Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd SAM 7:1-5, 8-12, 14A, 16; PS 89: 2-5, 27-29; ROM 16: 25-27; LK 1: 21-38 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122114.cfm
Strange that according to a poll last week, more than half the “American” people think torture is permissible. I say “strange” because nearly 80% of Americans consider themselves “Christian.” And Jesus himself was a victim of torture. On the other hand, can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone?
You’d think the similarities between the Romans’ treatment of Jesus and the “Americans’” treatment of countless innocent victims would make devout Christians less accepting of torture. Maybe they’d oppose torture on principle, as a matter of faith.
Or perhaps it’s that they just agree with ex-VP, Dick Cheney. After all, he wouldn’t consider “torture” what the Romans’ enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) did to Jesus – not the prolonged beating we all witnessed portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” not the crowning with thorns, not forcing a beaten man to carry his own instrument of execution, not driving nails into his hands and feet, not leaving him for hours struggling for breath on a cross whose chief agony was bringing the victim to the point of asphyxiation (like waterboarding) and beyond.
According to Mr. Cheney, that punishment would have crossed the line to torture only at the point when death proved imminent. Unfortunately, as with untold (literally) victims of U.S. enhanced interrogation, that line was crossed in the case of Jesus.
But in the end, as supporters of U.S. Empire, “American” Christians probably understand and forgive what the Romans did. After all, like its U.S. counterpart, the Roman Empire was under siege on all sides. And the Jews were particularly rebellious. And Jesus (in Roman eyes) gave every indication of leading a rebellion. An empire’s got to do what an empire’s got to do – even if it means killing the innocent like Jesus.
I think however that there’s something more than compassion failure at work here. The “more” is the power of propaganda. That’s something addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. There the author of 2nd Samuel whitewashes the brutal King David and turns him from something like a mafia don into a national hero. In today’s gospel selection, even the evangelist, Luke buys the distortion. He makes Jesus the successor of David.
I’ll get to that in a moment. But let me first finish with the torture document. You see, (as Glen Greenwald has pointed out) it’s no wonder that “Americans” can’t identify with the tortured much less connect them with Jesus.
That’s because since the Report’s release on December 9th, the mainstream media (MSM) has treated us to an endless parade of torturers and torture enablers explaining away the conclusions of the Senate’s years-long study. We haven’t heard a word from the victims of torture or from the families of those whose sons and daughters were killed at the hands of sadistic representatives of our government.
The result of this one-sided silencing of the victims has been to rob them of their humanity – of their very existence. Given the deafening silence, why would we feel compassion for people who don’t even exist? Out of sight, out of mind.
Imagine how better informed we’d be if on “Meet the Press” or somewhere Mr. Cheney had to defend his policies against his victims – many of whom, Greenwald reminds us (because he has interviewed them) are incredibly articulate. Perhaps the victims might suggest waterboarding the ex-VP to see if he really believes that practice doesn’t sink to the level of torture.
According to University of Wisconsin –Madison Professor Alfred McCoy (the author of Torture and Impunity) this erasure of victims is all part of a five-stage policy on the question of torture. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the first step was identifying the low level perpetrators with “bad apples.” The second stage kept rumors of more widespread torture at bay in the name of national security. Thirdly, President Obama adopted the “let’s look forward, not backward” approach. Fourthly came the move to exonerate all those guilty of torture or enabling the practice. Finally we’ve reached the stage which emerged last week: vindication before the bar of history of all those connected with U.S. torture.
Again, that’s where the battle has been joined today; we’re struggling over historical narrative. This is the stage all empires come to eventually as their crimes inevitably come to light. It’s what we witness in today’s liturgy of the word and the white-washing of Israel’s King David. The example is instructive. It suggests practical responses to the Torture Report at both the level of faith and political action.
You see, there are really two separate king David traditions in the Bible. One presents the good David, the other, the bad. The good David is the one largely presented in I Chronicles 10:14-29:30. He also appears in today’s first reading from 2nd Samuel and in the responsorial psalm.
This David is pious, and wants to build a temple for God. According to the story, God is pleased, and rewards him with everything a king could want: victory over his enemies, immortal fame, prosperity for his people, thriving descendants, and a dynasty that will last forever.
Then there’s the bad David who begins to appear in I Samuel, chapter 16. This David is a murderous tyrant. He rebels against Saul, Israel’s first king. He’s a womanizer, a murderer and an object of popular hate. Far from lasting forever, his dynasty ends with the death of his successor, Solomon. He’s the David whose death-bed instructions are worthy of any Mafia godfather. To Solomon he says, “Take care of my friends, Sol – and my enemies too (wink, wink). You know what I mean?” (IKGS 2: 1-9)
Besides that, the bad David bastardizes the Mosaic Covenant and its protection of widows, orphans, and resident aliens and turns it into a tool of the ruling classes – from Moses’ “I will be your God and you will be my people,” into David’s “You are my son, the king of Israel, and your dynasty will last forever.”
Of course, the bad David has been swallowed up by popular memory of its competing tradition. David is uniformly remembered by the majority of believers as the man “after God’s own heart.” As I said, in today’s familiar gospel selection, Luke falls into that trap. He makes Jesus (through his foster father, Joseph, no less) the successor of David. And this even though Jesus as portrayed by Luke is no friend of the Temple or of kings and emperors. Rather he is the friend of the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant – the widows, orphans, aliens, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans. His values do not include enemies (much less victory over them) or prosperity, fame, or everlasting dynasties.
Recognizing this struggle over which narrative will prevail sheds light on the Torture Report. It enables followers of the simple man from Nazareth to judge that the struggle even before the bar of biblical history has been won by the likes of Cheney and Bush. It has been won by the bad David.
Our conclusion: we must not allow that to happen as we fight over whose story should prevail concerning the latest revelations about the powerful organized crime syndicate known as the CIA.
So what should we do? Our response should be at two levels.
At the level of faith believers should be exposed to the historical Jesus I’m attempting to present in these homilies. We neglect those powerful myths at our own peril. Even the uninformed can understand them. This means that the Jesus’ story represents a powerful tool for raising consciousness about torture (and other issues of social justice).
It’s true that the MSM might not expose the story of the tortured to that 80% of “Americans” who claim to be Christian. However, if those with the responsibility for explaining the sacred texts assume that responsibility and do their homework, there’s no reason why those wishing to follow Jesus can’t understand that:
- Jesus himself was a victim of torture at the hands of an empire very like the United States.
- He taught universal love.
- He was non-violent
- He said he considers what’s done to the least of the human race as done to him.
- He said we should love our enemies.
At the political level we should:
- Urge outgoing senator Mark Udall (D Colorado) to use his senatorial privilege of unlimited free speech to release the entire unredacted torture document.
- Pressure the media through phone calls and letters to the editor to present the other side of the torture story including interviews with torture victims and with the families of those whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives were killed under CIA torture.
Let me get this straight.
We’re supposed to believe CIA director John Brennan when he says the 6000 page document is wrong when it indicts him and his organization for lying, brutality, torture, head slamming, crimes against humanity, and sadistic practices such as “rectal hydration,” “rectal feeding” (?), “threatened” rape and execution?
This is the same John Brennan who before his own Inspector General proved him a liar, claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Dianne Feinstein, was wrong about him last July. That’s when she charged that Brennan’s agency tried to undermine her Committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program by breaking into the investigators’ computers.
At that time Brennan contradicted Feinstein with feigned offense and a straight face saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”
Oh, but now I guess he’s changed. Now we can trust him. He’s telling the truth this time – as head of an organization whose very job description is to dissimulate, equivocate and outright lie.
But that’s not the half of it. In fact it’s less than 10% of it.
You see, Brennan is treating the heavily redacted 600 page executive summary of the Torture Report as if it were the whole thing. However more than 90% of what the Senate Committee found (the worst 90%, we’re told!) will never see the light of day. That’s because our public servants are convinced that if U.S. citizens and the world knew “the rest of the story,” general outrage would know no bounds.
Imagine what that might mean. That is, if we’re all outraged by the “rectal feeding,” “threats” of rape, and by untold numbers actually killed under torture, what do you suppose is contained in the 90% of the report that’s too gruesome to reveal?
Let me offer some suggestions: actual rape, sodomy, burnings, electric shock, routine killings and systemic sadism beyond any practiced in Abu Ghraib.
No wonder Mr. Brennan (like all criminals) claims innocence. No wonder he would rather forget about the past and “look to the future.” Criminal trials and jail time aren’t attractive to any “perps.”
By the way, here’s how to evaluate the torture report and Brennan’s denials. Ask yourself, what if an identical document were published about the “enhanced interrogation” techniques (EITs) of Cuba, Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, or ISIS ? What would we think of such practices then? Would we wonder whether they constitute torture or not? What would the Fox News pundits and politicians say about Russia’s (EITs)?
What value would we give to the official denials of John Brennan’s counterparts among our designated enemies? And why should we believe that their crimes are any greater than those of the CIA – or that our official culture is somehow superior to theirs?
Oh, I forgot, it’s because the CIA tells us so.
Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121414.cfm
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I had an important spiritual experience last Sunday. It was the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?
At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s liturgy of the word on this third Sunday of Advent. After all, in today’s readings, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth. I wonder if I and my family are strong enough to entertain them.
For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,
“I am nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
. . . How dreary to be somebody.”
Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.
And the specific message of the One to come? (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.) Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)
Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.
As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:
“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.
The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth. Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.
If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police? The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers. It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:
- Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
- Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
- On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
- Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
- In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
- Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange. (More about this in a later posting.)
- Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of Mike Brown, Eric Brown and Tamir Rice) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
- Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2015 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
- Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.
I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.
In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.
Do you have other ideas about where or how to start? If so, please share them. And what about that alternative Christmas celebration involving the whole family on Christmas morning? Can you help with any suggestions there?
Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:
“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”
I entered a saint’s house today,
Thomas Merton’s hermitage
In Gethsemane, Kentucky,
A stark cinder-block hut
With walls unpainted
At the end of a long muddy path
Covered with stones
And fallen brown leaves
In a bleak December woods.
The journey to Gethsemane was tedious
But grand –
Two hours along twisting roads
Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch
With their stunning landscapes
Of rolling bluegrass hills
And endless farms
Dotted with double-wides
And red brick mansions
With identical Christmas lights
Following the contours of their disparate roofs
And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.
Near the monastery
I passed huge black distilleries
of presaging Spirits –
Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.
Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,
A bedroom with a narrow cot
On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed
Of that nurse in Louisville
Who won his heart
And made him human
For the rest of us.
There was a kitchen and bathroom
And a chapel too
With a small square altar
And a wall with the Coptic icons
So dear to that mystic’s soul.
We sat in a circle
Twenty of us
In Father Louis’ living room
On folding chairs
Spotted with rust
Between a smoking fire
And the desk where “Louie”
Used to write.
Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,
We were told,
And MLK would’ve as well
Had not the assassin’s bullet
Aborted his planned pilgrimage
To the Great Man’s feet.
We listened to Brother Paul
Read his poetry –
A gloss on Matthew’s words,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In the winter cold,
But brother Paul was on fire,
His breath’s vapor blending
With the hearth’s smoke.
For the wakeful,
His words lit flames
That made wood fire redundant.
All of us are poor
None of this is ours
Everything is gift.
Prayer knows the Reality
That is always there
But not perceived.
It is coming to realize
What we already sense
But normally do not recognize.
Prayer is a pause
That shifts the atmosphere
Of the soul.
It is encountering a Christ
Who comes in ways hidden,
But not recognized
For a long time.
Paul quoted Emily Dickinson
Who are you?
Are you nobody too? . . .
How dreary to be somebody!”
Suddenly Paul jumped up.
“It’s time for Vespers,” he said,
And ran off.
The rest of us scurried to follow him
To the monastery chapel.
“I used to live like this,”
I thought as I stared at the monks
In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.
There were perhaps thirty of them
Mostly middle-aged and older
One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.
“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.
I wondered how.
All men, dressed identically,
Praying together seven times each day,
Keeping long silences
Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,
Now and then catching glimpses of women
And wondering about them
Before driving those thoughts from our minds.
I’m glad I failed at that.
But Brother Paul was right.
It is all gift.
Trying to be somebody
Is quite dreary
Truly I was born without anything .
So were you.
My goal is
To keep most of it
Till I die.
I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving. Oh, it’s not that I don’t like turkey and won’t eat my share. It’s just that, like most of you, I’ve got this Fox News brother-in-law, and he gives me indigestion. I see Harry once a year, and for the past six Thanksgivings it’s always the same: complaints about Obama. You know the drill; just read Rush Limbaugh’s current talking points. They’re all sure to surface at Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, no doubt, we’ll end up arguing about immigrants, immigration reform, and the imperial presidency. My brother-in-law will complain about “illegals” (that’s what he’ll call undocumented workers), the law, amnesty, border security, and Obama’s failure to reach across the aisle to well-meaning and otherwise cooperative Republicans.
But most of all, my dear relative will complain about the disruptive effects of “the brown peril” – waves of immigrants pouring over our borders and disrupting our economy. “I mean,” he’ll say, “if we keep giving amnesty to ‘those people,’ they’ll disrupt everything. You just can’t let everybody into the country without rules. ‘Freedom’ like that is simply anarchy. And anarchy is destructive. They’ll eventually take all the good jobs.”
Well, here’s what I plan on telling old Harry this year:
“You see, Harry, we’re finally getting a taste of the disruption economies like Mexico have experienced since 1994 and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was then that in the name of “free trade” tsunami waves of capital investment were unleashed across the Mexican border. To Mexican farmers it was an onslaught of “white peril” that dwarfs any threat you and I might experience from brown people.
“For instance, cheap American corn (actually subsidized in the NAFTA agreement) drove Mexican farmers out of business. True, a relatively few of them got employment in maquiladoras (assembly plants). But many of those factories soon closed when it became possible to hire lower wage workers in China and Vietnam. And in any case, working in the maquilas meant moving from the countryside to polluted and dangerous cities. It also meant accepting wages of $1.50 a day with no bathroom breaks. Conditions like those inevitably cause desperate workers to relocate to where the money is – to where the jobs are. And that’s the United States.
“Remember, Harry, there are two main components of the economic equation – not just capital. Labor is just as important. So any “free trade agreement” that allows capital to move without regulation should allow the same liberty to labor. Instead, the NAFTA insisted on free movement of capital alongside a captive labor force.
“Workers implicitly recognize the injustice of all that even if they can’t say the words. So despite ‘state law’ forbidding it, the labor force will obey the dictates of capitalism’s Sacred Law of supply and demand – of self-interest. Like capital, labor will migrate to where the money is. And you can’t really stop it. That’s capitalism.
“So here’s the way to stem the brown peril:
- Renegotiate the NAFTA recognizing labor’s freedom of movement as well as capital’s.
- That will mean electing governments on all sides of “free trade agreements” that truly represent working people and not just the corporations.
- Make sure that ALL stake-holders are represented at the negotiating table – including male and female workers, children, environmentalists, and trade unionists.
- Make sure the final product protects the environment and addresses climate change.
- See that the newly elected people’s governments establish a living NAFTA wage of $15.00 an hour – indexed to inflation rates.
“Without such provisions, Harry, I’m afraid workers will look abroad to better their condition. They’ll continue (like their capitalist counterparts) to act in their own self-interest relocating quite naturally to where the money is. Really, we can’t do anything about it.
Like I say, that’s capitalism.”
Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112314.cfm
At the moment, I’m teaching a wonderful course at Berea College, REL 126. It’s called “Poverty and Social Justice” and qualifies as part of the “Religion Requirement” all Berea students must fulfill. The course is populated by 19 very smart and engaged, (mostly third and fourth year) students.
Part of our goal is to become literate about the problems of poverty and justice in our very confusing world. And that has us tuning in to “Democracy Now” each day. We’re getting involved with a powerful group of local activists, “Kentuckians for the Commonwealth” (KFTC). We attend the group’s meetings each month and have volunteered for KFTC activities like voter registration and mobilization.
Additionally, students have been researching burning issues including the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Palestine, voter suppression, police militarization, and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
All of that has discussing the purpose of government. In that connection, students are finally getting clarity about what I consider THE fundamental political debate in our country: is the government’s role simply to provide infrastructure for commerce and to protect private property? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?
For the last thirty-five years or so, the former view has carried the day in the U.S. So it has become fashionable and politically correct even (especially?) for Christians to advocate depriving the poor of health care to help them achieve the American Dream, “ennobling” the unemployed by removing their benefits, criminalizing sharing food with the poor, and “punishing” perpetrators of victimless crimes by routinely placing them in solitary confinement.
Today’s readings reject all of that. And they do so on a specifically political liturgical day – the commemoration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Yes, this is a political liturgy if ever there was one. It’s all about “Lords” and “Kings” and how they should govern in favor of the poor. It’s about a new political order presided over by an unlikely monarch – a king who was executed as a terrorist by the imperial power of his day. I’m referring, of course, to the worker-rebel, Jesus the poor carpenter from Nazareth.
Today’s readings promise that the rebel – the “terrorist” – Jesus will institute an order utterly different from Rome’s. That order recognizes the divine nature of immigrants, dumpster-divers, those whose water has been ruined by fracking and pipe lines, the ragged, imprisoned, sick, homeless, and those (like Jesus) on death row. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what we celebrate on this “Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.”
(Btw: in the eyes of Jesus’ executioners, today’s commemoration would be as unlikely as some future world celebrating the “Solemnity of Osama bin Laden, King of the Universe.” Think about that for a minute!)
In any case, today’s readings delineate the parameters of God’s new universal political order. To get from here to there, they call governments to prioritize the needs of the poor and those without public power. Failing to do so will bring destruction for the selfish leaders themselves and for the self-serving political mess they inevitably cultivate.
Today’s first reading gets quite specific about that mess. There the prophet Ezekiel addresses the political corruption Lord Acton saw as inevitable for leaders with absolute power. Ezekiel’s context is the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. It found itself under immediate threat from neighboring Babylon (Iraq). In those circumstances, the prophet words use a powerful traditional image (God as shepherd) to inveigh against Israel’s pretentious potentates. In God’s eyes, they were supposed to be shepherds caring for their country’s least well-off. Instead, they cared only for themselves. Here’s what Ezekiel says in the lines immediately preceding today’s first lesson:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! . . . But you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
In other words, according to Ezekiel’s biblical vision, government’s job is to address the needs of the weak, the sick and the injured. It is to tenderly and gently bring back the wayward instead of punishing them harshly and brutally.
A great reversal is coming, Ezekiel warns. The leaders’ selfishness will bring about their utter destruction at the hands of Babylon.
On the other hand, Judah’s poor will be saved. That’s because God is on their side, not that of their greedy rulers. This is the message of today’s responsorial psalm – the familiar and beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . “) It reminds us that the poor (not their sleek and fat overlords) are God’s “sheep.” To the poor God offers what biblical government should: nothing but goodness and kindness each and every day. Completely fulfilling their needs, the divine shepherd provides guidance, shelter, rest, refreshing water, and abundant food. Over and over today’s refrain had us singing “There is nothing I shall want.” In the psalmist’s eyes, that’s God’s will for everyone – elimination of want. And so the task of government leaders (as shepherds of God’s flock) is to eradicate poverty and need.
The over-all goal is fullness of life for everyone. That’s Paul’s message in today’s second reading. It’s as if all of humanity were reborn in Jesus. And that means, Paul says, the destruction of “every sovereignty, every authority, every power” that supports the old necrophiliac order of empire and its love affair with plutocracy, war and death instead of life for God’s poor.
And that brings us to today’s culminating and absolutely transcendent gospel reading. It’s shocking – the most articulate vision Jesus offers us of the basis for judging whether our lives have been worthwhile – whether we have “saved our souls.” The determining point is not whether we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal savior. In fact, the saved in the scene Jesus creates are confused, because their salvific acts had nothing to do with Jesus. So they ask innocently, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”
Jesus’ response? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
But more than personal salvation is addressed here. Jesus homage to Ezekiel’s sheep and shepherd imagery reminds us of judgment’s political dimension. So does Jesus’ reference to the judge (presumably himself) as “king.” And then there’s the church itself which centralizes this climactic scene precisely on this Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. All three elements say quite clearly that “final judgment” is not simply a question of personal salvation, but of judgment upon nations and kingdoms as well. To reiterate: in Matthew’s account, the final judgment centralizes the political.
And what’s the basis for the judgment on both scores? How are we judged as persons and societies? The answer: on the basis of how we treated the immigrants, the hungry, ill-clad, sick, and imprisoned.
On that basis, Jesus’ attitude towards the United States as earlier described ought to be quite clear. It’s the same as Ezekiel’s when he predicted the destruction of Israel at the hands of Iraq:
“Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”
Ironically enough that “fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is today being stoked in Iraq just as it was in the days of Ezekiel. This time the Babylonians call themselves the Islāmic Caliphate.
As Ezekiel might say, “You read it here first.”