Thursday, August 22, 2019

Mike Wallace (The Movie)

I haven't watched 60 Minutes in years, but there was a time when I watched the show, which debuted in September 1968 when I was 20, fairly faithfully. For almost almost four decades from that program;s beginning, Mike Wallace (1918-2012) was one of its regular correspondents. Mike Wallace Is Here, a documentary film directed by Avi Belkin, chronicles his TV career almost completely out of archival footage, portraying him largely as he portrayed himself.

So we see footage from his early, pre-CBS career as an entertainer in 1950s TV and his first opportunity to find his vocation as an interviewer on Night Beat in 1956.

But it was his CBS work and, above all, his 60 Minutes interviews that defined him for a generation of news-watchers - even as his image and voice defined his distinctive style of journalism. Even if one doesn't care that much about Mike Wallace personally, his interviews with the great and the good - and the bad and the very bad - made their mark in their time and are well worth revisiting in this wonderful movie, which highlights not only the high points of his investigative journalism (Vietnam, Watergate, tobacco) but his interpersonal interactions with everyone from Bette Davis to Barbara Streisand to Oriana Fallaci to Ayatollah Khomeini to General Westmorland to a young Donald Trump to Bill O'Reilly (the last two perhaps a look ahead into the world Wallace's style inadvertently pointed ahead to).

We learn about the death of his 19-year old son Peter in a 1962 hiking accident in Greece, but not too much more about his private life until late in the film when he suddenly becomes frank and personal about his struggle with depression and his reflections on aging. As I experience the diminishments of age and look ahead uncertainly to the ambiguities of life no longer defined by one's work, I found that particular part of the film especially engaging.

As he reveals more about himself, Wallace becomes if not more likable at least somewhat sympathetic a character, which makes this movie much more than just another nostalgic journey down memory lane.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In Search of the Common Good

Jake Meador's In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Inter-Varsity Press, 2019) offers an explicitly evangelical perspective on politics and society that is also surprisingly somewhat Catholic in its inspiration, language, and aspirations. It is perhaps unsurprising that he starts out asserting: "Our decline is a predictable product of choices we have made." More surprising, that statement introduces a critique not just of secular society's social breakdown (saved for chapter two) but of the Christian Churches themselves: "Where God calls his people to service, the American church has far too often pursued power. ... A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up."

Only after confronting the Churches' failures does he turn to society. Though he never uses the term, Meador makes a sort of natural-law argument for connecting Christian and more universal moral norms: "Christianity's moral norms are based on the idea that there is a way people are meant to function in the world." Meador's corollary: "Religious life and common life decline together."

He eloquently describes the increasingly familiar consequences of our individualistic culture: the depletion of America's "social capital," Americans' increasing loneliness, social media and screen-based activities, and the decline of the family, "the spiritual cost to having fewer children in a society" and the outsourcing of everyday care. The crisis is "a comprehensive social breakdown that leaves no corner of life untouched, no person immune to its effects. What we are seeing is a comprehensive crisis of public life." 

He locates that crisis such formulations as Justice Anthony Kennedy's infamous line in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." He traces such sentiments back to the traditional villains of modern political philosophy, Locke and Rousseau, and more originally to the influence of existentialism, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. "What has happened," he argues, "is that the modern story has seized on one of love's necessary qualities - freedom - and forgotten all the others." And he illustrates the consequence by considering the contemporary crisis of climate change: "the story of how human beings have seen the chief purpose of the earth as being to facilitate their own immediate freedom from constraint, even at the cost of the planet's health."  

He devotes an entire chapter to what he calls "the loss of good work."  He stresses how one way "our economy impoverishes us spiritually is by teaching us that the only sort of work that is really work is work that a member of the capitalist class will pay us to do in the form of a wage of some sort." He cites traditional classical Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on the universal destination of goods and the relativity of private property, even quoting Pope Francis: "Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property" (Evangelii Gaudium, 189).

Having diagnosed what ails us, Meador tries in the second half of his book to offer alternative practices for Christians to make their own: "the most important thing we can do is be properly Christian in the totality of our lives, starting with the way we shape our homes and carrying that out into our individual vocations, whatever those may be." Basing himself on the Genesis creation account and its image of human life before the fall, he identifies three norms for recovering common life: "work, home, and sabbath."

Treating them in reverse order, he starts with sabbath, which he contrasts to the ideology of the factory. Sabbath is an Old Testament institution which Catholics have integrated into our spiritual life differently from evangelicals. Both, however, historically have emphasized, as Meador does, the primacy of participating in public worship on the sabbath (or, as Catholics would prefer to say, the Lord's Day): "public worship is an inherently social thing that breaks me out of my natural individualism ... it also forces me into contact with people I might not like very much if not for Christ." Meador warns against the widespread contemporary tendency to "find ways of fitting our religious practice into a schedule that is otherwise defined and controlled by other concerns and obligations." To combat this, he proposes returning to the older evangelical practice of a second service on Sunday evening. (The long-lost Catholic equivalent was Sunday afternoon Vespers and Benediction - or, later, vernacular devotions and Benediction. Trying to imagine returning to that highlights what a lifestyle challenge Meader's proposals imply!)

Secondly, he emphasizes what he calls the membership: "the idea that we do not exist in the world as lonely, alienated individuals, but as embodied creatures made by the same God, who made the rivers and the animals and the mountains and the ocean." He highlights two callings to membership: marriage and celibacy. He emphasizes a traditional understanding of marriage that long predates our contemporary preoccupation with the married couple. Thus, "marriage is a covenant relationship ... designed to provide a stable place for children to grow up and for the couple to mature in love fore on another ... a relationship oriented toward the flourishing of the world, seen in the bearing of children and making of households."

If his emphasis on the more traditional family and household model of marriage goes against the contemporary preoccupation with the couple, he valorization of celibacy seems even more counter-cultural - especially coming from an evangelical. He quotes Oliver O'Donovan (Resurrection and Moral Order) on how marriage vindicates "the order of creation," while singleness points "beyond to its eschatological transformation."

Finally, work, which he pointedly distinguishes from what he calls "technique" (an argument which draws significantly upon Jacques Ellul). Referencing the pre-lapsarian human state in Genesis, he speaks of "the work of men and women given to them by the God they are called to imitate." Referencing the way we work in contemporary society, he notes how hard it is "to feel enthusiasm for work in which a person has minimal freedom to make their own decisions about how to do a task and in which they are under constant surveillance, two qualities that describe a great deal of the jobs people now do in the United States." Referencing Luther's notion of being turned in on oneself, he notes that "there is such a thing as bad work" in which people are "curved inward, focused on their own desires and comfort rather than the divine call to love their neighbor." He even identifies particular jobs that "are utterly unnecessary to the welfare of society."

Returning finally to our contemporary political context, he notes that in recent campaigns Democrats devalued "nongovernmental community," while Republicans "actively despised nearly half the population and virtually every poor American." Accordingly, Christians need to adopt "ways of thinking that have become quite foreign to us in an era in which both parties are so stridently committed to their own bankrupt ideas." To this end, he argues the values of solidarity, sphere sovereignty, and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is the easiest for me to appreciate, since it most explicitly rejects a neo-Hobbesian "modernist understanding of politics," which is all about securing "the right to narrate one's own identity" through "action and choice." Sphere sovereignty, a term I had never encountered, emphasizes the "distinctions between the work and different communities that exist in a society," a Protestant formulation for prioritizing the pluralism of mediating institutions in society. Finally, subsidiarity, which "helps us to recognize the unique social utility offered by different human institutions and frees up those communities to do what they are best at."

More interestingly, he argues for an inherent priority of doctrine and virtue over policy: "The most basic work of Christian citizenship is to cultivate the virtues of humility and wisdom in order to make oneself a gifted public servant in whatever venue God has called one to. By understanding the basic Christian political doctrines as well as the civil virtues, we can equip ourselves to repair the fracturing body politic of America and to offer a positive vision of mutual flourishing and hope in our decadent society."

Monday, August 19, 2019

Blinded by the Light

Watching Blinded by the Light, I couldn't help but remember those old musicals when, all of a sudden, someone would start signing, and everyone else would join in the singing, sometimes dancing, sometimes accompanied by a full orchestra that magically emerged on the movie set.  Minus the orchestra, Blinded by the Light does something similar as its 16-year old lead character Javid (Viveil Kalra) - a member of a Pakistani immigrant family in the dead-end English city of Luton, at an emotionally and economically fraught moment in his family's and Margaret Thatcher's Britain's intersecting stories -discovers Bruce Springsteen's music and is excited and inspired by its power to move beyond melancholy to reimagine his life.

The power of music to express otherwise inexpressible longings and to inspire change is the transformational agent in Javid's coming of age struggle against the rigid traditionalism of his father, while growing up in a society itself in flux and not sure of where it is going or the kind of country it wants to be. The film touches all the traditional bases of stereotypical coming-of-age narratives (including the feel-good family reconciliation at the end), all set in t e context of the Thatcherite assault on the British working class and social responses to it from both the left (represented by Javid's love interest, Eliza, a politically active daughter of true-Blue "no society" Tory parents) and the right (represented more ominously by the racist, sometimes violent, nativist movements that thrive amid such social distress).

Everyone who hated high school (presumably most people) will find something to identify with in this film, as will anyone who struggled to grow out of the confines of limited family expectations and limited economic and social resources. 

Based on a true story about actual Springsteen fandom, this film highlights the particular power of music to speak simultaneously to our frustrations and aspirations. In real life, of course, different people find different vehicles for escape, inspiration, and motivation, music being perhaps only one of several such possibilities. It is likely always the case, however, that love and friendship will play a prominent part. For all the social stresses of the immigrant experience, economic collapse, cultural breakdown, and nativist hostility, the film highlights the necessity and power of community, of a networks of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, all of whom live out one fo the film's favorite Springsteenisms: "Nobody wins unless everybody wins."

Sunday, August 18, 2019


One of the interesting side-stories of the great wars of the 20th century was their particularly devastating impact upon the interconnected royal and noble families of Europe, which suddenly found themselves divided by military conflicts created by politicians. For example, Prince Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse, head of the distinguished dynasty that had helped make the Protestant Reformation possible, was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s in 1866. During World War I, Philip’s cousin, Britain’s King George V, was his country’s principal enemy. In World War II, Philip’s father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an ally who famously switched sides midway through the war, with consequences catastrophic for Philip and fatal for his wife, the Princess Mafalda, who died in a German concentration camp 75 years ago this month.

Royalty, of course, were not the only ones divided by wars. The American Revolution famously found Benjamin Franklin and his son on opposite sides, while in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy – family divisions that were widely replicated in the experience of so many families at all levels of society.

Nor are wars the only causes of family conflict. In the Gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus used the case of a family conflict over inheritance to illustrate why wealth and possessions are problems for any serious disciple.

In today’s Gospel [Luke 12:49-53], Jesus used the potential for family conflict to illustrate his larger point about the complete commitment demanded of every disciple. One of the fundamental facts of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment often entails saying “No” to other options. So it is with the decision to follow Jesus, a commitment that is meant to matter enough to change everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or while on vacation somewhere. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced [cf. Hebrews 12:1-4]. So it was – and is - with martyrs.

Of course, no one should want to be at odds with others - with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should seek conflict for conflict’s sake. Yet conflict happens – not always, but often enough, and especially in those great either/or choices that produce martyrs (and almost martyrs, like poor Jeremiah in today’s 1st reading [Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10]). One of modern history’s more sobering facts is that the past century has produced more Christian martyrs than any other century. And then there are all the ordinary situations, which lack the high drama of martyrdom, but which can on occasion also call on us to do something different from what we would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition - like Scott Daniel Warren, for example, who was put on trial by our government earlier this year after providing food, water, beds, and clean clothes to immigrants in Arizona.

Of course, we would all prefer a calm, untroubled life, in a calm, conflict-free world. We voice that sentiment every day when we pray that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress. It’s not conflict per se to which Jesus calls us. It is commitment which he challenges us to live – to be clear about what matters most, clear about our purpose in life, clear about what needs to be done (or not done). It is the challenge of being willing to be transformed by God’s grace into the person God wants me to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.

And, because we live in an otherwise untransformed world, that transforming experience can at times really resemble a sword separating us from whoever or whatever we would otherwise have so readily clung to.

Jesus does indeed promise peace to his disciples – the peace of his kingdom, a very different peace from a momentary absence of conflict. There are Christians, unfortunately, who seem to live with a permanent chip on the shoulder, claiming persecution all the time and spoiling for a fight. But the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, joy, and peace – not hatred, hostility, and anger. The challenge, rather, is to build bridges, not knock them down – to pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while struggling to do so in an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception church, Knoxville, TN, August 18, 2019.

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Years ago - 49 years to be exact - I was a college student studying in Austria, and on the feast of the Assumption, which was, of course, a legal holiday, the churches all sang Mozart's Coronation Mass. and I remember watching how people went from church to church comparing choirs - the Kyrie here, the Gloria across the street, the Credo down the block, etc.  Whereas in traditionally Catholic European countries the Assumption is still a legal holiday, for the rest of us, however, the Church's great annual summer "feel-good" festival - the oldest and most important of all of her feasts - may perhaps pass almost or entirely unnoticed, sandwiched into the middle of the post-modern work week, filled as it already is with frenzy, fury, and folly.

While this neglect in no way diminishes Mary's heavenly glory, it does diminish - and deprive us of - the joy we ought to derive from it.

At the end of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council, as part of its lengthy meditation on Mary, recalled that the immaculate Virgin preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things (LG 59), and that the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and the beginning of the church as it is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise, she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (LG 68).

So, while we celebrate today something wonderful which happened to Mary at the end of her life one earth, we also celebrate our continued connection with her and with her Risen Son in the Church.

In Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary [Yale U. Pr., 2009] Miri Rubin writes of the medieval celebration of the Assumption: "Everything about the feast was designed to remind participants that Mary was seated alongside her son in heaven.  The Assumption set Mary apart from other saints and reassured those who sought her intercession and help as she sat alongside her son there. ... All the senses were touched by the Assumption. ... European devotion had never  spoken of Mary as elaborately before. Written for an occasion when heaven and earth met, it was fitting that sermons for the Assumption used ornate language, full of pomp. ...The Assumption celebrated the enduring hope of heavenly intercession, the hope that linked heaven and earth" [pp. 139-140].

Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church as we are now with the Church as we hope to be.

Our world is full of natural disasters, inexplicable personal tragedies, and deliberate destruction. Violence and sickness seem to surround us. So powerful does the dragon of death appear, that it dared to attack even Jesus. Only after death had done its worst did God decisively step in, conquering death by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there. For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2019.

(Photo: The Assumption altarpiece oil painting by the early 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist Titian on the high altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sacred Time

"I miss all the Vigils. Why on earth were they suddenly suppressed?” lamented Thomas Merton in his monastic diary on December 7, 1959. Given the date, Merton was obviously lamenting the loss of the liturgical Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Today's much more ancient Vigil of the Assumption survived the 1950s, only to be swept away in 1969. By then, Merton had died and so missed the complete extermination of all the ancient vigils in the 1969 calendar. Originally, of course, a vigil was a nocturnal preparation for a festival, but as the liturgy evolved over the centuries, the vigil Mass came to be celebrated on the previous morning of what came to be considered a penitential day.

As Pius Parsch put it, "vigils are days of penance, days of interior purification. They provide for the penitential implications of the feast. If in spirit we are to ascend heavenwards with the Blessed Virgin tomorrow, we should today loosen ourselves from the earthly bonds that chain us to this world."     

Of course, apart from those traditionally Catholic countries where the Assumption is still a legal holiday, this great ancient festival itself likely gets lost in the ordinariness of a secular work day. So why worry about its lost vigil, which at best might be barely noticed at all, and largely only by a tiny part of the population? Fair enough, but, of course, the entire calendar is largely irrelevant to the patterns and preoccupations of ordinary daily life. Liturgical and secular timetable have long since parted ways, and there is little doubt which actually matters more in real life.

So any lament for our lost vigils really reflects a lament for our loss of sacred time, such as it once was, such as it conceivably could be, but most certainly isn't now.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Fixing the Filibuster

Writing in The NY Times today, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) made a compelling case for eliminating the filibuster once and for all. Reid himself, as he acknowledges in his article, abolished the filibuster for confirmations of most presidential appointees in 2013 Of course, what he should have done was eliminate the whole thing then and there, while he had the chance. The question at present, however, assuming the Democrats can actually regain control of the Senate, a crucial prerequisite to their accomplishing anything at all, is whether Reid's recommendation will ever be followed.

The qualifier that none of this matters unless the Democrats first regain Senate control is no mere technicality, given the Democrats' historic neglect of non-presidential politics. However one evaluates Barack Qbama as president, he was certainly unsuccessful as party leader - losing over the course of his two terms not only 11 Senate seats and 62 House seats, but also 12 Democratic governors and 958 state legislative seats. And, as the US divides more deeply into two separate competing cultures with nothing but their mutual hatred for each other in common, the prospects for recovering the senate seem more, not less difficult.

Assuming somehow that the country elects a Democratic Senate next year, what would happen? Would the majority act to restore some semblance of procedural sanity to the system by abolishing the filibuster once and for all? If Harry Reid is now a belated convert to Senatorial democracy, what about the candidates for president? What about front-runner potential President Joe Biden?. As some of the former Senator's recent unfortunate comments have shown, he suffers from a severe case of senatorial nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body." The fact, of course, is that the Senate has long ceased to be a serious deliberative body and, in any case, the purpose of such deliberation is supposed to be legislating, something which an immobilized Senate has virtually ceased to do.

Admittedly institutional reforms, however necessary or desirable, seldom inspire or excite. And no conceivable constitutional or other change can rid us of the Senate, however desirable such a change might be. But there is nothing constitutionally mandated about holding on to the century-old procedural nightmare that is the filibuster. If a future Democratic Administration has any actual agenda, then the only conceivable way to enact it at all would be by, first, winning a working majority in the Senate and then governing by majority (as the constitution clearly contemplated the Senate doing).

Misplaced nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body" is a symptom of the peculiar idea that our present predicament is largely due to one president's idiosyncrasies, rather than reflections of deeply felt ideological and cultural conflicts that have poisoned our politics, a politics already rendered quasi-dysfunctional by its systemic weaknesses such as the Senate itself and its foolish filibuster rule.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Succession (Season 2)

HBO's Succession is back for a second season. One would have thought the world had already seen enough of the repulsive Roy family; but, of course, we can never get enough of the rich. And really what more timely topic is there for our entertainment? The  evil Roys are all fictional, but the salience of their story lies precisely in the fact that they so effectively express the oligarchic values we seem increasingly surrounded by,

Succession and its collection of utterly evil and reprehensible rich people - all foul-mouthed and variously over-sexed and/or drug-dependent - is an unsubtle study in the unambiguous evil of wealth and the moral depravity that accompanies its possession. It is also, as its title suggests, a study in the specific corruptions connected with inherited wealth, it being one of the peculiar consequences of modern democracy to have replaced the classical nobility of aristocratic dominance with rule by a narcissistic oligarchy.

Except perhaps (occasionally) for cousin Greg, there is hardly a character that could remotely be considered likable. Moral monsters all, they have all been totally twisted by their wealth, the unearned power it has given them, and the thoughtless cruelty it has equipped them to practice on the rest of the world - and, most notoriously, on each other. Whereas drama usually succeeds by inviting us to identify with or sympathize with one or more major characters, Succession succeeds precisely in proportion to the repulsiveness of the characters - a reflection, perhaps, of the show's obvious off-screen relevance.

Last night's season opener picked up where season one had left off - with Kendall (once upon a time the presumed successor) still hopelessly drug-dependent, now recovering (if that is what it is) from his very own Chappaquiddick experience (what his father at the end of last season called "the defining moment" of Kendall's life) by accepting his new fate of total subservience to his father. Totally defeated personally and professionally, he is treated with contempt on all sides. Now that Kendall has been completely disempowered and Logan has obviously recovered from whatever impairment he suffered in his season one stroke, Logan has to decide whether and how to fight to keep control of his company, which in the show's twisted capitalist irony requires him finally to choose his successor. And the winner is ... Shiv (always obviously the best brain of the bunch of siblings, even if she has seemingly spent her adult life so far pursuing an alternative career outside the family business).

The setting for most of the action in the season opener is a gathering of the Roys at the family's "summer palace" at the shore. The attractive seaside setting is spoiled by a bad smell which permeates the house (due, we discover, to dead raccoons in the chimney).  The bad smell serves as a sort of symbolic metaphor for everything that happens there. Supposedly on account of the smell, Logan throws out all the expensive fancy food and orders pizza, a parable, I suppose, for the sheer waste that is at the heart of the capitalist hell that is being perperated in real life at that "summer palace."

As Adam Smith (1723-1790) so famously warned in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Traveling through Life

By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

We have been hearing a lot about Abraham lately in the liturgy over several recent Sundays. According to the account in Genesis, Abraham - at the astonishing age of 75 – was commanded by God to move from his ancestral home to a new land which God promised would belong – eventually – to his descendants. Unlike so many migrants, past and present, Abraham not only got to bring his wife and his nephew, Lot, but also their herds of animals and whatever other possessions he had accumulated in those 75 years. The New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews rightly wanted to emphasize Abraham’s faith. And surely Abraham’s faith was the most important thing he brought with him, but obviously those other people and things that he brought along mattered to him too.

Jesus famously told his disciples to travel light, to trust in God’s care for us in money bags that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven. We all appreciate that detachment from other people and from possessions may be important – and at times absolutely necessary. Still, as Aristotle insisted, a life without friendships would be hard to bear. And Jesus himself valued his friendships, as did his disciples in the early Church. As for things, they too can be very attractive. All those homes and cars and gadgets we accumulate may weigh us down with possessions - and possessiveness - and may distract us from more important human relationships; but we know that they can also make our lives easier and more fulfilling in some fundamental ways. Even those phones and computers and other technological toys that, on the one hand, may make our social interactions so artificial may, on the other hand, also make some social interactions possible that wouldn’t even happen otherwise.

So I think Abraham basically got it right when he realized that living productively in this world and maintaining fulfilling human relationships were important values in themselves and would always require paying attention to other people and things. But what made Abraham’s human relationships and possessions so especially meaningful and gave them a whole new dimension was the confident faith that freed him always to respond trustingly to God’s commands, wherever that took him.

So it must be for all of us, as we navigate our way through the ordinary demands of daily life and the extraordinary challenges of this increasingly troubled time in which we live.  A faith like Abraham’s invites us to recognize, even in the challenges we encounter, new opportunities to respond to, new opportunities to rediscover the heart of who and what we are fundamentally meant to become, by means of our relationships with other people and things – and so become the people we hope to be when we settle down once and for all forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 11, 2019.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A Grim Anniversary

It was hardly the moon landing - or even Woodstock. Were it not for Quentin Tarantino's troubling but fantastic film Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the 50th anniversary of the infamous Manson-cult murders of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child,  and her house guests on August 8, 1969, might be passing with much less notice. As I noted in my own review of the film last week, it is a very good movie; but the picture it presents of that period about which Tarantino is so nostalgic may itself serve as an effective cure for such nostalgia. The film's surprise ending radically alters the actual history of that terrible night, but the real historical crime has come to be seen by many as a symbolic end to that era and to the more benevolent interpretation of the counter-cultural fantasies of the sixties.

The previous year's rock musical Hair had highlighted the "hippie" movement and reflected its contemporary cultural resonance. Its music was so good that its songs have survived and have continued to be popular long past the hippie movement's demise. (A friend of mine who saw Hair early in its first run reflected at the time that the show itself was anticipating the end of the hippie movement.) Great music and an explosion of color in place of previously uniformly drab outfits (especially for men) are among the more positive legacies of that brief interlude when it may have genuinely seemed a new era of peace and love was being inaugurated in place of a shallow conformist culture. On this date in 1969, that most glamorous harbinger of a new era of music, peace, love, and joy, Woodstock, was one week away. But that bubble was doomed to burst soon enough. It would surely have burst anyway, even without the Manson cult's crimes, but those terrible crimes shed a bright light on the dark underside of the sixties' "revolution." (In Tarantino's movie, even before the violent ending, his depiction of the squalor and sheer pointlessness of the hippie commune's life are already enough warning that that alternative to shallow conformity could not create anything of lasting value and could only end badly - as of course the sixties did.)

We have all been irrevocably formed by the sixties - both those of us who lived through it and those who have inherited the poisoned legacy we left them. This grim anniversary is yet another reminder of how as a society we have yet to come to terms completely with the confused legacy of the sixties and how shaped - and misshaped - we have been by that traumatic decade.

Monday, August 5, 2019

"Thoughts and Prayers"

When bad things happen, we tend to become surprisingly silent. Even normally loquacious politicians and pundits sometimes content themselves with offering that current commonplace "thoughts and prayers" Other politicians, pundits, and ordinary observers, more aroused to act against evil than stunned into silence by it, mock their colleagues' "thoughts and prayers" for the phony slogan it has become. In themselves, thinking and praying are good, of course. In fact, one might suggest that among our society's many personal and political problems is a radical insufficiency of both. But that cannot condone sloganeering "thoughts and prayers" in place of the thinking and praying that should really be going on all the time, much less in place of the personal and political action that needs to be taking the place of our widespread silence and inaction.

Whenever tragedy strikes, compassion is called for. But, especially when the tragedy is due to human evil, compassion calls out for action. One obvious action in response to our national orgy of mass shootings would be to foreclose the legal possession of weapons of mass destruction (i.e., guns) by private individuals. This, alas, is already familiar territory.

Saturday's terrorist attack in El Paso, like earlier acts of terrorism at a Black church and at a Jewish synagogue, also highlights an ugly, white supremacist dimension of our current political climate, which it is likewise morally obligatory for us to confront, personally and politically. 

Bearing arms in the service of one's society used to be acknowledged as one of the responsibilities of citizenship. The ancient Greeks, to whom we owe the earliest formative reflections on citizenship, relied on citizen armies to defend their cities (the remote ancestors of the "militias" to which our constitution's second amendment refers). At the same time, in those same Greek city-states those same citizen-soldiers went about unarmed. According to Thucydides, the Athenians were the first to exclude carrying personal weapons in the city.

By all means let us always think and pray. But one personal and political imperative of civilized life needs to be society-wide action against the continued individual private possession of weapons.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rich for What?

“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”

An old story – a family conflict over inheritance, something we’ve all seen happen too many times. What better advertisement for Jesus’ famous advice to give everything away – now!

Perhaps that someone in the crowd who wanted Jesus to take his side in his family’s quarrel may well have had a good case. Who knows? That’s a concern for a lawyer – a role Jesus refused to play. “Friend,” Jesus replied, “who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”

Jesus looked beyond the immediate case at hand – to the bigger problem of what wealth (and our obsessive preoccupation with wealth) does to us. So Jesus warned: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Even so, so much of our lives and how we have structured our society send the opposite message. Ours is what Pope Francis, in his agenda-setting encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, called an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills, while we for our part calmly accept [money’s] dominion over ourselves and our societies [Evangelii Gaudium, 53, 55].

The problem with that, as we all know of course, is that things actually are important. Having at least some things – sufficient food, some sort of shelter – having at least some things really is important, if we just want to survive. And having more things, while maybe not quite so necessary, certainly seems to make life a lot better – or at least a lot easier. Jesus didn’t deny that, but (like Qoheleth, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes) Jesus understood how limited – and limiting – wealth’s benefits can be. For time too is limited. When we’ve only a limited amount of time, the length of which we cannot know for certain, what we do with that time, how we choose to live, the objectives we pursue, the priorities we express in the way we choose to live, these become the important questions – questions that concern who we really are, regardless of what or how much we have.

Greed (which Saint Paul equated with idolatry) - and its equally corrupting cousin envy – can totally take over a person, leading to a seemingly obsessive but quite common need to compare oneself with others and a compulsive desire to acquire and acquire and acquire. There’s always that bigger house, or cooler car, or the latest model phone, or whatever! To quote Pope Francis again: The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us [Evangelii Gaudium, 54].

And yet it’s still always a race against time – a race one can only lose.

“You fool,” Jesus says, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”

Life is like a race someone else always wins. Even the inheritors will lose the race in the end. Either it is all (as Qoheleth warned) maybe just one long meaningless vanity. Or it has some purpose beyond its apparent end. But, if so, what we get to take with us will not be what we have (or, rather, at that point, what we had), but rather who we are, who we have become by the way we have chosen to live.

As Christians, our lives are shaped by the reality of the risen Christ, who is already (Saint Paul tells us) seated at the right hand of God. Shaped by and focused on that reality, we can begin to look at our lives, already here and now, with a perspective that the greedy man in the parable obviously lacked – not just a resigned fatalistic acceptance of life’s limits, like what we heard from Qoheleth, but a freedom to face life frankly and live it fully, with all its challenges and disappointments, based not on what we have, but on who we can become in Christ.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church Knoxville TN, August 4, 2018.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Great Debates: Round 2 (Act 2)

As long as former Vice President Joe Biden remains the presumed front-runner (I say "presumed," because, of course, no one has actually voted yet, anywhere), last night's second-act debate was likely to overshadow last night's. Julian Castro had a good first debate but was then virtually forgotten in all the hype about Kamala Harris's going after Bidden. What would happen to Castro now that the luck of the draw had seated him at the adult table! Along with Biden, Castro, and Harris, last night's debaters were Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Bill deBlasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, and Andrew Yang.

Going in, I expected the evening to be about Biden (and whether he could improve his performance over last time) and whether Harris and Booker and Castro could put a dent in his front-runner status - and, additionally, what, if anything, Bennet, DeBlasio, Gillibrand, Gabbard, Inslee, and Yang might add to the show (and whether anything they say may matter).

The second night was somewhat more raucous than the first. This was exacerbated by hecklers in the audience. All of which, of course, highlights the absurdity of having live audiences at these events. The presence of an audience just highlights the theatrical character of these performances, reinforcing the sense that this is really about entertainment.

Health care continues to be the single most high-profile issue that excites Democratic voters. So inevitably it came first in the debate. For the life of me, I can't understand why so many people seem so attached to private insurance. But many are. So the candidates have to work with that. The second night's debate seemed to reflect that in the more nuanced proposals being argued over. The problem, of course, is that it gets very complicated and confusing for many. The candidates would do better to keep hammering home that Trump has been trying to take away the great accomplishments of Obamacare, and that the long-term goal is to work toward a more universal outcome even than Obamacare accomplished.

The immigration debate also got mired in complexities - including a conflation of asylum seekers and other border-crossers. 

The debate was much more contentious in part because of the front-runner's presence on the stage and the resulting tendency to attack him directly.  Fair enough, but so often the attacks were focused on what Biden did or said in the past - the price one pays, I suppose, for having had a long career. Obviously, all the other candidates need to bring Biden down if they are to advance, but the chronic preoccupation with past positions, past votes, etc., while it may weaken Biden, does little to advance the contemporary conversation, which ultimately needs to be about what the party stands for and offers as an alternative to Trump and his party. Listening to the constant attacks on Biden's past record, I missed Marianne Williamson's interventions!

Also, as with the immigration issue, criticism of Biden became a surrogate for criticism of Obama. How much do the Democrats really want to repudiate the last Democratic President, who is still wildly popular? (They might do better to concentrate their ire on President Trump's policies instead of on Obama's.)

That said, Biden survived to fight another day. So did Cory Booker and Julian Castro. Of the more marginal candidates, I thought Michael Bennett had a good night and Tulsi Gabbard had a particularly strong moment when she confronted Kamala Harris on her record as a prosecutor.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Great Debates: Round 2 (Act 1)

The great presidential debate circus resumed last night with Round 2, Act 1, featuring "top tier" candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and (depending on your criteria) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, "second tier" candidates" Senator Amy Klobuchar and ex-Congressman Beto O'Rourke, and "third tier" (sometimes known as vanity candidates) Governor Steve Bullock, ex-Congressman John Delaney, ex-Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Tim Ryan, and popular author Marianne Williamson. At least, that was how (combining conventional wisdom and my own personal perceptions) I had ranked the three groups prior to the debate. 

For some of those on the debate stage, this may have been their last chance to get enough notice to make a difference in the campaign, since the threshold for getting on stage for the September debates will be significantly higher. Undoubtedly there will still be a good number of candidates in September, but they will be less likely to include those that conventional wisdom, the media, the polls, and the donors have decided are not really to be taken seriously. That said, some of them still may have something to contribute to the national conversation. And, while Marianne Williamson's chances of making it to the Milwaukee convention are next to nil, her voice on the stage stood out with a certain moral force that was far from being an irrelevant distraction.

My first reaction to the debate, watching it in real time, was that it was more substantive and less disorderly than the last one, with all its interruptions and talking over each other. The moderators avoided the simplistic visual soundbite, "raise your hand," routine of the last debate, which was all to the good. And the moderators seemed to be more effective at calling time on the candidates. On the other hand, the chronic journalistic oversimplification of issues in terms of what are in effect Republican party talking-points was again on display with the constant questioning about raising taxes on the middle class in order to provide healthcare for all. In general the candidates rose to the challenge of addressing the substantive issues in spite of such distractions. Even so, the journalistic preoccupation with conflict as entertainment and with trying to forcing real-life complexities into campaign-ad soundbites is obviously deeply ingrained in our media's approach to our politics. 

Of all the issues, health care policy clearly seemed the most contentious. On the substance, there remains a clear divide between - for lack of better categories - the party's left and the party's center (represented on-stage largely by the more minor candidates but offstage by the absent figure of Joe Biden). Still, especially among the major candidates, there seemed more effective commonality than seemed to be the case last time.  

No one had some unique "breakout" moment, but the major candidates did well enough. Sanders and Warren both had very good nights despite the predictability of their answers. The more centrist candidates and the media seem determined to make "Medicare for All" sound scary, and Warren and Sanders did a credible job of rebutting that. In the end, Pete Buttigieg's "Medicare for All Who Want It" sounds like where the party probably ought to land on this issue. (They might sall have done better by emphasizing instead the Trump Administration's attempts to eliminate health care for millions.)All Democrats - and much of the electorate - do want some version of universal health care, but in the end this race is really not about competing health insurance plans. It is about leadership, about who can articulate a serious - and electorally viable - alternative to Trump and his political party, and about how "bold" or "safe" that approach should be.

Senator Klobuchar also had a relatively good night. So did Pete Buttigieg, who managed to avoid getting trapped exclusively in either corner, while highlighting his generational significance, reminding us repeatedly of his status as a veteran, and again being the only candidate to employ explicitly religious language.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Heat Kills

Growing up, I remember hearing the story of a famous volcanic eruption and developing as a result a strong personal fear of volcanoes. The likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the Bronx in the 1950s was admittedly negligible, but my fear was real. Later I learned to distinguish better between likely and unlikely environmental catastrophes, but that such catastrophes were a real possibility to be wary of remained there in my consciousness.  Of course, one saving grace about such catastrophes, as I then understood them, was that (unlike wars, for example) they were natural disasters - not calamities we humans were inflicting upon ourselves by our own bad behavior.

Soon enough, of course, I learned about those as well. I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in high school and came of age in the early years of environmental awareness. I remember attending the first Earth Day celebration in Central Park on April 22, 1970. I was a college student then. And it was in a college science course that I first heard about the greenhouse effect and global warming. I knew already that heat kills. Now I learned that the human race was in the process of killing itself with heat.

That, of course is what we are doing, have been doing for some time now, most of it quite recently. As New York Magazine's Deputy Editor David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), "the slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn't happening at all." Scandalously, "more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades," which "means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance." In short, "the climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead."

Unlike the volcano I once improbably imagined was threatening my life and the culture and civilization of my native Bronx, climate change is really here, really threatening human life and human culture and civilization as we have known it. If my imaginary volcano was scary. how much more frightened ought we all to be because of this threat that is actually here and now?

Like the author, I too remember the Cold War with its possible threat of nuclear annihilation. But the threat from climate change, he argues is "more democratic, with responsibility shared by each of us." Meanwhile, "our political fatalism and technological faith blur, as though we'd gone cross-eyed, into a remarkably familiar consumer fantasy: that someone else will fix the problem for us, at no cost."

The sixth episode of the British dystopia Years and Years, which takes us 10 years into our increasingly fragile future, begins with the nearly century-old grandmother Muriel telling her extended family, It's all your fault. In the show, that frank assignment of actual responsibility results in a revolution of sorts as the younger generations belatedly accept their responsibility to do something about the society their complacent consumerism had helped to create. With this book, David Wallace-Wells is challenging us with our responsibility for what our own complacent consumerism has created. Given the complicated combination of the enormous scale of the problem, the complete dysfunction of the political process, and our continued complacency and consumerism, it seems somewhat unlikely Wallace-Wells' challenge will be as effective as the fictional Muriel's in inspiring the radical kind of response the author seems to be calling for.