Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The End of the 20th Century

Modern dictators seem increasingly blessed with longevity. Fidel Castro (1926-2016) was apparently no exception. Cuba's dictator, who turned his little Caribbean island country into a colony of the Soviet Union and then managed to hold on to absolute power even after the Soviet Union's well deserved demise, died finally at the ripe old age of 90. He had been ill and retired from government for much of the last decade. So his death seems somewhat anti-climactic - the opposite of the world-historical significance his death might have had 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Still his departure does signify something, for he was the last example of a distinctly 20th-century species of dictator - the ideologue-prophet of secular utopianism.

The 20th century did not invent brutal dictators, nor will the 21st century eliminate them. But the 20th century did give us a distinctive type of totalitarianism rooted in powerful, prophetic ideologies of secular utopianism. There was the short-lived horror of Hitler's National Socialism, which provoked a world war, which was its undoing, when the Allies unconditionally defeated Germany in 1945. And there was the considerably longer lasting horror called Communism, which in varying versions came to power in Russia 99 years ago in 1917 and in China in 1949 and in various satellites and surrogates of those two terrible tyrannies. Castro's Cuba was both a Soviet satellite - dependent upon the Society Union for its utopian fantasies and to pay its bills, - and also a surrogate spreading the menace of violent Marxist-oriented revolution in both Latin America and Africa..

Apart from the brief (and somewhat improvisational) experiment of the revolutionary France in the last decade of the 18th century, only the 20th century has as yet ever produced such serious efforts to re-imagine and remodel human nature and totally transform human society along secular utopian lines - with predictably disastrous results. 

Those disastrous results were evident early on. Revolutionary Emma Goldman recognized that about the Russian Revolution in her written account. (In the movie Reds, she is portrayed as telling John Reed, "It doesn't work.") Even so, such secular utopian ideologies flourished in certain intellectual circles throughout the 20th century as a quasi-religious, secular faith in an alternative future - despite all evidence to the contrary in the poor present.

Now that is all largely gone. People who might have embraced variations on the Marxist trope a generation ago are left floundering for a suitable substitute of comparably compelling imaginative appeal. Class conflict continues, of course, but doesn't inspire the way it used to. Instead the conflicts that most obviously - and dangerously - divide the world today are more traditional ones. They are age-old religious conflicts and traditional rivalries among nations and states in competition for relative advantage. The savage 20th century really is over.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Why the Quarrel About the Popular Vote?

As if the now finally finished presidential campaign, the ensuing election, and its bewildering aftermath have not been weird enough, we now have President-Elect Trump's strangely surreal claim that millions of voters voted illegally and that, if you subtract their votes, Trump really won the popular vote! What on earth is this about?

Surely only the most kool-aid consuming true believers really believe in the myth of "voter fraud" that some have been peddling in recent years. Even counting the one case everyone by now knows about of the voter caught trying to vote twice for Trump, surely such instances of "voter fraud" are rare. The idea that there could have been more than 2 million illegal votes cast (the number needed to switch the popular vote in Trump's favor) is mind-boggling, to say the least!

On December 19, 306 duly elected Electors will cast their votes for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and another 232 will cast their votes for Hillary Clinton and Tim Keane. Possibly a "faithless elector" or two will cast their votes for someone other than their party's officially nominated candidates. (Prior to the election at least one Democratic Elector from Washington State had made noises about refusing to vote for Clinton, no matter what.) We'll find out when the electoral votes are counted by Congress and the tally officially announced by Vice President Biden in January. But, barring some apocalyptic scenario, does anyone seriously doubt the ultimate outcome and whose name Biden will announce as the next President? Surely President-Elect Trump has a sufficient grasp of reality and is secure enough in his victory to realize that he will win this election and will be inaugurated President of the United States on January 20!

So what is the point? Of course, as Jill Stein's current recount antics suggest, the ultimate outcome need not be a motive for someone to make surreal claims about voting irregularities.

Like most people - but perhaps with a greater intensity than most of us - Donald Trump wants to be liked. So maybe he really just wants to be able plausibly to pretend that he was the majority's choice for president. Perhaps. But, eve if that be so, I think more is involved.

Given the deep divisions in our society and the way the nation is almost evenly split, contemporary presidential elections are seldom landslides and rarely reflect any sort of "mandate." Yet, amazingly, from Kellyanne Conway to Paul Ryan there has been no lack of Republicans who have labelled Trump's win a "mandate." Congressman Darrell Issa has even compared Trump's mandate to that of Theodore Roosevelt! And all sorts of right-wing pundit-types have sought to highlight how decisively the country has rejected the Democratic agenda. 

Actually what the 2016 election has highlighted is the extent to which two competing cultures are at war within America. This is not the old "culture war" of Pat Buchanan and the Religious Right. That "culture war" has largely spent itself. And we all know which side has won. But there is a wider "culture war" between the coastal, cosmopolitan, well educated "winners" and those others whom free trade, globalization, and identity politics have largely left behind. And, as befits such a fundamental life-style conflict, it is important not just to win power but in some sense to vanquish the other side. Had Hillary Clinton won, we would undoubtedly be hearing a lot about the Democrats' demographic destiny and how they are on "the right side of history." So, perhaps, it is not surprising that the actual winners want to portray the result as more than just the acquisition of power but also a true ideological and cultural triumph.

What gets in the way of that claim, of course, is the inconvenient fact that more voters - some 2 million more - voted for Clinton over Trump. Yes, Trump won the election and will soon be inaugurated as the legitimate 45th American President. But neither he nor his adopted party (his adopted party even less than he) has been given any real "mandate." Power yes, but a moral "mandate" no.

We remain a deeply divided nation, a deeply polarized people. Perhaps Trump (who, whatever else may be said of him is certainly no Republican ideologue) can overcome some of that, a truly worth accomplishment for him to aspire to. Time will tell. But surely a prerequisite for overcoming our divisions and our polarization must be to acknowledge it and its sources. Pretending to have attained a fake "mandate" may make some sort of sense in a post-factual world of fake news. But it will not overcome our divisions or advance the national unity we would actually need to "Make American Great Again

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Preparing Now

A friend of mine says that one of the surest signs of getting older is that the holidays seem to come quicker every year. But, since this has always been my favorite time of the year, that’s one part of aging I can’t complain about!

Inevitably, with our uniquely American Thanksgiving Day just barely behind us, it is Advent again. And, of course, the way we live today, when Advent arrives we are already immersed in our annual, year-end Christmas orgy of Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, Christmas cards, Christmas shopping! Advent, with its penitential purple vestments, seems much too restrained amid all this holiday exuberance. Our modern holiday season is an exciting, extravagant, celebration of ourselves. In comparison to that, Advent just doesn’t seem to fit.

So perhaps the first thing we have to say about Advent is that it is not in competition with Christmas. Actually, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.

In the Church’s calendar, these final weeks of the year, beginning with All Saints Day on November 1 and continuing with Christ the King into Advent, invite us to focus on the coming of God’s kingdom. The proximity of Christmas meanwhile invites us to remember Christ’s first coming, which we will soon commemorate and which we are already anticipating in all our pre-Christmas celebrations. That first coming of Christ challenges us to recognize and respond to Christ’s presence and action among us here and now, which in turn prepares us for Christ’s promised return – Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent is thus really a sort of symbol for the entire Christian life, lived (as it inevitably must be) in the present - between the first coming of Christ and his hoped-for final advent. As Christians, we live our lives literally in this interval between Christmas and the end. And that is what Advent is all about.

So Advent is not in competition with Christmas. As I said earlier, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.

Jesus’ warning words to his disciples in today’s Gospel and Paul’s parallel challenge to the Christians in Rome both reflect this fundamental fact about the Christian life here and now. The point is not when Jesus will come but recognizing his coming – not as something to be put off to some far off future, but as our present preoccupation. The future will indeed come – at its own time and on its own terms – but our task is the present, which is what, in fact, will determine who we will be in the future.

As Saint John Paul II once said, “the whole of our life must be an ‘advent,’ a vigilant awaiting of the final coming of Christ. To predispose our mind to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, one day will come to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize him as present in the events of daily life.”

Surely that would be a challenge at any time in history. Surely it must seem so today coming at the end of a truly turbulent year in our national life, characterized by a bitterly fought, angry, and divisive national election, that has revealed a country almost evenly divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, while anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world.

Advent acknowledges our anxiety as part and parcel of the human condition and challenges us to get over it. Symbolically, Advent addresses this through its use of the seasonal imagery of darkness and light that defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Folkloric customs like Advent wreaths with their evergreens and candles all attempt to exploit that. And, symbolically-oriented beings that we are, we readily respond to such imagery.

But we must be careful. Advent uses seasonal symbolism to make a point, but Advent is more than some sort of seasonal pageant, the sort of seasonal pageant our secular society has largely turned Christmas into.

The Christian life, on the other hand, is not a season, nor is it a play. The world really was in darkness before Christ – the darkness of alienation from God. But unlike natural darkness the world’s alienation from God is not some abstract natural force.

In fact, we are the ones who have contributed – and continue to contribute - to this world’s darkness. For this reason, Advent was long considered a penitential season. For this reason, Pope Innocent III prescribed black as the liturgical color for Advent - although purple eventually beat black to become the season’s official color. Conveniently, purple simultaneously symbolizes both royalty (Christ the King coming in glory) and repentance.

The penance appropriate to Advent is, of course, to follow Saint Paul’s call to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That means I need to ask myself, exactly what is it that keeps me in darkness? Why isn’t the light of Christ shining forth from me and through me to light up the world around me? Living as we do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to mean what we say - to be attentive to what is happening right now.

At Christ’s final coming, of course, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in this interim time – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist, and are in constant conflict.

But, as our annual rush to start celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier each year suggests, most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so that we can rush right away into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that it is precisely the present that matters. The fact that the present time is limited just makes it all the more precious, makes it matter that much more. So, stay awake, Jesus warns, be prepared – now - because what I do now, the way I live now, the kind of person I am becoming here and now, that is the kind of person I will be when the Lord comes, and so the person I am going to remain for all eternity.

Whatever surprises any of us may be hoping to find under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. (If he hadn’t, none of us would be here at Mass today!) The question is whether his presence in our world today matters enough to make a difference in the way we live and what we care about – whether and how we are making the most of our limited but precious present time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 27, 2016.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Advent - in some ways simultaneously the most serious and most trivialized of all liturgical seasons - starts tonight. 

(Because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, this Advent season will be the longest it can ever be in the Roman Rite - a full four weeks from Sunday, November 27 to Saturday, December 24. This is great for those who really like Advent. But, if you really like Advent, then even better than the Roman Advent is the Ambrosian Advent, which begins always on the Sunday after the feast of Saint Martin of Tours - November 11 - and thus has six Sundays instead of the Roman Rite's four. So in Milan and those other places where the ancient Ambrosian Rite is still followed, Advent already began two weeks ago!)

During his first Advent as Pope, Pope Francis asked Catholics to imagine themselves as Mary. He said, "the Church is like Mary: She is awaiting a birth,"

During Advent, the anthem Alma Redemptoris Mater is said or sung daily at the end of the Church’s Night Prayer (Compline). A popular chant in Norman England, Alma Redemptoris Mater made it into “The Prioress’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s great medieval English poem The Canterbury Tales

It makes an excellent Advent prayer:

Loving mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
Yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel's joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day

Today is THANKSGIVING DAY, our uniquely American national foundational festival, dressed up as an autumnal harvest festival. As everyone knows, our modern celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 17th-century English Pilgrims, who colonized what is now New England. Having survived (with Native American assistance) the rigors of wilderness life, 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native American allies celebrated a successful harvest with a 3-day festival and shared fellowship meals in 1621. Much later, in 1789, recently inaugurated President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., calling on all citizens to place their faith in "the providence of Almighty God." This wonderful American tradition has continued down to the present in this quintessentially American holiday, now celebrated annually on this 4th Thursday in  November.

The American Thanksgiving holiday is also very much about family, which is why more people travel this week than any other in the entire year. I too am away this week, spending the holiday with my family in California. As individuals and families, as religious communities and congregations, and as citizens of this exceptional nation, we all have much to be thankful for, in spite of the many real stresses that seem to be quite literally pulling us apart. However and wherever we are celebrating this special holiday, this day unites us all in one united national community.

Father all-powerful, your gifts of love are countless and your goodness infinite; as we come before you on Thanksgiving Day with gratitude for your kindness, open our hearts to have concern for every man, woman, and child, so that we may share your gifts in loving service.  [Collect, Votive Mass for Thanksgiving Day]

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Proclaim Thanksgiving (3)

On this year's Thanksgiving Eve, I remember so many Thanksgivings past - among them what was surely the most traumatic national Thanksgiving my generation collectively experienced, Thanksgiving 1963, which fell within one week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although he did not live to celebrate that Thanksgiving, Kennedy had already issued that year's Thanksgiving Proclamation. In that third and last of his Thanksgiving proclamations, Kennedy recalled the colonial custom of setting aside times for thanksgiving and referenced both Washington's and Lincoln's first Thanksgiving proclamations.

Comparing the United States in 1963 with the context of those earlier Thanksgivings, Kennedy observed:

as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers--for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings--let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals--and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kennedy concluded:

let us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.

Even more needed now than then!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Proclaim Thanksgiving (2)

After a long lapse, Abraham Lincoln famously - and, as it turned out, permanently - revived the practice of proclaiming a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln did so in the middle of our mid-19th-century Civil War. Eighty years later, it fell to another great wartime president - Franklin D. Roosevelt - to proclaim Thanksgiving (three of them, in fact) during the 20th-century's greatest and most decisive war, World War II. 

Charles Peters once referred to Roosevelt as "spiritual leader of his country, or at least as the most notable exponent of its dominant religious beliefs," who "saw the New Deal as applied Christianity." 

As he did with Winston Churchill at Placentia Bay and later with the whole nation on D-Day, Franklin Roosevelt, acting as America's "Preacher in Chief," naturally and comfortably drew upon the familiar treasures of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Hymnal to tap the religious roots of American society (roots which were then still real enough and familiar enough to be able to be recognized, understood, and appreciated by his audience). Thus, in his 1942 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Roosevelt  reflected upon Psalm 23. And, in his 1944 Thanksgiving Proclamation, he suggested a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas. Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.

What wonderful advice for everyone to follow this Advent season! But it is advice rooted in the fundamental conviction that there are such things as "truths" and that that it is such "truths" - not being "on the right side of history" - that can inspire a country to achieve a common purpose! 

Imagine President Obama - or President Trump - starting to talk like that! 

(Photo: The so-called "Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving," which was his portrayal of "Freedom from Want," one of his famous 1943 images of FDR's "Four Freedoms.)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Proclaim Thanksgiving (1)

As Americans all over the country (myself among them) go on pilgrimage this week to visit family and friends, far and near, for our great and uniquely American Thanksgiving holiday, I have been reading and thinking about some of the more noteworthy presidential Thanksgiving proclamations issued these past 200+ years.

Actually, the very first national Thanksgiving proclamation came from the Second Continental Congress after the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, setting aside Thursday, December 18, 1777, for "Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise." Then, as the War for Independence was coming to an end, Congress proclaimed November 28, 1782, as another Thanksgiving Day. But it was George Washington who began the tradition of occasional presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving in 1789. John Adams and later James Madison followed suit, but then the tradition lapsed completely until revived by Abraham Lincoln during our Civil War. Since Lincoln, it has become an annual tradition, which every president has continued.

In his 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Washington designated Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Quite an agenda! But, notice, not one word about football, or Christmas shopping, or Thanksgiving as the eve of "Black Friday"!

Has "Thanksgiving" changed so much? Or is it we, the nation George Washington 'fathered," who have changed? Changed almost beyond recognition? Changed beyond even the possibility of repair?

(Photo: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first president I have any really serious memories of, carving a Thanksgiving turkey.)

Sunday, November 20, 2016


In case we had forgotten and needed to be reminded, our world is constantly reminding us just what an unpredictable place it is - and how much malice and evil there is in the world. But none of that is new and should not surprise us. 

89 years ago this week, a 36-year old Mexican Jesuit priest, Miguel Augustín Pro, was executed on the orders of Mexico’s President. Educated abroad because of the Mexican revolutionary government’s persecution of the Church, Pro had returned to Mexico, after his ordination in 1926, to serve in the underground Church. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Padre Pro extended his arms in the form of a cross and proclaimed: “¡Viva el Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”)

With those powerful words and his martyrdom, Padre Pro reminded the world that there is a something even greater than worldly human power.

The 1920s were a turbulent time not just in Mexico, but all over, as the world unsuccessfully tried to recover from one world war and was already creating the conditions that would inexorably cause a second one. That was the world in which 2 years earlier, Pope Pius XI had anticipated Padre Pro in an encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which established this feast of Christ the King, which we are celebrating today.

Of course, the image of Christ as king was not some novelty of the 1920s. On the contrary, it is actually quite ancient – reflected, for example, in early Christian depictions of Christ on the cross, dressed in priestly vestments and wearing a crown, as if the cross were his throne, which, indeed, is precisely what today’s Gospel reading seems to suggest.

Coming at the end of a truly turbulent year in our country, characterized by a bitterly fought, angry, and divisive national election, this feast comes as a good reminder that, while politics may be important, it isn’t everything, and that worldly human power has in fact already met its match in a very different kind of King.

Most modern monarchs – like the 10 currently reigning European ones we are most familiar with – have ascended their thrones rather peacefully, usually as a matter of inheritance according to established constitutional rules, ritualized by suitable ceremonies. Once enthroned, a king or queen acts as a kind of social glue that binds a people together and helps create a powerful experience of political unity and community.

For King David, the tribal chieftain who successfully unified Israel around its new capital, Jerusalem, a little over 3000 years ago, the process (reflected in today’s 1st reading) was less predictable – except in retrospect. In retrospect, David the king personified Israel’s new national identity. His royal rule was a sort of earthly manifestation of God’s presence and power, binding separate tribes into one unified nation and creating a unique new national and religious community.

This Sunday celebrates Jesus, David’s descendant, as the ultimate messiah-king, complete with all the religious and symbolic resonance the word “king” conveys – a king, however, who became king, not by shedding his rivals’ blood (as David did), but by shedding his own, making peace (as we have just heard Saint Paul say) by the blood of his cross.

In today’s Gospel, the title “king” is initially applied to Jesus not as an honor but as an insult. The title is just one more mockery aimed at Jesus. Throughout his entire public life, Jesus had been challenged about the nature and the significance of his power. Nobody doubted that he did powerful deeds – driving out demons, healing the sick. The question at issue was always the source of his power and its significance, whether it was a good power or a bad power, a saving power or a threatening power - a question our modern world still seems to be struggling with. On the cross, however, Jesus must have appeared about as powerless as any person can be, a complete loser. Even so, he seems serenely confident in his power as he unlocks the kingdom for one of the two criminals executed with him, thus revealing himself as king of a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom of mercy.

A fitting image on this day when the Church marks the conclusion of an Extraordinary Holy Year focused entirely on God’s mercy – on how we experience it ourselves and how we share it with others.

Mercy, of course, has traditionally been one of the virtues considered particularly proper in a king. It is, as Shakespeare famously said, enthroned in the hearts of kings. Jesus on the cross has gone even further and has revealed that mercy is, in fact, what his kingdom is all about.

The repentant criminal, of course, here represents all of us, whose ultimate hope lies in God’s mercy, as we recognize our need and dependence and accept the crucified Christ as king. All of us must continually make our own the prayerful plea: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Saint Paul speaks powerfully of how we have been delivered – just as the criminal was – from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.

Like earthly monarchs, Christ the King binds his people together and creates a powerful experience of unity and community. What makes this community so uniquely powerful, however, is that the whole point of this kingship is that it be shared – and shared widely. Christ is most completely a king in conferring a share in his own crown on all who seek salvation in the power of his cross and who acknowledge his kingship for all the world to witness – and experience.

Christ’s kingdom of mercy is continually being revealed in the world by means of his Church – all of us who have been anointed to share in his kingship and live as members of his body. So, if I may end by quoting Shakespeare one more time:

We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Homily for Christ the King, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 20, 2016.

Monday, November 14, 2016

After the Election - Whither the Republicans' Three-Legged Stool?

I first encountered the eminent Anglican cleric and theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600), whose view of the origin of government and law drew upon that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, when I studied John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) favorably cited "the judicious Hooker." Locke's references to Hooker have guaranteed that even secular-oriented students of philosophy have at least heard of him. For students of theology, however, Hooker is even more justly famous for his treatment of the sources of authority in the Anglican Church. He identified three - scripture, tradition, and reason - referred to (not by Hooker but by subsequent generations) as Anglicanism's "three-legged stool."

That image of the "three-legged stool" has long seemed an apt one to describe the Republican party - at least up until this most recent election. 

The first leg of the Republicans' "three-legged stool" has hitherto been a commitment to the free-market and limited government. Within that leg of the party, those who label themselves libertarians have been its most extreme wing, but lots of conventional Republicans have identified economically as adherents of the free market and politically as adherents of limited government, without buying into the extreme of libertarian ideology. This leg of the Republican party's stool has largely favored free trade and been open to immigration.

The second leg of the Republicans' "three-legged stool" has been a commitment to a robust foreign policy, in which the United States - as  the primary, if not indispensable, world power - maintains and sustains the international order. From the 1940s through the 1960s, this view represented a bi-partisan consensus in the context of the Cold War and the threat to the United States and the entire international order posed by the Soviet Union. The collapse of that consensus during and after the Vietnam years made the Republican party the more congenial home for this approach to international relations - although it never disappeared from the Democratic coalition. For example, Hillary Clinton came much closer to representing this view than the Republican candidate did this year.  

The third leg of the Republicans' "three-legged stool" has been a commitment to a range of issues generally labelled as "cultural conservatism" - a commitment to roll back or at least arrest the social and cultural changes (especially in regard to human sexuality and the family) that are associated with the 1960s and subsequent movements. While not all cultural conservatives are religious, this leg has been largely associated with the "religious right," a coalition of conservative white Evangelicals and conservative white Catholics.

Of course, the three legs  are not completely complementary and coherent. Both the second and third legs call for an activist government, which in theory is not that compatible with the first leg. Neither the first nor the second leg logically requires any commitment to the other, and neither requires any commitment to the third. Even so, since the "Reagan Revolution" swept the Republicans into power in1980, this "three-legged stool" has been a serviceable image to describe the principal constituencies that have animated the modern Republican party - somewhat in tension with one another, but allied nonetheless at election time. 

In the Obama years, a shared hatred for President Obama and a common obsession with taking away health insurance coverage from 20 million Americans has dominated the public face of the Republican party and has overshadowed - but never eliminated - these internal differences. 

But then came Donald Trump, whose campaign explicitly rejected the accepted Republican orthodoxies associated with the first and second legs and largely ignored the third. Regarding the first leg, he explicitly rejected the party's traditional commitment to free trade and openness to immigration. He campaigned as a caudillo-like strongman ("I alone can fix it"), and seems to favor a Democratic-style, big-government, infrastructure program. Regarding the second, while he has committed himself to a strong military and increasing defense spending, he seems to represent the more "isolationist" wing of the party, seems indifferent to the global alliances, etc., that have been associated with activist American leadership throughout the world, and - most  unsettlingly of all - seems somewhat sympathetic to Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. Regarding the third leg, he has dutifully paid some lip service to culturally conservative concerns, but nothing in his private or public life up until now suggests he has any commitment to, sympathy for, or even interest in the concerns of cultural conservatives - especially religious conservatives.

Presumably, as constituent components of the Republican coalition, each of these constituencies will be able to to get something they want - tax cuts for the rich, increased defense spending, a Justice (or two or three) on the Supreme Court. But each is likely also to be somewhat disappointed. How seriously disappointed will be the million-dollar question. 

Of course, traditional Republicans control Congress, and President Trump will have to reckon with their power. But, having gotten this far - and humiliated the Republican establishment - with his populist style and his intimations of a populist program, it is hard to believe that he will easily abandon all of that and contentedly govern like a quaint chamber-of-commerce Republican, let alone a neocon or an Evangelical!

Again, only time will tell.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Not Yet!

In the 1750s, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch, later calling it the most liberating moment of his life.  Most of us, of course, don’t have that luxury. I would feel lost without my watch. Like it or not, deadlines dominate my life, and clocks control my activities.

And then, of course, there is that distinctly modern consequence of globalization, the time zone! Years ago, when I was stationed in Canada, a country with 4½ time zones, I used to enjoy hearing the radio announcer proclaim: It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes, and 10:30 in Newfoundland.  That last time zone was the inspiration for a famous cartoon of a man holding a sign in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”

Well, sooner or later, Christ will indeed come, that awesome judgment day, that dies irae, when, as we say in the Creed, Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But when that day will come remains uncertain , despite that cartoon and many others, and despite what many Christians throughout history have believed or wanted to believe – going all the way back to the very first generation of Christians.

Some of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about Christ’s coming that they expected him to arrive any day – or even thought that he had already arrived. And so, they figured, routine stuff - like working – didn’t matter anymore. It fell to Saint Paul to tell them they were wrong – and should go back to work.

Now to us that all may seem obvious. But there have always been those to whom the opposite has seemed obvious, people preoccupied with prophecies and revelations about the end of the world or some other imminent catastrophic event – as if the world doesn’t have enough problems of its own making, without looking for phony prophecies and special private revelations to explain them!

Jesus’ earthly life coincided with a period of peace in the Mediterranean world, which had been completely conquered by the power and might of imperial Rome. That pax romana - “the whole world being at peace” (as we say in the Christmas proclamation from the Roman Martyrology) – didn’t last, of course. First-century Israel had been relatively peaceful in Jesus’ time, but a few decades later it was the scene of a catastrophic rebellion, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Followers of Jesus – eager for his final return – naturally saw that calamity as a portent of even greater woes to come.

Something similar happened when the Latin Roman Empire itself collapsed in the 5th century. In 410, when the city of Rome fell to a foreign enemy for the first time in almost 800 years, a traumatized Saint Jerome lamented, “The brightest light of the world is extinguished.” I don’t know if he was consciously channeling Saint Jerome, but in 1914 it was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey who famously warned as World War I began, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He was right, of course, about the civilizational suicide that was World War I, as was Jerome about the fall of Rome. But in neither case was it the end of the world. That means that, as his Church, we must continue to wait, with hope, for Christ’s final return.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus sought to assure his disciples that Jerusalem’s impending destruction would not signal the end of the world. But his words were addressed to all centuries. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. As with the pax romana, untroubled, peaceful times have been the exception rather than the rule in human history. Hardly any period has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. The pre-World War I generation believed in peaceful progress. But the last 102 years – among the bloodiest and most destructive in all of human history – have surely falsified that belief.

And, no matter how much we may want to control time by ascribing special significance to our calamities, Jesus warns us not to make that mistake. Such things happen – for ordinary human reasons – and are not necessarily signs of anything else.

Jesus seems to be saying that we cannot know when the end will come and should not obsess about it. Instead, we have plenty of work to do in the meantime – and not just the ordinary working for a living of which Saint Paul spoke.

We do the kingdom of God’s work when we live as Jesus’ disciples, despite difficulties and even opposition. And, rather than obsessing about the end of the world, the kingdom of God’s work here and now commits us to care about the world and one another in the world.
Over the centuries, the Church has incorporated in her approach to the challenge of daily living in the world an understanding of how human beings are social and political by nature, how human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others and in association with others as fellow citizens. This results in many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy, and also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community. It challenges us to respond to one another and the world we live in seriously in a way that transcends simplistic slogans and emotional appeals.

Far from being signs of the end, Jesus suggests that the challenges we experience call us to perseverance, to go on believing and hoping and loving in the present no matter how far away the future coming of God’s kingdom may be. Whatever will happen at the end of history, we are invited to trust already now in the sun of justice, whose healing heat, as the prophet Malachi suggests, warms rather than burns.

Ultimately, what being a disciple is all about is that God has given us his divine Son, the sun of justice, Jesus, sent to save us and thanks to whom God is now near and not far, here not just there. Hence the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives and the crises and calamities that impact our society and the world at large – far from being obstacles to our experience of God or a stumbling block on our way to God’s kingdom – are really where God is actually acting and where he can be found.

Meanwhile, like Saint Paul, we need to focus on the present, getting ready for the future by who we are becoming by how we live, what we do, and how we do it.

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 13, 2016.

Friday, November 11, 2016

After the Election - The Media

In my two previous posts I said nothing about gender. Yet the fact that the first female candidate for president of either major party was defeated by an overtly misogynistic candidate does highlight the different standard to which she was held, which naturally lead me to today's discussion of the appalling way that the mainstream media covered the campaign. (The perverse contribution of social media is another important area, which I will leave it to others to discuss.)

Not for the first time, the media covered not the election but the campaign. That is, the focus was almost entirely upon the "horse race" - reflected primarily in polls (which in the end were not even accurate). Like nuclear weapons, polls are now a part of the world's arsenal and cannot be wished away.  In fact, good polling might be sociologically informative and interesting. but it tells the voter nothing about who would make a better president. it gives the voter no useful information on which to base his or her vote. Yet that is exactly what voters need. They don't need (however interesting it may seem at the time) to know which candidate is more popular on some particular day months or weeks before the election, but they do need to know what difference it would make to choose one over the other.  

Along with this "horse race" obsession, the media tend to focus a lot on "inside Beltway" things that journalists like to care about - for example, changes in campaign managers and staffs - issues that again are not uninteresting or unimportant but which minimally assist voters in making their choices.

Worst of all, that "inside Beltway" mentality combined with a desire to make news leads to an obsession with missteps, "gaffes," and real or supposed scandals. So Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as Secretary of State, a relatively minor matter on which most voters had long ago formed their opinion one way or the other, remained a permanent obsession with the media, which could never let it go - an injustice both to her and to the voters.

The thing that was most unique to this race was, of course, Donald Trump himself. Early on, the media did not seem to take his candidacy as seriously as it deserved to be taken. That was bad enough, but the media also awarded him enormous free media time and focused on him way more than on the other primary candidates. The lust for sensationalism may have been a factor, but it is hard to escape the impression that Trump was good for ratings, and that that was also a major factor. When the Chairman of CSB said, back in February, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," he confirmed what many of us suspected was a factor motivating the over-the-top coverage of Trump's candidacy. Once again, we see the sad consequence of the evolution of TV news which was once seen as a public service, but is now just another profit-making entity.

As always, journalists typically continued with their standard approach of "balance," treating Trump's lies and scandals and Hillary Clinton's occasional questionable statements and behavior as morally equivalent. But, since the public clearly did not hold Trump to such traditional standards, that only made Hillary seem to many to be as bad a character as Trump - or even worse. Late int he campaign, the media began to call  Trump's falsehoods what they really were - lies. But it was too little, too late.

The media's belated fact-checking of Trump also played into a narrative of media bias, which was further fueled by the Trump machine. Media Bias is a complicated concept to assess. What is undoubtedly clear, however, was - is - the media's cultural disconnect from at least half of the country - the half that voted for Trump. People in the media are largely educated and urban and apparently secular. Almost unreflectively they seem to take for granted the prejudices of their class - whether in support of the EU or of transgender bathrooms. The media seem oblivious to the real lives and serious concerns of downscale rural, "working class," and religious Americans and - intentionally or not - often seem contemptuous of them. The resulting disconnect was part of what fueled the resentment that so many have against "elites" - a resentment tht finally found a vehicle for effective expression in voting for Trump. Indeed the disconnect was so bad it seems to have blinded most of the media to the reality on the ground. Hence the almost universal shock and surprise at the election's outcome.