Readings for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; PS 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11; HEB 12: 18-19, 22-24A; LK 14: 1, 7-14.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus finds himself invited for dinner to the home of a Pharisee. All present, Luke tells us, are watching Jesus closely. No doubt, they’re keeping an eye on his disciples too. And they don’t approve.
After all, like Jesus, his disciples are mere riff-raff. But at least Jesus is the reputed peasant-rabbi. Everyone’s talking about him. And investigating Jesus is the whole reason for this dinner. So for the moment at least, the Pharisees are willing to cut him some slack.
His hangers-on however are a different story. They’re rough. They smell of fish and sweat, and have no manners. And yet, as Jesus’ friends, they’ve been placed towards the head of the table in places of honor. Granted, they feel out of place, but for that very reason they are enjoying themselves tremendously. You can imagine their rough jokes and loud laughter.
Yes, the Pharisees are watching Jesus and his friends. But obviously, Jesus has been watching them as well. He knows they are expecting some words of wisdom. So . . . he tells them a joke. And the joke’s on them. It contains a sharp barb.
“Thanks for inviting us to this banquet,” Jesus begins. “Unaccustomed as we are . . .” He pauses and smiles. “That’s quite generous of you. After all, none of us can repay your kindness. We are homeless people, as you know. We’re unemployed too, so we are in no position to return your kindness.
The best I can do is offer you some wisdom. So let me tell you what I’ve been observing here.
“Evidently,” Jesus goes on, “it’s your custom to adopt the humility recommended in the biblical Book of Sirach. I can’t tell you how impressed I am; I’m edified by your piety. I mean, you have clearly taken to heart the words of the sage, Jesus ben Sirach – what he said about being humble, especially if we are ‘great’ as all of you are here, I’m sure.”
Jesus eyes his listeners. He can tell that they are waiting for the penny to drop. So he drops it.
“I can see that when you come into a place like this, you take the lowest place available.” With this, Jesus stands up bows his head, stoops his shoulders and slumps towards the lowest place at table. He laughs.
“That way,” the Master continues, “our host, of course, is obliged to publically invite you to a more honored position at table. ‘Friend,’ he’ll say, ‘come up higher, and sit in the place you’ve merited not down there with the unwashed and poor.’”
Now Jesus is standing. He throws out his chest and strides towards the seat right next to his pharisaical host. He chuckles again. “That enables you,” Jesus continues,” with great protestations of unworthiness, to take your ‘rightful’ place at table. Your stock has risen in everyone’s eyes.
“So congratulations are in order,” Jesus says. “All of you have learned your lessons well. You’ve just created a show, and have actually exalted yourself by pretending to be humble. In a sense, you’ve received your reward.”
Jesus is seated now and looking intently at everyone. Their mouths are open with shock.
“So here’s my wisdom, friends. . . . Your ‘humility’ is not what Sirach was recommending. In fact, it’s a form of pride and self-promotion.
“Instead, real humility is this: when you throw a party like this one, invite the poor, the lame and the blind, and then serve them. Place them at the head of your table and treat them as honored guests. People like that can’t or won’t repay you. But in fact, YOU OWE THEM.” Jesus fairly shouts those last three words.
“I’m telling you the truth,” he says. And humility is nothing but the truth.”
Jesus pauses, but he hasn’t finished yet. “You see, those belonging to what you consider the Great Unwashed are actually God’s favorite people. Recall what the psalmist said about them in Psalm 68. He said God is the Father of orphans; he’s the defender of widows, of prisoners, of the homeless, and of farmers without land.”
Jesus is quiet now; his smile is broad and friendly. He searches the faces of his table companions one-by-one.
Then he turns to his host and adds.
“To be fair, my friend, you yourself are on the right track. By inviting us today, you’ve shown that you already understand what I’ve been saying. As I say, none of us can repay you, and yet you’ve invited us to this abundant table. We are sincerely grateful.
“But don’t think that you’ve somehow performed an act of charity by your invitation. No, it’s an act of justice – of compensation to make up for what you have stolen from the poor by underpaying them and taxing them heavily. In supporting the poor and even the “lazy,” you are simply imitating our generous God.
“I mean the earth and its produce are all gifts from God. No one has earned them. No one owns them but the creator. If you have food, then, you are obliged to share it with the hungry – even with those unwilling to work. As difficult as it might be to understand, that’s simply the divine dispensation.
“The earth and the life it supports have been freely given to everyone – even to people like me and my friends who refuse to work and live from the alms of friends like you. No one deserves life or food more than anyone else. So in effect, you are obliged to do what you’ve done.
(Homilist’s note) None of this needs commentary from me.
What’s your commentary?
Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30.
Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
Consider our first reading from Isaiah.
Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.
In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.
Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.
For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.
Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.
As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.
You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.
“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.
Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.
In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.
You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?
According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.
In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.
Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.
How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.
Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.
This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.
But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.
Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.
However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.
With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.
Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?
Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.
Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!
Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?
The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.
Last Sunday, the New York Times (NYT) devoted its entire Sunday Magazine to a five-part article by Scott Anderson. It was called “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.” The epic piece traced the lives of six Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iraqi Kurdistan as each struggled to live through and make sense of the disintegration of the Arab World since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In so doing, Anderson attempted to put compelling faces on a longer historical narrative that begs for clarification, order and humanization.
The author succeeds admirably in the human interest portion of his project. More importantly, he supplies invaluable detail about a 100 year-long history of political decisions and processes responsible for the crumbling of the Arab world.
But perhaps his most stunning insight is that “Arabia” has been fractured not principally by internecine religious radicalism, but by a long-standing anti-socialist policy on the part of the United States and its allies. Ever since the conclusion of World War II, that policy has blocked economic reform not only in the Arab world and the Middle East, but also in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia – in other words in the former colonies. In the Middle East, the resulting conflict has only recently taken on heavy religious overtones.
Specifically, in that troubled region, the result of U.S. policy has been warfare and economic sanctions imposed on socialist movements involving both Arab and non-Arab countries – on peoples most of whom happen to be Muslims. As a result, those Muslims have experienced extreme poverty, joblessness, and loss of hope. Consequently, many have gravitated towards a brutal gang of reactive terrorists (ISIS) offering employment, a sense of identity, pride, short-lived hope – and the power that comes from a uniform and a gun. The grunts in this gang know very little about Islam.
In an August 12th interview with Scott Anderson on “Democracy Now,” Juan Gonzalez led the Times correspondent to make that very point. He asked Anderson what he had learned from his 18 months of research that included interviews with 20 ISIS fighters all of whom are now imprisoned in Iraq or in Kurdistan. Anderson responded:
“There was an amazing pattern. . . (T)hey were all young men, kind of with very bleak futures, either unemployed or underemployed, from working-class families, and not religious at all. . . (T)hey were not from religious families. They did not know the Qur’an very well. In a couple of cases, I knew the Qur’an better than they did. . . And I think it was this kind of decision that young men make, that better to live large for a couple of years, and, you know, the power and the so-called glamour. . . that comes of carrying a gun . . . they had more akin to why somebody might join like an inner-city gang or why in Mexico they might join a narco gang. It’s this kind of despair at seeing any sort of future. But it’s not political, it’s not religious. It’s just this impulse to—you know, to have some sort of—I mean, it’s awful to say, in terms of ISIS, but adventure.”
Juan Gonzales then observes, “But that’s a quite different perspective from what we get here . . . that these are religious zealots who are willing to die for Islam.”
“Yes,” Anderson agrees.
With that astounding exchange in mind, it’s informative to reread the NYT article and the long-term history it reviews to detect the pattern underlying what Anderson uncovers as an economic rebellion with a recent and thick religious overlay that obscures what’s really behind ISIS and the fracturing of the Arab world. For as Anderson implies, the rebellion there is not about religion, but about economy. It is about the conflict between capitalism and socialism that has been raging at least since the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto. Far from ending with the fall of the USSR in 1990, the conflict has only intensified, when the West took the Soviet demise as a signal that it could subsequently increase pressure and even overthrow socialist governments everywhere – from Cuba and Venezuela to Yugoslavia and Iraq – without fear of reprisal.
To understand, we need to examine the underlying historical pattern responsible not only for the fracturing of the Arab world, but for relations between the developed world (principally the United States) and impoverished nations generally.
- Any Western colony that attempts to “break for freedom” (from capitalism and colonial control)
- By instituting a “socialist” economy prioritizing the needs of its own people, especially its majority poor
- Will have its leaders accused of being undemocratic dictators – communist, totalitarian, or terrorist.
- Those countries will find themselves undermined (with Western support) by local dissidents – usually drawn from those privileged under the old colonial order or from those marginalized by the new socialist order.
- This will cause the governments in question to institute severe national security measures that Western enemies will vilify as dictatorial, thus justifying further measures to overthrow the “repressive” regime.
- If such methods do not result in the desired regime change, the country in question will ultimately be subjected to direct invasion or other military action on the parts of its former colonial masters.
- Interventionist military action will be met with resistance and retaliation on the part of imperialism’s victims. (This explains the origins of ISIS.)
To reiterate, this pattern lays the blame for Middle East conflict at the feet of colonialism. It suggests that since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, capitalism’s real enemy in Arab countries and throughout the Middle East has been anti-imperialist socialism not primarily Islam. More precisely, the conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan have been spawned not by religion, but by resistance to colonialism and by economic policies resistant to free market capitalism.
To grasp that point, let’s think first of all about imperialism or colonialism. Then connect resistance to such foreign adventurism with socialism and the birth of ISIS.
In essence, colonialism is a system of robbery. It has foreign armies invading, conquering militarily weak, resource-rich countries, and then controlling them either through occupying armies or through local militaries armed by the invaders and headed by indigenous collaborators working hand in glove with the colonists. The chief goal of such invasion is resource extraction – wealth transfers for purposes of enriching the colonizers.
Western colonization of Arabia began in earnest after World War I. Up until then (and from the end of the 13th century), what Westerners called the “Middle East” was the center of the Ottoman (i.e. the Turkish) Empire controlled by Muslim sultans.
The Ottoman Empire was the Islamic State of its day and at its height comprised central Hungary, the Balkan Peninsula, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, Egypt, the Caucasus and western Iran. As the Anderson essay shows, the Sultans did not impose their religion or Sharia Law on those they colonized. Instead, they allowed Christians, Jews and others to practice their faiths with no interference. As long as they paid their taxes, tribes and clans throughout the region were allowed a great deal of freedom and self-determination.
After the Ottoman Empire broke down in 1920, the British, French, Italians, and the United States stepped in to fill the void. To control their newly annexed territories (and their oil), they instituted a divide and conquer strategy. This entailed creating small client states that never existed before. These new “nations” included entities such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen. Each was run by local collaborators (royal monarchs and their families) who could be counted on to transfer Arabia’s patrimony at confiscatory prices.
Such divisions were immediately resisted by tribes and clans throughout the region. Their loyalty was (and remains) to local chiefs, not to prime ministers or presidents. Together tribal leaders and their people wanted foreigners out. Many wished to unite all Arabs in a “Pan Arab” movement to restore the unity of the Arab world that had existed under the Islamic State and Caliphate for more than 600 years. The operative sentiment was “Arabia for Arabs.”
Pan Arabism took two main forms, one secular and socialist, the other (much later) religious and Muslim.
It helps to keep Smith’s historical pattern in mind: (1) break for socialist freedom, (2) vilification of socialism’s leaders, (3) empowerment of their natural enemies (secular or religious), (4) repressive measures by the threatened government, (5) (as a last resort) U.S. military action, and (6) insurgent response.
To verify the pattern, let’s begin with Egypt as Anderson does. Then let’s join him in considering the cases of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Add in the non-Arab examples of Iran and Afghanistan to complete the regional picture. All the while, note the elements of the six-point historical pattern. To repeat, they illustrate that capitalism’s enemy has not changed since 9/11. It remains socialism, not Islam.
The most prominent secular and socialist anti-colonial movement began emerging in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy that had cooperated closely with the West. Nasser was an outspoken socialist. His first act as Prime Minister was to institute a wide-ranging land reform program benefitting peasant farmers.
In addition, Nasser was critical of the West in general. He was also anti-imperial and hostile to Israel, which he and his constituents saw as another Western colonial beachhead in the Arab world. Nasser and his supporters saw Jews returning to their “homeland” as opportunistic European invaders whose ancestors hadn’t thought about living in Palestine for well over a millennium.
Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat in 1970. As Anderson shows, Sadat alienated Pan-Arabs by moving closer to a client-patron relationship with the United States. He cooperated with the Carter administration in negotiating a separate Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, without prior consultation with the other Arab states. For such betrayal, Sadat was assassinated. He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, an even more compliant client of the United States who remained in power till he was driven from office by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.
Nasser’s vision was shared by Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in Syria in 1970. Like Nasser, Assad had participated in a revolution against a Western-compliant monarchy. That revolution brought his Pan-Arab Ba’athist Party to power in 1963. The Ba’ath Party derived its name from the Arabic word for “renaissance” or “resurrection.” It envisioned the eventual restoration of a single Arab state. It espoused Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism – again, Arabia for the Arabs. Besides being anti-imperial and anti-West, Ba’athism was also socialist. Since 2011, the United States and Syria’s former colonial master, France, have taken both indirect and direct action for regime change in Syria.
In 1969 Ba’athism spread to Iraq, where revolutionary forces led by Saddam Hussein toppled the monarchy established and supported by the West. Of course, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, Desert Storm (1991) and the invasion of Iraq (2003) involved elaborate military measures by the United States to remove Saddam from office.
The same year Saddam Hussein came to power (1969), the Pan Arab socialist movement spread to Libya under Muammar Gaddafi who also led a revolution against a monarchy supported by the Western colonial powers. Gaddafi gradually moved away from the Ba’athist Pan Arab ideal and embraced Pan Africanism instead. His Third International Theory (published in his Green Book) championed socialism and anti-colonialism for the entire African continent. U.S. military action deposed Gaddafi in 2011.
Besides its links to the six-point pattern indicated above, what socialism in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya had in common was the fact that it worked. It lifted masses of people from poverty and modernized the relevant countries in a relatively short time. For example, before the 1991 invasion, Iraq boasted the highest standard of living in the Arab world. Similar statements can be made about Nasser’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya.
Regional resistance to control by Western capitalists also emerged prominently in non-Arab Iran and in Afghanistan – two other artificial countries which came into being at the end of the 19th century. It was in these countries that (with major U.S. implication) opposition to Western imperialism eventually took on the decidedly religious turn that most mistakenly identify today as the root cause of conflict in the Middle East.
However, to begin with (as was the case in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya), post-World War II Iran experienced a highly secular grassroots rebellion against foreign control of their region following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The rebellion caused the democratic election of Mohammad Mossaddegh to displace the U.S. client, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran.
Upon his succession to office, the enormously popular Mossaddegh instituted social and economic reforms of the type championed by socialists all over the world: social security, land reform, abolition of forced labor, rent control, agricultural regulation, compensation for workers injured on the job, public housing, and public works – all with the intent (as he said) to “combat disease, poverty, and backwardness.”
Above all, Mossaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry. This outraged Great Britain (who controlled Iran’s oil) the United States. So the CIA instituted a coup that removed Mossaddegh from office and replaced him, restoring to office Reza Pahlavi who returned from exile to administer an extremely repressive Western-friendly regime for the next quarter century.
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown in a rebellion. However, this time the uprising was not inspired by socialism, but by an anti-Western, anti-imperial movement organized “in the name of God.” It is here that Islam begins to take over as the face of the perennial regional resistance to Western imperialism that had roiled above and below the surface since 1920.
Something similar happened in Afghanistan. There too a secular socialist movement against the West morphed into a rebellion in the name of God.
In Afghanistan, the secular People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan took control of the country in 1973 under Nur Muhammad Taraki. It offered equal rights for women, universal education, and land reform. To oppose such reforms and the intervention of the Soviet Union to uphold them, the CIA identified and supported internal opposition, the Mujahedeen – Islamic jihadists who from their founding had adopted as their goal the expulsion of foreigner rulers (viz. the British) from the Middle East. The CIA now empowered them to expel the Soviet invaders and establish an Islamic State to replace socialism.
But Mujahedeen goals were not reached with the expulsion of the Soviets. The jihadists wanted all foreigners out of the region. That meant the expulsion of U.S. troops from Islamic holy centers in Medina and Mecca. The troops had taken up residence there following the 1991 defeat of Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. That defeat was followed by 12 years of economic sanctions that ended up taking the lives of half a million Iraqi children. Osama bin Laden would later identify those murders, along with the previous 80 years of European control of Arabia, and the stationing of troops in Mecca and Medina as the specific motives for the infamous attacks of 9/11. His rationale was hardly reported in the U.S. mainstream media (MSM).
Since 9/11those media and Western politicians have shifted blame for the dissolution of the Arab world away from neo-colonial capitalist depredations and the interventionist pattern Scott Anderson implicitly reviews. Instead of blaming a failed capitalist system and its related foreign policy, they locate the cause of Middle Eastern chaos in Islam and in Hitler-like tactics of egregiously evil dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad. The problems thus become personalized, cultural and religious. Thankfully for those responsible, they also become largely insoluble thus necessitating permanent war. Thus the grateful include Israel, Saudi Arabia and other “American” client states. They include as well the oil and arms industries, and the corporate-controlled MSM all of whom profit from a chaotic Middle East and from misidentifying the true culprit in the region.
If all of this is true, what then must be done about Anderson’s “Fractured Arab World?” If the cause of the fissures there is not religion nor Hitler Redivivus, but capitalism itself, its 150-year war against socialism and its six-point pattern of colonial intervention, what policies might replace the failed, counter-productive measures of war, incessant bombing, and drone attacks? If the foot soldiers in the war are not religious zealots, but unemployed and underemployed young people without prospect or hope, what will give them hope and meaning beyond a black uniform, ski mask and gun?
Here’s where we might start:
- Abandon imperial pretensions and allow nations everywhere to experiment with alternatives to a capitalist system that clearly does not serve them.
- Stop all vilification of Islam and Muslims.
- Completely transform the U.S. economy from its fossil fuel dependency, thus removing the major reason for “American” interest in the Middle East.
- Nationalize the U.S. arms industry, thus severing the connection between war and profit.
- Cut off all aid to Israel until it complies with repeated U.N. mandates to withdraw from the Palestinian territories it has illegally occupied. This would take seriously bin Laden’s claim that solving the Palestinian problem would also solve the problem of terrorism.
- As a good-will measure and for the sake of justice, indict, try, and punish George Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others responsible for the Iraq War that gave rise to ISIS.
- Divert the billions now invested in failed wars against terrorism into reconstruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other countries devastated by Western wars.
- Similarly use those billions to provide constructive employment not only for ISIS fighters, but for U.S. soldiers who find themselves armed and in uniform for reasons similar to the young militants referenced in Scott Anderson’s essay.
- With good will demonstrated in these ways, summon a Peace and Reconciliation Conference to include all stake holders in Middle East conflicts including ISIS..
- Comply with the decisions of the conference.
That such common sense measures probably seem impossible and completely off the table for most of our diplomats (and readers of this essay!) represents a sad comment on our limits of perception. It exhibits a lack of genuine will on the parts of our “leaders” to solve the problem of global terrorism. It also demonstrates the need for a revolution of our own.
Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53
Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?
On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. That is, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”
Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Is that provocative enough for you?
What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”
There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.
For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.
For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.
In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.
John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).
Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.
So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.
Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).
Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.
Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)
In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.
Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.
So whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?
Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.
In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.
Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?
Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Just recently, my wife Peggy and I attended a two-day New Age retreat in Grand Rapids, MI. We were there at the invitation of two good friends who own a Health and Wellness store in Lakeview.
At the conference, we encountered a “loving angelic entity” from the “other side” who impacted both of us – and an audience of about 250 people – clearly beyond any cynical expectations I may have had. As I’ll explain, the gathering was very Catholic in several ways. Moreover, I was surprised when some highly political prayers I offered there seemed to find rather immediate answers. It was almost enough to convert me – but not without reservations.
The angelic being in question is called Kryon. And he speaks through a medium by the name of Lee Carroll, who’s been channeling him for 26 years. Turns out that Carroll is a delightfully humorous spell-binder himself. He’s a former engineer with a Ph.D. and a reformed skeptic about everything he now teaches so effectively. Years ago, he says, he wouldn’t have been caught dead at a meeting like the one I’m describing. Somehow, I could relate to that.
Here’s what Carroll teaches:
- Time itself is an illusion – a human construct. The present is all we have. The “past” is a mere memory; the “future” is projection. (In other words, as Einstein said, time is not absolute; it bends with gravity and changes relative to speed of motion.)
- The evolutionary process is directed. There is indeed “Intelligent Design” in all of it. In fact, left to itself, without direction, the evolution of human consciousness should have taken much, much, much, much longer to develop than the 14 billion years our galaxy has existed.
- Many of us (called “old souls”) have long participated in the evolutionary process. We’ve passed this way more than once and will do so again and again – but without having to relearn the hard lessons that have wounded us all.
- In fact, “Old Souls” have an “Akashic Record” of our previous lives that can be accessed with the help of an experienced guide.
- In tune with Mayan prophecy, “old souls” recognize that a New Age has dawned since 2012 in which people are rejecting obsolete male-centered spiritualties and are turning towards more feminine, indigenous, holistic, positive, experiential approaches to the divine which is the most essential dimension of being human.
- Eventually within the realm of this dawning consciousness, war will not even be considered as a political option.
- According to the Mayan calendar, this New Age with a corresponding change in consciousness occurs every 26,000 years, when the earth aligns perfectly with the center of the universe – on this occasion creating circumstances for the greatest, most intense human consciousness ever available.
- As a result of such cosmic events, for the next 15 years or so, we are entering a sacred time and space where people are waking up to possibilities for creating another world. It is a time of rebellion, where profound changes can happen very quickly making another world truly possible.
- Put otherwise, the human race is moving forward into a mystical dimension. [Or as the eminent Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner put it: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”]
- There humans can leave aside the authoritarianism of old religions and step into their own power, into their authentic identities, into their true soul purposes.
- This shift in consciousness empowers humans to change reality which (from their own bodies to the furthest distant stars) listens to people’s commands.
- That is, our bodies and the planet know what is best for us; they want to heal us and await our commands.
- More specifically, if aging people command their bodies to “youth,” their bodies will obey thus allowing seniors to control how fast they age.
- Kryon has emerged on the scene precisely because the 2012-2030 shift in consciousness is taking place across the planet.
- However, in the new and exciting age, conservative forces are emerging fighting desperately to prevent the cosmic transformation in question.
- But none of us should fear the future. Despite appearances, the forces of light (not darkness) are winning.
These are the kind of messages Lee Carroll spoke at the workshop during his three channelings of Kyron’s spirit.
And how is one to enter this new age? According to Dr. Carroll, one does so by forming communities of like-minded mystics. Entrance is facilitated through self-talk, i.e. by reciting personally-chosen affirmations aloud so that the extremely attentive and always responsive cells of our bodies can hear. One drives home such talk using techniques such as “tapping” and wide-ranging prayers offered in ceremonies like Despacho, a Native American prayer ritual which some of us experienced on the final day of our workshop.
The practice of tapping involves lightly drumming on the crown of the head across the meridian separating the left and right sides of the cerebral cortex. (Recall that the left hemisphere of the human brain is more logical; the right side, more intuitive and holistic.) One taps while breathing deeply and reciting a positive, believable, focused, and original affirmation chosen by the tapper.
Typical affirmations include:
- “My innate intelligence recognizes and supports the eternal nature of my being.”
- “I am living in a new energy and all around me are new potentials.”
- “My needs are always met.”
- “I am in the right place at the right time for everything is in divine order.”
Cerebral cortex drumming is then followed by similar tapping on the heart. The idea is first of all to unite the powers of one’s left and right brain. Tapping one’s heart attempts to plant the affirmation in the human organ that is 5000 times more powerful than the human brain.
Again, before I rolled my eyes too far, I recalled that we Catholics should be familiar with tapping and positive affirmations. We do something similar through the ritual practice of “laying on of hands” accompanied by invocations of the “Holy Spirit.” This happens, for instance, during sacramental ceremonies such as ordination and confirmation. When I thought about it, I realized that placing hands on the crown of ordinandi and confirmandi while invoking the Holy Spirit can be seen as ceremonially attempting to integrate their powers of logic, intuition, and openness to the transcendent Ground of All Being.
Then there’s the Catholic practice of “beating one’s breast” – as in mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. That’s really a version of “tapping” one’s heart. The difference is however, that New Age tapping is completely positive without a trace of guilt, fault, negativity or “beating.” To me that seemed healthier.
As for the Despacho ceremony . . .; it was truly remarkable. It showed me (again!) the power of female priesthood that the Catholic Church ignores. The two-hour ritual was led by a colleague of Dr. Carroll – Michelle Karen. Only about 50 of the 250 workshop participants took part – most of them women.
Michelle is a French deeply insightful astrologer who learned Despacho from shamans of a Native American community in Peru. She had us all sit in a circle while she (with our participation) created a beautiful mandala on a piece of colored fabric. In a circle outlined with sugar (symbolizing the sweetness of life) she had us each place one white and one red carnation petal with a bay leaf sandwiched between. (Obviously, we couldn’t use the more authentic coca leaf.) The red petal represented the female principle of creation; the white, the male. The bay leaf stood for our desire to change our consciousness.
Then successively, while humorously and perceptively explaining the meaning of each element, Michelle added at least 25 other items. They symbolized prayers for the planets, oceans, air, animals, insects, our deceased relatives and friends, and so much else. The symbolic additions to the burgeoning mandala included salt, leaves, twigs, toys, ribbons, hair – you get the idea. With the addition of each element, Michelle offered a corresponding prayer, breathed on the item and touched it to her forehead.
Towards the end of Despacho, each of us was asked to silently offer our most solemn prayers and in the form of a rose petal place them on top of the finished mandala. We were to do so with great care, Michelle advised, because the Despacho ceremony is extremely powerful. We should expect our prayers to be amazingly answered within days.
Our final product was gorgeous. Michelle wrapped it in the underlying fabric and commissioned an “honorary shaman” chosen from our group to later on ceremonially burn the package whose smoke would carry our prayers to the Universal God.
The prayers I offered were mostly quite personal. However, I also decided to add political petitions I’ve been praying each morning for the last eight years or so. (Ever-compassionate Peggy later told me that they seemed rather negative. She didn’t approve. Maybe she’s right.) In any case, my prayers for most of the past decade have included:
- May U.S. Empire be brought to its knees.
- May Israel similarly be defeated before liberated Palestinians.
- May the Republican Party and Fox News disintegrate.
- And may President Obama be remembered as the best president the United States has ever had. (I’ve given up on this one!)
Wild prayers, no? (I suppose you see what Peggy meant.) But here’s the thing: three days after the conclusion of the Kryon Workshop, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, resigned as its CEO. Commentators identified the event as earth-shaking in terms of the Republican Party, since Ailes had shaped its strategy since the Nixon years. Fox News, they predicted, would become more moderate (while, no doubt remaining right wing – thus more closely approaching the center-right position of the U.S. mainstream media).
Then that same day, after Donald Trump accepted the GOP’s nomination for president, a figure no less than George W. Bush expressed his worry that he might end up being the last Republican president ever.
What? Despacho prayers answered after just four days? Should I take credit? (Just kidding.)
Whatever: just two petitions to go. And events promise that the Universe may soon honor those requests as well.
So have I converted to become a Kryonite? Not quite. While I appreciated the weekend and recognize the soundness (and even Catholicity) of much of the underlying spirituality, and while I admired the wonder of female leadership in worship, I was pulled up short towards the end of our retreat.
It happened on Sunday, when Dr. Carroll seemed to get a bit off-script. He ended up sounding quite like a climate change denier. (Though he claimed, “I’m actually a ‘Greenie’.”) Based on the insights of a single scientist friend of his, Carroll asserted that the planet is essentially cooling and that an ice age is on the way. “It’s a natural process,” he added. Humans have nothing to do with it. Technology will soon appear to save us. Moreover, the oceans can clean up any of the oil spills we might throw at them. “Everyone knows this outside the United States, but not here.”
Hmm. During the Q&A I raised my hand to question. But the session was cut short before I was recognized. I wanted to ask him:
- Sure, an ice age may be coming, but when? A thousand years from now?
- With due respect to your scientist friend, ninety-seven percent of climate scientists tell us the catastrophe of climate chaos is upon us. We don’t have 1000 years (or even 100) to wait.
- What about greenhouse gases?
- And rising sea levels?
- How do you explain the consecutive months and years of record-setting rising temperatures?
- And aren’t “Americans” virtually alone in the world in denying climate change?
Despite my reservations and unanswered questions, it should be clear that there was much to recommend the Kryon Workshop I’ve been describing. It shows a widely shared hunger for meaningful non-patriarchal spirituality – for optimism and hope rather than guilt, sin and hell. It demonstrates the effective leadership of wise women – counsellors, healers, shape-shifters like Michelle Karen.
It highlights the undeniable fact that we have indeed entered a New Age in which old forms are disintegrating and losing credibility while women and other angelic spirits are asking us to rethink everything and create the “other world” we all want and need.
It might even have confirmed my belief in the power of prayer.
Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48.
Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.
That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.
Let me show you what I mean.
To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.
However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.
In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”
In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)
So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”
Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.
Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.
Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.
In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.
Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.
Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)
Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.
What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.
Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?
As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.
Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?
At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?
When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?
And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?
Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!
The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
Last Monday, Peggy and I were stopped by a police officer on our way back from a doctor’s appointment in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We had nearly arrived at our lake house summer home, when I saw the red and blue flashing lights behind me.
Of course, I pulled over immediately onto the road’s gravel shoulder. I rolled down the driver’s side window (the only one that works dependably) of our 1992 Volvo. I suspect the officer was “intrigued” by our beat up car with its out-of-state Kentucky license. I mean, this may have been a “profiled” stop.
As the officer approached from behind, I reached into my back pocket for my wallet and license. Doing so, I couldn’t help thinking of the difference between me and black drivers in similar circumstances. For them, reaching into a back pocket as an officer approaches might be fatal. So might traveling in a decrepit car far from one’s own neighborhood.
“May I see your license and registration, Sir?” the young officer requested.
I fumbled through my wallet, and it took some time before my license surfaced. The policeman waited patiently without comment. Finally, I handed him my Kentucky license. From the passenger’s side, Peggy found our registration. However, it was from 2015. Somehow, the 2016 registration had not made its way into the glove compartment. Besides that, our “proof of insurance” certificate had expired.
“That’s all right,” the officer said politely. “I’ll just check on my computer. This might take a few minutes. . . By the way, did you know you were traveling at 68 miles per hour? The speed limit here is 55.”
“No, Sir” I replied. “My wife and I were deep in conversation, and I didn’t realize how fast we were going.” (I didn’t dare tell him that the speedometer on our car doesn’t work.) I also hoped he wouldn’t see that the covering over our right front turn signal was busted out. I’m sure that was some sort of violation too.
A few minutes later, the officer returned.
“Everything checks out,” he said. “I’m not going to give you a citation this time. But I’d get that paper work up to date if I were you.”
We thanked the officer profusely, and went on our way.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help thinking how different our story was from Sandra Bland’s who ended up dead after failing to signal a lane change in Waller County, Texas. It was different too from Philando Castile’s in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Castile was stopped for a broken tail light. After informing an officer that he was carrying a licensed gun, Castile was shot when he obeyed the cop’s directions to produce his driver’s license from the wallet in his back pocket.
Bland and Castile were black. I, of course, am not.
But consider my “crimes” each of which have led to police shootings of blacks:
- Outdated registration
- Expired proof of insurance
- Broken turn signal light
- Malfunctioning speedometer
- Driving a beat up car far from my own neighborhood in a predominantly white community
- Reaching into my back pocket after being stopped by the police
Thankfully, I was not guilty of “driving while black.” So unlike the overwhelming experience of black residents, for instance, of Ferguson, Missouri, I received no interrogation, no harsh words, no citation, no fine, no searching, no arrest, no summons to appear in court, no resulting lost days of employment, no threat of police violence.
And besides, I have lived to tell the story. And this in a country where compared to white drivers, African Americans are 31% more likely to be pulled over, 81% more likely not to be given a reason for it, and 174% more likely to be searched.