STOP THE WARS:Thoughts on Afghanistan

Lately I’ve been reading Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold Story of U.S. History. It’s a terrific read.  In fact, I gave hardback copies to all the members of my family for Christmas. The book’s final chapter on the Obama administration devotes lots of space to Afghanistan. In brief, here’s what it says:

There is no way the U.S. can “win” in Afghanistan. In fact, no one knows what “winning” might mean. That’s because the exact purpose of continued presence in Afghanistan is unclear. Originally, it was to dislodge the al Qaeda brain trust and fighters from the country. Now, we’re told, fewer than 100 such “terrorists” remain there. Most al Qaedans are now based in Pakistan. So the mission has morphed into preventing the Taliban from regaining control of the country. Most likely, the real reason for hostilities is Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources which are of supreme interest to multinational mining corporations.

In any case, the U.S. continues its military operations that impoverish not only the Afghan people, but our own country.  In other words, the United States is pouring vast sums of money down a rat hole – money that could be better used to address problems at home. It’s amazing that Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for austerity measures here while wasting trillions (!) there on a hopeless cause. If they truly want to balance the budget, STOP THE WARS!

For its part, the Karzai government is hopelessly corrupt. The would-be president was “elected” by a massively fraudulent process recognized as such by practically all observers. Graft constitutes the very purpose of seeking office in Afghanistan. Bribery is a way of life. Banking scandals involving Karzai’s relatives have rocked the country and enriched his family.  At one point, Karzai even threatened to join the Taliban.

Meanwhile, President Obama has lacked the courage and integrity to own his position as Commander in Chief and stop the war. Virtually everyone outside his hawkish Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and Generals Petraeus and McChrystal has advised him to do so. Yet Obama’s obsequiously deferred to the military brass at every turn, and has doubled down on a losing cause with troop surges and waffling on withdrawal deadlines.

All of this reveals the genius and success of Osama bin Laden’s strategy to repay the United States for its crimes against the Muslim world. The day after 9/11 bin Laden enumerated those transgressions quite clearly. They had nothing to do with “hating our freedom.” Instead he pointed to more than eight decades of the West’s exploiting the political economy of the former Ottoman Empire, to unqualified U.S. support of Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians, and to its desecration of Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina by stationing foreign troops there following the First Gulf War.

Bin Laden wreaked his havoc in New York and in Washington’s Pentagon for a reported cost of $50,000. That’s what preparation and implementation cost to hijack those airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In response, the United States has fought two illegal wars at the cost of more than $4 trillion, bankrupting itself in the process. It has disgraced itself by violating international law in its refusal to prosecute the war criminals responsible for such atrocities.

The U.S. has also shredded its own Constitution by suspending habeas corpus, routinely violating the 4th Amendment’s protections against unlawful search and seizure, and claiming the right to execute even its own citizens without trial. Additionally, the United States has also lost any claim to its alleged “exceptionalism” by its practices of torture and rendition and by routinely employing brutal death squads in Iraq and Afghanistan and their remotely controlled counterparts in its programs of drone assassinations in at least five countries. In the meantime, bin Laden’s strategy has American soldiers killing themselves more efficiently than their al-Qaeda enemies.

In other words, on an investment of $50,000 bin Laden has brought the U.S. economy to its knees, undermined its self-confidence, defeated the U.S. military, and has ruined the reputation of a country once widely admired throughout the world. And the bleeding continues; the returns are still coming in. So much for the protection of “defense” budgets currently shelling out more than a billion dollars each day!

What to do about such suicidal madness? It’s as simple as one, two three: (1) STOP THE WARS.  (2) Reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and job programs the millions wasted each day fighting Afghanistan’s heroic people who polls show want the U.S. out of their country. (What we call “terrorists” are defending their own borders from foreign invaders and brutal occupiers. They are the very people our government organized and funded as “freedom fighters” when they were terrorizing the Russians with the same tactics now being used against U.S. troops.) (3) Reconfigure U.S. military policy, cutting the Pentagon’s budget by at least 50% so that its purpose becomes defending our borders rather than the interests of multinational corporations which couldn’t care less about the United States or its people.

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/123012.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 are 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.

Summary and Conclusions about the Historical Jesus (Part Two)

(This is the fourteenth 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. Today’s post is the last of a two-part conclusion of the series.)

In searching for the historical Jesus, it helps to remember that we know much more about the object of our quest than ever before. Mid-twentieth century discoveries at the Palestinian locations Qum Ran and Nag Hamadi have yielded manuscripts that have acquainted scholars with previously unknown sources about Jesus. Just as importantly, developments in the fields of history, linguistics, and archeology have made us more knowledgeable about Jesus’ historical context than any previous generation. Acquaintance with such context constitutes actual knowledge about Jesus and the people with whom he interacted.

Similarly, the disciplines like sociology, economics, psychology, and political science have developed principles that describe how individuals within given networks typically act in particular circumstances. One such standard might be termed the “principle of analogy. It holds that: We should ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens in the present as described by the social sciences.  For instance, we know that Jesus grew up under Roman oppression. About the time of his birth, the recently unearthed capital of Galilee (Sepphoris – just six miles from Nazareth) was destroyed by Roman soldiers trying to wipe out insurgent patriots. Sociologists tell us (and imperial armies act upon this knowledge) that such wars of resistance end up involving virtually the entire local population. This means that Jesus and his family were likely involved as well. All such extra-biblical information helps us better understand the historical Jesus.

Such determinations also coincide with two interpretative guidelines that have emerged from third world scholarship over the last forty years or so. One standard is called the “preferential option for the poor.” The other is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.” Both signal a source of knowledge of the historical Jesus that is often neglected and even denigrated by mainstream biblical scholarship.

The option for the poor highlights the biblical fact that the God of the Bible in general and of the Christian Testament in particular takes sides with the poor in their ongoing struggle with the rich. In the Jewish Testament this taking sides is evident in two of what Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, terms the tradition’s three “macro-stories.” These are the Bible’s primary stories that fired the imaginations of Jewish people and early Christians. They are the tales that gave coherence to their interpretations of life, their relationships with God, and of sacred scripture itself. The first two of these macro-stories tell of the Exodus and the Exile. The third is what Borg refers to as the Priestly Story.

Both the Exodus and Exile stories reveal God’s preference for the poor – 13 century slaves in Egypt and 6th century exiles in Babylon. They show God’s preference for slaves over their slave-masters and for prisoners of war over their captors. For its part, the priestly story prioritizes temple worship and the priesthood. It is a narrative of sin, guilt and forgiveness mediated by an ordained priesthood. The priestly story was the object of criticism by the prophets of the Jewish Tradition including Jesus of Nazareth.

Above all, the New Testament’s Jesus story is one of God’s preferential option for the poor. In that story God is understood as literally siding with the under-classes. First and foremost, it is no accident that the Divine chooses as its site of revelation a poor person rather than a figure of royalty or priesthood. Theologically and sociologically speaking, this point of incarnation represents God’s fundamental disclosure about divine commitment. Such commitment is underlined by the words and practice of Jesus as described in all the sources of the Christian Testament. In the gospel traditions, Jesus’ program consists in bringing Good News to the poor (Lk. 4: 16-21). The Kingdom of God, he insists, belongs to the poor and persecuted (Mt. 5: 3& 10). Moreover, the beneficiaries of Jesus’ acts of healing and exorcism are overwhelmingly the poor and outcast (Mk. 1: 41; 6:34; 8:2; Mt. 9:36; 14:14 15:21-28; 15:32; 17:14-29; 20:29-34; Lk. 7: 13-14, 17: 11-19 . . .). The Final Judgment will be based on one’s attitude and actions to relieve the sufferings of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Mt. 25: 31-46).

All of this means that God’s Chosen People are the poor. (Hebrew slaves in Egypt are merely the paradigmatic example of such divine preference.) What we know more than anything about the historical Jesus is his embodiment of God’s choice. Jesus is the symbol par excellence of the divine one’s preferential option for the poor.  For our purposes here, this divine fundamental option provides an interpretative principle for locating the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus.  Words and deeds attributed to Jesus’ favoring the poor over the rich are probably authentically his. Words and deeds placing the rich or privileged classes favorably must be interpreted in the light of their impact on the poor who are the primary beneficiaries of Jesus proclamation and practice.

God’s preferential option for the poor leads us to the second important tool of discernment. It is helpful not so much for locating the authentic words and deeds of Jesus but for interpreting them in his spirit – for getting at the underlying ideas and values of his words and actions. This is the principle of the hermeneutical privilege of the poor. This principle recognizes that the poor (i.e. our contemporaries closest in sociological position to the primary intended recipients of Jesus’ Good News) find themselves in a better position to interpret the words and deeds of Jesus than do the non-poor.

For example, when the well-to-do read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20), they are likely to unconsciously substitute Matthew’s less radical version (and therefore less likely to have come from the historical Jesus), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). As a result, the well-off are prone to spiritualize even the surprising Lucan text. For them Jesus’ words become a promise of an after-life heaven for those who though rich are not attached to their wealth.  However, when the poor read Luke’s words, they take it as a divine pledge that God is on their side in their struggles with the rich.  Luke’s Jesus assures them that the future belongs to them precisely because they are poor, and that God’s kingdom will bring happiness to them and their children on this side of the grave.

Summary and Conclusions about the Historical Jesus (Part One)

(This is the thirteenth 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. Today’s post is the first of a two-part conclusion of the series.)

In the early first century BCE, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth is said to have lived in Palestine. We find record of his existence not only in the 4 canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but also in as many as 200 other “gospels” that were rejected as “heretical” by early church authorities. Additionally, there are references to Jesus’ existence and execution in sources outside the Bible including the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman historian, Tacitus.

All of this is quite remarkable, since Jesus was not a member of the ruling classes, but a common working man from a very remote village in a remote province of the Roman Empire. The ancients (and even our contemporaries) did not usually keep records of such people. Moreover, Jesus’ contemporaries were mostly illiterate and not able to leave documentary records themselves. In fact, far from being a member of the literate royal or priestly classes, the Jesus of the gospels is presented as alienated from such groups. He was excommunicated by the religious authorities of his community and finally condemned and executed by the civil and imperial powers of his day. Given Jesus’ social insignificance on the one hand and the abundance of record about him on the other, there can be little question about the actual existence of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

However, the historical details of Jesus’ life are another matter. Strictly speaking, we have no historical records of Jesus’ life. What we have instead are “gospels” which are faith documents highly colored by the beliefs of their authors. In fact, the purpose behind the gospels is not primarily to convey biographical detail, but to present the figure of Jesus as seen in a light that was not apparent to most of the people who witnessed his life – the light of faith. Additionally, evidence shows that the authors of the gospels were not above inventing words and deeds they attribute to Jesus in order to make their point about his being the Son of God.

In chronological perspective, what we have in the gospels is a kind of layered “onion” based on an historical event (the life of Jesus) but subsequently enhanced by a “resurrection” experience, by an overwhelming infusion of a “Holy Spirit” (on Pentecost), by an initial proclamation (called “kerygma”), by a long oral tradition of nearly 50 years, and by the eventual writing down of that tradition adapted for communities in vastly different historical circumstances.

In addition those traditions were melded with   “pagan” elements provided by contact with the Greco-Roman world. (This is not even to mention other elements that were eventually syncretized with Christianity. These came, for example, from Germanic nature religions after the 5th century fall of the Roman Empire. They came as well from sources as distant as Egypt, India, and China as Christianity blended its own spiritualities with religious traditions from those geographical locations.)

After peeling that onion, the question remains, “Are the peels all we have left?” Is it impossible to know anything at all of the historical Jesus? The question is important for believers since what Jesus really said and did and not the later interpretative traditions determines the content of the actual revelation embodied and communicated in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus words and deeds are the final court of appeal when discrepancies or contradictions arise concerning the doctrinal or moral content of Christian faith.

For instance, did the God Jesus revealed favor the poor over the rich? Was the Kingdom of God Jesus preached more open to the values of socialism or of capitalism? Must followers of Jesus espouse non-violence or are the teachings of Jesus compatible with modern warfare or violence of any kind? Should taxes be paid to the state? Is divorce permitted or not? Did Jesus really claim to be God’s unique son? Is he the “only way” to the Father? And what about the virgin birth and infancy narratives; did the events allegedly behind them actually happen?

To answer such questions and in general to “get at” the historical Jesus, scholars have developed those “tools of discernment” described earlier in this series. The criteria include multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, rejection and execution, and coherence. “Multiple attestation” refers to traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds found in two or more of the canonical gospels and/or in several non-canonical sources. The criterion of “embarrassment” applies to elements the Jesus tradition includes even though such inclusion runs counter to the apparent intention of the author.(For instance, presenting Jesus as baptized by John gives the impression that Jesus was subordinate to the Baptist.) “Discontinuity” refers to words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived from either the teachings of Judaism or from the early church. [An example of discontinuity would be Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting for his disciples (Mk. 2: 18-22).] The standard of “rejection and execution” is based on the historical fact of Jesus’ crucifixion (established by the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation).  It authenticates words and acts of Jesus that alienated, infuriated and outraged the religious and political authorities of his day – that led to his execution. (A Jesus who does not alienate people, especially the powerful, cannot be the historical Jesus.) The standard of “coherence” applies to gospel inclusions that agree with the previously described criteria.

(Series Conclusion on Wednesday)

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Based on Lk. 1:24-39 (?)

(For this week’s homily, I’ve invited my good friend and resigned priest, John Capillo to share his thoughts. In his formal priestly days John worked in the archdiocese of Brooklyn in New York, and in El Salvador. A prophet and  father of  four grown children, John has spent his informal priestly days in public service — most notably working for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. He is a wonderful teacher, and has often visited my classes and those of my bride, Peggy. I know you will love his words below.)

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.

Recall the previous scene in Luke.  Who is this Mary who sets off?  What is her state of mind?

She has been greeted by the angel Gabriel

who tells her that she is favored,

and that the LORD is with her.

She is troubled.

Let’s let her talk.

 

“What does it mean that the LORD is with  me?

I do not understand the greeting,

What do you mean I am favored?”

And the angel’s lines:

“Don’t be afraid,

you are not alone,

you are loved.

And I want to tell you something,

Sit down.

Breathe deeply,

Stay calm

Remember.   You are loved.”

 

And then the bomb shell,

blowing up all plans and status and expectations:

“You are to conceive and give birth to a son who will be great,

the Son of the Most High

A king like David,

who will reign forever.”

 

“Whoa.  Back up a bit. Let me think this through.

You are saying that I am favored and I am going to become pregnant?

But I am only betrothed to Joseph and if I am judged to be pregnant out of wedlock I can be stoned.

Am I hearing you correctly?

And I am to have a son who will be a king like David, complete with sword and shield, going off to war?

And he will reign over the House of Judah which is now reigned over by the Romans, and contested by the Zealots?

And who did you say you were, a messenger from God?

Maybe I am nuts, seeing visions, hearing voices.”

 

And in an understatement that lives with lack of understanding, she says,

“How can this be?

You gotta be kidding?

Do you know who you are talking to?

I am a young girl who does not even have a husband, and in this world that is no small potatoes.”

 

But the story goes on.

The angel says,

“Oh, I did not tell you how this is going to work, how you are going to explain this to

to your mother who raised you to be a good girl

to your father, who has this betrothal deal with Joseph,

to Joseph, who is expecting a wife who is a virgin,

to the priests who will be ready to stone you,

to the governor, who will see your son as a pretender to the throne,

and to the Empire, that now rules and with an iron fist.

Just tell them that the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and the power of the MOST high will over shadowed you, and your son will be the Son of GOD.’

 

And Mary’s response?

‘Wow! You are not kidding around.  This is the whole enchilada.  And you think that I can pull this off.

And the only explanation that I get is that the Holy Spirit will come upon me and the power of the most high will overshadow me.

And you are waiting for an answer?

OK,

I accept.

I hope my mother understands that I made this decision because I had a vision and heard voices

I will hope my father is not ripping mad.

I hope that Joseph will still have me,

God knows what I will do about the governor and the Empire

and I will deal with this kingship thing and swords and overthrowing when the time comes.

Are you sure that you understand that you are dealing with a little poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks of a runt of a city in no-where’s-ville. I am not trying to give you any lip about this, but just to let you know.

But if you are for real, I am game.  I suppose you will get back to me about the details.

Oh and you say Elizabeth is pregnant, old barren Elizabeth. And that because nothing is impossible with God,

I gotta get up there and talk to her about all this.”

 

And so we start today’s episode.

 

Mary goes right away to Elizabeth’s.  It is a woman thing.

And Elizabeth is all excited,

filled with the Holy Spirit.

And her baby is jumping up and down,

gleefully,

in her womb.

And Elizabeth says,

all excited,

full of anima,

speaking like one possessed,

“Blessed are you who believed,

you who took the promptings as real,

who trusted her intuition,

who trusted her muse, her logos, her inner voice.

What a joy it is to know that you are willing to take what you heard out for a spin;

willing to step off the edge

to go with the flow

to glide in the air

to dance in the back room,

to put aside the fearfulness that her mother has,

to defy the anger that her father has ,

to test the love that Joseph has,

to stand up to the priests, the governor, the Empire

all because you saw a vision and heard voices.

You are one special person, and one great friend.

Give me a hug, squirt.”

 

That’s the miracle.  That’s the call. We are up to it, aren’t we?

“Lincoln:” A first rate second rate film

affiche-lincoln-spielberg

My wife and I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last night. Both of us came away disappointed and surprised to discover that the film had received multiple Golden Globe nominations.

As a successful exercise in hagiography, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of a saintly Abraham Lincoln was well done. In those whitewashed terms, Lewis convincingly embodied a simple, straight-forward, wise man obsessed not with image or popularity, but with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Lewis’ Lincoln was witty, self-deprecatory, an eloquent homespun speaker, and a charming raconteur.  Above all he was a single-minded abolitionist. In fact, apart from their vastly differing charm quotients, there was little to separate President Lincoln from his ally, the caustic and belligerent Thaddeus Stevens (overplayed by Tommy Lee Jones) – the abolitionist chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But as many have observed, Abraham Lincoln was also a racist who openly thought of whites as intrinsically superior to African Americans. Howard Zinn points out that candidate Lincoln was anti-slavery when speaking in the North. He was white supremacist campaigning in the South. In the end he advocated sending former slaves back to Africa. As he said repeatedly, his main purpose as president was not to free the slaves or to pass the 13th Amendment, but to preserve the union even if that meant keeping blacks enslaved forever. Moreover, it’s impossible to distance Lincoln from the wholesale slaughter of the Civil War and its scorched earth campaigns. Even according to Spielberg’s portrait of St. Abraham, Lincoln was willing to sacrifice untold numbers of other people’s sons to his “noble cause;” but he was stubborn in refusing to offer up his own. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it well when he described Lincoln as “a first rate second-rate man.”

Similarly, because of the Day-Lewis performance and its unflinching depiction of the absolute slaughter of the War between the States, Spielberg’s film might well be described as a first-rate second-rate movie. It is second-rate because it leaves us with an eighth grade understanding of its subject. It fails to deepen our grasp not only of the complexities of the man Lincoln, but also those of his historical context and the important working class struggle that was represented by the United States’ Civil War. As a result, we’re left with “feel-good” images of elderly white Republicans embracing and singing “Union Forever” because the cause of freedom and equality for all has been advanced by Constitutional amendment.

In reality, the purpose of the newly formed Republican Party was not to free blacks [who remain(ed) largely despised by whites] but to advance the cause of 19th century industrialists, railroaders, and mining interests.  Those exclusively white cabals were part of the struggle between old money and new that had reached its apex in Europe during the revolutionary year of 1848. Across the European world, the old money interests were the land owning agriculturalists that had ruled since the onset of the middle ages. The “new money” people were the products of the Industrial Revolution. In their eyes, it was their turn to call the shots, and they were willing to go to the mat with their rivals, whatever the consequences or cost in working class corpses.

In terms of such ferment, the Civil War represented the mid- 19th century struggle in Europe “crossing the pond.” The Civil War was really about land and gold. Specifically, it was about what to do with the vast acreage recently stolen from Mexico in the war of 1846. It was about who would own and transport all that gold discovered in Old Mexico in 1849. Would that territory be used for plantations worked by slaves? Or would it be used for industry, mining, and railroads? Northern industrialists were determined to use the territory for their own profit. So they sought abolition of slavery in the New West. Republicans like Lincoln also passed legislation subsidizing railroaders as they colonized the land for purposes of moving eastward the spoils of the Mexican War. That form of abolition and subsidy was what precipitated the South’s secession from the Union.

So the Civil War really wasn’t primarily about slavery, but about land and hegemony. Nonetheless, slavery was deeply part of the struggle.  Eliminating that “peculiar institution” played a major role in weakening the competitive advantage the old money had. Abolition would also create a mobile labor force providing a surplus of workers to fill job openings and suppress wages in northern factories. The exigencies of emerging industrial capitalism had made it clear that slaves were more expensive to maintain than wage labor. Hence northern joy at the passage of Amendment 13.

Similarly slave rebellions were co-opted by the new captains of industry. Thus insurgent slaves represented a working class contribution to the mid-nineteenth century changing of the hegemonic guard in the United States. Slave interests melded with those of the industrialists opposing the old aristocracy based on plantations and forced labor. In a sense, in fighting for the North, slaves were going from the fire into the frying pan – from a more egregious form of servitude into a softer form of bondage.

None of this historical context is even hinted at in the Spielberg film. As a result, viewers are left no more enlightened about history or the causes of current struggles than they were before their 150 minute investment. Instead Spielberg perpetuates the myth that significant change comes from the top. He shows us the familiar and misleading portrait of U.S. leaders primarily responding to ideals of freedom and equality and the needs of “the people” rather than to those of the moneyed classes who use “the people” as cannon fodder to advance their venal concerns.

Certainly there were idealistic abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens. But Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. He was more complex, ruthless and beholden to his patrons than Spielberg allows. Had the director portrayed that Lincoln, had he not erased class differences and conflicts from his portrait, his film would have been first-rate indeed.

How Empire Eliminated the Historical Jesus for Good

(This is the twelfth 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.)

According to the biblical scholarship we’ve been reviewing over the last dozen weeks or so, Jesus of Nazareth stood with the poor, and announced a future of justice for them. Jesus also resisted the empire which, as we’ll see presently, eventually dramatically diminished the importance of the Jesus of history. Examination of Jesus’ resistance to empire and empire’s co-opting of the Nazarene’s life and words is the point of this posting on the historical Jesus.

That Jesus stood with the poor and favored them is obvious. He was a simple worker, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and theologized as an immigrant in Egypt. He healed sick people, fed the hungry, and cast out evil spirits. He announced and embodied a new reality for the poor. In the “reign of God” justice would replace exploitation; the positions of rich and poor would be reversed, and a sharing ethic would take the place of competition and oppression. To put it in terms of faith: a poor person was the site God chose to reveal God’s Self to the rest of us. That in itself constitutes a stupendous revelation.

Being a poor person in Palestine, and especially coming from the revolutionary Galilee district, Jesus himself was understandably anti-empire. The best illustration of Jesus’ resistance is in the famous story of his temptations in the desert. We all know the story with its rich blend of historical fact, symbolism, and explicit and implied scriptural references. Jesus has just been baptized by John. A voice has told him that he is somehow the “Son of God.” He goes out to the desert to discover what that might mean. On this vision quest, he prays and fasts for 40 days. The visions come. He is tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s account, the culminating vision is imperial (4:8-9). Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth – an empire much vaster than Rome’s. Satan says, “All of this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me. Jesus, of course, refuses. He says, “Be gone, Satan! It is written, the Lord God only shall you adore; him only shall you serve.” In other words, Jesus rejected empire in no uncertain terms.

Jesus’ opposition to empire is extremely important to understanding how Christianity lost contact with the historical Jesus over 1500 years ago, when it became pro-rich and pro-empire. That’s what happened to the faith of Jesus under Constantine when Christian “orthodoxy” emerged. Christianity lost its soul. Or to put it more starkly: it actually began worshipping Satan at that point.

Here’s what I mean. Jesus rejected the temptation to empire as we’ve just seen. But in the 4th century, circumstances made it necessary for the emperor Constantine and his successors to repeat unwittingly Satan’s temptation – this time to the leadership of the Christian church. They could allow Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All they had to do was to accept empire, give it religious legitimacy – become the state religion. Jesus had said “No!” to a similar temptation back there in the desert. Fourth century church leadership said “Yes!” and in doing so, in effect said “yes” to Satan worship – the necessary precondition of accepting empire. They also abandoned the Jesus of history and his this-worldly message. In the process, they reduced Jesus to a mythological figure and Christianity to a Roman mystery cult. Let me explain.

Think about the historical circumstances that led Constantine to be concerned with Christianity at all. Like all oppressors, he realized that religion represented an incomparable tool for controlling people. If an emperor can convince people that in obeying him they are obeying God, the emperor has won the day. In fact it is the job of any state religion to make people believe that God’s interests and the state’s interests are the same.

What Constantine saw in the 4th century was that as Rome expanded and incorporated more and more Peoples with their own religions, Rome’s own state religion was losing power. At the same time, Christianity was spreading like wildfire. And it was politically dangerous.  The message of Jesus was particularly attractive to the lower classes. It affirmed their dignity in the clearest of terms. Often the message incited slaves and others to rebel rather than obey. Rome’s knee-jerk response was repression and persecution. But by Constantine’s day, Rome’s repression had proved ineffective. Despite Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions for decade after decade, the faith of Jesus was more popular than ever.

Constantine decided that if he couldn’t beat the Christians, he had to join them. And he evidently determined to do so by robbing Christianity of its revolutionary potential. That meant converting the faith of Jesus into a typical Roman “mystery cult.”

Now mystery cults had been extremely popular in Rome. They were “salvation religions” that worshipped gods with names like Isis, Osiris, and Mithra. Mithra was particularly popular. He was the Sun God, whose feast day and birth was celebrated on December 25th.  Typically the “story” celebrated in mystery cults was of a god who descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, died, rose from the dead, ascended back to heaven, and from there offered worshippers “eternal life,” if they joined in the cults where the god’s body was eaten under the form of bread, and the god’s blood was drunk under the form of wine.

To convert Christianity into a mystery cult, Constantine (who wasn’t even a Christian at the time) convoked a church council – the Council of Nicaea in 325. There the question of the day became who was Jesus of Nazareth. Was he just a human being? Was he a God and not human at all? Was he some combination of God and man? Did he have to eat? Did he have to defecate or urinate? Actually those were the questions. For Constantine’s purposes, the more divine and otherworldly Jesus was the better. That would make him less a threat to the emperor’s very this-worldly dominion.

The result of all the deliberations was codified in what became known as the Nicene Creed. Maybe you know it by heart. It runs like this:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.[

The Nicene Creed can be so familiar to us that we don’t notice what it does. In the part italicized above, it jumps from the conception and birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection. It leaves out entirely any reference to what Jesus said and did. For all practical purposes it ignores the historical Jesus and pays attention only to a God who comes down from heaven, dies, rises, ascends back to heaven and offers eternal life to those who believe. It’s a nearly perfect reflection of “mystery cult” belief. In effect Jesus becomes a harmless Mithra. The revolutionary potential of Jesus’ words and actions relative to justice, wealth and poverty are lost. Not only that, but subsequent to Nicaea, anyone connecting Jesus to a struggle for justice, sharing and communal life is classified as heretical. That is, mystery cult becomes “orthodoxy.” Eventually, the example and teaching of Jesus becomes heresy – especially later on when “communism” becomes a threat to Rome’s modern imperial successors.

Please think about that.

Next week: Series Conclusion