Sunday, January 22, 2017

Silence (the Movie)

The Augustinian Fathers who staffed my home parish and taught me in high school were part of a province which included a mission in Japan. So at a fairly early age I learned about the terrible persecution of Japanese Catholics that began with the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 and the amazing story of the Christians who somehow secretly maintained the faith in clandestine communities without priests (and hence without any sacraments except Baptism and Matrimony) until the re-opening of Japan to foreigners in the late 19th century. The "miraculous" (as it seemed to Blessed Pope Pius IX at the time) survival of this underground Catholicism for some 250 years amazed the world.

The Japanese persecution of the Church and the moral dilemmas it created form the historical background for Martin Scorsese's new film Silence, based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 Tanizaki prize winning novel of that name. A Japanese Catholic, Endo seems to have been acutely conscious of Catholicism's marginal status as an imported Western religion in Japan, a theme which emerges as central in the film. The title, of course, refers to God's silence in the face of human suffering, a popular mid-20th-century theme in literature and film. (I think back, for example, to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's many religiously themed films.)

The story starts in Macau when the Portuguese Jesuit superior there learns that Father Cristovao Ferreira has committed apostasy in Japan. Unwilling to believe this, two of Fr. Ferreira's former students, Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan to find him. Once there (guided by a Japanese Christian who repeatedly lapses and then repents), they are sheltered by and minster to a grateful community of Japanese Christians, but their presence brings the government persecutors closer. Several native Christians are tortured and killed. The two priests separate, but they are themselves eventually captured, and more Japanese Christians are tortured and killed. Fr. Garrpe dies a martyr, but Fr. Rodrigues is targeted by the authorities to follow Ferreira in publicly abandoning the faith, which he eventually does. Having first called Ferreira a disgrace, Rodrigues finally follows him in repeated apostasy and an apparently frustratingly empty life as a married Japanese Buddhist.

The movie takes a long time (too long?) telling its story, and Endo's theme that Japan is a "swamp" in which Christianity cannot easily take root is reflected physically in the apparent dreariness of the setting.

The story seems to want us to focus on how Rodrigues should respond to the tragedy unfolding around him, whether apostasy represented a morally legitimate response on his part, whether what purports to be Christ speaking to him at a critical moment is an authentic inspiration or rather a temptation from Satan. But these questions can be asked and answered only against the background of the martyrdom of the lay Japanese Catholics. In keeping with Endo's anxiety about whether a Western religion can really take root in Japan, the missionaries are invited to analyze and question how authentic the faith of the Japanese really is. Yet the Japanese converts' faithfulness to what they have been taught, their reverence for the priests, their evident love and desire for the sacraments, and finally their silent but heroic witness as martyrs speak volumes about their actual faith, however unsophisticated they may be in their appropriation of it. Whether intended or not, the film sets up a contrast between the simple faithful who accept martyrdom - certainly not joyfully, but certainly faithfully - and the more sophisticated priests, whose theological and cultural sophistication fails them and who in the end fail in fidelity. Paradoxically, the story suggests that the imported Western faith may have been able to plant deeper roots among the Japanese converts than among some of the Jesuits themselves!

Of course, not everyone is a hero. Not everyone is ready to accept martyrdom in any age. Our modern sensibility makes us uncomfortable judging those who choose an alternative when faced with difficulties we ourselves do not have to face. The tragic/comic figure of Kichijiro, the Christian who lapses and betrays Rodrigues and who constantly comes back to confess may represent one such, perhaps not atypical alternative. And as long as Rodrigues remains Christian, he accepts Kichijiro's repeated repentance and absolves him, but then he no longer does so after his own apostasy. 

Rodrigues' contemporaries would no doubt have been horrified by his apostasy, as he himself was initially by Ferreira's. Only our sentimental age which would reduce religion to therapy can comfortably re-interpret it as a process of discernment. But even the film negatively presents Rodrigues' post-Christian life in Japan, portraying it as meaningless and vacuous and anything but heroic or admirable.

Our modern sensibility seeks a more satisfying ending, which is presumably the point of Rodrigues' wife sneaking a cross into her dead husband's hand in his coffin, leaving us to hope that perhaps he persevered in the faith at least at some level.

What we can know, however, what history tells us, is that the Catholic faith did survive in the "swamp" of Japan through the perseverance of silent generations of lay men and women, and that, however marginal a Western import it may still appear, it does still survive as a faithful witness there now.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

President Trump

The first Presidential Inauguration I can recall was President Eisenhower's 2nd Inaugural in 1957. Actually, I don;t recall the Inauguration at all, just watching the parade. The first one I can really remember was, of course, John Kennedy's in 1961, which fell on on a snowy Friday that closed school, freeing me to watch the whole event from start to finish. Even now Kennedy;s inaugural stands out more vividly in my memory than any of the subsequent ones.

Nowadays, the media covers the arrivals not just of the principals but of almost everyone else. And with the ceremony moved since 1981 to the West Front of the Capitol, that means lots of footage of people climbing up and down seemingly endless stairs inside the building on the way from the east entrance to the west.

That said, the inaugural ritual still really revolves around three highly symbolic moments. The first is the arrival of the president-elect at the White House, his welcome by the outgoing president, and their ride together to the Capitol. (See CNN photo above). This tradition, which dates back to Jackson and Van Buren in 1837 is rightly regarded as one of the great symbolic rituals of democratic governance and the principle of the peaceful transition of power. (The practice of the outgoing president actually coming outside to wait for and welcome the president-elect in the north portico is actually a newer addition to the tradition, dating back only to 1961).The second is, of course, the actual swearing-in (a constitutional requirement) and the inaugural address, both of which date back to George Washington's 1st inaugural in 1789. The inaugural address is the substantive as opposed to symbolic part of the ceremony, suggesting the tone the new Administration aspires to set. The third is the very new tradition of the now former president's formal departure from the East Front of the Capitol. (When I first started watching inaugurations. the new president left the stand and went to his congressional luncheon, while the now retired president was more or less left on his own). 

Unsurprisingly, the first and third ritual moments were well executed and even mildly moving, while the oath-taking (complete with Hail to the Chief and 21-gun salute) were what one would expect. It was the speech that everyone was waiting for - to hear how the new president would interpret the ritual and apply it to the practical politics of governing. 

My first reaction to President Trump's address was that it sounded more like a campaign speech than an inaugural address. I assume that was the intention - to make clear that the radical populist agenda on which Trump campaigned was for real and that he does in fact intend to govern differently. In this regard, the crucial reference was when he said that the ceremony was not about merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another - but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People. Historically, Donald Trump had never been a Republican, and he never really campaigned as one. He was always more like an Independent candidate who, instead of running independently, had successfully taken over the Republican party as a vehicle for his campaign.

The speech served notice - on the Republican elite as much as on everyone else - that Trump, who ran as a nationalist populist, plans to govern as one. Were he historically oriented, he might have referred to himself in Roman terms as tribunus plebis. A more proximate - and American - analogy would be Andrew Jackson, probably the most nationalist populist president (successfully so) we've ever had.

Jackson, of course, counts as the second founder of the Democratic party (after Jefferson). The irony is that today's Democratic party - itself increasingly uncomfortable with Jackson's legacy because of its commitment to identity politics - has in fact largely abandoned much of the substance as well as the style of Jackson's democratic movement and the tamer version of nationalist populism which sustained the Democratic party until relatively recently in its identity as the party of the "common man." Strains of that still survive, of course. One could quite easily picture Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren composing parts of Trump's speech - more so than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. 

It was a divisive speech in that it spoke primarily to Trump's nationalist populist base - those who feel (with some good reason) that they have been the losers in the transformation of American society, their economic and social interests ignored and their culture and morals contemptuously looked down upon by the condescending elites who have been among the winners in the transformation of American society. But, just as Barack Obama spoke to his own constituencies (even mentioning atheists) at his inaugural, it should come as no surprise when Trump speaks to his constituency at his.

Of course, when he promises I will never, ever let you down, Trump is certainly raising the expectations of his hearers higher than they might have otherwise dared to hope. He had better make good on many of his promises, or the disappointment and anger at yet another betrayal will be an even greater challenge to President Trump and the rest of the ruling political establishment.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Prayer on Inauguration Day

During my 2005 sabbatical summer at Saint George's House, Windsor Castle, we dutifully prayed for Queen Elizabeth II at daily Morning Prayer and Evensong, which we recited together in the Garter stalls of Saint George's Chapel. Of course, England has an Established Church (of which the Queen is the Supreme Governor). So praying for the Queen according to The Book of Common Prayer was, well, as it should be. On the other hand, we don't have an established Church in the United States. So when and how to pray for the our governmental leaders may seem less obvious. 

That we should do so, however, should also be obvious. First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul's prescription to Timothy was consistent with the common 1st-century Jewish practice of offering a daily sacrifice for the Emperor in the Jerusalem Temple and reflected the early Christian appreciation of the civilizational benefits associated with social and political community. 

At the beginning of the American political experiment, the first Catholic Bishop of the United States understood and articulated both our dependence upon government and our responsibilities toward it. In 1789, Pope Pius VI  appointed John Carroll (cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence)  the first Bishop of the Baltimore. (He would become Baltimore's first Archbishop in 1808). On November 10, 1791, Bishop Carroll composed this famous prayer to be recited in parishes throughout the United States. It is still well worth reciting - especially as this Inauguration Day dawns

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his Excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Looking Back at the Obama Presidency

Today is the last full day of Barack Obama's presidency. It has been an eventful 8 years - even if not the transformative time the President originally might be. For example, far from heralding a post-racial America, the mere fact of an African-American president seems to have driven a not insignificant segment of white America to distraction, the most extreme example of which was the racist "birther" movement which sought to de-legitimize the President by questioning his status as a natural-born citizen. 

And tomorrow the leading proponent of that lie will be inaugurated our 45th President. So much for a post-racial society!

Obama will always be remembered in history as the first non-white American president, and that is obviously an historically significant fact about him. But, both for better and for worse, his presidency, like any presidency, has always been about much more than that. An obviously intelligent and thoughtful man, who thinks in real sentences and answers questions in real paragraphs, Obama fatally assumed that good policy can create good politics, whereas the opposite may be closer to the truth - as the 2016 election has again proved.

As president, Obama can claim two enormously significant domestic accomplishments - the Affordable Care Act, thanks to which some 20 million more Americans now have health insurance, who didn't have it before (but are now in danger of losing it again thanks to the election) and, secondly, avoiding another Great Depression by his response to the economic calamity he inherited from his predecessor. He deserves enormous credit for both these accomplishments. 

But both accomplishments were limited and flawed. While Obama cannot be blamed for the intense opposition to the Affordable Care Act from a political party whose main talking point these past several years has been their desire to take away the health insurance Obamacare has made possible, his mistaken "good policy = good politics" approach proved catastrophically inadequate at translating the benefits of Obamacare for ordinary voters  to understand and appreciate. Bill Clinton failed dramatically in his 1990s effort to resolve the health care crisis. But, had he succeeded in getting serious health care reform passed into law, one suspects that he would have done a better job of explaining and promoting its merits. The unfortunate political (as opposed to policy) history of Obamacare suggests he might have done better to adopt a more Democratic plan (perhaps Medicare for all?) instead of the Republican plan he adopted, which the Republicans then rejected and left it for him to defend.

As for dealing with the economic crisis he inherited, again there can be no question that the country is in important respects better off now than it was when Obama took office. But the Administration did little to address the growing economic inequality which that crisis has highlighted so blatantly. Again there may be many factors to explain the working class disaffection that Trump's "populism" effectively capitalized upon. But certainly the Administration's elite-oriented approach to dealing with the economic crisis, in which the perpetrators of the problem were never really held accountable and have continued to profit, has to be counted as one of them. (For a fuller discussion of this theme, see, for example, Matt Stoller, "Democrats can't win until they recognize how bad Obama's financial policies were," The Washington Post, January 12).

Related to this is the continued deterioration of the Democratic party itself - from its historical identity until the 1970s as the party of the "common man" to a 21st-century elite party primarily interested in identity issues. Providing suitable bathroom access for transgendered people is important, but so is addressing widespread economic inequality and the collapse of the working class and of rural and working class families.  

Which brings us to Obama's greatest domestic failure - the nationwide electoral decline of the Democratic party on his watch. Early on, we Americans disregarded George Washington's warning and threw in our lot with political parties as the primary vehicles for accomplishing our social and political goals. As presidents, both Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, were criticized for neglecting their responsibility as party leaders to build up and strengthen their political party. Obama has arguably done an even poorer job than they did, thus severely imperiling his own legacy of policy achievement. A president needs a strong political party through which to govern effectively while in office, and it is part of his job to leave a strong political party in place to continue promoting his policies after he leaves office. Again good policy does not automatically create good politics.

Obama's community organizing background and his commitment to a notion of the common good are sometimes seen as points of contact with Catholic Social Teaching. And certainly there are such points of contact, which in a less polarized religious climate might have been the basis for a stronger relationship between the Administration and American Churches. That said, however, it must be acknowledged that Obama is a thoroughly post-modern person, who appears to see the world through a highly individualized, morally and culturally libertarian lens. That lens was well expressed, for example, in Justice Anthony Kennedy's notorious 1992 declaration: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Whatever that may be, it is most certainly not Catholic social teaching! Between elite moral and cultural libertarianism and the social solidarity sought by Catholic Social Teaching, there is (metaphorically) as great a chasm as that in Luke 16:26 between the self-actualized rich man and Lazarus.

In foreign affairs, Obama's record is mixed. The nuclear deal with Iran was a genuine accomplishment, although as is usually the case in foreign policy we will have to wait a while longer to see how well it actually works. We might say the same about his overdue ending of our anachronistic approach to Cuban policy. Syria, however, has been an unmitigated disaster. Of course, the options for the US in Syria have largely been bad, and maybe a more pro-active policy might not have significantly bettered the situation. But, not having tried, we can't know for sure. What we do know is that Syria is a political and humanitarian disaster which has spilled over and destabilized much of Europe and that this de-stabilization of Europe is in turn contributing directly to a breakdown of the post-World War II international order and the consensus on which it has relied.

It is not entirely Obama's fault, of course, that the entire post-World War II international order is now being challenged, but the weakness of American foreign policy in recent years has helped set the stage for whatever will happen next under President Trump.

In the end, of course, history will evaluate (and repeatedly re-evaluate) this president as it evaluates all presidents. He leaves office more personally popular than most of his predecessors (except for Eisenhower and Clinton), and that itself is an accomplishment, which speaks to the core qualities of the man, however intractable the problems he confronted.   

Last but far from least, the Obama Administration has been commendably free from scandals of any sort. And, in addition to being a model of freedom from conflicts of interest and personal misbehavior, the President has also been a model husband and father. The priority he placed on having dinner with his family, for example, represented a truly counter-cultural witness to authentic family values, which one wishes more politicians would prioritize in their lives instead of just talk about. Barack and Michelle Obama have done a fantastic job not only at how they have behaved and presented themselves personally in the White House, but in how they have raised their daughters there, in all of which they have been an admirable example for the country. 

And for all of that they will certainly be missed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

President Obama's Farewell

President Barack Obama gave his presidential "Farewell Address" last night.  The usual site for such speeches (in my lifetime) has been the White House's Oval Office, obviously the most dignified setting for such an event. But the President (perhaps expressing a post-modern preference for personalizing these things) spoke from Chicago, his home town as an adult. (Contemporary cosmopolitans often have more than one "home town.")

The first such "Farewell Address" I can remember was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People on January 17, 1961. Historically, it probably ranks with George Washington's "Farewell Address" (never actually delivered, but rather published in Philadelphia's American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796) as one of the two most memorable such offerings. Eisenhower's was justly famous, of course, for his profound warning: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.As a 12-year old watching him speak in the traditional dignity of the Oval Office, I barely noticed those words and had no sense of their significance until several years later.

Barack Obama was still in his mother's womb when Eisenhower gave that address. A lot has changed since then, both for the better and for worse. Accordingly Obama gave a very different kind of speech in a very different, much more emotional kind of setting.  And, while I could genuinely appreciate the emotion of those in the audience, I still found the setting jarring. Not only did it slow his delivery and distract attention from his words, it made the event seem more like a campaign rally than a Farewell Address. Of course, given the historic character of Obama's presidency and what is about to replace it, maybe it inevitably acquires the character of a continuing campaign.

Hence the poignancy of the crowd's chant of "four more years." Of course, he can't have four more years, because of a singularly stupid constitutional amendment that represented mid-20th-century Republicans' revenge against FDR. Five presidents have been affected by that ridiculous amendment. Four of them - 2 Republicans (Eisenhower and Reagan) and 2 Democrats (Clinton and Obama) - ended their second terms with high popularity and most likely could have won a third term had they been able to run. Given what awaits us in a few more days, it is even harder not to lament the undemocratic absurdity of the 22nd amendment!

In many ways, the speech itself was standard Obama oratory. It was very personal, identifying (as he consistently has throughout his public career) his own personal story with the American story, rooted in the Founders' vision of individual rights and the historical struggles of Americans in all their diversity, and in the simultaneous conviction "that we are all in this together, that we rise and fall as one." Not one to shy away from the big picture, his speech was a discourse on "the state of our democracy."

The President praised the gains that have been made and (in standard progressive fashion) pointed to what is yet to be accomplished. There is, it seems, always a certain insatiability to progressive politics, which, whether acknowledged or not, may itself undermine the social solidarity of which Obama so eloquently spoke and which is so necessary for a successful democracy. 

In addition to the obvious challenges to democracy posed by economic inequality and persistent racism, both of which he addressed, he was particularly on target when he highlighted "a third threat to our democracy. Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible."

It seems evident that this will not be a quietly retired ex-President. He has outlined an agenda and obviously intends to remain engaged in the arena.