Christmas Reflection: Mike Pence’s small god vs. Jesus’ Big God

Last Sunday, I offered an Advent reflection on the long history of what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, has called “the battle of the gods” that is mirrored in the biblical texts themselves. It’s a battle of the God of the Rich (like David and Solomon) against the God of the poor (like Yeshua himself).

Or as OpEdNews (OEN) editor-in-chief, Rob Kall reminded me: it’s a struggle between what I had previously called the small, exclusive, national god of empire versus the big all-embracing God of prophets both ancient and contemporary – like Gandhi, King, Badshah Kahn, and Dorothy Day. That Big God cares especially for the poor who happen to constitute the vast majority of people in the world. That deity’s spokespersons have harsh words for the rich.

Mike Pence’s small god

Apropos of all that, just three days before Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence, a self-proclaimed and especially fervent follower of Jesus, gave a revealing speech at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach Florida. (Turning Point is a Republican group claiming a membership of more than 250,000 conservative students across 2000 U.S. campuses.) There, in terms lauding the Trump administration, Pence defended the small god of the rich – a national god who stands on the side of the wealthy. More than once, his audience enthusiastically responded “USA, USA, USA” as if our country’s borders constituted the full swath of divine concern.

In the course of his speech, Mr. Pence complained that his party’s opponents “. . . want to make rich people poor, and poor people more comfortable.”

He also alleged that “It was freedom not socialism, that gave us the most prosperous economy in the history of the world. It was freedom not socialism that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as a beacon of hope for all the world.”

Connecting his words specifically with Christmas, the vice-president urged his young audience to “take a moment to be still, and if you’re inclined, this is what we do at my house come Christmas morning, take a moment to reflect on the grace that came to mankind, wrapped in clothes (sic) and lying in a manger so many years ago.”

Though Mr. Pence’s words correctly invite us to reflect on what came to us in that manger so many years ago, they expressly contradict the God revealed in the original Christmas event – especially in relation to socialism and treatment of the poor.

Yeshua’s Big God

The contradiction becomes clear from consideration of the fundamental Christian belief celebrated across the world during the Christmas winter festival. It’s the belief that God elected to disclose divine reality precisely in conditions of extreme poverty. The revelation came in the child of poor parents who had been forced into a long dangerous journey for purposes of taxation by a hated imperial government in the dead of winter. Of course, we’re talking about the Jewish family from hovel-filled Nazareth, Yosef, Miryam, and their firstborn, Yeshua.

(Note that according to the belief in question, everything the God does is revelatory. So, it is significant in itself that the divine revelation did not take place in a palace, a temple, nor among wealthy aristocrats. Instead, it took place in a smelly, vermin infested barn where the child’s parents – too poor to pay for a hotel and refused lodging by locals – were compelled to give birth in dangerous extremely unsanitary conditions.)

Moreover, according to the story, the child in question:

  • Lived his entire life in poverty.
  • Barely escaped infanticide by the state and consequently lived for years as an immigrant asylum seeker in Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15).
  • As an adult, continued to be houseless (Luke 9:58, Matthew 8:20).
  • Even lacked money to pay taxes (Matthew 17: 24-27).
  • Ended up poorer still than when he began: on death row, stripped naked, a victim of torture and capital punishment by his era’ worldwide imperial state that evidently thought of him as a terrorist (as shown by his crucifixion – a method of execution reserved for insurgents).

Even more to the point and according to his own description, the entire point of Yeshua’s life’s work was to alleviate poverty. Quoting his people’s revered prophet Isaiah, here’s the way he described his very program in Luke 4: 16-22: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Please note that those words identify God’s Self – God’s very Spirit – as essentially concerned with the poor, with those blind to poverty’s existence, with prisoners and the oppressed. As Michael Hudson has pointed out in his magisterial . . . And Forgive Them Their Debts, Yeshua’s “good news” (his gospel) was about cancelling the loans of the heavily indebted peasants in the Master’s audience. As he said specifically, it was essentially about wealth redistribution (Luke 18: 22, 23, 28-30). No wonder he was so popular with those living on the edge.

Subsequently and besides:

  • Yeshua spent his life setting up free field health clinics, feeding the hungry gratis whether from his own people (Mark 6: 30-44) or not (Mark 8: 1-21), while rehabilitating the citizenship of the socially despised and marginalized.
  • After his death, his followers demonstrated their understanding of his teaching by adopting a style of living that embodied a form of Christian socialism, not to say communism. Again, it centered on wealth redistribution. As Luke describes it in his Acts of the Apostles: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need” (Acts 2:44).
  • The Christian Testament’s only description of the final judgment completely bases it on sharing resources with the houseless, hungry and naked, as well as with those the state has imprisoned, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
  • Those who neglected such people suffer ipso facto exclusion from eternal joy, because “. . . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 45).
  • During his life, Yeshua had extremely harsh words for the rich for whom the final judgment would be so negative. He said, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (Luke 6: 24-26). Such words understandably give hope to the poor and should make us who are well-off examine our consciences at this Christmas season.

Conclusion

Such introspection was entirely absent from Mr. Pence’s reflections before his young impressionable audience. Instead, what he said amounted to a defense of the small god of the rich whom Yeshua’s teachings (just reviewed) show has everything to do with comforting the already comfortable while denigrating the poor.

Instead, Yeshua’s authentic teachings constitute a message of hope and encouragement precisely for the poor and hungry while making the rest of us salvifically uneasy.

So, Christmas properly understood is not a time for self-congratulation nor for overlooking what was revealed in a prophet’s life bookended by houselessness and capital punishment.

It is a call to free health care along with housing and food for everyone. It’s a summons to debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, socialism, and eliminating poverty as well as empire and differentiating wealth.

That’s the good news of Christmas – for the poor, not for Mr. Pence and the rest of us.

What We Do to the Least: The Most Political Sunday Readings of the Year!

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. 

This Sunday’s readings raise the central political question of our day: what is the purpose of government? Is it simply to protect the private property of the well-to-do? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?

For the last forty years or so, the former view has carried the day in the U.S. So it has become fashionable and politically correct even (especially?) for Christians to advocate depriving the poor of health care to help them achieve the American Dream, “ennobling” the unemployed by removing their benefits, criminalizing sharing food with the poor, and “punishing” perpetrators of victimless crimes by routinely placing them in solitary confinement.

Currently, the idea that government’s task is to help corporations even it means hurting the poor, elderly, and newly arrived has been incarnated in Washington’s response to Covid-19. It has amounted to a giant give-away to billionaires including the president’s own family. Today’s poor, middle class and future generations will pick up the tab for that particular wealth redistribution upward.

Today’s readings reject all of that. And they do so on a specifically political liturgical day – the commemoration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Yes, this is a political liturgy if ever there was one. It’s all about “Lords” and “Kings” and how they should govern in favor of the poor. It’s about a new political order presided over by an unlikely monarch – a king who was executed as a terrorist by the imperial power of his day. I’m referring, of course, to the worker-rebel, Jesus the poor carpenter from Nazareth.

Today’s readings promise that the rebel – the “terrorist” – Jesus will institute an order utterly different from Rome’s. That order recognizes the divine nature of immigrants, dumpster-divers, those whose water has been ruined by fracking and pipelines, the ragged, imprisoned, sick, homeless, and those (like Jesus) on death row. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what we celebrate on this “Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.”

(Btw: in the eyes of Jesus’ executioners, today’s commemoration would be as unlikely as some future world celebrating the “Solemnity of Osama bin Laden, King of the Universe.” Think about that for a minute!)

In any case, our readings delineate the parameters of God’s new universal political order. To get from here to there, they call governments to prioritize the needs of the poor and those without public power. Failing to do so will bring destruction for the selfish leaders themselves and for the self-serving political mess they inevitably cultivate.

Our first selection gets quite specific about that mess. There the prophet Ezekiel addresses the political corruption Lord Acton saw as inevitable for leaders with absolute power. Ezekiel’s context is the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. It found itself under immediate threat from neighboring Babylon (Iraq). In those circumstances, the prophet words use a powerful traditional image (God as shepherd) to inveigh against Israel’s pretentious potentates. In God’s eyes, they were supposed to be shepherds caring for their country’s least well-off.  Instead, they cared only for themselves. Here’s what Ezekiel says in the lines immediately preceding today’s first lesson:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! . . . But you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”

In other words, according to Ezekiel’s biblical vision, government’s job is to address the needs of the weak, the sick and the injured. It is to tenderly and gently bring back the wayward instead of punishing them harshly and brutally.

A great reversal is coming, Ezekiel warns. The leaders’ selfishness will bring about their utter destruction at the hands of Babylon.

On the other hand, Judah’s poor will be saved. That’s because God is on their side, not that of their greedy rulers. This is the message of today’s responsorial psalm – the familiar and beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . “) It reminds us that the poor (not their sleek and fat overlords) are God’s “sheep.”  To the poor God offers what biblical government should: nothing but goodness and kindness each and every day. Completely fulfilling their needs, the divine shepherd provides guidance, shelter, rest, refreshing water, and abundant food. Over and over today’s refrain had us singing “There is nothing I shall want.” In the psalmist’s eyes, that’s God’s will for everyone – elimination of want. And so, the task of government leaders (as shepherds of God’s flock) is to eradicate poverty and need.

The over-all goal is fullness of life for everyone. That’s Paul’s message in today’s second reading.  It’s as if all of humanity were reborn in Jesus. And that means, Paul says, the destruction of “every sovereignty, every authority, every power” that supports the old necrophiliac order of empire and its love affair with plutocracy, war and death instead of life for God’s poor.

And that brings us to this Sunday’s culminating and absolutely transcendent gospel reading. It’s shocking – the most articulate vision Jesus offers us of the basis for judging whether our lives have been worthwhile – whether we have “saved our souls.” The determining point is not whether we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal savior. In fact, the saved in the scene Jesus creates are confused, because their salvific acts had nothing to do with Jesus. So, they ask innocently, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”

Jesus’ response? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

But more than personal salvation is addressed here. Jesus homage to Ezekiel’s sheep and shepherd imagery reminds us of judgment’s political dimension. So does Jesus’ reference to the judge (presumably himself) as “king.” And then there’s the church itself which centralizes this climactic scene precisely on this Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. All three elements say quite clearly that “final judgment” is not simply a question of personal salvation, but of judgment upon nations and kingdoms as well. To reiterate: in Matthew’s account, the final judgment centralizes the political.

And what’s the basis for the judgment on both scores? How are we judged as persons and societies? The answer: on the basis of how we treated the immigrants, the hungry, ill-clad, sick, and imprisoned.

On that basis, Jesus’ attitude towards the United States as earlier described ought to be quite clear. It’s the same as Ezekiel’s when he predicted the destruction of Israel at the hands of Iraq:

“Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”

Ironically enough, that “fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is today embodied in the west coast’s raging fires kindled by our mistreatment of Mother Nature – whom we routinely submit to the most horrendous form elder abuse.

Referencing his own text, Ezekiel might say, “You read it here first.”

The Most Revealing Take-Away from the Nevada Debate: Our Problems Have Been Solved

Readings for Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; Psalms: 103: 1-13; 1st Corinthians: 3: 16-23; 1 JN 2:5; Matthew 5: 38-48

Last week’s Democratic debate was the most interesting and revealing yet. And we have Mike Bloomberg to thank for that. His tone-deaf buffoonery was stunning and just happens to be intimately connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Taken together, the readings and Bloomberg’s performance show us that all the problems addressed in the debate have already been solved – especially that of religiously inspired terrorism despite its not being addressed in last Wednesday’s “show.”

I say all that because today’s selections contrast the foolish wisdom of the world (embodied in billionaires like Bloomberg) with the contradictory visions of Moses and Jesus the Christ who are prophets not just for Christians and Jews, but for Muslims as well. As such, their words call us to recognize our absolute unity with our neighbors, and to reject entirely the Bloombergian separative thinking of the world. What we do to others, the readings tell us, we do to ourselves.

But before we get to that, let’s recall what happened on Wednesday. 

As far as I was concerned, the most instructive moment came not when Mr. Bloomberg declined to release women from their non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). It wasn’t even when he arrogantly joked about the inability of TurboTax to help determine his annual attempts at gargantuan tax evasion.

No, it came in a throw-away line in his exchange with Elizabeth Warren about her proposed “two-cent wealth tax.” Almost as an aside, he said something like, “Well, of course I don’t agree with Senator Warren’s tax proposal.” He then went on to make another of his monumentally vacuous non-points.

I only wish one of the moderators or debaters had followed up: “What exactly is your objection to a two-cent tax? Would it somehow diminish your lifestyle or impoverish you?”

Bernie Sanders came closest to asking that question when he raised the issue of capitalism’s immorality. He observed:

“We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we got a half a million people sleeping out on the street, where we have kids who cannot afford to go to college, when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt. We have enormous problems facing this country, and we cannot continue seeing a situation where, in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth — congratulations, Mr. Bloomberg — but the average American last year saw less than a 1 percent increase in his or her income. That’s wrong.”

There, Bernie said it: capitalism is a highly immoral system. No Jewish prophet; not Moses, not even Jesus of Nazareth could have said it better.  We have the money – unlimited resources – to solve the world’s problems. However, those resources remain locked up in the vaults of the world’s 2000 billionaires. Fact is: their living standards would not be lowered by Warren’s 2% tax. Mr. Bloomberg’s lifestyle would even be unaffected if billionaires like him were outlawed altogether and if as a result, he lost 49.1 billion of his 50-billion-dollar bank account.

Yet, those resources (along with similar confiscations from other billionaires) could absolutely eliminate our material problems not merely in the United States, but throughout the entire world. Despite that undeniable fact, the billionaires and their kept allies refuse to entertain even the possibility of such taxation.

Could anything demonstrate more clearly the immorality of the reigning system?

In other words, the super-rich and corporate “persons” along with their servants in the mainstream media, and in the United States Congress prevent us from seeing that the solutions to the world’s problems are already here and staring us in the face. Yes, the world’s major problems have already been solved!

And I’m not just talking about correcting wealth inequality through confiscatory tax rates on the world’s billionaires. I’m also referring to “problems” like immigration, Medicare for all, free college tuition, forgiveness of college loans, the $15.00 an hour minimum wage, the Green New Deal, world peace, and especially (in the light of today’s readings) terrorism. To repeat: all of those problems (and more) have already been solved. It’s just that the prevailing received wisdom prevents us from recognizing it.

Consider the issues just mentioned one-by-one and how they’ve already been effectively addressed:

  • Immigration: The United States, Canada, and Australia prove that nations made up almost entirely of immigrants (most of them poor at the beginning) cannot only survive but thrive. There is nothing to fear from even the poorest of immigrants. Virtually all of us are descended from such outsiders. Why not make it as easy for immigrants to enter our country today as it was when our parents, grandparents or great grandparents came over? It’s already been done.
  • Medicare for all: Publicly funded healthcare has outperformed (and at much lower cost) the U.S. privately funded system in every industrialized country. The same has happened in the U.S. itself in the form of Medicare, Medicaid, and as plans provided by the Veterans’ Health Administration, and by those extended to U.S. legislators. Medicare for All merely expands already proven systems. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
  • Free College Tuition: We already have publicly funded elementary and high schools. Why not extend that funding to public colleges and universities? Mr. Bloomberg’s billions could take care of that.
  • College Loan Forgiveness: Michael Hudson has shown that periodic debt forgiveness has been an engine of economic growth since ancient times. It was even enshrined and required in the Hebrew Testament (Leviticus 25: 8-13) as well as centralized in Jesus’ preaching (Luke 4: 19). Moreover, billionaires (like Messrs. Bloomberg and Trump) declare bankruptcy all the time. Why exclude students from such relief?
  • Minimum Wage: A $15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage is already a fact in Seattle, New York, in the Amazon workforce, and elsewhere. It provenly works to raise working class living standards.
  • Green New Deal: In the 1930s FDR’s New Deal fundamentally changed the economic landscape of the United States including (for the first time) a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, social security, and a government jobs program employing millions. The result was the creation of a large, previously non-existent prosperous middle class. Similar even more robust programs were enacted throughout Western Europe even though its infrastructure had been devastated by the Second Inter-Capitalist War. In other words, the Green New Deal is not unprecedented. Its suggested provisions are affordable and have highly successful and popular precedents.
  • World Peace: Think about it. Current crises with Iraq, Korea, Russia, China, Iran, Syria and elsewhere have been manufactured — absolutely pulled out of the air. None of those countries represent mortal threat to the United States. And in any case, the tools for resolving international conflicts already exist under the auspices of the United Nations. Those who routinely ignore those tools and associated laws are not our “enemies,” but ourselves and our “allies.” “We” are the agents who employ force, sanctions, droning, and bombing as a first resort rather than observe international law and UN procedures for avoiding international conflict. Our merely observing international law would represent a giant step towards world peace.

But, of course, the wisdom of the world denies all of the above. It would convince us that reform is without precedent, that those proposing it are radicals, and that their proposals are unrealistic and impossible to implement. They would even have us believe that Bloombergian and Trumpian wealth based on individualism, competition, and separateness are somehow compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Today’s readings make the opposite point and condemn as heretical such received wisdom. Instead, the readings emphasize the unity of humankind and the need to reject the world’s ideology.

And that’s where the connection with terrorism comes in. The fact is that the world’s leading terrorists are religiously motivated Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, all three accept the Bible as inspired. All three recognize Moses and Jesus as hallowed prophets. All three claim to endorse the basic teachings of those prophets as contained in today’s readings. Such convergence represents a basis for eliminating terrorism far more powerful than bombs, drones or boots on the ground.

To see what I mean, please consider today’s readings in my translated form. (And do check them out here to see if I have them right.) They describe the basis for replacing armed conflict with peaceful religious dialog.

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18: Moses called Yahweh’s people to divine holiness outlawing all hatred, grudges and any type of revenge. All such animosity, he warned, ultimately equates with self-hatred.

Psalms: 103: 1-13 This is because God’s very essence is kindness, compassion, generosity, and unbounded forgiveness.

1st Corinthians: 3: 16-23:And that essence is ours too. Hence, destroying another person represents an attack not only on God but on our Selves. Such profound wisdom is 180 degrees opposed to the world’s foolhardy “savoir faire.” Therefore, accepting Jesus means rejecting received wisdom.

1 JN 2:5:  In other words, following Jesus’ teaching (and btw the Buddha’s, Mohammed’s, Krishna’s, Lao Tzu’s, and that of history’s great humanists) is the only way of pleasing God

Matthew 5: 38-48: More specifically, the world teaches eye for eye revenge, retaliation two for one, suing at the drop of a hat, suspicion of borrowers and beggars, and hatred of enemies. However, (along with Moses) Jesus counsels exactly the opposite: gentleness, generosity, having no enemies at all, loving even those who cause us pain, recognition that all are neighbors loved equally by the One whose sun and rain benefit everyone without distinction. Yes, our neighbor (including “enemies”) is our very Self!

Can you see how the wisdom expressed in those readings provide a basis for dialog rather than for armed conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Can you see how rejecting the “wisdom of the world” reveals that the world’s most pressing problems have already been solved? None of them is new, unprecedented, or insoluble.

It’s time for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to unite in a shared project that opens everyone’s eyes to those facts. It’s time to expropriate the Bloombergs, Trumps and their corporate allies who deny solutions that are absolutely staring everyone in the face.  

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis on Wealth Redistribution

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Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012614.cfm

According to an Oxfam report released last Monday (Jan. 20th), the 85 richest people in the world now have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people – i.e. as much as half the planet’s entire population. Eighty-five people!

The report’s publication makes clear the importance of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (E.G.). That’s because the pope’s “Joy of the Gospel” specifically addresses the injustices of income inequalities.

The Oxfam report also reveals as fatuous a recently advanced defense of vast wealth differentials in the very terms the pope criticizes. (I’m referring to David Brooks’ New York Times column – see below.) Oxfam’s report also makes relevant the readings in today’s liturgy of the word. They address inequality by reflecting the mentality of the poor and Jesus’ commitment to the working class in first century Palestine’s social context of obscene differences in wealth between rich and poor.

Before looking at those readings, I wonder what you think of that Oxfam statistic. Once again, the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion – the poorest half of our planet’s population.

Personally, I find that shocking and almost unfathomable. Yet the New York Times’ David Brooks says inequality is not the problem. As a powerful apologist for the rich, Brooks alleges that only those locked into a “primitive zero-sum mentality” would believe that the poor are poor because the rich have too much of the earth’s resources.

The economic pie is continually expanding, Brooks implies. So even though good jobs have been off-shored, and Wall Street bonuses are indefensible, the problem of inequality cannot be solved by wealth redistribution schemes or raises in the minimum wage. Instead, the real solution is to educate the poor – furnishing them with the cultural attitudes and job skills necessary to lift them from poverty caused by single parent families, school drop-outs, and the resulting generations-long culture of poverty.

Brooks’ argument is hackneyed. And in its familiarity, it illustrates the fallacies about poverty commonly subscribed to by the rich. Those approaches nearly always embrace a version of trickle-down theory. They find poverty’s solution in reforming the poor and educating them for the hi-tech jobs that will emancipate them from poverty. Mainstream intellectuals reject measures like minimum wage increases and higher taxes on the rich as “populist” and as introducing class-conflict themes that are dangerous and counterproductive.

It is such dodges by the rich that were specifically rejected by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. There the pope says unmistakably that extreme wealth on the one hand and abysmal poverty on the other are interconnected. In fact, he accuses the powerful of actually “feeding upon” the powerless (E.G. #53). They’re eating them up! Francis also rejects out of hand the trickle-down mentality behind Brooks’ observations. The pope classifies Brooks’ reference to a “primitive zero-sum mentality” as itself being “crude and naïve.”

In fact, what the pope actually says about trickle-down theories can’t be repeated too often. He writes: “In this context some people continue to defend trickle-down theories . . . This opinion which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”

Pope Francis also scraps apologetics like those Brooks employs when he essentially blames the poor for their poverty and would save them by “education.” Here Francis’ specific words are: ”Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.”

Pope Francis’ words bring a startling reminder to would-be Christians that economic questions – considerations of social justice and equality – are central to Christian faith. Francis’ words sensitize us to a reality that presents itself to believers every Sunday if we’re attentive enough to perceive the socio-economic dimensions in each week’s readings.

Today’s readings once again offer a case in point. The first selection comes from the prophet Isaiah. It recalls a time when Israel had been released from painful exile and enslavement by ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). According to Isaiah, exile was a time of anguish, darkness, gloom and distress – the pain inevitably experienced by the exploited then and now. Liberation from slavery’s “rod and yoke” changed all of that. Darkness and gloom were replaced by light, joy and rejoicing.

Significantly for the topic at hand (inequality and its remedies) the prophet uses two poor people’s images to describe the change. The joy of the liberated was like that of peasants reaping the fields at harvest time. Now, however, the harvested crop would belong to them, not to idle landlords. In this new situation reaping the fields presaged a time when hunger would be replaced by feasting.

Even more to the point, according to Isaiah, the joy of those liberated from Babylon was like the ecstasy of rebels dividing spoils after The Revolution – when the wealth of their oppressors was finally redistributed to those who had worked so long producing that wealth in exchange for nothing but “rod and yoke.”

In other words, the reading from Isaiah refers to a time of plenty and of wealth redistribution – always the dream of the poor and dispossessed – a dream, Pope Francis reminds us, that is also the Dream of God.

It was a dream shared by Jesus. He called his revolutionary vision the “Kingdom of God.” In today’s reading from Matthew, we see the working man from Nazareth recruiting those who would help organize the poor around that concept. Matthew presents Jesus as selecting comrades like himself – from the working class. His initial selections are the poor illiterate fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John. They would accompany him and learn from him as he confronted his culture’s rich elite – the temple priests, rich landlords (again the temple priests), and collaborators with Roman occupation forces.

Reza Aslan tells us that Jesus did all of this in a context of extreme economic inequality. Aslan writes of “the chasm between the starving and indebted poor toiling in the countryside and the wealthy provincial class ruling in Jerusalem . . . .” He describes a Jesus who as a tekton (a Greek word meaning Jack of all trades) worked daily rebuilding the opulent city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, an hour’s walk from his village of Nazareth. “Six days a week,” Aslan writes, “from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night. He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.”

No doubt that experience sensitized Jesus to the plight of those who shared his social location. Like others he knew, Jesus was convinced that the situation was unsustainable. As Aslan puts it, “There was a feeling particularly among the peasants and pious poor, that the present order was coming to an end, that a new and divinely inspired order was about to reveal itself. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it.”

Jesus made it the point of his work as a community organizer par excellence to focus on the advent of God’s kingdom. In today’s Gospel, Matthew says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

And in proclaiming and working for the kingdom, Jesus did not shy away from statements that might be seen as engendering class conflict. “Blessed are you poor,” he said, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements show consciousness of class struggle.

So what are we to do about income inequalities? In 1998, a UN Development Report called for a tax of 4% on the world’s richest 225 people. The report said that such a tax (6% less than the traditional tithe) would provide enough resources to feed, clothe, house, cure and educate the entire Third World.

To the wealthy, such taxation is unthinkable. As a result, 30,000 children die of absolutely preventable starvation each day.

In the eyes of Pope Francis – in the eyes of Jesus, I’m sure – tolerating such needless deaths is sinful and runs entirely contrary to any pretensions of those identifying themselves as “pro-life.”

No, Mr. Brooks, we can’t ignore the connections between extreme wealth and abysmal poverty. Wealth must somehow be redistributed. We have the word of Oxfam and the UN on that. We have the word of Pope Francis and of Jesus too.

Celebrating the International Jesus (Epiphany Sunday Homily)

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Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/010613.cfm

Human growth is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Our bodies change and develop whether we like it or not. Cells replace themselves constantly giving each of us an entirely new body every seven years. Yet even though we might not be able to recognize ourselves in our baby pictures, we know there is somehow deep continuity between the infant we were and the person we saw in the mirror this morning when we were brushing our teeth.

That continuity is intimately connected with self-consciousness. It develops too. We no longer think of ourselves or of the world the way we did when we were children. Then everything seemed much simpler. We were the most important individuals in the world; the whole thing seemed to revolve around us. God was up there in heaven. We belonged to his church – the only true one that existed. Our parents loved us. The policeman was our friend. The United States was unquestionably an agent for good in the world. . . . Now we might not be so sure of any of those formerly self-evident truths.

That’s because we’ve grown intellectually and spiritually – at least to a degree. Developmental psychologists tell us that the normal growth progression is from a self-centered consciousness to an ethno-centric consciousness to a world-centric awareness and possibly to a cosmic-centered understanding of reality. The ego-centric child truly does believe the world revolves around him or her. That’s normal. Then comes the stage of ethno-centrism. Here horizons expand to include one’s God, family, school, community, race, and country. At this stage, it seems as though those elements constitute the center of the universe. (Many people get stuck at this stage. They never grow out of it. They’re even willing to kill other people to defend the superiority of the particular groups to which they belong.)

Many people however reach the stage of world-centrism. Here they realize that all of us are indeed created equal. God loves everyone – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists. S/he equally loves women and men, gay and straight. Ultimately, one is not American or Mexican, but a citizen of the world. That’s world-centered consciousness. And that understanding is what’s celebrated today on this feast of Epiphany.

The word epiphany means the appearance or manifestation of God. Today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. He and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us a great deal about that God. S/he’s not what ethno-centric believers expected or even wanted.

That’s why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew and loved favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood. So they were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The kings claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.

The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three kings) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.

Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.

Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?

Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.

No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly world-centered face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.

Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” world-centered and cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethno-centrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.

Jesus Calls the Rich Man to Practice Wealth Redistribution (And “Communism”)

Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)

On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.”  Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.

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It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.

But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms.  He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.

Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.

Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.

Nearly!  That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”  That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth.  Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.

Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.”  (Acts 4:32-36).

Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:

Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.

On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.

Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?

Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?

(Discussion follows)