Category Archives: Spirituality

Ash Wednesday 2017

By Joe Byrne

Lent 2017 is underway. On Ash Wednesday, Joe, along with Sisters Ardeth and Carol, traveled to the White House in Washington, DC, to participate in an Ash Wednesday service organized by the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker and other Catholic social justice organizations. The message was repentance for the various social evils for which we of the United States are responsible–the sins of genocide towards First Nations peoples, slavery, ongoing racism, xenophobia, and sexism–including the election of the racist, xenophobic, and sexist Donald Trump as president.

Here is Colleen McCarthy, of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, offering a reflection in front of the White House.

Here Ardeth offers a prayer, with Art Laffin, of Dorothy Day Catholic Worker:

Ardeth and Carol as part of the circle:

The oft-seen and ever-pertinent “Wage Peace, Practice Nonviolence” banner from Dorothy Day House:

Here a child makes hew own contribution to the ash crosses on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Here Pete Perry stands with Ardeth, who is holding up a poster that memorializes Connie, who spent nearly forty years vigiling for peace in Peace Park (Lafayette Park) across from the White House. This is our second Ash Wednesday without Connie. Last Ash Wednesday, Ardeth and Carol distributed some of Connie’s ashes on the White House lawn. Connie presente!

Here I am holding up some of the art work of the beloved and recently-deceased Sally Hanlon. Her message, in the form of her posters and her very distinctive lettering, as well as the memory of her gentle spirit, survives. Sally Hanlon presente!

Friday Evening Sits Continue

We continue our Friday sits for justice and peace at various locations in Baltimore.

Two weeks ago we were at the intersection of Roland Avenue and Cold Spring Road. Andy Holter joined Tucker and Joe.

In the picture below, the placard to the right reads: “Suffering has no boundaries, compassion has no borders.”

One of the messages we feel most impassioned about is welcoming, and toleration of, refugees.

Last week we were at Baltimore’s City Hall Park. Joining Joe and Tucker were Melissa Brady, Michael McEwan, and Amy Pucino (who joined us for our first sit, at the North Avenue, Route 83 intersection, three weeks ago.) City Hall is in the background.

Here are the sitters from behind. We were facing the Baltimore War Memorial, meditating for peace!

Our messaging remains the same: compassion and toleration.

We will return to sit at City Hall this evening (Friday February 24) from 4:30pm to 5:50pm. Join us!

Mother of Exiles

By Tucker Brown

This past Friday (2/3/17), from 4 to 6 pm on the grassy knoll at the intersection of North and Mount Royal, we practiced sitting meditation with posters expressing our support for refugees and Muslims and our opposition to Trump’s travel ban.

I have no clue how drivers experienced our witness. But we did speak with someone who approached us after spotting our signs. He mentioned that he’s currently unemployed and lives in a tent with his dog, somewhere in the city. He talked about his struggles and framed them with the same kind of anti-immigrant anger and fear that’s been a core part of Trump’s agenda and worldview.

The man had a lot to say and, to be honest, I really didn’t know how to respond to him. He was convinced that immigrants and refugees steal jobs from U.S. citizens, take away opportunities otherwise entitled to hard-working “Americans,” and breed violence. He also suggested, as Trump does routinely, that the mainstream media are dishonest.

A part of me wanted a debate, but then I concluded that wouldn’t be a skillful response — I don’t consider myself adept at debating anyway. So I just listened, tried to relax my visceral reaction and resistance to his views, and a few things happened. First, I stopped focusing only on the man’s judgments and started paying attention instead to his suffering. By connecting with his emotional experience, I was able to see the desperation beneath his views — as well as how thoroughly Trump and his team have reframed the causes of national wealth and resource disparity (i.e., five years ago we might have joined each other in the occupy movement).

Finding an “other” to blame is of course Trump’s strategy to form group cohesion in the service of his fascistic ends.  While I could have argued this point, by recognizing the man’s pain (i.e., communicating that I’d heard the fear and anger underlying his political positions) there was a momentary shift in the conversation. He stopped blaming immigrants and started talking instead about the culture of greed and materialism that necessitates global poverty, structural deprivation, and war.

Of course this line of inquiry is threatening, because to put our economic, political and social systems into question implies a re-evaluation of the values, motivations and myths underlying them. It’s easier to blame others, and the man eventually came back to this strategy and ultimately called upon “National Security” — in this administration, a euphemism for White Nationalism — as a reason to justify the travel ban.

The conversation taught me that, while I might want to argue with the people who support Trump, it’s vitally important for a new kind of intentional engagement with his promoters: hearing and re-framing the fear and anger that often motivates their allegiance so that, at the very least, they’re invited to consider an alternate view of what’s driving their dis-ease.

While the “America First” platform is delusional — and violent, racist, bigoted, etc. — I don’t think it helps to simply argue the points and dismiss the strong emotions fueling them. I wholeheartedly believe and participate in the movement to resist Trumpism AND I think it’s also necessary to make every effort to dialogue with even his fiercest supporters.  The way forward, in my view, is through encounter, not just opposition.

There are too many echo chambers, on both sides, and to realize a world without sides we need, I think, to practice dialogue as much as dissent.

I’m also realizing the importance of renewal in these turbulent times: returning to images, stories, symbols and words that inspire the fortitude to persist, to resist.

Amid all the Islamophobia, xenophobia and hate espoused by the Trump administration, and tolerated if not promoted by so many republican politicians, I find it inspiring to read and re-read and reflect on Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus.

Mother of Exiles. What a vision!  And what an indictment of the current administration!

Also, as I suffer and see other people suffering and struggle with my own anger and inclination to act out of it, I take refuge in these words, a prayer of Shantideva’s, a great practitioner of the Bodhisattva vows:

May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.

Of Remnants and Resilience

By Joe Byrne

Recently, following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and in particular his suggestion that he would like to expand the United States nuclear arsenal and his doubts about the reality of climate change, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight. According to that clock it is now two and a half minutes to midnight. That’s the closest we’ve been to Armageddon since 1953, when only three nations had a few atomic weapons, and climate change was far on the horizon. Given Trump’s recent saber rattling over Iran and his order that the EPA may not study or even discuss climate change, the Doomsday Clock will likely be moved even closer to midnight soon.

We may very well be living in the end times. Not the end of life on Earth, nor the end of human life, but the end of civilization–by which I mean industrial, capitalist, democratic, and global society on Earth. If current trends hold, by the end of this present century, due to over-population, resource depletion, and runaway global warming, civilization will collapse. As a result there will be the full menu of apocalyptic woe: war, pestilence, and—mostly—famine. It’s likely that billions of people will starve to death. Not before many more billions of animals will die. Many forms of life on this planet will go extinct. This is already true. As Elizabeth Kolbert argues in her book The Sixth Extinction, civilization has already ushered in the sixth period of mass extinction, with living species—many of them undiscovered and unstudied—going extinct every day.

There will be wars, and rumors of war. We saw in the 20th century war become industrialized, in terms of weaponry, production, and whole-sale destruction. War has become mostly a matter of slaughtering civilians. We’ll likely see this to the nth degree in the years to come. The U.S. military has already identified climate change as a major threat, particularly in the ways global warming—global drought leading to global famine—will lead to mass migrations of hungry people. War has long been a business of controlling resources. With dwindling resources, there will be more, and more desperate, fighting. Given this situation, it is unlikely that the nuclear nations will abolish nuclear weapons; and it is more likely that they’ll be used. I predict that if nuclear weapons are not abolished by 2050, they will be used again in the second half of the century. Some misguided leaders may think that nuclear winter is the perfect solution to global warming. When, in fact, it will only add to the perfect storm: when the radioactive nuclear clouds dissipate, decades later, global warming will be worse. Those nuclear clouds will continue to capture and contain within the atmosphere carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

Accompanying the breakdown of society—particularly the breakdown of medical services and research—leading to mass migrations, and mass starvation, there will likely be more mass epidemics. Some of them will be created, and weaponized, by humans. Millions are likely to die as a result.

I say all this is likely to happen, given current trends and what we know of human nature. You may say that, like Donald Trump, I believe what I believe, according to my own “alternative facts.” But, unlike our raving president, I do have evidence. It’s all around us, in the ever-increasing global temperatures, military budgets, and human population. Many experts point out that we are entering—or have already entered—the era of Peak Everything: peak oil, peak natural gas, peak coal, peak water, peak topsoil, peak arable land—peak you-name-it. By the end of the century we will be far past peak. It will nearly all be gone, with a largely diminished human population fighting over scraps—World War IV (we are already fighting World War III) fought on a dunghill.

While I think there is ample evidence that what I foresee will come about, I also claim prophetic license. The biblical prophets didn’t back up their pronouncements with studies and charts. They declared what they believed God had told them to say, in dire visions that are not that far removed from what I’m saying here. I won’t go so far as to say God told me to say all this, but there is certainly biblical precedent for it, and I say it after considering the available evidence (links at the end of this article).

Where is God in all this? This is—will be—the big question as the rest of this century unfolds. Am I describing the biblical Day of Yahweh, Day of Wrath? No. God will not destroy the Earth. God promised not to do that. But God may allow humans to destroy themselves. That is the judgement upon us. That may be our doom. God will allow human free will to play out. God will not save us from ourselves. But, as I discuss in a moment, if humans destroy themselves, God will save a remnant. Some will remain to carry on.

And what of resistance? Can we turn back the flood by organizing, by taking risks, by following the formula of Jonah—preaching repentance in the capital of empire? The people of Ninevah repented, they turned back from their ways of destruction. Why can’t we? And will God truly allow humans to destroy the rest of his Creation? I hold out a sliver of hope that the coming collapse can be avoided. For there is biblical precedent for hope, as well as doom. Perhaps God can inspire us to save civilization, and avoid massive suffering, turning back the Doomsday Clock.

But in the meantime, we would do well to proceed as if the collapse of civilization will be our lot. We need to start thinking about resilience—how to save what we can from the real possibility of cataclysm. Our resistance communities must also become resilience communities. We are given the task of preserving our most precious values: beauty, justice, peace, nonviolent conflict resolution and reconciliation. Even with civilization crashing all around us, we are tasked with the creation of the kindom of God, on Earth as in heaven. We can and must create something that will outlast civilization, keeping in mind that civilization has collapsed many times in human history, and something has always risen from the ashes. Our task is to make sure it is utopia rather than dystopia.


Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12013
1 Corinthians 1: 26-31
Matthew 5:1-12a

Our readings today speak to this task, and this hope. Our first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah—a minor prophet. It is a short book and most of it, unlike the passage in the lectionary, is an apocalyptic account of Yahweh’s Day of Wrath:

The great day of the Lord is near—
near and coming quickly.
The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter;
the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.
15 That day will be a day of wrath—
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness—
16 a day of trumpet and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the corner towers.
17 “I will bring such distress on all people
that they will grope about like those who are blind,
because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
and their entrails like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”
In the fire of his jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth. (Zephaniah 1:14-18).

Let’s back up a bit. Zephaniah was active in Judah at the time before and during the reign of Josiah the king of Judah. This was a reformer king, who rediscovered the law of the covenant, but died young with his reforms barely begun. At that time the Southern Kingdom of Judah was a vassal state of Assyria. Two centuries before this the Assyrians had invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel, reduced it to rubble, and then carted away the rich, the powerful, the nobility, to captivity in Assyria. They left the poor and powerless behind, on the land, as a remnant to carry on. The meek inherited the earth.

Zephaniah, in our reading today, prophesies the same for the Kingdom of Judah. Judah will be destroyed, the elite of the kingdom—the rich, the powerful, the nobility—carried off, leaving the poor behind as a remnant on the land. And so it came to pass in 587 BC. It was the Babylonians, the conquerors of Assyria, who did it. But in any case, God left a remnant. They, unlike their overlords in Judah, in Jerusalem, would “do no wrong, speak not lies” left to their own devices to “pasture and couch their flocks with none to disturb them.” Once again, the meek inherited the earth. Once again, some, chosen by God, had survived the end of the world. And they did fine, until those in the Babylonian captivity returned and re-established “civilization” with its attendant hierarchies of church and state—what Walter Wink calls the “Domination System.” This is what Jesus would come to challenge and replace with God’s compassionate kindom.

Our second reading, from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, also speaks of a remnant. Paul believed that the end of the world—the end of civilization—was very near. But he also believed God would save a remnant. Paul’s mission was to shape this remnant, to create resilience communities, which would be the basis of a regenerated world. The kindom of God, a world-wide Beloved Community would rise from the ashes of Roman civilization. Paul also believed the meek would inherit the earth. God had called, into the church, as a remnant, the lowly, the weak, the foolish—rather than the ruling class, the powerless, the foolish. God had set aside the refuse of the world, sanctified them, redeemed them, because they knew the true meaning of justice. And this is God’s justice: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Though the world didn’t end in the ways we see it in disaster flicks, Roman civilization did collapse. And a remnant survived, the church survived. Much of that survival was profoundly nonviolent, surviving the “barbarians” by patient endurance, presenting a model that was ultimately attractive to the invaders, leading to their conversion. Granted, after Christianity become co-opted by the Roman Empire, there were some Christians who took up the sword to defend themselves. Augustine’s Just War Theory, based on the pagan philosophy of Cicero, an apologist of Empire, was supposedly composed with the “barbarians at the gate,” after Christianity had become the religion of the empire. As many Christians have now concluded, “godly” violence is a perversion of Christ’s gospel. In any case, a remnant survived the colonization and militarization of the Christian church, to carry forth Christ’s gospel of revolutionary nonviolence. We here continue in that line. We are part of that remnant.

Jesus speaks to, and of, that remnant in our gospel today. The beatitudes, at the beginning of Jesus’s revolutionary program presented in his Sermon on the Mount, describe the characteristics of God’s remnant, to God’s remnant—those initiated into Jesus’s program, his disciples.

Some interpret the beatitudes in a pietistic way, as referring to the qualities that earn one a ticket to heaven after death. But I think when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven,” he means the kindom come, the kindom of God, on Earth as in heaven. He says “blessed ARE” not “blessed WILL BE.” True, he does say they “will be” comforted, satisfied, shown mercy, etc. That is, the kindom has not come quite yet, but is in process.

So who are the remnant according to Jesus?

  • The poor in spirit, translated as “beggars.” Not just the materially poor; also those who practice poverty, who live by an ethic of simplicity. Who share their resources in a spirit of mutual aid.
  • The meek, who will inherit the earth. This is the “anawim,” the powerless, the lowly, the “foolish,” the poor—the remnant according to the Apostle Paul and the prophet Zephaniah.
  • The merciful, those who practice forgiveness, particularly the forgiveness of enemies, whose mission is the reconciliation of warring parties.
  • The single-hearted (“clean of heart”), those devoted to the gospel of peace and justice. These are those who do no wrong, tell no lies, as described by Zephaniah.
  • The peacemakers, those who beat their swords into plowshares, who preserve the holy ideal of nonviolence and put it into practice as a tool of social change. Those who preserve the kindom—the family, the children—of God.
  • Those persecuted for the sake of justice. This follows from the rest. The world—civilization—is opposed to the poor, the meek, the merciful, the single-hearted, the nonviolent. It seeks to wipe them out, to destroy God’s remnant. And yet God’s remnant will survive, because the ideals that the remnant preserve are the only ones worth saving. And, in the end, violence is self-defeating, and nonviolence a better option for solving problems.

The beatitudes describe God’s remnant. For Jesus could see that the end of the world was coming. The end of Roman civilization, certainly, but Christ could also foresee the end of industrial civilization. He could see the strangling roots of that civilization in his own day, he could see how the next 2000 years would play out. That’s why there is a strong apocalyptic strain in the gospels. An end was envisioned, an end will come. And it might possibly happen, as the scriptures say, before the present generation—those who are alive today—has passed away.

I’ve gone on long enough, but I want to mention a few things about resilience communities before I open it up for discussion. What will a resilient community look like? Well, it will look something like what Jonah House is now and envisions for the future.

It will be an intentional community that includes both live-in and extended members who share resources, space, and work. It will be a community that lives on the land, growing its own food, composting, taking care of the soil. It will be a community that powers its tools based on renewable sources of energy. It will be a community that is a node in a larger, but still local, network. If civilization collapses, local economy will be the main economy. It will be a community that lives and survives by the principle of mutual aid. Those who barricade themselves in bunkers, filled with canned goods, guns, and ammunition, will not survive in the long run. Only those who share, and participate in shared defense, will survive. And that shared defense must be nonviolent. We will see, as we’ve always seen, that groups that are organized and resolute, knowledgeable and well-practiced in nonviolent methods, can face down empires, and cause armies to abandon their weapons and either flee or join those they had come to shoot down. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink provides numerous examples—those who resisted the Nazis, refusing to turn over Jews and other supposed “undesirables”; those who brought down the Iron Curtain in the period 1989-1991. As Wink puts it, “nonviolence generally works where violence would work, and where it fails, violence too would fail…. But nonviolence also works where violence would fail.”

I hope I’ve offered enough hope to help us carry on in the difficult years ahead. We may not live to see it, we may not survive the strife, the collapse that seems to be upon us, but we have the promise of God that a remnant will survive. Our ideals of peace and justice will survive. Some will be resilient and survive the deluge. In fact, our one thing that might save civilization is if the world takes up the sustainable practices of resilience before it’s too late. Whether civilization collapses or not, the world as we know it today will be superseded by God’s kindom of peace, justice, and reconciliation, the Beloved Community. That is the promise of God, the basis of our faith.

Here are just a few articles that consider the collapse of civilization. Each of the articles has links to numerous other articles.

“Human Extinction 2026” by Robert Hunziker

“Can a Collapse of Civilization Be Avoided?” by Paul and Ann Ehrlich

“Extinction Is the End Game” by “Xray Mike”:

Jonah House Reflections for Sunday, November 11, 2016

By Lin Romano

(Sources include the Sunday Website of St. Louis University, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others not cited.)

Let’s listen to the first two readings from Malachi and the Psalms.

Reading 1: Malachi 3:19-20a

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the God of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9

Response: God comes to rule the earth with justice

Sing praise to the Almighty with the harp,
with the harp and melodious song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
sing joyfully before the Creator, our God.


Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell in it;
let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy.


Before the Almighty, for God comes,
for God comes to rule the earth,
God will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with equity.
Take a couple of minutes of silence to think about what stood out for you in the readings. Not a word, but a theme. Write it down and hold onto it.

I found in these readings the overriding theme of hope, which I find in short supply since Tuesday. Perhaps for the first time, I appreciate the retributive language that I generally abhor. All the proud and evildoers will be stubble–wonderful! And they will be set on fire, with none left to take their place–marvelous! And yet, and yet . . . . There is the Gospel still to consider, still the word of calm amidst all. While all the signs of devastation of the world surround us, we are to remain sure in faith, steadfast amidst persecution, sure of tongue and wise beyond knowledge.

Let’s hear that reading…

Gospel Luke 21:5-19

While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”

He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.

“Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.  It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Now, make a note if you would change what you wrote, if you see those first readings differently in light of the Gospel. Let’s do a brief go-around to share our first thoughts and any modifications.

I skipped today’s reading from 2 Thessalonians, not because I have always found it annoying (which I have) but because it adds little to the apocalyptic literature that is this Gospel. If you didn’t read ahead, the reading from Thessalonians includes the “if you don’t work you shouldn’t eat” admonition. The fact that members of the early church had stopped working actually related to their belief that the day of the Lord had come and the “curse” of work (Genesis 3) had been lifted. Yippee! They were all but in heaven. The world as we know it was coming to an end. Can you feel the mood in Thessalonica? What the heck, why not just eat, drink and be merry, for the day is at hand! Why go to work?

Please excuse another aside, but I have felt like that at times this week. Minus the merriment. It’s been hard to get out of bed and face the days ahead. It’s hard to acknowledge that the world still need not come to an end, if only we can pedal faster, organize, resist, educate, meditate, believe. (Yet has anyone else wanted to cry out “Redo!” or remain tucked under a blanket?)

Okay, so I’ll dispense with that reading now, and wander back to Luke. More predictions of the end times come first, with Jesus describing the destruction of the temple (a charge later brought against him at trial), explaining that false prophets would appear, and calling for calm during all of the horrible times ahead. While many of these predictions may have come true in the first century AD, it seems that generation after generation can recognize a piece of the end times approaching. We are no different.

Remember the year 2000? The apocalypse was imminent! Not only would digital time stop, but the world as we knew it would end, with power going out globally and missiles being launched uncontrollably. People moved to bunkers in the Midwest, and others sat vigil in prayerful hope of a painless end. Movies and books hyped it all, and ultimately, it was business as usual. Money was made and people were duped. The wheel keeps spinning.

So when Jesus warned of the days ahead, and gave signs to look for, was he talking to everyone in all times or truly predicting the end of the world? His word already has come to be, again and again, yet here we breathe, here we sit, here we read the words again and look to the future. Let’s see: Wars – check! Temples destroyed – check! False prophets! Insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues – sadly, very sadly, all checks.

Some say that our years are but a blink of God’s eyes, so if one waits for a literal end of the world based on these signs it could be untold numbers of lifetimes in the coming. But let’s consider another way of looking at this. Could Jesus have been merely giving a worst-case scenario to those following him, so that they would not lose heart when the inevitable occurred? It would help them to remain strong when they were persecuted for their beliefs (imagine the comfort of this when being attacked by hungry lions in a crowded stadium). It would offer some solace when their own families turned on them, giving assurance that their perseverance would net them eternal life.

Remember that when these words were written, probably around 80 or 85 AD, the city and the temple of Jerusalem were already destroyed, and the Acts of the Apostles already written, detailing the difficulties of Jesus’ believers after his death. So were these even predictions, or words attributed to him by a firm believer to increase his stature? Some argue that Mediterranean culture of the time was not so forward-looking. They asked for DAILY bread, as they were primarily present-oriented. Predictions of events in a faraway future to come would not resonate with them. Rather, when Luke’s Jesus later states, “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place,” it was seen as a present-day statement of the generation contemporary with his ministry. Since the events have come true, Jesus is judged reliable. Those feeling the heat for their beliefs are encouraged by this, assured that standing firm in the face of persecutions would lead to salvation.

Now, let’s circle back to the first two readings.

First, I want to address the predicted violence. I think–I hope–we all will agree that God is non-violent. God does not prescribe violence, and violence should never be rationalized in God’s name. So what about the violence in this scripture and so many others that is attributed to God, or to God’s direct orders?

Didn’t God wipe out the human race, saving only Noah and his family? Didn’t God ask Abraham to kill Isaac, and also plan to destroy Israel before Moses talked him out of it? Didn’t “God’s Law”–Mosaic law, prescribe stoning women to death for adultery? What about the wars fought in God’s name, and even the extremists in Islam today, killing thousands in God’s name? Doesn’t God state that wars and insurrections MUST happen first, before the “day of the Lord” arrives? How do we explain all of this, if we believe in the sacred texts?

Of course I reject any notion that God reacts with, orders, or approves of violence. I see the writers of the texts as taking their own thoughts and feelings and projecting them onto God. We get angry–God doesn’t. We crave vengeance, not God. If we read all of the scriptures literally we turn God into a tribal God, a God opposed to peace. Many of the texts cannot be taken literally–the violence and killing are metaphorical.

So when we are told that we will experience God’s wrath, when we read today that the proud and evildoers will be stubble and that they will be set on fire, we have to understand that God will not have this “sun of justice” arise with its healing rays by first extracting a “pound of flesh for a pound of sin.”  (Ron Rolheiser) Walter Bruggeman once commented that “God is in recovery from all the violence that has been attributed to him and done in his name.”

In fact, even the idea of the last judgment as a dire expectation of doom, does not fit in with a God of healing, as God of justice. I do not look forward with joy for a day that slaughters those who erred, but rather to a day when all will ACT justly, LIVE love, and BE peace.

Let’s try this perspective: All of the catastrophes (think climate-change related), wars, insurrections, etc. are NOT signs of the end times, but of how far we are FROM the end. We have not yet succeeded in bringing about justice. There’s an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet;” perhaps we are not moving enough, marching enough, entering the halls of power and military bases enough, and teaching enough to establish God’s kin-dom.  When goodness and justice reign we will have entered the end times of the world. And there is nothing to fear about that end.

At Jonah House, we are well-acquainted with people who have walked into situations where they risked persecution at best, and death as a real possibility. Despite sufferings in and out of jails and prisons, their resolves remain firm, their voices speaking truth to power strong, their love of and faith in God firm, and their spirits full of joy and hope. Yes, there is much legal preparation in a trial after an action for justice, but it is the spirit of God that flows through, that offers words to speak in a courtroom and public forums, that provides the “defense” and the potential for conversion of hearts. We just have to keep moving our feet.

So now I suggest that we focus on questions that will have increasingly more meaning as we move forward under a Trump administration and a Republican Congress:

  1. How have you felt sustained by a power greater than yourself during a time of justice-seeking or truth-telling?
  1. How do you see yourself/our communities bringing about the “end times” of justice and peace?

Litany for Today

When the Turks exterminated millions of Armenians…

Where were you, God?

When millions perished needlessly in World War I…

Where were you, God?

When Stalin killed millions of his own people…

Where were you, God?

When the Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust…

Where were you, God?

When the Japanese slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese in Nanking…

Where were you, God?

When Dresden was firebombed during World War II…

Where were you, God?

When the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…

Where were you, God?

When the U.S. destroyed Vietnam in order to save it, killing millions in the process…

Where were you, God?

When millions were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the killing field…

Where were you, God?

When deaths squads killed tens of thousands in Indonesia…

Where were you, God?

When fanatical Chinese communists killed tens of thousands during the Cultural Revolution…

Where were you God?

When death squads disappeared tens of thousands in Central and South America…

Where were you, God?

When Hutus went on a genocidal rampage against the Tutsis in Rwanda…

Where were you, God?

When thousands of gay men were dying of AIDS and the government refused to do anything…

Where were you, God?

When the U.S. and its allies killed hundreds of thousands through sanctions and occupation in Iraq…

Where were you, God?

When Catholic priests sexually abused thousands of children…

Where were you, God?

When Syria slid into a vicious civil war…

Where were you, God?

When humans built an industrial civilization that poisoned the planet with carbon emissions…

Where were you, God?

* * *

When the world needs compassion…

We are your heart, God

When crimes need to be witness and revealed…

We are your eyes, God

When truth needs to speak to power…

We are your mouth, God

When injustice needs to be confronted…

We are your conscience, God

When the lost need to be gathered and embraced…

We are your arms, God

When those who are suffering need relief…

We are your hands, God

On the long road to peace and justice…

We are your feet, God


By Joe Byrne


By Joe Byrne

The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps Jesus’s most popular short story. It is used as shorthand for what is best in the Christian religion: generosity, forgiveness, redemption, unconditional love.


I’m not the first person to suggest that in this parable there is more than one prodigal son. Arguably there are two prodigal sons in the parable—and they are prodigal in different ways. I would also suggest there is a prodigal father. And before I’m through I’ll talk about prodigal apostles, churches, nations and gods. Prodigality is my theme. It certainly seems to be the theme that those who chose the lectionary readings want us to consider.

Prodigality is one of the central narratives of Christianity. The Christian path is a wayward path. It is the story of going astray, of taking the wrong path and finding our way back to the right path. In some ways that is the path, and we never find our way to the right path except by wandering off the path first. We find our way in the wilderness, and paradoxically never find the way by hewing to the straight and narrow.


Definitions of Prodigal
  1. Being wasteful of resources; or extravagant generosity.
  2. Engaging in, and then repenting, acts of moral depravity.

In Jesus’s story, the prodigal son is thought to be prodigal according to both these definitions. The father—and by extension, God—is prodigal according to the first definition. And on this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11/2001, I would say that the United States has been prodigal according to both definitions. Just as the prodigal son had his metanoia, his repentance, we must hope that the United States might also change its ways and find its way back to the right path. More on that later.

Confessions of a Prodigal Son

Before that, let me say something about my own prodigality. I consider myself a prodigal son. I certainly felt that way when I returned to the Christian path, and particularly to the faith-based peace movement, after eighteen years in the wilderness. In 1996, I left the Catholic Church. I told people that I was leaving the Church to become a Buddhist, but I wasn’t much of a Buddhist during those eighteen years, though I periodically practiced. I didn’t really leave one church to join another; what I was really doing was trying to live a life unencumbered by dogmas and moral rules. While I didn’t live a life of dissolution, like the prodigal son—I didn’t have half an estate to blow!—I did do drugs and engaged in sexual promiscuity. Some might call this moral depravity; I was certainly wasteful of the gifts God had given me. Eventually, I realized that a life dedicated to hedonism, and a life lived in bitter reaction to the more repressive aspects of religion, was not a very satisfying one. So I came back to the Church, to the faith in which I was raised, the faith that had formed my heart and mind and soul, and my sense of mission in the world. I wouldn’t characterize this return as repentance as such, or as a deep conviction of my sinfulness; I was driven, instead, by a desire to be reconciled to my better nature, and to God.

The same is true of my return to the faith-based peace movement, to the Atlantic Life Community (ALC). After eighteen years away, I naturally assumed that everyone assumed I was a government agent, a spy. Who knows, some in the ALC might still think this. If so, at least I’m a spy with a good singing voice. And I haven’t gotten anyone busted yet.

Let’s turn to the readings. I admit on the outset that this time I’ll be light on the exegesis, and hew instead more closely to my theme.

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14

In this reading, God complains to Moses about his people. God wonders if they are still His people. They have set up a golden calf and called it God. God calls this “depravity,” when in fact it seems they just wanted a visual representation of God. God says: “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” When God says “let me alone,” he is assuming that Moses would challenge God on this. Moses’s role is to speak truth to power, whether he is speaking to his people or to God. After all, God is threatening genocide. But that’s all right, God says; I will wipe out all these people, but I will make of you a great nation. Moses might have thought: where have I heard this before? Didn’t God say the same thing to Adam and Eve, right before he banished them from the garden? Didn’t God say the same thing to Noah after he wiped out all the people in the world, except for Noah and his family? Didn’t God say the same thing to Abraham, right before he ordered Abraham to sacrifice is only son? And now he was saying it to Moses, after threatening to kill the people he had taken so much trouble to liberate from the Egyptians.

Moses dares to point all this out to God, and reminds God that God promised to make the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” God is convinced by Moses. God “relented in the punishment he had threated to inflict on his people.” Older translations say that God “repented” from what he had planned. But it is borderline blasphemous and heretical to say that our perfect, omniscient and all-powerful God “repented,” that he turned away from doing evil (which some older translations also say: that God repented of doing evil). That is what seems to be suggested by those who chose the lectionary readings. All the other readings are about repentance. In this reading, God repents. But is it really heretical to suggest that God learns from his mistakes, that God grows, comes to self-knowledge and consciousness, in the ways that people do? If not, we are faced with the specter of another heresy, that of Marcionism.

According to the ancient Christian writer Marcion, Christianity reveals the true God, the God of love, forgiveness, and compassion; whereas, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a false god, a god of vengeance and hatred. This position has been declared heretical by the Church, and rightly so, because it denigrates Judaism and justifies anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish pogroms, and the Holocaust. But how then do we explain the God of much of the Hebrew Scriptures—who is a jealous god, who is sometimes seemingly genocidal and urges a genocidal mentality, ironically enough, upon the Jewish people—compared to the God that Jesus describes, who is a God of infinite love and compassion? And how do we explain a God who is, in the Hebrew Scriptures, a practitioner of conditional love, with the God of Jesus, who practices unconditional love?

One explanation is that God changes, that God experiences metanoia. Another explanation is that it is in fact the human understanding of God that changes, rather than God him/herself. The savage God who sometimes appears in the Hebrew scriptures is really the way God was perceived by a savage, or at least a primitive, people. By the time Jesus came along, these people were no longer savage or primitive; they had come to know God, through the experience of centuries, to be an infinitely compassionate being.

This suggests that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are fictional in the sense that fiction is an art form by which we come to the truth by means of creative falsity. It is also an art form by which characters come to the truth by way of action in the world, by waywardness, followed by reflection upon action and waywardness. Thus individuals, peoples, and even gods change and become more highly evolved. This takes us a little bit off course, so I’ll leave it there.

Paul’s Letter to Timothy 1:12-17

According to Paul, Jesus came into the world to save sinners. “Of these I am the foremost,” Paul says.

Paul is proclaiming himself a prodigal son: once a just man, a progressive Pharisee, he has become a fanatical persecutor, a murderer, a mass murderer, a serial killer. In doing so, he “acted out of ignorance” in his “unbelief.” But his letter to Timothy suggests that Paul would not be who he was if he had not gone astray. “For that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who come to believe in him.”

Paul does not dwell on his sinfulness but instead on how he has become reconciled. He admits to being an imperfect apostle, and that by way of his imperfection he has come to a more perfect understanding of a compassionate, loving God.

We might say the same thing about the Church. If one of the two inventors of the Church (with Peter) can be imperfect, so too can the Church. And just as Paul—and as God, in Exodus—can gain by going astray, off-path, so too can the Church learn from its mistakes. The current pope has a good grasp of this. He freely admits, and regularly apologizes for the transgressions of the Church. He has done much to heal the damage wrought by the priest sex abuse scandal. Lately, as another example, he has apologized for the persecution of gays and lesbians in the Church. The Church of Pope Francis is a prodigal church, returning to the values promulgated by its founder, such as mercy, compassion, and unconditional love.

Luke 15:1-32 (The Lost Sheep, Coin, Son)

In my discussion of the gospel reading today—which, along with the parable of the prodigal son, also includes the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—I’ll be drawing upon the work of Amy-Jill Levine. In her book The Short Stories of Jesus, she includes a whole chapter on the cluster of these three parables.

Levine, a Jewish scholar and professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, devotes most of her chapter to answering and arguing against anti-Semitic interpretations of these parables. For instance, some interpreters see the father in the parable of the prodigal son as a representation of God, a God who is loving, and compassionate, and thus radically different from the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, they suggest an interpretation that is Marcionistic. In fact, Levine points out, this compassionate father is not that different from Jewish fathers of Jesus’s day, and not that different from the loving God who appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the prophets.

Levine also argues against the interpretation that sees the parables in today’s gospel reading as being about repentance. Regarding the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, she simply points out that sheep and coins can’t repent. Levine argues that these stories are more about reconciliation than repentance.


Before moving on to the parable of the Prodigal Son, let’s consider the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Are there elements of prodigality in these two stories? I would say, with some back up from Levine, yes. The shepherd is prodigal—that is, he’s reckless and wasteful, in abandoning his ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost, and then throwing a party to celebrate finding the one sheep (Levine facetiously comments that she wouldn’t have been surprised if the shepherd had served mutton at the party!). The woman who loses the coin is reckless and wasteful in throwing a party to celebrate finding one coin. The suggestion here is that the party cost her much more than that one coin.


What this illustrates is what the father in the parable of the prodigal son represents—God’s reckless and wasteful dispensation of his/her resources. This is a wonderful definition of God’s grace! The point here is that what causes the celebration is not so much repentance (again, sheep and coins can’t repent) but the joy that results from reconciliation—from finding what was lost, as opposed to the conviction of sin, of guilt.

This is my reading, anyway, of the parable of the prodigal son. The first prodigal son is prodigal in both definitions I set out at the beginning. He is wasteful, and engages in acts of moral depravity. But he returns and experiences his father’s prodigality: the father gives his wayward son the best robe and kills for him the fatted calf. This prodigal son did not deserve it, but such was the unconditional love of his father. In the same way, humans don’t deserve God’s riches, God’s grace, but God recklessly disposes them upon us anyway.


So the father is prodigal in his reckless generosity. Which made me wonder: how did he come about this belief in unconditional love? How do any of us come to such a belief? Often it’s an experience of conditional love that goes badly. Perhaps there was a third son that we don’t hear about in the parable. Perhaps once upon a time this third son performed an act of generosity with his father’s property which angered the father (like what happened to St. Francis of Assisi and his father). This third son might then have gone off and not returned—perhaps he died in a faraway land, unreconciled with his father, leaving the father to lament his lack of generosity and understanding. Such an experience would explain the radical generosity, the unconditional love, of the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

And if we see the father in the parable as a stand-in for God, we might understand Jesus to be representing a God who has learned from his mistakes with the people of Israel, when they were in the desert and more particularly when they were a nation mimicking the empires that surrounded them, worshiping the idols of wealth and power.

What then of the second son? I mentioned that he is prodigal too. He is prodigal in the sense that he has gone astray upon the straight and narrow. He has fulfilled all the commandments, all the law, but lacks the insight and compassion that comes from going off the path, from wandering in the desert.

Our prodigal nation

I end with a reflection upon the terror attacks of 9/11/2001.

I will begin by saying that I’m becoming more and more convinced that those who claim 9/11 was an inside job are right. The arguments of people like David Ray Griffin and Jim Douglass (and our dear friends Kathy Boylan and John Schuchardt) are suggestive and persuasive. It seems impossible to believe that the clinical demolition of the World Trade buildings was done by way of flying planes into them and dousing them with airplane fuel (particularly when one of the fallen buildings was not hit by an airplane). The lack of photographic evidence of a plane crash at the Pentagon is also suspicious. Whether it was the Bush administration that dynamited those buildings, or knew about it and let it happen, the hawkish members of the Bush II cabal certainly used the destruction of the World Trade Center to further their nefarious ends.

But for me the greater crime was to take the country-wide commiseration and camaraderie that followed the killing of three thousand innocent people, and twist it into blood-thirsty revenge, leading the United States into two (at least) wars, and the murder of a hundred times as many innocent noncombatants in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In the wake of 9/11, the United States has been prodigal in both senses of the definition I used at the outset. Many billions of dollars have been wasted on the destruction of two countries and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Wasteful and wanton, to say the least. Profligate and morally depraved, for sure.

All that said, I find the “9/11 was an inside job” narrative to be extremely alienating and disempowering. It’s the depiction of a nation that is irredeemable; that is, in fact demonic. I prefer to see our nation as prodigal, rather than demonic. I hold out hope that we as a nation might find ways to use our wealth to aid the poorer nations of the world, rather than destroy them. That we might be recklessly generous with methods of education and enlightenment, modeling the values of nonviolence, of peace with justice, and true democracy.

If metanoia is possible for people, it must be possible for nations as well; it must be possible for worlds such as ours. America the prodigal must be able to step away from the brink, to return from the wilderness, having learned from our grievous mistakes. If not, we are all lost, trapped in a world that is one big prison, in a permanent desert of our own making.

I end this reflection with questions for our discussion. How might our prodigal nation return to the community of nations (rejecting the superpower label, or any notion of empire) and to the values that inspired the American revolution, and inspire the world still. How might we learn from our mistakes since 9/11 and be better for it?

How might our prodigal Church return to the values preached and embodied by Jesus?

How have we experienced our own prodigality? According to which definition (positive and negative sense of prodigality)?

Faith in Action and Relationship

By Megan Mundi

The following is a reflection offered by Megan Mundi, a regular participant in the Jonah House Sunday prayer service, on August 7, 2016.

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Book of Wisdom 18:6-9
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19
Luke 12:32-48


Today’s readings lead us into a discussion about faith; the merits of faith, the actions of the faithful, the consequences of faithlessness and most importantly the essence of faith. The measure of a person’s faith, how sincerely one chooses to believe and how often/extremely they act or react from a place of faith are often subject to judgment from others, allowing the believers to be viewed as “good” Christians, or otherwise. This quickly becomes problematic. For instance, politicians stand in front of large crowds and claim their “belief in the Lord Jesus Christ” as their motivating factor for any wide range of things they say. Or on the other hand, many “people of faith” allow unjust systems to remain unquestioned because “God always has a plan”.

This view of suggested that faith is a thing to be measured, gained, or believed in – this is not true faith. It allows action to be inserted or left out with almost equal disregard. Understanding faith as something that is optional overlooks it’s fundamental essence. Rather than something we choose to believe, faith is an intrinsic part of our human experience. In his book Dynamics of Faith Paul Tillich suggests “Man is driven toward faith by his awareness of the infinite to which he belongs, but which he does not own like a possession.” Faith should not be understood as belief in our connection to something greater than ourselves, but rather the recognition of that already present connection, and the drive to strengthen it. Having faith is having the willingness to learn and practice the things that deepen our connection with the Divine.

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich

Because of its truthfulness, faith has always been an essential part of the human experience. Karen Armstrong talks about this as “our search for meaning” and documents the acts throughout history that intended to honor that search. In the earliest human societies, toward the end of the Paleolithic age, cave drawings were found and determined to denote places of ritual and honor. These drawings were not connected to any specific “God” that we would understand today, but were signs of faith. They were expressions of awe in the grander order of the world that people were experiencing. These might be the earliest documented expressions of faith, but countless other examples throughout the development of societies make it clear that faith has always shaped how we interact with our world. Armstrong claims that there has always been an awareness of the “the fundamental reality” which eventually came to be called God. She goes onto say that this fundamental reality transcends human concepts and thoughts, and can only be known through devoted religious practice.

The problem is: faith by this definition is exhibited solely through human action and human action is often misguided by ego – even when our intentions are otherwise. Tillich explains faith as an act of the personality as a whole. (Or imagine personality when it’s whole.) He proposes that “we must deny that man’s essential nature is identical with the rational character of his mind”. Therefore we must conclude that faith emerges from the struggle between the true nature of one’s whole self and the rational acts of the mind. True faith based actions are those that bridge our human experience with our divine nature.


But, how can we know what are truly acts of faith? We must start with listening. Listening not with our ears, but with our inner most selves, listening again for that “fundamental reality” from which we have become disconnected. This listening must come from a place of humility and openness. We must sharpen the skill of distinction between acts of faith and acts of ego. This proves time and time again to be extremely difficult for humans. We live a time where countless systems have been developed to distort that skill (possibly it has always been a time when systems were in place to distort that skill). Tillich reminds us that “Many distortions of the meaning of faith are rooted in the attempt to subsume faith to the cognitive function of personal life and emotion and will.” These are distortions that could be avoided through a well developed practice of humbled listening.

The idea that those with the deepest faith are those who have made the choice to believe denotes a deterioration. This idea presumes that we can no longer simply recognize our connection to something greater and search for and practice ways to honor that connection. It implies that we have been conditioned so thoroughly in the rational and ego that we have to take a “leap of faith”, we have chosen to believe in something we cannot see, something we once knew, and felt. A truth we have been conditioned to overlook and suppress in favor of appeasing our ego.

Tillich makes the argument that “Faith is freedom.” The consequences of ill practiced faith are ones we are all familiar with. We have experienced them. They are as often internal consequences and external ones. Tillich explains his sentiment, “In the ecstasy of faith there is an awareness of truth and of ethical value there are also past loves and hates, conflicts and reunions, individual and collective influences. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.
Matters of faith are not a choice, rather our natural state. How do we ensure that we are not engaging in things that distract ourselves from this natural state? How do we strengthen our connection to the Divine and come fully back into our whole selves?

Gratitude and Greed – The Legacy of Francis and Gandhi

By Liz McAlister

Dissatisfaction. A vague hunger. Subtle, nagging, demanding to be filled – seldom strong enough to be the central focus of attention. A vague hunger both blind and lost, that is seduced, distorted, manipulated to define itself in terms of greed, consumption, and wealth addiction. So we seek to fill it – with an excess of food, activity, information, possessions. We want more because what we are getting is not what we need. Now is never enough. Too much is never enough.

The great seducer is the culture. The average North American is bombarded 10,000 times a day with sensory bites. Their thrust:

– to breed dissatisfaction – we aren’t beautiful enough, clean enough, cool enough, smart enough, young enough

– to sell products that will make us beautiful, clean, cool, smart, young.

– to create among us  rivalry, competitiveness,
– to sabotage every effort to build the kind of community that can enable us to withstand the
pressures of greed.
– to expect fulfillment in the future, and that future is for sale –  if you have enough money, you can buy!

The preaching of the culture is fear: “There isn’t enough to go around.”

Pascal named the awareness of vague hunger the “god-shaped vacuum” within us. We  triumph over it when we learn to trust the very hunger and fear we’ve been taught to avoid. Face it! Embrace it! Recognition of it is the juncture at which we choose: either to seek our grounding in materialism; or to move beyond it – and move from the cultural imperative to the spiritual alternative which invites us to enter fully into all that has been given to us.

Gratitude is our response. Gratitude is the antidote to the poison – it is the hidden art, the unrecognized answer. Gratitude has nothing to do with counting our blessings (and being thankful only if the good outweighs the bad). It has to do with walking headlong into the wholeness of life. And with the realization that, hidden in my gratitude for the life within me and before me is the nourishment I seek in vain through acquisitiveness . It is a practice of living fully the miracle of this moment.

What is it that gratitude achieves? If we can understand that our capacity to praise and be grateful for something in this world and nature hinges on our capacity to involve ourselves in that which we extol , then we can understand that the spirit of gratitude draws us out of ourselves and into involvement. It enables us to open ourselves to be able to forget ourselves in unity with others… If expressing gratitude for what is is an act of being alive, then we are dead people most of the time.

I want to  dig a little into the hold that greed and property have on us. Let anyone say: “Property is sacred,” and critical thinking is stifled. Because this sacrosanct nature of property in the hands of a few is confirmed by law and sanctioned by state power, even the dispossessed majority tends to accept it. While deefinitions vary, exclusiveness and unlimited disposition are the chief elements of ownership as the term is commonly used. It demands analysis. The thing is – none of its foundations are true.

It was the Ancient Romans who developed the concept of ownership. It was Roman law that legitimized the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense and impoverishment of the many. From there, private ownership of the land formed the basis of the slave-owning, the feudal, the capitalist, and the state-capitalist economic systems successively. This ownership concept is

  1. a) the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.
    b)  the root of impoverishment of the land and of society and the ecological crisis we now face.
  2. c)  the root of most of our warring.
    “But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine? …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.”  (John Chrysostom)

(These are the effects of greed that I would have us delve into)

(1) The Roman Law ownership is the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.

What is rarely considered is a philosophical and moral view of ownership: “What is ownership-as-it-ought-to-be?”  It’s a question searching for response, especially today among Third World peasants – what is legal does not reflect what is just. They ask:

– Why can we not own the land we till, which our ancestors tilled?

– Whose is the land really? It was there before you and I were born. When landlords and we shall die, the land will still be there.

– What is just with regard to the land?

They look to history for answers. In all primitive societies people exercised collective authority over land. Not until the coming of the Spaniards in this country, was the notion of legal title to land introduced and Roman law of individual ownership propagated. Thus ownership by Spaniards of large tracts of land seized from the natives was recognized as legal.

The urgent question of ownership coming right into the 21st century is essentially the same as the question faced by Christian philosophers in the late Roman Empire. Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine – critique private ownership of the means of subsistence and its effect on both rich and poor. While the Roman law has been passed down, and while all are considered great thinkers and saints, their critique has been silenced. The principles they outlined toward a philosophical and moral view of ownership are 2

  1. Self sufficiency as a purpose of property… One who lacks the necessities of life cannot be other than broken in spirit . Property is for our use – to give people moral self-assurance regarding externals and hence free them for service to others… so people can lead a life consonant with human dignity. It is a means! The greedy are “foolish” they treat it as an end.

2.Koinonia as a purpose of property… Goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of humanity. Ownership of wealth should not mean the right to do with property as one wills but rather as God wills. And God’s will is manifest in the creation of people as social, as moving toward unity, as community, or koinonia. The purpose of wealth is to foster koinonia – fellowship that abolishes the differentiation between the few rich who wallow in luxury and the all too many in poverty. This aspect of property is reflected in the comment of John Woolman: “The Quakers came to this country to do good; and they have done very well!”

It is not human to regard property as something with which one may do as one likes simply because it is one’s “own.” To be properly human, one must act in a spirit of community – cast aside the prevailing, absolutist, indiviualistic Roman law legitimation of property and embrace a new rationale of ownership, holding things in such a way that they may be common. The basic difference is in fixing the right of ownership in the static order of keeping or holding instead of recognizing it as a dynamic reality: a duty of sharing.

Backing these principles is the observation”
– just as the foot is the measure of the sandal, so the physical needs of each are the measure of what one should possess. Whatever is excessive is a burden for the body.

– just as air, water, fire, the sun, land – are causes of life, they and all the wealth of earth belong to the human family and not to the few.
– the most basic title to property is the title of need. To this need all others are subordinate and by this need the right of ownership is limited. For the rich to share their wealth constitutes an act of restitution because they have accumulated so much that the poor have been deprived of their birthright.

The patristics denounced the status quo because it granting moral legitimation to what is immoral. They tried to reason with exploiting classes that their wealth was the result of theft, with a view to moving them to restore it by redistribution. They taught a philosophy of ownership based on the view that God is parent and giver and provider for all and that the few must cease stealing the food-producing resources that God destined for the use of all. Then everyone could celebrate their effective participation in the same common nature – in the one human family to which all belonged.

Legal arrangements of property rights are of human origin and should be changed as an expression of a faith-informed ethic based on the true meaning of ownership. Justice cannot be realized until humanity has effectively rejected the idolatry of property.

(2) – The Roman Law dealing with ownership is the root of the impoverishment of the land and of the society and the ecological crisis we now face. The possession of large tracts of land by the few not only destroys the many, pushing them into destitution, dependence, crime, it also destroys the land. It has blinded us to our integral relationship with the natural world. We pride ourselves on outwitting nature. We develop technology to transcend the basic biological law – a law of limits. We look to live beyond the limits that are normal and natural to us as human beings. We keep inventing; we keep trying to get beyond the human condition into some kind of wonderworld. But the more we try, the more we waste-the-world, and destroy our whole situation. Greed!

Other societies might be limited by their lack of technological development. Our society  burns the energies of the planet, trying to get beyond the planet. We invent things that have immediate advantages; we cling to a short-term view that a moment of security or well-being can be had today without enormous charges against tomorrow.

The earth is what we have in common; we cannot damage it without damaging ourselves and all with whom we share it. When we disturb the outer world, we are destroying living forms – animal, trees, etc. And disturb the land we have! (Wendel Berry) The woods and streams inherit all the harms of human enterprise. We burn the world to live; our living blights the trees  . Great machines, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, de-forestation, desertification.  We are losing probably ten thousand species a year – the greatest set-back to the abundance and diversity of life on earth since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago. And when we destroy the living forms of this planet, we destroy modes of God’s presence. If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, if we have refinement of emotion and sensitivity, it is because we live amid such awesome magnificence, it is because of the diversity, the beauty,  the rhythmic movements of the world about us. If we grow in our life vigor, it is because the earthly community challenges us, forces us to struggle to survive, but, in the end, reveals itself as benign providence.

(3) –  The Roman Law ownership concept is the root of most of our warring. “But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine?” …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.” (Chrysostom). “If we have property, we’ll need walls and weapons to protect it.” ((Francis of Assisi) ) “On account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders.” (Augustine)  Preparation for nuclear war has turned the whole of North America into a weapons factory in peace time. Mining, milling, and processing; enrichment and nuclear reactors; reprocessing plants that separate out the plutonium; bomb factories for triggers and bomb assembly plants; testing sites for nuclear weapons and nuclear waste repositories. And through all, there is no safe level of radiation.

We’ve set off thousands of nuclear bombs on the planet, over half of them American. We’ve done severe damage to the biosphere and to human health. Subtle and not so subtle damage has happened both to the biosphere and the gene pool. As we produce more radioactive material, we enlarge the susceptible population, we increase the number of children with asthsma and allergies, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, arthritic conditions at age 8 or 9. These children are more vulnerable to a hazardous environment. And we keep enlarging this vulnerable category, even as we increase the toxicity of the environment! That’s a species death process.

We have toxic waste dumps, nuclear power plants, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants created during the Vietnam War, now used on farms and in cities, plus the radioactive garbage sifting down from the stratosphere (a UN study claims 150 megatons from testing) – and no one keeps track of what is happening.

Luke 12:15   Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

As faith is the antithesis (antidote) to fear, gratitude is the antithesis of greed. Over 100 verses in the Scriptures mandate Thanksgiving. We see it * Ps. 107, 118, and 136. Phil. 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The central vision of world history in the Bible is that creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature. All are children of one family, heirs of one hope, bearers of one destiny – the care and management of God’s creation. This is the root of gratitude –  this destiny, this dream of God for us that resists all our tendencies to division, hostility, fear, drivenness, and misery.

Without gratitude our future is complusive drivenness. Without gratitude there is no grounding from which to defy all that must be confronted in this estranged world of ours. Gratitude is a response to two specific life-style decisions: simplicity and service (neither of which is possible without community). These decisions are essential because gratitude is not something we can acquire and then use as if it were a new possession. Gratitude grows from a context of health created by “right attitude” and “right livelihood.”

“Right attitude” and “right livelihood” contradict all those cultural living habits that have to do with maintaining what we have and coveting what we don’t. “The greatest wealth of all is having so little that one must notice how much one has in having life itself.” With little to protect and acquire, life is simple. The answer we seek isn’t in saturation but simple thanksgiving. We become what we think: therefore a mindfulness of/gratefulness for our world family!

When wealth is reckoned in commodities, stashed away for some to have and some not to have; when “know-how” is spohisticated, mystifying, technical – possessed by some and not by others; when a sense of solidarity among persons yields to a kind of individuality; when a sense of belonging with others is diminished and a sense of being apart from others takes its place, when $, access, and knowledge are no longer shared among us but are controlled by some, the natural network of caring community collapses. Let us pray for clarity to see all that lives not as raw materials, symbols, but as sister-presences, independent, called out of nothing by no word of ours, bless`ed, here with us. May we live to breathe air worthy of breath – may we become breathers worth their air, makers worth their hire!