The Lamb of God, Pope Francis & the Smell of Sheep

Francis Sheep

Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I SAM 3: 3B-10, 19; PS 40: 4, 7-10; I COR 6: 13C-15A, 17-20; JN 35-42

Over his years in office, Pope Francis has come in for some harsh criticism from the U.S. right wing. But most of the time he had been simply ignored.

It’s not just because of his rejection of free market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and huge income disparities between the rich and poor. It’s not just his openness to gays and divorcees, and his refusal to obsess about abortion and contraception.

Yes, all of these have undermined what conservatives have seen as a close alliance between the Catholic Church and their pet causes and thinking modes — not to mention the Republican Party.

However, the straw breaking the back of reactionaries was probably the pope’s unequivocal warnings about climate change. For those conservatives, the publication of his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si, 2 ½ years ago raised the threatening specter of a global Catholic climate change movement potentially mobilizing the world’s 1.2 billion members.

The question is: why did the reactionaries prevail? Why after almost 3 years have Catholics not fore-fronted such a movement? Why, instead, did a majority of them in the 2016 elections vote for climate-change-denier, Donald Trump?

Could it be that the right wing persuaded Catholics that the pope was overstepping his authority? Or, on their own, did they intuit the drastic lifestyle conversion implied in effectively addressing climate chaos in the ways Pope Francis suggested? As announced in the title of Naomi Klein’s book, did they sense that This Changes Everything? Did they fear that taking on climate change as a moral issue would undermine the American Way of Life based on insane Republican (and Democratic) policies promising unlimited economic growth on a locked and limited planet?

Were they somehow convinced by the rhetoric like that of First Things blogger, Maureen Mullarkey who simply dropped all pretense and turned to full attack mode? According to Mullarkey , Pope Francis was simply “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.”

Do the Catholics ignoring Pope Francis agree with Mullarkey that he pretty much stinks?

Wrestling with such questions in those terms is inspired by today’s gospel reading. It’s all about stink – about sheep and what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep.” (Famously, you recall, the pontiff called on Catholic priests to live closer to the poor, to recognize them as God’s people and their welfare as the guideline for economic and social policy – to “take on,” he said, “the smell of the sheep.”)

Is it possible that conservatives have been put off by Pope Francis and vilify him because he smells too much like sheep — like the poor. He smells too much like Jesus.

Notice that in today’s gospel, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” To begin with, the phrase reminds us of the Bedouin origin of the biblical “People of God.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great King David were all shepherds. They were primitive people close to the earth. They were tribalists. In that sense, Jesus was a tribalist. According to John’s image, Jesus didn’t just smell like sheep; he was a sheep! He was in spades like his slave and Bedouin ancestors — like the poor people the pope has centralized during the entirety of his papacy.

Pope Francis shares Jesus’ closeness to and concern for tribal people. And he’s practicing what he preaches — both liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and the traditionally Catholic principle of subsidiarity. That means he endorses economic and environmental policy not on the basis of market dictates, but according to human decisions about values like the common good. Humane policy, the pope implies, originates not on Wall Street, but in places like the slums of his native Argentina and the Philippines.

As our century’s most powerful illumined voice of conscience, Francis has used his bully pulpit to wake us up. But we don’t seem to be listening. We’re like Samuel in today’s first reading – fast asleep even before the Ark of the Covenant (a reminder of Israel’s enslaved and Bedouin past). But we fail to recognize the biblical tradition’s significance to our lives – its call to tribal values which unfailingly center on animals, human family, and Mother Earth. We fail to see the implications of Paul’s observation in today’s second reading that all human beings – especially the poor and outcast – are temples of God’s spirit. That’s our tradition! That same Spirit resides, the pope says, in the planet that he (like St. Francis himself) calls our Mother and Sister.

So what kind of conversion do we need? What would a global Catholic climate movement look like?

It would entail:

  • Waking up like the young prophet Samuel. Like him we’ve heard God’s call many times. But at last in Pope Francis, we have a thought-leader speaking in a voice the simplest of us can hear. It’s the voice of conscience. And like Eli it’s giving us the proper way to respond: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A global Catholic climate movement further entails:

  • Embracing conservation as a moral issue deeply connected with faith
  • Forming a serious study group to internalize Pope Francis’ faith-based approach to climate change
  • Rejecting of superficial criticisms like Mullarkey’s suggesting that the pope is somehow an outlier on the question of climate
  • Repudiating of corporation-based globalization which has us (over)consuming imported necessities that could be home-grown.
  • Joining the fight against fracking and projects like the XL Pipeline
  • Voting accordingly.
  • Urging the institutions we can influence (churches, universities, hospitals . . .) to divest from fossil fuel industries.
  • Adopting a “zero waste” policy in our homes and places of work.
  • Cultivating home gardens.
  • Adopting a vegetarian diet.
  • Educating ourselves about “green burial” and including plans for that in our “living wills.”

The list, of course, goes on. But you get the idea.

Pope Francis is showing us the way out of our collective insanity. It is not too late for Catholics and others of good will to wake up and join his Global Movement to save the planet.

 

Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?

The Republican Tax Plan Prefers Caesar to Jesus & God’s Kingdom

Tax Plan

Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112717.cfm

Today’s readings raise the central political question of our day: what is the purpose of government? Is it simply to protect the private property of the well-to-do? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?

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

Today most prominently, the idea that government’s task is to help corporations even it means hurting the poor, elderly, and newly arrived is embodied in Republican tax reform plan. It amounts to a giant give-away to billionaires including the Trump family. Today’s poor, middle class and future generations will pick up the tab for that particular wealth redistribution upward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puerto Ricans Pray “Forgive Us Our Debts:” The U.S. Says “Go to Hell!”

hurricane-maria-puerto-rico

Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40.

Have you been following Puerto Rico’s recent crisis? I’m talking about the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and the apocalyptic damage the island has suffered.

On September 7th Irma just missed a direct hit on the U.S. colony, but it knocked out power for almost a third of its 3.5 million people. Then less than two weeks later, Maria finished the job. The whole country went dark.

And now after more than a month, 50% of the island still lacks electricity, and over a million people have no clean drinking water. Overflow from toxic Superfund sites is contaminating available water sources producing widespread gastrointestinal diseases. One in three sewage plants are still inoperable, and there is no cellphone service for 40% of the island.

Imagine yourself living there with our fellow Americans! (Remember, all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

So, how do you think our government has responded to the crisis? The response is five billion dollars IN LOANS! We’re not talking grants here, but LOANS! And the $5 billion comes on top of the island’s previously existing $74 billion debt that all agree is completely unpayable – without even mentioning unfunded pension obligations that amount to an additional $49 billion.

Everyone in Puerto Rico knows that increasing the island’s debt does not spell relief. Instead, it represents a heartless tool for further enriching the already super-wealthy, and for exercising control of poor people while further impoverishing a colony that has served ever since its annexation as a source of valuable minerals including gold. As well, the island has provided a major production center for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, a source of cheap labor, a dump for chemical waste, and a bombing range testing ground.

Puerto Rico has been effectively indemnified for none of this. Instead, rich U.S. banks and hedge funds are demanding austerity. They want islanders to sacrifice health, education, and social services including pensions, to pay back their creditors. This means that moneybags on Wall Street see misery in Puerto Rico as a business opportunity to further fill their coffers and perpetually control its destiny.

I bring all of this up, because it’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word, which addresses the question of lending, debt and treatment of the poor.

Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.

There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”

The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?

Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”

We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of debt enters the picture.) Today’s 16-line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. Obviously, the two matters are intimately connected to the situation in Puerto Rico.

The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring very negative karmic consequences.

The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.

The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You’ve guessed it: it’s debt.

When you heard it read this morning, you might have been surprised that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers interest sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” says the book of Exodus. As the dictionary explains, extortion is the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.

For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.

But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!

So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world.

(Hmm . . .  Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and is silent about abortion. It also says nothing unambiguous about homosexuality.)

The suggestion here is that if we were truly a humanitarian nation and kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:

  • We’d give grants, not loans, to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
  • We’d forgive entirely the country’s unpayable debt, forcing banks to eat their bad loans – just as prescribed by Adam Smith’s capitalist theory.
  • We’d force U.S. polluters, not the U.S. government – much less Puerto Ricans – to clean up the mess they’ve made on the island.
  • We’d pay reparations for the gold and other minerals extracted (stolen!) since the U.S. colonial system was imposed.
  • Reparations would also be made for the destruction caused on those bombing ranges.

And more generally:

  • We’d demand that student loans be forgiven or refinanced at the prime rate.
  • We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.
  • We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.
  • We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.

We’d vote accordingly.

Jesus’ Teaching about Paying Taxes: It’s about “Slow Money,” Not What Your Pastor Says!

Slow Money

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21.

Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican)  anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.

Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.

Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.

The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”

Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).

Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.

The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.

Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.

Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.

Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).

Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.

On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”

So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.

“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”

One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.

“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?

“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”

Case closed.

You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.

In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.

And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.

Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Again, case closed.

All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.

So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:

  • Imitate Nature and her pace.
    • Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
    • Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
    • Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
    • Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
    • Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
    • Grow a garden and eat its produce.
    • Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
    • If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”

Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.

What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?

God Throws a Party: We Americans Send Our Regrets & Build Walls

World standing idle as Palestine suffers

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 25: 6-10A; PS 23: 1-6; PHIL 4: 12-14, 19-20; MT 22: 1-14

Of course, we’re all aware of our planet’s Great Migration Crisis. The fact is, there are more refugees roaming the earth than at any time since the Second Inter-Capitalist War (1939-’45). As everyone knows, the crisis stems from a combination of climate change, wars, and a failed economic system that concentrates wealth in the Global North and poverty in the Global South.

So the poor migrate from coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels and devastating hurricanes and wildfires. They move from poor countries (like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia) where their simple homes have been bombed by the rich. Refugees travel at great risk from Central America and Mexico, where U.S. wars (drug and otherwise) have over a period of 40 years created graveyards, chaos and gang cultures.

Others as economic refugees, simply follow the logic of U.S.-imposed “free trade” agreements and move to where the money is. However, they must risk their lives to do so. That’s because the anti-labor agreements allow corporations to move South to make a killing where labor costs are lower. But the same agreements make it illegal for workers to move North where wages are higher.

Meanwhile, the response of the rich who have bombed and otherwise devastated the habitats of the migrants, is to intensify the bombing, build walls, and repeal laws that might bring climate chaos under control.

For me, the controversy raises questions about borders and flags. After all, borders are entirely human creations. And flags are only colored pieces of cloth.

Neither originates from God or Nature’s order. In fact, if we rid ourselves of both borders and flags, that wouldn’t only mitigate immigration problems. Most of the world’s other international problems would diminish and possibly disappear.

Though difficult for many Americans to accept, such reflections shouldn’t puzzle followers of Jesus or those who subscribe to the biblical vision of God’s Kingdom. We should take for granted that the earth belongs to everyone, and that each one of us has a right to 1/7th billionth of the earth’s produce. That would make each of us very rich indeed.

Today’s liturgy of the word supports that biblical vision. In fact, it makes five relevant points about it:

  • The People of God comprise not just a single nation or religion, but all the peoples of the earth – especially the poor and marginalized.
  • God’s arrangement for those people (eventually called the “Kingdom of God”) is abundance of food, wine, and every good thing the earth has to offer.
  • The world’s poor majority is more receptive to that vision than the rich minority.
  • In fact, the rich generally choose to exclude themselves from God’s utopian order.
  • Regrettably, their choice is self-destructive.

To get those points, begin by considering that first selection from Isaiah. There six hundred years before Jesus, the prophet describes what God holds in store for all the wretched of the earth as God’s favorites. In Isaiah’s context, God promised abundance for political prisoners then experiencing painful exile in Babylon. In Isaiah’s phrasing, God wants cornucopian plenty not only for them, but “for all peoples.”

No harps and clouds here; no abstract heaven. Instead, Isaiah envisions God’s kingdom coalescing here on earth, in a particular place – on “this Mountain” (referring to the exiles’ motherland). There God’s Kingdom will take the form of a huge celebratory picnic – an outdoor feast of incomparable affluence. On God’s mountain, all will engorge themselves, Isaiah promises, “with rich foods” and cups overflowing with “choice wines.” The prophet repeats the phrase twice for emphasis: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”

The feast will be a celebration of Enlightenment – of revelation or removal of the “veils” or barriers that separate human beings one from another. Isaiah predicts: “On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth.”

Once again, notice this promise is inclusive. It is directed to “all peoples,” not to a single nation. It is addressed to suffering and exiled people who find themselves in a “web” of death, tears and blame caused by deceptive divisions into nation states. That sounds pretty relevant to the immigrants I was just talking about.

The theme of God’s all-inclusive, life-giving kindness is reinforced in today’s responsorial – the familiar Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” According to the psalmist, God is the one who fulfills everyone’s desire for food and water, wine and oil for cooking. In addition, God provides rest, refreshment, and guidance. The courage God gives removes fear of evil and threat. All of that should be music to the ears of the world’s hyper-threatened poor and deprived.

In today’s second reading Paul touches a similar chord. From an imperial prison (perhaps like Abu Ghraib), he writes, “God will fully supply whatever you need in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

And that brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel selection. It’s a parable underlining the surprising, world-contradicting inclusiveness of God’s chosen people. The parable is addressed to the “elders and chief priests,” the political leaders of Jesus’ day who thought of themselves as God’s elect. The tale ends with the familiar tagline, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” But mystifyingly, its point seems to be the opposite: “The few are called, and the many end up being chosen.”

I mean today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable about a king inviting his rich friends (the few) to his son’s wedding feast. It’s a party characterized by abundance reminiscent of “the juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” in today’s first reading.

In the story, that feast is already prepared. But the king’s rich friends exclude themselves from its extravagance, preferring instead the pursuit of their individualistic pleasures and profits. Some are so ungrateful that they mistreat and even kill those proffering the king’s invitation. All of this, of course, is Matthew’s thinly veiled reference to the way Jewish leaders treated God’s messengers, the prophets whose line for Matthew culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.

Thinly veiled as well is Matthew’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier in the year 70. Matthew writes, “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” According to Matthew, then, Jerusalem’s fate was the karmic result of the rich and powerful dishonoring prophets like Jesus and refusing to enter God’s kingdom with the poor and oppressed.

It is at this point that Matthew (and presumably Jesus) makes the point about the majority generally excluded from access to the world’s wealth. The king says, “’the feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”

There you have it: God’s New People are the dregs of humanity – the good and bad alike.” That’s the very point Jesus’ parables have been making for the past few weeks: Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the “chief priests and elders of the people.” The earth (and God’s Kingdom) belong to everyone, national borders notwithstanding.

But wait; there’s more.

At this government-provided feast of free food, choice alcoholic beverages, and even (it seems) free festive clothing, one person insists on differentiating himself from the rest. He refuses to change his clothes – always a literary (and liturgical) marker for change of lifestyle. At bottom, it’s a refusal to identify with the street people particularly dear to God’s heart.

And that’s the parable’s point. The rich (and those who identify with them) simply don’t want to mingle with the desperate masses like the refugees and migrants we’ve been talking about. They want salvation only for themselves. And that’s suicidal.

To reiterate:

  • The People of God comprise not just a single nation or religion, but all the peoples of the earth – especially the poor and marginalized.
  • God’s arrangement for those people is abundance of food, wine, and every good thing the earth has to offer.
  • The world’s poor majority is more receptive to that vision than the rich minority.
  • In fact, the rich generally choose to exclude themselves from God’s utopian order.
  • Regrettably, their choice is self-destructive.

In other words, everyone ends up being called. The choice of accepting God’s invitation is up to us.

Given the Great Refugee Crisis, how do you think this applies to Americans and our response to the refugee crisis?

(Discussion follows)

(Sunday Homily) Ken Burns’ “Vietnam War” Is Reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Rebellious Tenants

China

Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 5:1-7; PS 80:9, 12-16, 19-20; PHIL 4: 6-9; MT 21: 33-43

For the past week, I’ve been watching episodes of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s PBS production “The Vietnam War.” The series has ten episodes, each about an hour and a half long. So far I’ve seen three.

I bring it up because the viewing experience has relevance to this morning’s Gospel reading which describes resistance to a landlord system similar to the one that provoked Vietnam’s peasantry to take up arms.

Such local motivations remain obscured by Burns and Novick. The official story they tell is that of a geopolitical struggle between China and Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and France on the other. So the film’s narrative is dominated by maps depicting huge swaths of geography (China and Russia) looming menacingly over Vietnam. The maps indicate that Vietnam along with the rest of French Indochina (including Laos and Cambodia) were threatened by monolithic communist takeover.

U.S. officials one after another describe their alarming “domino theory” contending that if Vietnam were “lost” to communism, so would Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and the rest of Far East. It wouldn’t be long before Ho Chi Minh’s forces would be landing in Hawaii and then in California.

So viewers are asked to believe that in the footage showing huge numbers of Vietnamese civilians (including the elderly, women and children) moving equipment, building bridges, ferrying supplies, we are simply witnessing mindless agents of China and Russia. The Vietnamese were somehow persuaded to risk their lives (four million of them were killed in the conflict) to advance the totalitarian cause of Sino-Soviet world conquest.

As John Pilger and others have written, that simply doesn’t stand to reason. For one thing, there was no monolithic alliance between Russia and China. Any semblance of that lay in ruins between the years 1960 and 1989.

That is, for the Vietnamese, what they call “The American War” (1960-75) could not have been fought on behalf of China or Russia. Rather, the conflict represented a struggle against colonial rule by French and American forces. It was also fought against a rent system that had peasants paying predatory tribute to absentee landlords. The latter were holed up in Saigon along with other beneficiaries of deteriorating colonial arrangements including its dysfunctional army, government officials, and participants in the supporting infrastructure.

Meanwhile, outside of Saigon, the peasants’ revolutionary army (the Viet Cong) defended farmers against rent collection. They had the peasantry stop traveling to Saigon to pay their land fees. This, they said, would force representatives of the landlord class to venture out into territory controlled by the Viet Cong to collect their money or in-kind revenue. And there in the countryside they would be duly slaughtered.

In other words, patriotism and the peasants’ immediate economic interest, not geo-political considerations, provided their main motivations for resistance to a colonial rental system that had long exploited them and caused their families to starve.

All of this has relevance to this morning’s Gospel episode where Jesus tells a story that parallels the situation I’ve just described. Jesus and his audience too were living under an imperial system not unlike Vietnam’s. The Romans controlled Palestine using tactics highly similar to those of the French and Americans in Indochina. The system’s administrators, armies, police, and hangers-on were all holed up in Jerusalem protected by Roman legions.

Meanwhile, absentee administrators and landlords kept the province’s peasants impoverished by exacting rent and taxes that the farmers detested. The latter resisted accordingly – at times in Israel’s history forming armies of resistance similar to the Viet Cong. One of those militias was known as the Zealots.

In any case, the parable centralized in this morning’s gospel has Jesus problematizing a situation of violent peasant conflict over rent collection. In so doing, Jesus, no doubt, provoked a spirited discussion among his listeners about colonialism, landlordism, and about violent vs. non-violent resistance.

Jesus’ story goes that an absentee landlord has rented out his vineyard. Peasants are resisting payment. So the man in the Big House sends out no doubt well-armed rent collectors. After the first ones are murdered by the farmers, he sends out what was probably a small army of “enforcers.” But the peasants successfully defeat them too. Eventually, the landlord gets more serious. His own son heads up a collection force probably much larger and better armed than its predecessors. But surprisingly, the renters wipe them out as well. They assume ownership of the land in question presumably under some ancient version of the revolutionary slogan “Land to the tiller.”

That said, the Master’s articulates the problem that certainly provoked spirited discussion in his audience. “What will happen,” Jesus asks, “to the revolutionaries demonized as ‘wicked’ by the landowning class?”

No doubt some in Jesus audience would say they weren’t “wicked” at all, but heroic champions of the exploited. They would applaud their armed resistance. Others though joining the applause, might point out that the peasant victory would be short-lived and doomed.

These more cautious discussants would hold that the better-armed and trained forces of the landowners and their Roman sponsors would eventually prevail with disastrous results for the entire province of Palestine. Accordingly, they might advise nonviolent resistance to the system in question. (There were, by the way, at least three such forms of nonaggressive struggle in Jesus’ first century context.)

It is unlikely that any in Jesus’ audience would defend the imperial status quo the way Matthew’s allegorized retelling of the parable seems to do. Fifty years after Jesus death the anonymous Jewish author called by that name even goes so far as to imply identification of the absentee landlord with God and the landlord’s son with Jesus himself. Such identification would have been possible around the year 80 or 85 when the Gospel of “Matthew” was written following the utter defeat of Jesus’ people by the Romans in the year 70.  That same identification would, of course, have been abhorrent to Jesus listeners and thus impossible in the Master’s revolutionary context.

Considerations like these – about the similarities in revolutionary situations separated by 2000 years – might help viewers better understand the causes of the Vietnam War and other conflicts even closer to our own day. Clearly, I find those causes obscured in the Burns and Novick documentary despite its very evident artistic merits.

It’s just too simplistic to explain Vietnam in terms Sino-Soviet geopolitics and domino theories. It is similarly facile to describe ISIS in terms of abstract evil or purely religious motivation. It also represents shallow analysis to dismiss resort to violent insurrection as self-evidently unjustified – especially in a country like ours founded on such revolution.

No, all of those elements deserve deep analysis and long discussion.

Jesus’ parable in today’s reading is geared to stimulate such conversation. What is your contribution to the debate?