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Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 28, 2024

Today’s Invitation

Today we invite you to explore the role of carceral violence in repression, through Jesus’s disciples in the Acts of the Apostles; engage the reality of the carceral state through the U.S. Bishops’ letter on reform, and the proliferation of “cop cities” and criminalizing laws; and embody the parallels between the disciples’ struggles and our own with a contemplation, and the resistance to Atlanta’s Cop City.


Commentary by Dwayne David Paul

Fifth Sunday of Easter


Reading 1

Acts 9:26-31

When Saul arrived back in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples there, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. Then Barnabas took charge of him and introduced him to the apostles. He explained to them how, on his journey, Saul had seen and conversed with Jesus, and how ever since that encounter, Saul had been speaking out fearlessly in the name of Jesus at Damascus.

Saul stayed on with them, moving freely about Jerusalem and expressing himself quite openly in the name of Christ. He even addressed the Greek-speaking Jews and debated with them. They responded, however, by trying to kill him. When the sisters and brothers learned of this, some of them took Saul down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria, the church was at peace, building itself up, living in reverence of God and growing in numbers with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 22

Response: You are the theme of my praise in the Great Assembly.

I perform my vows in the presence of those who fear You.
Those who are poor will eat and be satisfied.
Those who seek You will give praise. / Long life to their hearts!

R: You are the theme of my praise in the Great Assembly.

The whole earth, from end to end, / will remember and come back to You;
All the families of the nations will bow down.
Before You all the prosperous of the earth will bow down,
Before You will bow all who go down to the dust.

R: You are the theme of my praise in the Great Assembly.

And my soul will live for You, / my children will serve You.
We will proclaim You to generations still to come,
Your righteousness to a people yet unborn. / All this Our God has done.

R: You are the theme of my praise in the Great Assembly.

Reading 2

1 John 3:18-24

My children, our love must not be simply words or mere talk — it must be true love, which shows itself in action and truth. This, then, is how we will know we belong to the truth; this is how we will be confident in God’s presence, even if our consciences condemn us. We know that God is greater than our consciences and that God knows everything. And if our consciences do not condemn us, my friends, then we have confidence before God, and we will receive whatever we ask from God’s hand — because we keep the commandments and do what is pleasing in God’s sight. The commandments are these: that we believe in the name of our God’s Own, Jesus Christ, and that we love one another as we were told to do. Those who keep these commandments live in God and God lives in them. We know that God lives in us by the Spirit given to us.

Gospel

John 15:1-8

Jesus said to the disciples:
I am the true vine
and my Abba is the vine-grower
who cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
but prunes the fruitful ones
to increase their yield.

You have been pruned already,
thanks to the word that I have spoken to you.

Live on in me,
as I do in you.

Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself
apart from the vine,
neither can you bear fruit apart from me.

I am the vine;
you are the branches.

Those who live in me and I in them
will bear abundant fruit,
for apart from me you can do nothing.

Those who do not live in me
are like withered, rejected branches,
to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned.

If you live on in me,
and my words live on in you,
ask whatever you want
and it will be done for you.

My Abba will be glorified
if you bear much fruit
and thus prove to be my disciples.


The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.

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The Role of Carceral Violence in Repression


Jesus didn’t just die; Roman authorities executed him. Carceral power – the ability to arrest, imprison, try, sentence, and execute people – is an important character in today’s first reading, driving much of the action. Indeed, carceral violence shapes the life of the early Church as described throughout Acts of the Apostles. As in today’s reading, advances are often coupled with the threat of incarceration or outright execution. Acts is about, in part, how the Apostles make sense of their call, their memories, as well as their hopes and expectations in the wake of Jesus’s departure.

Jesus’s people are traumatized. They are grieving and confused. The opening scene of Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11) picks up the final conversation of the newly resurrected Jesus with the remaining Apostles (Lk. 24:49). Their final question to him shows the political aspirations of his earliest followers: “Lord, has the time come for you to restore the kingdom of Israel” (Acts 1:6). For a moment, they thought Jesus’s resurrection meant a dramatic reversal of their situation. Unfortunately, Jesus tells them that it’s in God’s hands and then floats away. 

Let’s hang on to their humanity and what was no doubt an extreme mixture of desolation, uncertainty, hope, and outright confusion. They gave up everything to participate in a years-long movement. It was going great! A comrade sold them out to the government, costing their teacher his life on charges of sedition and casting them as coconspirators. At their lowest, most vulnerable moment, Jesus mysteriously returns, but he has some good news and some bad news: God will send the same Holy Spirit to them that empowered Jesus’s ministry, but they are still outlaws because the political vision they had been striving for won’t be fulfilled yet.

This frenetic oscillation persists throughout Acts: Each sign of the early Church’s progress seems to be accompanied by a reminder from the narrator that it takes place under mortal threat from the Roman Empire and its local client government, led by King Herod Agrippa and the Temple authorities. The Apostles receive the Holy Spirit, perform some miracles, preach, and things are going great (2–3)! They get arrested and tried (4–5:22). They win some more converts (5:12-16), then they get incarcerated again (5:17-42). New leaders distinguish themselves in service to the growing community, and then a mob executes one of them, Stephen, under the auspices of Saul (7:54-8:1).    

The injection of Saul sheds important light on the scope of the policing the early Church faced. It’s easy for those of us with no connection to the region to blow by the places named in the Bible, but they are illuminating. Saul’s participation marks the Church’s persecution as a regional legal/religious affair. Saul is a long way from home; Jerusalem and Tarsus – in the southern coast of modern Turkey – are not neighboring cities. He even plans to expand his persecution to the early Christians of Dasmascus, whom he would arrest and extradite back the 135 miles to Jerusalem to stand trial. 

Fortunately for the community in Damascus, he converts before he arrives. When he tries to connect with the community in Jerusalem in today’s reading, he does so as the (former) embodiment of carceral power. He is both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen by birth from one of the most important cities of the eastern territories. Importantly, the latter means that he has both formal and informal rights that his non-citizen Jewish counterparts could not have access to. The fear with which the disciples meet him is informed by all of this. The reversal of his situation from prosecutor and executioner to fugitive is dizzying. 

In her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, scholar and activist Angela Davis asks a simple yet generative question: “Why do we take prisons for granted?” It helps to remind us that long-term imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment is a relatively recent global phenomena, originating in the United States. Today, 1.9 million people wallow in America’s prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, child prisons, and involuntary psychiatric facilities. The U.S. is unique on the global stage: While we account for only five percent of the global population, we have nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. 

How can people who take prison for granted begin to empathize with the disciples’ fear of Saul? I sometimes wonder if we can begin to appreciate just how fantastical and grave an act of violent imprisonment was in the imagination of the text’s earliest audience. So extraordinary, that the power of God is demonstrated in repeated acquittals and even a couple miraculous jailbreaks (5:18-42; 12:5-17).

Commentary by Dwayne David Paul


Dwayne David Paul is the cofounder of Religion in Revolt, a digital platform whose mission is to develop and promote the liberation work of faith communities.
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Engage Catholic Social Teaching

Racial Justice

In November 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released an important statement calling for reforms to the criminal legal system, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.” It was timely. After nearly three decades of bipartisan policies spurring on mass incarceration, the population of state and federal prisons ballooned from approximately 200,000 in 1973 to about 1.3 million when the bishops published the statement. 

There is an important tension in the bishops’ reasoning that seems common: They recognize the prison as a human invention with an immoral track record of harm, particularly against people who are poor, disabled, black, indigenous, immigrants, and Latinx. Yet, they take for granted that prisons will be in the more just future they call for in the document. They are incapable of imagining a world without prisons, or even a world in which prisons have a drastically smaller footprint. Instead, they rely on an appeal to the good intentions behind the founding of the American penitentiary:

“In the United States, history tells us that the prison system was, in some ways, built on a moral vision of the human person and society – one that combined a spiritual rekindling with punishment and correction. But along the way, this vision has too often been lost.”

Unfortunately, there was never a time when policing and prisons have been good to the marginalized groups mentioned above. The criminal legal system has only been evil to them.

We cannot afford to take the prison for granted. Today, the nation is on the cusp of yet another wave of mass criminalization. We can deduce this from, among other things, policing expenditures in the states, especially the rise of so-called “cop cities.” Cop cities are massive, state of the art, militaristic police training facilities, paid for by public and corporate funds. 

Thanks to the organizing efforts of the Defend the Forest and Stop Cop City coalition in Georgia, the City of Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center was the first to gain national prominence. The proposed $90 million compound would be built in the 381-acre Weelaunee Forest, known as one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta. Atlanta is not alone. Democrat- and Republican-controlled jurisdictions across the country are engaged in this buildup. Texas is seeking $1.2 billion for its own; Newark, NJ plans to build a $300 million facility; Nashville, TN broke ground on its $415 billion facility in September. The list goes on and on, and it is growing.

These training compounds, which mirror the mission of counterinsurgency agencies like the former School of the Americas, come at a time when both human and ecological need and related protests are acute. So, predictably, cop cities are on the rise at the same time that legislation such as anti-homeless laws and anti-protest laws proliferate. According to the National Homelessness Law Center, which tracked anti-homeless laws in 187 cities from 2006-2019, found increases in citywide bans on things such as “sitting or lying in public, (78 percent)” or sleeping in vehicles (213 percent). Since January 2017, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law notes that 41 states have passed anti-protest laws. 

People are broke and fed up. Basic human needs are increasingly out of reach, and the climate crisis is making this all worse. Rather than care and resources, carceral violence drives the action.

Engage

A Contemplative Exercise


To be transparent, I believe that for those of us in the United States, living in a country that incarcerates so many people has brutalized our internal lives. In light of that, I offer a few questions for your reflection: How could we possibly hear the word today with empathy for the disciples when we have been desensitized to people, including tens of thousands of children in cages?


A Community

Cop City

The movement to stop Cop City is a decentralized, broad-based coalition of students, faith leaders, community organizers, and activists of all stripes. They have all been met with varying degrees of police repression. Police have harassed and intimidated organizers of the successful petition campaign to have the project scrapped. The Georgia attorney general charged 61 movement workers under the state’s racketeering-influenced, and corrupt organizations (RICO) law for things such as “social solidarity,” “collectivism,” and “mutual aid.” At least 41 additional members have been charged under the state’s expansive domestic terrorism laws. In January 2023, a multi-agency task force of police led a violent raid on a peaceful encampment of forest protectors, shooting 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán 57 times. They died instantly.

Embody