Borders Are for Poor Suckers Like Us, Never for the Rich: Tear Down That Wall!

Borders

Isn’t it interesting how the world’s richest 1% have managed to convince most among us that the world’s poorest 1% are responsible for all of our problems? These days, they have us talking about almost nothing else.

Yes, billionaires like Donald Trump and his effete allies in D.C. have pulled “the immigrant problem” completely out of the air. And they’ve done it precisely to paper over the fact that they themselves, not the poor, are the cause of our genuinely distressing economic and social problems. It’s all a familiar diversionary tactic to keep us from seeing how the rich are screwing us over every single day.

Think about it. What troubles us aren’t immigrants and refugees who are somehow alien. Hell, if we’re not Native Americans, every one of us comes from immigrant (not to say “invader”) stock or from slaves brought here against their wills by immigrants. Every one of us!

No, our problems are persistent low wages, the emergence of the gig-economy, withdrawal of worker benefits, destruction of unions, police brutality towards people of color, lack of decent health care, deteriorating infrastructure, underfunded schools, impoverishing student debt, disappearance of retirement prospects, a bloated military budget, the threat of nuclear war, climate change denial, voter suppression, mass imprisonment of non-violent offenders, and a nation-wide drug problem induced by Big Pharma.

That’s the short list of our country’s real dilemmas. They are caused by the filthy rich who give themselves the very tax breaks that rob our common treasury and necessitate the austerity measures the wealthy prescribe for the rest of us.

Nonetheless, those plutocrats want us to take our eyes off that particular ball. Instead, they’d have us believe that the very refugees whose homes and jobs, schools and hospitals have been destroyed by the one-percent’s endless wars in the Middle East are somehow attacking the rest of us. Similarly-guilty, they say, are those fleeing the chaos and gang violence produced by the illegal counter-revolutionary wars waged by “our” country in Central America throughout the 1980s. The same for simple Mexican farmers displaced by NAFTA provisions favoring U.S. corn over locally-produced maize; that’s what’s made them poor and jobless.

As a result, all of those just mentioned – victims of our unjust wars and one-sided trade policies – along with their children, have been excluded from entry to the U.S. whose borders, our “leaders” tell us are somehow sacrosanct as if created by God. So, (we are told) we must pay for a multi-billion-dollar wall to exclude the victims the billionaires have created and characterized as rapists, gang-members, drug dealers, and criminals.

Thing is: borders are completely arbitrary; they’re fictions the rich would have the rest of us worship, while they pay them no mind. That’s another thing to think about.

In historical perspective, current demarcation lines dividing countries are totally artificial and changeable. Many of them, for instance in Africa and the Middle East, were drawn up in a field tent by basically ignorant imperial generals.

The colonial outsiders’ overriding interest was accessing the resources of the areas in question. So, they formed alliances with local chiefs, called them “kings” of their new “nations,” and drew those lines I mentioned describing the area the nouveau royalty would govern.

But the colonial conquerors did so without knowledge of traditional tribal habitats, shared languages, or blood connections between families their random lines separated. As a result, from the viewpoint of the groups divided, the problem with borders is not that people cross them, but that the borders cross peoples.

Closer to home, that ironic crossing phenomenon is best illustrated in the cases of Texas, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. Before 1848, all those states were part of Mexico. Then following the Mexican-American War (1846-’48), the U.S. border crossed Mexicans in those new states and they suddenly became foreigners in what previously had been their own country.

In 1848, ordinary Mexicans viewed the entire process as highway robbery. As a result, their descendants often speak of contemporary Mexican migration to “America” as a Reconquista – a justified re-conquest of lands stolen from their forebears.

Nevertheless, 170 years later President Trump wants to solidify America’s unlawful annexation of huge swaths of Mexico by building a wall along this relatively new line of separation. His argument is that borders are holy, and that people who cross them are “illegals” and criminal. But that just raises questions about his rich confreres’ attitude towards borders.

So, let’s consider that second point.

Fact is: The rich disrespect borders in two principal ways, one questionably “legal” and the other completely otherwise.

So-called legal border crossings are claimed as a right by international corporations. According to its free enterprise principles, Wal-Mart, for example, has the right to set up shop wherever it wishes, regardless of any resulting impact on local merchants, farmers, or suppliers. Thus, capitalists claim license to cross into Mexico in pursuit of profit. They legalize their border crossing by signing agreements like NAFTA with their rich Mexican counterparts.

Meanwhile, workers (the second equally key factor in the capitalist equation) who are impoverished by “free trade” enjoy no similar entitlements. For them, borders are supposed to be inviolable, even though the boundaries prevent them from imitating the rich by serving their own economic interests – in their case, by emigrating to wherever the availability of good wages dictates.

Workers everywhere intuitively recognize the double standard at work here. So, they defiantly cross borders without permission.

The other disrespect for borders on the part of the rich is more insidious. It takes the form of their own defiant transgression of international law by crossing borders to drop bombs on poor people wherever and whenever they wish, without formal declaration of war. (Imagine if poor countries claimed that same right vis a vis their wealthy counterparts, because they consider the wealthy’s bombing raids and drone operations as “terrorism.”) Let’s face it: in the so-called “war on terror,” borders have become completely meaningless – for the rich.

The point is that we “Americans” need to re-examine our attitudes towards borders and border walls. Borders, after all, are not sacred to the rich. Never have been. So why should rich corporatists expect workers and refugees from their destructive and illegal border-crossings to respect boundaries the elite have drawn so arbitrarily and violated so cavalierly?

I’ll say it again: in the eyes of Mr. Trump, borders are for suckers and poor working stiffs, not for people like him.

The truth is, however, that borders should be the same for everyone, regardless of wealth and power. If capital has the right to disregard borders, so should labor. If the workers cannot cross them, neither should rich investors.

Mr. Trump, tear down that wall!

The Salvation of Our Country and Church Comes from Iranians and Mexican Immigrants (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Lent: 2CHR 36:14-16, 19-24; PS 137:1-6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3: 14-21

NAFTA

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us to look for salvation in unexpected places. In fact, it strongly suggests that the very ones our culture despises, and our church relegates to second class status have been chosen by God to save us. Specifically, I’m talking about Iranians relative to our country and Latin Americans in relation to the church.

Take Iranians first. (They are called “Persians” in today’s first reading.) There, one of them (King Cyrus) is identified in Chronicles as Judah’s “messiah” or anointed. The identification is given even though Cyrus was not a Jew, but an adherent of Zoroastrianism, a religion even more foreign to Judaism than Islam. Yet according to Chronicles, this Iranian king was God’s servant chosen to end Judah’s long exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq). That’s what I mean by salvation coming from an unexpected place.

Then in the second reading from Ephesians, Paul refers to Jesus of Nazareth in those same Cyrusian terms. Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, Paul says – and an unlikely “Christ” at that. After all, the Nazarene was the son of an unwed teenage mother; an refugee-immigrant in Egypt at the beginning of his life; a working stiff rather than a priest or scholar; possessed by the devil (according to the religious establishment); a drunkard and whore-monger according to those same sources; an enemy of the temple and state; and a victim of torture and of capital punishment in the form reserved for terrorists. Nevertheless, just as Cyrus brought Judah back from their 70 year-long exile in Babylon, Paul says, Jesus, the executed criminal, brought all of us back from the metaphorical death caused by living according to the deathly standards of the world. In Paul’s eyes, those standards obscure the gifts of God by convincing us that we have to earn life rather than accepting everything as God’s gift. Or as Paul puts it: “salvation is not the result of works,” but of God’s graciousness.

That graciousness (John the evangelist reminds us in today’s Gospel reading) is unending; it covers all the bases, has no exceptions and lasts forever. It turns each of us into Christs – into God’s only son (or daughter) – into saviors of the world. In other words, each one of us is the unlikeliest Christ of all.

O.K. each of today’s readings tell us to look for salvation in unexpected places – even within ourselves. But what are we post-moderns to understand by “salvation” itself? Think about it. The answer should be clear both in terms of country and church. In both spheres our condition can only be described as absolutely desperate and in need of deliverance.

Politically, we’re currently like lemmings rushing headlong towards the final precipice. Under the aegis of the organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world,” our Republican “leaders” are in denial about the greatest peril the human race has ever faced. Here I’m referring to climate chaos that threatens to deprive our grandchildren and even us and our children of the most basic necessities of life.

Besides that, our rulers insist on developing nuclear arsenals whose destructive power boggles the mind. And they seem extremely anxious to unleash them. The U.S. commander in chief has gone so far as to wonder aloud, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” If we’re not looking for salvation from all of that, we must be asleep entirely.

And as for faith . . . My own Christian community, the Catholic Church, it is in dire need of salvation too. It is crumbling before our eyes.

My parish in Berea, Kentucky is a case in point. There we’ve had a series of restorationist pastors hell-bent on reinstating the pre-Vatican II order I grew up in during the 1940s and ’50s.
Clericalism is their watchword and guiding vision. Outside the sanctuary, they wear birettas and cassocks. While celebrating Mass they seem rule-bound, uncreative, unthoughtful, and totally oblivious not only to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but to Pope Francis’ more recent summons to radical change as described in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

As a result of such backwardness, church numbers are dwindling drastically. Parishioners I’ve seen at Mass every Sunday over my 46 years at St. Clare’s have gone missing. Alternatively, and like my own children, they have joined the ranks of the second largest denomination in the country – Former Catholics. Loyal progressives in my parish are at their wits’ end wondering how to cope with leadership tone-deaf to their desperate voices.

My own response has been to recognize what theologian and church historian, Figueroa Deck has identified as the “sleeping giant” of Latino Catholicism. That has me attending our parish’s Hispanic Mass at 11:00, rather than the increasingly reactionary and Euro-centric Anglo Mass at 9:00. I “go to the eleven o’clock” not only to escape the deadly retrogression of 9:00 a.m. antiquarianism, but in subconscious recognition, I think, of the fact that our Hispanic parishioners represent the cutting, salvific edge of the Catholic Church.

For decades now, the Latin American Church has embodied Catholicism’s most vital element.That’s personified in Pope Francis himself, our first Latin American pontiff, who I’m told is rejected by our current parish leadership – the same way Washington rejects Latin American immigrants.

Francis, of course, comes from Argentina. He’s followed the lead of Latin American theologians of liberation with his adoption of Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” That entails recognition that the poor (including, most prominently, our immigrant population) know more about the world than our rich leaders – or even than us in more comfortable classes.

I mean, immigrants possess a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” while the rest of us see only one side of what’s occurring before our eyes. On the one hand, the daily observation of the undocumented (as our motel cleaners, nannies, gardeners, construction workers, and fellow parishioners) tells them what it means to be a white American. On the other, they know intimately the experience of exclusion by those same whites.

Immigrants know how the economy works for whites, and how it excludes browns and blacks. They know that rich capitalists and their money enjoy absolute freedom to cross borders, regardless of the negative impacts such mobility might (and does!) have on Global South economies. At least subconsciously, migrant workers recognize the simultaneous contradiction of their being excluded from such mobility, despite the fact that labor is an even more important part of the economic equation than capital. So even though the law (created by the rich) forbids them, immigrants vote with their feet to claim the rights the system unjustly denies them. Our “immigration problems” are the result.

The double consciousness of immigrants can be salvific for the church. If its expressions are heeded, they can save the church. As expressed by our Hispanic Pope Francis, the undocumented in our midst call us to a church where (in the words of The Joy of the Gospel) we cannot leave things as they presently are” (JG 25), but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74).

Similarly, in the world of politics, Iranians (the descendants of Chronicles’ Cyrus the Great) inspired this time by Islam are calling us to changes in foreign policy. They implore us to just leave them (and their oil) alone. Ironically, their desire is that they be liberated from a kind of Babylonian captivity that places them under the jackboot of the United States and (still more ironically) Israel.

What I’m suggesting is that the descendants of Cyrus are still God’s instrument of our salvation. So in our present desperate context, are marginalized Catholic immigrants whose presence reminds us of Pope Francis’ wisdom and of the penetrating understanding of life that comes from refugees and the immigrants our government’s free trade policies create on the one hand, while refusing them sanctuary on the other.

Both bring us the new ways of relating to God, the new narratives and the new paradigms salvation requires.

Trump’s Suicidal SOTU Rant

sawing-off-branch-sitting-on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Trump’s Anti-Catholic Persecution: My Personal Response

trump-immigrants

Last Saturday night we had our first meeting of a house church a number of us are trying to get off the ground. Ten people showed up. At least half of them admitted being there principally to humor me – because they’re such good friends. For that I remain extremely grateful.

By their very presence and participation, those good friends helped me clarify my own calling in these troubled times. They helped me realize that these are times of anti-Catholic persecution, and that the renewed oppression calls for thoughtful response. Please allow me to explain.

To begin with, at Saturday’s meeting, there was plenty of talk about Donald Trump. Everyone spoke of a sense of foreboding and depression at the events of the preceding week – the president’s first in office. There was all that xenophobia about Mexicans described as criminals and rapists – all that talk of The Wall.

One good friend described his impression of standing on a track in the face of an onrushing train with no power to stop it.

But another invoked the term metanoia – the Greek word for repentance in the sense of complete change of mind and action. He implied that as people of faith, we have to change profoundly. We need to man-up, woman-up and act like subjects rather than as powerless objects moved about by the tweets of the Bully-in-Chief. (His words made me reconsider my own immobility and resistance to change.)

Well, we finished our discussion, broke bread and shared wine around our dining room table. Afterwards, as we ate our potluck meal, we spoke of possible action during the coming week. There was talk of boycotting Trump products and services, writing letters, making phone calls, and even traveling to Standing Rock.

Following our liturgy, I felt a sense of profound gratitude for the generosity and good will my friends had shown. (They even stayed beyond the allotted time.) All the same, I worried that our suggested actions might never touch, for example, conservatives who voted for Mr. Trump or send ripples beyond our emerging little church.

I wondered what I might do personally to change that.

In the middle of that night, around 4:00 in the morning, I awoke suddenly with a possible response. It involves confronting the fact that a new government-sponsored persecution of Catholics is breaking out in our midst.

I’m not exaggerating. I mean, if I consider attacks on predominantly Muslim countries as veiled attacks on Islam, I should also consider attacks on predominantly Catholic countries as attacks on Catholicism.

Such antagonism has long and bloody precedent. In fact, all during the 1980s the United States fought what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century. On Chomsky’s analysis, it raged against the Catholic Church in Latin America whose bishops had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position. The conflict created chaos particularly in Central America, took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Latin American Catholics. Today its aftermath remains a principal cause behind the stream of refugees entering the U.S. through Mexico.

Donald Trump’s policies against refugees represents an extension of that 1980s religious war. In its current form, it vilifies and excludes Catholics as devoid of the moral standards the Church prides itself on teaching.

Think about it, Donald Trump has identified Mexicans and Central Americans (again, most of them Catholic) as morally deficient. The president said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Here Mr. Trump identifies good Mexican Catholics among us as the exception, not the rule. The vast majority, he claims, are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.

However, my own specifically Catholic experience gives the lie to his words. He’s demonizing my fellow parishioners –  people I consider my brothers and sisters in Christ. I know them by name: Amelia, Carlos, Ana, Isidro, Graciela, Ramon. . .  Criminals? Rapists? Drug dealers?

There are at least 100 such people in my Berea Kentucky church of 200 families. And that doesn’t even count the DACA students in our local Berea College. Under Trump, all of these people and their families stand accused not only by the president, but by those he emboldens to harass them. In other words, our fellow Catholics are in danger, so are their sources of income, their health and well-being.

Recently after church, I spoke with some of the endangered. They all agreed; they feel threatened and quite frightened. Moreover, they would appreciate more evident solidarity and support from Anglo parishioners who, in the case of our Berea church attend a separate Mass (at 9:00 a.m.) while Hispanics attend either a Spanish language Mass at 11:00, or both the 9:00 and 11:00 Masses.

How then might I respond to the plight of their Hispanic brothers and sisters in Christ? Here’s what I’m thinking: I might

  • Clearly identify in my own mind President Trump’s policies as anti-Catholic and specifically threatening to my fellow parishioners.
  • Lobby my senators and congressional representative to vote against Mr. Trump’s immigration policies.
  • Use the term “anti-Catholic” in my phone messages to those politicians.
  • Use similar language in writing to Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who describes himself as a “devout Catholic.”
  • Try to persuade the parish council in my local church to declare our parish a sanctuary for the refugees and immigrants among us.
  • In general, show solidarity with my fellow undocumented parishioners.
  • Begin participating in the 11:00 “Hispanic Mass” instead of the 9:00 mostly Anglo ceremony.
  • Be undeterred by my diffidence about not speaking Spanish well enough, realizing instead that my good will goes a long way towards establishing the sense of solidarity and support that our Hispanic brothers and sisters need.
  • Pair up with new friends and offer to spend time with them in conversation to help them learn English.

I suspect that actions like those, if adopted more generally, would start parish-wide conversations about Mr. Trump’s policies that affect “brothers and sisters in Christ.” They might raise the awareness of conservative parishioners – and possibly even of our church leadership. Such actions hold the promise of mobilizing many against the Trump administration’s fearful xenophobic juggernaut that, as I’ve said, is quite anti-Catholic.

I smile as Imagine what might happen across the country if Catholics responded in these ways.

Thank you, my good friends for helping me see the possibilities. Now it’s time for me to get to work.

Jesus Is Cutting Your Lawn! (Sunday Homily)

immigrant-jesus

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48.

Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.

That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.

Let me show you what I mean.

To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.

However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.

In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”

In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)

So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”

Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.

Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.

In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.

Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.

Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)

Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.

What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.

Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?

As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.

Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?

At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?

When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?

And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?

Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!

The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
(Discussion follows)

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!