Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-3.
The entire world was shocked by yesterday’s brutal attacks on innocent civilians in Paris. President Obama accurately expressed consensus in the West that the attacks “were not just on Paris, but on all of humanity and the universal values we share.”
Early reports have France’s President Hollande attributing the slaughter in Paris to ISIL forces. French police have said that one of the terrorists was carrying a Syrian passport. Such attributions make the attacks part of the war in the Middle East that has been raging since 2001.
France, of course, is a close ally of the United States in its global war on terror. It is a founding member of the coalition which (under U.S. leadership) has been bombing Iraq and Syria for over a year. In fact, hundreds of civilians have been killed in coalition attacks which as of last August had rained 17,000 bombs on Syrian and Iraqi targets and claimed more than 600 civilian lives. Most casual observers don’t know that. Those living under the ’round-the-clock air raids, of course, do.
If Syrians are responsible, it is reasonable to assume their intent is to make the French and their coalition partners (the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and Australia) feel the pain of civilians in Syria and Iraq. President Obama’s words show the point has been made.
It is a sad coincidence that today’s readings centralize apocalyptic texts found in the Book of Daniel and in the Gospel of Mark. Both are war documents. That is, contrary to insistence by evangelical fundamentalists, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. Instead contemporary scholarship identifies it as a literary form always associated with war and resistance to empire. As such (it may shock us to know) the form is more sympathetic to the cause of ISIL and other “terrorists” than to the efforts of the U.S. and its close ally, France, to control their imperial outposts. Nonetheless, apocalypse in no way condones terror — neither the wholesale terror of empire exhibited in its incessant bombings, nor the retail version we witnessed yesterday in France.
The Book of Daniel originates from Israel’s resistance to the Hellenistic empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In the year 168 C.E., he invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. He hated Judaism and went out of his way to offend Jews at every level. He slaughtered them mercilessly. But he also defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He even erected a monument to Jupiter in the Temple. Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find, and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Book of Daniel was written. It assures the Jewish resistance (which the Greeks saw as a “terrorist force”) that the Seleucid Empire, like all those preceding it, would fall in ignominy.
Something similar is happening in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. Written around 70 C.E., its context is a six-month siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Titus. On September 8th of that year four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders (whom the Romans considered “terrorists”). Moving from house to house (like U.S. soldiers in Iraq), the legionaries destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1948. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Jesus predicts in today’s Gospel excerpt from Mark.
But the excerpt also calls for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant not only obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with the Zealots and Sicarii — the resistance assassins who specialized (like Palestinian resisters today) in knifing occupation soldiers.
Though sympathetic to the resistance, Mark’s Jesus evidently saw the counter-productivity of tit-for-tat violence. He exhibits no sympathy for the Zealot recruiters who between 66 and 70 traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Instead, Mark’s Jesus counsels his followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were to do so not out of cowardice, but from apocalyptic conviction that God’s order of justice could not be established by the sword. Obeying Jesus’ direction meant that Christians were not only threatened by Romans but by Jews who accused Jesus’ followers of treason.
How should today’s Liturgy of the Word affect people of faith whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Roman Titus — both of whom thought of themselves as doing God’s work in destroying what they despised as a superstitious, primitive, tribal, and terrorist religion? (Yes, that’s what they thought of Judaism!)
Today’s readings recommend that we adopt an apocalyptic vision. That means attempting to grasp the worldview of empire’s victims rather than of its agents — i.e. attempting to understand the reasons behind acts of terrorism like those which unfolded yesterday in Paris.
More basically adopting apocalyptic vision means rejecting defense of the present order and allowing it to collapse. It entails total rejection of U.S. and French imperial ambitions and practices. It signifies refusing to treat as heroes those who advance the policies of destruction and desecration inevitably intertwined with imperial ambition. It means letting go of the privileges and way of life that depends on foreign conquest and vilification as “terrorists” patriots desperately defending their countries from invasion by imperial forces. It means determining what such rejection might signify for our consumption patterns and lifestyles, and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.
Missing the insights of contemporary scripture scholarship, fundamentalists routinely teach that apocalypse is about the end of the world — not about the end of particular empires. In a sense, they are right. Apocalypse is about the end of the world. The entire Jewish universe was anchored in the temple. Its defilement by the Greek Antiochus IV, its complete destruction by the Roman Titus seemed like the end of the world to the Jews. The threat of westernizing the Arab world might seem that way to the occupied Muslim world today. And the end of the American Way of Life premised on resource wars under cover of a “war on terrorism” might strike us as the end of everything we hold dear.
However, the apocalyptic message of hope is that the passage of empire and nationalism is not really the end. Instead it represents an opportunity for a new beginning. In the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”
Ironically, tragic events like yesterday’s massacre remind followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition to abandon a past based on dominion and violence and to create the entirely new reality based on the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Jesus.