Table Talk No. 1
In the Beginning is Division or Why doesn’t anyone like me anymore?
Ezekiel 21:1-5, 24-27, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, Gospel: Luke 12: 49-53
When I was fourteen, I belonged to a gang of hooligans, by Canadian standards at least. The six of us pubescent boys used to do the usual Friday night mayhem in our stuffy west side Vancouver neighbourhood: overturning garbage cans, yelling at passing cars and banging on unpopular teachers’ doors at midnight and taking off in laughter before they could appear. In our unbridled defiance, we six malcontents were inseparable, and it seemed at the time, bosom buddies.
That is, until I expressed a political opinion.
It was the era of Vietnam and Richard Nixon, and the Big Dick had just ramped up another round of saturation bombing on the nation of peasants who would soon defeat him. And so one night our mini-mob was hanging out in somebody’s basement when the radio announced another B 52 strike on the suburbs of Hanoi. Disgusted, I loudly remarked,
“Somebody should whack that jerk Nixon! He’s a mass murderer!”
I was dumbfounded by the reaction of my fellow hoodlums, who I expected would agree with me. Instead, the pack of them turned and regarded me like I was a foreign intruder. And despite their erstwhile familiarity with dear Old Kev they all began to edge away from me uncomfortably. Our separation grew even though nothing was ever said. And later that same week my gang ditched me for good.
It’s odd how over the subsequent years I kept encountering that same previously-convivial band of brothers, and with the same consequence as the first time: the moment I spoke from my own particularity, the pleasant faces and open doors would all suddenly close. The jellified mass of people seem allergic to difference or division.
Maybe that’s why so many of the same people get so offended by Jesus, who seemed to go out of his way to cause upset. And by Jesus I don’t mean the mythic cult saviour who we are told will fix all our ailments with the right prayers and payments.
I refer instead to the unruly vagabond whose real nature pops up now and then even in the pages of scripture: the diehard rebel who was out to overturn the world, and who announced one day to his own startled friends, “I have come not to bring peace to the earth but a sword. I have come to set the world on fire and turn a father against his son. Where once there were five in one house there shall be three against two.”
Wow! Hardly a “Prince of Peace”, and how very unlike your average moribund clergy person who drops the guy’s name every Sunday without ever knowing him.
The fascinating thing about those words from Jesus, that come from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s gospel, is how literally violent they are. Jesus’ word for “sword” is indeed the Greek word “gladius”, which was the lethal hand sword used by Roman infantrymen to thrust into and disembowel an enemy. The same word is used by Paul in his epistles to describe the word “truth”: like a blade that cuts apart and separates the right from the wrong. Both Jesus and Paul were being offensive for they were indeed on the offensive against institutionalized evil.
Anyone who ever attempts anything new employs such a weapon. By their stand the innovator is forcing everyone to make a choice, creating a ripple of disruption and decision that is never welcomed by the lazy crowd. Such innovators are usually turned upon by the very people who a moment before were their bosom friends, lovers, even family.
We’ve all experienced this. We’ve all gone through rejection, brutality and smears simply for saying what we think and being who we are. But that crucifixion is really nothing less than a birth process: a ripping open of the old arrangements to bring something better and truer into an old, corrupt world.
We read that the universe itself began with a cataclysmic separation, a division of light from darkness. The birth of any baby is the same violent act of separation; life is impossible without it. Such change and conflict are indeed the only constants in our cosmos and in ourselves, and they certainly characterize any act of beauty, courage or integrity. “Come out from among them and be separate” admonishes Paul of Tarsus to the little group of early Jesus-followers in Asia Minor. “For what has the light in common with the darkness?”
Paul was a realist. He knew that love and justice were only empty words until the moment they were put into practice in a way that cleaved apart the new from the old. Or as the anti-slavery leader John Brown declared when he went beyond verbally condemning human bondage and took up arms to defeat it, “Without a final break from the past there can be no future. Without the spilling of the blood of the slave master the slave will never be free.”
Well, the American Civil war vindicated John Brown and proved him right. The stronger the chains of oppression, the mightier must be the blow that breaks them. Whoever wants freedom without the cost required for it is an idle dreamer. But those who find themselves unable to live under those chains any longer must contend with the hatred and rejection of everyone they once knew and loved. And whoever dares to step out from under those chains and tries to shatter their hold over others will eventually be granted a one way ticket to Calvary. For as Jesus forewarned, “If it happened to me, it will happen to anyone who follows me.”
So what is so bad about division and conflict? Why do people fear it so? Is it the threat of violence that it brings, or of the disruption to the routines that so run our lives and that we equate with security? Or is the multitude simply cowardly?
Maybe at a deeper level we all fear the raised hand of the parent who we might offend, or the other guardians of public order who drum into our minds the unchanging creed that stability, law and order and unanimity is what God and civilization require. In fact the biggest chain is the one wrapped around our own minds by a society that requires our orderly cooperation in our own slavery so that we can be milked dry by the few who rule us.
As a child sensitive to all the suffering and wrong in the world, I always liked hearing stories of the Bible because they were filled with glorious battles and conflict and upsets. The idea that Jesus was ever a namby pamby pacifist never made sense to me. For I always related at a visceral level to Jesus because he never flinched from doing what had to be done to uphold the honor and truth of God, and the dignity of the lowest of people – even if that meant bringing down the entire world on his own head.
Jesus was loved at a distance. He was not the kind of man that people liked for very long, for to a man and woman, everyone abandoned him when the boot came down. But that was his triumph, not his defeat, and it’s why we still remember him. And the same victory is ours when he do as he did.
When I was fourteen, I mourned losing my friends in our little gang and our joyous Friday night camaraderie together. But the death of that life was the gateway to something better: the establishment of my own identity and purpose in a jellified world that tries to soak up the best in us. So stand fast, my fellow lights. Come out from the rest and be separate from them. Take up the sword and cut down all that is wrong. You have a world to win back.
Table Talk No. 2
What is this Thing called The Jubilee? Or, Doing More than Proclaiming
Leviticus 25:1-5, 23-24, 35-43 , Revelation 21:1-4 , Gospel: Luke 4:14-21
I was four years old when I first helped myself to the bread out of the baker’s truck. My mother, always hawk-eyed when it came to yours truly, spotted my deed and confronted me as I calmly sat munching my prize on the sidewalk near our home.
“I was hungwee” I replied when Mom asked me why I’d taken the bread. I didn’t understand why something so obvious needed an explanation. Nor did I savvy her attempt to explain the concept of money to me.
My mother perhaps blamed this early formative moment for my later predilection to give away anything in our house that wasn’t nailed down to people who needed them more than we did. Cutlery, food, toys, even Mom’s favourite fondue set ended up in the hands of the local needy folks. Mom started locking up everything. And just imagine: back then I hadn’t even started reading the Bible.
My egalitarian streak only intensified when I had scripture revealed to me in Sunday school. There it was, in black and white: God gave creation to all of us. No mention of cash or debt consolidation loans in Eden. And even better, not much later in the Biblical timeline, the wandering Chosen Ones were told by Jehovah that every fifty years they were to pull a Kevin Annett and give away what they had to the needy. Land was to be returned to their original owners, all debts cancelled and all the prisoners set free.
God called it the Jubilee Year.
Well, like all good ideas it was never put into practice. Instead, the tribal Hebrews demanded a King for themselves and war chariots and other weapons of mass destruction to smash those no good Canaanites into dust.
And guess what? For some reason, the new big shot kingly rulers conveniently forgot about the egalitarian Jubilee Laws given to them by the even Bigger Guy. Gee, now I wonder why?
But don’t despair, O struggling masses. A little while later in a one camel dump called Nazareth along came a local yokel named Yeshua ben Yusuf who had the cheekiness to stand up uninvited in the local Synagogue one morning. Yeshua announced that, sorry folks, but I’m here to bring in the Jubilee. Not in fifty years, but now. Right here.
So say farewell to debts and prisons and land grabs and rich and poor, Jesus announced. That’s all gone. We’re living under a new regime now that’s called the Kingdom of Heaven; or actually, in his Aramaic tongue, “the realm of eternity”.
And with that, according to the Bible, his neighbours tried to lynch him. But that had to wait a few more years to finally succeed. Meanwhile, Yeshua aka Jesus went about the land trying to show folks the Jubilee that was suddenly present in the world. And when he went further and tried getting rid of the biggest barrier to God’s revolution – the money-soaked and militarized Temple in Jerusalem – well, you know what happened next – and ever since then, whenever other poor people have tried reclaiming the world for themselves.
Thinking back on my young self eating freely and unafraid from the earth’s bounty and sharing what I had with others, I am struck by how inborn is the Jubilee spirit within all of us. We are naturally inclined to use the abundance that is given to us by God and share what there is according to what others need. The world was made that way – placed in common without barriers – and society would operate the same way if it reflected the mind of God. But since it doesn’t, and is divided and torn by the Satanic attributes of property, greed and class divisions, the Jubilee Reminder steps forward to get us all back on track.
Once upon a time, humanity moved according to the earth’s rhythms. We understood innately that our society like nature has to rest and lie fallow every few years if it is to replenish. Inequality and oppression have to step back and allow natural justice to take hold again. The Jubilee laws are there to wipe the slate clean so that humanity can recover itself. But we have fallen from that awareness, and nothing in our society, it seems, can be overturned or renewed any more. And so a blast of change must first clear away all the old barriers.
That is indeed the very meaning of the word “Jubilee”: it comes from the Hebrew term ”Yobel”, which means “a trumpet blast” – the kind that announces the dawn of a new age. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus the people are instructed to “hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty in the land to all the inhabitants, it shall be a Jubilee unto you” (Lev. 25:10) This very saying is inscribed on the American Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and serves as the basis of a true Republic under God: the fact that heaven ordains and trumpets justice and equality for all people every fifty years.
Thomas Jefferson went further than this when he said that to survive, America needed a revolution every twenty five years, in each new generation of its citizens. The Republic had to renew itself constantly. The divine plan is for all people to return to a level and equal footing with one another routinely. But of course every ruling elite desires and works for the opposite, and considers God’s equality “subversive”.
Nevertheless, the truth is proclaimed, but it must move from thin words to thick action if it is to be real. If Jesus’ presence among us means anything it is to embody the Jubilee Laws through a new visible arrangement: a new covenant that Christianity has wrongly reduced to a religious ritual rather than elevate to a social reality.
Jesus literally did set the captives free, return land to landless peasants and cancel the debts of those who joined his movement. Like any guerilla leader, he established a liberated zone and thereby overturned the status quo.
That’s why he was judicially murdered, and not because he declared himself to be a divine being. Crucifixion was reserved for political insurrectionists, not religious heretics.
Today, we find the same drama play itself out whenever we try to make Christ’s way a reality in our world. The Jubilee vision is a keg of dynamite being deliberately contained by religion. But I know from having tried to make it a working reality that when we unleash that dynamite and actually sit the poor alongside the rich and abolish the differences between them, the full weight of oppression descends on us just like it did on Jesus.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, said Thomas Paine. But in the Jubilee vision we are assured that injustice is a human creation, not a divine one; and that human society, like nature, must recover its vitality and equality if it is to reflect the mind of heaven and endure. That was the essence of Jesus’ life and mission.
The Jubilee Laws are as necessary, as revolutionary, and as much of a threat to the status quo today as they were 2000 years ago: especially to bankers, Bishops and heads of state. And so the vision and the purpose remain, and begin with something as simple as sharing out the world’s wealth with those who have none. For that is our challenge, today and tomorrow: Will we do more than proclaim liberty, but enact it among ourselves as the equal and free born men and women that we are?
Table Talk No. 3
Those who know, do; those who don’t, teach: Living the Higher Law
Jeremiah 31:31-34 , John 15:12-19
It was an unexpected revelation, like all of them are; and it happened in a dirt-covered shack on the Mexican-Guatemalan border. For there, among a tribe of starving families and for the only time in my life, I met a people who lived in the heart and mind of God.
The fact that they were Mayan Indians on the run from napalm and death squads did not account for the special light that shone from them. Whatever it is that allows a people to retain their own soul and capacity to do right must have predated their sufferings. Their power felt very old. And with the sagacity of an ancient forest, that strength spoke to me in a twofold way: in a meal and a speech by one of the Mayan elders.
But first we were fed, as is their custom, and given the best food in their destitute refugee camp: tortillas, beans and a small pile of scrambled eggs from the few chickens they still had left. We, the rich North Americanos, were to take the food that should have gone to the sickly children who peered in at us with guileless and curious eyes. A hundred of these children were dying every month from starvation and dysentery, but we were given the best food in the camp, that should have gone to them. We saw ourselves for who we were, and it shattered us. And thus were our lives overturned in an instant, laying us bare for what came next.
He was a thin and aging man, a former peasant who served as a temporary leader of the 2,500 people in the camp. He never said his name, which seemed unimportant, nor did he have a word in his Quiche Indian language for “leader” or “spokesman”, for they had no social hierarchy. Instead, they had only each other.
“Our best people are always the poorest ones among us, because they spend their days serving others. No elder is above the people. The ones who carry a title and who think only of themselves have all gone away. We know that if we do not serve each other until our last breath we will have no future as a people.”
One of my pale colleagues, a young seminarian who had turned up her nose at the sacred meal we had been offered, asked the man whether he was afraid of another attack by the Guatemalan army across the river. The question seemed to confuse him but through the translator he finally answered,
“The soldiers cannot harm us because they can only hurt our bodies. Our enemy is Zibal-ba, the creator and destroyer who seeks out human hearts to eat. He tests each one of us to see who can be eaten and who stands in the presence of Hunab Ku, the Only Source, whose heart is our heart and who cannot be destroyed.”
My colleague didn’t seem satisfied, and she went away proverbially empty. But as for me, basking in the pure and undivided devotion of a poor man to his people and his gods, it felt like I had finally come home.
“For see, the days are coming when I will make a new law with my people. I will put my law into their hearts so that each of them will know me inwardly. And they will no longer teach one another, saying Know the Lord God; for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. And they will be my own people and I will be their one God.”
The prophet Jeremiah who passed on this message might have been sitting with us that day in the Nueva Esperanza refugee camp, inscribing the words of God spoken from the mouth of a poor Quiche peasant. For the same news was present: the divine truth is made flesh now and needs no mediator or interpreter. It has expressed itself in these people, who do not teach or learn God’s law, for they are that law.
They are the Kingdom of Heaven, spread out on the earth as those like Jesus, serving with an absolute devotion to each other. The Quiche Mayans were indeed not simply followers but intimate friends of God. As Jesus himself put it to his inner circle,
“My only command is that you love each other, for greater love has no one than to give himself for his friends. And I call you my friends now for you are servants no longer. For a servant does not know his master, but as my friends you know all that I have been given by my father. For you are chosen to go out in the world and bring forth much fruit.”
I returned to Canada a week after the Mayan man spoke, and it felt like I had left my home to return to the land of the dead and the dying. For nowhere in the thirty years since my encounter with the Quiche have I met another genuine people in God, a whole community stripped of everything and yet bursting with love and service. I have not met people who would willingly die for each other, except among the Quiche. For the pale ghost people whom I have tried to serve with some of the Quiche’s own spirit are consummed with words and teachings and instructions to others that come from nothing and return to nothing.
If there is one continual theme in the Bible it is that of the holy remnant: the ones who have been set apart to reflect God’s law and purpose in the midst of a fallen human social order. Indeed, Christ and his few followers were one such remnant. According to Jesus’ own words he came not to redeem all of humanity – as the church teaches – but rather to call out and separate the chosen remnant from a condemned mankind. The revolutionary Biblical act has always been to refine that remnant and allow it to be a counter-pole away from the Satanic world spirit and its principalities and powers. Whenever we encounter such a remnant in the world, few of us are capable of recognizing them for who they are, unless we are a part of that same fragment of heaven, however unconsciously. Some hidden seed in our true heart then responds, knowing itself to be an orphan in the world, and seeking its home in the heart and mind of God, as a salmon seeks its spawning ground.
Indeed, our estrangement from the world is the first spiritual step towards entering a new Kingdom of Heaven – or in Jesus’ words in Aramaic, “the realm of eternity”.
I had such an encounter thirty years ago in a desolate corner of the world, among a people called out from the world’s corruption. Something of the Quiche has always remained in me, prompting my own good seed to grow and pull me increasingly out of this world and its unchanging and irredeemable death and corruption.
The Bible calls such a step the new Covenant, whose law and authority supersedes all human laws, governments and religions. The question for those of us who have had our inner eyes opened to this Covenant is whether we shall live under its new jurisdiction or languish as prisoners under human law. Our answer is a deeply spiritual and personal one, but it is also just as deeply political. And it can only be demonstrated in practice, as my Quiche friends showed me one day in April of 1987, at the end of one world and the beginning of another.
Table Talk No. 4
Re-Possessed and Unimpressed: Why can’t we defeat Evil?
I nicknamed him Dirty Harry. About once a month the guy would show up at my church office door after a Sunday service, and with the same refrain implore me for help.
“I’ve fallen again” he’d stammer, avoiding my eyes. “I went back to the hookers and the body rub parlours. I need another cleansing.”
I humored the poor guy for awhile, like I used to do for my youngest daughter Elinor whenever her hyperactive infant imagination sensed various monsters in her bedroom closet.“Go on, get out of there you bad monsters!” I’d command the entities, and little Elinor would feel better. Worse the luck, the same couldn’t be achieved for Dirty Harry. None of my verbal entreaties seemed to work for him. He labored with an existential quandry that no-one could solve for him: namely, the apparent invincibility of evil in his life.
Now I won’t insult your intelligence or Harry’s by psychoanalyzing his particular condition, or his all-too-human habit of returning like clockwork to consume his own vomit. Who of us, after all, hasn’t been there? What interests me isn’t Harry’s habitual behaviour but the seemingly unbreakable hold that corruption and destruction had over him. In his words, “It’s like something’s feeding off my own shame and disgust at myself”.
That “something” is perhaps more visible in its bigger manifestation, in whole nations and systems of power. Mankind’s merciless and ruthless war against itself has carried on over our millenia of “civilization”, undeterred by social reforms, legal restraints or any so-called moral advancement. In the words of Jesus’ parable, as soon as one evil spirit is driven out of us, seven more return to take its place.
There are too many examples of this from history to enumerate. As individuals and a group, human beings seem to be a natural incubating medium for violence, oppression and strife, even though we the possessed tend to deny our own condition. But the proof is no further away than a simple body count, and what you see in the mirror if you genuinely look.
It took me a long time to see past the images. After decades of resisting war, genocide, instituionalized violence and crime, and finding that none of it was ever altered, it became obvious to me that human history is a single stuck note. Put another way, we are like a recurring, neurotic thought in a single, deranged mind.
Naturally, since a cell in diseased body can’t act on its own, the individual neurons in a group mind aren’t capable of splitting from the arrangement and thinking on their own, let alone imagining anything outside the neurosis. And yet, strangely, some of us seem to be capable of cogitating outside that mind, now and then, even when what we envision on our own doesn’t alter the facts of death and destruction around us. In that way, we are just like Jesus.
If you believe the Bible, that odd fellow from Nazareth always acted first and spoke second. He expelled evil spirits from people and then explained why, even though nobody ever really understood him, starting with his closest friends. And Jesus found that none of his efforts really made that much difference. The world carried on just as corrupt and violent as before, and eventually reached out and squashed him when he struck too close to its power.
Fortunately, like the best of us, Jesus left behind him a different way of thinking. He stood outside the group mind and upset its neurosis by generating a different energy in the world. And within that new energy people found that they could actually be different. They may not have overcome the world’s evil but within their own “Christ circles” they found that they could negate its power over them, for a time.
But even that brief little counter-cultural current was eventually squashed and absorbed by something called Christianity and its Romanized “church” that came to embody all of the world’s corruption, violence and lies. In short, one evil spirit was driven out, only to be replaced by seven new ones.
So what sense are we to make of this eternal merry-go-round? Is there any hope for us? No, says Jesus; not for this generation. But eventually it will be set right, by some power other than ourselves. For now, Jesus advises, hold on to your own light and don’t be corrupted by the world, and do the right thing all the time.
Now that attitude smells a lot like the Greek philosophers known as the Stoics, who believed that living virtuously was the best that anyone can aspire to in a world irredeemably corrupt and corrupting. And Jesus, who lived in an area dominated by Greek culture and language, may easily have been influenced by the Stoics. After all, human history keeps voicing the same ideas garbed in different words. And its continual refrain, when it comes to dealing with the world’s evil, is that it won’t be the well-adjusted individual brain cells that will overcome such darkness, but some other force that comes from within and without a handful of us.
Lazy thinkers like to wrap that other force in ambiguity by calling it God. But that power is actually closer to us than we realize, once we start thinking consciously outside the group mind and our habitual thoughts. Jesus recognized that when he said that “The Kingdom of Heaven (“realm of eternity”) is within you”; “within”, in the Greek translation, meaning also “among” and “around”. In short, it’s everywhere.
So at the end of the day, Dirty Harry – like anyone seeking truth through religion – was looking in all the wrong places for deliverance from his own shadow. The way out is as close to him as the shadow itself, in the simple recognition that evil isn’t our enemy, but our teacher, once we discover and stand in that “realm of eternity” that is at our true centre.
From that position, all things are possible for us, and that power spreads out from us like a constantly expanding ripple of energy.
We won’t defeat evil, but we may learn to ignore it.