Christmas Reflection: “Oh, Come Let Us Ignore Him”

Every year at this time, the entire Christian world of more than 2.5 billion people pauses to observe the birth of a martyred Jewish construction worker about 2000 years ago. In America, we tirelessly observe this winter festival with increasing intensity from about Halloween, through Thanksgiving, and the entire month of December – for two solid months.

All during that time, our radio airwaves, and every shop we enter repeat the familiar songs and hymns we’ve come to associate with Christmas. Many of the carols celebrate “the newborn king.” Some even issue the invitation, “Oh, come let us adore him” – as God. Only occasionally (as in the “Little Drummer Boy”) is there the slightest hint that Jesus was “a poor boy too.” But that insight is quickly obscured by that same song’s four references to Jesus as “king.”

However, Jesus’ unmistakable poverty, his conception out of wedlock, his homelessness at birth, his status as asylum-seeker and immigrant in Egypt (MT 2:13-18), his social location in the working class, his association with Zealot insurrectionists (MT 10:4; MK 3:18; LK 6:15; ACTS 1:13), and the fact that he ended up a victim of torture and capital punishment at the hands of empire reveal far more about Yeshua than those popular sentimental Christmas jungles and hymns about a “newborn king.”

But even if we take those latter glorifications seriously, they unwittingly communicate a revolutionary message that the Christmas season completely ignores – one that finds important application to our troubled times.

I’m referring to the fact that calling the impoverished Yeshua “king” turns upside down reigning conceptions about the One some call “God,” and about the people divinely designated to rule the world.

Such references unconsciously point to the truth of Jesus’ words that the “meek” or (better put), the lowly, the humble, the unpretentious, those without public power, the despised and discarded, the gentle and non-violent, are (in God’s eyes) the ones divinely destined to “have the earth for their possession” (Psalm 37: 11; Matthew 5:5). History belongs to them. Despite appearances, it is on their side.

What else can it mean that we call “king” a brown or black homeless child born in a barn and who will remain poor, deep in political trouble all his life and will finish on death row? What else can it mean that such a one was selected to be (according to Christian faith) the ultimate revelation of life’s meaning.

On this Christmas Day 2021, all such considerations should send us to look for God in today’s people and places Yeshua was so deeply a part of. Christmas reflections on the historical Yeshua should find him living in those tents that now dot all our big cities. He’s sleeping under some bridge in DC or NYC. He’s dodging drive-by bullets on Chicago’s South Side and shivering in the cold on the Tijuana border. He’s walking his last mile after his appeal for a stay of execution has been ignored by Trump’s SCOTUS packed with “pro-life” Catholics. His appeal is ignored by governors opening gifts with their lily-white children and filling their bellies with turkey and all the trimmings, after singing “Silent Night” with misty eyes in their heretical megachurch based on prosperity gospel lies.

In the face of all that, the proper hymn to sing is “Oh, come let us ignore him.” Yes, ignore that white supremacist, Jesus. And instead, let us adore the real Yeshua in that filthy, stinking barn. He’s there sharing a roof with the rats and beasts with whom our police forces equate those whose neighborhoods and barrios their militarized platoons occupy as enemy terrain.

If we were to find Yeshua in those unlikely places, how different our interminable Christmas season would be. Yes, suppose Americans (and the world’s other two billion Christians) spent two months each year giving serious reflection to Jesus’ social circumstances as presented in the biblical texts that scholars call “the infancy narratives.”

Doing so would change “the season” to one of national repentance, instead of the orgy of “Christmas shopping” for those who already have more than they need. We’d double down on support for Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. We’d organize to spend the season (any beyond) doing everything possible to eliminate the specific elements that plagued the life of Yeshua — namely:

  • Identification of “God” with scepters, armies, priests, and “power over”
  • Royalty of all kinds
  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Persecution of asylum seekers
  • And immigrants
  • Imperialism in all its expressions
  • Honoring imperial military service as though it were heroic (It’s not!)
  • Infanticide (today by drone instead of sword)
  • Wars invariably waged against the world’s poor
  • Torture of those same impoverished souls
  • Capital punishment of the poor [never (please note) the rich]
  • Etc.

In other words, historical reflection would cause us to embrace the one whose life and rejection by organized religion and the imperial state reveal the true social location of divine incarnation.

As for the Jesus of our hymns, carols, and Christmas jingles, “Oh (please!), come let us ignore him.”

P.S. We might replace the ignored one’s hymns with Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ:”

QAnon Is Right: We’ve Become the Devil’s Christians

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

Today is the first Sunday of Lent – the annual 40-day process of repentance and purification leading up to Easter (April 4th).

The readings for this Sunday begin on a strong political note. In fact, the Gospel selection issues a powerful summons for all of us to divest of all loyalty to U.S. empire. It reminds us that unless we do so, we end up worshipping Satan instead of God (or Source or the Ground of Being, or the Great Mother) however we might imagine Her.

Put more starkly, the snippet from Luke’s account of Yeshua’s temptation in the desert confronts us with the fact that QAnon is unwittingly correct in saying that the world is run by a cabal of Satan worshippers. It’s governed by a gang best described by OpEdNews’ editor in chief, Rob Kall, as “the devil’s Christians.”

I mean, the readings identify the worship of Satan as a prerequisite for endorsing empire of any kind – be it Rome’s or that of the United States.

The story of Yeshua’s temptation makes it clear that the Master rejected all of that. Even more shocking: subsequent history shows that his “followers” embraced fervently what he rejected so unequivocally. As a result, those pretending to follow Yeshua have been worshipping Satan since at least the 4th century of our era.

To illustrate my point, consider first of all the extent of U.S. empire and secondly the narrative under consideration. Then draw your own conclusions.

U.S. Empire

The best source I’ve come across for detailing the current extent of U.S. empire is Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern University. A few years ago, he published a book called How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. It describes the actual extent of U.S. empire that remains hidden even, as Immerwahr notes, from PhD historians.

Begin with his description of the occult U.S. realm that so concerns him. Immerwahr traces its inauguration to the period immediately after our country’s founding. It was then that settlers incorporated territories seized (in clear violation of treaties) from Native Americans.

Then in 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first and then [after the Mexican American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had added Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, and Wake Island.

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

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

Factor in the 800 U.S. military bases peppered across the world and one’s understanding of our empire’s extent expands exponentially. (Immerwahr notes that Russia, by contrast has 9 such bases; the rest of the world has virtually 0).

To understand the sheer numbers involved, think of our continued military presence in South Korea (35,000 troops) Japan (40,000), and Germany (32,000). Besides this, of course, there are the active troops who daily kill civilians and destroy property in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. In total we’re told that there are about 165,000 troops deployed in 150 countries throughout the world – though, in the light of what I’ve just recounted, even that number seems vastly understated.

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

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

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

Yeshua Rejects Empire

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

According to Yeshua, everything would be reversed in God’s Kingdom. The world’s guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first (MT 20:16). The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded (MT 21:31). The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e., to the gentle, humble and non-violent (MT 5:5). It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e., sharing).

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

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

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

However, Yeshua responds,

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

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

Christians Embrace of Empire

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

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

By this process, the devil actually became the Christian God!

Conclusion

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

On the contrary, today’s readings insist that all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift. Or in the words of Yeshua, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

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

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

The conclusion is inescapable. QAnon is right! The world is in fact run by a cabal of Satanists from the halls of the Vatican to the White House, to the Supreme Court and all those Christians who serve the interests of empire under the aegis of our nation’s armed services and the military-industrial complex. All of them have become the devil’s Christians.

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

Lenten Reflection: The Ash Wednesday after the Pope’s Resignation

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Well, it’s Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday. My question is what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?

The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” That title swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”

But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found such occupation unbearable, and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.

The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them. He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders.”

What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013?

I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.

Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”

Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that any new pope save the church from itself by rejecting the anti-Vatican II schismatic tendencies of the last two popes, healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination, and recognizing and honoring the contributions of Catholic women like the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)?

Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.

Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints I’ve just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So it’s time to get to work.

As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. I’m going to keep a spiritual journal this Lent to make sure I stay focused.

I’m also joining some friends of mine in a resolution to give up church for Lent. We’re doing so in favor of a six week experiment with an “Ecumenical Table” — a lay-led liturgical gathering often featuring a woman as homilist and Eucharistic Prayer leader. Though some in the group will also continue to attend their normal churches, the experiment may help us discern how to finally cope with the white-washed tombs of God I mentioned earlier.

And then there’s our parish Lenten Program I’ll be facilitating. It’s called “The Quest of the Historical Jesus: from Jesus to Christ.” It will be devoted to discovering the carpenter Yeshua behind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. In the light of our discoveries, we’ll unpack the liturgical readings for the following Sunday in hopes of making those Lenten liturgies more meaningful and challenging.

Additionally, my wife Peggy and I will also be working hard on our communication and have decided to devote significant time each evening to listening to each other in a loving respectful way.

In these ways I hope to pass my most fruitful Lent ever, to be truly able to rise with Yeshua to a new level of Kingdom-commitment on Easter Sunday.