“Sweet Little 78” and Back in Class Again

Aronowitz

As readers of this blog might remember, Peggy and I have just moved to Westport, Connecticut. In an earlier posting, I explained that we’re here largely to be near our four grandchildren. My daughter, Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, along with Eva (9 yrs.), Oscar (7), Orlando (5), and Markandeya (3) live at 69 Clinton Avenue. Peggy and I are now located at 33 Clinton. It’s a 10-minute walk between our two houses.

And so far, it’s working out just fine. We’re pretty well moved into our new digs which are quite a bit smaller than what we became used to in Berea, Kentucky. But we’re finding comfort in the down-sizing. After all small is beautiful.

33 Clinton

Along those lines, however, I do find myself missing the small-town atmosphere that we got so comfortable with in Berea. Forty-five years in Kentucky definitely turned me into a country mouse. Here in Westport, a virtual suburb of New York City, things are quite different. The pace if faster; the traffic is heavier; the prices are higher.

But with Westport and that proximity to NYC come a lot of benefits. For instance, our new location has a wonderful Playhouse. Just this weekend, Peggy and I took in “Man of La Mancha” that had been performing there to rave reviews. The reviews were well-deserved. We came away truly inspired.

And then there’s a nine-week course I have enrolled in and am attending each Saturday in the heart of Manhattan. That’s what I want to tell you about here. As Chuck Berry might say, at sweet 78, I’m back in class again.

The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” The sessions are taught by Stanley Aronowitz (pictured above), an emeritus professor of sociology, cultural studies, and urban education at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Stanley is a widely-published authority on critical theory. Peggy and I had met him years ago (around 1990) at the Socialist Scholars Conference at CUNY. His work on Paulo Freire and our friendship with Paulo were our connecting points.

My primary purpose in attending Stanley’s class is to deepen my understanding of critical theory, which lies at the basis of my related book The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: Seeing Through Alternative Fact and Fake News.

True, my book addresses what is called “critical thinking” here in the United States. But the latter’s exclusive emphasis on logic and detecting fallacies is a far cry from critical theory as understood in the rest of the world. There it is profoundly informed by Marxism and the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm – all members of the so-called Frankfurt School.

Just as my book does, the Frankfurt School emphasized the structural causes of the way we think: capitalism, its ideology, and the ways thinking is influenced by capitalism’s history, colonial practices, and associated understandings of violence, terrorism and other obfuscations. As I explain in my book, I picked up almost everything I know of that kind of critical thinking from the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in Rome, Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India, and Israel. Liberation theology is deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School.

So, my first purpose in attending was to learn more about critical theory unfiltered through theology. My secondary purpose was to meet other leftists, to find out what they’re up to in the NYC area, and to possibly join them in their efforts at creating a world with room for everyone.

The Aronowitz class meets Saturday afternoons from 12:00-2:00 at The People’s Forum on 320 East 37th Street. Getting there has me taking the 10:08 train from Westport to Grand Central Station. That reaches its destination about 11:30. Then I walk a mile and a quarter down 42nd Street to Broadway, and then to East 37th. On the way, I pass the New York City Library and thousands of very interesting-looking people.

The first meeting drew about 30 people. Though extremely interesting, it frustrated my purpose of getting to know people. Stanley didn’t have us introduce ourselves. So, I came away with only the vaguest notions of who was there. They were of all ages, though slightly tilted towards my own cohort. Mostly men, though about a third were women.

For homework, Stanley assigned a very difficult reading from Adorno’s Critical Models. It was an 18-page essay called “Progress.” It turned out to be one of the most abstract pieces I’ve ever read. I found it kind of exciting though. It made me feel like I was in graduate school again – reading something very serious. However, Aronowitz was right: “You have to read it about three times to get what Adorno’s saying.”

Well, I did that. It took me about half-an-hour to read each page. And later (even though it wasn’t part of the assignment) I wrote a 1000-word essay of response. It’s the kind of essay I always wanted my students at Berea to produce after readings I assigned there.

In any case, Stanley’s second class had about half the number of attendees as the first. Our actual class size is 12 students. (Stanley said the class size-difference is normal.) As it turns out, most of them (largely 50 yrs. and older) are Aronowitz groupies. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one who hasn’t taken a previous class with him. The others are all Marxists more or less (I guess I fall into that category as well) – all very smart and well-read.

So, I’m having fun here in Westport. The three classes I’ve attended so far have been dynamite.

Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll share the essay I mentioned above.

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100718.cfm

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

The Real Election Interference Threatening Our Democracy

Voting Machine

Ever since the 2016 election, our non-stop news cycles have focused on Russian meddling in our (supposedly) otherwise well-functioning electoral system.

And just lately, President Trump, who denies that such interference helped get him elected, has warned that the Chinese are also about to intervene – this time, he fears, against the interests of his party.

The President’s double standards aside, all such scapegoating ignores the fact that the real interference threatening our democracy comes from within. In fact, it largely originates with Republicans, whose policies have rendered the system entirely dysfunctional and unreliable.

To begin with, I’m referring to their sponsorship of the Citizens United lawsuit. It opened the door to the corrupting influence of campaign contributions from wealthy donors to Republicans and Democrats alike. I’m also referencing The Supreme Court’s striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The Court’s (Republican-led) 5-4 decision opened the door for laws intended to disenfranchise Democrat-leaning minorities.

Add to this the practice of gerrymandering that renders GOP congressional seats virtually invulnerable, along with widespread voter suppression that discounts thousands of votes in each state and millions nation-wide in each election cycle, and you get an idea of just how corrupt our system has become.

And I haven’t even mentioned refusal to eliminate the Electoral College that has overridden the popular electoral will in favor of our last two Republican presidents – or the entirely hackable voting machines controlled by GOP-friendly operatives like Diebold Election Systems.

And then there’s the most fundamental voter-suppression measure of all – holding elections on Tuesdays precisely during the hours when working-class voters are on the job or traveling to the workplace.

All of this suggests that we must face up to the facts that:

• G.O.P. operative, Paul Weyrich, meant what he said in 1980 about Republicans not wanting everyone to vote (because if everyone did cast a ballot, a Republican president would never again darken the White House door).
• Computerized voting machines overwhelmingly favor that minority otherwise unelectable party by potentially miscounting and/or flipping millions of votes that end up completely unverifiable.

Addressing the problem will entail:

• Getting private money out of the electoral process in favor of public funding.
• Eliminating the electoral college in favor of direct popular vote.
• Abolishing gerrymandering by making redistricting a bi-partisan process subject to the approval of a reformed Federal Election Commission whose goal would be to maximize voter turn-out as well as to increase voter confidence by a transparent certification process.
• Outlawing completely highly hackable voting machines.
• More specifically, implementing a system of universal, automatic and verifiable voter registration and reverting to employment of hand-counted paper ballots.
• Changing Election Day from Tuesday to Sunday, or even establishing a national voting holiday (e.g. from Saturday to Tuesday), with ballots hand-counted by unimpeachable young people like senior Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on Wednesday.

Failure to enact such changes, especially following the debacles of the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 is not the fault of foreign interference in our electoral process. It’s the fault of a fundamentally broken system intended to discourage grassroots participation in favor of a minority party. Fixing it will require great commitment and work by us all.

Despite the obstacles placed in our paths, a first act towards repairing the systemic dysfunctions just described will present itself to us on November 6th.

In other words, that first reparative step is to vote the Republicans out of office replacing them with progressive democrats who refuse to take corporate money.

A Judicious Wise Woman Shames an Emotional Muddle-Headed Man: Blasey-Ford for SCOTUS!

Kavanaugh

Did you watch the Brent Kavanaugh confirmation hearings yesterday? I couldn’t help myself. I watched much more than I at first intended. I found it all quite fascinating and very conclusive in terms of filling the Supreme Court post left open by the resignation of Anthony Kennedy.

Surprisingly, I decided that if presented with the improbable choice, I’d vote to approve Christine Blasey-Ford, not Brent Kavanaugh, for the vacant post. Her testimony yesterday exhibited the qualities I expect in a judge. She also evidenced a sharper legal mind than the actual nominee.

Let me explain.

At issue, of course, was Dr. Blasey-Ford’s accusation that 36 years ago, when she was 15 and he was 17, Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a drunken high school party. Perhaps even more importantly, the issue has become whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is lying about the event in question.

Dr. Blasé-Ford’s couples-therapist has notes to prove that the alleged crime remained a disturbing issue long after the alleged event and well before Kavanaugh’s nomination to fill the soon-to-be-vacant SCOTUS position. Blasey-Ford says she is “100% sure” that Kavanaugh was her attacker. She has also taken and passed a lie detector test to that effect.

Her request is that the F.B.I. investigate her allegations – specifically that they take a deposition from the only witness to the crime, one Mark Judge who, she says, was at least an accessory to the crime, if not an active accomplice of the young Kavanaugh she describes. Blasey-Ford alleges that Judge egged Kavanaugh on and that he ended up jumping on top of the pair as the future SCOTUS nominee attempted to disrobe her.

Throughout her testimony, I found Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony low-key, measured, open, matter-of-fact, and un-defensive.

For his part, Judge Kavanaugh denies the whole thing. His testimony was loud, aggressive, angry, extremely emotional, tear-filled, defensive, and punctuated by snorting, huffing, puffing and frequent pauses for long gulps of water. With raised voice, he repeatedly talked over his inquisitors. At points, it appeared that he was having a nervous breakdown.

Along with his Republican male colleagues, the judge painted himself as the innocent victim of a calculated smear campaign. Though Dr. Blasey-Ford may well have endured the horrific attack she describes, Kavanaugh maintained that she had mistaken the identity of her attacker.

He further argued that there was no need to depose Mark Judge. It was good enough, Kavanaugh said, that the one Dr. Blasey-Ford had identified as his accomplice or accessory had submitted a statement swearing to the innocence of Kavanaugh (and, naturally, of Judge himself).

Similarly, for Kavanaugh, further F.B.I. investigation would be pointless. Much less would it help for him to take a lie-detector test. He intimated that his detailed calendar from 36 years ago, along with his own interpretation of its meaning was more credible than any such testing might ever be.

And that brings me to the conclusion I mentioned earlier. I thought of the whole spectacle in terms of a job interview. After all, that’s the bottom line here. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Brent Kavanaugh is interviewing for a position on the highest court in the land. The real question here is not about the alleged event of 36 years ago, but about hiring him for a life-long job with iron-clad tenure.

To help answer that question, I recalled my years of work at Berea College in Kentucky and of the innumerable job candidates I interviewed there. What if Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were applying for a job there? How would I and my colleagues evaluate their performances? Who would be most the most effective candidate.

It would not be Kavanaugh.

To begin with, measured, thoughtful, humble and articulate would be judged far more favorably than strident, defensive, accusatory and accompaniment by snorting, huffing and puffing. That contrast alone would disqualify Kavanaugh from serious consideration.

But then there’s the more serious question of professional competence. I and my colleagues would wonder who exhibited more . . . well, judiciousness? Who gave evidence of a better legal mind?

Clearly, it was Blasey-Ford. She called for full investigation of new charges. She requested deposition, cross-examination, and judgment based on eye-witness testimony. Meanwhile, he preferred reliance on investigations prior to recent charges. For him, testimony of the accused, endorsements by his friends, and trusting the written self-exoneration of an alleged accomplice or accessory were good enough.

I’m sure I and my colleagues would see such reasoning as sloppy and . . . well, injudicious.

In the words of a Great Man, I’m certain we’d conclude in effect: “Judge, Kavanaugh, you’re fired!”

Improbably, we’d offer the position to Dr. Blasey-Ford instead.

White American Evangelicals and Catholics Hate Children: They Hate Jesus!

babyjail

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

What’s the worst thing you can do to a child? What’s the worst form of child abuse?

No, it’s not abusing them sexually, though that’s bad enough. Of course, pedophilia is the horrendous crime so many Catholic priests have committed from time immemorial. It is nearly unspeakable in its selfish cruelty. It deserves absolute contempt and condemnation.

However, the worst crime is not sexual abuse. No, it’s separating children from their parents. A little introspection about your own children or grandchildren might tell you that. Picture them deprived of your presence and love — forever. Can you imagine having your child snatched from your paternal arms or from your nurturing breast?

Incredibly, that’s the crime committed by white Evangelicals who represent the largest constituency of Present Donald J. Trump. They commit it by their unconditional support of the one who has actually created baby jails. Yes, baby jails that permanently separate the most innocent creatures we can imagine from the ones that love them dearly. This crime tortures not only the babies, but their mothers and fathers too.

Of course, both Catholics and Evangelicals camouflage their misopedia by pretending to care about unborn embryos and fetuses – creatures for whom they cannot possibly exercise practical responsibility and whose parents tend to be “those others:” blacks and browns, immigrants and the poor in general. Opposing abortion represents what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It’s costs the opponents absolutely nothing.

Yet, once the unborn come to term – once the newly born and young might cost taxpayers a few dollars – erstwhile Christian child-defenders disappear. They wash their hands of the whole affair. They effectively tell parents “Now you’re on your own, good luck.” They even oppose “Big Government” programs like SNAP and TANF that have proven in other countries to reduce abortions by significantly relieving the financial worries of new parents.

Worse still, patriotic Christians support killing the young by the hundreds of thousands and without a second thought. They do so in places like Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. That’s the short list of killing fields where children are slaughtered mercilessly and on an hourly basis by “American” bombs effectively blessed by the “Christians” I’m referencing. (Secretary of State and devout Christian, Mike Pompeo, nakedly supports such slaughter because it’s good for the U.S. arms industry.)

All of this conflicts with the portrayal of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. There, Jesus embraces a real child of the kind Trump-supporters show little concern about once the creatures advance beyond fetal status.

This is how Mark describes the episode: “Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’”

In fact, Jesus uttered not a word about abortion. But Mark’s portrayal speaks volumes about Jesus’ attitude towards the kind of children Catholics and Evangelicals tend to hate. He could not have been clearer In his absolute identification with them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

To repeat, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth precisely because of his programmatic concern for the poor.

Remember: Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins. So, the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.

I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in question is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s truly chosen people. In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Embracing children like that doesn’t mean practicing “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel.

Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere – the programs Donald Trump and his supporters are hell-bent on eliminating.

Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday. Remember it when you cast your vote on November 6th.

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

Imperial Bombs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephphata: Jesus Challenges Our Culture’s Silence about Poverty

Readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146:7-10; Jas. 2:1-5; Mk. 7:31-37

Poverty is an uncomfortable topic for Americans. So, we ignore it at home and abroad. When was the last time you heard a politician even refer to the poverty as a pressing problem in the United States or in the world at large?

Today’s liturgy of the word forces us to face God’s quite divergent attitude on the subject.

But before we get to that. Think about our culture’s attitude. For instance, rather than recognize poverty as human-caused, our politicians go in the opposite direction. They actually blame the world’s problems on the poor. They ask us to believe that impoverished immigrants and war refugees rather than the politicians themselves (and their rich sponsors) are responsible for our nation’s problems.

The reality, however, is that the refugees are the product of U.S. wars against the poor in our own hemisphere and beyond. Throughout the 1980s, we fought the poor in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Besides those causes, refugees and immigrants are the direct result of trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement. They come from our current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Take the case of Yemen. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East. And yet we’re cooperating with the Saudis, the richest people in the region, in their genocidal attack on Yemenis. Together we and the Saudis are starving to death people who were already barely hanging on to life. We’ve started a cholera epidemic among them that the World Health Organization says has already claimed 1.1 million lives.

And then there’s the poor among us here in the United States. The numbers of U.S. poor are actually growing by leaps and bounds. According to the federal government, a family of four making less than $28,800 is considered poor. The number of Americans at or below that level has reached more than 50 million. And yet, while reducing taxes on the super-rich, our current government is bent on cutting unemployment benefits, further restricting food stamps, eliminating Medicaid as we know it, and “reforming” Social Security to the point of cancelling its effectiveness.

And it’s worse than that as well. The poorest people in the world live on less than $1.90 per day. Incredibly (according to a recent report from the UN) there are 5.3 million such people in the United States. They’re living in poverty like that usually associated with Bangladesh!

Yet most of us remain completely unaware of such conditions. To repeat: our politicians ignore them at best and deny them at worst. So do our media. Consequently, we pay no attention to the poor and to U.S. aggression directed against them — customarialy masked as a “war on terror.”

Today’s liturgy of the word addresses the question of blindness to poverty, of deafness to the voices of the poor, and the inability to speak with or about them. Taken together, our readings implicitly and explicitly call us to open our eyes and ears and to be the voice of the voiceless. Jesus’ healing Aramaic word “Ephphata” (be opened) is central here. We’re called to open ourselves to the poor.

The first reading from 2nd Isaiah addresses the captives in Babylonia in the 6th century before the Common Era. Following their defeat in 581 the cream of Israel’s society were held captives by their Babylonian conquerors. Speaking as one of them, and acting as a prophet of hope, Isaiah promises that the “Babylonian Exile” will soon come to an end. Then everything will be wonderful, he assures his readers. The desert will bloom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak. The inclusion of this reading in today’s liturgy implies that Jesus and his works of healing on behalf of the poor is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Isaiah’s sentiments are reinforced by the responsorial psalm. To Isaiah’s insight it adds the specific identification of Yahweh as the God of the poor and oppressed. According to the psalm, Yahweh sets captives free, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and protects immigrants, widows and orphans. Yahweh is on the side of the poor, the psalmist says. Hard as the words might sound to us, God prefers the poor to the self-satisfied rich – to people like us.

Today’s second reading – from the Letter of James continues the theme of the responsorial psalm. James warns against showing partiality for the rich. “Don’t be judgmental about the poor,” he warns. They after all are the ones God is partial towards. “God chose the poor,” James says, “to be heirs of the kingdom.”

All of this celebration of the poor as the People of God reaches its zenith in today’s Gospel selection. There Jesus cures a poor man who is deaf and who cannot speak. There are at least three noteworthy elements to this cure. Considered as a whole, all three are connected with the topic of poverty and its absence from public perception and discourse.

The first thing to note is that this episode is almost certainly an accurate reflection of something Jesus actually did. The detail about Jesus’ curing ritual – his use of spit, his loud sigh, and the quasi-magical Aramaic word he used (ephphatha) to effect the cure indicate the account’s authenticity. In this passage, the healer Jesus is acting like what indigenous Mayans in Guatemala call a “curandero” – a traditional healer, or what unsympathetic outsiders might term a “witch doctor.”

The second noteworthy element of today’s story is where it occurred – in the Gentile region of Palestine. Here we have Jesus (and this is one of the recurring themes of Mark’s Gospel) treating non-believers – people outside the Jewish community – the same as those inside. Jesus constantly crossed such boundaries. And he usually got in trouble for doing so. But he continued those boundary-crossings because he found more receptivity among non-believers than among would-be people of faith.

The third noteworthy element of this story goes along with the previous one. It’s the response of the non-believers to the Jesus’ cure of the deaf-mute. Tremendous enthusiasm. Despite his best efforts, Jesus couldn’t keep quiet the people who witnessed the cure. Once again, this reaction stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own disciples who in Mark’s account never quite “get it.”

The rich liturgical context for the account of Jesus cure of the deaf-mute including Isaiah’s promise to the exiles and James’ words about God’s preferential option for the poor directs our attention towards the social meaning of Jesus healing action in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. It indicates what curing blindness, deafness and impediments to speech might mean for us today.

We are called, the liturgy suggests, to be opened to the invisible poor among us and to cross forbidden boundaries to meet them. We are summoned not only to see them, but to hear what they are saying. They, after all, possess what theologians call a “hermeneutical privilege,” i.e. the most reliable and accurate insight into what really ails our society, our culture, the world.

This means that if we truly listen, we can learn more about the world from the homeless person on the street than from all the learned tomes in our libraries or from the pop-sociology we find on the New York Times best-seller list – or for that matter from our politicians, bishops and popes. [Isn’t it ironic that Christians today should be the ones downgrading the poor implying (with atheist Ayn Rand, the hero of the religious right) that they are “lazy,” “moochers,” and “useless eaters?”]

On top of that, the suggestion today is that as followers of Jesus, we have to recognize poverty and God’s poor as specifically biblical categories. Following Jesus means putting our priorities aside so the poor may be served. This means trying to be the voice of the poor in the places from which they are excluded, but to which we have access. We are being directed to overcome our reluctance (inability?) to break the silence about poverty. Here I’m not just talking about letters to the editor, attending public meetings, phoning our President, senators and congressional representatives. I’m also speaking about conversations around our family dinner tables, at the water cooler, in the locker room, and in our schools.

Following Jesus, we can’t allow the enemies of the poor and those who are indifferent to them to twist the Gospel. We can’t allow them to carry the day as if Jesus and the Biblical tradition so well reflected in today’s liturgy shared our culture’s prejudice against the poor.

Today in response to our biblical readings let our prayer be “Ephphatha! Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Loosen our tongues” — not only to speak the truth about poverty, but to act on that truth ourselves and stimulate our elected leaders to do their part.

Please consider these thoughts as you listen again to the beautiful prayer-song, “Ephphatha.”