Ephphata: Jesus Challenges Our Culture’s Silence about Poverty

Readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Poverty is an uncomfortable topic for Americans. So, we ignore it at home and abroad. When was the last time you heard a politician even refer to the poverty as a pressing problem in the United States or in the world at large?

Today’s liturgy of the word forces us to face God’s quite divergent attitude on the subject.

But before we get to that. Think about our culture’s attitude. For instance, rather than recognize poverty as human-caused, our politicians go in the opposite direction. They actually blame the world’s problems on the poor. They ask us to believe that impoverished immigrants and war refugees rather than the politicians themselves (and their rich sponsors) are responsible for our nation’s problems.

The reality, however, is that the refugees are the product of U.S. wars against the poor in our own hemisphere and beyond. Throughout the 1980s, we fought the poor in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Besides those causes, refugees and immigrants are the direct result of trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They come from our current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Take the case of Yemen. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East. And yet we’re cooperating with the Saudis, the richest people in the region, in their genocidal attack on Yemenis. Together we and the Saudis are starving to death people who were already barely hanging on to life. We’ve started a cholera epidemic among them that the World Health Organization says has already claimed 1.1 million lives.

And then there’s the poor among us here in the United States. The numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. The number of Americans at or below that level has reached more than 50 million. And yet, while reducing taxes on the super-rich, our current government is bent on cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicaid as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of cancelling its effectiveness.

And it’s worse than that as well. The poorest people in the world live on less than $1.90 per day. Incredibly (according to a recent report from the UN) there are 5.3 million such people in the United States. They’re living in poverty like that usually associated with Bangladesh!

Yet most of us remain completely unaware of such conditions. To repeat: our politicians ignore them at best and deny them at worst. So do our media. Consequently, we pay no attention to the poor and to U.S. aggression directed against them — customarialy masked as a “war on terror.”

Today’s liturgy of the word addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, our readings implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as the People of God reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world.

This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to recognize poverty and God’s poor as specifically biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues” — not only to speak the truth about poverty, but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen again to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”

With Dr. King, We Must ‘Break the Silence’

Worse than ISIS

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

With so much talk of war these days, it’s time to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King and once again break silence about our country’s evil character. Yes: it’s character is evil! We’re a war-mongering country, a terrorist country. As King said 51 years ago this month, we’re “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”

It’s time to face up to the fact that the United States has been taken over by Christianists far more violent than the Islamists we excoriate. To wit: “we” stand ready to risk all-out nuclear war with Russia. “Our” reason? An alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Our indisputable proof? None at all! It’s Iraq all over again!

And the hell of it is that to these Christian extremists, nuclear holocaust – the destruction of the planet – is acceptable, even desirable, because it will assure the Second Coming of the very Jesus who is presented in today’s Gospel selection as the great bringer of peace.

Just to be clear: No Muslims threaten the world with equivalent religious extremism.

(BTW If you think that statements like the above are unfair, because not all — not even the majority — of Christians hold such beliefs, think about how Muslims feel, when the views of their extremists are similarly universalized.)

In their zealotry, the fundamentalists in Washington somehow ignore the fact that the first words of the risen Jesus repeated in today’s Gospel (as they were in last week’s reading), are “Peace be with you.” They ignore the Jesus who was completely non-violent. He preached the Golden Rule. He said we should love our enemies. He accepted his own death rather than defend himself, his friends, or family. He died praying for his enemies.

Moreover, the Christianists in Washington are completely hypocritical. In the name of the international law, they’re outraged by the “dozens” perhaps killed in the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Meanwhile, they’ve killed more than a million Iraqis in a completely illegal war. Daily, they assassinate suspected terrorists, including American citizens, with death squads now mechanized as drones.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and in clear violation of international restrictions and the U.S. Constitution, those same Christian extremists have caused the deaths of thousands and threaten the lives of millions.

More specifically, since 2014, they have been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 and for the injury of 40,000 more. They’ve caused a devastating cholera epidemic and a famine that the UN describes as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

It’s all been the result of a U.S.-supported Saudi bombing campaign that directly targets hospitals, water supply sources, and sewage treatment plants – all prohibited be international law. In the process, the U.S. supplies those medieval Saudi kings with weapons, targeting information, and airborne refueling services. Pure terrorism!

Face it: our crimes in Yemen represent a far, far worse violation of international law than the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Yes: today, King’s words ring truer than ever. We continue to be “The world’s greatest purveyor of violence!” We’re a terrorist nation.

And how do the Christianists get around Jesus’ clear words? Typically, they spiritualize today’s Gospel greeting. “Peace be with you.” They say it refers to the interior peace that passes understanding.

How reminiscent of the Nazis who went to Mass, meditated and enjoyed “inner peace” on Sundays, while for the rest of the week they stoked ovens where they incinerated communists, socialists, blacks, homosexuals, and Jews!

Inner peace is fine. However, reality in the belly of the beast suggests that such spiritualizing is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a rogue nation. None of us should enjoy inner peace today.

Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that there can be no interior peace for terrorist Christian fundamentalists. They — our nation’s officials — are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace and denouncing transgressions of international law while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

It’s time for all of us to face up to the facts. It’s time to join the martyred Dr. King in breaking our silence!

Which to Celebrate This Year: Easter or April Fool’s?

Gandhi:Jesus

This April 1st, I fear I won’t be able to say “Happy Easter” to anybody. I’m even thinking about boycotting the festival altogether as a cruel April Fool’s hoax.

That’s because Easter is a celebration of life’s triumph over death. Yet we “Americans,” despite the fact that 70-75% of us claim to follow the risen Christ, find ourselves immersed in a culture of death. We love it; we’re actually necrophilic. Somebody’s got to protest that.

Examine the evidence so out-of-sync with Americans’ faith claims:

* Our Religious Fundamentalist Party, the G.O.P., is engaged in all-out terrorism on God’s creation. Republicans are worse than the Taliban or ISIS. Alone in the world, they bully every creature on earth by denying human-caused climate change. Millions of humans and billions of other creatures will die as a result.
* Totally beholden to the arms industry, U.S. politicians of every stripe choose violence as their first response to most problems they face. Their remedy for school shootings? Above all, don’t adopt the common-sense policies that have worked in every other industrialized country. Instead, bring guns to school; arm kindergarten teachers!
* Rather than pursue nuclear disarmament, they tear up past agreements and modernize our overwhelming arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. (They stand willing to totally destroy North Korea for doing something similar!)
* While claiming to be pro-life, they wage a genocidal war in Yemen (and half a dozen other places) where millions of children face mass starvation and an unprecedented cholera epidemic.
* Our Commander-in-Chief proposes a military parade in D.C. that will cost up to $50 million that could be better spent on programs to help veterans needlessly traumatized by our country’s absolutely futile and endless wars.
* In fact, nothing has changed, except for the worse, since Martin Luther King identified the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?

That’s because everything I’ve just described profoundly contradicts the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his family and friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and capital punishment rather than take a life. Protecting himself or his loved ones by killing or sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.

He taught his followers the Golden Rule (MT7:12). He said we should love our enemies (MT:5:43-48). When attacked, he told his followers to put away their swords (MT26:52). In the midst of his death throes, he prayed for his executioners (LK23:34). His Easter greeting was the repeated phrase, “Peace be with you” (JN20:24-29)

Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens:

* Truly accepted those teachings
* Refused to succumb to today’s necrophilia because of our faith in Jesus’ Way
* Called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the
bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the world’s problems
* From that same faith perspective, recognized the NRA, the arms industry and their political servants for the terrorists they are

A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference and bring many of us back to our faith roots.

It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter” instead of sneering “April Fool’s!”

Drones, the Marathon Bombing And Today’s Liturgy of the Word (Sunday Homily)

I got into trouble with a lot of people over the last week or ten days. It all goes back to the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15th. The very next morning I found myself writing a blog entry that drew fire from friends who go back with me nearly sixty years, and even from my family members. I had written that the Marathon Bombing paled in comparison with the havoc and destruction the United States’ drone policy creates in the world virtually every day.

For instance, last week in the Senate hearing on that policy, a young Yemeni activist, Farea Al-Muslimi, gave testimony about the destruction in his village brought about by a drone attack that had occurred a few weeks earlier. [Do yourself a favor and see the video of his testimony (above); it went viral last week.] Women and children were killed by the drone apparently intended to eliminate a single person who might easily have been apprehended by local police. Instead, the missile launching killed indiscriminately. In the resulting carnage, the young man said, you couldn’t distinguish the bodies of women and children from their animals which had also been killed in the raid. The human victims had to be buried with their animals as though there were no difference between them.

According to the young activist, drones hovering over villages like his own, ready to release their deadly cargo are a form of terrorism. They have for Yemenis become the new face of the United States, and have caused great anger and hatred towards our country. Drones are what Yemenis now think of when they hear “America.” They represent a highly effective recruiting tool for what Americans understand as “terrorists.”

This means that in the activist’s own village, the drones accomplished in an instant what the propaganda of Islamic jihadists had been unable to do after years of effort.

It was this sort of testimony that I had in mind when I wrote the morning after the Marathon bombing. I was also inspired by the kind of faith-consciousness communicated by the readings in this morning’s liturgy of the word. Those readings call us to embrace an awareness of the unity of the entire human race. All are our sisters and brothers, the readings emphasize; Yeminis are as important to God as we are. Put otherwise, all four readings call us beyond the nationalism that makes us so sensitive to violence directed towards our own people, while ignoring or down-playing much greater terror our country directs towards those we consider “foreign” or “other.”

In fact, today’s liturgy of the word might well be considered a hymn of praise to the God of Love who cherishes everyone and everything equally. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles highlights the expansion of the understanding of God’s Chosen People. Paul and Barnabas extend the concept from the Jews to non-Jews – i.e. to gentiles. God’s people are found not merely in Israel, but in strange sounding places like Lystra, Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and Antioch.

The author of the Book of Revelation concurs with Paul’s interpretation. In his utopian vision of the “end of time,” John of Patmos hears a loud voice proclaiming, “God’s dwelling is with the human race.” Did you hear that? God’s People are found not just in Israel (or in “America”), but are co-extensive with the entire human race. People of all nations constitute God’s Chosen, John says. In other words, God considers everyone God’s beloved simply in virtue of their being human.

However, John “loud voice” also suggests that God is especially partial to the poor and oppressed. God wishes that tearful people stop crying. God’s kingdom is an entirely new dispensation without premature death, mourning, wailing, or pain. The suggestion here is an understanding of God’s chosen people as those within the human race who suffer the most. (As a nation, Americans, it seems, are not in that category.)

Does this mean that in our assessment of world events, the suffering should be given greater attention than the well-off?

Moreover, God’s love extends beyond humans to all of physical creation. The responsorial psalm describes God as generous, merciful, slow to anger, exceedingly kind, and good to all. That “all” includes everything God has made. In the psalmist’s words, God is “compassionate to all his works.”

Finally, today’s brief gospel reading suggests that the vocation of Christians is to mirror God’s universal love specifically as reflected in Yeshua ben Joseph – who accepted his own death at the hands of the violent rather than defend himself or take the lives of others .

Yeshua’s followers, John the evangelist suggests, must be willing to love in the same way Jesus loved. We must be ready to give our lives for “the least of our brothers and sisters” – to die ourselves before taking the lives of poor Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis, Somalis . . . . (That’s what the words of the gospel seem to propose!)

But there’s a warning with all this talk of God’s universal love. Nationalism is strong. Criticizing it evokes energetic resistance. This is the thrust of Paul’s words in today’s first reading when he says that “It is necessary to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Evidently some within the emerging Christian community wanted to stick with the old narrow notion of “God’s People” limiting it to a single nation. They thought of the community of Yeshua as a reformed wing of Judaism. As the reading from Acts tells us, they resisted Paul’s more expansive reinterpretation, sometimes violently.

Something similar can happen today when the suffering of “those others” are equated or even prioritized over the suffering of our compatriots.

Nonetheless, today’s readings remind us that in God’s eyes there are no “others.” If they are human, if they are part of God’s creation, they are God’s children every bit as important as “Americans.” Their suffering (especially when it originates from our hands) should be prioritized over our own.

That’s where I was coming from last week.