Sunday, February 28, 2021

From Desert to Mountaintop

Some Thoughts on this 2nd Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2021

Last week, we followed Jesus into the desert. For some, the desert has become the archetypal image for Lent, perhaps especially in this time of pandemic when we so frequently feel ourselves to be isolated -  in a social if not physical desert. Today however, we leave the desert behind for a while and follow Jesus up a mountain, all the way to the summit. Mountain-tops too are generally isolated places. Nowadays, experiences of religious renewal are often popularly marketed as "desert experiences." but they can also be portrayed - and sometimes are - as "mountain-top experiences" in our ongoing climb to that spiritual summit which is our lifelong goal. 

Today’s Gospel describes the quite literally mountain-top experience of Peter, James, and John on Galilee’s Mount Tabor. An ancient tradition dated the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent.

Today’s liturgy, however, recalls not just one, but two mountain-top experiences, and it is Abraham’s (and Isaac’s) experience on Mount Moriah, recounted in today’s first reading from Genesis, that is maybe even more famous. All three religions that trace themselves to Abraham ascribe special significance and give great prominence to that event.

Judaism identifies Mount Moriah with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In synagogue, this story is read annually on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year” festival in the fall of each year.  Muslims (who believe God's command was to sacrifice Abraham’s older son Ishmael rather than Isaac) commemorate it on the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), which occurs annually during the pilgrimage (Hajj) season.

Christians have traditionally identified Mount Moriah either with the Temple Mount (as Jews do) or with the nearby site of Christ’s crucifixion. For Christians, this story foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of his Son and Jesus’ obedient submission to his Father’s will - a connection alluded to in today’s second reading, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, in reference to God who did not spare his own Son Christ Jesus who died and was raised.

Common to all is an emphasis on Abraham’s faith in God, who, as the narrator tells us at the beginning of the story, put Abraham to the test. Of course we know how the story ends, but Abraham didn’t, and that is the point.  

Years before, God had commanded Abraham to move to a strange land, armed only with God’s promise to bless him with descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. In his very old age, Abraham had finally been blessed with the first installment of God’s promise – his son Isaac, on whom would depend Abraham’s hope for the fulfillment of the rest of God’s promises. When Isaac was eight days old, Abraham had circumcised him as a sign of God’s promise and as a link to future promised generations.

Now, however, Abraham confronted what surely must have been his worst nightmare – the extinction of his line: “Take your son Isaac whom you love and offer him up.” Abraham experienced what everyone who has ever loved anyone learns, that love always carries with it the real possibility of heartbreak.

But what choice did he have? For years, he had trusted God to deliver on his promise. To disobey God’s command now would be to deny his own past, his whole history, and thus just as surely to forfeit his future (which is what inevitably happens whenever we deny our past).

The excerpt read at Mass today skips the part of the story, where Abraham evasively answered Isaac’s question about what they were going to sacrifice. Abraham could not know that God was going to spare Isaac at the last minute. But he was convinced that somehow God would keep his promise. He understood that, whatever the future might hold, he could only have access to it by remaining faithful to his past – to God who chose him and whom Abraham had chosen in return. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol [Hebrews 11:17-19].

In most depictions of this event, Isaac tends to be portrayed as a boy. However, the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus thought Isaac was 25 and the Talmud teaches that he was 37. If Isaac was a grown man, strong enough to prevent Abraham from tying him down, then his non-resistance makes him an even more effective symbol for his greatest descendant Jesus, who would offer himself in sacrifice in fulfillment of his Father’s will.

Not for nothing does the Roman Canon call Abraham our father in faith. He didn’t know precisely what would happen when he reached the mountain-top. But he did know that a relationship with God is based on trust and that, whatever else happens, the one thing we have to keep on doing is to keep on trusting. He had, what the great 18th-century spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the certitude of faith tinged with hope.

The binding power of any relationship is measured by its sacrificial seriousness, the depth of one’s commitment and of one’s willingness to answer, like Abraham, “Here, I am.”  We are able to do that, not just because of Abraham and Isaac’s example, but because we have come to know and have experienced the ultimate keeper of God’s promise - Abraham and Isaac’s greatest descendant, Jesus, who said “Here, I am” to his Father and so was called the beloved Son, the one and only Savior of the world, to whom we (with Peter, James, and John, and all the Church - past, present, and future - here and everywhere) are now being commanded to listen.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Golden Statues - Then and Now

(New York Magazine Photo: Gold Statue of Donald Trump at CPAC, designed by  California artist Tommy Zegan)

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” [Daniel 3:1-6]

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Third Kennedy - Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975

By the time of his death in 2009, "Ted" the last of the Kennedy brothers had served in the Senate for 47 years and was widely regarded as a senatorial star, someone much more committed to the Senate and more effective as a senator than either of his two older brothers had been and whose name was associated with major landmark legislation, including the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (“perhaps the single most nation-changing measure of the era),” and finally as the leading advocate for universal health care. None of that was inevitable. None of that would have been predicted when, at the age of 30, he was first elected to the Senate in 1962, a position for which he was widely seen as completely unqualified. Then, he was just President Kennedy's baby brother and yet one more example of the unbridled ambition of an arrogant, ambitious, overly rich, and overly privileged Kennedy dynasty.

How a career that began so inauspiciously in 1962 became something so unexpectedly admirable is the story which Neal Gabler tells in this first volume - Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975 - of what promises to be a very ambitious and comprehensive biography. 

For anyone of my generation, the basic outline of the Ted Kennedy story is familiar, as is so much of the triumph-and-tragedy associated with that problematic late 20th-century substitute for an authentic American royal family. Gabler retells the familiar story through the lens of Edward Kennedy's marginal status within the family itself - the youngest child, from whom little was expected in comparison with his star-quality brothers, but who unlike them developed precisely those personal empathetic qualities which enabled him to connect naturally and effectively with people and in the end made him a better and more effective politician than his higher stature brothers.

Gabler highlights the contrast throughout. He stresses the family's obsession that the "children be the very models of social, cultural, and physical perfection, that they stand straight, dress well, be clean, well spoken, well mannered, presentable—in short, the personification of the wealthy aristocrats the Kennedys so detested and so envied." As a child, Teddy was chubby, but "Kennedys were not supposed to be fat." When he famously got caught cheating and was expelled from Harvard, he was horrified that he had gotten caught, "which fit the amorality in which he had been raised." Famously, Joe Kennedy had big plans for his sons. But, Gabler stresses, "there was no morality in those plans, no civic mission or public good." This was the legacy Senator Kennedy would struggle to transcend. Indeed, Gabler calls "Teddy, the most empathetic of the Kennedys, in part because he was the most disrespected of the Kennedys."

Gabler highlights how this may have helped Kennedy find a productive place in the 20th-century Senate - almost as dysfunctional then as now but in a very different way. "Ted Kennedy’s advantage was that he had grown up in a family where he was the youngest, the least, the one who was forced to entertain and appease his siblings and parents, which he did—'a ninth-child talent'—and that talent would be instrumental in entertaining and appeasing the elders in his new family, his Senate family. So if Ted Kennedy was made to be a politician, he was also made to be a senator in an institution run by old bulls, an institution in which the sort of deference he had always displayed and the sort of comity he had always exuded could go a very long way.  As Milton Gwirtzman put it, 'He knew how a young person should deal with the old people'.”

Gabler takes the reader through the familiar territory of the more positive influence of his maternal grandfather Honey Fitz and Ted's initiation into the family business of politics (and the family hobby of womanizing). But he also examines the changing times against which  Kennedy's senate career enfolded. Thus, in contrast to what we see now and what was already happening later in Ted's career, back when John Kennedy was president "the institutions were all functioning and working. You had belief in the presidency and what they were going to do.” And, just as the times changed, so did Ted's sense of purpose. Thus, Gabler describes his speech on the Senate floor during the debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "But he had never delivered remarks like these, never a full address, never an address so obviously crafted for the occasion ... would, and, perhaps above all, never one that seemed to recognize the salience of moral authority in liberal politics as this address did. Ted Kennedy had not been a moral leader; he had been too junior to be one. Now he assumed that role."

Senator Kennedy's "heightened sense of purpose" developed against the background of two dramas. The first, of course, consisted of a series of personal and familial tragedies, which Gabler describes in detail - John Kennedy's assassination, Ted's 1964 plane crash, and Robert Kennedy's assassination. There was also Ted's deteriorating marriage with Joan. "Ted Kennedy had no empathy for his wife, no feeling for her suffering or appreciation for what she was going through or any recognition of what he had done to worsen it." There was also their son's bone cancer and leg amputation, which also added to his appreciation of the calamitous cost of health care for ordinary Americans. And, of course, there was Chappaquiddick. 

The second was the transformation of the political landscape from the highpoint of liberalism in the mid-1960s to liberalism's gradual exhaustion in the 1970s, by which time Nixon had "legitimized resentments by removing the moral opprobrium against those resentments," and "The majority of Americans had grown tired of the effort and sacrifice required to be good."

Gabler interprets the end of the liberal era in primarily moral terms, which adds to the poignancy of the early-mid 1970s (the point at which this volume concludes). Especially in the aftermath of Chappquiddick, he notes "To the extent that Ted Kennedy had become the face and the voice of modern liberalism, the liberals’ shadow president and the only figure in the party with the Kennedy inheritance, it was liberalism’s loss as well—a devastating loss—the loss of its moral authority." 

And, closely connected with the loss of liberalism's moral authority, would be the loss of a traditional constituency, illustrated so well in the account of the politically and personally bruising Boston battle over school busing. "Perhaps more than any other issue, busing had come to symbolize not only the imposition of liberal elitism on ordinary folks who had never had any great affinity for African Americans to begin with but also the end of liberalism’s moral authority among the working class, who had once been the backbone of American liberalism."

Yet Kennedy would persevere and in time become the proverbial last one standing as a representative of New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Gabler probes why and finds one answer in religion: "in the Catholicism that Rose Kennedy, whose life spun around the poles of materialism and piety, took so seriously and that she enforced upon her children, even as the aesthetics of religion seemed to her as important, if not more important, as the spiritualism. ... But it was precisely because Ted Kennedy seemed so self-indulgent, at least when it came to drink and women, that his religion came to matter so much to him as a counterweight and a guide to redemption."

There was also, of course, the Kennedy obsession with Irish grievance. But there was also something more: "there was an answer for the least of the Kennedys in what he learned from the least fortunate of the Kennedys. If, on his Sunday visits with his grandson, Honey Fitz introduced Ted to the working people of Boston, Ted’s sister Rosemary introduced him to the afflicted and challenged. The Kennedys did not coddle Rosemary. Anything but. They tried to disguise her disability, pass her off as perfectly normal. But even as she tried so hard to conform—indeed, because she tried so hard to conform—she informed the lives of her brothers and sisters. Ted often cited her as one of the most important influences in his life both personally (“Rosemary enriched the humanity of all of us,” he would write in his memoir) and politically, listing her alongside Honey Fitz and his father and his brothers."

Inescapably, Ted was trapped by the pursuit of the presidency. Gabler chronicles how he simultaneously sought but didn't actually run for the presidency in 1972 and 1976, when many thought he would run and many thought he should run. It will be interesting to read how he recounts what happened when Ted finally did run in 1980, the defeat which, I think, finally seemed to liberate him to be what he would be best at in the end.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Leadership Then and Now

Ages ago, when I was growing up, February 22 was (as it should still be today) a holiday, George Washington's Birthday, which was widely observed with the ritual eating of cherry pie. That peculiar custom, of course, invoked the legend of young George Washington (1732-1799, President 1789-1797) admitting to having chopped down a cherry tree, because he could not tell a lie. As with all such myths, the point was not historical but moral. The point was not what might or might not have happened to some 18th-century Virginia cherry tree but the honesty and exemplary moral probity of the "Father of our Country."

Both as a soldier and as a statesman, George Washington was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century norms to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism and self-promotion in our prominent persons, including our political leaders. Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences, most dramatically evident in the Trump personality cult that has so completely corrupted American political culture.

In this context, the founding myth of Washington's honesty provides an important contrast with the popular (and "populist") Trump cult's ubiquitous falsehoods, its both big and small lies. As Machiavelli wrote in an earlier era of moral and cultural breakdown, "one who deceives will always find those who will allow themselves to be deceived" (The Prince, 18).

Meanwhile, the U.S. pandemic death toll has now reached 500,000, more than in any other country. We have experienced nothing like this in at least a century. More Americans have died from this pandemic than were killed in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined! Admittedly, while there are aspects of this tragedy that were always beyond human prediction or control, can anyone doubt that a culture of leadership which valued honesty, humility, and Washington's quasi-kingly personal restraint would have handled this calamity better, beginning with the virus' first appearance a year ago? The same applies to more immediate, seemingly short-term crises like the failure of governance in Republican-run southern states that has so recently totally disrupted life this winter. Imagine if, instead of irrelevant fantasies (for example, about blaming renewable energy), the real energy failures and the real governing culprits in Texas had been called to account!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Time of Fulfillment

Some Thoughts on this 1st Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2021.

Back when Lent really was exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the three following days got added on), Lent began on this Sunday (as it still does, incidentally, in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday), and the 40 days are in fact still counted beginning with today. Of course, for. many it feels like Lent has been ongoing for almost a year, a contemporary commonplace that says something about how we have experienced this terrible time of pandemic, even while mischaracterizing Lent.

That said, this year as every year on this day, we are invited to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life and mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert. The desert is the epitome of how most of us imagine a harsh and somewhat forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent and where he invites us (symbolically at least) to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among the wild beasts that threaten and challenge us to choose what to make of our lives.

According to the biblical account of human origins, Adam had originally lived peacefully among those same wild beasts – his food provided, according to Jewish legend, by angels. Jesus’ sojourn among the wild beasts with angels ministering to him, tells us that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of whatever obstacles we put in his way. That’s the point of the story of Noah. Despite all the obstacles people put in God’s way, in his mercy God patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his just anger, to guarantee the continuance of life on earth. That is the symbolism fo the rainbow - an archer's bow in the clouds, its archer, God, mercifully restraining his righteous wrath as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sinfulness, descending into the prison of death to free its victims. Jesus’ descent among the dead, among the spirits in prison, anticipates the final fulfillment of his life-giving mission, addressed to us in an especially intense way in this Lenten season: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

That’s what Lent is all about, because that’s what life is ultimately all about. Our perennial temptation is to imagine Lent in individualistic terms - as I once overheard someone explaining Lent (in a somewhat New Age way) as “a time to get connected with ourselves.” Lent is indeed a time to renew ourselves, a task each one of us is responsible to undertake. But we do that by focusing not on ourselves, but on the bigger picture, and where we want to be in that picture. Lent is our special time to connect with Christ – Christ tempted in the desert and victorious on the cross, Christ descended among the dead and risen at the right hand of his Father – and to allow that experience, his experience, to make a real difference in our lives, because, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the kingdom of God really is at hand.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Nomadland (The Movie)

The film Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. As stated in the opening screen, it is based on the 2011 closing of a gypsum mine and sheetrock plant in Empire, Nevada. Fern (Frances McDormand), had long lived in Empire with her husband, who had worked for the company. After he died, she stayed on in Empire. But Empire was a company town, and she lost her company housing. Homeless (or, as she prefers to put it, "houseless") she moves into her van and gets a seasonal job at Amazon. When that ends, she follows a friend to a "nomad" gathering in Arizona, where she meets and makes friends with other "nomads," whom she meets on and off as she travels from odd job to odd job. Along the way she meets David (David Strathairn), who takes a liking to her and eventually settles down with his son's family and invites her to visit, hoping she will stay. She does visit, but she doesn't stay. The others she meets are not professional actors, but people who are actually living this nomadic kind of life, which gives the film a quasi-documentary character.

Through these encounters and Fern's experiences in this rare film about actual poor people, we learn about their struggles, limited options, and how they have coped. At one point, Fern visits her sister, who lives a comfortable suburban life, to borrow some money. There is genuine family affection between them, and Fern could stay there if she wished, but somehow she can't. Likewise, she could have opted for a more stable life with David and his family, but again somehow she can't. On the other hand, the concluding sequence of her return visit to Empire highlights how she valued her perviously stable life with her husband. We get glimpses of that very different life from the fact that she had been a substitute teacher in the past and can as occasion warrants quote Shakespeare and on occasion recite a sonnet from memory to a fellow nomad. We also get the sense that she still sees some value in what was lost, as when she advises David to go home and be a grandfather and when she shows concern for a young nomad, asking. him if his parents are worried about him.

The film is set against the traumatic background of the Great Recession and the hollowing out of so much of working-class America. Its context is ostensibly tragic. But any potential political challenge to the status quo is muted, indeed drained away.  (For one brief moment, Fern hints at a political critique in conversation with her brother-in-law, but that is quickly abandoned and attention shifted to her "eccentricity.") Like the magnificent scenery that backgrounds Fern's travels, the story has another dimension which reflects the long-standing, deeply ingrained American duality of stability and home, on the one hand, and solitary movement and pioneering adventure, on the other. So, while the characters are presented as mainly nomads by economic necessity, often touched by personal tragedies in their lives and subsisting on seasonal work at awful jobs, they are also somewhat free-spirited individuals, modern pioneers. They crave community enough to seek and find it in one another, but embrace an almost libertarian lifestyle, that reflects, in their own personal uprootedness, the kind of destructive uprooting caused by the neo-liberal economics that uprooted Fern's life in the first place. Fern's encounters with her sister and David highlight how much she herself personally embodies this ambivalent duality.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The End of the Beginning

In 1942, after the second Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill famously said: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." I thought of Churchill's words this morning as I gratefully received my second Pfizer anti-covid-19 vaccination shot. 

Like most people my age, as a child I suffered through measles, mumps, and chicken pox - serious but then routine childhood diseases that children today are fortunate to have the opportunity to escape thanks to vaccinations. I was a child at the time of the last polio epidemic, and mine was the first generation to receive first the Salk and then the Sabin polio vaccines. And, of course, we were all vaccinated as infants against the scourge of smallpox. When I travelled to Europe for the first time in 1970, it was still required to carry with one's passport a yellow document attesting that one had been duly vaccinated against smallpox. (Will such a regime be re-instituted now for Covid?) I got my first of many annual flu shots in 1967. I have been vaccinated against pneumonia, and I eagerly got the new Shingles vaccine a couple of yers ago. So I guess I am a big fan of vaccines! What sensible person wouldn't be?

The difference vaccines have made in human history is monumental. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and removed once routine fears from people's daily experience. Obviously, that is also what we are expecting - or at least hoping for - from this new covid vaccine.

What will the post-vaccine "normal" come to look like? 

Of course, we all want to go out and about again, to visit and socialize. I haven't been to a restaurant since March 7. Even more, I miss going to movies. And, while I don't really miss flying across the country, I very much miss seeing my family on the other side of the continent. Like so many others, I look forward to rediscovering some of those simple pleasures that enrich ordinary life. 

An epidemic also unveils the inadequacies and inequities in a society. Clearly covid-19 has done that - on the one hand, highlighting our shared common condition and interdependence, but, on the other, demonstrating how differently individuals and groups have experienced this ostensibly common but very unequally shared burden of suffering and death, dislocation, isolation, and impoverishment. 

A hundred years ago, the great influenza pandemic receded into the "roaring twenties." Unaddressed and unresolved, American society's underlying inadequacies and inequities exploded in the Great Depression. In the face of another catastrophic crisis, are there opportunities to respond differently?

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

What a difference a year makes!

Although the Pandemic was already on its way, we were, most of us, still quite oblivious to its implications last year when Lent began as usual with a typically well-attended Ash Wednesday, followed by Friday Stations of the Cross and community Fish Dinners.  Meanwhile, my mother was unexpectedly taken ill on Ash Wednesday and died a little over a week later. It was, while we were planning for her funeral, that the pandemic suddenly took over our lives and everything else. On the advice of both my doctor and my bishop, my trip to California and her funeral were indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile, we were all suddenly dispensed from the Sunday Mass obligation, and within another week all public Masses were suspended. 

So my typical Lenten pattern became Mass said privately in the locked church at around 11:00 a.m., after which I opened the church for a while for people (masked and distant) to come for private prayer. Meanwhile, because of my own personal technological limitations and the parish's limited resources, it took time to get up to speed on how to live-stream Mass, which we finally started doing on Palm Sunday. Such was last year's Lent, likely the strangest Lent I have ever experienced.

That last Lent ended at Easter, as Lent always does. Metaphorically, however, it feels as if Lent has gone on an entire year, this strange pandemic year of mysterious danger and omnipresent precautions, of masks and distance, of long-term loneliness ostensibly relieved by unsatisfactory artificial interactions like live-streamed Masses and zoom meetings. Ash Wednesday's annual summons to remember our mortality is in one sense always old news, but this year it seems even more so, as we lament this terrible disease's 100 million plus victims and mourn its 2 million plus deaths. Meanwhile, even the familiar ritual of receiving ashes is altered and diminished, like so many other familiar rituals, we have habitually cherished in what we now nostalgically recall as normal life.

Back in that normal time, I recall one Ash Wednesday overhearing someone somewhere in Central Park calling Lent "a time to get in touch with oneself." Of course, Lent is a time to get back in touch with God, but we get there (through the special observances of Lent) by recalling where we are and where we are going, where we want to be and how we hope to get there.

"Lent is a time for believing, for welcoming God into our lives and allowing him to “make his dwelling” among us (cf. Jn 14:23)," Pope Francis has written in his Message for this year's Lent. It is a season that offers an opportunity to be "freed from all that weighs us down – like consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false – in order to open the doors of our hearts to the One who comes to us, poor in all things, yet “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14): the Son of God our Savior."

Monday, February 15, 2021

Presidents Day


"Presidents Day" is the colloquial, commercially induced, popular name for the Washington's Birthday, the federal holiday celebrated since 1879 on its proper date (February 22) but since the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act on the third Monday of February, hence today. Back when our civic holidays still had their authentic meaning - back before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act distorted them into celebrations of shopping and other activities associate with decadent late capitalism, companies closed on Washington's Birthday and most Americans enjoyed a day off from work. (As school kids in the 1950s and 1960s we enjoyed two such holidays in February - Lincoln's Birthday on February 12 and Washington's on February 22.)

For whatever it is worth, this holiday highlights the supreme significance of the American presidency - from the idealized presidency of George Washington's "Farewell Address" (the annual reading of which will continue today as a Senate tradition) to the degraded presidency of Donald Trump (garishly on display in his recently completed second impeachment trial).

Then as now, Washington was famous not just for being our first president but the first voluntarily to leave office. (In the musical Hamilton, when told of this King George responds: They say George Washington's yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true?
I wasn't aware that was something a person could do). The contrast can hardly be more glaringly dramatic between Washington's trend-setting peaceful transfer of power to his constitutionally elected successor and Trump's lies about the election and his incitement of violent mob action all in order to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to his constitutionally elected successor.

In his 1796 "Farewell Address," Washington stressed the unity "which constitutes you one people" as "a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize." However, Washington warned, "much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts."

Obviously Donald Trump did not invent the "artifices" that have so strongly worked against American national unity throughout American history. He has, however, very effectively exploited the things that make for division and conflict, which in the present historical and political context (ever since the national shift toward democracy with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) has meant exploiting white Christian racist resentment and its rejection of the different country America has become. This movement of white Christian racist resentment is neither new nor is it going away. What it has found in Trump (who after Saturday's Senate acquittal praised such "God-and-Country loving citizens") is the kind of charismatic leader whom movements of resentment focus on and are energized by.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"I do will it"

Some Thoughts on this 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 14, 2021

The covid pandemic has reminded us - in case we had forgotten - what happens when we are faced with a dangerous disease, before whose power people feel defenseless. None of us alive today can remember the last such pandemic - the so-called "Spanish Flu" of a little over century ago. But those of us above a certain age - my "Baby-Boom” generational cohort - can, of course, recall how ubiquitous polio was in the early 1950s. That was the last such polio epidemic, thanks to the development of the Salk vaccine, which, as 1st graders, I and many of us were among the first to receive. Beforehand, however, that last polio epidemic had induced tremendous panic, as again people were terrified of a dangerous disease, which many feared might never be conquered and in the face of which we felt defenseless.

In ancient Israel, however, what was called leprosy was sometimes not Damien’s fatal disease but actually a superficial skin condition, which was in fact curable. Hence the Jewish law made provision for examination by a priest and an offering on the occasion of someone’s being healed. Until one had been properly examined and certified as healed, however, a “leper” remained ritually impure.

In such a world, where it was believed that only God could heal leprosy and where sickness was seen as a serious threat, the leper was shunned. Cut off from ordinary life and regular relationships with others, the leper’s lot must have been a miserable one indeed - more miserable by far than the very real sufferings so many have had to endure in temporary quarantines, "lockdowns," and the other socially isolating situations that this current pandemic has imposed. In fact, even prior to the pandemic, our modern world was facing an epidemic of loneliness and lack of sufficient social relationships.

Miserable indeed was the 1st-century leper's lot, until suddenly, into this sad world of sickness and exclusion, appeared Jesus.

In this Sunday's Gospel [Mark 1:40-45], the news about Jesus and his healing powers had made the rounds and had reached even the marginalized leper. So suddenly we see a leper actually approaching Jesus directly, doing precisely what the Law prohibited him from doing. A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

If you wish!” What exactly are we to suppose that “if” meant? Did the leper doubt Jesus? And, if so, what exactly was he doubting about Jesus? Apparently, he didn’t doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him – quite amazing actually, given the general belief that only God could cure leprosy! If the leper had little or no doubt about Jesus’ power, Jesus’ ability, to heal him,  however, he still seems evidently to have wondered whether Jesus would heal him, whether he would want to heal him, whether he cared enough to heal him. (Fear of germs, after all, is only one of many motives for erecting barriers between ourselves and others).

Jesus understood and answered: “I do will it. Be made clean.” But, before he said that, Jesus did something even more meaningful to the leper, something so radical it in fact violated the Law and implicated Jesus in the leper’s ritually impure status. Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, and touched him.

Now as then, touching is one of those things people tend to be especially squeamish about with the sick - something we have deliberately shied away from, individually and as a society, thanks to this pandemic, something we may now be missing much more than we may recognize. Following Jesus' example, touching - in the form of lay on of hands, physical anointing, and other analogous rituals - has been an integral part of our sacramental experience, something we have also been deprived us in this pandemic-driven world.

In his desperation, the leper had boldly broken the Law and approached Jesus directly. Jesus reciprocated with a dramatic, unexpected touch, that spoke more than all the words in the world. With that one touch, Jesus joined the leper in his impurity and uncleanness, dramatically ending his segregation from society. With that one powerful touch, Jesus summarized his entire mission to become one with us, and so to end our segregation from God and enable us to join together in the fuller, more abundant kind of life that God wants us to live.

The same Jesus, who stretched out his hand, and touched the leper, continues his healing touch here and now in the institutional and sacramental life of his body, the Church.  That touch is every bit as necessary now as it was then – not just because sickness and suffering still abound in our world, but because the leper’s doubt also persists. How many of us at times really wonder whether anyone cares? How many of us at times doubt deep down whether even God cares? It is the mission and challenge of the Church – the mission and challenge therefore of each and every one of us – to express visibly, to embody physically, and so to become God’s healing presence and saving power present in our world, to continue Christ’s caring for us, by caring as he does.

As the Law required, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to verify his healing, and to make the ritual offering in thanksgiving that the Law prescribed. Presumably, the leper went and did what was required for him to re-enter society, but the leper’s principal offering in thanksgiving was to spread the report abroad and publicize the whole matter.

Whatever difficulties and doubts we may harbor, our own healing will not be complete until we let Christ’s healing touch transform us, in and through our life and worship together as his Church, into agents of Christ’s caring touch to and for all the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

After The Trial


Monday will be Presidents Day, a phony shopping-weekend substitute for the authentic observance of Washington's Birthday (still the federal holiday's official name). That said, this holiday highlights the supreme significance of the American presidency - from the idealized presidency of George Washington's "Farewell Address" (the annual reading of which will continue on Monday as a Senate tradition) to the degraded presidency of Donald Trump (garishly on display in his just completed second impeachment trial).

The House Managers effectively described Trump's authoritarian effort before the election to foment distrust in the fairness and trustworthiness of election procedures and his dishonest and destructive effort after the election to attempt to reverse the lawfully arrived at result of the election, all culminating in his incitement of an anti-government mob that had assembled in Washington on January 6 and his failure to respond appropriately to the violence that followed. It is inarguable that, had Trump not falsely claimed that he had actually won the election and encouraged his followers to protest in support of this lie, there would have been no mob scene in Washington on January 6, no attack upon the Capitol, no attempt to disrupt the constitutionally prescribed process of counting the electoral votes, no lives lost and many others endangered, and our nation and its institutions not embarrassed forever in the eyes of the world.

Seven Republicans Senators - Burr (NC), Cassidy (LA), Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Romney (UT), Sasse (NE), and Toomey (PA) - had the courage and morality to acknowledge all this and join their 48 Democratic and 2 Independent colleagues in voting Guilty. That was not enough to disqualify Trump from future federal office, but it is enough to consign Trump forever to the infamy of history.

That said, the terrifying legacy of our worst president will continue to haunt our damaged country and our impoverished politics. His deplorable cult of personality and his political party's enabling of him will persist as a political force threatening justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare, and the common good.

Questions and Answers

The only comment to make about yesterday afternoon's derisory performance by Donald Trump's defense team is that they took less than three of the sixteen hours they were entitled to use, thus sparing the Senate and the nation too many more hours of their contempt both for the process and for the truth. After the Defense rested, however, the Question-and-Answer period began. As one who appreciates parliamentary procedure, I appreciated the process as a somewhat charming relic from an earlier era, enabling everyone to exhale and settle down as Senators submitted written questions one by one, their questions then manually taken to the Chair, where the President pro tem took his time checking them. After announcing whom the question was from and whom it was for (the House Managers, the Defense Counsel, or both), he then handed it to the Clerk who stood up to read it. Only after all this, did the appropriate lawyers get up to answer (or, in the case of the Trump Team, often avoid answering). That said, some of the questions were very good ones, and they did enable the managers to highlight important elements from their earlier presentations.

Trump's defenders seem to have had a hard time letting go of their ostensibly constitutional objection, although that issue has now been legally settled by the vote of the Senate, which has sole jurisdiction in this matter. Trump's defenders also seemed determined to deny the extent to which the President seemed at best indifferent to his Vice President's safety on that terrible day, a particular aspect of the story that the Managers had effectively highlighted. presumably to the discomfort of Trump's loyalists in the Senate. Vice President Pence was probably the most obsequiously loyal of all the members of the Trump Administration. His reward was to be thrown under the proverbial bus on January 6 - surely a lesson for any other Republican foolish enough to hope his own loyalty might be reciprocated.

One of the ironies of Pence's political tragedy is that he was put on the ticket in the first place as a bridge to conservative Christian voters. Four years later, however, he was dispensable - not just to Trump but apparently also to them. What does that suggest not just about Trump but about his conservative Christian acolytes? "Faith must always fail when it goes political," Philip Rieff wrote in 1987. "So far as it remains in good faith, spiritual authority cannot become at one with political power." 

Trump's defenders also seemed, somewhat obsessively, to want to analogize aspects of this process to some of the standards of criminal judicial procedure, as if this process posed some substantive danger to ordinary Americans' rights to due process. But, in response, the Impeachment Managers made what may be ultimately the most important point of this exercise. Trump, as the Managers repeatedly pointed out, would not serve a single day, hour, or minute in jail as a consequence of conviction by the Senate. The purpose of this process is not personal punishment but protection of the Republic, setting a standard of behavior for those in positions of public trust to be held to.

If, as almost everyone expects, the Republicans stick with Trump and acquit him a second time, what will it mean for this country which Trump and his political party have so grievously wounded these pat several years? That is the final question and the most important one.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Social Reconstruction - A Century Ago

On this date in 1919, the Administrative Committee of the National Catholic War Council (the precursor of the present United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) published its Program of Social Reconstruction. World War I had just ended. "But the only safeguard of peace," the Bishops' Program proclaimed at its outset, "is social justice and a contented people." In contrast to the much more wordy style of so many magisterial documents, the entire Program is less than 17 pages - a short and easy read, well worth the effort even now 102 years later. Primary authorship of the 1919 test is traditionally ascribed to Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945). Ryan (photo) was sarcastically called "the Right Reverent New Dealer" during the 1936 election campaign by anti-FDR priest Charles Coughlin. (Ryan did indeed endorse FDR in 1936 and gave the Benediction at FDR's fourth Inauguration in 1945.) 

The Bishops' 1919 Program reflected its historical context, the aftermath of the disruption of World War I. The Bishops did not expect "as many or as great social changes" in the U.S. after the war as were expected in Europe, and they dismissed the belief that "Things will never be the same after the war." But, of course, every calamity brings both expected and unexpected changes in its wake. And we may safely suggest that things will never be quite the same after the pandemic, especially given the way the pandemic itself has unveiled so many fundamental and long-standing social ills.

Given the belief that imminent social change would be limited, the 1919 Program was primarily practical rather than comprehensive. That said, the Program unabashedly made the case for what was called a living wage. This, they insisted, "is not necessarily the full measure of justice. All Catholic authorities  on the subject  explicitly declare that this is only the minimum of justice." They also argued, in language reminiscent of more recent arguments about raising the minimum wage, that the demand produced by higher wages and purchasing power "is the most effective instrument of prosperity for labor and capital alike." The Program also promoted labor's right to organize and bargain collectively, and "hoped that this right will never again be called in question."

The document's ostensibly limited, practical orientation did not preclude an analysis of the prevailing economic system's serious defects, which were identified as "enormous inefficiency and the production and distribution of commodities; insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners, and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists." What does it say about our society and its ostensible moral leaders that a full century later, the same description still applies - and maybe more so than it did less than half a century after the document was first issued?

Regarding the problems of production and insufficient income, the Program repeated what was earlier said about "universal living wages" and "harmonious relations between labor and capital on the basis of adequate participation by the former in all the industrial aspects of business management." Regarding the third evil of "unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority," the Program proposed "adequate government regulation" and "heavy taxation of incomes, excess profits, and inheritances." Such ideas were apparently less heretical then than now. They were mainstream ideas when I was growing up at mid-century in what was perhaps the most egalitarian and prosperous period in American history. They became hopelessly heretical after the disastrous election of 1980, which inaugurated the political cycle that thankfully may now be drawing to its close.

The Program ended by recalling "the long-forgotten truth that wealth is stewardship, that profit-making is not the basic justification of business enterprise." Now as then, that "long-forgotten truth" is something of which we all need to be reminded.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (The Book)

One of the side benefits of my enforced idleness has been the opportunity to read or re-read some wonderful books - among them, my undergraduate American Political Thought professor George McKenna's monumental exploration of New England Puritanism and the long-term impact of Puritan beliefs and sense of mission through our national history down to the present, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale, 2007).

The intricacies of Puritan theology and the factional disputes they produced (for example, the differences between "Spiritists" and Preparationists" and between "premillenialism" and "postmillenialism") are, well, intricate. McKenna both elucidates and explains these intricate distinctions and also highlights how they have mattered and may continue to matter throughout American history. It is one of the commonplaces of American history that so much of American political thought has been a variant of or a reaction against Puritan sensibilities. McKenna clarifies what that means and why it is important.

There is, of course the contrary commonplace that the Founders were secular-minded Deists, who had left religion behind, in a society which was severely unchurched. On the contrary, McKenna argues that "at least 60 percent of the adult white population attended church regularly between 1700 and 1776," that Deism was much less pervasive in the founding generation that is commonly alleged, that "the Christian revivalist George Whitfield was more widely known and respected than Franklin," and that what the Founders wanted was not the suspect notion of separation of church and state but rather "religious liberty, freedom from religious discrimination, and an end to religious 'establishments'."

McKenna takes us through the Great Awakening, the second Great Awakening, the  impact of Methodism, and the unique character of "politically sterile" Southern evangelicalism, and the continues the trajectory through subsequent American history, including the whigs, Lincoln, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Progressive era, the Scopes trial, Reinhold Niebuhr's emphasis on original sin, the New Deal and World War II, the fifties and sixties, and ending in the aftermath of 9/11.

He also highlights the strong strain of anti-Catholicism in mainstream American religious and political thought throughout that history, how (contrary to the historically surprising current situation) "historically American patriotism and American anti-Catholicism are joined at the root." He demonstrates how for much of American history, Catholics and Southerners were the outsiders in terms of the American consensus.

Interestingly, he also argues that "anti-Catholicism seems to coincide with periods of national torpor and self-doubt, and it fades once America recovers its sense of mission. Anti-Catholicism almost disappeared during the American Revolution, when Americans finally knew what they were about. It came back during the anxious antebellum years, but retreated once the North began its crusade 'to make men free'." Thus, while some in FDR's administration "still retained old Whiggish anti-Catholic prejudices, the Roosevelt Administration's public face was "Catholiphilic."

McKenna also studies how, in the aftermath of World War II, Catholicism itself became (borrowing Mark Silk's typology) an American "adhesional" religion, dramatically so in the thought of John Courtney Murray, who "was saying that, of all the religions in America, Catholicism is the most faithful to America's moral foundations." The story ends with that most paradoxical product (which I would also characterize as a morally and politically poisonous product), the contemporary alliance between conservative Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, who have come together in affirming "the older story of America as a land with a providential mission to provide opportunity for all and to carry its gospel to the rest of the world." 

The shrunken aspirational character of that alliance today, its abandonment of both "opportunity for all" and carrying "its gospel to the rest of the world," raises questions about fundamental changes in our society, which this sort of analysis needs to address, but which are beyond the scope of this book's narrative, which ends over a decade ago.