Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?

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Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17-20. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/070713.cfm

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

9 thoughts on “Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for persisting in your message, which I hear as being in-line with Jesus message: that the spiritual is here and available for our enjoyment and our glorification of God! – if only we leave our suspicion of God behind! Trusting in our Benevolent God would free us from our fears, our selfishness, our isolation and result in peace and righteousness world-wide!

    But a majority of our fellow citizens and virtually all of our national leaders feel this is completely naïve and highly dangerous if taken too far. They don’t believe in a completely Benevolent Universe but in the “survival of the fittest”. They are determined to be the fittest – and to out-compete, out-smart, our-fight, out-spy, out-manipulate, out-kill any perceived threat to their safety and welfare. Because other nations feel the same, conflict is guaranteed. All would prefer peace – but only if peace can be achieved on their terms.

    According to this “worldly” worldview peace can only be achieved and maintained by means of strong law, strong police and strong military. If oppressive government are an evil, then violent attempts to overthrow that government, is in my view, more evil still. Given the dominance of this worldly worldview, a strong State or a strong Empire (willing and able to use overwhelming force to keep the peace) is usually the best way to restrain violence, and promote peace. This “peace that the world gives” nowhere near as precious as the inner, transcendent peace Jesus gives, but still profound in the reduction in physical violence and mayhem. The downsides of this worldly peace include much material inequality, restrictions on freedom and terrible injustices…..and it is admirable and godly to work towards minimizing these. But revolution and continually foment destroys relationships, trust, hope, family, faith. Hence peace is more important to human happiness than prosperity, freedom and even justice. Better to be oppressed under a Hitler and die in a torture chamber, than to have one’s nation torn apart in civil war. Tyrants soften or die with time, war just goes on and on. Tyrants can’t dominate where the people (including the military generals) can’t be manipulated into submission through fear of death. The war against terror is a spiritual battle – only a spiritual solution can rid the world of terror; fighting terror with terror just moves the terror around unendingly.

    Human egos hate oppression and may be willing to risk all for “justice”, “freedom” and “prosperity”, but that is misguided (egotistical) thinking in my view. Jesus is our great example of One who lives without justice, freedom or prosperity but is supremely happy and fulfilled in being One with the Father. Blessed indeed are the poor. The poor – those low in material wealth – and low in egotism – know the Kingdom of God ahead of us.

    Given the importance of peace, even worldly peace, Paul exhorts us to obey our governments (Rom 13) and to pray for our government specifically that we may live in peace (1 Tim 2:2). It is assumed in the Gospel and in the New Testament that governments generally want peace and have sensible laws to promote peace, as well as, usually and hopefully, a measure of justice, individual freedoms and prosperity. But the whole Gospel message and example of Jesus is that our first allegiance must always be to God. If we believe in Jesus and the God He came to reveal – a God who is always benevolent (Whose punishments are always loving disciplines for humanity’s eventual benefit) – then like Him, we inevitably will rather die (and go home to Him for whom we were made, which is far better) than kill. This worldview, this gospel, this proclamation, inevitably, is disturbing to those with a worldly worldview and so they will, inevitably, persecute us just as they persecuted Jesus.

    Imagine if the Church as a whole persistently proclaimed it profoundly unchristian to kill a fellow human being in any circumstances – and that no member of police or military who truly followed Jesus would ever kill. Imagine if this view gained traction – every nationalist would be outraged! They would say “How will we be able to survive as a nation against criminals at home and enemies abroad if we will not in good conscience take up arms and use them to save ourselves and our loved ones? Your Gospel is unpatriotic and naïve, your proclamation of it, evil! ” …. and the persecution of the true Church would begin, even (or especially?) in the U.S.A!

    My response to such nationalists and false Christians might be: “Yes, if the USA repented and followed Jesus they might indeed be wiped out/over run/rule by other nations – unless those nations also discovered the Always Benevolent One. But why merely “survive” in the USA when Jesus invites us to truly live in sublime communion with God even whilst being persecuted by sinners? Even if you die physically you will live. Fear not – only believe! Your willing self-sacrifice will speak volumes to the rest of the world – that there is a God who loves us and who will come and make His home in us if we trust and obey Him and, consequently, there is a different way to live and die in this world.”

    I believe this scenario is exactly what will eventually happen! The Gospel of Peace will triumph! Jesus’ who was executed by worldly authority (and resurrected by God) will finally have overcome all evil! I believe this victory will come through the saints (who are “the elect” meaning those chosen for this task) who like their Master “love not their lives even to death”. In other words, I believe the world will be converted through the wholesale self-sacrifice of Christians! Our faith will “over come the world”, meaning the world will be cleansed of violence, injustice, poverty and oppression! IMO, the Scriptures indicate that the ONLY way the world will be cleansed of its sin is with the shed blood of Jesus AND HIS FOLLOWERS. Our willingness to die will prove to the world that there is more to live and die for than this earthly life. I can’t see any way to end humanity’s sin without the blood of self-sacrifice (cf. Heb 9:22b). As we imitate Jesus’ faith, we will be enabled to imitate His sacrifice. This, to my understanding, is how the church thought, believed and lived in the first three centuries AD – until the Constantinian Shift. The modern Church needs to understand that Shift and to rediscover in the New Testament the Gospel of the Absolutely Benevolent God!

    A couple more comments Mike:

    You wrote: “Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough ‘left.’”
    and
    “as my meditation teacher … says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share.”

    Me: The credence you give to the latter statement demonstrates that you’re not on the SECULAR left; it is the secular political left that, IMO, is extreme and mistaken because it denies/discounts the spiritual.

    You wrote: Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

    Me: in line with my argument above, I don’t think Empire is evil in God’s eyes; rather it is doing God’s (second best) will. Strong government to restrain the wrath and violence of humanity is the best arrangement for those society’s which don’t know and believe in the Absolute Benevolence of God. Everyone will agree that “peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger.” That is a “motherhood statement” – i.e. so universally shared that it’s hardly worth saying. The real question is Are we willing to oppose the that worldly worldview that results in anger, violence and selfishness, etc – even when our neighbours turn on us for doing so? – like some of your associates are turning on you for what you are writing Mike.

    You wrote: “Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.”
    Me: Of course the Master is not tamed. Christians who support killing don’t know and don’t obey the Master or His Gospel. They worship a poor reflection of the truth. The truth is that they are still idol worshippers, meaning they worship what is not god in a vain attempt to get the materialistic blessings they want to get whilst feeling justified and “blessed”. Their god is an “I – doll” because they use their “faith” to worship themselves. Valuing themselves above all, they are stuck in individualism, through unbelief. Their individualism is played “in parallel” with others like themselves with whom they make unholy alliances, called nationalism. Humanity has done it ever since the fall. History records who killed and dominated who in turn. The Gospel – revealed by God Incarnate, giving Himself freely, demonstrating the Absolute Benevolence of God – is our only alternative. Praise God that the Master, with His Kingdom and His righteousness for us to share, is still at hand!

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    1. John: Thanks! There is so much here. Very well said. I say empire is evil based on my understanding of its essence and my observation of its out-working in Latin America and Africa. It is about wealth transfer from the periphery to the imperial center. In other words, empire is a system of robbery whereby a powerful country enters a weaker one to steal its stuff, its people (as slaves or underpaid workers), and even its culture (so that it values what the imperial center values). Paul, I think, wrote what he did in Romans 13, because as a Roman citizen from Turkey, he never weaned himself away from allegiance to Rome. He truly believed that the same Rome that did what empires always do — oppress the people and kill their insurgent messiahs — was beneficial. In that, I think, he was profoundly mistaken and self-contradictory. U.S. empire is like all the rest, intent on stealing oil, gold, land, minerals, etc. I have a hard time believing God approves of robbery or that Yeshua, the Jew, could have been anything but resistant to Roman oppression. Otherwise, he would never have enjoyed the popularity he had with the poorest of the poor.

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      1. Hi Mike. Thanks for your reply. I agree with your analysis that empire exists to pillage resources of the periphery for the centre and that the West has been practicing such oppression on the majority world for centuries. As I said in my post, “tI Hihe downsides of this worldly peace include much material inequality, restrictions on freedom and terrible injustices…and it is admirable and godly to work towards minimizing these.”

        However, I feel you give too much priority to the material in your message. Forgive me if I am too blunt. I say it because I think you have a strong and intelligent commitment to justice. Therefore I both wish for your efforts to be as effective as possible and secondly, hope that you might be someone who is willing and able to critique my developing views – views which I have developed in a western ivory tower.

        As I was starting to say, I don’t see Jesus as making material justice His major message. He taught “seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness and all these (material necessities) will be yours as well.”

        I think conflating the NT Gospel too much with material justice, thereby both misses the greatest benefits of the Gospel and becomes counterproductive in regard to achieving material justice as well. If we prioritize the issues of injustice in our message, I suspect different issues arise for different groups:

        1. Those who are victimized: they may come to see their core identity and mission in life as defined in terms of material injustice. That’s a heavy load for any prophet of the people to bear. I want to believe that life is more “gift” than that, even in the midst of great oppression. Yes they can be angry at oppression, yes they can bargain wisely and toughly at World Trade talks, but they will do this all the more effectively, I think, if they know the joy of the Lord as their strength and are psychologically able to put the cares of the world aside to appreciate the simple things of life, e.g. unwind with their family.

        2. Those benefitting from the victimization: consider three subgroups:

        a) those who know they are directly exploiting others and don’t care (because of their love of money):

        Emphasising the material to these people is likely to reinforce the primacy of the material in their own estimation. Without a change in this value their behaviour is unlikely to change. They need to hear and experience the personal dimension of God’s love. Those few who do and experience a profound change in worldview will likely be ostracised by this group (a) in order to minimise the threat of change to the accepted order of things.

        b) those who know that their own prosperity is achieved at great cost to others.

        You and I might fall into this group. What can we do to improve things? We can try to spread the word to those who will listen. We can do (small) acts of empowerment and solidarity to individuals overseas, but overall we can do little to change the whole system.

        c) those who don’t know that their own prosperity is achieved at a great cost to others – this is perhaps 80-90% of the populace (at a guess). Some of these may in future become enlightened and join b). However, those in group a) who have great resources will seek to nullify the message and influence of group b). So most people are likely to remain in the middle group (c) – ignorant and/or apathetic about the injustices.

        My hope is that through the Gospel people will have a personal encounter with the love of God. And, being awoken to the love and glory of God, that they will also be awoken to their own love for all the world. Also , I hope that being awoken to the world’s misrepresentation of God, that they also will be awoken to the world’s misrepresentation of the world, including the excesses and corruption of nationalism and empire.

        Those in the Church should be among the most open to hearing about the injustices of empire. But unfortunately the distorted Gospel that has captured their minds preoccupies them with Divine Wrath, conditional salvation in the hereafter and allegiance to the Nation’s interests. I feel unless these elements can be addressed directly, the Church will continue to side (deliberately or by default) with group a) rather than group b). But I feel Mike that to adopt your perspective I would need to devalue the personal dimension of the Gospel. And to me the world-changing aspects of Jesus message goes hand in hand with the personal dimension. I feel that unless the personal dimension is maintained (and indeed strengthened) the anti-empire aspects of the Gospel won’t ever get properly appreciated in the Church. Furthermore, to the degree that the cause of earthly justice becomes dominant in a church’s thinking, I think they become another service club and won’t have the depth of connection to God necessary to bear the persecution and hardship of following Jesus for the long term.

        Regarding:

        “(Paul) truly believed that the same Rome that did what empires always do – oppress the people and kill their insurgent messiahs – was beneficial. In that, I think, he was profoundly mistaken and self-contradictory..”

        Did Paul (and do you) consider Jesus typical of “insurgent messiah” – meaning someone whose focus is on changing earthly systems of institutional violence? If so we’ll have to disagree on that one. I don’t think the change will come at a systems level before the change has become widespread at a personal level. I see both Jesus and Paul inviting us to be transformed at a personal level so that we might inherit a righteousness that comes by faith – not based on law or achieved by works – but a change in worldview that results in us loving our neighbours and ‘enemies’. How do you see Paul as self-contradictory?

        Kindest Regards,

        John

        _____

        From: Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things that matter [mailto:comment-reply@wordpress.com] Sent: Sunday, 7 July 2013 1:18 AM To: wallabea@internode.on.net Subject: [New comment] Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?

        Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog commented: “John: Thanks! There is so much here. Very well said. I say empire is evil based on my understanding of its essence and my observation of its out-working in Latin America and Africa. It is about wealth transfer from the periphery to the imperial center. In”

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  2. Addendum: In my paragraph above regarding Paul’s exhortation to obey our government I should have added this at the end :

    Therefore, when it comes to a government’s instruction to kill (either as part of a internal police action or an external war against those outside nation/empire) the follower of Jesus cannot and must not comply. To do so would be a “mortal sin” against God who we must obey rather than caesar.

    In addition, does the CIVIL LAW of any nation command that we kill in certain circumstances? I don’t know of any such law in any nation. I know that Police and Military typically take an oath to obey, “protect” etc and are trained to kill if ordered to do so by a legitimate governing authority – but that is not part of the Civil Law which binds all citizens of the land, is it? If what I am saying is true, then any person who appeals to Rom 13 to justify Christians killing is further mistaken. i.e. “obey the government” provides no loophole in relation to “Thou shalt not kill.”

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    1. On further reflection, I should not have characterised the Romans 13 passage as teaching “obey the government”. Rather as literal translations attest, Paul is saying “Don’t RESIST the powers that be. In other words we should be pacifist – not revolutionary.

      Paul is not saying, IMO, that we should SERVE the powers-that-be as agents of their forceful ways. That would lead us to be non-pacifist and leave the way to open for each Christian to select the particular power-that-be of their choice e.g. one Christian could fight for the government and another for the revolutionary forces rebelling against the latest tyrant who installed himself in a coup against the previous leader.

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  3. Hi Mike,
    I repeat, I think your blogs are refreshing, informative and thought provoking.
    I totally support your Peace & Justice blogs.
    You lay reality out. Being accused of ranting means your focus is true.
    I do not see it as Left and Right, that is all Murdoch and co stuff. It is a case of moral and immoral.
    Droning for any reason and Just wars in the world we live in is barbarism.
    Howard Zinn and later Geronimo were not too impressed with 1776!
    Your historical insights into the times and character of Jesus are all powerful stuff.
    What I like about your approach into the minefield of religion is that you don’t preach, point, or worse still wag the finger. The wagging finger for me and many is like pointing a Glock. I spend the least time in RC related dogma.
    P&J and the history about the Gospel in Jesus’ time is faith, based on reason.
    The core of religious belief is that it excluded coercion.
    Evangelizing is so often intrusion into human rights.
    This was a reasons I quit the priests.
    (Apart from an vision who had just landed on 4th row from the back, 2 in from the aisle.)
    At 75 we are all interested in religion.
    Luckily being in Japan simplifies things..like their transistor!
    Get on board any train, especial at morning or afternoon and one or two of the approx 15,000,000 mothers and their children will likely join. And so often you hear maternal command …do this, do that, but always with the reason why. For example “take your feet off the seats, dont shout, pick up your thash – because this is an intrusion on other.
    Search”go meiwaku+ and you will get the idea.
    This is the basis for what we call religion in the west.
    The golden rule. Of Jesus…and others.
    Most of the other Pauline type rules are optional but one always has a right to believe even what one has never attained or experienced.
    But the golden rule like all corner stones is the easiest to understand and the only indisputable one. Breaking it results in separation from God…presuming there is one.
    Please keep up and expand the blog Mike.
    It makes a big difference.
    The new Reich all around us is inevitable. The dogs in the street…
    This time Auschwitz will be for all left standing.
    Multinational, multiracial, nondenominational.
    It will be a ‘virtual’ prison.
    Within our own home.
    The few with the moolah and their puppets will be left to enjoy the view.
    As I type I notice on TV the Cardinal of Dublin, swinging off a thurible is in a cloud of incense, leading thousands on yesterday’s Pro-Live Protest.
    Solid, safe ground.
    The irrevocable sanctity of Life.
    We humankind always have a choice.
    We can wake-up with a spark in the mind, as you promote – or a BANG, as the door is kicked in.
    Jim

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  4. On the reality of the poor and downtrodden in today’s world: it’s not you who should temper your right-on spiritual position but the critics you mention –following the false prophets of the American Empire when real prophets such as Bradley Manning/Edward Snowden are speaking the TRUTH and being tormented for it.

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