Sunday Homily: Our Willful Blindness (especially about 9/11)

9:11

Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: I SAM 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A; PS 23: 1-6; EPH 5: 8-14; JN 9: 1-14

The Liturgy of the Word for this fourth Sunday of Lent centralizes the themes of blindness, seeing, light and darkness. For me, those topics raise questions about being sightless in our contemporary culture. With us, it’s a nearly universal condition. In fact, you might say that ours is a culture that actually rewards blindness and punishes those who can see. For instance:

  • We “Americans” can’t allow ourselves to even imagine the implications of admitting that a right-wing coup took place in our country in the year 2000 when conservative Supreme Court justices overruled the popular electoral will. So we pretend that was normal. We refuse to see what actually happened.
  • The coup continued in 2016 when the Republican Party stole control of virtually all branches of the U.S. government. Yes, they stole it through a whole series of anti-democratic measures including Citizens United, gerrymandering, voter suppression, hackable electronic voting machines, James Comey’s last-minute investigation of Hillary Clinton, and possible Russian interference in the whole process. And yet we carry on as though none of those elements made any difference.
  • Meanwhile, politicians assure their electoral futures by asking us to close our eyes to their own crimes while they highlight those of the enemy du jour. For example, they want us to wring our hands over Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, while ignoring routine and less warranted U.S. interventions from Grenada to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
  • Then there are the climate-change deniers. They refuse to recognize the human causes of climate chaos while reaping billions in profit as the world disintegrates before our sightless eyes.
  • Additionally, we allow ourselves to be more easily persuaded by explanations of the CIA and NSA (part of whose acknowledged mission is to deceive) than by whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange who simply release what government says about itself. Somehow we’ve been convinced that the official sources have authority and integrity, while the whistle-blowers are suspect.
  • Above all, our culture is blind to what our own eyes told us took place on September 11th 2001, when three World Trade Center (WTC) buildings collapsed in demolition style after a few hours of localized fires of quite ordinary intensity as far as such tragic conflagrations go.

I say “above all” because the events of 9/11/01 have truly changed our world and continue to do so. They have been used to justify “works of darkness” like those Paul alludes to in today’s second reading from Ephesians. Though Paul shrinks from even mentioning them by name, today we might say that they include the War on Terrorism itself along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, racial profiling, drone warfare, torture, water boarding, rendition, Guantanamo, NSA spying, intrusive airport pat-downs . . . .

It’s all justified by 9/11. Paul implies that no one who performs such works is worthy of belief. They operate in secret and in the dark. “Expose them,” Paul urges.

And what needs to be exposed about 9/11? Clearly it’s the weakness of the “official story” we’ve all memorized so well. It says that in the case of two of the WTC buildings, fires feeding off the planes’ jet fuel caused steel girders to melt or weaken to the breaking point. Higher floors fell on top of lower ones, and the buildings pancaked smoothly to the ground. This explanation is accepted even though fires caused by jet fuel cannot even approach the temperatures necessary for such melt-down.

This is not to mention Trade Center Building # 7 that wasn’t even impacted by an airplane and whose demolition style crumbling remains unexplained to this day. Nor need we mention the testimonies of Scientists for 9/11 Truth, the “group of scientific professionals calling for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.”

This is not a claim that the U.S. government was necessarily behind the events of 9/11/01. Rather, what’s called for is addressing unanswered questions posed by the scientists just mentioned as well as by scholars of the stature and theological sensibilities of David Ray Griffin.

Griffin is the Process theologian who has devoted the latest phase of his stellar career to raising consciousness about the need to 9/11’s unanswered questions because of the indisputably key role that the tragedy continues to play in “American” political life. He connects 9/11 directly with Jesus and his Kingdom values. I’m sure that, like me, he would see today’s readings as linked to 9/11 blindness.

In 9/11 context, consider today’s readings one by one. They establish principles for dealing with all official stories, explanations and denials.

The first reading tells us that political considerations like the ones just mentioned are not out-of-place in reflections like this. Samuel’s unlikely selection of David from among older and more “worthy” candidates to rule over Israel reminds us that the All Parent is deeply concerned with politics and just governance. In the political realm, Her ways cannot be dictated by what is apparent to merely human wisdom. They always involve preferential option for the least. God’s habit is to turn cultural perceptions upside-down.

The excerpt from Paul’s letter to his friends in Ephesus expands that theme. It identifies Jesus precisely as the one who gives sight to “the least” previously living in the darkness of their contemporary culture governed by falsehood, evil and injustice. Paul says that such darkness is exposed and dispelled by Jesus who brings a bright light that makes everything visible and produces all kinds of goodness, truth and justice.

Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus shows what it means to bring light. He cures a man born blind. John tells the story through a series of seven interviews involving the poor man. In the process, the formerly sightless beggar doesn’t merely regain the physical ability to see. He also obtains an in-sight that helps him stand up to authorities whose “official” interpretations of Jesus’ healing contradict the blind man’s own senses.

The interviews involve Jesus’ disciples, a conversation with the blind man’s neighbors, three exchanges with Pharisees, interrogation of the blind man’s parents, and a final encounter Jesus himself. In the course of the interactions, the story of the blind man’s cure is recounted three times with delightful elements of magic, humor and irony. The repetition is necessary because the Pharisees, the story’s authority figures, refuse to admit that an ordinary person’s act of seeing can reveal more truth than their official theologized denials and a priori explanations.

So the Pharisees try to convince the cured blind man that he’s lying; he wasn’t really blind at all. They try to get the man’s parents to support their allegations. When that doesn’t work, the Pharisees try to discredit Jesus. He’s a sinner, they say, because he doesn’t observe the Sabbath.

But the beggar refuses to cave in. He insists on believing his own senses, especially sight. “I don’t know much about theology,” he repeats, “but I do know that I was blind and now I see.”

Be like the healed blind man, is the message here. Don’t believe the agents of darkness.

Today’s gospel story goes even further with that instruction. It presents Jesus as not merely turning Pharisaic perceptions upside down, but more generally his culture’s blind spots about truth itself. Those convictions are mirrored in the question of Jesus disciples at the beginning of the episode. Along with Jesus, they see the man born blind. So they ask, “Is this man’s condition the result of his own sin or that of his parents?”

By the end of the story Jesus answers their query with a statement worthy of a Zen master. He says that blindness is no sin at all. It’s seeing that’s sinful. To “clarify,” Jesus adds, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

In other words, the story is meant to raise the question, what kind of blindness is virtuous and what kind of seeing is sinful? For Jesus, the Pharisees’ claim to clear sightedness is actually blindness. The blind man’s admission that he was formerly blind and that Jesus cured him represents clarity of vision.

With all that in mind, here are the quasi-principles for post 9/11 discernment that today’s readings suggest:

  • Sacred Scripture is indeed concerned with political realities.
  • From the faith perspective, official explanations are probably false.
  • We should not believe those who perform works of darkness.
  • Kingdom consciousness turns official “reality” upside-down.
  • Those whom dominant culture dismisses as blind probably have clearer insight than their “betters.”
  • We should believe what we see with our own eyes regardless of what the agents of darkness tell us.

In a world shaped by our dear “leaders’” entirely suspect account of 9/11, accepting those gospel principles would drive us to join David Ray Griffin and the 9/11 Truth Movement as they call for a new, independent, and scientific investigation of the events of September 11, 2001.

Curing our nation of 9/11 blindness would deprive our masters of a powerful pretext to justify their works of darkness. That deprivation would truly change everything.

Noam Chomsky & Plato’s Allegory: It’s All Fake News (5th in a series on critical thinking)

Plato TV

Last week I reviewed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in an attempt to show that problems of “alternative fact” and “fake news” have been with us a long time.

In their book, Necessary Illusions, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in effect, connect Plato’s parable to contemporary controversy about truth in reporting. The authors do so by explaining what they call the Propaganda Model of information dissemination through ethnocentric political discourse, education, and especially the mainstream media.

For Chomsky and Herman, such information sources create for us an unreal shadow world that fails to take into account the realities of the world’s unseen majority whose lives are shaped by U.S. domination. Besides explaining that theory, the authors offer a way of testing its veracity. This week let me explain the propaganda model and its predictions. Next week I’ll show how to test both.

To begin with, the propaganda model holds that the mainstream media function as vehicles of propaganda intended to “manufacture consent” on the part of our culture’s majority – often described within the cave as “special interests.” The majority includes workers, labor unions, the indigenous, family farmers, women, youth, the elderly, the handicapped, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, etc. The MSM and those they represent seek to secure the latter’s consent for policies favoring what is termed “the national interest.” This, according to propagandists, is the province of corporations, financial institutions and other business elites. Such interests in turn are served not only by the media, but by elected officials, educational institutions, churches, and so on. These latter often represent resistant grassroots movements as threats, since such movements actually seek greater influence on national life.

To control such tendencies, the media in the United States defines the limits of national debate within boundaries set by a two party system of wealthy government officials, by unquestioned patriotism, support for the free market, vilification of designated enemies (e.g. ISIS, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea . . .) and support for official friends (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain . . .). Support for such “client states” ignores their objectionable actions that often parallel and even surpass similar acts committed by designated enemies.

None of this means that “liberal” criticism is excluded from the national media. On the contrary, such criticism of either government officials (like Donald Trump) or the corporate elite is common. However, the media never allow serious criticism of either the free enterprise system as such, nor of the American system of government.

Testing this model involves comparing its predictions with specific stories as reported, for instance, in the New York Times often referred to as the nation’s “paper of record.” The predictions include the following:

  • More articles will be devoted to the “atrocities” of designated enemies than to similar actions by the U.S. or its clients.
  • Less space (column inches) will be similarly allocated for reporting the alleged crimes of the U.S. or its clients.
  • In either case, story sources will tend to be American government officials and intellectuals (university professors, think tank experts, conservative churchmen) friendly to U.S. policy.
  • The reporting of “enemy” crimes will devote comparatively little space to the “official explanations” of the governments in question.
  • It will depend more heavily U.S. government spokespersons, on opposition groups within the offending countries concerned and on grassroots accounts.
  • The crimes and “atrocities” of designated enemies will be explained in terms of a corrupt and unworkable system.
  • On questionable evidence or with none at all, the crimes and atrocities of “designated enemies” will be attributed to the highest levels of government.
  • Meanwhile the crimes of the U.S. or its client states will be denied, rationalized or otherwise excused.
  • Incontrovertible proof (a “smoking gun”) will be demanded to prove the “crimes” of the U.S. or its friends.
  • If admitted, these crimes and atrocities will be explained as exceptional deviations by corrupt individuals (at the lowest level possible).
  • The ultimate conclusion drawn from the discovery of crimes along with any resulting trials and convictions will be that the “system works.”

This bias will be revealed not only in the ways noted above, but by differences in language (words, phrases, allusions) employed in writing the articles in question.

Again, next week I’ll show how Chomsky and Herman suggest testing this model and its predictions.

A Boisterous Meeting with Republican Congressman, Andy Barr

Andy Barr

On Saturday, I attended a raucous meeting with Andy Barr – the Republican lawmaker who represents Kentucky’s 6th congressional district. About 300 people were there, and were loaded for bear.

In the hubbub before the meeting, a friend told me that Barr had scheduled the Richmond gathering to avoid an even bigger assembly in Lexington. According to my friend, Barr’s original intention was to meet his constituents there at the Kentucky Theater. However, anticipation of a huge angry crowd led the congressman to relocate to Richmond’s smaller community, where he evidently thought fewer would be in attendance. (I’m sure he was surprised that so many people showed up anyway – no less angry, it’s certain, than Lexingtonians.)

Meanwhile back in Lexington, the meeting went on as planned. However, audience questions were addressed to empty chairs representing the “empty suits” who declined their constituents’ invitation, viz. Mr. Barr, Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul.

The Richmond meeting began with everyone standing, hands over heart reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” For me it was the Colin Kaepernick moment I’ve been long promising myself. I remained seated to protest the Neo-fascism increasingly associated with the national banner so profoundly dishonored by our current “leadership.”

Then Barr gave a tedious presentation on Trumpcare. He described it in terms of a “liberation” from the Obamacare that, he said, all of us hate. [The remark drew boos and cries of dissent from the crowd that gave no evidence of Trump supporters other than Mr. Barr’s staffers. (And I found myself even wondering about them!)]

Barr’s Power Point presentation on the American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare) was full of jargon and blah-blah. The crowd’s jeers showed it was clearly anxious to have its own voice heard. The representative and others from the audience had to repeatedly remind interrupters that they were only prolonging the congressman’s painful monologue, and needed to allow him to finish. Mercifully, he did after about 20 minutes. As one woman later scolded, “You have to learn to do less talking and more listening.”

Some of the questions that followed focused on Donald Trump:

  • “What is it like to work for a bat-poop (sic) crazy idiot like Donald Trump?” one woman asked.
  • “Lyin’ DJT has you Republicans looking like fools,” another commenter added.
  • “As a respecter of the Constitution, what are you going to do about Trump’s obvious breaches of the emoluments clause?” (Art. 1, section 9, clause 8)

However, most questions addressed wider-ranging issues. All of them showed that their posers had done their homework. The questions addressed health care, climate change, discrimination against Muslims, provisions for persons with disabilities, taxes, the defense budget, and defunding of the arts and public radio. Nearly all of the questions were highly charged with emotion.

Responses from the congressman were what you’d expect:

  • Trumpcare offers you choice and saves money.
  • There are many opinions about the extent of human causes of climate change, so we don’t want to act in haste. (This response prompted the questioner to reply, “Sir, your stunning ignorance on this question represents a failure in your solemn responsibility as our representative to be better informed.”)
  • During his speech to congress (9/24/15) even Pope Francis didn’t call for more government laws. (Clearly, Mr. Barr was unfamiliar with the pope’s eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS). There Pope Francis calls on national governments to submit to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).
  • Radical Islamic terrorism is the number one threat facing our country. (Evoking laughter, boos and general dissention from the audience)
  • The budget deficit means we have to cut back on public spending. (Provoking a person beside me to yell out, “How about taxing the rich?”)
  • Defense of the country is my number one responsibility.

Recently, on “Democracy Now,” Ralph Nader reminded viewers of the importance of attending meetings like the one in Richmond. It’s the principal place, Nader said, where citizens can exercise direct power over government officials scared-to-death of losing their jobs in 2018. Until Trump’s election, “Coffee with the Congressman” meetings had more staffers than constituents in attendance. Now across the country, the order of the day features standing room only audiences as loaded for bear as the Richmond crowd.

It’s up to us to keep the pressure on. Let’s make the next meeting even more uncomfortable for our government employees from the insulated Beltway.

(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis’ Suggests a Woman Pope!

Woman Pope

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: EX 17:3-7; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 5: 1-3, 5-8; JN 4: 5-42.  (Parenthetical numbers in today’s homily refer to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.)

Three years ago, I published a homily inspired by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). I noted that what the pope said about women there was surprising and hopeful. In fact, I said, it suggested that women should run the church from top to bottom!

I still hold that opinion, even though The Joy of the Gospel and the pope’s even more important eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, have virtually passed into oblivion. Neither is referenced much by the Church’s mostly backward-looking clergy educated under the reactionary pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They would rather talk about abortion and gay marriage.

My observations of three years ago remain relevant to today’s gospel reading – the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The narrative says a lot about Jesus and his “preferential option” for women. It also exemplifies once again how the women in Jesus’ life were more perceptive and courageous leaders than the rather dull, timorous men with whom he surrounded himself.

Pope Francis, if not exactly on the same page as Jesus, remains only a few paragraphs behind. He might even lag a sentence or two behind his own reasoning processes.

Before I explain, recall today’s gospel episode.

There, Jesus finds himself in Samaria among “those people” the Jews hated. Since the reasons for the hatred were located in Israel’s distant past, many Jews probably remained foggy about the exact reasons for their anti-Samaritanism. No matter: they had no doubts that Samaritans were despicable. [Just to remind you: Samaritans were the ones in Israel’s Northern Kingdom who seven centuries earlier had intermarried with Assyrian occupiers. Like “collaborators” everywhere, Samaritans were considered unpatriotic traitors. Religiously they were seen as enemies of God – apostates who had accommodated their religious beliefs to those of foreign occupation forces. (Grudges connected with foreign occupation and religion die hard.)]

In any case, in today’s gospel we have the counter-cultural Jesus once again on the social margins transgressing his people’s most cherished taboos. It’s not bad enough that he is in Samaria at all. He’s there conversing alone with a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that! (What kind of self-respecting rabbi would do either?) And besides, it’s a loose woman who’s his partner in conversation. She has a shady past that continues to darken her life. She’s been married five times and is currently living with a man without benefit of wedlock.

Yet the compassionate Jesus eschews moralism and instead of scolding chooses this marginal woman to reveal his identity in ways more direct than to his male disciples. With no word of reproach, he tells her clearly, “I am the Messiah, the source of ‘living water’ that quenches thirst forever.” After her literalist failures to grasp Jesus’ spiritual imagery, the woman finally “gets it.” She calls her neighbors and shares the good news: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

In sharing her good news, the Samaritan woman not only illustrates the privileged position of women in early Christian traditions (like the Gospel of John), she epitomizes as well the corresponding “missionary” role that Pope Francis centralizes in the Apostolic Exhortation that my friends and I have been discussing during Lent. There we find that, following Jesus, Pope Francis expresses a “preferential option” for women. He even suggests that women should be in charge before male priests and bishops.

I know; I know . . . You’re probably thinking, “But aren’t women the weak point of the pope’s ‘Exhortation?’”

True: that’s what everyone said immediately following its publication in 2013. Commentators said that Francis simply endorsed the position of his two conservative predecessors and excluded women from the priesthood. That said it all, they declared. It’s right there in black and white: the exclusively male priesthood is not open to discussion (104).

But there was more – lots more.

That is, while Francis’ rather wishful (and, of course, impossible) thinking clearly says “the reservation of the priesthood to males . . . is not a question open to discussion” (104), his prohibition actually downgrades the priesthood and bishops in the process, while raising to unprecedented heights the position of women precisely as women.

The pope’s reasoning runs like this:

  1. Why should women consider the priesthood so important? After all, it’s just one ecclesiastical function among others. That function is simply to “administer the sacrament of the Eucharist.” Apart from that, the priest has no real power or special dignity (104).
  2. Real Christian power and dignity come from baptism, not from ordination – or in the pope’s words: “The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all.” These words pull priests off their traditional pedestals and return them to the rank and file of “the People of God” along with other servants of their peers.
  3. Even more, according to the pope, women enjoy a dignity above bishops simply in virtue of their gender. The pope sets the stage for this conclusion by stating, “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops” (104).
  4. Moreover, Mary “is the icon of womanhood” itself (285). That is, by looking at her, we see the idealized position that women should occupy – above both priests and bishops.
  5. According to Francis, this realization opens the door to women assuming unprecedentedly powerful positions in the church.
  6. He writes, “. . . we need to create still broader opportunities for more incisive female presence in the church (103). So he urges “pastors and theologians . . . to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (104).

As one of those theologians the pope references, I suggest that his words in other parts of his Exhortation direct us to put women in charge of the church as a whole – including the papacy itself. After all:

  • “The church is a mother, and . . . she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child” (139). (Why then expect men to preach like a woman?)
  • The faith of the church is like Mary’s womb (285). (This means that faith nourishes Christians in a uniquely feminine way.)
  • “. . . (E)very Christian is . . . a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister . . .” (285). (“Every Christian!” Is it possible to issue a clearer invitation to men – including the hierarchy – to recognize their own feminine qualities so essential to Christian identity? And who can better exemplify and evoke those qualities than women leaders?)
  • The “female genius” (with its “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets”) equips women more than men to be the out-going missionaries the pope’s Exhortation centralizes (103).
  • And since “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (15), it seems that women “more than men” are uniquely equipped to embody the essence of what the church should be doing in the world.

My conclusion from all of this is simple. Regarding women, Pope Francis is far more radical than most realize (perhaps including himself). In fact, Francis’ “preferential option for women” actually mirrors Jesus’ choice expressed so fully in today’s gospel. There Jesus chooses a woman as an apostle (“one sent”) and preacher. Her simple words referencing her own uniquely feminine experience (“everything I’ve ever done”) persuade her village neighbors to meet Jesus and spend time with him. They then draw their own conclusions. They say, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves . . .”

All of this indicates that truly following the rabbi from Nazareth means thinking for ourselves and moving even beyond the pope’s perception of his words’ implications. Those words imply that the church and its mission are more feminine than masculine. They suggest that if only men (because of their physical resemblance to Jesus) can perform the newly demoted function of priest, then women’s physical resemblance to Mary uniquely qualifies them for offices “more important than the bishops.”

In the church hierarchy, what’s above a bishop? A cardinal, of course. And the pope is always drawn from the College of Cardinals. Hmm . . . .

Move over, Francis, make way for Pope FrancEs THE FIRST!

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Fake News in a Fake World (4th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Plato's Cave

One might easily argue that fake news antedates our modern world altogether. Back in the 4rd century BCE, Plato of Athens described something like it in his “Allegory of the Cave,” which has always played a central part in my own teaching.

In the context of critical thinking, it is pertinent to recall its details, and to compare them with a more contemporary version of Plato’s tale suggested by Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions. Recall that in effect, Chomsky argues that most of what we read in the mainstream media flirts, at the very least, with fake news.

Here’s the way I’ve told the story to my students.

In Book VII of The Republic, Plato says that those trapped in ethnocentrism are like prisoners confined from birth to a cave. Within its confines, they live within a shadow world.

That’s because the prisoners pass their entire lives chained alongside one another, unable to move or even turn their heads to see companions seated alongside them similarly constricted. Instead, everyone confined to the cave faces the cavern’s back wall. Upon that surface, what the prisoners take for themselves and life itself are imaged before them in the form of shadows.

The shadows appear because behind the prisoners’ backs a fire is burning. It acts like a movie camera in a dark theater, causing the shadows of those before it to be projected on the cave’s blank wall. So the prisoners see themselves and those beside them only in specter form. They think the sentences they themselves utter are coming from those relatively distant dark figures. In other words, the prisoners are completely alienated from their true selves.

But there’s more.

Behind the prisoner’s back, and between them and the fire there stretches what Plato calls a parapet. It’s a long elevated pathway that runs the width of the cave. Shielded by the parapet’s wall, men walk unseen, each carrying a statue overhead. There are statues of everything you might think of: flowers, trees, animals, buildings, gods and goddesses … As they pass before the fire, the statues, but not their bearers, appear as shadows on the cave’s wall.

The prisoners watching the parade, imagine that life is unfolding before them, even though, in reality, their perception is artificial to say the least.

Still however, the “wise ones” among the cave’s prisoners become adept at identifying and naming the shadows and at predicting the order of their appearance. Such “teachers” are held in high esteem, though their reality, like the others, is limited to shadows of objects made of stone and wood.

Then one day everything changes. One of the prisoners (we’re not told how) has his chains struck. Slowly, and with great discomfort, he manages to stand. In the fire’s light, he observes the actual bodies of those chained alongside him. He turns and though the fire’s light stabs his eyes, his vision gradually adjusts allowing him to see the blaze and the parapet running before it. He sees the statues for what they are and eventually even the ones carrying them.

“And what’s that beyond the fire?” he asks himself. Why, it’s a pathway leading who knows where. The freed prisoner decides to follow the path. Stumbling and falling, he’s swallowed up in the darkness of the cave’s elongated entrance tunnel. Finally, however, things brighten as he approaches the cave’s entrance.

Then all at once, he’s there. He emerges into the real world, blinded by the terrible brightness of the sun. His eyes adjust and the panorama before him is stunning. For the first time, he sees real flowers, real trees, animals, birds, buildings, and people walking freely about. Finally, he’s able to look fleetingly at the source enabling such wonderful visions, the sun itself. He has entered the real world and is free at last.

But then he remembers his fellow prisoners left behind in the dark cave. He pities their bereft condition, and resolves to set them free.

Back to the cave he goes, this time feeling the cavern’s darkness more oppressive than before.

He stumbles back to the fire and presents himself before the prisoners with his good news.

“This is not reality!” he exclaims. “There’s a whole world outside this cave more wonderful than anything you can imagine. I have only to strike your chains, so you might leave here and enjoy an unimaginably fuller life. Let me set you free!”

Plato asks, how do you suppose the prisoners will receive the escapee’s message? Will they welcome him and follow his lead to freedom?

Far from it, Plato replies. On the contrary, if they could, they would rise up and kill him for disturbing their comfortable tranquility.

Such is the fate of all great teachers, Plato observes. It’s what happened to his beloved Socrates whom the citizens of Athens executed for “corrupting the youth.” Socrates’ crime was teaching the young to think critically. Plato’s allegory describes the journey of critical thinking – from acceptance of shadow-reality through facing the hard truth of having been tricked, to a thrilling sense of liberation followed in many cases by rejection and hostility from friends, relatives, and strangers content with being duped.

Plato’s message seems to be that we are all prisoners by choice. We’re locked in our cultural cave whose world vision is so profoundly distorted that it deprives us of life itself. In fact, we love the chains that bind us. And that love has created a drab, stultifying reality. Our chains’ links are forged from fear of the unknown – of life itself – and of our own freedom and power. We’re afraid of what might happen to us if we embrace life without illusion. We’re wedded to our comfort with what we’ve always known. From that perspective, liberation strikes us as threatening and insane. Nonetheless, our prison cell’s door stands open before us. We have only to replace fear with courage, love of life, and willingness to change. The reward is new vision – another way of looking at things, and fullness of life itself.

(Next week: Plato Updated: Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions)

Our Lenten Call to Mysticism (Sunday Homily)

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9

Last week my homily centered on the stages of human development as described by Ken Wilber. His analysis is relevant again on this Second Sunday of Lent, which centralizes Jesus’ Transfiguration. Matthew’s account presents a literally enlightened Jesus. The Master is suddenly filled with brightness. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow.

Jesus’ transfiguration is a call to an engaged Christian mysticism that is both deeply spiritual and ferociously active on behalf of the poor and oppressed among us. Given our world’s current crisis, that connection between the spiritual and activist dimensions of our faith could not be more timely.

Begin with Ken Wilber. You might recall that he understands the evolutionary process we are all called to traverse as starting with egocentrism, passing through ethnocentrism, advancing to world-centrism, and possibly arriving at Cosmo-centrism.

The world of the egocentric is that of children and childish adults. It is governed by magic and expresses itself in a pre-conventional morality. Before the age of seven or so, children believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; they have little sense of morality.  Some have accused President Trump of inhabiting this space.

For their parts, and politically speaking, the ethnocentric identify with their national and/or religious tribe. Their world is governed by myth and exhibits a conventional morality. The morality of the ethnocentric is dictated by custom, and cultural expectations. Perhaps 40 to 70 percent of the world is ethnocentric.

In fact, many of us get stuck at ethnocentric stage – or even at egocentrism. Politically, socially, and economically, we’re pretty conventional people, and cannot understand those at more advanced stages of development.

The politics of world-centric people have moved beyond tribe and its religion. Their world is governed by reason, rather than by magic or myth. Their morality is post-conventional. For them, self-interest, national laws and religious prohibitions can be transcended by the demands of a larger sense of justice and love. All the great prophets (secular as well as religious) had no trouble breaking laws they considered inhumane. They were boundary-crossers who (in Jesus’ words) recognized that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not the reverse.

The cosmic-centered have entered the realm of Enlightened Masters like the Buddha or Jesus as depicted in today’s gospel. They embody the four basic insights of mysticism found in all the world’s Great Religions: (1) There resides a spark of the divine within every human being, (2) That spark can be realized (i.e. make a real difference in daily life), (3) It is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) Once that happens, the enlightened one begins to see the same spark in every other human being and in all of creation.

Cosmic-centered mystics are governed by compassion. They empathize with the egocentric, ethnocentric, and world-centric. They realize that they themselves have passed through those more primitive stages. They know that those behind them cannot even fathom the realities, joys, and ecstasies experienced by those at higher stages. They forgive rather than blame.

Wilber estimates that possibly 7% of humans today have reached Cosmo-centric consciousness. Only 10% is necessary, he says, for reaching a tipping point where cosmic-centered realities will be generally accepted as the leading edge of evolution.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus enters that mystical realm, but he does so in a way that recognizes the need for action on behalf of God’s chosen people – the poor and oppressed. Jesus escapes the realm of time, where only the NOW exists and the illusions of past and future disappear. As a result, he’s able to converse with like-minded mystics (Moses and Elijah) from his people’s ancient past. Both of them emphasize the social justice imperative.

Moses, remember, was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.

Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.

Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated, the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)

What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:

  • It is an essential Christian calling to seek enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. The Enlightened Jesus calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to mystical consciousness.
  • At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s imperative to side with the poor – to take on their cause as our own. This suggests our doing what we can (by way of phone calls, demonstrations, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore health care and unemployment benefits for the sick and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery.
  • Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life –and of Lent. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.

“Magic Glasses:” The Marginalized Know Better (Pt. 3 in a series on critical thinking)

magic glasses March

These past two weeks (see here and here), I’ve been addressing the question of critical thinking in a post-fact age of “fake news.”

So far, my argument has invited readers to recognize a hierarchy of truths, viz. that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. Most academics are reluctant to recognize that hierarchy. As thorough post-moderns, hey advocate what Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness.” It holds that every perspective is as good as any other.

By rejecting such insanity, the task of critical education becomes helping people move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to (at least) acquaintance with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

And it’s here that I find the concept of “magic glasses” (which will figure in the title of my book) relevant to the task at hand. Baba Dick Gregory uses the phrase to refer to the perspective conferred by movement from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. According to Gregory, such advance is like donning special eyewear that enables one to perceive what is invisible or absurd to those without them.

Magic glasses, the Baba warns, are both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that eyesight through magic glasses is fuller, and more evolved – more worthy of human beings. The curse is that those without the glasses will consider their wearers insane or worse. The hell of it is that glassless folk cannot be persuaded unless their independent growth cycle enables them to do so.

So, Gregory points out, the magic glasses come with three inviolable rules: (1) once you put them on, you may never take them off, (2) afterwards, you can never see things as your tribe says they’re supposed to be, but only as they truly are, and (3) you can never force anyone else to wear them.

My own experience confirms Gregory’s insight. It suggests that our lives’ journeys, our lived experiences, achieving critical distance from families and cultures, along with our encounters with great teachers, can all help us gain higher levels of consciousness better able to grasp more evolved levels of critical thinking.

In my own case, exposure to critical thought as explained, practiced and stimulated outside the U.S. during my graduate studies in Rome and across Europe helped me gain distance from U.S.-fostered ethnocentrism.

But so did what I learned in former European colonies like Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, and India. Thinkers and activists there gradually raised my critical awareness that the Global South’s “alternative facts” about economics and history underpin any critical thought worthy of the name. I was actually privileged to meet directly with people like  Paulo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Maria Lopez Vigil, Dom Helder Camara, Miguel D’Escoto, bell hooks, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, and Enrique Dussel, and Rubem Alvez.

All of them taught me that the Global South and impoverished perspective tends to be fuller than its developed world counterpart.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never considered the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, they can remain mere abstractions. None of us knows what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

Even in practical spheres of daily living, the marginalized and poor know more. They typically can grow their own food, repair their machines, take care of animals, and just “make do” and survive in ways that would soon become apparent to all of us if the electricity stopped working for a few days.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

For me, benefitting from the perspective of the world’s conscientized majority, and reading their philosophers, theologians, activists, and social analysts has turned my own perspective upside-down. It has changed my understanding of history, economics, politics – and especially of theology and God-talk.

Such upside-down vision will be the heart of my book on critical thinking. It has suggested the following truth criteria: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect Challenge, (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect Violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

Over the next weeks, I’ll try and develop each of those “rules for critical thinking.” But before I get there, I want to tell you more about “fake news” and my own journey.

(Next week: Plato’s Fake World)