The End of U.S. Empire Is Simply a Matter of Time: Reflections on a Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square (Sunday Homily)

Empire's End

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HB 1:2-3, 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; 2 TM 1:6-8, 13-14; KJ 17L 5-10. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/100613.cfm

Last month, just as the United States seemed about to launch a disastrous war against Syria, Peggy and I had the privilege of gathering in St. Peter’s Square in Rome with thousands and thousands of other believers praying for peace. We filled the huge square in an inspiring demonstration of deep faith attempting to address impending catastrophe.

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 than by forgiveness, reconciliation, and a dialog that respectfully includes all stakeholders – 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 stake holder 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 the pope speak, 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.

But as I participated with as much faith as possible, I couldn’t help thinking: What good is all of this doing? As the reigning imperial power, the United States government and its brutal military are completely secular and tone-deaf to such demonstrations. They have absolutely no awareness of, much less respect for, the spiritual, moral, or faith dimensions of life.

Instead, from its highest levels, United States’ policy is entirely controlled by power-lust, money and by the personal, class and national interests of its so-called “leaders.” They laugh at popes and believers with their silly prayers and naïve talk of forgiveness, reconciliation, dialog, diplomacy, and beating swords into plowshares. Power and money rule their world. “God” is entirely irrelevant, except as one more tool in the arsenal – this time to persuade the people they despise to support policies driven by their selfish interests and realpolitik.

Even more fundamentally, I wondered: Is God Himself tone-deaf to demonstrations like these? “He” and the Blessed Virgin (who often seemed to overshadow God and Jesus in this intensely Catholic gathering) won’t really do anything to prevent the blood-bath that’s threatening.

Can they even do anything, I wondered? I couldn’t remember the last time they did. They didn’t answer prayers to prevent U.S. inflicted slaughter in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, or Afghanistan. They didn’t do anything about the Jewish Holocaust (at the hands of Christians no less!). Can they answer our prayers for peace? Or are they as impotent as we are?

Today’s liturgy of the word seems to address those questions. It’s about faith and what we mean by that term. More specifically, the readings call us to revise our understandings of God – from the “Man Upstairs” micromanaging the world and intervening to prevent wars like the tragedy in Syria.

Instead, the readings invite us to see God as the One who empowers us to figuratively transplant trees and relocate mountains by simply saying “Move from here to there.” On the other hand, our readings call us to be slow, patient, persevering and trustful in the face of our desires for instant solutions to imperial madness.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Habakkuk apparently believes in the Man Upstairs. Faced by imperial hubris, he openly and impatiently questions that God.

Towards the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the prophet was witnessing the rise to power of the Chaldeans (or Babylonians). Like the U.S. today, that particular empire ruled by means of a sickening and genocidal violence.

“Are you blind to their wanton destruction?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “Why don’t you do something?”

And then comes the unexpected divine response: “Don’t worry, Habakkuk; things will get a lot worse before they get better!”

What kind of response was that? God seems to be answering Habakkuk’s challenge with one of his own. Change your idea of God, s/he seems to be saying. “I’m not the Man Upstairs. My modus operandi is not to eliminate the Babylonians according to your time table. Be patient. Change your idea of God.

The reading from Habakkuk is complemented by the discussion of faith in Luke. It’s about faith too. At the beginning, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” What do you suppose they meant by that? What do we mean when from the bottom of our hearts we echo their request as so many thousands did last month in St. Peter’s?

Is it our desire – was it that of the apostles – to have fewer questions about the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the existence of God, or papal infallibility? Is it our prayer that we become more convinced that God can prevent and stop wars like the slaughter in Syria? Is that what we mean by faith – believing things about God, Jesus, or the doctrines of the church? Does faith mean believing that God will defeat the apparent omnipotence of the rich and powerful who themselves would occupy God’s throne?

Or is faith the power we achieve when, like Jesus, we realize that the divine dwells within us – that we are in effect God? That faith would lead us to act like Jesus and to share in his unshakeable commitment to God’s Kingdom of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation despite setbacks and complete failure before the might of the Romans who killed him.

Yes, that’s the kind of faith Jesus had. As Paul says today in 2nd Timothy, such faith is synonymous with courage. It is identical with the power of God as revealed in Jesus – a human being who could cure the sick, drive out evil spirits and even raise the dead.

Problem is, Jesus didn’t use that power to dismantle the Roman Empire, block its destruction of Jerusalem, or even prevent his own death by Roman decree. Despite the miraculous powers the gospels attribute to him, he seemed impotent before imperial Rome, even though like the rest of his contemporary Jews he struggled for its replacement with the Kingdom of God. To repeat: in the end, he was empire’s victim and died an apparent failure overwhelmed by realpolitik.

What does that tell us about Jesus-inspired faith? At least the following:

• Faith is not about believing doctrines or things about God and Jesus.
• Rather, it’s about commitment to the Kingdom of God – to a world ruled by love, community values, justice, and peace, despite the apparent futility of our best efforts before empire governed by power-lust, greed, and violence.
• The prayer “Increase our faith” is about deepening commitment to God’s Kingdom in terms of patience with God’s time table without reducing our efforts to thwart imperial ambitions in the here and now.
• In other words, faith is about the long haul, about God’s time, compared with which our notions of time are laughably brief and insignificant. (In God’s time, empire of Babylon, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the American Empire are mere blips on the screen of evolution and eternity.)
• We should take comfort in realizing that in the divine long haul, God’s law of karma (“We reap what we sow”) is at work to answer our prayers for peace and the defeat of empire.
• According to that law, the U.S. will ultimately reap the harvest of violence and destruction its policies so consistently disseminate.
• The world will see the humiliation of the United States for which its majority so ardently longs.
• No, for followers of Jesus, God is not impotent before U.S. violence, destruction, brutality and hypocrisy.
• It’s simply a matter of time.

God’s time. Evolutionary time. Kingdom time.

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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.

6 thoughts on “The End of U.S. Empire Is Simply a Matter of Time: Reflections on a Peace Vigil in St. Peter’s Square (Sunday Homily)”

    1. I think you’re right, Michael. Having worked with evangelical university students over the past twenty-some years, I’ve noticed a leftward shift in their attitudes as well. They’re reading people like Jim Wallis, Peter McLaren, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell, and Shane Claibourne. When those students and I studied liberation theology together, I found most of them open and intrigued. I find all of that very encouraging.

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  1. Mike, I was away for a while but came back to see what you have been writing about. Again, I am disappointed. For the most part, your negative comments about prayers of intercession make me want to say to you loud and clear: ‘Oh you of little faith….: If you believe(d) that there was no point, why did you bother to stand with others for nearly five hours in that crowded square?

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    1. Sorry you were disappointed, Alice. I was just trying to make the (faith) point that prayer is not about changing God’s mind, but about changing our minds to approximate that of the All-Parent. That means taking a long view shaped by our reading of Scripture, history, and evolution. It means continuing to work for change (for instance, as Pope Francis did by convoking that demonstration in St. Peter’s) despite apparent lack of results. As I argued in a blog early last month, Pope Francis’ activism may have had more impact than President Putin’s intervention. My other faith point was that I at least feel called to revise my idea of God from that “Man Upstairs” micromanaging the world, to St. Paul’s conception of the One in whom we live and move and have our being — to the One who dwells within each of us empowering us to move mountains..

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  2. Great blog overall Mike. I was tempted to abandon you in St Peter’s Square saying the rosary for 5 hours and indeed would have if it had been raining.
    There was something in it for everyone, believers, unbelievers and those who don’t give a hoot.
    Some think one can stand there for ever and a prayer is never heard.
    That it is a game of averages like shooting crap. Others believe that no prayer ever goes unheard. That indeed all are answered instantly!
    For me you got me out of the confusion zone by introducing time, space and evolution. Add to this the new found freedom to THINK for ourselves Francis1 gave us and I am optimistic.
    The ancients had a theory, and don’t ask me who they were…a theory that this world is such a mess in general, so stench-full that it cant be for real. As you say in a split second in the no-time no-space world and we could transverse all to where we are now. From the big bang to the to the turning off of the lights in at US Inc. Snap. And in that split second all the ancients tell us, and now we can include Francis (soon to be known as Franky the False Prophet), we are able to grasp what happiness is all about – in the Real World.
    We are all going to end up at Eden Central. How do you like that for little apples!
    Evolution is the hot-button. We are slowly evolving from darkness to the light. (I am crazy enough to believe Francis did have that spark! An out of this mess experience.) We are in a state if inter-revelation, Its happihour. (A small bit worried about his friendship with the Just War chap called Gus)
    Lastly Mike I eagerly await your blog on this interview F1 had with the atheist editor. It does need a good mind to pin-point out the key-points. Not interpret them, we can now do that for ourselves. (Where is Luther when we need him.) The Roman ostriches have already gone into reverse spin. We have been there,,,and bot the t-shirt.
    I personally got slipped a real Micky Finn the last time out even by my bishop, later Cardinal of Tokyo who told me no prob if I want to change careers, write it up send it in. And BANG the game changed an I ended up with a dishonorable discharge. excluded from the workplace I was used to, both the management I mean wife and me… told not to go to mass as we were scandalizing the faithful!! and then some SOB calls me a Judas – and that when he was getting real bad press.
    A good mind has to guide us thru this before it will be sent back to darkness by the joint intervention of the far right and far left. Actually it is the “holy” ones will do most damage, like they do in your Supreme Court. F1 suggests there are just a few essential message in main course religion and we should focus on them not the desert which we can have or leave as we like it! And this guy remember is infallible in matters of …….
    jc

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    1. Thanks, Jim. I didn’t have nearly the difficulty with laicization you describe. However, the Columban S.G. at the time did misplace my application — only to be discovered in a desk drawer somewhere. As a result, it didn’t arrive in time for Peggy’s and my planned wedding date. What times those were! Also, I agree with you that F1 is showing some encouraging signs. As for the OpEdNews articles, you can find them here:http://www.opednews.com/author/author47372.html Thanks again, Jim

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