Friday, July 20, 2018

Elijah

In the Roman Martyrology, today is the Church's commemoration of the prophet Elijah: On Mount Carmel, the holy prophet Elias. In the Western Church, for historical reasons presumably related to the early connection between the veneration fo saints and the presence of their relics, Old Testament saints, while mentioned in the Martyology are not normally commemorated in the Mass or Office. In the traditional Carmelite Rite, however, Elijah is celebrated today as a patronal feast of that Order. The statue of Elijah on Mount Carmel (photo) on the supposed site of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal commemorates his connection with the Order.

The Transfiguration story suggests that Elijah in some sense personified the prophetic dimension of Israel's history (as Moses personified the Torah). Although not the author of any prophetic book, Elijah was obviously a powerful prophetic figure at a critical time in Israel's history. He appeared on the scened, virtually without introduction, in the Northern Kingdom during the religiously disastrous reign of King Ahab in the 9th century BC. His story is told in a series of incidents beginning in 1 Kings 17. It is a story of faith versus the political corruption of religion that remains radically relevant in every era - and especially our own.

Elijah's battle against the cult of the pagan god Baal puts him in direct conflict with the King, who calls him you troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18:17), in today's terminology comparable to calling him an "enemy of the people" or a spreader of "fake news" in today's world. Elijah's mission included incidents of great success but also experiences of seeming defeat and the discouragement that accompanies constant conflict with popular worldly power. So when Jesus expresses his own sense of having been rejected (Luke 4:24-27) he refers back to the example of Elijah.

But rejection and discouragement can never be the end of the story. Saint Paul recalled God's answer to Elijah's complaint to show that that God will not in fact forsake his people (Romans 11:2-6). And James cites Elijah's fervor as a model for individuals to imitate in more ordinary situations (James 5:16-18).

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Centennial That Should Not Be ignored

It wasn't quite the crime of the century, but Lenin's murder of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family 100 years ago today was certainly one early and highly symbolic instance of the murderous criminality that would characterize so much of the 20th century. If the murder of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette symbolically sums up the moral depravity unleashed by the French Revolution, likewise the murder of the Romanovs symbolically sums up the moral depravity of the Soviet regime, which directly or indirectly led to so much death and destruction in eastern Europe and elsewhere throughout the 20th century. 

Initial reports of the Emperor's murder were followed by confirmation of the killing of the whole family. "I hear from Russia that there is every probability that Alicky and the four daughters and the little boy were murdered at the same time as Nicky," wrote their cousin, Britain's King George V. "It is too horrible and shows what fiends those Bolshevists are." Indeed it did, but more than that it showed how fiendish the century would be! The Romanovs' murders were just one more - if spectacularly noticeable - instance of of the horrendous violence of "the Great War"  (as World War I was then called). That terribly pointless conflict, which Pope Benedict XV famously called the "suicide of civilization," brought to a tragic end the progressive trajectory on which Western civilization had been so widely thought until then to have been headed. (It was no accident that Karl Barth came out with his first edition of The Epistle to the Romans in 1918.)

As for the crime itself, historians continue to argue about whether or not it could have been prevented, whether or not this or that European monarch could have somehow saved his relatives.  Certainly several such efforts were made. Personally, I have long wondered why Kaiser Wilhelm II did not demand custody of the Romanovs in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In sheer power terms vis-a-vis the Soviet regime, he would seem to have been the best positioned at that particular moment to intervene on behalf of his relatives. (Intensely patriotic, the Romanovs probably would not have wanted to be rescued by their country's wartime enemy, and such a rescue might have further fueled the unjustified charge that the Empress was some sort of German agent.)

Considering the whole question afresh, Helen Rappaport's new book, The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family (St. Martin's Press, 2018), suggests that "the bitter truth is that there was one - and only one - real window of opportunity for escape and that was before Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917." She argues that, if "Alexandra had acted quickly and decisively and had got her children out to safety immediately after the revolution had broken in Petrograd," then there might have been a chance - at least for them. One theme of her book seems to be that whatever inquiries were made and whatever offers of asylum were implied, it was probably already always too late. In the end, she cites Boris Yeltsin 1998 statement calling the murders "one of the most shameful episodes" in Russia's history and declaring: "We are all guilty."

There is now a church on the site of the murders, and the murdered Emperor and his family are now venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as martyrs. The 20th century turned out to be a century of martyrs - more martyrs than in any previous century of Christian history. That in itself is quite a commentary on our time.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Flos Carmeli


One of my happy summer memories from growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and early 1960s was the annual festa which we habitually attended every July 16 at the Italian parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel about a mile east of our home along Fordham Road. Our home parish was a somewhat staid, Irish-dominated enclave. So it was always a treat for my grandmother (and for my mother whose name day it was) to worship at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (photo) on the morning of the feast day, shop at the Italian Market on Arthur Avenue, and then return to enjoy "Italian Ices" at the street fair and outdoor procession (complete with dollar bills attached to Our Lady's statue) in the evening.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish had been established in 1906 - the same year as my home parish one mile west of it - and its upper Church was built in 1917. Its ministry was primarily, if not entirely, to the large Italian immigrant community in the East Bronx, and at its height in the 1940s and 1950s more than 40,000 Italians made Our Lady of Mount Carmel on East 187 Street their parish.

In the morning on the feast day, we would take the bus to Mount Carmel church for the Pontifical Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Pernicone, pastor from 1944 to 1966. Today's "traditionalists" typically experience very solemn celebrations of the ancient liturgy. But, back in the day, what most American Catholics typically experienced were hastily celebrated Low Masses most of the time, Sung and Solemn High Masses only occasionally, Solemn High Pontifical Masses almost never. So for me to attend an annual Missa Pontificalis (even if only in faldistorio) was quite something. (My childhood impression at the time was that it seemed mainly all about repeatedly taking the Bishop's miter off and putting it on!)

Our Lady of Mount Carmel was the title given to Our Lady as patroness of the Carmelite Order, a community which dates back to the era of the Crusades. The first Carmelites were Christian hermits living on Mount Carmel (present-day Haifa), site of Elijah’s famous challenge to the 400 Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). The Stella Maris Monastery on Mount Carmel, highlights the Order’s traditional connection to the site. (In modern times, Mount Carmel is also sacred to Bahá'ís, and is the location of the Bahá'í World Centre and the Shrine of the Báb.)


Carmelite friars started establishing foundations in Western Europe in the 13th century. Saint Simon Stock, an early English Carmelite prior general, was thought to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which she gave him the Brown Scapular, which has formed part of the Carmelite habit ever since. My grandmother had a great devotion to the Carmelite Brown Scapular.


Today’s feast was assigned to July 16, because of a Carmelite tradition that the scapular was given on that date by the Blessed Virgin to Saint Simon Stock, who also composed the sequence Flos Carmeli (“Flower of Carmel”) traditionally used in the Carmelite Rite.

Probably the two most famous Carmelite saints were the Spanish Carmelite mystical authors and reformers of the order, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). Paulist Fathers' founder Isaac Hecker was very devoted to both of them, and they are both among the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers.

Of course, I knew about none of that as a kid in the Bronx enjoying the local Italian street fair and discovering a love for the Church's liturgy at Pontifical Mass in that vibrant Italian National parish.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

King's Sanctuary and Royal Temple

Today's 1st Reading at Mass (Amos 7:12-15), which pits Amaziah, representing the king's sanctuary and royal temple, against Amos the Lord's prophet to Israel, always reminds me of an article by the great Reinhold Niebuhr that I remember reading in graduate school in the mid-1970s. In 1969, reacting to the eagerness of religious figures to function as court chaplains to President Richard Nixon, Niebuhr had authored "The King's Chapel and the King's Court" in Christianity and Crisis. Given the contemporary religious right's reprise of that role as chaplains to the Republican Party, I think Niebuhr's article is, if anything, more relevant than ever.

"If we consult Amos as our classical type of radical nonconformist religion," wrote Niebuhr in 1969, "we find that he, like his contemporary Isaiah, was critical of all religion that was not creative in seeking a just social policy." In his essay, Niebuhr quoted one contemporary religious figure, who "forgetting Amos," issued this effusive praise of the then President: "future historians, looking back on our generation may say that in a period of great trial and tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and opening the way for our country to realize the good that the century offered mankind."

To that implicit identification of Nixon with Cyrus, the Lord's Anointed (Isaiah 45:1), Niebuhr famously responded: "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers. The warnings of Amos are forgotten, and the chief current foreign policy problem of our day is bypassed."

What might Niebuhr - or any other authentic religious voice - respond to today's religious right's even more fulsome identification of the Republican Party with Cyrus?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Special Relationship

Presenting his diplomatic credentials to King George III at Saint James's Palace on June 1, 1785, American Minister John Adams famously said: "I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence and affection—or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

Well, we still have "the same language" (sort of), and the so-called "special relationship" between us and our "mother country" (always more aspirational than actual) has survived more or less, again more as an aspiration than anything else. 

In its modern form, the "special relationship" dates back to when it really mattered most - in World War II. The term itself is credited to most Americans' favorite Brit, Winston Churchill, who certainly went out of his way to cultivate a "special relationship" with FDR as part of a long-term strategy to save Britain (and in the process Western civilization). Churchill's understanding of the  "special relationship" was clearly expressed at the end of his most famous parliamentary address, delivered on June 4, 1940, in the aftermath of the retreat from Dunkirk:

"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The wartime "special relationship" was obviously a mater of survival for Britain and always meant more to Churchill than to FDR, to Britain than to the US. The post-war "special relationship" (although real enough in military and intelligence terms) has also probably always meant more to Britain than to the US, although its importance for the US - especially in relationship to the culturally much more foreign rest of Europe - should not be undervalued either.

It remains to be seen, however, what may be left of this "special relationship" today, given our President's neo-isolationism. President Trump is said to be a Churchill fan - one reason, perhaps, for setting last night's dinner at Churchill's birthplace at Blenheim Palace (not to mention it being conveniently in Oxfordshire rather than near London). The welcome at Blenheim and today's even grander welcome at Windsor will no doubt impress the President. At his press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump (whose mother, of course, was British) spoke positively about our "special relationship." And certainly there remain rooted in the American outlook residues of the emotional bonds that John Adams called "the old good nature and the old good humor" (although diminishingly so, as fewer and fewer Americans learn or know anything about our history).

But, unlike Churchill and FDR, Trump seems impervious to the deeper meaning of any relationship - except in competitive, transactional, zero-sum terms. With such a destructive outlook upon the world, what can be salvaged?




Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Western Alliance

By yet another convenient coincidence, today's NATO summit falls on the feast of Saint Benedict (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Both events remind us of the historical centrality of Europe in the formation of our Western culture and of our unique American relationship with Europe as its civilizational heir and beneficiary and as the guarantor of that civilization's survival. Yesterday, the US Senate voted 97-2 to reaffirm the significance of the NATO alliance.

NATO is almost as old as I am. In the aftermath of the Berlin Blockade, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, and other events, it became increasingly evident that a full-scale Western military alliance was needed to counterbalance Soviet power and possible expansion, The result was the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949 (photo). Its goal, in the words of its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Its historical success until now has been how it has indeed contained Russian expansionism, overcome American isolationism, and re-integrated post-war Germany into the heart of European civilization and collective defense. (West Germany became a member in 1955.)

The members agreed that an armed attack against any one of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against them all and that each of them would assist the country being attacked. The only time this provision has actually been explicitly invoked was in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S.

Prior to President Trump, probably the greatest threat to NATO's unity and effectiveness had come from the more independent policies of French President Charles de Gaulle (who resented American dominance of the alliance and the "special relationship" between the US and the UK. Even so, France remained in the alliance.

President Trump came to power on the strength of a kind of grievance politics - a popular belief that the US is constantly being taken advantage of by others. I have heard this all my life - usually in connection with "foreign aid," which is in fact a very small part of the US budget. Of course, there is some merit to the President's complaint that other NATO countries are not contributing their fair share of the cost of our mutual defense. Previous presidents have made the same point. Whereas when NATO began Europe was devastated, now - in large part thanks to the American security umbrella - Europe is now prosperous and probably ought to contribute a larger share.

Previous presidents have made the same point, but previous presidents understood the value of alliances and understood that what binds us together with Europe is much greater than disagreements over money. President Trump obviously has no sense of history and no appreciation of mutuality. To him, everything seems to be a zero-sum transaction. Hence his inability to appreciate how everyone can benefit in an alliance.

Yesterday's Senate vote is  reminder that, despite the appeal in this country of Trump's grievance politics, many Americans still treasure our inheritance from Europe and our contemporary relationship with Europe - and recognize the threat our long-time enemy Russia still poses.

Saint Benedict, pray for us!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Equal Protection

As the media eagerly await President Trump's announcement of which pro-business ideologue he will nominate as the next Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, by incredible coincidence today is the 150th anniversary of the ratification on July 9, 1868, of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (originally passed by Congress on June 13, 1866).

The heart of this most transformative constitutional amendment is Section 1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

These two sentences upended eight decades of American constitutional history. The first finally and unambiguously guarantees American citizenship to all born in the United Sates - including African Americans, whose citizenship had been denied by the infamous Dred Scott decision, and the children of more recent immigrants. The second sentence guarantees to all citizens the privileges or immunities of citizens, and guarantees to all in the U.S. due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.

The Amendment's historical context leaves no doubt that it should be read as making constitutionally suspect all forms of racial discrimination, although it took the Supreme Court close to a century to follow through fully on the Amendment's promise in that regard. One of the great scandals of American constitutional history has been the failure to enforce Section 2 of the Amendment: Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States , or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

If that section had been enforced by Congress and the Courts, the second century of our national history would have been very different, and we probably wouldn't be facing the widespread efforts at voter-suppression in Republican-controlled states that we have now. And, without voter-suppression, so much else would be different as well!

Over time, the provisions of the 14th Amendment have been interpreted increasingly expansively to include other categories of persons and other categories of rights. There are obviously very legitimate arguments about how expansively to read these provisions and how to evaluate some of these expansions. These debates will, of course, continue, regardless of who is nominated tonight.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Baby Trump" over London's Parliament Square

While much of the United Kingdom is engrossed in the quadrennial absurdity of the World Cup, the Queen and her Government are preparing to lay out the red carpet for President Trump, treating him to an audience at Windsor, a meeting at Chequers, and a lovely dinner at Blenheim Palace. Meanwhile, mocking all this, "Baby Trump" will hover in the London sky over Parliament Square.


To me, "Baby Trump" looks like some sarcastic, cynical version of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon. As someone who grew up in a Macy's family, religiously watching the parade, and who on occasion went to watch the balloons being inflated on Thanksgiving Eve, I still consider that parade and its balloons to be one of modern America's few remaining shared "feel good" experiences. So how should I feel about this alternative indulgence in sarcasm and cynicism?

Of course, one characteristic of a free society is that, when your country hosts a foreign head of state, dissenters are free to express their opposition - and even mock - the visitor. So, if some Londoners prefer to be impolite and mock their country's guest, that is part of the price we all pay for the benefits of living in free societies. A free society may be more than worth that price, but - make no mistake - it is a price.

Typically in such cases, it is a small minority, over-preoccupied with expressive politics, that engages in such protests, desirous of the symbolic resonance such impoliteness produces. But an increasingly impolite and uncivil society seems more and more receptive to such behavior.

And so it seems to me that one more unfortunate consequence of President Trump's impoliteness and incivility, of his vulgarity and meanness, has been to "normalize" such behavior and so encourage it in everyone else, including those most opposed to him. Thus one consequence of Trump's unconscionably bad behavior has been increasingly bad behavior on the part of everyone else.

Yet the more everyone else becomes Trumpian in style and language and behavior, the more he wins, and everything else that is worthwhile and matters in the world loses - perhaps irrevocably.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

160

On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker and three companions, Fr. Augustine Hewitt, Fr. George Deshon, and Fr. Francis Baker (like Hecker, themselves also all converts to Roman Catholicism and until recently also Redemptorist priests) signed the Programme of Rule and Constitution of the Congregation of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, thus creating the religious community commonly known ever since as The Paulist Fathers – the first men’s religious community to be founded in the United States. In a circular letter printed in Catholic newspapers around the country, the new community announced that they “had organized themselves as a religious congregation for the vigorous prosecution of the missions and other works of apostolic ministry.” 
Fr. Hecker, in the words of the 2018 Paulist Fathers’ General Assembly,  “provides a way to think about the search for God, the experience of conversion, the giving of oneself heroically in service, serving the Church’s mission, and attentiveness to the direction of the Holy Spirit. These are elements not only for the Paulists themselves but also for the spirituality of the wider Church.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day

Continuing my recovery from knee surgery, I was able to celebrate Mass privately in our house chapel this past Sunday. I was happy to be standing unassisted long enough to do so with sufficient dignity and decorum. But the experience also highlighted how much I missed my parish community and the joy of celebrating Sunday Mass with a congregation. 

Since it was the Sunday before July 4, I also missed singing My Country 'Tis of Thee as the final hymn. Besides being my favorite patriotic hymn, it has the added advantage that, if anyone present is ambivalent about celebrating the American Revolution, he or she has the alternative option of imagining that the other side won the war - with the same song but with different words! 

Of course, there are those who have reservations about ever singing patriotic hymns at Mass. Personally, I agree that hymns should praise God -  in contrast to so many banal late 20th-century liturgical songs in which the congregation primarily praises itself! 

Undoubtedly, an excessive diet of patriotic hymns would rightly saddle one with a certain spiritual indigestion. In moderation, however, on appropriate occasions, they remind us that, however exacting the requirements of our citizenship in the kingdom of God, those demands do not dispense us from the compelling, if limited, loyalties and duties which our earthly existence inherently imposes upon us - to family and to other human communities which are part of the givenness of living in a social world of space and time. 


Thus, in the mid-1960s, the Second Vatican Council warned: “They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.”(Gaudium et Spes, 43)

That problematic situation, against which the Council warned, is if anything, even more challenging today than it was in the still at least superficially Christian West of the 1960s. On the one hand, a society increasingly secular in its self-understanding finds it more and more difficult to hold itself morally accountable and to appreciate the Church's role as mater et magistra. On the other, even those who purport to be among the most conscious of the rightful demands religious obligations in relation to political interests have increasingly been among those tempted to subordinate the former to the latter. Since at least the 1980s, a certain sort of religiosity has increasingly privileged the political in its calculations - on of the factors that has contributed to our contemporary religious and political impasse in the US.

As is generally the case with revolutions, only a minority supported American independence in 1776. Probably one-third of the population remained loyal to the Crown, while another third waited it out to see which faction would win. Much of the motivation for the Revolution was the desire of come colonists not to pay taxes - a problem which has sadly persisted throughout our history and corrupted our political culture. The movement for independence was also connected with a desire to be freed from imperial restraints on expansion into Native territories and with a Protestant hostility to Canadian Catholicism.

But no nation or polity is untainted in its origins or perfect in its present. July 4 is a day for hot dogs and fireworks, for affirming what is best about our country, despite its flaws and failures, and for recovering our diminished sense of national purpose and aspiration. 

Our father's God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!






Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Succession

Reality offers abundant evidence of the morally desrtuctive character of capitalism, without the need to resort to TV dramatization. But, if one wanted a TV drama to make the point, HBO's Succession (now 5 episodes into its first season) serves this function quite effectively.

Succession portrays the personal and corporate struggles of the Roy family  – Waystar Royco founder and CEO and family patriarch, Logan Roy, his four children, and various other relatives and hangers-on. Logan controls one of the world's largest media and entertainment conglomerates. He is also 80 and starting to decline, but so far at least seems unwilling to step back from complete control of the company.

There are no nice people in this show. Logan is a thoroughly reprehensible moral monster - and, unsurprisingly, a bad father whose children are his most disastrous personal legacy. Only two of his heirs, son Kendal and daughter Shiv, seem even minimally competent at any actual work. No one seems to have much of a moral compass, although a few show some occasional and very faint glimpses of ethical awareness. Some, like Logan himself, appear consumed by ambition, although for others ambition does not seem to be that driving a force.

The fundamental problem for all of them is that they are rich. Wealth - and the power and privilege that it buys - are the air they breathe. But it is polluted air, poisoning all of them and all their relationships.

As we may increasingly expect on HBO (e.g., The Leftovers) most of the characters seem completely incapable of expressing themselves in ordinary, non-profane English. It is really hard to imagine even the super-rich as too emotionally impoverished even to be able to put together a decent, non-vulgar sentence in ordinary family conversation. 

But emotionally impoverished they certainly are. Ambitious Kendal seems somewhat more conscious of this and so seems to suffer that much more. His brother Roman seems more like some utterly unrepressed Freudian Id and so glides more easily from situation to situation. 

Although as a society all of us may have been victimized by capitalism, most of us are not wealthy and cannot identify with the corporate conflicts on display at Waystar Royco's headquarters. But we all have been part of families and have experienced family life, love, and conflict. By allowing the ravages of capitalist acquisitiveness to be played out not just in the unfamiliar setting of the corporate boardroom but in the all too familiar setting of the family dining room, Succession has created a powerful parable the non-rich audience can comprehend and identify with.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Of Politics and Restaurants

As I mentioned in passing yesterday, while I was otherwise preoccupied getting my knee fixed, a restaurant in Virginia joined the already famous Masterpiece Cake Shop in exploring the ethical dimensions of what kinds of customers to serve or not to serve. I refer, of course, to what happened when the owner of a restaurant in Lexington, VA, asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant after a number of the restaurant's staff had told her that they were uncomfortable serving the official spokesperson for an administration that has behaved so appallingly toward immigrants, and other minority groups.

As Saint Paul famously pointed out to the Christians in Corinth, just because something is lawful does not make it wise or prudent. As a matter of principle, presumably, the restaurant, a private business not a public service or governmental agency, has the right to take such a stand. The real question, of course, is whether it is wise or prudent to do so, what good it does or doesn't do in regard to anything that matters, and whether it further undermines that increasingly elusive goal of political "civility." 

And these are, indeed, difficult questions to answer. As with so many such symbolic protests, the protest itself tends to become the subject of debate, not the reprehensible behavior being protested. It could even be argued in this particular case that such symbolic protest simply plays into the hands of the Administration - distracting attention from our government's aggressive use of state power against helpless parents and children on our southern border. This easily happens in a media culture of false equivalence, in which the "incivility" of inconveniencing the Administration's spokesperson's dinner plans is presented as somehow comparable to the "incivility" of separating children from their parents.

That said, I have long been of the opinion that such symbolic acts of protest seldom accomplish much - and at worst can become self-righteous substitutes for doing anything about the actual problem.  At the risk of overgeneralization, those on one side in American politics and culture wars tend to be better at focusing on what needs to be done - mobilizing political power in support of their agenda. Those on the other side tend to be better at expressive political actions rather than consequential political actions. Crudely put, the Right votes, the Left demonstrates. Demonstrations may indeed dominate short-term news coverage, but voting wins actual political power and produces political results that make a real difference in real people's lives. Wherever one comes down on the merits of any particular act of expressive protest, the priority has to be on practical political action.


Friday, June 29, 2018

The Changing of the Guard?

A lot has been happening in our excessively fast-moving, circus-like, political world this past week, while I have been more personally preoccupied with the experience of knee-replacement surgery and recovery. 

As often happens at the end of June, there have been some extremely significant Supreme Court decisions - notably the Court's Janus v. AFSCME decision (yet another unfortunate consequence of Mitch McConnell and his comrades having gotten away with stealing a Supreme Court seat from President Obama in 2016). Then came Justice Anthony Kennedy's not unexpected retirement, which will surely light up the political sky with fireworks for weeks, maybe months. Meanwhile, a restaurant in Virginia has joined the more famous Masterpiece Cake Shop in exploring the ethical dimensions of what kinds of customers to serve or not. 

And, while all this was happening, there was also Tuesday's upset primary win of a 28-year old insurgent, Latina, "Democratic-Socialist," Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in New York's 14th Congressional District, where she bested a long-time, traditional ethnic Catholic Democratic party leader, Joseph Crowley, a one-time chair of the "New Democrat" coalition in Congress - in what must be seen as yet one more defeat for traditional, mainstream, centrist Democratic party politics.

"All politics is local," and for sure there may have been any number of genuinely local factors contributing to the upset - not the least of which is the obvious long-term change in the district's ethnic composition (a factor which is both local and national in its import). That said, politics today is a lot less local than it used to be. Elections - in particular, primary elections - are likely a lot more national (and ideological) today than in the heyday of the sort of traditional, mainstream, centrist Democratic party politics represented by Congressman Crowley, et al.  Ocasio-Cortz clearly represents the familiar pattern of ethnic succession, whereby a district's congressional representative belatedly comes to look like his or her constituents. But it also represents the continued national and ideological evolution of the Democratic party, that was so dramatically - and catastrophically for the party's electoral fortunes - on display in Bernie Sanders' successful challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 (successful in that, along with James Comey and Vladimir Putin, Sanders' stunt helped give us President Trump instead of President Clinton).

As Peter Beinart observed in The Atlantic on Wednesday, if some centrist political dinosaur like Joe Biden were to run in 2020, he would likely “face younger Democrats who, like Ocasio-Cortez, entered politics after the New Democratic era had ended, and older ones, like Bernie Sanders, who rejected it all along. And he’ll do so in an era in which, more than at any time since the early 1970s, the activist left is defining the Democratic Party. … For Clinton, for Crowley, and for Biden, the New Democratic ideology that they once proudly espoused has become a source of shame. And when you run for office ashamed of principles that animated much of your career, you’re vulnerable to people who aren’t.”



Sunday, June 24, 2018

John the Baptist


Even as the world's attention this past week has been focused on our southern border and on our government’s deliberately cruel and aggressive policies against families and children, with all that in the background, the Church's calendar today invites us to focus on the birth of a baby – something of a rarity in the Church’s calendar, which typically celebrates saints on the day of their death. Only Jesus, Mary his mother, and Saint John the Baptist, whom the Gospel describes as filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb – only those three -  have their birthdays acknowledged in the Church’s calendar.

Today’s celebration transports us in spirit into an Old Testament atmosphere of pious, devout senior citizens in sterile marriages, whose youth is symbolically restored by the great gift of fertility. In the world of the Bible, few fates could be worse than not having any children. Quite unlike the me and my generation mainly mentality so emblematic of our own time, fertility and the future it made possible were seen as the greatest of gifts, a great grace, a true blessing. This blessing was now granted to Zechariah and Elizabeth. But, again quite unlike our modern mentality, this blessing was not granted to Zechariah and Elizabeth simply for themselves. Hence, the Gospel recounts a whole series of special events surrounding, first, the conception, and, then, the birth, circumcision, and naming of their son. These circumstances served Zechariah and Elizabeth and their family and friends as visible signs, so to speak, of their son’s special status and mission, indicating the purpose of this miraculous event in God’s great plan for the whole human race.

According to the account in Luke’s Gospel, when Zechariah and Elizabeth’s family and friends heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward Zechariah and Elizabeth, they naturally rejoiced with them. At first, however, they still had their own pre-conceived understanding of what they were celebrating, as reflected, for example, in the way they thought the newborn should be named. But they – and, through them, we – must be made to see that this miracle birth was about so much more than the Lord’s mercy to one couple, to one family, Hence, the physical miracle of John’s birth was augmented by even further signs dramatically highlighting his fuller significance.

In the world of the Bible, naming someone was an act of authority. In the case of a newborn, it signified the father’s recognition of his child. But, as the angel had foretold to Zechariah, many would rejoice at this boy’s birth. He would belong not just to his parents but to the special mission God had made him for. Hence, his name was chosen by God himself and announced by an angel. Zechariah and Elizabeth and their family and friends recognized in this a sign that God really was still present and active in the world. So, unable to keep the good news to themselves, they immediately anticipated John’s own special mission by spreading the word throughout the hill country of Judea.

Today’s feast focuses on John’s birth. The familiar details of his preaching and baptizing we will hear about again, as we do every year, in Advent. John’s actual public career was quite brief – quickly cut short by his arrest and eventual execution. His martyrdom is recalled in the Church’s calendar in August, but it seems appropriate today to recall, that martyrdom as the Preface of the Mass does, to recall his imprisonment and execution by King Herod Antipas. The Gospel account suggests that Herod may have actually admired John and that Herod liked to listen to him, but that he was very much perplexed by John’s challenge to his misuse of political power (Mark 6). Just as John had pointed ahead to Jesus in life, his death also pointed ahead to Jesus’ own death at the hands of Roman political authority – and beyond that to the many martyrs in every age, including our own, whose heroic witness would put them at odds with unjust and immoral aggressive political power.

John’s birth, which we celebrate with such solemnity today, continued the process that began with the promise God long ago made to Abraham, then renewed over and over to his descendants, and finally fulfilled in Jesus, whose own birth we will celebrate exactly six months from now. Today heralds the hope that the dry desert summer will eventually yield to the autumn rains and the life-giving wetness of winter – nature’s way, perhaps, of symbolizing the effect of the coming of Christ whose birth into our world of injustice and oppression it was John’s mission – and is now our mission – to announce to the world.

Homily for the Nativity of Saint John the baptist, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 24, 2018.