Tag Archives: Jesus

Jesus Wanders Wall Street

DSC_0191I’ve recently begun the book Jesus: A Historical Approximation by Spanish priest Jose Pagola. In it, Pagola examines Jesus’ life through different lenses, starting with “A Galilean Jew.” This first chapter lays out the Galilean context in which Jesus grew up and ministered. When read in light of my contemporary world, there are striking comparisons to be drawn between 1st century Galilee and 21st century America.

In 1st century Galilee, nearly 90% of people were peasants farming the incredibly fertile lands or fishing in the Sea nearby. Land ownership in such an agrarian society is the central question, and in Galilee most belonged to wealthy landowners. Pagola describes further:

“These large landerowners usually lived in the cities, rented out their lands to peasants in the area, and supervised them through administrators acting in their name. The leases were almost always very burdensome for the peasants. The owner demanded half or a significant portion of their production, which varied according to the results of the harvest…There are signs that in Jesus’ time, these large landowners were expanding their hldings with new lands from debt-ridden families, and coming to control a good part of Lower Galilee.”

Those farmers who owned their land desperately defended it. Indigent day laborers wandering for work became common. The producing majority provided for the ruling minority, with less and less in return to meet their own family’s needs. Through tributes, taxes, fees, and corruption hefty portions of any harvest disappeared to Rome, Jerusalem, and regional capitals — between a third and half of a given family’s production.

Debt loomed large as an inevitable result of even the most aggressive defenses against such collections, including a turn to monoculture for the most profitable crops. Pagola writes that “The Galilee Jesus knew was trapped in debt.” Losing one’s land meant losing a means of income, and many people turned to itinerancy, slavery, begging, and prostitution, or crime, which all rose in Jesus’ time.

The hallmark of Jesus’ Galilee was this massive (and growing) inequality between the peasants and the urban elite, composed of civil, economic, and religious leaders made rich by a brutal combination of exploiting the poor and violent oppression. Two new cities appeared in Galilee further straining the peasants as elites grew their wealth and prestige by appropriating more and more of the surrounding harvests. Courts ruled for the elites routinely when land foreclosures increased.

Pagola notes of all this that “…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites.”

You can see how Jesus ministered in a Galilean context similar to America today: economic inequality grows due to unjust policies set out by a ruling elite with little regard for the common good.

While not an agrarian society, recent decades have seen an increase in worker productivity for America’s industries not met with a commensurate rise in income. Wages remain stagnant, salaries low, and purchasing power dropping. Predatory lending and unaffordable higher education that is necessary for careers today has led to exorbitant debt for most Americans. Home foreclosures are similar to the land confiscations of Galilee, casting families into itinerancy and instability. Job losses and unemployment from an economy serving profit and not the common good compound all this.

Yet, for the top earners in America there are few problems. They have benefited from the economic system which favors unbelievable profits from risky investment practices while denying mothers the most basic food assistance for their hungry children.

What Pagola wrote of early 1st century Galilee, that”…this economic organization did not promote the common good of the country, but favored the growing well-being of the elites” is similarly true of America today.

This is why Jesus message can be so powerfully proclaimed today: his ministry condemns the same excess and trends, while holding up the same people who have been marginalized and cast out. I find it helpful to quote Pagola at length here:

“Jesus’ activity in the Galilean villages and his message of the reign of God amounted to a strong critique of this state of affairs. His firm defense of the indigent and hungry, his preferential embrace of the least in that society, and his condemnation of the sumptuous life of the urban rich, were a public challenge to the socio-political program of Antipas [the ruler of Galilee]…his calls to have compassion on those who suffer and forgive their debts; and many other sayings can help us understand even today how Jesus shared the suffering of his people and how passionately he sought a new, more just and loving, world in which God would reign as Father of all.”

Having just returned from the Holy Land, the beauty of the Galilee is fresh in my mind. It is a land of unparalleled vegetation where Scriptures words of ‘a land of milk and honey’ comes vividly to life. Yet, when I meditated on all of this after reading Pagola’s chapter what came to mind was Jesus ministering in America. There is the Son of God walking down Wall Street casting out the investment bankers and perusing Congress’ halls  questioning why Republicans cut food stamps. There is Jesus healing the many homeless people I pass by while walking through DC and railing outside the Treasury building against anti-Gospel policies.

Why do we make the message so distant, as if 1st century Galilee and 21st century America are more different than they are similar. Sure, 2,000 years and host of cultural nuances separate my world from Jesus’ world — but the humanity in it all remains a constant thread. The inclination to narcissism and greed, apathy and indifference, fear and isolationism.

Most pointedly in the meditation, there is Jesus sitting across the table from me, staring as he asks why I continue to obfuscate Scripture’s message to justify my own unjust excesses.

-Bob

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Learning True Prayer

Driving along to lunch with a friend, I turned to C-SPAN radio as I drove south on the Beltway. Their broadcast of live floor debate from the House closely resembled some of the more unruly Model UN conferences I attended in high school.

Moderating this debate was a fatiguing task for the chairwoman, who quickly called successive representatives out of order, then yielding, more disorderly conduct, yielding again, outright shouting. Gaveling down unanimous consent requests, the situation devolved into a chaotic banter.

Disheartened, I listened on as our elected officials in the House held a nation captive in their petulance guised as ‘politicking’ and bickering passed off as floor debate. Suddenly, the chairwomen gaveled this buzz into recess. The airwaves silenced and I assumed the House simply shuttered itself to regain composure. A beat passed.

Then the C-SPAN announcer reported shots fired at the US Capitol building. Driving along I glanced to the right and saw the Capitol’s dome rising above a large office complex closer to me. I was far enough away to drive along unaffected, but close enough to begin tearing up at the violence ravaging this city.

Obvious examples like today’s incident when the ‘pop, pop, pop’ sounds were reported or the Navy Yard shooting only weeks ago come to mind, as do the ravages of gun violence in our communities that more frequently take lives by homicide and suicide.

Less obvious is the culture of DC filled with the violence of words and dehumanization that leads a Tea Party-backed Congressman to attack a Park Ranger for enforcing the shutdown he caused. It is a town fueled by a currency of profit and power over people’s lives when we literally allow people in the US to die daily because spending “must” be cut.

Minor partisan gains, or even simply ego, is hoisted as the god we worship in the District while we allow millions to go unfed, unclothed, uncared for, and unloved day after day after each fucking day. The dozens of homeless and marginalized individuals only yards from the offices and chambers of those who are leaders in name only cannot stir the consciences of politicians long ago purchased with corporate donations.

Perhaps almost six years trying to act justly and love tenderly in DC leaves my cynical and frustrated, but…

Is it really too fantastical to believe all would be welcomed with wide arms and open hearts? That all would be given their ‘daily bread,’ such that poverty’s afflictions were no more? That love is abundant enough our world could place the person first before all else, ending alienation from and enmity towards one another?

Lately, I’m unsure how to respond, how to act in changing DC’s violent dynamic – but in that, I’m learning true prayer. Driving along the Beltway to dinner, I can only tear up and offer God simple, visceral prayers. They’re not the polished prayers I’ve learned in theology nor crafted for ministry, and all they say is this:

We need Christ’s reconciling love.

–Bob

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Is It Time to Resurrect the ‘Seamless Garment’?

Horrifying accounts about the practices of Kermit Gosnell have generated an important discussion about journalism in America today. That’s a discussion I encourage, and the anti-abortion movement is surely pivoting to this event in the hopes a broader dialogue will begin. It is challenging to read through the graphic grand jury report where each line and word heaps injustices upon injustices. In my mind though, the crimes of Gosnell speak not only to the need for greater defense of unborn children in this moment, but the resurrection (amid the Easter season) of the Seamless Garment.

Restoring a sincere respect for life, dignity, and creation within the Catholic community, and then hopefully evangelizing this belief to the world, is our only way moving forward. The Seamless Garment provides Catholics a framework to re-imagine our pro-all life efforts anew.

For those unfamiliar, I offer a patchwork history of this Seamless Garment philosophy. Eileen Egan, a Catholic pacifist and someone worth reading up on, first used “seamless garment” in the 1970s as a challenge to those in the anti-abortion movement who favored the death penalty. Alluding to John 19, where soldiers crucifying Jesus cast lots for his garment that could not be torn into pieces, this phrase is used to emphasis the necessary defense of each and every life.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago unified this belief in his concept of a “Consistent Life Ethic,” for which the Seamless Garment remained a metaphor. The cardinal inextricably linked the defense of life and dignity in the many causes aimed towards one end, creating a culture of life while admitting the unique nature and needs of each injustice.

Kermit Gosnell’s clinic, the Women’s Medical Society, exemplifies the utter breakdown of our society’s cloth. In this devastating clinic, countless injustices amplify one another cyclically: abortion and healthcare, poverty and racism, government failures and media dishonesty, medical ethics and institutional accountability, economic justice and the idolatry of profit, and, perhaps in Gosnell’s trial, the death penalty.

The clinic profited from its “cash for an abortion without questions” scheme that preyed on poor women, largely of color, who ostensibly saw no alternatives. Gosnell committed abortions and infanticide as “medical procedures” in a clinic lacking standards of any sort, violating women and children as a matter of routine business and sending forth those who survived with health complications, venereal disease, and emotional wounds. Oppose abortion, support choice — we all must admit the Women’s Medical Society is a creature unto itself for facilities providing such services.

Sadly, Kermit Gosnell and his clinic cannot be considered the result of one man gone awry in one building. These crimes are personal assuredly, but also structurally sinful. Our nation fails to provide adequate healthcare and social services for women with children, who turn to abortion and pay-in-cash medical clinics. Racist structures and institutionalized poverty, enriched by government policies favoring the wealthy, further exaggerate the struggles of the women Gosnell “treated.” The ideology of individualism, abhorring government regulation on the right and championing “choice” on the left, leaves us with a system where Kermit Gosnell’s can easily exploit women because no one will even inspect his clinic. I safely assume migration policies affected negatively women in his clinic, and I could elucidate for pages on how our system not only allowed, but also enabled Kermit Gosnell to wantonly kill children and women for cash.

Today, it is impossible to overcome any injustice without a united cause against all threats. The Consistent Life Ethic, once a fruitful approach for Catholics and those of faith in building up the common good, suffers condemnation from all sides. Some anti-abortion activists reject it for not singularly focusing on the life of unborn children, as it simultaneously confronts right-wing support of the death penalty, gun rights ideology, militarism, etc. Progressives cannot accept the Seamless Garment because it rejects the excessive individualism that “choice” is premised upon, and at its core the Left in America is not seeking a Gospel-based communitarian vision of society that this ethic is rooted in.

The Consistent Life Ethic requires neither that we all work on every issue, but keeps us from callously neglecting any issue. In the tradition of Catholic theology, a consistent ethic forces each of us to navigate the “both/and” of standing up for every life while keeping a focus in our individual work on issue x, y, or z, and the “both/and” of policy nuances negotiated within civil society.

If the crimes of Kermit Gosnell propel us anywhere, I pray it is towards a resurrection of the Seamless Garment. Drone strikes that devalue life against those in Afghanistan affect the unborn in our inner cities. Vilifying the poor who receive government assistance denies each person their dignity, and soon mass shootings are an all too common occurrence. Idolatrizing a gun or anything aside from God leaves no place for love to rupture through in our world. These are not directly cause and effect scenarios, but rather the cumulative impact of devaluing another’s dignity resulting in horrors like the Women’s Medical Society.

As Pentecost nears, let the Catholic community wrap ourselves in the Seamless Garment of Christ and then, with hearts ablaze and tongues speaking the language of every injustice, build a society where Kermit Gosnell’s clinics cede to the Kingdom of God enacted in a historical-temporal reality. 

-Bob

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