Why Jesus’ Followers Should Never Support an Empire Like America’s — Not Even in Ukraine

Readings: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

Can a follower of Jesus ever be pro-empire? Can genuine Christians support an empire like the United States?

If you answer “yes,” you’re in good company. That’s because ever since the 4th century, mainstream Christians have given empire hearty endorsements that Jesus could never have tolerated.

I bring that up because today’s Palm Sunday readings pinpoint not only Jesus’ anti-imperialism, but the precise moment when Christians began their fatal departure from the stance against empire that the Master evidently adopted throughout his life. (After all, he was executed by Rome as an insurgent and terrorist.)

And that departure has made it possible for us who now live in the belly of the imperial beast to naively think that representatives of empire are actually capable of telling the truth when empire’s criminal interests are involved — for example in Ukraine.

From the viewpoint of the imperialized (like Jesus and his counterparts in today’s Global South) imperialists have no idea of truth.  

This whole question is related to the process of discernment in Ukraine as puzzled over recently on OpEdNews.

Let me explain by first looking at questions asked there about the war, truth and falsehood. Then I’ll compare those queries with Jesus’ attitude towards the Roman Empire as described and eventually distorted in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. Finally, I’ll return to the Ukraine question with some practical conclusions about truth discernment in the light of the gospel.  

Truth & Ukraine

Last week, Meryl Ann Butler published a thoughtful and soberly reasoned article headlined under the title “Russia, Ukraine, and the Elusive Truth.” Towards helping readers uncover that furtive reality, she stated indisputably that “Each one of us can’t physically go all over the globe to find out for ourselves what is actually going on.”

Given that obstacle, she wondered what is a truth seeker to do?

I think Jesus’ example in today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer. The readings imply that at least for Christians (and leftists and progressives in general) determination of truth relative to wars fought by imperialist powers can be reached much more easily than by on-site visitation or even intense study of each case of imperial involvement in far off corners of the world.

I mean, the case of the colonized Jesus indicates that imperial intervention can NEVER be justified – and certainly not in modern terms of protecting democracy or human rights. This is because (like all victims of imperialism) Jesus must have somehow realized that by definition, empires can NEVER be genuinely interested in realities that contradict their very essence.

I mean that whatever their pretensions, all empires are essentially rapacious systems of tyranny. Again, in terms foreign to Jesus (but relevant nonetheless) they’re all definitively anti-democratic violators of human rights. So, without the strongest evidence to the contrary, interventions by empires MUST BE understood as aggressive self-extension, larcenous enrichment, and anti-democratic control.

With all of that in mind, all that’s required for progressive critical thinkers to evaluate information and disinformation coming from Ukraine is acknowledgment of the above facts coupled with recognition of the presence in Ukraine’s case of established historical patterns followed elsewhere by U.S. empire.

Yes, you might say, but isn’t Russia imperial too?

Not really. The only empire involved in Ukraine is the United States which proudly owns the designation. Russia (whose economy is smaller than Italy’s) is economically incapable of imperialism. In fact, the war in Ukraine pits a David against a huge menacing Goliath – or, as Richard Wolff has expressed it, against at least 15 Goliaths (NATO has 30 members).

Instead of imperialist aggression (like it or not) Russia is simply following the long-established malpractice of the United States by protecting its own “backyard” from imperial aggression, but this time precisely by the U.S. and its NATO clients against a country 6000 miles from U.S. borders. In other words, Russia’s interest in defending itself from an enemy at the gates is on the face of it far more credible and legitimate than the more remote interests of NATO and especially of America.

Jesus Anti-Imperialism

If all of that is true, how did Jesus become a champion of empire? Why would adherents of the Judeo-Christian tradition support U.S.. policy in Ukraine?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s so-called “Passion Narratives” reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing their leader in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from empire.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus, the messianic construction worker? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus’ sacrificial death was about to open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew was about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend (Luke 22:18).

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was an internationalist open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus probably was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon) . Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear his words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade (Matthew 21:2).

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed along with other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

Conclusion

What’s going on here relative to our questions about empire and Ukraine? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for his audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can so easily succumb to empires (Roman, British, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Ukrainian Nazis’ comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake Germans made 80 years ago and Ukrainian Nazis are making today. Then (and now in Ukraine) instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shout(ed) “Heil Hitler!” to imperialist torturers, xenophobes, and hypocrites found so plenteously in “neo” form within the Ukraine government and military.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.

As for the search for truth, my practical conclusion here is that the reason for imperial interest in a far distant country like Ukraine can be determined by what I call “historical pattern analysis,”

I mean, the well-established U.S. pattern of imperial aggression involving oil-rich nations strongly suggests that the operative reason for United States interest in Ukraine is not only connected with threatening and controlling NATO’s prime enemy (its very raison d’etre), but with capturing Russian oil and liquid natural gas markets – along with astronomical profits benefitting the military industrial complex – not to mention rehabilitating the status of a president with precipitously plunging poll numbers.

Statements by U.S. spokespersons contradicting the above are at best highly questionable and at worst outright lies.

They also contradict the experience and example of Jesus.

Palm Sunday Reflection: The Revolutionary Jesus

Readings for Palm Sunday: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-7; Psalm 22: 17-24; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14: 15-47

Today is Palm Sunday. For Christians, it begins “Holy Week” which recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), his Last Supper (Holy Thursday), his torture and execution (Good Friday), and his resurrection from the dead as the culmination of a long history that began with the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Holy Saturday).

As just noted, the saga begins today by recalling what the Christian Testament remembers as the day when Jesus was greeted by chanting throngs as he entered the city seated on a donkey while the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna.” They spread their cloaks before the animal that bore him to the temple precincts where he famously evicted money changers and vendors of sacrificial animals.

The event is full of political significance for those of us whose government has proudly inherited the mantle of the Roman Empire. That’s because the supposed events of Palm Sunday were probably part of a much larger general demonstration of faithful Jews including Jesus against the oppression that is part and parcel of all imperial systems including our own. As such, today’s narrative calls us to resistance of U.S. Empire as Rome’s contemporary successor.

To understand what I mean, consider (1) the significance of the Jerusalem demonstration itself and the role that palms played in its unfolding, (2) the demonstration’s chant “Hosanna, Son of David” and (3) the meaning of all this for our own lives.

Jerusalem Direct Action  

For starters, think about what actually happened in Jerusalem during that first Demonstration of Palms.

Note at the outset that if the event wasn’t a whole-cloth invention of the early church, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem as a universally acclaimed figure. That’s because the gospels make it clear that all during his “public life,” Jesus confined his activities of healing and speaking to small villages where his audiences were poor illiterate peasants.

Given their small numbers, poverty and the expenses of travel and lodging, their massive presence in Jerusalem would have been highly unlikely. This meant that Jesus’ profile would have remained exceedingly low in larger cities and nearly non-existent in his nation’s capital city, Jerusalem. He would have been largely unknown there.

Again, if the event happened at all, it is more likely that the part Jesus and his disciples played in it was marginal and supportive of a larger parade and demonstration supported by well-organized revolutionaries such as Judah’s Zealot cadres whose raison d’etre was the expulsion of the occupying forces from Rome.

This also means that the demonstration’s climax with its “cleansing of the temple” would probably have represented a much larger assault on the sacred precincts where only large numbers of protestors would have stood any hope of impact rather than an individual construction worker supported by 12 fishermen.

(Remember, the residence of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, was actually attached to the temple itself. So were the barracks of Jerusalem’s occupying force. The annex was called the Fortress Antonia. During the Passover holidays, everyone there would have been on high alert rendering any small demonstration – and probably any large one — virtually impossible. If the temple itself were not crawling with Roman soldiers, they would have been surveilling the whole scene.)

But even if (before that) Jesus were welcomed by the frantic crowds as depicted in the gospels, the event would have been precisely intended to be seen by the Romans as highly political and perhaps even decisive in defeating their hated occupation and bringing on in its place what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God.

(Jesus’ high hopes surrounding the incidents of this final week in his life are suggested by the words Mark records at the Last Supper in today’s gospel reading: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” In other words, Jesus evidently thought that the events of this first “holy week” would signify a political turning point for Jews in their struggle against Rome. Their uprising would finally bring in God’s kingdom.)

Jesus’ Anti-Imperialism

In any case and whatever its historical merits, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is presented as anti-imperial. The waving of palms, the chanting of the crowd, and Jesus’ mount all tell us that. In Jesus’ time, the waving palms on patriotic occasions (like Passover) was like waving a national or revolutionary flag. That had been the case ever since the successful rebellion led by the Jewish revolutionary Maccabee family against the Seleucid tyranny of Antiochus IV Epiphanes 150 years earlier.

So, crowds greeting Jesus with palms raised high while chanting “Hosanna, Son of David” (save us!) would have meant “Hail to the Son of David, who will lead us to regain our freedom from the Romans, the way the Maccabees led the revolution against the Seleucid tyrant!” Jesus’ choice of a traditionally royal donkey as his mount would only have underscored that message. Only kings rode donkeys in processions.    

All of this means that the story of “Palm Sunday” as presented in today’s reading depicts an overt threat to the imperial system of Rome supported by Jerusalem’s Temple establishment.

Anti-Imperialism Today

So, what’s my point in emphasizing the political dimensions of Palm Sunday? Simply put, it’s to call attention to the fact that followers of Jesus must be anti-imperial too.

That’s because imperialism as such runs contrary to the Hebrew covenant that protected the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans and resident non-Jews from the depredations of local elites and outside military powers.

And that’s what empire represents in every case. It’s a system of robbery by which militarily powerful nations victimize the less powerful for purposes of resource transfer from the poor to the already wealthy.

Such upward redistribution of wealth runs absolutely contrary to the profound social reform promised in Jesus’ notion of the Kingdom of God. There, everything would be reversed downward. The first would be last; the last would be first (Matthew 20:16). The hungry would be fed and the rich would suffer famine (Luke 1: 53). The rich would become poor and the poor would be rich. The joyful would be saddened and those in tears would laugh (Luke 6: 24-25).

Contradicting those grassroots aspirations is the very purpose of U.S. empire today with its endless wars, nuclear arms, bloated Pentagon budgets, and glorification of the military. All of that is about supporting the status quo and preventing Jesus’ Great Reversal.

That’s why American armed forces maintain more than 800 military bases throughout the world. All of them are engines of stability in a world of huge inequalities. (Btw, do you know how many foreign bases China maintains? One!!) Maintaining stability in a world crying out for change is why the U.S. is currently fighting seven wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Niger – and who knows where else) with no end in sight. (Today’s designated enemy, China, is fond of pointing out that it hasn’t dropped a single bomb on foreign soil for 40 years.)

Conclusion

Recently, a conservative church friend of mine told me that his primary identity is as a follower of Jesus. I found that wonderfully inspiring.

On second thought however, I wondered which Jesus he was referring to. Was it to the revolutionary Jesus of Palm Sunday? Or did his Jesus support U.S. empire? Did he promise individualized prosperity as the result of following him? Was his Jesus politically involved? Or did he simply ignore politics in favor of internal peace and a promised heaven after death?

The questions are crucial. There are so many Jesuses of faith. And, of course, we’re all free to choose our favorite. By the same token however, we have to explain how an “other-worldly” Jesus would have appealed to his impoverished audiences like those depicted in today’s gospel. My guess is that an other-worldly guru would have had zero appeal to them.

Why would such a Jesus have been seen as threatening to Rome? Again, he would not have been.

Yes, there are many Jesuses of faith. However, there was only one historical Jesus. And it seems logical to me that the historical Jesus must be the criterion for judging which Jesus of faith we accept — if any.

Today’s recollection of the parade down Jerusalem’s main street, with crowds waving revolutionary symbols, and its assault on the sacred temple precincts (including Roman barracks) remind us that the historical Jesus stood against empire. Like every good Jew of his time, Jesus not only hoped for empire’s overthrow, but worked to that end with its promised Great Reversal.

No wonder Jesus was so popular with his poor and oppressed neighbors. No wonder Rome executed him as an insurgent. No wonder that particular Jesus seems so foreign to us who now live in the belly of empire’s beast. No wonder he remains so despicable to our religious and political mainstream.

U.S. Wars on Muslims Continue Even During CV-19 & BLM Uprisings

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8: 26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire. So, don’t be confused by the words Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth about an afterlife filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

No, today’s readings are much more relevant than that. They’re actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. They suggest that Americans withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East. (Need I remind us that even during the Covid-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter uprising, U.S. wars against Muslims continue unabated?)

At the same time, the day’s three parables attributed to Jesus also imply a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. Today, as the principal victims of (U.S.) imperialism, Muslims are the closest analogue to the Judeo-Christian understanding of “People of God.” So, all three readings call followers of Islam [which recognizes Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

Today’s Readings

To get my meaning, begin by considering my translations of today’s exceptionally beautiful readings. As usual, you’re advised to check the originals here to see if I’ve got them right:

Wisdom 13: 13, 16-19: Our Divine Mother loves all her creatures, even unbelievers. She condemns no one. Her love is the source of justice, easy forgiveness and of human courage. Consequently, the truly powerful on earth are also merciful, lenient, gentle and kind. None of us should worry about our “sins.” They are all forgiven.

Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16: Yes, our Divine Mother is good, understanding and kind. So, in time of trouble, we should feel confident asking for her help. She’s the One we’re all looking for. Deep down, we all want to be like her – forgiving, graceful, patient, gentle and faithful. At our profoundest level, we are!

Romans 8: 26-27: In fact, our Mother is there even for those who don’t know how to pray. Weak, painful groanings are enough. She knows what they mean. She knows we’re trying to do our best.

Matthew 13: 24-43: Our Mother’s world is like a garden sown with radiantly beautiful flowers of all kinds and colors. However, the spiritually unevolved sow weeds of hatred and violence to ruin that splendid paradise. Don’t resist them in kind. That only makes matters worse. Instead, just tend the flowers. Our compassionate Mother will do the rest. Her power is everywhere like yeast in a loaf of bread. That knowledge should give us courage to exercise similar gentle influence everywhere.

Jesus & Nonviolent Resistance

I hope you’re able to see the call to non-violence contained in those selections. They implicitly address all victims of aggression by Americans, today’s ruling empire. This means the selections are most relevant to the Muslim community and the question whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist their oppressors in kind – i.e. with extreme violence.

That is, Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause including land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

Conclusions for Muslims

How then are Muslims to respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ answer? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all, think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants, weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So, Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves in Rome’s “garden.” Be like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than ordinary Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

Conclusions for Christians

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or our Divine Mother?

What do you think?

From the Beatification of Pontius Pilate to the Sanctification of Donald Trump: Two Peas in a Pod

Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the one who owns casinos and strip clubs, who has been married three times and brags about sexually assaulting women. 

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a person whose policies favor the rich and punish the poor, who despises immigrants, advocates torture, and whose appetite for profit seems insatiable.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He himself was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the declared positions of virtually the entire Republican Party. They’re all imperialists. All of them are friends of the one percent. They all want to increase military spending — apparently without question or limit.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way. It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safehouse to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so, what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 87 years ago in Germany. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities and the trend among white evangelicals that impossibly transforms Donald Trump into a Christian hero. The imperialists Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler, and Mr. Trump all belong in the same anti-Christ category.

Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way

Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the one who owns casinos and strip clubs, who has been married three times and brags about sexually assaulting women. 

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a person whose policies favor the rich and punish the poor, who despises immigrants, advocates torture, and whose appetite for profit seems insatiable.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He himself was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the declared positions of virtually the entire Republican Party. They’re all imperialists. All of them are friends of the one-percent. They all want to increase military spending — apparently without question or limit.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So, on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he was arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Jews collaborating with the Romans).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe-house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of the procurator as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So, he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 80 years ago. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.

Following Jesus Means Resisting U.S. Empire: It Means Risking Jail, Torture & Execution

Imperial Bombs

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

Presently, I’m reading again John Dominic Crossan’s brilliant book on Jesus’ resistance to empire. It’s called God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. As described on its jacket, the book’s thesis is that “at the heart of the bible is a moral and ethical call to fight unjust superpowers, whether they are Babylon, Rome, or even America.”

Since it is about empire, this Sunday’s Gospel selection is directly related to Crossan’s thesis. In fact, the selection addresses Jesus’ non-violent and hugely ignored resistance to Rome. It includes his call for us to join him in resisting empire’s inherent evil, while nevertheless refusing to employ violence in doing so.

Though most who preach this week probably won’t say so, that’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the anti-imperial “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers oppose empire non-violently no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with the man, and in effect tells Peter to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”)

Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand on the one hand who Peter is, and on the other the claimed identity of Jesus.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of armed violence.

What I’m pointing out is that many scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers.

Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However, his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear. Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.” (That’s what “messiah” meant for first century Jews.)

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) As today’s text shows, his primary identification was not with “messiah,” but with a particular understanding of the “Son of Man.” The latter is a figure taken from the Book of Daniel which was written in resistance to the Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek sovereign who oppressed the Jews in the 2nd century BCE.

Daniel presents the Son of Man (or the Human One as some translate it) as the opponent and conqueror of all Israel’s oppressors from the Babylonians, through the Medes, Persians and Greeks. However, as Crossan and others show, Jesus’ opposition to empire remained non-violent.

Jesus reveals this crucial distinction, for instance, in the full form of his famous declaration before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (JN 18:36). In its complete form, the quotation runs, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. These words contrast the nature of Jesus’ non-violent kingdom founded on justice with that of Pilate’s extremely violent Rome founded on injustice.

So, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter might be translated: “Look, like you and the Human One Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as any good Jew. However, unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing my Roman brothers and sisters who share our humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans will actually end up torturing and killing me! But I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant.

[Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.]

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute. So, he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to join him in non-violent resistance to empire. Despite Peter’s remonstrances, the Master doubles down on his call to such activism. He says unequivocally that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. (Remember that the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So, Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.)

What can that mean for us today, when so many of our politicians and their cheerleaders proudly embrace U.S. identity as the latest most powerful incarnation of Roman dominance?

Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and our church communities.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.” Simply put: we’re not living in the greatest country in the world. Instead, we are living in the belly of a brutal imperial beast.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the inevitable “prophetic script” that Jesus foresees, then our claim to follow him has consequences.

It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie, Berta Cáceres and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we too must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for our church communities here in the beast’s belly. They mean we must come to terms with the fact that circumstances have changed here over the last 17 years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, pepper sprayed, tear gassed, jailed, or even (especially if we are not white) murdered by out-of-control police forces. We risk going to jail and all that suggests.

The question is, are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard questions and challenges. And surely, we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though, I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom of God.”

You probably won’t hear that from the pulpit this morning.