Dives & Lazarus: a liberation theology catechism (Sunday Homily)

Lazarus

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; ITM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092913.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s book, A Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating. The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

Who Will “Punish” Us? Photographs and Testimony about United States’ Use of Chemical Weapons

White Phosphorus

It is extremely interesting to compare the U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and its suppression of evidence of similar weapons use by the U.S. and U.K. in Fallujah in March and November of 2004.

We all know about the U.S. reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

In the face of denials by the Syrian government, and on evidence that remains secret and other indications provided by photographs, testimonies of eye-witnesses, accusations of the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels, and deductions derived from consideration of the delivery mechanisms necessary to launch such weapons, the U.S. government was determined to “punish” the al-Assad government for the heinous crime of using chemical weapons.

Such circumstantial evidence was considered more than sufficient for president Obama and secretary of state Kerry.

In his speech to the nation on Tuesday, September 10th president Obama paid particular attention to the photographic evidence of chemical weapons use by the al-Assad government. Specifically he reminded us of the child victims involved.

The pictures Mr. Obama was referring to included this one:

chemical weapons Syria

And this one:

syria chemical weapons 2

And this one:

Syria chemical weapons 3

But what about the U.S.-inflicted atrocities behind photos like this one?:

Fallujah 1<a

Or this one?:

Fallujah 2

Or this one?:

Fallujah 3

According to a study published in 2010,”Beyond Hiroshima – The Non-Reporting Of Fallujah’s Cancer Catastrophe,” those are pictures of the deaths and birth defects directly resulting from “American” use of depleted uranium and chemical weapons including white phosphorous in Fallujah in 2004.

And it’s not simply a question of birth defects.

According to the same study infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia rates in Fallujah have surpassed the rates recorded among survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Following the Fallujah offensives, the rates in question rose by 60%. Dr Mushin Sabbak of the Basra Maternity Hospital explained the rises as resulting from weapons used by the U.S. and U.K. “We have no other explanation than this,” he said.

And the problem extends far beyond Fallujah. Increased cancer rates and astronomical rises in birth defects have been recorded in Mosul, Najaf, Basra, Hawijah, Nineveh, and Baghdad. As documented by Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan, there is “an epidemic of birth defects in Iraq.” She writes,

“Sterility, repeated miscarriages, stillbirths and severe birth defects – some never described in any medical books – are weighing heavily on Iraqi families.”

Australian anti-war activist, Donna Mulhearn, who has travelled repeatedly to Fallujah, talking with Iraqi doctors as well as affected families, added to the list:

“babies born with parts of their skulls missing, various tumors, missing genitalia, limbs and eyes, severe brain damage, unusual rates of paralyzing spina bifida (marked by the gruesome holes found in the tiny infants’ backs), Encephalocele (a neural tube defect marked by swollen sac-like protrusions from the head), and more.”

Several highly remarkable aspects of the situation just described immediately present themselves. For one there is the almost total silence of the media about the crimes of the U.S. and U.K. Then there is the lack of outrage by president Obama and secretary of state Kerry. And what about those members of Congress so concerned about damage and pain to unborn fetuses? (I mean, what we have here in effect is a massive abortion operation by the United States in an entirely illegal war which has already claimed more than a million mostly civilian casualties.)

However, what is most remarkable about the contrast between responses to Syria and Iraq is the continued surprise of “Americans” by reprisal attacks by Muslims, which continue to be identified by our media as irrational and evil “terrorist attacks.”

That is, on the one hand, the U.S. feels free to self-righteously rush to judgment and “punish” the suspected perpetrators of the Syrian attacks. But on the other, it hides, classifies, and otherwise suppresses photographs and scientific reports testifying to its own much worse crimes. Once again, those outrages are carried out against unborn fetuses, living children, women, the elderly and male adults – the very same population cohorts that so concern our “leaders” when they are attacked by designated enemies.

The logic is inescapable. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the U.S. is outraged by the killing of innocents and feels the need to “punish” the suspected perpetrators, someone else the right to treat the United States in the same way. (We might not know of the crimes of our government and military, but the whole Arab world knows!)

So we shouldn’t be surprised by a Boston Marathon “massacre,” or by militants seizing hotels or malls and killing randomly.

That’s the cost of hypocrisy, double standards, wars of aggression, and the use of outlawed weapons of mass destruction. In war ghastly offensives elicit ghastly counter-offensives.

The Rich Are Funny (Sunday Homily)

Rich Man

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8:4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-8; I TM 2:1-8; LK16: 1-13 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092213.cfm

Jesus loved telling stories that made fun of rich people. He’s at it again in this morning’s gospel.

You can imagine the delight such parables brought Jesus’ audiences of poor peasants, fishermen, beggars, prostitutes, and unemployed day laborers. They surely chuckled as he spun tales about “stewards” who couldn’t dig a hole in the ground if their life depended on it or who were mortified at the very thought of begging. They’d laugh about rich landowners storing up grain and dying before they had a chance to enjoy their profits. They knew what Jesus meant when he mocked pathetically avaricious landlords getting angry when their money managers failed to increase their bank accounts while the boss was away attending parties. They’d shake their heads knowingly when Jesus mocked heartless employers who reaped where they didn’t sow.

Jesus’ listeners would have found today’s story especially entertaining. After all it featured an accountant who cheated his wealthy employer. And then the rich guy ends up appreciating the accountant’s dishonesty. Men and women in Jesus’ audience would have nudged each other and smiled knowingly at the tale.

“That’s the way those people are,” they’d laugh. “They’re so dishonest; they can’t help appreciating corruption in others, even when it means they’re getting screwed themselves!

“Yeah, the rich stick together,” the crowds would agree. “Their greed and dishonesty is the glue. They know: today it’s you getting caught with your hand in the till. Tomorrow it might be me. So let’s not be too hard on one another.

“Ha, ha, what a joke they are!”

In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos uses a different tactic to decry the rich. Instead of humor, Amos straight out lambasts them for “trampling on the needy,” and exploiting poor farmers. They’re so eager to make money, Amos charged; they can’t wait till the Sabbath ends so they can resume their dirty work. Then first chance they get, the crooks manipulate currencies and rig scales in their favor and short-change the buyer. They sell shoddy products and underpay workers. God will never forget such crimes, Amos angrily declares.

Our responsorial psalm agrees with the prophet. The psalmist reminds us that God is not on the side of the rich, but of the poor. In fact God so honors the lowly that (S)he considers them royalty. “He seats them with princes” the psalmist says. Yahweh rescues the lowly from their greedy exploiters.

So Jesus ridicules the rich with humor, while Amos wrings his hands over their crimes with righteous indignation. Both approaches highlight the basic truth put so memorably by Jesus when he says in today’s reading from Luke that we have to choose between money and the biblical God who champions the poor. It’s one or the other. We can’t serve two masters.

“So be like the rich guys in today’s story,” Jesus adds with a twinkle in his eye. He searches the crowd for the pickpockets, the “lame” and “blind” beggars. He looks for the hookers and tax collectors.

“Stick together,” he says. Then he winks. “And that dishonest money you depend on . . . Spread it around and help us all out.

“Better yet, give it to the Resistance Movement and you’ll get one of those rich guys’ houses when the Romans are gone and the Kingdom comes.”

Everyone laughs.

Italy’s Healthcare System Much Better than Ours

Health Care

Following our arrival in Tuscany on the first leg of our journey to India, our extended family had some medical problems, one of them serious.

Less seriously, I ran out of a medication I’ve been taking. More seriously, my wife, Peggy, contracted a virulent case of poison ivy. Most serious of all, Carla, my daughter’s au pair from Mexico, came down with appendicitis. Each of these incidents highlighted the superiority of the Italian medical system to what we have in the United States, and the direction we must take to improve our healthcare procedures.

Begin with my running out of pills. . . . I tried to get my prescription filled before leaving the states. Since we’ll be gone for nearly 5 months, and I need to take one pill each day, I decided that I’d buy180 pills from my local Rite Aid. My doctor gave me the “script” without any trouble. However, my pharmacist informed me that I needed my insurance company’s O.K. to cover the cost. That would be about $100 for 30 pills, with my co-pay being $8.00.

So one month before leaving home, I phoned my insurance company. After three phone calls by me and a couple by my pharmacist – all preceded by lengthy and repetitious “conversations” with an automated responder – permission was granted.

However when I actually tried to obtain the pills just before departure, neither I nor my pharmacist was able to do so. There was no record of the previously granted permission. So the process had to start all over again, and I had no time to spare.

More phone calls . . . . More conversations with machines . . . . Lengthy arguments with “representatives” and their supervisors. . . . More than an hour wasted . . . . In the end, permission refused.

By contrast, when I arrived in Tuscany, I tried to get the prescription filled at the local pharmacy. After complimenting my Italian, the pharmacist simply asked “How many boxes do you want?”

“How much will they cost?” I asked.

“Six dollars a box,” came the reply.

“I’ll take two for now,” I answered.

I gave the pharmacist the money. She gave me my two boxes of pills. She never asked to see a prescription. I went on my way wondering about the $102 dollars somehow “saved” in the transaction.

And then there’s the case of my wife’s poison ivy. She came down with that after doing some yard work just before leaving our home in Berea, Kentucky. It was pretty severe – so much so in fact that her arms swelled and the rash covered both of them and had spread to her face, neck and torso.

So off to the pharmacy she went. She obtained some anti-rash skin cream there. When that proved ineffective, she visited the walk-in clinic attached to the pharmacy. She joined the line of about 10 people waiting to see the doctor about their varying ailments.

When her turn came, Peggy was examined, and the doctor prescribed some pills – 2 different kinds. They were purchased at the neighboring pharmacy for a total of about $20.00.

Problem solved. No cost for the doctor’s visit. No insurance cards or discussion of money. No phone calls to the insurance company, its machines, “representatives,” and supervisors. No paper work. Hmm. . . .

Carla came down with appendicitis just before we arrived in Panzano, the small town in the Chianti region of Tuscany where we were staying.

After experiencing severe stomach pains, she went to the pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, was quickly diagnosed and whisked off to the hospital in Firenze by ambulance.

They operated immediately. Before admitting her to the operating theater, the administration asked only to see Carla’s passport, for identification purposes. Afterwards, she was hospitalized for three full days. She was released with a simple “arrivederci” and an appointment to return in a week’s time to remove her stitches. Once again there was no discussion of money or payment. And, according to Carla, her treatment was top notch.

By the way, she wasn’t using Mexico as a point of comparison. She had experienced a gall bladder operation in Connecticut about a year earlier. She’s still receiving bi-weekly communications from the hospital about payments and insurance coverage.

Recently former President Bill Clinton, the so-called “Secretary in Charge of Explaining Sh*t,” spoke about the inferiority of the U.S. medical system and how curing its ills would benefit the economy.
It’s the most expensive system in the world, he remarked. Our country spends 17.9% of its gross domestic product on health care. Yet the U.S. is ranked (at best) about 25th in terms of its quality. Italy and France are far ahead of it.

Do you want to transform the economy Clinton asked? Reform the medical system, and reduce the share of GDP devoted to health care to the level achieved by Switzerland and the Netherlands – about 12%.

“The difference between 17.9 percent and 12 percent is $1 trillion a year,” Clinton said. “A trillion dollars that could go to pay raises, or to hire new employees or to make investments that would make our economy grow faster or to provide more capital to start small businesses or to expand others or to support diversifying and strengthening agriculture. You name it. A trillion dollars is a lot of money to spot our competitors in a highly competitive global economy.”

To implement Clinton’s recommendation, it would be necessary to introduce a Single Payer health care system into the U.S. President Obama wanted to move toward that system when he pledged to make a “public option” part of Obamacare. That meant, of course, giving people a choice between the ultra-expensive and globally inferior system we endure in the U.S. on the one hand, and something like the Italian system my family has just experienced on the other.

However, to please his opponents, Obama quickly took the public option off the table even before negotiations about health care reform began.

Bankrolled by Big Pharma and the insurance lobby, Obama’s opponents knew that most of us would choose what we’ve experienced in Italy over the inefficient, bureaucratic, and budget-busting monster that’s ruining our economy.

American “Deceptionalism”

exceptionalism

Last Wednesday’s reflection was about Peggy’s and my experience in St. Peter’s Square ten days ago. It was then, I was saying, that Pope Francis gently and subtly confronted our bellicose president and joined Russia’s President Putin in defusing a potentially disastrous crisis not only for Syria and the United States, but for the world. I suggested the pope might be the unsung hero of day.

By all measures, President O’Bomb ‘em was the villain.

His speech last Tuesday confirmed that. There he maintained his belligerent stance despite world opinion, that of the U.S. electorate, and of world moral leaders. Worse still, he portrayed the administration’s position as continuous with a supposed United States moral leadership. Specifically, he claimed that for seven decades the United States had been “the anchor of global security.”

Let’s see: that would bring us back to 1943. Was Mr. Obama referring to the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1954 and the 25 year reign of terror by Mosaddegh’s CIA replacement, the brutal Shaw of Iran, Resa Palavi? Or perhaps Obama had in mind the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guatemala’s democratically elected president that same year – and the 40 year dirty war waged by the U.S. supported military which then killed more than 200,000 of “their own people.” Or was the president thinking of the U.S. wars in Indochina and the millions of lives it claimed. Or perhaps he was referring to the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 – on September 11th of that year (what Latin Americans refer to as “the first September 11th). By all measures, the Chile coup was far worse than what occurred here on September 11th 2001. Or maybe the president was referring to our countries disastrous support of Mobutu in the Congo or of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The list truly goes on and on.

Either our Harvard educated president is ignorant of those details, has forgotten them or he was deliberately lying to intentionally foster Americans’ legendary ignorance of history. I’d recommend that he read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States. That would make him realize that only the ignorant can say (as the president put it in his speech) that we are “exceptional.”

That is, unless by American “exceptionalism” he meant (as Rob Kall recent
ly put it) that:

“We have more prisoners than any other nation– and most of them haven’t harmed anyone, but prosecuting and jailing them keeps them off the voter roles in many states.

We have the largest military and largest military budget– which means more money going to expenses that do not grow the economy or build the nation’s inner resources and strengths.

We spend more on healthcare than any other nation, yet we are the only first world nation, the only member of the G-20 nations which does not provide health care for all citizens.

We are a nation that spends more on spying on citizens than any other nation.

We are a nation that uses more psychiatric drugs than any other nation.

We are a nation that sets the standard for voting corruptibility, with electronic tallying that is impossible to reliably recount.

The list goes on and on, and then there are all the other list items where we are low, like infant death rate, access to WIFI, educational skills…”

No, America is not exceptional in the way the president meant. It is a rogue state, an outlaw state. It is the world’s bully and needs to be reined in.

Interestingly, the ones doing that reining are the pariahs of the last century, Russia diplomatically and China economically. For example, it was the Russian president who in the Syrian crisis ended up taking the high road stressing the need for diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation.

Definitely conceding that high ground to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama seemed content with the low. While calling Mr. Assad to observe international law, Mr. Obama himself violated those norms by peppering his speech last week with threats of violence that are themselves thereby prohibited. (Remember, the use or threat of force outside circumstances of immediate self-defense is prohibited by international law.)

So with black hat firmly in place, the U.S. president attempted to persuade Americans, both conservative and liberal of the moral superiority of bombing rather than diplomacy, dialog, and reconciliation. In defending the morality of bombing, the president said nothing of the will of his constituents or the alignment of votes in Congress. Certainly, no mention was made of the dissenting positions of Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dali Lama all of whom had strongly opposed Mr. Obama’s plans.

Meanwhile, the president ignored a golden opportunity for using Mr. Assad’s concessions around chemical weapons for ridding the entire Middle East of such threats along with nuclear weapons. He could easily have done so and reclaimed the true moral high ground by calling for a Geneva Conference to that end.

He did not for one simple reason. And that is that Israel, America’s staunch ally, has refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits not only the use of chemical weapons, but their possession. Israel stands in violation of international law in virtue of its huge stockpile of chemical weapons along with an equally huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. No one in our government or the mainstream press says anything about that. They never will.

Israel also continues to illegally occupy the Golan Heights in Syria no less.

There’ll be no discussion of that either by our president, secretary of state or mainstream media.

Mr. Obama succeeded in only one thing last Tuesday. He made it clear that he and his country are not exceptional.

We are “deceptional” on the one hand and deceived on the other.

On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)

Chelsea Manning

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 32: 7-11, 13-14; PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 19; ITM 1: 12-17; LK 15: 1-32. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091513.cfm

A few weeks ago, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for blowing the whistle on the U.S. military and the officials who run it. In her job in Military Intelligence, Ms. Manning came across thousands of documents and videos exposing war crimes routinely committed by U.S. troops and their superiors. She released more than 700,000 of those documents in the hope that they would start a national dialog about the morality of the War on Terror. For her trouble, Ms. Manning was tortured for months. Following a court martial, she has been imprisoned instead of the criminals she reported.
_____

Last May, Edward Snowden, a data analyst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Security Agency and the CIA, released a trove of documents revealing that the U.S. government has been spying on all U.S. citizens. Those spying on us have been secretly reading our e-mails and recording our phone conversations.

Such intrusion stands in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Mr. Snowden released the documents to start a national conversation about the justification for secretly suspending such constitutional guarantees. For his trouble, he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the very agents whose alleged crimes he was exposing. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia where he has been given temporary political asylum. His asylum has largely been justified by the fear that if returned to the U.S. he would suffer the torture and mistreatment inflicted on Chelsea Manning.
_____

Please keep the Manning and Snowden cases in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel selection.
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Didn’t we just recently read the Parable of the Prodigal Son at Mass?

I checked.

Well, yes, if you count the 4th Sunday of Lent less than six months ago. In fact, this famous story repeats so many times in our Liturgies of the Word that most of us know it nearly by heart.

Personally, I must confess a bit of boredom with the tale. It even crossed my mind to skip a homily this week, and simply refer my readers back to last Lent’s reflections.

But on second thought, allow me to take another shot at it with the Manning and Snowden cases as background. This time I’ll take my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

But what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and never looking back?

The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there.

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like the male hierarchy’s claims within the church in relation to the Bible? It’s also reminiscent of our government’s position regarding the Constitution. Our president’s interpretation is the only valid one.)

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable makes me think of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and how in these pivotal times they have followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

In both cases, making that move required great courage. It meant escaping the safety and comfort that the confines of the patriarchy provide. Today Chelsea Manning sits in Leavenworth Prison in a far different “America” than the one she was trying to save. Snowden lives in exile in Russia without any hope of return to the country he too was attempting to help. In Manning’s case, leaving the father’s estate even meant transcending the patriarchy’s strict boundaries around sexual identity.

Because of the courage of Manning and Snowden we’re all better off and the patriarchy is weakened.

What does all of this mean for us as we reconsider Jesus’ overly-familiar parable in the light of Gide’s retelling? I think it might mean that we must:

• Be courageous and think for ourselves even about values seemingly endorsed by Jesus.
• See that patriarchy and male values of power, prestige, profit, individualism, competition, violence and war represent the roots of our world’s problems.
• Recognize that comfort in “our father’s house” is not good for us, our children or the planet.
• Do all we can to reject the patriarchy and its values and never look back
• Value people like Mr. Snowden and Ms. Manning as exemplary heroes showing us that it is indeed possible to leave “Our Father’s House” and its values for the sake of God’s Kingdom or however Snowden and Manning might understand the new reality to which they summon us.
• Appreciate the symbolic importance of Chelsea Manning’s rejection of military machismo in favor of the feminine world and its values of inclusion, community, and cooperation.
• Admit that our male-dominated church is a central part of the reigning system of patriarchal dominance along with its exclusively male understandings of God as Father. Act accordingly.
• Always be careful on the steps.

Who Ended the Syrian Crisis, Putin or Pope Francis? Reflections on Saturday’s Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square

Peace Vigil

The sudden success of the “Putin Plan” to end the chemical weapons crisis in Syria has occasioned a crisis of faith for me. But even more so has the “Francis Plan” addressing the same crisis and executed last Saturday in St. Peter’s Square. The pope’s plan involved Christians and others of good will fasting and praying to end the impending Syrian catastrophe. I wonder whose plan did most to resolve the crisis. Together their apparent effectiveness makes me wonder about miracles and the power of prayer.

Of course, everyone knows about Putin’s plan to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to U.N. monitors for purposes of the weapons’ destruction. Its acceptance by Syria and even by war hawks in the United States has caused Putin’s image as a diplomat and peacemaker to skyrocket. That coupled with his defiance of President Obama in the Edward Snowden case, has raised beyond measure his international standing as a defender of human rights. (Meanwhile the Christian “leader of the free world” has shrunk to the size of a shallow militarist who must be restrained by atheists and former communists now occupying the higher ground.)

However, from a faith perspective, I’m thinking that the plan of Pope Bergoglio may have been even more influential than Putin’s. At the very least, the pope’s contribution to solving the Syrian crisis suggests that there might be more to the man than first met the eye. After all, in the case of Syria, the pope went beyond simply wringing his hands over the irrationality and counter-productivity of Obama’s rash proposals. (That’s what other popes have occasionally done in cases of other wars of aggression by other U.S. presidents.)

Instead, Francis called people out into the streets. He hosted and led what amounted to a 5 ½ hour anti-war demonstration in St. Peter’s Square. Without ever mentioning Obama’s name or referring specifically to the United States, he asked people of good will throughout the world to similarly demonstrate wherever they might be. By the tens of thousands they responded in St. Peter’s Square. By the millions they responded across the planet.

I know about the Rome demonstration, because I was there. My wife, Peggy and I just happened to be in the Eternal City last Saturday. We took the occasion to join with thousands and thousands of other believers for that evening-long prayer vigil led by Francis I. Our overwhelming numbers filled the huge historic square in an inspiring demonstration of deep and sincere faith.

We prayed that the United States would come to its senses and realize (as Pope Francis put it) that violence only begets violence, and war only begets war. There is no other way to peace, he reminded us, than by forgiveness, reconciliation, and a dialog that respectfully includes all stakeholders. That means the al-Assad government, its opponents, al-Qaeda, Iran, and (representing the rest of the world) the United Nations. (Let’s face it: apart from its membership in the U.N., the United States is not a real stakeholder in this conflict so distant from its shores.)

So there we stood for hours praying the rosary together, listening to readings from Holy Scripture and the writings of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. We recited litanies, sang familiar hymns, listened to those words from the pope, and passed long minutes of quiet meditation and personal prayer. (It was amazing to experience so many people being so quiet for so long.) Preceding Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a harpist played, and choirs chanted. On huge TV screens, we saw the pope’s eyes tightly closed in prayer. We saw cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, praying for peace. The vigil lasted from 7:15 p.m. till midnight.

It was entirely inspiring and uplifting.

And it apparently had its effect. I awoke Monday morning to find that President Putin had upstaged the Obama administration with (of all things!) a diplomatic proposal to replace the Obama policy of bombing as a first resort.

Imagine that: a “leader” from a country emerging from nearly a century of communism and official atheism making a peace proposal completely in tune with the pope’s wishes and what we were praying for in St. Peter’s Square. And this in the face of the bellicose threats of a Christian presiding over a country where the majority claims to follow Jesus of Nazareth!

Was it some kind of miracle? Had our prayers been answered?

(To be continued in Monday’s post)