Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14; Romans 8: 9-13; Matthew 11: 25-30
Whatever the world believes and does, choose to believe and do the opposite. That’s because the Truth that some call “God” is found 180 degrees opposite to what the world claims as true. That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.
So, take heart if as a follower of the Christ, they accuse you of advocating identity politics, deride you as a social justice warrior, woke, politically correct, a conspiracy theorist, or a whatabouter. Leaving aside their distorted meanings, all of those categories should actually be embraced by critical persons of faith who take this Sunday’s readings to heart.
In today’s key selection, Paul refers to accusations like the above as “flesh,” because they insistently judge according to external appearances and directly contradict the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Such judgments routinely gas light activists demonstrating for social justice across the world. For instance, followers of Rush Limbaugh tell awakened Black Lives Matter demonstrators to go back to sleep. They admonish “conspiracy theorists” to simply accept White House narratives. They ridicule “social justice warriors” as pathetic Don Quixotes impotently jousting at windmills. And they say progressives, “snowflakes” should be embarrassed about their annoying “political correctness” and whataboutism.
However, today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah calls for political strategy that penetrates below such superficiality at every turn. In the process, he longs for political leaders whose laser vision will reject the outer manifestations that tell us that things are fine the way they are. For instance, his ideal ruler will refuse military display and instead sponsor programs of national disarmament. That, of course, flies in the face of “American” cultural ideals of bluster, toughness, and aggression.
Finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that adopting contrary unfleshly values will result in easy, restful and unburdened existence for everyone.
Before we get to those separate readings, begin by contrasting the wisdom of the world’s flesh merchants with the general vision recommended (as we’ll see below) in today’s selections. Think about the dominant culture’s superficial dismissal of social justice warriors, the “woke,” of everything that smacks of political correctness, or conspiracy theories or whataboutism. Those caught up in fleshly appearances want progressives to feel guilty about the critical thinking implied in each of those categories understood in the light of faith.
- The Struggle for Social Justice: Our era’s flesh merchants generally ridicule what they call “social justice warriors” as naïve bleeding hearts. However, the truth is that the struggle for social justice lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It all began with the liberation of slaves from Egypt. The Hebrew Covenant prioritized the needs of widows, orphans and immigrants. It instituted permanent land reform measures and periodic wealth redistribution. Jesus advocated replacement of Rome’s empire with what he called the Kingdom of God – a world where God’s truth and love replaced Caesar’s looting, lies and oppression. All the great followers of Jesus were social justice warriors. Think Bartolome de las Casas, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and today’s William Barber.
- Wokeness: Following in the footsteps of such prophets, all of us are called to permanent spiritual insomnia. In fact, Buddhism is entirely based on the concept. It teaches that the whole purpose of life is to wake up from the slumber that is endemic to dominant cultures everywhere. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” had a similar message. Any follower of the Judeo-Christian tradition is called to wake up.
- Identity Politics: Notwithstanding its Buddhist and classical derivations, the term “woke” comes from the African American community. That origin reminds us that any struggle for social justice must begin with heightened awareness and affirmation of specific identity as an oppressed people. That’s why James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, jarringly insists that God is black. He’s referring to a divine preference for the unfairly “burdened” (as today’s Gospel selection puts it) in any age. It’s what lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ repeated allusions to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It’s with the impoverished that followers of Moses and Jesus are called to unambiguously identify spiritually and politically.
- Political Correctness: This is perhaps the most distorted and denigrated of the concepts considered here. Originally, it was a self-critical tool used by political activists to make sure that their speech and action were consistent with their principles. More recently however, the term has been appropriated and trivialized by opponents of social justice to refer to any infringement of a dominant group’s supposed right to speak and act without considering the consequences for members of a subordinate class. Obviously, such “freedom” is out of step with the just-referenced preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, all would-be followers of Jesus the Christ are called to bring their speech and actions into correct alignment with their faith.
- Conspiracy Theory: Like political correctness, the original concept of conspiracy theory had no insulting overtones. In fact, conspiracy is a legal category referring to two or more people planning to commit a crime. Lawyers and prosecutors theorize about conspiracies all the time. And, of course, Jesus’ assassination resulted from a conspiracy between Jerusalem’s temple priests and the Roman imperial state. That fact alone should make his followers especially sensitive to conspiratorial plots. (BTW, one prominent conspiracy theory holds that following the Kennedy assassination, the CIA appropriated a negative understanding of the term conspiracy theorists precisely to discredit critics of the highly questionable Warren Report – and subsequently of every other CIA operation.) Bottom line here: no one familiar with history, much less Christianity, should be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists. Such allegations are meant to inhibit critical thinking.
- Whataboutism: The Wikipedia Dictionary defines whataboutism as any attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Actually, in our U.S. context, it’s most often a refusal to take seriously right-wing accusations against designated enemies such as Russia, China, or Venezuela for crimes routinely committed by the United States itself. It recognizes that “America” has no ground to stand on in its accusations of election-interference, persecution of Muslims, or corruption in high office. That’s because our country’s officials routinely engage in such activities themselves and embody unsurpassed corruption at every level. It’s all in the spirit of Jesus’ words, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Like Jesus, whatabouters are concerned with hypocrisy.
With all of this in mind, here are my “translations” of the readings that inspire today’s reflection. Please read them for yourselves here to see if I’ve got them right. I take them all as issuing a call to depart entirely from the dominant culture’s way of thinking and acting in the areas just designated.
Zechariah 9: 9-10: The world leader we’re all waiting for won’t come driving a Sherman Tank, Cadillac or a Rolls Royce. Rather, she’ll arrive on a bicycle. Moreover, she’ll achieve peace by eliminating the entire military-industrial complex. No more war for this non-violent champion!
Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14: When she comes, we’ll all join in grateful thanksgiving to our Great Cosmic Mother. We’ll praise her for her grace, patience, goodness, kindness and compassion. We’ll finally realize that might is found precisely in what the world considers weakness – in the fallen and heavily burdened.
Romans 8: 9-13: On that happy day, everyone on earth will understand their spiritual unity with everyone else regardless of externals – “flesh” including its color. We’ll see that at core, all of us share the loving Spirit that animated Jesus the compassionate Christ. Fullness of life, he taught, lies in a direction 180 degrees away from the fleshy exterior reality to which the world so insistently limits our attention.
Matthew 11: 25-30: Yes, the worldly wise and learned tell us that “reality” is defined by what we can see and feel and that might makes right. However, the unpretentious nobodies of the world who follow Jesus know much more. In their humility, disarmed non-violence, and refusal to compete, they share the very mind of God. They’ve discovered the secret of an easy, restful and unburdened existence.
I suppose what I’ve been seeing in today’s biblical readings are implications that call into question our culture’s superficiality – something Paul called “flesh.” I hear the readings warning us against the dominant culture and its rejection of much deeper (spiritual) values firmly founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I’m talking about commitment to social justice, and the identity politics that sides with the poor and oppressed. I’m referring to awakening from cultural slumber and the adoption of woke ways of thinking and acting that are politically correct in terms of coherence between theory and action. My reference is also to judicious suspicion of official stories mouthed by “leaders” who have repeatedly lied to us – even in the face of their accusations about conspiracy theories. All of this, I’m saying, entails complete rejection of hypocrisy hiding behind deflecting complaints of whataboutism.
I at least feel great relief to recognize culturally imposed guilt tripping for what it is. I’m happy to embrace my efforts to be an awakened politically correct social justice warrior identified with the poor and oppressed and alert to conspiracies by the rich and powerful.
All of these are proud labels embodied in countless heroes most of us profess to admire – people like Moses, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin King, Dorothy Day, William Barber, and Jesus himself. We’re in very good company.