Monday, March 19, 2018

7 Days in Entebbe

7 Days in Entebbe is a historical drama about a familiar event (familiar at least to those of us old enough to remember it), the terrorist hijacking of an Air France airliner in 1976 and the subsequent hostage standoff in Idi Amin's Uganda that lasted for a week until their heroic rescue by Israeli commandos. Since we know what is going to happen, the audience’s interest is inevitably focused on other elements in the drama. Personally I was particularly interested in the conflicts and debates within the Israeli government, in particular the back-and-forth between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Defence Minister Shimon Peres. Another great drama is the debates among the terrorists themselves. Although it was ultimately the Palestinian Terrorists who took over and made demands of the Israeli government, the film focuses mainly on the German couple, members of the infamous Baader-Meinhof Gang, one of the bizarre European terrorists groups spawned by the political and social chaos of the Western world in the 1970s. (From our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary “war on terrorism,” it may be easy to forget how much terrorist violence there was in the world in the 1970s – not just the obvious terrorist activities of the PLO and the IRA but also other groups like the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Brigades, and the American Weather Undergound and the SLA.).
Terrorist groups like the IRA and the PLO were utterly reprehensible, but at least they had causes which one could comprehend and debate the possible merits of - or more likely their lack of merit, The actions of affluent Americans and Europeans who adopted a pseudo-Marxist world-view and a commitment to world revolution never made much sense, however. The film does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of the German terrorists’ revolutionary rhetoric and the pointlessly suicidal nature of their movement. Ultimately they are portrayed as the destructive fanatics that they were, but not in a way which excludes some appreciation of their complexity as otherwise possibly sympathetic individuals, absurdly committed to and warped by a crazy ideology.
The film also does a credible job of highlighting the tensions (personal and political) within the Israeli government and the fiddiculty - in a democratic society - of maintaining a necessary but inevitably unpopular policy of never negotiating with terrorists. Unfortunately, especially toward the end, the film seems to veer into an absurd, ideological linkage between that dilemma and the larger dilemma of how to deal in the longer term with the problem of Arab intransigence.
Where the film fails terribly, however, is in its bizarre attempt to give the events a uniquely creative, possibly symbolic, artistic feel. One of the commandos involved in the rescue is portrayed as having a girlfriend who is a member of an Israeli modern dance troop. For most of the film, this is just a distracting sub-plot. But then, when the long-awaited rescue sequence arrives, it is amazingly interspersed with a performance by the dance troop! Undoubtedly the dance was “creative.” Undoubtedly, interspersing the climax of the film with this distracting performance was also “creative.” Undoubtedly it also almost completely ruins an otherwise good film!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Death and Life

Homily for the celebration of the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 18, 2018.

The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard [John 11:1-45] recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs,” because they reveal Jesus and invite us to respond with faith. But the raising of Lazarus also had as a consequence the authorities’ decision to execute Jesus. So life and death are mixed together, as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.

Meanwhile this story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus - and the extension of Lazarus’ earthly life - becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.

Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness, thus setting the stage for a series of conversations, the most important (and familiar) of which was for so many centuries read at Catholic funerals.

Listening in on their conversation today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else might happen to people when they died, ancient people knew that dead people do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would follow – in the future, on the last day.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.
We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary mortal life.  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot. But no one had to help Jesus rise up or had to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”

Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Providing Religious Cover for Moral Squalor"

Once more, Michael Gerson had added his voice to the ongoing discussion about the relationship between right-wing religion and Donald Trump's presidency and its long-term consequences for American religion in general, what he fittingly labels "providing religious cover for moral squalor". (See "the Last Temptation," The Atlantic April 2018 -

A life-long Evangelical himself, Gerson recognizes the shocking incongruity between right-wing religion's past attitudes toward licentious language and behavior and right-wing religion's current embrace of President Trump. But he quickly moves on to the heart of the problem: "Trump's unapologetic materialism - his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth - is a negation of Christian teaching." Once there, however, we are really no longer speaking solely of Trump (however extreme an example he may be) but of the essential project of the Republican party (an institution to which Gerson still has a historical attachment).

That said, Gerson's portrayal of the statements and behavior of one-time opponents of cultural and moral decay, now turned court chaplains, their supposed moral convictions corrupted by partisan identification hits home. "Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can't see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness."

Gerson recalls (in lengthy detail) the familiar history of American evangelicalism's "fall from a  great height" and how the resulting defensive stance against contemporary culture "was happily exploited by the modern GOP." Interestingly, he contrast evangelicalism's "lack of a model or ideal of political engagement - an organizing theory of social action" - with Catholicism's "coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection." Of course, Gerson well knows, "American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard."

In contrast, Gerson stresses how wholly "reactive" the evangelical political agenda has been. His own experience suggests the real potential for evangelical social engagement, but laments how "such concerns find limited collective political expression" in part, he argues, because of "the relative ethnic and racial insularity of  many white evangelicals." Here he makes another unfavorable comparison with the heavily Hispanic Catholic Church.

One result of this highly reactive dynamic has been an apocalyptic self-perception as "a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules." In this understanding,  "protecting Christianity" has become "a job for a bully." By giving political considerations "pride of place," evangelicals, Gerson argues, "have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense."

He is particularly troubled that Trump supporters' decision "that racism is not a moral disqualification" for the presidency "is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities." Acknowledging the presence of counter-examples in the evangelical orbit and the growing disenchantment of younger evangelicals with political negativity, Gerson remains, however, highly anxious for the future - for the evangelical religious tradition and - "because, religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country's public life" - for America. he concludes by calling on evangelicals "to rescue their faith from its worst leaders."

It is edifying that Gerson remains inspired by his faith and motivated to recall it to a more positive relationship with civil society. Christian history, however, offers abundant examples of opportunities missed, with catastrophic consequences - for example, the amputation of a once vibrantly Christian North Africa and a thousand years later the religious partition of Europe, both of which weakened the Church for centuries and continue to do so today. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term legacy of the unholy alliance between right-wing religion and an unapologetically materialist partisan project.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Brigadoon Election

Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District - partly rural, partly suburban - has comically been called the "Brigadoon" district, because it will literally disappear at the end of this year. (The 1954 musical Brigadoon was about a Scottish village that magically reappears every hundred years, only to disappear again after a single day.) Yet, although this seat will only be occupied for just a few more months, the competition for it has garnered national interest - and tons of outside money, the sure measure of significance in politics. 

Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, as did Mitt Romney before him. For four years in the early 1990s it was represented by Rick Santorum; and since 2003 it was represented by another Republican, Tim Murphy. It was his resignation last October which triggered this special election in what had come to be viewed as a reliably Republican constituency..

(Last fall, Murphy's hometown newspaper reported that an early 2017 text message from the woman he was having an extra-marital affair with revealed that the pro-life politician had asked her to have an abortion during what turned out to be an unfounded pregnancy scare. The paper also reported staff allegations of "hostile, erratic, unstable, aggressive and abusive behavior." Hence his resignation and the ensuing vacancy.)

Then along came Conor Lamb as the Democratic candidate. More precisely, along came the Trump presidency; and the existential threat that Republican party dominance poses produced an energized and enthused Democratic electorate apparently willing actually to turn out and vote in a special election! That may well make the difference in Brigadoon!

As I write this, the election is still too close to call. Conor Lamb is leading by 641 votes. If he wins, it obviously won't be a landslide. But, compared with previous Republican wins in the district (which Trump carried by 20 percentage points), for what it says about electoral prospects in November nationwide, it might just as well be a Democratic landslide - even if Lamb loses closely in the final count! Given the district's imminent evaporation and the existing Republican domination in the current Congress, this election was always more about symbolism than any immediate effect on public policy - symbolism that may be prophetic, however, for the November election and the real political changes that could conceivably flow from that.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Kennedys and Popes

Such is our persistent fascination with the Kennedy family that, 50 years after Robert Kennedy's assassination, CNN has produced yet another series on the famous family. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that once again we have another scandalously rich, overly privileged and entitled, pseudo-royal family in the White House. Where John Kennedy had Bobby, Donald Trump now has Jared and Ivanka!

Most of those in that famous November 9, 1960, AP Photo (above) of the family on the morning after JFK's election are gone, but the fascination remains. While it is hard to imagine what new could possibly be revealed about this most famous of American families, this new series does a good job of retelling this old, familiar, but forever evocative story. Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, it includes commentary from some younger Kennedys as well as from various historians and family biographers.

Sunday’s first episode - appropriately titled "The Power of Wealth" - focused on President Kennedy’s (in)famous father, Joseph Kennedy, who apparently once wanted to be president himself – an unlikely ambition, which his disastrous performance as American. Ambassador in London before and during the first part of World War II put a well-deserved end to. The episode highlights the whole tragic pathology that followed from his feeling of not being appropriately appreciated as an Irish Catholic in Protestant America  and his lifelong need to compensate, which eventually took the form of his ambitions for his sons. In the process, we cover the familiar ground of the family's wartime tragedies - Joe's tragic decision to "cure" his daughter Rosemary with a surgery that backfired so terribly that it ruined her life, Jack's near-loss in the Pacific (cleverly repackaged and publicized to make  him a war hero), Joe Jr.'s death as a casualty of war, and Kathleen's marriage outside the faith and her later tragic death in a plane crash. The episode ends with only Jack left of the older children - a sickly war hero newly elected to Congress. (Regrettably, while focusing on the role of the Kennedy money in Jack's political ascent, the program ignores the importance of Rose's family political connections.)

Given the woefully inadequate state of many contemporaries' historical awareness, a well done series such as this at least has the advantage of situating its story in the actual historical context and thus hopefully expanding its audience's historical knowledge.

That same can less confidently be claimed about the other historical series that CNN premiered last night, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History. The first episode of The Kennedys covered actually only about a decade of recent, 20th-century history. In the same amount of broadcast time, the first episode of Pope  tries to cover almost 12 centuries! So it is inevitably somewhat superficial. Still, someone with little or no knowledge of the subject would learn something from this rushed and inevitably simplified survey of the first half of the Church's history.

That said, the series starts well.  The first episode, "The Rise of the Pope," starts, appropriately enough, with Saint Peter himself, emphasizing the Pope's position as successor of Saint Peter. Without serious challenge, the program rightly recognizes the papacy as the link to and the inheritor of the apostolic generation - and also fully accepts the link between Peter and Rome. It highlights the significance of Peter's martyrdom and the early Church's hierarchical organization.

Just as the Church's fortunes changed after Constantine, so does the pace of the presentation - rushing from Nicaea and the division of the empire into eastern and western halves through the familiar account of western empire's decline and the Pope's emergence as the only source of stable, civil governance in Rome. (There is some silly commentary about how neither Constantine nor the popes believed in separation of church and state - as if that uniquely contemporary concept would have even been comprehensible to people in other times!) Meanwhile, the papacy's struggle to survive in a context of almost constant conflict quickly causes it to ally with a new Constantine, Charlemagne. Then it is the threat of Islam that endangers the Church, causing the Crusades. The program presents the background of the Crusades correctly as a consequence of Islamic conquest of Christian lands, although it soon starts to get bogged down in familiar, "politically correct" lamentation over the violence of the Crusaders and a perhaps overly enthusiastic embrace of Saladin.

Even so, the story is largely fairly told, but so much is inevitably omitted. Perhaps the next episode will backtrack, but there is nothing about what actually became of Catholic Europe in those centuries - nothing, for example, about what was probably the most significantly influential institution (both religiously and culturally) in medieval Catholic Europe, namely monasticism. 

All in all, however, for all its superficiality, it is not a bad rendition of the Church's story! Whether the Pope is really best described as "The Most Powerful Man in History" may be arguable, but it is certainly an interesting story that is being presented - more interesting even than that of the Kennedys!