Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jeremiah and the Messy World of Compromise

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of August 13-14, 2016.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

In today’s gospel reading from Luke we hear Jesus’ passionate, even frustrated, side when he declares to his companions “I have come to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish it were already blazing.” He then goes on to say that “From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.”

I have mixed feelings about this passage. On the one hand, my younger self would have appreciated the strident tone and the anger imbued in this reading. Oh how I loved to rage against the machine, to rail against the injustice. Some 30 plus years ago I remember coming home from college, Karl Marx and Andre Gunder Frank in hand, and deliberately picking a dinner time fight with my parents. They, in their cozy middle class home, in their cozy middle class suburb, and their cozy middle class jobs, were capitalists I declared. They were a part of the problem. Their roles in US corporate society, their wasteful suburban consumption habits, their bourgeois thinking, their tacit acceptance of US imperialism, were anathema to me, a young, budding socialist. I roared, my father roared back about my disrespectful attitude, and my mother tried to keep the peace. (By the way, if you’re sensing self-righteous hypocrisy here, that would be accurate as my parents were bankrolling my college education]).

My fervor and strident anti-imperialism would stay with me well into the Peace Corps. I was decidedly anti big development and pro self-reliance. My sacred texts on this subject were Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. In Mali where I was stationed, we were cautioned about the “cadeau mentality.” Cadeau meant gift or present in French, and the cadeau mentality referred to a handout culture that could develop in places with year upon year of foreign assistance. I was determined to avoid fostering such a handout culture, to make sure that my actions as a development worker did not breed dependency, or a taste for Western thinking and consumption habits. I was so zealous in my pursuit of this goal that, as a board member of a small fund for volunteer projects, I voted against all proposals providing funds for items I thought the community could cover. Furthermore, in my everyday life, I refused to give money to strangers who routinely asked me for help – believing that my small act of charity might lead to a life of dependency. In sum, in my zealous pursuit of ideological purity I had become a complete jerk. I was, in retrospect, embarrassingly sanctimonious and astoundingly unaware of my own privilege. Worse yet, in my reach for ideological purity, in my fervor to combat imperialism and dependency, I had strayed into the territory of right wing narratives regarding welfare dependency.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a place for enthusiasm, passion, frustration and even anger in social change movements, I see it every day amongst my college students and their fervor for causes like Black Lives Matter, divestment of college endowments from the fossil fuel industry, or justice in Palestine. It is this energy, passion and sense of injustice that fueled our former pastor, Mike Tegeder, to fight the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and it likely propels many in the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform and the Council of the Baptized to battle the hierarchy for a more open church and desperately needed reforms. I continue to see it in myself as my passion, frustration and even anger sometimes propel me to do some of my best writing late into the night.

But these passionate quests for justice and truth can also morph into something darker and more dangerous. The stories of ideological movements gone wrong are too numerous to tell: the Spanish inquisition, the ‘reign of terror’ in the midst the French Revolution, the supporters of Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide necklacing opposition activists, or Islamic fundamentalists destroying ancient religious texts which do not meet their strict standards of ideological purity or killing innocent civilians in the name of advancing a religious state. This is why I have mixed feelings about today’s gospel reading, because I know from my own life, and from my knowledge of others’, that we need that energy to persevere and fight the good fight, but sometimes we also go off the rails in our certainty and passion.

I used to think of Jeremiah, the protagonist in our first reading today, as a purist and an ideologue, someone who suffered because of his unflinching and uncompromising commitment to his beliefs. In today’s reading we learn that Jeremiah has been cast into a muddy cistern or pit, and a likely long, slow, and painful death, for refusing to stop talking in a way that is “demoralizing the soldiers and the rest of the people left in the city.” Jeremiah is the kind of person we seem to increasingly celebrate in some American political circles where compromise is a dirty word. He is, for some Modern day Christians who are persecuted for their faith, looked to as an inspiration because he did not relinquish his beliefs and persevered.

It is not that the standard presentation of Jeremiah is wrong, but the reality is more nuanced. In this instance, the back story is important. Zedekiah, the King of Judea has been persuaded by the Palestinian nobility to revolt against his master, the King of Babylonia. The King of Babylonia responds by laying siege to Jerusalem. From the start, Jeremiah has advised against this move because he sees it as a suicidal rebellion and continues throughout the siege to urge surrender. Not surprisingly, the Palestinian nobility see Jeremiah as a traitor and hence successfully convince Zedekiah to throw him into a muddy cistern to die. The illuminating detail for me is that Jeremiah is a pragmatic realist in this instance, not an idealist. He is against the rebellion because the Babylonians will crush them and it is a suicidal mission for his people.

While we celebrate the tenacity and idealism of our heroes, we sometimes ignore the compromises they have made. There is a scene in the 2014 movie Selma on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr that highlights such a compromise. In this scene, Dr. King is leading a second of three marches for voting rights from Selma, Alabama. As the marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protesters meet state police officers. Instead of confronting them, the marchers kneel, pray, and retreat. That day would become known as Turnaround Tuesday and King was deeply criticized by his supporters for this compromise. King, it turns out, had agreed in last-minute negotiations with President Lyndon Johnson to retreat. But I also think he understood that the potential loss of human life in this instance was too great. He was patient and they would return another day to march

Similarly, in the 2012 George Lucas film entitled Lincoln, we learn about the compromises President Abraham Lincoln made in the closing days of the Civil War to pass the 13th amendment banning slavery before the readmission of the southern States. This was critical because Lincoln knew the wartime measure known as the Emancipation Proclamation could easily be undone if it was not reflected in the text of the Constitution. In order to pass the amendment, Lincoln embarked on a vote-gathering effort that stopped just short of bribery. When moral appeals failed, patronage positions were offered to garner the requisite votes in Congress. In contrast to previous narrations of a heroically steadfast Lincoln, this film revealed the nitty gritty politics involved in legal reform and improving the human condition.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the ends justify the means. This, after all, is the trap that has sometimes led pure idealism down the dark path, to terrible situations like the McCarthy era witch hunts use of torture by the US military after 9/11. So how do we know when to step back and compromise or when to stick to our ideals?

I think the answer lies in our recognition and respect for human dignity and in the notion that God dwells in all of us. While we may cling to certain ideals in our faith or other moral codes, do we sometimes come to hold these principles in such high regard that we are blinded to the dignity of our fellow human beings? As I illustrated at the start of this reflection, I certainly have been guilty of this. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis argues that the role of the church is “less to judge than to accompany and discern God’s grace with people in their complex and complicated lives.”

Today’s gospel reading shows us one facet of Jesus, a passionate side which wishes to set the world on fire. We need that passion and energy as a spark for social change. We ought to be angry when a young black man is pulled over and needlessly shot while complying with an officer’s orders. But we also need to harness that energy, to respect the basic dignity in all of us, and to recognize that the betterment of the human condition sometimes involves compromise because the real world is messy and complicated. Another facet of Jesus is that he constantly coached his disciples to love their enemies. In his hour of deepest humiliation, Jesus tells Simon Peter not to strike back at the servant of the high priest. While Jesus could have set the world ablaze, he did not because he loved humanity too much. Making heaven on earth is a slow and messy process. We are a part of that process and we are moving in the right direction, it’s not always linear, and we sometimes go backward, but that’s okay. Yes, Jeremiah was prophetic bullfrog, but he also loved the world.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at