How Was Your Election Day? This Was Mine

Nov. 6, 2012

6:00 a.m.  My first thought this morning is the same as my last before dropping off to sleep last night: Election Day.   This is it. It’s been such a long campaign season. I’m glad it’s finally almost over. I’m sick of it all. Are we actually about to elect as president one of those plutocrats who crashed the economy four years ago? Only in America . . . .

6:15-7:15: A mighty struggle this morning to keep thoughts of the election out of my mind during meditation and spiritual reading. I keep directing my mind back to the words of my “passage meditation”: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought; we are formed and molded by our thoughts . . .”

7:30: On my way to the gym, I go over the list of people I pray for each day. I stumble over the last inclusion – the prayer for President Obama.  I’ve been praying it over the last four years: “May the president be remembered as the best the United States has ever had. May he be filled with loving kindness. May he be safe from dangers, internal and external. May he be well in body, in heart, and in mind. And may he find peace and be truly happy.”

8:00-8:30: I’m on the elliptical machine at the gym now. I think about that Obama prayer. A lot of good it’s done! This guy has been such a disaster: droning, torture, a Bush-like “surge” in Afghanistan, renewal of the Patriot Act, restrictions on civil liberties, extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, surrender on the public option in healthcare, refusal to explain and defend himself in the face of relentless Republican attacks and GOP rejection of bipartisanship . . . . If he’s reelected, he’ll probably immediately abandon his base again. I feel so angry about that. He just failed to grasp which side his bread is buttered on? Maybe he’s not as smart as we thought.

8:50-9:00: I’m walking home now. Obama actually called us “professional leftists” and “whiners.” I can’t get that out of my mind.  And now he’s ever so cooperatively begging for our vote! What gall!  How arrogant! I feel so insulted, I could almost vote for Romney!

9:15: Now I’m preparing breakfast. Would things really change that much if Obama lost? Can Mitt Romney be much worse? Well, there are those Supreme Court nominations in the offing. All we need are more Clarence Thomases. . . . I’m confused.

9:30: While eating breakfast, I tune in to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.” Election Day focus is on the Republican campaign to suppress the vote. Their crusade strikes me as outrageous, unpatriotic, and treasonous. Why didn’t the Democrats do something about reforming the electoral process when they had the chance? The whole thing is so corrupt, what with “Citizens United,” voting machine conflicts of interest, redistricting, and voter suppression aimed at minorities and Democrats? Why are we still discussing these things on Election Day? The electoral system should have been reformed immediately after the 2000 “hanging chad” disaster. Obama really screwed up by not taking advantage of the mandate for change and the super majority he enjoyed in Congress in 2008. I’m so pissed.

10:00: I’m off to vote in the Madison Southern High School gymnasium. It’s busy there. This is a Red State. I catch myself thinking harsh thoughts about Kentuckians. Then I see some friends. We exchange pleasantries. I approach the desk to sign in to vote. They ask for my ID. I search my wallet for one without a photo – I just don’t want to give in to this voter ID nonsense. I’m white, so the ID works.  I guess they don’t require a photo of whites.

10:15: I sign in to vote. The ballot is a single page and surprisingly uncomplicated – nothing like the 12 page ballot they’re using to suppress the vote in Florida. I’m directed to a desk (with privacy shields) alongside two other voters. This is different from what we used to do in Madison County. In 2000 and before we went into a curtained booth and voted via Diebold machine. I never did trust those things; still don’t.

10:25: I fill out votes for City Council members – searching for names I recognize, most of them former colleagues at Berea College where I used to teach. They’re all “liberal” enough, I guess.

10:27: I VOTE FOR GREEN PARTY CANDIDATE, JILL STEIN. I’m thinking, the Democrats and Obama simply have to get the message that they’ve lost people like me. Anyway, since Kentucky’s such a red state, my vote for president is otherwise meaningless. Now if I were in Ohio or Florida, it would be a different story. I would vote for Obama there. (In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon phoning Ohioans to get out the vote for Obama. That’s how conflicted I am.)

11:30: I Skype a friend of mine in Amsterdam. He’s a self-exiled former priest who holds dual citizenship in Great Britain and in the U.S. He’s chosen to boycott this election.  Over the last few weeks he’s been chiding me for supporting Obama. “How can you do that? he’s been asking. Didn’t you watch the third debate? On foreign policy, Obama and Romney are on the same page. It’s absolutely selfish to vote for Obama because he’ll somehow protect your Social Security. The man’s a war criminal – droning, torturing, eliminating civil liberties, suspending habeas corpus. . . . The Democrats are as corrupt as the Republicans. The whole system has to come down, and that means going through a period of purgation that will be hard as hell, but it has to happen.” My friend is pleased when he hears I’ve voted for Stein.

12:00: I have to break away from the Skype conversation to answer a knock on the door. It happens to be another ex-priest. (Our parish is loaded with them – four of us.) We sit on our front porch and talk politics. My friend agrees that the system must come down. What form do you think it will the disintegration take, I ask? “Last week answered that question,” he says. He was referring to Hurricane Sandy. “That even woke up the business suits,” he says. “Did you see that Bloomberg’s magazine ran a headline last week, ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid’?  Once the suits wake up like that, you’ll see changes.”  He continues, “The dollar’s going to be devalued; the European Union’s going to hell, and simple demographics are running against the fascists. I mean, the whole thing’s disintegrating before our very eyes. And you’re asking ‘what form will it take?’ Open your eyes, man.  And hang on to your seatbelt!” Then he added with a nod towards our status as septuagenarians, “I don’t think you and I will live to see this particular ‘Berlin Wall’ fall. Thank God.”

1:00-5:00: All afternoon I compulsively check my Kindle Fire for . . .  I’m not sure for what. Am I hoping for some news about “who’s winning?” I know the polls won’t close for hours. Still, there might be something about exit polls. All I find though are more last-minute appeals for money from Move-On and others. They’re still asking for telephone calls to undecideds on behalf of Elizabeth Warren. Those appeals have been making me feel guilty for months. Instead of phoning, I watch the end of “Platoon.” It reminds me of Obama’s broken promises about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and the likelihood that no matter who wins, we’ll soon be attacking Iran at Israel’s behest.

5:30: I go for supper to the home of a friend of mine (also a former priest!). We warm up with Manhattans. Then a spaghetti dinner with my friend’s famous meatballs. Always a treat. My friend, yet another one of us ex-priests, is a self-identified curmudgeon. He’s claims he has given up completely on politics. He’s convinced that nothing in the world ever really changes. Romney and Obama are essentially the same. Life goes on no matter what. The best we can do is tend our own gardens. I think about “Platoon” and find myself thinking he may be right.

7:30: The first returns are coming in now. We keep switching back and forth between FOX, MSNBC, and CNN. The reporters are obviously enamored of their “magic boards” and high tech gadgets. By 9:30 Romney has a lead in electoral votes. But a subtext of the evening (except on FOX) is that Obama will close the deal in Ohio and even, it seems, in Florida. We’ll see.

10:00: I return home and tune into Amy Goodman’s Election Night Coverage. She’s interviewing Green Party candidate, Jill Stein along with Ohio Congressman, Dennis Kucinich. Instead of simply reporting on the “horse race,” they discuss the need for a third party in the U.S.

10:30: Still on Amy Goodman, Lee Rowland of the Brennan Center for Justice along with author Greg Palast report on voter suppression efforts in Florida and Ohio. Palast talks about his experience in Toledo where voters waited in a line of more than a thousand people. Once they got to their destination, they were not allowed to vote, but were given applications for absentee ballots. Incredible!

11:15: They’ve called the election for President Obama. Reportedly, his camp is already talking about a”Grand Bargain” with the Republicans. Bob Herbert of Demos says it’s going to hurt the most vulnerable. Incredible!

12:00: I finally go to bed.

Step One in the Five-Step Development of the Christian Tradition: The Human Jesus

(This is the sixth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Through the application of the method described so far in this series, the story of Jesus takes on an intensely human character unfamiliar to most. Such unfamiliarity especially arises when the principle of analogy comes into play. As already indicated, that principle holds that: We must not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is assumed or proven to be impossible in the present. The application of this largely negative standard leads scholars to explain away the miraculous in the ancient world in general and in the Bible in particular. In the Christian Testament, the principle is applied to reported events from the virgin birth to the resurrection, with events like the feeding of the 5000 and raising of Lazarus in between.

But there’s also a positive side to the principle of analogy. This positive side is especially important for uncovering the often neglected political and economic dimensions of Jesus’ life.  In its positive formulation I would express the principle of analogy in the following words: We must ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens to human beings in the present.  Put otherwise, at their most basic levels human beings are highly similar across time and place. This similarity includes the interaction between the rich and the poor, and between oppressors and the oppressed.

That is, apart from local collaborators, the colonized usually resent the presence of occupation forces in their country. Workers generally resent being underpaid and exploited. They are critical of the rich whose extravagant lifestyle peasants perceive as based on their underpayment. They find interesting and can easily relate to those who criticize the rich and foreign occupiers and to descriptions of a future where such oppression is absent. Meanwhile the rich and powerful find such criticism threatening and normally try to suppress it if it mobilizes the masses.

The application of the principle of analogy in this positive meaning allows (especially politically committed Third World) scholars to connect the alleged words and deeds of Jesus to circumstances of Roman imperialism and first century Palestinian poverty, and to draw conclusions about the historical Jesus that do not generally occur to those living outside circumstances of imperial oppression. Such conclusions based on the principle of analogy assume that Roman imperialism was the most significant element of life in first century Palestine. That imperialism must therefore be kept prominently in mind when analyzing texts within the Christian Testament.

It is at this point that something called the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” comes to the fore. The adjective “hermeneutical” refers to interpretation – of texts or of life itself. “Hermeneutical privilege of the poor” means that people living in circumstances of poverty similar to those of Jesus and his friends – especially under the violent realities of imperialism or neo-imperialism – often have a better understanding of texts about those circumstances than do those living more comfortably. Today’s uneducated poor might even have a better understanding than contemporary intellectuals and scholars.

To be more concrete . . . . We know that Palestine was a province occupied by the Romans. The rich Sadducees, the temple’s establishment of priests, lawyers, and scribes, as well as the court of Herod in Galilee were collaborators with the Romans. Jesus came from the Galilee, a section of Palestine that was a hotbed of resistance to Rome and of resentment against Jews collaborating with the occupiers. Jesus was born around the year (4 BCE) when the Romans finally destroyed Sepphoris, the capital of the Galilee. Sepphoris was located just 3.7 miles from his home in Nazareth – less than an hour’s walk. In that year of uprising, rebellion, and slaughter, Jesus’ parents gave him a revolutionary name – Yesua (=Joshua) the general who conquered the land of Canaan now occupied by Rome. Jesus’ brothers also bore significant names in terms of Jewish nationalism and ownership claims to Palestine. James was named after Jacob, the last of Israel’s three great patriarchs. Joses bore the name of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.  Simon (= Simeon) and Jude (= Judah) both were named after fathers of one of Israel’s 12 tribes.

On top of that, Jesus’ Mother, Miryam, is remembered by the evangelist Luke as a woman of revolutionary conviction. In her “Magnificat” poem (1:46-55), she praises the God of Israel as one who “has scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things . . . and sent the rich away empty.”

In the light of such circumstances, and given Jesus’ evident commitment to the poor, it becomes highly likely that Jesus not merely shared the anti-Roman and anti-Jewish establishment sentiments of his family and neighbors. It also becomes likely that Jesus’ family was involved in the Jewish resistance at the very time of Jesus’ birth. After all, circumstances like the siege of a nearby town by foreign occupiers generally find everyone local somehow involved. (In fact, occupiers routinely assume such involvement and retaliate accordingly, both then and now.)

And there’s more.  The fact that nearby Sepphoris was under siege in 4 BCE carries implications about Jesus own conception.  It means that the surrounding territory including Nazareth must have been crawling with Roman soldiers at that time. Under such circumstances, the principle of analogy tells us that many Jewish girls would have been raped by those soldiers. After all, rape is a standard strategy for occupiers in all wars from first-century Sepphoris to twenty-first century Kabul. This realization makes more interesting the tradition that surfaced in the 2nd century with the pagan author Celsus. He alleged that Jesus’ “virginal” conception was the result of Miryam being raped by a Roman soldier called Panthera. (By the way, according to scripture scholar Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, the term “virgin” was snidely applied in first century Palestine to unwed mothers and victims of rape.)

(Step one will be continued next Monday)

The Highest Mystical Truth: We and Our Neighbors Are Identical with God

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110412.cfm

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is the Hebrew prayer called the Shema. The prayer was the centerpiece of both morning and evening prayer services for the Jewish community throughout its history. It was taught to children as their bedtime prayer. The dying were encouraged to make it their final words as they shed their bodies to leave this world. In the King James Version the Shema’s beginning exhortation reads:

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”  

Today’s first reading details the origin of the Shema. The legend goes that Moses himself taught the prayer to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. It was a thanksgiving prayer for their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Of course, the Exodus was the first experience the ancient Hebrews had of the God they came to know as “Yahweh.” Their response to Yahweh’s signature blessing was to be complete love and commitment.

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus quotes the Shema in response to the scribe’s question about the greatest of the commandments. What is the greatest commandment the scribe asks? Jesus’ answer:

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

 While many of us might be unfamiliar with the term “Shema,” its concept is certainly familiar enough for us. It’s what many of us learned from our catechism or Sunday school lessons.  The first commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and with all our strength. The second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

What’s especially noteworthy in Jesus’ response is his linking of love of God with love of neighbor and love of self. That is, the Shema itself identifies love of God as the greatest of the commandments. It stops there. Jesus’ contribution was to connect love of God with love of neighbor and self, which was not part of the prayer Moses taught in this morning’s Deuteronomy reading.

True enough, Moses had given the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in Leviticus 19:18. But that was not part of the Shema. By connecting the two, Jesus was following the rabbinical practice of “equal category.” That practice had rabbis linking identical phrases from Sacred Scripture and according them moral equivalency.

Here the phrase in question is “You shall love.” It appears both in the Shema and in the Leviticus reference I’ve just made. The bottom line here is that Jesus is placing love of God and love of neighbor on equivalent levels.  For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are morally the same. That’s a radical teaching.

But so is the inclusion of “self” in the equation. In fact, the inclusion of “self” is the key to uncovering the meaning of Jesus’ new teaching.  In his response to the scribe, Jesus equates God, neighbor and self. God deserves all our love. Our neighbor is somehow equivalent to God. But so is our very own self.

In this teaching, Jesus reveals his identity as the great Hebrew mystic he was. Mystics, you’ll remember, are those spiritual teachers and practitioners who recognize the presence of God in themselves, in others and in all of creation. In fact, mystics teach that God is our real Self, and what we identify with our names, birthdays, gender, nationalities, and the work that we do are only our “apparent selves” – the way the Great Self has chosen to manifest itself in the world. Our apparent self will die one day and be entirely forgotten in a generation or two. The Great Self will never die; the Great Self is God.

All of this means that God, we and our neighbors are one. In loving God (the Great Self) we love our Self and the Self of our neighbor all at the same time. In hurting our neighbor we not only offend God, but we deeply hurt ourselves. When we kill our neighbor in war or in capital punishment, we are actually committing a form of suicide. This is the highest mystical truth there is. Indeed, the mystics teach, there is nothing else to know in life.

But there’s more. Mark does not want us to miss the point about what the mystic Jesus considered most important in life.  So he has the dialog between Jesus and the scribe continue. After Jesus references the Shema, the scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” That is, the scribe specifically places love of God and neighbor far ahead of formal worship.

And Jesus agrees with him. Mark says Jesus admired the wisdom of the scribe’s answer. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

So what we’re doing here in church is of only secondary importance. So is what we believe about God — doctrines and articles of faith. Those are means to an end. The end, today’s readings remind us is love of God, neighbor and self. All three are one.

Please think about that. (Discussion follows)

When a Prophet Visits: Matthew Fox Sweeps through Berea

Matthew Fox came through my hometown, Berea Kentucky, a few weeks ago. I’m still energized by the experience. It showed me what happens when a prophet drops by.

Matt’s the ex-Dominican theologian and spiritual teacher who was hounded out of his Order by Pope Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI). His offense? The same as that of the 101 theologians and pastoral leaders that Fox has posted on his “Wailing Wall of Silenced, Expelled, or Banished Theologians and Pastoral Leaders under Ratzinger.” (The names appear at the end of Fox’s book The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved.)  The names include giants like Karl Rahner, Ivone Gebara, Edward Schillebeeckx, and my former teacher in Rome, the great moral theologian Bernard Haring.

As Matt’s more than 30 books show, he, like the others, was censured by Pope Benedict XVI for being too good a theologian and spiritual guide; he tried too hard to implement the directives of the Second Vatican Council; he was too successful in connecting the Christian Tradition to our post-modern world. All of that our ex-Hitler Youth Pope finds extremely threatening to his overriding pre-Vatican II values: order and Group Think directed from above.

My wife, Peggy, had instigated Matthew Fox’s visit to Berea College. As Director of Women’s Studies she had invited him for her “Peanut Butter and Gender” series of luncheons. Over the years, the twice-monthly event has paralleled the College’s convocation program of speakers and artists.  At “PB&G,” Matt gave a dynamite talk on men’s spirituality. Later on in the afternoon, he spoke to the entire student body wowing everyone in the process.

Of course, I attended both events. But I was even more privileged because Fox visited our home the night before. Over Manhattans he, Peggy and I compared notes, were surprised by friendships we share with others, and spoke of the dismal state the Catholic Church has reached under the “leadership” of the last two and a half popes (Ratzinger, John Paul II, and the last half of Paul VI’s term in office). Additionally, I had an hour or so in the car with Matt as I drove him to the Lexington Blue Grass Airport the morning after his visit. We spoke of Ratzinger’s 1968 “conversion” to the Catholic rendition of religious fundamentalism, and of Matt’s work with the witch, Starhawk (whom he identified with evident admiration as a “genuine liberation theologian”).

However, the highlight of the entire experience was a potluck supper at our home. Peggy had organized that too – for members of our Berea parish, St. Clare’s. The idea was for the Peace and Justice Committee and other progressives to meet with Fox and discuss how to respond to the drabness and irrelevancy of what passes for worship and Christian community in our church.

After an extraordinary potluck supper, about twenty-five of us sat in a big circle in our living room. Everyone joined in with comments, complaints, questions and concerns. Matt took it all in, responded when appropriate, and then shared his insights.

His most telling observation was to reverse the common perception shared by most in the room. That’s the opinion that progressive Vatican II Catholics have somehow been marginalized by the church. Fox turned that notion on its head. He held instead that we are the ones who are orthodox, while the last two (anti-Vatican II) popes are actually schismatic. They and their Vatican Curia are the outsiders, while we are the faithful ones adhering to the official teaching of the Catholic Church which remains the doctrine of Vatican II.

What to do about it all? Fox was helpful there as well. In fact, at the end of The Pope’s War, he lists “Twenty-Five Concrete Steps to Take Christianity into the Future.”  All of those steps were thought- provoking. However in terms of Fox’s “schism” observation, here’s the one that hit hardest for me:

“Instead of ‘Vatican III’ or a so-called lay synod that is gerrymandered by clerical curialists, let the various lay leadership groups hold national and then international gatherings among themselves – synods that are worthy of the name. Let them give marching orders to church officials instead of the other way around. Let the church officials listen to the laity for a change. Let the laity choose the theologians they wish to be their periti at such synods (if any).”

Along those lines, next month the “Call to Action” Conference will be meeting in Cincinnati. A group from our parish will be attending that convocation of progressive Catholics. Matthew Fox will speak there. I’ll be in attendance with my friends.

Expect a report in this blog.

Mini-Class on the Historical Jesus: Early Development of the Christian Tradition

(This is the fifth in a series of Monday postings on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The modern scripture scholarship we’re exploring here has discovered that there were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. Understanding these stages is important for grasping the difference between the Jesus of history this series is attempting to explain and the Jesus of faith who has come to dominate our understandings of the prophet from Nazareth.

The five stages I’m referring to include (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) his disciples post-crucifixion “resurrection experience,” (3) the first proclamation of the disciples’ post-resurrection faith (called “kerygma,” a Greek word for proclamation), (4) a long period of oral tradition, and (5) the production of written reflections on the believing community’s experience of Jesus including his response to problems he did not himself encounter during his life. At each of these stages the Jesus of history recedes further from the Jesus of faith.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll devote a column a week to briefly exploring each one of the stages just referenced. This week I’ll  begin with some observations about what we’re able to say about the life of Jesus by applying the criteria for discernment I tried to explain last week. You’ll recall that those criteria were:  (1) Multiple attestation from independent sources, (2)  Dissimilarity from the apparent immediate interests of biblical authors , (3) Semitisms, (4)Content reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus, (5)Vividness of descriptionand (5) Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus. Additionally, relevant scholarly insights are derived from the modern disciplines of linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, comparative religion, history, psychology, economics, physics, biology, medicine, etc.

Application of these criteria uncovers a Jesus who is:

(1) A teacher of unconventional wisdom: Jesus’ teachings largely deviated from those of the rabbis of his time. In contrast to them, we would say he was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish tradition and especially of its laws. Law was not a priority for Jesus. In fact we might say he understood himself as fulfilling the Law by breaking laws and teaching others to do so. His priority was a Higher Law which put positive response to human need ahead of legal requirements. Jesus method of teaching such values was parable and story.

(2) A faith healer. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. As scholars point out, miracle workers in the first century of the Common Era were “a dime a dozen.” All “great men” – including emperors and kings – were expected to work miracles and were remembered as doing so. It would have been remarkable had Jesus not been identified as a miracle worker. Instead, Jesus was a faith healer of extraordinary power. His presence and words were able to evoke the healing powers present within all human beings.

(3) A prophetic critic. Jesus was not a priest or a king. He was a prophet. Prophets were social critics. So Jesus addressed the problems of his day including Roman imperialism and the collaboration with that system of exploitation on the part of the religious “leadership” of his day – its priests and kings.

(4) A Jewish mystic. Mystics are spiritual practitioners and teachers who believe that: (a) a spark of the divine resides within each human being; (b) humans can know that divinity and live from that place within them; (c) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (d) once that purpose is realized, the enlightened human perceives the spark of the divine in all of creation and lives accordingly.

(5) A movement founder. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His purpose was to reform Judaism. His specific interest was to proclaim a Jubilee Year which included debt forgiveness and land reform on behalf of the poor.  Following his death, Jesus’ Jewish reform movement evolved into a “church” overwhelmingly composed on non-Jews.

Next Week: Step One in the Development of the Christian Tradition: A portrait of the Jesus of History.

Beggars, Takers and Faith Healing

Today’s Readings: Jer. 31:7-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Heb. 5:1-6; Mk. 10: 46-52

(http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102812.cfm)

A few weeks ago a “secret” video was released involving presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The video showed Mr. Romney speaking with deep-pocketed campaign supporters and, in effect, addressing the issue of blind beggars – one of whom is centralized in this morning’s gospel reading.

According to Mr. Romney, 47% of Americans “never take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”  The Republican candidate’s running mate, Paul Ryan, called such people “takers.” He estimated that 30% of Americans fall into that category. In language associated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a hero of Mr. Ryan (whom our diocesan paper Crossroads describes as a “devout Catholic”) just under half of us are “moochers” and “unproductive eaters.”

I’m sure many of those who tried to silence the blind Bartimaeus in this Sunday’s gospel selection thought of him in those terms. After all, he was a beggar – and a pushy one at that. When they tried to silence him he just shouted out louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”

In fact, Bartimaeus shouted so insistently that Jesus heard above the din of the crowd, and asked that the beggar be brought to him.

And what did Jesus say? Did he say, “What’s wrong with you, Bart? Why don’t you get a job? Don’t you care about yourself? Take some responsibility, man. I’m tired of seeing takers like you just sitting around all day producing nothing and eating at the expense of others! Someone, call the police and get this guy off the street. And as for the rest of you, follow my example of ‘tough love’.”

Of course Jesus didn’t say such things. As compassion itself and as a prophet, Jesus instead followed in the footsteps of Jeremiah whose words were proclaimed in this morning’s first reading. There Jeremiah was a spokesperson for a God announcing good news specifically to women, their children, the exiled, blind, and lame. As today’s readings from the Book of Psalms recalls, that God makes those people’s dreams come true, and turns their tears to laughter, not to guilt and shame.

So Jesus’ real words to Bartimaeus were “What do you want me to do for you?”

Bartimaeus answers, “My teacher let me see again.”

The Great Faith Healer responds, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

It was a simple as that. Then we’re told the beggar immediately regained his sight and followed Jesus “on the way.”

Note that Jesus’ prophetic example was enough to change the attitude of the crowd. One minute they were “sternly” ordering Bartimaeus to be quiet. But as soon as Jesus said “Call him here,” they changed their tune. Their words became encouraging and enthusiastic. They said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up; he is calling you.”

Someone has said, “If you want to become invisible, become poor.”  That means that where the poor – where blind beggars like Bartimaeus – are concerned most of us are blind. We just don’t see them. Above all, we don’t see our own condition as beggars. I mean all of us are in many ways “takers.” No matter how we may protest our self-sufficiency, we did not “build it” without help from others. And that’s true even of the “donors” Mitt Romney was begging from.

Elizabeth Warren who is running for a Massachusetts Senate seat against Scott Brown put it best. She said,

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory . . . Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Prophetic words like that can cure our blindness and establish solidarity with those the self-made see as takers, moochers and useless eaters.

The reason we are here this morning is to have our liturgical encounter with the faith-healer, Jesus of Nazareth. He can cure our blindness to the ones who in our tradition are closest to God’s heart – the exiles, beggars, blind, lame and the mothers who hold up half the sky that blesses us all.

Let our prayer this morning be that of Bartimaeus, “My teacher, let me see again.” I am blind and a beggar. Let me see with your eyes, Jesus. Let my faith in you make me well. I want to follow you “on the way” you have trod.

The Highly Dispensable Nation (And Whom to Vote for in Two Weeks)

I watched the third debate the night before last, and at first came away thoroughly discouraged. What’s the use? I thought. These guys are both the same. I almost cancelled my plans to host a “Ten Days to Win” phone call party at my home next Saturday. But while it’s true that the third debate revealed remarkable similarity between the candidates on foreign policy, their differences on domestic policy kept me from cancelling. Even more so did consideration of the candidates’ diverse bases of support, and the hope that Obama’s base offers (in contrast to the man himself).  Let me explain.

To begin with, the third debate displayed two candidates converging around at least 10 highly destructive myths:

  1. The U.S. is the one indispensable nation in the world.
  2. U.S. foreign policy is aimed at fostering “a peaceful planet.”
  3. Those same policies favor democracy, free elections, international law, and human rights – especially those of women.
  4. Terrorism, whose causes remain mysterious, must be stopped at all costs.
  5. To that end, drone strikes anywhere in the world are good and necessary.
  6. Iran is a major threat to us, so sanctions against it are reasonable and moral.
  7. Nuclear capability is a crime.
  8. Dollars spent on the military are a valid measure of commitment to national security.
  9. Israel’s policies must be supported as if they were our own.
  10. Climate change is irrelevant to foreign policy.

Of course none of those ten myths is true. What is true is that:

  1. In terms of “a peaceful planet,” democracy, free elections, international law, human rights (especially those of women) the world would be better off if the current incarnation of the U.S. dropped off the planet. (Please think about that. I am serious here.)
  2. Terrorism’s causes are not at all mysterious and almost all are connected with U.S. foreign policy. In fact, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman pointed out long ago, the U.S. is the most prominent purveyor of “wholesale terrorism” – state terrorism – in the world. What it has declared war against are expressions of “retail terrorism” which are small potatoes (even 9/11) by comparison – basically “blowback” to U.S. state terrorism.
  3. Extrajudicial killings even by remote control contravene the “international law” both presidential candidates so solemnly invoked. (By the way, according to Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, the Benghazi debacle was in direct response to the June 4th 2012 drone killing of the insurgent theologian, Abu Ayahya al Libi. At 49, he was a hero of the Libyan Revolution and one of the most senior members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Revenge was sworn at his death and postponed till the anniversary of 9/11. This has received no mention I’m aware of in the mainstream press – certainly none in the presidential debates.)
  4. As Joe Biden pointed out, Iran poses no threat at all to the United States. On the contrary, for the past three years and more Iran has been the one threatened on a daily basis by Israel which has itself covertly developed deliverable nuclear weapons. So if any nation has reason to launch a preemptive attack, it would be Iran against Israel. But no such threat has been made.
  5. What does “nuclear capability” mean anyway?
  6. Absolute security is a goal impossible to attain. Its pursuit via already astronomical military spending benefits no one but the military-industrial complex.
  7. Israel has been an international outlaw at least since November 22, 1967, when the U.N. unanimously adopted Resolution 242 forbidding the occupation of Palestinian territories annexed in the Six Day War. Israel’s assault on Gaza, its secret development of nuclear weapons, and its crimes on the high seas interdicting ships bringing aid to Palestinians interned in Gaza have only compounded Israel’s fundamental crime of illegal occupation. Hence U.S. support of the outlaw nation of Israel not only contradicts U.S. national interests but amounts to aiding and abetting criminal activity.
  8. Given its importance to the future of the planet, climate change should have been the focus not only of this “foreign policy” debate, but of the entire presidential campaign. It was mentioned not once in any of the debates.

How should awareness of these myths and their evident contradictions influence us in the general elections just two weeks off? Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. There is no doubt that the presidential candidates have adopted almost identical approaches to foreign policy.
  2. However they differ on domestic policy in non-trivial ways:

a)      Romney wants to retain tax breaks for the 1% while Obama does not.

b)      Romney intends to further deregulate the market undoing the mild reforms introduced after the crash of 2008. Obama will resist such measures.

c)       Following the lead of Paul Ryan’s “economic plan,” Romney will drastically cut domestic programs for the country’s most vulnerable. He will attempt to privatize Social Security, make Medicare a voucher program, and do something similar with Medicaid. Meanwhile, Obama’s austerity measures will be less drastic though also basically unfair – because austerity for the 99% is unnecessary in the face of the nation’s unprecedented concentration of wealth.

d)      Romney will appoint more neo-conservatives to the Supreme Court when the opportunity arrives.

e)      On social policy, life with Romney will be harder on women, gays, the poor and labor unions.

To repeat, while such differences are not as wide as some of us might desire, they are not at all unimportant. However one really important difference remains for me and is determinative for my voting.

That difference is the one between Romney’s base of support and that of Obama. Romney’s base is made up of Tea Party folks. They are basically white, religious literalists, evolution and climate science deniers; they are corporate-friendly, male-dominated, less educated, and angry about the ascendency of minorities. Obama’s base is more diverse. Blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly support him. So do union members, liberal Christians, gays, atheists, and those with university educations. Women tend to be more Democratic than men.

In an evolving world, history is on the side of the Obama’s base rather than the Romney’s. Simple population trends kicking in as I write, are running swift and fast against the Republican base. As someone has said, they’re running out of angry white guys. So even the passage of four more years without GOP control of the White House (not to mention the Congress) will buy Obama’s base and their interests more time. That means the political conversation is likely to shift in a more liberal direction even over the next quadrennial.

Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy is on the horizon.

That’s why I’m going through with that party next Saturday. That’s why I’m voting for Obama (while firmly holding my nose). I’m buying time.