The Ten Commandments Call Us to Joy and Peace, Not to Guilt and War

Heston

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the word is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.” From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 89, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

* Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
* In all things, strive to cause no harm
* Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
* Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
* Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
* Always seek to be learning something new
* Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
* Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
* Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
* Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

* Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
* Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
* Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
* Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.

A Teenager Far Smarter Than Donald Trump or Marco Rubio (Sunday Homily)

emma-gonzalez

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 22: 1-2, 3A, 10-13, 15-18; PS 118: 10, 15-19; ROM 8: 31B-34; MK 9: 2-10

We’re all still reeling from the St. Valentine’s massacre in Parkland, Florida.

The massacre itself represented a horrendous act of domestic terrorism tolerated by the NRA-sponsored policies of the two wings of the Money Party that rule our country.

It also exemplified an act of child sacrifice that Party not only condones, but in-practice advocates as it refuses to implement common-sense gun laws prohibiting the ownership of weapons of war by U.S. citizens.

For them, the right to own AR-15s is more important than the lives of our children and grandchildren. Guns are more important than kids’ lives. Or more accurately: the millions of dollars supplied to our politicians by the NRA is more important than anything.

That’s idolatry pure and simple. It’s worship of Baal and Moloch. Politicians like Donald Trump try to rationalize it. But their “logic” comes across as ludicrous and just plain stupid. For example, did you hear what President Trump’s solution to school shootings is? Arm the teachers! (He said that with a straight face!)

But do you know who’s not fooled by such stupidity?

Our nation’s children!

Last week all across the country, high school kids were out in the streets, speaking at town meetings, and confronting their senators and even the president with common sense and wisdom far beyond that of their completely unprincipled elders. Those so-called “leaders” were absolutely shamed by the eloquence of high schoolers more than 50 years younger than, for instance, “the leader of the free world.”

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high, where the massacre took place, was the most impressive of all.

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” she told the crowd. “We are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be due to the tireless efforts of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most importantly the students.”

And the kids followed through. They marched on Washington. They confronted the President. Their outspoken questions left Florida Senator Marco Rubio speechless as he attempted to defend his acceptance of NRA campaign funds.

There’s no question about it. Our children are more effective leaders than the country’s elected officials. Our children are standing strong against child sacrifice.

Their stand highlights the contemporary relevance of today’s liturgy of the word as it presents us with the transfiguration stories of Abraham and Jesus of Nazareth.

First of all, consider the familiar narrative of Abraham and Isaac, its rejection of child sacrifice, and how it transfigured or transformed the roots of Jewish faith.

At first glance, the text seems to praise the great patriarch for his readiness to plunge a knife into Isaac’s heart. It has God saying, “For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.” It’s as though Abraham’s readiness to do violence to his son were a unique proof of his faith.

Such understanding however is to forget that in ancient Mesopotamia it was required of all parents to sacrifice their firstborn sons. So despite the text’s claim, there would have been nothing remarkable about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Everyone in Abraham’s culture had that sort of primitive “faith.”

Scripture scholars conclude that the words just quoted (“For now I know that your fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”) represent an editorial addition inserted centuries after the reported event, when people no longer remembered the ancient and universal requirement of tribal gods to sacrifice the first-born of family and flock.

The editors were priests and scribes in service to Israel’s royal family. They adjusted the Abraham story to suit their employers’ needs for patriotic cannon-fodder. This explains the addition of the words indicating God’s pleasure at parents’ willingness to sacrifice their children.

In contrast to that textual adjustment, and as originally told, the Abraham-Isaac tale was about the ancient patriarch’s transfigured understanding of God. It was about his discovery of Yahweh as the God of Life who prohibited rather than required child sacrifice. [Note that even in today’s English translation, it is “God” (meaning Baal, the biblical name denoting foreign idols) who gives Abraham the order to sacrifice his son. But it is “the Lord” (meaning Yahweh, the God of Abraham) who tells the patriarch to stay his hand.]

So, Abraham’s real merit is found not in his willingness to sacrifice his son, but in his unwillingness to do so. In that sense, Abraham in this instance is like Yahweh, the non-violent God of life, who (Abraham discovers) never endorses child sacrifice. That realization should have transfigured Abrahamic faiths forever. Unfortunately, it did not.

Jesus carries on and expands Abraham’s insight. He rejects violence of any type. He is the one who said: “love one another. Love your enemies. Forgive one another. Be compassionate. Be merciful. Seek God’s reign and God’s justice. Put away the sword. Rise and do not be afraid.”

Today’s gospel about Jesus’ “transfiguration” concludes with a voice directing us to “Listen to him.”

If Americans did, our world would indeed be transfigured. We would be transfigured – totally transformed. We would lay down our arms.

In other words, Abraham and Jesus are calling us away from idol-worship – away from sacrifices to Baal, Moloch, Money, Guns and the NRA.

In the context of the Valentine’s Massacre in Parkland, Florida, the spiritual icons of Judaism and Christianity are calling us to listen to our child-leaders like Emma Gonzalez.

“This is my beloved daughter,” we are being told. “Listen to her.”

Epiphany Sunday: Its Call to Grow Up and Become Citizens of the World

 

World Citizen.jpeg

Readings for Epiphany Sunday: Is. 60:1-6; Ps. 72: 1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2: 1-12

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of:

  • Make America great again!”
  • “God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave!”
  • American Exceptionalism.
  • “U.S.A., U.S.A.!”
  • “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
  • “America’s the world’s indispensable nation.”
  • Collin Kaepernick should stand for the national anthem.

Additionally, our “leaders” have decided to ignore the world’s best and wisest minds by rejecting climate science and its warning about the greatest threat the human race has ever faced.

I mean hyper-patriotism and rejection of wise men (and women) seem to be the order of the day. And it has its religious dimension as well: it’s as if even USian Christians actually believe that God loves them more than Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis, or Ethiopians. It’s as if God loves Christians more than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Jews. Witness Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced pick for National Security Advisor. He has described Islam itself and its 1.7 billion followers as a “vicious cancer” that has to be excised. In Flynn’s little mind, the wisdom of that Great Religion is completely ignored.

The message of today’s celebration of Jesus’ Epiphany contradicts all of that – the hyper-patriotism, the othering of foreigners, and any attempt to fit the divine into narrow religious categories. Today’s readings challenge Jesus-followers to grow up – to transcend our blind ethnocentrism, expand our horizons and at last become citizens of the world.

Remember: the word “epiphany” means the appearance or manifestation of God – a revelation of who God really is. Accordingly, today’s feast recalls the time when wise men from the East recognized in Jesus the long-awaited manifestation of the Universal God announced in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah and today’s responsorial Psalm 72 tell us clearly that God is not what ethnocentric believers expected or even wanted. S/he loves everyone equally, not just Jews, much less Usians.

That’s part of why Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” were “troubled” when they unexpectedly met the travelers who were seeking the world-centric and cosmic-centered manifestation of God that Isaiah had foreseen. The God Herod and the Jerusalem establishment knew was like the one worshipped by “America-first” Usians. He loved and favored Jews, the Hebrew language, and the Holy Land. He was pleased by Jewish customs and worship marked by animal sacrifice and lots of blood.

So Herod and Jerusalem were “troubled” when the foreigners came seeking the Palestinian address of a newborn king. The astrologers claimed that the very cosmos (the Star!) had revealed God’s Self to them even though they were not Jews. Evidently, the wise men had cosmic-centered consciousness. They realized God not only transcended themselves and their countries, but planet earth itself. All creation somehow spoke of God.

The prophet Isaiah, Psalm 72, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians agree with the Wise Men. All of them speak of a Divine Being who is universal, not belonging to a particular nation or religion. This God is recognizable and intelligible to all nations regardless of their language or culture. The Divine One brings light to the thick darkness which causes us to limit God to privileged nations, races, and classes. The universal God brings peace and justice and champions of the poor, oppressed, lowly and afflicted. The newly manifested deity leads the rich (like the three astronomers) to redistribute their wealth to the poor (like Jesus and his peasant parents). This God wants all to have their fair share.

Matthew’s story says that Jesus manifested such a God. Jesus was the complete revelation of the God of peace and social justice – a world-centered, a cosmic-centered God.

Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response? Kill him! A universal God like that threatened Jerusalem’s Temple and priesthood. The Epiphany meant that such a God was not to be found there exclusively. This God would not be tied down to time or place. What then would become of priestly status, temple treasure, the Jerusalem tourism industry?

Epiphany also threatened Herod’s position. Recognizing a divinity who led the rich to transfer their treasure to the poor threatened class divisions. A God on the side of the poor would embolden the lazy and unclean to rebel against those who used religion to keep the under-classes in line and resigned to their lot in life.

No, there could only be one solution: ignore the Star’s cosmic message, present a friendly face to these stupid foreigners, derive the crucial information from them, and then kill off as many impoverished babies as possible hoping in the process to stop God’s threatening, unacceptable Self-disclosure.

Symbolically (and lamentably), Herod’s and Jerusalem’s response to the “troubling” cosmic-consciousness of the Eastern wise men mirrors that of our culture and church. Both keep us at the stage of childish ego-centrism – or at best, at the stage of ethno-centrism, which makes us see the other and the other’s God as somehow foreign and threatening. Both culture and faith prevent our inner child from growing up. Ironically, that’s a kind of infanticide. It’s a form of psychological murder that freezes us at immature stages of consciousness and so prevents us from developing along the lines celebrated in today’s feast of Epiphany.

Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did “by another way” that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, power-over or cooperation with kings, priests and empire.

(Sunday Homily) Matthew’s God as Mafia Don: The Religion That’s Killing Us

Mafia Don

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 27: 30-28:7; PS 102: 1-4, 9-12; ROM 14: 7-9; JN 13:34; MT 18: 21-35

Today’s gospel is a confusing one. For me, it’s troubling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it illustrates what’s wrong with religion.

What’s wrong is that too often religion is made to justify violence, guilt, fear and economic exploitation. Its God is like a Mafia Don who intimidates, punishes, tortures, and never forgives. For the sake of money (!), He even engages in child trafficking and leg-breaking extortion.

That’s ironic, isn’t it? I mean, the gospel reading begins with Jesus’ comforting and challenging logion about forgiveness. How often should we forgive, he is asked? Jesus’ answer: “Always! In fact, you can’t put a number on it. But, if you insist, how about 490 times – 70 X 7?”

Jesus would surely say something like that. Seven times is not enough. Seventy times seven is more like it. That formula probably represents an authentic saying of the Master whose followers eventually saw as divine. His teaching: always forgive; that’s God’s way.

But then comes the confusing illustration that seems to contradict those comforting and challenging words. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying the God whom the Master embodied with a cruel king. The ruler’s actions contradict not only Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, but everything the rest of today’s liturgy of the word says about Jesus’ compassionate God.

Think about it. In the first reading, Sirach says that anger and vengeance are hateful. Don’t cherish wrath or refuse mercy, we are told. Instead overlook the faults of others and heal, rather than punish.

In that respect be like God, the Responsorial Psalm tells us. God is always kind, merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. The Divine One heals rather than punishes. In fact, in God’s eyes, we are for all practical purposes guiltless. He doesn’t even see our sins. As the psalmist puts it, the gap between us and guilt is infinite – as wide as that between east and west. That’s the way we should see each other too – entirely guiltless.

The alleluia verse continues in the same vein. It reminds us of Jesus’s words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That means, as Paul says in the reading from Romans, living and dying as Jesus did – with a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners on his lips: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus pardoned even his assassins and executioners.

But then comes that troubling illustration. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying his Father with a money lender – with a king whose first impulse towards his debtor is to sell him and his entire family – including his children – into slavery. That’s human trafficking. That’s trafficking in children.

Put otherwise, for the sake of recovering his money (!), no cruelty seems excessive. That’s evidently why the money lender employs torturers on retainer. Their job, as we see in the parable’s conclusion, is to squeeze blood from a turnip. If a debtor can’t pay with money, he’ll pay with pain. Here torture’s purpose is to intimidate – to send a message to others who might be tempted renege on their debts. Does that remind you of Mafia leg-breakers?

Nonetheless, at the end of the parable, Matthew has Jesus saying: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.” Contradictions, anyone? Silliness? Intimidation?

Yes!

In fact, Jesus could never have spoken these words because, as I said, they run counter to the instructions that precede them. They also contradict the descriptions of God exemplified in biblical teachings as found in today’s reading from Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Gospel of John.

Not only that. Jesus’ audience was filled with debtors whose lives were imiserated by Shylocks like the king in this morning’s story. They would never have listened to a teacher who identified God with such oppressors.

So what’s up with Matthew? Why does he insist on a punishing God who seems to support economic exploitation and Mafia ethics?

Fact is: right from the beginning it was difficult for Jesus’ followers (especially those like Matthew who never met him) to leave behind their religion’s overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. Moreover, despite Jesus’ teaching about the entirely new order represented by God’s Kingdom, they found it nearly impossible to distance themselves from the contradictory normality of economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence.

So early on, all those elements crept back into Christianity – again, despite Jesus’ teaching and example. And those elements covered with a veneer of faith are precisely what is killing us today. Or, as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has put it: that’s why Religion is Killing Us:Violence in the Bible and Quran.

Christians have no trouble seeing that with Islam. But as Nelson-Pallmeyer has explained, it’s just as true of Christianity.

So, as I just said, Christianity like that presented in today’s gospel has been made to support everything Jesus stood against.

In the face of such contradictions, what are believers to do? My answer:

  • Be discerning.
  • Realize that Christianity is just as threatening to the world as we imagine religions like Islam to be.
  • Accordingly, embrace atheism before violent, exploitative images of God like the Mafia Don Matthew presents.
  • At the same time, embrace Jesus’ forgiving Father.
  • After the usual sermon today, question your priest or minister about the king in this morning’s gospel.
  • Most importantly, strive to act like that God as embodied in Jesus practice on the cross.

Seventy times seven is only the beginning!

(Sunday Homily) Hurricane Harvey and Its Three Unspeakable Descriptors

Pope-Francis Harvey

As everyone knows, hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, last week. Apart from its obvious devastation, initial reports said Harvey had caused at least 12 deaths across an area that is home to more than 6 million people.

What most don’t know is that on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, India and Nepal people are currently experiencing 100 times the initially reported Houston death toll. There torrential rains have killed more than 1200 people and wreaked havoc in the lives of up to 40 million South Asians living in those countries. One third of Bangladesh is currently under water.

At the same time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently published a warning that the parts of Asia just referenced (as well as Pakistan) will soon become uninhabitable for its 1.5 billion residents because of rising temperatures. Incessant heat waves will soon make it impossible for peasant farmers to work their fields. The predictable result will be famine and unimaginable loss of life.

Despite such climate events and dire warnings, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of these disasters. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is especially relevant to a Sunday homily like this. It is a person’s name. The name is “Pope Francis.” In fact, I’ll wager that this Sunday you’ll not hear him or his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) mentioned in connection with Hurricane Harvey even in most Catholic Churches. And that sad fact (despite Pope Francis’ brave efforts) simply underlines the irrelevance to which the church has been reduced.

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change,” “global warming,” or “climate chaos.” Even during non-stop TV coverage of Harvey, the terms hardly crossed the lips of commentators. That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.)

In fact, far from admitting its criminal and willful ignorance, the Republican-controlled presidency and congress are moving in the exact opposite direction of that required to address super-hurricanes (like Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey), as well as torrential flooding, disintegrating icebergs, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures. Setting itself in opposition to the entire world, our country has withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, and is doubling down on the production and use of the dirtiest fuels at human disposal (including coal) .

Additionally, hardly a day goes by without our president threatening nuclear war. As Jonathan Schell pointed out even before most of us were aware of climate change, that event would also have devastating effect on the earth’s atmosphere aggravating the climate syndrome already so well under way.

So you don’t hear much these days about climate chaos and the devastating effects of climate change denial. The reason? That brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s. Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial isn’t jobs, but capital accumulation. That is, corporations like Rex Tillerson’s Exxon are willing to destroy the planet, rather than respond appropriately to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the deception and hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name along with climate change and profit, is unmentionable in connection with Harvey. Yet, more than two years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.) Still, his dire warnings remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic leaders” such as Paul Ryan and his Republican cohorts. Even worse, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says,

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Such submission threatens jobs profits. But realities much more important than jobs profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith. It is a matter of basic decency and common sense.

In fact, Hurricane Harvey and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis has said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

Last week’s events in Texas demonstrate that truth. Mother Nature is angry, and She’s coming after us.

Are we listening?

(Sunday Homily) Jesus’ Promise: Despite Appearances, God’s Kingdom Will Ultimately Triumph

Arc of history

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.

Of course, you’re all following the news, I know. It’s so discouraging, isn’t it? Charlottesville, Syria, Yemen, and President Trump’s defense of Neo-Nazis.

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? In sum, “solutions” uniformly involve locking the people of color behind “the Gates of Hell” centralized in today’s Gospel reading.

In every case, diplomacy, social reform, and negotiation seem out of the question. In fact, diplomacy has become a vanished art. Who needs it? After all, those damn “others” – be they African Americans in Charlottesville, Houthis in Yemen, or ISIS militants in Syria – 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, never the last. 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 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, Houthis, Syrians, and residents of Chicago’s south side. 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 makes Jesus’ prayer, “Thy 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 (despite appearances) 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, those living under endless bombing campaigns in Syria and Yemen, and rich people like Mr. Trump and Saudi Princes 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 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 Charlottlesvilles, Yemens, Raqqas, Hell Fire Missiles and militarized cops. Our answer determines whose side we are on – that of Mr. Trump, his friend Sheriff Arpaio, or with the innocent victims of U.S. bellicosity.

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 those places afflicted by permanent U.S. belligerence.

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! They say that the world’s ultimate decision-makers are poor people like the fisherman, Peter, and like the rest of Jesus’ followers – the beggars, prostitutes, and victims of Roman imperialism. It’s what they decide — what they bind on earth — that reflects God’s divine order. History is on their side, not on that of the apparently invincible.

For those who would join Jesus on “The Way” to God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ words 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 finally come. That’s our faith! It’s what gives meaning to our lives of resistance.

In today’s second reading, Paul elaborates the point. He says it’s not always apparent what God is up to 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 and personal) 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.”

The Loaves & Fishes Story Is Not Just about Food: It’s about Just Food

loavesfish

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 1-5; PS 145: 8-9, 15-18; ROM 8: 35, 37-39 MT 14: 13-21

I’ve been vacationing in Michigan over the past three months. We’re living in the lovely cottage my wife, Peggy, inherited from her father in the northern part of the state.

The community there is called Canadian Lakes. It’s white, upper middle class, and very pretty. Peggy and I have spent large parts of our summers there ever since we we’ve been married. Our kids feel attached to the place. In a sense, they’ve grown up there.

In a word, life at Canadian Lakes is good. It’s water-centered and comfortable.

That makes today’s liturgy of the word (with its emphasis on the free gift of water) especially poignant for me. So does the fact that our lake home is located in Michigan with Detroit not so far away. Water’s a problem there.

You see, the relationship of Detroit’s poor to water is very different from ours in Canadian Lakes. Unlike our lakeside community, 44% of Detroit residents fall under the poverty line; 83% of the city’s population is African American. Unemployment in the former Motor City is well above 14.5%. Yet, Detroit’s (unelected) City Manager has been cutting off the water of poor people there. Regardless of your circumstances, if you’re an ordinary Detroit resident two months, behind on your bill, you will suddenly find yourself without water for drinking, bathing and flushing toilets.

If you’re rich, however, it’s a different story. Some of the city’s largest corporate water users are also behind on their water bills – even years behind. For instance high-end golf courses, the Detroit Red Wings, the city’s football stadium and more than half the city’s commercial and industrial users owe back water bills totaling over $30 million. No one is cutting off their water.

It’s also worth noting that the price of Detroit’s water system (administered by private contractors) is more than twice the national average and that the water cut-off plan is part of a scheme to move the city towards a completely privatized water system. Some see it as a measure intended to drive Detroit’s poorest from the city for purposes of gentrification.

Detroit’s water policy has gotten world-wide attention. A United Nations Human Rights office designated it a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, we might also designate Detroit’s plan (and in general the commodification of God’s free gifts to all of creation) as a violation of God’s order. In fact, today’s liturgy of the word implies indictment of water privatization schemes and the market system’s practice of treating food itself as a commodity. These are gifts of God the readings say – part of God’s gift economy which is unbelievable in its generosity.

And why should we be surprised? The God celebrated in today’s responsorial is described as “answering all our needs.” According to the psalmist, that God is gracious, just, holy, merciful, slow to anger, hugely kind, and compassionate. S/he gives food to everyone and everything – without cost.

So why pay for water? Isaiah asks. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” he says. “You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

The point of contrasting God’s “gift economy” with our exploitive “exchange economy” is driven home in today’s Gospel episode from Matthew the evangelist. The famous “miracle of loaves and fishes” is actually a dramatic parable about God’s Reign and its order. The event may even be factual in the way I’m about to explain.

In any case, the tale is symbolic. It’s about the way the world would work if God were king instead of Caesar. In God’s dispensation, the gifts of creation – food and drink – are given to all without payment. God’s order contradicts our own where food production and even water delivery reap huge profits for the rich.

You know the story. Jesus meets with 5000 men in the desert (“not to mention,” Matthew says, “the women and children”). It’s late in the day. People are hungry and no-doubt getting restless. Jesus’ disciples offer a market solution to the problem of the crowd’s hunger. They say, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus’ solution is different. He says. “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

The disciples almost mock Jesus’ suggestion. They say, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” We can imagine them rolling their eyes and smirking ironically in disbelief at Jesus’ naivety. Did he really think that the loaves and fishes they had would be enough to feed 5000 hungry men and their families?

Nevertheless, Jesus “ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.” Mark adds the detail that he had them break up into small groups of 50 and 100. In those smaller groups, people could see each other’s faces. Inevitably, they must have introduced themselves and shared some personal background, a joke, laughter and human warmth. Friendships blossomed.

Then Jesus “said grace:” That is, with everyone’s eyes on him, the Master Teacher broke the bread, divided the fish and gave it to those around him. No doubt he did so with gestures inviting the crowd to do the same.

As a result, the “miraculous” happened. And it wasn’t a “popcorn miracle” where five loaves suddenly popped into 5000 or where two fish suddenly multiplied by 3000. Instead, the good mothers in the crowd must have followed Jesus’ example. (Can we imagine any good Jewish mamma leaving home for a day in the desert without packing a hearty lunch for her husband and children?) The mothers opened their picnic lunches and shared them with the people they’d just gotten to know.

It was a “miracle of enough.” Everyone shared. So even the improvident were able to eat with plenty left over – 12 baskets Matthew tells us.

No, I’m not saying the miracle of loaves and fishes was just about food. No. As John Dominic Crossan puts it, the “miracle of loaves and fishes” was not just about food; it was about just food – about just distribution where no one is left hungry. Why? Because that’s the way God and his order are. God gives food, drink – the earth itself – to everyone and everything without cost.

That’s the order Jesus’ followers are called to imitate here and now.

And it is Detroiters (as well as many others throughout the world) who doing just that. They’re busy not only sharing water, but gardening and eating free from their plots on vacant lots – taking grateful advantage of God’s free gifts. You might be surprised to know that Detroit has the largest number of urban gardens in the United States.

We would do well to follow the example of people there and expand on it, taking advantage of God’s free gifts by:

• Opposing water privatization schemes
• Supporting local farmers
• Gardening
• Composting
• Installing water catchment systems
• Heating water (and our homes) with solar energy
• Bicycling to work
• Getting to know our poor neighbors
• Sharing food with them
• Even paying their water bills
• Opposing military spending increases while U.S. citizens go without water.

To repeat: today’s readings are not just about food and drink; they’re about just food and drink. They’re about sharing God’s free gifts rather than turning them into commodities to benefit the 1%.