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.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Famed Director Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious  (and long) Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood revisits the last years of Hollywood's supposed golden age. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, it features Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, sometime star of a TV Western struggling with how to keep his career going in a changing environment, while dealing (or not) with a drinking problem, and Brad Pitt as his longtime stunt double and de facto best friend Cliff Booth, In the film, a window into late 1960s celebrity culture (and as such a quick cure for 1960s nostalgia), these fictional figures have real-life neighbors - most notably Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, whose tragic real-life fate is obviously already known to the audience and so hangs menacingly in the movie's atmosphere.

The two tremendous actual actors carry the film through, despite a less than tremendous storyline about the fictional actors they play. As a TV actor, Rick (DiCaprio) is not quite a has been, but he is certainly getting there as he faces the prospect of being reduced to making "spaghetti westerns" in Italy. He is on a slow track to nowhere and knows it, and it bothers him. Unlike Rick, and despite suspicions of his own problematic past, Cliff (Pitt) seems much more at peace with himself in his even less promising present situation. Cliff seems contentedly devoted to Rick, who obviously uses him, but is also genuinely his friend. They model two different, if somewhat symbiotic, ways of responding to aging out of youthful celebrity. 

Laden with contemporary pop-culture images, the film recreates the late 1960s atmosphere complete with parodies of TV shows, portraying life as it was being imagined on screen and how it was being lived on the street. (They all also smoke too much, distractingly so; but, of course, it was the 60s; so it was still cool.) Meanwhile, the Sharon Tate motif adds to the sense that things cannot keep going on this way, while Cliff's creepy, inadvertent introduction to the Manson family further adds to the sense of impending menace. Were it not for the horrifying violence they eventually unleash, Manson's strange hippies seem almost comic - as undoubtedly they did to some extent seem to society at the time, until the full force of their alienation was so violently and destructively demonstrated.

It is evident that Tarantino really cares about Hollywood - or, at least, his image of Hollywood as it once was. It is an illusory world seemingly largely disconnected from the distress of the real world outside its bubble. It is less clear why the world beyond LA should have cared about Hollywood in 1969 - or should now.

Viewers will all have to decide for themselves what to make of the movie's surprisingly strange and historically incongruous ending. But, as I already said, the film may function for some as a good cure for any potential excess of 1960s Hollywood nostalgia. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Becoming a Blessing

The excerpt we just heard [Genesis 18:20-32] from the Old Testament saga of Abraham takes us back some 4000 years to the heights overlooking the once great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that no longer exist, because (so the story says) of the outcry against them – so different were their citizens from Abraham, whose generous hospitality we heard about last week. Yet, although Abraham was himself a recent immigrant in the region, he cared enough for the local population that he was willing to plead with God to save them from destruction.

For some, what stands out most strongly in this story is the picturesque image of Abraham bargaining with God, as if he were some shopper in some stereotypical middle-eastern marketplace. So strongly ingrained in the typical tourist mindset is that marketplace stereotype that some, who have religiously read their guidebooks, feel compelled to bargain about everything. I saw that myself in Israel when I was studying in Jerusalem in the early 1990s. A group of us had walked to Bethlehem for Mass at the Basilica, but to save time we decided to take a taxi back. When the drivers stated their fares, some in our group started trying to bargain down the amount. Meanwhile, I did a quick currency calculation in my head and said to someone else in the group, “This taxi costs less than a subway ride back home. Let’s just get in the cab and go!”

Foreigner though he was, Abraham was certainly no tourist – a pilgrim perhaps in a land not yet his, but certainly no tourist. And his relationship with God was anything but commercial or transitory. Just before today’s excerpt, God who (as we heard last Sunday) has just experienced Abraham’s generous hospitality, suddenly says he cannot hide from Abraham what he is about to do, because Abraham is destined to become a great nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him [Genesis 18:17-18]. Now, in this serious debate in which the fate of civilizations literally hung in the balance, we witness Abraham already at work anticipating that promised blessing for all the nations of the earth.

In this, Abraham is sometimes compared favorably to Noah, who (at least as far as we know) did not intercede for his neighbors. Abraham, however, cared not only for his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, who were then living in Sodom, but for the whole population of the doomed cities. For far too many of us, far too often, Noah’s narrow concern may seem normal. Expanding the boundaries that limit those we care about – expanding them to include others who don’t necessarily look or talk or act like us – doesn’t just happen automatically (as contemporary events in our own country and elsewhere keep reminding us). Abraham, however, got it right – right from the beginning. In this he anticipated his greatest descendant, Jesus, who would intercede with God for the entire world.

Sadly, in Sodom’s case, only three were saved finally from destruction. Did Lot deserve to be saved? He seems to have liked his settled and comfortable life in the prosperous city and lingered when the time came to leave. But, for Abraham’s sake, God got him out in time.

The fate of those cities has never been forgotten. The prophet Ezekiel said they were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy [Ezekiel 16:49]. How familiar does that sound? Jesus also used Sodom’s story as a warning. Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words – he said to his disciples – it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [Matthew 10:14-15].

In a sense, those corrupt cities stand for human civilization in its most advanced and successful state of development, complacently prosperous and comfortable and deserving of judgment – a salutary warning perhaps for other advanced and successful societies, like our own, and for us modern Lots who would likewise like to linger complacently in prosperity and comfort.

But at the same time the story also suggests that for the sake of just a few innocent people God would have been willing to spare the cities. Unfortunately there were none to be found there. If we, undeserving though we are, hope for God’s mercy, that hope rests entirely in Abraham’s descendant Jesus, through whom all the peoples of the world have finally been blessed once and for all.

Meanwhile we have been given a lesson in how to imitate Abraham in caring about even those who neither look nor talk nor act like us.

The way Abraham insistently interceded for the citizens of Sodom says a lot about the seriousness of his relationship with God. After all, the way I ask for a favor always says something significant about my relationship with the one I’m asking the favor from!

Today’s Gospel [Luke 11:1-13] challenges to ask ourselves how we experience our relationship with God. Is he a Father who can be counted on to give us that fish or that egg he knows we need even better that we may know it? A Father, who will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

In inviting us to call his Father our Father, Jesus enables us to enter into a special relationship with God similar to his own – sufficiently similar that we can confidently pray to God as frankly and freely as Abraham did and Jesus does. Thus, we may become more like Abraham and ultimately more like Jesus, who by becoming a blessing for us enables us to join our prayer to his and so become a blessing for all the peoples and nations of the world.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 28, 2019.

(Photo: Israel's Mount Sodom,  a hill along the southwestern part of the Dead Sea in the Judaean Desert , featuring the pillar named "Lot's Wife.").

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grandparents' Day

According to a 2016 PBS Newshour report, some 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren nationwide in the U.S. - up 7% from 2009. About 20% of those grandparents have incomes below the poverty line. This particular phenomenon of grandparents as parental substitutes may be a response to some of the particular problems that increasingly characterize our society and the collapse of the family, at least the family as we have recently known it, as a central social institution. That said, in both better and worse times and places and in other configurations of family structure, grandparents have often played a major role in the formation and socialization of their children's children.

In my own experience, while I grew up in an intact, stable nuclear family (with a large nearby network of aunts, uncles, and cousins), my mother's mother lived with us until her death when I was 19. Her presence and the influence of her presence were profound. On a purely practical level, her presence made it possible for my mother to work part-time, which was financially necessary. Her presence in our home also connected us more than anything else might have with our family's past pre-immigration history and with the actual experience of being immigrants. Finally, my grandmother's personal piety had a particularly powerful personal influence on me and on how I came to appreciate the Church's life and worship as an essential component of a meaningful life.

All that is worth recalling today as the Church commemorates Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The New Testament is unsurprisingly silent on the subject of Mary's family and her life prior to the Annunciation. The earliest known account of her family of origin is found in the Protoevangelium of James a non-canonical, "apocryphal" - Raymond Brown called it "obviously folkloric" - text from the late second century, which identifies her parents as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. The liturgical commemoration of Mary’s birth is connected with the dedication of an ancient church in Jerusalem, now known as the Church of Saint Anne (photo), built on a site which came to be identified with the home of Saints Joachim and Anne.

In the former Missal and Breviary, Saints Joachim and Anne each had his or her own feast day, celebrated with the second highest liturgical rank. In the present Paul VI Missal and Breviary, they have been demoted somewhat. The much more popular Saint Anne now has to share her day with her husband in one single celebration, which has been reduced to the third highest liturgical rank. Why this was done or what particular benefit these changes were supposed to produce is unclear, but so it is.

Devotion to Saint Anne developed early in the East, later in the West. Once it did develop, however, Saint Anne became patroness not just of grandmothers but women seeking a husband or hoping for a child. She is famously also the patron saint of miners and a protector from storms. Hence the invocation of her by Martin Luther (who came from a mining community) when he was caught in a terrifying storm, "Help me, Saint Anne, I will become a monk!" 

According to the Protoevangelium of James, Joachim and Anne were a generous couple, who donated a third of their income to the poor, a fitting image for us today when so many grandmothers find themselves the de facto heads of poor families!

A final thought from the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch: "Let us think of our grandmother today with gratitude.  Next to God we owe our faith principally to our mothers and grandmothers. To them our gratitude."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Boris Kisses Hands

At last, the British Tory Party has finally chosen its new leader - the flamboyant and somewhat Trump-like Boris Johnson, who (quite unlike Trump) studied classics at Oxford. (Interestingly, Boris was born in New York and baptized a Catholic, the religion of his mother, before being confirmed in the Church of England at Eton.)

Sometime this afternoon, his unappreciated predecessor will answer her final Prime Minister's Questions and then go to the palace to turn in her resignation, whereupon Boris will presumably be invited to the palace by the Queen to take office as her 14th Prime Minister. The official notice will record that "the Prime Minister Kissed Hands on Appointment” (a beautiful British expression which typically does not literally express what actually happens).

Given the increasingly acrimonious states of British politics, this brief but dignified traditional beginning of the Boris era may be the calm before the storm. Saddled with an October 31 deadline to exit the EU, Prime Minister Johnson will face many challenges on many fronts - from an inflexible EU, from an (until recently anyway) inflexible Irish government. from an admiring American ally, President Trump, not known either for policy consistency or consistent commitment to allies, from a collapsing British political party system, and, perhaps most problematic of all, from a House of Commons that is anything but completely under his control.

According to Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen's account of the 2016 campaign, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign (Crown, 2017), Bill Clinton grasped - earlier and better than many others - a connection between some of the forces fueling the Bexit campaign and the forces fueling the Trump campaign. In terms of substance, I evaluate Brexit and Trump very differently, but considered as electoral outcomes the two do share something in that both were fueled by populist disgust with governing elites' indifference and contempt. 

It remains to be seen how Boris will navigate the treacherous voyage to Brexit and beyond (whatever unknown may be beyond). Perhaps his flamboyance and Trump-like image will serve him well. Perhaps his cleverness and classical education and establishment background may serve him even better. It all remains to be seen. Functioning as a political leader in an increasingly post-political world is largely unchartered terrain.  

Monday, July 22, 2019

American Carnage (The Book)

Several years ago, I wrote in this space about Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: the Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012) an account of how the Republican party transformed itself in the second half of the 20th century. A lot has happened since that 20th-century intra-party struggle and transformation, so effectively anticipated by Barry Goldwater's 1964 win in six states of the Old Confederacy. Now Politico's chief political correspondent Tim Alberta has given us an up-to-date 21st-century account of woes that party has brought on itself, from the presidency of George W. Bush to that of Donald Trump. 

The book is American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump (Harper Collins, 2019). Alberta's main point is made on the first page: "Trump is not the creator of this era of national disruption. Rather, he is its most manifest consequence." And in 2016 Trump was the candidate who most met the moment: "All throughout history the world over, efforts to exploit anxiety have succeeded when there is anxiety to be found: times of war, financial despair, national disunity."

This is the familiar, ongoing story of a long-term fight for the soul of the Republican party - whether to continue to be a Reaganite "conservative" Wall Street Journal party of tax cuts for the rich, free trade, etc., with some socially conservative linguistic window dressing, or to become a "populist" white American identity party, less oriented to the agenda of globalized wealthy elites and more oriented to the agenda of the "base" Republican voters. Alberta recounts in great detail the Republican party's early 21st-century fight with itself, the fight which finally revealed the failure of the Reaganite "conservative" ideology which no longer (if it ever did) corresponded to what the party's electoral constituency really wanted. Even the Tea Party's 2010 fiscal talk turned out to be just an ideological superstructure whose underlying energy is really a toxic brew of cultural and racial resentments.

Starting with the 2008 primary campaign, Alberta takes us through the phenomenon of Sarah Palin ("the early warning bell" for Trump), through Obama's effect on the Republicans' angry, resentful, nativist base,  the rise of the Tea Party, the consequent congressional dysfunction during the Boehner and Ryan Speakerships, the 2012 Romney candidacy ("an exercise in obliviousness"), increasing cultural warfare from both sides of the country's growing cultural chasm, all culminating in the spectacularly successful rise of Trump in "a nation seduced by celebrity and blissfully unaware of its cancerous effects." The 2016 campaign having been revisited in yet another excellent account, Alberta takes us into the familiar terrain of the subsequent travails of the Trump administration and the Republican party's "Faustian bargain" (and that of the party's religious allies).with him.

All of which leaves us where we are now. Trump's enduring legacy, Alberta suggests, has been "his endorsement of America's worst instincts," in doing which "he not only enslaved one half of the country to his callousness, but successfully bade escalation from the other half, plunging all of America and its posterity deeper toward perdition."

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Choosing the Better Part

As I am sure we all know, this is the 50th anniversary of Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon. For those of us above a certain age, the story of space exploration and the moon landing is familiar, well remembered for the exciting event it was. I was 21 in 1969 and had spent that summer Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. But we got on the "A" train and got home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later that evening we watched as Armstrong took his famous "giant leap for mankind."

It is perhaps hard to explain to a post-modern world, which has lost a sense of excitement or engagement with great public purposes, the excitement that space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it most certainly was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was very important to us at the time).

A lay elder of a Presbyterian Church in Texas, Astronaut Aldrin had received Holy Communion two Sundays before and then was given some of the Elements to take with him to the moon. After they had landed, and before they stepped out onto the lunar surface, Aldrin read John 15:5 and gave himself Communion. What a fitting a response that was to what the heavens were proclaiming all around him!

Today’s reading from Genesis describes a very different kind of heavenly visit – a visit by God to earth, to Abraham, who provided his visitors with a special meal.

Sometimes referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity,” Andrei Rublev’s famous 15th-century icon portrays Abraham’s three heavenly visitors, a visit subsequently interpreted in Christian tradition as an image of the Trinity. The Son, the Word, who reveals God to the world, appears prominently in the center, pointing out into the world. The Father is seated to one side, looking lovingly at the Son, who in turn looks lovingly at the Father, while the bright-robed Holy Spirit is seated on the other side. The three Persons contemplate each other in mutual love, into which we contemplation and love too are meant to be drawn.

Of course, Abraham himself had no notion of the Trinity. But he recognized God’s word in his heavenly visitors and their message, and he accepted it in faith. In doing so he unified the responses ascribed to Martha and Mary in today’s Gospel.

Poor Martha! Jesus did not dismiss her concerns, but how often have we done so, portraying her as some sort of soulless workaholic. When I was in seminary, those who found their validation primarily through their work were sometimes derided as having a “Martha complex.” On the other hand, seminarians who seemed somewhat less addicted to hard work were derided as “Marys.” So Mary hasn’t fared so well either in the way we typically trivialize this story.

Jesus, of course, valued both Martha and Mary as is evident above all in his conversations with the two sisters at Lazarus’ tomb in John’s Gospel. Presumably Jesus and his disciples expected to be fed and so certainly valued Martha’s solicitous hospitality. As should we! In an apparent reference back to the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors, the letter to the Hebrews instructs us: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. But, while valuing Martha’s willingness to work hard hosting him and his disciples, Jesus also warned her – and us – to put our priorities in order and not neglect what is most important in life by letting our work, our activity, define us. Individually, Martha and Mary personify the two different ways of responding. Abraham exemplifies their unity in one life lived in fidelity to God’s invitation.

Martha personifies for us the importance and value of what we do, what we actually do in the world, day-by-day, here and now – and how we do it, how we welcome one another in the communities we are a part of and how we reach out to the wider world. It highlights the moral significance of everything we do in our families, at work, at school, at church, in all our relationships as neighbors and citizens and fellow citizens of our endangered planet. In his great environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis addressed what he calls the urgent challenge to protect our common home, and humanity’s ability to work together in building our common home. [Laudato Si’, 13]. That is a call to action, an appeal to Martha at her best – the Martha in each of us.

Mary, meanwhile, reminds us that what we do must be rooted in who we are, in what is at the heart of being a disciple, what gives the fullest meaning to how we welcome and minister to one another in our communities and in the wider world. To quote Laudato Si’ again:  Human beings … are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom ... to respond to [God’s] grace at work deep in our hearts. [Laudato Si’, 205]. That is an appeal to the Mary in each of us.

And Abraham, who ran out from his tent to welcome and serve his visitors and then waited patiently under the tree while they ate, personifies the unity of the two, united in one life lived fully in fidelity to God’s great invitation to each of us to listen to the Lord and accept the mission he gives us..

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 21, 2019.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Years and Years

I don't usually agree completely with NY Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, but I took her advice this week and watched the first three episodes of HBO's new 6-episode series Years and Years, which follows the Manchester-based, multi-generational Lyons family from their fairly comfortable but problematic present into an increasingly dystopian near future.

Although the series starts in the present, the family members increasingly communicate with advanced audio-visual home devices that link them in what would seem to most of us as a somewhat futuristic way. In many respects, however, they are a normal British family with normal family problems - a family of two adult brothers, two adult sisters, their grandmother, and some children of their own. (The mother is dead, and the father apparently abandoned the family at some point and remarried, only to die in episode 3 from a scratch-induced infection, which there are no antibiotics left to heal). 

The grandmother, Muriel, who turns 90 in the first episode, is the family's link back to a seemingly more stable past. Her tears, when Her Majesty's Government becomes His Majesty's Government, are perhaps being shed not only for a beloved monarch,  but for an increasingly lost world - when "there were still butterlies." Stephen, the older brother, is some sort of well-off financier married to Celeste, an accountant. We can guess that their financially comfortable and complacent lifestyle will, predictably, be disrupted. In addition, one of their daughters feels herself not at home in her body, and aspires to become transhuman and digitalize herself. The younger brother, Daniel (Russell Tovey), starts out in a relationship (and then marriage) with a schoolteacher, but he then leaves him for Viktor, a Ukranian asylum-seeker he meets up with in the course of his work. Rosie, their younger sister, is a wheel-chaired single-mother of two, who seems to be just getting by. The other sister, Edith, whom we do not actually meet until the second episode, is a globe-trotting, radical environmental and political activist.

Meanwhile, as we move forward into the 2020s, life in the wider world is getting more and more precarious. As activist Edith warns, "the world keeps getting hotter and faster and madder." Russia invades Ukraine (triggering a Ukranian refugee crisis in Britain). China builds an artificial island in the South China Sea. And, while the Lyons family are gathered for their annual "Winter Feast" to celebrate grandma Muriel's birthday, U.S President Trump attacks the Chinese island with a nuclear missile - at the very end of his second term, just before handing over the presidency to Mike Pence. 

And at home a rich, "populist," non-politician, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) rises to power in Britain!

Even as the future becomes more dystopian, it is obvious that this is all a parable about our painful, politically poisoned present. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Who Is My Neighbor?

One of the most obvious features of televised American political debates is how they are structured on a question-and-answer format, but in fact candidates often make no attempt at all to answer the question they were actually asked, preferring instead to answer some other question of their own choosing.  For most of us most of the time, there are probably few things more exasperating than asking a question and not getting a real answer – whether what one gets is no answer at all or an evasive kind of answer or (worst of all) instead of an answer another question throwing it all back at you. So I suspect the lawyer in today’s Gospel may well have been very exasperated with Jesus, who seems as if he might have managed very well indeed in a typical televised debate!

After all, the question the lawyer asked was a perfectly legitimate one to ask of a religious authority figure: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, however, had answered him with a question of his own, putting all the onus back on him: What is written in the law? How do you read it?

Of course, the lawyer was able to answer Jesus because he had been properly instructed in the Jewish law and so could quote it correctly. Jesus accepted his answer.

But the Gospel says he wished to justify himself, and so he demanded further clarification. The law says to love my neighbor as myself. OK then, exactly who is my neighbor. A good question, an important question, as so many recent events in our fractured society – events like dead children and imprisoned families on our southern border - keep reminding us.

Jesus did reply to the lawyer, but with a story, a parable. At this distance of some 2000 years almost, we’ve all heard it so many times, that we already know the story. So we are not surprised when (of all people) a Samaritan appears as the story’s hero. And so we call it the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” conveniently forgetting or ignoring what a complete contradiction in terms a “Good Samaritan” would have seemed to the people who first heard this story from Jesus himself.

Of course, our only experience of Samaritans is this story (and all the hospitals and such that have been named after it). We certainly haven’t experienced Samaritans as unwelcome, threatening, and despised foreigners the way the lawyer (and the rest of those present) would have experienced them – the way so many 19th-century Americans saw Irish and Italian immigrants to this country, the way some in our society see Mexican and Central American immigrants today. So we completely miss the surprise, the shock, the real scandal in the story – and so also miss the parable’s point, which is Jesus’ invitation to us to think about these things in a new way.

To do that we must remember the actual point at issue between Jesus and the lawyer. They were discussing the Old Testament law of love for God and neighbor. Jesus never answered the lawyer’s original question. He let the lawyer himself do that. We don’t need Jesus to quote the Bible to us. We can do that ourselves. But we do need Jesus to make the commandments come alive in our world – to tell us who is our neighbor.

But the way that question was asked, and the way we most likely hear that question today, it means “To whom do I owe something? To whom have I some obligation? Whom do I have to care about?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s an ordinary one. It expresses the ordinary logic of our ordinary world, which asks, “Is this person my neighbor? Is this someone I am required to care about?” It asks, in effect, “What is the legal or moral minimum that I as a socially responsible, ostensibly moral person and good citizen am obliged to do?”

That is not a bad place to start. But, if we hear this story from the viewpoint of the man who fell victim to robbers, then that will hardly be our question. Jesus’ story subtly shifts the focus from neighbor as an object of obligation, someone to whom something may be owed (if perhaps only somewhat grudgingly) to neighbor as someone who acts, someone who intervenes and saves, someone who acts on my behalf and comes close enough to touch me and become my friend.

Now, as everyone in Jesus’ audience would presumably have understood, in an ordinary world both the priest and the Levite would have had very legitimate reasons, when they passed by, to stay on the opposite side. To do their jobs, they had to remain ritually pure, which precluded contact with corpses (a real danger here, since the victim, so we’re told, was left half-dead). The Samaritan, on the other hand, was an outsider - even as so many of us are today to one another.  The only thing he had to lose by getting involved was his right to remain aloof.

But the point of the parable is that he did not remain aloof! The stranger has become a neighbor!

Jesus’ parable portrays otherwise ordinary people in an otherwise ordinary world and one person, a Samaritan, for whom nothing is ordinary anymore. It gives us a glimpse of how God acts – as seen in the actions of Jesus. The question for us is whether we want to be part of that new world.

So the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is first of all a story about Jesus, whose whole story is about the neighborliness of God, the distant stranger who has now become our friend.

To ask, like the lawyer, what my minimum obligation, my minimum moral duty, is, that presumes we see ourselves as free and aloof individuals for whom the connections involved in community with others are a burdensome obligation to be kept to a minimum – that being in society with others is itself a burden, that living a moral life is a burdensome obligation.

That is the logic of our ordinary world – a world in which social networks and community connections are increasingly damaged and in decline. It was to counter that logic that six years ago this summer Pope Francis made his first pastoral visit outside of Rome, a pastoral visit of great symbolic and social significance to a Mediterranean island which served as one of the primary European entry points for immigrants from North Africa, a site associated with the sorts of human tragedies that often threaten immigrants, where hundreds of migrants have drowned or gone missing. Celebrating Mass there, the Pope lamented: "We have become used to other people's suffering, it doesn't concern us, it doesn't interest us, it's none of our business!"

Such is indeed the moral logic of our ordinary world.

But the God who is no longer a stranger, because he has become our neighbor in Jesus, has given us – in Jesus – a glimpse of God’s logic in God’s kingdom.

And so, says Jesus, finally answering the question: Go and do likewise.

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 14, 2019

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Reaching for the Moon

"We stood knee-deep in garbage while reaching for the moon." So said Walter Cronkite in a retrospective on the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s. (The garbage he referred to was the famous 1968 New York City garbage strike.) The decade of the 1960s was not only a tumultuous time but also a terribly divisive time, in which so much that had seemed settled became unsettled and society became unglued as a result. Yet the decade ended on a spectacularly happy note with one of the most exciting, exhilarating events in all of human history, the landing of a man on the moon 50 years ago this month on July 20, 1969. (The NY Times photo above shows New York's Ticker Tape Parade for the Apollo 11 Astronauts on August 13, 1969.)

For those of us above a certain age, the story of space exploration and the moon landing is familiar, well remembered for the exciting event it was. I was 21 in 1969 and had spent that summer Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. But we got back on the "A" train and got home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later that evening we watched as Astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous "giant leap for mankind." 

It is perhaps hard to explain to a post-modern world, which has lost a sense of excitement or engagement with great public purposes, the excitement that space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it most certainly was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was very important to us at the time).

This week PBS American Experience has helped Americans to relive not just that unique historical moment but the decade and more of effort that led up to it. Robert Stone's Chasing the Moon retells the familiar (but forgotten by many) story of scientific and technological innovation, political conflicts, and popular media showmanship that combined to create that complex decade's one great shining moment. It does so using a treasury of old footage from the period that began with the frightening news that the Soviets had beat the U.S into space with the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and interviews with witnesses to those dramatic events (including Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet side in the decisive early years of the space race).

Stone's Chasing the Moon relives the dual challenge of the project - the scientific and technological challenge of figuring out how to get to the moon and back and the social and political challenge of building support for it among the American people and the political establishment. Among other things, it illuminates Kennedy's early ambivalence, the failed effort to include a non-white astronaut, the role of the first woman to work in MIssion Control, the traumatic effect of the tragic fire that killed Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee in 1967, and the drama around Apollo 8's lunar orbit at Christmas 1968 (when Astronaut Frank Borman famously read from the Genesis creation story, and the world got to see the now famous image of the earth, what President Nixon at his Inauguration a few weeks later called "the world as God sees it as a single sphere reflecting light in the darkness" ). All this was prelude, of course, to the final drama of the actual July 1969 moon landing and its aftermath and its as yet unfulfilled promise.

Not mentioned in Chasing the Moon (and, I suspect, largely unknown to many, as it certainly was to me until recently) is the story of Astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin's Holy Communion on the Moon, the subject of a post by Richard Ostling on Get Religion. (To read the article go to: )

At that time a lay elder of the Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas, Aldrin arranged with his Pastor to receive Holy Communion in a private service two Sundays before liftoff, then was given some of the Elements to take with him to the moon. After the Eagle had landed on the moon, and before Neil Armstrong and then Aldrin stepped out onto the lunar surface, Aldrin read John 15:5 and then gave himself Communion. He later recalled how "the first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there were the Christian Communion." Each year, his former church recalls the event with a "Lunar Communion" service, using a replica of the small silver chalice Aldrin had used on the moon.

Waiting patiently that summer Sunday evening 50 years ago for Neil Armstrong to open the hatch and take his famous "one step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," I doubt I gave much thought to what the astronauts were doing inside. Certainly I never suspected one of them was receiving Communion! Yet how right that was! How fitting a response to what the heavens were proclaiming all around him! 

Pope Saint Paul VI sent one of 73 Goodwill Messages to the moon on Apollo 11. The message, still presumably on the lunar surface, includes the Latin text of Psalm 8 and the Pope's prayer, To the Glory of the name of God who gives such power to men, we ardently pray for this wonderful beginning.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Fighting Over the Census

It is emblematic of our abnormal time that ordinary things - like the decennial census prescribed by the constitution and conducted calmly and efficiently for over two centuries - has now become an occasion for yet another conflict. What would ordinarily be a normal activity of government has become in our abnormal time a political controversy, because of the poisonously problematic way the president and his political party have chosen to govern.

So we fight over - of all things - the Census!

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, says Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - in English as clear as can possibly be. This alteration of the earlier provision in Article 1, Section 2, of the original U.S. Constitution left unchanged that article's prescription of the decennial census: The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they [Congress] shall by law direct.

To this straightforward task of counting all the people presently living in the country (citizens and non-citizens, voters, and non-voters, adults and children, etc.), there has been added over time to the census the additional task of being the great national statistics-gatherer, Hence all the questions on the census forms! Presumably any question that could produce an appropriate and legitimate statistic could be justified . Thanks to the way this Administration and its political party have governed, however, such appropriateness cannot be presumed. Hence the obvious illegitimacy of this particular attempt to add a question about American citizenship to the census form - a question that has not been asked since 1950.

The Administration's failure to come up with a plausible rationale to justify including the citizenship question - and the Supreme Court's recent recognition that the rationale it tried to foist on the country was completely contrived - ought to have ended the matter. Instead, with appallingly perverse perseverance, the Administration is determined to keep trying. All this in order to manipulate this fundamental constitutional process aimed at maximizing the representative character of the House in order to engineer the opposite. One thing more morally obtuse than doing something bad is continuing to try to do that bad thing even after one has been warned against it and told to stop.

When normal governing is replaced by what is abnormal, what evils must then follow for a society!