Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Equating is Unjust


It’s exhausting trying to keep up with the news anymore. It’s depressing to let any one story sink in. There is so much death and injustice and cries for changes and lack of action. So much talk for so little result. But yelling into the void is slightly better than bottling it all up, so we do yell. At each other. Over each other. Desperate to score a debate win or topple an opponent or be proven right when history looks back on us.

Over the past few months, I’ve come to loathe whataboutism. “This conservative is wrong” “Oh, but what about this liberal?” “Issue Y is evil.” “Why didn’t you speak out on X?” If you don’t have a history of condemning a certain behavior consistently, you are deemed a hypocrite. And hypocrites aren’t granted discussion. If hypocrisy is found, then the conversation is over before the actual issue is even addressed.

You don’t have to have a perfect policy record to speak out about a current unjust policy. You don’t have to have a pristine past to preach morality now. Jesus calls sinners to be his followers. Each day is a new opportunity for each of us to do better. Don’t diminish one’s efforts today because they didn’t start yesterday. We are all hypocrites at times, and we should strive to be morally consistent. Don’t let the fear of being labeled a hypocrite silence a cry for justice.  

Another phrase I’ve come to hate is “both sides,” and in, “Well, both sides are corrupt, money-grabbing elites.” “There are extremists on both sides.” “We condemn…hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides. On many sides.” It equivocates two groups that are not equal, either glossing over the damaging traits of one or exaggerating the faults of the other. It seems fair to treat both equally, not pick a side. But what if they’re not equal? Maybe both sides are bad. But one is worse. Maybe both sides are corrupt. But one welds more power. It’s not that comparisons can never be made, but saying something applies equally to both sides often means, again, ignoring the damage of the actual issue.

Neutrality isn’t really neutral in good versus evil. In the oft-quoted saying of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Calling every single view equal is a cop-out, a way to sound enlightened and fair without having to take the risk of action. It’s a relativistic view, where ideologies don’t have moral weight and actions don’t have proportional consequences. It won't bring about justice. It won't bring any change at all. 

It’s not that you must pick a side when both choices seem immoral or dangerous. The only side you have to pick is God’s, which isn’t always well-represented. But rarely are the options equally immoral or equally dangerous. Drop the comparison. Drop the whataboutism. Call out that which is wrong. Stand up for that which is right. Demand justice. Show mercy. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing. It’s often ineffective. But it’s just.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Things are About to Get Weird

The Gospel of Mark is probably my least favorite. It lacks flow. It lacks poetry. Jesus did this. Jesus did that. The disciples went here. It reads like a historical account, which is good, but not always entertaining. The concluding chapter ends with the women discovering the empty tomb, with a sentence that the disciples went on out to proclaim the Gospel. Easter’s here: The End. Now, the Longer Ending of Mark probably wasn’t written by Mark, but it was a manuscript being passed around early on, and with Mark’s brief ending, people decided to just tuck it in there. It's a bit more narrative, but it's still a historical account.

The Longer Ending includes meeting with the disciples after the Resurrection. Just before the Ascension, Jesus commissions them to spread the Gospel, adding, “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Then he ascends into heaven. Mic drop, end of book. The last word of the Gospel of Mark is the forewarning that things are about to get weird.

So we skip ahead 10 days, to the beginning of Acts. The disciples and Mary and other believers have been hanging around Jerusalem, per Jesus’ instructions, waiting for a sign. They’ve elected Matthias as a replacement for Judas (poor Justus). Then things get weird.
The Holy Spirit descended, loudly. I guess I’m so accustomed to the images of Pentecost—a dove, rays of lights, floating flames—that I never much paid attention to the noise: the sound of a rushing wind and a babble of people speaking in various languages, loud enough that it draws an even bigger crowd. It’s noisy and chaotic, and people are justifiably confused by it all. It’s the start of the Church.

Then Peter gets up to speak to the crowd, and what’s the first thing said to them? That God said that people would prophesy, have visions, and see signs. It’s pretty clear that signs accompany believers in the Bible. When you’re close to God, you’re not limited by materialism. And yet, it’s difficult for us 21srt century types to trust signs, especially if we weren’t raised in a charismatic culture that embraced faith healings, speaking in tongues, or even snake handling. Those groups seem delusional from the outside, and yet, signs were promised.

I don’t have to believe every story of a faith healing to believe that faith healings happen. But I probably should believe that they do happen. Why does my trust of the supernatural end at the Ascension, when at the Ascension Jesus said that supernatural signs would happen after? I attest that God spoke to prophets in ancient Israel but is now silent? It’s very difficult for me to believe that glossolalia is real, even if I think it’s sincere. I’m trying to find that balance between faith and reasonable doubt.

Interestingly, when thinking about the signs listed in Mark, the only one that really stood out was the poison drinking. Snake handling is rare, but I know of churches that do it. I don’t know of churches that drink any deadly thing without harm. But then I remembered the one apostle who didn’t die of martyrdom—John. People tried to kill him, but he survived and died peacefully. The assassination attempt? Poisoning.

I’m still a skeptic when I hear or see more charismatic expressions of faith. I’m more comfortable just sitting in the room after Ascension, contemplating, praying, waiting. I’m not going to listen to prophecies or speak in tongues or even raise my hands without forceful intervention of the Holy Spirit. But then again, neither did anybody else on Pentecost. That was the point—the Holy Spirit arrived, brightly, loudly, forcefully

Friday, May 18, 2018

People are People

When I look back at how my political views have evolved in adulthood, I think the biggest shift has been seeing criminals as people. It was a subtle shift—I can’t pinpoint when or why it happened—but it does seem to be at the root of how I view a lot of issues.

Before, I would have agreed that criminals are people, but they are people who did something wrong and deserved to be punished. They crossed a line, and they belong “over there,” in other places under other rules. But then came the exceptions. What of people falsely accused? What of laws that aren’t quite moral? What of crimes where the penalty seems overly severe for the crime? What of rehabilitation? The exceptions mounted up, added with an exposure of the overreach and inhumane treatments of the justice system, until finally I had to concede: people can do wrong, people can commit crimes, people can be evil, but they are still people. There should be consequences for wrongs, but there should never be dehumanization of a person.

A child in the womb is a person. A kid who smokes weed is a person. An elderly dementia patient in a nursing home is a person. A refugee is a person. A man who shoots up his school is a person. A child taken from her parents and kept in a detainment warehouse is a person. A homeless veteran is a person. A wealthy elite who influences lawmakers to take from the poor and benefit the rich is a person.

We all have inherent dignity of being a person. The catechism says, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC 1700). It can be harder to remember that when faced with someone who hurts others, who rapes, murders, manipulates, who has little regard for others’ dignity. But it is necessary.

Once we determine we can take the dignity of someone, it becomes easier to diminish the dignity of a group of people, then wider and wider group of people. Soon, anyone different is somehow less than we are. “Those” people are fine without heat or without nutrition. “Those” people don’t need family or culture or connection. “Those” people don’t feel emotions. “Those” people don’t deserve representation or rights or respect. “Those” people don’t deserve to live.

When people in power—and their far too many followers—refer to people as animals, they are denying those people’s inherent dignity and making it easy to hate, exploit, and harm them. Germans called Jews rats. Rwandans called Tutsi cockroaches. Most recently, the current president said, “These aren’t people. These are animals.” It’s not the first time he’s used that rhetoric. It won’t be the last.

Being able to dehumanize others, to disregard them, to without empathy from them, also dehumanizes us. It hardens our hearts. It makes us fearful and aggressive and cruel.

People are people. Be compassionate.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Where was Saul?

There were a lot of people in Jerusalem the week that Jesus was arrested and killed. It was Passover; faithful Jews had come to the city for the holiday. That’s why the disciples were there. We often remember the Twelve because of images of the Last Supper. But there were sedars taking place in rooms all across the city. It was a bustling outpost of the Empire. There were other followers of Jesus hanging around. There were the everyday folks who may have woven palms that Sunday, hoping for some excitement, but who weren’t paying too much attention. There were leaders trying to maintain the status quo. There were Romans waiting for the holiday to end and the city to calm back down again.

In all of this, somewhere, was Saul. He was a devoted Jew, a Pharisee. Although he was from Taurus, he was likely in Jerusalem for Passover (he had gone to school there, and had family there). He had to be aware of the people following this Jesus fellow, claims of the Messiah. But where was he? Was he dismissive of the local gossip, focused on his family and friends? Was in the crowd calling for Christ’s crucifixion?

The New Testament has several of his letters to churches post-conversion. We follow along as he travels from place to place spreading the Gospel with great zeal. He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. The letters focus on the message of God’s grace. He acknowledges his own sinful past, but he never takes us back to that Passover. Where was he? How much did he know? How did he feel then?

Saul was in Jerusalem in 34, and he was well aware of the Christians then. He took an active part in the stoning of St. Stephan, deacon and first martyr. He writes in his letters that he persecuted the Church. Clearly he thought that the Christians were corrupting Judaism. And then that all changed. He had a sudden, overwhelming moment of conversion. His life turned upside down and he didn’t look back.

And I suppose that’s the point. Someone like Saul, who persecuted Christians, could become a great Christian himself. He repents and looks forward. It’s just my own curiosity that wants to know where he was that Holy Week, what he knew, what he saw. I want the other side of the story; while the disciples were thrown into fear and sorrow, others went about their holiday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

White Vestments on a Red Carpet


The Met is currently hosting the exhibit Heavenly Bodies:Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. The extensive project is being hosting over three galleries, look at the influences of medieval art in fashion and “fashion's ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.” It includes the influences that developed religious habits and vestments and in turn, how religious wear influenced secular design. The Vatican donated several items, including papal robes from the Sistine Chapel sacristy. It sounds like a wonderful exhibit, and I’m pretty bummed that I can’t hop up to New York to see it.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination was also the theme for this year’s Met Gala. I braced myself for some sacrilegious red carpet outfits, because asking celebrities to use Catholicism as their fashion theme seemed to be asking them to be as provocative as possible. And while there were a few cringy designs and some that tried to be edgy, most of the outfits sticking to the theme were quite beautiful and respectful. There was a lot of play on gold-and-ruby Catholic monarchs, a lot of conservative black, a lot of halo headpieces. Some were understated with a cross necklace; some had seven swords stuck in their chest. All in all, I enjoyed looking at the photos.

Not everyone felt the same way. A lot of Catholics on social media hated the Met Gala theme, claiming that it was just a bunch of non-religious celebrities mocking Catholicism. They said evening’s intent was to blaspheme the Church. There were a lot of cries of cultural appropriation.

First, it was not cultural appropriation, at least in the way most people use that phrase. Cultural appropriation punches down. It’s a dominant culture taking from a dominated culture. And while it can be argued that religious faith is waning in the West, the styles at the gala mostly harkened to medieval Europe, when the Church was the biggest player in the game. Also, the “culture” gave consent: the Vatican worked closely with the curators of the exhibit from which the gala took its theme and Cardinal Dolan attended the gala.

Second, I think it was good that religion was on public display for a night, even if the message was hit and miss. People were talking miters and vestments and Joan of Arc and Our Lady of Sorrows. Tracie Ellis Ross wore a bright pink dress and posted that it was inspired by Gaudete Sunday in Lent when the priests wear rose vestments as a sign of joy. The gala was nowhere close to turning into a revival meeting, but it did showcase religious art and openly discussed religious symbolism.

A lot of designers and celebrities have had a brush with Catholicism. Raised either nominally Catholic or in a hyper-strict family, many reject the faith—sometimes quite vocally. Rejection of religion is somehow both normal and provocative these days. Here I am bashing a faith that no one around me believes in. And yet, many are still able to notice a beauty in the Church. That’s the point of the exhibit: Catholicism is beautiful and influential. Beauty and symbolism stick with you, even if you’ve left everything else behind. Maybe instead of watching the secular world “appropriate” our art, we should focus on making, preserving, and promoting it in our own spaces.

Beauty matters. Art and fashion communicate messages that we can’t always wrap up tidily into words. It can transcend era and language. It points to virtues and truth and ultimately, God.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Silent History



St. Joseph is a quiet man known for many things—loving husband, father figure, a happy death. On May 1, his labor is celebrated. Pope Pius XII established the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. Its date of May 1 coincides with May Day or International Workers’ Day. Joseph is remembered for his patience, courage, and hard work, and he is the patron of workers.

May Day is not really celebrated in America, although its origin is a commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre. May 1, 1886 was the date set by trade and unions leaders as the day the eight-hour work day would become standard. Unions prepared to strike for the eight-hour work day, as businesses would ignore the requests and continue to block, break, and sabotage organized labor efforts. On May 1, hundreds of thousands workers went on strike. On Monday, May 3, striking workers rallying outside McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. At the end of the day as strikebreakers left the factory, there was a confrontation between the groups. The police fired into the crowd, killing at least two workers.

The next morning, a crowd gathered at Haymarket Square to protest the police’s actions. Although the rally was planned by anarchists, the event was peaceful for several hours as various speakers took the podium. Around 10:30 p.m., more police arrived and began marching in formation, ordering the crowd to disperse. Someone threw a homemade bomb at the advancing police, killing seven. The police fired into the crowd, killing four and leaving dozens (both workers and police) wounded.

The event led to a major anti-union backlash. Immigrant communities were targeted. Dozens were arrested on suspicion of being anarchist. Searches were conducted without warrants on labor meeting halls. Yet this also led to various labor groups joining together under the scrutiny.

On May 1, 1890, workers again went on strike for an eight-hour work day, not just in America, but all over Europe and South America as well. It was also called on as a memorial to those killed in the Haymarket Massacre, and has since become International Workers’ Day.

I remember learning about the Haymarket Massacre in school. I remember learning about robber barons and the Gilded Age and people fought for better conditions and that’s why children don’t work in factories now. And that was about it. Tucked in between Reconstruction and World War I. The labor movement was a thing of the past.

I didn’t learn about the mine wars in West Virginia until grad school. Names like Cesar Chavez or Mother Jones were picked up in offhand conversation outside the classroom. I was never taught the continued struggle for labor rights, even as the strengths of unions and the gains of workers eroded away.

There are hundreds of stories of sacrifice. Not all as violent as Haymarket. But some of them are. Stories of people who risk their livelihood and their lives to ensure that others have safe workspaces, living wages, days of rest—the dignity owed a worker. Weekends, overtime pay, minimum wage, equal pay, health and safety requirements, sick/maternity/paternity leave, social security, the right to organize, the banning of child labor—are all hard-fought labor battles that still need to be fought or defended.

Just like May 1, 1890, May 1, 2018 should be both commemoration and call to action. The past is important. The present is too. The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker reminds us of Joseph’s work as a father, husband, and laborer. It also reminds us that he still is patient, courageous, and industrious. He prays for us now because our work isn’t finished. Sancte Iospeh, ora pro nobis!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

St. Mark the Evangelist


Often when someone is first starting their journey into the Bible, it will be suggested they start with Mark. Of the Gospels, it is the shortest and most straightforward. It focuses on Jesus’ ministry and miracles, slowing revealing that is God and the Messiah. St. Mark was not one of the Twelve, but he was most likely an early follower of Jesus and present when he was arrested and crucified in Jerusalem.

Mark’s mother opened her home to the Apostles as a meeting place in Acts. (Acts 12:12) Mark joined Paul and his cousin Barnabas on their first mission to Antioch in 44.(Acts 13:13)When they reached Cyprus, Mark returned to Jerusalem.

Later, Mark went to Rome, with plans of visiting Asia Minor. While he was there, Paul was arrested, and Mark visited him in prison. (Col 4:10) He was in Asia Minor during Paul’s second imprisonment, and Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark with him to carry on the ministry in Rome.

He also worked closely with Peter, who referred to Mark as his son in letters to churches in Asia Minor. Mark’s Gospel was written between 60-70 based on the teaching of Peter. It is traditionally held that Mark himself is the man described as running away naked from Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51-52). After all, why include such an anecdote, and if one did, why not name the man? The Gospel of Mark is most likely the earliest Gospel written. It recounts the miracles of Jesus’ ministry for a Greco-Roman, Christian audience in order to strengthen their faith.

Mark was the first bishop of Alexandria. He lived there for many years, and it was there he was martyred while being dragged through the streets. He is often depicted with a book (his Gospel) and a lion, representing the opening of his Gospel: John the Baptist “crying out like a lion” to prepare the way for the Lord. St. Mark's feast day is April 25.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

St. Rafqa


St. Rafqa, also known as Rebecca, was born in Lebanon in 1832. She was an only child and raised in a devoutly Christian home. Her mother died when she was seven. Following the death, her father faced financial struggles and sent Rafqa to Damascus to work as a servant.

She returned home in 1847 to learn that her father had remarried. Her stepmother wanted Rafqa to marry her brother, while an aunt wanted Rafqa to marry a cousin. Instead, Rafqa joined the Mariamette religious order.

As a religious sister, she worked as a teacher and helped establish a school for girls. In her own time, she studied Arabic, writing, and arithmetic. When the Mariamette order faced a crisis, Rafqa  reportedly heard messages from heaven to remain a nun but directing her to enter the Lebanese Maronite Order. She joined her new order in 1872.

In 1885, she asked Christ to share in his suffering. She immediately felt pain in her head and eyes. Her superior sent her to Beirut to seek treatment. Surgery was unsuccessful, and she lost one eye. For the next 12 years, she continued to have pain, but she remained joyful and patient in the suffering.

When she died on March 23, 1914, many people witnessed a light that appeared on her grave for three nights. She is a patron of sick people and loss of parents. Her feast day is March 23.