Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Saint Martha

Saint Martha, whom the Church's calendar commemorates today, engaged Jesus in one of his most famous dialogues, first reprimanding him for showing up late for her brother's funeral, then eliciting from him the powerful proclamation, I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. In response to that, Martha made her great profession of faith, for which she is so especially honored and remembered today: Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

For centuries the standard Gospel reading at most Catholic funerals, this account (John 11:19-27) has solidified Martha's status not only as one of Jesus' intimate friends, but as a disciple and an evangelizer.  Yet, for most people perhaps, the Martha story which has had the deepest impact upon her reputation is the account of one of Jesus' other visits to her home, at which she provided hospitality for him and his disciples but also remonstrated with him about her sister Mary's not helping out with the household chores (Luke 10:38-42). In John's account of Jesus' dining in Bethany at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 12:1-11), while there is no suggestion of any complaint on Martha's part, again it is Martha who does the serving, while Mary steals the spotlight by anointing Jesus' feet with expensive perfumed oil.

If anything, the very obvious ordinariness of the situation and the ease with which we can all identify with one sister or other in Luke's story has guaranteed its popularity. It has also, unfortunately, allowed a certain trivialization - as, for example, the way we used to stereotype one another in seminary as either a Martha or a Mary, the religious analogue perhaps to the traditional categorization of congressmen as either "workhorses" or "showhorses."

Ours is a society in which we define ourselves for the most part by our work. Of course, our society honors and rewards wealth much more than work, and there is no connection between work and wealth. But, after wealth, we seem to place the greatest value on our work. For the vast majority, it is work which provides whatever degree of respect our society allows to the non-wealthy. And, inasmuch as work has always been necessary for most people, I think Martha's complaint about her sister must have resonated with most people as just commonsense. Of course, there is more to life than work, but the work has to get done! 

I'm sure Jesus and his disciples wanted their dinner! So I think they valued Martha's efforts to be hospitable. (Certainly, the Church has seen Saint Martha a model of service, a sentiment evident in today's Collect. And it is no accident that the Vatican hotel - where the Pope presently lives - is named for her, Domus Santae Marthae.) Of course, Jesus' response to Martha's complaint can be heard primarily as praise of Mary for choosing the better part (and has been so employed for centuries to prioritize contemplative over active religious life), but at the same time I think that Jesus was not criticizing Martha so much as offering her some helpful advice about her priorities: Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things

Again, Jesus' point wasn't exactly that there is nothing to be anxious and worried about, but that the solution to our anxieties and worries is not in intensified focus on ourselves (what we do when we get anxious and worried, but rather a redirected focus on him - just as later on, at Lazarus' tomb, Jesus would refocus Martha's attention away from her frustrations about the schedule and onto him as the resurrection and the life

Monday, July 28, 2014


Today, July 28, marks the 100th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, the official beginning of the First World War. From his Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl, Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary Franz Josef I signed the momentous decree, the tragic consequences of which for his own empire he happily did not live to see. The immediate trigger had been the assassination, one month before of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian terrorist; but, within a week, the war would engulf Europe's major powers. The fact that Austria-Hungary no longer even exists as such is but one testimony to the total transformation of Europe that that unfortunate war would bring about.

Wars can accomplish all sorts of things and solve all sorts of problems (for example, slavery and secession in the case of the U.S. Civil War, German and Japanese imperialism in the case of World War II, Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait in the case of the 1st Gulf War), problems that probably would not get solved any other way. What stands out so appallingly about World War I, however, was how little it solved and how much long-term harm it did - much more harm than any conceivable good. Of course, the small Balkan War that began on July 28, 1914, was intended to resolve the (relatively) serious problem of Serbian-inspired terrorism and its long-term threat to the stability of Austria-Hungary. And, had it remained a small Balkan War, it might perhaps have accomplished that end. (There had, after all, been small Balkan Wars in previous years. So it was not impossible to imagine another.) But, of course, the thing about World War I was how it immediately involved the major powers and quickly became about much more than a serious but presumptively manageable Austrian-Serbian quarrel. Instead, it became something no one on either side had expected and no one had wanted, but which created a momentum all its own which no one on either side seemed to now how to stop.

The lesson is not - as some sentimentally (and very foolishly) resolved in the 1920s "never again to war for king and country." But there were lessons to be learned from the civilizational suicide that was World War I - lessons that we still find it hard to assimilate adequately into our strategic thinking. If nothing else, World War I was a warning about how badly (and how quickly) things can get out of hand, how the assumptions everyone takes for granted at the beginning of a conflict may have little to do with how things actually turn out - and how hard it is for nations to backtrack, to climb back up from the brink once they have jumped over it. 

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.