Marianne Williamson to Explore Presidential Candidacy: Encourage Her to Run

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn.7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112518.cfm

Last week, the great spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson announced that she is considering throwing her hat into the ring as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency. Marianne, you remember, is probably the foremost teacher of A Course in Miracles(ACIM), which she describes as basic Christian mysticism.

I was heartened by Ms. Williamson’s announcement, not only at the prospect of her running, but because of the way her candidacy promises to change political conversation within the Democratic Party and nationally, where “devout” Christians have transformed Jesus into a harmless national mascot.

Even more proximately, Marianne’s announcement connects directly with the spirit of this Sunday’s readings for the feast of “Christ the King,” where Jesus distinguishes his kingdom from that of “the world.” Marianne’s candidacy will surely get us discussing that distinction.

So, let’s consider Williamson’s announcement and then its connection with today’s readings.

Here is her formal declaration of exploratory candidacy:

Do you see what I mean about changing political tone? Williamson’s words stand on its head the sad realities of Donald Trump’s “Make America GreatAgain” campaign.

We are no longer a country “of the people, by the people and for the people,” she says. Instead we’ve become a country of the few, by the few, and for the few.

In the face of that hard reality, we must return to our founding principles and to the spirit of the abolitionists, women suffragists, and of the civil rights movement. This will entail not only quantitative changes in our circumstances, but qualitative changes in our souls. It will mean becoming activists exercising the responsibility of engaged citizens committed to taking our country back to its original principles and truths which even the Founders of our nation did not dare implement.

It will be so interesting to see how all of that comes off in the debates between Democratic candidates. I’m betting that Marianne’s unusual emphasis on the deeply spiritual will strike a sympathetic chord reflected in what she calls “true American exceptionalism” rooted in ethical principle –the perfect antidote to Mr. Trump’s faux patriotism rooted in violence.

In fact, the differences between Marianne and the Donald represent mirror images of those between Jesus and Pontius Pilate depicted in today’s gospel reading.

Consider the narrative.

There, John the Evangelist has Jesus declaring the non-violent nature of his kingdom during his interrogation before the Roman governor. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive intellectual. He’s a seeker looking for a way to set Jesus free. However, he’s too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is: that picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. There Pilate’s character is described as consistently devious and cruel – the way many of us would describe Donald Trump. Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, all tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man.

As scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan says, the “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

So, Pilate reduced Jesus to a victim of torture and capital punishment. And that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly “not of this world.”

That’s also the message of A Course in Miracles– which is (as I said) basic Christian mysticism. Again and again it states that the world’s wisdom stands 180 degrees opposite the Wisdom of God.  

Crucially on that score, Jesus distinguishes the non-violence of his kingdom’s citizens from the violence of empire. The guiding ethic in God’s Kingdom is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It is forgiveness. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . .” No, in the Kingdom of God, non-violence reigns.

What are the implications of that type of kingship for military budgeting, for post-9/11 perpetual war, and nuclear weapons-modernization?   Marianne will insist on spelling them out.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

What are the implications of that type of kingship for U.S. policies on immigration, torture, prison reform, and concern for the poor? Marianne will help us face those too.

Moreover, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” refuses to support empire. Instead, he will stand in judgment over all of them from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond even to American Empire. Such regimes are beastly – a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a 10-horned monster with iron teeth.

In contrast to such horrors, Daniel promises that God’s kingdom will finally be headed by a human being – “one like a Son of Man” – or by “the human one” as some translations put it. Revealingly, “Son of man” is the title gospel-writers have Jesus adopting and applying to himself. He is a humanist, not a beast.  His highest value is love of God expressed in love of neighbor – especially of widows, orphans, immigrants and refugees.

Watch the stunned silence of self-proclaimed Christian candidates when during their debates Marianne contrasts Jesus’ wisdom with their insane “realism” which would have us fight unending wars, modernize our nuclear arsenal, exclude immigrants, and equivocate about the dangers of climate change.

And yet, Jesus’ mystic followers from John the Evangelist to A Course in Miracles call us to reject such policies.

As the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, put it, Christians will either become mystics or all of us will all cease to be. Marianne Williamson agrees.

To repeat: it will be interesting to how her candidacy plays out. At the very least, it will change the conversation.

Please encourage Marianne Williamson to run!

Yemen’s Apocalypse: The Threat (and Promise) It Conceals

western imperialism

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time : Dn. 12: 1-3; Ps. 16:5, 8-11; Heb. 10:11-14; Mk. 13:24-32

I hope you’re all watching what’s unfolding in Yemen.

Over the past three years, a Saudi-led coalition there, with complete endorsement and logistical support from the United States has created hell on earth. It’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis described as absolutely “apocalyptic” by Mark Lowcock, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

The reference to apocalypse is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word which features two apocalyptic readings – one from the Book of Daniel and the other from the Gospel of Mark. Your priest or minister will tell you that the excerpts are about the end of the world. But they’re not. They’re both about the end of empire.

Consequently, we who live in the belly of the world’s current imperial beast should take heed. With the affliction our government is causing in Yemen, the readings should make us tremble at the prospect of our inevitable fate.
Before we get to that, think about what’s happening in the poorest country in the Middle East.

Since 2016, bombings by the U.S.-Saudi coalition have killed more than 57,000 people in Yemen. Water supplies, and sewage treatment plants have been destroyed. Epidemics of cholera and diphtheria have resulted. Bombings of the port city of Hodeida have made it impossible for emergency relief to enter the country. And that has pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine. Fourteen million!! More specifically, 500,000 children currently face death by starvation. As a result of it all, a Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes.

Last week, House Republicans blocked Democrats from forcing a vote on the U.S. role in Yemen under the War Powers Act. Why would those who portray themselves as “pro-life” want to continue killing so many children?

The answer, of course, is: because that’s what empires do. It’s what empire’s victims have always contended with. By their very nature, empires create apocalypses.

And that brings us to today’s readings. The literary form apocalypse first appeared about two centuries before the birth of Jesus. The context for its emergence was Israel’s struggle against the Seleucid (Greek) dynasty headed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

In the year 168 C.E., Seleucid troops invaded Palestine and devastated Jerusalem. Antiochus hated Judaism and defiled the Jerusalem Temple by offering a pig on its altar. He also erected an altar to Jupiter in the Temple. Patriotic Jews called it “the abomination of desolation.” While occupying Palestine, Antiochus also destroyed all the copies of Scripture he could find and made it a capital offense to possess such manuscripts. It was against Antiochus IV and the Greek occupation of Palestine that the Bible’s Book of Daniel (excerpted in today’s first reading) was written. Its thrust is to predict the destruction of Antiochus’ imperialist empire. Apocalypse is resistance literature.

Writing nearly two centuries later, Mark adopts Daniel’s resistance form to describe the absolute destruction of Jerusalem that he accurately foresaw. It was very like what’s happening in Yemen. After a six-month siege, the Roman Emperor Titus, with four Roman legions finally captured the city of Jerusalem from its Zealot defenders. Moving from house to house, the Romans destroyed everything within reach, including the City’s Temple. Palestine would not again belong to the Jews until 1947. It was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that Mark has Jesus predicting in today’s Gospel excerpt. It’s that sort of thing that empires have always done.

Years later – sometime in the 90s of our era – John of Patmos penned his Book of Revelation. It employed apocalypse to predict the fall of Rome – the bloody whore seated on her seven hills drinking the blood of martyrs (REV 17:6). John’s context was the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor, Domitian. John’s prediction about Rome? Absolute devastation! Its leaders, legions and ideologues will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (REV 19:17-21). That inevitable fate of empires should scare the hell out of us.

However, as I’ve indicated, most of us have been led to think of such writing as describing the end of the world. And why not? It keeps us from facing what our country is doing in the world and the fate that awaits us.

The false connection between apocalypse and the end of the world has been fostered and exploited by a whole industry of empire-friendly evangelical preachers like John Hagee who appear regularly on our television screens. Their domesticated approach to apocalypse is foundational to the publishing success of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is also foundational to numbing us to scriptural warnings about empire.

According to the preachers and books I’ve just mentioned, apocalypse describes a final battle between Good and Evil. The battle will be fought in the Middle East on the Plain of Armageddon. Two billion people will die as a result – including 2/3 of the Jewish people. The remaining 1/3 will be converted to Christianity because God’s final violent revelation will be so awe-inspiring and convincing. A “Rapture” will then take place, taking all faithful followers of Christ into heaven, while leaving behind the rest of humanity for a period of “tribulation.” In all of this, God is the principal actor. As an angry father, he is finally taking his revenge for the disobedience and lack of faith of his ungrateful children – whom he loves!

Problem is: all of that is dead wrong and blasphemous in terms of the God of love revealed by Jesus. The Rapture story, for instance, appeared for the first time only in the 19th century. In fact, apocalypse is not about the end of the world. It is about the end of empire – the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the case of Daniel, and the Roman Empire in the case of the Book of Revelation. The mayhem and unprecedented suffering referenced in all three sources is not something God does to the world, but what empire routinely does to people, their bodies, souls and spirits, as well as to the natural environment.

Because it has ever been so with empire, today’s excerpt from Mark called for a complete end to the politics of violence and domination. That meant obeying the command of Jesus to reject empire, but also to refuse alignment with Zealot nationalists.

As the Romans under Titus approached Jerusalem between 66 and 70, Zealot recruiters traveled throughout Palestine calling on Jewish patriots to defend their homeland by joining guerrilla forces. Instead, the words Mark put in Jesus’ mouth warned the Master’s followers to flee to the mountains (Mark 13:14-16). They were absent themselves 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 those readings affect us today whose Commanders-in-Chief repeat the crimes of the Seleucid Antiochus IV and the Romans Titus and Domitian – all 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 refusing to defend the present order and allowing it to collapse of its own weight. It means total rejection of U.S. imperial ambitions and practices. It means supporting cease-fire measures in Yemen, calling for total U.S. withdrawal of support from the Saudis, and 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” of patriots defending their countries from invasion by U.S. forces. It means determining what all of that might signify in terms of our consumption patterns and lifestyles and supporting one another in the counter-cultural decisions such brainstorming will evoke.

So, in a sense, apocalypse is after all 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 that Mark has Jesus say this morning, “Do not be alarmed . . . This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

How might we support one another in letting go of imperialism, nationalism and the lifestyles dependent on them?
(Discussion follows)

Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback, Paul of Tarsus

hunchback

This is my 4th blog entry connected with a course I’ve been taking in New York City for the past 7 weeks. The course is called “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory.” It’s taught by the great critical theory scholar, Stanley Aronowitz and has been a great joy for me. I love the subject; my classmates are very smart, and Stanley is . . . well, Stanley. He’s provocative, delightfully quirky, and extremely sharp even after the stroke that (at his age of 85) has confined him to a wheelchair. It’s a great privilege studying with him. As you can see from my previous blogs here, here, here, and here, the course readings from Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin have been challenging. The ones analyzed below are equally so. This week, my responses are to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, and to a brief essay from Walter Benjamin called “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

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Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and the Teachings of the Hunchback Paul of Tarsus

What is the basis of critical thinking? Is it rationality? Is it logic? No, it’s theology.

That, at least, is the implied argument of the critical theorists, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. For them, the foundation of critical thought is what economist and liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert (the convener Costa Rica’s Critical Thinking Group) terms “the critique of mythic reason.” That is, the foundation of critical thought for Marcuse and Benjamin is myth involving interaction between human beings and the divine or ineffable transcendent. Marcuse’s preferred mythology is Greek. Benjamin suggests that his derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition in general and from St. Paul in particular.

The purpose of what follows is to summarize and offer some brief commentary on the relevant arguments of both Marcuse and Benjamin. To do so, this essay will first of all place Marcuse’s use of mythology within the context of his more general argument as outlined in his Eros and Civilization. Marcuse’s thought will then be compared with that of Walter Benjamin as expressed in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with each Benjamin’s highly poetic 18 theses “translated” into more straight-forward prose. The essay will conclude by arguing that Benjamin’s theological approach is more effective than Marcuse’s in terms of critical theory. It will add, however, that Benjamin’s use of the Judeo-Christian tradition stops short of the depth achieved by Hinkelammert’s commentary informed by the theology of liberation – and in particular by Hinkelammert’s analysis of the writings of Paul of Tarsus whose thought he identifies as the root of what has come to be known as critical theory.

Eros and Civilization

Herbert Marcuse’s seminal Eros and Civilization attempts to elaborate the critical implications of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory (245). In doing so, it builds on the model of repression so brilliantly explained by Freud in his own Civilization and its Discontents. Marcuse connects Freud’s theory of the inevitable conflict between civilization and its laws on the one hand, and the fundamental human drive for complete happiness on the other.

With Freud, Marcuse identifies that drive with the Greek word Eros understood on his view, as much more expansive than mere sexual love (205). In doing so, Marcuse acknowledges the term’s mythological roots. Even more, Christian theologians might find theological overtones in his use of Eros which arguably makes the drive for complete happiness equivalent to “God” as described by the author of the Christian Testament’s First Letter of John which identifies God with love itself (I JN 4:7-21).

In the process of stating his argument, Marcuse critically reviews the stages of human development shared by all human beings from birth, through early family life, education, employment, marriage, family life, and death.

Marcuse notes that throughout those stages, humans gradually internalize restrictions on the self-centered drives (especially sexual) common to all humans. Such restrictions are necessary for the ordering of human community that avoids Hobbes war of each against all. Nevertheless, Marcuse finds that the social control required for such order soon develops into “surplus repression” far beyond that required for rational order (35, 37, 87f, 131, 235).

In the light of that reality, Marcuse’s overriding question becomes how to identify and escape excessive control that ends up serving the interests of dominant few, while immiserating all others. The chief misery imposed by those classes is that of alienated labor which requires that humans spend most of their lives performing (and recovering from) mind-numbing and body-destroying activities that have little or no intrinsic value (45).

Again, in order to answer his question about exiting this situation, Marcuse traces the origins of surplus repression. It begins, of course, in the family with a child’s relationship to his parents, especially (in the west’s patriarchal culture) with one’s relationship to father. Following the pattern of Freud’s myth of the primal horde, male children begin their lives confronted with a father who unreasonably imposes surplus repression upon them. His excessive demands cause rebellion paralleling that described in the Primal Horde myth (15). However, in most cases, rather than actually murdering the father, rebellion usually takes the form of sexual deviation from patriarchal restrictions.

Deviation from sexual restrictions is especially important, because (in the words of Erich Fromm) “Sexuality offers one of the most elemental and strongest possibilities of gratification and happiness.” Moreover, “. . . the fulfillment of this one fundamental possibility of happiness” of necessity leads to “an increase in the claim for gratification and happiness in other spheres of the human existence” (243). In other words, the human sexual drive represents the spearhead of Eros, the fundamental life force. That basic drive, Marcuse argues, lurks at the heart of all rebellion against civilization’s super-repression.

Eros differs from sexuality in that it is far less focused on genitalia (205). Even more, it locates its contested terrain on the fields of myth, art, philosophy, liberating education, and play.
Play proves especially important for Marcuse, because (in contradiction to society’s demands for productivity – and its “performance principle” expressed in alienated labor) “play is unproductive and useless precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure” (195). It manifests existence without anxiety or compulsion and thus incarnates human freedom (187).

As noted earlier, the repressed human drive towards such liberation finds expression in philosophy, art, folklore, fairy tales, phantasy, and myth. Marcuse finds the latter especially expressive in the cases of Orpheus, Dionysius, Prometheus, Narcissus, Pandora. Accordingly, he devotes two entire chapters (8 &9) to analysis of Greek mythology. Myths provide instances of phantasy’s expression that “speaks the language of the pleasure principle, of freedom from repression, of uninhibited desire and gratification” (142).

Nevertheless, phantasies based on Greek mythology, though preserving the truth of “The Great Refusal” (to be entirely controlled by alienated labor), remain according to Marcuse’s analysis, “entirely inconsequential” in terms of actual resolving the problem in question (160).

In other words, while Marcuse focuses on a divine Eros in a promising way, he throws up his hands regarding the question of how to talk about its liberating reality to those for whom the very Greek mythology he finds so meaningful lacks resonance. He similarly characterizes folklore, fairytale, literature and art as also insignificant in terms of yielding a reality principle that realistically provides liberation from the “surplus repression” of the one that prevails (160).

This leads to the question: if Greek mythology is so ineffective, then why spend two chapters on the subject? Why did not Marcuse instead explore the liberating dimensions of the mythology of the Judeo-Christian tradition with which so many in the West can indeed identify? It might even be said that for the 75% of “Americans” who identify as Christian, their religious tradition amounts to a kind of underlying popular philosophy that supplies meaning for their lives. Therefore, finding and describing connections between that tradition and liberation from surplus repression would hardly be “inconsequential.”

Clearly, Marcuse was aware of such possibilities. His friend and Frankfurt School colleague, Erich Fromm, had already identified them in his The Dogma of Christ also published (like Eros and Civilization) in 1955. Moreover, Marcuse himself references such possibilities in Eros and Civilization, although he doesn’t elaborate the allusion. There, he observes:

“The message of the Son was the message of liberation: the overthrow of the Law (which is domination) by Agape (which is Eros). That would fit in with the heretical image of Jesus as the Redeemer in the flesh, the Messiah who came to save man here on earth. Then the subsequent transubstantiation of the Messiah, the deification of the Son beside the Father would be a betrayal of his message by his own disciples – the denial of the liberation in the flesh, the revenge on the redeemer. Christianity would then have surrendered the gospel of Agape-Eros again to the Law . . .” (69-73)

Here Marcuse introduces a crucial distinction between the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand and his “transubstantiation” from a human being into the very equal of God. Beforehand, Marcuse says, Jesus was actually a heretic, an earthly Messiah intent on liberating actually existing human beings from oppressive legal systems. His followers, however gradually transformed his liberating Gospel of Agape-Eros into an instrument enforcing a super-repressive Law.

Having opened this promising door of critical analysis, Marcuse unexplainedly leaves it ajar without pursuing its promise.

Benjamin’s 18 Theses

In his final entry in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of Walter Benjamin’s works reflecting his work as a critical theorist, Walter Benjamin ventures into the realm of Judeo-Christian theology that Marcuse so carefully avoids. Benjamin does so in the context of offering a series of eighteen theses on historical materialism and its philosophy of history. By the way, I take “historical materialism” to mean the philosophical conclusion holding that historical experience creates ideas rather than ideas creating historical experience.

Following this conclusion, Benjamin presents a highly contextualized approach to history wherein each of the latter’s moments is shaped by all previous ones as well as by prevailing ideologies and the historian’s own experience of life.

In other words, the writing of history is not simply a matter of recording events that unfolded in time understood as homogenous and empty of cultural influences and repercussions from what came before. Neither is it merely a matter of recording the past for the sake of preserving disconnected memories. Rather, historiography has the social purpose of shedding light on present dangers and crises for purposes of discovering exits from such existential threats.

Crucially for Benjamin (as already indicated), historical method is not only materialistic in the sense just referenced; it is also highly theological. As we shall see, Benjamin’s very first thesis in his list of 18 makes this point by suggesting Pauline theology as the guiding force of critical thought. Subsequently, virtually every thesis in the author’s list contains some reference to elements such as: theology itself (253), redemption, Messianic power, Judgment Day, the kingdom of God, spiritual things (254), good tidings, the Messiah, redeemer, Antichrist (255), theologians (256), angels, Paradise (257), monastic discipline, friars, meditation, Protestant ethics (258), savior (259), mysticism (261), Messianic time (263), the Torah, and prayer (264).

Moreover, like medieval religious practice, Benjamin’s theses are intended to turn the attention of readers away from the world and its affairs – but this time as described by traitorous politicians entrapped by a stubborn belief in the religion of progress (258). In fact, given Benjamin’s theological interests (4, 253) it is easy to interpret his theses on the philosophy of history as attempts to reinterpret theology in the service of historical materialism.

All of this may become evident in the following summaries of each our author’s 18 theses:

Thesis I: In an atmosphere of smoke and mirrors, and guided by theology, critical thought in the form of historical materialism promises inevitable victory over its opponent – viz. automated technology. And this, despite the latter’s deceptions that distort and reverse perception of reality into its mirror-opposite.

Thesis II: Historical materialists agree that Past (lost opportunities), Present (attempts to reverse those losses) and future (refusal to deal with the consequences of present action) exist in dynamic dialectical relationship captured by the words of history, redemption, and envy.

Thesis III: It is true that no event is insignificant in the long course of history. However, the significance of particular events can only be known at history’s conclusion.

Thesis IV: Despite apparent setbacks in workers’ struggles against ruling class domination, the long arc of history bends towards the victory of the poor and oppressed, because their subtle courage, humor, cunning and fortitude are more powerful than the gross tools of their oppressors.

Thesis V: Historical materialists (vs. mere chroniclers of past events) realize that recollection of past events is valuable only insofar as those events relate to and illuminate the present.

Thesis VI: The threats represented by ruling class attempts to reduce traditions about the past to tools supporting conformism must be resisted so that the past’s recollection might serve resistance and liberation instead.

Thesis VII: Historians who recount history without connecting it to present existential threats serve the interests of the world’s rulers (past and present) who steal the spirit and artifacts of those they’ve subdued. Historical materialists swim against that current.

Thesis VIII: History must reflect the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which makes us aware of the changes necessary to overcome the perennial state of danger that has always characterized human existence and its struggle against oppression, which even its opponents treat as inevitable.

Thesis IX: As history’s messengers (angels), historical materialists perceive “progress” as responsible for an unending series of catastrophes. Ironically however, the devastating power of those very calamities prevents historical materialists from successfully alerting audiences to their own loss and lack of perception.

Thesis X: The accepted understanding of history (as a detached chronicling of the past) only serves traitorous politicians who have surrendered to fascism with its uncritical belief in progress, its manipulation of the masses, and its totalitarian structures.

Thesis XI: The conformity of the German working class is grounded in the conviction that “progress” includes and benefits its members. Alienated and enslaving factory work has been dignified by this belief. However, contrary to the convictions of “vulgar Marxism,” technology need not destroy, but could actually enhance and make nature more fruitful.

Thesis XII: It is angry recollection of the past rather than concern for the future and future generations that inspires resistance and rebellion in the working class which is the real repository of meaningful history.

Thesis XIII: Any valid critique of the Social-Democratic concept of progress (as anthropocentric, boundless, and irresistible) must be context-based rather than ignorant of historical context – as is the common Social-Democratic understanding of history.

Thesis XIV: Since only the present moment (the mystical nunc stans) is real, any consideration of the past has value only insofar as it sheds light on the present always characterized by ruling-class domination.

Thesis XV: Revolutionary holidays stop the ongoing continuum of history at decisive junctures – eternalizing the moment of liberation like the clocks simultaneously stopped by bullets on the first evening of fighting in the French Revolution, July 1789.

Thesis XVI: In contrast to historicists, historical materialists experience the present not as a transition to the future, but as an end in itself shaped by past events.

Thesis XVII: Unlike historicism, materialist historiography is not merely additive and does not treat time as homogenous, empty and inexorably in motion. The materialist approach is more contemplative, since it allows thinking (and therefore time) to stop so that history’s flow might be perceived as a unified whole. This pause and perception enables the historian (and his audience) to identify history’s underlying oppression and to uncover openings (past and present) for revolutionary change as the overriding project of one’s life.

Thesis XVIII: Humankind’s 50,000-year stature in a 14 million-year-old universe is nearly insignificant. As a result: (A) Alleging causal connections between historical events remains highly speculative (though any given present is both influenced by the past and contains intimations of a salvific future) and (B) the Jewish concept of time (as fundamental openness to a better future) is helpful here, since it is neither empty nor homogenous, nor magical.

Franz Hinkelammert’s Reading of Benjamin

Analyzing the story recounted in Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history, liberation theologian, Franz Hinkelammert specifically connects Benjamin with Paul of Tarsus and with critical theory. In doing so, Hinkelammert advances the theory of this brief review, viz. that theology constitutes the foundation of critical theory.

In fact, Hinkelammert considers Paul as the West’s first critical thinker. As such, Paul’s thinking, Hinkelammert argues, anticipates critical theory’s historical materialism, universalism, anarchism, and identification of the messianic function of the world’s poor and oppressed (Hinkelammert: La malidicion que pesa sobre la ley: Las raices del pensamiento critico en Pablo de Tarso. Editorial Arlekin. San Jose, Costa Rica, 2010. 16). More specifically, Hinkelammert recognizes the apostle as the hunchback pulling the strings of the puppet (historical materialism) in Benjamin’s cryptic parable (pictured above) recounted in the opening lines of “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Hinkelammert justifies doing so on the basis of the following observations:

• By his own admission, Benjamin’s basic orientation was decidedly towards the biblical past.
• He lamented that the biblical “wizened” founders of modern thought remained hidden and out-of-sight (Benjamin 253, Hinkelammert 23).
• In one of Benjamin’s surviving fragments, the latter’s closest friend, Gershom Scholem, celebrated Paul as the most notable example of a revolutionary Jewish mystic (Hinkelammert 14).
• Like the hunchback in Benjamin’s story, Paul suffered from some kind of physical deformity as described in II COR 12:7-9.
• Benjamin description of the parable’s puppet as wearing “Turkish attire” reminds us that its hidden alleged puppet-master, St. Paul, came specifically from Tarsus which is located in modern day Turkey (Hinkelammert 15).
• Other commentators like Jacob Taubes have found the presence of Paul’s thinking prominent not only in Benjamin, but in the most important currents of modern thought including that of Freud and Nietzsche. (The latter by the way, signaled support for this review’s thesis by villainizing Paul for the apostle’s anarchism, defense of the poor and oppressed, and prefiguration of Marx and of historical materialism) (16).
• Above all, Paul’s criticism of Law as the sin of the world, prepared the way for critical theory’s criticism of market law and of the state as the armed force imposing the will of the ruling class on the oppressed majority (17). For both Paul and critical theorists, complying with an oppressive law remains completely immoral (18).

Conclusion

Tellingly for this review’s thesis – that theology is the basis of critical theory – Hinkelammert points out that after Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, his fragment “Capitalism as Religion” came to light. The fragment drew a direct line from orthodox Christianity to capitalism whose system and ideology, Benjamin argues, replicates point-by-point (in secular terms) the elements of medieval Catholic orthodoxy.

However, according to Hinkelammert, Benjamin failed to note, much less exploit, the critical difference between such orthodoxy and the original message and praxis of the thoroughly Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Had he done so, Hinkelammert observes, Benjamin would have strengthened his conclusion about the connections between Paul and historical materialism, since the teachings of St. Paul followed so closely those of the radical prophet and mystic Jesus of Nazareth.

In the end, it is Paul’s critique Law as well as the apostle’s anarchism and defense of the poor that prefigures the elaborations of Marx and Freud as understood by critical thinkers Benjamin and Marcuse. Only by embracing Paul’s influence, Benjamin correctly observes, can historical materialism claim its assured destiny as victor over the technological automaton intent on destroying us all.

Contemporary critical thinkers and activists would do well to heed Benjamin’s advice. They would do well to join liberation theologians in exploiting the popular power of a reinterpreted Judeo-Christian tradition that supports subversion, anarchism, and the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.

“It’s Over” for the Catholic Church and Its Abusive Clergy

Pedophilia cartoon

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44

Last Thursday, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published an open letter to all bishops in the United States. The letter’s topic was the fallout surrounding the clerical abuse scandal. Its theme was “it’s over” – a refrain repeated seven different times in the document.

The repetition is relevant to the Gospel readings for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the episode of the “Widow’s Mite.” The story summarizes the attitude of Jesus towards clerical corruption in his own day – and in our own.

After visiting Jerusalem’s temple just before his own execution, Jesus concluded that Judaism as represented there had no future. His words and actions expressed his clear conclusion, “It’s over!” He gives up on the temple system. His despair tempts me to give up on the Catholic Church.

Before I get to that, let me fill you in about the NCR letter and the apparent meaning of its catchphrase which implies that the Catholic Church has no more future than the Jerusalem temple Jesus cursed.

“It’s over,” the editors said because:

• The clerical abuse scandal has brought the church to rock bottom.
• This is a question of such rot at its heart that the corruption threatens the very identity and unity of the Catholic Church not only in the United States, but worldwide.
• The feds have now entered the picture ordering chancery officials not to destroy the paper trail they’ve been hiding for more than 50 years.
• Abusers and their enablers have been recognized as federal criminals.
• The bishops have nowhere left to hide. Like the king in the familiar fable the bishops and clergy all stand naked before the world; we all realize that they have no clothes. They have lost moral authority.
• Even Washington’s Cardinal McCarrick abused boys and seminarians for decades.
• And the cover-ups go right to the top – to the Vatican itself. The hastily-sainted John Paul II “let wolves roam his flock” because of his falsely inflated idea of a “heroic priesthood” to which no one can any longer subscribe.
• Blaming gay priests for the crisis is so obviously yet another diversionary attempt to block the fundamental reforms required in a clerical culture that has demonstrated a basic ignorance of human sexuality.
• So is blaming Pope Francis who alone among recent popes has exhibited the courage to confront the problem and to remove from office clerics even at the highest levels of the hierarchy.
• The only reason for belated confessions of guilt on the part of bishops is that they have at last been caught with their pants down (literally!) beginning as far back as 1985.
• Without relentless journalistic investigation, clerical abuse would have continued unimpeded and remained covered-up.
• As a result, apologies, studies, conferences, and spiritual retreats for prayer and meditation all ring hollow.
• Only very fundamental changes have any hope of saving the church.
Absent such transformation, it’s over!

And that brings me to the familiar story of today’s Gospel reading, “The Widow’s Mite.” Contrary to what you’ve been told, it’s not about the widow’s generosity. It’s about her exploitation by a clergy every bit as corrupt as the popes, bishops and priests we’ve just been discussing.

As Mark tells it, Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.

In the meantime, Jesus continues his on-going instruction about the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

The standard way of treating this reading runs like this: (1) The widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (2) follow her example (3) donate generously to your priest and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores today’s responsorial from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s reading, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.

With all of that in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard line.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (MK 13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24). The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite. Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

With Jesus’ warning ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He calls attention to the hypocrisy and injustice of the whole situation and leaves the temple in disgust. For him, in the words of the NCR’s Open Letter, “It’s over!”

And that returns me to my own questions about my commitment to the Catholic Church. Increasingly and reluctantly, I’m feeling that’s over too. Having just moved to the Northeast (Westport, CT), I’ve been searching for a community that honors the progressive teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) – still the church’s official teaching – with its emphasis on social justice, engaged homilies, ecumenism, and vibrant liturgies.

So, I did an online search for “progressive Catholic Churches near Westport.” The search came up empty – except for a site denouncing progressive Catholicism. Nonetheless, a friend directed me to a church in Norwalk (a 15-minute drive from my new location). I joined a men’s group that meets in the church basement each Saturday morning at 7:00 to discuss the next day’s liturgical readings. However, I soon discovered that one of the ground rules for discussion is “No politics!”

That so leaves me out! The world is burning. And critical, liberationist readings of the Jesus tradition offer perhaps our best hope of putting out the raging fire. Where else but church do hundreds of people come together in every community across the country to ponder questions of goodness, truth, and their relationship to Ultimate Reality? Yet good-willed men are told: Don’t connect this with that.

Why continue?

Until that sort of thing changes, for me it is indeed over. And in leaving in disgust, I’m following the example of Jesus himself.

Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

Walter Benjamin

This is the third essay I’ve written for a course on critical theory I’m taking under Stanley Aronowitz at the People’s Forum in New York City. It’s a response to a piece written by Walter Benjamin (pictured above) entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

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Film & YouTube as Means of Revolutionary Production

As we complete the first third of our course, “The Frankfurt School and the Paradoxical Idea of Progress: Thinking beyond Critical Theory,” I’m beginning to see the logic behind the progression of our assigned readings so far. To my surprise I’m also perceiving more clearly the vital connections between our course and the book on critical thinking that I published in the middle of April.

My book is called The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news. Written specifically to introduce advanced secondary students as well as college freshmen and sophomores to easily-understood critical theory, Magic Glasses centralizes structural (especially economic) analysis along with ideological distinctions and historical considerations in the form of Ten Rules for Critical Thinking.

The rules are deduced from the work of liberation theologians at a think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, where my wife, Peggy, and I have worked on-and-off since 1992. The study center is called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones. Until recently, it was headed by Franz Hinkelammert, a leading economist and liberation theologian who now leads The Critical Thinking Group also located in San Jose. His many books are generously peppered with references to Frankfurt School authors.

Drawing on Hinkelammert and others, and in the spirit of our reading from Benjamin, my Magic Glasses also forges connections between contemporary politics in this age of Donald Trump in terms of an unmistakable world-wide drift towards fascism. But even more to the point of this week’s reading assignment, Magic Glasses highlights film as a tool for awakening within students their latent revolutionary consciousness.

With all of that in mind, what follows will first of all briefly connect this week’s assignment from Walter Benjamin with our previous readings from Theodor Adorno on “Progress” and “On Subject and Object.” Secondly, this review will present my summary of our third reading, Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There he identifies film as “the most powerful agent” for facilitating the work of contemporary mass movements. Though warning of its dangers, he sees it as a tool for raising consciousness and catalyzing political praxis. My brief essay will conclude by illustrating Benjamin’s points with my own teaching practices as reflected in the book referenced above.

Reading Connections

Our first two readings from Adorno emphasized vital points about human beings in general and critical thinkers in particular. Contrary to biblical teachings and the analysis of Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Adorno insisted that human beings were not created fully-fledged.

Instead, they are products of evolution; they are works specifically “in-progress” importantly shaped by their historical and material contexts. As such, their fate is still undetermined and might well end in failure – even in the extinction of the human race. Technological development does not guarantee human progress. Rather, uncontrolled it actually threatens the very survival of our race.

Only progress understood as a development of critical consciousness paralleling technical advance and given direction by the very victims of merely mechanical progress, can save us. Salvific consciousness of this kind liberates its possessors to employ technology in the service of human development rather than for its destruction.

In other words (and this brings us to Adorno’s “On Subject and Object”), a major task of critical thinking is to facilitate the transformation of those who use technology from objects to subjects – into conscious agents employing technology in the service of human liberation.

Put more concretely, technological gadgets like radio, movies, television, computers, and I Phones can easily objectify or reify unconscious users and stealthily shape their lives and thinking. Transformed into subjects, the gadgets themselves can turn those who use them into unthinking objects and deprive the unwary of their essential identity as conscious agents directing their lives towards specifically human purposes. Once again: according to Adorno, those purposes centralize the liberation of those whom the structures of capitalism routinely objectify and deform into oppressed, marginalized, despised, and humiliated sub-humans.

So, how exactly do Adorno’s abstract generalizations about technology’s power to captivate and transform human beings into objects shake down in concrete, historical terms?

Benjamin’s Essay

The question brings us to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, the author confronts his readers with stark political choices inherent in technological “progress.” That choice, Benjamin argues, is principally between fascism on the one hand and communism on the other.

However, before he gets to that decision, Benjamin delineates the status questionis. He reviews the history of mechanical reproduction. The Greeks knew exceedingly few forms of mechanical duplication. Reproductions took the form of stamped coins for commercial use, along with bronze and terra cotta artifacts. Other forms of mechanical reproduction followed. They took the shape of wood cuts, the printing press, lithographs, photographic negatives, and movie films including sound recordings. (We might add that “progress” continues today in the forms of computers, I Phones, digital cameras along with associated social media.)

Each development in the list just itemized profoundly impacted human beings in Adorno’s terms, specifically as objects and as subjects.

On the one hand and objectively speaking, the developments in question often straightened the horizons of those interacting with the resulting products. As Benjamin puts it, a reproduced piece of art detached from the history of its production and ownership lost its uniqueness. It lost its “aura” – the halo connecting it to time and space beyond the context of its immediate user. Thus, one viewing a Greek statue of Venus might have no idea of its original value as an object of religious veneration, much less as an object of condemnation by the medieval church which considered it an idol. Moreover, the decontextualized observer would typically remain detached from the history of the statue’s ownership and of the monetary value given it in various contexts.

Even more importantly in terms of reifying naïve observers, Benjamin points out that objects of art produced in mass quantities can be used to propagandize viewers-turned-consumers. This is especially true in the case of photography appearing in magazines and even more so with film. In magazines and newspapers, de rigueur captions actually tell people what their eyes should be seeing. Movie images change so quickly that (for the unaware) successive frames in effect give meaning or interpret the ones preceding them. Assaulted by rapidly changing figures and scenes, the viewer has no time to analyze her or his past or immediate experiences.

In this way, photography and film, especially when coordinated by the ruling classes become perfect vehicles for propaganda and the spread of ideology. Germany’s fascists (in power at the time Benjamin penned this essay in 1936) were quick to recognize the potential of this new technology. Accordingly, they utilized the new visual arts for purposes of brain-washing and massive indoctrination – even employing film to glorify war as the apotheosis of human development. Anticipating their later U.S. counterparts, the Nazis effectively convinced the uncritical that “being all you can be” involves killing one’s fellow human beings and utterly destroying their property in “beautiful” acts of murder, mayhem, and self-immolation. Carried to its logical conclusion, such human objectification, Benjamin warned, leads inexorably to envisioning the apex of human development as mass suicide. (The subsequent development of nuclear weapons and dawning awareness about anthropogenic climate chaos may well prove him to be prophetic.)

Yes, without doubt, Benjamin is correct in expressing serious reservations about the objectifying dangers of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. However, there’s another side to the coin he describes. By its virtue, human subjects as such can also seize the apparatus of such duplication and employ it for purposes of human liberation. Thus:

• Widespread reproduction of art works has turned everyone into a critic.
• Or into film actor of sorts
• Similarly, (and even more-so with the advent of the internet) virtually everyone can discover “an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports,” etc.
• And (I would add) the capability of YouTube to excerpt clips from Hollywood films and from documentaries enhances possibilities for critical teachers to (in Benjamin’s words) “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.”

And that brings me back to The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news.

Magic Glasses

There I use YouTube clips of classic and contemporary films to illustrate each of my ten rules for critical thinking which include (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Select Market (as an organizing principle), (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-Sect Violence, (8) Connect with Your Deepest Self, (9) Collect Conclusions, and (10) Detect Silences. Film clips featured in the book come from films such as Traffic, The Post, Avatar, Sausage Party, The Distinguished Gentleman, Good Will Hunting, American Sniper, Captain Phillips, American History X, War Dogs, Bulworth, and the Broadway musical, Hamilton.

The clips, lasting no more than ten minutes each, have been selected to connect directly with my ten rules. Because of their brevity, and if students missed the point or wanted to see the clip again, any film excerpt can be viewed again with nothing lost in terms of class time. This ability to extract and repeat overcomes Benjamin’s objection about film images whose rapid succession prevent careful analysis or reflection.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. It comes from Good Will Hunting. There the Matt Damon character, Will Hunting himself, is interviewed for a position in the National Security Agency. He’s asked why he shouldn’t take the job. Hunting responds:

Will’s answer is, of course, ironic. However, his response provides a good example of the kind of critical analysis that can be stimulated by short film clips. This one raises questions about connecting contemporary issues into a coherent whole. Will Hunting traces the effects of an anticipated assignment at the NSA from his desk there, to a war involving senseless carnage, a friend’s participation in that war, oil prices, environmental destruction on a massive scale, unemployment problems in the U.S., job loss to cheap Third World labor, and to corrupt politicians, who avoid military service, while somehow managing to get elected to the highest office in the land.

In terms of stimulating critical thinking, all the teacher has to do is ask students, “What did you see?”

Conclusion

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I found Walter Benjamin’s essay not only helpfully coherent with previous readings in our course; I also found his words about film and its use in stimulating critical thinking encouraging in terms of my own thoughts and praxis as a teacher and author.

Synagogue Terrorist, Robert Bowers, Tried to Kill the God of Moses and Jesus

Jewish Bolshevism

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34

All of us were stunned and disgusted last week when Robert Bowers, an ardent right-wing supporter of Donald Trump slaughtered 11 Jewish worshippers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. It was yet another instance of extreme violence by what are proving to be the most dangerous terrorist threats in our nation. They are not Muslims, but white male Christian nationalists with expressed Nazi sympathies.

Such identifications are sharply contradicted by today’s liturgical texts from Deuteronomy and Mark. When you think about them, they turn out to be subversive and even quite anarchistic. They fly in the face of Bower’s sympathies and probably unconscious understandings of Jesus and his teachings.

We’ll turn to those contradictions in a moment.

But first, think about Bowers himself. His despicable act was not an isolated instance of anti-Semitism. It’s much bigger than him. In fact, actions inspired by hatred of Jews are part of the very fabric of western culture. In that tradition, Jews become scapegoats bearing the blame for plagues, poverty, wars, and wealth disparities. The emperor Constantine along with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, the Inquisition, Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and now Trumpists have all done their parts to vilify those the Bible identifies as God’s Chosen People. They have tried to murder the Jewish God.

For instance, here’s what Martin Luther had to say about Jews:

“. . . (T)hey are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus, they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch¬-thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.”

But why the Jews? And even more broadly, why do white male Christian terrorists specifically pick on worshippers not only in synagogues, but in churches and mosques as well? Why did Dylan Roof perform his massacre in a church basement where African-Americans were studying the Bible? Why the assassinations of spiritual leaders like King, Malcolm X? Why shoot Oscar Romero as he was celebrating Mass or slaughter that team of liberation theologians in El Salvador? Why did Salvadoran Treasury Police rape and kill those U.S. nuns in 1980? And, why did the United States decide to wage what Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century” specifically against the Catholic Church in Central America killing hundreds of thousands of believers in the process?

It’s because religion, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, represents a particularly powerful tool for inciting criticism of and resistance to oppression that serves the world’s ruling classes whose laws justify the exploitation, marginalization and exclusion of whole classes of people — women, orphans, day-laborers, the unemployed, the homeless, those with non-binary gender-identities, refugees and immigrants.

In his posting on the alt-right Gab social media site, Bowers himself railed against refugees. He justified his planned attack by referring to Tree of Life’s commitment to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded in 1881. In Bowers’ mind, the synagogue’s connection with HIAS’ traditional commitment to immigrants and refugees has it importing “foreign invaders that kill our people.” For that reason, he shouted, “All Jews must die.” He might just as well have yelled, “The Biblical God must die!”

More specifically, Bowers’ words suggest that the enemy of the right (including — let’s admit it – the U.S. government) are those who find in the Bible (and Holy Koran) a “higher law” that inspires them to relativize human laws that the most vulnerable among us find oppressive.

After all, these oppressed groups intuit that human laws by definition are not neutral or just. They were formulated by power-establishments specifically for the purpose of solidifying existing relationships of superiority and inferiority. Human laws decidedly isolate those I’ve just mentioned in positions of distinct inferiority. For that reason, those locked into positions of subservience and subordination – those locked into refugee prisons with their children in “baby jails” – find great meaning in the basic Judeo-Christian tradition that prioritizes the needs of people like them: widows, orphans, and foreigners. Yes, that’s precisely what the Judeo-Christian tradition does. And in doing so, it inspires resistance. (Just witness the caravan of more than 6000 refugees now approaching our border to the south.)

All of that proves relevant to this Sunday’s liturgical readings which place God’s law above all human legislation – including, when you think about it, those governing borders, identification papers, green cards, sexual identity, voting practices, and women’s bodies. That’s what I meant about the readings being subversive, anarchistic, and resistance-provoking.

Those characteristics are made evident in today’s Gospel reading. There a member of the Scribal Establishment asks Jesus what is the most important law of all? Of course, Jesus does not say “the laws of imperial Rome.” Neither does he identify even Sabbath law as the most important. Instead, he simply quotes the Hebrew Shema, which according to today’s first reading from Deuteronomy originated with Moses himself.

Jesus response: The most important law is “‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

In other words, according to both Moses and Jesus, all human laws must take a back seat to love of God and love of neighbor. And (crucially here) neighbor in foundational Jewish texts is always epitomized in widows, orphans and resident aliens. This is shown by any quick perusal of Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and Malachi. According to all these sources, widows, orphans and resident aliens constitute God’s Chosen People.

Jesus, of course, appears in that prophetic tradition. In fact, his words in today’s Gospel indicate that he actually considers sinful any attitude that places other laws above God’s. Jesus’ response to the scribe is subversive of any religion or empire (like Rome’s or the United States’) that stands willing to sacrifice women, children, and foreigners to “law and order.”

Why then do right wingers like Robert Bowers, Donald Trump, and Republicans in general do exactly that? Why do they prioritize human-fabricated borders along with supporting laws intended to solidify privilege, over what Jesus’ Jewish tradition identified as supreme?

The short answer is that the subversive character of the Judeo-Christian tradition was lost following the conversion of Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century C.E. Afterwards, the anarchistic Mosaic tradition championed by Jesus became Romanized, as those in power reinterpreted the Bible in the light of their own experiences as imperial servants. Subsequently, the laws of empire turned on their heads the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Imperialists championed state law over divine law which was increasingly relegated to the private sphere.

Even worse, the teachings of Moses and Jesus with their overriding concern for widows, orphans, and resident aliens became vilified as somehow heretical, diabolical, and disloyal to Caesar. More to our point here: Luther and Calvin referred to such concerns as “Jewish Madness,” and “Jewish Materialism.”

That, of course, was the theme adopted by Hitler’s Third Reich whose anti-Semitism was inflamed by Russia’s October 1917 Revolution and its insistence on social justice. From that point on, and even from the middle of the nineteenth century, socialism too was constantly referred to as specifically “Jewish madness,” and as “Jewish materialism.” Hitler called it “Jewish Bolshevism.” Winston Churchill agreed. [Karl Marx, of course, was a Jew. German theologian, Bernard Haring (one of my great teachers in Rome) even referred to Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.”]

In this light, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was part of his offensive against communism and capitalist liberalism. It was really an attempt to kill the Jewish God of Moses and Jesus. Der Führer’s anti-Semitism was also in complete harmony with a widespread anti-Semitism which found open expression throughout Europe and in the United States in movements such as the Ku Klux Klan. All of those legalistic projects represented attempted deicide.

So, there we have our answer.

Whatever Bowers’ consciousness, his anti-Semitism is really hatred of the forgotten and anarchistic Jewish God who champions the poor and vulnerable and places love of neighbor above all national laws. That God stands with the enslaved, with mothers who have lost husbands, with children orphaned by wars and “zero tolerance policies,” and with refugees, immigrants and undocumented residents.

Terrorists like Bowers, Roof, Trump, along with present and past U.S. governments (both Democrat and Republican) realize all of that. So, they hate such people and by extension the God those people study, worship, serve and invoke.

Consequently, prophets like King, Malcolm X, and Romero must die. So must liberation theologians and oppressed people who take seriously the God of Moses and Jesus.

That God must die.

When you think about it (thanks to agents like Luther, Calvin, the Inquisition, the Klan, Hitler and Trump) perhaps such deicide is already a fait accompli.

Ironically however, those slaughtered at Tree of Life remind us that the resurrection of Jesus’ subversive and anarchistic God might still be possible.