The Environmental Cliff: Who’s Responsible? (Share this blog w/ your kids)

Readings for 1st Sunday of Advent: Jer. 33:14-16; Ps. 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thes. 3: 12-4:2; Lk. 21: 25-28, 34-35 (

You probably know that we’re standing on the brink of a “fiscal cliff.” At least that’s what our politicians are saying. They insist that we’re heading for apocalyptic disaster. For them “fiscal cliff” means that if Democrats and Republicans can’t come to an agreement about taxes and deficit reductions before the end of the year, automatic tax increases and cuts in social spending will occur. And according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), that combination of tax increases and spending reductions is likely to plunge us into another deep recession. The politicians want us to think the sky is about to fall. Apocalypse is about to happen unless we stop spending on seniors and children, on our nation’s infrastructure, green technology and public transportation.


The annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change began last Monday [Nov. 26] in Doha, Qatar. In preparation for the meeting, the World Bank published an 84 page document on climate change. It’s called “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.” According to the report, a four degree rise in planet’s temperature will produce disastrous heat waves and droughts, along with severe floods.  Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. The Amazon rainforest will disappear, and monstrous storms will destroy whole cities and communities.  Health and emergency systems will collapse. Mass chaos will ensue, and the worst medical disaster since the Black Plague will strike the human race. (The Black Plague, you’ll recall killed 30-40% of Europe’s population.)  According to “Turn Down the Heat,” radical measures are required to deal with this impending crisis. These include immediate and unprecedented investment in green technologies and mass transportation systems.  And yet our politicians do nothing; they actually want to cut back on such expenditures! In the recent presidential debates, the phrase “climate change” was not even mentioned, much less debated. Quite the opposite: the two candidates strove to one-up each other in swearing allegiance to coal, oil, uranium and other dirty fuels that will only make the global warming worse.


This is the third week in a row that the lectionary has given us readings from apocalyptic literature. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, apocalypse was not about the end of the world. Instead, it was resistance literature, written in code during times of extreme persecution by powerful imperial forces like Greece and Rome. The code was understandable to “insiders” familiar with Jewish scripture. It was impenetrable to “outsiders” like the persecutors and their police against whom apocalypse was written.

Apocalypse differs from ordinary prophecy in that it addresses periods of deep crisis, when the whole world appears to be falling apart. Neither prophets nor apocalyptics were fortune tellers. Instead, they were their days’ social critics. They warned of the disastrous consequences that inevitably follow from national policies that deviate from God’s will – i.e. from policies that harm God’s favorites: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor – and (we might add) the planet itself.

Perhaps the best example of apocalypse in our own history is what happened to the indigenous populations of North and South Americans when the Europeans arrived. The coming of white people signaled the end of the “Indian” world. Everything changed for the Mayans, Aztecs, Cherokee, Iroquois, and so many other Original Peoples in our hemisphere. For them the times were apocalyptic. The indigenous world would never be the same. And our ancestors were the agents of its destruction.

Something similar had happened for the Jews when Luke was writing his gospel around the year 85 of the Common Era. Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish War (64-70 CE). The Romans had brutally razed the city and the temple that had been rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile. For Jews that was something like the Death of God, for the Holy City and its Temple were considered God’s dwelling place. The event was apocalyptic.

In today’s gospel, Luke has Jesus predicting that destruction using specifically apocalyptic language. Luke’s Jesus says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

What can such apocalyptic message mean in our own day faced as we are with false “fiscal cliffs” distracting us from the fact that we’re standing on the brink of an unfathomable environmental cliff?

Yes, the fiscal cliff is a mere distraction – a completely human and remediable fabrication. And dealing with it by reducing the government’s ability to spend on green technology and public transportation succeeds only in bringing us closer by the minute to the exceedingly real environmental precipice.

I mean, no law of nature is at work in the budget crisis. The Bush tax cuts, which the Republicans are desperately trying to preserve, were advertised as temporary from the outset. In fact, they are the chief cause of the federal deficit, and are scheduled to disappear automatically at the end of 2012 – with or without agreement by the two parties. Social Security is completely off budget. It’s not paid for by income taxes, but by payroll taxes. So tinkering with Social Security will have no impact at all on the federal deficit. Meanwhile the CBO assures us that reductions in Medicare and/or Medicaid expenses will have minimal effect on the federal deficit.

And yet we’re all supposed to be waiting for “apocalypse” to happen, as if the federal deficit wouldn’t be ameliorated by simply letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as originally intended, and by closing the tax loopholes that allow the rich to shelter their capital gains offshore in places like the Cayman Islands, and that permit huge multi-national corporations to pay no U.S. taxes at all.  As for Social Security; according to the CBO, it will remain solvent till at least 2035 if nothing at all is done about its reformation. And any problems that develop thereafter can be easily solved by having the rich pay like the rest of us on their entire incomes  even after their first $100,000. (Presently, they pay Social Security taxes only to that point, and then are let off the hook.)

Meanwhile, the real threat to our planet is the environmental cliff that our “leaders” refuse to address. And who’s responsible for that crisis? Prominent religious leaders would have us believe it’s God. He (sic) is punishing us for Roe v. Wade, for legalizing same sex marriages, or for allowing women access to contraception. Let’s face it: that’s nonsense. It turns Jesus’ embodiment of the God of love on its head. It turns God into a pathological killer – a cruel punishing father like too many of our own dads.

Others would say the culprit preventing us from addressing climate change is government. Now that’s closer to the truth. Our elected politicians are truly in the pockets of Big Oil, the Banksters, and other fiscal behemoths whose eyes are fixed firmly on short-term gains, even if it means their own children and grandchildren will experience environmental apocalypse.

But we can’t simply blame government. We elected these people. We have to organize to make sure they take seriously the mandate they’ve received. That mandate is to make the economic system work for all of us not just for the 1%. To make it work, we must first recognize that an economic system that destroys the planet is a complete failure. The Doha Conference is fairly shouting that message.  Our economic model is not working! In the long run, we have to organize to make our elected officials obey us, the People, rather than the business giants.

In the short run, we ourselves have to change our consumption habits. The Christmas season represents the perfect time to do that. What if this Christmas – three weeks from now – we supported each other in refusing to exchange all that plastic crap and those colorful pieces of cloth sewed together by slave labor and shipped at great environmental expense from the other side of the planet? What if we gave all that “gift” money to Greenpeace instead – or to the Heifer Project, or to Costa Rica’s Casa del Sol?

Our families and friends – even our children – would understand. I promise they would if we discussed it with them. They really don’t want or need that plastic junk either.  This is a wonderfully teachable moment. And it allows us to actually be the change we would all like to see in the world – at this apocalyptic moment when we stand on the brink of an Environmental Cliff. As would-be followers of Jesus, do we really have a choice?

(Discussion follows)

Nikki Giovanni: Thug Poet!

Nikki Giovanni came through Berea two weeks ago. She’s the great African-American poet who began brightening our world in the 1960s with her poetry and social criticism. At 69 years of age she continues spreading her light. She did it again at a Berea College convocation and in at least two other Berea venues.

When I saw her she dispensed advice on all manner of topics:

Cancer: Nikki is a cancer survivor. She’s had a lung removed, and has learned to make cancer her neighbor. You don’t “battle” cancer, she said. If you do, you know who’s going win that one – cancer every time. Instead, you make friends with the disease and learn to live with it, and try not to make it angry with you. Men can get breast cancer too, she reminded us. Get any lump checked out immediately. Act immediately too on any cancer diagnosis. Don’t delay treatment.

Second opinions: If you’re diagnosed with cancer, be sure to seek a second opinion. But do so far away from the location of the first diagnosis. If your second opinion comes from the same location as the first, the diagnosis is sure to be the same as well.

Obama’s Re-election: So you’re unhappy that a black man is the President. He won! Get over it!

Raising children: I’ve done my work as a mother. I don’t need to hear about my children’s problems. That’s what their best friends are for. I’m not my child’s best friend; I’m his mother. Don’t phone me with complaints or bad news. If it’s not good news, I don’t want to hear about it.

Education: It should be free for everyone — as it is at Berea College. Nikki loves her University of Virginia, and is proud to be associated with it. It has lots of money, and sometimes uses it well.

Phone calls in the middle of the night: Phone calls after midnight never bring good news. Don’t answer the phone then. The bad news will still be bad in the morning.

Taxing the rich: Why do billionaires resist taxes? They don’t need any more money. Take away 30% of what they have, and they’ll still be billionaires – or at least multi-millionaires. Take away 30% of millionaires’ wealth, and they’ll still be rich. Take away 30% of what those making $100,000, and they’ll be quite well off too. But take away 30% of what those making $30,000 earn, and you’ve sunk them into poverty.

Male Violence: “Men,” she said, “It’s not a good idea to hit women.” If you do, you’re not only mistreating your woman, you’re teaching lessons to your children. You’re son will conclude, “Oh, that’s the way men treat the women they love.” Your daughter will conclude, “Oh, that’s the treatment I can expect from the men I love and who say they love me.” And the cycle will continue.

Tupac Shakur: Nikki sees him as one of the great poets of our time. He stood for something. Yes, he was a “thug.” “I love thugs,” she said; “they’re always the victims of pursuit by the police. And on principle I’d always rather stand with the ones being chased than with the chasers.”

Nikki Giovanni also read her poetry about yellow jacket bees, her son Thomas, her “Mommy” who died five years ago, her first acclaimed poem, “Nikki-Rosa,” and phone calls after midnight. She spoke of the “Thug Life” tattoo she wears on her left forearm. She put it there in honor of Tupac Shakur, the great African-American rapper and social critic who was shot dead in 1996. Tupac, she reminded us was one of the great men of our era.

I loved Nikki’s talk. My eyes welled up more than once while she was  speaking. That always happens to me (and continues to embarrass me) whenever I recognize something as true.

Nikki Giovanni is true.

Kerygma: Step Three in the Development of Early Christian Belief

(This is the ninth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

As we’ve seen in previous postings in this series, there were five basic steps in the development of early Christian belief. First there was the life of the historical Jesus. Second came the “resurrection experience” which fundamentally changed his followers’ perception of his identity.  Third was the earliest Christian proclamation of belief – called “kerygma,” the Greek word for proclamation. That third step is the focus of today’s study.

How was Jesus originally presented to unbelievers by his followers? Scholars have isolated specific texts that answer that question. That is, such texts represent the earliest faith-forms of the primitive church. This means that the fragments antedated the letters of St. Paul, whose earliest entries in the Christian Testament date from about the year 50 just fifteen years or so after Jesus’ death. As already indicated, Paul’s letters are themselves the earliest of the New Testament texts – coming well before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. By way of contrast, the kerygmatic texts date perhaps from the same year as Jesus’ death – or very close to it. They are therefore especially revealing and insightful in terms of what the earliest Christians believed. Let’s consider two of those texts today.

According to scholarly perception, one of the first kerygmatic texts is found in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verses 22-24, 32-33, and 38. There Peter fresh from an extraordinary Pentecost experience in the Upper Room, addresses Jerusalem pilgrims gathered in the Holy City for the Jewish feast fifty days after Passover. The essence of Peter’s proclamation about Jesus runs as follows:

Men of Israel, hear me: I am speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, singled out by God and made known to you through miracles, portents, and signs, which God worked among you through him, as you well know. By the deliberate will and plan of God he was given into your power, and you killed him using heathen men to crucify him. But God raised him to life again, seeing him free from the pangs of death, because it could not be that death should keep him in its grip . . . Now Jesus has been raised by God, and we are all witnesses. Exalted at God’s right hand he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and all that you now see and hear flows from him.  . . . Repent . . . and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah; then your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Here we find the proclamation of a human miracle worker who had been given his miraculous powers by God who seems to be Jesus’ superior rather than Jesus being his equal. Jesus was the agent through whom God worked miracles and signs. He carried out God’s plans which included assassination by the Jews in collaboration with the Romans. As God’s anointed, Jesus was raised to life by God. God exalted him, and gave the Holy Spirit to him – after his death and resurrection. Now restored to life Jesus has communicated to his followers the Holy Spirit he himself has just received.  Those who believe should change their ways and be baptized, joining the community of believers.

Later on that community is described as faith-filled, highly egalitarian and holding all things in common. Note the specifics in the following two texts also from Acts. They are relevant to the question of the earliest perceptions of Jesus by his followers:

All the believers agreed to hold everything in common: they began to sell their property and possessions and distribute to everyone according to his need. One and all they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in their homes, they shared their meals with unaffected joy, and they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added new converts to their number. (Acts 2:44-47)

Now the whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and all were held in high esteem. There was never a needy person among them, because those who had property in land or houses would sell it, bring the proceeds of the sale, and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to any who were in need. (Acts 4: 32-35)

In other words, a type of primitive communism or communalism was the practical response of earliest Christians to their experience of the risen Lord and the gift of his Holy Spirit. Put otherwise, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that early Christians saw Jesus and his teachings as communistic. Certainly their response is miles from the spirit of capitalism, private ownership, and competition.

Another version of Christian Kerygma is found in the letter of Paul to the Christian community in Philippi. More specifically, in Philippians 2: 6-11 scholars find what they identify as a hymn fragment evidently sung by Christians in that community. It goes like this:

He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God,

But made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave.

Bearing the human likeness sharing the human lot

He humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross.

Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – in heaven, on earth, and in the depths –

And every tongue acclaim, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn fragment insists on the humanity of Jesus and on the identification of God in Jesus with the dregs of human nature – with slaves and victims of state execution.  Ironically, the hymn says, such identification led to the highest exaltation and to the establishment of Jesus as Lord in a cultural situation where lordship was claimed by the Roman emperor. In that sense, the earliest Christians proclamation was simply “Jesus is Lord.” The implication here is that the emperor is not Lord.

Where does all of this leave us in terms of understanding “the dogma of Christ?” It helps us see that Jesus was understood to be a man who became divine following his death and resurrection, whatever might have been the historical content of “resurrection.” He identified with the least of all humans (slaves) and was obedient to God. Following his resurrection, Jesus was given God’s Holy Spirit and was “exalted” by God. In other words, Jesus was fully human before his death, and was worshipped as divine only afterwards.

This is the way the earliest Christians perceived Jesus.

Next Week: Step four: a long oral tradition.

Jesus before Pilate: His heroic refusal to name names

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37

This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker.  It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.

So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”

The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.

That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.

No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.

After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth!  So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.

Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun.  No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)

Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.

Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.

However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God.  For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“  No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.

What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.

How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?

(Discussion follows.)

“The Book of Mormon” or “F_ _K You, God!”

Thanksgiving week, my daughter and son-in-law took us to see “The Book of Mormon” in New York City. When first I heard of the plan last summer, I wasn’t enthusiastic. A musical comedy about Mormons? Why would we want to see that? Then I heard that the book, music and lyrics were written by Trey Parker, and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) along with Robert Lopez, a co-creator of Cable TV’s Avenue Q. That irreverent trio gave me hope. So our family started listening to the soundtrack on CD. The music turned out to be catchy, clever, memorable, and poignant. It left us all humming – and laughing. The story was funny and moving as well, but somehow still respectful and even reverent. After seeing the play, I realized that “The Book of Mormon” also communicates an insightful understanding of Christianity and its development.  Even more importantly, it highlights Mormonism’s mythology that reminds playgoers of truths that can indeed change lives – as Mormons claim.

The “Book of Mormon’s” story centers on two young “elders,” Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham. All of us have met these over-sincere 19 year olds, dressed in black trousers, white short-sleeved shirts and black ties. They knock on our front doors regularly. Kevin is the all-American boy – handsome, energetic, supremely self-confident – and self-centered. Meanwhile, Arnold is dumpy bespeckled and totally admiring of his companion. The two young missionaries been assigned to Uganda. Neither one of them knows where that country is located or even that it’s in Africa. When they realize that their destination is ‘the dark continent,” their minds are filled with “Lion King” images complete with its “Hakuna Matata” problem-free philosophy – “no worries for the rest of your days.”

Instead Price and Cunningham find a completely problem-filled culture. They’re told there are war, poverty, and famine. There’s drought; eighty percent of the people have AIDS; and young girls are forced to get circumcised. In the meantime, Ugandan men are busy raping virgins and even babies on the belief that such intercourse will cure their AIDS. The people’s response? Far from “Hakuna Matata,” it’s “Hasa Diga Eebowai” – “F_ _ k you, God!”

The All-American, Elder Price, is turned off by such blasphemy and by the resistance of Ugandans to Mormonism. Soon he’s checked out for the more comfortable make-believe of Orlando’s Disneyworld,  Meanwhile, Arnold Cunningham is engaged by Uganda’s problems, and finds himself using his empathy and imagination to adapt Mormonism the problem of female circumcision.

Lo and behold, he claims to discover that Joseph Smith actually did address the problem of clitorectemy. All this brings him close to the lovely Nabulungi, whom he initiates into the Latter Day Saints’ community. She and Arnold’s double entendre duet, “Baptize Me,” turns out to be a wonderfully moving love song.

The musical ends with Ugandans being converted to the faith of Latter Day Saints – but to a version that’s fully adapted to their reality. Their concluding number, “Hello” reprises the play’s opening song, but this time in Ugandan form meaningful to an exploited and poor people who long to be freed from war.  Besides this, Arnold Cunningham has become a key figure for the converts on a par with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

The Arnold Cunningham story is really the reversal of Christianity’s story and its development over the centuries.  In effect, the historical Jesus was a Ugandan – poor, oppressed, a “marginal Jew” on the edge of empire, out of sight, out of mind to the world’s movers and shakers. Then empire and its hangers-on elevated him to the status of “the Christ.”  He became Europeanized addressing concerns he never centralized – like the after-life’s heaven and hell. Finally, he was Americanized as the champion of the U.S. version of a “City on a Hill.” Only with the advent of liberation theology and the Jesus Seminar was the historical Jesus rescued and rediscovered in his identity as empire’s victim, not its champion. That in itself is a fascinating story – too long to pursue here.

Here though it is appropriate to celebrate the insights preserved in the mythology of Mormonism that “The Book of Mormon” centralizes.  It’s actually a beautiful myth – the story of a man with the most ordinary name possible, Joe Smith – obviously an “everyman.” This average Joe finds riches right in his backyard – gold out there under a tree. It’s like the rabbinic tale of the prayer-shawled pious Jew walking the floor of his tiny cabin praying for riches, while beneath the path he’s tracing on his floor lies a strong box filled with treasure.

Actually, Joe Smith finds a great deal more than gold. For right in his own backyard he discovers that a revelation from God has been written on the golden tablets he finds. The revelation tells how Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, belongs to every culture – even to a late comer like the United States. Jesus actually came to America, Joe finds out.  All life began here. Paradise was actually in Missouri somewhere.

What could be more meaningful (and true) than that? Treasure in your backyard; revelation close to home; your own land as the center of the earth and history? Like so many myths, it’s all true, even if none of it actually happened.

“The Book of Mormon” is well worth seeing – and thinking about. Taken seriously, its story which “blasphemously” rejects a God responsible for life’s tragedies can really change your life.

Stage Two in the Early Development of the Christian Tradition: The Resurrection Experience

(This is the eighth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

There were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. In the postings of the last two weeks, we examined the first stage, the life of Jesus.

There we saw a Jesus who was (1) an insightful teacher, (2) a faith healer, (3) a prophetic critic, (4) a Jewish mystic, and (5) a movement founder. More specifically, Jesus scholarship has uncovered a prophet who was baptized by John and was probably John’s disciple. This Jesus carried on a ministry in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, and finally in the urban center, Jerusalem.  He was an exorcist and miracle worker. He didn’t follow Jewish laws about fasting. He practiced table fellowship with the poor and outcasts.  Finally, this Jesus was crucified by Rome with the form of execution reserved for rebels and revolutionaries. Scholars draw these conclusions by applying the “criteria of discernment” described earlier in this series of postings.

The focus of today’s entry is Jesus’ resurrection, the second of the five stages in the early development of the Christian tradition.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, Jesus was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion. The exact nature of the experience remains unclear.

In Paul (the earliest 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience is clearly visionary: he sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, the original Marcan manuscript ends without any narrations at all of resurrection appearances. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). The absence of resurrection appearances in Mark indicates either that he (writing about the year 70) didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection is powerless to explain the profound change that took place in the disciples after Jesus’ death. After all, before the resurrection they were fearful and cowardly; afterwards they were bold and courageous. However, according to the early traditions, it was not the resurrection that transformed the disciples in this way. It was the specifically spiritual experience of Pentecost with its “descent of the Holy Spirit” upon them (Acts 2).

What do you think? Do such reflections make it easier or more difficult to accept the Christian message?

Urinating on Corpses and Burning Holy Books

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time : Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-3

In January of this year six U.S. soldiers had themselves videotaped while they urinated on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan. In a separate incident three other soldiers started widespread riots after they publicly burned copies of the Holy Koran. Then in September the posting of an on-line film depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a deviant terrorist was blamed for other anti-US protests throughout the Muslim world costing the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three staff workers.


In the year 168 C.E., the Greek emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes  invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. He hated Judaism and defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He also erected an altar to Jupiter in the Temple.  Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus also destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find, and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus IV and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Bible’s Book of Daniel (excerpted in today’s first reading) was written.


On September 8th of the year 70 of the Common Era, after a six-month siege, the Roman Emperor Titus, with four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders. Moving from house to house, the Romans destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1947. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Jesus predicts in today’s Gospel excerpt from Mark.


Today’s liturgy of the word is shaped by apocalyptical writings – from the Book of Daniel in the first instance, and from Mark, chapter 13 in the second. The writings speak of wars and rumors of wars, of unprecedented suffering for all of humankind, of false messiahs and false prophets, and of the “Son of Man” coming on clouds of glory to render a final judgment.

Most of us think of such writing as describing the end of the world. And why not? That thinking is fostered and exploited by a whole industry of evangelical preachers like John Hagee who appear regularly on our television screens. The approach is foundational to the publishing success of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

A unifying thread throughout all such understandings of apocalypse is their idea of God, who turns out to be a pathological killer. That is, the mayhem and disaster depicted in apocalypse becomes something God does to the world and the human race to bring history to a close. According to the preachers and books I’ve just mentioned, apocalypse describes a final battle between Good and Evil. The battle will be fought in the Middle East on the Plain of Armageddon. Two billion people will die as a result – including 2/3 of the Jewish people.  The remaining 1/3 will be converted to Christianity because God’s final violent revelation will be so awe-inspiring and convincing. A “Rapture” will then occur, taking all faithful followers of Christ into heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity for a period of “tribulation.” In all of this, God is the principal actor. As an angry father, he is finally taking his revenge for the disobedience and lack of faith of his ungrateful children – whom he loves!

Problem is: all of that is dead wrong and blasphemous in  terms of the God of love revealed by Jesus. The Rapture story, for instance, appeared for the first time only in the 19th century. In fact, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. It is about the end of empire – the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the case of Daniel, and the Roman Empire in the case of Mark. The mayhem and unprecedented suffering referenced in both readings is not something God does to the world, but what empire routinely does to people, their bodies, souls and spirits, as well as to the natural environment.

Because it has ever been so with empire, today’s excerpt from Mark calls for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with Zealot nationalists. As the Romans under Titus approached Jerusalem between 66 and 70, Zealot recruiters traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Jesus’ counsel instead was for his followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were to do so not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.

How should those readings affect us today whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Roman Titus – both of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!) How should the readings affect us whose soldiers destroy holy sites, burn holy books and desecrate corpses just as their Roman counterparts did?

Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means refusing to defend the present order and allowing it to collapse. It means total rejection of U.S. imperial ambitions and practices. It means refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” of patriots defending their countries from invasion by U.S. forces. It means determining what all of that might signify in terms of our consumption patterns and lifestyles, and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.

So in a sense, apocalypse is about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today.  And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.

However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

How might we support one another in letting go of imperialism, nationalism and the lifestyles dependent on them?

(Discussion follows)