The Biblical Tradition Advocates Healthcare for All – Even for Enemies of the State

Readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2 TM 2: 8-13; 1 THES 5:18; LK 17: 11-19

On October 4th, President Trump signed a proclamation denying visas to immigrants who can’t afford to purchase health insurance within 30 days of their arrival to the United States. The new restrictions are scheduled to be implemented on November 3. They will also exclude immigrants from subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

In its proclamation, the White House said it was taking this step to safeguard the health-care system for American citizens by preventing immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid or going to emergency rooms with no insurance, requiring hospitals or taxpayers to cover the cost.

“President Trump has taken action to promote immigrant self-sufficiency, which has long been a fundamental aspect of our immigration system,” the proclamation said.

In other words, (and listen for the irony here) the uber-rich president’s action is directed against poor people and is designed to save money for a revenue base recently depleted by tax breaks principally benefitting the richest people in the most affluent country in the world.

It’s simply another onslaught in Trump’s war of rich against poor.

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that the new proclamation is not only ironic, it also stands in sharp contradiction to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on gratuitous healing.

I mean, this week’s readings seem providentially related to the issue of healthcare not only for resident aliens, but for explicit enemies of the state. The selections have two prophets (Elisha in the case of the Jewish Testament) and Jesus (in its Christian extension) curing foreign lepers. In Elisha’s case, the beneficiary of his cure is a general in an enemy army (Assyria) actually at war with Israel. That would be like Americans extending care to a notorious terrorist.  

Additionally, the readings connect with current debate about Medicare for All by suggesting the inappropriateness of charging money for healing which is understood as a gift from God. As such, the readings intimate, it should be available to all humans with no distinctions about race, class, or gender.

Please read the texts in question here. What follows is my own “translation” of their unusually coherent message about foreigners and healthcare.

 2 KGS 5: 14-17
 
During Assyria’s war on Israel,
Naaman, an enemy general,
Was cured of leprosy
By Israel’s prophet, Elisha.
The general offered
A valuable gift
In exchange.
But Elisha refused
To profit from
God’s healing.
Such salvation
Is as free as earth itself,
He implied.
It is entirely fungible
To entirely
Fungible people.
 
PS 98: 1-4
 
So, let’s sing
Of God’s healing (salvation).
On behalf of Israel
It manifests
God’s favor to non-Jews too
Causing the whole earth
To break out in song.
 
2 TM 2: 8-13
 
Jesus the Risen Christ
Endorsed Paul’s teaching
About the equality
Of Jews, Greeks,
Slaves and free,
Male and female
Prisoners and criminals.
Jesus identifies with all,
Paul said.
Every one of them
Is “chosen.”
God cannot deny
God’s generous Self.
 
1 THES 5:18
We are so grateful
For this wonderful teaching!
 
LK 17: 11-19
 
Like Elisha,
Jesus cured leprosy
This time
In a gang of 10 –
Including a Samaritan
An enemy of the people
Just like Naaman.
It was Healing
For nothing
Except for the outsider's
Singular word of thanks
Which healed him
Totally.
[No doubt
The ungrateful ones
Remained (partially) healed
As well.]

Not much needs to be added to the teachings so clearly embedded in today’s readings.

They’re about curing a culture’s most dreaded disease. They’re about foreigners and a divine dispensation that recognizes no one as somehow “foreign” or to be “shunned.” That’s true even if they represent a designated enemy of the state or adherents to a religion considered intrinsically evil by prevailing community standards.

As usual, then, and in other words, this week’s readings challenge our most cherished certainties. They call us to open ourselves to the poor, to foreigners, and even to those we’re taught to fear and hate.

They call us to denounce and resist Trumpian “proclamations” like the recent one punishing immigrants and refugees for their poverty and accidents of birth over which they have no control, but which especially endear them to the Author of Life.

We Baptize Our New Grandson, Sebastian Nels

Last Sunday, we had yet another baptism in our family — this one of our new grandson, Sebastian Nels. And what a beautiful event it was!

Our daughter, Maggie (Sebastian’s mother) was the MC. Sebastian’s godmothers were outstanding. One, Eden Werring, gave a beautifully sung Jewish blessing; the other, Claudine Maidique read the Gibran classic “On Children.” Rob Silvan, the music minister at our new church here in Connecticut (Talmadge Hill Community Church) led us in singing “Down to the River” (from “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”), “Swimming to the Other Side,” “The Prayer of St. Francis, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Our son, Patrick, was here with his lovely girlfriend, Michelle. And later, we all retired to Maggie’s beautiful home here in Westport for the after-party. It featured a bluegrass band, a hot-dog food truck, and lots of good conversation and laughter. What fun!

As I remarked to Maggie, it was all perfect in its imperfection. The star of the event, however, was little Sebastian Nels. I’ve never seen a more tranquil baby. His quiet demeanor made the remarks I share below (my homily on the occasion) even more relevant. Please allow me share them with you. To begin with here are the readings:

  • LK 3: 21-22: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
  • LK 3:21-22: So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
  • MK 10: 13-16: 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

And here is the homily:

“Sebastian’s First Sermon”

Here we are yet again, gathered for yet another baptism. Having done this with Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya, it’s now Sebastian’s turn. These experiences are always so memorable.

Of course, Sebastian knows nothing of why we’re doing this. After all, as my good friend, Guy Patrick (also a former priest), reminds us, religion really isn’t for children, much less for babies. It’s an adult thing. And when children express boredom or rebellion against going to church or religious practice, we should patiently tell them, “Don’t worry, if you’re lucky, you’ll one day ‘get it,’ maybe when you grow up. And if you don’t get it then, perhaps you will in some other life.” (At least, that’s what Guy says. I think he’s right. He usually is about these things.)

So, what’s here for adults to “get”? Today’s readings and that beautiful song, “Swimming to the Other Side,” suggest an answer. Baptism, they tell us, is about personal transformation. It’s about navigating from the world’s way of thinking to God’s way, which lies on the other side of the Jordan, where Jesus himself was baptized. It’s about swimming against the world’s current to what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” God’s way of thinking is 180 degrees opposed to that of the world. It’s the very definition of “the other side.”

Think about Jesus’ own baptism. As a 30-something adult, he has evidently reached a decision point about the direction of his life. As a disciple of John, he’s seeking a new course; he wants to “swim to the other side.” So, like so many others (Luke tells us “all the people” were being baptized) he presents himself for a rite of conversion performed by John the Baptist whom Luke describes as completely counter-cultural in his dress, diet, and way of speaking. [Jesus will later describe him as the greatest person who has ever lived (MT 11:11).]

Anyway, Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, is pushed beneath the water, and emerges with a new vocation. He hears a voice that tells him “You are my beloved Son.” Evidently puzzled by that revelation, the next thing he does is to go out into the desert to discover what those words might mean.

He’s on a vision quest. And there, in the desert’s heat and cold, in the company of wild beasts and scorpions, the visions come to him. Fevered from 40 days of starvation and thirst, he sees angels, devils, and fantastic possible futures. He imagines stones as bread. He’s taken to a mountain, and to the pinnacle of the temple. The thought of suicide crosses his mind. He’s shown all the kingdoms of the world. He’s presented with unlimited possibilities.

In all of this, his question is the same as ours. Which will he choose? Will it be the world’s ways of pleasure, power, profit, and prestige? Or will he instead swim against the current and live out his identity as God’s beloved son?

We all know Jesus’ decision. He chose poverty over wealth, non-violence over violence, and identification with the poor, oppressed, tortured and victims of capital punishment. Those were his decisions. They’re what his followers claim commitment to.

What a challenge to us!

Sebastian, quite naturally, understands none of that.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s disconnected from Jesus’ vision quest or that his role here is entirely passive. Quite the contrary. By merely acting like a baby, Sebastian is preaching a sermon – his first one. He’s reminding us of what Jesus discovered in the desert. He’s showing us who we are as we come from the hand of God. He’s reminding us of what’s important in life. And it’s not what the world says. 

It’s not borders or of being American. Sebastian knows nothing of such things – nothing of male privilege, or white privilege, of war, lust, politics, or the power of money.

What he does know is love. He knows that he’s entitled to food and warmth, to the simplest of clothing. He’s aware of his entitlement to care from his mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and from all those strangers who are constantly fawning over him, picking him up, and making all those strange happy sounds. In our adult language, we’d call all of those human rights.

Yes, by simply being a baby, Sebastian is preaching us a sermon. He’s saying, “Be like me.

Set aside what the world values, because those values are categorically opposed to life as those closest to its origins experience it. Swim against the current. Swim to the other side to what Jesus called the God’s Kingdom. At your deepest level, live the consciousness I experience and exemplify.” Become as little children – or as St. Paul puts it: live in a world uncontaminated by race, class, or sexual orientation. In God’s world, Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Of course, we don’t know if any of this will stick for Sebastian. We don’t know if in this lifetime he’ll choose to follow Jesus’ teachings. We pray that he will. But at this moment – before he forgets –  his silence couldn’t be more eloquent in reminding us of the nature of life as it comes from the hands of God! This is his first sermon. Let’s all take it all in, remember it, – and now get on with his baptism.

Liberation Theology: Seeing Divine Intervention on Behalf of the Poor

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4; PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9; 2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14; 1 PT 1:25; LK 17: 5-10

Last week’s homily on “Dives and Lazarus” evoked an interesting comment from one of the most faithful and thoughtful readers of this blog. The point of address was a statement in my related reflections on liberation theology, viz. that in the biblical tradition “God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth.”

In response, the reader commented, “The disheartening truth is that I see no evidence of this ever having been the case in the literal sense. Metaphorically, yes, and in prophetic but unfulfilled texts, but I fail to see even one concrete example. The rich and the poor seem to be equal in that both will have to wait for some nebulous afterlife to receive their reward. Meanwhile, the rich, proverbially, get richer.”

The comment is providentially related to this Sunday’s readings, which address the question of unanswered prayers and the frustration of those who look for evidence of God’s presence in the world and find none. Before I get to that, however, let me respond directly to what the reader said.

To begin with, I agree with his comment in that:

  1. It is often “disheartening” to look for God’s intervention on behalf of the poor (or any of us for that matter) and to see none.
  2. No one will see or ever has seen “literal,” “concrete,” and undeniable evidence of such intervention.
  3. So, in relation to faith and speech about God, metaphor used by “seers” (i.e. prophets gifted with capacity to see what’s opaque to the rest of us) is all we have.
  4. Contrary to biblical tradition, our inherited, domesticated religious culture insists that the rich and poor are equal in God’s eyes and that we must endure obscene wealth disparities till after death.
  5. As a result, wealth disparities flourish; the rich get richer.

So, relative to such observations and according to liberation theologians, what do the seers (those who can see beyond the shadows in our “Plato’s Cave”) tell us about God’s siding with the poor? Just this:

  1. God is Love and has established a loving order with room for everyone. This loving order of Universal Intelligence represents the larger, unchanging dispensation in which we live and move and have our being. It is the world as God created it.
  2. Throughout history, human structures (familial, economic, social, political, etc.) have been set up by the rich and powerful in opposition to the divine order. This is the origin of race-consciousness, nations, borders, latifundial holdings, slavery, poverty and wars. None of these represent the world as it comes from the hand of God, where the world belongs to everyone.
  3. The spokespersons for that other world are the “prophets” who have always been among us pointing out the in-breaking of the Love that is always there (e.g. Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Marx, Gandhi, King, Greta Thunberg . . .) Uniformly, they point out the opposition between the order of Universal Intelligence and the “wisdom of the world;” they indicate where Love is manifesting Itself; they invite the rest of us to “see” and to align with Love’s order.
  4. Those who listen to the prophets are the indispensable agents of Universal Intelligence for the “salvation” of humanity from the inevitable destructive results of the world’s “wisdom.” They are everywhere for those with eyes to see.
  5. In the end, however, Love’s order will prevail regardless of human activity; it alone is Real; the rest is illusion and doomed to pass.

With that in mind, please turn your attention to today’s liturgy of the word. You can find the readings here. In the meantime, what follows are my “translations.” As you’ll see, they directly address unanswered prayers and Love’s order as decreed by Universal Intelligence.

 HAB 1: 2-3; 2:2-4
 
I’ve been praying
Dear God,
For your Kingdom to come,
For violence to cease
For relief from our misery.
Yet you seem deaf
To my pleas.
After all,
Wars continue
Violence increases
Everyone’s at
Each other’s throat.
What should I think?
 
Only this:
(And write it in stone!)
My timetable,
My order
Is vastly different
From yours.
What’s invisible,
What seems delay to you
Is always there
And perfectly timely for me.
So, be patient
Keep your commitment
To my just order.
My answer to prayer
Is never late.
It’s omnipresent.
 
PS 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
 
I have heard your response,
Dear God
I’m thankful and happy
For the reminder.
Your words
Are solid as rock.
It’s true:
You know far more
Than us.
You have never
Let us down.
I will therefore not ever
Lose faith
Against your
Proven fidelity.
 
2 TM 1: 6-8, 13-14
 
Such words of response
Are wise.
They are the expression
Of a Holy Spirit,
Within us all.
It can set
The world ablaze
With love.
It is courageous
And disciplined,
It expresses the
Strength of God.
It enables us
To endure even prison
And hardships
Of all kinds.
It is the very Spirit
Of Jesus, the Christ.
 
1 PT 1:25
 
We’re happy to say that
We share
Such enduring faith
With sisters and brothers
Past and present.
What joy to live
In such holy company!
 
 
LK 17: 5-10
 
When Jesus’ followers
Prayed for stronger faith,
He reminded them
That even a little bit
Can change
Expectations profoundly.
Never forget, he said,
That you are not in charge;
Love is.
You are only Love’s servants.
God is not
Your errand boy
Beholden to
Culturally-shaped
Plans and needs.

With those readings in mind, i.e. when we allow God’s word to open our eyes and ears, when we listen to the prophets (God’s spokespersons), we see concrete manifestations of God’s presence and siding with the poor everywhere. Right now, they’re evident, I think, in:

  1. Nature Itself: Regardless of human efforts to obscure and deny the divine, its presence calls constantly to us in events so close to us and taken-for-granted that they’ve become invisible. I’m thinking about the sun, the ocean, trees, the moon, stars, wild flowers – and our own bodies whose intelligence performs unbelievable feats each moment of our lives.
  2. Liberation Theology: This rediscovery of God’s preferential option for the poor has changed and is changing the world. One cannot explain the pink tide that swept Latin America during the 1970s, ‘80s, and 90s – not Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela – without highlighting the inspiration provided by liberation theology. Neither can one explain the rebellion of the Muslim world against western imperialism without confronting Islam’s inherent liberating drive – again on behalf of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and imperialized.
  3. Contemporary Social Movements: Think Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Yellow Vests, Standing Rock, the Green New Deal, and prophetic figures like (once again) Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Pope Francis with his landmark climate encyclical Laudato si’ . All of these movements and figures stand on the side of the poor and are having their effect.
  4. Marianne Williamson’s Campaign: Of all the current candidates for president, Marianne Williamson most articulately and faithfully bases her “politics of love” on the five prophetic insights referenced above. The mere fact that she is actually running for president signals an actual and potential awakening of American consciousness far beyond what’s (thankfully) portended even in the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Martin Luther King once famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice. “Justice” in his vocabulary meant overcoming the laws and social structures crafted by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in their place. King (and Malcolm as well) was a practitioner of African-American liberation theology. As such, he was gifted with eyes to see differently — to see the Judeo-Christian tradition as revealing a God on the side of the poor.

That’s what our Sunday liturgies of the word reveal consistently. This week is no exception. It invites us to open our eyes.

Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

Sunday’s Readings “Translated”

Here are my “translations” of the liturgical readings for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time. As we’ll see more explicitly in my Sunday Homily, they provide a virtual catechism of liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years.

AM 6:1A, 4-7
 
The Spirt of Life informs us that:
Complacent “religious” people
Are in for a sad surprise.
They might be enjoying
Their “Sleep Number” mattresses
And Lazy Boy chairs;
While gorging on Wagyu Beef
And meats
No one else can afford;
They might be attending
A-list concerts
And drinking Chateau Lafite
While reeking of Chanel Grand Extrait.
But the world’s on fire!
And its flames will soon consume
Even the decadent lifestyles
Of the super-rich.
 
 
PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10
 
For the poor,
There’s a certain Schadenfreude
In all of this.
For God’s future assures
Downfall for the rich
While promising
Justice for the oppressed
Rich food for those now hungry
And liberation for the imprisoned.
The obtuse will see,
We’re told.
The overworked
Will be relieved.
Immigrants and refugees
Will be safe at last.
Children born out of wed-lock
And abandoned women
Will finally know peace.
 
1 TM 6:11-16
 
So, be of good heart.
Despite appearances,
That golden future awaits
Those who live like Jesus.
He was so committed
To the poor
To justice, non-violence
Patience and love
That the imperialized world
Could not stand it.
Nevertheless, his powerful
Christ-consciousness
(That you btw have promised
To live by)
Will bring the world
A completely new order
And enlightenment beyond
Our wildest imaginings.
 
2 COR 8:9
 
In fact, Jesus accomplished
All of that
By becoming a poor man
Not a rich one
So that we might know
Where true wealth lies
And live accordingly.
 
LK 16: 19-31
 
Jesus illustrates
His meaning
With the story
(Told to the complacent believers)
Of poor Lazarus
Who often begged
From a rich man.
But soon had Dives
Begging from him
And experiencing
The awful frustration
Of unbridgeable gaps
In consumption
And in ability
To communicate
The desperation
And torment,
Of hunger and thirst
Even if revealed
By a ghost from the other side.

Clarifying Economic (& Theological) Terms in the Capitalism-Socialism Debate

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8: 4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1TM 2: 1-8; 2 COR 8:9;LK 16: 1-13

Last weekend, comedian, Bill Maher, and film-maker, Michael Moore, got into a shouting match on Maher’s show “Real Time.” Their point of contention was capitalism vs. socialism. Moore argued for socialism; Maher was against it. Their boisterousness reminded me of dinner-table arguments which (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve been part of myself.

I bring all this up because the debate is intimately related to this morning’s liturgy of the word. Though the readings obviously pre-date the emergence of the modern system, they all criticize what has historically become “the spirit of capitalism.”  

In any case, the Maher-Moore debate is worth considering not only because it manifests the relevance of the Jesus tradition to arguments like theirs. The argument also demonstrates the counter-productivity of the squabble itself. It’s counter-productive because its terms fall into a trap congenial to the enemies of the biblical tradition. The trap frames alternatives to our present economic system in terms of “socialism” instead of in terms of social justice, mixed economy, and “preferential option for the poor.”

That’s a simple distinction I never tire of making, because (as I point out in my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news) it’s absolutely key to the discussions of capitalism and socialism that will inevitably characterize the election season we’ve just entered – especially following the eventual selection of any Democratic candidate. No matter who the candidate turns out to be, s/he will be predictably vilified for advocating socialism pure and simple – an economic system that simply does not exist.

Maher and Moore both missed that point. The rest of us shouldn’t. In fact, I recommend avoidance of capitalism-socialism framing altogether. I’ll explain what I mean, and then elucidate the connections with today’s readings.

To begin with, Moore’s mistake was to represent as “socialism” his advocacy of Medicare for all (Maher was against it), free college tuition, college loan-forgiveness, and the Green New Deal. In reality, those programs notwithstanding, each of them represents elements of mixed economies – the only form of economic organization that exists in our present context. And a mixed economy always has three elements (1) Some private and some public ownership of the means of production, (2) Some controlled markets and some that are free of control, and (3) earnings limited (usually by progressive income taxes).

Every economy in the world has those elements. There are no exceptions.

Mixed economies contrast with the three elements of capitalism as well as with those of socialism. Capitalism’s three points are (1) Private ownership of the means of production, (2) Free and open markets, and (3) Unlimited earnings. None of the world’s economies embodies those elements untempered by planning.

Meanwhile, socialism’s three points are (1) Public ownership of the means of production, (2) Controlled markets, and (3) Limited earnings. Like untempered capitalism, such economic arrangement exists nowhere (including in “communist” China or Cuba).     

For his part, Maher’s defense of capitalism was also a defense of mixed economy. He agreed with many of Moore’s points. So, Maher’s “capitalism” was no less mixed than Moore’s. The difference was that Maher wanted more market and less planning in economic policy.

This is not to say that all mixed economies are equal. (And this point is essential to keep in mind). The crucial question with them is “Mixed in favor of whom?” Those who mistakenly identify themselves as “capitalists” tend to advocate economies mixed in favor of the rich. They do so on the belief that wealth trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.

Those who (equally mistakenly) identify as “socialists” want economies mixed more in favor of the working and unemployed classes. They recognize that unregulated markets respond primarily to those with the most money. Economies therefore have to be controlled to include those with limited (or no) resources.

With all of this in mind, Moore and Maher might have resolved their argument by recognizing that the choice before them is not between capitalism or socialism, but between an economy mixed in favor of the rich or one mixed in favor of the poor. And the formula for doing so might be: As much market as possible, with as much regulation as necessary (to assure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet).   

Now, a formula like that not only avoids “the socialist trap;” it is also highly compatible with the biblical social justice tradition that’s expressed so clearly in this morning’s liturgy of the word. As I’ve translated them below, today’s selections point out the injustices inherent not only in the economies of the ancient world, but in today’s neoliberal order. Both, the readings imply, were and are rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor.  Check the readings for yourself here.

This is the way I interpret them:

 AM 8: 4-7

Money makes the rich
Exploit the poor.
It leads the wealthy
To distort religion
Manipulate currency
Put thumbs on scales
Sell shoddy products
And underpay workers.
But never doubt:
They will one day reap
Due karma.
 
PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
 
For God will lift up
The poor
From the dirt
And “shitholes
They’re forced
To live in.
Thank God:
The lowly
Will one day
Become their own
Masters instead.
 
1 TM 2: 1-8
 
In the meantime,
Pray that the powerful
Might change their ways
For God cares
Even for them.
Pray that they
Might know God
As revealed in
The poor man
Jesus who died
For them too
Despite their bitterness
Lies and self-serving
Talking points.
 
2 COR 8:9
 
Yes, don’t forget:
God chose
Self-revelation
In the poor
Not in the rich.
Ironically,
God’s Preferential Option
For the Poor
Is the only way
To prosperity.
 
LK 16: 1-13
 
In fact,
The poor man, Jesus,
Laughed at the rich
Who can’t use a shovel
To save their lives,
But blame the beggars
Their own policies have created.
The rich are so crooked,
He joked,
That they even admire
Shrewdness in those
Who end up stealing from them!
Their own small larcenies
Grow exponentially.
So they cannot be trusted.
Restitution is therefore in order.
But don't worry
About the bankers:
Their “generous” loans
Can easily be written off
Without in the least
Impacting their
Decadent life-styles.
Their basic mistake
Is believing that
Differentiating wealth and God
Are somehow compatible.
They are not!

Don’t you agree that sentiments like those favor economies mixed in favor of the poor? (That’s the way they appear to me.) The readings imply that if mixed economies are all we have, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap that ensnared Moore and Maher. Instead of arguing about non-existent “capitalism” or “socialism,” we should make sure to embrace the principle “As much market as possible, but as much planning as necessary (to insure a dignified life for all).”

But to avoid pointless shouting matches, it will be necessary to carry around in our minds those clear and easily understood ideas about what capitalism and socialism are. To repeat: capitalism’s essential elements are (1) private ownership of the means of production; (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. Socialism’s defining points are just the opposite: (1) public ownership of the means of production; (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. Once again, those two definitions make it clear that mixed economies are all we have. 

Finally, we should be emphasizing the incompatibility between  the Judeo-Christian tradition and the spirit of capitalism as characterized in today’s readings. Excessive wealth on the one hand and God on the other are not compatible. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Despite our culture’s claims to the contrary, that’s the faith we “People of The Book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are called to embrace.

Marianne Williamson and the Power of Prayer

So, let me get this straight. Marianne Williamson should be disqualified as a viable presidential candidate because she has too much faith in the power of prayer, of mind, of love, and of God.

The disqualification was sparked by a tweet she made as Hurricane Dorian was bearing down upon the southern coast of the United States. It read: “The Bahamas, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas…may all be in our prayers now. Millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land is not a wacky idea; it is a creative use of the power of the mind. Two minutes of prayer, visualization, meditation for those in the way of the storm,”

It was a call to faith addressed to a nation where the majority considers itself followers of the one who said, “If you have faith, even as a mustard seed, and say to this mountain ‘move from here to there,’ it will obey you” (MT 17:20).

[Yes, faith and its power to “move mountains” is an idea that appears multiple times in the Jesus tradition, indicating that the phrase probably originated with the Master himself. But, of course, Jesus’ words presume that his listeners, like most of us, had no such minimal faith. Hence, he implied, our belief remains powerless.] 

Jesus’ faith aside though, consider the content of Ms. Williamson’s tweet. It simply asked her followers:

  1. To face the power of our human minds and spirits as much greater and connected with natural forces than we generally believe.
  2. In view of that fact, to activate their collective force to avert disaster.
  3. And to do so by stilling that mind through meditation, by praying for those in the hurricanes path, and by visualizing their prayers answered.

Read it again: that’s exactly what the tweet says! Nothing more; nothing less.

In other words, it was all quite harmless and potentially powerful. There was nothing in it of fear, hatred, climate-change denial or blame of victims – all the responses we’ve come to expect from the outrageous tweets of more conventional politicians. Instead, there was only expression of solidarity, compassion, faith, stillness, and acceptance of what traditional spirituality tells us of the untapped power of the human spirit that consciously aligns itself with the divine.

As I’ve already indicated, the tweet also implied a connection between human consciousness and Mother Nature herself – something underlined in the mystical traditions belonging to all the world’s great faiths and to mainstream science as well. (As Francis of Assisi would remind us, all of us are in some sense a part of “Brother Hurricane” Dorian.) 

But, horror of horrors (!) such expression of traditional faith and scientific insight was enough to disqualify Williamson from presidential candidacy. Whoopi Goldberg and panel members on “The View” ridiculed her. Others characterized her as no better than that of religious fundamentalists.

To my mind, however, it proves just the opposite.

Williamson’s tweet demonstrates how truly different she is from her fellow candidates as well as from the fundamentalists who have hijacked the faith of Jesus. And how refreshing! Her viewpoint is what our times require, where expressions of faith are limited to “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings — or to divisive imposition of narrow beliefs about abortion and rejection of LGBTQQIAAPs.

In fact, Marianne Williamson is so different from what we expect from politicians and secular leftists that when she simply expresses solidarity with those in the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas (whose prayers no doubt echoed Marianne’s tweet) she reveals herself as absolutely mystifying, incomprehensible, and unacceptable.

Let’s face that too: Williamson’s tweet expressed extraordinary solidarity with those in Dorian’s path. Without doubt, many of them were praying that the hurricane’s force might be mitigated or diverted. In fact, if we found ourselves in their circumstances, the religious among us (and “foxhole Christians” as well) would be offering similar prayers: “Please, Lord, save me and my family from this hurricane. Change its path. Keep us safe.”

And what would be wrong with that? It’s an absolutely human response to impending disaster.

No, the hubbub over Ms. Williamson’s tweet is but another demonstration of why her candidacy is indispensable. We need her to profoundly change our political conversation, to move that conversation from fear and denial to compassion, and to unveil the true nature of faith engaged with an overly-secularized world.