Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030914.cfm
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. A week ago, Hollywood presented its 2014 Academy Awards. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” won seven Oscars. I think his story and today’s reading about Jesus’ desert retreat are connected.
Lent actually started last Wednesday when many of us put ashes on our forehead to remind us of our approaching death. All of us, the ashes told us, come from the dirt and are rushing headlong towards the grave, whether we consider ourselves “believers” or not. Our world (at least for us as individuals) is ending. That’s simply a law of nature – as inescapable as gravity. It can’t be avoided. With time running out, Lent reminds us, the moment to change – to appropriate our basically divine nature – is now. Jesus’ vision quest in the desert shows the way.
So does “Gravity.” In fact, it’s possible to see the film as mirroring the experience of Jesus during his own “Lent” in the desert depicted in this morning’s gospel selection.
To begin with, both stories are completely symbolic. Both have their protagonists reliving the history of their people. Both show us the path to liberation. It leads from self-centeredness to God-consciousness. As such, both the account of Jesus in the desert and of Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” represent summonses to either grow up here and now or suffer the consequences.
Think about “Gravity” in those terms. Here’s how the film’s publicity describes the plot:
“Director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on a space shuttle mission headed by astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a talkative, charismatic leader full of colorful stories that he shares with his crewmates as well as mission control. As the two are on a space walk, debris hits the area where they are working, and soon the pair finds themselves detached from their ship and stranded in space. While figuring out what steps they can take to save themselves, Stone grapples with a painful past that makes her consider giving up altogether.”
Without giving too much away, the film can be understood as mirroring the current plight of Mother Earth, the United States and the human species. It’s about our highly technological and artificial way of life and its inevitable destruction by the very laws of nature. It reminds unaware, “spaced out” people to “return home” and live in accordance with our true identity as earth creatures respectful of nature’s laws.
In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays that spaced out American I mentioned. She’s an astronaut. As a medical engineer, she’s a trained healer whose job in NASA is to maintain a basically unsustainable way of life in outer space. To begin with, however she’s totally saddened and distracted by her personal problems. Specifically, she’s still in mourning for her lost daughter who died from an unexplained fall at the age of four. Interestingly, her daughter died conforming to the law of gravity which Dr. Stone’s “mission” requires her to defy.
The point is that Dr. Stone’s mission (like her daughter’s brief life) is doomed by inescapable natural laws. Entropy causes the systems she maintains to run down and demand periodic, extremely costly “missions” like the one she is on. At the same time inertia insures that the inevitable waste produced by the space enterprises will double back to seal the projects’ doom according to the law governing colliding bodies.
In that situation, Dr. Stone becomes the image of an alienated woman called by circumstances to wake up and accept her true divine nature as a healing goddess – as the embodiment of Mother Earth. As such she must return to the larger Divine Mother; she must return to earth and appropriate her own vocation to embody that Mother’s presence.
Think about it: the Bullock character is a “Stone” – the earthiest identification possible. She’s a doctor. She’s an astronaut. In all three identities, she’s out of her element. She’s floating in a weightless atmosphere that has caused her to deny her gravity-governed essence. In addition, like the earth itself, her oxygen supply is threatened. And that, of course, is painful and repulsive. Or as she herself puts it, “I hate space.”
“Gravity’s” story unfolds to display Dr. Stone’s healing efforts to reconnect with earth despite the obstacles working against her. In the process, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, she shows us all the way home from our own alienation and destructive way of life.
Dr. Stone’s way home involves not only using the personal tragedy of her daughter’s death to work in her favor. It also means crossing the Ganges and being blessed by the Buddha. She must also overcome her own ethnocentrism and xenophobia relative to her country’s designated “enemies” (the Russians and Chinese). Her return would have been impossible without an international space platform, a Russian Soyez module and a Chinese Shenzhou space capsule.
Finally, Dr. Stone needs to be “born again,” reliving the entire evolutionary process taking her through human astral origins to earth where she’s plunged into deep baptismal waters. With great effort, she throws off her old identity in the form of her astronaut’s survival gear. In the process, she encounters fish, amphibians and other pre-human life forms in the evolutionary chain. Finally freed of her past, on all fours, Dr. Stone emerges onto Eden’s shore. As a reborn Eve – as Mother Earth – she straightens up and walks forward into a new life. Her final words in the film are “Thank you.”
There’s a similar plot in today’s Gospel – lived out by Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. Like Dr. Stone in relation to “America,” Jesus reflects the experience of his Jewish compatriots. They passed forty years in the desert enduring temptation the whole time. Jesus in Matthew’s account passes forty days there. His response to temptation rescues and redeems the collective history of his similarly tempted people more than a thousand years earlier.
Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with the temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three, Jesus symbolically achieves cosmic-consciousness. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels.
As in “Gravity,” Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The path cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.
Practically speaking returning home during Lent – realizing our True Self being transformed like Jesus and Dr. Stone – might mean:
• Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
• Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
• Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert or as Dr. Stone’s leaving behind that artificial life in outer space.
• To escape ethnocentrism and imperial sway,adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
• Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.
• In the “Comment” space below, share other suggestions.
Yes, it’s Lent once again. Like Dr. Ryan Stone, we faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also allow us to utter her sincere “Thank You” on Easter as we rise from our knees transformed.
Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030214.cfm
Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.
For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.
What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?
Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.
Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)
On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural. (Please hold that thought.)
Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.
In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.
Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”
Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.
In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?
And that brings me to that Obamacare business.
Did you follow last month’s flap over the Congressional Budget Office’s Report on jobs and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA)? It said that the ACA would induce 2.5 million people to leave work. They’d escape “job lock” – i.e. the inability to leave employment because doing so would lose them health coverage.
All hell broke loose.
When Paul Ryan (R-Wis) heard that, hypocrisy demanded that he and his Republican cronies reverse their position on “job lock.” Formerly they were against it. In fact a couple of years ago, Ryan said,”[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”
Now, however, since freedom from “job lock” represented a boon of the ACA, Ryan and the Republicans had changed their tune. They quickly became opponents of “more choice and portability.” Having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons were forced to readopt their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.
This meant that mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonalds or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families were characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, such people lose respect for “the dignity of work.” They were worthy of their traditional rank among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor. (Never mind that Ryan has done everything he can to undermine labor’s dignity – but that’s another story.)
The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.
So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.
Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers and those not belonging to Ryan’s 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.
That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.
Readings for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 19: 1-2, 17-18; PS 103: 1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; I COR 3: 16-23; MT 5: 38-48. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/022314.cfm
Like so many of you, I find it increasingly discouraging to read the daily news – and even more so to watch the shouting matches that pass for news coverage on television. The Koch brothers and the extreme right are on the ascendency. The disastrous Citizens United decision along with congressional gerrymandering, fraudulent voting machines, and voter suppression have all but insured that such ascendency will continue to the extreme detriment of democracy itself.
Where is the hope in all of this?
Where money is equated with free speech, where corporations are treated like persons [except they’re never put in jail (or dissolved) for breaking the law], where the powerful (like James Clapper) are immune from perjury charges (though they admit lying under oath), but those who tell the truth (like Edward Snowden) are identified as “enemies of the state,” where’s the hope?
How avoid despair in a country where those responsible for war crimes (like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) brag about their crimes publicly and are rewarded on the lecture circuit or where a head of state like George Bush commits what the UN terms “the ultimate war crime” (waging a war of aggression) and avoids prosecution?
Two things: (1) remember history and (2) be awake to history’s counterparts manifesting themselves around us today. Just recalling the names associated with “lost causes” that ended up winning is inspiring. The short list includes Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. . . .
Their counterparts today? How about Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Pope Francis I. . . .
Of these, Pope Francis, it seems, holds the most hope for believers – and for the world. He is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And when he says, “Never again war! War never again!” Catholics must take his words into account whether they agree or not. Even non-Catholics must do so because of the pope’s stature and since his uncompromising anti-war stance calls into question what Paul identifies in today’s second reading as “the wisdom of the world” – about the inevitability of war.
In fact, today’s readings all steer us away from such worldly wisdom. They point us instead towards the biblical tradition which understands God not as the vengeful warrior of competing biblical traditions, but as merciful and compassionate. As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, that merciful and compassionate understanding (and not its biblical opposite) was the understanding Jesus embraced. It’s the basis of his commandment that his followers’ way of life should mirror the perfection of God. It’s the foundation of indiscriminate love of neighbor and of the Christian pacifism pope Francis so courageously embodies.
To begin with, in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes pains to distinguish between the Bible’s warlike vengeful God and its Compassionate One. Jesus specifically rejects the one and endorses the other. For Matthew that rejection and endorsement was momentous – as significant as Moses reception of the Ten Commandments from his God, Yahweh. That’s why Matthew [in contrast to Luke’s equivalent “Sermon on the Plain” (LK 6:17-49)] has Jesus deliver his “sermon” on a mountain (5:1-7:27). The evangelist is implicitly comparing Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on “the Mount.”
In any case, through a series of antitheses (“You have heard . .. but I say to you . . .”), Jesus contrasts his understanding of the Law with more traditional interpretations. The Mosaic Law demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus’ Law commands:
• Turning the other cheek
• Going the extra mile
• Generosity with adversaries
• Open-handedness to beggars
• Lending without charging interest
• Love of enemies
Matthew concludes that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must also be merciful and compassionate ourselves. As the reading from Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Or as Jesus puts it, perfect as God is perfect.
And how perfect is that? It’s the perfection of nature where the sun shines on good and bad alike – where rain falls on all fields regardless of who owns them. It’s the perfection of the God described in this morning’s responsorial. According to the psalmist, the Divine One pardons all placing an infinite distance (“as far as east is from west”) between sinners and their guilt. God heals all ills and as a loving parent is the very source of human goodness and compassion. That’s the perfection that Jesus’ followers are called to emulate.
All of that is contrasted with what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world” in today’s excerpt from his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The world regards turning the other cheek as weakness. Going the extra mile only invites exploitation. Generosity towards legal adversaries will lose you your case in court. Open-handedness towards beggars encourages laziness. Lending without interest is simply bad business. And loving one’s enemies is a recipe for military defeat and enslavement.
Yet Paul insists. And he bases his insistence on the conviction that we encounter God in every human individual whether they be our abusers, exploiters, or legal adversaries – whether they be beggars or debtors unlikely to repay our interest-free loans.
All of those people, Paul points out are “temples of God.” God dwells in each of them just as God does in us. In the end, that’s the basis of the command we heard in the Leviticus reading, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Normally, our self-centered culture interprets that dictum to mean: (1) we clearly love ourselves more above all; so (2) we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
But in the light of Paul’s mystical teaching that God dwells within every human being , the command about neighbor-love takes on much deeper implication. That is, Paul the mystic teaches that our deepest self is the very God who dwells within each of us as in the Temple. We should therefore love our neighbor (and our enemy, debtor, adversary, and those who beg and borrow from us) because God dwells within them — because they ARE ourselves. They ARE us! To bomb them, to fight wars against them is therefore suicidal.
No wonder, then, that Paul threatens that God will destroy the person who fails to recognize others as temples of God and harms them. Paul means that by destroying others we inevitably destroy ourselves, because in the end, the God-Self dwelling within us is identical with the Self present in every human being. That is a very high mystical teaching. It should be the faith of those pretending to follow Jesus. It should make all of them (all of us!) pacifists.
If we owned that truth, that would be the end of wars. Imagine if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics simply refused to destroy their fellow human beings because they recognized in them the indwelling presence of God. Imagine if we stopped worshipping the God Jesus rejects – the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” War God – and embraced Jesus’ compassionate and loving Parent God.
It’s up to us who do accept that recognition not to reject the Christian tradition which speaks so powerfully to so many. Rather we are called to take steps to rescue Jesus’ God from the war mongers and oppressors who have so distorted Jesus’ teaching as presented in this morning’s readings.
I suggest that means
• Returning to church.
• Embracing the “No to war” message of Francis I.
• Making it explicit that our “No” is a matter of faith denied only by those who have (in Paul’s terms) embraced the “wisdom of the world” which is foolishness in God’s eyes.
• Mobilizing our congregations accordingly.
• More particularly, organizing congregations (as a specific response to Pope Francis) to endorse the International Day of Peace (next September 21).
Inspired by Pope Francis, it’s time to take the microphone away from Christian warmongers and to make Christian pacifism a mainstream movement. That’s our best hope, I think, in the face of all those reasons for despair.
Readings for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 15: 15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; I Cor 2: 6-10; MT 5: 17-37. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/021614.cfm
The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. “Keep the commandments; no one has a license to sin,” the first reading from Sirach intones. “Walk blamelessly in God’s law; observe its decrees; delight in its wonder,” sings the psalmist in today’s responsorial. And then in today’s Gospel reading Jesus presents himself as the defender of even the least of the commandments. Break the least, he says, and you’ll be least in God’s Kingdom.
On hearing all of this, most of us probably raise our eyebrows in disbelief. “Wonder of God’s law? What wonder?” one might ask. “My experience of what’s called ‘God’s law’ is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed Bible-thumpers wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”
And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of God’s Law and the Ten Commandments is completely understandable. From childhood we’ve had “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment” shoved down our throats by authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives. From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.
However, a close reading of today’s texts show how misplaced such reactions are. All of them (and especially Jesus’ words) suggest that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.
Because God’s Law reflects nature’s order, the texts suggest how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.
People as diverse as Roman Catholic (but suspended) theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.
In fact, at the age of 85, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.
So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.
Christianity puts it this way: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt. 7:1). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).
Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ “Ten Commandments:”
1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
6. Always seek to be learning something new
7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
10. Question everything
Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:
1. Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
2. Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
3. Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
4. Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.
Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws.
Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the Bible thumpers promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.
Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of peace.
Predictably, Fox News distorted this week’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report showing that the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) would reduce the workforce by 2.5 million people. However Fox wasn’t alone in that distortion. Originally reports across the media spectrum (including in The New York Times) misreported the CBO’s study saying instead that the ACA would eliminate 2.5 million jobs.
The distinction between “lost jobs” and “reduced workforce” is important. Douglas Elmendorf, the C.B.O. budget director explained its significance when he testified before the House Budget Committee just after the report’s release. He said:
“The reason that we don’t use the term ‘lost jobs’ is because there is a critical difference between people who would like to work and can’t find a job — or have a job that was lost for reasons beyond their control — and people who choose not to work. If someone comes up to you and says, ‘Well the boss says I’m being laid off because we don’t have enough business to pay me,’ that person feels bad about that and we sympathize with them for having lost their job. If someone says, ‘I decided to retire or stay home and spend more time with my family or spend more time doing my hobby,’ they don’t feel bad about it — they feel good about it. And we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations. And we don’t say they’ve lost their job. We’ve say they’ve chosen to leave their job.”
If, as Elmendorf says, the ACA clearly widens workers’ choices about employment, time devoted to family, and when to retire, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with opening doors for entrepreneurs who want to quit their old jobs to start businesses of their own, but whose ambition was impeded by the old health care system?
In addition, it seems undeniable that according to the law of supply and demand, the reduced number of applicants for jobs in a shrunken workforce would exert an upward pressure on wages. This is sounding better all the time.
The clarified understanding of the CBO report also presents Republican opponents of Obamacare with a conundrum. After all “freedom,” “family values,” “entrepreneurship,” and “market law” are all championed by the GOP. They have also specifically advocated reducing “job lock.” That’s when employees find it impossible to quit jobs because leaving would mean losing benefits like health care.
Formerly job lock was a concern for the GOP. For example, in May 2009, Representative Paul Ryan (R-W) said: “[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”
Now, however, Ryan and the Republicans have changed their tune. They’re evidently against “more choice and portability.”
Instead, having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons have now readopted their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.
So mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonald’s or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families are now characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, they’ve lost respect for “the dignity of work.” They are now ranked among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor.
By the way, it’s ironic that the Republicans (and Ryan in particular) should now present themselves as defenders of labor’s dignity, especially after they’ve done so much to undermine its last vestiges. As Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist for The Los Angeles Times has put it: “Ryan is opposed to raising the minimum wage, surely a path to dignity at work. His 2011 budget proposal would have cut $99 million from the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Republicans have for years waged a battle to eviscerate the National Labor Relations Board, which protects employee organizing rights. Ryan certainly didn’t stand up for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which helps keep them in the job market . . .”
Don’t let the Republicans – or their Fox News minions – fool you on this one. Despite its flaws, the ACA is a step in the right direction for working people.
Readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 58: 7-10; PS 112: 4-9; I COR 2: 1-5; MT 5: 13-16. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/020914.cfm
Today’s readings are about the nature of the light emanating from a shining “City on a Hill.” Jesus introduces that imagery specifically in today’s Gospel selection. In doing so, he alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah (today’s first reading) which describe the City’s characteristics.
However most Americans don’t primarily associate the City on a Hill image with Jesus, much less with Isaiah. In fact, most cannot hear the phrase without thinking of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s mouth, “City on a Hill” became a quintessential expression of American Exceptionalism. As such Reagan’s usage exemplifies how Republicans have hijacked and distorted Christian discourse.
Reagan however didn’t coin the City’s connection to “America.” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had already done that in 1630. Standing on the deck of the flagship Arbella Winthrop told his shipmates, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Then in 1961 J.F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop’s words specifically as the new president addressed the General Court of Massachusetts. Kennedy added “. . . (W)e are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.”
After Reagan, Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, attempted to borrow some of the Reagan thunder by using his idol’s words. Bauer repeatedly used the “City on a Hill” metaphor as he attempted unsuccessfully to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Before him in 1997, Reagan’s adopted son, Michael, had already written a book about his father entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan’s Vision for America.
As for Reagan himself, here’s what he said about the image in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989:
“…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still . . .”
These words show that Reagan’s image of the “City on the Hill” is one of pride, strength, harmony, peace, open markets and free immigration – all of it specially blessed by God. Noble ideals all. . . .
Nonetheless President Reagan’s policies proved questionably coincident with his words and especially with the biblical ideals expressed in today’s readings.
Think about those ideals.
In the selection from Isaiah, the prophet says the City on the Hill shines because its inhabitants:
• Share bread with the hungry.
• Protect the oppressed and remove oppression from their midst.
• Shelter the homeless.
• Clothe the naked.
• Remove from their midst accusation and malicious speech.
The Responsorial psalm seconds all of that, adding that the hilltop city’s just citizens:
• Lend (without interest).
• Give lavishly to the poor.
In today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle himself identifies with the weak and fearful, not those who are “wise” according to the standards of the world. Paul goes on to contrast the world’s logic with what elsewhere he calls the foolishness of Jesus’ Spirit – which chose to identify with those on death row (I COR 1:23).
Finally, today’s Gospel reading has Jesus refer specifically to the “City on a hill” and the light that causes it to shine. Once again, it’s the “light” described by Isaiah – sharing bread, shelter, clothing, and money with the hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished and oppressed.
All of this has little to do with President Reagan’s version of an exceptionally blessed America. In fact, during his term in office Reagan:
• Consistently stigmatized the poor. (Reagan often told the story of a “welfare queen” in Chicago who turned out to be a figment of his speech writers’ imaginations. According to the story, she drove a Cadillac and had cheated the government of $150,000 using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Once again, all of that was a lie.)
• Halved the budget for public housing.
• Closed shelters for the mentally ill.
• In so doing, created an epidemic of homelessness virtually unknown since the Great Depression.
• Spent the entire decade of the 1980s supporting oppressive governments Central America – specifically in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
• Oversaw the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, thus opening the publicly owned radio airwaves to dominance by privately financed right wing programs whose bread and butter soon became the “false accusations” and “malicious speech” Isaiah saw as incongruous with the light Jesus subsequently saw as characterizing the City on the Hill.
• Inspired his self-proclaimed acolytes (in our own day) to introduce savage reductions in Food Stamp programs for the hungry, and elimination of unemployment benefits.
And that’s the short list of the horrors of the “Reagan Revolution.” None of it has anything to do with Jesus’ vision of a City on a Hill. Rather Reagan policies fly directly in the face of that vision.
The point is that the right wing in this country (personified in Ronald Reagan) has hypocritically identified itself as somehow “Christian” while turning that tradition squarely on its head.
Progressives are missing the boat by surrendering to that hijacking of Jesus’ meaning and message, when in reality that message supports their cause, not that of their reactionary opponents.
It’s high time for progressives to go on the offensive by recognizing and employing the power of myth and image so successfully manipulated by the religious right.
Readings for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord: MAL 3: 1-4; PS 24: 7-10; HEB 2: 14-18; LK 2: 22-48. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/020214.cfm
Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It recalls the day when the infant Jesus entered Jerusalem’s temple for the first time. Jesus’ presentation began a relationship with the temple and its priesthood that was difficult at best.
This first entrance however was dominated by the simple faith of his impoverished parents. They came offering the sacrifice of the poor – two pigeons or turtle doves.
However all was not smooth even that day. In effect, two elderly fortune tellers, Simeon and Anna, confront Jesus’ parents and predict that trouble lay ahead for Jesus and them.
But that would be long in the future – after (as today’s gospel selection concludes) Jesus matured and advanced in wisdom. Some even say he traveled to India, absorbed the sub-continent’s ancient wisdom, and came back Enlightened.
In any case, by the time of Jesus’ final visit to the temple, he was fully at odds with its priesthood and talked openly about the temple’s destruction – almost as if he relished the thought.
All of this might be reminiscent of our own relationships with the church. Many of us were baptized as infants – introduced to the faith by simple parents.
But then we too advanced in age and wisdom – even to the point where today we might find ourselves at odds with the church and its priests.
Could it be that this is the human vocation – to be loyal church members until (like Jesus) we realize our religion’s hypocrisy, its cooperation with oppression and its need of reform? Where does it leave us vis-a-vis the church? Are we called to step outside its boundaries and embrace mystical enlightenment? Or is our vocation to remain within as outspoken critics? Can the two options be combined?
I try to capture those thoughts and questions in the following attempt at poetic reflection of today’s readings from Malachi, I Corinthians, and Matthew’s Gospel.
The prophet Malachi said this day would come!
The Lord would send his messenger to scorch the Temple and its worthless priests.
It would hurt, Malachi warned.
In the presence of God’s anointed,
Those faithless “holy men” would feel their world was melting –
As if they were melting like gold or silver in a refiner’s cauldron,
As if caustic lye were thrown in their hypocritical faces.
Then those unworthy priests
Would finally be forced to do
Something pleasing to God.
Let them all go to hell!
The prophet Malachi said this day would come!
And here it is at last.
Or so it seems.
But what’s this?
The promised messenger is a poor child
Wrapped in a blanket patched and smelling of baby urine.
His parents with simple uncomprehending faith
Offer the bored priest
Two pigeons or a pair of doves
(I forget which).
The priest hardly notices either.
But he performs his magic rite
And rattles by rote the hackneyed phrases.
He would find the notion laughable that he or his temple
Might have anything to fear from . . .
“What’s this child’s name?” he asks.
“Yeshua ben Joseph,” his father stutters
In tones of humble deference.
That’s the trouble with priests.
Their fulsome selves cannot see
What’s before their eyes,
And clear to everyone else:
Their days are numbered.
And so are the Temple’s – and mosques’ and churches’.
Malachi predicted it.
Yeshua would see to it.
Nonetheless, the Elders, Simeon and Anna see.
They are Seers.
Gaunt and bony from years of prayer and long fasts
These elders, recognize in Yeshua
The one Malachi had foretold.
“Now is not the time,” the hoary Simeon intones.
“But the day will surely arrive
When this child will polarize everyone in Israel
Including these wicked priests.”
The prophet’s words startle the rough peasant woman from Nazareth.
“He’ll be a matricide,” the fortune teller warns her.
“He’ll cut you to the quick.”
Anna the widowed prophetess
Echoes Simeon’s threatening words.
Yeshua’s parents tremble with fear.
What kind of child have you sired?
Miryam later asks her husband
On the highway home from Jerusalem.
He simply shrugs
And shakes his shaggy peasant’s head.
They walk on in silence.
But Yeshua bides his time
Learning justice from his father
And patience from Miryam.
Some say he journeyed to Egypt
To study Wakefulness
“You have a nice boy,”
The village matrons say to Miryam,
While she ponders Simeon’s words
And waits for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it does – more than a quarter century later!
Jesus returns to the Temple
This time with whip in calloused hand.
He realizes (as the psalmist says today)
That even Herod’s Magnificent Shrine
Is too small for God – or for him.
“All churches are robbers’ dens!”
So the workman lashes out left and right
At those who exploit
Simple peasants like the pair who raised him.
Yeshua despises the priests.
“This Temple,” he says, “will be reduced to rubble.
And good riddance!
These charlatans traffic in your fear of death?
Free yourselves from their superstition
Dare to live
With your own thoughts!”
Miryam’s spirit sinks as she hears such words.
Simeon’s sword has begun to cleave her mother’s heart.
“My son has lost his faith,”
The priests know Yeshua has lost their faith
And corrupts the crowds
Who hang on his every word.
They conspire to destroy him
As an atheist and blasphemer.
Perhaps that’s our vocation too,
Don’t you see?
As followers of Jesus
To come to the temple
(Or not !)
To present ourselves there
As fullers and refiners
As atheists, blasphemers
In the eyes of a too credulous world
Scared out of its wits
By pretentious ignorant priests and televangelists
Who (as the author of “Hebrews” says)
Traffic in our fear of death.
Believe the psalmist’s words:
God’s bigger than that
And so is Jesus.
So must we be!