Monday, January 11, 2021

What Next?


In the aftermath of last week's Washington MAGA riot (Trump supporters' violent attack on the U.S. Capitol), media attention has naturally focused on what the Congress should or could do to hold President Trump accountable, in particular, what form that might actually take - for example, Trump's impeachment (increasingly likely), conviction (quite uncertain), and disqualification from future federal office (relatively easy, but only possible if he has first been convicted). 


But that is not the only accountability that is needed. Trump is not the only person who needs to be held accountable for what has happened in our country. Whether or not he is impeached, whether or not the 117th Congress can rise to the occasion and deal with its own recalcitrant members, there is also the question of what how various Christian communities in our country can and will  examine their own consciences and respond to what David French has called "a violent Christian insurrection" that "invaded and occupied the Capitol."


Why does he call it "a Christian insurrection"? 


"Because so very many of the protesters told us they were Christian, as loudly and clearly as they could," French writes. "I saw much of it with my own eyes. There was a giant wooden cross outside the Capitol. 'Jesus saves' signs and other Christian signs were sprinkled through the crowd. I watched a man carry a Christian flag into an evacuated legislative chamber." Also, the attack took place less than a month after the "Jericho March" as it was called, "an event explicitly filled with Christian-nationalist rhetoric so unhinged" that it had caused French himself to warn about “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”


French's analysis is the most compelling I have read with regard to the religious aspect of what has happened, and it deserves to be read in full:


https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/only-the-church-can-truly-defeat?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjoxMTYxOTMxNSwicG9zdF9pZCI6MzExODk1NzIsIl8iOiJXUHQxQyIsImlhdCI6MTYxMDQwOTA2MiwiZXhwIjoxNjEwNDEyNjYyLCJpc3MiOiJwdWItMjE3NjUiLCJzdWIiOiJwb3N0LXJlYWN0aW9uIn0.b7tCGYEWRD_U9u7n0eVh_0AsBsqjIZcaSoUUCA75ceg


French  contends "that all too many Christians are in the grips of two sets of lies ... the enabling lies and the activating lies. And unless you deal with the enabling lies, the activating lies will constantly pollute the body politic and continue to spawn violent unrest."

Examples of what he calls an enabling lie are "America will end if Trump loses," and "The fate of the church is at stake if Joe Biden wins."

Such enabling lies "not only dramatically exaggerate the stakes of our political and legal disputes, they dramatically exaggerate the perfidy of your opponents. Moreover, when the stakes are deemed to be that high, the moral limitations on your response start to fall away."

"And so the enabling lies spread. They poison hearts. They poison minds. They fill you with rage and hate, until along comes the activating lie, the dangerous falsehood that pushes a person towards true radicalism."

Against all this, he calls upon "courageous Christians who love Christ and His church ... to lead with honesty and understanding," and remember that one's "political opponents" are also one's "fellow citizens," and  that there is now "no political 'emergency' that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth."

Again, one really ought to read the whole thing!

Meanwhile, I am also remembering something that the same James Madison, who warned that "there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” also wrote in Federalist 55, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

In a normal (pre-pandemic) time, the secular Christmas (the one that most people actually care about) would have started somewhere around Halloween and then gone on almost non-stop until suddenly fizzling out on Christmas Day itself - the day when Christmas actually begins according the Church’s calendar. As Catholic Christians, we are called to live in and by liturgical time, and to keep Christmas and Epiphany as they are meant to be kept, especially in this time when the Church community is so distressed by political divisions. Of course, the Church’s Christmas cannot go on forever either, and in the contemporary calendar it is today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord which more or less brings the season to an end. This focus on Christ’s baptism by John makes that event the formal culmination of the entire Advent and Christmas cycle.
 
Jesus’ baptism by John is mentioned in three of the four gospels and alluded to in the fourth. It was also explicitly referred to by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles on the occasion of the baptism of the first pagan converts. So it was obviously well remembered and had apparently made an important impression, as the public starting-point of the Jesus story.
 
John’s baptism had been a ritual of repentance, dramatizing one’s need for conversion and one’s willingness to start anew, as their ancestors had when they had first passed through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. By being baptized by John, Jesus blended into the mass of anonymous sinners that we are. By being baptized as one of us, Jesus joined us (which was, of course, the point of his becoming human and being born in the first place.)
 
Jesus joined us in the water, but then, on coming up from the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
 
Not just Jesus alone but the whole Trinity joined in to reveal who Jesus is!
 
In Mark’s account, the voice speaks only to Jesus, It is Jesus himself who will reveal himself through his life and mission. Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.   
 
Jesus, God’s beloved Son, has made us also beloved sons and daughters of his Father. But being beloved is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Having let us in on his story, on who he is and the total trajectory of his life, Jesus’ baptism challenges us to identify with that trajectory and to recognize the intended trajectory of our own lives and to respond accordingly.

(Photo: The Baptism of Christ, c. 1500, by Giovanni Bellini, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy)

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Daughters of Yalta (The Book)

The Yalta Conference was one of the most important and controversial episodes of the final year of World War II. Catherine Grace Katz has authored yet another account of that conference, but written from the very distinct perspective of three young women who were present as aides to their fathers. The Daughters of Yalta The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War retells the familiar story, but with a focus on Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman, each of whom attended as personal assistant to her much more famous father. Such an emphasis on the role of family members - especially female family members - may seem a bit old-fashioned, a throwback to an earlier aristocratic and royal world, where family was what mattered and women played prominent (if sometimes subdued) roles.

The general outline of what happened at Yalta is a familiar one. The wartime alliance was in many respects a mismatch, with mutual suspicion and ideological incompatibility temporarily subsumed under the need to cooperate against a common foe. That cooperation had worked, and Germany's defeat was in sight early in 1945. But, the closer that came, the more the allies' differences about what the future of Europe should look like became more relevant. One unavoidable reality was that the Soviets, having done most of the fighting in the war and borne the brunt of the war's casualties, cared very much about controlling eastern Europe through which Germany had twice invaded Russia in the 20th century and was in fact now in a position to do so. Well aware of this problem but no longer in any position to do much about it without American support, Churchill remained desperately invested in the "special relationship" with the U.S. and in his personal relationship with Roosevelt. However Roosevelt remained wary of Churchill's imperial commitments and seemed to be distancing himself from Churchill in the hope of charming Stalin. Much has been made of Roosevelt's declining health at Yalta, and this account highlights that part of the story, since one of his daughter's roles was to insulate her father from stress as much as possible both to protect his health and to keep his condition as private as possible. Even so, this account confirms the conventional wisdom that Roosevelt's confidence in his own ability to charm Stalin was probably much more of a problem in terms of the final outcome than his health was.

The account highlights how Roosevelt cared less about Poland and eastern Europe than Churchill did and had two fundamental priorities regarding Stalin - first, getting him to join the Pacific War (a commitment Stalin honored on schedule in August 1945, by which time Roosevelt would be dead and Churchill out of office) and, second, guaranteeing Soviet participation in the United Nations organization. Katz emphasizes that Roosevelt was deeply attached to the idea of the UN - not because he naively believed it would guarantee perpetual peace but because he pragmatically hoped it could keep the peace for 50 years or so. 

Seeing the conference through the daughters' perspective does not add much to this already familiar story. But it does highlight the personal and inter-personal aspects of the conference which the daughters had to deal with - everything from dealing with the difficult personalities of people like Harry Hopkins and James Byrnes to the appalling physical conditions at Yalta. Interesting in its own right, the story of what a shambles the Tsarist place and the Crimean countryside were really helps to bring home what a totally destructive disaster the German invasion had been for the Soviets. The three women's excursions to explore the region really highlight this aspect, which we Americans, who did not suffer similarly from the war, often fail to appreciate about the Russians' experience and the particular perspective it gave them at Yalta. 

And then there was one episode which was certainly unexpected and particularly striking. Towards the end of the conference, the three women were out together experiencing as much as they could of their Soviet surroundings, when they "found themselves standing in front of a small Orthodox church. There was a service beginning inside. For a moment, they hesitated while deliberating whether to go in. Timidly, they decided to take a peek. As they looked inside the church, they were met with a surprise. Robert [Harry Hopkins's son and the American cameraman] said he had thought 'religion was stifled in the Soviet Union.' But this church was brimming with people." The ambivalent survival of religion even in Stalin's Russia reveals something significant about our contemporary condition:

"Nobody knew if Stalin would allow religion to thrive after the war, or if the Russian Orthodox Church was simply living on borrowed time. In a sense, this little church faced a similar uncertainty about the future as the three young women standing in the doorway watching the service. Everyone, from Sarah, Anna, and Kathy, to the children in the church waiting for their parents to come home, looked forward to the end of the war and the peace agreements that the conference at Yalta was meant to foster. After nearly five years of sacrifice, loss, and heartbreak for soldiers and civilians alike, the world yearned for a return to normality. But was the pre-war state of normality a world to which they wanted to—or could—return?"

Those who value the importance of individual personalities in history will appreciate this up-close account of the personalities of FDR, Churchill, and Averell Harriman - their authentic accomplishments and their personal flaws. The social interconnectedness of the three families also illustrates elite relationships and behavior, which continued to play an important role in society and politics, just as the interrelationships and behavior of their aristocratic and princely predecessors had, not so long before.







Friday, January 8, 2021

Running Out the Clock

I dislike sports analogies, but "running out the clock" has a clear meaning, which describes the remaining dozen days until President Biden's inauguration. The seemingly interminable transition from one president to another is a challenge to 21st-century impatience. But that is how it is in our constitutional system. Of course, this has been an unprecedentedly problematic transition, and a heightened level of anxiety surrounds Donald Trump's continued presence in the White House - increasingly so since his incitement to riot and rebellion on Wednesday. Some have urged the Vice President to invoke the 25th Amendment, or, failing that, are urging the House to impeach the president for a second time.

The applicability of the 25th Amendment has been talked about almost since Trump took office. My guess would be that it is not much more likely to happen now than it was then. As for impeachment, given Congress's typically snail-like pace, it would certainly be quite an accomplishment to impeach in just a couple of days. That the president deserves to be impeached is as clear as it was a year ago. My reticence about impeachment a year ago referred to the certainty that the Senate would vote to acquit. I will remain reticent about this second impeachment until I see some evidence that enough Senators who failed to do what they should have done a year ago have had a change of heart. Otherwise, impeachment will just be another exercise in expressive symbolic politics. 

Symbolism matters, and so maybe it would still be worth it to impeach the president again without convicting him. But what the country most needs starting January 20 will be a functioning government, focusing not on expressive, symbolic politics but on addressing and solving some of the serous social problems that currently afflict the country. There was one piece of very good news Wednesday morning, that then got lost in the increasingly bad news of that terrible day. The reckoning required by Wednesday's tragic events is inevitably a priority. But that must not diminish the  fact that Wednesday morning's new from Georgia will make a major difference in enabling a truly post-Trump America. The 117th Congress will have a Democratic-controlled Senate. This means that President Biden will be able to govern, that once again government can work as it needs to work "to promote the general welfare" and as it was intended to work. 

It is yet another fallacious misreading of the Founders and the Constitution to allege that divided government and gridlock represent some constitutional ideal. The constitution does indeed set certain limits to government's power. Religion is supposed to be off the table, for example, as is censorship; and individuals, no mater how unpopular, are supposed to get due process, etc. But the framers wrote the Constitution precisely to remedy the weaknesses of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. They very consciously and deliberately designed a government with certain limits but which, within the framework of such limits, is supposed to work to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

The Democratic majority in the Senate is admittedly the narrowest possible. Still, it should enable Biden’s Cabinet nominees and his judicial nominees to to be confirmed without undue stress, and it at least renders real legislation somewhat possible - starting with those $2,000 COVID-19 stimulus checks which the Republicans prevented from passing (a foolhardy decision which may have helped cost them those Georgia seats) And should there be another Supreme Court vacancy in the next two years, it will be filed with someone other than a Federalist Society hack. More ambitious things may be harder to accomplish, but it is at least possible that the continuing crisis in health care access may be effectively addressed. Deeper, structural reforms like admitting new states to the Union and eliminating the tyranny of the filibuster may be harder to accomplish, but they should at least be on the table. 

There is the danger, of course, that the Democratic majority will fritter away its opportunities in the short interval before the next election on investigations and culturally divisive "identity" politics. The fact is that, to the extent that voters have empowered the Democrats to do something, they have done so in the hope that they will actually do something at last - do something that will actually improve people's lives, everything from short-term remedies like covid checks to longer-term reforms. Maybe Medicare for All may be out of reach, but Medicare for a lot more people may not be. A public option may be out of reach, but more expanded Medicaid for more people may be achievable. The point is that there is so much that is wrong right now that even moderate reforms may significantly improve people's lives - and get a Democratic Congress reelected in 2022.

The reckoning with Trumpism will remain a priority, and Trumpism will still be a force to be reckoned with whether Trump is running in 2024 or Trump was removed a few days before the end of his term and disqualified from running again. But the most effective and long-standing recking with Trumpism would be for the Democrats to use their control of congress wisely and well to offer an alternative attractive enough to keep the Republicans out of power for a long time to come.




Thursday, January 7, 2021

Donald Trump's Putsch

For members of my generation, 1968 was the year when American society seemed to come apart. In important ways it did, with long-term consequences for the country. On the other hand, that year, that had uncovered so much that was fundamentally amiss in America, ended with a peaceful presidential election (one of the closest in history) capped by an uplifting spaceflight around the moon. Whatever feel-good moments 2021 will bring - and we are scheduled for a big one in two weeks on January 20 - the short and long term- consequences of yesterday's riot by pro-Trump thugs at the Capitol cannot be imagined away. 

What happened before the riot began was bad enough, as certain Republican senators and congressmen made a mockery of the constitutional process of counting the electoral votes with their transparently trumped-up allegations. Meanwhile the President himself was inciting his brainwashed supporters, who soon perpetrated the most serious violence against Congress and the U.S Capitol since the 1954 terrorist attack on the House of Representatives. (More dramatically, some of the TV commentators went all the way back to the British attack in 1814!)

Particularly troubling too was the apparent unpreparedness of Capitol security. After all, it wasn't as if there was no reason be be worried about possible disturbances and potential violence. Imagine if Black Lives Matter had attached the Capitol! The response would surely have been swifter and more severe - more like the violence perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators on June 1 to facilitate President Trump's sacrilegious Bible-holding photo-op. 

But the principal villain is, of course, the President himself, who has repeatedly undermined his supporters' loyalty to American institutions. Some of that extremist alienation already existed in segments of our society and certainly preceded Trump. But he and his Republican sycophants have long since successfully exploited and dangerously exacerbated it. The damage Trump and the Republican party have done to this country has been incalculable. The question right now is how much more damage will our worst president and his political party still be able to do, and what can the country do to forestall it?

It was a somber Senate that reconvened, with Mike Pence still in the Chair and Mitch McConnell (soon to be evicted from the Majority Leadership) and Chuck Schumer in their places, with much of the nation watching, perhaps remembering that this same Senate had the opportunity just one year ago to remove Trump from office and so prevent all this. The House likewise resumed its task, with Speaker Pelosi invoking today's feast of the Epiphany. The proceedings were an encouraging evocation of the resilience of our constitution and our institutions in that the debate resumed as it did and that the Congress could reassemble to carry out the task of the day. Still, imagine if no member had gone along with Trump in protesting the vote count. The session would likely have been over  and Biden duly proclaimed president already by the time Trump's thugs even arrived at the Capitol!

More to the point, there is a wide - and widening - gap between the majestic institutions of democratic governance and Trump's supporters' obliviousness to those institutions and the values they embody. As for those Trump so deplorably incited to insurrection yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote: 

"We will find out shortly if today’s insurrection was also a super-spreader event. What I do know, after spending hours sponging up Trumpist paranoia, conspiracism, and cultishness, is that this gathering was not merely an attempted coup but also a mass-delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics. Its chaos was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety."

He's right. Politics is about achieving a common communal life among different individuals and different groups who have different aspirations and interests but are committed to remaining united together in one society. Trump and his supporters clearly care little for our common life and have deplorably demeaned the institutions created to keep our common life and sustain our society. 

That is the legacy of our worst president and the Republican party which has empowered him.






 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Today Is the Day

For Democrats in Georgia and throughout the U.S., this is a day of historic change and the real possibility of a functioning, legislating, Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate,  the greatest gift Georgians could have given to the incoming Biden Administration. Meanwhile in Washington, this is the day the electoral votes are finally counted, and Congress declares, once and for all, that Joe Biden has been elected President, normally a ritual celebration of how government is constituted in a democratic society, where citizens choose their leaders (albeit in the American case via the circuitous mechanism of an electoral college). In most years, it would be just that and no more. In some - 1961 and 2001 for example - there has been the added personal drama that the one announcing the results was also the losing candidate, which if anything further reinforced the underlying message about how the constitution and democracy are supposed to work.

This year, however, while the actual votes are not in any serious doubt, the process itself is, because of the anticipated antics of over 100 Republicans in the House and 12 Republican Senators. It is not unheard of for an individual member to grandstand on this occasion, but it is unprecedented in modern times for so many, following the lead of a recalcitrant defeated president, to challenge the results in such a coordinate effort. 

"These are people," Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic, "who have consciously, deliberately abandoned our political system of nearly two and a half centuries in order to declare that Congress, not the Electoral College and not the voters, has the right to choose the president; that conspiracy theories invented and promoted by the president deserve to be heard and repeated; that rules can be changed at the last minute to accommodate the whims of the White House."

It is possible that the anti-democracy faction will find ways to prolong the counting session for hours or even days - to their eternal discredit, but also to the long-term humiliation and shame of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The only comparable event in our history was the disputed election of 1876, resolved only two days before the inauguration. That election was awarded finally to the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes. But it was the country that lost decisively, because Hayes then removed federal troops from the south, thus ending Reconstruction and leading to the era of Jim Crow, undoing much of what the Civil War had accomplished. Then the "lost cause" lie prevailed in the South, just as now Trump's lie about the election prevails among his recalcitrant supporters.

As Isabel Sawhill recently wrote in Foreign Affairs: "Americans have a new president but not a new country." Just as the "lost cause" lie lasted a long time and did irreparable damage to our country, the Republicans' lie about the election and the Republicans' apparent belief that only their minority of 74 million votes are legitimate and that the votes of the majority of 81 million Americans shouldn't count will continue to do damage to our nation for a long time to come.


Monday, January 4, 2021

Georgia On All Our Minds


In a New Year's Day tweet, President Trump proclaimed tomorrow's Georgia Senate runoff election both “illegal and invalid.” Might that dissuade some of his supporters from voting in the election, which is already on its way to set a record for participation in a runoff election? If so, then the Democrats' chances of capturing control of the Senate from the lamentable Mitch McConnell might increase. It was a long time ago when all politics was local. This election is almost entirely about the U.S. Senate and whether or not any meaningful legislation will be passed in the next two years! 

Given the party polarization of the electorate, it seems unlikely that one seat will go one way and the other another way. So the outcome will almost certainly be a Senate with a majority of 52 Republicans or a 50-50 division with the Democrats having the controlling "majority" because of Vice President Harris's role as tie-breaker. If this were a "persuasion" election, then the two Republican incumbents' experience as rich businesspeople and the allegations regarding their stock-sales in the early days of the pandemic should certainly count against them. But fewer and fewer elections are "persuasion" elections anymore. Most likely, this will be a "turnout" election. Whichever party can get the most of its supporters to bother to vote will be the party most likely to win. The Democrats seem to have their base energized and voting. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will turn out in sufficient numbers on Election Day to overcome that. Under normal conditions in Georgia, a Republican win would be the more likely outcome. The wild card in this case, of course, is the President's own erratic attack on the electoral process and the apparent schism he may be creating among Georgia Republicans - unlikely to keep too many Republican voters away but maybe sufficient to keep just enough of them away!

“Republicans in Georgia must be careful of the political corruption in Fulton County, which is rampant,” Trump tweeted yesterday. “The Governor, @BrianKempGA, and his puppet Lt. Governor, @GeoffDuncanGA, have done less than nothing. They are a disgrace to the great people of Georgia!” And then came the infamous phone call, which ought to disgust all Americans and which could well be grounds for yet another (highly unlikely) impeachment.

If the Democrats can successfully win these two Senate seats, they will have Stacey Abrams to thank, for sure, but they may also have President Trump to thank. Trump only became a Republican when it suited his purposes, and he has never shown that much concern for that party's long-term well being. Four years ago, there was the thought that maybe Trump might steer the party in a more economically "populist" direction, but the only "populism" the party has produced is opposition to scientific and medical expertise and a rejection of traditional constitutional and democratic norms. The former is vividly on display every time you encounter someone without a mask. The latter will be on display when Congress meets to count the electoral votes on Wednesday.

The GOP's obituary has already been written too many times in my lifetime to warrant confidence in the party's imminent demise. But the divisions within the party, which will likely be on view on Wednesday, the schism between its "populist" base and whatever is left of traditional Republican conservatism may yet portend a further breakup of the party.

But for now all the country can do is wait for whatever Georgia decides to do!

Sunday, January 3, 2021

By Another Way


In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. The Cologne Cathedral, a beautiful masterpiece of Gothic style cathedral architecture (which served as the model for New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral) is the famous shrine for the purported relics of the Magi, originally brought to Milan in 314 and then from there to Cologne in 1164 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. One of the World Youth Day activities for pilgrims was a pilgrimage to the cathedral and to its
 Dreikönigenschrein.

Epiphany is one of the oldest feasts in the Christian calendar, older than Christmas, which has long come to overshadow it. The contemporary Roman calendar detaches Epiphany from its traditional date in countries where January 6 is not a holiday (as it still is in places like Italy). So this year, Epiphany is being celebrated 3 days early in the U.S., on what ought instead to be the 10th Day of Christmas. (The traditional "12 Days of Christmas" properly go from Christmas, December 25, to Epiphany Eve, January 5.) Such are the times we live in!

Historically, many interesting, if ultimately unanswerable questions have been asked about the Magi. Because they were observing the movements of a star, our ancestors imagined them as astronomers or astrologers - probably Persian Zoroastrian scholars. According to one 4th-century story, generations of such scholars had been watching on some mythical Persian mountain - starting with Adam himself, who had gone there in his old age with gold, frankincense, and myrrh he had somehow salvaged from the Garden of Eden!

In the Middle Ages, the image of them as kings took over, suggested by today's familiar Isaiah reading and the psalm which serves now as the responsorial psalm. The Gospel doesn't say how many they were, but, based on the three gifts, three seemed a logical inference. They also acquired their now familiar names, Caspar. Melchior, and Balthasar. The three also came to represent the three ages of humanity - Melchior an old man of 60, Balthasar a middle-aged 40, and Caspar a young 20-year old.

All that is just speculation of course. Interestingly however, when the shrine of the Magi in the Cologne Cathedral was opened in 1864, it revealed the bones of three men - one young one older, one old. these are the bones, wrapped in white silk, presently in the famous shrine.

Whatever one wants to make of all that, almost everything that has been speculated about the Magi remains just that, speculation. The Gospel tells us neither their names, nor their number, nor their ages, nor their social status, but it does tell us what it is really important for us to know about them.

First of all, it tells us they were foreigners - Gentiles, pagans. As such they represent the majority of the human race - past and present. As pagans the Magi relied only on "natural" knowledge, what we would call "scientific" knowledge today. They sought for signs of God in his created world, hoping to find in the phenomena of nature some clues about God and God's plans for us.

Scientific knowledge is good. Indeed, as the apparently successful effort to develop an anti-covid vaccine illustrates, scientific knowledge is necessary for civilization. And our national leaders' failures to respond adequately to the threat of the virus likewise have illustrated the perils of disdaining authentic scientific knowledge.

But, when it comes to God and and God's plans for us, scientific knowledge can take us only so far. The Gospel tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths ought in the end to converge on Jesus, God's revelation of himself in human history - specifically in the history of the Jewish people. So it was to Jerusalem, that the star led the pagan Magi for them to learn the star's fuller significance as revealed in the Jewish scriptures.

One of the fashionable sillinesses much in vogue these days is to describe the Magi as "lost." They weren't lost. They followed the star where it led them - to Jerusalem, to the jewish capital, to get further directions from the scriptures.

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easy it is to get it all wrong. When Herod heard the Magi, he was deeply troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Instead of being overjoyed like the Magi, they were troubled. What made what seemed to the Magi to be such good news seem to them to be bad news? That same Christmas star that had filled the Magi with so much hope instead induced anxiety in those who sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities. It is a vivid lesson in just how easily we can all misplace our priorities and so turn the good news of the Gospel into bad news. We saw something similar during and after our recent election in the ostensibly religious but actually political stances of some religious figures.

Herod was bad enough, but look at the religious figures who were consulted precisely because of their greater religious knowledge. Yet, for all their real knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack the wisdom they needed. So none of them did the obvious thing. None of them went to Bethlehem. Only the pagan Magi did that. Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

But the Magi, the Gospel tells us, were overjoyed, not troubled.They went as true pilgrims to Bethlehem, as the less politically prominent shepherds had already done before them. There they prostrated themselves and did homage to Jesus. In the old liturgy, when those words were read or sung, everyone was directed to genuflect. The old liturgy was much more in touch with the physical world. This was one way of dramatically bringing the point of the story home, helping each of us to identify personally with the pilgrim Magi, to experience what they experienced, and to do homage here and now in our own lives.

After this, we hear nothing more about the Magi.We know only what the songwriter James Taylor later chose as the title for a song about them, that they departed for their country by another way.

According to yet another legend, they were eventually baptized in India by Saint Thomas. That's just more speculation, but it fits the narrative nicely. The Magi went back to wherever they had been before and to whatever they were doing before, but they had been changed by their experience and would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ's coming into our world, we must never be the same again either.

Like the Magi, we are being challenged to journey like perpetual pilgrims through this world but by another way, because, as Pope Francis has reminded us, "it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him" [Evangelii Gaudium, 266].

So even as I sit here in my (now former) Knoxville home in quarantine awaiting clearance to move on to and uncertain future, even as we all navigate our way through this uncertain and challenging new year, the Christmas star continues to invite us to travel with the Magi - on pilgrimage to Bethlehem and then back again - confident, that whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of 2021, and so will guide onto that alternate way, which, like the Magi, we are, all of us together, being challenged to find and follow.

(Photo: Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral)

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Trümperdämmerung


If only I had been creative enough to come up with TrümperdämmerungA clever take-off on Wagner's Götterdämmerung  (the closing opera of the "Ring" cycle), which literally means "twilight of the gods," and which has come to refer to situations of apocalyptic-like destruction marked by widespread chaos. And while, of course, we will all likely survive this Trümperdämmerung, its apocalyptic-like character and attendant chaos - and the longterm consequences thereof - should not be minimized.

"Is there anyone left," Glasser asks, "who is surprised that the President is careening through the last days of his Administration with a reckless disdain that simply has no precedent in American public life? Still, the hardest thing to accept is that 2020 is not merely the year that Donald Trump’s luck ran out but that with it the country’s did, too. Sadly and yet inevitably, this terrible, wretchedly toxic year of pandemic death and economic distress, of partisan hatred and national protest, is the culmination of all that Trump has wrought and all that he is."

So here we are now, at the start of 2021, with Trump's sycophants (aka the Republican Party) still undermining the democratic process as we approach the final act in the electoral drama - the normally staid and perfunctory congressional counting of the electoral votes on January 6. What do Senator Josh Hawley and his accomplices actually expect to accomplish by their intended stunt, other than demonstrating their complete subservience to their Dear Leader? What does it say about the GOP's contempt for simple facts that congressmen have no problem (obviously) acknowledging the honesty of their own elections, while willing to call into question the same voters' votes for president?

But, more important, what will be the long-term effects of this undermining of a significant segment of the population's faith in elections? Will we ever be able to go back to elections as usual? Certainly we haven't ever been able to go back to the less polarized, more bi-partisan, more functional congressional politics of the pre-Gingrich era. Once the norms and values that traditionally undergirded political civility have been undermined, can they ever be recovered?

That is the long-term national Dämmerung of this Trümperdämmerung,



Friday, January 1, 2021

Happy New Year!

 


Happy New Year!

In a famous New Year’s Day sermon, fittingly titled “How to Be Happy,” the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, said: It is the common custom in meeting of friends at this season, to greet each other with a Happy New Year! This is a praiseworthy and pleasant custom, and in accordance with it, I greet you all, my dear brethren, with a Happy New Year! Happy New Year to all our friends and the inhabitants of this city, and to all our countrymen, whether dwelling north or south, east or west, in this our native land. Happy New Year to all men of whatever race or clime; for God is our common Creator, and in Christ we are all sons of God, and therefore brethren.

In the unhappy year that has just ended, the pandemic overshadowed everything. The pandemic upended all formerly taken-for-granted normal social interaction, both ordinary and extraordinary. An "ordinary" example, the last time I ate in a restaurant was March 7, 2020! When, if ever, will I have the pleasure of eating in one again? Much more importantly, an "extraordinary" (if this year all too common) occurrence, the pandemic prevented a proper funeral for my mother. When, one wonders, will her interment take place, and who will be there to remember and mourn? 

Meanwhile, as the new year begins, my life is in almost complete disorder, as I and my confreres are all in quarantine, my move to NY on hold until probably mid-January. So far, I hsve tested negative. If I stay this way, it will, I hope, just be a matter of waiting this out until I am able to move. If nothing else this is a useful lesson in detachment!

As the new year begins, the country is not quite in such chaos, of course; but it certainly seems to be, as the Republican party seems poised for one more assault against constitutionalism and democracy when the electoral votes are counted next Wednesday, having displayed (Scrooge-like, over Christmas) its indifference to the desperate need of so many American citizens for substantive material relief.

But there are at least some signs of hope - notably the possibility of widespread vaccination in this new year and the certainty of a new president in just 20 more days. And, God willing, I will make it safe and sound to New York and somehow begin this next phase of my life.

On this feast of the Motherhood of Mary, we are reminded of the implications of the incarnation. In Jesus, God has become one of us and entered into our world of chaotic human experience. And so in Christ we are all sons of God, and therefore brethren.

Happy New Year! May this new year be a happier, healthier, and safer year for all!

O God, who are without beginning or end, the source of all creation, grant us so to live this new year, whose beginning we dedicate to you, that we may abound in good things and be resplendent with works of holiness. (Roman Missal)