Wednesday, July 23, 2014


There is nothing new about religious persecution. It has been one of the constants of human history. And there is certainly nothing new about Muslim persecution of Christians. After all, Islam and Christianity have been in conflict off and on for much of our common history - especially since the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land from the Christian Byzantine Empire, which in turn inspired the Christian West to defend itself with the Crusades. As with all ongoing ethnic and religious conflicts, there have also been periods of calm, even cooperation. Then, after the Battle of Vienna on September 12, 1683, repulsed the Turks and saved Western Europe one final time from Turkish invasion, the Ottoman Empire went into a period of protracted but terminal decline, culminating in its dissolution after World War I (followed by secularist Turkey's formal abolition of the Caliphate in 1924). For much of the three centuries between the Battle of Vienna and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it was perhaps possible to imagine that the historic conflict between Islamic and Western civilizations was a thing of the past. Since then however, what was once the old normal seems to have reasserted itself as the new normal!

All of this has highlighted the prophetic relevance of  the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's theory that religious and cultural identities would be a major component of international post-Cold War world conflict. In 1992 and 1993, Huntington famously proposed the theme of a "clash of civilizations" as a rebuttal of Francis Fukuyama's post-Cold War "end of history" theory. He then developed it more fully in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had produced a lot of pro-democracy, neo-liberal, capitalist wishful thinking among intellectuals, who were, of course, already often imprisoned in the straightjacket of secularization theory - and thus ill-prepared and ideologically ill-disposed to accept Huntington's thesis. Huntington may not have been right in all the particulars, but he did discern an important directional change in international relations.

In any event, an Islamic religious revival has obviously been underway for sometime. It was, if anything, exacerbated by the American-led destruction of Saddam Hussein's brutal but secularist regime in Iraq. It is into that particular power vacuum that ISIS has stepped, claiming to recreate the caliphate after conquering Mosul, the site of ancient Niniveh and home to a continuous Christian community presence since ancient times. That ancient Christian community has now been driven out after Christian homes were marked with the Arabic letter "Nun," for "Nazarene" (a pejorative term for Christian). The secular West may feign indifference, but the persecution of Christians in Mosul and elsewhere is the real deal. There can now be little ambiguity about the direction of contemporary history.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What To Do About Russia?

One hundred years ago, a Serbian terrorist assassinated an Austrian Archduke and his morganatic wife. Within a month, Austrian military action attempted to hold Serbia accountable. Unfortunately, by the beginning of August, Balkan terrorism and Austria's response had plunged most of Europe into an inferno of war which would last for another four years. Nothing good came form World War I, but a whole lot of bad did - including Communism, Naziism, Fascism, World War II, and the Cold War. It was the latter experiences (especially World War II) that seem to have taught European societies to eschew their national identities and abandon their sovereignty, with further harmful consequences such as we are witnessing now.

Fast forward one hundred years. This time it wasn't an Archduke and his wife but hundreds of air travelers killed by terrorists.This time, however, Europe seems almost mute. Even the Netherlands, the nation to suffer the most casualties, seems strangely passive. An Op-Ed in today's New York Times (Arnon Grunberg, "The problem with Collective Grief") defends Dutch reticence - lest national mourning and outrage result in an expression of "nationalism."
Talk about learning the wrong lesson from the 20th century's house of horrors!

Of course, Europe's self-abnegation has been a long time in the making. In its origin, already during the Cold War, it was facilitated by the protective umbrella of American military might. As long as the U.S. could be counted on to counter any Soviet threat to Western Europe, Western Europe could concentrate on going shopping. On paper, those European nations remain our "allies." But they are saddled with increasingly neo-pacifist populations, an increasingly dysfunctional post-modern mentality of moral equivalence, and leadership ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of evil in the world.

To make matters worse, the U.S. is becoming more like Europe - in its own culturally unique way, of course, reverting to a revived isolationism, once thought to be discredited but (like Camus' plague germs) always still there somewhere waiting to revive.The President's domestic political opponents - themselves utterly bereft of even a shred of moral or political credibility in these matters - blame the President's unimpressive leadership for the world-wide perception of American weakness. And certainly his unimpressive performance a year ago when he threatened Syria over its chemical weapons and then unceremoniously backed down did not do much for American credibility. But, of course, the fact remains that the President was reflecting the change in American public opinion that has become as allergic to the responsibilities of global leadership as Europeans have become to their own legitimate nationalism.

Meanwhile, Russia resumes its troublesome role in the world. Ever since Moscow first emerged as a European power in the 17th century, its ambitions have proved problematic for Europe. The Soviet Union's 20th-century Communist ideology was an add-on, which is now mercifully for all of us consigned to the dust heap of history. But Russia and its imperial ambitions are, now as then, an indelible part of the European picture (and Asian picture and world picture).  Surface-to-Air Missiles may be new, but the configuration of world power is not. When it comes to maintaining a safe international balance of power, the world has changed less than we, for whatever reason, seem to want to imagine. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014


This summer, we are making our way, week-by-week, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, which he wrote around the year 58 or so of the 1st century. It’s the longest and most studied of all Saint Paul’s letters. My first extended personal encounter with it, however, occurred some 40 years ago not from study but in a Peanuts cartoon. As I recall, Charlie Brown was moaning and groaning in his characteristic way, until finally someone said to him, “Stop sighing,” to which he responded, “It’s scriptural,” and then proceeded to cite Saint Paul’s words from the short passage we just heard today – in the more elegant, more traditional translation, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness, with sighs too deep for words.

Well, of course, there really is a lot to sigh about. Just tune into to CNN, even in more ordinary weeks when commercial planes haven't been shot out of the air by terrorists. Indeed, the background for the 2 verses we just heard could be called “the problem of the present,” that is, the tension between, on the one hand, the obvious reality of the present time, the sense of overwhelming futility that seems to characterize the world, and, on the other, our hope as children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We have, Saint Paul insists, been offered an alternative, already in the present - the revelation of the children of God, empowering us to receive the word of the kingdom and so bear fruit (what Saint Paul calls the first fruits of the Spirit) by responding to its stirring call to a total reorientation of our lives.

Even so, we remain burdened by what we have made of ourselves and our world. Left on our own, we would stay stuck there. Prayer, Paul seems to be suggesting, is our entrĂ©e to a different future – a future better and brighter than the present but already accessible to us now, thanks only to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us, filling us, surrounding us, transforming us.

Similarly, the parables Jesus proposes in today’s Gospel all illustrate the slow – but inexorable – progress of God’s kingdom, transforming our pathetic present into God’s glorious future. God sows his good seed in the field of the world and patiently waits until the harvest before separating the wheat from the weeds. The weeds are very real and must be recognized and dealt with eventually. But God’s judgment is patient with the world – for our sake. Because, of course, God is not at all like us! As we just heard in the book of Wisdom, God’s mastery over all things makes him lenient to all. He governs us with much lenience, thus giving us good ground for hope that he would permit our repentance.

God is not at all like us! In our frustratingly futile present, we lack patience – with God, with ourselves, with one another, with our world. But, again, God is not like us! Like the yeast which, when mixed with flour, leavens the whole batch, God is patiently filling, surrounding, and transforming our world with the presence and power of his Holy Spirit.

As the first fruits of the Spirit, we – the Church, Christ’s witnesses in the world – reflect the Holy Spirit’s leavening presence and power at work.  We are not quite there yet, of course, as the parable of the field so dramatically demonstrates. Wheat and weeds coexist in the Church – as they do in each one of us individually.

With the presence and power of the Holy Spirit acting upon us and within us, we are being aided to trust God’s process and make good use of the opportunity his patience provides us.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, July 20, 2014.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dystopian Depair: The Book

Vacation time is, among other things, a great time to read more. My vacation reading this summer has included some serious public policy stuff (Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices) and the latest Susanna Gregory "Matthew Bartholomew" medieval mystery (Death of a Scholar). And, thanks to the HBO series The Leftovers, I have included the book by that name on which the series is based as my in-flight Kindle reading.

Unlike, say, P,D. James' Children of Men, which I had read and enjoyed long before seeing the movie version, my guess is that I probably might never have read The Leftovers had my interest not been sparked by the TV show. As dystopias go, other than the bizarre premise (the sudden rapture-like disappearance of 2% of the world's population), The Leftovers does not challenge the imagination very much. Rather it uncovers the increasingly obvious fissures and dysfunctions that are very much a part of our ordinary world. Indeed, what makes it interesting is how it uses an unprecedented crisis not to bring out the good or the best in people but to highlight the sadness of so much of ordinary life, the apparent despair that seems so many modern people's daily lot..

It is always interesting, however, to compare a book with its on-screen adaptations. So far, I've only seen three episodes of the TV series. So an overall comparison is not yet possible. But some differences do stand out. For one thing, TV's Police Chief Kevin Garvey is in the book an ordinary business man and the towns's recently elected mayor (although that seems to make him less of a really public figure than his TV role makes him). Made-for-TV characters like Lucy, the town's foul-mouthed mayor, and Kevin Senior, the institutionalized former Chief, are completely absent from the book. (Of course, almost everyone is more foul-mouthed in the series than in the book. HBO seems to revel - in an almost adolescent way - in being able to say what cannot be said on regular commercial networks, so much so that increasingly characters seem like vulgar caricatures who sound less and less like most actually recognizable ordinary people.)

Sadly, in the book, Rev. Jamison is a very minor, peripheral figure, publishing his obnoxious newsletter attacking the memory of the departed, but otherwise absent from the story's action. He gets none of the positive and more complex character development he got in the 3rd episode of the TV series. And, overall, the story is easier to follow in its print version. It is much clearer much earlier who is doing what and why (to the extent there can ever be an answer to why people behave in such socially destructive and personally dysfunctional ways).

Reading the book part-way through the TV series might seem to spoil it. After all, I now know how it all turns out. At least, I now know how the people the book turn out. (Spoiler alert: lots of unhappiness!) It remains to be seen still what twists and turns the TV characters' stories will take. My guess is that in the TV version, as in the book, everyone gets to be sad and unhappy in his or her own way!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Optics of Despair

For a couple of weeks now, I have held off commenting on HBO's new TV drama series, The Leftovers (based on the novel of that name by Tom Perrotta, who is also one of the creators of the TV series). I have done so largely because I really haven't been sure yet what to make of it. I found the first episode difficult to follow. Other than the fact that 2% of the world's population had suddenly disappeared all on one October 14 three years earlier, there seemed to be an awful lot of background that was deliberately left unclear, that made it hard to follow the characters' situations in the first episode. Some of that backstory gets clearer in the second and third episodes, although many of the characters and their behavior remain still somewhat mysterious.

The story revolves around those left behind ("the leftovers") after a rapture-like event suddenly and inexplicably removes 2% of the world's population - including a random mix of townspeople in Mapleton, NY, where the show is set. (While rapture-like, the "departure" does not seem to correspond to or even resemble the classical concept of "rapture," since those who have "departed" were neither all particularly good nor all particularly bad. So far at least there is no plausible reason for their selection, if selection it was. The sheer randomness and seeming pointlessness of it all adds to the show's distinctive ambience.) 

The principal character (played quite convincingly by Justin Theroux) is Kevin Garvey, the local Chief of Police, who is struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in this abnormal and very depressed world. An aura of great sadness sits over the town and pervades the personal lives and relationships of virtually all of the characters, including Garvey and his family. The sadness is easy to comprehend, as is some of the bizarre behavior that ensues. While none of Garvey's immediate family disappeared on October 14, his life and family seem to have been completely destroyed by the event. His father (the former police chief) is institutionalized for apparent mental illness (presumably connected with the "departure"). His wife has abandoned him to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, who wear white, don't speak, chain smoke, and stalk other citizens of the town. (How this cult came to be has not yet been clarified, nor have we been given much insight into why she, who did not lose loved ones on October 14, decided to abandon her family to join the cult.) Kevin's son has dropped out of college and is out west somewhere involved with a weird and dangerous guru-like figure, "Holy Wayne." Kevin's high school daughter in still at home and is involved in ostensibly normal high school-ish misbehavior, which means she behaves in predictably dysfunctional ways, which seem that much more so given the overall atmosphere of despair.

Despair is the word I guess that comes most to my mind as I try to describe the characters and their lives and behavior. It reminds me a bit of P.D. James' 1992 dystopian novel The Children of Men (later made into a movie) about a world with no future, in which the human race has become sterile and stopped reproducing. That has not literally happened in The Leftovers. People presumably can still reproduce, but the past they have lost seems to have burdened their present so much that the future seems beyond any aspiration.

Last night's third episode develops the enigmatic character of Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), the local episcopal priest. In the first two episodes, he appears peripherally as something of jerk, whose main mission in life seems to be to publicize the faults and failings of the "departed." Such behavior predictably makes him unpopular and gets him into trouble. Thus, this episode begins with him being assaulted during a church service by someone who has taken offense at what he has been publishing about one of the "departed." But Rev. Matt has more troubles - personal and institutional - thanks to October 14. His wife, we discover, was injured that day and is unable to move or speak and is completely dependent on him for her care. His delicately portrayed loving care for and attention to his wife suddenly seem to make him a somewhat more attractive character. Likewise an earlier scene when a former member of his church secretly comes seeking baptism for his baby offers one of the few glimmers of hope so far in the story. Brief, but beautifully portrayed, the baptism scene seems so unexpectedly uplifting. The effect is fleetingly brief, however. Meanwhile, Matt's congregation has dwindled, and the church building itself is about to be foreclosed by the bank and sold. Much of the episode is the story of his bizarre (and almost successful) effort to save his church. The fact that in the end he fails (having come so close) is, I suppose, a parable about how really bad and depressing life and the world have become. As with the many other dysfunctions in the townspeople's lives, October 14 seems to have intensified the sorrows of ordinary life - from teen misbehavior to family breakdown to catastrophic accidents to the decline of religion. October 14 may have hastened the demise of his parish, but, as with so many other things in the story, it seems mainly to have highlighted significant secular trends that are already happening. (Perhaps that is the significance of Matt's crusade to expose the truth about the less than virtuous lives of so many of the "departed.")

Chief Garvey makes only one appearance in this episode. He remains the show's most attractive character, as is his seemingly quixotic effort to make his world work for him again. So far, the impression seems to be that the effort is hopeless.