Hating THE SIN, but Loving the Sinners (Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s readings: Is. 50:5-9a; Ps. 116: 1-6, 8-9; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:27-35

I often have spirited political debates with my grown children. My contributions to such debates have often been critical of the U.S. So my sons half in jest often accuse me of “hating America.”

Really though, I love the United States. It’s my home; it’s the country I know best; it’s simply beautiful; its people, its artists, its inventors have given so much to the world. Its Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement have set examples for emancipation campaigns throughout the entire world. As the song says, it all makes me feel “Proud to be an American.”

And yet there is some truth in what my sons say. While I love America, I have trouble with “Amerikkka.”  That, I suppose, is like saying “I love the sinner, but hate the sin.” I say that because in this case “Amerikkka” stands for the imperial United States. And here I’m referring to the nation described in the following film clip by John Stockwell. He’s the former and much-decorated CIA station chief in Angola who has “gone public” with his story about what the United States has actually done in the world for the last forty years. He describes a “Third World War” against the poor – a war responsible for the death of more than 6 million of the world’s poor. Listen to what he has to say; its information is what I have in mind in those conversations with my sons.

What Stockwell says is quite shocking, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with you today, because the liturgy’s Gospel selection is about empire and Jesus’ non-violent resistance to it. It’s about his hating the sin of empire, while refusing to do harm to the sinners who support it.  That’s the real focus of today’s Gospel. Its key elements are (1) Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter, (2) his self-identification as the “Son of Man,” and (3) his insistence that his followers must oppose empire no matter what the cost.

For starters, take Jesus’ harsh words to Simon Peter. He’s impatient with Peter, and in effect tells him to go to hell. (That’s the meaning of his words, “Get behind me, Satan.”) Why does he speak to Peter like that? To answer that question, you have to understand who Peter is.

Simon was likely a Zealot. Zealots were fighters in the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They were committed to expelling the Roman occupiers from Palestine by force of arms. Scholars strongly suspect that Simon Peter was a Zealot. For one thing, he was armed when Jesus was arrested. His armed status (even after three years in Jesus’ company!) also raises the possibility that he may have been a sicarius (knifer) – one among the Zealots who specialized in assassinating Roman soldiers. Notice how quick Simon was to actually use his sword; he was evidently used to knife-fighting. In John 18:10, he tries to split the head of one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. However his blow misses only slicing off the intended victim’s ear.  Put that together with Simon’s nom de guerre, “Peter” which arguably meant “rock-thrower,” and you have a strong case for Peter’s zealotry.

In any case, when Jesus asks Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah” means “You’re the one who will lead us in expelling the hated Romans from this country by force of arms.”

Now consider where Jesus is coming from. (This is the second key element of today’s Gospel.) Because his primary identity is not being Jewish but being human, he forbids Peter to call him “Messiah.” In effect he says “Look,” “like the “Human One” (Son of Man) Daniel wrote about, I’m as much an enemy of foreign occupation as you are.  But unlike you, I’m not going to be part of killing the brothers and sisters who share my humanity. Yes, I’m saying that the Romans and ‘our’ Temple collaborators are our brothers and sisters! Killing them is like killing ourselves. It’s even like trying to kill God. So, I won’t be introducing the glorious Israel you’re thinking about. It’s just the opposite; the Romans are actually end up torturing and killing me! And I’m willing to accept that.”

All of that was too much for Peter. To stand by and let the Romans torture and kill Jesus seemed crazy to him – especially when Jesus’ following was so strong and militant. [Recall that two chapters earlier in Mark, Jesus had met all day with 5000 men in the desert. (Can you imagine how the ever-watchful Romans would have viewed such a meeting? Today what kind of drone strikes would be unleashed in Afghanistan against participants gathered like that?) Recall too that (according to John 6:15) at the end of that day’s meeting a resolution was passed to make Jesus king by force. Of course, Jesus had rejected that proposal and had walked out on the meeting. But evidently Simon here still wasn’t getting it; there was still hope that Jesus might change his mind.

But no, here was Jesus reiterating that his resistance to Rome and its Temple collaborators was to be uncompromisingly non-violent. For the Rock Thrower, the equation “Messiah” plus “non-violence” simply couldn’t compute.  So he blurts out his own “Don’t say things like that!”

And this brings me to that third point I indicated at the outset – Jesus’ invitation to each of us to follow him to the cross. In today’s reading he says that those wishing to follow him must take up crosses. Now the cross was the special form of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. So Jesus words seem to mean that his followers must be anti-imperial and run the risks that go along with insurgency.

What can that mean for us today – for those of us who have chosen to join this emerging ecumenical Christian Base Community meeting here in Richmond, Kentucky? Jesus’ words, I think, call us to a “paradigm shift” concerning the United States, ourselves, and this emerging Christian Base Community.

Jesus teaching means first of all that we have to recognize our own situation as “Americans.”  We’re not living in the greatest country in the world. We are indeed living in the belly of the brutal imperial beast.  While loving our fellow Americans, we have to (as they say) “hate THE SIN” – of being imperialists, of being  Amerikkka.

Secondly, Jesus’ words about embracing the cross challenge us as individuals to figure out how closely we really want to follow the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. If we agree that Jesus is Daniel’s “Human One” destined to live out the “prophetic script,” then our claim to follow him has consequences. It means each of us is called to follow not only Jesus but Daniel, John the Baptist, Gandhi, King, Romero, Rachel Corrie and the impoverished people the United States kills each day in the many countries it occupies. Jesus’ words this morning leave little room for escape or denial. It’s not, of course, that we seek martyrdom. However, we must live the prophetic script those others followed and be ready for arrest – and even torture and execution – should it come to that.

Thirdly, all of these considerations have implications for the Christian Base Community we’re attempting to form here in the belly of the beast. In our community’s attempt to follow Jesus more closely, can we determine a prophetic project that we can all support? What might the project be? The question has particular importance in the context of the approaching General Election. Should our little community become directly involved in the campaign?  Should we bring the Occupy Movement to Madison County or take on the Climate Change issue? What about Mountain Top Removal?  Should we join forces with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, with Sustainable Berea, with the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice? Today’s Gospel implicitly calls us to a serious conversation about all of that.

In answering such questions, we must realize that circumstances have changed here over the last eleven years. We’re losing our rights to protest. It’s much more dangerous than it once was. When we resist state terrorism, we now risk arrest, being tazed, peppers sprayed, or tear gassed. We risk going to jail and all that suggests. Are we up to that challenge? Do we really want to follow a Jesus who says we must take up crosses?

No doubt, these are hard words and challenges. And surely we’re tempted with Peter to take Jesus aside and tell him to be more reasonable. Like Peter, we find denial comfortable.

Inevitably though I think we’ll hear Jesus say as he did to Peter: “Take it or leave it. Follow me to the cross. There’s no other way into the Kingdom.”

(Discussion follows.)

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on Mary Magdalene as Egyptian priestess and consort of Jesus

“What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” (Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Dt. 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps. 15:2-5; Jas. 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Tikkun Magazine (the Israeli-American quarterly published by Rabbi Michael Lerner) recently published an article called “What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” It rewrote three well-known Christian Testament scriptures to reflect the world vision and morality of the Republican Party. The piece was reproduced on the news and analysis website “AlterNet.” (Here’s the reference http://www.alternet.org/belief/what-if-jesus-had-been-republican?paging=off).

The first rewritten episode was entitled “The Lazy Paralytic.” It was about the paralyzed man whose friends removed roof tiles on a home to bring him into Jesus’ presence, when the Master was otherwise inaccessible because of the large crowds around him. The revised story has Jesus saying to the paralytic, “Can’t you take care of your own health problems? I’m sure that your family can care for you, or maybe the synagogue can help out.” . . . . What would happen if I provided access to free health care for everyone? That would mean that people would not only get lazy and entitled, but they would take advantage of the system. Besides, look at me: I’m healthy. And you know why? Because I worked hard for my money, and took care of myself.”

The second rewritten episode was called “The Very Poorly Prepared Crowd.” It re-imagined the feeding of 5000 people usually understood as the “Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Only this time there was no feeding. Jesus says that would make the improvident crowd too dependent on authority figures like himself. People would never learn to think ahead and the lesson of self-sufficiency would be lost. So applying the principle of “tough love,” Jesus eats one loaf and one fish himself and gives the remaining four loaves and one fish to his twelve apostles.

Even more to our readings’ main point this morning, the reformulated story of “The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man,” has a rich man kneeling before Jesus to ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus learns that the man has been born into wealth and privilege, Jesus’ admiration knows no bounds. However, he says, one thing is lacking in terms of God’s kingdom: “A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you will have a treasure indeed. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” Jesus’ disciples are scandalized by all of this and ask, “But Lord,” they said, “what about the passages in both the Law and the Prophets that tell us to care for widows and orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about the many passages in the Scriptures about justice?” 7. “Those are just metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”

I point you towards those rewritten parables not only because they made me laugh, or because we saw the Republicans in action at their convention last week, but because the last rewrite I mentioned is closely related to this morning’s readings. Those readings remind us of how religion, and specifically the person and words of Jesus can be distorted to reflect what Jesus calls “human traditions” rather than “God’s commandments.”

Today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us of what the heart of God’s commandments actually was. The Deuteronomy reading shows Moses preparing the ex-slaves just escaped from Egypt for a law that centralizes social justice and care for the orphans, widows, (and immigrants).  The Law of Moses was about setting up a community where what we today would call social structures protected society’s most vulnerable. Its Jubilee statute made provision for the periodic cancelling of debt and the return of land and homes to those who had lost them to the bankers.  The Mosaic Law even forbade charging interest itself – as the words of today’s responsorial psalm remind us. In fact, up until the late Middle Ages, when capitalism began to emerge, charging interest on loans was considered immoral and contrary to Scripture. But then, of course, the Tikkun Jesus would remind us, “Don’t take everything so literally.”

Today’s second reading from the Letter of James’ stands firmly in the Mosaic tradition and defines religion in terms of specific acts directed towards the poor. In fact, James definition of pure and undefiled religion consists entirely in taking care of the orphans and widows in their affliction.  That definition reflects the very attitude of Jesus himself. Recall that in Matthew 25 – our only unambiguous account of the final judgment – the entire affair is based on specific acts of compassion, even though those performing the acts were utterly unconscious of any spiritual motivation. Jesus welcomes into his Father’s kingdom those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the immigrant, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Those who don’t do such things are condemned.

What I’m saying is that in James’ following of Jesus we find a definition of religion that is not only down to earth and practical, but calls for day-in and day-out embrace of society’s marginalized rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. James’ words, like those of Jesus, challenge us all to self-criticism about our own neglect of the poor and those at risk. The implication here is that God is not happy with us when our only response to poverty is “tough love” instead of the hands-on compassion and involvement Jesus demanded and exemplified.

However since James’ time – and especially after the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christian faith became more abstract, intellectualized and (in terms of today’s Gospel reading) Pharisaic. Essentially “true religion” was transformed into simply believing things about Jesus rather than imitating him as healer, feeder, and champion of the poor. Since the fourth century, Christians are those who believe in God, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection. Unlike Jesus’ words about the hungry and thirsty, none of those beliefs directly ask believers to be any different from others except inside their heads.

That leaves true believers free to act like the Pharisees Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. So believers condemn “those others” who don’t see things as we do. Religion then becomes a cause of separation rather than of unity. This is especially true when the life choices of “those others” differ from those of believers. So the essence of Christianity becomes condemning the poor as “lazy.” Christians condemn Muslims as terrorists. Straight people condemn gays as immoral. Celibate men condemn married people for practicing contraception. And believers well beyond the age of child bearing condemn “those others” for resorting to abortion. Conservatives condemn liberals for not thinking as they do. Liberals do the same thing to conservatives. In virtually none of those cases is anything asked of the condemners except scorn and contempt for “those others.” It’s the others who must change, not us!

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus calls us away from that kind of self-centered complacency to self-criticism. That’s the first step in identifying and changing the elements all of us find within ourselves that deprive us of compassion for others – especially for the widows, orphans and immigrants. The elements Jesus names as enemies of compassion sound like a description of the cultural values we “Americans” celebrate: greed, envy, arrogance, deceit, licentiousness – and the murder (as in wars) necessary to keep “our” stuff.

Taking the example of Jesus “more literally” calls us to the type of humility and personal transformation that recognizes our very selves in those we have been taught to despise as unworthy. The simple understanding of religion espoused by Moses, Jesus and James reminds us that its “pure and undefiled” form calls us to community, to seeing ourselves in “the least” – to our own humanization.

Here I recall a relevant sign I saw at a political rally I once attended. The sign reminded me of James’ doctrine-less definition of religion. It read simply “Do what God did: become human.”

That’s the essence of our Christian faith.

_____

Don’t miss Monday’s second installment of the series on Mary Magdalene

“Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday Series on Mary Magdalene)

Not long ago a friend asked me about Mary Magdalene. Yes, Mary Magdalene. Thanks to Dan Brown and others, she’s been cropping into conversations lately much more than she used to. In any case, the observation had been made in this particular exchange that there existed animosity between the Magdalene and Peter the apostle. From there it was a short step to sharing opinions about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Were they married? Were they lovers?

After a while, my friend asked in apparent frustration. “But how do they know these things?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was mentioned, and then the conversation trailed off into more mundane topics. As a theologian, I was left wishing I was more informed about the Magdalene part of the discussion. I knew there were plenty of recently published books on the topic, but I hadn’t read them. Shortly afterwards, almost by sheer chance one of those books dropped into my lap. It was written by esoteric researcher Lynn Picknett and called The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess.  I devoured the volume immediately finding it every bit as interesting and just as much a page-turner as The da Vinci Code.

Unlike Daniel Brown’s work however, Picknett’s work is a largely successful effort at serious scholarship. Though not writing for academicians, she uses non-canonical gospels and heretical sources as well as their biblical counterparts to substantiate her surprising conclusions. Basically, they are that far from being a reformed and eternally penitent prostitute and sinner, Mary Magdalene was actually the spouse or lover of Jesus, possibly an Egyptian priestess, and very likely black.  She is the one whom Jesus often “kissed upon the mouth,” and whose intimate relationship with the Christ enraged Jesus’ male companions, especially Peter who actually threatened to kill her. Even more, in words attributed to Jesus in that Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), she was “the All,” “The Woman who knows all,” the “apostle of apostles.” Such apostolic primacy makes the Magdalene the true founder of the church and rightful possessor of Peter’s throne. In fact, as the anointer of Jesus, Mary Magdalene may have been his equal – a true Egyptian goddess, an incarnation of Isis. Possibly, she was even Jesus’ superior.

According to Picknett, such pre-eminence even over Jesus should not astonish, for a close reading of the Synoptics and John show that even those Christian propagandists present a Jesus with feet of clay. He was often self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. The Jesus hidden in those “sacred texts” was a bitter rival of John the Baptist, and may even have been part of a plot which ended in the Baptist’s beheading. In any case, on Picknett’s analysis, Jesus was not the Messiah; John was. And although branded as heretics, John’s followers survive to this day as bitter  opponents of the Jesus Movement. Most prominent among them was Leonardo da Vinci.

Even readers of The da Vinci Code would find such positions not only surprising but shocking. But how does Picknett arrive at such conclusions, what are the details of her argument, and how is one to evaluate the evidence she marshals?

Tune in next week to find out. . . .

Next Monday: “The Methodology of Magdalene Scholarship” 

Jesus Had a “Bleeding Heart” (Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

The theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word is leadership political and spiritual. The image uniting both is shepherding.  For me that pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that in both government and church those qualities are in extremely short supply.

Think about political “leaders” announcing (literally) the day after the election of our nation’s first African American President, “I want that man to fail.” (Didn’t that mean they want our country to fail?) Think about clergy from our own faith community (literally) preying on young boys, ruining them for life, and then presuming to speak authoritatively to women and the rest of us about sexuality. That’s failed leadership.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah laments the absence of political and spiritual leaders who were watchful, protective and caring in his time too. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders of Jeremiah’s day (all men) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new leadership to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark specifically addresses that promised reversal. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding.  Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace, but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in the early church.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep. Leaders are there to foster the emergence (in Paul’s words) of a new kind of person – not over-worked, but rested, living in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink.  In a word shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion.

No doubt Jesus had that kind of respite in mind for his tired apostles when he invited them to “rest a while.”After all they were his sheep, and he their shepherd. His invitation reflects compassion for his friends.

But there was to be no rest. The “sheep” in the wider sense were so starved for the compassionate guidance unavailable to them either in court or at the Temple. So in droves they stalked Jesus and his friends even to their desert retreat. All of that evoked Jesus’ own compassion. The text literally says “his guts churned” when he saw the directionless people; they were so forlorn. So that was the end of any thoughts of “R&R” for Jesus and the others. (Buddhists speak of “The Compassionate Buddha. Mark reminds us here of “The Compassionate Jesus.”)

All of this highlights the defining characteristic of the type of leadership, the type of “shepherding” Jesus prized and practiced. It was defined by putting the needs of others first, even when that meant he himself would be deprived of the rest he deserved.

What a practical criterion for judging the leadership of our politicians, popes, bishops and priests! What a powerful criterion for judging our own leadership in our families, communities and places of work.

Who are the best leaders you know (political and/or spiritual) in terms of putting the needs of others first? When have you or persons close to you exercised leadership in those terms? Do our daily lives, our political lives show evidence of following the Compassionate Jesus? Why does our culture consider having compassion (a “bleeding heart”) a negative quality?  (Discussion follows.)

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was?  (By the way, identifying Jesus by his mother’s name and not by his father’s was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.  

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. He was unimposing – probably about 5’10” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance  (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)

Faith Is a Subversive Activity: Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Sunday’s Readings:  Is. 49: 1-6; Ps. 138: 1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk. 1:57-66, 80

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The liturgy this morning focuses on vocation, prophecy, and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin. This is an important day because John’s ministry highlights faith as a subversive activity. His birthday calls us to adopt such faith in the midst of pedophile scandals, devaluation of women, official support of right-wing politics, and absence of visionary leadership on the part of those who hold the highest ecclesiastical offices.  

To grasp what I mean, begin by considering the Christianity we’ve inherited and its view of Jesus in relation to John the Baptist. Like most matters of faith, we have it backwards. Our understanding begins with Pope Benedict XVI and then runs to the Second Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Paul, and ends with Jesus. That line gives us a church-centered Jesus concerned with esoteric doctrines and above all with the sexual preoccupation that has traditionally afflicted our patriarchal church officials.

 A more biblical approach begins in the other direction. It runs from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John, and finally to Jesus. It knows nothing of what comes after Jesus with all of its distortions, misconceptions, and patriarchal abuses. The Jesus that emerges here is not at all church-centered. He is less “Christian” and more focused on the Jewish tradition which is what Jesus knew. Jesus of course, was a Jew, not Christian at all. That more biblical approach helps us see both John and Jesus as engaged with their world specifically as prophets – as possessors of a subversive charism sorely needed by our world in severe crisis and in a church that finds itself in irreversible decline.

Already in today’s second reading, we see the more domesticated understanding of John emerging in Paul whose letters represent the earliest entries we have in the Christian Testament. Paul’s vision is what most of us are familiar with. For Paul, Jesus was the Son of David. John the Baptist heralded his coming as Messiah. He groveled before Jesus at the River Jordan when Jesus came to be baptized. “I am not worthy to loosen the strap of your sandal,” he says “You should be baptizing me; I shouldn’t be baptizing you.” For Paul, John ends up being purely instrumental for Jesus.

Paul’s view finds elaboration in the four canonical Gospels. There we can get the impression of the prophet as a kind of first century Billy Graham out there in the desert. His concern with Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife makes him sound rigidly moralistic and focused on sex – just the way the Church’s teaching has been all these years.

That’s not the John who emerges if we put him in that biblical context running from Adam through Moses, and the prophets. It’s not the John who discloses himself if we consider his historical context. In that perspective John becomes Jesus’ mentor and even his rival. In a sense, he becomes the founder of a Christian movement that understood faith as synonymous with religious and political subversion.

I mean John was a prophet before anything else – a reformer of Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Luke says John grew up in the desert. And that’s where he later realizes his vocation as a sharp-tongued social critic – the essence of prophetic identity. In the desert John led a flourishing reformist sect. As Luke says, people from all over Palestine came to listen to him. His message wasn’t that of Benedict XVI or Billy Graham. Rather, it was the one Jesus took up after John’s execution by King Herod, the Roman puppet. “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  (The Kingdom of God, remember, is what the world would look like if God, not Caesar were king.)

John’s location in the desert wilderness is important for understanding the Jewish revival he was leading there. The desert was the original place of refuge for God’s people when they escaped from their first captivity in Egypt.  It was the spawning place for insurgency movements against the Romans who occupied Palestine in the first century.

Above all, the desert was not Jerusalem. It was not the temple. So Jewish religious authorities were deeply suspicious of John and hostile towards his movement. John was not one of them — not a priest or rabbi. He was an outspoken prophet operating at the margins of society. He was radically free from social obligations and expectations as defined by standard Judaism and by the Roman Empire. Literally, he was an outlaw (one living outside the law). Even his clothing and diet showed that.

Additionally, John’s criticism of Herod was seen as politically subversive.  One of Herod’s great rivals was a king called Aretas of Nabatea. Herod had divorced Aretas’ sister in order to marry the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. The people were outraged, and took that marriage issue as a cause of criticism and rebellion. Their concern was not inspired by some first century anticipation of Victorian “moral” scruples. Herod’s divorce and remarriage showed how much their supposed king had strayed from their own culture and had adopted the Roman oppressors’ ways. 

John sided with the people in their criticism. So Herod saw him as stirring up rebellion. He therefore had John arrested. Eventually, of course, he beheaded the prophet. That’s when Jesus then stepped in and took over John’s reform movement.

Jesus seems to have been completely devoted to John. In all the Gospel traditions he presents himself for baptism at John’s hands. The appearance of inferiority implied in that gesture is unmistakable. So the Gospel authors had to reverse that impression by that groveling I mentioned earlier. This was especially true since even forty years after the Baptist’s beheading, many still thought of him as the Christ. What I’m saying is that “Jesus Christianity” found a rival for itself in “Johannine Christianity”

 But despite their desire to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John, the Gospel authors find themselves compelled to recall that baptism of Jesus at John’s hands. They also record that Jesus lauded John as the greatest of all the Jewish Testament prophets. Even more significantly, they associate Jesus’ message so closely with that of John the Baptist that Jesus is repeatedly understood both by his enemies and his disciples as John redivivus (come back from the dead). Some even see in Jesus’ final cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” as a cry to John (himself as Elijah redivivus), “John, John, why have you forsaken me?”     

All of that is to say that John and Jesus are like twins inseparably joined at the hip. And what does that mean for us?

It means that Christianity (Jesus or Johannine) must be prophetic. Remember though what biblical prophets were. They were not fortune tellers concerned with predicting the future. They were social critics with two tasks. The first was to denounce serious departures from the faith of Abraham and Moses. Their second function was to announce a new future – that another way of living out the Jewish faith was possible. That way stood in sharp contrast with the understanding of Judaism embraced by their chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  

Being prophetic today suggests that we open our eyes to the similarities between the situations of John and Jesus on the one hand and our own on the other. Both prophets found themselves involved with a faith that had sold out to the Romans, and their puppets (like Herod). It was a faith that identified with keeping arcane rules and social distinctions.

For John and Jesus, that had nothing to do with the faith that had begun in the desert outside of Egypt. In their eyes, it was time to move back to the desert, away from the temple, and reclaim their faith from corrupt “leaders.”

I’m suggesting that our church today has moved as far from the Gospel of Jesus and John as had the high priests and scribes of their day moved from the tradition of Abraham and Moses.

Isn’t it time for us to move back to the origins of the prophetic traditions we celebrate this day – returning in effect to the place where it all began. For John and Jesus that was the desert – away from the temple. For us, it’s home churches and lay-led liturgies like those that characterized the primitive Christian community.

In the subversive spirit of John the Baptist, we’ve got to let the corrupt Vatican and our local bishops know that we are no longer following them, no longer supporting them.  There are many ways of doing that.

Can you think of any?  (Discussion follows)

Why Is the Left So Weak and the Right So Strong? (Final posting in a series on liberation theology)

Not long ago, when I was working with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I twice ran into a question that frequently surfaces among liberals.  The question was first posed at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting after a paper by an American political scientist. It was a pre- July 4th presentation entitled, “Democracy Matters.”  A week later, the question came up following a talk by a Mexican activist on his country’s current political context. In both cases someone asked, “Why is the political left so weak and the right so strong?”

The Mexican activist sharpened the question by observing that the political left is not weak everywhere. Yes, it is feeble in the United States, he remarked. However such weakness is not true of Latin America. The left and its solidarity movements are actually waxing there. And they really have been over the last half-century at least. Recall, he reminded us, that Cuba’s revolution in 1959 ignited a “Latin American Spring” everywhere south of the U.S. border. Only the U.S. sponsored installation of military regimes throughout the region – everywhere but Mexico and Costa Rica – prevented the complete triumph of progressive forces in that part of the world. And those forces are coalescing once again today. They’re electing progressive governments across the region. It’s a mistake, he said, to universalize U.S. experience.

The activist was perceptive in his distinction. As a theologian, I would add that the difference between the Latin American left and the U.S. left is the difference between Latin America in general and the United States. And it’s all connected with religion. Like Americans north of the border, most Latin Americans claim to be Christians. However, the left in Latin America has learned to use that fact in the service of social justice and profound political change. (Here I’m referring to liberation theology.)

In the United States, that has not been the case. There, religion has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the conservative right. This is because intellectuals on the U.S. left have surrendered to the right the religious language, symbols and metaphors that actually motivate ordinary people. Put otherwise, the U.S. intelligentsia tends either to ignore religion or to treat it with disdain – as fanatical, pre-scientific and therefore not worthy of serious analysis, much less of scholarly appropriation. Such attitude, I have implied in this series, is entirely counterproductive. It can be remedied by appropriating the roots of the critical thought essential for those concerned with social justice, and indispensable for mobilizing the grassroots majority. Those roots are to be found within the Christian tradition itself as identified by liberation theologians.

Put otherwise, we on the left have allowed the divinities Marx called the “gods of heaven” to prevail. We’re victims of the (highly understandable) aversion to religion so prominent among the left’s intellectual elite. We imagine ourselves living in what even theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “a world come of age” – a highly secularized context. But as indicated earlier, the 21st century context is far from secularized, not only for the less highly educated, but for the imperial leadership responsible for the creation and defense of the given order. As a result, everyone but the left’s intellectual elite is manipulating the powerful field of myth – not just the religious right, but their political and economic counterparts as well. As a result when people in the U.S. think “Christianity,” “moral principle,” “strength of character,” they automatically identify it with the far right and its agenda. When they think “morals,” they think “abortion” and “sex” – almost never “social justice.” That’s why the left appears weak – no moral principle, no connection with God. 

The suggestion here has been that the left must engage its opponents precisely upon the field of myth and story. And liberation theology makes available even for would-be secularists a set of understandings that empower them to do so, and thus to communicate with our lost audience which overwhelmingly interprets the world in mythological, if not in theological terms. LT is critical theology. As argued earlier in this series, it represents the tap-root of critical thinking in its most comprehensive form. In a sense it is an anti-theology set against both the “gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth” beyond which it is difficult for the secular left to see.

None of this implies that entering the arena of myth is a job merely for theologians or “believers.”  Marx himself saw that. He was no believer. Yet he said famously in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “. . . the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

However in contrast to Marx’s time and thanks to liberation theology, the left’s critique doesn’t have to involve throwing the baby of the “faith of Jesus” out with the bath water of “faith in Jesus.” Again, taking cue from liberation theologians, the left doesn’t have to alienate believers by ridiculing faith or religious people. All of that has been counter-productive and fatal for those committed to social justice.

No, the left can reclaim its place in the crucial arena of mythology. It can appreciate the person of Jesus and his call for social justice without subscribing to antiquated notions of a God “up there” manipulating the world like a vast chessboard. Liberation theology finds God not “up there,” but in horizontal relationships with the poor whom Jesus reveals as the primary repository of God’s presence and preferential choice. And backed by the work of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars the left can do so with scholarly integrity.

What has been suggested here is that to be strong and to be effective in solidarity movements, all of us have to become liberation (anti-) theologians.