Friday, September 30, 2016

Politics is personal because to be alive is to struggle

In the first section of the second chapter of his book Jesus & Salvation: Soundings in the Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology, in which he introduces New Testament soteriology, Robin Ryan, in reference to "the reign of God" proclaimed by Jesus, notes, "There is an inescapable tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet'...that should not be dissolved." He then invokes the great New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown:
The kingly rule of God was already making itself present in Jesus' person, proclamation, and actions, but the complete and visible manifestation of the kingdom lay in the future and would also be brought about through Jesus, the Son of Man

"This tension," Ryan concludes, "is intrinsic to the Christian understanding of God's saving work in Jesus" (29). What is often left out at this point is that the Holy Spirit, as Luke Timothy Johnson notably pointed out, is Christ's resurrection presence among us. In other words, God's kingdom didn't appear, disappear, and will come back in full when Christ returns. It's been present all this time, striving towards realization, but never being fully realized. Living the tension between the already and the not yet, which can truly be described as dialectical, is precisely what it means to live as a Christian. Living this tension is how you are saved.

God's reign must never be conceived of as another human-enacted utopian scheme. Living the kingdom as a present reality is not primarily, or even necessarily, political, at least not as commonly understood today: activism at the expense love. Striving to live God's reign as a present reality is the embodiment, I think, of what Václav Havel dubbed "anti-political politics." It seems to me that the most compelling glimpses of God's reign present in the world, ancient and modern, have been given when Christians lived God's reign as a present reality under hostile regimes: St. Lawrence/St. Maximilian Kolbe; Sts. Perpetua & Felicity/St. Maria Skobtsova.

It's important to point out a few people who've made God's reign visible in societies that are hostile due to indifference: Dorothy Day and Brazilian Archbishop Helder Câmara. It was Câmara who observed, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Living God's reign between the already and the not yet is intensely personal, but by no means private. "Our faith can only be lived through the absence of manifestations of the power of Christ according to our expectations," Luigi Giussani observed way back in the 1960s. "Our Christian vocation," he insisted, "becomes authentic only through this absence [...]. Where Christ is no longer visible as personal action, then His action coincides, becomes one with, the motivation and action of our person..." "I Have Loved You With an Everlasting Love. I Have Had Pity On Your Nothingness," Spiritual Exercises of Communion & Liberation 2016, pg. 2).

Young Steel Workers, by Ivan Bevzenko, 1961- an example of Soviet-style socialist realism

Havel, who was often considered naïve, grasped the danger of utopian schemes:
A heaven on earth in which people all love each other and everyone is hard-working, well-mannered, and virtuous, in which the land flourishes and everything is sweetness and light, working harmoniously to the satisfaction of God: this will never be. On the contrary, the world has had the worst experiences with utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions (Summer Meditations 16)
He went on to describe the struggle for a better society in terms of a war. "Neither I nor anyone else," he went on to observe, "will ever win this war once and for all. At the very most, we can win a battle or two - and not even that is certain." Nonetheless, he still thought it important to engage in the struggle, pointing out it is a centuries old war that will likely stretch for centuries into the future. He speculated that perhaps God wants it this way, which I take to mean it's simply the given nature of reality- you don't have to like it, but you can't avoid it except by self-deception. Never forget you bear some responsibility for reality being this way.

Havel firmly maintained fighting this war "is the right thing to do." "It is an eternal, never-ending struggle," he continued, "waged not just by good people...against evil people, by honourable people against dishonourable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside everyone. It is what makes a person a person, and life, life" (Summer Meditations 16).

In wake of the woman pouring ointment on his feet in the house of Simon the leper, Jesus told his disciples, who complained the ointment could've been sold and the proceeds used to help the poor, they would always have the poor with them (Mark 14:3-9). The reason for this is not because God wills there be poor among us, but because we refuse to live the tension required to make God's reign a present reality. The woman's action shows the seeming incongruity that happens when the not yet collides with the already. Very often the result of such a collision is beautiful.

"Another day wastes away"

Today the Church celebrates the liturgical memorial of St. Jerome. Jerome is best known for producing a new translation, at the request of Pope Damasus I, of both the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament from their original languages into Latin. He accomplished his translation in the late fourth century. Gradually, over centuries, Jerome's translation replaced the collection of old Latin translations known as the Vetus Latina. His version is known as the "Vulgate," short for versio vulgata, meaning "commonly used version."

St. Jerome and the Dancing Girls, by Limbourg Bros, 1408

Next to translating the Scriptures, Jerome is known for being somewhat irascible and brutally honest. While living as a hermit Jerome wrote about a time he lay ill: "Daily I wept, daily I groaned...Though my only companions were scorpions, I often imagined that I was surrounded by dancing girls, who kindled the fires of lust." It was Jerome who said, "Prayer is a groan." It was also Jerome who insisted "that God has given us, at the moment of our birth, an angel to take care of it."

Our Friday traditio is Beth Orton singing "Sweetest Decline."

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Truth and politics according to Havel

Rather than sit and endlessly brood, pine, worry, gripe, bitch, and fulminate in the face of the horrific public spectacle we have before us, namely our presidential election, I turned to the man I consider to be perhaps the only decent politician of the past 50 years for a ray of hope: Václav Havel. About a year ago I read Michael Zantovsky's biography Havel: A Life. I met my need today by checking out the only book in my local public library system written by Havel: Summer Meditations. He wrote the book in the summer of 1991, during the early years of his first and second presidency of Czechoslovakia, which was before Slovakia achieved independence.

The first chapter of the book is "Politics, Morality, and Civility." In this chapter Havel insisted that "genuine politics," the only politics worthy of being called politics, "is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us." At root, Havel asserted, politics is moral "because it is a responsibility, expressed through action, to and for the whole." This moral responsibility he dubbed "higher responsibility." It is higher "because it has a metaphysical grounding." The metaphysical ground from which the higher responsibility of politics grows, Havel strongly believed, is our "certainty," either conscious or unconscious, "that our death ends nothing." Our death ends nothing, according to Havel, "because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere 'above us.'" This certain reality Havel dubbed "the memory of Being." The memory of Being is "an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgement everything is subject." Most assuredly Havel did not believe "the memory of Being" to be judgement by future generations, who grow more and more forgetful with each succeeding generation; our loss of memory being a major contributor to our civilizational crisis.

At least for Havel, without such a metaphysical grounding nothing, least of all politics, makes sense. It is just this grounding, it seems to me, despite all of our pompous pseudo-religiosity, fake and/or poorly grasped and certainly not-lived Christianity, the U.S. has lost. Our pompous religiosity is perhaps the leading indicator we're trying to build on air. Why? Because it lacks any kind of seriousness and smacks of ideology and not a particularly enticing one. Nonetheless, our constitutional order was built on the kind of ground Havel insisted is so essential.

Perhaps Havel's best characteristic is that he never leaves you hovering over the earth at 30,000'. "As with everything else," he insisted, I must start with myself." He wrote about receiving all kinds of what most people would consider sound political advice and sticking with his conscience by ignoring it all. This is where Havel parts ways with any recognizable form of what counts for political leadership currently in the U.S.

He wrote about being told he "should be tougher, more decisive, more authoritative."
For a good cause, I shouldn't be afraid to pound the table occasionally, to shout at people, to try to rouse a little fear and trembling. Yet, if I wish to remain true to myself and my notion of politics, I mustn't listen to advice like this - not just in the interests of my personal mental health (which could be seen as a private, selfish desire), but chiefly in the interests of what most concerns me: the simple fact that directness can never be established by indirection, or truth through lies, or the democratic spirit through authoritarian directives
Václav Havel

In light of this he went on to admit that he did not know "whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed." He was wise enough to grasp the fundamental thing of which we seem to have lost sight: "But I do know how not not succeed, which is by choosing means that contradict the ends." It is axiomatic that ends do not justify means, which is the formal way of stating something we all know- the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Politics, in a nut shell, is about ends and means. Ends are what you set out to accomplish and the means are how you go about accomplishing your chosen ends. It seems to me we are losing the ability to distinguish means from ends, let alone judging between proposed ends or evaluating means. Even more problematic, both parties nearly always agree on ends, as if these are given and represent the demos, the people. They tend to differ, when they differ at all, on means. In the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and to a lesser degree of Donald Trump, we've seen some assertion by the people of desired ends that seem at odds with those that are imposed.

Any chance of success, Havel continued, tests on striving "for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance." The only acceptable way of striving "is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly." For the leader what matters, according to Havel, is not to long for or love power because this makes you willing to do anything to gain it and keep it. "I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction: 'live in the truth.'"

Our politics seems to me devoid of the truth. A recent article in the 8 September 2016 issue of The Economist, "Art of the lie," discussed our increasing disregard for the truth despite having access to so much information. All one needs to do to verify this is not only consider our compulsive need to fact check, but to think about how dishonest fact-checking has become. Maybe we've simply forgotten, or have never learned, how to think as human beings. While what is presented as a fact can be true or false in and of itself, a fact does not constitute the truth, which can only be reached by making a judgment. It is a complex, not a simple process. Havel grasped "that morality is, in fact, hidden in everything." This is why he never tired of arguing that art and culture must play a central role in society. It seems he grasped that beauty is what translates truth into goodness and that the Good, elusive though it be, is radiantly beautiful.

"Hope," Havel insisted in his book length interview with Karel Hvizdala, translated into English under the title Disturbing the Peace, "is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out."

"Why do you come here?": Dispatch from distraction

I've always been amused by the phrase employed by would-be writers (of which I am one), "finding my voice." Whenever I think about that phrase in reference to myself I have to admit I find it reductive, smacking of just the kind of thing I want to avoid: hardening of my creative, intellectual, and spiritual arteries. I hope to continue to be awed by wonder and to let the object determine the method. Like most people these days, however, I suffer from distraction and diffusion of my mental and spiritual energies, such as they are, meaning not all that great form the beginning. Whatever I write bears the scars of this psychic disfiguration.

Diffusion and distraction are largely the result of the my overuse, my often compulsive use, of social media. I know, I know, blogs count as social media. But for me blogging is different because, unlike Facebook, Twitter, G+, and the like, I am able to post something and walk away and not wait around for a like, a comment, a share, etc., those dopamine-inducing, or infuriating replies that prompt an immediate reactive response to whatever I may throw out at any given moment. Sure I will check to see if anyone reads what I post, but far less than I used to. Beginning last fall and moving forward to the tenth anniversary of this blog, I was able to reconnect with my original intent in starting this endeavor, something rather modest: to create a weblog, a kind of on-line diary composed of more or less thoughtful compositions, not raw impressions, like a personal diary might contain.

Based on: Hotel Room, by Edward Hopper (1931). Photo: Kim Dong-kyu from New York magazine

Last Sunday, a Benedictine monk drew my attention to a recent article by Andrew Sullivan published in New York magazine: "I Used to Be a Human Being." I commend this piece to you the way it was commended to me- find some quiet time, a quiet place, and read it. Sullivan's recounting of his personal struggle and the more general insights it yields about the impact of the internet (do we still use that term?- "web" is probably better because it's something we get caught in), particularly social media, on us individually and collectively are well-worth your time and consideration. One thing Sullivan discusses is how on-line activities impeded his ability to relate to others, those actually, as opposed to virtually, in his life, or even just to sit and read a book. One observation worth passing along is:
If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met
Another piece I ran across this morning is also worth passing along- Kim Nicolini's post "Long Drive Home." I have to admit that her experience is very different from own. I mention this because I don't want to co-opt what she has to say, or falsely identify her experience as my own. Maybe it's because her experience is so different from mine than it resonated deeply with me. I don't want to put a Pollyanna spin on her hard-hitting piece (her powerful punches need to be felt, let her hit you), but I am glad she ended by writing about the Glen Hansard concert she attended. Listening to Hansard's songs caused Nicolini to reflect:
Glen Hansard reminded me that despite the ugliness of politics, I don’t have to own them or let them ugly up my life. The human creative spirit is beyond politics and debates. We can make music, art, and poetry. We can dance and love. We can hold onto our inner shining stars because if you are not One Of Those Other Motherfuckers, then you have an inner shining soul. I have mine. It’s vulnerable. It’s been through a hell of a lot in this lifetime. I’m going to do my best to take care of it until I reach retirement, so I don’t drop dead two weeks later but can actually maybe spend the majority of my senior years doing things I love to do rather than things I have to do
This is the part where I am supposed to add my own deep reflection in some kind of meta-attempt to synthesize and maybe one-up both Sullivan and Nicolini. The truth is I can't and so I am not going to try. Instead, I will share some more thoughts refracted through my recent struggle with distraction.

Books I am currently reading

Currently I am reading a stack of books. Apart from three- Robin Ryan's Jesus & Salvation I am reading for our local monthly theology group, Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring I am reading with my 11 year-old son, and Gary Macy's The Hidden History of Women's Ordination I am reading as research for my DMin dissertation and a lecture I have been asked to give on the diaconate in March of next year, I am reading the rest just 'cuz. Due to time wasted going down what Sullivan called the "rabbit holes" of the web, especially in the midst of this horror of an election, which Nicolini had the courage to describe in a manner that I can't bring myself to employ (I am ecstatic she can and does), I am not having much success in finishing these books. While I hope to post here more regularly, my presence on more interactive, reactive, distracting social media will be greatly reduced. In fact, apart from putting up what I post here, I plan to be absent from Facebook, Twitter, and G+ for the entire month of October. During this time I hope to detox and limit my future participation to what is meaningful.

Someone named Douglas V. Steere began his introduction to Image Books' 1989 paperback edition of Pater Tom's Contemplative Prayer with a quote by William Blake: "we are put on earth for a little space that we may bear the beams of love." Lest this, too, be mistaken as an attempt to dress in drag and play Pollyanna, Steere went on to note that Blake's take on human life, in addition to being an apt description of "Thomas Merton's account of monastic prayer," is a "firm reminder of how much remains to be done to prepare man to bear the 'beams of love.'" While we long to be exposed to love's beams, Steere noted, we "fear" love's "transforming power." I don't think it's any great insight to note that since 1989 we've not done much, if anything, to prepare ourselves to bear love's illuminating beams. Rather, I think we've become increasingly intent on seeking out and content to live in the shadows.

Our fear of love's transforming power is what David Bentley Hart took aim at in his recent Commonweal article, "Christ's Rabble: The First Christians Were Not Like Us." Summarizing towards the end his piece, Hart pointed out:
Throughout the history of the church, Christians have keenly desired to believe that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are, rather than—as is actually the case—the kind of people we are not, and really would not want to be. The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent
I don't mind mentioning that yesterday I purchased tickets to see Morrissey here in Salt Lake City the day after my birthday at the new Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake. Somehow one of the songs off Morrissey's first solo album, Viva Hate, with which he has been opening most of his recent shows, "Suedehead," seems fitting for what might be an early tradito (we'll see). Below is a live performance from earlier this month in Chicago at RiotFest:

One last distracting thought; today is the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels. Sanctus Archangeli, orate pro nobis!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146:7-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

Through these weeks of Ordinary Time, we continue our journey in St. Luke’s Gospel with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. The word “Ordinary” in “Ordinary Time” does not mean ho-hum. It is not used to contrast it with “extraordinary time,” such as Easter, Christmas, Lent and Advent. It is derived from the word ordinal. Ordinal refers to the position of something in a series. During Ordinary Time we track time by the series of Sundays with reference to the beginning of the liturgical year.

Reckoning all of time as if it were a week, going from Sunday to Sunday, early Christians conceived of Sunday as both the first and last day. During Easter we celebrate an octave that begins on Easter Sunday and ends on the Second Sunday of Easter, which, since the decree of Pope St. John Paul II in the Jubilee year 2000, Roman Catholics observe as Divine Mercy Sunday. The Eighth Day is the new and everlasting day of eternity, the day made possible by God's mercy. This bears noting because today Jesus draws our attention to what matters in light of our destiny: mercy. We are in the midst of the Jubilee of Mercy, which continues until the Feast of Christ the King, which we will observe on 20 November.

“If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). In the immediate context of this statement Jesus is referring to the brothers of the dead rich man who requests father Abraham to send Lazarus, who is also dead, to tell them to repent by caring for the poor, by being merciful. In other words, it is part of the parable. But this statement, which brings the parable to its close, also points the listener beyond the parable to Jesus’ own great act of mercy, his resurrection, which had not yet happened.

In a similar way it points us not only to Jesus’ resurrection, which has already occurred, but to his return in glory. Christ’s glorious return is fundamental to Christian faith. The indispensable nature of our belief in Christ’s glorious return is demonstrated by our professing each Sunday when we recite the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” In light of this we, too, must heed what the Scriptures teach: "For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13)

Proof we believe Christ is risen and will return to definitively establish his kingdom can only be given by how we live our lives. This is not to put anyone on defensive by warning you of the coming wrath or anything like that, it’s just to say that ultimately God’s kingdom will consist only of those who seek to live it as a present reality- we call such people saints- and not as a dream deferred, that is, something that will happen later which doesn’t merit our concern right now.

Neither am I suggesting that anyone other than Christ himself will definitively bring about God’s reign. The Incarnation marked the beginning of God’s reign on the earth. In, through, and with Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God’s reign has begun and continues until it is complete. We’re either about ushering it in or not. In other words, we shouldn’t be like the rich man or his brothers demanding some spectacular sign to warn us what will happen if we refuse to make God’s reign a present reality by acting mercifully after the manner of the Good Samaritan.

Through this parable, Jesus draws our attention to what is ultimate by pointing to what is right in front of us. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate every day. The rich man did not deem Lazarus worthy of his attention, let alone of his help. At least in his own mind, the rich man had much more important things than to show mercy to the poor, disgusting man whose sores were licked by dogs. As he found out, there was nothing more important than showing the beggar mercy, which is why he begged Abraham, in whose bosom Lazarus received succor, to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to avoid the same hard-hearted callousness. Abraham reminds him that his brothers had the writings of Moses and the prophets to teach them the necessity of acting mercifully.

One prophet who the rich man and his brothers would’ve been wise to heed was Amos. His oracles, through which God sought to call Israel back to fidelity with the covenant, especially by acting mercifully towards widows, orphans, and foreigners among them, were every bit as radical as Jesus’ teaching. In our first reading, Amos tells the wealthy who pay no attention to the plight of the less fortunate that they will be “the first to go into exile” (Amos 6:7).

Our reading from 1 Timothy urges us to prepare for Christ’s return by keeping “the commandment without stain or reproach” (1 Tim 6:14). What is “the commandment”? The commandment is love, caritas, or charity; loving God with all your heart might, mind, and strength. How do you love God with your entire being? By loving your neighbor as you love yourself. In the verse that precedes the first verse of our reading from the sixth chapter of 1 Timothy it is written, “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). It goes on to say that love of money was the cause of some believers straying from the faith. As a result, they were “pierced with many pains” (1 Tim 6:10). The rich man in Jesus’ parable is an example of this. Not one to pull punches himself, Pope Francis, during his Apostolic Journey to Bolivia last year, said the “unfettered pursuit of money” is the “dung of the devil.” As we prepare to receive communion, let’s not forget we come as beggars to the King’s table where he unfailingly has mercy on us.

Today Jesus invites us, as his disciples, to place our hope in him, who is Divine Mercy, by acting mercifully towards others. Practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which are depicted in the windows along the north side of our church, is our road to destiny.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

For love of country and neighbor

It occurred to me this morning that I haven't been posting much recently. Shortly after thinking that I came across an article that provoked me into a response: "Bobby Knight says if it were up to him, he'd 'have gotten rid of' Colin Kaepernick." My first reaction was, "But instead two universities, Indiana and Texas Tech, wisely chose to get rid of Bobby Knight."

Knight's method of coaching basketball consisted mainly of bullying, insulting, and intimidating players. His coaching method should've landed him in prison. I am not engaging in hyperbole. On more than one occasion Knight criminally assaulted players. He frequently and consistently made an ass of himself. In my mind he is the antithesis of everything sports, especially collegiate sports: is supposed to be about, excellence and character. I guess forced retirement (after Texas Tech fired him) hasn't changed him a bit. Colin Kaepernick has certainly demonstrated more character than Bobby Knight.

I am a veteran who served in a few theaters of combat over the course of my service. I am fine with what Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players are doing this season to draw attention to the problem of systemic racism that persists in our country. In my view, their peaceful protest is one of the things that makes the United States of America the United States of America. Would I do it? No, but it doesn't mean I seek to deny others their right to peacefully protest. For his part, Kaepernick has been more than respectful of those who have registered their disapproval of his protest, as his meeting in San Diego with Army veteran Nate Boyer demonstrates. Boyer, to give him due credit, also showed how we can disagree respectfully.

Let's face the fact that we do have racial problems in this country. Frankly, neither of the major party candidates for president have the credibility or any effective way to address our racial divide. Trump's not so understated racism might prove to be the flint that sparks the dry tinder. For her part, Clinton in the past did more than her fair share to paint all young black men as dangerous and likely criminals.

Not only does love of country not preclude being critical of one's country, from time to time it requires one to be critical. As a citizen of the United States I believe loving my country enough to sometimes be critical is precisely what it means to be patriotic, which for too many seems to equate to being idiotic. I am sometimes critical of my country because I love my country. I have the service to prove my love. If you want to question my patriotism, you'd better pack a lunch.

It's funny to me how so many of the people who are harshing on Kaepernick were sympathetic to Cliven and Ammon Bundy and the Oregon mob who seized a wildlife refuge threatening the use of deadly force, which was not a peaceful protest, but a half-assed attempt at an armed insurrection by a self-selected group of dangerous radicals who took it upon themselves to violently make federal land policy for everyone else. This disjunction- castigating Kaeprnick on one hand and supporting the Bundys on the other- really shows systemic nature of racial division in the U.S.A.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"We were rising from the grave"

In a recent interview with Kate Shellnutt for Christianity Today, John Darnielle, of indie band The Mountain Goats, when asked what his life verse might be, replied: "Most people are going to be from the Gospels or from the Proverbs or Psalms... but mine is 'Should I not pity also Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than' - I can't remember the number, however many hundreds of thousands of people - 'who cannot tell their right hand from their left and also much cattle' (Jonah 4:11)." That is the very last verse of the book.

He continued, "To me, this is the greatest verse. I love Jonah. And it's a very profound question God asks Jonah. Because God is saying, 'You wish ill on your enemies. If you [say you] don't wish ill on your enemies, I'm going to call you a liar. You do. If you have an actual enemy, you want harm to come to him.' Right?"

Keep in mind, while Nineveh was converted, Jonah was not.

Our Friday traditio is The Mountain Goats' "There Will Be No Divorce."

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Gotta serve somebody"

Readings: Amos 6:4-7; Ps 113: 1-2.4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

At least on the surface, today's Gospel reading seems very complex. But Jesus himself interprets the story for us, demonstrating that it is surprisingly simple. Simple to understand does not mean easy to practice.

The story the Lord tells is about a thief, a dishonest steward. I think the first thing to note is that this story is not an allegory in which the master is God, the Father. The master in the story is cheated from beginning to end, including the arrangement for under-payment the dishonest steward makes with the master's debtors in order to ingratiate himself to them so he didn't have to dig or beg after being dismissed. Notice, in the end, the master does not rescind his steward's dismissal.

We are easily confused by the master's commendation of the steward for acting prudently and with foresight. The steward's prudence and foresight, however, consisted solely of looking out for himself at the expense of his master, which seems to be the reason he was dismissed in the first place. In the end, the master is happy that the dishonest steward will no longer have charge of his commercial affairs.

This is a story that does not lend itself nicely to telling a story about a story, which often serves to obfuscate rather than reveal. We need find out what Jesus, the greatest storyteller and preacher all of time, God-in-the-flesh, is saying to us. Our first reading from the prophet Amos gives us a clue.

What Jesus tells his disciples, as they continue to make their way to Jerusalem, is that they should act with the same prudence and foresight in looking out for their future as did the dishonest steward. But the way to do this is by being children of the light, not children of darkness, The dishonest steward is a child of darkness who acts with a divided heart out of split loyalty. According to Jesus, the children of darkness know how to act shrewdly towards one another, looking out for themselves, acting with what we might call street smarts. Nonetheless, Jesus tells his disciples they must make friends with dishonest, or worldly, wealth so that when it fails them, as it inevitably will, they will have eternal life.

Contrary to the way the dishonest steward acted (i.e., dishonestly, looking out only for himself by cheating his master coming and going), how the children of light make friends with dishonest wealth is by not putting it first and not allowing themselves to be compromised by it, but acting in an upright and honest manner, keeping their destiny always in the forefront of their minds. Jesus is forthright when he says "No servant can serve two masters." It's impossible and inevitably leads to compromises. As Kierkegaard noted, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.

The way to make friends with dishonest wealth is to act honestly and uprightly, being trustworthy, knowing who you serve. As Bob Dylan sang: "You Gotta Serve Somebody."

Friday, September 16, 2016

"And he's talking bout' burnin' but I'm so cold "

Recently there has been a dust-up on the internet concerning the Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty. Over the past 30-40 years the Church has increasingly backed away from the death penalty, insisting that it is rarely justified and is only justified by the state's inability to protect it citizenry in any other way.

The problem with discussing the morality of things like the death penalty is the penchant to wander wildly off topic. Given the important distinctions that need to made when Catholics discuss the death penalty, it's best to focus on the subject at hand.

I oppose the death penalty on theological grounds in conformity with the Church's teaching as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the teaching of recent popes going back to at least John Paul II. According to the Catechism-
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm- without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (par. 2267)
I readily acknowledge that when the death penalty is handed down and carried out when the person executed is actually guilty of the serious/egregious crime s/he has committed, there is no moral equivalency between that and the taking of an innocent life. The fact that it is not morally equivalent to the taking of an innocent surely demonstrates that the death penalty is not necessarily intrinsically evil.

But one of the proven problems with the death penalty, at least in the U.S. and I imagine in other countries that still have it, is the fact it is sometimes ordered for a person who is later proven innocent. This penchant for injustice alone should give anyone pause, even someone who supports the death penalty in principle.

Perhaps most fundamental is the question whether or not seeking retribution is fitting for a disciple of Jesus Christ. I find it to be a remnant of the lex talionis, which holds to an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Other factors include whether trying minors as adults is just and whether people with proven developmental disabilities should be executed.

Based on this, it's safe to assert that unqualified support for the death penalty does contribute to the culture of death, thus denying unqualified supporters pro-life status.

My own opposition to the death penalty pre-dates my baptism. It began when I read Orwell's short story A Hanging in high school.

For me, I don't care whether or not one can claim formal support for the death penalty in the Church's teaching or whether the Church made support for the death penalty irreformable and so now even the pope can only offer opinions. Sometimes it's the irreformable that stands badly in need of reformulation. When faith is reduced to a cold exercise of logic is it still faith the flower of which is hope and the fruit love?

At root, forgiveness means freely relinquishing a just claim against another.

Given the subject, our Friday traditio is the Man in Black singing "25 Minutes To Go," sung live at Folsom Prison and animated.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 15 years on, a sobering memory

Today we soberly observe the fifteenth anniversary of a horrific event that changed the world and not for the better. While people in the U.S. responded remarkably in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, long term 9/11 has been a source of fragmentation and disunity. The result of this is being made manifest in an explicit way in this year's presidential election.

I reluctantly admit that I am suspicious of the "never forget" motto, which I am sure is now a popular hashtag. Of course we should never forget what happened that day, we should especially remember those who died so horribly. But if our remembrance is aimed at making us perpetually bellicose, intent on carrying out in perpetuity the lex talionis, then maybe we're better off forgetting. Instead, let's remember how we pulled together during trying times.

Fifteen years on I think it bears asking whether our long term response has made things better or worse. In this morning's Wall Street Journal, former vice president Dick Cheney, one of the architects of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, asserts that "Dangers Rise as America Retreats." Is this true? Are we retreating? You could've fooled me. Is war peace?

Personally, I believe we need to be more familiar with the dynamics of radicalization and ask whether our response has created more enemies than it's eliminated. In light of what causes radicalization, as a Catholic, I believe fostering a culture of encounter, as Pope Francis has called on us to do, is a more effective strategy in both the short and long terms. It beats the us versus them approach Donald Trump is urging with regard to Muslims, Latino migrants and others. I reject the politics of divide and conquer, which pretty well summarizes politics as practiced in the U.S. in 2016. You can fear refugees all you want, but shouldn't the sheer number of refugees prompt us to ask why they're fleeing, what they're fleeing? Shouldn't it also cause us to ponder how the reason they're fleeing their homes, which is no less traumatic for them than it would be for you or me, colors their perceptions of the people to whose countries they are flocking.

This week's readings are about mercy, about God's faithfulness, patience, and unfailing tenderness towards us. I am particularly struck by the power of Moses' intercession for his people. If we can't translate that into life as givers and not only as takers, then heaven help us.

May the souls of those killed on 9/11/2001, victims of evil, of man's inhumanity to man, rest in peace. May their memory be eternal. May those who died responding to those in need be rewarded for their sacrifice. May those who still grieve the loss of loved ones be comforted. May those killed fighting for the elimination of terrorism rest in peace. May all the innocents who have been killed in subsequent fighting experience the mercy of God, who is mercy,. Above all, may there be peace on earth.

Friday, September 9, 2016

"Take me back to the day"

Much like August, September is not looking like a prolific month here on Καθολικός διάκονος. Somehow I feel that is appropriate right now. Currently I am immersed in a lot of reading. In addition to reading Harari's Sapiens, a book I find both rewarding and infuriating, I am also making my way through Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer, and an anthology of Giussani's writings, Christ: God's Companionship with Man as well as finishing LaVerdiere's Dining in the Kingdom of God. Just today I received copies of Robin Ryan's Jesus & Salvation and Gary Macy's The Hidden History of Women's Ordination.

Brutus condemning his sons to death, by Guillaume Guillon Lethiere, 1828

Agamben's book, which is subtitled "Sovereign Power and Bare Life," deals with what I can only describe as very fundamental matters and charts how the state, no matter the form it takes, which is usually nominal, tends to become more and more totalitarian, exerting greater control over life. For example, the section I just read, §4.1 of part two, entitled "Vitae Necisque Potestas" ("power of life death"), describes the power of a Roman father specifically over his son. This power of a father has been described as imperium privatum, or private imperium, or private control. He goes on to show that the origin of the term "father of the people" or "father of our country," is "sinster". Brutus put his own sons to death and "adopted the Roman people in their place," thus extending his imperium privatum over those he ruled (88).

This week I heard Everclear's "Father of Mine." It's an older song, but an appropriate traditio in light of the Agamben reference.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Homo sapiens thrive in/on communio

Reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is proving enlightening. I realize he is trying to cover somewhere around 70,000 years of history in a single book, which is no easy task. I am not very far into the book, having only picked it up yesterday. Two chapters in, however, I am struck by Harari's deadpan reductionism. Even so, he readily agrees with Aristotle that human beings, or, to use his preferred term, Sapiens, are social animals. He also grasps that our sociability plays a huge role in our rise above other species and our mastery of the material world.

The second chapter of Sapiens is entitled "The Tree of Knowledge." For Harari, "The Tree of Knowledge" refers to what he dubs "the Cognitive Revolution," which evolutionary biologists tell us occurred among Homo sapiens somewhere between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. According to Harari, apparently relying on various scientific opinions, none of which he cites, the Cognitive Revolution was brought about by a mutation in the DNA of Homo sapiens. On this view, the most important result of the Cognitive Revolution was more complex, or what we might call human, language. So, it is our complex languages that set us apart from the other species. I have no qualms with what he asserts about language. It strikes me as being as close to self-evidently true as any assertion can be, especially when we consider that mathematics, music, and logic are languages that cross human cultures. He could stand reading Wittgenstein, or even Derrida, on the relationship between language and reality. Moreover, even the Jewish view of the power of the word vis-à-vis what is.

Harari entitled the second section of his second chapter "The Legend of Peugeot." After reading it I have to surmise that what he postulates in this section will be key to the rest of the book. He begins by noting that human beings employ a great deal of language in what he calls "gossip," meaning much of our speech is geared towards our building, strengthening, or sometimes seeking to weaken, our social relations. In other words, language creates and regulates human activity in every sphere. He then asserts, "Any large-scale human cooperation - whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe - is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination" (27). He goes on to make an even stronger claim: these myths bear no relation and do not correspond to the material world, which he clearly sees as what is really real. This strikes me as a very problematic claim, which is a philosophical stance and not an empirical observation. Imagination is demonstrably a powerful force, which I doubt Harari would deny, but he draws conclusions that seem like attempts to thwart the power of imagination.

Harari then uses the foundation and perpetual existence of the Peugeot automobile limited liability corporation as a paradigmatic example of what he means. This leads him, in a very G.E. Moore-like manner, which Wittgenstein found infuriatingly naïve, to ask if the Peugeot automobile company really exists. The only sensible answer is, "Of course it does." Seeing Peugeot and, by extension, not only other corporations, but governments and religious institutions as fictions, that is, products of collective human imagination, he stumbles onto something quite insightful: human beings live from stories. But he seems to believe that stories, which flow from imagination, by their nature, are fictions. But is not the history he is seeking tell a story? If so, is it fictitious? All of this leads me to what I want to write about.

In "The Legend of Peugeot" section of his second chapter, Harari attempts an explanation of the mystery of the Eucharist. As one might guess, it is highly reductive. But my point is not to castigate Harari, who is Jewish, for not communicating a clear understanding of the Eucharist. Rather, his exposition of the sacrament bears a striking resemblance to how many Catholics understand it, that is, ex opere operato (see "Some hopefully ecumenical thoughts on the Eucharist"). I think showing how impoverished this view is can be done by citing how a non-Christian and perhaps even an atheist describes it:
How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ's body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. In the case of the French curés, the crucial story was that of Christ's life and death as told by the Catholic Church. According to this story, if a Catholic priest dressed in his sacred garments solemnly said the right words at the right moment, mundane bread and wine turned into God's flesh and blood. The priest exclaimed 'Hoc est corpus meum!' (Latin for "This is my body!") and hocus pocus [this is, indeed, the origin of the phrase "hocus pocus"]- the bread turned into Christ's flesh. Seeing that the priest had properly observed all the procedures, millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the consecrated bread and wine (30-31)
A few observations are in order.

First, he speaks of the celebration of Mass as something that happened in the past and has now been overcome by a more enlightened humanity. Second, it's interesting how he neglected to mention Christ's resurrection. Third, his insistence that priests create Christ from bread and wine. Finally, his understanding of the celebration of the Lord's Supper as largely a juridical affair. His description strikes me as a description of a pagan death cult. Sadly, too many devout Catholics, French, American, German, Italian, Polish, etc., view the Eucharist in these terms as well. In reality, the Eucharist doesn't happen independently of those who gather to celebrate it, only occurring when all the juridical regulations are strictly observed. Such a view smacks of belief in magic, a superstition. If the Eucharist does not flow from and nourish our humanity, our connection to one another, to those who are not us, and to the rest of creation, then it is nothing.

Isn't what Harari takes as true, namely that the only human species that survived, even if bearing some genes of otherwise extinct human species, Homo sapiens, survived and thrives only because we are social beings, worth asking a few penetrating questions? One word comes to mind in light not only of our inherently social nature, but also in light of the relationships we have with other species: Communion.

"You say let it go"

Readings: Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6.12-17; Phmn 9-10.12-17; Luke 14:25-33

Over these weeks I find it more and more meaningful that roughly half of St. Luke's Gospel consists of the Journey Narrative, which tells of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. It was in the holy city where the events of his passion, death, resurrection, and the formation of the Church at Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred. It did not dawn on me until last week that our New Testament readings for four weeks from the Letter to the Hebrews, which describes the life of faith as a journey and the redeemed as a pilgrim people, is a near perfect complement for at least part of Luke's Journey Narrative. At least in my mind there is no doubt the Scriptures are for living life, the life, as St. Augustine wrote to the wealthy Roman widow Proba, that is truly life.

This week's readings are, once again, about discipleship, particularly the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus does not only cost you something, it may cost you everything. In today's Gospel Jesus tells his followers that because being his disciple may cost them everything, they have to be willing to let go of it all and even to endure suffering - the cross. In other words, in making the decision to follow him, you must, like the tower builder and the king, calculate the cost. Today Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be raised to the altar as a saint. Along with many other holy women and men, many of whom lived quiet lives that will never see them made saints, Mother Teresa shows us that giving up everything is the condition for receiving what is most valuable.

While praying Evening Prayer yesterday, I was struck by the closing prayer:
God our Father,
the contradiction of the cross
proclaims your infinite wisdom.
Help us to see that the glory of your Son
is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted.
Give us faith to claim as our only glory
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever
I think this prayer captures nicely the relationship between our first reading from the Book of Wisdom and our Gospel. Stated simply, God's wisdom often, perhaps usually, appears to us as foolishness. It certainly appears to those who don't believe as such.

Our New Testament reading this week is from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon. The subject of the apostle's letter is Onesimus, who is a slave owned by Philemon. Both Philemon and Onesimus are Christians. Onesimus ran off with Paul. Paul writes to Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to him, pleading with him to treat Onesimus mercifully, to recognize him, not as a slave, but as a brother. Our reading is a beautiful passage constituting the heart of the letter. In the context of the time, Paul's letter was radical and gives us an insight into how he set about to subvert the empire.

It seems that as soon as Paul learned Onesimus was accompanying him without Philemon's consent, he sent him back. Without a doubt being sent back was a cross for Onesimus. It seems something of a cross for Paul, too. He's clearly worried about how Philemon will receive his runaway slave, which is his reason for writing the letter. I don't think it's being too insensitive to Onesimus' plight to assert that, if he heeded Paul's plea, this was a provocation for Philemon too. It was a challenge for him to truly to live what he professed to believe, to leave old categories and power relations behind and live his new life in Christ, which is given in order to change everything, to establish the reign of God, which requires nothing less than turning the world upside-down.

Paul described Onesimus as "my own heart" (Phmn 12) and expressed his desire that Onesimus, whom he loved as son, remain with him. But Paul did not want Philemon to be forced to do good involuntarily, but to do so voluntarily. presumably out of love for God and neighbor. In the end, we do not how the situation worked out. Did Onesimus, obedient to Paul, actually return to his master? If he obediently returned, did Philemon receive him as Paul urged? We don't know. Faith is risky because it means trusting God. Jesus trusted the Father and it led to him being whipped, beaten, made to carry his own cross, and then being crucified. It also led to his resurrection. But you can't have one (resurrection) without the other (passion and death). This is what I like to call the inverse property of redemption: no Easter without Good Friday and without Easter the crucifixion of Jesus merely marks another act of cruelty by the Roman imperium against a subjugated person.

What is the cost of following Jesus? For Onesimus it meant returning to a master from whose household he, a slave, escaped. For Paul it meant sending his "own heart," a beloved son, back to a master who was within his legal rights to brutally punish him. For Philemon it meant perhaps being seen as weak. It meant breaking with the unjust power relations between slaves and masters. It meant seeing a man he would've viewed as clearly his inferior, maybe as subhuman, not only as an equal, but as a beloved brother. Stated succinctly, for each of these three Christians following Christ had a high cost. It meant renunciation, what we would see as loss, in the hope that it was gain. This and not the false prosperity gospel glibly and smoothly proclaimed by false preachers, who grow rich fleecing their flock, is the glorious Christian life. Here and now it usually doesn't appear glorious at all. In explaining Onesimus' departure and return, Paul sought to draw Philemon gaze to the eternal: "Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord" (Phmn 15-16).

Today we're urged by the Lord count the cost of following him. What is the payment being asked of you? It cannot be nothing. To hold that the Lord is calling you to give up nothing is an attempt to hold everything tightly in your own grasp and take instead of giving. It is a refusal to follow Christ.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote: "Were you a slave when you were called? Do not be concerned but, even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of it. For the slave called in the Lord is a freed person in the Lord, just as the free person who has been called is a slave of Christ. You have been purchased at a price. Do not become slaves to human beings" (1 Cor 7:21-23).

In their song "Let It Go," the group Tenth Avenue North sings:

You say let it go, You say let it go
You say life is waiting for the one to lose control
You say You will be, everything I need
You said if I lose my life it's then I'll find my soul
You say let it go, You say let it go

Friday, September 2, 2016

"Let us sit together in the dark until the moment comes"

Today I began reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It's a book I've wanted to read for a few months. What prompted me to check it out from the library today was a review of sorts of Harari's latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Giles Fraser in The Guardian: "If technology makes humans into gods, old questions return." I want to read the first book before the second.

The approach Harari, who is a historian, takes in Sapiens can fairly be described as naturalistic materialism. However, he is not unsympathetic to the role religion has played in shaping human culture. Reading the early pages of his book, I was struck by this passage, which perhaps the opposite of the author's intended effect on me. His intent, it seems, was to demonstrate that early humans, prior to what he terms "the Cognitive Revolution," had "no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish" (4):
On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power (4)
He goes on to note that virtually every other animal species did and does the exact same things, which leads him to conclude, "There was nothing special about humans" (4). Here's where what he writes has the opposite of his intended effect: "Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books." There is something quite incongruent to me about the paragraph.

It also happens that today in the mail I received the most recent anthology of Luigi Giussani's writings, Christ, God's Companionship with Man, which reads like a title for one of the late Edward Schillebeeckx's books translated into English, particularly Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God.

I also learned today that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are releasing a new album on 9 September, Skeleton Tree. I am excited about this. One of the songs off their new album, "Jesus Alone," is our Friday traditio for this first Friday in September, or, if you're Catholic like me, First Friday- a day I try to make it to confession.

"You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now."

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...