Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Divider


The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 (NY: Doubleday, 2022), by NY Times Chief White House correspondent Peter Baker and his wife The New Yorker's "Letter from Biden's Washington" author Susan Glasser, is but the latest in the seemingly endless journalistic retellings of the (still ongoing) Trump saga. And it is still ongoing - as the authors frankly warn in their epilogue, even making the warning comparison with Napoleon exiled at Elba, from which as we all know he returned to Paris for one final fling as Emperor. But, whereas Napoleon was definitively defeated the second time, and there was never any doubt that the other Powers would coalesce to defeat him decisively, there can be no assurance of either in Trump's case.

In the veritable forest of Trump-era books, Baker and Glasser's excels in its enormous detail and effective argument. The case for the damage Trump has done is clearly and convincingly made, the result of hundreds of interviews and references to texts, emails, and other documentary records. And it reads like the frightening adventure story that it is. While undeniably focused on Trump and not in any sense a wide-ranging history of the era, it fills us in on all sorts of related, otherwise significant events that occurred during Trump's reign - for example, Jared Kushner and the development of the Abraham Accords.

Inevitably in a book about Washington, this is also a book about staffers and politicians, the obsessive lust for relevance which animates so many of them and which has helped guarantee Trump's complete takeover of the Republican party - and the occasional opposition that prevented things from getting even worse, for example, "for the first time since Richard Nixon's final days, a defense secretary who saw his job as constraining the president of the United States rather than empowering him." On the other hand, "Republicans were now defined by their choices about whether and how to accommodate their leader and his strongman style."

As its title indicates, this is also very much a book about how Trump "profited from" America's internal schisms "and widened them." Much of the book details the "intense and toxic" Trump White House. "It was personal, it was political, it was philosophical. And from the very start, it was all-consuming. The polarization that Trump encouraged in the outside world, he fostered inside his own building too."

Trump's private reality radically differed from the public realities of his predecessors - for example, his "idée fixe that had not evolved since the 1980s: the conviction that the country had been taken for a ride by foreign allies and adversaries alike." Such nationalistic resentments reflected the very personal resentments and grievances of "a man never accepted by the exclusive set whose approval he so craved."

At the time, Trump's ideological emptiness had briefly caused me to wonder whether he might actually be able to forge a novel and successful path. Baker and Glasser muse on what might have been. "Trump more than any president in generations had come to the White House without strong party affiliation or philosophical moorings and in theory might have bridged the capital's divides had he chosen to." 

Of course, one cannot write about Trump's presidency and its unprecedentedly dysfunctional personnel situation without considering the family component. We learn about the emotionally fraught relationship between the two Donalds, senior and junior. "When Ivanna gave birth, he objected to sharing his name with his newborn son. 'What if he's a loser?' he asked." During the troubled time of his parents' divorce, Don Jr. reportedly yelled a this father, "You don't even love yourself. You just love your money." Don Jr. eventually joined the family business, but the relationship remained troubled until the campaign, when he "eventually became a leading surrogate for his father. More than anyone else in the family, he channeled the culture war grievances that animated his father's campaign crowds" - becoming, in Roger Stone's words, "the voice of undiluted Trumpism."

At the opposite end are the favorite child, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who "believed they were the only ones who truly understood Trump and had his best interests at heart." Baker and Glasser show that Trump seems to have been originally a bit ambivalent about Jared and Ivanka's roles in the administration, how they were a thorn in the side of presidential staffers (and, apparently, the First lady), and how they were among the first to accept reality and detach themselves from the post-election Big Lie. "Whatever Trump said, neither Jared nor Ivanka believed then or later that the election had been stolen." They "had no interest in being part of the show."

In a presidency which numbered so many unprecedented and traumatic moments, culminating in the unprecedented if by then predictable refusal to recognize the results of the election, the pandemic stands out as perhaps both the most representative illustration of Trump's dysfunctional presidency. Baker and Glasser describe what they call "classic Trump," who "had some of the world's smartest scientists, the most experienced disaster relief managers, and highly educated economists whose job was to prepare for moments like this working for the government, but he did not trust them. He was looking for someone to tell him how to get out of this situation without having to do what they were telling him to do."

After a particularly crazy pre-Christmas meeting about overturning the election results, Trump himself is quoted int he book as saying, "in 200 years there probably has not been a meeting in this room like what just happened." What a wonderfully self-aware recognition of what the whole experience of Trump's presidency was for the country!

Having recounted in detail the events surrounding the end of the Trump presidency, including his second impeachment, Baker and Glasser leave us with this warning about a possible Trump second term, when many of the restraints that ostensibly inhibited his first term would be gone. "Trump would not make the same mistake of hiring advisers who stood up to him - he would choose matadors like Mark Meadows not obstacles like John Kelly. He would pursue vengeance against his enemies. He would politicize the courts, the Justice Department, and the military. He would challenge allies and seek common cause with autocrats. We know he would do these things because those are exactly the things that he did and said for all four years of his first term in the presidency."

At least we cannot claim not to have been forewarned!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Undoing Knots


Today in certain places and calendars is commemorated Mary, the Mother of God, under the title Undoer of Knots. This devotion has become more widely known during the pontificate of Pope Francis, who years ago embraced this devotion and the image associated with it. Maria Knotenlöserin is a baroque painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner (1625-1707), which shows Mary standing on a crescent moon, surrounded by angels, with the Holy Spirit above her (in the form of a dove), her foot on the head of a serpent (symbol of Satan), while she unties knots from a long ribbon. It is believed that this image of Mary untying knots is derived from Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who described how the ancient knot of Eve's disobedience had been loosened by Mary's obedience (Adversus Haereses, III, 22).

According to Pope Francis' biographer Austen Ivereigh (The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, 2014), Fr. Bergoglio (as he then was) made a pilgrimage to Augsburg where he contemplated this painting, which spoke to him at that critical juncture in his Jesuit vocation. According to Ivereigh, Bergoglio "took back with him a load of Maria Knotenlöserin prayer cards. In the 1990s, after a local copy of the painting—known in Spanish as María Desatanudos was hung in a church in Buenos Aires, it took off in an extraordinary way, leading Bergoglio later to say he had never felt so much in the hands of God."

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio also sent his seminarians copies of this image of Mary as problem-solver, which became very popular and is the object of monthly pilgrimages. Since then, he has composed this prayer: Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for us. Through your grace, your intercession, and your example, deliver us from all evil, Our Lady, and untie the knots that prevent us from being united with God, so that we, free from sin and error, may find him in all things, may have our hearts placed in him, and may serve him always in our brothers and sisters. Amen.

Until relatively recently, I had, I must admit, never heard of this devotion. Its imagery is immensely powerful and capable of universal appeal, however. Each of us has experienced a multitude of knots limiting and burdening our lives. For those of us in this  journey-to-completion stage of life, the knots most often have to do with whatever remains unresolved from the past - unresolved failures, losses, hurts - while often holding onto anger about what should have happened or perhaps not have happened, regretting missed opportunities or roads not taken. There is more than enough to be unraveled there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

To Drink or Not to Drink

As the pandemic appears to recede - although actually what is receding are our precautions, not the pandemic itself - one of the most seemingly self-evident precautions is being questioned. No, I am not referring to wearing a mask - the most obviously self-evident precaution of all - but to not drinking from the common chalice at Holy Communion. For some this abstention is straightforward. For others it is surprisingly fraught. Such differences may as much reflect how people perceived this far-from-universal practice even before 2020.

Twenty-three years ago, flying home for my father's funeral, I packed my personal Mass chalice (photo) with me. It had been an ordination gift from my parents, and so I wanted to use it at the funeral Mass. Of course, it showed up on the security camera, and I took it out to show the agent. When she saw it she said, "Oh, I know what this is. Tell me, what is your opinion about Communion under both forms?" Surprise by the question, unexpected in such a setting, I simply said, "Some people favor it; some don't; it's a matter of choice in those places where it is allowed." That satisfied the agent at the time. It satisfied me too, because I thought I had given a good answer that avoided all the ideological baggage that has come to be attached to this relatively rare practice.

But what was relatively rare historically and geographically became increasingly common in the United States since the 1970s. The first time I ever received from the chalice was at a students' Mass at Princeton in the mid-1970s. From Princeton, I moved to Milwaukee. My first year there, the practice was introduced for general use in parishes. In seminary, of course, communion under both species (sub utraque specie, as we used to say in Catholic-speak) had become the norm, and it was increasingly becoming the norm in many of the parishes in which I subsequently served as a deacon and as priest - certainly not in all of them and certainly not all the time, but often enough as to acquire an aspect of normalcy. 

All this was obviously a far cry from Vatican II's rather limited and modest concession: "The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact, communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 55). As with so many such limited and modest concessions, the post-conciliar period saw a dramatic extension way beyond anything the Council Fathers had voted for. Even so, it seems safe to say that communion from the chalice, however common it may have become in many places in the US, has never become a widespread norm in most of the world

In the places where it had been implemented, however, it was often popular with many. Of course, as any Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion could attest, many others passed by the chalice without drinking. No doubt their reasons were varied, but one constant concern has consistently been fear of infection. Just one month prior to the pandemic, we were instructed in the diocese where I was then a pastor to suspend communion from the chalice until the end of February because of a serious flu outbreak. We were permitted to resume the practice on March 1, 2020, but I delayed reintroducing it while waiting to see if that strange new virus which they were talking about on the news might impact us. Within weeks, we were literally closed, thanks to that strange new virus. For the next two months, most people would have to settle for "spiritual communion." Since the reopening of the churches and the gradual loosening of other health precautions, my impression is that communion under one form only remains still the norm in most places, even those that had previously permitted communion from the chalice.. 

But some have argued for a resumption of the option of sharing the chalice, resulting in no small amount of understandable debate on line and elsewhere.

When people have become used to doing something, even when those who do it are actually a minority, they naturally miss it if deprived of it and want it back. So I can easily understand the sentiments of those who had become accustomed to receiving from the chalice prior to the pandemic, who now miss it, and who actively desire its return. I can also as easily appreciate the feelings of those for whom communion from the chalice is frightening or at least discomforting (for many of whom that was already the case, of course, even prior to the pandemic).

Perhaps one of the consequences of having attended Mass in the older rite for years growing up prior to the later liturgical revisions and then having lived through the many and various subsequent changes is that those many variations may come to appear just that - legitimate alternative ways of worshipping in this or that place, at this or that time, with no ultimately exclusive claim. Thus, if I were to attend Mass in a typical, present-day U.S. church, it would absolutely never occur to me to kneel down for communion. If circumstances suddenly changed, however, and I were directed to kneel at the altar rail as we all did until relatively recently in liturgical history, I would similarly have no problem doing so. (My aging knees might have a problem, but that is a different story altogether.)

Some have suggested that discomfort with drinking from the shared chalice is more an instinctive esthetic reaction rather than a rational scientific one. Maybe so. But it may well be that such intuitive esthetic emotional reactions may be one way we protect ourselves from danger. For some certainly, this is one example of that.

This seems to me to be the kind of case where such sensitivities may be more relevant (at least pastorally) than the ideological claims advanced by both sides of this discussion. Let it be stipulated that both sides make good arguments. In our polarized society, however, in which assertion is what matters and persuasion is no longer very valued by either side, maybe those arguments are just that - intellectual arguments that can convince no one not already on the relevant team.

So where do I come down now on this issue? I guess I am still more or less where I was on March 1, 2020, when re-institutionalizing the shared chalice was momentarily an optional decision. Absent an explicit command from higher authority, at present I think the practical sensitivities against resuming the practice probably outweigh whatever arguments there are for doing so. Some may sincerely miss drinking from the chalice, and I appreciate the sincerity of such sensitivities, but I suspect many more remain relieved that unnecessary health risks are not being multiplied right now.

Monday, September 26, 2022

American Christianity's "Jesus Problem"

In his September 23 column, "Evangelicals Decenter Jesus," for The ThIrd Rail ("a newsletter examining the disputes that divide America"), conservative Christian commentator David French addressed what he sees as a particularly problematic aspect of contemporary American Christianity, what he labels "a Jesus problem."

French prefaces his principal argument with a discussion of the increasingly political rather than religious salience of the term "evangelical." He fits American evangelicals into three broad categories. The first consists of  ethnically and politically self-identified evangelicals of any race or ethnicity (including nonwhite evangelicals who tend to vote Democratic). The second consists of self-identified white evangelicals, who are "religiously heterodox (ranging from biblical fundamentalists to casual Christians) but remarkably ideologically uniform," whom he calls "the core constituency of the Republican Party." The third is those he calls "the theological evangelicals," who actually profess to believe Christian faith's "key tenets." What beliefs they actually prioritize, however, is the subject of French's argument.

French cites a recent study which suggested that "even this cohort struggled with basic Christian doctrine, especially regarding Jesus." On the other hand, "the respondents were remarkably orthodox on a very specific topic—sexual morality. Most evangelicals may misunderstand who Jesus is, but 94 percent said that sex outside of traditional marriage is wrong, 91 percent said that abortion is a sin, and 67 percent disagreed with the idea that the Bible’s 'condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today'.”

Herein lies the problem, as French sees it. He suggests that American evangelicals have made sexual ethics "the shortcut answer" to who is a disciple and who is a heretic. For French, however, "the core of the faith is not its moral codes but rather faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and a focus on Jesus is both profoundly humbling and profoundly hopeful." And, furthermore, "even if you live your life compliant with the most strict of sexual codes of conduct, you will still, inevitably, fall short in countless other arenas of life." Hence, the hope in "a God who is gracious, who sacrificed himself to atone for our sins," which should make  Christians "among the most humble and most hopeful communities in the land."

But, French insists, "when the Church leads with its moral code—and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself—the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division. When the Church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision." One result, he argues, "is a weaker religion, one that is less demanding for the believer while granting those who uphold the narrow moral code a sense of unjustified pride. Yet pride separates Christians from each other, and separates Christians from their neighbors."

Thus, he concludes that "in the quest for morality," many have "lost sight of Jesus—but it is Jesus who truly defines the Christian faith."

French is not the first or the only Christian commentator to worry about this apparently pervasive reformulation of Christian faith into a preoccupation with ethics, and specifically sex. Of course, sex is important, and a right ordering of one's sexual behavior is important - as is the right ordering of one's moral behavior in all other areas of life. The question is whether a preeminent preoccupation with sex sufficiently exhausts Christian ethics and whether a preoccupation with ethics expresses the fullness of the Christian life, which is, first and foremost, an encounter with the Risen Christ, whose gracious gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church empowers people to live a new life (not necessarily a sinless life, but a new, grace-filled life nonetheless).

Formed by faith in the Creed and an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, Christians strive to bear the fruit of good works, while always, of course, falling short (as all acknowledge whenever they pray the Lord's Prayer). Sadly, however, the contemporary preoccupation with ethics (especially sexual ethics) as an identity marker has both narrowed the Church's message and even further divided Christians from one another. It is noteworthy how many religious divisions among contemporary Christians are rooted in disputes about sexual ethics - very conspicuously so, among so-called "main line," non-evangelical Christian denominations, some of which have been literally tearing themselves apart. This, of course, reflects a peculiar feature of contemporary culture which increasingly defines people - and expects them to define themselves - primarily if not exclusively in terms of their sexuality. If anything, that in turn should suggest the desirability of deemphasizing such issues as a Christian counterweight to secular society's contemporary obsession with sexual identity and sexual expression. Whatever a person is, he or she is much more than his or her secular sexual (or any other) identity. And, for a professed Christian, it should be faith in Christ and life as a member of his Church which must be one's primary identity.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Today is the 108th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (celebrated yearly on this last Sunday in September). 

The recent spectacle of asylum-seeking refugees from Venezuelan communism coming to New York as tragic victims of a Republican political stunt serves only to highlight the plight of the many migrants and refugees on our own borders, let alone those all over the world, as wars and the climate crisis constantly cause increasing movements of desperate people all over the world. Meanwhile, the challenging Ken Burns program The U.S. and the Holocaust has reminded us that the pathological fear and distancing of the other has a long history.

Pope Francis has made migrants and refugees one of the major public priorities of this pontificate. The Pope's inspiring Message for this day may be accessed at:
Coincidentally this year, on this same Sunday the Church proclaims the Gospel in which Jesus tells the challenging parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We hear that same parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest who has to read Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously dressed in purple!
Other than his wardrobe, we know next to nothing about the rich man. He is sometimes called Dives, which is just the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we smugly call the “real” world, it is typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. In his classic work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adan Smith famously characterized the "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," as "the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." And he added: "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."
But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor, weak outsiders, among whom in today's world we may certainly number many migrants and refugees, who matter. (As Lactantius famously said: Those who are useless to men are useful to God.) Thus, in Jesus’ parable, it is the marginalized beggar whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, of course, be almost anyone in any prosperous, capitalist society structured to serve modern liberal individualism.
In traditional, pre-capitalist societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is inevitably relatively low, there are usually lots of poor people – not necessarily all as poor as Lazarus, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And the danger of becoming marginal would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely making it.
Thus, the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable; and, in a society without modern notions of privacy, they could picture those they could not really avoid (as we so incessantly seek to avoid noticing the poor among us and the refugees knocking on our national door.). Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side, much as the societies from which many must migrate and the societies which they seek to enter may be next-door neighbors. Yet, the parable suggests that, for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate. That, of course, is also what border walls do.
Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he was likely seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth and his border had created between himself and Lazarus. It is not that he was personally hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way we live in this country today.
But then the man died. In fact, they both died, as indeed we all will one day or other. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life, the border between himself and Lazarus, is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.
The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. Something of that sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. There, the rich man himself (the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – the teller of the parable. Knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.
So, are we listening?

Photo: Pope Francis prays at a cross on the border with El Paso, Texas, before celebrating Mass at the fairgrounds in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 17, 2017. (CNS/Paul Haring).