Support for “Terrorist” Heroes Is Part of the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 MC 7: 1-12, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 3, 15; 2 THES 2:11-3:5; LK 20: 27-38. 

One of the wonderful aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition is how so much of it reflects the consciousness of the poor and oppressed, while at the same time giving expression to a “preferential option for the poor.” That’s a gift for us in a culture that generally despises poor people, oppresses the world’s impoverished majority, and spins the news in ways that ignore the poor and reflect a decided “preferential option for the rich.”

This morning’s first reading is especially valuable for us who live in under the torture regime of American Empire. It actually invites us inside the heads of tortured “terrorists.” It raises the question, who are the real terrorists – the forces of empire or those who resist them? In doing so, the reading from Second Maccabees sheds light on the contemporary debate about torture in service of empire. It also highlights parallels between the mentalities of “terrorists” then and now. The reading calls us to question our support for the entire War on Terror.

For starters, consider torture itself. Our culture actually debates torture’s use, its effectiveness and morality! It does!

Previously, that would have been unthinkable. Torture used to be considered one of those intrinsic evils about which there simply could be no debate.

However, ever since Abu Ghraib gave the lie to George W. Bush’s famous prevarication, “The United States doesn’t do torture” – ever since our government’s redefinition of the word to exclude even waterboarding – it has become apparent that Bush (and so many others of our “thought-leaders”) was lying. So today, many prominent “court intellectuals” have been pushed to actually defend torture’s permissibility.

But what do tortured terrorists actually think about having limbs removed and tongues cut out? Read today’s selection about the Maccabee brothers and find out.

The Maccabees were members of a heroic family of guerrilla fighters who in the mid- 2nd century BCE terrorized the invading Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. (Actually, “Maccabee” wasn’t the family’s name; it was more a nom de guerre for an entire resistance movement. The word meant “Hammer” – the Hammer Gang – so-called because of its delight in pounding to mincemeat the invaders of their beloved homeland. The term “Maccabee” was similar to “al Qaeda,” when it simply meant “the list” – a reference to the Rolodex of assets the CIA used when it employed al Qaeda back when they were “freedom fighters” against the Russians in Afghanistan.)

For his part, the Seleucid king, Antiochus, was anti-Semitic in the extreme. He considered the Jews historically and culturally backward. For him and his empire’s advancement, Jews had to be brought into the 2nd century BCE even if it meant their kicking and screaming the whole way.

Today we might understand Antiochus’ project as “modernizing” the Jews – as Hellenizing them for purposes of imperial control. Evidently the Seleucid king subscribed to the position that if empire can persuade conquered peoples to adopt its patterns of thinking and especially of imagining God, the task of imperial administrators is made that much easier.

Many Jews agreed with the program of Antiochus. After all, the Greeks’ empire seemed invincible. If the empire couldn’t be beat, it was better to join it willingly. So, these “Hellenized Jews” stopped circumcising their sons, and changed their diets even to include eating pork. They became more Greek than the Greeks.

They also became the targets of Maccabee “terrorist” attacks. In today’s terms, such Hellenized Jews would be the targets blown up by Maccabee suicide bombers in marketplaces located in Jewish but Greek-loving neighborhoods. (Even if the Maccabee targeting may have been more selective than that, it is certain that Hellenized Jews were as much the objects of Maccabee terror as were the Seleucid forces themselves.)

In countering such extremism, Antiochus IV proscribed the Jewish religion as itself criminal and illegitimate. This was very similar to the way many “Americans” consider Islam. So Greek troops burnt and otherwise desecrated copies of the Torah in much the same way as our “Christian” troops have frequently been caught burning or urinating on the Holy Koran and on corpses of Muslim resistance fighters.

Though the Greeks considered the Maccabean forces to be terrorist, faithful Jews admired them as national heroes and servants of God. They understood that the Maccabees were fighting a Holy War against the much more powerful Seleucids. It was David against Goliath all over again.

In any case, according to today’s selection from Second Maccabees, seven brothers of the gang’s leadership were finally arrested (along with their mother) by the Greek invaders. (This would have been reported to Greeks “back home” as a great triumph – “Senior Leaders” captured making “our troops” and “our world” much safer.)

Then the torture and the screaming start.

To begin with all eight are beaten with whips and instruments designed to tear open their flesh. Then following standard operating procedures still practiced today, other enhanced interrogation techniques were used to torture the brothers one after the other in the presence of their blood-drenched mother, herself near death. The purpose here, of course, was to induce the woman to divulge names, places, and plans that she was privy to as the wife of the one who started the Jewish resistance to the Seleucids.

But what does she do? And what about her sons?

In a word, they are all – mother as well as her sons – completely defiant.

“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us” one of the brothers shouts? “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Even at the point of death he spits out the words: “You accursed fiend” (I wonder what expletive he really used!), “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

Another of the brothers sees that his torturers are actually enjoying their work. (The text refers to cutting out his tongue and amputating his hands as “cruel sport.” Does that remind you of Abu Ghraib?) So, he sticks out his tongue and stretches out his hands inviting them to do their work. “It was from Heaven that I received these,” he says. “I’d rather lose them than offend Yahweh” (read Allah).

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,” the text says. Far from being intimidated, the freedom-fighter “regarded his suffering as nothing.”

Just before dying, another of the tortured brothers undergoing the very same cruelties says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” As indicated by those words, conviction of a happy eternity moved these guerrilla fighters to embrace death willingly. (Seventy-two virgins, anyone?)

So, what goes on in the heads of the tortured? Disdain for their torturers. Defiance. Show of courage. Love for the motherland. Hope.

And what goes on for the people they die for? Admiration. Elevation of martyrs and the tortured to sainthood. Motivation to follow their example.

And ultimately victory for the tortured and assassinated. . . . I mean, against all odds, the Jewish resistance – the Hammer Terrorists – did succeed in evicting the Greeks from their homeland.

As I was saying, this reading should cause us to reevaluate our attitude towards terrorism, terrorists, and the scandal of debating the pros and cons of torture.

Marianne Williamson, Reparations & Restorative Justice

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 11:22-12:2; PS 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 THES 1:11-2:2; JN 3:16; LK 1:1-10

Today’s readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time bring up questions of restorative justice and reparations for the harm we may have caused others as individuals and as Americans.

The day’s main focus is the familiar story of the tax collector Zacchaeus.  This very wealthy man was inspired by Jesus to give half of his possessions to the poor and to restore to those he had defrauded four times as much as he had embezzled.

Zacchaeus’ example makes me think of Marianne Williamson’s campaign for president which has made reparations a central plank in her platform.  

Of course, Marianne’s reparations focus is the African American community. But her rationale for it suggests something far beyond race relations within the United States.  It intimates as well reparations to victims of U.S. foreign policy and to Mother Nature herself.

Let me explain and then show how the explanation is related to this day’s readings.

To begin with, yes, I’m still supporting Marianne Williamson for president.  She is the only candidate who confronts us with the undeniable truth that Americans need a fundamental change in consciousness if we are to address the unprecedented problems currently facing humankind.

That’s what Marianne means by “miracles” — changes in fundamental perceptions. That was also central to Jesus’ proclamation about the Kingdom of God. We must think differently about the world and act accordingly.

So, it’s not a question of merely tweaking the reigning economic system or of reviving Roosevelt’s New Deal. What we need is an entirely new world vision that operates from the premise that everything we see is completely upside down. Reality stands 180 degrees away from what our culture tells us. All of it. If our culture says “black,” we should think “white.” If it says “good,” we should think “bad.” If it says “peace,” we should know they’re getting us ready for another war.

Instead, we are all one – women, men, children, immigrants, refugees, animals, plants, and the very air we breathe. That’s the basis of Marianne Williamson’s candidacy. There are no foreigners, no sacrosanct borders – no America First. In fact, the United States must take 100% responsibility for the world’s ills.  

My decision to continue my support of Marianne Williamson was reinforced by listening to a campaign speech she gave at Yale University last week.

There she made the following points that she has always centralized in her approach to politics and to simply living as an evolved human being in our troubled world. Notice how they echo today’s Gospel themes, reparations and restorative justice:

  1. We all know that until we identify and address the root of our problems in our personal, family, and community relationships, we’ll never truly solve those problems.
  2. However, what is true in our personal lives also applies to our nation, because nations are simply groups of individuals.
  3. As Americans, we have been unwilling to face up to the harm caused by slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation on the one hand and to the resulting wealth accumulation in the white community on the other.
  4. The same holds true for U.S. foreign policy which has been based on colonialism and neocolonialism which are simply euphemisms for forcefully transferring wealth from the Global South to the Global North.
  5. Such transfer-by-force has been destructive not only to people but to the natural environment destroyed by industrialized agriculture, rainforest destruction, overfishing, and massive waste disposal in what’s been called the Third World.
  6. We thus owe reparations to African Americans, to the Global South, and to Mother Nature.
  7. Marianne’s presidency would have us directly confront those problems as the sine qua non for solving our national dilemmas, world poverty, and impending climate catastrophe.

Now, those are truly radical positions (in the etymological sense of that term). No other candidate – not even Bernie or Elizabeth Warren – addresses them at the level of consciousness emphasized by Marianne Williamson.

So, think about that and Marianne’s position on reparations and restorative justice as you read the selections included in this Sunday’s liturgy of the word. You’ll find them here. They all invite us to radically transformed ideas of God, ourselves and of those we live with – particularly on the other side of the street, on the other side of the tracks and on the other side of the world.  (Note that the first reading is from the Book of Wisdom which imagines God’s Spirit as female.) What follows are my reading’s “translations.” Please check for yourself to see if I’ve got them right:

 WIS 11:22-12:2

The Real Master
Of the Universe
Is immense
And intense
In her presence
In everything
And everyone.
To her
Our “sins” and addictions
Are trivial.
They mean nothing
In her vast
Scheme of things
Where all people
Are loved and cherished
Just as they are –
As God created them.
“Repentance”
Means rejecting
False guilt
And “wickedness”
While repairing
The hurts
We’ve inevitably inflicted
On others.
 
PS 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
 
Where God is recognized
As Love
Her name
Is constantly extolled.
She is lovely herself
And merciful
Never angry
But kind and compassionate
Always.
So, set aside
“Fear of the Lord”
And embrace your Queen
Who keeps her word,
Does nothing harmful
And favors her
Heavily burdened
And (necessarily) fallen
Children.
 
2 THES 1:11-2:2
 
Rabbi Paul’s
Constant prayer for us
Is that we might be
Like his teacher, Jesus
Who recognized
Everyone and everything
As lovable
And full of grace.
In fact,
Jesus is among us
Each day
Whenever we gather
Together
And not merely in some
Far distant future
As false teachers say.
 
JN 3:16
 
Yes, our wise Queen
Has given us Jesus
Who showed us Life
In its fullest form
That we might live
Happily ever after
 
LK 1:1-10
 
Zacchaeus,
The rich exploiter
Of his own people,
Was a tiny man
In more ways than one,
But as an example
Of repentance and reparation.
He rose above the crowd
To see Jesus differently.
Imagine his surprise
(And the anger
Of his victims)
When Jesus
Saw him differently
And invited himself for dinner.
The result?
Zacchaeus grew
Into a giant
On the spot
Giving half his possessions
To the poor
And paying
Four times
His extortions!
Four times!!
How’s that
For reparations?

I hope you can see the connection between those readings and Marianne Williamson’s emphasis on reparations for slavery and restorative justice for resources stolen in a system of unequal trades identified in the Global South as neocolonialism. The readings (and especially the example of Zacchaeus) show that such policies based on a clear moral sense of justice should represent the twin pillars of domestic and foreign policy.

No other candidate has identified those pillars with the clarity and conviction of Marianne Williamson. In the end, no other candidate — and very few spiritual leaders of any stripe — challenge us to rethink our entire understanding of life.

According to Williamson and Jesus, life, truth, and our health as a nation are to be found in exactly the opposite direction from that indicated by the reigning ideology.

How We Rich Exclude Ourselves from the Kingdom of God

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. 

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened today’s familiar gospel parable with the words “A pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray.” Even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence was like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all? Why would a tax collector?

Despite its shocking overtones, homilists generally domesticate this parable to make it reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

Crossan however says that there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised who are celebrated throughout today’s liturgy of the word. The parable and its supporting readings also explain why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God, which in Jesus’ understanding is never about life after death, but a this-worldly reality where God is king instead of Caesar.

Please give a listen to the readings. You can find them here. My “translations” run as follows:

 SIR 35: 1-14, 16-18
 
God’ justice reverses
The world’s preferential option
For the rich.
It is instead
Duly prejudiced
In favor of
The poor, oppressed,
The orphan, and the widow.
God listens to them
And affirms
Their rights
To speedy justice.
 
 
 
PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
 
Yes, be thankful and glad
That God hears
The cry of the poor
The brokenhearted
And those whose spirits
Have been crushed
By oppressors
Whose names
Will soon
Be forgotten.
 
2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18
 
The apostle Paul was
One of the oppressed.
He kept faith
In God’s justice
Even during
His rigged
Imperial trial
When his friends
Abandoned him.
Though exhausted
Like a long-distance runner
Or a gladiator
Before a lion,
He nonetheless
Felt God’s presence
As his source
Of strength and courage
Enabling him
To proclaim
God’s Kingdom
To everyone.
.
 
2 COR 5:19
 
God’s preferential
Option for the poor
Is the very message
Of Jesus, the Christ.
It can save the world.
 
LK 18: 9-14
 
Jesus’ parable
Of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
Taught that
Self-justifying
Conventional morality
Is not pleasing to God –
Not even when supported
By long prayers,
Generous tithes,
Sexual purity,
And frequent fasting.
(Yes, the Pharisee
Did all of that!)
Instead,
Entrance into God’s Kingdom
Requires nothing
But membership
In the group
Considered sinful
By us pharisees and
Our conventional morality.

To unpack those readings, first of all, think of the last one in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’ time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally, Pharisees were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: “I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer. Each reading is about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However, all of them – even the worst – were especially dear to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with people of color – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto, the barrio or favela. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

Yes, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” among us are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So, today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It’s not even a celebration of imagined virtue on the part of the poor or about repentance. It rejects all such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God, about those who belong and about us who exclude ourselves.

A Frightening Child & Prayer to Save the Environment

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:  EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3: 14-4:2; HEB 4: 12; LK 18: 1-8

Were you inspired by Greta Thunberg? I couldn’t get over her courage.

Imagine: a child of 16 years suddenly thrust beneath the blinding spotlight of the world’s stage – speaking confidently with a pope and with heads of state, addressing huge crowds and the United Nations itself. All of that would frighten me. How about you?

And she called them all to task. “How dare you!” she repeated again and again to the world’s movers and shakers whose programs for addressing climate change fell far short of the goals set by climate scientists. “Don’t listen to me,” she repeated; “listen to the scientists.” In other words, align yourselves with what Mother Nature, Life Itself, and the Universe are telling us.

And, of course, you saw the effects of her audacity. Millions were mobilized across the planet.

What started as a one-girl protest before the Swedish parliament swiftly became a thing.

Youngsters everywhere, including my own grandchildren, walked out of class and imitated Greta’s defiance. My five-year-old grandson challenged us all for driving a Volvo van whose gas engine, he said, is destroying the environment. “We should be driving an electric car instead” he objected. A five-year-old!

As someone pointed out, it’s a “Children’s Crusade” against capitalism’s worship of Moloch.

And what fear it inspired in the powerful! This wisp of a girl exercising the super-powers of concentration and focus conferred by an Asperger’s condition that would have others hiding under a rock, suddenly had the movers and shakers shaking with fear. Some ganged up on her, attacked her parents, and even belittled the teenager as mentally deficient. Their cowardly desperation showed that they were more afraid of her than she of them.

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. It’s about prayer understood as Greta- Thunberg-like alignment with Life’s processes. Regardless of what we might call it, such re-orientation can change the world and cause powerful enemies of justice to tremble even before those they see as the weakest among us.

More specifically, today’s readings trace biblical understandings of prayer from a voodoo-like practice intent on harming one’s enemies to the alignment with Life’s purposes just described. Here’s the way they run according to my own “translation.” Judge for yourself to see if I’ve got them right. You can read the originals here

 Long ago
When Israel’s primitive faith
Still pictured God
As a Man O’ War,
They magically imagined
A Yahweh persuaded
To slaughter their enemies
By Moses’ adoption
Of Wiccan postures,
Magic rocks
And feats of
Super-human endurance.
 
PS 121: 1-8
 
They were right,
Of course,
To intuit
That the Creator
Is eternally helpful
In protecting
The lives
And chosen paths
Of his creatures
Providing sunlight by day
And moonlight by night.
Divine power
Is always disposed
To help
The oppressed.
 
2 TM 3: 14-4:2
 
However, the mystic Paul
Had already
Ventured far beyond
His forebears’ voodoo.
Though he recognized
Israel’s written tradition
As inspired,
He also
Identified Jesus
As its ultimate interpreter.
For the Master,
Life’s Author
Was no Man O’ War
But a loving, patient, encouraging
Father.
 
HEB 4: 12
 
Deep in our hearts
We already knew
This to be true.
Thank you!
 
LK 18: 1-8
 
The comic Jesus
Even joked about
Those who thought
Of God as a cruel judge
Susceptible
To tiresome entreaties
And cowering before
Poor widows who
Might cuff him
About the ears
If he didn’t
Answer their petitions.
Better, he said
To “pray always”
In a quiet way
That matches
God’s unwavering disposal
To secure justice
For the oppressed.
No Man O’ War
No exhausting prayers
No Mosaic sorcerer
Here!

There are salutary lessons in those readings.

According to their vision, prayer does not mean persuading some Man in The Sky to change his mind to match our capricious whims. Instead, it’s the process of aligning our minds with the Universal Love that underpins all of reality and that in practice expresses itself in justice for widows, orphans, and immigrants – the traditional biblical protegees of God’s concern. Prayer is a habit of mind that doesn’t call for words or supplications, but for awareness of the places in life where love-as-justice is breaking in.

That love remains nearly invisible because of human attempts to obscure it with tropes about rugged individualism, survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog reality, and “nature red in tooth and claw.” Such worldly wisdom normalizes fear. Unlike Greta Thunberg, ordinary people adopting that normality become frightened and immobilized before terror -inspiring kings, presidents, bosses and judges.

Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge turns that familiar dynamic on its head. It calls us to “pray always” in the sense earlier described. Then, once our minds are aligned with God’s loving purposes, we’re called to imitate the widow who insistently sought justice not from God, but from the judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.”

In other words, Love understood as Justice for the oppressed will drive us (as it did Greta and her Children’s Crusade) to petition, protest, demonstrate, and engage in the type of direct action that threatens such agents of injustice. Jesus’ joke about the judge’s fear that a poor widow might do him physical harm makes his point that the selfish ones who exercise power over us are more afraid of us than we of them.

So, today’s readings suggest, align with justice and then join Greta in the streets. Be as courageous as she. Become as a little child (MT 18:3). Frighten the hell out of those judges, presidents and worshippers of Moloch! Save the planet!  

The Biblical Tradition Advocates Healthcare for All – Even for Enemies of the State

Readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2 TM 2: 8-13; 1 THES 5:18; LK 17: 11-19

On October 4th, President Trump signed a proclamation denying visas to immigrants who can’t afford to purchase health insurance within 30 days of their arrival to the United States. The new restrictions are scheduled to be implemented on November 3. They will also exclude immigrants from subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

In its proclamation, the White House said it was taking this step to safeguard the health-care system for American citizens by preventing immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid or going to emergency rooms with no insurance, requiring hospitals or taxpayers to cover the cost.

“President Trump has taken action to promote immigrant self-sufficiency, which has long been a fundamental aspect of our immigration system,” the proclamation said.

In other words, (and listen for the irony here) the uber-rich president’s action is directed against poor people and is designed to save money for a revenue base recently depleted by tax breaks principally benefitting the richest people in the most affluent country in the world.

It’s simply another onslaught in Trump’s war of rich against poor.

Today’s liturgy of the word shows that the new proclamation is not only ironic, it also stands in sharp contradiction to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on gratuitous healing.

I mean, this week’s readings seem providentially related to the issue of healthcare not only for resident aliens, but for explicit enemies of the state. The selections have two prophets (Elisha in the case of the Jewish Testament) and Jesus (in its Christian extension) curing foreign lepers. In Elisha’s case, the beneficiary of his cure is a general in an enemy army (Assyria) actually at war with Israel. That would be like Americans extending care to a notorious terrorist.  

Additionally, the readings connect with current debate about Medicare for All by suggesting the inappropriateness of charging money for healing which is understood as a gift from God. As such, the readings intimate, it should be available to all humans with no distinctions about race, class, or gender.

Please read the texts in question here. What follows is my own “translation” of their unusually coherent message about foreigners and healthcare.

 2 KGS 5: 14-17
 
During Assyria’s war on Israel,
Naaman, an enemy general,
Was cured of leprosy
By Israel’s prophet, Elisha.
The general offered
A valuable gift
In exchange.
But Elisha refused
To profit from
God’s healing.
Such salvation
Is as free as earth itself,
He implied.
It is entirely fungible
To entirely
Fungible people.
 
PS 98: 1-4
 
So, let’s sing
Of God’s healing (salvation).
On behalf of Israel
It manifests
God’s favor to non-Jews too
Causing the whole earth
To break out in song.
 
2 TM 2: 8-13
 
Jesus the Risen Christ
Endorsed Paul’s teaching
About the equality
Of Jews, Greeks,
Slaves and free,
Male and female
Prisoners and criminals.
Jesus identifies with all,
Paul said.
Every one of them
Is “chosen.”
God cannot deny
God’s generous Self.
 
1 THES 5:18
We are so grateful
For this wonderful teaching!
 
LK 17: 11-19
 
Like Elisha,
Jesus cured leprosy
This time
In a gang of 10 –
Including a Samaritan
An enemy of the people
Just like Naaman.
It was Healing
For nothing
Except for the outsider's
Singular word of thanks
Which healed him
Totally.
[No doubt
The ungrateful ones
Remained (partially) healed
As well.]

Not much needs to be added to the teachings so clearly embedded in today’s readings.

They’re about curing a culture’s most dreaded disease. They’re about foreigners and a divine dispensation that recognizes no one as somehow “foreign” or to be “shunned.” That’s true even if they represent a designated enemy of the state or adherents to a religion considered intrinsically evil by prevailing community standards.

As usual, then, and in other words, this week’s readings challenge our most cherished certainties. They call us to open ourselves to the poor, to foreigners, and even to those we’re taught to fear and hate.

They call us to denounce and resist Trumpian “proclamations” like the recent one punishing immigrants and refugees for their poverty and accidents of birth over which they have no control, but which especially endear them to the Author of Life.

Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

Clarifying Economic (& Theological) Terms in the Capitalism-Socialism Debate

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8: 4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1TM 2: 1-8; 2 COR 8:9;LK 16: 1-13

Last weekend, comedian, Bill Maher, and film-maker, Michael Moore, got into a shouting match on Maher’s show “Real Time.” Their point of contention was capitalism vs. socialism. Moore argued for socialism; Maher was against it. Their boisterousness reminded me of dinner-table arguments which (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve been part of myself.

I bring all this up because the debate is intimately related to this morning’s liturgy of the word. Though the readings obviously pre-date the emergence of the modern system, they all criticize what has historically become “the spirit of capitalism.”  

In any case, the Maher-Moore debate is worth considering not only because it manifests the relevance of the Jesus tradition to arguments like theirs. The argument also demonstrates the counter-productivity of the squabble itself. It’s counter-productive because its terms fall into a trap congenial to the enemies of the biblical tradition. The trap frames alternatives to our present economic system in terms of “socialism” instead of in terms of social justice, mixed economy, and “preferential option for the poor.”

That’s a simple distinction I never tire of making, because (as I point out in my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news) it’s absolutely key to the discussions of capitalism and socialism that will inevitably characterize the election season we’ve just entered – especially following the eventual selection of any Democratic candidate. No matter who the candidate turns out to be, s/he will be predictably vilified for advocating socialism pure and simple – an economic system that simply does not exist.

Maher and Moore both missed that point. The rest of us shouldn’t. In fact, I recommend avoidance of capitalism-socialism framing altogether. I’ll explain what I mean, and then elucidate the connections with today’s readings.

To begin with, Moore’s mistake was to represent as “socialism” his advocacy of Medicare for all (Maher was against it), free college tuition, college loan-forgiveness, and the Green New Deal. In reality, those programs notwithstanding, each of them represents elements of mixed economies – the only form of economic organization that exists in our present context. And a mixed economy always has three elements (1) Some private and some public ownership of the means of production, (2) Some controlled markets and some that are free of control, and (3) earnings limited (usually by progressive income taxes).

Every economy in the world has those elements. There are no exceptions.

Mixed economies contrast with the three elements of capitalism as well as with those of socialism. Capitalism’s three points are (1) Private ownership of the means of production, (2) Free and open markets, and (3) Unlimited earnings. None of the world’s economies embodies those elements untempered by planning.

Meanwhile, socialism’s three points are (1) Public ownership of the means of production, (2) Controlled markets, and (3) Limited earnings. Like untempered capitalism, such economic arrangement exists nowhere (including in “communist” China or Cuba).     

For his part, Maher’s defense of capitalism was also a defense of mixed economy. He agreed with many of Moore’s points. So, Maher’s “capitalism” was no less mixed than Moore’s. The difference was that Maher wanted more market and less planning in economic policy.

This is not to say that all mixed economies are equal. (And this point is essential to keep in mind). The crucial question with them is “Mixed in favor of whom?” Those who mistakenly identify themselves as “capitalists” tend to advocate economies mixed in favor of the rich. They do so on the belief that wealth trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.

Those who (equally mistakenly) identify as “socialists” want economies mixed more in favor of the working and unemployed classes. They recognize that unregulated markets respond primarily to those with the most money. Economies therefore have to be controlled to include those with limited (or no) resources.

With all of this in mind, Moore and Maher might have resolved their argument by recognizing that the choice before them is not between capitalism or socialism, but between an economy mixed in favor of the rich or one mixed in favor of the poor. And the formula for doing so might be: As much market as possible, with as much regulation as necessary (to assure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet).   

Now, a formula like that not only avoids “the socialist trap;” it is also highly compatible with the biblical social justice tradition that’s expressed so clearly in this morning’s liturgy of the word. As I’ve translated them below, today’s selections point out the injustices inherent not only in the economies of the ancient world, but in today’s neoliberal order. Both, the readings imply, were and are rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor.  Check the readings for yourself here.

This is the way I interpret them:

 AM 8: 4-7

Money makes the rich
Exploit the poor.
It leads the wealthy
To distort religion
Manipulate currency
Put thumbs on scales
Sell shoddy products
And underpay workers.
But never doubt:
They will one day reap
Due karma.
 
PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
 
For God will lift up
The poor
From the dirt
And “shitholes
They’re forced
To live in.
Thank God:
The lowly
Will one day
Become their own
Masters instead.
 
1 TM 2: 1-8
 
In the meantime,
Pray that the powerful
Might change their ways
For God cares
Even for them.
Pray that they
Might know God
As revealed in
The poor man
Jesus who died
For them too
Despite their bitterness
Lies and self-serving
Talking points.
 
2 COR 8:9
 
Yes, don’t forget:
God chose
Self-revelation
In the poor
Not in the rich.
Ironically,
God’s Preferential Option
For the Poor
Is the only way
To prosperity.
 
LK 16: 1-13
 
In fact,
The poor man, Jesus,
Laughed at the rich
Who can’t use a shovel
To save their lives,
But blame the beggars
Their own policies have created.
The rich are so crooked,
He joked,
That they even admire
Shrewdness in those
Who end up stealing from them!
Their own small larcenies
Grow exponentially.
So they cannot be trusted.
Restitution is therefore in order.
But don't worry
About the bankers:
Their “generous” loans
Can easily be written off
Without in the least
Impacting their
Decadent life-styles.
Their basic mistake
Is believing that
Differentiating wealth and God
Are somehow compatible.
They are not!

Don’t you agree that sentiments like those favor economies mixed in favor of the poor? (That’s the way they appear to me.) The readings imply that if mixed economies are all we have, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap that ensnared Moore and Maher. Instead of arguing about non-existent “capitalism” or “socialism,” we should make sure to embrace the principle “As much market as possible, but as much planning as necessary (to insure a dignified life for all).”

But to avoid pointless shouting matches, it will be necessary to carry around in our minds those clear and easily understood ideas about what capitalism and socialism are. To repeat: capitalism’s essential elements are (1) private ownership of the means of production; (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. Socialism’s defining points are just the opposite: (1) public ownership of the means of production; (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. Once again, those two definitions make it clear that mixed economies are all we have. 

Finally, we should be emphasizing the incompatibility between  the Judeo-Christian tradition and the spirit of capitalism as characterized in today’s readings. Excessive wealth on the one hand and God on the other are not compatible. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Despite our culture’s claims to the contrary, that’s the faith we “People of The Book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are called to embrace.