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CHURCH MUST OPPOSE RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT – YEAR C
December 06, 2015 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Baruch 5:1-9 Psalm 1:1-6 Philippians 1:4-6; 8-11 Luke 3:1-6
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When I was in college, one of my many occupations was that of news reporter for a radio station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Among my duties was to cover the Presidential candidates in the nineteen seventy two election when they came to town. While doing that, I often had contact with the candidate’s advance team, whose job was to prepare the way for the candidate. As a result of that experience, I’ve always thought of John the Baptist as the “advance man” for Jesus. Like the advance team in the political campaigns, John’s job was to prepare people for the arrival of Jesus. Good political advance work takes into account the local situation where the candidate will speak. For that reason, the advance teams contact and befriend local politicians like governors, mayors, legislators, and council members. Who is in power, and in what territorial area, is important.
Today’s Gospel reading starts with telling us the political landscape of who was in power where. To assist you with the who’s who and where they were, I’ve included both a genealogy chart and a map in the Service Booklet on pages eight and nine. The Jews back then were in a kingdom within a kingdom. I’ll explain that to you. Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, ruled from Rome by Tiberius Caesar. He ruled from the year fourteen A-D to the year forty-two A-D. His immediate predecessor was Augustus Caesar, who was in power from twenty-seven B-C to fourteen A-D. Jesus was born in somewhere between four B-C and six B-C. Pontius Pilate, the same guy who participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, was what was called a “procurator”, or local governor of the region. In corporate jargon, he was a regional manager who reported to the chief executive officer.
Herod, however, was a king of the Jewish people. He was part of the Idumaen Dynasty that came from Idumaea, which you will see in the lower left hand part of the map in the Service Booklet on Page nine. The Idumean Dynasty did not come from a Jewish origin, but were converts. In the second century B-C, they ingratiated themselves through their military and political skills with the Hasmoneans, who were descended from Judas Maccabeus, the hero who liberated the Jewish people from the Seleucid Empire in about the year one-sixty-B-C or thereabouts. The Idumeans eventually replaced the Hasmoneans. They were able to do so by building alliances with the Roman Empire. So Rome and the Idumaens made a deal: The Idumaens could remain in power as long, as they kept the Jews in line. Herod and his brother, Phillip, each ruled over territories in and around Palestine. You can see who is related to whom, and the locations where they ruled, in the genealogy chart and map respectively. Phillip ruled Ituraea and Trachonitis, in the northeastern part of the map, while the area ruled by Lysanias is to the north. If you’re wondering what a tetrarch is, it’s a regional king, kind of like the governor of a state.
The writer of today’s Gospel reading mentions these people and these territories not so much as to tell us when John the Baptist appeared, but to communicate that the Jews lived under not one, but two, domination systems, that of Rome and that of the Idumaens. They worked together to keep the Jews under control. The High Priests mentioned in the Gospel reading were in charge of the Temple, and in fact, the Pilate played a role in selecting them. That was the environment into which Jesus would come, and that was the environment John the Baptist faced as he prepared the way for Jesus. The Jewish people were anything but free. Jesus faced the task of liberating them from both domination systems.
Today’s Old Testament reading highlights the optimism and joy the Jewish people felt when they returned from the Babylonian exile. To give you a bit of background, in about five ninety eight B-C, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and deported substantial numbers of Jews to Babylon. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians in five thirty eight B-C, Persian King Cyrus allowed them to return back to Palestine. Today’s reading from Baruch tells us how they were feeling about that. The Gospel writer of Luke quotes from the fortieth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which begins the part of that book proclaiming the return from Babylon. The Gospel writer included that material to draw a parallel between Israel’s liberation from the Babylonians and the coming of Jesus to liberate the Jews from the joint Roman and Idumaen domination. Just as God cleared a path of liberation back to Jerusalem, God acts through John to clear a path Jesus as liberator from the Idumaens and the Romans.
People who want to dominate other people are as much a problem today as they were in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. Right now, the world is witnessing the rise of two ambitious groups, both equally bad, who want to dominate the world. I’m speaking of the radical religious right in the United States, and the radical elements of Islam. They may say they dislike each other, but the goal of both radical Islam andradical right-wing Christianity, is to dominate other people and impose their ideas by force. The activities of both radical right wing Christians and radical Muslims work simultaneously to give us an increasingly dangerous world. Their idea of preparing the world for the future does not reflect the Gospel as the Church as traditionally taught it.
John the Baptist and Jesus faced a similar situation as to both the Roman Empire, represented by Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, and the Idumaen Kings, in the persons of Herod and Phillip. So, just like today, those who dominate or aspire to dominate were part of the territory. That was the environment in which John the Baptist operated, and that in which the Church operates today. The challenge for the church right now is to get back on its message of hope, joy, and expectation that’s usually expected at this time of year.
As we move through the approaching Christmas Holidays, this time of year is supposed to be a time when we are preparing for the coming of Jesus manifesting all the innocence of an infant child, to prepare within us a soft spot in our hearts to receive His teaching of unconditional love, forgiveness and healing. In the secular world, it is a time we prepare for traveling to be with family and friends to renew and strengthen the precious bonds of human relationships.
But all of that preparation was so rudely and cruelly interrupted by the events in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. Each of the perpetrators appears to have been motivated by strongly-held, extreme religious convictions. Christianity is supposedly a religion of peace, and Islam is supposedly a religion of peace, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers, watching television, or surfing the Internet.
The man in Colorado Springs was motivated to shoot up the local Planned Parenthood facility because he held a strong religious opinion opposing abortion. These attacks on clinics are part of a long history of ideologically-driven violence. They’re perpetrated by an extreme minority that’s committed to ruling through fear and intimidation because the Courts and the political system has not been successful in ending abortions, so they, like the man in Colorado, have resorted to violence to force the surrounding world to adopt their agenda of moving society backwards in the sexuality area.
The couple in San Bernardino, who killed fourteen people with assault weapons at a facility for disabled people, is no different than the violent man in Colorado Springs. Again, religion was the motivation. The San Bernardino couple appears to have been motivated by Islamic extremism that justifies violence to achieve the result they desire, that of returning the world to seventh-century politics and technology ruled by caliphs and Sharia law. Like the Colorado man, they want to move the world backwards.
The activities of all these actors, to perpetrate by violent means a common agenda of opposing social and scientific progress, have combined to take our focus off of what we should be doing at this time of year: preparing to herald the arrival of Jesus and celebrations with our loved ones. The time has come for the Church to say, “Enough.”
This Advent, I would like to be preparing to allow Jesus to make a difference in all the stuff that’s going on now. Instead, we are forced to prepare in a different way, that is, to look out first for our physical safety, to be concerned first and foremost with our basic survival. If you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, we’ve gone from our need for self-actualization at the top of the pyramid to that of safety at the bottom. This is not a good development for humankind.
Why does this happen? The current political environment facilitates the planning and preparation needed for terrorist attacks by extremists by legalizing the possession of firearms for ordinary citizens. Both the Colorado and San Bernardino shooters used lawfully-obtained firearms and ammunition. Something is seriously wrong with the laws of this country, and the way they are enforced. However, the legal system has its limitations. Not every problem can be solved, or every bad act prevented, by making or enforcing laws. What is needed is to change hearts and minds, and that is where the Church comes into the picture. The Church is most effective when it acts as the conscience of the environment in which it lives and works to change that environment to facilitate a pathway for the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where people don’t prepare to do mass killings.
Unfortunately, the current political environment has left local authorities unable to effectively prepare for or prevent the attacks we’ve seen in recent days, because Congress has forbidden the use of Federal funds for gun violence research. Prevention of gun violence is simply not on their agenda as can be seen from a recent U-S Senate vote to allow those on the no-fly terror watch list to purchase guns. The result is that the kind of preparation we don’t want to see flourishes, while the preparation we should see languishes, thanks to the gun lobby. The ideology of the prevailing and expectant political structures supporting an alleged “right to keep and bear arms” amounts to preparation for war, not peace, and directly contradicts the values and ideals of peace, justice and compassion characterizing the kingdom of God as it forecloses any opportunity to grow in love and understanding and allow the good works within us to come to completion. Reality is, people do not complete their good works for the Kingdom of God if they are killed by bullets.
God’s mission for the Church requires a peaceful world, so much unlike what we have now, where violence is a way of life that is slowly, but unfortunately, becoming the “new normal.” Extremists often claim they act on behalf of oppressed people, but they forget that extremism is oppression, too. The tendency of extremists to use force to execute their agenda cannot be anything but oppressive. Using violence against someone totally negates that person’s existence. What could be more oppressive than that? No matter what their claims or their justification, extremists who commit terrorist acts are notclearing a pathway for the reign of God, Allah, or any other divinity. They are clearing a pathway only for themselves. That is because one thing all extremists lack is humility. The extremist sees herself or himself as better than the surrounding world. The extremist does not accept others as God made them, but instead justifies using force to make others conform to the norms of the extremist.
Preparing a pathway for Jesus that will bring the peace the world needs requires transformation of the world as we know it. We must rethink systems and structures that we see as normal, but which God sees as destructive and oppressive, among them, religious extremism of all kinds. The way we prepare in the future to make the Kingdom of God a reality will be entirely different from the way the Church as done it in the past. To quote Lowell Mason, “new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.”
John the Baptist calls for God’s bulldozers to reshape the world’s pathways. Tiberius, Pilate and Herod are mentioned in the Gospel reading as they were facts of life that stood in his way, and eventually obstruct the path of Jesus Himself. The heart of the message of John the Baptist was a message of repentance, meaning a turning or change of the direction in which one is headed. We as Americans living in a prosperous country with blessings all around us too numerous to count, often have trouble seeing need for change. How many more incidents like those in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino will it take to wake this country to the reality that the present values of our society are untenable as a long-term path for the success of the Gospel message? In the words of Pope Francis, “Religious fundamentalism must be combated. It is not religious; God is lacking; and it is idolatrous.”
Then as now, the Church’s mission is to build a highway for God, which will require reshaping the world’s social systems and the landscape of our minds. If John the Baptist were alive today, he’d likely say, “Church, do your job by relentlessly preparing the world for the reign of God through advocating policies consistent with peace and justice.” AMEN.