Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saint Wenceslaus and Social Solidarity

Christmas is still almost three months away. But one popular Christmas carol is especially appropriate on this day, when the Church calendar commemorates "Good King Wenceslaus." Historically, Saint Wenceslaus, martyred on this date by his pagan brother and now patron saint of the Czechs, was a 10th-century Duke of Bohemia - not quite a king. However, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I later conferred on Wenceslas the dignity and title of King, which warrants the references to him in the legends about him as King Wenceslaus - indeed Good King Wenceslaus.

It is not, however, Wenceslaus' ducal or royal status or even his martyrdom that the familiar Christmas carol specifically extols but his solidarity with the poor. The carol recounts the legend of how Wenceslas and his page braved the harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the day after Christmas ("the Feast of Stephen'). Along the way, the page found the trek in the snow too difficult and wanted to give up, but the saint encouraged him to follow in his holy footprints. 

The page, of course, is a stand-in for the rest of us, forever tempted to prioritize ourselves and and our individual and private preoccupations over the challenge of solidarity with others. 

By coincidence, his feast falls this year in the same week when the representative of a major American political party actually seemed to brag about not paying taxes, which he seemed to consider "smart." Obviously, American society - or at least some significant segment of it - is dangerously deficient in its commitment to social solidarity, as compared with the characters in the carol!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Poldark Returns

Season 2 of the BBC's new Poldark series (starring the perfectly cast Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark) debuted on PBS Sunday night - just three weeks after Season 2's British debut. In a two-hour long episode, the series brought us back to the story's hero at his lowest point and saw us safely through his trial and acquittal to resume his complicated relationship with his family, his social class, and the wider world of economically depressed late 18th-century Cornwall.

Of course, even though in his case all the forces of the establishment seemed so stacked against him, we all knew that Ross would get off somehow. The series could hardly continue if its hero and star had been hanged! So, for all the wonderful acting and suspenseful moments, the season opener was really just that - a stage-setter for whatever will follow in Ross's family, social, and business lives.

Two themes, however, really stood out, which have permeated the series throughout and will undoubtedly continue to structure our filtered experience of 18th-century Cornwall.The first, of course, is Ross's stubbornness, his (hot-headed at times) absolute refusal to make the most simple of sensible compromises with social convention, thus almost guaranteeing his conviction and execution. When he finally took the witness stand, armed with a very contrite statement written for him by his lawyer, Ross quickly abandoned that and launched into an eloquent defense of his actions against what to him seemed to be a corrupt establishment in service solely of the interest of the propertied classes (of which he himself is, of course, himself a member). Obviously, we are supposed to applaud his integrity and his courage. But, like his family and friends, we might also with he would try to be just a little bit more accommodating, a little bit more concerned about the adverse consequences of his righteousness on those he loves.  The question Ross's character poses is not just why Ross so often seems intent on being his own worst enemy, but the larger issue of what is integrity and what is self-righteousness and where and how does compromise fit in to an honest but also socially responsible life?

The second theme is the perennial one of the relationship between the coolest kid in the class (Ross) and his less charismatic (and jealous) companions who deep-down love him, and wish they were more like him, and really would like to be his friend, if only he would deign to let them. In the case of a George Warleggan, the comparison of himself with Ross leads to implacable hatred and opposition. In the case of cousin Francis it leads to an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, failure, and self-hatred.

Inseparable from these two powerful themes is the romantic challenge of a seemingly unending love triangle of Ross, Demelza, and Elizabeth - and its effects on Elizabeth's husband Francis and would-be suitor George. 

Add to these the wonderfully interwoven sub-plots (Ennis, Verity, etc.) and the exquisite evocation of that late w8th-century world in turmoil, and Season 2 promises to be everythign Season 1 was and more. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

That PRRI Religion Report

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a very sobering report - which no pastor, parent, or other religiously concerned person should ignore - on the increasingly remarked phenomenon of the "Nones," that rapidly growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. The report, which is actually quite short and easy for the non-statistician to read and comprehend, is entitled Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion - and Why They're Unlikely to Come Back. It can be easily accessed online at

It wasn't all that long ago that the US was widely seen as the great outlier in the seemingly inexorable dynamic of secularization that has already transformed what was once Christian Europe. Either the US is (for whatever reason) belatedly just catching up with other "First World" societies, or somehow something else (more unique to the US) is at work here having a similar effect in what is really a very short time. In this regard, it is not entirely unlike the rapid - and (for that reason) until recently unexpected - radical transformation in popular attitudes toward LGBT people. In fact, there may well be a substantive connection between the two developments. At minimum, the two trends have proceeded in tandem as part of an overall societal transformation.  Hence the importance of studies such as this one.

According to the aptly named Exodus report, while only 25 years ago just 6% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, today it is 25%, which makes the "Nones" the largest identifiable "religious group" in the country. The numbers are even more frightening regarding young adults (ages 18-29), 39% of whom are now religiously affiliated. Among Catholics, the numbers are also very telling. some 31% of Americans claim to have been raised in a Catholic home, but only 21% identify as Catholics now.

As the young adult numbers might suggest, abandonment of one's religion seems to occur early in life. Of the Nones, 62% say they abandoned their childhood religion by age 18.

Particularly revealing are the reasons cited for leaving one's religion. The most mentioned reason was ceasing to believe in the religion's teachings. The second was having been raised in a family that was never that religious. The third was the experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gays and lesbians. Catholics in particular cited this third reason more than others did.

There is a lot more in the Report, but these fundamental findings should be enough to inspire some serious self-examination among pastors, parents, and other concerned about the future of religious faith in America.

In a world in which church attendance is no longer a mark of social respectability, it should come as no surprise that many of those who grew up in religiously relatively lukewarm families have taken the next step and gone all the way to becoming unaffiliated.  Still the number one reason given for disaffiliating is no longer believing church teachings. Of course, there have always been any number of reasons for unbelief, which have undoubtedly proliferated since the ascendancy of modern science.  But, while there may be many reasons why religious belief seems increasingly implausible to so many people, surely the fact that so many report simply ceasing to believe in religious teachings ought to challenge those whose responsibility it is to pass on the faith to the next generation to consider why we have been doing so poorly.  

Arguments about the language of the liturgy or whether we should all pray facing the same way or facing each other are not unimportant, but their salience diminishes if fewer and fewer people are even bothering to be there. And, while not everything can be blamed on the catastrophic collapse of  effective catechesis, surely several decades of that have taken their toll on the mere plausibility of religious belief among those on the receiving end of inadequate instruction.

And then there is the third reason given for leaving religion. When 29% in general (and 39% of those raised Catholics) cite religious negativity toward gays and lesbians as a factor, that certainly says something significant - not least, perhaps, about the prudence of some apparent alliances between religion and right-wing politics in recent decades. (An obvious counter-example worth recalling would be how the Church first fought against the liberalization of civil divorce laws, but then - having decisively and irreversibly lost that battle - it stopped fighting the issue in the political arena, while still retaining its own beliefs about marriage within the life of the Church.) 

This PRRI report raises important issues that are also themselves part of a larger and growing discussion about religion's changing role and uncertain future in American society. There are at least two recent books that go into these and related issues in a way which < I think, really makes them must reads for those who care about America's religious future. They are Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (Convergent Books, 2016) by long-time Newsweek Religion editor, Kenneth L. Woodward,  and  The End of White Christian America (Simon and Schuster, 2016) by PRRI's founding CEO, Robert P. Jones.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Great Chasm

We hear this familiar gospel parable [Luke 16:19-31] every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest or deacon, as he reads Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously all  dressed in purple. (At least we don’t have that problem today!)

Other than his wardrobe, we know very little about the rich man. He is sometimes named “Dives,” which is just the Latin word for rich – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we like to call the “real” world, it’s typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor who matter; so it is the beggar’s name that everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption Amos harangued against. Or he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society such as ours.

In traditional, pre-modern societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is low, there is usually a small upper class, a very small middle class, and lots and lots of poor people – not all as badly off as Lazarus, of course, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And, in such a society, there certainly would be beggars. And the danger of becoming a beggar would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely getting by.

So the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable. They could picture it. Beggars were visible, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) there was no avoiding them. Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side. But the parable suggests something more. It suggests that for the rich man side-by-side had become separate.

Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly or illegally. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he may have been seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth had created between himself and Lazarus. It’s not that he was particularly hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way so many live today. We may be citizens of the same country, but we live in separate neighborhoods and consume separate media, in what commentators call our separate silos of information.

In our increasingly privatized and individualistic culture, the very basis for and the extent of our shared social bonds and obligations to one another and society have become problematic to many.

In contrast, the biblical story highlights the essential solidarity of the human race in many ways, beginning with its accounts of creation itself, which reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of humankind. As the medieval author of The Imitation of Christ famously observed, whoever “seeks to have private possessions loses the things that are common.”

More recently, Pope Francis has stressed this point as one of the principal concerns of his pontificate: “As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.”

In Jesus’ parable, it was that indifference, rooted in wealth, that so decisively and disastrously separated the rich man from Lazarus. But then the rich man died, and then so did Lazarus - as indeed we all will one day die. It is appointed – says the Letter to the Hebrews - that human beings die once, and after this the judgment. This is the only parable in the Gospel in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person I have become over the course of my life.

And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life between himself and Lazarus is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.

The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers back home. Something of that sort famously does happen in a more modern parable - Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, with which I’m sure we are all familiar. There the rich man himself (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

The obviously intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – Jesus, the one telling us the parable. Our knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.

So, are we listening?

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 25, 2016.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hell or High Water

It has been a while since I have paid money to see a "western"-style crime film, but Hell or High water was well worth the wait - and the money. The movie follows two down-and-out West Texas brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of small-scale robberies against branches of a Texas Bank. Toby, a divorced father of two sons, has come up with this plan to pay off the mortgage and avoid foreclosure on their recently dead mother's ranch - a ranch which just happens to have oil on it - and then leave it to his sons, so that they can have a better life than he and his brother and their mother did. At one point he powerfully likens poverty to a disease passed on from generation to generation. 

Toby's plan is actually quite clever. They only steal loose cash in the cashiers' drawers. Then they exchange it for gambling chips at a casino, which they then turn back in for a check, which can masquerade as gambling winnings. His biggest problem, however, is his hot-headed older brother, recently out of prison, who complicates the plan by taking excessive risks, which eventually lead (abetted by the ambient gun culture) to wider confrontations and eventual killings. Clearly Toby is not a killer by inclination, whereas Tanner seems to find it all quite exciting.

Meanwhile, Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his half-Hispanic, half native American partner, are on their trail. Marcus, more than anyone else, seems to figure out the pattern to the robberies and so correctly guesses the final target.The various relationships and everyone's various interactions highlight the depressing lives and socio-economic conditions of the rural poor. That is what makes the brothers' plight somewhat sympathetic, despite their criminality. Toby in particular comes across as a sympathetic character. Needless to say, no one has a good word to say about the ultimate villain - the bank! Indeed, one telling scene is when Marcus asks some men in a diner across the street from a just-robbed bank, "Y'all been here for a while?" and gets the answer, "Long enough to watch a bank get robbed that's been robbing me for thirty years." That the system is malevolently stacked against them seems to be the common consciousness shared by all - except, of course, the villains who run the bank.

At the end, Tanner has been killed by Marcus, but no one has been able to pin anything on Toby, who has successfully executed his plan, saved the family ranch (with tis oil), set up a trust for his sons, and turned over the property to his family. Now retired, Marcus can't quite let go of the case (which cost his partner his life) and confronts Toby at the ranch. Marcus tries to figure out exactly why Toby did it and is surprised to realize that Toby himself has given everything away to his sons. They part, both mutually scarred, probably forever, by the experience.

In a year when American society seems to be rediscovering the plight of the poor white working class, this film sensitively highlights the socio-economic structures (institutionally represented by the banks) that have worked against the poor - generation after generation - but without sugar-coating the family dysfunction and outright pathology that increasingly accompany many of those lives.