“The Interview”: Dumb and Dumber Do Regime Change

Interview

Recently I spent an hour and 52 minutes watching “The Interview.” I expected having to grit my teeth through nearly two hours of anti-communist propaganda. After all the film was produced by Sony whose CEO, Kaz Hirai, sits on the board of the CIA think-tank, the Rand Corporation. According to investigative journalist, Tim Shorrock, Sony directly consulted the CIA about the screenplay. Langley gave specific approval to “The Interview’s” graphic assassination scene.

Nevertheless, I justified the apparent waste of time on the grounds that the controversy surrounding “The Interview” had made it a cultural event not to be ignored. President Obama’s initial belligerent remarks about Pyongyang’s (completely unsubstantiated) hacking of Sony’s corporate data seemed hasty to say the least. They had made an international incident out of the release of this light-weight comedy.

North Korea’s response, of course, was predictable. Like Cuba, it has for decades been the object of CIA attempts at regime change and sanction. And the hair-brained method proposed in the film for disposal of President Kim Jong Un was completely reminiscent of past CIA attempts on world leaders like Fidel Castro. Moreover, President Obama’s pivot towards Asia, especially with Okinawa bases under threat of expulsion from Japan, has necessitated a high-profile enemy in the region. And North Korea conveniently fit the bill as enemy du jour. No wonder its leadership felt threatened by what they saw as yet another CIA plot to foment rebellion.

As it turned out, however, “The Interview” came across as a more effective send-up of U.S. culture, politics and the CIA than an indictment of North Korea. Whatever the intentions of its producers, its basic take-away was this: U.S. foreign policy is run by provincials who have no understanding of the regimes they routinely attempt to change. Much less do they grasp those regimes’ historical and political contexts.

In fact, the political understanding of the film’s dumb and dumber protagonists, Seth Rogen and James Franco, is summarized in a single slogan repeated throughout “The Interview,” “They hate us ‘cause they ain’t us.”  That’s it – a completely ignorant and self-congratulatory level of analysis whose depth rivals Bush 43’s explanation of 9/11, “They hate our freedom.”

However, contrary to their expectations, Rogen and Franco discover in Kim Jong Un (as portrayed in the film) someone totally like them. He’s a frat boy, shallow, insensitive and entirely obsessed with sex, drugs, and American celebrity culture.

Moreover Jong Un’s crimes mirror those of the CIA itself.  That is, according to the Langley, the North Korean president’s policies are reprehensible because they starve his people, keep them under constant surveillance, torture his enemies, and threaten the world with nuclear weapons. He therefore deserves to die.

But as North Korea’s “dear leader” himself points out in the film’s climactic interview, those are the very crimes of which the United States itself is guilty – but on a much larger scale. The Americans, he observes, are not just responsible for starting the Korean War. Their decades-long sanctions on the country along with their unrelenting policy of regime change have attempted to create famine throughout the northern part of the peninsula.

Jong Un might have added that the U.S. is one of the world’s most egregious actors when it comes to cyber-warfare and that NSA surveillance hacks into private communications across the globe not just in a single place.  The U.S. also maintains torture sites world-wide; it has more prisoners per capita than any other country (including North Korea). It is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, and is in the process of modernizing its entire nuclear arsenal.

This means that the decision to kill Kim Jong Un represents a subconscious act of self-destruction. Its logic actually justifies attacks on the United States, whose crimes (once again) mirror and dwarf those of the “international criminal” destroyed at the film’s conclusion. This makes the assassination a kind of suicide by proxy – an expression of a death-wish.

What I’m suggesting is that the film’s (so far) overlooked message is this:  They don’t hate us ‘cause they ain’t us; they hate us because we are us. And attacking us is far more justifiable than any attack on North Korea.

All of that makes one wonder about Kaz Hirai. Might he not be a double agent? Perhaps he has cleverly tricked the CIA into approving a self-parody that unwittingly makes a laughing stock of the organization’s criminality and idiocy.

Such satire represents the essence of “The Interview,” whether that’s intended or not.

(Sunday Homily) The Torture Report: Cheney Channels King David in the Struggle over Historical Narrative

Cheney

Readings for 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd SAM 7:1-5, 8-12, 14A, 16; PS 89: 2-5, 27-29; ROM 16: 25-27; LK 1: 21-38 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/122114.cfm

Strange that according to a poll last week, more than half the “American” people think torture is permissible. I say “strange” because nearly 80% of Americans consider themselves “Christian.” And Jesus himself was a victim of torture. On the other hand, can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone?

You’d think the similarities between the Romans’ treatment of Jesus and the “Americans’” treatment of countless innocent victims would make devout Christians less accepting of torture.  Maybe they’d oppose torture on principle, as a matter of faith.

Or perhaps it’s that they just agree with ex-VP, Dick Cheney. After all, he wouldn’t consider “torture” what the Romans’ enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) did to  Jesus  – not the prolonged beating we all witnessed portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” not the crowning with thorns, not forcing a beaten man to carry his own instrument of execution, not driving nails into his hands and feet, not leaving him for hours struggling for breath on a cross whose chief agony was bringing the victim to the point of asphyxiation (like waterboarding) and beyond.

According to Mr. Cheney, that punishment would have crossed the line to torture only at the point when death proved imminent. Unfortunately, as with untold (literally) victims of U.S. enhanced interrogation, that line was crossed in the case of Jesus.

But in the end, as supporters of U.S. Empire, “American” Christians probably understand and forgive what the Romans did. After all, like its U.S. counterpart, the Roman Empire was under siege on all sides. And the Jews were particularly rebellious. And Jesus (in Roman eyes) gave every indication of leading a rebellion. An empire’s got to do what an empire’s got to do – even if it means killing the innocent like Jesus.

I think however that there’s something more than compassion failure at work here.  The “more” is the power of propaganda. That’s something addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. There the author of 2nd Samuel whitewashes the brutal King David and turns him from something like a mafia don into a national hero. In today’s gospel selection, even the evangelist, Luke buys the distortion. He makes Jesus the successor of David.

I’ll get to that in a moment. But let me first finish with the torture document. You see, (as Glen Greenwald has pointed out) it’s no wonder that “Americans” can’t identify with the tortured much less connect them with Jesus.

That’s because since the Report’s release on December 9th, the mainstream media (MSM) has treated us to an endless parade of torturers and torture enablers explaining away the conclusions of the Senate’s years-long study.  We haven’t heard a word from the victims of torture or from the families of those whose sons and daughters were killed at the hands of sadistic representatives of our government.

The result of this one-sided silencing of the victims has been to rob them of their humanity – of their very existence.  Given the deafening silence, why would we feel compassion for people who don’t even exist? Out of sight, out of mind.

Imagine how better informed we’d be if on “Meet the Press” or somewhere Mr. Cheney had to defend his policies against his victims – many of whom, Greenwald reminds us (because he has interviewed them) are incredibly articulate. Perhaps the victims might suggest waterboarding the ex-VP to see if he really believes that practice doesn’t sink to the level of torture.

According to University of Wisconsin –Madison Professor Alfred McCoy (the author of Torture and Impunity) this erasure of victims is all part of a five-stage policy on the question of torture. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the first step was identifying the low level perpetrators with “bad apples.” The second stage kept rumors of more widespread torture at bay in the name of national security. Thirdly, President Obama adopted the “let’s look forward, not backward” approach. Fourthly came the move to exonerate all those guilty of torture or enabling the practice. Finally we’ve reached the stage which emerged last week: vindication before the bar of history of all those connected with U.S. torture.

Again, that’s where the battle has been joined today; we’re struggling over historical narrative. This is the stage all empires come to eventually as their crimes inevitably come to light. It’s what we witness in today’s liturgy of the word and the white-washing of Israel’s King David. The example is instructive. It suggests practical responses to the Torture Report at both the level of faith and political action.

You see, there are really two separate king David traditions in the Bible. One presents the good David, the other, the bad. The good David is the one largely presented in I Chronicles 10:14-29:30. He also appears in today’s first reading from 2nd Samuel and in the responsorial psalm.

This David is pious, and wants to build a temple for God. According to the story, God is pleased, and rewards him with everything a king could want: victory over his enemies, immortal fame, prosperity for his people, thriving descendants, and a dynasty that will last forever.

Then there’s the bad David who begins to appear in I Samuel, chapter 16. This David is a murderous tyrant. He rebels against Saul, Israel’s first king. He’s a womanizer, a murderer and an object of popular hate.  Far from lasting forever, his dynasty ends with the death of his successor, Solomon. He’s the David whose death-bed instructions are worthy of any Mafia godfather. To Solomon he says, “Take care of my friends, Sol – and my enemies too (wink, wink). You know what I mean?” (IKGS 2: 1-9)

Besides that, the bad David bastardizes the Mosaic Covenant and its protection of widows, orphans, and resident aliens and turns it into a tool of the ruling classes – from Moses’ “I will be your God and you will be my people,” into David’s “You are my son, the king of Israel, and your dynasty will last forever.”

Of course, the bad David has been swallowed up by popular memory of its competing tradition. David is uniformly remembered by the majority of believers as the man “after God’s own heart.” As I said, in today’s familiar gospel selection, Luke falls into that trap. He makes Jesus (through his foster father, Joseph, no less) the successor of David. And this even though Jesus as portrayed by Luke is no friend of the Temple or of kings and emperors. Rather he is the friend of the beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant – the widows, orphans, aliens, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans. His values do not include enemies (much less victory over them) or prosperity, fame, or everlasting dynasties.

Recognizing this struggle over which narrative will prevail sheds light on the Torture Report. It enables followers of the simple man from Nazareth to judge that the struggle even before the bar of biblical history has been won by the likes of Cheney and Bush. It has been won by the bad David.

Our conclusion: we must not allow that to happen as we fight over whose story should prevail concerning the latest revelations about the powerful organized crime syndicate known as the CIA.

So what should we do?  Our response should be at two levels.

At the level of faith believers should be exposed to the historical Jesus I’m attempting to present in these homilies. We neglect those powerful myths at our own peril. Even the uninformed can understand them.  This means that the Jesus’ story represents a powerful tool for raising consciousness about torture (and other issues of social justice).

It’s true that the MSM might not expose the story of the tortured to that 80% of “Americans” who claim to be Christian. However, if those with the responsibility for explaining the sacred texts assume that responsibility and do their homework, there’s no reason why those wishing to follow Jesus can’t understand that:

  • Jesus himself was a victim of torture at the hands of an empire very like the United States.
  • He taught universal love.
  • He was non-violent
  • He said he considers what’s done to the least of the human race as done to him.
  • He said we should love our enemies.

At the political level we should:

  • Urge outgoing senator Mark Udall (D Colorado) to use his senatorial privilege of unlimited free speech to release the entire unredacted torture document.
  • Pressure the media through phone calls and letters to the editor to present the other side of the torture story including interviews with torture victims and with the families of those whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives were killed under CIA torture.

Judging the Torture Report

Brennan

Let me get this straight.

We’re supposed to believe CIA director John Brennan when he says the 6000 page  document is wrong when it indicts him and his organization for lying, brutality, torture, head slamming, crimes against humanity, and sadistic practices such as “rectal hydration,” “rectal feeding” (?), “threatened” rape and execution?

This is the same John Brennan who before his own Inspector General proved him a liar, claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Dianne Feinstein, was wrong about him last July. That’s when she charged that Brennan’s agency tried to undermine her Committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program by breaking into the investigators’ computers.

At that time Brennan contradicted Feinstein with feigned offense and a straight face saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Oh, but now I guess he’s changed.  Now we can trust him.  He’s telling the truth this time – as head of an organization whose very job description is to dissimulate, equivocate and outright lie.

But that’s not the half of it. In fact it’s less than 10% of it.

You see, Brennan is treating the heavily redacted 600 page executive summary of the Torture Report as if it were the whole thing. However more than 90% of what the Senate Committee found (the worst 90%, we’re told!) will never see the light of day. That’s because our public servants are convinced that if U.S. citizens and the world knew “the rest of the story,” general outrage would know no bounds.

Imagine what that might mean. That is, if we’re all outraged by the “rectal feeding,” “threats” of rape, and by untold numbers actually killed under torture, what do you suppose is contained in the 90% of the report that’s too gruesome to reveal?

Let me offer some suggestions: actual rape, sodomy, burnings, electric shock, routine killings and systemic sadism beyond any practiced in Abu Ghraib.

No wonder Mr. Brennan (like all criminals) claims innocence.  No wonder he would rather forget about the past and “look to the future.” Criminal trials and jail time aren’t attractive to any “perps.”

By the way, here’s how to evaluate the torture report and Brennan’s denials. Ask yourself, what if an identical document were published about the “enhanced interrogation” techniques (EITs) of Cuba, Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, or ISIS ? What would we think of such practices then? Would we wonder whether they constitute torture or not? What would the Fox News pundits and politicians say about Russia’s (EITs)?

What value would we give to the official denials of John Brennan’s counterparts among our designated enemies? And why should we believe that their crimes are any greater than those of the CIA – or that our official culture is somehow superior to theirs?

Oh, I forgot, it’s because the CIA tells us so.

(Sunday Homily) Towards a Counter-Cultural Christmas: Becoming Nobody

Santa garbage

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121414.cfm

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I had an important spiritual experience last Sunday. It was the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s liturgy of the word on this third Sunday of Advent. After all, in today’s readings, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wonder if I and my family are strong enough to entertain them.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange. (More about this in a later posting.)
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of Mike Brown, Eric Brown and Tamir Rice) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2015 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

Do you have other ideas about where or how to start? If so, please share them. And what about that alternative Christmas celebration involving the whole family on Christmas morning? Can you help with any suggestions there?

On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton

merton5

Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,

Thomas Merton’s hermitage

In Gethsemane, Kentucky,

A stark cinder-block hut

With walls unpainted

Stuck incongruously

At the end of a long muddy path

Covered with stones

And fallen brown leaves

In a bleak December woods.

 

The journey to Gethsemane was tedious

But grand –

Two hours along twisting roads

Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch

With their stunning landscapes

Of rolling bluegrass hills

And endless farms

Dotted with double-wides

And red brick mansions

With identical Christmas lights

Following the contours of their disparate roofs

And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery

I passed huge black distilleries

of presaging Spirits —

Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

 

Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,

A bedroom with a narrow cot

On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed

Of that nurse in Louisville

Who won his heart

And made him human

For the rest of us.

There was a kitchen and bathroom

And a chapel too

With a small square altar

And a wall with the Coptic icons

So dear to that mystic’s soul.

 

We sat in a circle

Twenty of us

In Father Louis’ living room

On folding chairs

Spotted with rust

Between a smoking fire

And the desk where “Louie”

Used to write.

Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,

We were told,

And MLK would’ve as well

Had not the assassin’s bullet

Aborted his planned pilgrimage

To the Great Man’s feet.

 

We listened to Brother Paul

Read his poetry –

A gloss on Matthew’s words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

In the winter cold,

Some dozed,

One snored.

But brother Paul was on fire,

His breath’s vapor blending

With the hearth’s smoke.

For the wakeful,

His words lit flames

That made wood fire redundant.

 

All of us are poor

He said.

None of this is ours

Everything is gift.

Prayer knows the Reality

That is always there

But not perceived.

It is coming to realize

What we already sense

But normally do not recognize.

Prayer is a pause

That shifts the atmosphere

Of the soul.

It is encountering a Christ

Who comes in ways hidden,

But not recognized

For a long time.

 

Paul quoted Emily Dickinson

“I’m nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too? . . .

How dreary to be somebody!”

 

Suddenly Paul jumped up.

“It’s time for Vespers,” he said,

And ran off.

The rest of us scurried to follow him

To the monastery chapel.

 

“I used to live like this,”

I thought as I stared at the monks

In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.

There were perhaps thirty of them

Mostly middle-aged and older

One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.

“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.

I wondered how.

All men, dressed identically,

Praying together seven times each day,

Keeping long silences

Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,

Now and then catching glimpses of women

And wondering about them

Before driving those thoughts from our minds.

I’m  glad I failed at that.

 

But Brother Paul was right.

It is all gift.

Trying to be somebody

Is quite dreary

Truly I was born without anything .

So were you.

My goal is

To keep most of it

Till I die.

What’s yours?

(Sunday Homily) Black Lives, Muslim Lives Matter: Obama’s as Guilty as Wilson & Pantaleo

awlaki-killing-of-american

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85: 9-14; 2 PT 3: 8-14; MK 1: 1-8. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120714.cfm

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. . . .

The very mention of those names calls to mind the protests that have filled our nation’s streets over the past week – in Ferguson Missouri, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and places in between. The teenager, the father of six, and the sixth grade child represent deeply racist and unjust social structures where criminals and thugs masquerading as law enforcement officers have implicitly been granted a license to kill with impunity.

The nation-wide demonstrations on behalf of black and brown victims of the resulting “American” police state remind us that our country is decidedly on the wrong track. Like John the Baptist in today’s gospel excerpt, statements by New York’s Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, President Obama, and the U.N. special rapporteur on torture call us all to what the Greeks called metanoia – a drastic change of direction.

Ironically however that call to repentance is especially addressed to Messrs. Holder and Obama themselves. They, after all, find themselves in charge of a national and world-wide police state of which Mike Brown’s Ferguson and Eric Garner’s Staten Island represent merely the tip of an iceberg. The call to repentance invites all of us to apply pressure for profound systemic reform that far surpasses anything those “leaders” have in mind.

Today’s liturgical readings inspire such thoughts. Listen to the prophet Isaiah as he cries out for repentance and a restructuring of reality so intense that he imagines mountains being levelled and valleys filled. The point is to smooth the way for the advent of a profoundly non-violent God in our midst. The peace-filled change Isaiah envisions is not trivial.

Listen to Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptizer, as he echoes Isaiah word-for-word. (Needless to say, neither Isaiah’s nor John’s words have anything to do with the artificially excited anticipation of our culture’s Winter Festival and its orgy of selling, buying, and conspicuous consumption – even though “Christmas” deceptively continues to somehow associate itself with the homeless child from Nazareth.)

As a matter of fact, the cult of materialism and “Christmas cheer” couldn’t be more antithetical to sincere recollection of the birth of Jesus who had more in common with Mike Brown and Eric Garner than with the white middle-class culture Christmas celebrates.

More specifically, Jesus was the embodiment of nearly everything “good Christians” (presumably) like Officers Wilson and Pantaleo (the executioners of Brown and Garner) give evidence of despising.  After all, the working man from Nazareth was not only the poor son of an unwed teenage mother. He was an immigrant whose family took refuge in Egypt, the penniless friend of prostitutes and drunkards, and the prophet drummed out of his faith community as villain possessed by demons. He was the victim of torture and capital punishment who was treated as a terrorist by the reigning imperial power.

To the authorities of their day, both the Baptizer and Jesus even looked like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Both were dark-skinned, either black or brown; they were not white men. Today’s gospel emphasizes how poorly John was dressed.

To repeat: during his life Jesus was impoverished, homeless, unemployed, accused of being subversive, placed on death row, and ultimately executed. As a Jew, he was considered as “other” and worthless to Roman authorities as Mike Brown was to Darren Wilson or Eric Garner to Daniel Pantaleo. He was as worthless as Abdulrahman Al-awlaki (pictured above) was to Barack Obama.

And that brings me to today’s real call to repentance.

It can’t merely be:

  • A superficial call to “trust” – an echo of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all get along?”
  • A reform of police culture
  • A de-militarization of police arsenals
  • A mandating of special independent prosecutors to handle incidents like those in Ferguson and Staten Island
  • Or even prosecution and conviction of police thugs like Wilson and Pantaleo

Instead, our nation has to address the root of the problem which is a world-wide policy of extra-judicial killings of racially-profiled Muslims and dark-skinned poor people. (That’s what a “signature strike” means as executed by drone “pilots.”)

Put otherwise, President Obama, Eric Holder and their minions are as guilty as Wilson and Pantaleo. All of them place themselves above the law. They kill with impunity those “others” they consider expendable. They answer to no one. They refuse to investigate much less prosecute such crimes.

John the Baptizer’s call to repentance summons us to publicize such guilt and completely withdraw support from the policies of the thug leaders of the world-wide U.S. police state.

That, I think, is what metanoia and repentance mean for “Americans” this particular advent.