“American History X,” Charlottesville, and President Trump: Mystical Consciousness Alone Can Save Us

American History X

Keeping in mind the controversy around the recent white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville VA, you might want to watch American History X again. Some probably remember it well, even though it premiered back in 1998 – nearly 20 years ago.

However, the events in Charlottesville make the film more contextually relevant than ever. That’s because it depicts the inner dynamics of white racist gangs, and the psychology of its leaders and members. Even more importantly, it expresses exquisitely the fascist mind-set of current “leaders” in Washington including most prominently the president of the United States. Concurrently, it calls us all to a mystical conversion as our only salvation from encroaching Nazism.

Recall the narrative. Like the Charlottesville backstory, the plot of American History X centers around white supremacists afraid that they’re losing control of their neighborhood and what they consider their country.

Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) is the main character. Derek’s a Nazi white supremacist whose father, a Los Angeles firefighter, is killed in the line of duty. Crucially for Derek, his father’s killers were members of an African-American drug gang.

That personal tragedy leads Derek even further into the depths of white supremacy. As the leader of a skinhead gang, he uses his extraordinary leadership charisma and street eloquence to become its legendary head and inspiration.

Here’s a speech that Derek gives to gang members before they trash a grocery store owned by an Asian immigrant. See if it sounds familiar:

Again, does any of that sound familiar? I think we’ve heard highly similar (though slightly less crude) remarks from our current president. As if we needed it, they remind us of the simplistic world-vision such sentiments presume. It’s the immigrants, not the capitalist economy itself, who are responsible for the job=loss and for Americans’ falling standard of living. Like President Trump, Derek apparently doesn’t understand how globalist trade policies and endless U.S. wars and bombings have destroyed the livelihoods and homes of the immigrants in question. And, of course, there’s no trace of comprehending the shared spiritual identity that precedes nations and borders that are by comparison quite artificial.

The one chiefly influenced by Derek’s example is his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his brother and so becomes roped into the white gang’s culture.

After Derek shoots one and brutally stomps to death another of two black men attempting to steal his truck, he’s sent to prison for three years. There interactions with other white supremacists whose actions reveal their hypocrisy, along with an unlikely friendship with an African-American inmate open Derek’s eyes. He emerges transformed from his prison experience. He rejects his skinhead ideology, formally leaves his gang, and makes it his mission in life to open the eyes of his younger brother who is already well along the path Derek’s own footsteps have marked out.

In other words, the former skinhead moves from a stage of nationalism to something like world (or at least multi-racial) awareness that makes him more understanding and accepting of those he previously despised.

Importantly, the film’s conclusion even hints at the dawning of a salvific mystical consciousness on the part of Danny who narrates the film. Just before the credits roll he quotes an unnamed author saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those words show a realization on Danny’s part that only a mystical recollection of a Higher Self (“the better angels of our nature”) will, despite contrary passions, prevent the severance of kinship’s bonds that precede the historical events that divide us one from another. To me, that echoes the dawning of a kind of cosmic-consciousness.

That consciousness alone can save us now (that and perhaps jailing those “leaders” I mentioned, so that they might share Derek Vineyard’s conversion experience). Put otherwise, we neglect our deep bonds of human spirituality at our own peril.

As the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said about our future  so many years ago, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”

Unfortunately, Rahner’s nothingness now constitutes humanity’s very horizon.

So watch American History X again. And see if it makes you think about where we are heading.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Despite Appearances, God’s Kingdom Will Ultimately Triumph

Arc of history

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28.

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Charlottesville, Syria, Yemen, and President Trump’s defense of Neo-Nazis.

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? In sum, “solutions” uniformly involve locking the people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” centralized in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy, social reform, and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, diplomacy has become a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in Charlottesville, Houthis in Yemen, or ISIS militants in Syria – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort, never the last. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Houthis, Syrians, and residents of Chicago’s south side. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history makes Jesus’ prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that (despite appearances) God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, those living under endless bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen, and rich people like Mr. Trump and Saudi Princes making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul.” We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Charlottlesvilles, Yemens, Raqqas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Mr. Trump, his friend Sheriff Arpaio, or with the innocent victims of U.S. bellicosity.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in those places afflicted by permanent U.S. belligerence.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! They say that the world’s ultimate decision-makers are poor people like the fisherman, Peter, and like the rest of Jesus’ followers – the beggars, prostitutes, and victims of Roman imperialism. It’s what they decide — what they bind on earth — that reflects God’s divine order. History is on their side, not on that of the apparently invincible.

For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ words disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will finally come. That’s our faith! It’s what gives meaning to our lives of resistance.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He says it’s not always apparent what God is up to in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political and personal) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”

A Chauvinist Jesus Gets Schooled by a Palestinian Mom


Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 56:1, 6-7; PS 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; ROM 11: 13-15, 20-32; MT 15: 21-28.

“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Those are the words addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. They come from a woman whom the evangelist, Matthew, remembers as “Syrophonecian”

An uncharacteristically narrow-minded Jesus has his own name for the woman and her daughter. He calls them “dogs” – b_tches, really. That’s the term for female dogs, isn’t it?

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

For now, note that “Syrophonecian” meant the woman was not a Jew. She was a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. She was living near the twin cities of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile or non-Jewish region of the Fertile Crescent where Matthew takes trouble to locate today’s episode. That would have made Jesus’ petitioner what we call a “Palestinian” today.

No doubt you’re surprised at Jesus’ rough and disrespectful language towards the woman and her child. I am.

As I said, at first he gives no reply at all; he ignores the two females completely. If Matthew’s account is accurate, in his silence Jesus showed himself to be captive to his own cultural norms. It was inconceivable in Hellenistic antiquity for a strange woman to directly approach a man the way the woman in this story did. Above all, it was so for a non-Jewish woman to directly address a Jewish man. In other words, Jesus’ silence shows him a captive to his patriarchal “honor culture.”

But then, as I said, it gets worse. When the woman insists, Jesus implicitly at least uses that term that women find so offensive. He says, “I have been sent for the lost children of Israel . . . it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to a pair of b_tches.”

Is that a sneer I see on Jesus’ face?

In any case, the reply seems out of character for Jesus. In fact, such dissonance has led many scholars to reject the saying as inauthentic – or as though Jesus were only pretending to be hard to test the woman’s faith. Whatever the case, Jesus’ words only echo the rabbinic saying of the time, “He who eats with idolaters is like one who eats with a dog.”

Can’t get much more chauvinist than that, can you? Foreigners’ religions are nothing but “idolatry.” Foreigners themselves are filthy animals.

Do you know anybody that thinks like that? I mean, we still haven’t outgrown such narrowness, and disrespect any more than this stony Jesus apparently had.

But then the woman disarms the Master completely, even as he turns his back on her. Listen to her words. Unfazed in her desperation before this peasant faith healer, she blurts out, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”


We can almost see Jesus stop in his tracks. He shakes his head ruefully and turns back. We can almost hear him stifle a laugh as he exclaims, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Can you believe it? This poor woman has just schooled Jesus – the Great Teacher. She successfully called him back from his self-identification as an ethnocentric patriarch to his better Self. So he concedes her argument. The one whom the gospels present as the invincible master of verbal riposte admits error and defeat at the hands this simple Palestinian mom.

What does the interaction between Jesus and the woman called “Syrophonecian” mean for us today?

I don’t know . . . Perhaps it means that:

  • If this story actually happened, it’s somehow comforting to know that Jesus was so human — more like us than we’ve been made to think.
  • Xenophobia and racial prejudice are powerful!
  • So is the patriarchal narrow-mindedness fostered by religion. It even captivated Jesus.
  • It continues to captivate most of us even as we speak — in the context of immigration controversy and Black Lives Matter.
  • Women’s voices, especially when defending their children, are often more perceptive than even the wisest of men.
  • For that reason, it’s simply wrong to exclude women from leadership roles in politics and legislation – especially when questions of children, health, women’s reproductive rights, and spiritual leadership are at stake.
  • Given our liturgical context today, it’s wrong to exclude women from the highest leadership posts in the Catholic Church.
  • Don’t let name-calling deter you from doing the right thing.
  • “Sticks and stones . . .”

Face It: President Trump Is Right; There Was “Violence on Many Sides”

Trump Charlottesville

Commentators on both left and right were understandably outraged by President Trump’s tepid remarks about the violence in Charlottesville last weekend. He condemned what he referred to as “violence — on many sides.”

Can you imagine his words if the driver of that car in Virginia had been Muslim?

Yet, the president’s (for once) measured response proves to be unwittingly perceptive and wise.

That’s because in Charlottesville, there was indeed violence on many sides. In fact, if we adopted President Trump’s low-key perspective, our responses to violence in any form might be similarly measured and sage. It would help us recognize that in Charlottesville only the antifa violence enjoyed any degree of justification.

Let me explain.

Violence is never one-dimensional. As Dom Helder Camara, the sainted Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil, pointed out years ago, in most cases, there is a predictable “spiral of violence” that is often overlooked. It involves structures, self-defense, police response, and sometimes terrorism on the part of individuals and (most often) the state.

Consider Charlottesville; it clarifies by representing every turn of the spiral.

In the eyes of African-Americans, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee represents the structural violence of slavery and white supremacy. Such institutionalized violence is invisible to most white people. However, the alt right reaction to the statue’s removal finally rendered monument’s real institutionally violent meaning unmistakable. It represents white nationalism, and not “southern pride” after all. As a result, nationalists’ march was itself an act of institutionalized violence.

That violent assertion of white supremacy led to a second level of violence on the part of African-Americans and their allies. When their peaceful protest was attacked by the white nationalists, the protestors defended themselves – yes, violently. Archbishop Camara identified such self-defense (against institutionalized cruelty) as virtually the only form our culture recognizes (and typically condemns) as violence. And yet, it is perhaps, the only justifiable type. Everyone has the right to self-defense.

The third level of violence entered when the Charlottesville police “stood down” in the face of the mayhem taking place before their eyes. Usually, police (third level) response simply restores the violent status quo ante. Ironically, however, in the case of Charlottesville, it was police inaction that represented Dom Helder’s third level of violence.  Their standing-down facilitated the alt right attacks.

Finally, in Charlottesville last weekend, there was the terroristic violence of the Nazi sympathizer and Trump supporter who murdered Heather Heyer and injured many others when he plowed his car into those demonstrating against the institutionalized violence represented by white supremacists. That’s the fourth turn in the “spiral of violence.” In the case of Charlottesville, such terrorism too was aligned with violence’s structural form.

Unfortunately, the driver’s terroristic expression might soon be institutionalized itself as states like North Carolina are on the verge of granting motorists the legal right to run over protestors who might be blocking traffic. In that case, an individual’s terroristic act would be transformed into state terrorism, which happens to be terrorism’s most common incarnation as seen, for example, in drone killings, torture, and threats of nuclear war.

So, as you can see, the president was right. Violence is indeed many-sided. Applying Trump’s Principle of Understanding might well make him and all of us much more thoughtful and cautious in responding to tragedies like Charlottesville last week. It would always prompt us to examine context and make crucial distinctions. It would help us recognize that of all forms of violence, only the second (self-defensive) level has any hope of justification at all.

Violence is a powerful word. President Trump inadvertently reminds us that we should be careful in its use and in any actions it might inspire.

A Courageous Pope Francis Knows about Walking on Water: He Calls Us to Do the Same

Francis & Trump

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – and of his invitation to Peter to follow the Master’s example. The story is relevant to Pope Francis who believes he is Peter’s successor.

The walking-on-water episode is also relevant to Catholics in general trying to figure out how to comport ourselves in this age of Donald Trump with its renewed threats of nuclear war. Should we risk criticizing the president in the name of our faith, or not? The pope’s example says we should. Speak out, it says, against pre-emptive war, narrow fundamentalism, racism, rejection of immigrants, and environmental destruction. And don’t worry: it won’t kill you. Not speaking out may.

Just last month, the pope gave that message, showing, once again, his willingness to step out of his boat and follow Jesus’ symbolic example of fearlessly confronting the monstrous threats facing our world.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to Francis’ apparent endorsement of sentiments expressed in a controversial article that appeared last month in La Civiltà Cattolica – the Vatican’s quasi-official weekly publication. The article boldly criticized American Catholics who accommodate the Gospel to Trumpism.

More specifically, the Vatican weekly accused U.S. Catholic ultraconservatives of making an alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians in their backing of President Trump. In doing so, the article warned, they have strayed dangerously into the turbulent waters of political polarization in the United States. According to the Civiltà Cattolica writers, the conservatives’ worldview and literal understanding of the Bible is “not too far apart’’ from that of jihadists.

The Pope’s apparent endorsement of the article showed once again his willingness to confront Monsters like Donald Trump himself along with Steven Bannon, and their Catholic supporters like Paul Ryan, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the German conservative appointed by Benedict XVI (and recently fired by Francis) as the church’s chief judge of doctrinal orthodoxy.

The suggestion here is that the Pope’s courageous stands over the course of his papacy represent his acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting fearful demons that life inevitably forces us to face.

To see the connection, first consider today’s Gospel reading.

The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel focus), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]

In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are all about to drown. You can imagine their cries for help.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, ever the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord!” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of the seriously threatening crises life forces upon us.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And courageously walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal they could think of, the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is: we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters we imagine are lurking underneath.

And that brings me back to Pope Francis and the stands he has taken against the secular orthodoxy of the day that accommodates itself to an emerging neo-fascism. Since the outset of his papacy, he has demonstrated unusual courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves in contradiction to expectations established by his predecessors. Remember:

  • Unlike other popes, he’s adopted a comparatively simple, unpretentious lifestyle.
  • He’s lost no opportunity to condemn neo-liberalism, growing income inequality, and capitalism itself.
  • His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (largely unheeded) called for radical change in the church, and implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
  • More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
  • In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
  • In 2014, his Vatican Peace Vigil helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.
  • The following year, he addressed the U.S. Congress where he forthrightly called for an end to capital punishment, and urged divestment from the arms industry, whose profits he described as “soaked in blood.”
  • On that same occasion, he called his audience to imitate fierce critics of capitalism and United States policy, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
  • He helped shape and gave unequivocal endorsement to the Paris Climate Accords (recently repudiated by Mr. Trump) by publishing his radical eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, also in 2015. It arguably remains the most important public document of the 21st  century.
  • His contextual approach to family issues (pre-marital sex, abortion, sexual orientation, same sex marriage, divorce . . .) recognized the sovereignty of individual conscience. In Amoris Laetitia, he admits that moral choices in family and other matters are inevitably conditioned by age, maturity, degree of moral development, economic necessity, and, yes, ignorance and religious misinformation. As a result, no one is anyone else’s judge.

True, his papacy has daringly left safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed, Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us.

The question is, will we follow him? The monsters we fear can be intimidating:

  • The pro-war mainstream media
  • Those politicians and churchmen I mentioned earlier
  • The relatives, neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners who might think us too political
  • Our own attachment to our petty reputations and self-conceptions
  • The militarized police at demonstrations
  • The emerging right wing, “brown shirt” thugs who might threaten our political expression

As the crisis this week over North Korea shows, this is no time for followers of Jesus to be silent, to remain in safety inside gated communities, behind our computers, TVs, sports fanaticism, and other entertainment addictions. This is the time for us to follow the example of Jesus and Pope Francis.

Today’s dramatic parable calls us to get out of the boat and confront the demons who keep us silent and compliant.

For Lower Fares and Better Service, Nationalize Public Transportation!

Fair Skies

The airline industry is in big trouble with most of us, I’m sure you agree. I mean fares keep going up with no end in sight. You have to pay extra for any baggage you need to check. The seats keep getting smaller, and sometimes it costs you more for slightly wider accommodations even in the coach section. Meals that used to be free now come in little boxes at hefty prices. And even if you’ve paid for all of that, they still might call in the cops and evict you, bloody your nose, and knock your teeth out so that airline employees might take the seat you purchased, and more conveniently hitch a ride to their next gig.

I was reminded of all that when on my last Delta flight, I read an ad in that airline’s August edition of Sky Magazine.  It was headlined “Help Us Defend U.S. Jobs.” In part, the text complained:

“The nations of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are attempting to take over international aviation by funneling billions of dollars in subsidies into their state-owned airlines. U.S. airlines . . . can’t compete with the unreasonably low prices of the gulf airlines. And for every route lost, 1,500 Americans lose their jobs. Left unaddressed, the U.S. aviation industry is at risk . . . Join the fight to protect fair trade and American jobs.”

Say what? “Unreasonably low prices?” They want me to campaign against that? Hmm.

So, what’s Delta’s real problem here?  The ad says the company’s worried that it can’t compete with state-owned airlines that are less concerned with turning a profit than with serving the public – providing more of what travelers want: cheaper fares, good service, no extra charges, and free food and drinks.

How do Qatar, UAE and others do that? Simple: they funnel billions of dollars of investment (Delta misleadingly calls it “subsidies”) into the airlines they own rather than making profit maximization their be-all and end-all. Or, as it’s expressed at DELTA.COM/OURFIGHT: “Because they have large sums of money available, these . . . airlines don’t have to rely on profit.”

What’s wrong with that?

According to the Delta ad quoted above, what’s wrong is that the state-owned airlines are more successful; they’re getting bigger market shares and, Delta claims, costing Americans jobs – 1500 for each lost route. In fact, if it weren’t for the questionable protectionism of U.S. regulations, those airlines would enter our domestic market and take over there as well.

But, of course, there’s a cure for all of that too – one that will not only save those jobs, but likely get us cheaper fares and better service. It’s to follow the example of Delta’s vilified competitors: invest our tax dollars in U.S. airlines too. Nationalize them!

Don’t worry: no jobs will be lost. (It takes just as many people to run state-owned airlines as private ones.) And just watch: those fares will become “unreasonably low” in the process. Services and passenger perks might even reach the level of those gulf companies that so irritate Delta and other U.S. airlines.

Bring it on!

And, while you’re at it, how about investing “billions” of our tax dollars in state-owned railways, rather than in further bloating the defense budget? The state-owned China rail system runs bullet trains that travel at speeds over 200 mph. Meanwhile our under-funded Amtrak locomotives continue plodding along no faster than they did about 50 years ago.

Thank you, Delta, for making the point so exquisitely: when “airlines don’t have to rely on profit” consumers benefit. Air fares become “unreasonably low.”

At least as far as public transportation is concerned, socialism is far more efficient than capitalism.

The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food


Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.