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

Tax Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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) 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!

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Anti-Imperial Parables: How to Resist (State) Terrorism

ISIS & Jesus

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire.

No, it’s much more relevant than that. It’s actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. It summons all of us to withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East.

More specifically, today’s gospel reading, on the one hand, calls those living in the belly of the beast to stop approving of our imperialist overlords who currently sow their weeds of destruction throughout the Middle East. This means actively opposing their wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

On the other hand, the three parables attributed to Jesus also suggest a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. The parables address them precisely as victims of imperialism and hence the closest analogue to what the Bible calls “the people of God.”

I mean: in today’s world, the situation of Muslims closely tracks that of Jesus’ audience in first century Palestine.  As such, all three of today’s readings call followers of Mohammed [who recognize Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

To get my meaning, begin by considering our liturgy’s first selection from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom. It is particularly relevant to “Americans,” identified by Dr. King as the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” The reading says explicitly that God’s power is not expressed in violence but in leniency to all.

That theme is repeated in today’s responsorial psalm with equal relevance to USians. There God is described as belonging to all nations.

Similarly, in the second reading, St. Paul insists that the divine Spirit dwells within all humans regardless of nationality. It is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.

From this, Jewish wisdom insists that believers must in turn be kind, lenient and forgiving to all – even (Jesus says elsewhere) to their worst enemies. This is directly pertinent for the U.S. described by Noam Chomsky as the one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist countries in the world. Those who claim to follow Christ (as 83% of Americans do) must be as pacifist as their Master.

The second theme of today’s liturgy is less easy for an outsider to comment upon. It implicitly addresses the victims of American aggression – most prominently the Muslim community and whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist with violence.

I mean that Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause which included land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

How then respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ response? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves – like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than simple Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military, and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or God?

What do you think?