Why the Church? (Sunday Homily)

Sisters

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

After binge-watching The Keepers last weekend, it’s difficult for me not to connect Ascension Sunday with the church as depicted there. Apart from the fascination stemming from the horrific events portrayed, the docuseries depicts a Catholic Church that has all but disappeared.

Before the 1970s, priests and women religious were plentiful. At my parish, St. Viator, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, our Viatorian priests all living together in the rectory were Fathers Fitzpatrick, Ranahan, Ryan, Burke, and Devereux – along with Brother Kelzer. In addition, women religious dominated our school. Every year a different Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught me there. To this day, I remember them daily in my prayers: Sisters Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Cyril, Rita Marie, and Irma. My mind can still see them at daily Mass where their community filled three long pews. It seemed like there were about 20 of them.

Then came Vatican II (1962-’65), and that was the end of that. With the great reforms, everything was called into question: the nature of the church itself, the priesthood, the communal religious life. Priests and nuns left their “consecrated lives” in droves.

Observation of today’s “feast day,” the Ascension of Jesus, was part of it all. Time was when Jesus’ Ascension was celebrated on Thursday as a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires’ wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

Notes for a Home Church: Why The Church as We Know It Is Dead (Pt 2 in series of 4)

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In my last posting, I announced the first meeting of a house catholic (i.e. open to all) church. It will take place this Saturday, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, at 5:00 in Peggy’s and my home, 404 Jackson St.

I also mentioned that friends of mine wondered why, noting that the church as we know it is dead.

To be honest, I find their point hard to deny. As already noted, the institutional church is pretty much in extremis. If it disappeared entirely, most of our lives would be little affected. There’s good reason for that. The church has little to do with the historical Jesus, who (in contrast to the one worshipped in our churches) remains extremely relevant to this age of Donald Trump and its ushering in of fascism.

Let me explain

Jesus never intended to found a church. As James Carroll has pointed out recently in his Christ Actually, the Master was a prophetic reformer of Judaism. He remained a Jew to the end of his life. It was beyond his purview even to conceive of belonging to or persuading others to embrace a religion other than a reformed Judaism.

The same was true for his immediate followers. As shown in the Acts of the Apostles, they met in their homes to “break bread” [as was the signature practice of Jesus himself (see below)]. However, they also continued to congregate in the Temple and in local synagogues. Even Paul remained a good Jew. His work with “Gentiles” was with non-Jewish converts to Judaism. His concern was not to burden them by requiring circumcision and kosher diet of such “God-Fearers” wishing to embrace the Jesus Wing of Judaism. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg have argued persuasively about this in The First Paul.

As I’ve indicated in my own book, The Emperor’s God, the Jewish Jesus-Community at Jerusalem was led by Jesus’ brother James the Just. Its members were effectively wiped out or driven into exile in the year 70, when the Romans utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. The resulting Jewish diaspora (refugee Christians among them) spread throughout the Roman Empire. There Christian concern for the poor drew numerous (typically impoverished) non-Jews into their orbit. Largely variant interpretations of Jesus’ identity subsequently emerged – some strictly Jewish, other gentile, some pro-Empire, others Empire-resistant.

In fact, four basic understandings of Jesus  came out of the hodgepodge: (1) Jesus was a completely human prophet like John the Baptist, (2) he was a human being who eventually became divine, (3) he was from the beginning a God who pretended to be human, and (4) Jesus was from the outset somehow fully God and fully human.

It was the latter interpretation that eventually prevailed as “orthodox.” The other three interpretations (along with additional opinions) were labeled “heretical” and suppressed, often quite violently.

In the early 4th century, the non-Jewish, “orthodox,” and pro-empire factions within Christianity rose to prominence. That was after Constantine issued his Edict of Milan in 313. It made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Then in 325 Constantine himself convened the Council of Nicaea. Its Nicene Creed effectively transformed Jesus into a Roman God – above history, thoroughly Roman, and no longer Jewish. As such, he was not a threat to Rome or any other regime willing to dispense rich favors on the church. By 381, under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the pro-empire faction of Christian leaders consolidated their power, the historical Jesus and his specifically Jewish concerns were lost forever.

Even more tragically, following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, the Church gradually stepped into the breach and took over its functions. Increasingly, popes resembled emperors, cardinals became “princes of the church,” bishops aspired to princely rank, and priests often fell into the role of religious hucksters hawking spiritual favors such as forgiveness of sins and “indulgences” in exchange for money.

Throughout the process, what gave priests their authority was the power the church claimed for them to “transubstantiate” bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Their ability to forgive sin in the sacrament of penance consolidated their influence. It rendered them indispensable for those wishing to get to heaven after death – which was for Catholics the whole point of life. Without such powers, priestly authority would have vanished.

None of that is to say that the Church sold its soul to empire entirely. Over the centuries, there were plenty of reform movements. Beginning around the 3rd century, the Desert Fathers rejected the growing worldliness of the Church. Franciscans in the 13th century followed in that tradition. Then came the great Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Key to the latter was the denial of priestly status or authority. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others undercut the priestly class by correctly recognizing that neither Jesus nor the apostles were priests. In fact, the reformers said, any special priesthood was a compete aberration for Christians. If anything, in virtue of baptism, all Christians are priests. They were empowered to forgive one another’s sins. There was no need for the sacrament of penance. Moreover, all the reformers agreed with St. Augustine who taught that belief that a priest’s words could change bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ was absurd and cannibalistically repugnant.

Modern biblical scholarship has proven the Reformers correct on most counts. As Garry Wills has argued in Why Priests?, outside the obscure Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is nowhere in the New Testament identified as a priest. Instead he is consistently portrayed as a lay person – a prophet extremely critical of priests and their work. When St. Paul lists the charisms, gifts or offices found within the Christian community, nowhere on his list of 16 separate categories does he mention “priest” – much less of a power to change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood or to forgive sins in “confession.”

Well, if the Eucharist is not a ritual intended to miraculously render Jesus present in the host and chalice, what is it? And what is the meaning of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

We’ll take that up in next Tuesday’s posting – Part 3 in this series.

Mary’s “Virginity”: Its Warning about Donald Trump and Sexual Assault by the Military (Sunday Homily)

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 Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6; ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24.

Do you ever wonder what effect Donald Trump’s proclivity for sexual assault might have on the problem of military rape? After all, his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments along with his personal behavior have already emboldened copycat words and actions by many of his followers including schoolchildren. Will Mr. Trump similarly embolden enlisted men and officers to follow the example of their Commander-in-Chief?

That question becomes relevant on this Fourth Sunday of Advent because the readings for today emphasize Jesus’ “virgin birth.” Such emphasis resurrects a persistent tradition identifying Mary’s “miracle” as the result of military rape.

If that tradition were true, what light would it shed on the problem of rape in the military in connection with the example of its Commander-in-Chief?

Let me put that question in context by offering some background for today’s reading from Matthew along with a reference to the selection from Isaiah traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ virginal conception.

To get from here to there, try to understand the situation of Joseph and Mary as young marrieds in a context of imperial aggression. They’re a teenage couple; they are poor and living in an occupied country. Joseph is a jack-of-all-trades – that’s what the Greek word we translate as “carpenter” meant in first century Palestine. Like everyone from his class, he was unemployed most of the time. But he’d fix your leaking roof if you hired him. When he could, he’d harvest grapes and wheat for local landlords.

And he was probably deeply involved with the local insurgency against Roman occupation. (Nearly every impoverished patriot is in such situations.) Additionally, the only commentary we have on Joseph’s character is Matthew’s single word “just.” He was a just man. (By the way, his son, James – the one who headed the Jerusalem church following his brother’s death – was also known as “James the just.”) In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, justice meant taking the side of the powerless. It appears to have been a central value Joseph passed on to his children.

As resisters, Joseph’s kind would have been considered terrorists by the Romans. In fact, the very year in which Jesus was likely born (6 BCE) Galilee’s countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers fighting against people like Jesus’ supposed father. The occupiers were busy laying siege to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee – a mere hour’s walk from Joseph’s village.

There the insurgency had taken a decisive stand against Rome’s puppet, King Herod. And like Americans in Iraq’s Fallujah under “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Romans were determined to make an example of the city by laying it waste utterly. Before their final offensive, that involved night raids, kicking in doors, and raping young Jewish girls. (All forces of occupation – including our own today – know the drill.)

In any case, according to that persistent tradition about her “virginity,” that’s where Mary came in. She was a young teenager about 12 or 14. Although she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl” (MT 1:18-25), she was probably linked with him by the village matchmaker perhaps when they were both still toddlers. They had not yet begun to live together, because they were probably waiting for Mary to come officially “of age” – able to bear children.

Be that as it may, Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine her worry? Innumerable teenage girls can relate to her panic – and disgrace. Obviously, Mary did not want to be just another of her community’s “virgins.” [Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.” “Virgin” is what (behind their hands) local matrons called an unwed mother.]

According to the story, Joseph too shared Mary’s disgrace and embarrassment. He wanted a divorce (i.e. release from his commitment to marry). And he probably demanded it with the anger and recrimination that are inevitably associated with the dreaded “d” word.

Joseph’s anger, suspicion, and thoughts about divorce may also have come from his hatred of the Romans. (And here comes that persistent tradition about Mary’s “virginity.”) It even remembers the rapist’s name. According to Celsus’ “True Doctrines” written about 178 C.E., the rapist was called “Panthera.” That was also the name of one of the Roman legions involved in that siege of Sepphoris.

Such suspicious circumstances around Jesus’ questionable conception also find some support in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called a “Samaritan” (8:48). That was a harsh term equivalent to our “bastard.” Additionally, Mark refers to Jesus simply as “Son of Mary” (6:3) – a quite unusual reference in a culture where children were identified by their father’s name.

With all of that in mind, and if Celsus’ tradition has merit, it’s easy to understand how the thought of taking up with a girl defiled by a Roman “pig” (what Jews called the occupiers) probably turned Joseph’s stomach. No wonder he wanted a divorce.

That is, if the tradition has merit . . .  You see, we can take our pick here. And that brings me to the point about the historical veracity of the stories around Jesus’ birth: all of the traditions are entirely questionable as far as historical fact is concerned.

For instance, the familiar account of Jesus’ virgin birth is found only in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke). Mark and John make no mention of it. That means that they either didn’t know about the tradition, or Mark and John didn’t think it important enough to include. (By the way, if Jesus’ conception was as miraculous as we’ve always been taught, how likely is either of those alternatives?)

And then there’s that business – recounted in today’s first reading – about Isaiah’s supposed prediction of Jesus’ virginal conception. Matthew takes Isaiah’s words completely out of context.

Actually, Isaiah’s not referring to Jesus at all, but to his own time more than 500 years earlier. And the Hebrew term he uses is not the equivalent of “virgin.” That’s a mistranslation. The word the prophet employs simply means “young girl.” Isaiah’s prediction is that a “young girl” of his own time will conceive. The prophet’s words had nothing to do with Jesus or virgin birth.

The point here is we’re not dealing with “history” in the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead we’re confronted with a miraculous “birth story,” – a literary genre that characterizes accounts of virtually all “Great Men” in the ancient world. Its point is that God’s Spirit entered into Jesus from the very outset – long, long before his actual birth.

In that light, historically speaking, rape is a much more likely explanation of Jesus’ conception than intervention by the Holy Spirit. Think about it. That’s simply a fact.

How then was Jesus begotten? If Joseph was his father, we understand how Jesus was so concerned with social justice. And through this pre-birth story we can hear (once again!) a summons to learn from Joseph the way Jesus and his brother James did. It’s also a reason for re-evaluating our culture’s drumbeat of indoctrination against “terrorists.” Jesus came from a family the Romans would have considered terrorist.

If Panthera humiliated Jesus’ mother (and Joseph), and Jesus was the product of rape – and if rape is an inevitable strategy of war – then that’s an additional reason for pressuring the U.S. military to aggressively investigate and punish perpetrators of military rape. It’s also a reason for refusing to honor the U.S. military in general, for opposing war, working for peace, and appreciating Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

Finally, it’s yet another cause for reflection on the unsuitability of Mr. Trump as Commander-in-Chief. Predictably, his example will embolden soldiers to objectify, demean and rape the ones the president-elect termed“fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” It is certain that the Roman military made similar characterizations of Jewish girls like Jesus’ mother.

The bottom line here is that (as Pope Francis would have it) if we’re not resisting war, military culture in general, its Commander-in-Chief and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

Christmas Is Blasphemy: Put Mithra Back in Christmas!

mithra

Last year at this time, two very different religious leaders – one considered left of center, the other a fundamentalist preacher – converged in agreement about the meaninglessness of Christmas. They both concurred: except as a secular winter festival, Christmas is religiously meaningless.

On the left, Pope Francis called the Christian world’s upcoming Christmas celebration a “charade.” He said there’d be parties, gift exchanges, and family gatherings in the name of celebrating Jesus’ birth, but it would all be absurd pretense.

That’s what charade means: an absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.

And the pope was right. Starting around Thanksgiving, so-called Christians pretend to honor “the Prince of Peace” – the one who took no one’s life, but sacrificed his own rather than take up arms — who was himself a political refugee – conceived out-of-wedlock – brown-skinned, poor, and living under imperial occupation – the one who would be a victim of torture and capital punishment – who was all the things that good Christian supporters of Donald Trump and of the U.S. War on Terror hate and despise.

That’s right. our culture despises Jesus and all he really stands for.

And that’s where the fundamentalist preacher comes in.  He agrees with the pope – well kind of.

About the same time Pope Francis was talking charade, Rev. Joshua Feuerstein, denounced Starbucks for hating Jesus. The good reverend was outraged by the coffee giant’s holiday cups which display no specific reference to Jesus. That’s a sign, Feuerstein said, that Starbucks agrees with the movement to remove Christ from Christmas. Starbucks hates Jesus. So let’s boycott Starbucks!

On the one hand, could anything be more absurd? The world is burning. Our way of life is destroying God’s creation. Our country is waging war against the poor everywhere – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia . . . We supply weapons to all sides in the endless war our “leaders” have declared. And our man was worried about Starbucks’ drinking cup! He denounced Starbucks for simply recognizing what is: Jesus has long since been removed from Christmas.

On the other hand, there was wisdom in Rev. Feuerstein’s accusations. And it’s not just Starbucks that “hates Jesus;” it’s our entire culture – including our churches. In that sense, Feuerstein agrees with Francis. However, hating Jesus has nothing to do with coffee cups. As I said, it means despising those Jesus identified with in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) – the poor immigrant refugee from our endless bombing campaigns, the hungry street person, the homeless beggar, the imprisoned desperado, the coatless person we pass on our way into Starbucks.

So what to do to avoid making this Christmas an empty charade?

We can start by recognizing that Christmas is a winter festival and nothing more. Every culture has them. They are times for ice sculptures, bright lights, reunions with family, for feasting, drinking, parties and exchanges of gifts. All of that distracts us from the oncoming season’s dark and cold – and from our destruction of God’s planet.

That’s the way it was in ancient Rome too. Rome had its Saturnalia. In fact, December 25th was the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra, who was a favorite with Roman legionnaires. In that sense, Mithra’s birthday was a military holiday – a celebration of empire and its wars. Our militarized culture should be at home with that.

So let’s end the charade. Have fun.  Eat, drink, and be merry. That’s what winter festivals are about. But forget the blasphemy of associating Jesus with any of it.

Raise your Starbuck’s cup and toast a happy feast of Mithra!

President Trump: Harbinger of Revolution

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So Donald Trump is now our president-elect!

Of course, the F.B.I.’s James Comey is the proximate cause of this disaster. His October Surprise intervention in the presidential campaign represents yet another coup by the ruling class to nullify grassroots democracy. It’s like the Supreme Court’s selection of George W. Bush back in 2000. This time however the F.B.I. is the agency of intervention on behalf of the elite.

In any case, Comey’s maneuver, like what happened 16 years ago, embodies the corruption of a system that needs to come down for reasons far beyond banana republic pre-election shenanigans.

After all, the American system with its burgeoning police state at home and its brutal imperialism abroad is responsible for most of the world’s problems: unending wars, oppression of poor people everywhere, planetary destruction by way of human-induced climate chaos, and reversion to pre-Magna Carta torture and imprisonment without charge or trial.

In the name of humanity, in the name of Mother Earth, then, the system just described has long deserved dissolution.

But how would such destruction occur? Until November 8th, it all seemed so entrenched –  controlled by overwhelming military and law enforcement powers, not to mention a network of propaganda and miseducation that keeps citizens asleep and rebellion at bay.

Enter Donald Trump! Enter the U.S. electorate!

The election of Donald Trump represents (in Michael Moore‘s words) the Molotov Cocktail the desperate subconsciously required to destroy dysfunctional arrangements that no longer serve them. It’s like the Brits and Brexit. There too ordinary people refused to be led by the “experts.” They knew the system had to be destroyed. So they gave the middle finger to their “betters.”

Yes, Trump remains an absolute lout, and a know-nothing. He’s a climate-change denying sexist and racist xenophobe. But as such he makes clear to the entire world what “America” has become – what it in fact is: loud, boorish, fearful, uneducated, racist, sexist, domineering, undemocratic, and xenophobic. With his election, it is no longer possible to pretend otherwise.

Ironically, however, the Donald Trump version of us all might represent exactly what’s needed to spark and catalyze the revolution against everything he, our country and many of us have come to embody. He’s what’s required to destroy the system as we know it, and to coalesce revolutionary forces roiling just below the surface of contemporary American life.

So following his inauguration just watch the agents of revolution come together.  I’m talking about:

·      The civilized world

·      Women tired of being objectified and harassed and underpaid

·      Environmentalists

·      Black Lives Matter activists

·      “Fight for Fifteen” workers

·      The new First People’s Movement resisting installations like the Dakota Access         Pipeline

·      Prison strikers

·      Immigrants

·      Young people energized by Bernie Sanders

·      Muslims at home and abroad

·      Religious leaders like Pope Francis

·      And Mother Earth Herself

But, be forewarned: the next four years will be rough. There will be a lot of broken heads and imprisonments. We’re about to experience a genuine revolution.

Thank God.

Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. That is, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Would Jesus Celebrate Independence Day?

Jesus Revolutionary

 Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacherEknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?