The Battle for the Bible: What God Do You Worship, Jesus’ or Mr. Trump’s?

Early Church

Readings for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I KGS 3: 5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-130; ROM 8: 28-30; MT 13: 44-52; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072714.cfm

Do you ever wonder how those claiming to be Christian can support rich billionaires like Donald Trump and those with whom he’s surrounded himself? How can they vote for those who would deprive them of health care, and give tax breaks to the already super-rich, especially when such policies end up being funded by cut-backs in programs that benefit non-billionaires like themselves — programs like Medicare, Medicaid and environmental protection?

Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer. It presents us with what Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard, calls the “Battle of the Gods.” The conflict embodies contrasting ideas about the nature of God and God’s order as found within the Bible itself – as well as in today’s “America.”

One concept of God belonged to the rich such as Israel’s Kings, David and Solomon – ancient analogues of Donald Trump and his friends. The other belonged to the poor who surrounded Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. They were working stiffs like you and me, along with n’er-do-wells: the unemployed, poorly-paid, sick, disabled, and underemployed. Many were homeless street people and street-walkers. To them Jesus embodied and spoke of a God unrecognizable to David, Solomon, or today’s right wing.

The contrast emerges as today’s readings juxtapose the dream of Solomon, the representative par excellence of Israel’s 1% in our first reading, over against Jesus’ own words about the contrasting nature of God’s Kingdom in today’s Gospel selection. In the latter, Jesus calls his would-be followers to a profound paradigm shift – away from one that lionized the imperial order to a divine kingdom in in which the poor prosper. The former was embodied not only in the Roman empire of Jesus’s day, but in Israel itself. Its leaders a thousand years earlier had hijacked the Mosaic Covenant that contradicted their New Imperial World Order.

In today’s first reading Solomon’s court historians mask the hijacking by predictably identifying their employer as “the wisest man ever,” just as before him they had identified Solomon’s cruel and womanizing father, David, as “a man after God’s own heart.” In this royally stolen form, the Covenant connected God and the royal family. It assured a royal dynasty that would last “forever.” It guaranteed God’s blessings on Solomon’s expansionistic policies.

The covenantal truth was much different. In its original Mosaic form (as opposed to the Davidic bastardization), the Covenant joined Yahweh (Israel’s only King) and escaped slaves – poor people all – threatened by royalty and their rich cronies.

The Covenant’s laws celebrated in today’s responsorial psalm protected the poor from those perennial antagonists.  For instance, “Thou shalt not steal,” was originally addressed to large landowners intent on appropriating the garden plots belonging to subsistence agriculturalists.

Despite such prohibitions, those who established Israel’s basic laws knew the power of money. The rich would inevitably absorb the holdings of the poor as did David and Solomon. So Israel’s pre-monarchical leaders established the world’s oldest “confiscatory tax.” It was called the “Jubilee Year” which mandated that every 50 years all debts would be forgiven and land would be returned to its original (poor) owners.

The advent of a Jubilee Year represented the substance of Jesus’ basic proclamation. No wonder the poor loved him. No wonder the refrain we sang together this morning repeated again and again, “Lord I love your commands.” That’s the refrain of the 99% locked in life-and-death struggle with the rich 1% represented by Solomon and his court.

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus indicates the radical swerve necessary for establishing God’s kingdom understood in Jubilee terms. It involves “selling all you have” and buying into the Kingdom concept as if it were buried treasure or a pearl of great price.

That’s the kingdom – the world order we’re asked to believe in, champion, and work to introduce. It’s what the world would be like if God – not David or Solomon – were king.

In our own country, it’s what “America” would be like if our politics were shaped by God’s “preferential option for the poor,” instead of Mr. Trump’s preferential option for his dear 1%.

Taking Pope Francis to the Movies: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Film Review)

Wolf of Wall Street

A friend of mine says that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a good documentary film is worth a million. I agree, and would add that a great Hollywood drama directed by someone like Martin Scorsese and starring headliners like Leonardo DiCaprio might be worth two million or more.

Consider “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a case in point. It’s worth a library of dissertations on the dead-end and destructive nature of consumerism so recently criticized by Pope Francis in his Papal Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium – the document intended to keynote his still-emerging reign as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pontiff’s publication distanced the pope and his church from the destructive emptiness of lives depicted in Scorsese’s “Wolf.” Pope Francis criticized consumerism based on the obscene accumulation of wealth without concern for the poor or the common good. He condemned “structures” that encourage such behavior. He turned a disapproving eye on education intended to domesticate rather than liberate the poor.

Such features of unfettered markets find lurid depiction in Scorsese’s film. There the over-the-top excesses of the Stratton-Oakmont investment firm amount to a send-up of the American Way of Life in general. At one point the film’s main protagonist, Jordan Belfort (played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio) correctly makes Scorsese’s point, “Stratton-Oakmont is America” he proclaims. By this Belfort means his firm represents a vehicle of salvation for the poor. The film’s narrative suggests contrary conclusions.

“Wolf’s” story is simple. Ne’er-do-wells and petty crooks (DiCaprio and his friends) quickly make millions in the Penny Stock Market. They then use their money to fund frenzied lives of meaningless “work” and ultimately of crime and absolute debauchery with prostitutes, drugs and liquor.

The firm’s “work” consists in selling worthless paper products – stocks (of whose content they are often totally ignorant) – to gullible clients anxious to make a quick buck.

The firm’s crimes include “pump and dump” schemes which have them artificially inflating stock prices and then selling them quickly while leaving their bilked customers holding bags-full of depreciated investments. These quick profits are then laundered and deposited in the Swiss bank accounts that Wall Street wolves have long provided themselves to escape any social obligation or criminal charges for their irresponsible depredations.

All of this eventually leads to arrests. However, as a white collar criminal, DiCaprio’s character gets treated with kid gloves. He serves a three year sentence in a minimum security “country club” prison playing tennis and getting lots of r ‘n r.

On his release, recidivist Belfort doesn’t miss a beat. He simply resumes the very career he was hawking in an infomercial the day he was arrested – as a teacher of yet more get-rich-quick aspirants. Presumably they too seek millions by mirroring Belfort’s life of parasitism, debauchery and crime. The life is attractive because of its huge short-term payoffs. And Belfort’s example shows such felonies involve little risk to their perpetrators and absolutely no responsibility to others.

Through it all DiCaprio’s gang ridicule law, ethics, the poor, and those not devious enough to take advantage of economic, political and legal structures that facilitate plunder. In fact, the poor are virtually absent from Scorsese’s three-hour long parody.

The one person who perhaps falls into that category is celebrated at one of Belfort’s lewd and rowdy “staff meetings.” She’s singled out because she was smart enough to enrich herself by joining the Stratton-Oakmont project of fraud and deceit. In so doing she landed herself on what her mentor sees as his re-creation of Ellis Island – a zone of hope and liberation for the poor. Tearfully grateful, she too now has her limousine, yacht, and vacations in the Bahamas. What more could anyone ask?

Pope Francis answers that question. So do the divorces, addictions, insecurities and instances of child abuse in Scorsese’s film. Along with Pope Francis, they show that life and happiness are not about such self-seeking. But the pope goes further than Scorsese, boldly insisting that human life is about the common good and service of the poor. To facilitate such service, he asks for (no: he demands) fundamental change in the world that makes possible the get-rich-quick schemes like those characteristic of Wall Street and embodied in Stratford-Oakmont. More specifically Pope Francis calls for:

• Rejection of the free market model of development for combating poverty. Contrary to Jordan Belfort’s vision of a new Ellis Island, Stratton-Oakmont is not the solution to world poverty, inequality or violence. Rather, according to the pope such firms with their “trickle-down” ideologies represent the root of the problems in question.

• Centralization of ethics in the business world. Though not enumerated by Francis, the principles here are simple: Don’t lie; don’t steal, don’t engage in sexual conduct harmful to others; treat others as you would like to be treated; recognize that one reaps what he or she sows. These mandates recognized in all great religious traditions are not only routinely violated by the Belfort gang; they are ridiculed and their abuses flaunted. This, according to Pope Francis is the way of the world dominated as it is by consumerism and loosely regulated markets.

• Incorporation of the viewpoints of the poor in policy discussions – instead of treating the “little people” as freaks, instruments, nobodies and fools as in the Stratton-Oakmont boardroom discussion about using “midgets” for staff entertainment.

• Recognition of “education” like that offered by Jordan Belfort for what it is – a means of tranquilizing and domesticating the marginalized and otherwise excluded.

• Reformation of legal structures that facilitate the quick capital accumulation responsible for huge gaps between the rich and the poor. Reformations suggested both by Scorsese and Pope Francis include not only tighter regulation of stock exchanges and financial markets, but elimination of instruments such as Swiss bank accounts, and laws that coddle white collar mega-criminals while placing victimless petty “criminals” of color (such as those caught possessing crack cocaine) in maximum security facilities.

These are just a few of the directions Francis calls the world to follow.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” supports his call by illustrating its need in a picture worth much more than a million words.

More Happiness in the Barrios than in the Suburbs

Moon-lightening

Here is a thoughtful comment on my posting of February 6th, “Why Bother with the Historical Jesus?” It’s authored by a friend of mine, Jim Cashman (photo above), who studied with me for three years at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, Massachusetts when I was there from 1961-1967. Jim was an exchange student from Ireland, where he was ordained in 1964. Like most of us from that era, he left the priesthood after the Great Awakening which followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65). Jim writes:

In my view if all we have is subjective and “bias” and hence doubtful history on Jesus, then the more digging one does, especially based on modern science, the better it is for us getting to the reality on Jesus. The Jesus uncovered by science is vastly superior to the faith or propaganda-based version. I have always been dubious about taking anything on faith. It leads to too many wars! What we seek is the truth not support for our environmental brainwashing.

The thing which I regard as above debate is the focal point of your blog. I’m referring to the nature or qualities of God. Factually we know so little about that – maybe nothing. Given that reality, it seems better not to think of Jesus as the son of god or of God being Jesus, but as simply reflecting the nature of God. That seems to be the important point you make. I never had any hang-up/special needs for the divinity of Jesus or the virginity/motherhood of God. I do not feel it is central to the Jesus message. It might be central to Catholicism, but not to understanding of the meaning of my life. Why the hell am I here?

What I find central is that Jesus (like many of the prophets), reflects the core nature of God and that is Love. I feel this Love is not what we think it is. It’s not charitable foundations or helping old folks like me cross the street?

Maybe as Paul hints we are not yet sufficiently evolved or “spiritual” to accept Jesus’ very simple revelation about the nature of God as Love. Now we known in part; then we shall know fully – even as we are fully known. From Krishna to Christ this is the common unifying thread of human development: giving without any payback or satisfaction!. All of this contradicts where we are in the world of greed, self interest and now the ultimate decadence – endless ‘shopping.’

If we all take from nature only enough for what we need, then the poor we could “always have with us” – as equals. Even with the little they have, the stats show there is more happiness in the barrios than in the suburbs.

The worst outcome we could have from the present move against the hypocrisy of Rome (and Washington) is that we achieve “renewal” and leave the real task – the search for truth, for another millennium.

Keep pushing out the boundaries, Mike; we are at the early stage of evolution. And in your downtime you might find this of interest:
http://archive.org/details/ACanticleForLiebowitz The irony like. “1984”, is chilling. Jim

PS – the “stream” may need some manual help in this dramatized audio edition.