Monday, March 25, 2013

Palm Sunday, Propaganda and the Resistance of Mass Manipulation (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published in the Huffington Post on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, and can be found at: http://www.huffin;

On Palm Sunday many will hear the Gospel of Luke’s perspective surrounding Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). In hearing this well-known portion of the New Testament, we are often led to wonder how the same crowds that so graciously and enthusiastically welcomed Jesus (“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" – 19:38) will passionately and viciously call for his death (“crucify him, crucify him”) just a few days later (23:21). In trying to comprehend the sudden and significant shift in public opinion, we recognize that the crowds did not swing their support independently, but rather, they were acting under the influence of propaganda.

As Luke’s Gospel reminds us, in between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the calls for his crucifixion, the “chief priests and the scribes” plotted to put Jesus to death (22:2). As these powerful elites were “afraid of the people” (22:2), they conspired to ensure that Jesus could not mobilize a movement of resistance, thus their power-protecting push to have Jesus humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed. And so, while Luke’s Gospel does not provide exact details into the schemes and strategies of the chief priests and scribes, their motivations appear to be clear, as they (and others within the ruling class) perceived Jesus as a threat to their power and thus needed to ensure his quick and clear elimination. As a result, due to the propaganda of the ruling elites, combined with an overly complicit public, just a short time after Jesus was welcomed as a king he was sentenced to death as a criminal.

While Luke’s Gospel provides countless lessons through the Palm Sunday narrative, one aspect that is worthy of further exploration is the ways in which the powerful elites were able to manipulate the masses through propaganda. In other words, the ruling class of Jesus’ day and age used their firm power to control the flow of communication, and in doing so the voice of Jesus – and his message of liberation (Luke 4:18-19) – was suppressed, and the minority elite retained its control over the mass majority. While the fears of Jesus’ disciples (and general public anxieties of retribution) played a significant role, one can argue that the primary reason for the massive shift in Jesus’ public approval was the influential propaganda of the ruling powers. While Jesus’ message of bringing “good news to the poor” (4:18) was in the best interest of the mass majority, the crowds bought into the various lies of the elites, turned against Jesus (and their own common good), and eventually cheered as Jesus was put to death.

In light of the propaganda that followed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we are given striking lessons into our own resistance of mass manipulation. In our current day and age we recognize that the information we receive each day does not appear out of thin air, nor is it neutral, but it often has a defined agenda to inform and form our personal and public outlook and behavior. Whether the information we receive is from media outlets, multinational corporations, or political stakeholders, all too often the primary goal is not to empower people, but simply to remain in power over (and profit from) people. As a result, when we as a mass public agree to passively accept the information we receive without thoughtful critique and sustained investigation, such social submissiveness leads to the continued obstruction of our common good and a perpetuation of the gross inequalities we too often experience.

As the post-Palm Sunday crowds rejected Jesus’ message of liberation and love in favor of the fear and violence offered by the chief priests and scribes, the same is too often the case in our contemporary reality. Instead of reconciliation and cooperation we too often indulge in the offerings of division, hatred, and toxic vocabulary that is poured upon us by those who wish to remain in power. Instead of seeing the value, dignity, and sacredness of all life, we allow the propaganda of the powerful to seduce us into thinking that some lives are somehow more valuable than others, and that sacrificing some for the sake of others is somehow justifiable. All together, if we act under the influence of the dominant streams of propaganda, our actions will too often be contrary to our common good, and the result is the ongoing crucifixion of our companionship as communities.

As we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday and the Holy Week that follows, may we remember how the masses that surrounded Jesus in Jerusalem were manipulated, and in doing so, may we as “the crowds” of this day and age no longer apathetically accept the most dominant voices that surround us. Instead of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by those in control of communication, and rather than permitting those in power to profit off of our passivity, may we wake up, rise up, speak up, and act out in light of our common good and for the sake of our world. Instead of rejecting the various voices of our day and age that seek to set us free, may we allow God to loosen us from the chains, respond as a people reborn, and come together as communities of hope and light. The time is upon us to see the various forms of propaganda that surrounds us, resist the forces of mass manipulation that seek to suppress us, and by God’s grace, respond by reclaiming the vision of restoration that Jesus laid out before us.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

SERMON: Thankful for Failure (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio and a written transcript for "Thankful for Failure", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on February 24, 2013.

Among other things, this sermon focuses on the ways in which "stumbling blocks" can be turned into "stepping stones", as Jesus sets us free from the fear of failure and offers the freedom to embrace life in its fullness. With Luke 13:34 as the central preaching text, this message recognizes that all fall short of perfection, and we can even be thankful for such shortcomings.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Luke 15:11-32, Migration, and our Prodigal Public (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on March 5, 2013, and can be found at:

The human community exists in perpetual motion, or in other words, migration is a constant feature of our local and global reality. According to the International Organization for Migration, the total of international migrants increased from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to about 214 million in 2010, and the number of internal migrants (those who move within the borders of a given country) is about 750 million. While the reasons for such relocations are varied, they are often related to the harsh consequences of war, environmental destruction, and economic downturn. As a result, those engaged in migration often do so for the sake of safety and opportunity, yet these potential rewards are sought in spite of deep personal and financial risk.

While the rates of international and internal migration appears to be on the rise, the phenomenon as a whole is by no means exclusive to the present. For example, the New Testament passage often known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” includes some of the harsh realities that are often associated with migration. As a result, one can examine this well-known parable through the lenses of migration, and in doing so, we are given insights in how to more faithfully extend hospitality to such strangers.  

As Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) reminds us, the youngest of two sons asked for an early inheritance from his father, received it, and then traveled to a “distant country” where he “…squandered his property in dissolute living.” As the term “dissolute” typically intends to describe degenerate and/or sinful behavior, we often conclude that the youngest son was deeply immersed in immorality, thus we find it difficult to feel sympathy when he later falls into the depths of poverty. In other words, we tend to perceive the prodigal son as someone who got what he deserved, for as the parable seems to illustrate, not only did he waste the inheritance received from his father, but he did so through sinful choices that brought deep dishonor to his family.

While some biblical translations use “dissolute” (New Revised Standard Version) to describe the younger son’s behavior (Luke 15:13), others use terms such as “riotous” (King James Version), “loose” (Revised Standard Version), or even “wild” (New International Version). However, the Greek word originally used, ἀσώτως (transliteration: asōtōs), does not necessarily mean any of these translation options, as asōtōs means “expensive” or “without saving”. And so, we see that the accusations surrounding prostitution (Luke 15:30) may not be grounded in factual evidence, but they could be manufactured by the older (and spiteful) brother. Upon further review, Luke’s Gospel does not confirm or deny anything about the younger son actually sleeping with prostitutes or even spending the inheritance through immoral means. As a result, while the younger son should be held accountable for his lack of fiscal discipline, we should recognize that factors outside of his personal decisions may have led to his impoverished state.  

While the younger son is shown to be an unskilled financial manager, his poverty is also due to various circumstances that continue to impair countless migrants in our current day and age. For example, Luke’s Gospel shares that “…a severe famine took place throughout the country”, which shows an economic downturn that surely had an impact on those most vulnerable (such as migrants). We also learn of the youngest son being taken advantage of by an exploitative employer who recognized the opportunity to hire a cheap employee. In striking fashion, both of these realities – economic stagnation and the exploitation of migrant labor – are present today, which leads us to believe that the parable is about more than the common interpretations passed down through the generations. In other words, the parable is not merely about a prodigal son, but it is also about a prodigal public that did not care for a vulnerable and lonely stranger, for as we read in Luke 15:16, when the youngest son was at risk and in need, “…no one gave him anything”.

As “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is recorded by Luke as being told by Jesus, and because Jesus himself was influenced by a Jewish tradition that sought to bring dignity to migrants (“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:21; “The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” – Leviticus 19:34), one may argue that Jesus could have crafted his parable fully aware of the migratory context. And so, as we in the U.S. hear this parable about passage to a distant land, we recognize that most of us are descendants of women and men who made similar choices. As a result, because the flow of immigration continues to this day, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” can be read as an important lesson for how we in the U.S. receive those who leave their familiar surroundings, risk their lives, and come into our midst for the sake of safety and opportunity.

While the parable of Luke 15:11-32 is about many things (and it is filled with countless lessons), one can argue that it is about the restoration of community through radical hospitality. As the youngest son’s father graciously welcomed him (Luke 15:20), we are shown how God accepts us regardless of our many faults and imperfections, but we are also shown how to express hospitality toward others, especially those most vulnerable. In other words, if our core unity as human beings takes precedence over national identity, ethnic heritage, and/or economic self-interest, the result is a society that is more willing to advocate for the needs of others rather than exploit others for purposes of personal gain. And so, instead of living as a prodigal public that too often wastes the hopes and dreams of those seeking a better life, the time is upon us to welcome the various strangers of our world into our midst, extend the radical hospitality of Jesus, and in doing so restore communities into the redemptive vision that God has placed before us.