Sunday, July 24, 2016

Imitating Abraham

The passage we just heard [Genesis 18:20-32] from the Old Testament saga of Abraham takes us back some 4000 years to the heights overlooking the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those cities now no longer exist, because (so the story tells us) of the outcry against them – so different were their citizens from Abraham. Though a recent immigrant himself, Abraham cared enough for the original native population that he was willing to plead with God to save them from destruction.

For some, what stands out most strongly in this story is the picturesque image of Abraham bargaining with God, as if he were some tourist in some stereotypical middle-eastern market. So strongly ingrained in the typical tourist mindset is that market stereotype that, having read their guidebooks, some feel a need to bargain about everything. I saw that myself in Israel some 2 decades ago. A group of us had walked to Bethlehem for Mass at the Basilica of the Nativity, but to save time we decided to take a taxi back. When the drivers stated their fares, some in our group immediately started bargaining, trying to lower the amount. Meanwhile, I did a quick currency calculation in my head and said to a priest in the group, who like me was also from New York, “This taxi costs less than a subway ride back home. Let’s just get in the cab and go!”

Foreigner though he was, Abraham was certainly no tourist – a pilgrim perhaps in a land not yet his, but certainly no tourist. And his relationship with God was anything but commercial or transitory. Just before today’s account, God who (as we heard last Sunday) has just experienced Abraham’s generous hospitality, suddenly says he cannot hide from Abraham what he is about to do, because Abraham is destined to become a great nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him [Genesis 18:17-18]. In this serious debate in which the fate of civilizations literally hung in the balance, we witness Abraham already at work anticipating that promised blessing for all the peoples of the earth.

Abraham is sometimes compared to Noah, who (at least from what little we know) showed no apparent interest in his neighbors’ fate. Abraham, in contrast, cared not only for his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, who were then living in Sodom, but for the whole population of the doomed cities. For far too many of us, far too often, Noah’s narrow concern may seem normal. Expanding the boundaries that limit those we care about, whether those boundaries be national or racial or ethnic or religious or whatever – expanding them to include others who don’t necessarily look or talk or act like us – doesn’t happen automatically. It takes effort. Abraham, however, got it right – right from the beginning. In this he anticipated his greatest descendant, Jesus, who would intercede with his Father for the entire world.

Sadly, in Sodom’s case, only three were saved from destruction. Whether Lot deserved to be saved is another question. He seems to have liked his settled and comfortable life in the prosperous city and lingered when the time came to leave. But, for Abraham’s sake, God got him out in time. We often don’t get what we deserve, and thanks be to God for that!

The fate of those cities has never been forgotten. The prophet Ezekiel said they were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy [Ezekiel 16:49]. How familiar does that sound? Jesus also used Sodom’s story as a warning. Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words – he said to his disciples – it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [Matthew 10:14-15].

In a sense, those corrupt cities stand for human civilization in its most advanced and successful state of development, complacently prosperous and comfortable and deserving of judgment – a salutary warning perhaps for other advanced and successful societies, like our own, and for us modern Lots who would likewise like to linger complacently in prosperity and comfort.

But at the same time the story also suggests that for the sake of just a few innocent people God would have been willing to spare the cities. Unfortunately there were none to be found there. If we, undeserving though we are, hope for God’s mercy, that hope rests entirely in Abraham’s descendant Jesus, through whom all the peoples of the world have finally been blessed once and for all, and through whom all of us have been given a lesson in how to imitate Abraham in caring about even those who neither look nor talk nor act like us.

The way Abraham insistently interceded for the citizens of Sodom says a lot about the seriousness of his relationship with God. After all, the way I ask for a favor always says something significant about my relationship with the one I’m asking the favor from!

Today’s Gospel [Luke 11:1-13] challenges to ask ourselves about our relationship with God. Is he a Father who can be counted on to give us that fish or that egg he knows we need even better that we may know it? A Father, who will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

In inviting us to call his Father our Father, Jesus enables us to enter into a special relationship with God similar to his own – sufficiently similar that we can confidently pray to God as frankly and freely as Abraham did and as Jesus still does. In the process, we may become more like Abraham and ultimately more like Jesus, who by becoming a blessing for us enables us to join our prayer to his and so become a blessing for all the peoples and nations of the world.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Saint Anne, Walnut Creel, CA, July 24, 2016.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump's Convention

Political Conventions tend to be somewhat rowdy and hyperbolic in their rhetoric. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, when convention speakers try to whip up enthusiasm by discrediting the leader of the other party. Sometimes the VP candidate does that as well. (Hubert Humphrey's magnificent "But not Senator Goldwater" acceptance speech in 1964 comes to mind.) But the presidential candidate usually leaves that to others and focuses more on a positive message. So what the relentless maligning of Hillary Clinton at this convention - including even in Donald Trump's acceptance speech itself - highlighted was how little positive there was to bind the party together. Hence, the reliance on malignant negativity.

But the convention went well beyond ordinary negativity. As one right-wing pundit acknowledged in The Washington Post, the attempt to criminalize the opposition - especially the unprecedented and the malicious "lock her up" language - were more befitting a "banana republic" than the United States or any democratic constitutional state..Criminalizing the opposition and putting them in jail is what we expect from the likes of Vladimir Putin. It is not what is supposed to happen in America. But, of course, this has been a tried and true technique used by Republicans against the Clintons, notably used by the infamous Ken Starr in his unwarranted - and unsuccessful - impeachment effort in the1990s. While Ken Starr failed in his persecution of the Clintons, he succeeded in further deteriorating the character of our politicis and the civility of our society.

Particularly striking is how this effort at partisan de-legitimizing has spread to other traditionally respected institutions. When Trump's campaign manager was challenged by a commentator who cited FBI statistics that the crime rate has been declining not increasing, the response he got was that the FBI is less trustworthy because the FBI Director (a Republican, by the way) was unwilling to propose prosecuting Hillary Clinton.Trying to de-legitimize even the FBI for purely partisan reasons reflects an even more radical breakdown in our common consensus and respect for our treasured national institutions.

But most of what happens at conventions is inside the Beltway sort of stuff. It is the nominee's acceptance speech on the final night that likely gets the most attention from ordinary citizens. Whatever has transpired at the convention so far, it is the final night that may make or break a campaign.  

Trump's night got off to a good start. His daughter Ivanka introduced him with a quite serious and substantive speech - one which at times it sounded much more like that of a Democrat advocating gender equality in the workplace than that of a Republican. Then her father took the stage - and spoke for over 70 minutes!

The speech was written and read from a teleprompter, but it still had some of Trump's stream-of-consciousness style. Stranger still, it had little of the uplifting rhetoric we are accustomed to expect on such occasions. Rather, it was largely about how bad everything is in America - and the world. Even if that were true, it would seem like a risky strategy in appealing to an electorate which does not normally respond well to bad news and tends to prefer a more positive message. (Everybody's classic political example of this is, of course, Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in large part by making conservatism seem hopeful rather than despairing. Trump's speech was strangely despairing - a sign perhaps of how very different the time now is and his party now is.) 

What the electorate does always like, however, is magical thinking, of which there was plenty in the speech, which promised to accomplish any number of almost miraculous improvements at home and abroad with no hint of any cost, while at the same time cutting taxes. Still it was the overwhelming negativity of Trump's vision of America that was so striking. Of course, the Republican party is particularly prone to conspiracy thinking. Still, if his audience really believed his dark picture of life in America, it is a wonder they were not terrified to go home last night!

Likewise striking is just what a radical break this speech was (and Trump's candidacy is) from what the Republican party has long been about. One as to assume that many of the long-time Republicans in the audience have been long-time free-traders, who now must obediently change their tune and applaud as their nominee denounces the trade policies which previous Republican presidents and presidential candidates have so strongly supported. Of course, a very good case - or at least a very plausible case - can be made in support of Trump's (and Sanders') position on trade. But that is another issue. What is striking - startling almost - is what a very different Republican party was on display from what previous conventions have showcased. Gone for now - and maybe forever - is the party of Paul Ryan. 

Something similar could be said for Trump's encouragingly positive words in support of LGBT Americans. Those words may have come easily to the cosmopolitan Trump, a New Yorker after all, with what Ted Cruz famously called "New York values." But one has to wonder how easily the applause came for some of the delegates, who nonetheless again obediently fell into line. And, in that whole lengthy address, there was not even one word about abortion. Trump's rhetoric on trade and immigration may remind one of Pat Buchanan, but the decades-old "culture war" seems really to be over - at least as far as Trump is concerned. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Convention Eve

In 1964, the leader of the extreme right wing of the Republican party, Senator Barry Goldwater, won the presidential nomination at that year's Republican convention. He (and his party) lost in a monumental landslide. But, four years later, the country elected a Republican president anyway (albeit a moderate centrist, Richard Nixon). By 1980 the right wing had both regained control of the party and put one of its own in the White House. Soon the moderate centrists were gone, and the Republican party was a much more ideologically right-wing institution.

The Democrats went through something similar over the same period. In 1972, the leader of the party's left wing, Senator George McGovern, won the presidential nomination andthen lost in a monumental landslide. The next two Democratic presidents (Carter and Clinton) represented the more moderate centrist wings of the party. But the trend was inexorable, and soon most of the moderate centrists were also gone, and the Democratic party has become a much more ideologically coherent left-wing institution than it had ever been before.

Conventions don't matter as much (in terms of securing the nomination) as they did in 1964 or 1972. But they still serve as symbolic turning points in a party's identity. For decades, the Republican party's ideology has been about increasing the wealth of the already rich, top sliver of the population. But, to appeal to a sufficiently broader constituency to win elections, it has moved in a rightward direction on a host of social-cultural issues. This began with Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, positioning the (Republican) party of Lincoln to trade places with the (Democratic) party of the Old Confederacy as the vehicle for white racial politics. That appeal became more explicit with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" (more an electoral than governing strategy, since Nixon for the most part governed moderately). As the country has become more polarized, the process has accelerated. The Republican elite has doubled down on its tax-cuts-for-the-rich ideology, while continuing to address non-rich voters with social and cultural - racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic - appeals. The elite tail kept wagging the populist dog until Donald Trump unexpectedly administered a monumental defeat to the establishment in this year's primary process, a turning point in the party's history which will be ratified formally at the Cleveland Convention this week. An establishment which had long winked at its base's de-legitimizing of the country's first non-white president has now been largely de-legitimized itself.

Political predictions are a risky enterprise. Human factors will always interfere with political science models. Still it seems reasonable to suppose that, if Trump wins the presidency, the Republican party will no longer predominantly present its elite, neo-liberal, economic conservative face to the world and will become more of a white nationalist party, similar in some respects to some contemporary European versions. If Trump loses the election, there will be more of an opportunity for the establishment to fight to regain control of the party from its more populist base. But, if the lessons of 1964 and 1972 hold, the transformation wrought this year by the party's grass roots may prove inexorable and irrevocable. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic party has also been going through its own internal identity conflicts, all of which would have been much bigger news this year had it not been for the Trump phenomenon among the Republicans. The Democrats are nowhere near so internally divided as the Republicans. They also lack the same extreme allergy to the responsibilities of governance and so have more of a positive program to offer their base. And they have the country's changing demographics largely on their side. So their internal stresses and prospects for fractures are much less explosive. Still, when the dust has settled from this election, the Democrats will likely also continue to struggle among themselves over the soul of their party with by no means easily predictable results.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Oh for the good old days (not that long ago actually) when the choice of the vice-presidential candidate was a hasty decision arrived at usually on the last day of the party's convention! The first one I can remember well was JFK's somewhat surprising choice of LBJ the night Kennedy was actually nominated. While Kennedy had arrived in Los Angeles as the frontrunner, it wasn't until the actual roll call of the states that he secured the nomination for certain. That night, after the roll call and Kennedy's unprecedented visit to the convention, he and his advisers settled on the choice of running mate. It was a surprise to many at the time and was controversial among some more liberal elements in the party (who had already had to swallow Kennedy for president, a less liberal candidate than some others), In retrospect, of course, it was an obvious choice and was probably crucial to Kennedy's winning the election - one of the few times the VP candidate really made that much of a difference.

Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson used the choice of his running mate to create the only real suspense at the Atlantic City convention. He too made an impromptu appearance the night of the roll call to announce his choice of Hubert Humphrey, who was duly nominated the next day. 

Then there was the catastrophic 1972 convention, After McGovern had successfully won the nomination, he selected Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. but that was the year the left wing of the party had completely taken over the convention, and so the country was treated to a shamefully narcissistic spectacle of delegates nominating all sorts of frivolous VP candidates just to make their point, with the result that by the time Mcgovern got to make his acceptance speech it was the middle of the night and much of his audience had already gone to bed. I was at a party that night at which we were supposed to have steak at the moment Mcgovern stepped up to the rostrum. We stuck to the schedule, even though that meant having the main course much later int he night than anyone had anticipated!

It was Ronald Reagan who created the new custom of announcing a running mate before the convention, when he did so in 1976 in an unsuccessful attempt to help his candidacy against incumbent President Ford. Since then, however, as the nomination has increasingly been secured somewhat well before the convention, candidates have added excitement to the runup to the convention by making a big show out of introducing their candidates in advance.

Of course, it is a good thing if candidates take more time than they used to in making this choice. In the last 100 years, three vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency on the death of the president. (A fourth, Gerald Ford, likewise succeeded when Nixon resigned, but Ford had not been nominated at a convention or elected as a running mate.) All too often, however, the VP choice has become yet another media-driven circus. Some running mates of excellent quality have been picked in recent elections (e.g., Al Gore, Joe Biden) but the increased interest in the VP spot has also resulted in disastrous choices designed mainly to make a media splash most obviously McCain's choice of Sarah Palin in 2008.

It is unlikely that either candidate's choice of running mate will swing this election, an election in which the electorate already has strong impression of and opinions about the candidates at the top of the ticket. So the media-generated interest in the selection is largely that - a media phenomenon. It sounded downright comic to me yesterday when the news switched from the UK's getting a new prime minister to the gossip about Trump's and Clinton's possible running mates - as if the two were comparable choices.

Historically, most candidates might have done just as well or better without a running mate. The whole process is a reminder of what a peculiar contrivance the office of Vice President really is in our system - something the very first holder of that office, John Adams, so very famously noted when he complained to his wife Abigail, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Emperor Saint

Today, on the anniversary of his death, the Church commemorates Emperor Saint Henry II (973-1024), of whom the Church's prayer says that he was raised in a wonderful way from the cares of earthly rule to heavenly realms. Henry was a member of the Bavarian branch of the Ottonian dynasty, the family that held the Holy Roman imperial crown beginning with Emperor Otto I in 962. As a boy, Henry received a strongly religious education. He succeeded his father of Duke of Bavaria in 1995. He got himself crowned German king (Rex Romanorum) in 1002 and king of Italy in 1004. He supported Pope Benedict VIII in his conflict with an anti-pope and so was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Saint Peter's on February 14, 1014. 

Henry was successful not only in consolidating his own position but in centralizing authority in the Empire. But, unlike the empire's contemporary reincarnation in the form of the European Union, he built much of that authority on his personal and political relationship with the Church. He is said to have commanded the Abbot of Verdun to accept him as a monk in his monastery, whereupon, so the story goes, the Abbot then commanded him as an obedient monk to continue ruling his empire. (A Benedictine Oblate in life, Henry became the patron saint of Oblates.) His queen-empress, Cunegunde of Luxembourg, was also very devout and after Henry's death retired to a monastery Henry had founded. Henry was canonized by Pope Eugenius III in 1147, and Cunegunde was canonized by Pope Innocent III in 1200. So they are among the handful of the Church's canonized couples.

In addition to serving as a model of a statesman who was also pious and devoted to the Church, Henry might well serve as a patron of a type of European integration that was rooted in Europe's Christian soul - a soul that it seems has been sold off in modern Europe.