Ted Yoho & Small God Christians vs. AOC

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 55: 1-3; Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-18; Romans 8: 35-39; Matthew 14: 13-21

Nearly everyone is celebrating New York City Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s (AOC) brilliant speech last week in response to two attacks by her colleague, Ted Yoho, a Congressional representative from Florida. Some are calling her speech the best statement of feminist (and even specifically Catholic) values in generations.

Both attacks on AOC occurred on the Capitol steps where Yoho first accosted her directly, calling her “disgusting” for suggesting a connection between poverty and NYC’s rising crime rate. He then turned from his flabbergasted colleague and within earshot of a reporter called her a “f_cking b_tch.”

Ocasio Cortez delivered her now famous response after Yoho offered what everyone described as a “non-apology.” It’s that pretense that I want to focus on here.

That’s because this week’s Sunday readings highlight the issue of hunger and poverty – the issue that precipitated Yoho’s anger. And following his disingenuous remarks the congressman was asked to resign from a position he held on the board of directors of Bread for the World (BftW), a Christian organization focused (according to its literature) on “working to make hunger, poverty, and opportunity a priority for candidates. We are moved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ to work for justice for hungry people in our country and around the world.”

Yoho’s words also deserve attention this Sunday, because of his self-identification with a type of Christianity that sharply contrasts with the Bread for the World approach.  Adherents to Yoho’s brand of faith might be called “small god Christians” – at least when compared with the immensely generous God depicted in today’s readings and embraced by BftW.

Yoho’s Non-Apology

Let’s start by recalling Mr. Yoho’s non-apology. Although his brief statement’s ambiguities and irrelevancies reveal an evidently hasty composition, Congressman Yoho’s self-defensive remarks might be fairly summarized in about a dozen points. Taken together, they unrepentantly underline his supposed respectfulness, innocence, heroism, and devotion to family, country, and God.

His Commitment to Respect  

  1. I apologize for my abruptness with Representative Ocasio Cortez.
  2. Political differences should not lead to disrespect.
  3. My 45-year marriage and fathering 2 daughters have made me aware of my language.

His Innocence

  • What I said to others about Rep. Ocasio Cortez was misreported and misinterpreted by the press.
  • And I apologize for the media’s error.

His Heroism

  • I am passionate about the poor.
  • My wife and I were once poor ourselves.
  • However, we pulled ourselves up by sheer hard work.
  • That proves that any else can do the same without breaking the law.

His Admirable Devotion

  1. Such passion and bootstrap convictions will continue to inform my positions in policy debate.  
  2. They also express my love for my family, my country, and God.
  3. There is no need to apologize for any of that.

Readers should note that in his “apology,” Mr. Yoho uses that key word three different times. With the first, he expresses remorse for his abruptness (not for actually calling his colleague a “f_cking b_tch”). He is also sorry for the errors of the press in reporting his words (i.e., for the alleged mistakes of others, not his own.) Thirdly, without helping his listeners understand the connections, Mr. Yoho actually refuses apology, as he says, for his passion, loving his family, his country, and God.

Small god Christians

It’s that reference to God at the end of his remarks that deserves special comment. In these Sunday remarks, the allusion contextualizes everything else. It also illustrates the tininess of the god worshipped by what I’m calling here, “small god Christians.” (Today’s readings call us to something infinitely grander.)

Notice that Mr. Yoho’s focus is on law, self-justification, family, his own district’s constituents, his nation, and even (with his dog-whistle disconnections between poverty and crime) on his race and class. Presumably, that too is the focus of the god the congressman and his faith community worship.

That’s what I mean by small god Christians and their sharp contrast with the biblical God described below in today’s biblical selections. Small-godders are ethnocentric. Unlike Jesus [who said law was made for human beings, not the reverse (Mark 2:27)] they are law-and-order people. The object of their faith is essentially concerned with “Americans,” and has little or no concern for others, especially if those foreigners belong to other religions – let alone if they are Muslims.  

Little-godders are also (according e.g., to the self-identification of Catholic Attorney General William Barr) “micro-moralists.” They are convinced that the Christian Gospel is limited to matters of personal morality and has nothing to do with social justice. Even more narrowly, they focus on the single issue of abortion as overriding every other moral concern.

Accordingly, small-godders find themselves able to support a candidate like Mr. Trump despite his lifelong problems with marital fidelity, his self-identification as a sexual predator, his association with and sympathy for convicted pedophiles, and his appointment of a Secretary of State who brags about lying, cheating, and stealing. All is forgiven, as long as any candidate is anti-abortion, which is nowhere in the Bible even identified as a moral issue.

That’s the small and morally challenged nature of small god Christianity.

The Generous Biblical God

Now compare all of that with the infinite reality some (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) call “God.” Immediately below you’ll find his her/his description in this Sunday’s readings. I’ve “translated” them as usual but recommend that everyone read the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.

Note how that God has constructed what some have called a Gift Economy. In that arrangement, everything is free for everyone – with special emphasis on the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. Yes immigrants! Biblically speaking, they (the poor) are the special focus of God’s attention and Yeshua’s preaching of Yahweh’s Kingdom (Luke 4: 18). Those who justify themselves as self-made and self-sufficient are ridiculed (Luke 18:9-14).

Isaiah 55: 1-3: In God’s order everything is free for the poor and exploited. Our Mother’s is a gift economy prioritizing the needs of the destitute (not the rich) and insured through laws enforced by government. Water, bread, milk and even the finest wines are provided to everyone without charge.

Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-18: Yes, because She is gracious, merciful and kind, our Divine Mother feeds us and answers all our needs without charge, exactly as She does for the birds, animals, trees and grass. Free food is a matter of God’s generosity, justice and truth. We are all so grateful.

Romans 8: 35, 37-39: Yeshua embodied our Great Mother’s Gift Imperative. We love him for that; we love our Mother for that. So, even though the world’s contradictory ways impose anguish, distress, famine, nakedness, danger and violence, we refuse to abandon the ideal of free food and drink for everyone.      

Matthew 14: 13-21: You say it’s impossible? Recall Yeshua’s “miracle of enough.” When everyone was hungry in the desert, his example of sharing five loaves and two fish caused the provident Jewish mamas there to follow suit by sharing the food they brought along. They turned a desperate crisis into an unforgettable picnic. It was a miracle!

Conclusions

With its self-justification, ethnocentrism, single issue and unbiblical micro-morality, small god Christianity contradicts the One described and exemplified so marvelously in our readings for the day.

Granted that in the Bible’s “battle of the gods” as depicted in last week’s homily, we also find more narrow, ethnocentric concepts of God in that ancient Book’s description of Israel’s long drawn out search for what we’re all looking for – meaningful lives and right relationship with what’s ultimately important in the universe.

However, the Yeshua tradition clarifies the resulting confusion. The Great Master himself turns out to encourage everything that contradicts small-godders as represented in the words of Congressman Yoho and by less enlightened figures in the Bible.

As I pointed out last week, Yeshua incarnates the real causes of hunger and poverty – houselessness (at his birth), immigration (in Egypt), rejection by his community and family (Luke 4: 14-30, Mark 3: 12-20), investigation by the state, torture and ultimately, capital punishment.

That Yeshua has nothing to do with a small god.

As for Mr. Yoho and Bread for the World. . . We can safely assume that he brought his small god approach into board meetings at that organization too. That’s what the small-godders do in such venues. They attempt to shrink to size the generous God that non-profits like BftW promote. At their directors’ table, you can bet that he was as adamant about self-sufficiency, micro-morality, and American-centered law and order just as he’s been each day in the U.S. House of representatives.

Again, that’s the mission of small-godders. Don’t let it be yours.

A Biblical Warning about Stable Geniuses Like Solomon (&DJT)

Readings for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalms 119: 57, 72-77, 127-130; Romans 8: 28-30; Matthew 13: 44-52  

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

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

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

The contrast emerges as today’s readings juxtapose the dream of Solomon, the representative par excellence of Israel’s 1% in our first reading, over against Jesus’ own words about the contrasting nature of God’s Kingdom in today’s Gospel selection.

Here are my “translations” of this Sunday’s selections. Check them out here to see if I’ve got them right.

I Kings 3:5, 7-12: So, the wily king David’s son, Solomon, had a convenient “dream” which proved him every bit as clever as his old man. In it, (as he told his fawning court historian) the new king successfully requested from God not riches or triumph over his enemies but understanding and judgment that would distinguish him as the wisest man ever. (Sounds very like a “stable genius,” wouldn’t you say?)

Psalms 119: 57, 72-77, 127-130: Would that we could believe such testimony on the part of self-serving politicians like king Solomon. It would mean that they actually preferred God’s wisdom to their own – God’s law over money. They would be compassionate rather than cruel, value truth over propaganda, and honor wisdom from below rather than the court ideologies of sycophants on the make.

Romans 8: 28-30: How different from the prophet Jesus. As a poor man himself, he was genuinely good, loved God and actually manifested true divine wisdom. We are all called to be like him – not like the always self-congratulatory royals.

Matthew 13: 44-52: However, accepting Jesus’ message calls for complete buy-in – for total commitment. It’s a pearl of great price. It demands wise discernment in choosing between the good and the bad, the old and the new. Making the wrong choice can be disastrous – though (pace, St. Matthew) never finally so.

Notice in that final reading how Jesus calls his would-be followers to a profound paradigm shift – away from one that lionized the imperial order to a divine kingdom in in which the poor prosper. The former was embodied not only in the Roman empire of Jesus’s day, but in Israel itself. Its leaders a thousand years earlier had hijacked the Mosaic Covenant that contradicted their New Imperial World Order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Wars on Muslims Continue Even During CV-19 & BLM Uprisings

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8: 26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43

Despite what you might hear in church today, this Sunday’s liturgy of the word is not about the end of the world and the condemned spending eternity in endless fire. So, don’t be confused by the words Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth about an afterlife filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

No, today’s readings are much more relevant than that. They’re actually about non-violent resistance in a context of imperial aggression and war. They suggest that Americans withdraw our support for the U.S. military and from Washington’s policy of state terrorism against impoverished Muslims in the Middle East. (Need I remind us that even during the Covid-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter uprising, U.S. wars against Muslims continue unabated?)

At the same time, the day’s three parables attributed to Jesus also imply a message for Middle Eastern followers of Mohammed. Today, as the principal victims of (U.S.) imperialism, Muslims are the closest analogue to the Judeo-Christian understanding of “People of God.” So, all three readings call followers of Islam [which recognizes Isa (Jesus) as the second greatest of the prophets (after Mohammed and before Abraham)] to lay down their arms in favor of Jesus’ own non-violent resistance.

Today’s Readings

To get my meaning, begin by considering my translations of today’s exceptionally beautiful readings. As usual, you’re advised to check the originals here to see if I’ve got them right:

Wisdom 13: 13, 16-19: Our Divine Mother loves all her creatures, even unbelievers. She condemns no one. Her love is the source of justice, easy forgiveness and of human courage. Consequently, the truly powerful on earth are also merciful, lenient, gentle and kind. None of us should worry about our “sins.” They are all forgiven.

Psalms 86: 5-6, 9-10, 15-16: Yes, our Divine Mother is good, understanding and kind. So, in time of trouble, we should feel confident asking for her help. She’s the One we’re all looking for. Deep down, we all want to be like her – forgiving, graceful, patient, gentle and faithful. At our profoundest level, we are!

Romans 8: 26-27: In fact, our Mother is there even for those who don’t know how to pray. Weak, painful groanings are enough. She knows what they mean. She knows we’re trying to do our best.

Matthew 13: 24-43: Our Mother’s world is like a garden sown with radiantly beautiful flowers of all kinds and colors. However, the spiritually unevolved sow weeds of hatred and violence to ruin that splendid paradise. Don’t resist them in kind. That only makes matters worse. Instead, just tend the flowers. Our compassionate Mother will do the rest. Her power is everywhere like yeast in a loaf of bread. That knowledge should give us courage to exercise similar gentle influence everywhere.

Jesus & Nonviolent Resistance

I hope you’re able to see the call to non-violence contained in those selections. They implicitly address all victims of aggression by Americans, today’s ruling empire. This means the selections are most relevant to the Muslim community and the question whether or not (as people of The Book) they should resist their oppressors in kind – i.e. with extreme violence.

That is, Jesus’ parable of the weeds planted by an enemy in a landlord’s field can be read as addressing the Roman occupation forces encumbering Israel during Jesus’ lifetime. [According to John Dominic Crossan, Matthew’s allegorizing of Jesus’ parable – making it about the end of the world – is more reflective of the situation of the Jewish diaspora (following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) than of the actual revolutionary situation of Jesus’ own day.]

In Jesus’ occupied Israel, the suffocating Roman presence (like our own country’s in the Middle East) was as unwelcome, alien, and destructive as weeds in a garden or field.

The question was how to deal with such odious foreign occupation. Like ISIS and others today, Zealot revolutionaries had their answer: Uproot the weeds here and now. Take up arms; assassinate Romans and their collaborators; drive them out mercilessly. Be as cruel and vicious as the Romans.

Jesus’ response was different. As a non-violent revolutionary, he could surely understand such apocalyptic energy. After all, much of his teaching expressed sympathy to the Zealot cause including land reform, debt forgiveness, and expulsion of the hated Roman occupation forces. Many scripture scholars even identify possibly five members of Jesus’ inner circle as Zealots themselves.

But Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds is more prudent and sensitive to civilian casualties than the strategy of the impatient Zealots – or that of ISIS.

When the landlord’s workers ask, “Should we uproot the weeds?” Jesus’ landlord answers: “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

In other words, Jesus agrees with El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and with Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara that revolutionary violence, though understandable (and justifiable on the grounds of just war theory), is imprudent at the very least.

This is because when faced with a vicious, overwhelmingly armed oppressor (like the United States) resistance inevitably leads to state terrorism – to the war crime of collective punishment impacting women, children, the elderly and disabled. At the very least, that’s why Jesus eschews Zealot violence.

Conclusions for Muslims

How then are Muslims to respond to increasing American domination of the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?

Jesus’ answer? Be like mustard plant, he says. Be like yeast in flour. Both puzzling recommendations are relevant not just to Muslim victims of United States imperialism, but to Christians in our country who wish to dissent from their government’s policies of endless war.

First of all, think of the puzzlement that must have struck Jesus’ listeners. Jews didn’t have much use for yeast. They preferred unleavened bread. Neither would any farmer sow mustard seeds in her field or garden. The mustard plant was like kudzu – itself a kind of weed that eventually can take over entire fields and mountainsides while choking out other plants, weeds or not. The mustard plant was unstoppable.

So, Jesus is saying:

* The Romans are enemy weeds in your garden.
* Don’t try to uproot them by force.
* That will only lead to slaughter of the innocent.
* Rather, become weeds yourselves in Rome’s “garden.” Be like the mustard plant which is much more powerful than ordinary Roman (or U.S.) weeds.
* Resist the Romans by embodying the Spirit of God that is slow to anger, good, forgiving, abounding in kindness.
* Only imitation of Wisdom’s God can defeat the evil of imperialism – or any evil for that matter.

Conclusions for Christians

What does that mean for Christians wishing to express solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters against their cruel “Christian” oppressors? At least the following:

* Reject U.S. militarism in general as counterproductive, since fully 90% of the casualties it inflicts in war are civilians.
* Be instead like the yeast a homemaker puts into 60 pounds of flour, “infecting” the greater culture by non-violent resistance rather than “supporting our troops.”
* Recognize and take sides with the real victims of terrorism – those plagued by U.S. policies of aggressive wars and regime-change – i.e. of state terrorism.
* Lobby against absurd proposals to increase U.S. military spending, when already “our” country spends more on “defense” than the next ten countries combined.

* Refuse to honor the military and dissuade your children and grandchildren from entering that corrupt and corrupting gang of outlaws.

Surely Jesus’ Way of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and love of enemies will strike many (non-believers and believers alike) as unrealistic. But according to the faith we Christians (and Muslims) pretend to embrace, Jesus’ Way is God’s way.

But then perhaps we Christians think we’re smarter and more realistic than Jesus — or our Divine Mother?

What do you think?

The Biblical Call to Woke, Politically Correct Identity Politics

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14; Romans 8: 9-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

Whatever the world believes and does, choose to believe and do the opposite. That’s because the Truth that some call “God” is found 180 degrees opposite to what the world claims as true. That’s the message of today’s liturgy of the word.

So, take heart if as a follower of the Christ, they accuse you of advocating identity politics, deride you as a social justice warrior, woke, politically correct, a conspiracy theorist, or a whatabouter. Leaving aside their distorted meanings, all of those categories should actually be embraced by critical persons of faith who take this Sunday’s readings to heart.  

In today’s key selection, Paul refers to accusations like the above as “flesh,” because they insistently judge according to external appearances and directly contradict the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Such judgments routinely gas light activists demonstrating for social justice across the world. For instance, followers of Rush Limbaugh tell awakened Black Lives Matter demonstrators to go back to sleep. They admonish “conspiracy theorists” to simply accept White House narratives. They ridicule “social justice warriors” as pathetic Don Quixotes impotently jousting at windmills. And they say progressives, “snowflakes” should be embarrassed about their annoying “political correctness” and whataboutism.       

However, today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah calls for political strategy that penetrates below such superficiality at every turn. In the process, he longs for political leaders whose laser vision will reject the outer manifestations that tell us that things are fine the way they are. For instance, his ideal ruler will refuse military display and instead sponsor programs of national disarmament. That, of course, flies in the face of “American” cultural ideals of bluster, toughness, and aggression.

Finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus promises that adopting contrary unfleshly values will result in easy, restful and unburdened existence for everyone.

Flesh Merchants

Before we get to those separate readings, begin by contrasting the wisdom of the world’s flesh merchants with the general vision recommended (as we’ll see below) in today’s selections. Think about the dominant culture’s superficial dismissal of social justice warriors, the “woke,” of everything that smacks of political correctness, or conspiracy theories or whataboutism. Those caught up in fleshly appearances want progressives to feel guilty about the critical thinking implied in each of those categories understood in the light of faith.

  • The Struggle for Social Justice: Our era’s flesh merchants generally ridicule what they call “social justice warriors” as naïve bleeding hearts. However, the truth is that the struggle for social justice lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It all began with the liberation of slaves from Egypt. The Hebrew Covenant prioritized the needs of widows, orphans and immigrants. It instituted permanent land reform measures and periodic wealth redistribution. Jesus advocated replacement of Rome’s empire with what he called the Kingdom of God – a world where God’s truth and love replaced Caesar’s looting, lies and oppression. All the great followers of Jesus were social justice warriors. Think Bartolome de las Casas, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and today’s William Barber.
  • Wokeness: Following in the footsteps of such prophets, all of us are called to permanent spiritual insomnia. In fact, Buddhism is entirely based on the concept. It teaches that the whole purpose of life is to wake up from the slumber that is endemic to dominant cultures everywhere. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” had a similar message. Any follower of the Judeo-Christian tradition is called to wake up.
  • Identity Politics: Notwithstanding its Buddhist and classical derivations, the term “woke” comes from the African American community. That origin reminds us that any struggle for social justice must begin with heightened awareness and affirmation of specific identity as an oppressed people. That’s why James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, jarringly insists that God is black. He’s referring to a divine preference for the unfairly “burdened” (as today’s Gospel selection puts it) in any age. It’s what lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ repeated allusions to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” It’s with the impoverished that followers of Moses and Jesus are called to unambiguously identify spiritually and politically. 
  • Political Correctness: This is perhaps the most distorted and denigrated of the concepts considered here. Originally, it was a self-critical tool used by political activists to make sure that their speech and action were consistent with their principles. More recently however, the term has been appropriated and trivialized by opponents of social justice to refer to any infringement of a dominant group’s supposed right to speak and act without considering the consequences for members of a subordinate class. Obviously, such “freedom” is out of step with the just-referenced preferential option for the poor. On the contrary, all would-be followers of Jesus the Christ are called to bring their speech and actions into correct alignment with their faith.    
  • Conspiracy Theory: Like political correctness, the original concept of conspiracy theory had no insulting overtones. In fact, conspiracy is a legal category referring to two or more people planning to commit a crime. Lawyers and prosecutors theorize about conspiracies all the time. And, of course, Jesus’ assassination resulted from a conspiracy between Jerusalem’s temple priests and the Roman imperial state. That fact alone should make his followers especially sensitive to conspiratorial plots. (BTW, one prominent conspiracy theory holds that following the Kennedy assassination, the CIA appropriated a negative understanding of the term conspiracy theorists precisely to discredit critics of the highly questionable Warren Report – and subsequently of every other CIA operation.) Bottom line here: no one familiar with history, much less Christianity, should be intimidated by accusations of being conspiracy theorists. Such allegations are meant to inhibit critical thinking.   
  • Whataboutism: The Wikipedia Dictionary defines whataboutism as any attempt to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. Actually, in our U.S. context, it’s most often a refusal to take seriously right-wing accusations against designated enemies such as Russia, China, or Venezuela for crimes routinely committed by the United States itself. It recognizes that “America” has no ground to stand on in its accusations of election-interference, persecution of Muslims, or corruption in high office. That’s because our country’s officials routinely engage in such activities themselves and embody unsurpassed corruption at every level. It’s all in the spirit of Jesus’ words, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Like Jesus, whatabouters are concerned with hypocrisy.

Today’s Readings

With all of this in mind, here are my “translations” of the readings that inspire today’s reflection. Please read them for yourselves here to see if I’ve got them right. I take them all as issuing a call to depart entirely from the dominant culture’s way of thinking and acting in the areas just designated.

Zechariah 9: 9-10: The world leader we’re all waiting for won’t come driving a Sherman Tank, Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  Rather, she’ll arrive on a bicycle. Moreover, she’ll achieve peace by eliminating the entire military-industrial complex. No more war for this non-violent champion! 

Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-14: When she comes, we’ll all join in grateful thanksgiving to our Great Cosmic Mother. We’ll praise her for her grace, patience, goodness, kindness and compassion. We’ll finally realize that might is found precisely in what the world considers weakness – in the fallen and heavily burdened. 

Romans 8: 9-13: On that happy day, everyone on earth will understand their spiritual unity with everyone else regardless of externals – “flesh” including its color. We’ll see that at core, all of us share the loving Spirit that animated Jesus the compassionate Christ. Fullness of life, he taught, lies in a direction 180 degrees away from the fleshy exterior reality to which the world so insistently limits our attention.   

Matthew 11: 25-30: Yes, the worldly wise and learned tell us that “reality” is defined by what we can see and feel and that might makes right. However, the unpretentious nobodies of the world who follow Jesus know much more. In their humility, disarmed non-violence, and refusal to compete, they share the very mind of God. They’ve discovered the secret of an easy, restful and unburdened existence.

Conclusion

I suppose what I’ve been seeing in today’s biblical readings are implications that call into question our culture’s superficiality – something Paul called “flesh.” I hear the readings warning us against the dominant culture and its rejection of much deeper (spiritual) values firmly founded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’m talking about commitment to social justice, and the identity politics that sides with the poor and oppressed. I’m referring to awakening from cultural slumber and the adoption of woke ways of thinking and acting that are politically correct in terms of coherence between theory and action. My reference is also to judicious suspicion of official stories mouthed by “leaders” who have repeatedly lied to us – even in the face of their accusations about conspiracy theories. All of this, I’m saying, entails complete rejection of hypocrisy hiding behind deflecting complaints of whataboutism.

I at least feel great relief to recognize culturally imposed guilt tripping for what it is. I’m happy to embrace my efforts to be an awakened politically correct social justice warrior identified with the poor and oppressed and alert to conspiracies by the rich and powerful.

All of these are proud labels embodied in countless heroes most of us profess to admire – people like Moses, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Martin King, Dorothy Day, William Barber, and Jesus himself. We’re in very good company.        

Jeremiads for America: Six Unspeakable Propositions (& One Glimmer of Hope)

Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JEREMIAH 20: 10-13; PSALM 69:8-17, 33-35; ROMANS 5: 12-15; MATTHEW 10: 26-33

Today’s readings can be seen as centralizing the term “jeremiad.” In that light, and despite its usually dismissive connotations, I hope you’ll consider what I’m about to say as belonging to that prophetic category. I make it my own in a spirit of desperation generated by the trouble we all observe in our streets these days following the murder of George Floyd. What follows is entirely consistent with a liberation theology perspective — the most important theological development in the last 1500 years.

Jeremiads

According to online dictionaries, “jeremiad” refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.

The word derives from the name of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah whose words set the tone for today’s liturgy of the word. Taken together, the day’s readings might be considered commentary on his opening denunciation of his own country, Judah.

By way of context, you should know that Jeremiah did his work during the Babylonian Exile (roughly, 597 – 538 BCE), when his country’s elite had been abducted to what is modern day Iraq. Jeremiah attributed that defining tragedy to the infidelity of Judah’s leadership to their covenant with their God. Above all, it mandated care for the nation’s poor, its widows, and orphans.

Instead, its kings and upper classes were busy lining their own pockets while neglecting the very ones their religious traditions identified as God’s favorites. For Jeremiah, that neglect represented a rejection of God’s very self. It accordingly merited a half century of exile from the Holy Land and God’s special presence there.

With all of that in mind, please read today’s biblical selections. To repeat, they will lay the groundwork for my contemporary jeremiads that might be addressed to the United States. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read them for yourself here to see if I got them right.

Today’s Readings

JEREMIAH 20: 10-13: I am surrounded by state terrorists. They monitor my slightest missteps using a sophisticated surveillance apparatus and sting operations that seek revenge for my damning accusations. But I remain undeterred.  My rich persecutors are the ones who will end up confused and shamed. YHWH, the champion of the poor, will see to that.  

PSALMS 69: 8-17, 33-35: In fact, nothing can stop any genuine prophet from siding with the poor: not public shame, not family ostracization, not insults or curses. Bolstered by divine kindness, mercy and love, all prophets speak words of comfort to the impoverished and imprisoned. In this, God’s spokespersons are one with the Source of Life itself that fills the seas and skies and the very hearts of humanity.

ROMANS 5: 12-15: The prophet, Paul of Tarsus, was no different from Jeremiah. Shockingly, he identified Law itself as the source of the world’s evil – a tool of the rich and powerful to control God’s favorites (the poor and despised) with feelings of guilt and shame. For Paul, Jesus the Christ – the greatest of the anarchistic prophets — rendered all such law obsolete. 

MATTHEW 10: 26-33: In that spirit, Jesus advised absolute refusal to accept the regulations, cover-ups and “state secrets” of the rich and powerful. Their every utterance should be disclosed for the lie it is. Speak truth then, even in the face of death threats. It is far better to lose your life, Jesus said, rather than surrender to lies of Rulers from Hell. Follow the example of prophets who though typically assassinated, preserved their integrity by telling the truth of a loving God committed to the poor and oppressed.

Jeremiads for America

So, in the spirit of those words from Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus the Christ, let’s review some of the most profound reasons for the police riots in our streets. I feel confident our three prophets would say that taken together, the following half-dozen propositions describe elements that have shaped our national reality of damning racism and police state violence. Our readings direct us to face up to these defining truths and take our lead from those vilified by mainstream culture – our nation’s indigenous, descendants of slaves, and the Latinx community.

  1. “America” was founded by scoundrels, not heroes: Face it: the so-called “Founding Fathers” were not heroic. They were outright colonialists who tired of sharing the spoils of their Grand Larceny with royal godfathers back home in England. Washington, Hamilton, and the rest wanted it all for themselves and their class. As liberation theologians argue, their Jeffersonian declaration that “all men are created equal” was intended principally to establish the fact that settlers were equal with the “Indians” and so could steal their land and resources which, they argued, were up for grabs according to the law of the strongest and that of capitalist “efficiency.”
  2. It all began with unbelievable genocide: In American Holocaust, David E. Stannard puts the number of indigenous Americans killed from the time of Columbus’ invasion to Wounded Knee (in the 1890s) at 100 million. It remains the most massive act of genocide in human history.
  3. Primitive accumulation of capital came from the unpaid work of millions of slaves: Three hundred years of such labor created huge fortunes and laid the groundwork for America’s industrial revolution.
  4. Huge swaths of “America” were stolen from Mexico: In 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first, and then [after the Mexican American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. So, it’s not that Mexicans are crossing “our border;” rather, the border crossed them.
  5. Probably, about 90% of the nation’s police force is criminal: The evidence or police brutality displayed in our streets these days leads one to think that not much has changed since 1973. That’s when NYPD police insider, Frank Serpico, estimated that about 10% of police officers are honest; about 10% are absolutely corrupt, and the other 80% wish they weren’t. In fact, ninety percent of the cops we’ve seen on our TV screens exhibit what can only be described as unconstitutional criminal activity. Virtually all of them cover up, condone evidence-planting, and make excuses for crimes of their colleagues that we’ve all seen with our own eyes. In other words, virtually all of them are liars.
  6. Our nation remains the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: This characterization by Martin Luther King is as true today as it was when he made the allegation in 1967. As the most violent nation on earth, the United States represents the origin of most of the planet’s problems. If it fell off the face of the earth, the planet would be better off.

Of course, the list of propositions like those could go on infinitum. Our nation continues to exist in profound denial about its continued racism and overwhelming corruption. Democracy in America has virtually disappeared through gerrymandering, voter suppression, crooked voting machines, and campaign contributions that amount to legalized bribery. All levers of power now reside in the hands of oligarchs supported by a racist “justice system” that has also been captured by the wealthy elite – all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Glimmer of Hope

Besides echoing prophetic jeremiads, what I’ve just said are simply home truths. By themselves they’ll surprise almost no one who is paying attention. Yet (at least for me) taken together they illustrate the fact that (far from being exceptionally good) our country is deeply, deeply flawed by a profound racism, corruption, and supporting violence that put us nearly beyond human possibility of redemption.

Ironically, however (as always in the biblical tradition that Jesus endorsed) it’s in society’s marginalized classes that hope is to be found.

At this particular historical moment, it’s the nation’s black community that embodies our last best prospect. It’s what makes America truly distinct and great. I’m referring to abolitionism, the civil rights movement, and heroes like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. They were more highly principled and greater heroes than Washington, Jefferson or Hamilton. Their work for social justice has influenced liberation struggles across the planet. It has inspired other achievements that make America great – such as the drive for women’s liberation, the gay rights struggle, and the environmental movement.  

Conclusion

Yes, this has been a jeremiad homily against a dying nation blinded to its false premises by systemic racism. Today’s readings and the prophetic traditions they represent remind us that what makes America great are those who have resisted and continue to resist all representations of white supremacy. The real heroes – the truly Great Americans – are our country’s indigenous remnant as embodied for example in the Standing Rock water protectors. They’re the slavery and prison abolitionists, women suffragists and feminists. Above all, at this moment, they’re the Black Lives Matter activists inspired by their Civil Rights Movement forebears.

The prophet Jeremiah himself, along with his counterparts, Jesus and Paul call us to accept such uncomfortable facts and join forces with those equally prophetic agents of hope.

Face It: America’s God Is Violence

Readings for Trinity Sunday: Exodus 34: 4B-6, 8-9; Daniel 3: 52-56; 2nd Corinthians 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18

You’ll never convince me that theology is unimportant or irrelevant to politics.

Early last week, President Trump had Lafayette Park cleared of protestors for a Bible-waving photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Evidently, his specifically theological point was to assure everyone that God is somehow on his side and that of the DC police in their fight with the peaceful protestors he called “thugs” and “terrorists.” The president implied that God supports his and the cops ham-handed attempts to quell the general uprising sparked throughout the country (and the world) by the brutal murder of George Floyd, yet another unarmed black man executed by the police state Mr. Trump now heads.

The presidential photo-op underscored not only the tone-deaf cynicism of the current occupant of the White House. It highlighted as well, the identity of the three-personed God he and his white “Christian” supporters actually worship. It’s not the God of Jesus.

I bring that up, because today is Trinity Sunday – a day that calls attention to the mysterious Christian belief that almost no one can coherently explain. It’s the faith that there are three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today in these remarks, I’m setting aside any concern with obscure, esoteric explanations of that rich mystery so often trivialized into some sort of mathematical problem. (It has been well explained most recently by Richard Rohr in his The Divine Dance. Highly recommended.)

My point instead is to redirect its understanding in a more immediate way intimately connected with what’s happening now in our city streets. It is to explore the mysteries of the real Trinity that we Americans actually worship. It’s a divinity Americans call on to solve any problem you might imagine.  I’m talking about the deity called Violence. Yes, as what Dr. King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” our nation worships Violence Itself.

Our reverence for this quasi-divine being is revealed in our vicious cultures of police and military so evident in our cities these days. It’s revealed in our worship of guns, in our “defense” budgets, in our films, and in the wars our nation more than any other on the planet initiates and sustains throughout the world.    

Like the traditional Trinity, our God of Violence also has three manifestations. There is Violence the Father, Violence the Son, and Violence the Evil Spirit. Let me try to explain.

Trinitarian Violence

Violence the Father: This is the invisible power that shapes all of our lives. Sociologists refer to his domain in terms of “structural violence.”  He is the creator of every society’s status quo – the form of mayhem that begets most of its other manifestations. This violent divinity is the one in whom we Americans live and move and have our being; he’s like the air we breathe; we don’t even notice his presence. Yet our simple participation in the world-as-we-know-it transforms us into his votaries.

Worldwide, this is the God who allows 15,000 children to die each day of absolutely preventable poverty and hunger. Most commonly, they are victimized by ailments as simple as diarrhea caused by contaminated water. But all those children die at our system’s hand just as surely and predictably as if executioners put guns to their heads and pulled the trigger 15,000 times every 24 hours. The God of the status quo endorses every shot.

Violence the Father also underwrites ghettoes, decrepit schools, food deserts, and structural unemployment. He makes sure drinking water is contaminated by lead, that borders are closed to refugees and asylum seekers, and that the air in poor communities is unbreathable.

For the police, he’s the patron of “qualified immunity.” That’s the legal doctrine that encourages law enforcement crime. In practice, it guarantees that police will never be convicted of any crime unless their attorneys prove unable to turn up a single cop anywhere in the world who wouldn’t have acted similarly in a similar situation. What a joke!

Americans love Violence the Father. We’re convinced his order is the best human beings can achieve. After all, we live in “the greatest country in the world.” [We say that with a straight face, even though (if we opened our eyes) we would see clearly that other better countries are all over the map. However, our fundamentalist religious brainwashing masquerading as “patriotism” just won’t let us go there.]

Violence the Son: This is the second person of the unholy trinity worshipped throughout America. Violence the Son is the offspring of the Father – his only (i.e. inevitably) begotten son. He embodies the self-defensive, but ultimately auto-destructive response of perhaps 5% of the protestors in our streets during these days of rage and rebellion. They are the marginalized, despised and brutalized who have abandoned hope of systemic reform by going through the channels. They’ve given up on Dr. King’s and on Jesus’ non-violent resistance.  

If the truth be told, many of them are heroic by standards widespread in our country, where precious few subscribe to non-violence. Often, these devotees consider themselves spiritual descendants of the U.S. Founding Fathers. Remember how those sometime heroes bravely defended the right to take up arms against any government or police force that denies rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In their Declaration of Independence, the founders wrote “. . . whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government. . .”

Yet, the attitude of these followers of Violence the Son, though apparently heroic, is self-destructive. That’s because it inevitably incurs a response from the militarized state that is overwhelming and absolutely destructive. It’s that response of police brutality that has horrified us all over the past ten days. It’s the third-level violence — that of the Unholy Spirit.  

Violence the Evil Spirit:

This is the spirit of fear, racism, vengeance, and false patriotism that inspires police and military over-response to the small number of protestors who worship Violence the Son. And, as I just said, the response in question is devastating. Worldwide, this Spirit routinely leads the United States to mercilessly slaughter any who dare raise a fist against first-level structural crimes inspired by Violence the Father. Think of the hundreds of thousands butchered throughout Central America during the 1980s, when the U.S. crushed peasant response to U.S. neocolonialism, regime change, torture and assassination in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras.

But closer to home, think of last week’s spectacles of police cars running over those exercising their Second Amendment rights.  We all saw those committed to “protect and serve” instead slashing tires, tear gassing, pepper spraying, and tasering peaceful protestors. We saw them crack open the head of a 75-year-old man in Buffalo. As agents provocateurs, they smashed windows, set fire to police cars, and left piles of bricks strategically placed for use by activists inclined to throw them.

It’s at the altar of this evil spirit that the NYPD worships along with other infamous blue-clad gangsters throughout the country.  By their actions, they’ve revealed the truth of Frank Serpico’s telling description of New York City police. Ten percent of them, he said, are honest. Ten percent are absolutely corrupt. And the other 80% wish they weren’t. In other words, 90% of our nation’s police forces are proving themselves to be brutally crooked especially towards people of color. And virtually all of them are committed to protecting each other’s backs no matter what. And that means that virtually all of them are liars and criminals.

And why not? They all worship our trinity’s third person – the Spirit of Violence itself.

Conclusion

Yes, what I’m saying is that almost all of us end up offering incense not to Christianity’s Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, the God most of us worship is Violence pure and simple. In fact, most in our country would laugh in your face if you suggested adopting and implementing Jesus’ words about love and forgiveness of enemies. No, we prefer to hate and kill them – in the name of God. For most of us, anger and violence are stronger and more realistic than any ethic endorsed by the one honored in that church Mr. Trump used as a prop. As a people, Americans love Violence.

Today’s Trinity Sunday observance and the teachings of Jesus in general call us away from all that. They ask us to repudiate our idolatry of Violence – Father, Son and Evil Spirit – and to join peaceful protestors all over the world – in the Holy Spirit of Jesus himself. That Spirit remains 180 degrees opposed to our country’s allegiance to the status quo and its violent police state Trinity.

Pentecost Sunday Homily: Don’t Support the Hong Kong Protesters

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 2: 1-11; PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34; I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13; JOHN 20: 19-23

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the originally Jewish harvest festival that comes 50 days after Passover. The day’s readings remind us that from the beginning Jesus’ Jewish followers were working-class internationalists. Despite their lack of what the world calls “sophistication,” they recognized a unified divine order where barriers of language, nationality, and differentiating wealth were erased.

Before I get to that, let me connect that central fact with perhaps the prominent international and class-based concern in our contemporary context. I’m referring to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and an emerging new cold war between the United States and China. Our Pentecostal readings suggest we should be standing with the Chinese government and not with our own.

China and Hong Kong

Last week I shared a summary of an important debate about China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani. The debate’s question was: Is China merely a competitor of the United States or is it an adversary or even an enemy? Doesn’t China’s suppression of free speech and free press, of religion and of democracy make it an enemy?

My article held that, all things considered, China is a more genuine defender of human rights than the United States. I won’t repeat my argument here, but it turned on the distinction between bourgeois human rights (private property, contract observance, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion) and socialist rights to work, food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

Since the publication of my column, its relevance was highlighted by renewed demonstrations in Hong Kong. There despite a COVID-19 lockdown with its social distancing requirements, demonstrators came out in force last Sunday. They were protesting against new legislation in the territory that would allow officers of the law to arrest protestors for speaking out against the local government or authorities in Beijing.

Whom to Support?

So, the question became how should progressives respond? Even granted the distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights, shouldn’t leftists seeking consistency and coherence, be on the side of the Hong Kong protestors? After all, they’re described as “pro-democracy.”

Despite such description, my answer would be a resounding “No.”

The main reason for my saying that is related to the class concerns reflected in the above distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights. The fact is, all demonstrations are not the same. Some are organized against oppressive systems such as capitalism and its prioritization of wealth accumulation and contract obligations on the one hand and its marginalization of workers’ needs to eat, be decently clothed and housed, and to have dignified work and a healthy environment on the other. The Yellow Vest Movement in France and the Water Protectors’ demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline in North Dakota offer examples of protests against capitalist exploitation.

In contrast, other demonstrations are reactionary and directed against specifically working-class reforms. Participants typically support colonialism and imperialism. The thousands in the streets of Hong Kong and Venezuela offer prime examples of such protests.  Hong Kong protestors’ waving of Union Jacks signals their preference of the status quo ante of British colonialism. Their appeals for U.S. intervention (with U.S. flags unfurled) express support for imperialism.

(Of course, especially under the guidance of foreign interventionist forces such as the CIA and its sister National Endowment for Democracy (NED), other lower-class social forces such as unemployed and underpaid workers (Marx’s lumpen proletariat) can also be organized by their betters to direct their anger at the class enemy of their bourgeois organizers — in this case, the Chinese government in Beijing.)  

The bottom line here, however, is that to be consistent, progressives must oppose not only prioritization of wealth accumulation by financiers, but also anything connected with colonialism and imperialism.    

To repeat: not all demonstrations, not all clamoring for “human rights” are created equal.  Class-consciousness provides an indispensable tool for distinguishing the causes and demonstrations that progressives should support from those we should oppose.

Pentecost Readings

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the readings for this Pentecost Sunday. Let’s read them with the same class consciousness I’ve just referenced. Here are my “translations.” You can examine them here to see if I got them right.

ACTS 2: 1-11: Fifty days after Jesus’ New Manifestation as one with all the poor, executed and other victims of imperialism, his fearful working-class followers suddenly found themselves filled with the same consciousness Jesus had. They internalized the Master’s conviction that poor people like themselves could embody his vanguard consciousness heralding the completely new world order Jesus called God’s “Kingdom.” Suddenly on fire and filled with courage, these poor, illiterate fishermen electrified huge crowds from “every nation under heaven.” Despite language barriers their impoverished and oppressed audience understood that God was on their side.

PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34: Jesus shared his Spirit with the poor in order to renew the face of the earth – this earth (not heaven above) filled with magnificent creatures of all types. They’ve all been put here to make everyone (not just the wealthy) happy and joyful. We who identify with the poor are entirely grateful.

I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13: It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that makes us recognize that he, not any oppressive Caesar, is in charge here on earth. The Spirit’s gifts have been given for the Common Good not for private gratification or foreign control. In fact, all of us are one – as if we comprised a single body. Nationalities are irrelevant. Slavery of any kind is completely passé.

SEQUENCE: So, may we too receive Jesus’ Spirit this very day. May we recognize it in the poor, in our hearts, in the light of our new understanding, in the gifts we’ve received, and in just rewards for our labor. Yes, we’ve been wounded, desiccated and made to feel guilty. We rejoice to know that poverty and misery are not the will of some God “up there.” The Holy Spirit’s will is abundance for all. Thank you!

JOHN 20: 19-23: Following his execution, in his New (resurrected) Manifestation, the meaning of Jesus’ execution by empire became apparent. Having internalized his Spirit, his friends recognized his wounds as badges of solidarity with the poor, tortured victims of imperial powers. They threw off guilt and embraced world peace instead.

Conclusions

Think of today’s readings as they relate to Hong Kong. . . Though recorded two generations after the fact, the Jerusalem events portrayed were extraordinarily revealing. They had people of the lowest classes (no doubt, under the watchful eye of Rome’s occupying forces) – probably illiterates – claiming to be spokespersons for God. And this, not even two months after the execution of Jesus the Christ, who had been executed as a terrorist by Roman authorities. What courage on their part!

The readings, then, remind us of whose side the biblical All Parent is on. In contemporary terms, it’s not the side of financiers, bankers, imperialists or colonialists. Rather, it’s the side of those the world’s powerful consider their sworn enemies – the poor, illiterate, unemployed, underpaid, tortured and executed victims of colonialism and empire.

However, those latter categories represent the very classes that socialism (even “with Chinese characteristics”) rescued from their landlord oppressors in 1949 and that have been under western siege there ever since. Under socialism, the impoverished in China are the ones who have seen their wages and standard of living massively improve over the last thirty years.

Improvements of this type under communist leadership are totally unacceptable to the United States and the “allies” it has absorbed into what it proudly describes as its empire. That empire always opposes socialism and will stop at nothing to make it fail.

Such realizations lead to the following observations about Hong Kong in particular:

  • As shown by the display of Union Jack and American flags and by signs invoking the intervention of President Trump, the demonstrations in Hong Kong are neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist and neoliberal in their understandings of human rights.
  • They are seeking the bourgeois “democratic rights” that overridingly prioritize private property and the integrity of commercial rights over the socialist rights championed by the Chinese Communist Party—food, shelter, clothing, jobs, health care, and education.
  • The fact that ex-CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, is leading the charge in Hong Kong should give everyone pause. (This, especially in the light of Pompeo’s boast and endorsement of “lying, cheating, and stealing” as CIA standard operating procedure.)
  • In fact, and on principle, any Trump administration defense of human rights should probably drive those with social justice concerns to defend the other side.   
  • Or at the very least, Pompeo’s and the Trump administration’s diverse response to demonstrations in Hong Kong on the one hand and to the (working class) Yellow Vests in France and to indigenous Water Protectors in North Dakota on the other, should raise serious questions.

Closing Note

The bottom line here, however, is that all demonstrations and protests are not created equal. The Pentecost gathering in Jerusalem was a poor people’s international meeting of “every nation on the face of the earth.” It celebrated the Spirit of a poor worker who was a victim of torture and capital punishment by imperial Rome. Its claim was that the Divine World Spirit is on the side of the imperialized, colonized, tortured and executed. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is far more in line with that tradition than is neoliberal capitalism.

Progressive followers and/or admirers of Jesus the Christ should keep that in mind as they watch events in Hong Kong unfold.

Preparing for Pentecost’s Enlightenment

Our readings for this Sixth Sunday of Easter are preparing us for Pentecost Sunday two weeks from today. That’s the day the church specifically celebrates the presence of Jesus Spirit in the world. It’s a Spirit that remains 180 degrees opposed to the world’s prevailing spirit of competition, violence, misogyny, and alienation from creation. The world’s is a spirit of fear and control that has nothing to do with what is finally important in life.

To all of that, today’s readings juxtapose Jesus’ own Spirit as one of healing, joy, and common good.

It recognizes human family, cooperation, non-violence, and respect for Mother Earth as the foundational elements of our lives.

Here’s the way I translate today’s readings (For the sake of comparison, you can find the originals here.): 

ACTS 8: 5-8, 14-17: It was care for others – psychological and physical healing – that caused people to pay attention to early presentations of Jesus’ New Way. It was life inspired by a Spirit of Wholeness that acknowledged the unity of all creation. The laying on of hands brought together symbolically and in reality, the left and right hemispheres of each person’s brain; yes, it made them whole and happy.

PSALMS 66: 1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 26: Such joy is God’s will for everyone everywhere on earth. It comes inevitably when we open our eyes to the beauty of creation and our ears to the songs it sings. But more than anything, joy comes from the miraculous liberation of the oppressed (as when former slaves crossed the Reed Sea). Our God is so kind and merciful.

1 PETER 3: 15-18: So, if anyone asks you why you’re so happy, tell them gently that it’s because you’ve discovered the Christ within yourself and within everyone you meet. Of course, most won’t believe you. They might even try to harm you. But remember, that’s the way they treated our great Master. Be assured that your non-violent response will eventually lead even violent opponents to embrace Jesus’ Spirit too.

JOHN 14: 15-21: In his last will and testament, Jesus promised that those who recognize the Christ present within themselves and everyone else will live by a truth 180 degrees opposite the “truth” of the world. The Truth of the Christ, he said, confers vision to perceive what’s invisible to worldly “wisdom” – the very presence of the divine in every human being. It enables them to recognize themselves (and the Christ) in everyone they meet.

A Return to Normal Should Be the Last Thing We Want

Readings for 4th Sunday of Easter: ACTS 2:14A, 36-41; PSALM 23: 1-6; 1 PETER 2: 20B-25; JOHN 10: 1-10

This week’s readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter contain an important message for us in this time of Coronavirus. They call us to personal and community transformation – to persist in our recently imposed collective abandonment of the world’s values around profit, pleasure, power and prestige – the ones that are destroying our planet and that were rejected by the great prophet from Nazareth.

Given our immediate context, the readings’ implied message is: Don’t simply pick up where you left off. Instead embrace the new life that Mother Nature has so recently imposed. When the smoke clears, don’t go back to normal.

That’s the highly political theme of today’s readings. They focus on the image of “Life Itself as our guiding Shepherd,” and Jesus as the gate to the sheepfold protecting those within from destructive “strangers.” In biblical symbolism, such references are loaded with political meaning. Since the time of King David, Judah’s kings had always been referred to as shepherds.

So, when today’s familiar responsorial says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” It’s laying out a list of imperatives for kings like David. As God’s administrators, they are to make sure people have food and drink, shelter, leisure, and a clean and verdant environment.

And when John the evangelist has Jesus refer to himself as the sheepfold’s gatekeeper, John is calling attention to Jesus’ Way as leading from one reality (the world’s) to another, the fold he called the Kingdom of God. There, everything will be reversed. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be humiliated and the poor have the earth for their possession.

Unbelievably, the coronavirus has shed a bright light both on the corruption of what we’ve come to consider “normal,” and on what Arundhati Roy calls the “portal” and Jesus calls “the gate” leading to a revolutionary reality with kingdom overtones.

The Old Normality

To begin with, consider the old normal, specifically here in the United States.

Like the USSR in 1989, the USA has collapsed before our eyes in a matter of weeks. Yes, it’s already a fait accompli. And no one knows what to do about it.

The country’s economy has drawn to an absolute standstill. And it’s not going to return to normal any time soon. Unemployment is projected to exceed Great Depression proportions. People already routinely line up for blocks-long breadlines.

Moreover, the predominantly capitalist nature of America’s mixed economy has switched overnight to a predominantly socialist one. Instead of being allowed to perish (as capitalist theory would demand) the country’s largest enterprises have proven to require repeated bailouts from the central government. It happened with the Dot Com Burst of 2000, with the Great Recession in 2008, and now with the COVID-19 Crash of 2020. The system is completely unstable, and its survival requires those periodic infusions totaling trillions of dollars each time. Meanwhile millions go hungry and are left unemployed and wondering where their next meal might come from.

That’s called “socialism.” And in a matter of weeks, it’s happened in what we brag about as “the richest in the world.”

At the same time, the central government pledged by its Constitution to protect its citizens claims no responsibility to do so. It has left that obligation to local governments and to mutual aid organizations.

The resulting chaos has lifted the curtain that previously had prevented our realizing the actual swath of the sudden systemic collapse. Besides the political breakdown just noted, the disarray has touched at the very least, the following key elements:

  • Healthcare: Like nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the insanity of the U.S. healthcare non-system. We spend twice as much as the rest of the world in this area and end up with a vastly inferior product. U.S. healthcare has proven completely unable to respond to an absolutely predictable viral crisis. Disgracefully, with a far smaller population than China’s, we currently lead the world in Coronavirus deaths. As a result, polls show that a strong majority from both parties want to switch to single payer healthcare. However, presidential candidates from both parties, revealing their ownership by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, steadfastly refuse to even consider that option. 
  • U.S. Industry: America’s system of production has also proven far less able to respond to COVID-19 than China’s. Our industries cannot even produce enough cotton swabs, much less, simple products like virus test kits, hospital beds, or protective gear for its first responders. That too represents a failure of the underlying neoliberal capitalist system that has off-shored productive capacity for more than 40 years.

However, the systemic failure unfolding before our eyes goes much further. It touches:

  • A phantom democracy: Ours is a phony democracy. It is based on bribery masquerading as “campaign contributions.” Its voting machines are easily hackable. The reigning system of gerrymandering has politicians choosing voters rather than the reverse. Voter suppression is widespread and obvious. No wonder only about half of Americans bother to vote. 
  • A decayed infrastructure: Roads are potholed. Bridges are increasingly dangerous.
  • Homelessness: Our streets are filled with people sleeping on grates, while homes and office spaces lie empty. The system can’t bring the two together.
  • Overflowing Prisons: The United States imprisons a greater proportion of its people than any other country in the world. Most of them are black and brown. This racist system has an imprisonment rate 5 times higher than most countries in the world. And conditions in the privatized prisons are generally abominable.
  • A propagandized mainstream media (MSM): Six giant corporations – Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom — own most newspapers, TV and radio stations. They act more like government propagandists and stenographers for politicians rather than fulfilling their traditionally assigned Fifth Estate function. Like those living in the former USSR, most of us have learned to mistrust the MSM in favor of on-line sources – the new samizdat equivalents.
  • A corrupt military: The U.S. military fights perpetual wars no one understands: To put down rebellions against its imperial policies, it currently spends (officially) nearly $2 billion each day ($718 billion in total annually). During the Obama administration, Americans dropped more than 26,000 bombs on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Its drones terrorized populations in those countries on a daily basis. In other words, the United States continues to be what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
  • A politicized “justice” system: The court system has been packed for the next generation to favor corporations and the rich rather than ordinary people. That’s true all the way up to the Supreme Court whose key decisions (like Citizens United) have neutered democracy and punished women and the poor. Its predominant right-wing members should be called “Injustices” rather than Justices. 

Today’s Readings

With all of that in mind, consider today’s readings as they centralize the primacy of Jesus’ “Way” over destructive values like those that the United States has come to embody. What follows are my “translations;” you can find the originals here.

ACTS 2: 14A, 36-41: Jewish Peter continues last week’s first Christian sermon: Peter says, “The crucified Jesus whom you mistakenly executed achieved the full Christ-consciousness the world has been waiting for.” When the crowd heard this they asked, “What then must we do?” Peter answered: “In the Spirit of the Christ, reject the world’s values and join us in the reformation of life dictated by our own holy faith.” Thousands of good Jews said “yes” that very day.

PSALM 23: 1-6: His listeners’ “yes” was premised on a traditional Jewish understanding of God: The Divine One is an accompanying kind Good Shepherd – the traditional symbol of a king. The divine order leaves no one in want, but provides food and drink, housing, rest, comfort, refreshment, courage, protection for everyone without distinction. 

1 PETER 2: 20B-25: In a later letter Peter elaborated: If the world hates and hurts you for trusting such a God, know that you must be doing something right. You’re actually following in the footsteps of Jesus. Remember how they insulted him and that he remained nonviolent even when it cost him his life. Such awareness will keep you whole and on the right path blazed for us by our beloved Good Shepherd.

John 10: 1-10: A even much later reflection on Jesus as Good Shepherd: Jesus often used strange imagery to confuse his enemies. For instance, he referred to himself as a shepherd and to foreign occupiers (“strangers”) as sheep rustlers. In today’s reading, he calls himself the “gate” of the sheepfold, but also the “gatekeeper.” In the spirit of Psalm 23 (above), he speaks of his friends as his “sheep” and the purpose of his shepherding as protection and fullness of life for them.  

Conclusion

As already indicated, Arundhati Roy recently picked up Jesus’ gate theme.  At the prospect of ending the current lockdown, she spoke of our standing before a “portal” leading to a new way of life. It opens onto the new world our Great Holy Mother Earth has displayed for us these last six weeks.

Whatever the immediate causes of the virus, it seems that the Goddess of All has used it to make us realize that the world’s catastrophic way of consumption, environmental destruction, hurry and stress is not inevitable. Rather, it is clearly possible for the entire world to leave all of that behind.

Our Mother has shown us unmistakably that we humans are the actual virus afflicting the world. With our infernal machines ground to a halt, the sky cleared, birds and animals returned to their natural habitat, and rivers ran clear again.

In fact, another world (previously considered impossible, unrealistic, and utopian) has been shown to be indeed possible. Its restoration constitutes the very meaning of the religious term “repentance.”

What If Mumia Abu-Jamal Were President: Communism in the Bible

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter: ACTS 2: 42-47; PSALMS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1st PETER: 1: 3-9; JOHN 20: 19-31

Last week, on Easter Sunday, I presented Jose Mujica as a model president. Mujica, I pointed out, was the president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. He had been a Marxist Tupamaros (Robinhood) guerrilla since his student days. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 12 years – 3 of them spent in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well. As president, he introduced profound changes in Uruguayan politics. As I noted, he took steps towards the legalization of all drugs in an effort to defeat the country’s drug gangs.

But perhaps Mujica’s most impactful step came in the example he offered national chief executives everywhere in his rejection of the typical presidential lifestyle. He gave away 90% of his yearly salary to the poor and dedicated that money to providing housing for the country’s homeless. He sold the presidential limousine in favor of retaining his old Volkswagen beetle. He continued living with his wife in his run-down peasant farmhouse.

In my frustration over this year’s Hobson’s choice between Trump and Biden, I couldn’t help thinking: what if we chose a U.S. president who did something like that? What if, instead of looking for leadership to billionaires like Trump or lifelong politicians like Biden, we elected someone like Jose Mujica – a peasant, a worker, a radical thinker? How would that change American politics? How would that change the world?

What if we elected someone like Mumia Abu-Jamal? Abu-Jamal, of course, is the Marxist Black Panther journalist who had spent years as a political prisoner on death row. Allegedly he killed a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 – a charge he has always vehemently denied. In any case, he regularly publishes insightful, edgy comment from prison and is often interviewed on NPR and programs like “Democracy Now.” What if Mumia were our president?    

I raise those questions because they’re suggested by the readings for this second Sunday of Easter. They expose us to the shocking fact that resurrection for the first Christians turned everything completely upside-down. They actually embraced communism and recognized as their leader a worker, a victim of capital punishment from death row. Yes, they embraced the communist ideal that inspired both Mujica and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Today’s Readings

The readings are brilliant and timely in that they not only give us an insight into the primitive Christian community. They also urge us to turn our politics upside-down. They do so first by offering an abstract description of the original Christian community, and then by fleshing out that description with narrative about a key encounter of a skeptic with the risen Christ who embodies the basis of the communist vision – identification with society’s victims and despised.

Here are my “translations” of those readings. You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right:  

ACTS 2: 42-47: The first Christians were communists. Following the teachings of Jesus, they prayerfully shared meals each day and all their possessions – from each according to ability to each according to need. Their example was so awe-inspiring that everyone loved them, and their numbers grew rapidly.

PSALMS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24: Christian communalism was a dim reflection of the benevolence of Life Itself as demonstrated in nature and throughout human history. No one truly owns anything; it’s all GIFT. Though unrecognized by the world, renouncing private property is the rejected cornerstone of human community – the key to surmounting every human problem. Accepting this truth, even in the worst of times, those committed to justice manifest super-human strength, courage, and joy.

FIRST PETER: 1: 3-9: It’s as if they were all born again into a new creation filled with hope that is stronger than death itself. Talk about inheritance! Communal sharing has made us richer than kings and their vast storehouses of gold. We’ve experienced the very goal of history – even though the world’s opposition to our sharing obscures the fact that we are on the right path – the one blazed by Jesus himself (and the other great divine incarnations). There is no other portal to human happiness.  

JOHN 20: 19-31: Fear of the world, its violence and opposition to Jesus’ communalism has intimidated us into denying his way. Yes, we’re all denialists like the one they called “The Twin” (Didymus). He is our double in rejecting in absentia Jesus’ Holy Spirit of peace and forgiveness, of sharing and community that make peace possible. Correcting false perception means recognizing Christ himself in those the world has wounded and assassinated for daring to follow him.

Christian Communism

Please do read for yourselves today’s first reading, ACTS: 2: 42-47. It’s significant that on this week after Easter, the passage immediately directs us not to “spiritual” concern with heaven and the afterlife, but to material property, land and the primacy of the marginalized in organizing community life. Here’s a fuller description of the way the early Christians lived. You’ll find it in ACTS, Chapter 4:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).

Note that the description immediately connects the interior lives of believers (heart and soul unity) with communizing the group’s possessions. They sold their land and houses, pooled the resulting resources and redistributed wealth on the basis of need. All of this was an expression, the passage says, of early Christian belief in the new way of life expressed in the term “resurrection.” Communism was the logical, practical expression of following Jesus’ teaching. Doing so brought the community grace, i.e. favor with God and with those outside their community.

How different that understanding is from what, in effect, we’ve been taught since infancy about capitalism as somehow God’s way. It’s as if the above passage read:

“Now the whole group of those who believed entered into competition with one another. They fiercely guarded their possessions and considered private property as sacred. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the dog-eat-dog world Jesus described as God’s Kingdom. So, they all viewed the “needy” as lazy and unproductive. They evicted them when they defaulted on rent and then tore down their hovels to enrich themselves and develop gentrified neighborhoods. In this way, Jesus’ early followers became rich and prosperous, while the poor got their just deserts – poverty and misery.” 

I’m not exaggerating. That emphasis on private property, on the law of the jungle, and justifying a resulting gap between rich and poor is embraced by many Christians as if the godly life Jesus endorsed could be described exactly as above.

Jesus’ Place in Communism

Now switch your attention to the Gospel reading for today. It brings us inside the first Christian house church whose communism was described abstractly in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It shows Jesus’ closest followers affirming the enduring relevance of their hero as a leader remarkably like Mumia Abu-Jamal. He’s dark-skinned and condemned under false charges by the state. He not only comes from death row; he was actually a victim of torture and capital punishment. And yet, he somehow lives and continues to teach his way to community happiness!

Recall the scene. Jesus’ closest friends are in hiding, imprisoned by fear of the Romans who had just executed their great teacher and of their traitorous fellow countrymen – the Temple priests and scribal establishment – who cooperated with the foreign occupiers.

So, the doors are locked and bolted. Jesus’ inner circle feels threatened, lost and betrayed by their own naivete in following a quixotic revolutionary who had filled them with such hope for the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Inevitably, however, conversation must have turned to Jesus, his teachings and to rehearsal of the tragic events of the Passover weekend just completed. And those memories evoke Jesus’ presence, even for the iconic skeptic, Thomas called Twin (Didymus) and “Doubting.”

Thomas is really our Twin in his reluctance to believe that salvation can come from an executed criminal – or, perhaps more accurately, that life is stronger than death. And yet, like Karl Marx, he discovers that the deliverance of the human race comes from below, from a despised member of the working class, not from above and the royal or priestly classes so admired by the mainstream.

Conclusion

Thomas’ reluctant faith and that of his community as presented in today’s readings, call us to a twofold realization. The first is that our entire way of life is on the wrong track. Happiness and the good life (escape from out profound unhappiness) are not found in individual pursuit of wealth as the capitalist story of Jesus would have it.

No, it’s found in radical sharing that has us orienting community life towards the welfare of the least among us – as was the practice of the first Christian community. (That is, as I’ve shown elsewhere, mixed economies are all we have. But they should be mixed in favor of the poor in percolate-up ways rather than in favor of the rich with trickle-down policies.)

The second Thomistic (and Marxist) realization is similar. It’s that we’ve been looking for community leadership in all the wrong places. Our leaders need to come not from David’s palaces, not from Temple priests, but from the streets, from carpenters’ workshops, and even from death row.

Imagine, if we embraced the communism exemplified in today’s readings as our guiding North Star. Imagine if instead of Trump or Biden, Jose Mujica or Mumia were our president. Imagine if we could overcome the denialism of our twin, Thomas the Doubter. That’s the kind of radicality followers of Jesus are called to.