Called Out of Empire

Isaiah (58:9b-14) makes God’s message quite clear. Oppression, false accusation, and malicious speech bring darkness and gloom. In a more positive vein, bestowing bread on the hungry and satisfying the afflicted bring the light of God. Gloom shall become like the brightness of midday.

On May 13, 1961, Merton wrote in his journal:

The great work of sunrise again today.

The aweful solemnity of it. The sacredness. Unbearable without prayer and worship. I mean unbearable if you really put everything aside and see what is happening! Many, no doubt, are vaguely aware that it is dawn, but they are protected from the solemnity of it by the neutralizing worship of their own society, their own world, in which the sun no longer rises and sets.

Sense of importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here: not what is given by men, by society, but what is given by God and hidden by (even monastic) society. Clear realization that I must be with these first elements. (The Intimate Merton, 175-76, emphasis added)

Sunrise burns away the folly of the dark false self. When we let go of the folly of the false self, God’s light will shine in the dark, deep depths of our being. The false self leads us to complicity in empire and oppression. Greed, the quest for power, the search for prestige and the accumulation of possessions cloud our commitment to Gospel values. Consumerism compels us to satisfy our every want regardless of the consequences for others. When we buy inexpensive goods produced in sweatshops, we are complicit in oppression and exploitation. The dawn sun of the Gospel  no longer rises in our lives.

When we let go and let God, God will renew our strength. God will water us and nurture us like trees by living water. Out true self will grow and flourish in God’s love.

Honoring the sabbath, following dietary restrictions and circumcision were the practices that set Jews apart from those around them. Isaiah also reminds us to let go and rest on the Sabbath. We are not to follow our own pursuits on the Sabbath. Do we engage in commerce on the Sabbath? If we honor God’s day, God promises to nourish us. God will give us what we need.

Luke (5:27-32) describes the call of Levi. Levi, the despised tax collector who was ripping off and oppressing his neighbors, responds instantaneously to the Gospel call. Jose Pagola (Jesus: An Historical Approximation) describes what Matthew was doing:

The village peasants sustained the country’s economy; they worked the land and produced enough to support the ruling minority. The cities didn’t produce; the elites needed the labor of the peasants. So they used different mechanisms to control the production of the rural areas [Galilee] and obtain maximum possible benefit from the peasants. This was done with tributes, fees, taxes and tithes. From the viewpoint of power, this policy of extraction and tribute was the peasants’ legitimate obligation to the elite who defended the country, protected their lands, and performed diverse administrative services. . . .Jesus knew ell the suffering of the peasants [who comprised the majority of the people] who, struggling to eke out as much as possible from their modest ;land, sowed in rocky soil, among thistles, and even in areas that were used as footpaths. (41, 43)

Levi was complicit in the oppression of the majority of the population. Levi was complicit in what Wes Howard-Griffin (Come Out, my People!) calls “empire.” He sees the whole history of salvation as calling us out of empire. But, when Jesus called, he left everything—greed for money, power, possessions and prestige—and followed Jesus. Jesus had set him free. Levi was so grateful that he threw a banquet for Jesus. Commensality—open, welcoming table fellowshi—came to be a distinguishing characteristic of the followers of the Way.

Enter the control freak greed mongers—the Pharisees and their scribes. Maybe they were upset because Levi abandoned his post and tax collections would be down. They complained because Jesus has liberated Levi.

In recent years SOA Watch leaders Roy Bourgeois and Lisa Sullivan had succeeded in calling Guatemala out of the empire known as the School of the Americas, now remarketed as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation. Many of the graduates of the school at Fort Benning, Georgia have been implicated in the assassinations of religious leaders (Oscar Romero, the Maryknoll women and many others) and political organizers who were trying to improve the lot of the oppressed masses. Cables released by WikiLeak now show how the empire strikes back. US diplomats courted Guatemalan leaders until the President Arias relented and once again allowed students to be sent only for drug security and anti-terrorism training—not military training. Empire will preserve itself at all costs. (

Greed immerses us in the vicissitudes of empire. In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha warns his followers:

Monks, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning? The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises via the eye—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.

Commenting on the Fire Sermon, the Venerable Bhiikkhu Bodhi calls us out of empire:

If the fires that are burning up our world today are fueled by the systemic expressions of greed, hatred, and delusion, it seems that the imperative laid on us is to confront these collective expressions head on and curb the commanding roles they play in the systems they dominate. This would mean that our endeavor should not simply be to attain personal insight in order to break the bonds that individually tie us to suffering, but to reshape the structures themselves so that they provide everyone with opportunities for a more dignified and fulfilling life. (Parabola, Spring 2012)

Back to Levi. Calling Levi from empire, Jesus announced open table community. All are welcome at his table. It is an inclusive table. Jesus came to be with us, to heal us, to make us whole. Jesus came to give us life and what we really need. The Kin-dom is open to all who hear the call and want to leave empire behind. As disciples we are to respond readily to Jesus’ invitation to be in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters.



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