Be Like Pope Francis: Bury Your Talent, Oppose Capitalism as We Know It!

Francis

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31, PS 128: 1-5; I THES 5: 1-8; MT 25: 14-30.

Today’s gospel story, the familiar “Parable of the Talents,” is about economics. It’s about the world of investment and profit-taking without real work. It’s also about dropping out and refusing to cooperate with the dynamics of finance, interest and exploitation of the working class.

The parable contrasts obedient conformists with a counter-cultural rebel. The former invest in an economic system embodied in their boss – “a demanding person harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter.” In other words, like the system of capitalism itself, the boss is a hard-ass S.O.B. who lives off the work of others. The conformists go along with that system which to them has no acceptable alternative.

Meanwhile, the non-conformist hero of the parable refuses to go along. And he suffers the predictable consequences for doing so. Like Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, the non-conformist is marginalized into an exterior darkness which the rich see as bleak and tearful (a place of “weeping and grinding of teeth”). However, Jesus promises that exile from the system represents the very kingdom of God. It is filled with light and joy.

In contemporary terms, today’s gospel selection could hardly be more pertinent. It contrasts two current understandings of the contested terrain that is today’s Christianity. One understanding endorses our polarized economic system where “everyone who has is given more so that they grow rich, while the have-nots are robbed even of what they have.”

That concept is embodied today in President Trump and his Republican cohorts. The other finds its personification in Pope Francis.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s faith in the capitalist system, Pope Francis himself is trying mightily to distance himself from it. He’s like the servant in today’s parable who buried his talent in the ground refusing to invest it in a corrupt system that invariably widens the gap between the rich, like Trump, and the poor the pope is attempting to champion.

Francis couldn’t be clearer about rejecting the elements of capitalism celebrated by the U.S. president. The pope has repeatedly urged action to secure the basic entitlements the poor deserve. These include rights to land, housing and work as well as to higher wages, unions and social security – all of which are abhorrent to Republicans.

Francis even connected being Catholic with communism. “It’s strange,” the pope said, that “if I talk about this, there are those who think that the Pope is Communist. . . The fact that the love for the poor is in the center of the gospel is misunderstood.” Fighting for the poor, he added, doesn’t make me a communist; it makes me Catholic.

(Did you really hear what the pope just said: “THE LOVE FOR THE POOR IS IN THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL.” THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL!)

Obviously, the statement suggests significant overlap between Marx’s critique of free market capitalism and the social teachings of the church. The pope’s words certainly don’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the free market.

And how should Catholics express their love for the poor? Clearly not by endorsing the dynamics of the free market Trump and his allies lionize. In the “Joy of the Gospel” (JG) – published in 2014 – the pope identifies the unfettered markets so dear to Republicans’ hearts (along with their “trickle-down” ideologies) as homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). He sees “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).

And it gets worse for the Republicans’ position. Their party, of course, loves the free trade agreements that are at the heart of the corporate globalization the pope deplores. One wonders how Catholic members of the GOP reconcile advocacy of free trade agreements with the pope’s uncompromising words “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm.”

Clearly, the debate about unfettered capitalism is settled in the pope’s mind. He has condemned the system without equivocation. And in doing so, Pope Francis has established himself  as the foremost moral leader of our time. Virtually alone among world leaders, he has the courage to call us away from the worship of Market and Money.

The alternative, he assures us, is not a world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a kingdom of light and joy.

It is time for Jesus’ would-be followers to join that conversation – about getting from here to there in the name of the gospel.

Puerto Ricans Pray “Forgive Us Our Debts:” The U.S. Says “Go to Hell!”

hurricane-maria-puerto-rico

Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40.

Have you been following Puerto Rico’s recent crisis? I’m talking about the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the apocalyptic damage the island has suffered.

On September 7th Irma just missed a direct hit on the U.S. colony, but it knocked out power for almost a third of its 3.5 million people. Then less than two weeks later, Maria finished the job. The whole country went dark.

And now after more than a month, 50% of the island still lacks electricity, and over a million people have no clean drinking water. Overflow from toxic Superfund sites is contaminating available water sources producing widespread gastrointestinal diseases. One in three sewage plants are still inoperable, and there is no cellphone service for 40% of the island.

Imagine yourself living there with our fellow Americans! (Remember, all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

So, how do you think our government has responded to the crisis? The response is five billion dollars IN LOANS! We’re not talking grants here, but LOANS! And the $5 billion comes on top of the island’s previously existing $74 billion debt that all agree is completely unpayable – without even mentioning unfunded pension obligations that amount to an additional $49 billion.

Everyone in Puerto Rico knows that increasing the island’s debt does not spell relief. Instead, it represents a heartless tool for further enriching the already super-wealthy, and for exercising control of poor people while further impoverishing a colony that has served ever since its annexation as a source of valuable minerals including gold. As well, the island has provided a major production center for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, a source of cheap labor, a dump for chemical waste, and a bombing range testing ground.

Puerto Rico has been effectively indemnified for none of this. Instead, rich U.S. banks and hedge funds are demanding austerity. They want islanders to sacrifice health, education, and social services including pensions, to pay back their creditors. This means that moneybags on Wall Street see misery in Puerto Rico as a business opportunity to further fill their coffers and perpetually control its destiny.

I bring all of this up, because it’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, which addresses the question of lending, debt and treatment of the poor.

Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.

There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”

The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?

Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”

We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of debt enters the picture.) Today’s 16-line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. Obviously, the two matters are intimately connected to the situation in Puerto Rico.

The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring very negative karmic consequences.

The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.

The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You’ve guessed it: it’s debt.

When you heard it read this morning, you might have been surprised that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers interest sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” says the book of Exodus. As the dictionary explains, extortion is the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.

For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.

But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!

So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world.

(Hmm . . .  Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and is silent about abortion. It also says nothing unambiguous about homosexuality.)

The suggestion here is that if we were truly a humanitarian nation and kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:

  • We’d give grants, not loans, to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
  • We’d forgive entirely the country’s unpayable debt, forcing banks to eat their bad loans – just as prescribed by Adam Smith’s capitalist theory.
  • We’d force U.S. polluters, not the U.S. government – much less Puerto Ricans – to clean up the mess they’ve made on the island.
  • We’d pay reparations for the gold and other minerals extracted (stolen!) since the U.S. colonial system was imposed.
  • Reparations would also be made for the destruction caused on those bombing ranges.

And more generally:

  • We’d demand that student loans be forgiven or refinanced at the prime rate.
  • We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.
  • We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.
  • We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.

We’d vote accordingly.

Jesus’ Teaching about Paying Taxes: It’s about “Slow Money,” Not What Your Pastor Says!

Slow Money

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21.

Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican)  anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.

Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.

Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.

The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”

Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).

Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.

The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.

Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.

Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.

Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).

Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.

On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”

So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.

“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”

One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.

“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?

“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”

Case closed.

You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.

In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.

And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.

Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Again, case closed.

All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.

So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:

  • Imitate Nature and her pace.
    • Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
    • Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
    • Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
    • Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
    • Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
    • Grow a garden and eat its produce.
    • Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
    • If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”

Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.

What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?

God Throws a Party: We Americans Send Our Regrets & Build Walls

World standing idle as Palestine suffers

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 25: 6-10A; PS 23: 1-6; PHIL 4: 12-14, 19-20; MT 22: 1-14

Of course, we’re all aware of our planet’s Great Migration Crisis. The fact is, there are more refugees roaming the earth than at any time since the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45). As everyone knows, the crisis stems from a combination of climate change, wars, and a failed economic system that concentrates wealth in the Global North and poverty in the Global South.

So the poor migrate from coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels and devastating hurricanes and wildfires. They move from poor countries (like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia) where their simple homes have been bombed by the rich. Refugees travel at great risk from Central America and Mexico, where U.S. wars (drug and otherwise) have over a period of 40 years created graveyards, chaos and gang cultures.

Others as economic refugees, simply follow the logic of U.S.-imposed “free trade” agreements and move to where the money is. However, they must risk their lives to do so. That’s because the anti-labor agreements allow corporations to move South to make a killing where labor costs are lower. But the same agreements make it illegal for workers to move North where wages are higher.

Meanwhile, the response of the rich who have bombed and otherwise devastated the habitats of the migrants, is to intensify the bombing, build walls, and repeal laws that might bring climate chaos under control.

For me, the controversy raises questions about borders and flags. After all, borders are entirely human creations. And flags are only colored pieces of cloth.

Neither originates from God or Nature’s order. In fact, if we rid ourselves of both borders and flags, that wouldn’t only mitigate immigration problems. Most of the world’s other international problems would diminish and possibly disappear.

Though difficult for many Americans to accept, such reflections shouldn’t puzzle followers of Jesus or those who subscribe to the biblical vision of God’s Kingdom. We should take for granted that the earth belongs to everyone, and that each one of us has a right to 1/7th billionth of the earth’s produce. That would make each of us very rich indeed.

Today’s liturgy of the word supports that biblical vision. In fact, it makes five relevant points about it:

  • The People of God comprise not just a single nation or religion, but all the peoples of the earth – especially the poor and marginalized.
  • God’s arrangement for those people (eventually called the “Kingdom of God”) is abundance of food, wine, and every good thing the earth has to offer.
  • The world’s poor majority is more receptive to that vision than the rich minority.
  • In fact, the rich generally choose to exclude themselves from God’s utopian order.
  • Regrettably, their choice is self-destructive.

To get those points, begin by considering that first selection from Isaiah. There six hundred years before Jesus, the prophet describes what God holds in store for all the wretched of the earth as God’s favorites. In Isaiah’s context, God promised abundance for political prisoners then experiencing painful exile in Babylon. In Isaiah’s phrasing, God wants cornucopian plenty not only for them, but “for all peoples.”

No harps and clouds here; no abstract heaven. Instead, Isaiah envisions God’s kingdom coalescing here on earth, in a particular place – on “this Mountain” (referring to the exiles’ motherland). There God’s Kingdom will take the form of a huge celebratory picnic – an outdoor feast of incomparable affluence. On God’s mountain, all will engorge themselves, Isaiah promises, “with rich foods” and cups overflowing with “choice wines.” The prophet repeats the phrase twice for emphasis: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”

The feast will be a celebration of Enlightenment – of revelation or removal of the “veils” or barriers that separate human beings one from another. Isaiah predicts: “On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth.”

Once again, notice this promise is inclusive. It is directed to “all peoples,” not to a single nation. It is addressed to suffering and exiled people who find themselves in a “web” of death, tears and blame caused by deceptive divisions into nation states. That sounds pretty relevant to the immigrants I was just talking about.

The theme of God’s all-inclusive, life-giving kindness is reinforced in today’s responsorial – the familiar Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” According to the psalmist, God is the one who fulfills everyone’s desire for food and water, wine and oil for cooking. In addition, God provides rest, refreshment, and guidance. The courage God gives removes fear of evil and threat. All of that should be music to the ears of the world’s hyper-threatened poor and deprived.

In today’s second reading Paul touches a similar chord. From an imperial prison (perhaps like Abu Ghraib), he writes, “God will fully supply whatever you need in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

And that brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel selection. It’s a parable underlining the surprising, world-contradicting inclusiveness of God’s chosen people. The parable is addressed to the “elders and chief priests,” the political leaders of Jesus’ day who thought of themselves as God’s elect. The tale ends with the familiar tagline, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” But mystifyingly, its point seems to be the opposite: “The few are called, and the many end up being chosen.”

I mean today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable about a king inviting his rich friends (the few) to his son’s wedding feast. It’s a party characterized by abundance reminiscent of “the juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” in today’s first reading.

In the story, that feast is already prepared. But the king’s rich friends exclude themselves from its extravagance, preferring instead the pursuit of their individualistic pleasures and profits. Some are so ungrateful that they mistreat and even kill those proffering the king’s invitation. All of this, of course, is Matthew’s thinly veiled reference to the way Jewish leaders treated God’s messengers, the prophets whose line for Matthew culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.

Thinly veiled as well is Matthew’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier in the year 70. Matthew writes, “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” According to Matthew, then, Jerusalem’s fate was the karmic result of the rich and powerful dishonoring prophets like Jesus and refusing to enter God’s kingdom with the poor and oppressed.

It is at this point that Matthew (and presumably Jesus) makes the point about the majority generally excluded from access to the world’s wealth. The king says, “’the feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”

There you have it: God’s New People are the dregs of humanity – the good and bad alike.” That’s the very point Jesus’ parables have been making for the past few weeks: Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the “chief priests and elders of the people.” The earth (and God’s Kingdom) belong to everyone, national borders notwithstanding.

But wait; there’s more.

At this government-provided feast of free food, choice alcoholic beverages, and even (it seems) free festive clothing, one person insists on differentiating himself from the rest. He refuses to change his clothes – always a literary (and liturgical) marker for change of lifestyle. At bottom, it’s a refusal to identify with the street people particularly dear to God’s heart.

And that’s the parable’s point. The rich (and those who identify with them) simply don’t want to mingle with the desperate masses like the refugees and migrants we’ve been talking about. They want salvation only for themselves. And that’s suicidal.

To reiterate:

  • The People of God comprise not just a single nation or religion, but all the peoples of the earth – especially the poor and marginalized.
  • God’s arrangement for those people is abundance of food, wine, and every good thing the earth has to offer.
  • The world’s poor majority is more receptive to that vision than the rich minority.
  • In fact, the rich generally choose to exclude themselves from God’s utopian order.
  • Regrettably, their choice is self-destructive.

In other words, everyone ends up being called. The choice of accepting God’s invitation is up to us.

Given the Great Refugee Crisis, how do you think this applies to Americans and our response to the refugee crisis?

(Discussion follows)

(Sunday Homily) Ken Burns’ “Vietnam War” Is Reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Rebellious Tenants

China

Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 5:1-7; PS 80:9, 12-16, 19-20; PHIL 4: 6-9; MT 21: 33-43

For the past week, I’ve been watching episodes of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS production “The Vietnam War.” The series has ten episodes, each about an hour and a half long. So far I’ve seen three.

I bring it up because the viewing experience has relevance to this morning’s Gospel reading which describes resistance to a landlord system similar to the one that provoked Vietnam’s peasantry to take up arms.

Such local motivations remain obscured by Burns and Novick. The official story they tell is that of a geopolitical struggle between China and Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and France on the other. So the film’s narrative is dominated by maps depicting huge swaths of geography (China and Russia) looming menacingly over Vietnam. The maps indicate that Vietnam along with the rest of French Indochina (including Laos and Cambodia) were threatened by monolithic communist takeover.

U.S. officials one after another describe their alarming “domino theory” contending that if Vietnam were “lost” to communism, so would Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and the rest of Far East. It wouldn’t be long before Ho Chi Minh’s forces would be landing in Hawaii and then in California.

So viewers are asked to believe that in the footage showing huge numbers of Vietnamese civilians (including the elderly, women and children) moving equipment, building bridges, ferrying supplies, we are simply witnessing mindless agents of China and Russia. The Vietnamese were somehow persuaded to risk their lives (four million of them were killed in the conflict) to advance the totalitarian cause of Sino-Soviet world conquest.

As John Pilger and others have written, that simply doesn’t stand to reason. For one thing, there was no monolithic alliance between Russia and China. Any semblance of that lay in ruins between the years 1960 and 1989.

That is, for the Vietnamese, what they call “The American War” (1960-75) could not have been fought on behalf of China or Russia. Rather, the conflict represented a struggle against colonial rule by French and American forces. It was also fought against a rent system that had peasants paying predatory tribute to absentee landlords. The latter were holed up in Saigon along with other beneficiaries of deteriorating colonial arrangements including its dysfunctional army, government officials, and participants in the supporting infrastructure.

Meanwhile, outside of Saigon, the peasants’ revolutionary army (the Viet Cong) defended farmers against rent collection. They had the peasantry stop traveling to Saigon to pay their land fees. This, they said, would force representatives of the landlord class to venture out into territory controlled by the Viet Cong to collect their money or in-kind revenue. And there in the countryside they would be duly slaughtered.

In other words, patriotism and the peasants’ immediate economic interest, not geo-political considerations, provided their main motivations for resistance to a colonial rental system that had long exploited them and caused their families to starve.

All of this has relevance to this morning’s Gospel episode where Jesus tells a story that parallels the situation I’ve just described. Jesus and his audience too were living under an imperial system not unlike Vietnam’s. The Romans controlled Palestine using tactics highly similar to those of the French and Americans in Indochina. The system’s administrators, armies, police, and hangers-on were all holed up in Jerusalem protected by Roman legions.

Meanwhile, absentee administrators and landlords kept the province’s peasants impoverished by exacting rent and taxes that the farmers detested. The latter resisted accordingly – at times in Israel’s history forming armies of resistance similar to the Viet Cong. One of those militias was known as the Zealots.

In any case, the parable centralized in this morning’s gospel has Jesus problematizing a situation of violent peasant conflict over rent collection. In so doing, Jesus, no doubt, provoked a spirited discussion among his listeners about colonialism, landlordism, and about violent vs. non-violent resistance.

Jesus’ story goes that an absentee landlord has rented out his vineyard. Peasants are resisting payment. So the man in the Big House sends out no doubt well-armed rent collectors. After the first ones are murdered by the farmers, he sends out what was probably a small army of “enforcers.” But the peasants successfully defeat them too. Eventually, the landlord gets more serious. His own son heads up a collection force probably much larger and better armed than its predecessors. But surprisingly, the renters wipe them out as well. They assume ownership of the land in question presumably under some ancient version of the revolutionary slogan “Land to the tiller.”

That said, the Master’s articulates the problem that certainly provoked spirited discussion in his audience. “What will happen,” Jesus asks, “to the revolutionaries demonized as ‘wicked’ by the landowning class?”

No doubt some in Jesus audience would say they weren’t “wicked” at all, but heroic champions of the exploited. They would applaud their armed resistance. Others though joining the applause, might point out that the peasant victory would be short-lived and doomed.

These more cautious discussants would hold that the better-armed and trained forces of the landowners and their Roman sponsors would eventually prevail with disastrous results for the entire province of Palestine. Accordingly, they might advise nonviolent resistance to the system in question. (There were, by the way, at least three such forms of nonaggressive struggle in Jesus’ first century context.)

It is unlikely that any in Jesus’ audience would defend the imperial status quo the way Matthew’s allegorized retelling of the parable seems to do. Fifty years after Jesus death the anonymous Jewish author called by that name even goes so far as to imply identification of the absentee landlord with God and the landlord’s son with Jesus himself. Such identification would have been possible around the year 80 or 85 when the Gospel of “Matthew” was written following the utter defeat of Jesus’ people by the Romans in the year 70.  That same identification would, of course, have been abhorrent to Jesus listeners and thus impossible in the Master’s revolutionary context.

Considerations like these – about the similarities in revolutionary situations separated by 2000 years – might help viewers better understand the causes of the Vietnam War and other conflicts even closer to our own day. Clearly, I find those causes obscured in the Burns and Novick documentary despite its very evident artistic merits.

It’s just too simplistic to explain Vietnam in terms Sino-Soviet geopolitics and domino theories. It is similarly facile to describe ISIS in terms of abstract evil or purely religious motivation. It also represents shallow analysis to dismiss resort to violent insurrection as self-evidently unjustified – especially in a country like ours founded on such revolution.

No, all of those elements deserve deep analysis and long discussion.

Jesus’ parable in today’s reading is geared to stimulate such conversation. What is your contribution to the debate?

(Sunday Homily) Was Hugh Hefner Closer to God than Popes?

Hefner

Readings for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time: EZ 18:25-28; PS 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14; PHIL 2: 1-11; MT 21: 28-32

Isn’t it amazing that Christianity has become so politically conservative? “Conservative,” of course, refers to a political attitude that is not only content with the way things are, but defends it. It’s as though God willed that the divine evolutionary process might come to a halt. It’ as though Jesus didn’t centralize the Kingdom of God and contrast it with the status quo.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls such stasis into serious question. It does so by issuing a clarion call to repentance – to a profound change of mind and attitude about what we think is important in life. It’s a demand to turn from what the readings call “wickedness” and an adoption of the attitude embodied in Jesus the Christ. That attitude, we’ll see, was not at all conservative but committed to the most radical change in perspective that one can possibly imagine.

Our readings’ call towards such change is general at first – addressed by the prophet Ezekiel to all the people of Israel. Writing in 6th century BCE, Ezekiel had previously threatened that his country’s wickedness would be met with destruction of its capital city, Jerusalem, by its arch-enemy, Babylon (modern Iraq). The wickedness in question, of course, was idolatry – the worship of something created as though it were God himself. In practice, idolatry involved the prioritization of money, power, pleasure and reputation at the expense of God’s favorites – the poor including especially the widows, orphans and immigrants in Israel – the traditional victims of the rich and powerful.

Then in the Gospel selection, the summons is directed more specifically to Israel’s religious and political leadership – to “the chief priests and elders of the people.” Jesus shocks (and no doubt delights) the impoverished standers-by when he observes that prostitutes and tax collectors are closer to God than these holy men. To Jesus’ audience, that would be like saying that Hugh Hefner, who died the other day, will get into heaven before the pope.

Seriously though, Jesus’ words indict the professionally holy while expressing scandalous approval for their opposite and despised numbers. But the readings go further still. In today’s selection from Philemon, Paul tells us that repentance involves adopting the same outlook as Christ’s. Shockingly, that involved abandoning the highest viewpoint imaginable – the position of God himself— and choosing to see and experience reality from the lowest possible – that of a crucified slave. Paul says, “For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.”

In other words, Jesus’ vision was shaped from history’s underside. As a humble peasant, he saw things from below, from the viewpoint of a slave who opposed empire and all it stands for – colonialism, exploitation, and the cult of pleasure, profit, power and prestige. That’s the meaning of Paul’s words about Jesus’ becoming obedient even to the point of accepting death on the cross. (Crucifixion, remember, was the punishment reserved for opponents of Rome’s empire.)

But why would the tradition have God doing such a thing? Why would it accord the poor and despised such exalted status, and invite us to imitate Jesus’ self-emptying? How does that help us repent?  Might it be that the vision “from below” yields a fuller understanding of the world, and in so doing clarifies our repentance agenda?

Think about it for a minute in contemporary terms. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without any consciousness of the world’s poor majority. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most, even in the middle class, never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never saw the poor again, the rich and middle class think their lives would continue without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, people in those places can remain mere abstractions. Few of us know what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the United States, for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered (mostly for the better). In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

Perhaps that’s why this week’s reading repeats the thought: Jesus feels more at home with dishonest cheaters and sex workers than with the equivalent of pastors and senators. Working girls and petty thieves know more about the way the world operates and about what needs changing – repentance. And that’s why they’re more open to the ultimate change Jesus called for – the introduction of God’s Kingdom.

For their part, the rich and comfortable don’t even want to enter the kingdom. Jesus observed that they generally prefer Caesar’s empire to the Kingdom of God. That’s because in God’s Kingdom everything is turned on its head. It’s the way the world would be if God were king instead of Caesar – if God were in charge instead of Donald Trump or Barack Obama. In that new order, as we saw in last week’s Gospel, the first are last and the last are first. Generally speaking, the rich want none of that. They are conservative in the sense that they like the way things are. They simply don’t want to enter the Kingdom.

So Ezekiel was right in today’s first reading. Exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom is not a question of God’s unfairness, but of personal choice.

The question for us today, then, is both personal and political. Do we choose to be conservatives or to enter God’s Kingdom? Do we truly opt for the radical change  embodied in the crucified slave from Nazareth?

Do we want to enter the kingdom or not? If we do, we must do what God did – become fully human. We must identify with the lowest of the low, and adopt their causes as our own.

 

 

 

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Surprising Position on Minimum Wage: $58.00 an Hour!

Minimum Wage

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9; 17-18; PHIL 1: 20c-24, 27A; MT 20: 1-16A.

What will the Kingdom of Heaven be like for minimum wage workers? Ask the poor people Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel. There the Great Teacher tells them a story about a character every employee – all of us, I’m sure – encounters at some point in her or his life. He’s the skinflint boss who imagines himself a great humanitarian, despises his workers as lazy, and treats them with complete arbitrariness. He takes great delight in disappointing them – simply because he can.

The familiarity of this comic book character must have set Jesus’ audience laughing. And it probably started a long animated conversation about bosses, wages and employment.

Anyway, the story goes like this . . . It’s late in the harvest season and this big fat landowner goes to the town square to hire fruit pickers who are shaping up there. (You can imagine him coming by in his pick-up truck, smoking his cigar, pointing at the strongest workers, and shouting, “Hey, you guys, get off your lazy duffs and jump in the back. I haven’t got all day. There’s work to be done!”)

In the story, you can tell the owner’s a cheapskate because he’s careful to hire just the minimum number of workers he thinks can get the job done – if he pushes them really hard.

But he miscalculates. So he has to return at noon for more pickers. But instead of blaming his own stupidity, he blames the workers. He calls them “lazy” for “standing around idle.” He shouts at them, “Get in the truck, you lazy no-goods! You should be working!” (What does he expect? They’re waiting for someone to hire them, for God’s sake! But then coupon-clippers, like the boss in the story, always despise calloused hands.)

Now it’s almost quitting time. With only an hour’s daylight left, and with his fruit ready to rot in the fields, the skinflint owner finds himself back in the square hiring more workers. Again, he blames them for being lazy. But off they go to finish the day’s work.

Then the punch line comes. The completely capricious landowner suddenly decides to play the generous humanitarian. So with great flair he gives a full day’s wage to those last hired – my guess is: just a few workers.

Naturally, the other pickers rub their hands together, drooling with expectation that they’ll be paid more generously too. But of course old Scrooge disappoints them. (These kinds of bosses always do! They love it.) He decides instead to turn legalistic and teach these lazy good-for-nothings a lesson – about power.

“What do you mean: ‘MORE?’” he shouts like the beadle in Oliver Twist. “Have you forgotten our contract? And besides, I’m the boss. I can do what I want, and you can’t do a thing about it!”

By this time, Jesus’ audience surely had stopped laughing. They were probably grumbling and rehearsing their own similar experiences with cheap legalistic bosses who love to play the generous philanthropist.

But then Jesus gets everyone smiling again by adding with a wink: “And so it will be when the revolution comes (or as he put it – “in the Kingdom of God”) where “the first will be last and the last will be first – you know what I mean?” He winks again.

It takes a while for the message to sink in. Not everyone “gets it.” The audience scratches its collective head. Finally the penny drops.

“Oh, I see what you’re saying, Jesus,” someone says. She looks around at the others. “Don’t you get it?” she asks. “All of the workers in the story are ‘the last;’ it’s the boss who’s ‘first’.” In the final judgment, Uncle Scrooge will be last and all of us will be first!”

The audience starts to cop on.

“Yeah,” someone else says doing a quick calculation. “And do you know what that means for us, doncha?”

“What?”

“It means we’ll all be on Easy Street; that’s what it means. Think about it; in the Kingdom, workers will be paid as much for working one hour as we now do working all day. We’ll all be making a hundred grand a year!”

Everyone laughs.

“No, I mean it. Do the math: minimum wage is (equivalent to) $7.25 an hour, right? That means that those guys who worked only one hour earned $58. That’s $464 dollars a day, if they had worked all day – or $2320 per week, or $9280 per month, or $111,360 per year! Now that’s a just wage for bustin’ our butts. Whaddaya think? Talk about a workers’ paradise!”

By this time, everyone’s laughing so hard, they’re in tears.

Hmm . . . Kingdom economics. Kingdom pay for minimum wage workers: $58.00 an hour. . . . First/last; last/first . . . .

“Devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan, along with other “Christian” skinflints in Congress should take note this Sunday!