Embrace Insanity: Jesus’ Family Thought He Was Crazy Too

Readings for 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Satan

It’s been a busy time for us lately. Since my last entry here, Peggy and I have moved out of our house in Berea, Kentucky. Our ultimate goal is to appropriate our new home in Westport, Connecticut, where we’ll be living down the street from our four grandchildren. But because a renter is still living in our new digs, we won’t be able to move in till after Labor Day. So, in the meantime, our stuff will be in storage somewhere. And we’ll be living at our summer cottage in Michigan.

In any case, we spent a week packing. We had a big going-away party including a Cuban band and dancing. Then the movers came and took everything. We journeyed to Westport for our granddaughter’s school concert (she’s in 3rd grade). Then, Peggy and I attended two days of the Left Forum in New York City, where I tried to peddle my new book (The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking) and listened to the likes of Chris Hedges, Richard Wolff, Michael Hudson, Silvia Federici, and Bernie Sanders’ wife.

Suitably inspired, we traveled to our Canadian Lakes property in the center of the Michigan Mitten. Our sons came and will be with us here for visiting and golf till next Tuesday. Our daughter, her husband, the four grandkids, and Peggy’s best friend from college along with one of her grandchildren also came for the weekend.

It’s been a whirlwind of packing, driving, inspiration, eating, drinking, visiting, golf, and conversation – terrific in every way.

It’s the conversation, I want to focus on here, especially in the light of what I heard at the Left Forum – and of today’s Gospel reading. At times, our exchanges have been lively and confrontational. My sons, my son-in-law and I always end up disagreeing about almost everything having to do with politics and economics. According to them:

• The U.S. economy is fine.
• Poverty, especially in the United States is the fault of poor people.
• Capitalism is the best possible economic system.
• The failure of alternatives (as in Cuba and Venezuela) prove their point.

According to me:

• Our economy is a disaster, especially since it is intrinsically dependent on war, environmental destruction, and worker exploitation across the planet.
• Poverty is widespread in the United States, the richest country in the history of the world, where workers’ wages haven’t risen significantly in more than 40 years, while corporate profits have gone through the roof.
• Our unfettered version of capitalism along with our cult of militarism under the leadership of pathological criminals in Washington and state legislatures is leading the world to certain destruction.
• Countries such as Cuba and Venezuela demonstrate the success of U.S. policy towards the former colonies trying desperately to free themselves from imperial hegemony. That policy has the CIA, NSA, and the United States military:
o Repeatedly intervening in those countries’ elections, politics,
economies, and media
o Thereby creating inevitable havoc
o And subsequently blaming the chaos on the local leaders and the “failures” of alternatives to the U.S. version of white, capitalist, imperialist, patriarchy
• The pattern should be apparent to anyone with the least bit of historical awareness.

The men in my family think I’m crazy.

And that brings me to today’s Gospel. It comes from the pen of Mark the evangelist who invented the literary form we call “gospel.” Today’s selection offers us one of his characteristic literary “sandwiches.” That is, he introduces a story, inserts a seemingly unrelated filler, and then concludes the initial story to make its point.

In today’s version, the first piece of bread is his announcement that Jesus’ mother and brothers set out to rescue their son and sibling from himself; they believe he’s gone crazy. Then comes a long apparently unrelated piece about Satan and his house divided against itself. The final piece of bread has Jesus rejecting his family of origin in favor of those who follow his crazy teachings.

In Mark’s words, here’s the way the story goes:

“Jesus came home with his disciples. . . (H)is relatives . . . set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” . . . The scribes . . . said, “He is possessed . . .”

Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables. “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. . .”

His mother and his brothers arrived. . . A crowd seated around him told him, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” But he said to them in reply “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . (W)hoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Do you see what I mean? Here’s the sandwich construction:

• Jesus’ family (along with the Jewish scribal establishment) think Jesus is insane and diabolical.
• Jesus declares that such accusations are themselves insane, since he is in fact working to subvert the Kingdom of Satan and establish God’s reign.
• So, he rejects his adversarial family (and scribal establishment) in favor of those who join him in undermining Satan’s rule.
• Those who embrace his “insanity,” Jesus asserts, constitute his true family.

Such teaching should encourage those who are trying to follow Jesus. Since the world’s wisdom is 180 degrees opposed to God’s wisdom, Jesus followers will always be perceived as subversive, ideological, possessed and insane. If we are not seen that way, we are, in fact, outside Jesus’ family whose membership is a matter of faith rather than blood.

Our task as Jesus’ family is to divide Satan’s kingdom and bring it to its knees, not to achieve reconciliation with it or its defenders.

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

With Dr. King, We Must ‘Break the Silence’

Worse than ISIS

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

With so much talk of war these days, it’s time to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King and once again break silence about our country’s evil character. Yes: it’s character is evil! We’re a war-mongering country, a terrorist country. As King said 51 years ago this month, we’re “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”

It’s time to face up to the fact that the United States has been taken over by Christianists far more violent than the Islamists we excoriate. To wit: “we” stand ready to risk all-out nuclear war with Russia. “Our” reason? An alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Our indisputable proof? None at all! It’s Iraq all over again!

And the hell of it is that to these Christian extremists, nuclear holocaust – the destruction of the planet – is acceptable, even desirable, because it will assure the Second Coming of the very Jesus who is presented in today’s Gospel selection as the great bringer of peace.

Just to be clear: No Muslims threaten the world with equivalent religious extremism.

(BTW If you think that statements like the above are unfair, because not all — not even the majority — of Christians hold such beliefs, think about how Muslims feel, when the views of their extremists are similarly universalized.)

In their zealotry, the fundamentalists in Washington somehow ignore the fact that the first words of the risen Jesus repeated in today’s Gospel (as they were in last week’s reading), are “Peace be with you.” They ignore the Jesus who was completely non-violent. He preached the Golden Rule. He said we should love our enemies. He accepted his own death rather than defend himself, his friends, or family. He died praying for his enemies.

Moreover, the Christianists in Washington are completely hypocritical. In the name of the international law, they’re outraged by the “dozens” perhaps killed in the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Meanwhile, they’ve killed more than a million Iraqis in a completely illegal war. Daily, they assassinate suspected terrorists, including American citizens, with death squads now mechanized as drones.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and in clear violation of international restrictions and the U.S. Constitution, those same Christian extremists have caused the deaths of thousands and threaten the lives of millions.

More specifically, since 2014, they have been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 and for the injury of 40,000 more. They’ve caused a devastating cholera epidemic and a famine that the UN describes as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

It’s all been the result of a U.S.-supported Saudi bombing campaign that directly targets hospitals, water supply sources, and sewage treatment plants – all prohibited be international law. In the process, the U.S. supplies those medieval Saudi kings with weapons, targeting information, and airborne refueling services. Pure terrorism!

Face it: our crimes in Yemen represent a far, far worse violation of international law than the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Yes: today, King’s words ring truer than ever. We continue to be “The world’s greatest purveyor of violence!” We’re a terrorist nation.

And how do the Christianists get around Jesus’ clear words? Typically, they spiritualize today’s Gospel greeting. “Peace be with you.” They say it refers to the interior peace that passes understanding.

How reminiscent of the Nazis who went to Mass, meditated and enjoyed “inner peace” on Sundays, while for the rest of the week they stoked ovens where they incinerated communists, socialists, blacks, homosexuals, and Jews!

Inner peace is fine. However, reality in the belly of the beast suggests that such spiritualizing is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a rogue nation. None of us should enjoy inner peace today.

Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that there can be no interior peace for terrorist Christian fundamentalists. They — our nation’s officials — are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace and denouncing transgressions of international law while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

It’s time for all of us to face up to the facts. It’s time to join the martyred Dr. King in breaking our silence!

Scrap Thomas’ Denialism Before It’s Too Late: We’re in a Situation Worse than Nazi Germany

Hitler bishops

Readings for 1st Sunday after Easter: ACTS 4:32-35; PS 118L 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1JN 5: 1-6; JN 20: 19-31

Last Sunday, which was both Easter and April Fools’ Day, I published my monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It pulled no punches. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that the Leader’s editors decided to print it.

My column contrasted the fact that fully 70-75% of Americans claim to be followers of Christ. They say they believe in Jesus’ resurrection – in the triumph of life over death. And yet, as a culture, we remain necrophobic, necrophilic, and entirely denying the direction of history announced in Jesus’ resurrection.

On the one hand, we’re overwhelmingly afraid of death. Despite the words of our national anthem, ours is not the home of the brave. Quite the opposite. Even our police officers are granted unrestricted license to kill if they simply allege, “I feared for my life.” Evidently, they’re all dreadful necrophobes.

On the other hand, we Americans love death and killing. The movies we patronize are about almost nothing else. Our constant solution to almost any problem you care to name is “Arm them!” “Fight them!” “Kill them!” “Nuke ’em!”

Yet, face it: Jesus could endorse none of that. He was completely non-violent and courageous in facing death. Along with every spiritual genius I can think of, he said we should treat others exactly the way we would want to be treated – because they are us. In effect, he taught that killing another person amounts to suicide.

So, Jesus refused to take up arms to save himself, his friends, or his family. If you live by the sword, he promised, you will die by that same instrument. Jesus prayed for his executioners. He said we should love our enemies, not kill them.

As a collective faith community, Christians are sadly in denial about the clear political meaning of those facts. No follower of Jesus should ever take up arms. The irony is that accepting that reality alone has the power to save our species and planet.

My column went further. Echoing Noam Chomsky, it alleged that the U.S. has been taken over by the most dangerous organization in the history of the world – viz. by the Republican Party. Despite its Christian pretensions, its positions on climate change and nuclear war make it worse, I said, than the forces of Attila the Hun, worse than ISIS, the Taliban, or Hitler’s Nazis.

The Republicans and supporting conservative Democrats place greed for money over the lives of our children and grandchildren. How dare they! Who gave those greedy few the authority to decide for 7 billion people? Why aren’t we all up in arms – precisely in Jesus’ name?

Usually when I publish such thoughts in the Leader, readers’ responses are quite vehemently negative. But do you know what happened this time? Not a single negative comment. Instead I received a whole series of supportive e-mails and word-of-mouth comments completely agreeing with my sentiments.

“You really let it all hang out there, Mike,” was a typical remark, “but I agree with every word you wrote.”

What can that mean, I wonder. If so many of us believe that our country has been taken over by forces more insidious than Hitler’s, and if Jesus is who his words and actions say he is, how can we stand by idly and watch it happen? Are we, the people, about to rebel? Are we approaching a tipping point? Have we gone beyond the denial that is no longer tenable?

Such questions are relevant in the light of the Gospel reading for this First Sunday after Easter. It’s about a man in denial about Jesus’ identity. The man meets the risen Christ (the champion of life over death), recognizes God in him, and changes profoundly as a result.

Of course, I’m referring to the original doubting Thomas. His nickname was “the twin” perhaps because he’s our twin in cowardice and hopefully in faith. Recall his story. Pray that it can be ours as well. If not, our “Christian”-dominated culture is beyond redemption.

The disciples are there in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Yeshua the night before he died. And they are all afraid. John says they are afraid of “the Jews.” However, it seems, like us, they fear death more than anything else. They dread it because they are convinced that death spells the end of everything they hold dear – their ego-selves, families, friends, culture, and their small pleasures. Besides that, they are afraid of the pain that will accompany arrest – the isolation cells, the beatings, torture, the unending pain, and the final blow that will bring it all to a close. Surely, they were questioning their stupidity in following that failed radical from Galilee.

So, they lock the doors, huddle together and turn in on themselves.

Nevertheless, the very fears of the disciples and recent experience make them rehearse the events of their past few days. They recall the details: how Yeshua so bravely faced up to death and refused to divulge their names even after undergoing “the third degree” – beatings followed by the dreaded thorn crown, and finally by crucifixion. All the while, he remained silent refusing to name the names his Roman interrogators were looking for. He died protecting his friends. Yeshua was brave and loyal.

His students are overwhelmingly grateful for such a Teacher. . .

Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst. Locks and fears were powerless to keep him out. They all see him. They speak with him. He addresses their fears directly. “Peace be with you,” he repeats three times. Yeshua eats with them just as he had the previous week. Suddenly his friends realize that death was not the end for the Teacher. He makes them understand that it is not the end for them either – nor for anyone else who risks life and limb for the kingdom of God. No doubt everyone present is overwhelmed with relief and intense joy.

“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.

Later on, Thomas arrives – our fraternal double in fear and disbelief. His absence remains unexplained. Something had evidently called him away when the others evoked Jesus’ presence by their prayer, recollections, and sharing of bread and wine. Like us, he hasn’t met the risen Lord.

“Jesus is alive,” they tell our twin. “He’s alive in the realm of God. He took us all with him to that space for just a moment, and it was wonderful. Too bad you missed it, Thomas. None of the rules of this world apply where Yeshua took us. It was just like it was before he died. Don’t you remember? Yeshua brought us to a realm full of life and joy. Fear no longer seems as reasonable as it once did. He was here with us!”

However, Thomas remains unmoved. Like so many of us, he’s is a literalist, a downer. He’s an empiricist looking for the certainty of physical proof. Thomas is also a fatalist; he evidently believes that what you see is what you get. And for him there has been no indication that life can be any different from what his senses have always told him. Life is tragic. Death is stronger than life; it ends everything. And that means that Yeshua is gone forever. Who could be so naïve as to deny that?

Our twin in unfaith protests, “In the absence of physical proof to the contrary, I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith that another way of life is possible. And make no mistake: Yeshua’s enemies haven’t yet completed their bloody work. They’re after us too.”

Can’t you see Thomas glancing nervously behind him? “Are you sure those doors are locked?”

Then lightning strikes again. Yeshua suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. Locks and bolts, fear and terror – death itself – again prove powerless before him.

Yeshua is smiling. “Thomas, I missed you,” he says. “Look at my wounds. It’s me!”

Thomas’ face is bright red. Everyone’s looking at him. “My God, it is you,” he blurts out. “I’m so sorry I doubted.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yeshua assures. “You’re only human, and I know what that’s like, believe me. I too knew overwhelming doubt. Faith is hard. On death row, my senses told me that my Abba had abandoned me too. I almost gave up hope. It’s like I’m your twin.

“But then I decided to surrender. And I’m happy I did. My heart goes out to you, Thomas. My heart goes out to all doubters. I’ve been there.

“However, it’s those who can commit themselves to God’s promised future in the absence of physical proof that truly amaze and delight me. Imagine trusting life’s goodness and an unseen future characterized by non-violence! Imagine trusting my word that much, when I almost caved in myself? That’s what I really admire!

“My prayer for you, Thomas, and for everyone else is that you’ll someday experience the joy that kind of faith brings. Working for God’s peace – for fullness of life for everyone – even in the face of contrary evidence – that’s what faith is all about. May it be yours.”

My point in writing that Easter Sunday article was something similar.

If 70-75% of us truly followed Jesus and left behind both our necrophobia and necrophilia, we’d get out in the streets and bring down the arrogant impostors who have seized power in this country. None of them would be able to resist such numbers in revolt.

Pray that Thomas’ transformation and faith might be ours as well, and that a tipping point has been reached or is on the way. The future of our world literally depends on it.

We need to overcome the faithless denial our love of violence and death suggests. That’s the call of today’s Gospel.

Easter Sunday: Pope Francis & the Deep Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection

Pope Francis
Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10: 34A, 37-43; PS 118 1-2, 16-17, 22-23, ICOR 3L 1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

On this Easter Sunday, it’s appropriate to address the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really rise from the dead? Or is that doctrine simply a remnant of childhood like belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? And for those of us concerned with social justice, what can the Bible’s resurrection stories possibly mean?

This reflection tries to address those questions from the viewpoint of Pope Francis.

In response to the question about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s look at what the Christian tradition itself tells us. It indicates that the resurrection accounts are not based on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The experiences portrayed in tradition were more visionary and likely metaphorical.

As for the sociopolitical meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Pope Francis addresses that question quite meaningfully in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Life is stronger than death, he reminds us. Despite appearances, vital forces will always triumph in the end. But we’ll get to that presently.

First however consider the nature of the resurrection traditions themselves. They were inspired by women and emerged from the bleakest depths of despair not unlike what many progressives might be feeling today as our fondest hopes appear further than ever from fulfillment – as a rogue U.S. empire wreaks havoc and its savage economy destroys the planet.

Think about it.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples returned to business as usual – fishing most prominently. It was their darkest hour. Yeshua, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes for the liberation of Israel from Roman domination was dead. Their world had ended.

But then unexpectedly, women among them reported an experience which effectively raised Jesus back to life (MT 28:1-10; MK 16: 1-8; LK 24:1-11). He was more intensely present, they said, than before his execution. Their tales changed everything.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, visionary and prophetic?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I COR 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that at best the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.)

In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark not only are there no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes un-proclaimed. This in turn indicates either that Mark didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So, the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone present was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (JN 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (JN 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” Once again, it doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (MT 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (LK 24:30-32)?

Regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of Jesus’ dead body or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities resisting empire and serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

It’s here that Pope Francis helps us. In The Joy of the Gospel (JG), he relates the resurrection accounts, (whatever their factual basis) to our own despair – just as real and hopeless as that of Jesus’ bereft disciples. Francis writes to encourage us who might be worn down and hopeless in the face of a world:

  • Pervaded by consumerism and pleasure-seeking without conscience (JG 2)
  • Governed by merciless competition and social Darwinism (53)
  • Economically organized by failed “trickle-down” ideologies that idolize money (54, 55)
  • Controlled by murderers (53) and thieves (57, 189)
  • Torn apart by wars and violence (99)
  • Rooted in growing income inequality which is the root of all social ills (202), including destruction of the environment and its defenseless non-human animate life (215)

In the face of all that, here’s what Francis says:

“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history . . . May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope! (276, 277)

Here the pope says that the power and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is not found in the past. Neither is there reference here to the resuscitation of the Lord’s body. Instead, the pope explains the resurrection in terms of a story that calls attention to the persistent power of Life itself:

* Of nature and spring after a long cold winter

* Of goodness in a world that seems governed by evil

* Of light where darkness reigns unabated

* Of justice where injustice is simply taken for granted

* Of beauty where ugliness is worshipped as its opposite

* Of hope over despair

* And of activists who refuse to stand on the sidelines

No need for despondency, the pope says. Despite appearances, Life and its irresistible forces are on our side! They will not – they cannot – be controlled even by imperial agents of death as powerful as the Rome that assassinated Jesus or the United States whose economic and military policies are butchering the planet.

Even post moderns, skeptics and agnostics can embrace a story with a message like that.

After all, it’s spring! Life goes on! Jesus has indeed risen!

The Salvation of Our Country and Church Comes from Iranians and Mexican Immigrants (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Lent: 2CHR 36:14-16, 19-24; PS 137:1-6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3: 14-21

NAFTA

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us to look for salvation in unexpected places. In fact, it strongly suggests that the very ones our culture despises, and our church relegates to second class status have been chosen by God to save us. Specifically, I’m talking about Iranians relative to our country and Latin Americans in relation to the church.

Take Iranians first. (They are called “Persians” in today’s first reading.) There, one of them (King Cyrus) is identified in Chronicles as Judah’s “messiah” or anointed. The identification is given even though Cyrus was not a Jew, but an adherent of Zoroastrianism, a religion even more foreign to Judaism than Islam. Yet according to Chronicles, this Iranian king was God’s servant chosen to end Judah’s long exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq). That’s what I mean by salvation coming from an unexpected place.

Then in the second reading from Ephesians, Paul refers to Jesus of Nazareth in those same Cyrusian terms. Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, Paul says – and an unlikely “Christ” at that. After all, the Nazarene was the son of an unwed teenage mother; an refugee-immigrant in Egypt at the beginning of his life; a working stiff rather than a priest or scholar; possessed by the devil (according to the religious establishment); a drunkard and whore-monger according to those same sources; an enemy of the temple and state; and a victim of torture and of capital punishment in the form reserved for terrorists. Nevertheless, just as Cyrus brought Judah back from their 70 year-long exile in Babylon, Paul says, Jesus, the executed criminal, brought all of us back from the metaphorical death caused by living according to the deathly standards of the world. In Paul’s eyes, those standards obscure the gifts of God by convincing us that we have to earn life rather than accepting everything as God’s gift. Or as Paul puts it: “salvation is not the result of works,” but of God’s graciousness.

That graciousness (John the evangelist reminds us in today’s Gospel reading) is unending; it covers all the bases, has no exceptions and lasts forever. It turns each of us into Christs – into God’s only son (or daughter) – into saviors of the world. In other words, each one of us is the unlikeliest Christ of all.

O.K. each of today’s readings tell us to look for salvation in unexpected places – even within ourselves. But what are we post-moderns to understand by “salvation” itself? Think about it. The answer should be clear both in terms of country and church. In both spheres our condition can only be described as absolutely desperate and in need of deliverance.

Politically, we’re currently like lemmings rushing headlong towards the final precipice. Under the aegis of the organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world,” our Republican “leaders” are in denial about the greatest peril the human race has ever faced. Here I’m referring to climate chaos that threatens to deprive our grandchildren and even us and our children of the most basic necessities of life.

Besides that, our rulers insist on developing nuclear arsenals whose destructive power boggles the mind. And they seem extremely anxious to unleash them. The U.S. commander in chief has gone so far as to wonder aloud, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” If we’re not looking for salvation from all of that, we must be asleep entirely.

And as for faith . . . My own Christian community, the Catholic Church, it is in dire need of salvation too. It is crumbling before our eyes.

My parish in Berea, Kentucky is a case in point. There we’ve had a series of restorationist pastors hell-bent on reinstating the pre-Vatican II order I grew up in during the 1940s and ’50s.
Clericalism is their watchword and guiding vision. Outside the sanctuary, they wear birettas and cassocks. While celebrating Mass they seem rule-bound, uncreative, unthoughtful, and totally oblivious not only to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but to Pope Francis’ more recent summons to radical change as described in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

As a result of such backwardness, church numbers are dwindling drastically. Parishioners I’ve seen at Mass every Sunday over my 46 years at St. Clare’s have gone missing. Alternatively, and like my own children, they have joined the ranks of the second largest denomination in the country – Former Catholics. Loyal progressives in my parish are at their wits’ end wondering how to cope with leadership tone-deaf to their desperate voices.

My own response has been to recognize what theologian and church historian, Figueroa Deck has identified as the “sleeping giant” of Latino Catholicism. That has me attending our parish’s Hispanic Mass at 11:00, rather than the increasingly reactionary and Euro-centric Anglo Mass at 9:00. I “go to the eleven o’clock” not only to escape the deadly retrogression of 9:00 a.m. antiquarianism, but in subconscious recognition, I think, of the fact that our Hispanic parishioners represent the cutting, salvific edge of the Catholic Church.

For decades now, the Latin American Church has embodied Catholicism’s most vital element.That’s personified in Pope Francis himself, our first Latin American pontiff, who I’m told is rejected by our current parish leadership – the same way Washington rejects Latin American immigrants.

Francis, of course, comes from Argentina. He’s followed the lead of Latin American theologians of liberation with his adoption of Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” That entails recognition that the poor (including, most prominently, our immigrant population) know more about the world than our rich leaders – or even than us in more comfortable classes.

I mean, immigrants possess a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” while the rest of us see only one side of what’s occurring before our eyes. On the one hand, the daily observation of the undocumented (as our motel cleaners, nannies, gardeners, construction workers, and fellow parishioners) tells them what it means to be a white American. On the other, they know intimately the experience of exclusion by those same whites.

Immigrants know how the economy works for whites, and how it excludes browns and blacks. They know that rich capitalists and their money enjoy absolute freedom to cross borders, regardless of the negative impacts such mobility might (and does!) have on Global South economies. At least subconsciously, migrant workers recognize the simultaneous contradiction of their being excluded from such mobility, despite the fact that labor is an even more important part of the economic equation than capital. So even though the law (created by the rich) forbids them, immigrants vote with their feet to claim the rights the system unjustly denies them. Our “immigration problems” are the result.

The double consciousness of immigrants can be salvific for the church. If its expressions are heeded, they can save the church. As expressed by our Hispanic Pope Francis, the undocumented in our midst call us to a church where (in the words of The Joy of the Gospel) we cannot leave things as they presently are” (JG 25), but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74).

Similarly, in the world of politics, Iranians (the descendants of Chronicles’ Cyrus the Great) inspired this time by Islam are calling us to changes in foreign policy. They implore us to just leave them (and their oil) alone. Ironically, their desire is that they be liberated from a kind of Babylonian captivity that places them under the jackboot of the United States and (still more ironically) Israel.

What I’m suggesting is that the descendants of Cyrus are still God’s instrument of our salvation. So in our present desperate context, are marginalized Catholic immigrants whose presence reminds us of Pope Francis’ wisdom and of the penetrating understanding of life that comes from refugees and the immigrants our government’s free trade policies create on the one hand, while refusing them sanctuary on the other.

Both bring us the new ways of relating to God, the new narratives and the new paradigms salvation requires.

The Ten Commandments Call Us to Joy and Peace, Not to Guilt and War

Heston

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.” From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 89, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

* Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
* In all things, strive to cause no harm
* Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
* Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
* Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
* Always seek to be learning something new
* Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
* Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
* Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
* Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

* Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
* Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
* Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
* Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.