Sunday, October 22, 2017

Repaying Caesar

46 years ago, in October 1971, the Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis - the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

My high school math teacher used to cite this story [Matthew 22:15-21] to illustrate an attempt at what he called a “perfect dichotomy,” where there are two (and only two) mutually exclusive solutions. The motivation behind the question is evident. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.

Like our political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer – what is sometimes called “pivoting” - Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy.

Indeed, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But what does it tell us today? If we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?

Unlike ancient and traditional societies, which start from the community as their point of reference, modern western liberal democratic thinking tends to take the individual as its starting point. The issue then becomes the basis and the extent of one’s obligations to society. (The challenge of justifying paying taxes to support the common good, for example, or compulsory military service, to take another obvious example, the idea that such activities are somehow infringements upon one’s individual rights, reflects this strange, modern, individualistic way of thinking.) Such a way of thinking would, of course, have been completely alien to Jesus and his contemporaries. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the issue in this encounter, nor would it have made much sense as a way of framing the issue to most people in most societies. Rather, the underlying issue raised by the question - and explicitly referred to in Jesus’ answer - was the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.

Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New Testament instructed them to obey the law, pay their taxes, and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State.
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army - as needed to provide peace, security, and some measure of justice for society as a whole.

Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and rather unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society.  Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism [2239] says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.

As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong.

Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not tell us which policies will produce a more prosperous and equitable economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. The Gospel gives us a distinctive perspective, from which certain specific principles do follow. When it comes to practical questions of policy, however, we often have to figure these things out, as best we can as citizens or as statesmen, using the best knowledge we have, processed through discussion and debate – not just anger and outrage, which we tend nowadays to substitute both for knowledge and for discussion and debate. Instead, we need knowledge from history, from observation, from professional experts in the field, and from our own experience – always aware that, because our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same set of principles, may come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.

Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private, that is always less about ourselves and more about our connections with others both in the kingdom of God and in our interconnected and overlapping earthly communities.

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 22, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Here Come the Tax-Cuts!

On TV tonight, David Brooks labelled "an outbreak of normalcy" the proposed legislation in the Senate salvaging the Affordable Care Act's “cost-sharing reductions” (CSRs), which are federal subsidies to insurers to offset insurance costs for lower-income Americans. What was once the normal business of Congress - legislating according to procedures and making bipartisan compromises - is now so abnormal as to be a story in itself. The bill seems to have a reasonable chance of making it through the Senate, although the House, of course, is an alternative universe. Time will tell.

The Senate meanwhile has passed a budget resolution, which paves the way for proposed tax cuts to be considered under "reconciliation," thus obviating the threat of a filibuster. The only "normalcy" breaking out there is the majority party's perennial obsession with tax cuts for the wealthy.

Such tax cuts can be best described as a kind of theft from the public in order to enrich already overly wealthy private individuals and their corporate allies. Unsurprisingly, that is what the majority is maneuvering to do and so salvage its standing with its ultra-rich donor class.

Besides the specific public policy damage that tax cuts would have on important public expenditures on which citizens depend, there is also the deeper, symbolic harm which would be further inflicted upon our divided society - further confirming that the few rich and the rest of the nation have really nothing in common, no shared common values or sense of social purpose, that our common citizenship has been yet further evacuated of any semblance of its historic meaning. 

I suspect that is a "normalcy" we would do better without!

Monday, October 16, 2017


This past week, I read journalist Katy Tur's new book about the 2016 campaign, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (Harper Collins, 2017). A correspondent for NBC News, Tur was the network's reporter who covered Donald Trump's campaign virtually from beginning to end, and was also sometimes the frighteningly specific target singled out by name when Trump criticized the press at his rallies. 

For those who can't get enough about what happened and why, this is yet another book worth reading. It is not an overly long book, but it does require a certain degree of patience - partly because of the way it is written (going back and forth between the campaign and Election Day) and partly because of the author's persistent preoccupation with sharing so much of her own personal life with her readers. 

On the one hand, her account exudes a certain elitist, globalist lifestyle - for example, in her preoccupation with finding time for yoga and exercise and wishing for something other than bread, dairy, and sugar to eat at the airport, not to mention her sense of loss at missing waking up in London and getting "a flat white at the hipster coffee shop around the corner." On the other hand, her account proves her to be an excellent reporter, who saw exactly what was happening (for example, "drawing unheard-of crowds a year before the election") and really seemed to understand it.

Thus she recognizes the way many Trump voters see their lives: "Your twenty-something can't find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism gets called racism. Your food is full of chemicals. Your body is full of pills, You call tech support and reach someone in India. Bills are spiking but your paycheck is not. And you can't send your kid to school with peanut butter. On top of it all, no one seems to care. You feel like you're screaming at the top of your lungs in a room full of people wearing earplugs."

In some ways, those sentences alone almost tell the story not just of this book but of this incredible campaign.

At the same time, she also calls attention to the difference between the people who showed up at Trump rallies and those at a Trump watch party at Ma-a-Lago: "These are the people slashing budgets and enhancing their own bottom line while the bottom line falls out of everyone else's lives."

As for the candidate himself, she also captures the forever self-hyping character of the candidate, long familiar to New Yorkers, and she quotes the famous New York reporter Jimmy Breslin on how Trump "uses the reporters to create a razzle dazzle." One result is that "People seem drawn to Trump's rallies in the same way that they are drawn to a professional wrestling match, and as with a professional wrestling match, they seem divided between people who believe all they see and hear, and those who know it's partially a performance. the scariest thing about being at a Trump rally is that you don't know who believes it and who doesn't."

She reminds us too of his outright, direct invitation to Russia to interfere in the election and of his strange attraction to Vladimir Putin.

She shows how surprised even Trumpers were on election night - how, for example, earlier that day, Kellyanne Conway was already starting the post-election recriminations, complaining how "she didn't have the full support of the Republican Party."

But. most usefully, she captures the relationship between Trump and those who tried to tell the story. She notes, "We can tell the truth all day, but it's pointless if no one believes us." And she has interesting things to say about the different impacts of network and all-day cable news. 

Distrust and dislike of the media are not new, and she sources some of its origin in the fact that journalism "tells us things about the world that we'd rather not know; it reveals aspects of people that aren't always flattering. But rather than deal with journalism, we despise journalism."

Covering the campaign, Tur experienced first-hand an extreme version of that despising of journalism - and journalists. Most of what her book tells us about what happened is, after all, not really new at this point. But it is powerful to read her personal accounts of what this campaign was actually like on the inside, and how appallingly it empowered people to behave. "Trump is crude, and in his halo of crudeness other people get to be crude as well."  I wonder whether this may be one of the most lasting legacies of that incredible campaign!

Tur's account illustrates how a lot of Trump-supporters were otherwise ordinary citizens - "your coworkers and your neighbors," who would not typically engage in disreputable behavior. "But inside a Trump rally ... they can drop their everyday niceties. They can yell and scream and say the things they'd never say out loud on the outside." 

But I wonder whether now and in the future more and more people will behave that way "on the outside" as well, as the passions unleashed by this campaign, unbounded by traditional restraints of shared citizenship in a common society with at least certain common values, and no longer restrained by religion or old-fashioned manners. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

No Excuses

Jesus in today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:1-14] gives us yet another parable about evangelization and its ultimate goal, the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus tells us is like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. In a world where resources were scarce and food supplies limited, what better image for the kingdom of heaven than the abundance suggested by a royal wedding!

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it is a kind of allegory. The king, of course, represents God; the son is Jesus; the servants, sent to summon the invited guests, are the Old Testament prophets; and the servants sent out again to invite to the feast whomever they find are the apostles - and their successors in the Church. Presumably, the invited guests who refused to come represent those who resisted or opposed Jesus, while all those gathered from the streets, both bad and good alike, would be all those others – including, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, many Gentiles, which presumably also includes us, – who have responded positively to Jesus and, over time, to his Church. And, finally, the king’s coming into the hall to meet the guests represents the judgment.

Clearly, the parable illustrates God’s great desire that as many as possible be included in the abundant life he has planned in his kingdom. So, why, we wonder, did those originally invited guests refuse to come to the feast?

It is hard to imagine anyone ever refusing such an invitation.  On the contrary, people go to great lengths to get themselves invited to all sorts of high profile events, and they are usually more than willing to rearrange their schedules if needed. In the parable, however, some ignored the invitation and went away, while others (even more oddly) aggressively rejected the invitation.

The fact is that throughout history there have always been people who have aggressively resisted God’s kingdom. (That’s why we’ve had so many martyrs in the Church’s history.) Even so, I suspect, many more people probably fall into the less aggressive category of those that just ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. Their behavior is really very easy to understand. It really is very easy to become so completely preoccupied with the ordinary stuff of life, with one’s own daily affairs – whether one is constantly climbing up some social or economic ladder or whether one is just getting by and making do. If this parable illustrates God’s great desire to have us all in his kingdom, it also illustrates just how easily the ordinary business of life can, if we let it, confuse our priorities and get in the way of what God has in mind for us.

Now, obviously, as members of the Church, we want to identify ourselves with the second group – those gathered in from all over the place, both bad and good alike. It is not that they were any better or more deserving than those who turned down the initial invitation, but they did at least recognize the value of the invitation and were willing to give God a try.  And, for those who follow through, that readiness to respond makes all the difference! Certainly, it has to be quite consoling for us to hear that God’s kingdom is not some kind of private club, that there’s plenty of room for even the likes of us!

In Jesus’ world, in any traditional society, even a last-minute addition to the guest list for a formal occasion would presumably know enough to dress for the event - unlike in our society where many seem to have completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to dress appropriately anytime for any event. In any case, when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

That’s what happens, some skeptics might say, when you just open the door and let anyone and everyone in. The story says both bad and good alike, so the king can’t say he wasn’t warned! But, just because the door has now been opened to all, it does not follow that the king has therefore abandoned all his expectations about how his guests are supposed to behave. Being inclusive doesn’t mean anything goes. Responding to the invitation represented an initial option for the kingdom. But, as we all know, people don’t all always follow through on their commitments. Sadly, even of those that do in fact show up, not all will follow up!

When challenged by the king, the casually dressed guest was reduced to silence. In other words, he had no excuse. If there is one thing we human beings are usually very good at, it is finding and making excuses for ourselves! But, in God’s kingdom, on Judgment Day the time for excuses will be over.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is not a private club. It extends a wide-open invitation to all, and that (as the parable illustrates) includes both bad and good alike. Having accepted that invitation, however, we are intended to take in all its awesome seriousness the challenge of full and meaningful membership in God’s kingdom - from the initial invitation to the final judgment -  lest we too risk finding ourselves with no excuse, reduced to silence forever.

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 15. 2017.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Praying for Rain

In the Jewish calendar, today, the 22nd day of the 7th month (Tishri) is the festival of Shemini Atzeret. It closes the week-long festival of Sukkot (one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals and the one which is widely thought to have been the biggest in Jesus’ time). The celebration of Sukkot is prescribed in Levitius 23:33-36. That final verse also prescribes a “solemn assembly” or “holy convocation” on the eight day, Shemini Atzeret. So Shemini Atzeret is simultaneously the eighth day of Sukkot but also a separate festival with its own identity. On this day, the prayer for rain is recited – for the first time since Passover. It is recited daily during the Israeli rainy season. As a Jewish friend explained to me years ago, it doesn’t rain in Israel in the summer, so there is no point praying for rain then. But, during the autumn-winter rainy season (from Sukkot to Pesach), it is important that there be enough rain. Hence the liturgical prayer for rain, then – and only then.

I have been thinking about this devout custom of praying for a successful rainy season while watching the horrifying scenes of the wildfires in California. In the 1990s, whenever I would visit my family in California for New Year's or for President's Day weekend, it would rain - a lot. That was what it was supposed to do, of course, during the rainy season. In recent years, however, thanks to climate change, California has suffered from drought and has experienced much less winter rain. The winter rains - and especially the snowfall in the mountains - are essential to California's summer water supply, no less than the winter rains were in ancient Israel. And a wet, rainy fall would be a help to those fighting the late-season wildfires.

In the Roman liturgy, we no longer celebrate Rogation processions and recite orationes imperatae. There still is a Votive Mass "For Rain," although I have to wonder how often it is actually celebrated. Perhaps as part of rediscovering our dependence on the natural world, we need to retrieve time-honored religious traditions, like praying for rain (and snow) in winter. What devout Jews still faithfully do might well serve as an admirable model for the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Shifting Culture War

Not that long ago, when one spoke of an American "culture war," one was often referring primarily to conflicts connected with religious and moral issues (mostly sex and gender-related). Such conflicts certainly still exist, of course, and still energize zealous combatants on both sides. But there seems to be a growing consensus that one side has largely won if not the whole war than most of the major battles. Meanwhile, the energy and zealotry associated with "culture war" conflict has shifted from its previously predominant preoccupation with religious and moral matters to intensified fights over national and group identities and the primordial and perennial American conflict about race.

Notwithstanding the Alabama electoral win of a candidate who is ostentatiously pro-10 Commandments, the leading culture warriors on the right now - the President himself and his sometime advisor and theoretician of disruption, Steve Bannon - seem to be people with starkly different priorities from the previously contested religious and moral divisions. (Regarding the rise of the "post-religious right," see, for example, Damon Linker, "The Dangers of the Great American Unchurching," The Week, September 8, 2017 -

For example, the ongoing fracas about standing or not standing for the National Anthem at NFL games - an emotionally charged issue which the Vice President highlighted by showing up at a game in his home state in order to walk out of it - is obviously not about the primarily sex and gender-related moral and cultural issues traditionally associated with the "culture war." Rather (as the Vice President's stunt suggested), it has become a symbolic struggle between two different American identities and their use of shared national symbols, like the National Anthem, by both sides, not to unify the nation but to signify those different identities and so separate one identity group from the other. 

Given the makeup of the NFL and the original (now almost forgotten) issue that motivated the initial National Anthem protests, the dispute also highlights our continuing racial divide. That racial divide and the broader cultural divisions in our society about what kind of people we are or want to be are not identical, but neither are they unconnected. It was not completely accidental that the current fever on the political right was in part ignited by the traumatic experience of the election in 2008 of a non-white President and that the present President rose to prominence in part largely thanks to his claim that the non-white President was constitutionally illegitimate.

Competing claims to exclusive ownership of the National Anthem, competing visions of the society which that anthem should celebrate, and, above all, the repetitive focus of each side on a politics of  group identities rooted in grievance and articulated in ever increasing anger  are the conflicted terrain of today's and tomorrow's shifting "culture war," in which less and less prominence will likely be given to previously salient religious and moral controversies.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An Empress and her Munshi

The Empress was, of course, Victoria, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India. Her Munshi was Abdul Karim (1863-1909), an Indian Muslim who was sent to be employed as a servant at the British Royal Court on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. By then, Victoria had been "Empress of India" since 1876, and the British had been ruling India even longer. The Queen quickly took a liking to him and asked him to teach her Urdu. Soon he was an established presence in the Royal Household as the "Munshi," a latter-day successor to her beloved Scottish servant John Brown (1826-1883) - occupying an analogous place in the old Queen's affections and similarly disdained by much of the Royal Family and Court. 

The new film Victoria and Abdul is based on this story and on the book of same name by Shrabani Basu. The analogy to the story of Victoria's friendship with John Brown in an earlier phase of her long widowhood is heightened for the viewer by the fact that the Queen is again played by the incomparable Judi Dench, who played Victoria in the 1997 movie about that earlier friendship, Mrs. Brown. Like the Queen herself, Dench has grown older but has lost none of her ability to command the scene - be it the British Empire at its height or the 21st-century movie set.

The film also features Ali Fazal as Abdul and in his final role the late Tim Pigott-Smith as the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby.

The film shows how Karim's swift rise inevitably created jealousy and discontent among the members of the Royal Household - exacerbated by Karim’s lowly Indian origin. As one of Queen Victoria’s biographers has written: “The rapid advancement and personal arrogance of the Munshi would inevitably have led to his unpopularity, but the fact of his race made all emotions run hotter against him.“ The movie highlights that racial aspect, but Victoria herself (and Karim's long-suffering fellow-Indian servant Mohammed) both show keen awareness of the universal dynamics of ambition and careerism which were at work in the narrow, enclosed, and rather rarefied environment of the Royal Court. Both are also aware that Karim himself is ambitious and in that sense little different from the others. Victoria had, of course, been through all this before with John Brown and, in a somewhat different way, with her beloved husband Albert, who had also not been well received and appreciated in Britain. Being Queen, she was in a sense above all that, and so she could transcend the pettiness of family and courtier competitiveness and ambition and advance her favorite against the Establishment. Only the privileged are usually free enough to flout convention. Others depend on convention for their identity and worth.

One difference between Karim's self-promotion and that of the other courtiers, however, is that he personally somehow makes the Queen happy, which they largely do not. He (again not unlike John Brown but maybe even more so) serves as an escape from the tedium of royal duty - and the even more tedious people the Queen is inevitably surrounded by. While we know that Victoria was really a very passionate woman, who was attracted to men, the film highlights the almost mother-son relationship between the Queen and her Munshi, a dynamic which probably compensated for her poor relationship with her eldest son and probably also irritated her real heir even further.

As with John Brown, it is the Prince of Wales ("Bertie") who seems most deeply resentful of Karim, with dire consequences for Karim when Bertie becomes king. (In the end, the Establishment always wins.) It was Bertie's fate to be Prince of Wales for what seemed like forever and never to feel appreciated by his mother, who never allowed him to play any serious governmental role. His resentment was evidently enormous, which would explain his historical hostility not just to his mother (and to the memory of his father and his father's homeland) but also to those special outsiders who were recipients of royal affection so definitively denied to him. In real life Bertie did behave badly towards Karim (although not so badly as portrayed in the movie), but he also became a very successful and admired King as Edward VII. 

While the general outline of the Munshi saga was obviously known, it was only less than a  decade ago when Karim's own personal diary became public, and the story more fully able to be told. 

if the movie were a total fiction, it would still be wonderful because of the first-rate performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. Historically, it illustrates the problematic character of court life - at any "court," royal or otherwise, past or present. It shows how human emotions sometimes need to break through established conventions in order to breathe a little bit more freely. And it identifies both the genuine joys and the inevitable perils of flouting convention.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Celebrating Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day. (Of course, the real Columbus Day is October 12. But, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Holiday Act which moved several civic holidays from their proper dates to Mondays, we are stuck with celebrating it today.)

For most of my life, New York's Columbus Circle was for me mainly a place to change trains. The fact of its existence and prominence, however, and the fact that New York's Columbus Day Parade is one of the very few such ethnic parades permitted still on a weekday (whereas most other such parades are now relegated to Sundays) is a testimony to the political power of Italian-Americans in traditional city politics.

The celebration of Christopher Columbus' foundational role in American history - an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain's Catholic monarchs - has always served as a counterweight to our country's cultish veneration of its English Protestant "Founding Fathers" and a resounding rebuttal to nativist anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Italian prejudice. The fact that some contemporary politicians may now feel free to demean or diminish Columbus Day is an obvious testimony to the decline of Italian-Americans' political influence and the perceived irrelevance of their immigrant struggles in the new narratives employed by contemporary cultural elites.

After the unification of Italy in the late 19th century, the kingdom’s northern-based government found the problems of southern Italy overwhelming and so actively encouraged emigration (primarily to the United States and Argentina) as the only practical solution. My four grandparents and seven of my aunts and uncles were all part of that massive movement through the Port of New York. After the Italian national disaster that was World War II, the new republican government would be just as overwhelmed and again encouraged emigration. (By then, however, immigration into the United States was very restricted. But Canada had lots of space and a small population and was happy to welcome immigrants. Hence the enormous influx of Italians into Montreal and Toronto in the 1940s and 1950s.)

In 1901, the infamous Edward Alsworth Ross, future President of the American Sociological Association, popularized the white-supremacist term "race suicide" and warned "That the Mediterranean people are morally below the races of Northern Europe is as certain as any historical fact." 

Likewise, after the notorious lynching of 11 Sicilians by a New Orleans mob, The New York Times wrote about "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins."

Such elite bigotry eventually led to the 1924 law which severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

For me as an Italian-American beneficiary of the great wave of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems that two imperatives ought to follow from this complex historical experience. 

The first is the imperative to support a sensibly open immigration policy, which welcomes people to our country from all parts of the world, while facilitating their successful identification with U.S..society and culture, as Italian-Americans and so many others have so successfully done in the past.

The second is the imperative to celebrate Columbus Day loudly and proudly year in and year out!

(Photo: The flag of the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 through 1946, the flag under which most of the great wave of 19th and early 20th-century Italian immigrants to the U.S. were born.)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tenants in the Lord's Vineyard

Our recent history has keenly focused our attention on the fragility of our national society and its institutions, both religious and secular.  Many of us here are surely old enough to remember a time when religion’s public place in American society seemed strong and secure, when Church attendance was higher than it had ever been, when seminaries and convents were bursting at the seams, and when it seemed as if things could go on like that forever. A similar assessment could be made in the secular world. Many of us here are likewise old enough to remember a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, unions were strong, a family could support itself on a single salary, prosperity was not universal but was more equally spread. And so we may easily appreciate the Prophet Isaiah’s description of the vineyard that had so dramatically failed to produce its expected crop of grapes.  Just as we instinctively seek explanations for the things that have gone wrong, likewise the Prophet Isaiah both sought and provided an explanation for the disasters that Israel was facing. In that case, of course, there was no ambiguity about why things were going so badly in Israel. The vineyard in Isaiah’s song represented God’s People who, in spite of all God had done for them, had failed in fidelity.

Centuries later, Jesus used the same image of the vineyard to challenge his hearers regarding their own behavior by judging the way those whose task it was to harvest the vineyard either did or did not live up to their responsibilities.

When vintage time drew near, the landowner in the parable, naturally sought to collect his share of the harvest and so sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. Now, as is always the case in conflict situations, both ancient and modern, how we hear and interpret the facts depends in large part upon whom we identify with in the story. One could, for example, identify with the tenants, constructing an ideology in which right is on the side of the oppressed peasants.

Yet, even though this particular parable does not begin with the typical introduction, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” it is pretty obvious, nonetheless, that we are intended to hear and interpret it in continuity with Isaiah’s vineyard song. In other words, we are intended to hear and interpret it from the standpoint of the landowner, who is obviously the parable’s stand-in for God.

In thus structuring the story so that the tenants have no excuse, Jesus has set it up so that neither can we claim any excuse for our own personal irresponsibility. Historically, of course, Jesus addressed this parable to the chief priests and elders of the people, with whom he was in conflict. Through them, however, he is now addressing this parable to all of us, for whom it should be obvious who is being referred to, when the landowner sends his son. Hence his question (What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?) is addressed as much to us, as it was in the first instance, to the chief priests and elders of the people.  And, like them, we all know the obvious answer, even before we hear them say it.

This, of course, is what conversion, becoming a disciple, challenges us to do – to look at ourselves and at our relationship with God without excuses, from God’s point of view. When we do that, then we necessarily have to re-evaluate everything – just as the stone that the builders rejected was re-evaluated  in order to become the cornerstone. And then we will become a new kind of tenant – a people that will produce fruit.

Now that’s actually meant to be good news. Our predicament has a solution. We can get right again with God (and with one another). Unfortunately for those in the parable’s original audience whose failure to respond positively to Jesus provided the historical basis for the parable, what’s meant to be good news for the world may have sounded like bad news for them. The challenge of the parable is to recognize the incredible opportunity God has given us in sending us his Son – a life-transforming opportunity to change our ways and become at last faithful and productive tenants in God’s vineyard. 

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 8, 2017.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Another Gun Massacre

Jimmy Kimmel got it right again. Speaking of the likes of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and others of their ilk who sent their “thoughts and their prayers” to Las Vegas yesterday, he said “They should be praying. They should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country.”

On the occasion of the previous, most deadly shooting in American history (Orlando, June 2016), President Obama said: "we have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well."

And we are all apparently resigned to t he fact that our failed political system- and the human failures who run it - will continue to do nothing. The fundamental choice between civilization and continuing to allow private individuals to own guns is as clear as can be, as is the moral imperative to make that choice.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Chance to Change

The familiar words we just heard from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians [Philippians 2:1-11] were written to the Christian community Paul had founded and left behind at Philippi. Paul wrote to thank them for their generosity in the past and to encourage them to face the future.

Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, he advised them. Paul’s idea of encouragement was to identify with the fundamental truth about Jesus, which he proceeded to express – not in his own words but with what most likely was already a well known Christian hymn, an early profession of faith in Jesus:

Who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In direct and conspicuous contrast to what seems like typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior, Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. In contrast to the typical, ordinary, normal, human self-centered narcissism, which dominates and directs most of human history, Jesus’ obedience has made it possible to undo that destructive pattern and alter the course of human history, by creating new possibilities for us, both in relation to God and to one another.

Jesus’ obedience to his Father was not some isolated act. It was a total attitude that characterized his whole self. That was how God originally intended all of us to live. We cannot return to that original innocence; but, with God’s help, we can change course – like the first son in the parable in today’s Gospel [Matthew 21:28-32], who first answered, “I will not,” but who then afterwards changed his mind.

It is certainly true that we cannot undo the past. How well we know that! But that can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and a particularly poisonous excuse, to do nothing, to become (as one of my professors once said) a sort of silent spectator in the story of one’s life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way things are,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”

It’s true, of course, that we cannot undo the past; and that we are in a certain sense always in part products of our past. But the good news of the Gospel is that there is no sin that we cannot break away from. So, while we cannot undo the past, we can change course in the present - remodeling ourselves in the image of God’s Son so as to share in his new life, already here and now in the community of his Church on earth and then forever when our risen selves are joined with Christ completely in the kingdom of the Father.

In telling us a parable about two sons, Jesus makes clear that there is more than one possibility - and that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow. Rather he challenges to become like the first son - and so change. Let’s get going, Jesus is telling us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading us!

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 1, 2017.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


All summer long, whenever the season's hateful heat would come up in conversation, my standard response has been, "Every morning I wake up and pray for October." (Once upon a time, before Global Warming, maybe it would have sufficed to pray for September!)
As its name indicates, October was originally the 8th month in the Roman calendar, before Julius Caesar made it the 10th month, which it is still. In the Northern hemisphere, October brings the Harvest Moon on October 5. That Full Moon, of course, corresponds to the middle of the 7th month of Jewish calendar (Tishri) and hence the start of the third of the three Old Testament pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, usually thought to have been the biggest of the festivals in Jesus' time.

October 12, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first landing at San Salvador was traditionally observed as Columbus Day, until that holiday was devalued (like so many other civic holidays) by being moved to Monday (this year, October 9). Columbus Day is traditionally when we Italian-Americans get to celebrate our heritage. (In fact, the entire month is now officially "Italian Heritage Month"). When I was stationed in New York, I often attended the annual Italian Columbus Day Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is essentially an Italian-heritage parade, and in that sense has as much or as little to do with Columbus as the Saint Patrick's Day parade has to do with Saint Patrick. Of course, Columbus himself sailed in service of the Spain's Reyes catolicos, and his heirs became Spanish nobility. So the day is also celebrated as El Dia de la Hispanidad. (In New York, the Hispanic parade is held on Sunday, the day before.)

In the Church, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (originally Our Lady of Victory) occurs on October 7, and October is observed as the month of the Holy Rosary. October 7 is, of course, the anniversary of the great naval victory at Lepanto in 1571. Referencing that famous victory and the feast, in 1883, Pope Leo XIII officially dedicated the entire month of October to the Rosary and prescribed its recitation in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament daily during the month, a a once widely common practice that survived until the 1960s.

In the 20th century, October received an added social significance with the introduction of World Mission Sunday by Pope Pius XI in 1927 in order to emphasize universal solidarity in sharing in our common responsibility for evangelizing the world. (World Mission Sunday this year will be Sunday, October 22.) The same pope had already in 1925 instituted the feast of Christ the Ling on the last Sunday in October (the Sunday before All Saints Day) to highlight Christ's rule over all peoples and nations. (Since 1969, the feast is now observed on the last Sunday before Advent.)

All in all, unless cliamte change keeps the temperatures high, October is a month to look forward to!

(Photo: October, with the Louvre palace in the backgournd, from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Brad's Status

Brad's Status stars Ben Stiller as Brad Sloan, a middle-aged entrepreneur settled in Sacramento, who runs some sort of non-profit. He is married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who has some sort of government job. They have a 17-year old son Troy (Austin Abrams), who is apparently a very good student and musician. Brad and Troy fly to Boston for Troy's college admission interviews at Harvard and Tufts. The interplay between father and son stands out as one of the film's dramatic highpoints.

Meanwhile, Brad suffers from serious status anxiety (presumably exacerbated by his son's growing up, which highlights how he and his wife are now in middle age and so will not accomplish much more with their lives or - what seems to amount to much the same thing - make a lot more money in their careers.)

In particular, Brad keeps comparing himself with several of his former college classmates, all of whom have been more materially successful than he has been. One is even on the cover of Architectural Digest. Another has worked in the White House, is a published author, and is recognized by strangers in restaurants. Another is already retired and lives in Hawaii  Etc. In contrast, Brad worries not only that he has not made a lot of money but that he and his wife have settled for mediocrity. Brad's anxieties are reinforced by learning that he was not invited to one wealthy and prominent classmate's wedding in LA - presumably because he is not in the same league of wealth and prominence. His status anxieties are reinforced again by learning that his favorite Tufts professor died recently and that one of his more prominent classmates gave the eulogy, while he was not even informed. The result is that, throughout the trip, Brad keeps tormenting himself and behaving in ways which perplex and annoy others - including Troy, who wonders whether his father is having a "nervous breakdown."

The lesson, of course, is that Brad's anxieties are rooted in reality. His classmates have largely done better, both in wealth, and prominence than he has. To the extent that that matters they represent success, and in comparison he has failed to make much of his life. The question, however, is to what extent that really matters or should matter. There is some evidence that the others' successes may not be all they appear to be. Even the wealthy and the prominent cannot completely escape the vicissitudes of life like illness and addiction. Even without that comparison, however, Brad has a good marriage, a happy wife, and a talented son - both of whom love him. Should that be enough?

The film forces us to ask ourselves what is enough? Can we be satisfied with a good life or are we forever sentenced to compare ourselves with those who seem to enjoy a fabulous life?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Saving a Church on Screen and Saving the Church in Real Life

The film All Saints tells the true story of Rev. Michael Spurlock (okayed by John Corbett) and of his first assignment at All Saints Episcopal Church in Smyrna, Tennessee.. The real Michael Spurlock was born right here in Knoxville in 1968 and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1993. In the late 1990s, he worked in editing and publishing in New York City, where he met his wife in Central Park. In 1999 they moved from New York to Tennessee where Michael worked as a salesman. In 2004 Michael entered Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2007. He was sent to All Saints by his Bishop with the expectation that the church and its property would soon be sold. As with too many churches today, the church was broke and its membership dwindling. At the time, the church had only 25 members and a mortgage it couldn't afford. As pastor he was sent there to inventory the property and oversee its sale to make way for that great job-creator, a big-box store.

But then, a group of refugees from war-torn Burma arrived - Karen farmers, led Ye Win (Nelson Lee). Despite opposition and all the ordinary practical difficulties, Michael decided to them stay and farm the land surrounding the church, thus providing them with food and shelter and hopefully creating much-needed income for the church. the film effectively and movingly retells this story - was shot at the actual All Saints church in Smyrna, with several real-life parishioners playing themselves. It highlights the challenges and conflicts that the pastor experienced - above all within himself as he struggled to discern what was God's will and what was his, and how to tell the difference. That, of course, is always a challenge in pastoral ministry, even in less dire circumstances.

The movie shows how, despite all the combined efforts and hard work of the Spurlocks (pastor, wife, and son Atticus), the Burmese Karen refugees (so ably led by Ye Win), the remaining parishioners, others who came to their aid, the whole project seemed on the brink of failure; but., almost miraculously it seemed, the church was saved and survives to this day as a successful mission. Spurlock himself is now Curate at New York City's esteemed Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue.

Since it is a true story, and we know it is going to end well, we are relieved of some of the tension and so can focus on the interpersonal relationships and struggles as well as the inner struggles of Spurlock and others and appreciate the creation of an authentically Christian community in a traumatized world

The on-screen retelling of this inspiring story is also a welcome and much-needed corrective to the corrosive but all too prevalent mentality which judges the viability of churches and parishes in primarily economic terms – a mentality within the Church itself that could actually countenance a church being replaced by a big-box store. It also has  the added plus – so salient in this era of anti-immigrant xenophobia in our country - of reminding us that welcoming the stranger remains one of the purposes of the Church and that, in the end, nothing may be better for the Church’s survival than devotion to its purpose. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

We All Lose

I have zero interest in football and zero interest in the fortunes of the NFL (which undoubtedly has done and will continue to do quite well without my interest). I had never even heard of Colin Kaepernick until he started not standing for the National Anthem as a protest and even then have paid little attention to the resulting controversy until it escalated to unexpected prominence as a national issue this past weekend, thanks to President Trump's deliberate highlighting of the issue. 

To the extent that professional athletes are high-status celebrities in our society, if an athlete chooses to use his position of prominence and privilege to advocate for those less prominent and less privileged, which I assume is Kaepernick's intention, that would seem to me to be a quite commendable use of one's status and privilege. Consider, for example, the good that Jimmy Kimmel, a TV celebrity of a different sort, may have accomplished this past week if his high-profile attack on the latest Republican assault on the Affordable Care Act successfully saves access to affordable coverage for those who need it!

I have serious reservations, however, about the manner of Kaepernick's protest. The National Anthem, like the Flag, is a symbol of who we are as a nation, a symbol of what unites us across time and space and across whatever else divides us from one another. In a sense, the Anthem and the Flag function as substitutes for a monarch and the monarch's role in those countries fortunate enough to have one. They serve as a sort of symbolic social glue. To disrespect the Anthem or the Flag is inevitably experienced as disrespecting the whole society, disrespecting what we share in common, dividing us at our very core. This is seldom helpful - and is more likely hurtful to society over the long term. 

Even as a tactic, it is, I submit, generally a somewhat ineffective tactic. Instead of calling attention to the legitimate issue underlying the protest, it makes the protest itself the issue. Conflict is unavoidable in any society, no matter how well ordered. It is inevitable in a society such as ours with so many competing interests and ideas. Equally inevitably, however, a protest against injustice, which already presumes a degree of division in society, usually needs to reach across at least some of those divisions to appeal more broadly and widely. All political movements in a democratic polity are about widening their base and building coalitions with others to whose interests and/or ideals they must appeal. The most successful protest movements in American history (e.g., the Civil Rights movement, the Labor movement) have done this, and they have highlighted their identification with our society's purported values. In contrast, those movements have generally been unsuccessful that have emphasized their alienation from and their rejection of our purported principles and ideals and the rituals that symbolize them and thus bind us together.

Kaepernick, of course, has every right to choose whatever tactic he wishes, even if it risks making him (rather than his cause) the issue and risks alienating people who might otherwise have been potential allies. 

But then the President intruded into the controversy Kaepernick's tactic had caused. He did so in a profoundly "unpresidential" way, suggesting players should be fired for their protests, thus causing more players to protest, and to focus their protests primarily on the president's intervention. .However one judges this particular president's political talents, clearly he has a notable talent for sensing and identifying divisions in our society and exploiting them. Like most emotions, anger can be positive or negative. It can be exploited for good or for ill. Jimmy Kimmel exploited his own anger and that of many others to try to salvage affordable health care for those less privileged than himself. But anger can also become an end in itself and be exploited simply to achieve or maintain power. The campaign Donald Trump waged in 2016 was all about anger - sensing, identifying, and exploiting anger to increase (rather than to resolve) conflict and to further divide society so as to secure political victory and then continue in office to increase conflict and further divide society. 

Ours is a society increasingly divided into two hostile tribes that share less and less in common and so seek only to hate and despise each other. Protesters who disrespect our few remaining shared symbolic rituals and politicians who stir up resentment against those protests play into each other's hands. When we no longer share even the most basic civic rituals in common - when the Anthem becomes a battleground between those who support and those who oppose a particular president or policy - we all lose.