The entire world stands aghast at the cruelty of Israel’s vicious and illegal collective punishment of Palestinian civilians for the perceived “crimes” of Hamas – the group of Palestinian resisters committed to the expulsion of illegal Zionist occupiers from the Palestinian homeland.
Today’s liturgy of the word implores the Zionists to abandon their butchery.
It also challenges Christians to denounce such ethnic cleansing and to withdraw the last vestiges of support for a group that more resembles their former Nazi persecutors than the “People of God” celebrated in the Hebrew Bible.
At the same time, today’s readings support rabbi Michael Lerner in cautioning Hamas against its policy of violent resistance. Though many of us would agree that Hamas’ tactics are understandable and often justified by principles of self-defense, today’s Gospel reading identifies them as counterproductive and ultimately harmful to the very people Hamas seeks to defend.
Instead, Jesus suggests that violent resistance should be replaced by greater reliance on more subtle and patient strategies. Such strategies are reflected in the three basic themes of today’s readings. They emphasize (1) the power of God expressed in leniency and forgiveness, (2) the futility of violent response to unwanted foreign presence, and (3) resistance that takes the form of patient trust that God’s forgiving power will prevail. In succession, the themes suggest challenges for Jewish Zionists, Palestinians, and Christians.
Begin with the first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom. It is particularly relevant to Zionist Jews. The reading says explicitly that God’s power is not expressed in violence but in leniency to all, Jew and non-Jew alike.
That theme is repeated in today’s responsorial psalm with equal relevance to Zionists. There God is described as belonging to all nations. The divine Spirit, as Paul insists in today’s second reading, dwells within all humans regardless of nationality. It is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
From this, Jewish wisdom insists that the “People of God” must in turn be kind, lenient and forgiving to all – presumably even to their worst enemies. There is no room here for exceptions involving the indigenous tribal people of Palestine.
The second theme of today’s liturgy enjoys direct relevance to contemporary Palestinians. Whether they are Muslims or Christians (and many are Christians), they also recognize the Bible as the Word of God. I point to Palestinian relevance because this second theme addresses the question of resisting illegal occupation.
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 occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field. It was like the presence of basically European Zionist colonizers who have encumbered Palestinian land since their colonial invasion in 1948.
The question was how to deal with such odious foreign presence. 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 the more apocalyptic strategy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause which included 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 Hamas.
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 Zionist state) 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.
How then respond to illegal occupation like Rome’s in the 1st century or Israel’s over the last more than 60 years?
Jesus’ response? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not only to Palestinians, but to Christians who wish to help their brothers and sisters in Palestine against the Zionists-turned-Nazis.
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 weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather become weeds yourselves – like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than simple Roman (or Zionist) 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.
What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with Palestinians against their cruel 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.
* To bring about change, be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than seeking to destroy enemies.
* Recognize the Zionists for what they are: an outlaw European “settler society” illegally occupying Palestinian land.
* Take sides with Palestine’s indigenous tribal People.
* Recognize them for what they are: “the Jews’ Jews” – treated by Zionists in the same way the Nazis treated Jews in Germany.
* Petition the U.S. government to withdraw its support of Israel (more than one million dollars per day) unless the Zionists obey UN Resolution 242 and abandon the occupied territory while tearing down the odious Wall of Shame protecting the illegal Zionist settlements.
* Support boycotts of Israel’s products by not buying them and by urging our churches and places of business to do the same.
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 pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.
But then perhaps we think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or God?
Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55:10-11; PS 65:10-14; ROM 8:15-23; MT 13: 1-23; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071314.cfm
Last week, on the 4th of July, Amy Goodman replayed an interview with the legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger. In the course of the interview, Pete commented on today’s Gospel reading – the familiar parable of the Sower. His words are simple, unpretentious and powerful. They’re reminders that the stories Jesus made up were intended for ordinary people – for peasants and unschooled farmers. They were meant to encourage such people to believe that simple farmers could change the world – could bring in God’s Kingdom. Doing so was as simple as sowing seeds.
“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”
Farmers in Jesus’ day needed encouragement like that. They were up against the Roman Empire which considered them terrorists. We need encouragement too as we face Rome’s counterpart headed by the U.S.
The obstacles we face are overwhelming. I even hate to mention them. But the short list includes the following – all connected to seeds, and farming, and to cynically controlling the natural abundance which is celebrated in today’s readings as God’s gift to all. Our problems include:
• Creation of artificial food scarcity by corporate giants such as Cargill who patent seeds for profit while prosecuting farmers for the crime of saving Nature’s free production from one harvest to the following year’s planting.
• Climate change denial by the rich and powerful who use the Jesus tradition to persuade the naïve that control of natural processes and the resulting ecocide are somehow God’s will.
• Resulting wealth concentration in the hands of the 85 men who currently own as much as half the world’s (largely agrarian) population.
• Suppression of that population’s inevitable resistance by terming it “terrorism” and devoting more than half of U.S. discretionary spending to military campaigns against farmers and tribal Peoples scattering seed and reaping pitiful harvests in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.
• Ignoring what the UN has pointed out for years (and Thomas Picketty has recently confirmed): that a 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 individuals would produce the $40 billion dollars or so necessary to provide adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education and health care for the entire world where more than 40% still earn livings by sowing seeds.
• Blind insistence by our politicians on moving in the opposite direction – reducing taxes for the rich and cutting programs for the poor and protection of our planet’s water and soil.
It’s the tired story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the 1st century version of that old saw. In Jesus’ day it ran: “. . . to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that such cynical “wisdom” does not represent God’s way. Instead the divine order favors abundance of life for all – not just for the 1%. as our culture would have it. For instance, today’s responsorial psalm proclaims that even without human intervention, the rains and wind plow the ground. As a result, we’re surrounded with abundance belonging to all:
“You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.”
Because of God’s generosity, there is room for everyone in the Kingdom. The poor have enough; so poverty disappears. Meanwhile, the formerly super-rich have only their due share of the 1/7 billionth part of the world’s product that rightfully belongs to everyone.
To repeat: abundance for all is the way of Nature – the way of God.
Only a syndrome of denial – willful blindness and deafness – enables the rich and powerful to continue their exploitation. Jesus describes the process clearly in today’s final reading. He says:
“They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.”
Those of us striving to follow Jesus’ Way hear his call to open our eyes and ears. Conversion – deep change at the personal and social levels – is our shared vocation. That’s the only way to bring in God’s Kingdom. Individually our efforts might be as small and insignificant as tiny seeds. But those seeds can be powerful if aligned with the forces of Nature and the Kingdom of God. That’s true even if much of what we sow falls on rocky ground, are trampled underfoot, eaten by birds or are choked by thorns. We never know which seeds will come to fruition.
Such realization means:
• Lowering expectations about results from our individual acts in favor of the Kingdom.
• Nonetheless deepening our faith and hope in the inevitability of the Kingdom’s coming as the result of innumerable small acts that coalesce with similar acts performed by others.
Once again, Pete Seeger expressed it best:
“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”
Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ZEC 9:9-10; PS 145: 1-2, 8-11, 13-14; ROM 8:9, 11-13; MT 11:25-30; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/070614.cfm
Two weeks ago
Of a Cubs-Pirates game
At Wrigley Field,
They celebrated a Marine from Iraq –
A local boy
Who emerged from the Cubs’ dugout
To a hero’s welcome
From a crowd on its feet
Between swigs of PBR
As if the poor kid had hit
A game-winning dinger.
Reluctantly I stood up with the rest.
I now regret my applause.
I should have remembered shaved-headed
Kicking in front doors
Calling their parents “mother f_ _kers”
And binding tender wrists
With plastic handcuffs.
To rid the world of evil.
Pitiful brainwashed innocents,
Driven to war by poverty
To Haditha, Fallujah, Abu Grahib,
To weddings transformed in a flash and bang
Leaving mourners shocked and awed –
By what King called
“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world”
And what the Sandinista hymn identified as
“The enemy of mankind.”
I should have remembered
Iraq (and Afghanistan btw)
Were wars of choice,
“The supreme international crime.”
Why did I not recall Zechariah?
(And here come my references to the readings for this Sunday)
And the peace-making Messiah
Christians claim he prophesied.
The prophet’s Promised One would be
Gentle and meek
Riding an ass
Rather than a war horse
And banishing chariots, cross-bows
And drones raining hell-fire
From the skies.
His kingdom disarmed
Would encompass the entire world.
Refusing to call
Any of God’s “little ones”
(To use our military’s terms of art)
“Rag-heads” or “Sand ni_ ggers”
Paul called such imperial hate-speech “flesh.”
(Judging by appearances like skin color, nationality, religion)
“Live according to Christ’s Spirit,” Paul urged.
(Compassion for all, works of mercy)
No room for door-kickers there.
I should have remembered Jesus
And his yoke.
So good and light
The heavy burdens
The Roman War-makers
Laid on their subjects
Who kicked in Nazareth’s doors
And called parents like Joseph and Mary
“Mother f_cking Jews.”
Their imperial generals were “learned” and “wise”
In the ways of the world
But they piled crushing burdens
On the shoulders
Of those “little ones”
Jesus preferred –
In places far from the imperial center
Like Palestine (or Iraq today).
Victims there might be out of sight
For those enjoying bread, circuses
Cubs and Pirates,
But not for the All Parent
Described by the Psalmist today
As gracious, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, benevolent to all, compassionate, faithful, holy, and lifting up (rather than crushing) those who have fallen under the weight of the burdens Jesus decries.
I should have asked,
If following that Messiah
If worshipping that All Parent
Allowed standing and applauding
A robot returned
From a war
Where over a million civilians have been slaughtered
To rid the world of violence.
(In 1942 would I have joined the crowd
Applauding an S.S. “hero” in a Munich stadium
Just back from the front –or Auschwitz?
Or a pilot who had bombed Pearl Harbor
At a “Wrigley Field” in Tokyo?)
No: I should have had the courage
To remain seated.
And so should we all
• Celebrating the military
• Waving flags on the 4th of July
• Paying war taxes
• And wondering with Fox newscasters
What makes America great?
Readings for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul: Acts 12: 1-11; PS 34: 2-9; 2TM 4: 6-8, 17-18; MT 16: 13-19, http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/062914-day-mass.cfm
Pope Francis is at it again. He’s throwing stones at the U.S. Empire. (Details to follow.) Today’s liturgy of the word tells us that in doing so Francis is following in the footsteps of St. Peter, the” rock-thrower” of whom tradition tells us Pope Francis the successor.
The liturgy promises that joining Francis and Peter in their resistance to empire, while accepting the mysterious keys to God’s kingdom can release us from even the most impregnable imperial prison. This should give all of us encouragement as we struggle against the powerful “beast” whose policies would rather see behind bars people like Francis, Peter and many reading this homily.
To begin with, think about our prophet-pope. Three weeks ago, he reaffirmed what has become a theme of his papacy. Without mentioning the United States by name, he condemned the economic system “America” and its European partners champion.
He also condemned the wars the U.S. prosecutes and weaponizes. According to the pope, far from advancing freedom or democracy, the purpose of such war is to maintain a system of greed based on the worship of money. As such, that system is the cause of scandalous inequalities and unemployment across the globe – even as exposed by French economist, Thomas Picketty in his best-selling Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century.
Here are the pope’s actual words:
“We discard a whole generation to maintain an economic system that no longer endures – a system that to survive has to make war, as the big empires have always done. But since we cannot wage the Third World War, we make regional wars. And what does that mean? That we make and sell arms. And with that the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies — the big world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money — are obviously cleaned up.”
As indicated earlier, those words can be understood as following the anti-imperial rock-throwing tradition of Simon the apostle. After all the nom de guerre of that particular insurgent was “Peter,” a name some say meant “rock-thrower” – probably a reference to his prowess at hurling stones at Roman soldiers who occupied his homeland of Galilee. Peter was an insurgent not unlike those who have plagued U.S. misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In today’s gospel, Matthew turns rock-throwing into an anti-imperial metaphor describing the foundation of the Jesus Movement.
The evangelist does so by having Jesus raise three Socratic questions about God’s reign contrasted with Caesar’s – always the focus of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus’ first question sets an “apocalyptic” tone for the other two. The question represents a marker telling us that what follows will be highly political – a criticism of the imperial order Jesus and his friends found it so painful to live under. (The literary form “apocalypse” always entailed critique of empire.)
So seemingly out of the blue, the carpenter-rabbi asks, “Who do people say the ‘Son of Man’ is?” The question refers us, not to Jesus, but to a revolutionary character introduced in the Book of Daniel – written during the occupation of Palestine under the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Daniel’s character was “the Human One.” The book’s author sets that figure in sharp contrast to “the Beasts” (including a lion, a leopard and an iron-toothed dragon) who represent the imperial oppressors of Israel from the Egyptians through the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Greeks. In Jesus’ context, the Roman occupiers were the latest bestial incarnation. Everyone knew that.
According to Daniel’s author, the Human One would establish God’s compassionate (humanistic) order destined to replace all savage imperial arrangements. The resulting Kingdom would be friendly not to the royalty, the generals, “our troops,” or the 1%, but to those the biblical tradition identifies as God’s favorites – the widows, orphans, and undocumented foreigners. (This Sunday’s responsorial psalm calls such people the poor, the lowly, fearful, ashamed and distressed. They are the ones, the responsorial says, whom God can be counted on to rescue.)
In answer to Jesus’ question about the Son of Man’s identity, his disciples answer, “Some say he was John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Then Jesus asks, “what about me? Who do you think I am in the apocalyptic context I’ve just set – at this particularly pregnant moment when all of us are breathlessly expecting a change in World Order? That’s Jesus’ second question this morning.
Not surprisingly, Peter takes the bait. “You are the messiah,” he responds, “the Son of God.” With these words, the Jewish fisherman is not making a scholar’s metaphysical statement about Jesus’ “consubstantiality” with “the Father.” Rather, he’s distinguishing Jesus from the Roman emperor – the most prominent claimant to the titles, “Messiah” and “Son of God.” Yes, both “Messiah” and “Son of God” were imperial titles. Everyone knew that too.
This makes Peter’s statement highly political. It identifies Jesus as the true head of the New Order which prophets like John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah painted as the Dream of God. In words more relevant to our own time, Peter’s “confession of faith” is like saying “You, Jesus, are the real President, and your order has nothing to do with the United States or ‘America.’ In fact, it turns the values of empires – be they Rome or the United States – completely on their heads.”
Jesus’ response? (And this is the implied third question raised by Jesus – about Peter’s identity.) “You’re right, Simon. They don’t call you ‘Rock Thrower’ for nothing. And you’ve just thrown the most devastating rock of your life – this time at the Roman Empire itself. God’s kingdom puts the last first, the poor above the rich, and prostitutes and tax collectors ahead of priests and rabbis.
Jesus’ further comment shows that Peter has not merely thrown a rock; his understanding of God’s “preferential option for the poor” has moved a mountain. Recognizing Jesus and his priorities as the alternative to empire’s bestial order provides the foundation for the entire Jesus Movement.
It provides the KEY to the very kingdom of heaven. And the key is this: all human acts, whether they bind others (as empires always do) or free them (as Jesus’ followers are called to do) have cosmic significance. “What you bind on earth,” Jesus says, is bound in heaven. What you loose upon earth is loosed in heaven.” To repeat: empire’s nature is to bind the poor. In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to loosen the bonds of those the empire identifies as “the least.” No effort on behalf of human liberation is insignificant. Despite appearances, they are stronger than those of empire.
As if to illustrate the overwhelming power of God’s loosening over imperial bondage, today’s opening reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the miraculous release of Peter from prison. (Prisoners, of course, are also prominent among God’s favorites.) Like our situation today as we attempt to oppose the beast of empire, Peter’s seemed particularly hopeless to say the least. Rome’s puppet, Herod, was waging a major persecution of Jesus’ followers – for their Christ-like opposition to his patron, Caesar. In the process, prominent community leaders have been killed.
Peter himself has been arrested and is awaiting trial. He’s guarded by 16 heavily armed soldiers. He’s restrained by twice as many chains as normal. As he sleeps, one guard stands vigilant to Peter’s right, another to his left. Guards are also posted outside the prison door. The entire city is locked by an iron gate.
And yet Peter escapes. An “angel” (a representative of the cosmic power Jesus referred to) comes to Peter’s rescue. Almost as in a dream, he passes through one obstacle after another. And suddenly the “powers of heaven” set him free.
Joseph Stalin once famously belittled papal power by asking, “And how many divisions does the pope have?” The answer in today’s gospel –“innumerable.” Pope Francis’ words will have their effect, because their point is to loosen the bonds restraining the world’s poor. In the long run, empire’s power is doomed.
Be like Francis then. Resist neo-liberalism and the wars that force its policies on the world. Speak the truth. Work for justice.
History, the cosmos – God is on our side!
That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.
Early in my just-ended three-week visit to Cuba, my wife and I were strolling along Havana’s stunning Malecon walkway which stretches for miles along Havana’s northern coast. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. We couldn’t help noticing how the seafront was more gorgeous than ever.
Both Peggy and I had been to Cuba many times, but it had been seven years since our last visit. In the meantime, buildings along the Malecon had taken on new coats of paint. Greens and whites, reds, golds, oranges, and blues sparkled in the sunlight alongside as yet unpainted decrepit apartment buildings. As ever, clotheslines of bed sheets, shirts, blouses and underwear flapped from balconies in the sea breeze.
Yes, we couldn’t help noticing, things had changed drastically since our last visit. And it wasn’t only the paint and scaffolding outside the buildings under reconstruction.
Tourists were everywhere. Even those “Hop-on, Hop-off” double-deck tour busses which we had seen in Europe passed at regular intervals. Havana’s atmosphere wordlessly conveyed an optimism we had not witnessed since we began visiting Cuba in 1997.
Sharing observations like that, we suddenly heard someone call out to us.
“Hey, where are you from?” The young man addressing us was Cuban, tall, black and smartly dressed in jeans, Nike T-shirt and sneakers. His wife was lighter skinned and similarly dressed. Both were friendly and smiling. Seeing the couple reminded us that Cuba has a largely Afro-descendent population.
“We’re from the United States,” I replied.
“Oh, the U.S.!” The young man smiled broadly. “We love the United States; the U.S. is the greatest country in the world!” His wife shook her head In agreement.
“No,” I contradicted, “Cuba is the greatest country in the world.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” the young man said still smiling. “Cuba is the greatest country in Latin America. The United States is the greatest country in the world!”
The encounter spoke volumes about the new Cuba that impressed us so as we walked the Malecon. The exchange offered a snapshot of an economy that is rebounding from a deep depression, of a people who are friendly, proud and patriotic, and of Cuban aspirations to U.S. levels of consumption. That aspiration contains both promise and threat.
But before I get to that, let me tell you more about our visit. . . .
This time we were in Cuba as part of a Berea College summer school course. We called the course “Cuba: Resilience and Renovation.” Ours was a fact-finding study. What has Cuba been? What will it become? Those were our questions. Thirteen students engaged the conversation along with my daughter and her husband, and several friends. It was great fun.
Our course took us from Havana eastward to Varadero, Santa Clara, Matazanas, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. We filled our days with conferences involving academics and government officials including a representative of the U.S. Interests Section (the U.S. quasi-embassy in Havana).
We found ourselves chatting with people on the street; some of us went into their homes. We met students, social activists, feminists, representatives of the LGBT community, farmers, co-op representatives, merchants, Santeria practitioners, Baptist ministers, medical personnel, hospital patients, children and the elderly in a day-care centers, and members of a Committee in Defense of the Revolution.
On a couple of occasions, I spoke with a fellow OpEdNews contributor – “Guillermo Tell,” a Russian ex-pat who has lived in Havana for 27 years. He reminded me of Cuba’s on-going problems with bureaucracy and of the dangers of “reforms” that could end up selling-out the hard won gains of the Revolution. (More on that later.)
Then there were those casual conversations with Cubans on the street, in night clubs and along the Malecon where Habaneros crowd each evening and especially on weekends for music, dance, love, conversation and arguments about baseball and politics.
We even found our way to a ringside table at the Tropicana nightclub, to a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, and a children’s theater presentation on the Cuban Five that rivaled anything we’ve seen on Broadway.
Usually however our focus was the Revolution, socialism, and Cuba’s prospects for the future.
And what did we find out? Simply this: Cuba is the most important country in the world. Ernesto Cardenal said that of Nicaragua in the 1980s. And he was right. Nicaragua was then the most prominent center of resistance to U.S. imperialism. Today (and for the past 55 years) Cuba fills that role like none other. Alone in the world, it is demonstrating that Third World Countries can accomplish so much with so little even in the face of pitiless opposition from the most powerful country in the world. Cuba is showing the world a way into a future that accommodates itself to the new globalization – but on its own terms. In doing so, it has already surpassed Latin American darlings of development such as Costa Rica. It has already surpassed the United States in quality of life.
Are you surprised by that? Let me tell you what I mean – and here I address Cuban patriotism and the revolutionary gains evoked by our sidewalk encounter. Those elements are what make Cuba so important even in the face of the seduction by “the greatest country in the world.”
First think about Costa Rica. Peggy and I have lived there on and off for the last 25 years. To begin with, Havana is much more beautiful than Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Havana’s seafront, colonial structures, its comparative cleanliness and hospitality far exceed what we’ve found in San Jose which is dirty and bleak by comparison. The latter has nothing like Havana Vieja – the old city whose restorations, museums and newly proliferated restaurants have created a tourist center that rivals anything we have seen in Europe.
Cuba’s Varadero seacoast is cleaner, more orderly, more extensive and luxurious than Costa Rica’s famed Manuel Antonio or Guanacaste’s Flamingo Beach resorts. Cuba’s highways are better than Costa Rica’s pot-holed thruways.
Yet, on the basis of independent surveys and assessments, Costa Rica bills itself as the “happiest country in the world.” I suspect Cubans are happier still.
And that brings me to the reasons why and to my claim about the U.S. and comparative qualities of life. Am I really saying that Cuba has surpassed not only Costa Rica but the U.S. in those terms? Yes – despite the impressions of that young man accosting us on the street.
Or let me put it this way: what do we value most in life? Few, I think, would respond: money, competition, meaningless work with increasing hours with fast-diminishing rewards. Few would list fast food, shopping malls, movies, luxury cars and vast homes at the head of our must-have lists.
Even abstractions like U.S. “freedom” (in our system that imprisons and executes more than any other country in the industrialized world), “democracy” (where voter-suppression is the order of the day), “free speech” (where the mainstream media ignores issues important to the poor and middle class), and “rule of law” (where universal surveillance, torture, police-impunity and extrajudicial killings are common) have become increasingly meaningless.
Instead most of us would say: “What I care most about are my children and grandchildren. I care about my health and that of my family. I care about the well-being of the planet we’ll leave to our descendants. Education is important. And I want safety in the streets. I’d even like to have some years of retirement toward the end of my life.”
In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – Cuba far outstrips the United States. Consider the following:
* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.
* Health care and medicine are free.
* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels. Please see my last blog entry.)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is non-existent.
But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.
There’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.
And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as
* Health insurance
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs
The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Third World countries.
None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.
To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba seems to be embracing:
* A reduction of the government bureaucracy that my friend Guillermo Tell so despises.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy.
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax” a la Thomas Picketty (whom, I’ve been assured, the Economic Planning Body is studying).
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.
Those are the general directions. Actual decisions will be “transcendent” more than one person at the heart of the process told me. They will be made according to a world vision that is “entirely new.”
Breathlessly, we await the results. They will determine whether Cuba continues to be the change which our deepest concerns indicate most would like to see in the world.
What I’m saying is that Cuba’s resistance to imperialism, its willingness to address real problems (like climate change and income inequalities) rather than ignore or deny them – all of these are what make Cuba “most important.”
They are the reason Cuba might well be poised to become “the greatest country in the world.”
All of us are stoked. Peggy and I and 14 Berea College students are leaving for three weeks in Cuba beginning on Monday (May 5th). We’ll return on the 25th. So I probably won’t be writing here till then.
Last Wednesday night, Thursday evening, as well as Friday morning and afternoon, Dr. Cliff Durand – the co-founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — helped us all understand what we’re getting into. Cliff has been leading delegations to Cuba for the last 25 years. He’s an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Havana.
Here are some of the salient ideas he shared:
1. One cannot understand Cuba’s revolution without understanding neo-colonialism. Neo-colonialism refers to the dynamics of control whereby “former” colonies continue to be governed by their colonial masters even after “independence.” The control remains because the now-liberated colony continues its economic relationships with its “mother country.” Of necessity, these relationships foster a dependency similar to that which characterized the original colonial relationship.
2. In other words, former colonies find it impossible to break free from domination by their colonial masters unless they also break free from the capitalist system which of necessity has local governors placing the interests of their international partners ahead of their own citizens. Put otherwise, there is an indissoluble link between revolution, independence, and capitalism’s alternative, socialism.
3. Cuba is the first country in the world to engage in a revolution as a neo-colonial state. Although after 1902 it had freed itself from the domination of Spain, it did so only to become an economic appendage of the United States. Dependency and control by the United States was the form neo-colonialism took in Cuba.
4. The Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by a trained lawyer (Fidel Castro) and a medical doctor (Che Guevara) opened the way to a new experiment in human dignity and social justice. The experiment’s adoption of socialism promised to free Cuba from the dependency international capitalism uniformly imposed on former colonies.
5. Cuba has proven resilient in the face of a 50 year economic embargo imposed by its former neo-colonial “mother country”–the United States. The economic support of the former Soviet Union made it possible for Cubans to enjoy a “middle class” way of life that made Cuba the envy of the Third World.
6. Though characterized in the U.S. as “subsidies,” the Soviet contributions to the Cuban economy were seen in Cuba as “fair trade.” Economic relationships indexed the prices of Cuban raw materials (sugar, tobacco, nickel . . .) to those of the finished products (tractors, refrigerators, spare parts . . .). In fact, this represented an implementation of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) petitioned in 1973 by the entire former colonial world in reparation for the exploitation experienced under colonialism. (Nations of the Global South also demanded transfer of capital and technology — also provided by the USSR to Cuba.)
7. Cuban Democracy: Cuba has a parliamentary system with no political parties, which are seen as divisive. The Communist party is not an electoral organization; it sponsors no candidates. Rather it is the depository of the ideals of the Cuban revolution. In the Cuban form of democracy, elections are held at the municipal, provincial and national levels. At the national level, “Mass Organizations” (five federations of (1) workers, (2) women, (3) small farmers, (4) students, and (5) Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) nominate candidates. (Mass organizations are like 5 political parties sharing commitment to cooperation rather than competition.) All the organizations enjoy equal representation in the Cuban parliament. Forty-seven percent of the delegates there are women. The National Assembly (parliament) elects a Council of State, which then elects a president and vice-president. According to frequent independent polls, well over 80% of the Cuban population supports this system.
8. The Cuban Revolution has passed through five identifiable stages:
o 1960s Revolutionary Fervor: Here the revolutionary government implemented land reform, nationalization of industries and virtually the entire Cuban economy. The U.S. economic embargo (specifically intended to produce hunger, sickness, and social chaos) necessitated alliance with the Soviet Union. During this early period moral incentives worked to unite the people in a common social project. Che and Fidel enjoyed great trust on the part of Cubans.
o 1970s Adoption of Soviet-Style Central Planning: Here Cuba followed the example of the Soviet Union, the only model of socialism available. More specifically, it adopted the agricultural methods of the Green Revolution with its heavy dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The entire agricultural system was organized into state farms. (This was later admitted to have been a major mistake).
o 1985 Rectification: In the face of excessive bureaucracy and inefficiencies, the entire Cuban population participated in a national dialog to suggest remedies. The process was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overnight Cuba lost 80% of its trading partners. A decade-long period mirroring the experiences of the world’s “Great Depression” (1929-’45) set in for Cuba.
o 1990s “Special Period”: Contrary to the experience following the collapse of socialism throughout Eastern Europe, and despite the extreme hardships of its Great Depression, Cuba did not experience an uprising aimed at regime change. Neither did the government eliminate social programs to deal with the crisis. Instead it strengthened its social safety net and set a goal of “equal distribution of scarcity. “ In the face of extreme impoverishment, the government introduced reforms including:
§ First moving to a dollarization of the Cuban economy and then to the establishment of a convertible currency (CUC)
§ Opening the country to foreign investment
§ Opening itself to trade on the world market
§ Meanwhile ordinary Cubans coped by increasingly living off remittances from relatives the United States.
§ Stealing from government sources and selling the stolen goods on the black market.
§ Engaging in jineterismo (prostitution) – which had been eliminated by the Revolution.
§ U.S. response to the Cuban crisis was its attempt to intensify its catastrophe by aggravating scarcities to induce desperation on the part of ordinary people. The Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts sought to punish U.S. trading partners for any commerce with Cuba. These responses transformed the Trade Embargo of 1961 into a virtual blockade of Cuba.
o 2007- 2022 Renovation of Socialism: In this process of nation-wide and on-going consultation, more than 163,000 meetings involving 9 million participants (in a population of 11 million) have produced millions of proposals which have been reduced to 313 policy guidelines aimed at reduction of state payrolls, increasing opportunities for self-employment, and rooting out corruption.
o The most important reform is the establishment of urban co-operatives in 2012. With this new economic structure, the emphasis in decision making changed from a “top down” model to one of local participation. Co-operatives get their start-up money from Cuban banks, contributions of members, and remittances. The co-ops must:
o Have at least 3 members with each member having one vote
o Be self-governing independent of the state
o Respond to market dynamics
o Do business with state and private entities
In summary, Dr. Durand observed that socialism is not as good as capitalism at producing consumer goods that inflate gross national product statistics. However, socialism is far better at producing social goods shared by all (not primarily by the wealthy). These social benefits include extended life spans, low infant mortality, universal health care, free education from pre-school through the university, and happiness in general (as measured in identical polls taken in Cuba and the United States).
As you can see, Dr. Durand’s presentations were informative, stimulating and challenging. We’re all looking forward to finding out more during our coming three week trip to Cuba.
I’ll report back at the end of May.
Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:42-47; PS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; IPT 1:3-9; JN 20: 19-31. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/042714.cfm
My wife, Peggy, and I are going to Cuba again. A week from tomorrow, we’ll be leading a group of Berea College students on a three-week study tour of the island. We’ll be especially interested in having students come to grips with its history, political economy, sustainable agricultural practices, and its form of democracy, its education and health care systems.
Both of us have traveled to Cuba many times before. But today’s liturgy of the word fittingly puts this particulars trip into theological perspective.
It reminds us that even despite the contrary claims of its leaders, the socio-economic project that Cuba represents is essentially Christian. That’s because, as Mexico’s Jose Miranda reminds us, communism originated in Christianity. It doesn’t come from Marx and Engels.
In fact, Christianity is communism. And Christian communism is what we find described in today’s lead-off reading.
Think about what we read there – a description of life among Jesus’ first followers after the experience they called his “resurrection”:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”
Luke the evangelist repeats that refrain later in his “Acts of the Apostles” when he writes:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.” (Acts 4:32-36).
There you have it. The early Christians:
* Lived communally
* Rejected private property
* Including land and houses
* Instead held everything in common
* Pooling all their resources
* And distributing them “from each according to ability to each according to need.”
* As a result, they eliminated poverty from their midst.
Did you catch the operative words: they divided their property “among all according to each one’s needs?” To repeat, those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. They have nothing to do with atheism. On the contrary, they have everything to do with faith.
They have everything to do with following Jesus who himself was a communist. He’s the one who said, “Every one of you who does not renounce all he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:3).
Jesus, not Marx, is the one who set concern for those in need as the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life. He said, “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, was a stranger and you took me in, was stripped naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to see me” (MT 25: 35-36). Everything, Jesus insists, depends on recognizing his presence in the poor and oppressed and responding accordingly.
Of course it’s often pointed out that the Christian experiment in communism was short-lived. Jesus’ followers soon backed off from their early idealism. That observation is supposed to invalidate their communistic lifestyle as impossibly utopian and therefore no longer applicable as Christians’ guiding North Star. In fact, this objection is taken as justifying the persecution of the communism the text idealizes and recommends!
But the same argument, of course, would apply to the Ten Commandments in general or to the Sermon on the Mount – or to the U.S. Constitution for that matter. In our day (and in the course of their histories) all of those statements of ideals have only sporadically been lived out in practice. Should we throw them out then? Should we persecute those espousing the Sermon on the Mount ideals or observance, for instance, of the Fourth Amendment? Few in the Christian community or in the U.S. political world would make that argument.
Others anxious to distance themselves from the communistic ideals of early Christianity would point out that the communal life adopted by Jesus’ first followers was voluntary not imposed from above. In doing so, they point to another passage in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. That’s the one involving Ananias and Saphira – a couple whose life is exacted for claiming to have sold their property while actually keeping some of it back for themselves.
Referring to their property, Peter says to Ananias, “Was it not still yours if you kept it, and once you sold it was it not yours to dispose of?” (Acts 5:4) But (again as Miranda points out) what was optional was not selling their property – Christianity’s indispensable condition. What was optional was the choice to become a disciple of Christ. Choosing the latter option required practicing communism – and that under pain of death!
As for economic systems imposed from above. . . . Can you name one that isn’t?
How many of us have really chosen to live under capitalism? “None of us” is the answer. That’s because to make an informed choice, one must know the alternative. However, our families, schools, churches and civic organizations, our films and novels and news programs mostly conspire together to vilify alternatives and keep them hidden.
Besides that, our government and military have made sure that experiments in alternatives (like the one implemented in Cuba) fail or are portrayed as failures – lest their “bad example” undermine capitalist claims to be the only viable system.
Even worse, our church leaders (who should know better) jump on the anti-communist band wagon and present Jesus as a champion of a system he would despise. Church people speak and act as if Luke’s passage from Acts had read:
“Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others however raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.”
When are we going to stop this bastardization of Christianity?
First of all we must face it: Jesus was a communist; so were his earliest followers after his death!
What then should are would-be followers of Yeshua the Christ to do? At least this:
* Read Jose Miranda’s manifesto, Communism in the Bible.
* If we can’t bring ourselves to sell what we have, give it to the poor, and live communally, at least conspire with like-minded people to share tools, automobiles, gardens – and perhaps even jobs and homes in an effort to reduce poverty and our planetary footprints.
* “Out” the “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan and other congressional “Christians” whose budgets attempt to balance federal accounts by increasing the ranks of the poor whose poverty the communism of the early Christian community successfully eliminated.
* Pressure our government to get off Cuba’s back and allow it to experiment in prophetic ways of living that can save our planet.
* I’m sure you can add to this list.
* Please do so below.