A Teenager Far Smarter Than Donald Trump or Marco Rubio (Sunday Homily)

emma-gonzalez

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 22: 1-2, 3A, 10-13, 15-18; PS 118: 10, 15-19; ROM 8: 31B-34; MK 9: 2-10

We’re all still reeling from the St. Valentine’s massacre in Parkland, Florida.

The massacre itself represented a horrendous act of domestic terrorism tolerated by the NRA-sponsored policies of the two wings of the Money Party that rule our country.

It also exemplified an act of child sacrifice that Party not only condones, but in-practice advocates as it refuses to implement common-sense gun laws prohibiting the ownership of weapons of war by U.S. citizens.

For them, the right to own AR-15s is more important than the lives of our children and grandchildren. Guns are more important than kids’ lives. Or more accurately: the millions of dollars supplied to our politicians by the NRA is more important than anything.

That’s idolatry pure and simple. It’s worship of Baal and Moloch. Politicians like Donald Trump try to rationalize it. But their “logic” comes across as ludicrous and just plain stupid. For example, did you hear what President Trump’s solution to school shootings is? Arm the teachers! (He said that with a straight face!)

But do you know who’s not fooled by such stupidity?

Our nation’s children!

Last week all across the country, high school kids were out in the streets, speaking at town meetings, and confronting their senators and even the president with common sense and wisdom far beyond that of their completely unprincipled elders. Those so-called “leaders” were absolutely shamed by the eloquence of high schoolers more than 50 years younger than, for instance, “the leader of the free world.”

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high, where the massacre took place, was the most impressive of all.

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” she told the crowd. “We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be due to the tireless efforts of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most importantly the students.”

And the kids followed through. They marched on Washington. They confronted the President. Their outspoken questions left Florida Senator Marco Rubio speechless as he attempted to defend his acceptance of NRA campaign funds.

There’s no question about it. Our children are more effective leaders than the country’s elected officials. Our children are standing strong against child sacrifice.

Their stand highlights the contemporary relevance of today’s liturgy of the word as it presents us with the transfiguration stories of Abraham and Jesus of Nazareth.

First of all, consider the familiar narrative of Abraham and Isaac, its rejection of child sacrifice, and how it transfigured or transformed the roots of Jewish faith.

At first glance, the text seems to praise the great patriarch for his readiness to plunge a knife into Isaac’s heart. It has God saying, “For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” It’s as though Abraham’s readiness to do violence to his son were a unique proof of his faith.

Such understanding however is to forget that in ancient Mesopotamia it was required of all parents to sacrifice their firstborn sons. So despite the text’s claim, there would have been nothing remarkable about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Everyone in Abraham’s culture had that sort of primitive “faith.”

Scripture scholars conclude that the words just quoted (“For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”) represent an editorial addition inserted centuries after the reported event, when people no longer remembered the ancient and universal requirement of tribal gods to sacrifice the first-born of family and flock.

The editors were priests and scribes in service to Israel’s royal family. They adjusted the Abraham story to suit their employers’ needs for patriotic cannon-fodder. This explains the addition of the words indicating God’s pleasure at parents’ willingness to sacrifice their children.

In contrast to that textual adjustment, and as originally told, the Abraham-Isaac tale was about the ancient patriarch’s transfigured understanding of God. It was about his discovery of Yahweh as the God of Life who prohibited rather than required child sacrifice. [Note that even in today’s English translation, it is “God” (meaning Baal, the biblical name denoting foreign idols) who gives Abraham the order to sacrifice his son. But it is “the Lord” (meaning Yahweh, the God of Abraham) who tells the patriarch to stay his hand.]

So, Abraham’s real merit is found not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his unwillingness to do so. In that sense, Abraham in this instance is like Yahweh, the non-violent God of life, who (Abraham discovers) never endorses child sacrifice. That realization should have transfigured Abrahamic faiths forever. Unfortunately, it did not.

Jesus carries on and expands Abraham’s insight. He rejects violence of any type. He is the one who said: “love one another. Love your enemies. Forgive one another. Be compassionate. Be merciful. Seek God’s reign and God’s justice. Put away the sword. Rise and do not be afraid.”

Today’s gospel about Jesus’ “transfiguration” concludes with a voice directing us to “Listen to him.”

If Americans did, our world would indeed be transfigured. We would be transfigured – totally transformed. We would lay down our arms.

In other words, Abraham and Jesus are calling us away from idol-worship – away from sacrifices to Baal, Moloch, Money, Guns and the NRA.

In the context of the Valentine’s Massacre in Parkland, Florida, the spiritual icons of Judaism and Christianity are calling us to listen to our child-leaders like Emma Gonzalez.

“This is my beloved daughter,” we are being told. “Listen to her.”

Trump’s Suicidal SOTU Rant

sawing-off-branch-sitting-on

Readings for Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time:JB 7: 1-4, 6-7; PS 147: 1-6; I COR 9: 16=19, 22-23; MK 28-39

It was like watching a man sitting high above on a tree limb sawing away at it and bragging about the quality and sharpness of his saw. I’m talking about President Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) message last night. It was ridiculous in its necrophilic braggadocio.

“Look how great I am,” the braggart kept repeating one way or another. I’m promoting “clean coal” and oil that will make the planet unlivable for your grandchildren. (Applause!) I’m proposing a wall in the desert to keep poor people out (instead of dykes everywhere to protect low-lying cities against rising sea levels). I’m willing to start a nuclear war that will be the end of us all. (Even wilder applause!) In the meantime, as head of the Family Values Party I have the courage and integrity to destroy immigrant and refugee families – to tear parents away from their children and send them back to countries that our great economic system has ruined. (Wildest applause of all!)

Encouraged by the cheers, the president just kept sawing away reminding everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that his perch will soon come crashing down.

The hell of it is, however, that we’re all sitting on that branch with him.

It was Trump’s SOTU position on immigrants and refugees that was particularly offensive in the light of this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. There the evangelist announces a theme central to his Gospel, to the teachings of Jesus, and those of Paul of Tarsus. It is that laws that don’t serve people are invalid. They should not be obeyed.

That’s the opposite of the Republican position on immigration. It puts legalism ahead of the welfare of human beings. It says: “We’re a country of laws. Those immigrants who have crossed borders illegally don’t deserve to be here. They’re ruining our country. We must send them back even if it means depriving children of their parents. Otherwise, what will become of our great legal system? Laws are sacred, (and to repeat and repeat) we’re a country of laws.”

The insanity of that positon is illustrated by comparing the GOP attitude towards laws and people with its approach to laws relative to money and products. As Robert Reich recently pointed out so eloquently, Republicans value the latter more than people. For the GOP, money and merchandise have the right to cross any border. People do not.

That’s to forget that immigration is an economic problem. Immigrants are part of a globalized labor force. They are an essential part of an economic equation that includes capital (money, factories, offices, etc.) on the one hand and labor on the other. You can’t have one without the other. Yet, as I said, capital and merchandise are allowed to cross borders regardless of their impact on people, while labor must stay put. That’s a policy that values things over human beings.

And it’s all legal, only because moneyed people in their smoke-filled back rooms say so. They confect laws to justify the whole arrangement. And they do so over the strong objections of local peasants, for instance, in Mexico who understand that “free trade” and subsidized corn entering their country from the U.S. spells the end of their incomes and way of life. The laws in question override the concerns of environmentalists and trade unionists who recognize that the “legal” trade agreements of the rich ravage their ecosystems and destroy far more jobs than they create. However, in the name of self-serving “law” created precisely by the rich and powerful, it’s all O.K.

Jesus and Paul recognized the syndrome even in the early first century. So, they both embodied in their persons and proclaimed in their teachings that laws that fail to serve human beings need not be obeyed. In fact, they should be disobeyed!

That’s the case in this morning’s Gospel reading, where Mark sets the tone for his entire Jesus narrative by having the master’s very first public act be the transgression of the Jewish Sabbath Law – the holiest of all. The theme will become central to the conflict between the scribal establishment and Jesus which Mark will centralize.

In any event, and regardless of their motivation (inspired by faith or not), the global labor force is in practice asserting with their feet their agreement with Jesus and Paul. They are insisting on their rights as indispensable parts of the economic equation. Like capital, they are crossing borders regardless of laws, walls, ICE agents, and saw-obsessed, suicidal presidents. In the end, they will not be denied.

Keep that in mind, as you read my little reflection that follows below:

Jesus very first cure,
Mark is careful to note,
Took place on the Sabbath
Which the scribes kept by rote
Without thinking at all
Of its purpose or aim
Which was to help people
Rather than blame
Them for curing the sick
Or raising the dead.
Acting like him
Fulfills the law, Jesus said.

His act of defiance
Sets a tone for Mark’s book
And sends a strong message
If we but care to look.

It says law’s invalid
If it doesn’t serve man.
It’s a tool of oppression
It’s more worthless than
The ills and the sickness,
And sins Jesus forgave.
It’s worse than our death
It’s worse than the grave.

So, in the spirit of Jesus
We must break any law
That acts like a tooth
That looks like a claw
To bite and tear mothers
Their husbands and sons
Their daughters and grandkids.
You know the ones
I’m talking about
In this day and age:
Immigrants and refugees.
It should fill us with rage
When they’re excluded from here
For breaking a law
That only serves rich men.
(That’s what Jesus saw.)

So “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan
Should take careful note.
He’s one of those people
Thinking only by rote
About all that money
And about Wall Street stock
About what they hold sacred
Though their laws truly mock
The teachings of Jesus
About the poor and the lame
And how meeting their needs
Is the Good News he came
To announce to us all
If we choose but to hear:
From those fleeing oppression
We have nothing to fear.

The Unschooled Prophet Shouts Down the Learned Rabbi (a one-minute Sunday reflection)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Truth to Power

He strides into the synagogue
Stinking whores, beggars and bandits creeping behind.

The presiding rabbi knows why he’s there.
He’s come to disrupt his Holy Mass.
“I know who you are: The Holy One of God”
The robed demon screams in terror.

“You hypocrite!”
The prophet shouts back.
“You know nothing of holiness,
Be gone!”

The devil slinks out, tail between legs
To await another day
Leaving the intruder to teach the enthralled masses.

They all wonder:
“Where did he learn to speak like that?
This workman with calloused hands and patched robes
Unschooled like us.

Truth to power
Maybe we can do the same.”

Yes, maybe we can do the same!

The Lamb of God, Pope Francis & the Smell of Sheep

Francis Sheep

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I SAM 3: 3B-10, 19; PS 40: 4, 7-10; I COR 6: 13C-15A, 17-20; JN 35-42

Over his years in office, Pope Francis has come in for some harsh criticism from the U.S. right wing. But most of the time he had been simply ignored.

It’s not just because of his rejection of free market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and huge income disparities between the rich and poor. It’s not just his openness to gays and divorcees, and his refusal to obsess about abortion and contraception.

Yes, all of these have undermined what conservatives have seen as a close alliance between the Catholic Church and their pet causes and thinking modes — not to mention the Republican Party.

However, the straw breaking the back of reactionaries was probably the pope’s unequivocal warnings about climate change. For those conservatives, the publication of his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si, 2 ½ years ago raised the threatening specter of a global Catholic climate change movement potentially mobilizing the world’s 1.2 billion members.

The question is: why did the reactionaries prevail? Why after almost 3 years have Catholics not fore-fronted such a movement? Why, instead, did a majority of them in the 2016 elections vote for climate-change-denier, Donald Trump?

Could it be that the right wing persuaded Catholics that the pope was overstepping his authority? Or, on their own, did they intuit the drastic lifestyle conversion implied in effectively addressing climate chaos in the ways Pope Francis suggested? As announced in the title of Naomi Klein’s book, did they sense that This Changes Everything? Did they fear that taking on climate change as a moral issue would undermine the American Way of Life based on insane Republican (and Democratic) policies promising unlimited economic growth on a locked and limited planet?

Were they somehow convinced by the rhetoric like that of First Things blogger, Maureen Mullarkey who simply dropped all pretense and turned to full attack mode? According to Mullarkey , Pope Francis was simply “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.”

Do the Catholics ignoring Pope Francis agree with Mullarkey that he pretty much stinks?

Wrestling with such questions in those terms is inspired by today’s gospel reading. It’s all about stink – about sheep and what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep.” (Famously, you recall, the pontiff called on Catholic priests to live closer to the poor, to recognize them as God’s people and their welfare as the guideline for economic and social policy – to “take on,” he said, “the smell of the sheep.”)

Is it possible that conservatives have been put off by Pope Francis and vilify him because he smells too much like sheep — like the poor. He smells too much like Jesus.

Notice that in today’s gospel, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” To begin with, the phrase reminds us of the Bedouin origin of the biblical “People of God.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great King David were all shepherds. They were primitive people close to the earth. They were tribalists. In that sense, Jesus was a tribalist. According to John’s image, Jesus didn’t just smell like sheep; he was a sheep! He was in spades like his slave and Bedouin ancestors — like the poor people the pope has centralized during the entirety of his papacy.

Pope Francis shares Jesus’ closeness to and concern for tribal people. And he’s practicing what he preaches — both liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and the traditionally Catholic principle of subsidiarity. That means he endorses economic and environmental policy not on the basis of market dictates, but according to human decisions about values like the common good. Humane policy, the pope implies, originates not on Wall Street, but in places like the slums of his native Argentina and the Philippines.

As our century’s most powerful illumined voice of conscience, Francis has used his bully pulpit to wake us up. But we don’t seem to be listening. We’re like Samuel in today’s first reading – fast asleep even before the Ark of the Covenant (a reminder of Israel’s enslaved and Bedouin past). But we fail to recognize the biblical tradition’s significance to our lives – its call to tribal values which unfailingly center on animals, human family, and Mother Earth. We fail to see the implications of Paul’s observation in today’s second reading that all human beings – especially the poor and outcast – are temples of God’s spirit. That’s our tradition! That same Spirit resides, the pope says, in the planet that he (like St. Francis himself) calls our Mother and Sister.

So what kind of conversion do we need? What would a global Catholic climate movement look like?

It would entail:

  • Waking up like the young prophet Samuel. Like him we’ve heard God’s call many times. But at last in Pope Francis, we have a thought-leader speaking in a voice the simplest of us can hear. It’s the voice of conscience. And like Eli it’s giving us the proper way to respond: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A global Catholic climate movement further entails:

  • Embracing conservation as a moral issue deeply connected with faith
  • Forming a serious study group to internalize Pope Francis’ faith-based approach to climate change
  • Rejecting of superficial criticisms like Mullarkey’s suggesting that the pope is somehow an outlier on the question of climate
  • Repudiating of corporation-based globalization which has us (over)consuming imported necessities that could be home-grown.
  • Joining the fight against fracking and projects like the XL Pipeline
  • Voting accordingly.
  • Urging the institutions we can influence (churches, universities, hospitals . . .) to divest from fossil fuel industries.
  • Adopting a “zero waste” policy in our homes and places of work.
  • Cultivating home gardens.
  • Adopting a vegetarian diet.
  • Educating ourselves about “green burial” and including plans for that in our “living wills.”

The list, of course, goes on. But you get the idea.

Pope Francis is showing us the way out of our collective insanity. It is not too late for Catholics and others of good will to wake up and join his Global Movement to save the planet.

 

Epiphany Sunday: Its Call to Grow Up and Become Citizens of the World

 

World Citizen.jpeg

Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of:

  • Make America great again!”
  • “God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave!”
  • American Exceptionalism.
  • “U.S.A., U.S.A.!”
  • “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
  • “America’s the world’s indispensable nation.”
  • Collin Kaepernick should stand for the national anthem.

Additionally, our “leaders” have decided to ignore the world’s best and wisest minds by rejecting climate science and its warning about the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.

I mean hyper-patriotism and rejection of wise men (and women) seem to be the order of the day. And it has its religious dimension as well: it’s as if even USian Christians actually believe that God loves them more than Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis, or Ethiopians. It’s as if God loves Christians more than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews. Witness Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced pick for National Security Advisor. He has described Islam itself and its 1.7 billion followers as a “vicious cancer” that has to be excised. In Flynn’s little mind, the wisdom of that Great Religion is completely ignored.

The message of today’s celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany contradicts all of that – the hyper-patriotism, the othering of foreigners, and any attempt to fit the divine into narrow religious categories. Today’s readings challenge Jesus-followers to grow up – to transcend our blind ethnocentrism, expand our horizons and at last become citizens of the world.

Remember: the word “epiphany” means the appearance or manifestation of God – a revelation of who God really is. Accordingly, today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of the Universal God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us clearly that God is not what ethnocentric believers expected or even wanted. S/he loves everyone equally, not just Jews, much less Usians.

That’s part of why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew was like the one worshipped by “America-first” Usians. He loved and favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood.

So Herod and Jerusalem were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The astrologers claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.

The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three astronomers) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.

Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.

Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?

Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.

No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.

Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.

Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

The Republican Tax Plan Prefers Caesar to Jesus & God’s Kingdom

Tax Plan

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112717.cfm

Today’s readings raise the central political question of our day: what is the purpose of government? Is it simply to protect the private property of the well-to-do? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?

For the last thirty-five years or so, the former view has carried the day in the U.S. So it has become fashionable and politically correct even (especially?) for Christians to advocate depriving the poor of health care to help them achieve the American Dream, “ennobling” the unemployed by removing their benefits, criminalizing sharing food with the poor, and “punishing” perpetrators of victimless crimes by routinely placing them in solitary confinement.

Today most prominently, the idea that government’s task is to help corporations even it means hurting the poor, elderly, and newly arrived is embodied in Republican tax reform plan. It amounts to a giant give-away to billionaires including the Trump family. Today’s poor, middle class and future generations will pick up the tab for that particular wealth redistribution upward.

Today’s readings reject all of that. And they do so on a specifically political liturgical day – the commemoration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Yes, this is a political liturgy if ever there was one. It’s all about “Lords” and “Kings” and how they should govern in favor of the poor. It’s about a new political order presided over by an unlikely monarch – a king who was executed as a terrorist by the imperial power of his day. I’m referring, of course, to the worker-rebel, Jesus the poor carpenter from Nazareth.

Today’s readings promise that the rebel – the “terrorist” – Jesus will institute an order utterly different from Rome’s. That order recognizes the divine nature of immigrants, dumpster-divers, those whose water has been ruined by fracking and pipe lines, the ragged, imprisoned, sick, homeless, and those (like Jesus) on death row. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what we celebrate on this “Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.”

(Btw: in the eyes of Jesus’ executioners, today’s commemoration would be as unlikely as some future world celebrating the “Solemnity of Osama bin Laden, King of the Universe.” Think about that for a minute!)

In any case, today’s readings delineate the parameters of God’s new universal political order. To get from here to there, they call governments to prioritize the needs of the poor and those without public power. Failing to do so will bring destruction for the selfish leaders themselves and for the self-serving political mess they inevitably cultivate.

Today’s first reading gets quite specific about that mess. There the prophet Ezekiel addresses the political corruption Lord Acton saw as inevitable for leaders with absolute power. Ezekiel’s context is the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. It found itself under immediate threat from neighboring Babylon (Iraq). In those circumstances, the prophet words use a powerful traditional image (God as shepherd) to inveigh against Israel’s pretentious potentates. In God’s eyes, they were supposed to be shepherds caring for their country’s least well-off.  Instead, they cared only for themselves. Here’s what Ezekiel says in the lines immediately preceding today’s first lesson:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! . . . But you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.

In other words, according to Ezekiel’s biblical vision, government’s job is to address the needs of the weak, the sick and the injured. It is to tenderly and gently bring back the wayward instead of punishing them harshly and brutally.

A great reversal is coming, Ezekiel warns. The leaders’ selfishness will bring about their utter destruction at the hands of Babylon.

On the other hand, Judah’s poor will be saved. That’s because God is on their side, not that of their greedy rulers. This is the message of today’s responsorial psalm – the familiar and beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . “)  It reminds us that the poor (not their sleek and fat overlords) are God’s “sheep.”  To the poor God offers what biblical government should: nothing but goodness and kindness each and every day. Completely fulfilling their needs, the divine shepherd provides guidance, shelter, rest, refreshing water, and abundant food. Over and over today’s refrain had us singing “There is nothing I shall want.” In the psalmist’s eyes, that’s God’s will for everyone – elimination of want. And so the task of government leaders (as shepherds of God’s flock) is to eradicate poverty and need.

The over-all goal is fullness of life for everyone. That’s Paul’s message in today’s second reading.  It’s as if all of humanity were reborn in Jesus. And that means, Paul says, the destruction of “every sovereignty, every authority, every power” that supports the old necrophiliac order of empire and its love affair with plutocracy, war and death instead of life for God’s poor.

And that brings us to today’s culminating and absolutely transcendent gospel reading. It’s shocking – the most articulate vision Jesus offers us of the basis for judging whether our lives have been worthwhile – whether we have “saved our souls.” The determining point is not whether we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal savior. In fact, the saved in the scene Jesus creates are confused, because their salvific acts had nothing to do with Jesus. So they ask innocently, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”

Jesus’ response? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

But more than personal salvation is addressed here. Jesus homage to Ezekiel’s sheep and shepherd imagery reminds us of judgment’s political dimension. So does Jesus’ reference to the judge (presumably himself) as “king.” And then there’s the church itself which centralizes this climactic scene precisely on this Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. All three elements say quite clearly that “final judgment” is not simply a question of personal salvation, but of judgment upon nations and kingdoms as well. To reiterate: in Matthew’s account, the final judgment centralizes the political.

And what’s the basis for the judgment on both scores? How are we judged as persons and societies? The answer: on the basis of how we treated the immigrants, the hungry, ill-clad, sick, and imprisoned.

On that basis, Jesus’ attitude towards the United States as earlier described ought to be quite clear. It’s the same as Ezekiel’s when he predicted the destruction of Israel at the hands of Iraq:

“Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”

Ironically enough that “fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is today being stoked in Iraq just as it was in the days of Ezekiel. This time the Babylonians call themselves the Islāmic Caliphate.

As Ezekiel might say, “You read it here first.”