Would Jesus Celebrate Independence Day?

Jesus Revolutionary

 Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacherEknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ Address to Congress Was Much More Stinging than You Thought

Blood Money

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44

It has been more than a month since Pope Francis visited the United States and gave his stinging address to the U.S. Congress.

No doubt you recall the occasion. The pope used his time to call for the end of capital punishment. He identified the motivation behind the U.S.-led arms industry simply as “money” – “money drenched in blood.”

The pope also lionized:

  • Abraham Lincoln who described capitalists as those who “generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people.”
  • Martin Luther King who called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
  • Dorothy Day who rejected capitalism a “rotten putrid system” and
  • Thomas Merton who described American politicians as a bunch of gangsters.

It was a masterful critique filled with irony – polite, but devastating for anyone who was listening closely.

Unfortunately, few commentators were tuned in sufficiently to pick up the subtlety. For them Francis was a nice old man praising “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and closing with “God bless America” – without the pundits realizing, of course, that “America” pointedly includes the pope’s beloved Argentina devastated for decades by U.S. policy, and an entire continent oppressed by the United States for Francis’ entire life. Like everyone in Latin America, Francis knows all of this very well.

The lesson here is that when prophets speak, we’d best be alert to nuance and implication.

That lesson is applicable to today’s familiar story of the “widow’s mite.” It’s easy to miss the point, since it’s obscured by interpretations of homilists with no stomach for subtlety.

The episode comes right after Jesus and his disciples had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration against the temple priesthood and the thievery of their system from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” That event sealed Jesus’ fate. The temple priesthood would soon be offering the reward for his capture that Judas would accept.

Following the assault on the temple, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. To do so, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” (i.e. in opposition to) the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was Pope Francis’ point too in his address to the U.S. Congress: In effect he came to the defense of the widow’s impoverished counterparts on death row or living under the threat of bombs and drones proliferated by an arms industry motivated by worship of money drenched in blood.

In effect, Pope Francis berated the gangsters arrayed before him – every one of them guilty of fleecing the poor, destroying their homes and fields – all to support a system as rotten and putrid as the one Jesus symbolically deconstructed.

As Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” (MK 4:9)

(Sunday Homily) Ten Reasons for Hope in a Time of Despair: Empire Is Crumbling before Our Eyes

Syriza (SYRIZA Poster: http://keithpp)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 7: 1-4, 6-7; PS 147: 1-6; I COR 9: 16-19; 22-23; MK 1: 29-39 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/020815.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word is about hope in a world wracked by despair. All of us are starved for such hope. In fact, discouragement and apparent powerlessness describe not only our personal consciousness but the larger zeitgeist that is the constant focus of these Sunday reflections dedicated to confronting the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today’s confrontation should help progressives realize that our times are actually changing for the better.

Think of the most recent historical roots of today’s despair – the way the world was just 20 years ago. As described recently by Andre Vitchek, it was an unbelievably hard time for opponents of empire.

Then think of how things are different today. It’s the difference between the condition of Job in this Sunday’s first reading, and the healing Jesus brought to the poor in today’s gospel selection.

Twenty years ago Russia was controlled by Boris Yeltsin, a boozy western puppet who betrayed his own people. Like Yeltsin, other heads of state throughout Eastern Europe joined their western counterparts in a shameless surrender to imperial interests. They were largely “led” by the offspring of the elites who preceded them. China 20 years ago was still under the spell of the free market reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, Latin America reeling from decades of dictatorships imposed by the West had turned its economies over to neo-liberals trained in the Chicago School of Economics. The same was largely true of the Middle East and Africa. In those cases, dictators and the one-percenters were firmly in control. Christian vision of a kingdom where the earth belonged to everyone had been completely hijacked by religious fundamentalists and reactionaries including in his own way, the pope of Rome. All of this was largely hidden by both local and international mainstream media (MSM) which applauded dictatorships and plutocracies as “emerging democracies.”

Those were indeed hard times for anti-imperialists. I remember the despair. We were like Job in today’s first reading sitting on a dung heap lamenting the loss of hope enkindled by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Remember Job? He too was the victim of an incredible series of misfortunes. They reduced him to a condition worse than poverty. Without warning, he lost all his wealth; his children died; he became terribly sick; and his reputation went entirely south.

Job is the image of us all 20 years ago. Like Job, progressives couldn’t be blamed for wondering if our situation could ever change.

Perhaps believers among us had forgotten the general hope offered in today’s responsorial psalm. It reminds us of the goodness of Life – the divine energy in which we live and move and have our being. (Some call that Energy, “God.”) The psalmist reminds us that time and history itself have a way of healing broken hearts.  Life has a way of supporting even the most devastated.  And (as Job’s case illustrates) it eventually topples even those who appear to live on top of the world. God is good, the Psalmist reminds us. God is gracious and wise beyond our wildest imaginings. God unifies the poor, even when they’re hopelessly fragmented by elite strategies of “divide and rule.”

Today’s gospel reading offers more particular hope.  It recounts the first acts of a prophet from and imperial backwater, Israel – Jesus, the carpenter-preacher from Nazareth, a “Nowheresville” if there ever was one.

There he encourages the downtrodden every bit as crushed as Job. He heals with a touch, an embrace, a smile, a kiss of the foot, a word of encouragement as the afflicted assemble before him to find health and hope and relief from their demons.  In other words, today’s gospel locates hope outside the political structure of the day, outside the realm of priests, lawyers, kings and emperors. It finds hope on the margins of empire.

And when you think of it, that’s where hope is to be found today. It’s not grounded in American presidents, in our imperial army, in the European Union, or in “foreign aid.” As I said, it’s not even reported in the mainstream media.

And yet the world is changing for the better right before our eyes. And the locus of change is on the margins – in the 50% of the world that has almost invisibly (for Americans) broken free of the imperial order that has governed the world since the end of World War II. Eventually the gains of that 50% will change us too.

Think of the progress I’m referring to. To even perceive it you have to step outside the powerful system of propaganda that envelops us all. Here are 10 signs of hope emerging from the margins. They have for years been signaled by J.W. Smith and his Institute for Economic Democracy:

  1. World-wide people have lost faith in the western model of mainstream media (the Great Wurlitzer” as Smith terms it). Most have awakened to the fact that it’s all lies. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media is not even “alternative” any longer. Its mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Its message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more torture, rape or genocide.
  2. Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts. Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy and independence from Empire.
  3. Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
  4. In Greece the overwhelming victory of SYRIZA has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. The party’s anti-austerity message is already being spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
  5. Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
  6. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) themselves represent at least half the planet’s population. They are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
  7. On June 17th of this year, under BRICS leadership, 133 of the world’s 196 countries declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by western Empire.
  8. For those paying attention, even the ISIS barbarians are unwittingly serving the cause of peace by demonstrating the horror of wars instigated by the West. They behead on YouTube videos, while U.S. moviegoers cheer American Snipers who blow the heads off unsuspecting Iraqis defending their homes from Seals. ISIS barbarians set fire to prisoners with matches, while their U.S. counterparts use napalm and white phosphorous. The clash of barbarisms highlighted by ISIS promises to make pacifists of anyone capable of seeing parallels. (It’s up to progressives to make them apparent.)
  9. Even the U.S. president (the first ever influenced by liberation theology) sees parallels like the ones just referenced. He has criticized American exceptionalism by challenging his people to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
  10. The pope of Rome is attempting mightily to defeat Catholic fundamentalism and to turn 1/7 of the world’s population (i.e. 1.2 billion Catholics) in the direction of social justice and environmental protection as advocated by liberation theology.

None of these are “pie in the sky” hopes. They are simply facts known to the world outside our borders but hidden from us by the MSM.

Along with today’s liturgical readings, such changes should be cause for hope and encouragement. More than half the world has left Job’s dung heap. The world’s poor whom Jesus served and embodied are leading the way. The rest of us will join them soon.

(Sunday Homily) Why I Liked “American Sniper”

american-sniper

Readings for 3rd Sunday in ordinary time: DT 18: 15-20; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; I COR 7: 32-35; MK 1: 21-28

Today’s readings are about resistance to oppression. They invite us to side with the oppressed and poor in their fight against world-class bullies – to understand the world from the viewpoint of the “unclean.” Seen from that perspective, “American Sniper” is full of insight. It calls us to think critically about whose side we are on in the endless wars our country wages.

The need to see reality “from below” is a major point of today’s first reading. There the message of Moses announcing liberation of the oppressed is presented as the criterion of prophetic truth. Those who teach like Moses (on behalf of the enslaved) should be listened to. False prophets with another message will be punished. This first reading from the Jewish tradition goes on to promise the advent of another prophet like Moses.

By virtue of its inclusion in the liturgy of the word, today’s gospel selection from the Christian tradition identifies Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic promise. He not only astounds people by his authoritative way of speaking. His action on behalf of a man considered “unclean” demonstrates Jesus’ prophetic authenticity.

That insight was on my mind last week when I decided to see “American Sniper” for myself. I had read the reviews. I knew the criticisms. But I wondered what it would look like if I followed the suggestions of today’s readings and viewed the film “from below,” from an Iraqi perspective.

What I discovered was surprising.

Viewed from the underside of history, “American Sniper” was a tribute to the world’s poor and oppressed – especially to the heroic people of Iraq. That’s because “American Sniper” was about resisting bullies the way the Iraqis have since 2003.

That bully theme is not farfetched. It was announced in one of the film’s opening scenes.

There an adolescent Chris Kyle is instructed by his father about three ways of being in the world. Kyle, of course, is the film’s central character – the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. He is believed to have killed 255 Iraqis in his 4 tours of duty. Many, it is certain, had their heads blown right off.

“You can be a wolf, a sheep, or a sheepdog” Kyle’s father tells him (in my paraphrase). “Wolves are bullies; they are cowards preying on the weak. Sheep are the naïve who simply go along, following the herd; they do nothing about bullies. They too are cowards. The way to deal with bullies” says Kyle’s father,” is to be a sheepdog and protect those the bully preys upon.

“I want you to be sheepdogs!” the elder Kyle shouts at his sons, “Don’t let the bullies have their way.”

Ironically, the rest of “American Sniper” shows how Chris Kyle entirely rejected his father’s advice, but also how Iraqi patriots unconsciously heeded it. They emerge in the film as the sheepdogs Kyle’s father admired.

For his part, Kyle joins a gang that specifically preys upon the weak for no good reason – simply because it can and because (as Kyle writes) it’s fun. Chris Kyle became a gangster bully.

No, he didn’t join the “Crips” or “Bloods,” “Sharks” or “Jets.” He joined the “Seals.” And their destructive power was beyond belief. To begin with, their gang attire was fearful including matching helmets and boots, flak jackets, camouflage, wrap-around sunglasses, and night vision goggles. They had guns of all types, unlimited supplies of bullets, grenades, missile launchers, armored vehicles, helicopters, planes, and sophisticated communication devices. They prowled in menacing groups along the streets of Bagdad pointing guns at open windows and doors, pedestrians and drivers.

But it wasn’t easy for aspiring bullies to become Seals; doing so required absolute submission and humiliation. So as with all gangs, they had their initiation rites. These included merciless hazing and demeaning tests of endurance. Such rites of passage were accompanied by constant indoctrination that left initiates exhausted and absolutely malleable. In terms of today’s responsorial psalm, their hearts were sufficiently hardened for the inhuman tasks before them.

As a result, and with no knowledge whatever of their intended victims, Seals became convinced that anyone their superiors identified as “targets” were savages. They knew that because their indoctrinators told them so.  They knew nothing else about Iraq, Iraqis or their culture. And so, and like their Indian Fighter predecessors, Seals hated “savages” and wanted them all dead.

In other words, gang aspirants became servile and submissive sheep. They obeyed orders without question or understanding of context. (It’s the military way.) Seals stood ready to kill women, children, the elderly and disabled – anyone identified by their superiors or who threatened their mafia-like ethos of “family.” Protecting one’s “brothers” in crime became the justification of any slaughter. As a result of that brainwashing, Seals were entirely unable to see their “enemies” human beings.

Such identification was difficult for audiences of “American Sniper” as well. Nonetheless, Iraqi humanity inevitably surfaced for anyone remembering today’s readings about Moses and Jesus.  Those prophetic lenses revealed the Seals’ victims to be the successors of the poor and oppressed that both of those prophets came to rescue.

Think about the Iraqis for a minute.

Like their predecessors in Egypt, they were perfect targets for bullies. They had no army, no sophisticated weapons, no helicopters, planes or armored vehicles. They wore no uniforms or protective clothing. Apart from unemployed members of Iraq’s Republican Guard, almost none had formal military training.

Instead they were simple peasants, merchants, teachers, barbers and taxi drivers. They were fathers and mothers, children barely able to lift a grenade launcher, grandparents, friends and neighbors banding together as best they could to protect their homes, families from the ignorant, marauding invaders who proudly called themselves “The Seals.” Unable to show weapons in public (like their menacing occupiers), Iraqis hid them by day under floor boards in their homes.

Some were so desperate that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to resist the Seal home-invaders. So they became suicide bombers. Others experimented with non-violent resistance. They were willing to share their tables with the barbarians from abroad, offering them food and shelter in hopes that kindness might win them over.

But no such luck.

So the majority resorted to defending themselves and each other with weapons – mostly captured or left over from previous Seal invasions (there have been many). What else were these brave patriots to do?

One of them became particularly admired. He had been a national hero, called Mustafa. In the story, this fictional character was an Olympic gold medal winner like the American’s Michael Phelps. But instead of resting on his laurels or using his status to protect himself from harm, he employed his skills as a sharp shooter to defend his people.

We can only imagine the pride that swelled the hearts of Iraqis when they heard how he inspired fear in the American bullies who constantly kicked in their doors, destroyed and looted their property, belittled their culture and faith, intimidated their children, frightened their elders, and demeaned their women.

In the end, Mustafa became a glorious martyr.

Again ironically, he was gunned down by his ignorant American counterpart. He was killed by the bully without a thought in his head who was in the game for fun, for the rush of battle, and to protect his relatively invulnerable “brothers” from the harm they deserved at the hands of the civilian victims they tormented.

In what can only be described as an act of self-loathing, that counterpart, Chris Kyle, takes careful aim and from a great and safe distance shoots a patriot he considers “savage,” because he mirrors so well his own bloody “work.”

It’s easy to vilify Chris Kyle. But he’s not to blame. He was no different from any other soldier serving in Iraq. He was no different from drone “pilots” operating from their air-conditioned “theaters” in Nevada or New Mexico. Sad to say, all of them are unwitting bullies and gangsters. They are brainwashed sheep.

Today’s readings are a reminder of all that. So is “American Sniper.”

Both call us to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are taught to hate.

Shockingly, they call us to change sides!

The Church’s Disastrous Domestication of Jesus (Sunday Homily)

King of the Universe

Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/112413.cfm

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” The contrast between the feast’s grandiose title and the readings prescribed for the occasion illustrate a basic reason behind the irrelevance of the church (and Jesus) to the post-modern world. It’s irrelevant to the social and economic transformations necessary to redeem the church’s overwhelmingly Third World membership from globalized oppression.

The contrast I’m referring to involves the great makeover of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar of the exploitative status quo.

Let me put it this way: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire – the one who promised a new heaven and earth belonging to the simple and poor, and who was executed as a terrorist by Rome – was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Following that transformation, kings and popes (now themselves transformed into gaudy temporal rulers) claimed to govern by divine right on behalf of Jesus as his representatives and vicars. In this way, the poor and oppressed (who then and now constitute the world’s majority) lost their paradigmatic leader, example and advocate. Jesus became instead a key part of the apparatus oppressing them.

Reza Aslan’s recent best-seller, Zealot, attempts to rescue the revolutionary historical Jesus from the distortions of the royal classes just mentioned. Aslan connects his salvage project specifically with today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. In doing so, the author pays particular attention to Jesus’ cross, to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,” and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

According to Aslan, all three – cross, inscription and dialog – mark Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary “terrorist” rather than a domesticated upholder of the given order. That terrorist remains as threatening to today’s dominant empire, the U.S.A., as he was to imperial Rome. So he continues to be erased from history and by “feasts” like today that mask his true identity.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. How could it have been otherwise, Aslan asks? After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, he proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

And, no, the whole world wasn’t watching either. As scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan observes, Jesus would have represented hardly a blip on the screen of Pontius Pilate. And Jews would have averted their eyes from the spectacle depicted in this morning’s gospel. They wouldn’t want to see “one more good Jew” suffering the fate of so many heroic patriots.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.). By then the Romans had utterly defeated the Jews, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple as well as slaughtered the city’s population including practically all of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ messianic campaign. Virtually the only Christians left standing were foreigners – gentiles living in population centers like Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Few of these had any understanding of or sympathy for Judaism much less for Jewish politics and its liberation movements.

Besides that, in the war’s aftermath, both Jews and Christians sought to distance themselves from the socio-political expectations that had brought on the disaster of the Jewish War. So Judaism tried to transform itself from a Temple-centered religion to one focused on the local synagogue and rabbinic teaching – both overwhelmingly concerned with simply preserving the culture and identity of a people in diaspora.

For their part, Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their membership.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

Loss of the radical revolutionary Jesus is not a trivial matter in terms of Christianity relevance to a world ruled by a nation that styles itself as Rome’s worthy successor. Like its ancient archetype, the U.S. (and a majority of first-world Christians) found the historical Jesus so threatening, that it determined that Jesus’ followers deserved the same fate as their crucified Master. For this we have the evidence of the war that the U.S. fought against liberation theology when it first emerged following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).

Liberation theology committed the unforgiveable sin represented by this homily. It was guilty of connecting the Jesus of history described by scholars like Aslan to post-colonial independence movements and struggles against the neo-colonialism spearheaded by the U.S. and its oligarchical clients in the Third World.

In that struggle Pope John Paul II and his henchman, Josef Ratzinger, threw in their lot with a neo-imperial Ronald Reagan. It was deja-vu all over again: Reagan as Pilate and J.P.II and Ratzinger as the temple priesthood. It was the deja-vu of the church melding its interests with Rome towards the end of the 4th century.

More specifically, the two reactionary popes looked the other way and actively supported Reagan’s policies that assassinated hundreds of thousands of Christians (200,000 in Guatemala alone!) who found the radical Jesus threateningly relevant to their struggles in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

To balance liberation theology’s threat, Reagan patronized Evangelical Christians who eventually morphed into the Tea Party. It finds Aslan’s understanding of Jesus anathema. Meanwhile, John Paul II and Ratzinger “cleaned house,” eliminating every single progressive bishop from the hierarchy and transforming seminaries into hot houses to nurture a pre-Vatican II reactionary clergy.

Recently Pope Francis delivered a long-winded, very general and content-less speech to the National Council of Bishops in Brazil. That group used to head a church that was a hot-bed of liberation theology I’ve been describing here. The term was never mentioned in the new pope’s remarks. Instead, he presented John Paul II and Pope Ratzinger as champions of Vatican II.

He’ll have to do better than that to fulfill his aspiration towards making the church relevant to the poor he professes to care so much about.

He’ll have to confess the Church’s sins against liberation theology and revive the cult of the historical Jesus – instead of the depoliticized imperial “King of the Universe” today’s feast calls to mind.

Dives & Lazarus: a liberation theology catechism (Sunday Homily)

Lazarus

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; ITM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092913.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s book, A Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating. The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

Italy’s Healthcare System Much Better than Ours

Health Care

Following our arrival in Tuscany on the first leg of our journey to India, our extended family had some medical problems, one of them serious.

Less seriously, I ran out of a medication I’ve been taking. More seriously, my wife, Peggy, contracted a virulent case of poison ivy. Most serious of all, Carla, my daughter’s au pair from Mexico, came down with appendicitis. Each of these incidents highlighted the superiority of the Italian medical system to what we have in the United States, and the direction we must take to improve our healthcare procedures.

Begin with my running out of pills. . . . I tried to get my prescription filled before leaving the states. Since we’ll be gone for nearly 5 months, and I need to take one pill each day, I decided that I’d buy180 pills from my local Rite Aid. My doctor gave me the “script” without any trouble. However, my pharmacist informed me that I needed my insurance company’s O.K. to cover the cost. That would be about $100 for 30 pills, with my co-pay being $8.00.

So one month before leaving home, I phoned my insurance company. After three phone calls by me and a couple by my pharmacist – all preceded by lengthy and repetitious “conversations” with an automated responder – permission was granted.

However when I actually tried to obtain the pills just before departure, neither I nor my pharmacist was able to do so. There was no record of the previously granted permission. So the process had to start all over again, and I had no time to spare.

More phone calls . . . . More conversations with machines . . . . Lengthy arguments with “representatives” and their supervisors. . . . More than an hour wasted . . . . In the end, permission refused.

By contrast, when I arrived in Tuscany, I tried to get the prescription filled at the local pharmacy. After complimenting my Italian, the pharmacist simply asked “How many boxes do you want?”

“How much will they cost?” I asked.

“Six dollars a box,” came the reply.

“I’ll take two for now,” I answered.

I gave the pharmacist the money. She gave me my two boxes of pills. She never asked to see a prescription. I went on my way wondering about the $102 dollars somehow “saved” in the transaction.

And then there’s the case of my wife’s poison ivy. She came down with that after doing some yard work just before leaving our home in Berea, Kentucky. It was pretty severe – so much so in fact that her arms swelled and the rash covered both of them and had spread to her face, neck and torso.

So off to the pharmacy she went. She obtained some anti-rash skin cream there. When that proved ineffective, she visited the walk-in clinic attached to the pharmacy. She joined the line of about 10 people waiting to see the doctor about their varying ailments.

When her turn came, Peggy was examined, and the doctor prescribed some pills – 2 different kinds. They were purchased at the neighboring pharmacy for a total of about $20.00.

Problem solved. No cost for the doctor’s visit. No insurance cards or discussion of money. No phone calls to the insurance company, its machines, “representatives,” and supervisors. No paper work. Hmm. . . .

Carla came down with appendicitis just before we arrived in Panzano, the small town in the Chianti region of Tuscany where we were staying.

After experiencing severe stomach pains, she went to the pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, was quickly diagnosed and whisked off to the hospital in Firenze by ambulance.

They operated immediately. Before admitting her to the operating theater, the administration asked only to see Carla’s passport, for identification purposes. Afterwards, she was hospitalized for three full days. She was released with a simple “arrivederci” and an appointment to return in a week’s time to remove her stitches. Once again there was no discussion of money or payment. And, according to Carla, her treatment was top notch.

By the way, she wasn’t using Mexico as a point of comparison. She had experienced a gall bladder operation in Connecticut about a year earlier. She’s still receiving bi-weekly communications from the hospital about payments and insurance coverage.

Recently former President Bill Clinton, the so-called “Secretary in Charge of Explaining Sh*t,” spoke about the inferiority of the U.S. medical system and how curing its ills would benefit the economy.
It’s the most expensive system in the world, he remarked. Our country spends 17.9% of its gross domestic product on health care. Yet the U.S. is ranked (at best) about 25th in terms of its quality. Italy and France are far ahead of it.

Do you want to transform the economy Clinton asked? Reform the medical system, and reduce the share of GDP devoted to health care to the level achieved by Switzerland and the Netherlands – about 12%.

“The difference between 17.9 percent and 12 percent is $1 trillion a year,” Clinton said. “A trillion dollars that could go to pay raises, or to hire new employees or to make investments that would make our economy grow faster or to provide more capital to start small businesses or to expand others or to support diversifying and strengthening agriculture. You name it. A trillion dollars is a lot of money to spot our competitors in a highly competitive global economy.”

To implement Clinton’s recommendation, it would be necessary to introduce a Single Payer health care system into the U.S. President Obama wanted to move toward that system when he pledged to make a “public option” part of Obamacare. That meant, of course, giving people a choice between the ultra-expensive and globally inferior system we endure in the U.S. on the one hand, and something like the Italian system my family has just experienced on the other.

However, to please his opponents, Obama quickly took the public option off the table even before negotiations about health care reform began.

Bankrolled by Big Pharma and the insurance lobby, Obama’s opponents knew that most of us would choose what we’ve experienced in Italy over the inefficient, bureaucratic, and budget-busting monster that’s ruining our economy.

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)

Syria: The Snowden, Manning (and Godfather) Connections

Godfather

Well, we’re coming up for another vote about attacking a far off country over weapons of mass destruction. This time the target is not Iraq, but Syria. This time the “new Hitler” is not Saddam Hussein but Bashar al-Assad. This time it’s not Colin Powell, but John Kerry who assures the world that it can “trust us” and the secret evidence that can’t be fully shared for reasons of National Security.

Remember the last time a vote like this was taken? It was three days after 9/11. Then Congress passed a resolution for the Authorization for Use of Military Force. It sailed through with only one dissenting vote – that of Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Before registering her brave dissent, the Congresswoman spoke on the House floor. “As we act,” she said, “let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

President Obama would do well to heed those words this time around. However I’m not merely referring to the fact that we already are the evil we ostensibly deplore. After all, we supported Saddam Hussein in his deployment of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988. We have repeatedly used chemical weapons ourselves – for example, Agent Orange in Vietnam and white phosphorus in Fallujah. (I’m not sure how to classify depleted uranium.)

Instead, I’m referring to the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases and the Obama administration’s position that the former Army, CIA and NSA employees deplorably (1) revealed state secrets, (2) violated their constitutional oaths, (3) failed to go through the proper channels, (4) aided the enemy, (5) endangered American lives, and (6) did all of this for reasons of personal advancement.

Ironically, these are the very “crimes” the Obama administration is committing relative to Syria. In effect, Obama is a more deplorable whistle-blower than he considers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning to be. That is, by confirming the Manning and Snowden revelations, he’s unwittingly blowing the whistle on himself.

Consider the Manning and Snowden parallels one-by-one. In the run-up to the Syria bombing:

• Obama has revealed state secrets: The big “state secret” in question is the most devastating one disclosed by Manning and Snowden. It is that the U.S. is a completely out-of-control rogue state. Its army is not only routinely guilty of “collateral murder.” Its CIA and NSA act like a world police force spying on and attempting to control not only designated enemies but even “friends.” The embarrassment caused by Manning and Snowden’s irrefutable revelations on those scores is what has so enraged the Nobel Peace laureate who resides in the White House. Nevertheless, Obama’s own posturing as World Policeman and Mad Bomber relative to Syria confirm what Manning and Snowden have told us so clearly. Our president and Congress are completely out-of-control.

• Obama is violating his constitutional oath: The State Department has repeatedly accused Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden of violating their constitutional oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. But the president, of course, and his congressional enablers are doing the same. According to the Constitution, treaties have the same force as domestic law. As a signatory of the United Nations treaty, the U.S. is bound to get Security Council approval before attacking another nation. Yet it refuses to go that route, because it knows that Russia and China will support world opinion which stands overwhelmingly against U.S. intervention in Syria (as does U.S. opinion).

• President Obama declines to “go through the proper channels”: In prosecuting Chelsea Manning and going after Edward Snowden, a constant accusation of the Obama administration has been that the two have failed to go through the proper channels and procedures which the administration claims are adequate and necessary to avoid catastrophe. Yet nowhere is international law clearer than in defining the proper channels that must honored before launching acts of war. Once again, those channels centralize the United Nations and its Security Council. The Obama administration ignores U.N. procedures because they would inevitably determine U.S. intentions to be criminal.

• President Obama is aiding the enemy: In its prosecution of Chelsea Manning and pursuit of Edward Snowden, the State Department has insisted that the two have “aided the enemy.” Even people giving donations to charitable causes perhaps tangentially connected to al-Qaeda run the risk of having similar accusations (and prosecutions). Yet, by all accounts the opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad includes forces tightly allied with al-Qaeda. So by siding with the rebels, President Obama is directly aiding the enemy in ways that absolutely dwarf anything Manning and Snowden (and charitable donors) could even think of doing.

• President Obama is endangering American lives: Iran and Syria correctly claim the right to self-defense recognized by the U.N. Charter. As allies, they promise retaliation against the United States and its principal regional ally, Israel. Will Israel or the U.S. stand aside in the case of such retaliation? Of course not. As Obama himself has said, once the bombs start flying all bets are off. Events simply take on a life of their own. Will Israel itself retaliate using its atomic weapons? How irresponsible can our “leaders” be?

• President Obama is pursuing this insanity for reasons of personal gain: Obama clearly made a mistake in drawing a “red line” and promising “action” in the case of using chemical weapons in Syria. He made another mistake by jumping to the conclusion that the al-Assad government was responsible for their use before all the data was in. Now it fears appearing weak should it follow the lead of British Prime Minister David Cameron who in effect admitted his mistake in not honoring the will of the British people and its Parliament. So like a Mafia Don, in order to maintain “credibility” and save face, Obama feels compelled to break some legs and spray some restaurants with machine gun fire. Otherwise who knows how many congressional seats might be lost next year? Make no mistake: this round of blood-letting will be done for political gain and to save the president’s reputation as a credible “Godfather.”

So the substance of the Manning and Snowden revelations has been confirmed from the highest possible source. The U.S. is indeed a rogue state. It not only spies on the world, it has set itself up as its lone judge, jury, and executioner. It is a supporter of al-Qaeda. It cares not a bit for American lives or anyone else’s for that matter. In fact it is willing to risk a World War to avoid losing face. As such “America” is an outlaw state with “leaders” who routinely violate not only their oaths of office, but the U.N. Charter, world opinion, and the most elementary moral principles.

Not only that, but the procedures used by Manning and Snowden have been validated by Obama’s intentions towards Syria. Evidently he agrees with the whistle-blowers he deplores that the channels and protocols the world has established to avoid catastrophe are not adequate or workable. Like Bush before him, his will alone determines what is right and wrong.

The only thing left to do is award Manning and Snowden the Nobel Peace Prize – not as worthy successors of Barack Obama, but to atone for the mistake of previously giving it to a Mafia Don.

We Are Called to Atheism by Abraham and Jesus! (Sunday Homily)

drone victims

Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3, 608; Col. 2:12-14; Lk. Ll:1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfmhttp://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfm

Today’s readings about Abraham bargaining with God and about Jesus teaching his followers to pray raise some vital questions about God’s personality and existence. Abraham’s compassionate God seems to conflict with the warlike God who appears elsewhere in the Bible.

So who’s right? Should we be afraid of God? Or can we trust him? Is God warlike and punitive or kind and forgiving? If he’s our “Daddy” (that’s what “Abba” means in Jesus’ prayer: “Our Daddy who transcends everything”) does our experience show him to be abusive or loving? Today’s readings help us wrestle with those questions. In fact, they call us to a holy atheism.

But before I get to that, let me frame my thoughts.

Last week the government of Pakistan released a classified document revealing that scores of civilians had been killed in dozens of CIA drone strikes between late 2006 and 2009. That period mostly covered the final years of the Bush administration. However as we all know, such strikes have increased under the presidency of Barrack Obama.

Citing the leaked report, the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism said “Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.”

Meanwhile, the United States has consistently denied that significant numbers of civilians have been killed in drone strikes. It claims that “no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed during the entire, nine-year-long drone campaign.” Our government argues that such numbers are tolerable because the strikes protect Americans from the terrorists actually killed in the drone operations.

That’s the logic our government has adopted as it represents our country where 78-85% of the population claims to follow the one who refused to defend himself and gave his life that others might live. The logic of most American Christians says that killing innocents – even children – is acceptable if it saves American lives. Apparently, that’s the American notion of salvation: better them than us.

However that way of thinking is not what’s endorsed in today’s liturgy of the word. (And here I come back to those questions I raised earlier about God’s personality and existence.) There in Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh refuses to punish the wicked even if it means that as few as 10 innocents would lose their lives in the process.

Better-us-than-them is not the logic of Jesus who in teaching his disciples to pray tells them that God is better than us. God gives bread to anyone who asks. Yahweh acts like a loving father. He forgives sin and gives his children what they ask for. In fact, God shares his Spirit of love and forgiveness – he shares Jesus’ spirit of self-sacrifice – with anyone who requests it.

Elsewhere, Jesus says something even more shocking. Yahweh doesn’t even prefer the good over the wicked, he says. He showers his blessings (not bombs!) on everyone. Or as Jesus himself put it, God makes the sun rise on the virtuous and the criminal; his rain benefits those we consider evil as well as those we classify as good (Mt. 5:45). We should learn from that God, Jesus says, and be as perfect like him (Mt. 5:48). In fact, we should consider no one “the enemy” not even those who threaten us and kill us even as Jesus was threatened and killed (Lk. 6: 27-36).

How different is that from the way most of us think and act? How different is that from the God we’ve been taught to believe in?

Yes, you might say, but what about those other passages in the Bible where God is fierce and genocidal? After all, the Great Flood must have killed many good people and even children. And God did that, didn’t he? What about his instructions (more than once) to kill everyone without distinction. For example the Book of Joshua records: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Joshua 10:40). What about the Book of Revelation, which many Christians argue predicts God’s total destruction of the world? What about that violent, pitiless, threatening God? Is that the “Abba” of Jesus?

Good questions. They’re good because they make us face up to the fact that the Bible is ambiguous about God. No, let me put it more strongly. The Bible isn’t just ambiguous about God. It’s often plain wrong – at least If we adopt the perspective of Jesus and Abraham in today’s readings.

After all, Abraham’s God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Jesus’ God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Those Gods are not compatible. One of them must be false. Or as Jack Nelson Pallmeyer writes in his book Is Religion Killing Us? “Either God is a pathological killer or the Bible is sometimes wrong about God.”

Today’s readings show us that both Abraham and Jesus agree.

The Abraham story is about a man gradually rejecting Nelson’s Psychopath in the sky. Israel’s furthest back ancestor comes to realize that God is merciful, not punitive or cruel. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, God is kind, true, and responsive to prayer. God protects the weak and lowly and is distant from the powerful and haughty. In today’s reading from Genesis, we witness Abraham plodding slowly but surely towards that conclusion.

It’s the realization eventually adopted by Jesus: God is a kind father, not a war God. If Abraham’s God won’t tolerate killing 50 innocent people, nor 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10, Jesus’ God is gentler still. That God won’t tolerate killing anybody – not even those threatening Jesus’ own life.

All of that should be highly comforting to us. It has implications for us, politically, personally and liturgically.

Politically it means that followers of Jesus should be outraged by anyone connecting Jesus with our country’s perpetual war since 9/11, 2001. A drone program that kills the innocent with the targeted flies in the face of Abraham’s gradually-dawning insight about a merciful God. The war itself makes a complete mockery of Jesus’ total non-violence and the words of the prayer he taught us. Those supporting “America’s” “better them than us” attitude are atheists before Jesus’ God and the one depicted in the Abraham story.

Personally, what we’ve heard this morning should drive us towards an atheism of our own. It should cause us to review and renew our understandings of God. Impelled by today’s readings, we should cast as far from us as we can any inherited notions of a pathological, punishing, cruel, threatening and vindictive God. We need that holy atheism. Let’s pray for that gift together.

And that brings us to today’s liturgy. In effect, we’ve gathered around this table to hear God’s clarifying word, and symbolically act out the peaceful world that Jesus called “God’s Kingdom.” We’ve gathered around this table to break bread not only with each other, but emblematically with everyone in the world including those our culture considers enemies.

I mean if God is “Our Father,” everyone is our sister, everyone, our brother. It’s just that some couldn’t make it to our family’s table today. But they’re here in spirit; they’re present around this altar. They are Taliban and al-Qaeda; they are Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, and Somalis; they are Muslims and Jews; they include Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin. They include those children killed in U.S. drone strikes. They are you and I!

All of us are children of a loving God. Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” says that.

Now that’s something worth celebrating.