the Chaldeans (or Babylonians). Like the U.S. today, that particular empire ruled by means of a sickening and genocidal violence.

“Are you blind to their wanton destruction?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “Why don’t you do something?”

And then comes the unexpected divine response: “Don’t worry, Habakkuk; things will get a lot worse before they get better!”

What kind of response was that? God seems to be answering Habakkuk’s challenge with one of his own. Change your idea of God, s/he seems to be saying. “I’m not the Man Upstairs. My modus operandi is not to eliminate the Babylonians according to your time table. Be patient. Change your idea of God.

The reading from Habakkuk is complemented by the discussion of faith in Luke. At the beginning, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” What do you suppose they meant by that? What do we mean when from the bottom of our hearts we echo their request relative to the defeat of Evil Empires close to home?

Is it our desire – was it that of the apostles – to have fewer questions about the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the existence of God, or papal infallibility? Is it our prayer that we become more convinced that God can prevent and stop wars like the slaughter in Syria? Is that what we mean by faith – believing things about God, Jesus, or the doctrines of the church? Does faith mean believing that God will defeat the apparent omnipotence of the rich and powerful who themselves would occupy God’s throne?

Or is faith the power we achieve when, like Jesus, we realize that the divine dwells within us – that we are in effect God? That faith would lead us to act like Jesus and to share in his unshakeable commitment to God’s Kingdom of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation despite setbacks and complete failure before the might of the Romans who killed him.

Yes, that’s the kind of faith Jesus had. As Paul says today in 2nd Timothy, such faith is synonymous with courage. It is identical with the power of God as revealed in Jesus – a human being who could cure the sick, drive out evil spirits and even raise the dead.

Problem is, Jesus didn’t use that power to dismantle the Roman Empire, block its destruction of Jerusalem, or even prevent his own death by Roman decree. Despite the miraculous powers the gospels attribute to him, he seemed impotent before imperial Rome, even though like the rest of his contemporary Jews he struggled for its replacement with the Kingdom of God. To repeat: in the end, he was empire’s victim and died an apparent failure overwhelmed by realpolitik.

What does that tell us about Jesus-inspired faith? At least the following:

  • Faith is not about believing doctrines or things about God and Jesus.
    • Rather, it’s about commitment to the Kingdom of God – to a world ruled by love, community values, justice, and peace, despite the apparent futility of our best efforts before empire governed by power-lust, greed, and violence.
    • The prayer “Increase our faith” is about deepening commitment to God’s Kingdom in terms of patience with God’s time table without reducing our efforts to thwart imperial ambitions in the here and now.
    • In other words, faith is about the long haul, about God’s time, compared with which our notions of time are laughably brief and insignificant. (In God’s time, empire of Babylon, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire are mere blips on the screen of evolution and eternity.)
    • We should take comfort in realizing that in the divine long haul, God’s law of karma (“We reap what we sow”) is at work to answer our prayers for peace and the defeat of empire.
    • According to that law, the U.S. will ultimately reap the harvest of violence and destruction its policies so consistently disseminate. Beware!
    • The world will see the humiliation of the United States for which its majority so ardently longs.
    • No, for followers of Jesus, God is not impotent before U.S. violence, destruction, brutality and hypocrisy.
    • It’s simply a matter of time.

God’s time. Evolutionary time. Kingdom time.

Jesus Would Have Supported al Qaeda Sooner than the U.S.! (Sunday Homily)

jesus  terrorist

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90: 3-6, 12-14, 17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; LK 14: 25-33. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090813.cfm

Did you have trouble with today’s gospel reading? I did. Frankly, it makes me wonder about Jesus’ attitude towards violence and armed attempts to overthrow foreign occupation forces like the Roman legions in Palestine – or American armed forces in Afghanistan or their authoritarian clients in Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

I wonder: whose side would Jesus be on in today’s War on Terrorism? I doubt it would be “ours.” Certainly, Jesus was not on the side of Rome. Instead, he was clearly sympathetic to Rome’s armed opponents. That makes me suspect that he would also have sided with those our own government deems “terrorists.”

What do you suppose that means for us and our politics?

Before answering, think about Jesus’ words in today’s selection from Luke. There Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies. He’s saying that we must hate! Yes he is. And the objects of our hatred must be our family members, down to our spouses and children. According to Jesus, we must even hate our own lives!

That’s pretty outspoken, hyperbolic, radical and edgy. In fact, his words make clear why the Romans and their Jewish collaborators in the Temple would have seen Jesus as an insurgent and terrorist. In any case, he was surely not the apolitical, domesticated preacher tradition later made him. He was not blissfully unaware of or uncaring about the searing resentment his people shared about Rome’s occupation of the land whose only sovereign in their eyes was Yahweh.

Yet Jesus’ words today also make it clear that he was not a violent revolutionary like the many other “messiahs” who sprang up in his 1st century context. As Reza Aslan points out, Jesus was not like Theudas, Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba and the rest.

Still today’s gospel makes it clear that there was genuine cause for concern about Jesus and his followers among the Romans and their Jewish clients in the Temple.

To begin with there were those “great crowds” Luke describes as following Jesus everywhere. In revolutionary situations, masses of people thronging about a charismatic troublemaker are reason for serious concern. According to U.S. standards under American Empire, it’s enough for local armed men in suspect locations to merely assemble to justify their being droned. And, of course, we know that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed (MK 14:43-52). Presumably others in the “large crowds” carried weapons as well. They would not have been viewed any more kindly by Roman occupation forces than their U.S. equivalents.

Then, listen to Jesus’ rhetoric as recorded by Luke. There’s all that talk about hating everyone near and dear to us that I already mentioned. That’s the second time we’ve encountered such language from the Prince of Peace in the last few weeks. Remember what we read a month ago about his coming not as a peacemaker, but to create division between children, their parents and in-laws? In MT 10:34 Jesus even said specifically that he had come to bring the sword. “I come not to bring peace” he said, “but to bring a sword.” If he actually said those words, how do you think they would have been understood by Roman and Temple authorities?

However, Jesus’ most dangerous statement this morning is the one about willingness to be crucified in order to qualify as his disciple. In occupied Palestine, those words had nothing to do with patiently bearing life’s inconveniences. No, in Jesus’ context, they could only be about opposing Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

Again, it is Aslan who reminds us that crucifixion was the mode of torture and execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So in a Palestine where rebels were crucified almost every day (sometimes hundreds at a time), Jesus’ words could mean only one thing: his followers must join him in opposing Roman occupation of their Holy Land and in doing so virtually seal their fates.

But then comes the non-violent “catch.” Opposition to imperial occupation of the homeland might be the duty of every patriotic Jew, Jesus implies. But that doesn’t necessarily mean violent opposition. Calculate well, Jesus says – like a man building a tower. Realize whom we are opposing. We’re talking about Rome. Its legions can mobilize 20,000 well trained and heavily armed troops on a moment’s notice. At best we have less than half that number. To avoid suicide, we must “sue for peace” like a wise king threatened by a superior force. In other words Jesus counsels a prudent non-violence to avoid a bloodbath.

Bishop Oscar Romero made a similar recommendation to the revolutionary forces of El Salvador (the FMLN) in the 1970s. He said he could surely sympathize with the anger of the FMLN towards the United States and its puppet regime in El Salvador. He could understand why peasant farmers might see violent revolution as their only option in fighting brutal forces of “order” which wantonly tortured and murdered women, children, and the elderly, along with teachers, social workers, union organizers, priests, nuns, and other resisters.

No doubt Romero would say the same today about young Egyptians opposing the U.S.-supported military dictators in their own country, or about similar insurgents in the U.S.-controlled countries I’ve already mentioned.

But, Romero said, such violence is suicidal in the face of the billions in arms supplied such forces of oppression by the United States. Better to resist non-violently. At least then, the inevitable ensuing bloodbath (the modern equivalent of crucifixion) will be smaller in scope.

In 1st century Palestine, Jesus was not the only one employing such non-violent reasoning. According to John Dominic Crossan in his book, The Power of Parable, strong non-violent movements of resistance to Rome characterized Jesus’ context.

These movements were sandwiched between two epochs of extremely bloody opposition to Rome. The first occurred exactly in the year of Jesus’ birth, 4 BCE. That was the year the Roman client, Herod the Great, died. Jewish freedom fighters seized upon the resulting leadership vacuum as an opportunity to rise up against Herod’s Roman patrons. Jewish insurgents captured the city of Sephoris, the capital of Galilee. In response, the Romans razed the city to the ground and killed everyone who might be associated with the rebellion. Jesus’ family in nearby Nazareth was lucky to escape.

The second period of extremely violent resistance to Rome occurred about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion – just before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were composed. This time the Jews rose up against the Roman occupiers throughout Palestine. The Roman response? They utterly sacked Jerusalem itself, destroying its temple, and killing virtually all those who had heard Jesus’ words and witnessed his deeds.

In between those fierce chapters, Crossan says, there was a period of non-violent resistance to Rome. That’s when Jesus traversed Palestine and spoke so memorably about God’s Kingdom. According to Crossan, Jesus’ era represented a period of “massive, well-organized, unarmed, nonviolent resistance against Rome.”

That’s the probable context for Jesus’ shocking words this morning.

There’s so much more that could be said about all of this. To fill in the blanks, read Crossan’s book, along with Aslan’s Zealot, which recently topped the New York Times Best Seller list.

For today it’s sufficient to note the implications of Jesus’ shocking words. Personally, I’m so glad the church makes us face them. They show that Jesus was far more complex regarding violence than he’s usually made out to be. These difficult readings open a conversation that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Going forward, the conversation might well address the following questions:

• What difficulties do we have with realizing that Jesus situation vis-à-vis Rome was extremely similar to that of today’s “terrorists” vis-à-vis the United States and that Jesus himself was considered a terrorist?
• Is the “War on Terror” a real war or merely empire once again defending its right to plunder, torture, and kill with impunity?
• How is it that U.S. citizens end up supporting massive U.S. violence against “terrorists,” but that we find the latter’s much less injurious response (like the “Boston Marathon Massacre”) so horrendous?
• Put otherwise, how is it that U.S. citizens generally support the wars of their country which Martin Luther King described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” while demanding pacifism on the parts of those whom the U.S. attacks.
• Do the ones our government calls “terrorists” have the right to defend themselves against what Edward Herman has termed the “wholesale terror” of the U.S. and its allies? (See his book, The Real Terror Network.)
• Which terrorists do we support – our government and its brutal military or their victims?

What other questions do the readings raise – for you?

How about my reflections?

(Discussion follows)

Boston Marathon Bombing: Our Collective Destiny

Boston Marathon

All of us were shocked yesterday by the bombing at the Boston Marathon. About 3:00 p.m. two powerful bombs were detonated near the finish line of the annual “Patriots’ Day” event. Three people were killed including an 8-year-old boy. One hundred and forty-four were injured among them a 3-year-old; two were left in critical condition.

Naturally, our hearts go out to all the victims and their families. A day that began in joy and celebration ended in complete tragedy. What can be more painful than losing a loved one – especially a child?

Responses to the disaster will be interesting to observe. It remains to be seen whether U.S. officials will connect the Boston Marathon Bombing with foreign or domestic terrorists or whether it was a criminal act by some insane individual.

In either case, the tragedy brings home to American soil the destruction and terror that U.S. policy inflicts each day on unsuspecting civilians across the world in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. Pakistani events, Yemeni celebrations that begin in joy and high spirits routinely end in tears and mourning as drones drop from the sky without warning or as doors are kicked in by rampaging American soldiers shouting vile curses.

We must remember that the terrifying explosions, blood, torn flesh, scattered body parts and lives cut off virtually before they’ve begun constitute everyday occurrences at the hands of our criminal government and brutal military.

In fact, next to the havoc, murder, torture and sheer cruelty of U.S. policy in the countries just mentioned, what happened in Boston hardly deserves a mention. (Actually, most of U.S.-caused terror gets no mention in our mainstream press at all.)

What I’m saying is the obvious: U.S. chickens are coming home to roost; Boston is a preview of things to come.
I mean, Marathon-like bombings regardless of the origin of this particular attack will increasingly be part of our own lives until our country comes to its senses and leaves aside its imperial pretensions, international interventions and quick resort to violence as the solution to every problem.

This is because random bombings employing crude improvised devices constitute poor people’s responses to illegal occupation of their countries by American invaders using state-of-the-art weapons from drones to daisy cutters. It’s the last resort — what is possible for the poor and powerless as they attempt to defend themselves from “the most powerful military in the world.”

There is only one way to avoid the fate I’m describing: reject empire. That means living within our means; respecting human rights and international law; abjuring militarism; stopping the torture; closing the secret prisons; remanding drone policy; and ACTUALLY BEING WHO WE CLAIM TO BE IN THE WORLD!

Until we make such reforms, mayhem like that exemplified by the Boston Marathon bombing will continue to represent our collective destiny.

Christians Have Been Worshipping the Devil for Millennia: Lent calls us to change Gods

Empires[1]

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021713.cfm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Discussion follows.)

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