JAIL REFLECTIONS ON THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
The following was written in April, 2004, as I was “getting short” in the Muscogee County (Columbus, Ga.) Jail – i.e., nearing the end of my 90-day sentence for crossing the line at Ft. Benning in November, 2003.
It was obviously not written during a Christmas season. It centers on the theme of the incarnation (Christmas) in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I was considering on those days of my retreat.
Monday, April 5, 2004
Yesterday, the first day of Holy Week, was also the first day of my eight-day retreat.
The second reading in yesterday’s liturgy (Philippians 2:6-11) puts Jesus’ life and especially the events of this week in their grand theological perspective. By “emptying himself” to become fully human, even to the point of crucifixion, Jesus is obviously the antithesis of the sinful person, understanding sin to be that self-glorification which expresses itself in pride, arrogance, and selfishness.
St. Paul presents Jesus’ example of selflessness as the model of the attitude required for living in community: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And ... he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.”
Having this mind or attitude that was in Christ Jesus, his disciples can live together, sharing materially and spiritually in such a way that they “shine like stars in the world” (2:15) even “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”
Sin, on the other hand, is an unfettered, selfish liberty which has no concept of connectedness and no recognition of filial or social responsibility. Paul cautioned against this distorted kind of freedom in Galatians 5:13-15: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
Sin, at its origin in Genesis, is twofold: self-idolization (“you will not die.... You will be like God” -- 3:4-5) leading immediately to the rending of the social fabric (“Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” -- 4:8-9). A blind, irresponsible liberty will necessarily trample upon the human rights of others.
Examples abound of such insensitivity on both the personal and collective level. As for the latter, super-nationalism, racism, male chauvinism, and human arrogance toward the environment are forms of selfishness “writ large.” With American arrogance of power, the Carter administration did not heed Archbishop Romero’s request for an end of military aid to the murderous Salvadoran army. The Reagan administration brushed off the World Court’s ruling to cease interfering by force and violence in the affairs of Sandinista Nicaragua.
And this very day, as the Marines “seal off” Fallujah and hostilities in Iraq increase in ferocity, the Bush administration manifests a more and more blatant (and seemingly self-defeating) arrogance in its occupation of a land whose recorded civilization goes back several millennia. Will top U.S. administrator Paul Bremer soon say: “We had to destroy Fallujah in order to save it?”
According to an AP article in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (April 3, 2004), Muslim clerics condemned the mutilation of the bodies of the four U.S. civilians -- but not their slayings.
“While the condemnation of the mutilation was helpful, that is only a partial answer,” declared Brig.Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of U.S. military operations in Iraq. “Murder of innocents should be condemned.” Here it is evident that truth has been a serious casualty of war. Innocents? These civilians were heavily armed, highly trained private bodyguards protecting other foreign occupiers of Iraq.
“Islam bans what was done to the bodies, but the Americans are as brutal as the youths who burned and mutilated the bodies,” said a retired school principal. “They have done so much to us and they have humiliated us so often,” he added, expressing particular outrage at U.S. soldiers barging into private homes.
The repetitious proclamation of our goal -- to create a democracy with free elections, etc. -- is sounding more hollow every day. To impose “democracy,” to force people whose political and religious culture is worlds apart from ours to accept our version of freedom -- are obvious self-contradictions. And to continue to insist that the new Iraq must follow (democratically, of course) our economic model of free-market capitalism, with doors wide open to foreign ownership of the country’s resources, is our prescription for neo-colonial plunder.
In another oil-rich country, under the banner of promoting democracy, the National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the U.S. Congress, is pumping in $1 million a year to support the opposition against Venezuela’s democratically-elected president, Hugo Chavez, just as it contributed millions in the1980s to help remove the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
During this retreat I have started reading Thirty Days – On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius, by Paul Mariani (New York: Penguin Compass, 2003). In addition to providing a clear introduction to St. Ignatius and the Society of Jesus, Paul Mariani shares beautifully his experience of making a thirty-day retreat.
Reflecting on sin, he mentions many of its structural or institutional manifestations, including “the atrocities committed by soldiers trained by the U.S.’s School of the Americas” (p. 49). Among such atrocities he speaks of the killing of “the six Jesuits in 1989 in San Salvador, along with their housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter. All awakened in the middle of the night by soldiers, several trained at our School of the Americas.”
Holy Thursday, April 8, 2004
I am starting Holy Thursday by watching Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s televised testimony before the 9/11 commission. I doubt that she will reveal anything new or significant, and I can’t imagine the commission members catching her in any glaring inconsistencies -- or, if they do, making her squirm.
Whether the Bush team took sufficient precautions to prevent the disasters of 9/11 seems very difficult to resolve one way or the other. The terrorist attacks conveniently served administration purposes, but whether officials had deliberately relaxed security measures in order to allow a major terrorist attack to be carried out, as some critics have suggested, remains to be seen.
But it is extremely important to highlight the revelations by Paul O’Connor (Treasury) and Richard Clarke (former top anti-terrorism coordinator) to the effect that the Bush team immediately seized on the events of 9/11 to justify and gain popular support for an invasion of Iraq. And the idea of such an attack was not a sudden brainstorm. Officials of the Bush I administration longed to go all the way in 1991 to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime, and these same people and others kept their desire alive and advocated their plan during the Clinton years. The Project for the New American Century makes this very clear.
The Project and related geopolitical plans proposed an aggressive projection of U.S. power around the world. Purpose? To control crucial economic resources and to “open up” regions of the world to “free market” penetration by U.S. capital. Iraq was a major site of unhidden treasure.
Thus we do not have to wait for a smoking gun but rather for the public to realize, with all its implications, that officials of the incoming administration in early 2001 brought their gun to Washington and kept it aimed at Iraq as it had been for some years, ready to smoke as soon as a sufficiently horrific terrorist act (a “Pearl Harbor”) could be blamed, correctly or not, on Iraq.
It is in this world, now dominated by the American empire, that Jesus becomes incarnate today. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (Jn 1:1-3).
The Word (“logos”) is the Logic, Pattern, Blueprint of human society and of all creation, akin to Wisdom in the Old Testament. Through the Word all things came into being: gender, race, nationality, language, culture, and government as a way of ordering communal life. As Walter Wink emphasizes, all of these are good, though fallen (precisely when they raise themselves to become gods of domination), but always capable of being redeemed (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1992).
When Jesus redeems, he restores persons and things to their true selves, since he is the Plan according to which everything was created. As Thomas Merton said, “To be a saint is to be yourself”-- your true self, before you were programmed to be fearful, self-centered, dominating, and violent.
The Word is the light of all people because we exist in his likeness and pattern. In the light of the Word the true being of everything is illuminated..
St. Paul speaks of the risen Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation ... in whom all things hold together”and have their true being (Col 1:15-17). Since Christ is the perfect image of God, and we are created in God’s image and likeness, we attain our true identity by being incorporated into Christ.
And yet the world, even his own, did not accept him: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11).
Creation had become twisted, distorted from its divine model, and so the creature did not know its true nature. John presents Jesus’ explanation of this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21).
In a similar vein Paul explains that evil suppresses the truth: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18).
The battle between light and darkness is part of the war between good and evil. While some choose evil, others receive the Word and are transformed into what they truly are, children of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).
St. Ignatius of Loyola imagined this vast cosmic drama from the viewpoint of God in his meditation on the incarnation, where he asks the retreatant to see the people on the earth in all their diversity: “some are white, some black; some at peace, and some at war; some weeping, some laughing; some well, some sick; some coming into the world, some dying; etc.” (The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, by Louis J. Puhl, S.J. -- Westminster, Md., The Newman Press, 1957, p. 50.).
The Trinity, beholding “all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into hell,” decides to work the redemption of the human race.
After considering what the persons on the face of the earth do, “for example, wound, kill, and go down to hell,” the retreatant then contemplates the Incarnation and begs for the grace to join in this mission of the Lord. It is not a trivial task, but rather an attempt to change history and human persons.
In his retreat journal Paul Mariani gave some striking examples of the modern “structural sin” which characterizes our conflictual world and which cries out for the prophetic and transforming power of the incarnate Jesus today: “Swiss banks collaborating with the Nazis to steal the property of Jewish victims, their lives apparently not enough. American tobacco companies creating killer cigarettes, then lying about it year after year, as the death toll from cancer mounts, my own mother among the statistics. The injustice of it all and of how we cover over these injustices. I thought of the Jews’ deep passion for justice – Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalmist – refusing to let these things be swept away by a kind of selective amnesia. I thought of Jesus, one more Jew from the provinces, beaten half to death, then led out to die.
“God Himself crying out against the sheer weight of the injustices against the poor, the defenseless, those who cannot afford adequate counsel. The lies, the false claims and counterclaims, legal systems opposing true justice…. Black slaves and Native Americans, long dead, whose basic human rights were abrogated time and time again” (op. cit., pp. 97-98).
The Word made flesh is “Emmanuel,” which, Matthew explains, means “God with us” (Mt 1:23). Since Jesus is the True Person, some wise men from the East, searching for truth, come to him in Bethlehem: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (2:11).
To whom did they kneel to give homage? Not to a domineering ecclesiastical chief who would have demanded that they reject their cultural and religious heritage as “pagan” or perhaps even diabolical, but to an infant in a modest dwelling. The baby Jesus did not require their total submission; the family gratefully accepted the visitors’ gifts and wished them well on their journey.
If the religions of the world could receive each other’s gifts in mutual appreciation and gratitude, the kingdom of the one God would come closer. This is not helped by Marines from a “Christian nation” attacking and calling in air strikes on a mosque, thus killing scores of Muslims, as happened yesterday in Iraq.
The holy family became refugees in Egypt to avoid the jealous wrath of King Herod, who took out his anger by killing “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (2:16). Later, other jealous religious authorities and the representative of the Roman emperor would succeed in executing Jesus.
And down through the ages, kings, emperors, and presidents have beaten down with overwhelming violence most “uppity” types – whether prophets of God’s kingdom or would-be political rivals, or even simply independent leaders who refuse to genuflect at the imperial throne.