The Battle for the Bible: What God Do You Worship, Jesus’ or Mr. Trump’s?

Early Church

Readings for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I KGS 3: 5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-130; ROM 8: 28-30; MT 13: 44-52;

Do you ever wonder how those claiming to be Christian can support rich billionaires like Donald Trump and those with whom he’s surrounded himself? How can they vote for those who would deprive them of health care, and give tax breaks to the already super-rich, especially when such policies end up being funded by cut-backs in programs that benefit non-billionaires like themselves — programs like Medicare, Medicaid and environmental protection?

Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer. It presents us with what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “Battle of the Gods.” The conflict embodies contrasting ideas about the nature of God and God’s order as found within the Bible itself – as well as in today’s “America.”

One concept of God belonged to the rich such as Israel’s Kings, David and Solomon – ancient analogues of Donald Trump and his friends. The other belonged to the poor who surrounded Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. They were working stiffs like you and me, along with n’er-do-wells: the unemployed, poorly-paid, sick, disabled, and underemployed. Many were homeless street people and street-walkers. To them Jesus embodied and spoke of a God unrecognizable to David, Solomon, or today’s right wing.

The contrast emerges as today’s readings juxtapose the dream of Solomon, the representative par excellence of Israel’s 1% in our first reading, over against Jesus’ own words about the contrasting nature of God’s Kingdom in today’s Gospel selection. In the latter, Jesus calls his would-be followers to a profound paradigm shift – away from one that lionized the imperial order to a divine kingdom in in which the poor prosper. The former was embodied not only in the Roman empire of Jesus’s day, but in Israel itself. Its leaders a thousand years earlier had hijacked the Mosaic Covenant that contradicted their New Imperial World Order.

In today’s first reading Solomon’s court historians mask the hijacking by predictably identifying their employer as “the wisest man ever,” just as before him they had identified Solomon’s cruel and womanizing father, David, as “a man after God’s own heart.” In this royally stolen form, the Covenant connected God and the royal family. It assured a royal dynasty that would last “forever.” It guaranteed God’s blessings on Solomon’s expansionistic policies.

The covenantal truth was much different. In its original Mosaic form (as opposed to the Davidic bastardization), the Covenant joined Yahweh (Israel’s only King) and escaped slaves – poor people all – threatened by royalty and their rich cronies.

The Covenant’s laws celebrated in today’s responsorial psalm protected the poor from those perennial antagonists.  For instance, “Thou shalt not steal,” was originally addressed to large landowners intent on appropriating the garden plots belonging to subsistence agriculturalists.

Despite such prohibitions, those who established Israel’s basic laws knew the power of money. The rich would inevitably absorb the holdings of the poor as did David and Solomon. So Israel’s pre-monarchical leaders established the world’s oldest “confiscatory tax.” It was called the “Jubilee Year” which mandated that every 50 years all debts would be forgiven and land would be returned to its original (poor) owners.

The advent of a Jubilee Year represented the substance of Jesus’ basic proclamation. No wonder the poor loved him. No wonder the refrain we sang together this morning repeated again and again, “Lord I love your commands.” That’s the refrain of the 99% locked in life-and-death struggle with the rich 1% represented by Solomon and his court.

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus indicates the radical swerve necessary for establishing God’s kingdom understood in Jubilee terms. It involves “selling all you have” and buying into the Kingdom concept as if it were buried treasure or a pearl of great price.

That’s the kingdom – the world order we’re asked to believe in, champion, and work to introduce. It’s what the world would be like if God – not David or Solomon – were king.

In our own country, it’s what “America” would be like if our politics were shaped by God’s “preferential option for the poor,” instead of Mr. Trump’s preferential option for his dear 1%.

A Diana Ross Concert Sparks Memories of the African-American Rebellion of 1967

Diana Ross Pic

Last week, my wife, Peggy, and I attended a Diana Ross concert at the Interlochen Music Camp here in Michigan, where we’re spending our summer. The sold-out performance was spectacular as the 73 year-old Ms. Ross reprised hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop, in the Name of Love.”

The nearly all-white crowd of Baby Boomers spent most of the 90-minute show on its feet applauding, dancing and singing along with the still-beautiful diva who was supported by a remarkable band and a quartet of dynamic back-up singers.

It all took us back to the ‘60s and ‘70s before our hair turned white.

It also made some of us recall an era before Ms. Ross’ hometown, Detroit, became a byword for urban decay reminiscent of the Third World. Back then, it was a vital industrial and cultural center, the birthplace not only of The Supremes’ Motown Sound, but of the Black Panthers, and the focus of the northern phase of the Civil Rights Movement that changed our nation forever.

That phase had protestors responding to poverty and police brutality more violently than our domesticated history would have us recall. Exactly 50 years ago in 1967, it turned Detroit into a flashpoint of the Great Uprising of the African American working class, whose effects are still being felt today.

The rebellion (portrayed in the mainstream press as “riots”) began in Newark, but quickly spread to the Motor City and almost 400 U.S. urban centers. In fact, between 1960 and 1971 there were nearly 1000 such uprisings across the country.

In response the government called out the National Guard. While cities burned, troops with bayonets fixed marched on protestors; tanks rumbled down ghetto streets.

That sort of response to such widespread unrest indicates a nascent civil rights revolution, not mere riots.

The bi-partisan Kerner Commission underscored that point, when it examined the rebellion’s causes. Its Report blamed the uprisings not on the protestors, but on white racism.  It called for the equivalent of a huge Marshall Plan to counter the effects of the police brutality and deep poverty that, it said, had sparked the violence.

However, instead of massive investment in public schools, housing, and social programs, the “riots” in Detroit and elsewhere evoked a counter-revolution that we experience still today.

The reaction began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. His Southern Strategy took advantage of the very racism denounced by the Kerner Report. Ironically, Nixon’s approach used religion to appeal to the anti-black sentiments of white Christian Evangelicals especially in the nation’s South. It transformed the Republican Party into the out-of-control reactionary force it now represents under Donald Trump. It eventually gave rise to stop-and-frisk policing, to the massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos, and to the widespread execution of unarmed black men and women at the hands of increasingly militarized urban police forces.

Additionally, the counter revolution saw defunding of public schools, public housing, and social programs. It witnessed the transformation of the War on Poverty into the War on Crime. It entailed capitalism’s abandonment of the working class, as it off-shored jobs vital to the economies of cities like Detroit, Newark, and Camden.

Finally, the right wing reaction to black rebellion suspended democracy itself in Detroit, as an unelected Emergency Manager overrode community welfare in favor of austerity measures that further penalized the poor. And as economist, Richard Wolff has indicated, the resultant and much ballyhooed “Detroit Renaissance” amounted to nothing more than gentrification on steroids, where billionaires are subsidized to build glitzy high-rises and restaurants.  Meanwhile on the periphery of apparent renewal, 40% of the population remains mired in poverty in a state where 48% of African-American children are poor.

What a contrast: the splendor and betrayed promise of Miss Ross and the Civil Rights Movement, on the one hand, and the disintegration of the counter-revolutionary Detroit (and America) on the other!

It’s time to reject the latter in all its brutality and to re-embrace the former with all the enthusiasm of those Boomers at Interlochen last week.

Without uttering a word about politics, Ms. Ross reminds us that we can do better. The Kerner Report tells us how.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Anti-Imperial Parables: How to Resist (State) Terrorism

ISIS & Jesus

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire.

No, it’s much more relevant than that. It’s actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. It summons all of us to withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East.

More specifically, today’s gospel reading, on the one hand, calls those living in the belly of the beast to stop approving of our imperialist overlords who currently sow their weeds of destruction throughout the Middle East. This means actively opposing their wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

On the other hand, the three parables attributed to Jesus also suggest a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. The parables address them precisely as victims of imperialism and hence the closest analogue to what the Bible calls “the people of God.”

I mean: in today’s world, the situation of Muslims closely tracks that of Jesus’ audience in first century Palestine.  As such, all three of today’s readings call followers of Mohammed [who recognize Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

To get my meaning, begin by considering our liturgy’s first selection from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom. It is particularly relevant to “Americans,” identified by Dr. King as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” The reading says explicitly that God’s power is not expressed in violence but in leniency to all.

That theme is repeated in today’s responsorial psalm with equal relevance to USians. There God is described as belonging to all nations.

Similarly, in the second reading, St. Paul insists that the divine Spirit dwells within all humans regardless of nationality. It is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.

From this, Jewish wisdom insists that believers must in turn be kind, lenient and forgiving to all – even (Jesus says elsewhere) to their worst enemies. This is directly pertinent for the U.S. described by Noam Chomsky as the one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist countries in the world. Those who claim to follow Christ (as 83% of Americans do) must be as pacifist as their Master.

The second theme of today’s liturgy is less easy for an outsider to comment upon. It implicitly addresses the victims of American aggression – most prominently the Muslim community and whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist with violence.

I mean that Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause which included land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

How then respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ response? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves – like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than simple Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military, and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or God?

What do you think?

God’s Abundance vs. the Greed, and Self- Interested Denial of the Rich : Jesus’ Parable of the Sower

Parable of Sower

Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55:10-11; PS 65:10-14; ROM 8:15-23; MT 13: 1-23;

Not long ago, on the 4th of July, Amy Goodman replayed an interview with the legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger. In the course of the interview, Pete commented on today’s Gospel reading – the familiar parable of the Sower. His words are simple, unpretentious and powerful. They’re reminders that the stories Jesus made up were intended for ordinary people – for peasants and unschooled farmers. They were meant to encourage such people to believe that simple farmers could change the world – could bring in God’s Kingdom. Doing so was as simple as sowing seeds.

Seeger said:

“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”

Farmers in Jesus’ day needed encouragement like that. They were up against the Roman Empire which considered them terrorists. We need encouragement too as we face Rome’s counterpart headed by the U.S.

The obstacles we face are overwhelming. I even hate to mention them. But the short list includes the following – all connected to seeds, and farming, and to cynically controlling the natural abundance which is celebrated in today’s readings as God’s gift to all. Our problems include:

• Creation of artificial food scarcity by corporate giants such as Cargill who patent seeds for profit while prosecuting farmers for the crime of saving Nature’s free production from one harvest to the following year’s planting.
• Climate change denial by the rich and powerful who use the Jesus tradition to persuade the naïve that control of natural processes and the resulting ecocide are somehow God’s will.
• Resulting wealth concentration in the hands of the eight men who currently own as much as half the world’s (largely agrarian) population.
• Suppression of that population’s inevitable resistance by terming it “terrorism” and devoting more than half of U.S. discretionary spending to military campaigns against farmers and tribal Peoples scattering seed and reaping pitiful harvests in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.
• Ignoring what the UN has pointed out for years (and Thomas Picketty has recently confirmed): that a 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 individuals would produce the $40 billion dollars or so necessary to provide adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education and health care for the entire world where more than 40% still earn livings by sowing seeds.
• Blind insistence by our politicians on moving in the opposite direction – reducing taxes for the rich and cutting programs for the poor and protection of our planet’s water and soil.

It’s the tired story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the 1st century version of that old saw. In Jesus’ day it ran: “. . . to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that such cynical “wisdom” does not represent God’s way. Instead the divine order favors abundance of life for all – not just for the 1%. as our culture would have it. For instance, today’s responsorial psalm proclaims that even without human intervention, the rains and wind plow the ground. As a result, we’re surrounded with abundance belonging to all:

“You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.”

Because of God’s generosity, there is room for everyone in the Kingdom. The poor have enough; so poverty disappears. Meanwhile, the formerly super-rich have only their due share of the 1/7 billionth part of the world’s product that rightfully belongs to everyone.

To repeat: abundance for all is the way of Nature – the way of God.

Only a syndrome of denial – willful blindness and deafness – enables the rich and powerful to continue their exploitation. Jesus describes the process clearly in today’s final reading. He says:

“They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.”

Those of us striving to follow Jesus’ Way hear his call to open our eyes and ears. Conversion – deep change at the personal and social levels – is our shared vocation. That’s the only way to bring in God’s Kingdom. Individually our efforts might be as small and insignificant as tiny seeds. But those seeds can be powerful if aligned with the forces of Nature and the Kingdom of God. That’s true even if much of what we sow falls on rocky ground, are trampled underfoot, eaten by birds or are choked by thorns. We never know which seeds will come to fruition.

Such realization means:

• Lowering expectations about results from our individual acts in favor of the Kingdom.
• Nonetheless deepening our faith and hope in the inevitability of the Kingdom’s coming as the result of innumerable small acts that coalesce with similar acts performed by others.

Once again, Pete Seeger expressed it best:

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”

G 20, God’s Peace and the World’s Wars: 180° of Separation (Sunday Homily)


Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ZEC 9:9-10; PS 145: 1-2, 8-12; ROM 8:8, 11-13; MT 11: 25-30

So the G-20 is meeting this week in Hamburg, Germany. Isn’t it comforting?  Among other things, this privileged group of wealthy co-conspirators will choose the means by which the rich would ultimately destroy the planet. Will it be by nuclear holocaust or by ignoring climate change?

Or will it be by economic policies that enable eight (count ‘em – 8) individuals to possess as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, while 30,00 children die of starvation each day. President Trump prefers to end the world by climate change; Ms. Merkel’s leans towards nuclear weapons. However, in the spirit of irenic political compromise, both Merkel and The Donald could ultimately go either way. In any case, they both approve the reigning system’s math whose product is mass starvation.

It’s great to be rich, don’t you agree?

Think about it. According to today’s papers, our billionaire leaders have more or less out-of-the-blue decreed that Russia, North Korea, the Ukraine, and Syria represent urgent crises and causi belli nuclear. And this, even though using just 1% of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons of mass-destruction would likely render our planet completely uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, no one I know can even explain to me why Pakistan, India, and Israel should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, but not North Korea or Iran. No one can help me understand why we’re even concerned about Ukraine or Syria – much less Yemen or Somalia. What dog do we have in those fights?

And, explain to me, pray-tell, why an ignoramus like Mr. Trump and his gang of Republican Know-Nothings should be able to determine the fate of the planet relative to climate change. Do their opinions represent yours? Not mine! What happened to democracy?

It’s all quite insane.

In contrast to all of this, today’s liturgy of the word celebrates peace unequivocally. All three of the day’s readings, plus the responsorial psalm emphasize the fact that peace, not war or planetary destruction is the way of God’s kingdom. That reign, where God is king instead of Caesar (or Mr. Trump or Ms. Merkel), turns out to be diametrically opposed to the world’s logic of war and disregard for Mother Nature. It contradicts ALL of the values of the planet’s “wise” and “learned” – ALL OF THEM! This means that if you want to do the right thing or support the right policy, you should do the exact opposite of what the politicians, pundits and professors tell you.

Yes, read the final communication from Hamburg. But then add the qualification “NOT!!” Like magic, then, you’ll arrive at God’s position.

That’s more or less what our readings today tell us!

Even before Jesus, and setting the tone for the day, the first reading from Zechariah describes God’s divine Spirit as completely anti-war. In the prophet’s words, it banishes chariots from Ephraim, and the warhorse from Jerusalem. It breaks the warrior’s bow in two not only in the holy city, but across the planet itself.

For St. Paul, in today’s second selection, such rejection of war manifests the very Spirit of Christ dwelling within us all. That Spirit gives life, not death, to the entire world. It is the Spirit of God himself. It is our own spirit – our true Self. So, if we choose to bomb, shoot or drone anyone, we’re committing suicide. That’s what it all means.

In his own phrasing, Paul describes the opposite of such divine rationale as “flesh,” “body,” “mortality,” “darkness,” and “death.” It is the logic of individuality and separation. In practice it all leads inevitably to war – to Zechariah’s horse, chariot, bow and spear – all of which the world’s “learned” consider “wise,” practical, and realistic.

Today’s responsorial psalm calls the contradicting World Soul “merciful” and “compassionate” towards all creatures, not just humans, much less exclusively towards those of a particular race or nation. Though “mighty,” it is gentle and non-violent (“meek”) especially towards the heavily burdened and crushed.

All of that represents the logic of God’s kingdom, which according to Jesus’ words today, emphasizes the unity of humankind – the fact that we and all of creation are linked by what Jesus calls his single easy “yoke.”

According to Jesus, his message or “burden” is not dark, heavy, or difficult to understand. Even the most unlearned (“the little ones”) can grasp it. Far from threatening our survival, it is light itself; its acceptance represents the epitome of enlightenment. Ironically, then, the simple, the unlearned, the nobodies of the world, appreciate Jesus’ proclamation better than their educated counterparts.

In practice, those wise men (including many church leaders) continue to dismiss God’s logic as somehow impractical, stupid, suicidal, utopian, unrealistic, and naïve. As I’ve already indicated, their wisdom instead dictates “wise” and “realistic” policies emphasizing separation, individuality, competition, nuclear weapons, and mutually assured destruction (MAD).

And how’s that wisdom working out for you, your children, grandchildren, and our world?

It’s time for followers of Jesus to finally embrace God’s word as expressed in today’s readings. Our very survival depends on it. It’s up to us to reject the world’s logic – the calculus of flesh, body, darkness, war, and violence.  Now is the hour for us to vote, take to the streets (like the hundreds of thousands in Hamburg), and begin living according to Spirit, light, peace, and non-violence.

That’s because we are Spirit, not flesh. So only the non-violence celebrated in today’s readings can save us. That’s not naive, my friends, it’s the realism of God.

(Sunday Homily) July 4th in the Land of the Regimented and Home of the Terrified

July 4th

Readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2KGS 4: 5-11, 14-18A; PS 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROM 5: 3-4, 8-11; MT 10: 37-42.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates hospitality. It lauds the loving reception of prophets, social justice activists (the righteous), and the least among us. It invites us to grow up and offer such welcome despite what family members might think, when prophets like Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus contradict the culture’s received wisdom.  We are to embrace such critics despite the resulting rejection and threats (even death) of the larger community. The liturgy reminds us that openness to prophets, champions of social justice, and their victimized protégées imitates the generosity of Jesus and God himself.

Reflections like these prove especially apt on this Fourth of July weekend, at a time when our national circumstances stand in such sharp contradiction to the ideals we celebrate. To understand what I mean, first consider the occasion; then the liturgy’s sobering reminders about hospitable openness to prophetic insights which in Israel were often critical of the distance between the nation’s ideals and its historical, lived reality.

Let’s begin with our context.

Tuesday, of course, will be Independence Day. It’s an annual festival to laud the Founding Fathers, democracy, and American ideals of freedom, justice, and our “exceptional” Way of Life. It’s a time to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants – those famous “tired, poor, and huddled masses” – seeking better conditions in a land of unlimited possibilities. It’s when we sing the “Star Spangled Banner” recalling that we’re all free and brave.

Some of us will go to baseball games or watch the national pastime on T.V. There, war planes will fly in formation as we sing Francis Scott Key’s hymn that has always connected our banner to rockets and bombs. At the 7th inning stretch, we’ll cheer local servicemen and women just returned from current U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, where (it will be claimed) they’ve bravely defended our democracy and freedom.

We’ll wave flags, attend fireworks displays, and wear clothes with patriotic insignia. There will be parades with high school marching bands. Picnics will feature hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, potato salad, beer and Coke. At other gatherings, the Pledge of Allegiance will be recited proclaiming that our nation is one, indivisible and lives “under God.” In the spirit of it all, some will inevitably cheer “U.S.A., U.S.A.”

In short, we’ll celebrate life in America, where patriots are blessed and happy.

Unfortunately, none of that will ring true for me this year. In fact, it hasn’t in a long time.

That’s because as a nation (as in the Israel of Elijah, Elisha and Jesus) we’ve long since abandoned the ideals that supposedly underlie the garish and familiar outward display. In fact, it’s all been hijacked in a coup d’état – or several of them – that we don’t even recognize as having occurred. I’m referring to the assassination of J.F.K. in 1963, and to the selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court (rather than by voters) in 2000, and to the recent gradual and undemocratic seizure of all levers of public power by what Chomsky calls “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world,” viz. the Republican Party. Their anti-democratic power grab has been facilitated by:

  • Governmental refusal to abolish the Electoral College despite the fact that two of our last three presidents have been selected by bureaucrats rather than elected by a majority of voters
  • The SCOTUS Citizens United decision equating money with free speech
  • The Supreme Court’s partial repeal of the 1963 Voting Rights Act (in 2013)
  • General voter suppression and intimidation in poor, minority communities
  • Depriving convicted felons of voting rights
  • Insistence on using hackable voting machines with no paper trail
  • Exclusion of third and fourth party candidates from presidential debates
  • Ridiculous gerrymandering
  • Violation of the Constitutions’ mandate to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat until a right-wing extremist could occupy the post

All of that has made untenable any pretension of democracy. Ours is now an entrenched plutocracy, where the popular will doesn’t matter. Our wars have nothing to do with advancing democracy’s cause. In fact, few could even explain (much less defend) why “we” are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. Can you? I can’t.

So it turns out that our soldiers are not heroes. They are well-meaning, but systematically brain-washed by their “basic training.” That enables them to routinely torture and kill the innocent impoverished people whom they’re mobilized against for reasons the soldiers don’t even question, much less understand. (Isn’t it interesting that ALL our wars are fought against the desperately poor?) Supposedly, our military is fighting terrorists. But those simply wouldn’t exist absent their direct creation by the U.S. government – to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan (during the 1970s) and as a direct response to our country’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. There is no doubt about it: ISIS was “made in America.” Most of our victimized and victimizing service people know none of this.

Far from being brave and free, the rest of us are all scared out of our wits and are constantly and resignedly monitored by a Big Brother whose unchanging mantra is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” So we withdraw into our homes (some in literally gated communities) and distract ourselves with our T.V. shows, computers, IPads, and smart phones. We cheer an ignorant and mendacious Reality Show President as he proposes plans to build defensive walls against the immigrant successors of our own ancestors. We treat as normal an entire Know Nothing political party bent on depriving millions of health care and whose climate-change-denial will render the planet unlivable for our grandchildren. Without so much as a whimper, whites look on largely silent as skin-head police thugs are acquitted again and again, even after their neo-lynchings of unarmed black people are unambiguously caught on camera. The blue suited cowards’ unwavering self-defense is: “I feared for my life.”

We’ve become a land of the constantly surveilled and skittishly cowered.

All of that is called into question by today’s biblical readings. Together they celebrate “reception,” i.e. hospitality offered to prophets (social critics), the righteous (social justice champions), and the least among us. All of them, we’re told, are embodiments of the Christ Spirit and of God himself. The welcoming word “receive” appears eight times in today’s brief gospel selection.

And who is it that we’re receiving? As I’ve indicated, they are prophets to begin with. The first reading recounts an episode from Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Elijah, remember, was the fierce social critic of Israel for abandoning its identity as protector of widows, orphans, and immigrants. He excoriated palace sycophants who in the name of God optimistically, patriotically, and blindly proclaimed “peace, peace.” Instead, Elijah correctly predicted, Israel’s chickens would come home to roost. They’d be humiliated by Babylon – the ancient name of present day Iraq. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, continued his mentor’s mission after the latter was swept up to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Jesus of Nazareth as well as John the Baptist were identified as Elijah redivivus. They suffered accordingly. The people turned against them as they had done against all the prophets. Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and its temple collaborators. According to Mark, the evangelist, the Master was thought insane by his mother and family.

So in today’s gospel, we find Jesus directing us to love God’s Kingdom more than family. (The Kingdom as embodied in Jesus’ person was a vision of what the world would be like if it were governed by God instead of Caesar and his successors.)  In today’s reading, Jesus calls us to damn the consequences of being as outspoken as were he and his prophetic predecessors.

We too must be ready, he says, to take up our cross and follow him. (Remember the cross was the instrument of torture and death reserved for opponents of Rome. His reported reference to “the cross,” then, is highly political.)

So on this Independence Day, perhaps our most patriotic action might be (at least in spirit) to spend the day in sackcloth, ashes, and mourning. It might be best to look critically at the fireworks, parades, ball games, picnics and family gatherings, as though they belonged to foreigners and to reinterpret them as a summons to resist. (In fact, any follower of Jesus, is a foreigner in this world, and a resister by definition.)

In other words, our call this day might be to speak the truth about our lost ideals, and then to endure patiently the fury of the family, friends, and community Jesus tells us to reject for his sake. Our true family, he reminds us, is not composed of “Americans,” but of the prophets, social activists, and “little ones” he, Elijah and Elisha championed so fearlessly.