Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 22: 1-2, 3A, 10-13, 15-18; PS 118: 10, 15-19; ROM 8: 31B-34; MK 9: 2-10
Question most Americans – perhaps the majority in this congregation – and they would profess pride to be able to sacrifice their sons and daughters to defend “American interests” even in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Question the Christians among us, and many would shed no tears over the innumerable children incinerated by our drones, napalm, and white phosphorous. Of course, we’d rather avoid such casualties, but collateral damage is collateral damage.
Question most of us benefitting from our present economic system. Tell us that it causes 30,000 children to die each day from perfectly preventable causes like starvation and diarrhea, and most will simply shrug. We accept such deaths as the inevitable cost of doing business. It’s preferable that children die rather than interfere with the out-workings of the global free market. (Even though it ends up giving 85 men as much wealth as the world’s 3.5 billion poorest.)
In other words, most of us – even the most “pro-life” among us – have little problem with most forms of child sacrifice. In fact, it’s not far off to say that most who identify themselves as pro-life are not really pro-life, but simply anti-abortion. Otherwise, child sacrifice is perfectly acceptable and even celebrated.
Today’s liturgy of the word (centering on the “transfigurations” of Abraham and Jesus) calls all of that into question.
First of all, consider the familiar story of Abraham and Isaac, its rejection of child sacrifice, and how it transfigured or transformed the roots of Jewish faith.
At first glance, the text seems to praise the great patriarch for his readiness to plunge a knife into Isaac’s heart. It has God saying, “For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” It’s as though Abraham’s readiness to do violence to his son were a unique proof of his faith.
Such understanding however is to forget that in ancient Mesopotamia it was required of all parents to sacrifice their firstborn sons. So despite the text’s claim, there would have been nothing remarkable about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Everyone in Abraham’s culture had that sort of primitive “faith.”
Scripture scholars conclude that the words just quoted (“For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”) represent an editorial addition inserted centuries after the reported event, when people no longer remembered the ancient and universal requirement of tribal gods to sacrifice the first-born of family and flock.
The editors were priests and scribes in service to Israel’s royal family. They adjusted the Abraham story to suit their employers’ needs for patriotic cannon-fodder. This explains the addition of the words indicating God’s pleasure at parents’ willingness to sacrifice their children.
In contrast to that textual adjustment, and as originally told, the Abraham-Isaac tale was about the ancient patriarch’s transfigured understanding of God. It was about his discovery of Yahweh as the God of Life who prohibited rather than required child sacrifice. [Note that even in this morning’s English translation, it is “God” (meaning Baal, the biblical name denoting foreign idols) who gives Abraham the order to sacrifice his son. But it is “the Lord” (meaning Yahweh, the God of Abraham) who tells the patriarch to stay his hand.]
So Abraham’s real merit is found not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his unwillingness to do so. In that sense, Abraham in this instance is like Yahweh, the non-violent God of life, who (Abraham discovers) never endorses child sacrifice. That realization should have transfigured Abrahamic faiths forever. Unfortunately, it did not.
Jesus carries on and expands Abraham’s insight. He rejects violence of any type. He is the one who said: “love one another. Love your enemies. Forgive one another. Be compassionate. Be merciful. Seek God’s reign and God’s justice. Put away the sword. Rise and do not be afraid.”
Today’s gospel about Jesus’ “transfiguration” concludes with a voice directing us to “Listen to him.”
If we did, our world would indeed be transfigured. We would be transfigured – totally transformed.
What do you think is entailed in Jesus’ call – in Abraham’s call – to non-violence? How do we “listen to them?”
On Thursday morning, February 26th, I had a 45 minute meeting with the pastor of our church. The ostensible reason for the conference was to discuss Fr. Flanagan’s decision not to publish two homilies I had submitted for the St. Clare Parish Blog. Of course, we ended up talking about matters far beyond that presenting issue. Among them were the weather and U.K. basketball, The Joy of the Gospel, homilies, parish renewal, and the nature of scripture study in seminaries these days. The discussion left me hopeful.
The Weather and U.K. Basketball: Fr. Flanagan is puzzling about how to get emergency messages out to the parish. He decided after the 8:00 a.m. Mass on Ash Wednesday, to call off the evening Mass because he found icy conditions in the parking lot so treacherous. There are professional services he’s considered purchasing for emergency notifications. But they’re probably not worth the cost. Currently, he plans to update his parish e-mail list.
As for U.K., he had watched the game with Mississippi State the previous night. We agreed that the Cats will probably finish the season unbeaten. We’ll see.
My Homily Submissions: Here Fr. Flanagan said that it wasn’t that he had any reservations about what I had said in the posts. It’s just that the Parish Blog isn’t intended for purposes of expressing opinions of parish members. It’s more of an information source. True: the Blog does publish articles from more official sources such as “Vatican News,” and other articles published elsewhere. But the Blog is not the place for expressing opinions of parishioners. “If you want,” Father suggested, “I can check with the Diocesan Director to see what official policy is.” I observed that in the light of the pope’s instruction in Evangelii Gaudium, such checking doesn’t seem necessary. The Apostolic Exhortation, I reminded him, calls for parish autonomy which respects unique local situations, resources and needs. Any objection “from above,” I said, could be met by appeal to the pope’s words.
“In any case,” Fr. Flanagan said, “you’re welcome to come to our Tuesday night discussions of the coming week’s readings.” The discussions are held from 8:00-9:00, are well-attended and enthusiastically received as the most valuable event on the weekly parish calendar. I’m considering taking Father up on that offer.
The Joy of the Gospel: Fr. Flanagan has read the document and is looking forward to Sunday night discussions during Lent. (Although he probably won’t be able to make the pot-luck part, because of his commitment to celebrate Mass at the college beforehand.) He’s turned over leadership of the discussion to Nanette Navarre. We both observed that few people had signed up for the discussions. But Fr. Flanagan said that his experience of parish trends shows that people are reluctant to sign up for events ahead of time, but then show up in substantial numbers.
For my part, I said that I was sorry that the pastor was unable to attend last year’s Lenten discussion of the pope’s Exhortation. I was surprised, I said, that so many people attended and that so much dissatisfaction with parish life found expression – particularly about homilies.
Father pointed out that the Vatican has recently published weekly guidance and suggestions for homilies and approved points of focus, and that he intends to take advantage of that resource.
Parish Renewal: Using my prepared summary of Evangelii Gaudium highlights, I reminded Father that the pope has called for radical change at the parish level. “Everything must change,” was the theme, I said. But as far as I can see nothing has changed.
Fr. Flanagan agreed that the pope’s document is radical. But it’s not that nothing has changed. He pointed to the Tuesday night discussions of the upcoming Sunday’s liturgy of the word.
In the end, though, we agreed that very little has changed. We were unable to put our fingers on exactly why.
We then turned to the practical suggestions I had listed on page two of my Joy of the Gospel summary. We agreed that the first items in my list were impractical (e.g. a September three-night “revival tent meeting”). But, I suggested, we could do the equivalent this September using the pope’s visit to the United States as an occasion for implementing radical parish changes in the spirit of the Apostolic Exhortation. We could, I said:
- Encourage people to travel to the papal events.
- Have an elaborate supper in the parish hall for purposes of viewing Francis’ televised speeches to the UN, and to the U.S. Congress. At a final gathering, the parish could view the papal Mass concluding Francis’ visit to “America.”
- Have the attendees of the actual events give a report to the parish at another elaborate supper following their return – with Fr. Flanagan sharing his experiences by way of a “State of the Parish” report calling parishioners to a program of joyful renewal where “everything will indeed change.”
- Sponsor a formal “calling out of gifts and charisms” as part of that radical change – thus taking advantage of the liturgists, artists, poets, musicians, and homilists in the parish. (And if homilists couldn’t share their ideas at Mass, perhaps we might at least post their reflections in the Parish Blog.)
Throughout all of this, Fr. Flanagan was shaking his head in mild affirmation. I found that encouraging.
Scripture Study in Catholic Seminaries: I remarked in general that the scripture scholarship of the last 150 years has not really trickled down to congregations in the pews. I recalled that in my seminary days (1954-1966) – especially after Vatican II (1962-’65) and then in my after-ordination graduate years in Rome (1967-’72) – everything was based on biblical studies. Increasingly, in the major seminary we were exposed to form-critical and redaction-critical studies. Similarly, nothing worthwhile in theology today omits taking into account the work of the Jesus Seminar or by liberation theologians. Nevertheless, none of that seems to influence homilies – anywhere since the very conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Congregations are treated as if the Bible were simply to be read at face value. That’s not really treating us as adults or helping us understand the relevance of faith to science, history, and world events.
Fr. Flanagan said that seminaries still (of course) centralize scriptural studies. He also agreed that modern scholarship doesn’t play much role in most homilies. Neither of us was able to pinpoint exactly why.
Conclusion: Our meeting concluded after 45 minutes. On my way out, we discussed Peggy’s and my decision to attend the Hispanic Mass on Sundays. Father Flanagan observed that he’ll be celebrating that Mass too (once a month) to give Fr. Ulysses a well-deserved break.
In parting, I gave our pastor an inscribed copy of my The Emperor’s God. We said we’d see each other in church and at this week’s discussion of The Joy of the Gospel.
Readings for 1st Sunday of Lent: GN 9: 8-15; PS 25: 4-9; I PT 3: 18-22; MK 1: 12-15
Pope Francis is going to be a busy man this spring. In June he’ll publish his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change. He’ll then convoke a meeting of world religious leaders to discuss the topic. Presumably, they’ll endorse the encyclical’s main points.
Then in September, the pope will travel to New York to bring the message of those leaders to the United Nations. Afterwards, he’ll head off to D.C. to do the same before the U.S. Congress.
Clearly, the pope is a man on a mission. At the age of 78, he’s evidently experiencing a sense of urgency. He has a clear spiritual and practical vision for saving the world from impending disaster brought on by unregulated industrial capitalism and by a neo-liberal world order that he has rejected out of hand on more than one occasion during his brief reign as Supreme Pontiff.
The liturgy of the word for this first Sunday of Lent highlights the pope’s concern for the environment and calls us to become visionaries like him – and especially like the young prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted in today’s Gospel.
Take this morning’s first reading. Its focus, like the pope’s, is environmental destruction. Genesis, chapter nine gives the ending of the familiar story of Noah and his Ark. There God makes a promise (3 times in fact) to Noah, his sons, their descendants, and (significantly) to the birds and animals, that he will never again destroy “all bodily creatures” by flood waters.
The Responsorial Psalm then reminds us that we can trust God’s word, because God, in the psalmist’s words, is compassionate, loving, kind, good, upright and just.
It’s that loving God whose Spirit in today’s gospel drives Jesus out to the desert for his “Lenten Retreat” – 40 days and nights of prayer and fasting. The Spirit sends him on a vision quest intimately connected with Pope Francis’ vision for the world’s future.
Recall the circumstances of Jesus’ quest. John the Baptizer has just baptized Jesus as one of his disciples. On emerging from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus receives a startling revelation about his true identity. A voice from heaven addresses him, “You are my beloved son,” it says.
Surprised and perhaps shaken by that revelation, Jesus retreats to the desert to determine what it all might mean. As I said, it’s a vision quest. And immediately the visions come – more heavenly voices, Satan, angels, and wild beasts.
All of these elements are important. They belong to Israel’s “apocalyptic” tradition – a highly political genre promising the overthrow of the nation’s imperial oppressors. Jesus’ visions call him to continue the work of John the Baptist, who, Mark informs us, has just been arrested. Jesus’ task is to announce the proximity of “God’s Kingdom.” It’s a world where God is king instead of Caesar. It’s a world like the one promised in the Book of Genesis. There human beings live in complete harmony with their Heavenly Father/Mother, with one another, with animals, birds, fish, and plants.
That’s the vision Pope Francis will evoke in his upcoming encyclical. If his past statements are any guide, he’ll remind us that God may have promised not to destroy the earth by flood. But Mother Nature has given no such guarantee.
A month ago, on his flight to Manila, the pontiff told reporters, “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature — creation — is mistreated, she never forgives!”
This Lent we would do well to ponder those words and to implement changes in our own spiritual, political and economic visions to prevent a disaster completely reminiscent of Noah’s familiar story.
What Lenten changes do you think most appropriate – for us as individuals and for our country?
Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: LV 13: 1-2, 44-46; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 11; I COR 10: 31-11:1; MK 1 40-45.
“Get out of here, you low life scum!” Those were the words U.S. Senator, John McCain, shouted at protestors two weeks ago when they confronted Henry Kissinger as a “war criminal.” The 91-year-old ex-Secretary of State had been invited to give testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing.
Those are pretty strong words – and perhaps justified, you might think, depending on your political persuasions.
However the point of bringing them up here is to highlight the deeper significance of Jesus’ curing a leper in today’s gospel. In Jesus’ day, lepers appearing in public would have merited Senator McCain’s disdain. Anybody would have felt justified shouting at them, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.” After all, the reigning morality of the day considered lepers not only sick, but morally degenerate. They must have committed some terrible sin to bring the disease upon themselves.
Today’s readings invite us to reject such superstitions. They highlight the radical nature of Jesus’ act of actually touching a man afflicted with one of the ancient world’s most feared diseases. They invite us to identify with those our culture tells us are “unclean.”
Begin by considering today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus. It lays out the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law for dealing with skin diseases marked by “scabs, pustules and/or blotches.” Leviticus prescribes a priestly declaration designating the afflicted person as “unclean.” Thereafter “lepers” had to wear distinctive dress. They were forbidden to wear head covering that might disguise their affliction. They were to muffle their beards. If they happened upon apparently healthy people, lepers were to declare their status by shouting the warning, “unclean, unclean!” They were to be segregated from the community – banished “outside the camp.”
So in Israel’s ancient world, leprosy was painful physically, but even more so socially. Contracting the disease meant banishment from family, community, synagogue and temple. It made the diseased one “low-life scum” – totally ostracized. No one could touch a leper without themselves incurring the status of “unclean.”
However, today’s responsorial psalm says “no” to all of that. It reminds us that in God’s eyes, no one is scum. God endorses no system of clean and unclean – no caste arrangement of insiders and outsiders. Instead, the psalmist has us singing, God wants only joy for the troubled. God takes away any fault, covers any sin, and completely removes guilt complexes. No room for ostracism there.
Lepers in Jesus’ day needed that kind of acceptance. (And so do we!) And complete acceptance is just what Jesus offers in today’s gospel. There he addresses not only a physical disease, but even more importantly the social ostracism and lack of compassion that the Master evidently found insufferable for anyone.
So just what is it that Jesus does?
A scum bag of a leper kneels before the working man from Nazareth. “If you wish, you can make me clean,” the poor man begs. The Compassionate Jesus is moved by the leper’s simplicity of faith. So he first gives him a healing touch.
But remember what I said about that: in doing so, Jesus deliberately contaminates himself! By that fateful act (right here in Chapter One of Mark’s Gospel) Jesus identifies with the lowest of the low in his culture. He makes himself an outsider. As a result, Mark informs us, Jesus afterwards could not enter any town openly. As “unclean,” he had to sneak around.
Jesus’ act of identification with “the least of the brethren” holds a powerful message for all of us. It invites us to embrace absolutely everyone as the Master did – even (and especially) those our culture rejects.
Remember how a few weeks ago, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, mourners carried placards proclaiming, “Je suis Charlie!” (I am Charlie!)? Remember how in Ferguson following the police shooting of Mike Brown six months ago, mourners carried signs saying, “I am Michael Brown!”? Well, Jesus’ example calls us to go even further.
It tells us that we are one not only with the persons with whom we agree, but even with those our culture (and personal prejudices) tells us are somehow “unclean.” So, yes, we might gladly say, “Je suis Charlie!” but we are also the killers who shot up the Charlie Hebdo office. We might be proud to say, “I am Mike Brown.” But we are also his killer, Officer Darren Wilson.
John McCain is somehow the same as those protestors he called “low-life scum.”
Please remember that today at our liturgy’s “kiss of peace.” The person beside you, behind or in front of you might be on a completely different page politically, socially, or even religiously. But Jesus says “touch them;” embrace them; recognize them as your brother and sister – as yourself!
Then continue doing that all week – and beyond.
February 10, 2015
Mike Rivage-Seul is a former priest who in 1972-’73 served St. Clare’s parish. A liberation theologian, Mike has been a member of St. Clare’s since then. He taught at Berea College for 40 years and was co-founder of its Peace & Social Justice Program. He blogs at https://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com
(SYRIZA Poster: http://keithpp)
Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 7: 1-4, 6-7; PS 147: 1-6; I COR 9: 16-19; 22-23; MK 1: 29-39 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/020815.cfm
Today’s liturgy of the word is about hope in a world wracked by despair. All of us are starved for such hope. In fact, discouragement and apparent powerlessness describe not only our personal consciousness but the larger zeitgeist that is the constant focus of these Sunday reflections dedicated to confronting the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today’s confrontation should help progressives realize that our times are actually changing for the better.
Think of the most recent historical roots of today’s despair – the way the world was just 20 years ago. As described recently by Andre Vitchek, it was an unbelievably hard time for opponents of empire.
Then think of how things are different today. It’s the difference between the condition of Job in this Sunday’s first reading, and the healing Jesus brought to the poor in today’s gospel selection.
Twenty years ago Russia was controlled by Boris Yeltsin, a boozy western puppet who betrayed his own people. Like Yeltsin, other heads of state throughout Eastern Europe joined their western counterparts in a shameless surrender to imperial interests. They were largely “led” by the offspring of the elites who preceded them. China 20 years ago was still under the spell of the free market reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, Latin America reeling from decades of dictatorships imposed by the West had turned its economies over to neo-liberals trained in the Chicago School of Economics. The same was largely true of the Middle East and Africa. In those cases, dictators and the one-percenters were firmly in control. Christian vision of a kingdom where the earth belonged to everyone had been completely hijacked by religious fundamentalists and reactionaries including in his own way, the pope of Rome. All of this was largely hidden by both local and international mainstream media (MSM) which applauded dictatorships and plutocracies as “emerging democracies.”
Those were indeed hard times for anti-imperialists. I remember the despair. We were like Job in today’s first reading sitting on a dung heap lamenting the loss of hope enkindled by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Remember Job? He too was the victim of an incredible series of misfortunes. They reduced him to a condition worse than poverty. Without warning, he lost all his wealth; his children died; he became terribly sick; and his reputation went entirely south.
Job is the image of us all 20 years ago. Like Job, progressives couldn’t be blamed for wondering if our situation could ever change.
Perhaps believers among us had forgotten the general hope offered in today’s responsorial psalm. It reminds us of the goodness of Life – the divine energy in which we live and move and have our being. (Some call that Energy, “God.”) The psalmist reminds us that time and history itself have a way of healing broken hearts. Life has a way of supporting even the most devastated. And (as Job’s case illustrates) it eventually topples even those who appear to live on top of the world. God is good, the Psalmist reminds us. God is gracious and wise beyond our wildest imaginings. God unifies the poor, even when they’re hopelessly fragmented by elite strategies of “divide and rule.”
Today’s gospel reading offers more particular hope. It recounts the first acts of a prophet from and imperial backwater, Israel – Jesus, the carpenter-preacher from Nazareth, a “Nowheresville” if there ever was one.
There he encourages the downtrodden every bit as crushed as Job. He heals with a touch, an embrace, a smile, a kiss of the foot, a word of encouragement as the afflicted assemble before him to find health and hope and relief from their demons. In other words, today’s gospel locates hope outside the political structure of the day, outside the realm of priests, lawyers, kings and emperors. It finds hope on the margins of empire.
And when you think of it, that’s where hope is to be found today. It’s not grounded in American presidents, in our imperial army, in the European Union, or in “foreign aid.” As I said, it’s not even reported in the mainstream media.
And yet the world is changing for the better right before our eyes. And the locus of change is on the margins – in the 50% of the world that has almost invisibly (for Americans) broken free of the imperial order that has governed the world since the end of World War II. Eventually the gains of that 50% will change us too.
Think of the progress I’m referring to. To even perceive it you have to step outside the powerful system of propaganda that envelops us all. Here are 10 signs of hope emerging from the margins. They have for years been signaled by J.W. Smith and his Institute for Economic Democracy:
- World-wide people have lost faith in the western model of mainstream media (the Great Wurlitzer” as Smith terms it). Most have awakened to the fact that it’s all lies. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media is not even “alternative” any longer. Its mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Its message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more torture, rape or genocide.
- Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts. Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy and independence from Empire.
- Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
- In Greece the overwhelming victory of SYRIZA has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. The party’s anti-austerity message is already being spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
- Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
- The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) themselves represent at least half the planet’s population. They are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
- On June 17th of this year, under BRICS leadership, 133 of the world’s 196 countries declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by western Empire.
- For those paying attention, even the ISIS barbarians are unwittingly serving the cause of peace by demonstrating the horror of wars instigated by the West. They behead on YouTube videos, while U.S. moviegoers cheer American Snipers who blow the heads off unsuspecting Iraqis defending their homes from Seals. ISIS barbarians set fire to prisoners with matches, while their U.S. counterparts use napalm and white phosphorous. The clash of barbarisms highlighted by ISIS promises to make pacifists of anyone capable of seeing parallels. (It’s up to progressives to make them apparent.)
- Even the U.S. president (the first ever influenced by liberation theology) sees parallels like the ones just referenced. He has criticized American exceptionalism by challenging his people to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
- The pope of Rome is attempting mightily to defeat Catholic fundamentalism and to turn 1/7 of the world’s population (i.e. 1.2 billion Catholics) in the direction of social justice and environmental protection as advocated by liberation theology.
None of these are “pie in the sky” hopes. They are simply facts known to the world outside our borders but hidden from us by the MSM.
Along with today’s liturgical readings, such changes should be cause for hope and encouragement. More than half the world has left Job’s dung heap. The world’s poor whom Jesus served and embodied are leading the way. The rest of us will join them soon.
Readings for 3rd Sunday in ordinary time: DT 18: 15-20; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; I COR 7: 32-35; MK 1: 21-28
Today’s readings are about resistance to oppression. They invite us to side with the oppressed and poor in their fight against world-class bullies – to understand the world from the viewpoint of the “unclean.” Seen from that perspective, “American Sniper” is full of insight. It calls us to think critically about whose side we are on in the endless wars our country wages.
The need to see reality “from below” is a major point of today’s first reading. There the message of Moses announcing liberation of the oppressed is presented as the criterion of prophetic truth. Those who teach like Moses (on behalf of the enslaved) should be listened to. False prophets with another message will be punished. This first reading from the Jewish tradition goes on to promise the advent of another prophet like Moses.
By virtue of its inclusion in the liturgy of the word, today’s gospel selection from the Christian tradition identifies Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic promise. He not only astounds people by his authoritative way of speaking. His action on behalf of a man considered “unclean” demonstrates Jesus’ prophetic authenticity.
That insight was on my mind last week when I decided to see “American Sniper” for myself. I had read the reviews. I knew the criticisms. But I wondered what it would look like if I followed the suggestions of today’s readings and viewed the film “from below,” from an Iraqi perspective.
What I discovered was surprising.
Viewed from the underside of history, “American Sniper” was a tribute to the world’s poor and oppressed – especially to the heroic people of Iraq. That’s because “American Sniper” was about resisting bullies the way the Iraqis have since 2003.
That bully theme is not farfetched. It was announced in one of the film’s opening scenes.
There an adolescent Chris Kyle is instructed by his father about three ways of being in the world. Kyle, of course, is the film’s central character – the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. He is believed to have killed 255 Iraqis in his 4 tours of duty. Many, it is certain, had their heads blown right off.
“You can be a wolf, a sheep, or a sheepdog” Kyle’s father tells him (in my paraphrase). “Wolves are bullies; they are cowards preying on the weak. Sheep are the naïve who simply go along, following the herd; they do nothing about bullies. They too are cowards. The way to deal with bullies” says Kyle’s father,” is to be a sheepdog and protect those the bully preys upon.
“I want you to be sheepdogs!” the elder Kyle shouts at his sons, “Don’t let the bullies have their way.”
Ironically, the rest of “American Sniper” shows how Chris Kyle entirely rejected his father’s advice, but also how Iraqi patriots unconsciously heeded it. They emerge in the film as the sheepdogs Kyle’s father admired.
For his part, Kyle joins a gang that specifically preys upon the weak for no good reason – simply because it can and because (as Kyle writes) it’s fun. Chris Kyle became a gangster bully.
No, he didn’t join the “Crips” or “Bloods,” “Sharks” or “Jets.” He joined the “Seals.” And their destructive power was beyond belief. To begin with, their gang attire was fearful including matching helmets and boots, flak jackets, camouflage, wrap-around sunglasses, and night vision goggles. They had guns of all types, unlimited supplies of bullets, grenades, missile launchers, armored vehicles, helicopters, planes, and sophisticated communication devices. They prowled in menacing groups along the streets of Bagdad pointing guns at open windows and doors, pedestrians and drivers.
But it wasn’t easy for aspiring bullies to become Seals; doing so required absolute submission and humiliation. So as with all gangs, they had their initiation rites. These included merciless hazing and demeaning tests of endurance. Such rites of passage were accompanied by constant indoctrination that left initiates exhausted and absolutely malleable. In terms of today’s responsorial psalm, their hearts were sufficiently hardened for the inhuman tasks before them.
As a result, and with no knowledge whatever of their intended victims, Seals became convinced that anyone their superiors identified as “targets” were savages. They knew that because their indoctrinators told them so. They knew nothing else about Iraq, Iraqis or their culture. And so, and like their Indian Fighter predecessors, Seals hated “savages” and wanted them all dead.
In other words, gang aspirants became servile and submissive sheep. They obeyed orders without question or understanding of context. (It’s the military way.) Seals stood ready to kill women, children, the elderly and disabled – anyone identified by their superiors or who threatened their mafia-like ethos of “family.” Protecting one’s “brothers” in crime became the justification of any slaughter. As a result of that brainwashing, Seals were entirely unable to see their “enemies” human beings.
Such identification was difficult for audiences of “American Sniper” as well. Nonetheless, Iraqi humanity inevitably surfaced for anyone remembering today’s readings about Moses and Jesus. Those prophetic lenses revealed the Seals’ victims to be the successors of the poor and oppressed that both of those prophets came to rescue.
Think about the Iraqis for a minute.
Like their predecessors in Egypt, they were perfect targets for bullies. They had no army, no sophisticated weapons, no helicopters, planes or armored vehicles. They wore no uniforms or protective clothing. Apart from unemployed members of Iraq’s Republican Guard, almost none had formal military training.
Instead they were simple peasants, merchants, teachers, barbers and taxi drivers. They were fathers and mothers, children barely able to lift a grenade launcher, grandparents, friends and neighbors banding together as best they could to protect their homes, families from the ignorant, marauding invaders who proudly called themselves “The Seals.” Unable to show weapons in public (like their menacing occupiers), Iraqis hid them by day under floor boards in their homes.
Some were so desperate that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to resist the Seal home-invaders. So they became suicide bombers. Others experimented with non-violent resistance. They were willing to share their tables with the barbarians from abroad, offering them food and shelter in hopes that kindness might win them over.
But no such luck.
So the majority resorted to defending themselves and each other with weapons – mostly captured or left over from previous Seal invasions (there have been many). What else were these brave patriots to do?
One of them became particularly admired. He had been a national hero, called Mustafa. In the story, this fictional character was an Olympic gold medal winner like the American’s Michael Phelps. But instead of resting on his laurels or using his status to protect himself from harm, he employed his skills as a sharp shooter to defend his people.
We can only imagine the pride that swelled the hearts of Iraqis when they heard how he inspired fear in the American bullies who constantly kicked in their doors, destroyed and looted their property, belittled their culture and faith, intimidated their children, frightened their elders, and demeaned their women.
In the end, Mustafa became a glorious martyr.
Again ironically, he was gunned down by his ignorant American counterpart. He was killed by the bully without a thought in his head who was in the game for fun, for the rush of battle, and to protect his relatively invulnerable “brothers” from the harm they deserved at the hands of the civilian victims they tormented.
In what can only be described as an act of self-loathing, that counterpart, Chris Kyle, takes careful aim and from a great and safe distance shoots a patriot he considers “savage,” because he mirrors so well his own bloody “work.”
It’s easy to vilify Chris Kyle. But he’s not to blame. He was no different from any other soldier serving in Iraq. He was no different from drone “pilots” operating from their air-conditioned “theaters” in Nevada or New Mexico. Sad to say, all of them are unwitting bullies and gangsters. They are brainwashed sheep.
Today’s readings are a reminder of all that. So is “American Sniper.”
Both call us to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are taught to hate.
Shockingly, they call us to change sides!
Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: JON 3: 1-5, 10; PS 25: 4-9; I COR 7: 29-31; MK 1: 4-20; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012515.cfm
Last week, Pope Francis offered a preview of his eagerly anticipated encyclical on climate change – to be published next June or July. While visiting the Philippines, the country most devastated by climate chaos, it wasn’t that the pope merely joined the chorus of scientists, environmental activists, and those who heed them. He went much further, promising to transform the issue of climate change from a debate topic trivialized on Fox News into a matter of “faith and morals” (The phrase used by Catholics to define the area within which the pope has overriding authority.)
In doing so, Francis follows the traditions of prophets like Jonah and Jesus – each centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Both prophets called for repentance (change of thought and action). However, the repentance they summoned pales in comparison to what the pope evidently has in mind.
Yes, the pope is a contemporary prophet. At this moment in history, he is arguably the most powerful ever in terms of his consciousness, courage, credibility and constituency. He literally embodies our best hope for “saving the world.” So it’s incumbent on progressives to heed, highlight and support his efforts.
With that in mind, consider today’s readings about prophetic warnings and how to respond.
The first recalls the message of the Bible’s fictional character Jonah. He’s a reluctant ethnocentric prophet forced by God to call Israel’s mortal enemy, Nineveh, to repentance. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” Jonah proclaimed with some delight.
Ultimately though, Jonah’s ethno-centricity is frustrated when against his desires, the Ninevites quickly and unexpectedly take his message to heart, change their ways, and God repents “of the evil he had planned.” In this way, the Divine One showed God’s character as depicted in today’s responsorial. There the psalmist says that (unlike Jonah) God is compassionate, loving, kind, good, and upright. God guides humble sinners on the path of truth – i.e. reality as it is, not as humans would like it to be.
Jesus’ proclamation was similar to Jonah’s, but without that prophet’s nationalist limitations. As depicted in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ basic message was a call to profound change: “This is the time of fulfillment,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” That notion of fulfillment and the nearness of God’s Kingdom introduces a profound element of hope to complement Jesus’ summons to repentance.
Like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, Peter and Andrew, James and John take Jesus’ words to heart profoundly altering their lives. They leave their former employment as fishermen abandoning their nets, their fathers’ boats and hired men. They follow instead a penniless itinerant preacher and community organizer, adopting his life of complete dependence on others for daily sustenance.
In today’s second reading, Paul shows that the early church embraced Jesus’ message. “Time is running out,” Paul warns. It’s time to prioritize the Kingdom even before family, emotional ups and downs, attachment to property — and to the world as it is. Paul is uncompromising in his perception of the profundity of change “repentance” calls for.
However the apostle’s perception is nothing like the lack of compromise called for by the historically unprecedented crisis of climate change. And this brings me back to Pope Francis and the promise of his prophetic consciousness, courage, credibility, and constituency.
Begin with Francis’ consciousness. He alone among our elected thought “leaders” recognizes contemporary historical patterns – the links between climate change, capitalism, its neo-liberal order, corporate power, income inequality, poverty, colonialism, and a host of other problems (including absence of universal education and health care). For Francis, climate change is not merely one issue among many. It is the frame which makes evident the solutions to those other issues.
More than this, the pope has the uncommon courage to identify without equivocation the cause of such problems – neo-liberal capitalism. He says what politicians like President Obama and other heads of state (with the exception of Raul Castro of Cuba) find impossible to say. Their dependence for survival on billionaires and plutocrats render them impotent before the ideologies of unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” theories. By contrast Pope Francis terms the latter homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). (Parenthetical numbers refer to sections of “The Joy of the Gospel.”)
Additionally while speaking the unspeakable, the pope enjoys tremendous credibility. With the exception of neo-liberalism’s intractable apologists, the world loves and embraces the man. His efforts to distance himself from the traditional luxurious papal lifestyle, his honesty in responding to difficult questions, his humility and genuine love for the poor make him our century’s most credible moral leader.
And finally, there’s the pope’s constituency. Unlike prophets before him (including Jesus of Nazareth) sheer numbers give Pope Francis unprecedented power to change the world. Jonah’s potential respondents to his calls for repentance were only inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. In today’s gospel reading Jesus’ respondents were four simple fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Eventually, only a minority of poor Palestinian peasants took to heart Jesus’ words. By contrast, and in virtue of his office, this pope’s constituency is trans-national and world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet the pope calls “Mother” and “Sister.”
Evidently Francis’ plan is to use his credibility to courageously spread his consciousness and widen his constituency. He plans to do so in five steps. He will (1) publish an encyclical (the most authoritative form of communication at his disposal), (2) convoke an ecumenical meeting of world religious leaders, (3) presumably secure from them a statement paralleling his encyclical’s conclusions, (4) present that statement in his speech to the United Nations in September, and (5) attempt in doing all of that to influence the conclusions of this year’s Climate Summit in Paris two months later.
That’s prophetic activism unparalleled in the recent history of the papacy.
And what specifically is entailed in the repentance necessary to save our Mother? Of course, to share the pope’s vision, we await details in the forthcoming encyclical. However, today’s liturgy of the word points us in the general direction. In the meantime, secular prophets like Naomi Klein fill in the challenging details.
General directions include (as Paul says in today’s second reading) transcending emotions like fear-inspired denial. They include willingness to cut family ties (i.e. narrow nationalism), re-examining our career paths, attachments to property and neo-liberal dreams of unlimited consumption and getting rich.
Specific repentance is more radical than any of our politicians dare articulate. According to Klein, author of This Changes Everything, that’s because our planet has reached “decade zero.” Denialists have led us to squander the leeway we had twenty-five years ago. If we don’t decisively alter within the next ten years our path of production and consumption, the planet’s temperature is bound to rise 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. However, according to climate scientists, any rise beyond 2 degrees will make disastrous climate change irreversible. And that will result in disastrous droughts, water shortages, typhoons, flooding, wildfires, and crop losses with whole cities under water and Islands swallowed by the sea.
To avoid such disasters, required repentance includes:
- Rejecting the neo-liberal myth that has shaped our world over the last 35 years.
- Replacing it (the pope will say) with the biblical vision of the Kingdom (proclaimed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading). God’s Kingdom is characterized not by competition and privatization, but by cooperation, sharing, prioritizing the needs of the poor and respecting the earth as commons.
- Setting aside neo-liberalism’s fetish about regulation, and setting bold national policies guided by clear goals, a strictly imposed time table, and severe penalties for non-compliance.
- Implementing corresponding policies to cut annual emissions in the industrialized world by 8- 10%.
- Recognizing that exchange of myths means rejection of market-driven models of untargeted economic growth.
- Redesigning our cities and redistributing population to eliminate long commutes between home and work.
- Investing massively in light rail and other means of public transportation so that commuters might travel efficiently and free of cost.
- Similarly subsidizing renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.
- Turning the roof of every available building into an energy plant.
- Respecting the rights of indigenous people under whose lands so much carbon deposit remains.
- Eliminating by law, controlling by strong regulation or penalizing by heavy taxation industries that are wasteful and/or destructive of the planet such as arms manufacturers, the fast-food industry, GMO firms, and middle-man industries like health insurance.
- Dealing with climate impact and damage according to “the polluter pays” principle. This recognizes that the 500 million richest people on the planet are responsible for 50% of the world’s pollution and that the U.S. military is by some estimates the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world.
- According to “the polluter pays” principle, withdrawing from foreign wars, cutting the military budget by at least 25% and making the rich 1% pay their fair share of taxes.
- Tolerating as necessary increased taxes on everyone, except the poor.
- Drastically reducing the amount of energy each of us consumes.
You get the idea. The agenda necessary to save our planet from “the evil Nature has planned” is challenging indeed. But it contains that surprising element of hope Jesus signaled when he termed “repentance” as “good news” and “fulfillment.”
After all, our destructive way of life is anything but fulfilling. On the other side of the repentance just described is a cleaner, healthier, less stressful life with full employment, more leisure, greater equality, and harmony with one another and our world.
That’s the vision behind the pope’s courageous prophetic work. It deserves our undivided attention and support.