Jesus’ Baptism: His Wasted Life — and Our’s

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: IS 42:1-4, 6-7; PS 29: 1-4, 9-10; ACTS 10: 34-38; LK 3: 15-16, 21-22

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.

I Join the Ys Men’s Club in Westport

This morning I attended my first meeting of Westport’s Ys Men’s Club here in our new hometown of Westport CT. I didn’t know what to expect. I was imagining a group of 10-20 men meeting in a church basement.

I was right about the basement part. We met in the Weston Congregational Church equivalent.

But my numbers were way off.

I discovered that the Ys Men’s Club here was founded 42 years ago. It is highly organized, and now has a local membership of over 400 seniors like me. About 250 were present for the meeting this morning.

It was standing room only because the guest speaker was Chris Brubeck, one of Dave Brubeck’s four sons. And, as I’ll tell you below, his presentation was delightful.

The meeting started at 9:00 with coffee and doughnuts. As I was consuming my decaf and half a chocolate doughnut, I met several members, including the membership chair of the club. One man I met told me that 15 years ago, he and his wife had made the same move as Peggy and I have just made. They moved to Westport to live next to their grandchildren and grow up with them. He said it was the best decision they had ever made. He assured me that it would be the same for me.

Everyone else I met had one first question: “What are you interested in?”

I had looked at the long list of club activities. And from them I selected golf and discussion current events as strong interests. I said I was moderately interested in a book club – depending on what the group might be reading.

When I informed the membership chair of my current events interests, he soon had me talking with the convener of that group. I was told it meets Mondays from 8:45-10:00 at a nearby seniors’ center. Next week, the convener said, they’ll be discussing Thomas Friedman’s NYT column on the Yellow Vest Movement in France.

That seemed especially providential, since I had just returned (last weekend) from France, where I devoted a lot of time to reading about and tracking down Gilet Jaunes.  In fact, on my return, I published an article on them here on my blog, on OpEdNews, and as my monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader. So, I’m really looking forward to Monday’s meeting, where I hope to share some of those just-published thoughts. That will be a good way of breaking into this Ys Men’s club.

As for Chris Brubeck . . . He regaled us with stories of his father Dave, their family, and Chris’ own career.

He played a couple of base trombone solos for us and showed us the amazingly low notes he could hit with his instrument. Chris grew up in nearby Wilton. He studied with jazz and classical masters – including at Interlochen MI, the great summer music camp where Peggy and I had sent two of our children, and where last summer we saw the Glen Miller band and the Beachboys. The summer before last, we attended a Diana Ross concert there as well.

The highlight of Chris Brubeck’s presentation was a couple of performance tapes he shared with us.  One was of a piece he had written for three violins – with each violinist playing a different music style. That was just amazing for a Suzuki parent like me to watch.

The best one, however, was of the celebration of his father’s career at the Kennedy Center just before Dave Brubeck died at the age of 91. President Obama and Michelle were in attendance. Chris told us that in the run-up to the event, Dave had asked that his four sons (each, of course, a great jazz musician in his own right) might play together at the event. Chris said that Dave (that’s how he referred to his father) was crestfallen when he was told “No, we just can’t do that.”

Well, those who made that refusal had other plans. They wanted to delight and surprise the Great Man. So, on the night in question, the Army jazz band, along with Herbie Hancock and other jazz stars did a stunning performance of “Take Five.” One after another three groups took up the theme. Then, as the piece de resistance, Brubeck’s sons were introduced. The old man was dumbfounded. When the curtain went up on his sons, he blurted out in surprise “Son of a b__tch!” Luckily, he was un-miked. But watching his lips form the words was both hilarious and charming.

The prospect of working and playing with Westport’s Ys Men is an unexpected bonus on top of the wonder of growing up here with my grandchildren.

Report from France: “Yellow Vest” Revolutionary Unity and Its Lessons for Americans

Over Christmas, my daughter and son-in-law took us all on a ski vacation in the French Alps followed by a full week in Paris. Since at my stage of life, skiing is no longer advisable, I decided to focus instead on looking into the country’s Gilet Jaune (GJ) protest movement that’s shaken France to the core.

So, for several months before leaving the U.S., I studied French each day trying to recover the little I retained from 7 years (!) of extended formal French study 3 in high school and 4 in college.

And then, once in France, while my sons, son-in-law, and 4 grandchildren were on the slopes, I studied up on the Gilet Jaunes themselves I read about them in French newspapers, watched TV coverage of their demonstrations,and tried to join them in Albertville my first Saturday in the country, in the Champs Elysee on New Year’s Eve, and in front of the Hotel de Ville my final day in Paris.

As an activist and student of the left, my point was to become a kind of accidental reporter covering a phenomenon that has seen hundreds of thousands of political protestors in the streets across a country whose history since 1789 has given it quasi-ownership rights to the word “revolution.”

Dressed in the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to wear in case of highway emergencies, the GJs are stopping traffic on busy roadways. They’re occupying toll booths to allow travelers escape from burdensome fees. Some see them as suggesting a “Frexit” that may mirror the UK’s recent Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.

Interviewing those protestors, some U.S. ex-patriots, teachers, and small businesspeople, as well as reading those newspapers and attending GJ protests have all made it clear to me that the Yellow Vests have valuable lessons to teach Americans about overcoming our current political fragmentation. The GJs suggest that it’s possible for both left and right extremes of our own political spectrum to cooperate for mutual benefit regardless of positions even on divisive issues like abortion, gun control, immigration, violence and terrorism.

The Yellow Vest Phenomenon

In the U.S. the GJ movement is typically reported by the Fox News right and even by “progressives” in terms of identity politics. It’s a rebellion, we’re told, against an “eco-tax” on diesel fuel. According to this view, the Yellow Vest rebels are part of a culture war pitting climate skeptics against a government whose vision has been captured by environmental extremists.

Such identification of the GJs with right-wing politics is adopted with good reason. French President Emmanuel Macron lent it credence in his annual New Year’s Eve address. There, he identified the Yellow Vests as “hateful” enemies of the state, of Jews, the media, homosexuals, and of law and order itself.

A more comprehensive view however, was inadvertently suggested by an American ex-pat living in Paris. At first, she described the Yellow Vests as “exactly the same as the U.S. Occupy Movement.” By the end of the interview, however, she portrayed it as mimicking the Republican Tea Party.

In my assessment, both evaluations are accurate. That is, far from being either predominantly conservative, liberal or radical, the Yellow Vest Movement is an all-sides rebellion against neo-liberal globalism itself. It has brought together forces on both the left and right extremes of the French political spectrum. Le Monde describes them as “retirees, the unemployed, poor workers, small businesspeople, and the self-employed within the gig economy.” It’s as if the Occupy Movement had united with Tea Partiers.

In terms understandable to Americans, yellow in France has become the new purple with each shade contributing from its corresponding degree of political consciousness. Right wingers like Marine Le Pen see the Yellow Vests as a protest against open borders that allow foreigners to corrupt French culture. Left wingers see it more broadly as a rejection of a globalism that accords free mobility to capital, while forbidding such movement to labor from France’s former colonies.

All sides see GJs as repudiating the status quo. And they’re working together to overthrow it. Therein lies the lesson for Americans. The lesson is that recognizing broad class interests as opposed to narrow and exclusionary identity-politics can unite normally fragmented citizens against a tyrannous plutocracy that is crushing us all.

The Real Yellow Vest Issues

Yes, a fuel tax purporting to address climate change was the precipitating “last straw.” But the tax was galling not because the French are climate-change deniers, but because it regressively impacted low-income workers living outside of the country’s big cities and dependent on auto commutes to get to work. It’s those people from the French countryside who constitute the majority within the Yellow Vest movement.

That’s because the government had persuaded commuters in France to switch to diesel cars as cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than gas guzzlers. Then, as diesel fuel became more expensive, the government reversed course on diesel cars. Suddenly, the vehicles were a major part of the climate problem.

Additionally, the revenue gathered by the fuel tax was never intended to advance the cause of alternative energy sources. Instead, it would revert to the general fund and end up in bank coffers as loan repayment. In other words, the bankers and their rich cronies who have recently been awarded huge tax reductions, would actually benefit from the fuel tax. Meanwhile, its pain would be felt by those already suffering from austerity measures imposed by the European Union following capitalism’s world-wide recession in 2008.

There’s also concern here about immigration. Open borders across the E.U. are changing the nation’s identity. Additionally, the creation of immigrants and refugees by climate chaos, poverty, and the post-2008 economic depression in France’s former colonies are all contributing to the identity-crisis syndrome decried by the French right-wing.

Nonetheless, ever class-conscious, and with their traditionally strong socialist and communist historical ties, the French (with 80% public approval) have apparently drawn conclusions about root systemic causes. And they’ve taken to the streets. To repeat, this is class struggle that transcends identity politics. Across the political spectrum, those on the left and those on the right are upset about:

· The emerging perception that the E.U. (like free-trade agreements everywhere) is geared towards disempowering the working class while enriching transnational corporations

· The rich not paying their fair share

· Resulting wealth inequality

· Wages that have not kept up with living-costs

· Austerity measures that threaten social programs like universal health care, public education, government-sponsored child care, and month-long worker vacations

· An educational system that devalues teachers, overloads their classrooms, and pays them poorly

Yellow Vest Lessons for Americans

As I said, all of this contains lessons for Americans fragmented into political siloes where the working class (those whose income is dependent on wages) are schooled to identify other workers as our enemies rather than our wealthy bosses, corporatists and financiers. Rightists tell us that our enemies are immigrants and people of color. Leftists say they are patriarchs, gun-rights advocates, and pro-lifers. Gilet Jaunes disagree. They say that the real enemy is what the Occupy Movement identified as the richest 1%; they are the corporate elite, our employers. The GJs would instruct us to get out into the streets and embrace what unifies the working class rather than what divides us on issues such as:

· Abortion: It’s time for grass-roots pro-choice and anti-abortion activists to join forces on the shared terrain of respect for human life. On that score, we are not each other’s enemies. Accordingly, the Gilets Jaunes implicitly invite us all to provisionally bracket the contentious issue on which we’ve been led to disagree so strongly. It’s time, they imply, to join forces to oppose the military-industrial concerns that spend billions to destroy human life for vaguely-defined and questionably-achievable purposes. Their bombings and drone attacks liquidate human life in the wombs of bombing victims as well as in homes, schools, churches, mosques, temples, hospitals, restaurants, and on farms where other wage-earners like the rest of us gather for peaceful domestic purposes. All of us share those purposes. In that sense, we are all pro-life.

· Gun Control: On New Year’s Eve, I attended what I thought would be a GJ protest in the Champs Elysees. The police were out in force on behalf of a government seen as coddling the rich at the expense of the working class. The heavily-armed gendarmes frisked us all before entering the Parisian equivalent of Times Square. In another demonstration (the day I left the country) the police tear gassed everyone as more than 5000 of us rallied outside the French President’s offices in the Hotel de Ville. The Robocop’s menacing presence made me wonder (along with Chris Hedges and Paul Craig Roberts) why we working-people and pensioners allow such service “dogs” (as the rich characterize their own police) to routinely beat and otherwise abuse us without response-in-kind. I found myself ruminating about the historical wisdom of gun-rights advocates. They embrace the history lesson that nothing usually changes until the battered have risen up and retaliated against police goons and strung politicians from the lampposts. Without advocating such violence, the over-the-top response of police in the Champs Elysees and before the Hotel de Ville represented for me another GJ invitation. It was to recognize common ground with those previously seen by leftists as enemies and nothing more. It may be time, the Yellow Vests imply, for gun-control advocates to enter serious and respectful dialog with those they’ve previously seen only as deplorable enemies. Perhaps there’s more wisdom than pacifists have been willing to recognize in Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the tree of liberty must periodically watered with the blood of tyrants.

· Violence: Relatedly, I found it interesting how opponents of the Yellow Vests routinely attempt to discredit them by characterizing GJ demonstrators as “violent.” Ignored in the accusation is the critical point that any violent attacks by demonstrators on property or on the police is only one form of violence. More accurately, the GJ acts in question are often likely the work of agents provocateursBut even if not, they certainly represent a reaction to a first act of violence in the form of the structural arrangements that precipitated the Yellow Vest movement in the first place. As described to me by a Paris university professor, those structures underpay workers and make it impossible for their children to attain the classic “French Dream” of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They impose austerity measures that deprive pensioners of a decent living and give rise to the widespread homelessness I witnessed on Paris streets and under the city’s bridges. All such inherently violent arrangements dwarf the broken store windows that the GJs are blamed for. And then there’s the third level of violence that critics routinely fail to recognize the outrageous police response to the Gilet Jaunes mentioned above. (I can still smell the tear gas.) The bottom line here is that the state, not the protestors, represents the most prominent purveyor of violence in this French context. Insisting on recognizing this habitually overlooked fact can go a long way towards defusing disagreements between leftists and their right-wing counterparts sparked by a one-dimensional approach to the divisive issue of “violence.”

· Immigration: What the left characterizes as xenophobia is really an implied, mostly unconscious, but highly accurate perception by the right that corporate globalization is totally impractical. It is founded on a fundamental contradiction. That inconsistency claims to champion “free market capitalism.” Yet such economic arrangement accords unrestricted freedom of movement across borders to only one element of the capitalist equation, viz. to capital itself. Meanwhile, labor, the other equally important factor in the system is forbidden such mobility (in the United States) and is restricted to other members of the E.U. on the continent. When the world’s labor force (in the former colonies) intuits the injustice of such double-standard when it votes with its feet to appropriate for itself the privileges routinely accorded capitalists all of us are made to recognize the unworkability of current forms of corporate globalization. The same is true of refugees caused by climate change and resource wars. Like free trade agreements, both are intimately connected with current forms of globalization. Such recognition in turn reveals a common struggle shared by both the political right and left. Following GJ partisans, our focus should correspondingly shift from villainizing fellow workers who happen to be immigrants to the corporatists who exploit both them and us by their destructive trade alliances. Invariably, those pacts benefit the 1% rather than those they (dis)employ. In other words, massive immigration should drive all of us to oppose reigning models of free trade and their destructive impact on workers everywhere as well as on human habitat.

· Terrorism: Something similar can be said of the war on terror. Those whom our leaders would have us fear as “terrorists” are arguably patriots desiring to “Make the Caliphate Great Again (MCGA). Often, they are partisans claiming ownership of their homelands. They’re Pan Arabs who envision an “Arabia for Arabs,” rather than for oil-thirsty westerners whose culture contradicts the values and monumental historical achievements of Islam in science and culture. At the very least, the so-called “terrorists” represent blowback against western aggression epitomized in the invasion of Iraq, the greatest war crime of the twenty-first century. Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters should be able to recognize such common ground both with MCGA enthusiasts and with anti-war activists in the United States. Once joined there, both the U.S. left and right could further cooperate in advocating reinvestment of what used to be called “the peace dividend” in a Green New Deal and its benefits for wage earners of every political stripe.

Conclusion

My accidental research project in France has given me hope. It’s helped me see as unnecessary the counter-productive divisions between descendants of Tea Party Activists and of their counterparts in the Occupy Movement. Actually, we have more in common than we might think. It’s the powers-that-be who want us fragmented and at each other’s throats!

If we could but recognize our points of unity, rather than the ideological fissures we’ve been schooled to cherish, we might well be as successful as today’s French Revolutionaries in making politicians more receptive to the real issues that unite wage earners across the country and throughout the world.

After all, polls across the political spectrum indicate we all want similar outcomes. We all want profound change that disempowers the world’s 1% and spreads around the wealth we’ve all produced, but that has instead been funneled upwards to the plutocrats.

Above all, adopting the cooperative spirit of the Gilet Jaunes means finding an alternative to the neo-liberal form of capitalism with its dreadful austerity measures. It’s destroying the planet and making paupers of us all.

The Dysfunctional Holy Family

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: Sir. 3: 2-6, 12-14; Ps. 128: 1-5; Col. 3: 12-21; Lk. 2: 41-52 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/123018.cfm

Today is the feast of the Holy Family. We’re used to thinking of it as a cozy group of 3, Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in ideal circumstances, the way we picture them in our nativity crib scenes. Or we imagine Jesus’ early life as we find it depicted in medieval paintings of the carpenter Joseph’s workshop. There we often find a loving haloed and elderly foster-father instructing Jesus in his trade while Mary smiles in the background.

However, if we take seriously the “infancy narratives” coming from Matthew and Luke, we must draw the conclusion that Jesus’ home life was more complicated than that. You might even say that it was “troubled” right from the beginning. So for the moment, let’s suspend disbelief surrounding the historicity of the narratives about Jesus’ early years. Let’s try instead to unpack the stories at face value. Doing so, I think, shows them to be quite relevant to our own experiences – especially to that of our family dysfunctions and to our own experiences of being no one, without face, identity, or power before the world’s problems.

To begin with, think about Jesus’ family, the focus of today’s liturgy of the word.  It wasn’t perfect. The holy family was larger than we’re accustomed to imagine. Joseph and Mary probably had 7 or 8 children. According to the gospels, Jesus’ brothers’ names were James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Jesus is also said to have had at least 2 unnamed sisters. On the one hand, a large family like that would have been helpful to peasant farmers, if Mary and Joseph had any land. On the other hand, a family of 9 or 10 people would have been hard to maintain for rural peasants living in a backwater like Nazareth. It is likely then that hunger and struggling to make ends meet was a major part of Jesus’ early experience.

Jesus’ country was also war-torn at the time when he was born, and that certainly impacted his family. At approximately the moment of his conception, the Romans had razed the city of Sepphoris, located just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee where Nazareth was located. Galilee was a hotbed of resistance to Rome’s occupation of Palestine. And a rebellion had erupted in Sepphoris about the year 4 BCE. That meant that the countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ conception. Inevitably, many young Jewish girls would have been raped by the occupying forces. Some see that fact as lending credence to an anti-Christian tradition claiming that Jesus was the product of rape of Jesus’ mother, Mary by a Roman soldier called Panthera.

In any case, Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy would have raised many eyebrows in the rural village of Nazareth. Town gossips would have snickered and talked behind their hands about the young girl’s “virginal conception.” We know for certain that Mary’s mysterious pregnancy put Joseph in crisis. According to tradition, he suspected she had been unfaithful and thought her condition reason enough to break off their engagement. We also know that Mary chose to leave town “in haste” and travel to the hill country of Judah to her Cousin Elizabeth’s home – possibly to get some distance from small village talk.

Once that problem was resolved, the holy family’s troubles continued.  There was the matter of Jesus’ homelessness at the time of his birth. For the occasion, Joseph and Mary had to make do with a filthy stable with all of its animal droppings, noises, smells, vermin, rodents and cold.

And things got worse after that. The story goes that the local king Herod ordered an infanticide of all children under the age of 2 in the area surrounding the place of Jesus’ birth.  For Mary and Joseph, avoiding such unspeakable violence meant fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night. It also meant trying to survive as immigrants in that far-off country – not speaking the language or knowing the customs, or feeling at home among those prejudiced against foreigners.

Once back in Palestine, things apparently settled down. However, the episode in today’s gospel reveals tension in the holy family that will resurface later in the gospels.

“The Finding in the Temple” is a coming of age story. At the age of 13, all Jewish boys would accompany their parents for the first time as a “genuine Israelite.” Each would then become a man, “one who goes up to the temple.” In Jesus’ time, the 13th year was anticipated by a year as a kind of preparation for the “big step” into adulthood.  Coming from a place like Nazareth, the boy from the country would have been dazzled by the splendor of the Temple with its colonnades, precious woods, unending polished steps, gold and silver candelabra. It would have been easy for him to wander away with other boys and become lost in it all.

His parents find him, we are told, easily conversing with learned men from the city whose manners, accents and clothing would have been intimidating to Jesus’ simple parents. And yet here was the country boy Jesus astounding the city people with the incisiveness of his questions and the wisdom of his answers. No doubt, the rural parents waited till they were out of earshot of their “betters” till they gave Jesus the dressing down they thought he deserved. The scolding may have lasted the entire three-day journey back to Nazareth.

His parents, we’re told in this morning’s reading, did not understand their son. We find out later on that the lack of understanding continued. At one point in Mark’s gospel, his mother and his siblings are described as thinking Jesus was out of his mind (Mk. 3: 34-35). This led to a formal estrangement between Jesus and his family. He more or less disowned them. When Jesus was told that his family has come to rescue him from his madness, he said in effect, “My mother – my family? That’s not who those people are. Instead, you (the outcasts, beggars, insurrectionists, prostitutes, unemployed, and ne’er do wells, who were his companions) – you are my real family, my real people.”

And yet today’s gospel concludes that Jesus went back to Nazareth with them. He advanced, Luke tells us in age and wisdom and grace before God and his neighbors. And that’s it. We hear no more about him for 20 years or so. He disappears. He becomes nobody.

And that brings me to the other part of today’s reflection – being a nobody. What does Jesus’ disappearance, his “hidden life,” tell us about the human condition?  According to our faith, Jesus was the full embodiment of God. Presumably, then, he had infinite power at his disposal. His world was as filled with problems as ours. There was Roman imperialism and the occupation of Palestine with its brutality, torture, rape, exploitation and oppression. There was political corruption among Jesus’ own people as the leaders of his time climbed into bed with the Romans. There was extreme poverty alongside obscene wealth. There was religious corruption. There was disease and ignorance.  And yet as far as the record is concerned, this embodiment of God did nothing.  For 97% of his life, Jesus did absolutely nothing!

Why? Do you think it might have been because, like us, he could do nothing significant about all those problems? And even when around the age of 30 he did finally emerge as a more or less public figure, what did he really do? He spoke some inspiring words, healed a few people, and worked some miracles that his contemporaries dismissed as parlor tricks. He provoked the authorities in a temple demonstration for religious purity and social justice, was arrested, tortured and executed as an insurrectionist.  That was pretty much it as far as his “public life” was concerned. Afterwards, the world pretty much continued as it had before his arrival.

I somehow find comfort in both Jesus’ family dysfunctions and in his “nobodiness.”  None of our families is perfect. Unexpected pregnancies, suspicions and jealousies dividing couples, financial struggles, problems with neighbors and gossip, displacement, lost and alienated children – it all seems about par for the course. I’m not even sure that Mary and Joseph didn’t wonder at times where they went wrong. There was a lot for them to process in their pillow talk as they saw their son hanging out with the wrong crowd, apparently losing his faith, and then getting into political problems they didn’t understand. My God, he finally ended up on death row! The black sheep of the family . . . .

And then there are our own little lives and their apparent lack of meaning. In the end, we’re nobodies, all of us. That’s what death makes apparent as we lose our physical form and minds and all that we worked for. We’re nobodies.  Few will remember us or think of us after we’re gone. We’re born, get married, have children, buy and sell a few items, and then die. And what became of all our hopes and dreams? What does it all mean?

Does it mean that it’s all O.K.; it’s all good? Does it mean “that’s life” – what it’s about? In fact, our vocation is to be precisely nobody instead of constantly striving to be Somebody. In the end, death discloses the truth about our vocation. It is the same as Jesus’ vocation. And that is to be open, faceless channels that disclose the presence of God in our very ordinary lives with their family dysfunctions and personal failures. It is to rise above such limitations or rather to use them to express the unbounded love of an apparently powerless God to those around us – especially to our family members who might not even understand.

Christmas Vacation in the French Alps!

I can hardly believe this. But here I am with my whole family in the French Alps for a skiing vacation at the Ski Loge Broski in Belleville near San Martin.

I used to be a skier. However, after nearly 50 years away from the slopes, I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to resume here at the age of 78. So, if anything, I’ll confine my skiing activity to the cross-country variety.

We arrived in France last Saturday. Our eldest son, who is now living in Paris, hosted us overnight in a very comfortable three-bedroom apartment.  

One of the reasons I’m especially happy to be in France is that it’s currently the center of what may well be a truly revolutionary movement not only in France, but across Europe. I’m referring to the Gilet Jaune  (yellow vest) protesters who have been demonstrating on weekends here for the past month or so.

In the course of our drive to Belleville, we encountered some of them who had occupied a toll station. The waved us through the facility without making us stop to pay. Anyone can see how that contributes to winning hearts and minds.

In my understanding, the Yellow Vests are very like the OccupyMovement we experienced in the United States beginning in 2011. Like the Occupiers, the umbrella issue of the Gilet Jaunes is what (outside the United States) is called “neo-liberalism.” That’s the lionization of deregulated free-market capitalism which benefits the 1% while demanding austerity from the rest of us.

It’s that austerity in the form of low wages, raised taxes on gasoline and cut-backs in social programs that has angered Europeans, most notably in France, Spain, Greece, and Italy – not to mention the Brexit advocates across the pond. People here are now talking about “Frexit.” If that occurs, it will signal the end of the European Union.

When we return to Paris next weekend, while others in my family will be visiting museums, I plan to attend the protests scheduled in the city center. To that end, I’ve been brushing up on my French. In any case, I’m sure I’ll be able to get along quite well in English.

Everyone in the country, I’m finding, has an opinion on the Gilet Jaune movement and is quite willing to share thoughts on the topic.

I’ll report here on what I find.

In the meantime, having arrived here only late last night, I’m off to explore the environs here in Belleville.

More later . . .

Ruth Butwell: In Memoriam

I had an apparition the other day. I saw my recently deceased dear friend and mentor, Ruth Butwell. She spoke to me.

Her medium was a book we both contributed to in 1990. It was called Democracy Watch, Nicaragua: Five Central Kentuckians Observe the 1990 Nicaraguan Elections. The book recorded the journals of Ruth and four others of us who in 1990 officially observed the presidential elections in Nicaragua. Those elections had the U.S.-favored, Violetta Chamorro, defeating Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). To this day, in some sense, I’m still reeling from the disappointment.

As I re-read Ruth’s sparkling diary and paged through the pictures in the book, vivid memories of her friendship and guidance came flooding in. There we were taking Spanish classes together, living with our working-class families, walking Managua’s dusty streets, visiting the offices of the Sandinistas and their opponents, touring farming co-ops and a prison, interviewing people on the streets, attending political rallies, talking with U.S. officials, and watching Nicaraguans vote in polling place after polling place. It was all as if she were there in the room with me as I read. And there was more. I recalled her not only as my traveling companion, but as my boss, the match-maker who brought me together with my bride of 40+ years, and as the dearest of friends.

I met Ruth Butwell in 1974, my first year at Berea College, where I ended up teaching for 40 years. Ruth was the Dean of Students at the college and therefore became my boss as I took a part-time job as the director of Dana Hall, a men’s residence there. (I also was hired to teach a section of a freshman course called “Issues and Values.”) Ruth played a big part in orienting me towards the Berea College ethos — “the Berea way.”

Very significantly, that same year, Peggy DuRivage also arrived on the Berea campus. Like Ruth, Peggy was a Michigander. The two of them hit it off immediately. In fact, the day that Ruth hired Peggy, she told her (with that twinkle in her eye) of this other Catholic who had just been hired – a former priest – whom Peggy might find interesting. (At the time, it was still unusual for Berea to hire Catholics – and even more so, a former priest.)

Of course, Peggy and I hit it off too. We got to know each other at the weekly meeting of residence hall directors chaired by Ruth in her office just off of Fairchild Hall. Ruth and her secretary and dear friend, Gloria Vanwinkle, saw what was developing between Peggy and me. (We both felt that they along with the rest of the residence hall faculty were watching us closely. Naturally, they were – and all smilingly cheering us on.)

And so, two years later, Ruth found herself generously hosting a wedding-day breakfast for Peggy and me and our guests at her home on Pinnacle Street. I remember that feast so well – a wonderful fruit salad, omelets, breads, sweet rolls, juices, coffee and teas. Ruth presided regally. Her mother was there too – and her children, John and Ann. (Then in 2016, Ruth reprised the event to help us celebrate our milestone 40th anniversary.)

But the wedding breakfast was only half the story. With the students gone in early June, Ruth allowed my mother and other members of my family, along with some friends to stay two nights free-of-charge in Dana Hall.

The night before the wedding, we threw a big party right there. The campus minister, Henry Parker, showed up. (He’d help us tie the knot the next day.) There was wine and homemade lasagna. My mother played the piano. Her signature rendition of “Bumble-Bee Boogie” was a big hit. Everybody was dancing. Peggy’s mom and dad showed everyone how to jitterbug.

No wonder Peggy and I remained close friends with Ruth even after she retired from the college around 1996. She was an important part of our life. To this day, we lovingly treasure her friendship.

All of that was great.

However, I got to know and love Ruth Butwell even more during our trip to Nicaragua. Throughout the 1980s, that tiny Central American country was in the news every day. President Reagan tried to persuade Americans that the FSLN was the incarnation of evil and and a direct agent of the Soviet Union. He said that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in general were “Marxist-Leninist-totalitarian-Communist-dictators.” They were about to invade the United States through Harlingen, Texas. Reagan called the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionaries (the “Contras”) “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.” Many of us who had already traveled to Nicaragua knew better. The Contras were terrorists pure and simple. The Sandinistas were champions of the country’s poor.

Ruth suspected all of that. So, when I asked her to join a fact-finding delegation that would double as election observers, she gave the invitation serious consideration. We would fund the trip, I said, by selling in advance copies of a book of the journals we’d keep during our 10-day stay in the country. And as soon as I could persuade her that the book would be of sufficiently high quality, she agreed to go. I was so grateful. Ruth enjoyed unquestioned credibility on campus as a smart, fair-minded, highly principled educator. Her contribution would help our book’s readers correct Reagan’s lies.

But those weren’t even Ruth’s main qualities. She was absolutely full of grace. She was extremely kind, optimistic, funny, and possessed of a wonderfully grounded sense of empathy and fairness – especially towards impoverished women like those we met at every turn in Nicaragua.

Her journal entries (nearly 50 pages in our book) also revealed her as a brilliant extremely perceptive writer with a gift for colorful description worthy of a wonderful novelist.

Here, for example, is the way she depicted buying a Coca-Cola on a Managua street:

“There are vendors of all kinds selling ice cream bars, Cokes, and water. We stop to get a Coke. Bottles are scarce, so the vendor is not going to part with the bottle. Instead, he has a large wooden wheelbarrow with a truck or box full of drinks perched above the wheel part. Down in the barrel is a 100-pound chunk of ice. The vendor has a metal shaving plane used at home in my dad’s shop for planning wood, but here used to shave up curls of ice from the big block. He scoops these curls up with his hand into a small plastic bag and pours a bottle of Coke or Pepsi (bottled in Nicaragua) into the bag. He deftly ties a knot in the plastic bag, collects 25,000 cordobas (about 50 cents) and hands me a brown balloon with two corners sticking up. Soon I see how to manage. I, like the others, bite off a corner of the bag with my teeth and suck the Coke out of the hole. At the same time, I push the liquid with my hands – sort of a liquid bagpipe. In the process, quite a bit escapes and trickles down my chin and shoots up my nose. Never mind. I am hot and dry and the stuff is cold and wet.”

After the Nicaragua trip, my bond with Ruth deepened through her daughter, Ann, and her son-in-law John Wright-Rios. During her sophomore year, Ann, was an outstanding student in my section of a “Great Books” course required of all second-year students. It was called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” Subsequently, I asked Ann to be my teaching associate in the same course. And, again she excelled in that role. 

Ann’s sense of social justice and the deeply-informed “preferential option” for the world’s poor are themselves testimonies to Ruth’s own global awareness, sense of justice, and commitment to on-going growth and development. Ruth was a wonderful mother.

Yes, my life (like the lives of countless others) has been and continues to be blessed by Ruth Butwell. Again, I consider her a mentor and shining example of the best traditions Berea College has to offer the world. Neither Peggy nor I will ever forget her brightness, intelligence, sense of humor, rock-solid integrity, and deep commitment to justice and peace.

I am so grateful for her apparition in my life — and in my memory.

The Canonization of George H.W. and the Elevation of the Bush Crime Family

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: BAR 5:1-9; PS 126: 1-6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:1-6

It all made me very sad. I’m referring to this week’s post-mortem celebration of George H.W. Bush. I was saddened not only because of a family’s loss, but because of what the event said about our country’s amnesia concerning Mr. Bush’s crimes.

Absent that forgetfulness, I saw the funeral as the transformation of a deplorable mass murderer into some kind of Christian saint. It demonstrated what’s wrong with our country and with its supporting Christian ideology.

I’m emboldened to make such irreverent observations because the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. They reintroduce us to the great prophet, John the Baptist who got himself martyred because of his own irreverent criticism of the royal family of his day. And the Bushes, who occupied the very highest offices in our country for 20 years [8 as vice-president + 4 as president (Bush 41) + 8 as president (Bush 43)] come as close to royalty as our country will allow. So, consider these remarks as coming from John’s voice in the wilderness. They may get me in trouble too.

In any case, I watched H.W.’s celebratory funeral unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the other side of the story that I and my students at Berea College had learned about the man back in 1990. That’s when participants in my Freshman Seminar section researched Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm disasters as they developed. We produced a book on it all: Eye on the Storm: Berea College Students Examine the First Gulf War.

The book was finally published in 2002 as Mr. Bush’s disgraced son prepared for the even more disastrous Second Gulf War. Here’s how the book-jacket blurb described our work:

“This book shows how the Gulf War was motivated by greed for oil, how it violated elementary ethical principles, and even more elementary human rights. Additionally, this study indicates how such motivations and violations were papered over by a basically uncritical, cheerleading press.

But not all Americans joined in the cheers. There was significant opposition to the war throughout the United States. That opposition surfaced strongly at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. There, teach-ins and rallies were held regularly; many students traveled to Washington to join the national protest; General Studies courses focused on understanding the war. One student, whose essay appears in this volume, spent days encamped in front of Berea College’s administration building to make his dissenting voice heard.

That voice and the others appearing in this volume, deserve to be heard. So do dissenting voices today, at Berea and throughout the country. For the Bush war on our immediate horizon threatens not simply to repeat the history of twelve years ago, but to make its horror seem benign.”

Right now, all of that seems eerily prophetic – especially in the light of Bush 43’s indirect creation of ISIS, the absolute devastation of Iraq, and the more-than-one-million deaths caused by his war of aggression.

But before I get to what I and my students learned about W’s father, think of the contrasting story we heard and witnessed about the patriarch last week. 

“He was such a good and noble man,” all the mainstream commentators seemed to whisper in hushed and reverent chorale refrain. “A class act,” Ms. Clinton said. “I so admire his family – so dignified even in mourning,”others gushed. “He was so unlike the present occupant of the White House.” “There’ll never be another like him – such a statesman. “A wonderful father,” Mr. Bush’s son (the greatest war criminal of the 21st century) proclaimed from a pulpit of all places!

That’s what we heard. What we saw was even worse.

All the surviving war-criminal heads of American Empire had come together in Washington’s National Cathedral to normalize a mafia don and invoke God in doing so. There they were: Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and Donald Trump. As Chomsky has said, they’re all war lords and mass murderers, every one of them.  

But each had his church game-face on as if they themselves were followers rather than enemies of the non-violent Jesus who was ironically a victim of imperialists exactly like themselves. That’s right: Jesus was tortured and executed in an imperialized province – his own day’s equivalent of our oligarchs’ killing fields in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

But there they all sat solemnly honoring one of their own – a rich patrician, a CIA spook, an inveterate racist, a bald-faced liar, and contemptible war criminal. So, we heard the prayers (I’m not sure addressed to whom); we witnessed the crime- boss’ canonization, and our hearts went out to the members of the Bush crime family.

And yes, we all listened in respectful silence. Instead, all of us should have been shouting “Shame! Shame!”

And that returns me to my students’ research. What we discovered was eye-opening. We found out that:

  • George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, did business with the Nazis during World War II. In other words, President Bush came from a right-wing Nazi-sympathizer family. (Can you imagine the dinner-table-conversations young George overheard and participated in?)
  • Bush was a racist and misogynist. He pioneered dog-whistle campaign tactics to become POTUS through his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. He opposed Anita Hill in her testimony against his SCOTUS appointee, Clarence Thomas. (We later learned that Mr. Bush was a serial groper as well.)
  • H.W. was the first ex-CIA Director (1976-’77) to become U.S. president – having served as Vice-President during Ronald Reagan’s genocidal war of terror in Central America which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. In those official capacities, and contradicting the hypocritical “war on drugs,” Bush employed the drug cartel boss, Manuel Noriega, as a CIA asset. He looked the other way as Noriega dealt drugs that eventually ended up in the veins of U.S. citizens.
  • Then just before leaving office, Mr. Bush pardoned his Iran-Contra co-conspirators — the ones responsible for all those Central American deaths.   
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega (1989) when the Panamanian leader got too independent for his own good. In the process Bush oversaw the killing of anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 impoverished and unarmed Panamanians in the country’s poorest neighborhood. He destroyed the Panamanian Army so that the U.S. would have reason to stay on after a recently-signed treaty turned over ownership of the Panama Canal to local authorities. 
  • According to a long-standing goal articulated in 1988 by Miles Ignotus, the real reason for Bush’s First Persian Gulf War (1990-’91) was to “Seize Arab Oil.”
  • To that end, Bush induced former CIA asset, Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait by allowing his ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to mislead Saddam into believing that the Bush administration would not interfere with his invasion of Kuwait.
  • Bush also manipulated U.S. public opinion by using a 15-year-old “eye-witness” from Iraq to falsely allege that Iraqi soldiers tore infants from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Bush’s lies swung national opinion in favor of his war.  
  • In the first Gulf War, Bush oversaw the slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers, shooting untold (literally!) thousands of them in the back in what perpetrators described as a “turkey shoot.”
  • In a clear effort to dispel the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Mr. Bush elevated the concept of “fake news” to an entirely new level by strictly controlling reporters’ access to combat zones in Panama and Iraq.

That last point deserves special notice, because of my daughter Maggie’s contribution to my class’ study of the Persian Gulf War. At the time of our work, Maggie was in the 6th grade at our local Berea Community School (BCS). For her science project that year, we decided to study the war’s coverage by our local Lexington Herald-Leader.

Together, we collected and examined all editions of the paper from day-one to the war’s official end. We categorized its news accounts, editorials, and cartoons as pro-war, anti-war, or simply descriptive. We counted words and measured column inches.

As you might expect, Maggie found that Bush’s implementation of his “embedded journalist” strategy proved completely successful in his prescient creation of fake news and alternative facts. Words criticizing the war were few and far between. But Maggie’s project ended up achieving recognition beyond BCS. It got her into a regional competition for best science project. As a result, she was exposed to the concept of fake, state-controlled news long before Donald Trump. So were the judges who reviewed her work.

It was all so ironic, isn’t it — transforming a war criminal into a noble saint?  It’s a complete distortion of American history – not to mention of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself.

But what else can we expect in a nation whose entire people have been systematically taught to ignore what all our leaders have done without exception at least since World War II. None of them deserve our admiration.

Our “Christian” leaders are not much better. They’ve wedded themselves to blood-thirsty, deceptive regimes. They’ve sent the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth down Orwell’s memory hole. In his place they would have us worship as our saviors the rich white patricians who rob us blind while terrorizing and exterminating poor red, yellow, brown and black people across the globe?

As John the Baptist might say, “Shame! Shame!”