Thanksgiving Table-Talk: Immigration Reform

thanksgiving-religious-debate-family

I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving. Oh, it’s not that I don’t like turkey and won’t eat my share. It’s just that, like most of you, I’ve got this Fox News brother-in-law, and he gives me indigestion. I see Harry once a year, and for the past six Thanksgivings it’s always the same: complaints about Obama. You know the drill; just read Rush Limbaugh’s current talking points. They’re all sure to surface at Thanksgiving dinner.

This year, no doubt, we’ll end up arguing about immigrants, immigration reform, and the imperial presidency. My brother-in-law will complain about “illegals” (that’s what he’ll call undocumented workers), the law, amnesty, border security, and Obama’s failure to reach across the aisle to well-meaning and otherwise cooperative Republicans.

But most of all, my dear relative will complain about the disruptive effects of “the brown peril” – waves of immigrants pouring over our borders and disrupting our economy. “I mean,” he’ll say, “if we keep giving amnesty to ‘those people,’ they’ll disrupt everything. You just can’t let everybody into the country without rules. ‘Freedom’ like that is simply anarchy. And anarchy is destructive. They’ll eventually take all the good jobs.”

Well, here’s what I plan on telling old Harry this year:

“You see, Harry, we’re finally getting a taste of the disruption economies like Mexico have experienced since 1994 and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was then that in the name of “free trade” tsunami waves of capital investment were unleashed across the Mexican border. To Mexican farmers it was an onslaught of “white peril” that dwarfs any threat you and I might experience from brown people.

“For instance, cheap American corn (actually subsidized in the NAFTA agreement) drove Mexican farmers out of business. True, a relatively few of them got employment in maquiladoras (assembly plants).  But many of those factories soon closed when it became possible to hire lower wage workers in China and Vietnam. And in any case, working in the maquilas meant moving from the countryside to polluted and dangerous cities. It also meant accepting wages of $1.50 a day with no bathroom breaks. Conditions like those inevitably cause desperate workers to relocate to where the money is – to where the jobs are. And that’s the United States.

“Remember, Harry, there are two main components of the economic equation – not just capital. Labor is just as important. So any “free trade agreement” that allows capital to move without regulation should allow the same liberty to labor. Instead, the NAFTA insisted on free movement of capital alongside a captive labor force.

“Workers implicitly recognize the injustice of all that even if they can’t say the words. So despite ‘state law’ forbidding it, the labor force will obey the dictates of capitalism’s Sacred Law of supply and demand – of self-interest. Like capital, labor will migrate to where the money is. And you can’t really stop it. That’s capitalism.

“So here’s the way to stem the brown peril:

  • Renegotiate the NAFTA recognizing labor’s freedom of movement as well as capital’s.
  • That will mean electing governments on all sides of “free trade agreements” that truly represent working people and not just the corporations.
  • Make sure that ALL stake-holders are represented at the negotiating table – including male and female workers, children, environmentalists, and trade unionists.
  • Make sure the final product protects the environment and addresses climate change.
  • See that the newly elected people’s governments establish a living NAFTA wage of $15.00 an hour – indexed to inflation rates.

“Without such provisions, Harry, I’m afraid workers will look abroad to better their condition. They’ll continue (like their capitalist counterparts) to act in their own self-interest relocating quite naturally to where the money is. Really, we can’t do anything about it.

Like I say, that’s capitalism.”

(Sunday Homily) The Islamic Caliphate and the Final Judgment of “America”

Caliphate

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112314.cfm

At the moment, I’m teaching a wonderful course at Berea College, REL 126. It’s called “Poverty and Social Justice” and qualifies as part of the “Religion Requirement” all Berea students must fulfill. The course is populated by 19 very smart and engaged, (mostly third and fourth year) students.

Part of our goal is to become literate about the problems of poverty and justice in our very confusing world. And that has us tuning in to “Democracy Now” each day. We’re getting involved with a powerful group of local activists, “Kentuckians for the Commonwealth” (KFTC). We attend the group’s meetings each month and have volunteered for KFTC activities like voter registration and mobilization.

Additionally, students have been researching burning issues including the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Palestine, voter suppression, police militarization, and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

All of that has discussing the purpose of government. In that connection, students are finally getting clarity about what I consider THE fundamental political debate in our country: is the government’s role simply to provide infrastructure for commerce and to protect private property? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sunday Homily) U.S. Doublespeak Is More Threatening to the World than ISIS or Khorasan

uncle-sams-lies

Readings for 26th Sunday in ordinary time: EZ 18:25-28; PS 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14; PHIL 2: 1-11; MT 21: 28-32 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092414.cfm

If I were you, I’d be careful about air travel. That’s because, as the President reminded us last week, the enemies we’ve so fiercely created over the last 13 years are plotting to blow U.S. commercial aircraft out of the skies. So one of these days Khorasan’s heat-seeking missiles will find the rear end of your plane, and that will be the end of you.

And, when you think about it, those firing the rockets will be justified in doing so. That is, if we allow them to apply the insane logic behind Mr. Obama’s latest justification for bombing his seventh Muslim country in six years.

In doing so the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said last week, “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.”

Wait a minute!

Our “leader’s” logic (if we universalize his pronouncement) has just endorsed an endless cycle of violence that should be completely unacceptable to any human being — not to say any Christian. His words mean that anyone who plots against another country trying to do their citizens harm can claim no safe haven. They will be subject to reprisal.

Tell that to drone victims and to Syrians who lost their children in last week’s bombings – or to similar casualties at weddings and funerals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The President’s doublespeak logic allows them to say, “Once again it must be clear to the Americans plotting against us and trying to do our citizens harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for such terrorists who threaten our people. There will be reprisals.”

That means that the militants in the countries just mentioned can legitimately respond to the terrorism of drone and outright bombing attacks with similar assaults on American citizens in our own “homeland.”

So as I say, hold your breath on your next airline trip to Miami or New York. The blowback is coming – and the blowback to that blowback too.

Such are the realities of Eternal War.

It’s that sort of damned logic (I’m choosing my words) that is addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. It’s not at all comforting.

The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel sets the tone. It underlines what Easterners call the Law of Karma. Ezekiel says that people die because of their wicked deeds. He says, “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.” That’s karma. It’s an inescapable law of the universe.

St. Paul put it this way, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (GAL 6:7-9). Relative to war, Jesus was even more pointed. He said all those who live by the sword will die by that same instrument (MT 26:52). It’s all karma.

As citizens of a nation that lives by the sword more than any other in world history, what then are we to do? Here, once again, today’s readings supply an answer. We must abandon the destructive path we’re on. That’s what Ezekiel says. Speaking of the potential recipient of negative karma, Ezekiel promises, “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” That too is karma.

In other words, to avoid the negative consequences of our actions, we must change course radically. More specifically today’s gospel selection addresses that imperative to political leaders. It calls them to make their actions correspond to their words.

Yes, today’s gospel is addressed to leaders like our president and congresspersons. There Jesus addresses those in power and tells the local rulers of his day (“the chief priests and elders”) a parable about lip service and the required change of direction. (Remember, in Jesus’ context there was no sharp distinction between religious and civil government.)

“A man had two sons,” the Great Teacher tells these government officials. “He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,‘ but did not go. Which of the two,” Jesus asks, “did his father’s will?”

The chief priests and elders answer,”The first.”

Jesus said to them,”Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

I’m sure you see that Jesus’ parable is about governmental lip service and deception. The parable calls them to radical change in policy. Jesus implies that the leaders of his day were like the first son. They said the right things, but their actions belied their words. As a result, their deeds excluded them from the New Order (God’s Kingdom) which was always the focus of Jesus’ revolutionary discourse.

And that brings us back to our own leaders and the differences between what they say and do. Think of the events of recent weeks – even last week. During that time our leaders have:

• Paid lip service to national boundaries in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then have claimed that national boundaries are irrelevant in their own “war on terrorism.”
• Paid lip service to international law – again in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then ignored that law by going to war with ISIS without the required U.N. resolution.
• Paid lip service to civilization and decency in decrying ISIS’ brutal beheadings (by knife) of innocent civilians, but then beheaded literally untold others via drones and direct bombings. (Yes, drones and bombs inevitably blow heads off bodies.)
• Paid lip service to the human rights of civilians brutalized by ISIS, while ignoring the million and a half civilians their own armed forces have just as brutally killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Paid lip service to nuclear non-proliferation in their demands upon Iran, but then have pledged billions to modernize their own overwhelming nuclear arsenal.
• Paid lip service to environmental protection (following last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March”), but the very next day implicitly embraced the possibility of “nuclear winter” through that same weapons modernization program.

Of course, there are many more examples of our leaders’ saying one thing and doing the opposite. In fact, their lies come so thick and fast that confusion and weariness results on the part of listeners. Our leaders’ honeyed words accompanied by unspeakably cruel acts paralyze us from taking action against or even recognizing in our own country a world force that is far more destructive than ISIS, Khorasan, or al-Qaeda. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the latter represent “retail terrorism,” while the U.S. “network of death” (with bases all over the world) embodies “wholesale terrorism” that is far more evil and destructive.

I believe that danger of confusion and consequent inaction is why Jesus shocked his opponents by saying simply, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

That would be as scandalous to Jesus’ audience as if he said to President Obama and John McCain, “Amen, I say to you, ISIS, Khorasan and al-Qaeda will enter God’s kingdom before you.”

What does that mean for us who are attempting to follow the Way of Jesus and are trying to be part of his Kingdom revolution? It means that we must realize that:

• Perpetual war contravenes the teachings of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.
• Our “leaders” (just like the priests and elders of Jesus’ day) are liars to the core.
• The United States is (in the words of Dr. King) the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
• That the retail terror and brutality of ISIS pales in comparison with the wholesale terror the United States inflicts on the world’s poor.
• That we must work and pray every day for the defeat of the United States in its endless, genocidal wars.

Believe me: that defeat is coming. Better yet, believe Ezekiel. It’s the law of karma.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus Has More in Common with ISIS than with the United States

King Purveyor

Readings for Feast of Exaltation of the Holy Cross: NM 21:48-49; PS 78: 1BC-2, 34-38; PHIL 2: 6-11; JN 3: 13-17 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/091414.cfm

Today is the feast of “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” It might as well be called the feast of “The Exaltation of the Electric Chair” or of the exaltation of death row or of torture or terrorist martyrs. For relevance’s sake, we might today call the feast “The Exaltation of ISIS or Al Qaeda.”

That’s because the cross on which Jesus died was not only empire’s instrument of unspeakable torture and capital punishment. It was also the punishment the Romans reserved for terrorist insurgents against their empire. Among many others, biblical scholar, Reza Aslan underlines that point in his best-selling study, Zealot. (I recommend the book.)

All of that indicates that the Romans thought of Jesus as a terrorist – just as “Americans” do its enemy du jour whether we call them ISiS, ISIL, or al Qaeda. Let me repeat, Christians worship someone whom the quintessential empire (Rome) and its hangers-on vilified as much as President Obama vilified ISIS last Wednesday night in his address to the nation announcing yet another war. In the eyes of Rome and its Jewish collaborators, Jesus was a terrorist. They said he was stirring up the people and trying to take Caesar’s throne by force (LK 23:5, JN 19:15).

And yet, in today’s liturgy of the word, Jesus himself tells us to follow his example. You might say that he urges us to do what’s necessary to merit the charge of “terrorism” and even its punishment. That’s right. He says, “You cannot be my disciple unless you too take up your cross and follow me to Golgotha – or as we might put it, to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, death row, and ultimately to the electric chair or gurney to be lethally injected. That is, following Jesus means all of us should be traitors and rebels and enemies of the murderous state the U.S. has become. This is particularly true since our “leaders” have chosen the path of war without end.

However, (if we’re to believe the polls) instead of taking up our crosses, those calling themselves “Christians” have identified with another of the empires in the long line that has succeeded Rome. In other words, we’ve refused the project of Jesus who had more in common with ISIS than with the United States.

Think about it. Jesus’ “gang” was filled with insurgents. How could it be otherwise – poor working class men coming from the hotbed of rebellion in Galilee? They followed a man proclaiming “God’s Kingdom” as a world where Yahweh is king instead of Caesar. In fact, there were many points of convergence between Jesus’ program and that of Zealot terrorists. Like them he favored land reform, cancellation of debts, and justice for the poor. Both the terrorists of his day and Jesus opposed the Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome. Both detested Roman occupation of God’s lands.

Even more, one member of Jesus’ inner circle was specifically called “the Zealot” (the 1st century equivalent of ISIS). Another’s nom de guerre was “Iscariot” [quite possibly a “sicarius” or assassin of occupation forces). Peter’s nickname was “Rock Thrower.” And James and John were fierce enough to merit the name “Sons of Thunder.” Recall that one of Jesus’ closest friends tried to cut off the head of one of Jesus’ arresters. Yes, cut off his head! Luckily for the militarized cop in question, Peter narrowly missed and only cut off the man’s ear.

But it was at that point, though traveling with an armed group (Think about that for a minute!) that Jesus made the pronouncement that separated him from his band of patriotic resisters to imperial occupation. It’s here that he departs from ISIS as well. He rebukes Peter for drawing his sword. Jesus said, “Put away your sword. All those who live by the sword will perish by it” (MT 26:52).

Those words should astound would-be Christians so ready to bomb, kill and live by the sword to an extent unsurpassed in all of human history. You’d think that if there’s ever been justification for using weapons, it would be to defend the life of a man like Jesus. But no, Jesus insisted that the way to liberation is not by taking life, but by giving one’s own life in non-violent surrender – an insistence echoed by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

Last Thursday, the day following President Obama’s war speech, Amy Goodman ran a segment on “Democracy Now” asking the question, “What would Martin King do in the face of ISIS?” The segment recalled for viewers Dr. King’s 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. There he memorably called our beloved country ”the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html

King, of course, was right in 1967 when he spoke those words. They ring even truer today. Without the U.S. there would be no ISIS, no al-Qaeda. We’ve trained many of their troops; they’re using weapons the United States military has poured into the region. Without “America,” there would be no crisis in Ukraine evoking threats of World War III. Without U.S. unconditional support of Israel, there would be no “Operation Protective Edge” with more than 2500 Palestinians dead – mostly women and children. Libya would still be intact and so, of course, would Iraq. More than a million people our brutal military has slaughtered in Iraq would still be alive.

(Talk about transubstantiation! Everything our country touches is transformed into the crucified body of Christ. Wine people share at droned weddings and funerals in a sense becomes Jesus’ blood.)

So what would King do? According to Tavis Smiley who has just published Death of a King: the Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, King would urge a sharp turn in U.S. policy. Such repentance would entail:

• Confessing our nation’s responsibility for the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Assyria, Yemen, Somalia, Bahrain, Egypt, Ukraine. . . .
• Paying reparations to all those countries.
• Redirecting the billions (and trillions) wasted in war to health care, education, and infrastructure reconstruction in our own United States.
• Using presidential speeches not to announce further wars, but to lay out emergency plans for addressing the genuine crises that face us, viz. climate chaos world-wide and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
• Announcing expedited plans to wean the U.S. from the oil consumption that drives our country’s perpetual war policy.

In today’s second reading St. Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn which scholars universally recognize as encapsulating the belief of the earliest Christians. It’s a song about the Divine One choosing to appear in history not as an exalted king, but as a human being, a slave, and an executed criminal.

If we wish to find God, the hymn suggests, we should look and listen not to our presidents, but to “the other – those the Empire hates – and make their cause our own. It’s in the ranks of the oppressed that God’s Son is found – among empire’s designated enemies, among the enslaved, the tortured and those our “leaders” identify as terrorists.

Does this mean we are being called to somehow recognize Jesus in ISIS?

Yes it does. ISIS has legitimate demands. We need to talk with them, not bomb them. Followers of Jesus should be demanding that – even if it means being branded “terrorists” ourselves.

(Sunday Homily) Listen to ISIS and Stop Committing Suicide!

steven sotloff

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: EZ 33: 7-9; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 13: 8-10; MT 18: 15-20 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090714.cfm.

We’ve met the enemy and it is us!

Indeed! Over the past number of weeks, we’ve been introduced to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Its militants seem to have somehow appeared from nowhere.

However, as Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, they actually represent the largely Sunni blowback from U.S. policies over the last 13 years. In fact, ISIS would not exist were it not for the United States.

Think about it. ISIS is the direct result of:

• The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its over-the-top, loosely-target response to 9/11.
• The 2003 criminal occupation and destruction of Iraq.
• The thoughtless dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army with its largely Sunni command structure (which is now directing ISIS).
• The crimes of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and other massacres perpetrated by barbaric elements in the U.S. military.
• The more than one million Iraqis who have lost their lost their lives as their country has been systematically pulverized by bombings, white phosphorous, and the nuclear waste called “depleted uranium.”
• Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney bragging about ordering the war crimes of water boarding and other forms of torture.
• U.S. soldiers urinating on the bodies of Iraqi insurgents and on copies of the Holy Koran.
• The horrors of the film clip, “Collateral Murder” released by Chelsey Manning.
• Drone strikes across the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere routinely killing women and children, revelers at weddings and mourners at funerals.
• Blind U.S. support of Israel’s pogrom aimed at “the Jews’ Jews” concentrated in the world’s largest open-air prison camp called Gaza.

Such horrendous provocations make it entirely possible for ISIS leaders to echo the words solemnly intoned by President Obama last week in response to their movement’s brutal beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. ISIS leaders might well have said:

“We will not be intimidated. Those who make the mistake of harming Muslims will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served . . . such horrific acts only unite us as movement. . . ISIS will continue to lead the battle against the kind of barbaric and empty vision that the United States represents. We will degrade their forces and destroy them completely.”

In fact, the whole ISIS phenomenon and the response it has evoked only illustrate the senselessness of any strategy of revenge and fatuous, doomed attempts to solve conflict by the unapologetic use of military first response to violence perpetrated against “Americans” or Muslims.

A different way of responding is outlined for followers of Jesus’ Way in today’s liturgy of the word. It might seem idealistic and perhaps even unrealistic in the face of ISIS. But give it a chance.

In today’s gospel reading, Matthew the Evangelist addresses the problem of conflict resolution. He emphasizes dialog not revenge and violence. In fact, he outlines four alternatives towards resolving disputes. He has Jesus say that if step one doesn’t work, move on to the subsequent strategies. The four alternatives include (1) healing conversation with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) shunning the offending party.

More specifically, Matthew has Jesus say, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Obviously, these words did not come from Jesus himself. To begin with, there was no “church” at Jesus’ time. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and a reformer of Judaism rather than the founder of some new religion or “church.”

It was different for Matthew who was writing for a community of specifically Jewish Christians some fifty years after Jesus’ death. By then, questions of community order within the emerging church had become prominent. So Matthew invents this saying of Jesus to deal with them.

Another reason for reaching this conclusion is the reference to treating a recalcitrant individual “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” This phrase reflects traditional Jewish avoidance of Gentiles and hatred of Roman collaborators. It runs counter to the practice of Jesus who time and again in the Gospels causes scandal by practicing table fellowship and community with the very people Matthew’s instruction indicates are outsiders to be shunned by believers.

Were Matthew following the Spirit of Jesus, the evangelist’s instructions for addressing conflict resolution might involve the following process: (1) private dialog with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) moving in with the offending party – or at least taking them out for dinner regularly.

In any case, the emphasis in Jesus’ own approach is communion, not shunning or refusal to talk. Nowhere does Jesus’ approach say that one should refuse meeting until the offending party stops offending. Much less does the process outlined include “if he refuses to listen, shoot him, cut his head off, or kill his family.”

“But,” you object, “The words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel selection are about church order, not about international politics, much less the barbarity of a movement like ISIS. Jesus’ instruction, you might say, is about private disputes among Christians and are laughably impractical in the political sphere.

And that’s just my point. To repeat: Matthew’s account does not reflect the teaching or practice of Jesus. Jesus’ actual teaching was not confined to the private realm. His practice was highly political.

Eating with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, Gentiles (including members of the Roman army) represented doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. . . . It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates.

This is what the example of Jesus calls us to do even in the case of ISIS. Its emergence calls for departure from business as usual. It requires admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of the United States. It demands a complete reversal of “American” policy.

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Rome puts a finer point on the reasons for such response on the part of those pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Paul reminds us of Jesus’ summary of God’s law. He writes:

“Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Emmanuel Levinas helps us understand that Jesus’ teaching on neighbor love is much more radical than commonly accepted. Loving your neighbor as yourself, Levinas says, does not mean “Love your neighbor because s/he is like you.” No, according to Levinas, it means, “Love your neighbor as yourself, because s/he is you.”

In other words, there is no meaningful distinction between you and any other human being you care to name – even if we call them “terrorists.” Moreover, if you shared the same history as your “enemy,” you would be doing exactly the same thing that currently enrages you. As a result, no killing can be justified. It is suicide. That’s the thrust of Jesus’ words: to kill the other is to kill yourself. Killing of any kind is suicide.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus’ way as we try to respond to the ISIS phenomenon? At least the following, I think:

• Facing the fact that the ONLY REASON for our Middle Eastern policy and wars is oil, and doing everything necessary to wean our lives away from dependence on fossil fuels.
• Realizing that we cannot expect politicians like President Obama to initiate any other policy than revenge as if the U.S. were principled, civilized, innocent, and pure before an enemy that is completely unlike us.
• Nonetheless demanding that our officials absolutely reverse course, recognize responsibility for the emergence of ISIS, and establish dialog with their leaders.
• Refusing to allow our children to serve in an armed force that commits ISIS-like crimes on a wholesale scale.
• Imagining what would happen if even a quarter of our country’s 160 million people who claim to be Christian refused the self-destruction the words of Jesus and Paul imply.

For Christ’s sake, do the unthinkable. Hard as it might be: listen to ISIS. Reverse course. Put a stop to our collective suicide!

(Sunday Homily) The ‘Gates of Hell’ from Ferguson to Gaza

Wall Palestine

Readings for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time: IS 22: 19-23; PS 138:1-3, 6,8; ROM 11: 33-36; MT 16: 13-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082414.cfm

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and (now) Syria – again. . . .

It all reflects such one-dimensional thinking. I mean it gives the impression that in the eyes of public officials from the militarized cop in the street to the POTUS himself, the only solutions to social problems are found in shooting, tear gas, torture, and Hell Fire Missiles? Solving social problems requires locking people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” referenced by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, it’s a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in occupied Ferguson, Palestinians in Gaza’s mammoth concentration camp, or the ISIS militants – can’t possibly have legitimate grievances. They simply must be brought to heel by force – shooting, bombing, and killing their children and youth. We’re made to believe that alternatives such as dialog and working out problems by discussion and compromise are signs of weakness. So violence is the first resort. It’s the order of the day in a world ruled by machismo, revenge, violence, and the law of the strongest.

When we’re not bombing, we’re building walls with locked gates. Our “gated communities” and locked doors wall us off from unsightly ghettos and the realities of the world’s poor mostly non-white majority. Better to confine Palestinians in fenced off open-air concentration camps like Gaza, where there’s literally no exit. Then from time to time you “mow the lawn,” i.e. shoot the non-Jews like fish in a barrel – even though most of them are children, women, and aged people.

Better to build a wall along the Mexican border and then lock the gates, throw away the key and pretend that such barriers solve the problem of farmers and their children driven off their land by globalization, poverty and gangs. Better to justify it all by invoking the Ultimate White Privilege: “I feared for my life!” (We whites are the only ones who can get away with that one.)

All that brings us to today’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s about God’s interest in matters like those just enumerated – about politics, oppression and the liberation of non-white people like Jesus, Gazans and residents of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s about breaking bonds and opening the gates of hell so that every Inferno can be transformed into the Kingdom of God. It’s about refusing to be discouraged even though the flow of history make Jesus’ prayer, “They Kingdom come” seem like an impossible dream.

Start with today’s first reading. There the prophet Isaiah has God telling a courtier named Shabna to step down in favor of a man called Eliakim. Little is known about either one. The reason for including the reading today is apparently to establish today’s central point that God is concerned with the world of politics, and that God is ultimately in charge of what happens in that sphere. There can be no separation of politics and religion in the divine dispensation.

The responsorial psalm continues the “this worldly” theme set by the first reading. It had us all singing “Lord, your love is eternal. Forsake not the work of your hands.” Once again, emphasis on “the work of God’s hands” reminds us of God’s commitment to this world – including ghettos, the Gazan concentration camp, and rich people making life unbearable for the world’s largely non-white poor. The psalm goes on to praise Yahweh for divine kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the impoverished, and God’s alienation from their proud oppressors – again all connected with life here and now.

Then in today’s Gospel selection, we find a reprise of the very reading we shared last June 27th (just two months ago on the “Solemnity of St. Peter and Paul”). We practically know this passage by heart.

The reading centers on three titles associated with Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ. All three names are politically loaded – in favor of the poor rather than the privileged and powerful.

Jesus asks his friends, “Who is the Son of Man in history and for us today?” (Scripture scholars remind us that the “Son of Man” is a figure from the Book of Daniel. He is the judge of all those who oppress the People of God whether they’re Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks or Romans. He is “the human one” as opposed to a series of monstrous imperial beasts which the author of Daniel sees arising from the sea against God’s poor.)

So Jesus’ question boils down to this: who do you think has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors? Jesus’ friends mention the obvious heroes, Elijah and Jeremiah. But in the end, they settle on a contemporary political prisoner in King Herod’s version of Abu Ghraib. He’s John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor. (According to Jesus, John was the greatest of all the prophets of Israel.) He’s the Son of Man, they say.

Having set that anti-imperial tone, Jesus then asks the question, “What about me? Who do you say that I am?” No question could be more central for any of us pretending to follow the Teacher from Nazareth. How we answer determines the character of the path we walk as Jesus’ would-be disciples in a world filled with Fergusons, Gazas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Messrs. Netanyahu, Obama and Officer Wilson or of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Michael Brown.

Matthew makes sure we won’t miss the political nature of the question. So he locates its asking in Caesarea Philippi – a city Herod obsequiously named for his powerful Roman patron. Herod had commemorated the occasion by minting a coin stamped with the emperor’s countenance and identifying him as “the Son of God.” Caesar was also called “the Christ,” God’s anointed. Good Jews saw all of that as idolatry.

So Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” has the effect of delegitimizing Caesar and his empire. It’s also a swipe at King Herod. Peter’s response couldn’t be more political. Jesus, not Caesar is king, God’s anointed, the Son of God.

Neither could Peter’s words be more spiritually meaningful and heartening for those of us discouraged by events in Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria.

The encouragement is found in Jesus rejoinder about the “gates of hell” and the “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah . . . I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What powerful words of encouragement! For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, they disclose the very key to life’s meaning. In effect, Jesus says, “Here’s the key to opening ‘the gates of hell’ and transforming life’s Infernos into God’s kingdom: all our actions – even apparent failures like my coming crucifixion – have cosmic significance. Don’t be discouraged even when the agents of hell end up killing me – as they inevitably will.”

In other words, we may not be able to see the effect of resisting empire and its bloody agents in the short term. But each act has its effect. God’s Kingdom will come.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He said it’s not always apparent what God is doing in the world. After all, the ways of Transcendent Reality are deep and beyond comprehension – even by the wisest human beings. We may not be able to see God’s (political) purposes at close range. But ultimately their inscrutable wisdom will become apparent (ROM 11: 33-36).

Or as Martin Luther King put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those “Gates of Hell.”

Sunday Homily: Jesus Rejects Money and Work: He Embraces ‘Back to Nature’ Abundance

Gandhi Greed

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030214.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural. (Please hold that thought.)

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

And that brings me to that Obamacare business.

Did you follow last month’s flap over the Congressional Budget Office’s Report on jobs and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA)? It said that the ACA would induce 2.5 million people to leave work. They’d escape “job lock” – i.e. the inability to leave employment because doing so would lose them health coverage.

All hell broke loose.

When Paul Ryan (R-Wis) heard that, hypocrisy demanded that he and his Republican cronies reverse their position on “job lock.” Formerly they were against it. In fact a couple of years ago, Ryan said,”[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”

Now, however, since freedom from “job lock” represented a boon of the ACA, Ryan and the Republicans had changed their tune. They quickly became opponents of “more choice and portability.” Having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons were forced to readopt their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.

This meant that mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonalds or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families were characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, such people lose respect for “the dignity of work.” They were worthy of their traditional rank among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor. (Never mind that Ryan has done everything he can to undermine labor’s dignity – but that’s another story.)

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers and those not belonging to Ryan’s 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.