This Just in: Both U.S. Government & Catholic Church Confirmed as Crime Syndicates

Wafer

Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 9:1-6; PS 34:2-7; EPH 5: 15-20; JN 6:56

Ironically, I felt some relief at last week’s horrendous revelations about the 300 Pennsylvania priests who sexually victimized more than 1000 children and young people over the last 70 years. The relief was similar to what I feel each day now as President Trump spews his venomous lies and implements his cruel policies to restore “America” to its good old days before the post-World II achievements of blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and social justice advocates.

I mean, the veils have finally been pulled back in both politics and religion. In this Sunday homily, though, it’s the latter that will be my focus, since I want to connect today’s Gospel reading with the priesthood and pedophilia.

Let me begin, however, with politics and its scandals that mirror and illuminate those of the church.

Politically, the deceits of Donald Trump have done us all a huge favor. They’ve forced us to face undeniably what our presidents, teachers, and media enablers have been doing for centuries. The revelations cannot be denied. What Mr. Trump is doing, they all have done. The only difference is that Trump’s predecessors didn’t admit it all so openly. But they’ve all lied to us about wars, elections, American ideals, and about their personal lives.

For instance, in the light of Mr. Trump, it’s now indisputable that the entire Republican Party is corrupt just like him. (The Democrats are not far behind.) By endorsing his racism, they reveal their own racism. They all routinely lie; they enrich themselves at public expense; they practice nepotism; they break laws, dishonor the Constitution, care only about their rich donors, and don’t give a damn about the rest of us.

The voting system is rigged against us. Republicans don’t even want everyone to vote. Mitch McConnell’s refusal to follow the Constitution after the death of Antonin Scalia, illegally stacked the Supreme Court in favor of corporations. For that reason, the Court’s decisions should all be considered invalid.

In other words, every branch of government – including the Fourth Estate – has been corrupted. As a result, we’re living in something like the Soviet Union, where NOTHING the government or media says can be taken at face value. (In fact, it never should have been.) Thank you, Donald Trump, for making all of that indisputable! It frees us up to work for outright revolution.

It’s the same with the Catholic Church, with Protestants not far behind. The widespread pedophilia among the clergy reveals that the faithful have been duped by the very people we were taught to trust as God’s representatives. (If there were at least 300 pedophilic priests in one state, how many have there been in the other 49?) All priests and former priests are now under suspicion.

And the hell of it is that these were the very teachers whose principal moral obsessions centered on sexual morality! They worried us about impure thoughts, pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, petting, fornication, adultery, birth control, abortion, and divorce. Since Augustine, they made us all feel guilty about the second strongest drive (after self-preservation) that humans possess (i.e. propagation of the species). In the confessional, we told them of our most intimate failings in that area. And they shared their sage advice on how to overcome them. These sex-obsessed “celibates” even advised couples about their married lives.

Could we have been more deceived? And what made all of that possible?

Those questions bring me to today’s Gospel whose content has traditionally be used by the Catholic Church to persuade the faithful that priests have quasi-magical powers. According to Catholic teaching, priests can change little wafers into the actual body of Christ. They can change wine into his blood. Similarly, in the confessional, their words can remove sin and open the gates of heavenly after-life to those who would otherwise be condemned to eternity in hell.

Can you imagine anything more powerful than that? No wonder priests were revered, and their faults, sins, and crimes overlooked!

More specifically, in today’s third reading, John the Evangelist has Jesus say

“Amen, amen, I say to you . . my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

However, as I noted in last week’s reflections, the words John invents about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood could not possibly have been spoken by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience. After all, drinking any kind of blood – not to mention human blood – was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law.

Nonetheless, by the time John wrote his Gospel (anywhere between about 90 C.E. and 110) the evangelist’s audience (predominantly non-Jews) was highly influenced by Gnostic beliefs. Gnostics – and John’s audience – were all quite familiar with “dying and rising Gods” and with the ritual practice of metaphorically eating the Gods’ flesh and drinking the Gods’ blood by sharing bread and wine. So, to them, Jesus could be explained in precisely those terms, even if it meant putting into the mouth of Jesus words that he could never have spoken.

Yet, the “real presence” that even John was concerned about had nothing to do with the containment of an infinite God within a wafer or sip of wine. John’s audience was worried about connecting with the long-dead Master from Galilee. How might they do this? That was their question. John’s response was “Do what Jesus did: share food and drink.” And he wasn’t talking about “the Mass.” Sharing of bread with the hungry is what makes Jesus present. In fact, “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh,” “wine” and Jesus’ “blood” are all interchangeable terms. It’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup with the poor that makes Jesus present.

Catholic fundamentalism and literalist reading of scripture denied such understandings as heresy. And that enabled priests to masquerade as magicians and eventually gave them the power to determine the eternal destinies of their charges. It gave them immunity in their own eyes and even in the eyes of their victims.

After the pedophilia revelations, who can believe any of that?

However, we shouldn’t be discouraged. I mean, realizing our deception frees us up, doesn’t it? Just as in the field of politics, it can help liberate us from the childish beliefs that ignorant, hypocritical liars have foisted upon us. I mean, what can we believe that either our politicians or our clergy have told us about ANYTHING?

What I’m suggesting is that it’s all up for grabs now. We have to think for ourselves, not only about our presidents, but even about God.

And that’s true freedom.

So, what should Catholics who still care do about the latest expositions of duplicity? For starters, here are some suggestions:

• Admit that the Catholic Church has been generally corrupted by the pedophilic scandal; like the U.S. government, it is a crime syndicate
• More specifically, recognize that the priesthood along with bishops, cardinals, and the papacy itself have been perverted
• In that light, boycott the church until it calls a General Council to institute reforms from the top-down
• Realizing that the pedophilic scandal would not have occurred under the aegis of women, demand not only their ordination, but their empowerment to replace men in roles of church leadership including at the highest level
• Similarly, demand the abolition of required clerical celibacy for Catholic priests

Yes: It is undeniable that the lies of Mr. Trump and the sins of our clergy have initiated a new era in our country and in the world. That shouldn’t depress us. Rather, it should inspire us to completely throw off the old and embrace new possibilities both politically and in the realm of faith.

On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Borg
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

God’s Gift Economy: Food w/o Overwork

Manna

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ex. 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps. 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Eph. 4:17, 20-24; Jn. 6:24-35

Allow me to set up this Sunday’s reflections with three items connected with the topic of over-work and wages. I believe all three are linked to today’s readings.

(1) Bonnie Ware, an Australian nurse working with Hospice International has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Nurse Ware worked in palliative care for 12 years. And during that time, she recognized an unmistakable pattern especially in dying men. As they talked of their past lives many of them expressed similar regrets. According to Ms. Ware, at least among men, the top death-bed regret was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working.” They regretted not spending more time with family and doing the things that make life enjoyable and really worth living.

(2) There was an interesting article in The New York Times few years back. It was about happiness and its connection with money. The article was entitled something like “How Much Money Does It Take to Be Happy?”
What do you think the figure was? The Times article said that while everyone recognizes that money can’t buy happiness, levels of contentment stop increasing once households reach a level of $75,000. As incomes increase beyond that, more money and the consumption it allows do not actually make people more content.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? It suggests that six figure salaries and the incomes of millionaires and billionaires might in the end be rather pointless – and not worth protecting (as many of our politicians seem so hell-bent on doing). Am I correct?

(3) In 2012, I published an article in the on-line news source, OpEdNews. The piece was called “Thank God for the Jobs Crisis.” Calling on authors like Jeremy Rifkin, J.W. Smith, and Juliette Shor, I argued that replacing workers with robots is actually a good sign. It indicates that the promise of what used to be called the “Cybernetic Age” has finally come true. Computers and robots have taken over the job market to such an extent that the only way to solve the “jobs crisis” is to share the work. That means that none of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could all share the work and put in four-hour days or three-day weeks. Alternatively, we could work for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage. We could retire at 40. And this would be possible world-wide.

We’d pay for all of this by cutting back the military budget 60% and by taxing the rich and corporations. Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place in the United States following World War II? We could reinstate that, I said. We could boldly restructure the economy and share the wealth that is there in abundance.
__________

Please hold those thoughts if you will. They are about spending too much time working to reach income levels that don’t really make us any happier, and about the possibility of a whole new way of life that disconnects consumption from the type of employment many of us resent.

All three of those considerations turn out to be closely connected with this Sunday’s liturgical readings. All three readings are about God’s economy of gift and abundance – unbelievable gift and abundance with no work required. The readings are about work, consumption and the power that faith supplies to break away from overwork, competition, scarcity, and fear that have most of us spending too much time on the job.

Consider that first reading. The Israelites have just been liberated from Egypt. It was an economy where God’s People were even more literally enslaved by their work than we are. (Can you imagine how many Hebrew slaves died with regrets about working too much?) But their slave labor, unsatisfying as it was, at least provided food.

In fact, the Hebrews were so bound to Egypt’s enslaving economy that they could hardly conceive a reality outside it. Who would feed them now that they were without work? At least they had something to eat in Egypt. The Pharaoh ran a tight ship there but put food on their tables. But who, after all, was this rebel leader, Moses? How would he feed them out there? Today’s Exodus reading says that the Hebrews actually resented Moses and his “false promise” of a better life.

And the story’s response? Through the provision of manna, God suggests the new order God has in mind not only for Israel, but for all of humanity. Unbelievably, God rains bread down on the people. No work needed. The main requirement: don’t take more than you need. Don’t hoard.

It was like Jesus’ desert feeding of 5000 in last week’s readings. The message: everybody deserves food whether they can pay for it or not, whether or not they work, whether or not they want to work. There will be enough for all, as long as no one takes more than he needs. (Actually, Gandhi said something like that: “There is enough in the world,” he said, “to satisfy everyone’s need, but not to satisfy everyone’s greed.”)

When you heard my proposal this morning about sharing the work, did you react like the Hebrews? “Yeah, right,” you might have thought. “When’s that gonna happen?” I mean, we find it almost impossible to break out of the mindset of overwork. We can hardly allow ourselves to imagine that God is so generous that overwork is not required to enjoy the good life. We can’t conceive of what we’d do if our needs were met without enslaving ourselves to those who would convince us that scarcity rather than plenty and abundance represent God’s way – God’s will for us.

Consider today’s second reading as well – still in the context of our work lives. There Paul tells the Christian community at Ephesus that the lives of those without faith are (in Paul’s words) “futile.” That’s because they are deceived by what Paul terms “desires” for more than they need. Those desires, Paul implies, always make promises beyond their capacity to deliver.

I don’t care what The New York Times says, the better off among us might tell themselves, $75,000 per household is not enough. Others say neither is a million or a billion. More is always needed. But, Paul points out, despite what our unbelieving culture tells us, beyond the point of satisfying basic needs, more actually adds little to our happiness. In fact, it can greatly increase unhappiness. It seems The New York Times agrees.

Such considerations have relevance to today’s political scene. So-called “experts” argue that there are not enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and cure the earth’s seven billion people. But, of course, that’s not true. Remember my reference last week to the U.N. study that said that a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 men (They are men almost without exception) could meet all those needs.

What if $100,000 or even a million were set as the highest income anyone was allowed to earn in a single year? If the Times is correct, no one would be any unhappier for it. And think of the resources that would be released to enrich the lives of those for whom today’s cybernetic economy can’t supply jobs. (Keep that in mind the next time you hear a politician resisting tax increases on the world’s richest.)

For Paul, it’s a matter of faith – yes even questions of taxation, I’d say. (And that brings us to that third point about a new future of abundance with greatly reduced hours in the workplace.) We used to believe in the world’s promise of unlimited more, Paul reminds his readers. But that was our old self listening. The New Self which we’ve adopted through faith in Jesus has learned God’s way from the Master not to mention Moses and the manna in the desert. And of course, God’s way is the way of the Kingdom – a world with room for everyone. That’s what Paul tells us.

The gospel of today’s liturgy completely supports Paul’s point. John the Evangelist has Jesus say “Don’t work for bread that perishes. Work for imperishable bread – those relationships with family and friends, time with your spouse and kids, the fruits of creative self-expression in tune with your unique gifts,” Work for those, Paul suggests, and avoid the “top five regrets of the dying.”

Don’t we all wish we could do that? However, to do so we must ignore that old self Paul refers to, and make room for the New Self to emerge. And what a struggle that is! It means actually believing that there is a Giver who will provide for us the way the Great Provider did in the desert with Moses and in the desert with Jesus when he fed the 5000.

Do we really believe there is such a Provider? Think about it in the context of work, deathbed regrets, money’s inability to make us happy, and structural unemployment connected to the digital revolution. What are the implications of that belief for our personal, familial, political and work lives? (Discussion follows.)

Women (Not Jesus) Work the “Miracle” of Loaves & Fishes (Sunday Homily)

Enough Food
Readings: 2 Kgs. 4:42-44; Ps. 145: 10-11, 15-18; Eph. 4:1-6; Jn. 6: 1-15

Thirty thousand children die every day of absolutely preventable causes associated with hunger. Mostly they die from diarrhea connected with unsafe drinking water.

Thirty-six million people in all die every year from those same easily remediable causes. That’s like the death toll from 300 jumbo jets crashing each day for a year, with no survivors, and with most of the victims children and women.

Can you imagine 300 jumbo jets crashing every day? Of course, you can’t. Just three jumbo jets crashing on a single day would throw the airline industry into complete panic. It would recognize that something was deeply wrong with the system. More regulation would be demanded by everyone.

And yet, with hunger, the equivalent of one hundred times those crashes with the horrendous figures I just mentioned happen each day, throughout each year, and no one in authority will say that the system is defective. In fact, we celebrate it as the very best possible. Politicians commonly champion less regulation rather than more. They believe the free market is the solution to all of the world’s problems.

But is unregulated market the answer to world hunger? According to the U.N., the problem of world hunger is not lack of food production, but its faulty distribution. Through no fault of their own, but through the fault of the reigning market system, people in hungry countries just don’t have the money to buy food. According to the same U.N., a mere 4% tax on the world’s richest 250 people would solve that problem.

Each year those 250 people receive as much income as the world’s nearly 3 billion people who live on $2 a day or less. Taxing the 250 by a mere 4% would provide enough to make the hunger I’m referencing disappear – and not just hunger, but unsafe drinking water itself, along with illiteracy, poor housing, and lack of medical care.

That sounds so easy. But such a tax is not even discussed – not even by Christians like us who profess to be “pro-life” and concerned about defenseless human life forms – at least before they’re born. In defense of the unborn, such Christians want to force women to bring all pregnancies to term. However, they see forcing the super-rich to part with an infinitesimal portion of their great wealth an unfair limitation on the wealthy’s freedom – even if it is to save thousands of already born children each day.

In the face of such intransigence (not to say hypocrisy) on the part of those who see the free market as the solution to everything, many in hungry countries have turned to the violence of revolution or terrorism in efforts to change the system.

So, our question becomes: free market or violence against that system? Which way did Jesus approve?

Today’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus approved of neither. Instead, he offers a third alternative – a non-violent system of sharing led by his followers with women in the forefront.

Let me explain what I mean.

Today’s Gospel reading comes from John the Evangelist. Bread holds an extraordinarily prominent and symbolic place for him. But note that in John’s version of Jesus feeding bread to 5000 men, there is no mention of the women and children inevitably in the crowd. (As we’ll see, Mark’s version of this story importantly centralizes their presence.)

It is also important to note that there is no mention of a “miracle” in either John’s or Mark’s account.

Instead, the story goes like this: People have followed Jesus “to the other side” of the Lake of Galilee. They are hungry. Testing him, Jesus asks Phillip where to buy bread for so many. Phillip has to confess that the market system cannot even begin to feed them all. There’s nowhere to buy, and even then, a year’s wages would be insufficient to give each person even a morsel. To reiterate: in the story, the market system proves incapable of meeting the challenge. Jesus and the women in the crowd are about to offer an alternative.

[Before we get to that, however, let me offer an aside about men. Armed violence, of course is the traditional “manly” way of dealing with almost any problem, isn’t it? However, John the Evangelist underlines Jesus’ rejection such “manliness” – even though the Master evidently gives revolution and insurrection much more consideration than the market alternative he considered briefly with Phillip.

Think about it. In John’s account, the time is near the Passover feast of national liberation – a traditional period of civil unrest in Jesus’ Palestine. Moreover, the episode we’re considering takes place in the desert – the time-honored place of insurrectionary resistance. Revolution is evidently on the minds of the 5000.

Jesus knows, John says, that the men want to make him king by means of violence. Perhaps that’s the whole reason they’ve stalked Jesus and cornered him in his desert get-away. In any case, after a day-long dialog with Jesus, the intention of the 5000 evidently remains unchanged.

Nevertheless, instead of acceding to “manly” impulses, Jesus enacts a parable about how to deal with the frustration of unmet needs that drives men to violence. By contrast, he adopts a typically female solution to the immediate problem of hunger. What he demonstrates might be called “The Kingdom Sharing System.” It begins by first establishing personal friendships and ends by sharing.]

To begin with, Jesus has everyone relax – to sit down on the soft grass that nature has provided. In Mark’s account of this same event, the evangelist notes that Jesus divided the huge crowd into small groups of ten or so each. That gave all present a chance to introduce themselves and exchange pleasantries.

Then a child shows the way. A small boy brings forward five loaves and two fish and places them before Jesus. Jesus calls everyone’s attention to what the child had done. And that starts a “miracle of sharing.” The crowd is touched. People begin to offer one another the plenty collectively present among them, but that everyone was apparently reluctant to share.

The abundance was surely there, thanks to the way women work. I mean, can you imagine a Jewish mother going on a day-long trip to the desert without packing a lunch for her husband and children? Of course not. In fact, there’s such abundance that even after everyone has eaten, 12 baskets remain to bring back to those not present to witness this “miracle of enough.” The dramatized parable’s point is: that’s the way the Kingdom of God works. (And note how women must have been central to it all.)

What’s the lesson in all of this? First of all (as today’s responsorial psalm says) it’s God’s will that everyone might have enough to eat. Bread is God’s gift to us all, without exception. And whether people eat or not shouldn’t be dependent on their ability to buy. In fact, if someone is hungry, humans and their market system are the sinfully responsible ones.

The bottom line here is that the way to satisfy hunger is not by depending on blind market forces or by waging violent, manly revolution. Rather it is exemplified by the child in the story and the women in the crowd. That’s the way that Jesus calls us to deal with the problem of hunger with which our reflections began this morning.

And it’s Jesus’ followers, people like you and me who should be following the women who typically lead the way.

How best can we best enact “The Kingdom Sharing System” in our hungry world? (Discussion follows.)

Don’t Worry about Russians Rigging Our Elections: Long Ago, U.S. Politicians Beat Them to the Punch!

Steele.jpg
Readings for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

Everyone’s talking about election hacking these days. In the country’s latest reprise of “the Russians are coming,” we’re all in turmoil about Putin’s interference in U.S. elections.

However, don’t you find it highly ironic politicians on all sides are so worried about “Russian hacking,” while virtually none of them is addressing much more significant forms of election rigging? I’m talking about the criminal fixes arranged by the U.S. officials themselves?

More specifically, these include the retention of the outdated electoral college itself, outrageous gerrymandering of voting districts, super delegates at nominating conventions, voter suppression’s many forms (from voter IDs to felony disenfranchisement laws), Koch brother funding of candidates’ election campaigns (as in Citizens United), and the use of highly hackable computerized technology that miscounts and discounts millions of votes each election cycle. (No wonder so many of us decide on election day, “Why bother?”)

The upshot of it all is that we end up with a system controlled at all levels by a minority party that doesn’t want everyone to vote. That’s because its members could never be elected to the presidency (and its control of the judiciary) if voters exercised their franchise in anything like the numbers in other industrially-developed countries.

And so, we end up with a crisis of political leadership with one-percenters like Donald Trump and George W. Bush running things – and with corporate-funded Barrack Obama trailing not very far behind.

I bring all of this up because the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word is political leadership.

The liturgical image for doing so is shepherding. That pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that the political leaders I mentioned earlier in no way embody those qualities.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah joins us in lamenting the absence of political leaders with the qualities just mentioned. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders even in Jeremiah’s day (all men, of course) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new governance to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark elaborates the theme. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding. Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace – not from the one-percenters of his day – but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in Jesus’ practice.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep.

In Paul’s words, leaders are to foster the emergence of a new kind of person. In the familiar phrasing of Psalm 23, that new version of humanity is not over-worked, but rested, and lives in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink. Shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion. (Read Psalm 23 again with that in mind.)

So, given our broken electoral system, how do we get from here to there – to something approaching the biblical vision just described?

Well, I’ve just read a wonderful book that suggests the path ahead. But, get ready: it involves hard work for all of us. The book is called Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols. It’s written by OpEdNews editor, Marta Steele, and is a magisterial study of the corruption of our electoral system.

To begin with, Steele suggests that we must face up to the facts that:

• The Founding Fathers rejected the notion of democracy (cf. Federalist Paper # 10).
• Their assertion that “all men are created equal” was meant to establish their right to expropriate Native Americans and African slaves of their land and resources. (This is documented in Chapter 13 of my new book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking).
• Instead, the Founders believed (as John Jay said) that the country should be run by those who own it.
• Both the anti-democracy and elite-ownership traditions find their clearest contemporary expression in Paul Weyrich’s statement in 1980 about Republicans not wanting everyone to vote based on their realization that if everyone did cast a ballot, a Republican president would never again darken the White House door (cf. Steele 233).
• Computerized voting machines overwhelmingly favor that minority otherwise unelectable party by miscounting and discounting thousands of votes in each state and millions nation-wide (Steele passim).
• Knowledge of such purposeful malfunctions tempts citizens (like me) to eschew voting itself. And this, of course, plays right into the minority’s hands.
• The only way to restore voter confidence is to revert to paper ballot technology (because it’s better and works) with safeguards against traditional ballot box stuffing methods.
• More specifically, the answer is to:

* Eliminate the electoral college in favor of direct popular vote (Why is virtually no one even discussing this?)
* Abolish gerrymandering by making redistricting a bi-partisan process subject to the approval of an effective Federal Election Commission (see below).
* Establish uniform, nation-wide electoral standards and procedures overseen, not by the states, but by the previously-referenced and truly empowered bi-partisan Federal Commission whose goal is maximizing voter turn-out as well as increasing voter confidence in the electoral process by its transparent certification process.
* Get private money out of the electoral process in favor of public funding.
* Outlaw voting machines altogether and replace them with paper ballots.
* More specifically, implement a system of automatic and verifiable voter registration; revert to the practice of universal hand-counted paper ballots; establish a national voting holiday period (from Saturday to Tuesday), with ballots hand-counted by senior Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts on Wednesday.

All of this should remind us that according to Jesus’ highly political metaphor, the Kingdom of God meant “a political system as God would arrange it.” Today’s readings call attention to the fact that such arrangement centralizes human welfare, grassroots leadership, and ardent compassion for all. It places the welfare of “the sheep” at center and includes provision of food, drink, healthy environment, and needed rest. Those are not the goals of our political minority. However, to attain goals like that, “shepherds” must be present, watchful and caring.

To repeat, today’s electoral system gives us nothing similar. And that’s not Mr. Putin’s fault. It’s the fault of our broken system and its unbiblical discouragement of grassroots focus. To fix it will require great commitment and work by all of us.

Marta Steele’s Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols complements today’s readings by thoroughly describing the problem and by offering suggestions about how to fix it.

Do yourself a favor: follow up on today’s readings by consulting the book.

Amos & Jesus Agree: America’s Not the Greatest Country in the World!

Greatest Country

Readings for 15th Sunday in ordinary time: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13

Do any of you remember the HBO series “Newsroom?” It lasted only a couple of seasons. However, I found it interesting and watched it faithfully.

As far as I’m concerned, the series’ highlight came when lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivered a speech about then-current dismal state of our country. I’m sure many of you have seen it. It seems more relevant today than it did in 2012.

As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:

Whew! That’s hard for most of us to hear, isn’t it? It’s almost as if the speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represents the measure of greatness.

I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw.

I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.

And what did Amos say?

Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.

Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.

“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.

And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (By now he now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)

“Who?” they asked eagerly.

“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.

Of course, the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.

It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Can you say why America is the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:

“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they? They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”

My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often perceive us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people?

And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching, curing the sick and driving out demons.

Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. (Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth. So they made up stories like this one.)

And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So, stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” (This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.)

Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today — seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties. Therefore, don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.”

Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying, is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.

But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to be the voice of the voiceless as both Amos and Jesus were. It’s difficult to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich.

For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos, Jesus, and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.

What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged enemies of the state as Amos, Jesus and early Christians were?

If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: (Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

SON OF GOD
(Forensic archeologists’ estimation of what Jesus probably looked like)

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was? (By the way, the townspeople’s identification Jesus by his mother’s name in today’s reading and not by his father’s, was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. As pictured above, he was unimposing – probably about 5’1” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)